To the questions!
Paul writes: With the additions of Mario Cristobal and Joe Salave'a, on paper at least, it seems new Oregon head coach Willie Taggart has put together a very impressive coaching staff. All have reputations as very good recruiters. What do you think of his hires and their immediate and long-term impact on the Ducks program?
Tom writes: Recently, The Oregonian wrote an in-depth article about the quick decline of the Oregon football program. One of the more contentious statements was about the Oregon football players not finishing workouts causing a perceived lack of strength and athleticism during the season. Do you think that could have been the impetus for the recent rash of Ducks players being hospitalized after brutally difficult training sessions under the new leadership, especially where stories about the incident point out that the players were forced to finish the workouts?
Ted Miller: Oregon has been in the news a bunch of late, eh? Some good, some bad. But my take away from the totality of it is positive.
First, Willie Taggart has hired an outstanding staff. This isn't just my take, either. Coaches in the Pac-12 and elsewhere have noticed. Hiring a great staff is the most important thing for a football coach to do. There are some who will tell you a great staff is more likely to make a great head coach than a great head coach is to make a great staff.
Second, the players who went to the hospital have all been released, and the university suspended new strength and conditioning coach Irele Oderinde for a month without pay. It was a lesson for the football program and a cautionary tale for all sports teams.
While hard workouts -- "gut checks" my former coaches called them -- are part of serious sports competition, there also is the absolute priority of maintaining player safety. If a player is woefully out of shape, you can't punish his poor work habits by pushing him past exhaustion. Just can't.
The positive side to this is Oregon took quick and decisive action, admitted fault and made public efforts to correct those faults. That speaks well of Taggart and a highly functioning athletic department.
And let's tip our hats to The Oregonian and to beat writer Andrew Greif for being a dogged reporter, holding a powerful institution accountable. The Ducks football program and athletic department is better today because of Greif's reporting.
Now, after we secure the health and safety of the players, let's also be real: Oregon, once as finely tuned a group of football players as any in the nation, lost that dedication and ruggedness over the past few years. This isn't just me writing after the fact. Go back and read this story I wrote on defensive lineman Henry Mondeaux last June. What I can tell you now -- yes, after the fact -- was how curiously oblique Mondeaux was with me as I tried to get him to talk about how hard players were working to prove their critics wrong.
While Taggart and his strength and conditioning staff can't push players beyond their physical limits during workouts, they can be demanding and motivate with consequences.
For example, if Taggart is trying to weed out the players who have been hanging out at Taylor's and/or Rennie's too much -- Oregon students reading this are mentally compiling a list of about 10 or so names right now -- he could announce to his locker room that any player who cannot complete a mile and a half in under 10 minutes by Aug. 1 is off his team. Or the time could be staggered by position group or size. The idea is to create non-negotiable, minimum standards of conditioning of which everyone is aware.
Whenever there's a coaching change in college football, the buzzword is "culture." Taggart is establishing his. It is to be expected there will be fits and starts because change is rarely easy.
While the early-going has been eventful, the cumulative whole here should reinforce optimism instead of inspiring fretful hand wringing.
Tom writes: In the preseason AP poll in 2016 there were two Big Ten teams (of 14... grumble) in the top 10. In the Final AP poll, that number jumped to four (Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, and Michigan). Next season USC and Washington are locks to be in the top 10 to start the season. What has to happen for the Pac-12 to finish with four teams in the top 10 and who are the most likely candidates?
Ted Miller: The nine-game conference schedule in a 12-team conference makes it more difficult to place four teams in the final top-10. While the Big Ten now plays a nine-game conference schedule, it has 14 teams, so that creates some chances for some helpful (or hurtful) schedule hits and misses.
The good news is that the final 2016-17 top-10 featured five three-loss teams, which could be a record. So there might be a growing margin for error.
The big thing for the Pac-12, as usual, is the nonconference slate. If UCLA beats Texas A&M and Oregon beats Nebraska and Washington State finally shows up against middling nonconference foes, the Pac-12 will get an early-season prestige boost, which it didn't this past year.
Then, of course, you must reduce the cannibalism, where highly ranked Pac-12 teams blow games against less-than-stellar conference foes, such as Utah losing to Cal last year.
The Trojans and Huskies figure to start in the top 10 so they are most likely to end up there. I'd then rate Stanford, UCLA and Washington State as the most likely candidates to join them.
Jonathan from Seattle writes: I wanted to comment on the scheduling advice you presented in the most recent mailbag. You said: "If you envision your program as being a top-25 team or a national contender, you need to schedule a legitimate brand name." I think it's worth mentioning that Washington was able to make the college football playoff without a marquee nonconference opponent or a legit "B" in the A-B-C model. As a Washington fan, I would much prefer seeing us play big names like Michigan coming up, but since the college football playoff is so new, I think it's too early to know if this is necessary.
Ted Miller: What you write is correct, though Washington's schedule was a point of contention all year.
I'd counter your point though with Ohio State. If the Buckeyes had not won at Oklahoma, I don't think they would have made the CFP.
Moreover, it's difficult to always obtain the "A, B, C" model. Sometimes your "A" ends up being a weak Power-5 foe, as the Huskies had with Rutgers. Or, sometimes, you end up playing a surging Colorado team headed for the national rankings when you intended to play a Power-5 patsy, as was the case with Michigan this year.
What the A, B, C model does though is establish a quality standard, one that should pass muster with the selection committee as well as benefit fans who want to see cool matchups.