Just starting its second season, The Drive is Pac-12 Networks' own version of HBO's Hard Knocks as it follows Pac-12 team(s) each season, giving a (maybe little less raw) behind-the-scenes look at their season. This season is following UCLA and based on their disappointing first week and lofty expectations it has the high potential to be a harrowing watch. It airs Wednesday nights at 7 p.m. pacific time on Pac-12 Networks, so tune in.
After watching the start of the second season last week and then seeing UCLA's opening two games, I got to think about what are some of the most-interesting Pac-12 seasons for teams that I wish The Drive would have been around for to maybe capture.
Arizona State 1996
The Sun Devils were a seconds away from a national championship but just couldn't quite hold on the Rose Bowl. Led by Jake the Snake Plummer and featuring Pat Tillman, it was a memorable squad that dominated much of the Pac-10, but still had some excitement along the way, nearly losing their opener to Washington in a thriller in the desert and getting taken to two overtimes by USC to pull off an undefeated conference run. The highlight of the season came out-of-conference though as the Sun Devils pulled off one of the most-impressive Pac-12 non-conference wins in the history of the conference, dominating number one Nebraska 19-0 who were back-to-back national champions and riding a 26-game winning streak.
The pinnacle of Cal football in the modern era, the Bears peaked under Jeff Tedford and came just a handful of yards away from being in the national title conversation. Providing the star power and providing a glimpse of what a future NFL Al-Pro looks like in college, Aaron Rodgers led the way and Marshawn Lynch, though just coming up, assuredly could have added some exquisite entertainment. It would have been fun to watch a program that was stuck in as deep of a hole as any Pac-12 team has been just a few years prior rise to national prominence. Obviously the highlight would have been watching the Bears come just yards short of upsetting arguably the greatest team in the history of the conference behind Rodgers' epic performance.
For Pac-12 fans now, it is hard to remember that there was a time not so long ago when Oregon was perpetually one of the worst programs in the conference... until this magical season that started it all. The Ducks were serious underdogs and started the season poorly, dropping 18 and 20-point losses to Hawaii and Utah, but found a spark in mid-season, highlighted by the infamous "Pick" that ended pushing the Ducks past hated Washington. This would be the rare chance to get to see the late birth of an elite program with the Ducks' unexpected run to the Rose Bowl.
Chip Kelly's first season in Oregon was one of the most up-and-down in the history of the conference and I wish we could have gotten a first-hand look at how Kelly transitioned to big time football. On the field, the Ducks had an early set back against a good Cal team, but dominated the rest of their competition and were on the verge of at least playing for a national championship behind Kelly's revolutionary unstoppable offense and Heisman leader Dennis Dixon. This was all before the dream went up in smoke in Tucson with the Ducks sitting at number two when Dixon went down and the Ducks lost the rest of the regular season games.
Off-the-field, I can't help but imagine that seeing the character of Kelly come in from New Hampshire and shake things up as he did along with pushing the veteran Mike Bellotti couldn't have been engrossing. It seems so normal now, but everyone forgets how much of a revelation Kelly's offense was in 2007 and I'm sure it was an interesting transition in Eugene.
Oregon State 2000
This team would be documentation worthy just on the receivers alone - Chad Johnson (Ochocinco or whatever) and T.J. Houshmanzadeh. Throw a still-succeeding Dennis Erickson and you have a great team to follow. Also, there has been no greater transition in the Pac-12 than the Beavers go to a BCS bowl and dominate Notre Dame in spectacular fashion. The season was an interesting one too as well as the Beavers nearly lost to Eastern Washington in their opener, but ended up probably coming one missed field goal at Washington away from playing for a national championship.
Also, maybe the camera crew could have somehow solved one of my deepest Pac-12 mysterious in the 2001 Fiesta Bowl when the ABC crew showed a heavily set, heavily bearded, heavily overalled Beaver fan who was holding a sign that said "What do you call a dead Irishman?" only to furiously change the shot before he turned the sign over to reveal the answer.
Hard to remember that not long ago Stanford was far from the fearsome juggernaut that it has become but there definitely was one and Jim Harbaugh changed all of that. It took a while, but 2007 was Harbaugh's first season and the year that the Cardinal started to pull themselves out of the gutter and to the top of the conference. Watching Stanford turn from academic punching bag to academic juggernaut would be fascinating and this is the season that it all started. The highlights of the season would be watching the Cardinal get blown out in their first three Pac-12 games and then pull off maybe the most improbable upset in Pac-12 history in The Coliseum along with wrapping up the season with a win in The Big Game when Cal was still good.
Obviously I think transition seasons are the most interesting. This one would have Jim Mora, coming from a difficult situation with the Seattle Seahawks and transitioning into being a college coach while turning around a struggling UCLA program. The season would feature Brett Hundley turning into a star as a redshirt freshman along with Johnathan Franklin becoming UCLA's career rushing leader. On the field, the Bruins had a harrowing season, opening up strong, but losing tough games to Oregon State and Cal before getting a landmark win over USC and winning the South before two-straight heartbreaking losses to Stanford that kept them from reaching the Rose Bowl. Also, as we have seen in this year's The Drive, Jim Mora is a one-of-a-kind character.
Pete Carroll came to USC as a recently-fired NFL coach with a shiny personality and the Trojans were a mess that was overloaded with talent but severely underachieving, setting a fine platform for a TV show. I would choose this one over USC's 2002 breakout season because it was Carroll's first and USC's struggles in his first season had to mix with their hints of near future greatness in an engrossing fashion. The Trojans lost four of their first five games, but by a combined 14 points with three of the games against Top 15 teams. It didn't quite seem like it at the time, but this season gave a glimpse at the Trojans on the cusp of maybe the Pac-12's greatest run of success while also having them deal with heartbreak.
This one doesn't need much explanation... watching what could be the Pac-12's greatest team to ever take the field make an undefeated run at a national championship with Pete Carroll, Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and countless future NFL players leading the way.
The Huskies were on a 22-game win streak, number one in the nation and defending a national title when the bizarre Billy Joe Hobert scandal hit leading up to a game at Arizona and it all fell apart. It would be interesting to see a strange scandal derail a national championship chase in real-time and the final games coached by the legendary Don James.
The last time the Huskies won the Rose Bowl was a miraculous journey on the surface to begin with. A red hot Rick Neuheisel took a team expected to win eight or nine games to a nearly undefeated run that was fueled by an option attack led by Marques Tuiasosopo. The season would feature a miraculous fourth quarter comeback in almost every game, the paralyzing of a senior leader who would serve as an inspiration throughout, a convincing win over a Miami team that pretty much had an NFL player at every position and a heartbreaking loss at rival Oregon that kept them out of the national championship. Under the surface, the team was plagued with off-the-field issues that are perfectly tied up in one of the most interesting books ever written about sports - Scoreboard Baby.
Washington State 1997