Last Wednesday NWCsports.com released the annual Northwest Conference coaches’ poll and to nobody’s surprise the ‘Cats were the pre-season top pick by the conference coaches. The ‘Cats have been the favorite for nine out of the past ten seasons and I have to think it’s almost a built-in reflex by the coaches. You can’t really blame them with Linfield being a 3x defending NWC champ and with a large bulk of the roster intact for 2012.
The target on Linfield’s back is always big and this season is no different when you consider the NWC’s improvement. I’m not going to say the gap is closing on Linfield in terms of programs that are going to consistently challenge the ‘Cats for a year-in and year-out superiority of the NWC. There are teams that are able to build up for a year or two of very good play but then comeback down after a talented class vacates. There are teams that are in that model right now, but overall, I see some teams in the NWC trying to “program build” instead of shooting the moon for that one great season. So while Linfield isn’t going anywhere or giving up the crown anytime soon (Coach Smith has the program rolling) the path through the NWC is going to get bumpier with better and more consistent challengers. There’s nothing wrong with that, and in fact, is better for everyone in the NWC.
Now let’s turn our attention to the rest of the NWC poll. Interesting is first word that popped into my head upon seeing it for the first time. I didn’t see the order of places 2-5 at all. In my opinion, I think some coaches put way too much stock in a team that has a “star” but didn’t consider the loss of a senior class that did much of the heavy lifting, and along those lines, discredited a roster that still has the second most talent behind Linfield.
This is how the coaches voted:
1. Linfield (6)
3. Whitworth (1)
And here is Wildcat11's 2012 NWC Pre-Season Poll:
Coaches are not allowed to vote for their own team so I think it’s safe to assume that Coach Smith’s 1st place vote went to Whitworth. I have to say that Coach Smith and I are 100% on the same page (in terms of having Whitworth the best pre-season ranked team besides Linfield). Some might say “The only reason you voted Whitworth that high is because the Rats played Linfield closer than any other NWC team last season.” That’s partially true. Whitworth did play Linfield close but I felt Whitworth played a little over their skis while Linfield started poorly and then took their foot off the gas in that 4th quarter.
Regardless, the difference between Whitworth and the others in the conference is that Whitworth made Linfield pay for their mistakes and others in the NWC haven’t been able to do that.
The main reason I put Whitworth as the 2nd best team is that they have the best set of skill players in the NWC behind Linfield. They have a running back that can hit the big play, a strong armed QB that should keep improving, a big WR that can make plays over the top, and guys that can make the catches over the middle for the tough yardage. On top of that they have a good defensive backfield with solid linebackers. The Rats are going to challenge this season but where they could come up short is their line play. Not only do they lack depth up front but I question on how good their starting offensive and defensive fronts will be. That could be Whitworth’s undoing.
I was blown away by Willamette getting dropped all the way to number 5 and behind Lewis and Clark. Do the coaches not remember the baptizing L&C was provided by the hands of Willamette? That’s not going to change this season. In fact, Willamette has a more well-rounded roster than Whitworth when you consider not only the skill players but by what Willamette offers upfront. To me, Willamette’s a wildcard this season. While the Willamette staff stayed almost intact (sans Speckman) they will have a new identity under Fowles. What’s that identity? I have no idea. Only Willamette can answer that question. I expect them to contend in the NWC at least this season.
PLU is going to be game this season. However, I think that “game” hinges on the PLU quarterback play. PLU has a number of capable receivers and a decent senior running back that offers up the feeling they can get back to their “big play” ‘Lute style of offense. But what should be concerning for PLU is their quarterback situation. PLU currently has four sophomore QB’s on their roster right now that have thrown a total of zero passes in a college game. So unless one of these guys explodes on the scene or PLU was able to snare a legit QB transfer then I think the ‘Lutes will be solid but still on the outside looking in.
I get why people are putting L&C higher than they’ve ever been ranked before. They have the returning NWC offensive player of the year that does it all for the Pios and he’s their engine that drives the boat. I get it. However, what I think was lost on the NWC coaches is just what the Pioneers lost from last season. The Pios lost 13 out of their starting 22 players including all five of their front line defensive starters, their all-american tight end, their tailback, and best wide receiver. The Pioneers did bring in some talented freshmen last season and some pure numbers, but I see the Pios having a year where they backslide due to get pounded up front by the bigger and stronger teams in the conference.
Pacific is going to keep improving and should be better this season. They have good schemes and are adding and growing talent but aren’t there yet. I think it’s very possible they play some folks close and could snare a few more wins this season but they’re still not ready to make big waves.