Has this been the greatest season in Pac-12 history? The jury is still out on that front, as bowl games remain to be played, and Oregon is tasked with carrying the conference flag into a playoff battle with the nation's big boys. But after a captivating regular season, the conference is undoubtedly in strong position entering this final foray.

The 2014 ride -- typically unpredictable, frequently stunning, always entertaining -- has been bathed in a downright surreal aura throughout (see #Pac12AfterDark). We want to commemorate the Paction, so we've assembled a list of the top 15 moments that defined this bizarre Pac-12 campaign while making an impact on its eccentric, memorable course.

Here is the final installment, featuring our three top plays from the 2014 Pac-12 season:

3. The play of polar opposites: Kaelin Clay fumble; Joe Walker TD return

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This has to be the ultimate "what if?" play of the Pac-12 season, and that is saying something. Yes, Oregon might have won anyway without Utah wide receiver Kaelin Clay's help in early November, but the journey to do so would have been exponentially more difficult. And a Utes' win would have drastically changed the complexion of the Pac-12 South title race and the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Early in the second quarter, Clay hauled in a deep post from Travis Wilson and sprinted toward paydirt. A jubilant Rice-Eccles Stadium shook celebrating what initially looked to be a 79-yard touchdown catch that would have positioned Utah for a 14-0 lead.

But one not-so-minor detail stood in the way of that.

As part of his scoring celebration, Clay had dropped the football -- and he accidentally did so before he had crossed the goal line. So as Utah players were celebrating what they thought to be a touchdown, Oregon defenders were scrambling to recover a fumble. Linebacker Joe Walker eventually secured the ball and ran 99 yards in the opposite direction, scoring to tie the game while creating a signature #Pac12AfterDark moment of mass confusion.

This broke the mayhem gauge: There was a point in time when Utah and Oregon were both simultaneously celebrating 100 yards apart in opposite end zones.

Only the Ducks' party lasted. Instead of trailing 14-0 in the teeth of a ferocious defense playing in front of its electric Salt Lake City crowd, Oregon was suddenly even with the Utes. Walker had sprinted 180 yards on one play -- 80 from the line of scrimmage to pick up the fumble at the goal line, and 100 more to score the other way -- but he was the energized one after the play, while Utah was deflated. The Ducks went on to win 51-27, and the rest was history.

2. The Jael Mary

Before the night of October 4, 2014, we were still oh, so naive. We thought that there was no way a successful Hail Mary could decide a game at the gun more than once per decade. We thought a nine-point lead with three minutes remaining at home against a backup quarterback was ... relatively safe?

But then October 4 happened, and nothing was the same. The practice of expecting conventional finishes in this conference died in the Los Angeles Coliseum on that night. Arizona State and USC played a game which saw Pac-12 end-of-game eccentricity go from being a rare spectacle to a regular occurrence.

Javorius Allen's 53-yard touchdown run gave USC a 34-25 lead with 3:02 remaining and Troy celebrated, unaware that ASU quarterback Mike Bercovici was about to rack up 145 yards over his next three completions. The first was a 73-yard touchdown strike to Cameron Smith. That made this a two-point game with 2:43 remaining.

But the Trojans recovered the ensuring onside kick, and ASU didn't have any timeouts left. So nothing to sweat for Steve Sarkisian, right?

Well, nothing except for the ultimate rip-your-heart-out finish. After a USC three-and-out, ASU took over at its own 28 with 23 seconds remaining. A 26-yard pass to Smith positioned the Sun Devils for a final gasp as time expired. Jaelen Strong plucked Bercovici's Hail Mary heave out of the air and hopped into the end zone, sending the Coliseum into shocked silence, leaving the hometown fans wondering why USC hadn't seemed interested in covering one of the country's best receivers?

As is the case with so many #Pac12AfterDark questions, there is no satisfying answer. There is only a legendary result, and this one is immortalized as the Jael Mary. Arizona State 38, USC 34.

1. The Hill Mary

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The Jael Mary has an ancestor, and it also Hails (pun intended) from the state of Arizona. Two weeks before the Sun Devils snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in Los Angeles, Arizona did the same thing against California. The difference: The Wildcats put on their show at home, sending a stadium into delirium, and they did it first. Arizona's last-second heroics also were a determinant in their Pac-12 South championship and Cal's failure to make a bowl game, so they beat out their Tempe rivals on this list.

The climactic play of this game was only the final piece of an absolutely sensational Wildcats' rally. Cal led 31-13 entering the fourth quarter, and it's not as if the Golden Bears suddenly stopped scoring to blow their lead: Sonny Dykes' club actually registered two insurance touchdowns in the quarter. But this insurance policy wasn't big enough to withstand a 36-point Arizona fourth quarter.

The Wildcats scored, and they scored furiously fast. A Casey Skowron field goal. A Tra'Mayne Bondurant interception followed by an Austin Hill touchdown. A Cayleb Jones touchdown. A Terrence Jones-Grigsby touchdown. An onside kick recovery. Another Jones touchdown.

Even after that flurry, Arizona still trailed 45-43. It failed a two-point conversion that could have tied the game with 2:44 remaining. Cal regained possession with a chance to seal the game, but the Wildcats kept kicking.

With under a minute left, Dykes elected to try a 47-yard field goal, but this turned out to be an ill-fated decision. James Langford missed, and Arizona got one final chance with 52 seconds left. Facing a fourth-and-7 from his own 33, quarterback Anu Solomon found Hill for a 20-yard gain that moved the ball to the Bears' 47. He then spiked the ball with only a precious few ticks remaining, setting up our No. 1 moment of truth.

To signal in the obvious play call, Rich Rodriguez and his fellow coaches clasped their hands together in "Hail Mary" prayer fashion.

Cal only rushed three, and Solomon's 73rd and final pass of the night was also its most majestic, a soaring 50-plus yard lob that might have brought down rain had the game not been played in the cloudless desert.

"Halfway, and then three-quarters of way [into the throw's flight], I knew the ball was coming to me," Hill said. "I was just hoping no one bumped into me, or hit my elbow, or jumped on top of me so I could secure the catch."

Mission accomplished. Hill Mary immortalized. Arizona 49, Cal 45.

"Don't ever go home early," a beaming Rodriguez told a TV camera afterward.

Nope, don't do that. Not in this age of Pac-12 football.

Other impact plays
Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual: No. 3 Florida State (13-0) vs. No. 2 Oregon (12-1)

Jan. 1, 5 p.m. ET, Rose Bowl, Pasadena, California (ESPN)

Key matchup: Oregon RB Royce Freeman vs. Florida State RB Dalvin Cook

Why it matters: The battle between the two most recent Heisman Trophy winners will generate the most headlines, but one of the defining factors of this game will be which freshman running back has a better afternoon. Both first-year players are hitting their stride at the perfect time; it’s imperative for teams to run the football well late in the season. Freeman has toppled the 100-yard mark in six of his last eight games, and he ran for 98 and 99 in those other two performances. Cook has ran for 321 yards over his last two games and was named the MVP of the ACC championship game for his 31-carry, 177-yard effort. Adding to the intrigue of this matchup is the difference in running styles. Freeman tips the scales at 229 pounds and sends would-be tacklers tumbling backward. Cook runs through tackles, too, but he also embarrasses defenders with his nifty footwork.

Who wins: The winner of this matchup could determine the winner of the game. It would not be a shock to see both teams light up the scoreboard in the first half, but eventually the running games will need to take control for Oregon or Florida State to win. Florida State (60th nationally) and Oregon (50th) are essentially equally average against the run, so it’s not as if one running back will have a significantly easier afternoon against a porous defense. What could help Freeman is the running threat of Marcus Mariota on option plays. The Ducks will look to put pressure on the Seminoles’ defensive line with the read option, forcing it to make a decision to take away either Marcus Mariota or Freeman. IF the unit makes the wrong decision it could lead to big gains for the Ducks. Freeman will have a productive day and cross the 100-yard threshold in a 35-34 Oregon win.

Pac-12 bowl predictions

December, 19, 2014
Dec 19
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AM ET

Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl



Why Utah wins: This has tended to be a letdown game for Pac-12 teams in recent years -- the league has lost four of the past five games in the Las Vegas Bowl. But Utah won't be lacking for motivation after returning to the postseason after a two-year absence and Colorado State, despite its strong season, will be a little deflated following Jim McElwain's departure for Florida. -- Chantel Jennings

Why Colorado State wins: Yes, the Rams lost their coach to Florida, but they’re still running on the energy of a 10-2 season and a prolific offense. Receiver Rashard Higgins leads the nation with 17 touchdown catches and Utah is not playing its best ball of the season. I think that’s the difference-maker here. -- David Lombardi


Hyundai Sun Bowl



Why Arizona State wins: Good quarterback. Good running back. Outstanding wide receiver and a defense that gets after it on the blitz more than any team in the country. The “attacking-hybrid” defense will leave the other Devils feeling blue. -- Kevin Gemmell


National University Holiday Bowl



Why Nebraska wins: It would be a fitting start to Mike Riley's tenure at Nebraska, wouldn't it? Although the former Oregon State coach won't be guiding his new team from the sideline, expect the Cornhuskers to make an impression with a victory over a Pac-12 foe. -- Chantel Jennings

Why USC wins: USC is a more talented, athletic team than Nebraska and would win this game without extenuating circumstances, but the acrimonious departure of Bo Pelini figures to leave some Cornhuskers indifferently motivated. Further, the Trojans, whose biggest issue is depth, almost certainly benefited more from a few weeks of off-time to heal various bumps and bruises. -- Ted Miller


Foster Farms Bowl



Why Stanford wins: Defense didn’t win a championship for the Cardinal. But it can win a bowl game against a Maryland team that averages fewer than 30 points per game and only averages 130.4 yards per game on the ground. -- Kevin Gemmell


VIZIO Fiesta Bowl



Why Boise State wins: It’s the Fiesta Bowl. The Broncos don’t lose these games. In all seriousness, though, Boise State has ripped off eight straight wins. They’re peaking right now, and Arizona had some wind taken of their sails against Oregon. -- David Lombardi

Why Arizona wins: It's a statement game for Arizona -- and the Pac-12 -- so don't expect the Wildcats to take their opponent lightly. It's been too fine a season for Arizona to end with a blowout loss to Oregon and a defeat at the hands of Boise State. Expect to see some fireworks from the Wildcats' young playmakers on offense as well as trophy-laden linebacker Scooby Wright. -- Chantel Jennings


Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual



Why Oregon wins: Forget the Heisman versus Heisman storyline. The Ducks take care of the football, plain and simple. Florida State has danced with defeat several times, but other teams have let them off the hook. If they Ducks can force turnovers, they are one of the best teams in the country at making opponents pay. -- Kevin Gemmell

Why Florida State wins: Florida State is getting healthy during the break before this game, while Oregon lost All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu to a knee injury. That’s a big problem when a team is preparing for Seminoles wide receiver Rashad Greene and quarterback Jameis Winston. Yet it’s Oregon’s greatest strength and Florida State's seeming weakness that will be the difference. The Ducks pretty much dominated every game they won this year. Florida State pretty much didn’t dominate anyone, playing down to foes for three-plus quarters and making their fans squirm in the waning moments. That mental toughness in the fourth quarter will pay off in this one because Oregon won’t dominate the Seminoles, and a tight final frame is when Florida State thrives. -- Ted Miller


Valero Alamo Bowl



Why Kansas State wins: This one starts with motivation, and we’re betting Kansas State has more. UCLA started out in the preseason top 10 and envisioned itself winning the Pac-12 and playing in the College Football Playoff. It’s not unreasonable to suspect the surprising and dispiriting blowout loss to Stanford during the final weekend of the season, which gave Arizona the Pac-12’s South Division crown, will come with an extended hangover. While both offenses have good quarterbacks and explosive playmakers, the Wildcats have been more consistent on defense this year. That will be the difference. -- Ted Miller

Why UCLA wins: I'm taking the opposite side of the argument when it comes to motivation. Bowl games are all about motivation, yes, and the Bruins, with a chip on their shoulder, have a chance to end the season on a high note. Brett Hundley’s finger is healthy and when he’s at his best, there aren’t many teams in the country that can stop him. Plus the Bruins are underdogs. That’s a role they haven’t played much this year, but seem to relish. -- Kevin Gemmell


TicketCity Cactus Bowl



Why Washington wins: The Huskies began to develop a semblance of offensive consistency toward the end of the season, and that makes them a capable all-around team. That certainly should be enough to beat a 6-6 Oklahoma State team that is nothing spectacular this season. -- David Lombardi

Pac-12 morning links

December, 19, 2014
Dec 19
8:00
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Happy Friday!

Leading off

All week we've been bringing you the All-America honors as they rolled in.

In total, 14 Pac-12 players were named to a first-team All-America squad. Of those 14, Marcus Mariota, Scooby Wright and Hau'oli Kikaha were unanimous selections. Two other players -- Tom Hackett and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu -- were consensus selections appearing on at least three of the five recognized teams.

This is the eighth straight year the Pac-12 has had a unanimous selection and the first time since 2005 it's had three in one year (Reggie Bush, Dwayne Jarrett, Maurice Drew). The five recognized teams are the American Football Coaches Association, the Associated Press, the Football Writers Association of America, The Sporting News and the Walter Camp Football Foundation.

Here's the final tally among the big five:

Offense
  • QB, Marcus Mariota, Oregon, Jr., AFCA-AP-FWAA-SN-WC (unanimous)
  • OL, Jake Fisher, Oregon, Sr., FWAA
  • OL, Hroniss Grasu, Oregon, Sr., SN
  • OL, Andrus Peat, Stanford, Jr., SN
  • AP, Shaq Thompson, Washington, Jr., AP
Defense
  • DL, Nate Orchard, Utah, Sr., FWAA-WC
  • DL, Danny Shelton, Washington, Jr., AP-SN
  • DL, Leonard Williams, USC, Jr., AFCA
  • LB, Eric Kendricks, UCLA, Sr., SN
  • LB, Hau’oli Kikaha, Washington, Sr., AFCA-AP-FWAA-SN-WC (unanimous)
  • LB, Scooby Wright III, Arizona, So., AFCA-AP-FWAA-SN-WC (unanimous)
  • DB, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon, Sr., AFCA-AP-WC (consensus)
  • P, Tom Hackett, Utah, Jr., AFCA-AP-FWAA-WC (consensus)
  • PR, Kaelin Clay, Utah, Sr., SN
Game of the year?

Just before the start of bowl season, the folks at Athlon Sports wanted to look back at the chaos that was the 2014 Pac-12 regular season. We've been running our pivotal plays series all week, so be sure to check that out. But Athlon looked at the top 15 games of the season. Here's their top five.
  1. Oct 2: Arizona 31, Oregon 24
  2. Oct. 4: Arizona State 38, USC 34
  3. Sept. 6: Oregon 46, Michigan State 27
  4. Oct. 25: Utah 24, USC 21
  5. Oct. 4: Utah 30, UCLA 28

You'll note that three of their five are from Week 6. We noted last week in our Roadtrip Revisited post that every game that week was unbelievable. If you click the link, they actually rate 30 games. Fairly surprised the Cal-WSU game (also in Week 6) didn't make the top 10. To each their own.

News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

Really great read from our friend Max Olson on the Big 12 blog about the recruitment of linebacker Malik Jefferson. Some interesting UCLA notes in there.
1. Two things regarding Bo Pelini's recorded tirade against Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst published this week by the Omaha World-Herald. 1) Is anyone surprised? It's not as if this is out of character. That's who Pelini has been when he isn't wearing his public face -- and sometimes when he is. 2) I don't think it hurts his career in the long run. He won't get tagged as a guy who can't work with anyone, because he will be fine in his next job. Pelini respects Youngstown State president Jim Tressel, and I bet Pelini will try very hard not to embarrass Tressel or make him regret this show of faith.

2. Oregon corner Ifo Ekpre-Olomu suffered a serious knee injury this week that knocked him out of the playoffs and likely all workouts leading to the 2015 NFL Draft. In case he's wondering why he returned for this season instead of turning pro, let his own words remind him why he stayed at Oregon. Here's what he told me in April: “You always think about the what-ifs….Where I am now is the best place I can be at this moment in my life…I still wanted to be a college student and still experience this last year of college that you probably won't have a chance to ever do again.”

3. All 10 Big Ten bowl teams are underdogs, but before you mock the league, remember a couple of things. Only two league teams play a bowl in the Big Ten footprint, and I'm just not sure one of them, Rutgers, will have a home-field advantage in the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit. Most of the others have road games: Maryland versus Stanford in the Foster Farms Bowl, Nebraska versus USC in the Qualcomm Holiday Bowl; Michigan State versus Baylor in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic; and, of course, Ohio State versus Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Bowls are not tailor-made for Big Ten teams, but we love them all the same, right?
Welcome to the mailbag, where the holiday cheer never stops.

Tyler in Palo Alto writes: When do the bowl predictions come out? Any upsets on the horizon?

Kevin Gemmell: The Pac-12 blog will reveal its bowl game predictions with a 90-minute extravaganza show airing on The Ocho on Friday morning. Ted will spend 45 minutes screaming incoherently about Pitt while Chantel holds her FauxPelini face the entire time. Kyle, David and I will discuss the Marcus Mariota vs. Jameis Winston storyline for about a minute, followed by another 40 minutes on Johnny Manziel and the SEC dominance. We'll close with a roundtable discussion rehashing the Ka'Deem Carey vs. Bishop Sankey debate and why Desmond Trufant wasn't on the 2012 postseason Top 25 list. It’s going to be a blast.

But in all seriousness, the picks come out Friday morning. No problem telling you I’m going full-blown homer. Of course, the league won’t go 8-0. That would be too much to expect. The conference is favored in seven of its eight games, with UCLA the only underdog right now. So if you're going with my picks, then I'm picking the Bruins in an "upset" win.

Someone will slip up. They always do. But on paper, I think the league has a chance to sweep. They say bowl games are about motivation. I see strong motivation for all eight teams in the league.


Mark in Portland writes: If Mariota leads the Ducks to their first ever championship, will he be considered one of the greatest CFB players ever? His stats are up there with the best ever, and he is the first player ever to throw for 30 TD's or more in his freshmen, sophomore and junior seasons. And winning the first ever CFB playoff would be huge and be remembered decades from now.

Kevin Gemmell: I think winning the Heisman automatically puts you in the conversation of one of the greatest college football players ever, doesn’t it? By default, you’re already considered the best player in the game for that year.

But in terms of legacy, Mariota has certainly done some special things that make him part of the discussion. As you note, winning the first ever national championship of the playoff era would resonate. Being the first-ever Oregon player to win the Heisman and the first from the region since Oregon State's Terry Baker in 1962 will also stick with folks -- at least on the West Coast.

But even without a national championship, I think what he will best be remembered for are his ball-security numbers. That he has accounted for 53 touchdowns while turning it over just five times is remarkable. Right now, his personal TD-to-turnover margin is plus-48. Only Tim Tebow in 2007 had a better one in the past decade. And chances are Mariota will break that record, too, if he takes care of the ball in the next (two?) game(s).

You also have to look at the fact that of his 372 passes this season, only two have been intercepted. If that percentage holds, it will break the single-season FBS record of quarterbacks with a minimum of 350 attempts.

I think with the numbers and the Heisman, he’s already worked his way into the discussion. Adding a national championship (assuming he has a pair of monster games) would, in my mind, solidify him in the top dozen or so. Time will have to do the rest of the work.


Shonti in Miami writes: Realistically, how does Oregon match up with Florida State in the Rose Bowl? FSU fans seem to be really confident, and although they played many very close games this year, the team has a lot of talent. I'm concerned Oregon's offense could struggle against FSU's athletic defensive line and big defensive backs.

Kevin Gemmell: Much has been written this season about Oregon improving its size across the line. And I think the Ducks use the tempo to their advantage.

Keep in mind, too, that the Ducks have a big back in Royce Freeman who can pound when necessary, but he also has the speed and athleticism to hit the corners. My guess is Oregon’s pace will counter-balance any size issues. Besides, it’s not like Oregon hasn’t seen big or athletic defensive lines this season (Stanford, Washington, Utah etc...).

Also, I wrote this week about Oregon’s success at turning turnovers into points. I think that is going to be a huge factor, since Florida State turns the ball over quite a bit.

Turnovers are one thing. But if you don’t do anything with them and end up punting the ball back, they aren’t much good. Oregon has been especially good at making their turnovers count. That they have scored 120 points off turnovers ... nearly 20 percent of their total points ... is huge.

If both teams stick to their trends -- FSU not taking care of the ball and Oregon capitalizing on turnovers -- I think the Ducks match up very well.

However, the news that broke yesterday that Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is out with a knee injury isn't what you want to hear heading into the postseason. He's got two interceptions and nine breakups this season, and he will certainly be missed. But I think Oregon's secondary is seasoned enough now that it will be able to marginally compensate. I don't think it's a game-changing loss, but it's certainly noteworthy.
Has this been the greatest season in Pac-12 history? The jury is still out on that front, as bowl games remain to be played, and Oregon is tasked with carrying the conference flag into a playoff battle with the nation's big boys. But after a captivating regular season, the conference is undoubtedly in strong position entering this final foray.

The 2014 ride -- typically unpredictable, frequently stunning, always entertaining -- has been bathed in a downright surreal aura throughout (see #Pac12AfterDark). We want to commemorate the Paction, so we've assembled a list of the top 15 moments that defined this bizarre Pac-12 campaign while making an impact on its eccentric, memorable course.

We'll be counting down in increments of three throughout this week. Here's the third installment:

6. Cal’s stand against Colorado in double overtime

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It was one of those “never-say-die” games when it came to Cal and Colorado earlier this year. Jared Goff and Sefo Liufau threw for seven touchdowns each. EACH. How many conferences even have seven touchdown passes in one game? There were 1,200-plus yards, which is either incredibly impressive or unimpressive, depending on whether you’re a fan of offense or defense.

But regardless, this game clearly wasn’t going to be decided in regulation, so, we got some free football.

Cal struck first in the first OT. After the Colorado defense had come up with two stops for no gain on first and second down, Goff found Bryce Treggs for a 25-yard TD. Liufau responded by finding Nelson Spruce on the Buffs’ first down, pulling Colorado even. But then the Buffs kind of stalled. They were able to get two first downs to start the second OT, but when the game was on the line and Colorado was -- almost literally -- on the goal line, the Cal defense came up with its biggest stop of the year. Liufau was tackled on fourth-and-goal for a loss of three yards by Jalen Jefferson and Michael Lowe.

Cal kicked a field goal to win. It was Cal’s first conference win of the year and the Bears’ first since Oct. 13, 2012. Though the Bears only went on to win two more games and fell short of becoming bowl-eligible, it was a good statement moment and statement win for a team that’s clearly on the rise.

5. Marcus Mariota flip vs. Michigan State

Earlier last week, Pac-12 Blog readers voted this play as Mariota’s “Heisman Moment,” which was pretty telling about a few different things. First of all, it’s not a scoring play. In fact, for Mariota’s standards, it was pretty darn near basic. There are no flips, no spins, no hurdles, no nothing. It’s Mariota getting out of the pocket, making things happen and then getting the ball -- at the perfect time -- to someone else who can make more things happen.

Essentially, your typical Mariota.

The play came when the Ducks needed it most. The Spartans had scored 20 unanswered points and Oregon trailed 27-18 in the third quarter on Sept. 6. The Ducks faced a third-and-long following a sack, and everyone knew that MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi was going to bring pressure again, and he did. But Mariota was able to avoid sack attempts from Darien Harris, Riley Bullough and Ed Davis before making his way toward his left and sending a shovel pass in the direction of Royce Freeman.

Freeman picked up the first down and more (17 yards) and the Ducks were able to score on that drive, pulling within two of the Spartans, before cruising through the fourth quarter and winning 46-27.

4. The fumble heard round the Pac-12

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And we move from one of Mariota’s best plays to one of his worst, thanks to eventual Bronko Nagurski Trophy winner Scooby Wright.

With the No. 2 Ducks trailing by seven at home to unranked Arizona with just over two minutes remaining in the game, Mariota took the snap on a first-and-10 at the 35-yard line. Oregon needed to score on this drive in order to keep itself alive on Oct. 2, but then the unthinkable happened.

Wright seemingly came out of nowhere, stripped Mariota and recovered the fumble.

The play was one of a handful that really sealed the upset victory for the Wildcats. It was the Ducks’ only blemish on their schedule and it certainly created some questions for the playoff committee (at least at that point in the season) regarding Oregon. As the conference season played on and the Wildcats earned more respect, and eventually a spot in the Pac-12 game, the loss became less questionable, though a loss nonetheless.

Mariota and Oregon were able to avenge the fumble in the Pac-12 championship game, but it certainly was one of those very, very rare moments this season in which the unflappable and unstoppable Mariota looked human.

Other impact plays:

Pac-12 bowl season: Most to prove

December, 18, 2014
Dec 18
2:00
PM ET
Bowl season for Pac-12 contenders begins this Saturday with Utah's clash against Colorado State. How much does each conference team have to prove during this postseason opportunity? Here's our list.

1. Oregon

Every year, one of the big questions out West revolves around the Ducks' chances of finally grabbing that national championship. Oregon boasts Superman this year, and it's almost certainly Marcus Mariota's last campaign in Eugene. Though their defense suffered a major blow with the loss of Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, the Ducks have their man under center. They can't take this chance to win it all for granted: A playoff appearance is a golden opportunity for this powerful Oregon program to prove that it can finally bring home college football's ultimate hardware. Florida State, the defending champs, await in the Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual.

2. UCLA

This, likely Brett Hundley's final season in Westwood, was supposed to be year the Bruins surged from "good" to "elite." But they slipped too often, and the timing of their last fall -- a 31-10 finale loss at the hands of Stanford -- couldn't have been worse. Now, the narrative has shifted back to the old "they can't win the big one" theme, and that's the exact perception UCLA wanted to avoid. They have a chance to make a cleansing statement versus a good Kansas State squad, also 9-3, in the Valero Alamo Bowl.

3. Utah

The season started magically for the Utes -- aside from that 28-27 road bump at home against Washington State, of course. But after kicking 2014 off at 6-1, Utah dropped three of their last five games. They narrowly squeaked by Pac-12 bottom feeder Colorado to close the regular season, so it's fair to say that Kyle Whittingham's club stumbled to the finish line. An 8-4 record is nothing to scoff at, but the Utes could use a good stomping of Mountain West opponent Colorado State in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl. It would go a long way toward maintaining that "we've arrived as a force in the Pac-12" tone over the offseason.

4. ASU

The Sun Devils' season trajectory had some similarities with Utah's, though ASU lost one fewer game late in the season. Still, they were a one-loss team until a rough November knocked them out of the conference race. A Hyundai Sun Bowl date against fellow 9-3 competitor Duke has become ASU's consolation price, and that is quite the step down from the Rose Bowl aspirations Todd Graham's club harbored followings its November 8 win against Notre Dame. So it's important for the Sun Devils to reverse trajectory heading into the offseason, and they would also like to prove that they are better in December than last season's 37-23 Holiday Bowl loss to Texas Tech.

5. Arizona

The Wildcats were peaking at the right time ---- Oh wait, there was red-hot Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game, and there were 24 yards of total offense for Arizona in the first half. Suddenly, Rich Rodriguez's club wasn't peaking at the right time. But the Wildcats can take solace in the fact that the Ducks have the ability to make good teams look foolish. They can also comfort themselves knowing that this VIZIO Fiesta Bowl is a prime chance to deliver a positive closing statement against a 10-2 Boise State team that loves that big stadium in Glendale.

6. USC

Steve Sarkisian really needed that blowout victory over Notre Dame in the finale to dump the "seven win" moniker that online trolls gleefully tossed around following the Trojans' loss to UCLA. Sark got the powerful performance he was looking for, so he's 8-4 heading into a National University Holiday Bowl matchup against Nebraska. Sure, a postseason win would be nice for the Trojans, but they are lower on this list because there is not all that much for them left to prove this season. Regardless of whether they win or lose on December 27, we know who USC is: a very talented, somewhat flawed, and ultimately thin team that's excited about getting a clean slate in 2015.

7. Stanford

There is very little the Cardinal can prove in their Foster Farms Bowl clash with Maryland on Dec. 30. Stanford capped a disappointing 7-5 regular season with a resounding 31-10 thumping of UCLA, and that performance made it very clear the Cardinal had underperformed in their games leading up to the finale. Now, David Shaw's team is a two-touchdown favorite against the Terrapins in a game 20 minutes away from campus, so there is really no chance to prove anything more than what the Cardinal already accomplished against the Bruins -- even in the case of a lopsided victory.

8. Washington

The Huskies managed eight wins in the first year of the Chris Petersen era, and they fought through some turmoil, too. The team delivered a strong finish following the dismissal of star cornerback Marcus Peters. So, the season has served as a solid foundation for Petersen to work with as he tries to assert himself in Seattle moving forward. It's hard to see the result of the TicketCity Cactus Bowl against 6-6 Oklahoma State swinging the vibe too far in either direction.
Students at O'Hara Catholic School Chantel Jennings/ESPNStudents at O'Hara Catholic School in Eugene offered their thoughts on Oregon's playoff chances.


EUGENE, Ore. -- Twelve-year-old Charlie Papé recently became internet famous when he asked Oregon coach Mark Helfrich during a postgame news conference if he had any insight into quarterback Marcus Mariota's future plans.

Papé explained to Helfrich that there were four things that mattered at his school, O’Hara Catholic School in Eugene, Oregon, just three miles from Autzen Stadium: Jesus, Girls and Marcus Mariota.

But there was one problem. He only named three.

"The fourth thing was how bad we’re going to beat the next team we play," Pape´ clarified on Wednesday.

It was a minor gaffe in an otherwise spotless delivery of one of the best lines in college football this year.

On Wednesday, Papé and 13 of his fellow schoolmates gathered in the library to discuss a few important topics including what they consider to be the fourth most important thing at O’Hara, any advice they might have for Mariota on whether to go pro or stay for his final year of eligibility, and their thoughts on Florida State.

The answers ranged from incredibly insightful to bizarre, which is what one should probably expect when questioning a group of elementary school students. Now, we give you the wisdom of O’Hara Catholic:

Henry, 9

Fourth most important thing: Beating Oregon State.

Advice for Mariota: “I want him to stay because he’s a great player.”

Breakdown of FSU-Oregon: “I just think that Oregon is going to win because I think they’re the better team because Florida State always wins by a field goal and if Marcus doesn’t throw a pick in the fourth quarter I think we’ll win, because that’s normally how [FSU] wins.”

Luke, 10

[+] EnlargeO'Hara Middle School
Chantel Jennings/ESPNStudents at O'Hara Catholic School in Eugene do their best Heisman pose in honor of Ducks QB Marcus Mariota.
Fourth most important thing: Did I do my homework or not

Advice for Mariota: “I think he should go pro because he won the Heisman. If he hadn’t won the Heisman I’d say he should come back.”

Oregon wins if ... : “If Mariota doesn’t throw any picks, the Ducks play their hearts out and the Ducks beat them.”

Stella, 10

Fourth most important thing: Service.

Advice for Mariota: “I’d like if he stayed because he’s really good but I want him to go pro also.”

Davis, 6

Fourth most important thing: Being kind.

Advice for Mariota: “That he doesn’t care about the Heisman, he cares about beating Florida State.”

What’s the key to the game: “Not throwing any picks and scoring more touchdowns than [FSU].”

Thoughts on FSU: “Their uniforms look like ugly sweaters.”

Sam, 11

Fourth most important thing: Food (specifically, the cafeteria’s French toast and chicken nuggets -- together -- covered in syrup).

Advice for Mariota: “Run the ball but don’t get hurt. And slide, because he never slides.”

What Oregon needs to do to win: “Play hard. Play fast. Do tempo.”

Ryan, 10

Fourth most important thing: Friendship

Advice for Mariota: “I don’t want him to [go pro], but I think he should because he’s a good role [model] and he’d make the NFL’s image better.”

Thoughts on the FSU matchup: “I think Oregon will win because Jameis is overrated and I think the defense will play well and the offense will have a spark in the beginning. They’ll score first and they’ll keep scoring.”

Sandhya, 10

Fourth most important thing: Being helpful to people and being kind.

Advice for Mariota: “I think he should go pro. I’m pretty sure he’ll be a first-round pick. I want him to go to the Eagles, because I’m hoping Chip Kelly will rebuild the Ducks there because they already have Josh Huff.”

What Oregon needs to do to beat FSU: “I think the defense has to be a little stronger, covering receivers more.”

Andrew, 10

Fourth most important thing: Sports.

Advice for Mariota: “Go pro. If he comes back he has more to lose than he has to gain. He could risk things like injuries. But if he goes, I think it’d be a good year to finish on because he already won the Heisman and his team is in the first-ever college playoffs.”

What Oregon needs to do to beat FSU: “Lock down Jameis Winston and be dominant on defense and keep Mariota mobile.”

Max, 14

Fourth most important thing: “A toss up between how bad Charlie Pape´’s fantasy team is and how much cooler the Ducks’ uniforms are than Florida State’s.”

What does Oregon need to do to beat FSU?: “Show up.”

Rather face Ohio State or Alabama?: “Alabama, because college football has an East Coast bias. Everybody -- but USC -- on the West Coast doesn’t really get any respect.”

Advice for Helfrich: “Go for it on fourth-and-short and take the right chances.”

Luke, 11

Fourth most important thing: Fantasy football (the sixth grade class has a league. Luke’s team, Luke’s Ballers, lost in the first round of the playoffs).

Advice for Mariota: “I want him to stay but he has accomplished everything so I think he should go pro.”

Why does the defense not matter as much? “I don’t think Jameis Winston is that good, so I don’t think we need to worry about that.”

Jordan, 12

Fourth most important thing: That the SEC is overrated

Why the SEC is overrated: “There are a couple dominant teams and then the rest are like Vanderbilt, Arkansas -- they’re so-so.”

Advice for defensive coordinator Don Pellum: “I think they should blitz them a lot because they have an OK line, great wide receivers and a great quarterback, so I just think they should blitz.”

Cooper, 10

Fourth most important thing: Winning a national championship

What does Oregon need to do to win a national title: “In the first game they have to stop Rashad Greene and Nick O’Leary, which will slow down Jameis Winston and force Dalvin Cook -- their freshman running back -- to win the game for them.”

Final score prediction: 56-28, Oregon

Will you be a fan of whatever NFL team drafts Mariota? “Not if he goes to the Jets.”

Jackson, 12

Fourth most important thing: football (apparently this and Mariota fall into two separate categories of importance)

Advice for Mariota: “I think he should stay for his senior year and take us to another national championship.”

What’s the key to Oregon’s defense playing well: “Play strong. Get a lot of turnovers.”

Pac-12 morning links

December, 18, 2014
Dec 18
8:00
AM ET
If you use more than 5 percent of your brain you don't want to be on earth.

Leading off

Another day, another round of All-America teams. Three more to catch you up on. You should know the names by now.

First up is The Sporting News:
  • First-team offense: Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon; Andrus Peat, OT, Stanford; Hroniss Grasu, C, Oregon;
  • First-team defense: Danny Shelton, DT, Washington; Scooby Wright III, LB, Arizona; Hau’oli Kikaha, LB Washington; Erick Kendricks, LB, UCLA.
  • First-team special teams: KR Kaelin Clay, Utah.
  • Second-team offense: Jaelen Strong, WR, Arizona State.
  • Second-team defense: Nate Orchard, DE, Utah; Shaq Thompson, LB, Washington; Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon;
  • Special teams: Tom Hackett, P, Utah.
Next up is the AFCA FBS All-America team:
  • First-team offense: Mariota
  • First-team defense: Leonard Williams, DL, USC; Wright; Kikaha; Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon.
  • Specialists: Hackett
And here's the Football Writers Association of America All-America team:
  • First-team offense: Mariota, Jake Fisher, OL, Oregon
  • First-team defense: Orchard, Kikaha, Wright III,
  • Specialists: Hackett
  • Second-team defense: Williams, Kendricks

The Sporting News also named Mariota its player of the year.

Ifo out

No doubt, you've heard the news that Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, whose name appears on some All-America lists above, is out for the rest of the season with a knee injury. It's not an apocalyptic blow to the Ducks. But you don't want to be facing Winston down one of your best defenders, either.

Here's some reaction: News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

A couple of ASU alums are already benefiting from the new Adidas deal. All together now ... awwwwwww
videoSo much for Oregon, injury riddled much of the year, getting healthy for its Rose Bowl matchup with Florida State in the College Football Playoff. So much for the A-list matchup between Ducks All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who injured his knee Tuesday, and Seminoles receiver Rashad Greene.

So much for the Ducks hitting their earnest preparation for, potentially, the program's first college football national title with positive momentum.

Oregon doesn't talk about injuries, but we do and this is a bad one. Oregon, when it does at least acknowledge that a key player might be hurt, reverts to the mantra, "Next man in," and that will be the case here. But the Ducks next man in at cornerback won't be anyone close to Ekpre-Olomu, a consensus All-American. While Oregon will don all-green uniforms for the Rose Bowl, the guy who steps in for Ekpre-Olomu might as well show up in highlighter yellow -- an actual Ducks uniform option! -- based on how the Seminoles and quarterback Jameis Winston are going to view him.

[+] EnlargeOregon defense
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsOregon star cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu suffered a severe knee injury during the Ducks' practice Tuesday and will miss the rest of the season.
It's likely senior Dior Mathis will get the call. The fifth-year senior has seen a lot of action but he has been unable to break into the starting lineup. Or the Ducks could go with promising youngster Chris Seisay, a redshirt freshman who was listed behind Ekpre-Olomu on the depth chart in advance of the Pac-12 championship game. At 6-foot-1, Seisay, who started against Wyoming in place of Troy Hill, brings better size to field than the 5-foot-9 Mathis -- or the 5-10 Ekpre-Olomu for that matter -- but it's not encouraging when the laudatory remark next to his name on the depth chart is "has tackles in five straight games."

Ekpre-Olomu, a senior who has been a starter since midway through his freshman year, has 63 tackles and nine passes defended, including two interceptions, this season. While he's been notably beaten a few times, there were whispers that he was playing through some bumps and bruises that were slowing him down. He was one of many Ducks who were expected to greatly benefit from nearly a month off.

Suddenly losing a star like Ekpre-Olomu is about more than a starting lineup, though. It also takes an emotional toll on a team, both during preparation as well as the game. The Ducks secondary loses its best player -- a potential first-round NFL draft pick -- and a veteran leader, a guy everyone counted on. Think Mathis or Seisay will have some butterflies when they see Greene, who caught 93 passes for 1,306 yards this season, coming his way? Think Oregon's safeties will be asked to play differently than they have all season with Ifo in street clothes?

The Ducks secondary will be less talented and less confident without Ekpre-Olomu.

Injuries? Oregon's had a few. It lost offensive tackle Tyler Johnston, a 26-game starter, and No. 1 receiver Bralon Addison before the season began. It saw emerging tight end Pharaoh Brown go down on Nov. 8 against Utah. It's been without All-Pac-12 center Hroniss Grasu for three games. It's seen several other key players miss games, including offensive tackle Jake Fisher, running back Thomas Tyner and defensive end Arik Armstead.

Yet the general feeling was the Ducks had survived. And, in fact, thrived, scrapping their way to the No. 2 seed in the CFP. By scrapping we mean winning their last eight games by an average of 26 points since suffering their lone loss to Arizona.

That, in itself, will be something the Oregon locker room will look at and point to as it gets ready for FSU. This is an elite program, one that can overcome adversity, even an injury to perhaps the team's second-best player behind a certain guy who plays behind center.

But there is no changing the fact that Oregon is worse without Ekpre-Olomu, and against a team like FSU, the defending national champions and winners of 29 consecutive games, you don't want to be at anything but your best.
video

Oregon star cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu suffered a severe knee injury during the Ducks' practice Tuesday and will miss the rest of the season, coach Mark Helfrich confirmed Thursday.

The senior is the cornerstone of Oregon's secondary and has already received numerous All-American team spots as well as being a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the country's top defensive back. He had 63 tackles, two interceptions and six pass breakups this season.

Senior defensive back Dior Mathis, who spent the spring and fall battling with Troy Hill for the corner spot opposite Ekpre-Olomu, will likely move into Ekpre-Olomu's spot for the second-ranked Ducks' College Football Playoff matchup with No. 3 Florida State in the Rose Bowl.

Ekpre-Olomu has a $3 million loss of value insurance policy, which has been paid for by the University of Oregon, a source with knowledge of the arrangement told ESPN.

If he slips in the NFL draft because of this injury, he will begin collecting money at the beginning of the second round. If he slips past the beginning of the third round, he would receive all $3 million.

Ekpre-Olomu's injiury was earlier reported by Yahoo! Sports.


(Read full post)


2014 Pac-12 All-Underrated team

December, 17, 2014
Dec 17
5:00
PM ET
You've surely already seen plenty of glittering All-Pac-12 teams. Here's the All-Pac-12 team from the conference coaches. And here's ESPN.com's version. Lots of star value. While there were a few tough omissions with legitimate differences of opinion -- running back? defensive front seven? -- there also was plenty of consensus, particularly if you made two teams.

Yet there also were some very good players who got just about no recognition and should have. That's why we're creating an "All-Underrated" team.

The idea was to spotlight players, mostly upperclassmen, who didn't make the first- or second-All-Pac-12 teams from the coaches or from ESPN.com.

Funny thing is, this team was also pretty darn difficult to make. There was lots of star value in the Pac-12 this season, and lots of good players who got lost in the shadows of those stars.

OFFENSE

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Harry How/Getty ImagesCody Kessler was quietly efficient for USC, throwing 36 touchdowns and only four interceptions.
QB: Cody Kessler, Jr., USC: Kessler completed 71 percent of his passes for 3,505 yards with 36 TDs and just four interceptions. He was second in the Pac-12 and sixth in the nation in Total QBR.

RB: Daniel Lasco, Jr., California: Ranked sixth in conference with 92.9 yards per game, finishing the season with 1,115 yards and 12 TDs, which ranked third among conference running backs.

RB: Byron Marshall, Jr., Oregon: After leading the Ducks in rushing last season, Marshall did most of his work as a receiver this year, but we're putting him here because this is his natural position. He led the Ducks with 61 receptions for 814 yards with five touchdowns while also rushing for 383 yards and a TD, averaging 7.7 yards per carry.

WR: Austin Hill, Sr., Arizona: Hill wasn't the super-productive guy he was in 2012 before his knee injury, but he was a clutch and critical contributor to the Wildcats high-powered offense. He ranked second on the team with 45 receptions for 605 yards with four touchdowns. He also showed versatility as a tight end and demonstrated a willingness to block.

WR: Isiah Myers, Sr., Washington State: Finished second on the Cougars with 78 catches, and his 972 receiving yards were fifth-most in the Pac-12. His 12 touchdown catches tied for the Pac-12 lead and tied for the second-most in WSU history. He posted three 100-yard games and finished his career sixth in WSU history with 164 receptions and tied for fourth with 19 career touchdowns.

WR: Jordan Payton, Jr., UCLA: He led the Bruins with 63 receptions (8th on all-time UCLA single-season list) and 896 yards (10th) with seven touchdowns. His 14.2 yards per catch tied for second in the Pac-12.

OL: Joe Dahl, Jr., Washington State: The left tackle allowed just one sack in WSU’s Pac-12 record 771 pass attempts and earned the team’s “Bone” Award (given to the team’s best offensive lineman following each game) a team-best six times. He has started all 25 games he has been at WSU, starting 12 at left guard before moving to left tackle in the New Mexico Bowl last year.

OL: Josh Mitchell, Jr., Oregon State: He stepped in for injured All-American candidate Isaac Seumalo and became the leader of the Beavers offensive line, the one constant for a unit that used six different combinations.

OL: Vi Teofilo, Jr., Arizona State: A physical blocker who got better as the season wore on, he earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors from the coaches.

OL: Hamani Stevens, Sr., Oregon: Slid over from left guard to center when All-American Hroniss Grasu went down and did a solid job. Was the only Ducks linemen to start every game this season.

OL: Daniel Munyer, Sr., Colorado: The Buffaloes best O-lineman -- the Buffs yielded the second-fewest sacks in the Pac-12 -- he graded out at 90.9 percent this season with a team-best 51 knockdowns.

DEFENSE

DL Andrew Hudson, Sr., Washington: Hudson ranked fourth in the Pac-12 with 11.5 sacks, and his 0.88 sacks per game ranked 13th in the nation. Finished fourth on the Huskies with 71 tackles, including 14.5 for a loss, with three forced fumbles.

DL David Parry, Sr., Stanford: A force in the middle of Stanford's dominant defense, he had 30 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks. He also had six QB hurries.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Hardison
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesMarcus Hardison (1) was an impact player on the Arizona State defensive line this season.
DL: Marcus Hardison, Sr., Arizona State: Ranked fifth in the conference with 10 sacks. He also had 40 tackles, including 14.0 tackles for a loss, with two forced fumbles and two memorable interceptions.

LB: Jared Norris, Jr., Utah: Led the Utes and was fourth in the conference in total tackles (108) and tackles per game (9.0). His 10.0 TFL is tied for 10th. He also had four sacks.


LB: Blake Martinez, Jr., Stanford: More than a few folks think Martinez manned the middle of the Stanford defense this fall better than Shayne Skov did the previous few seasons. He led the Cardinal with 96 tackles and had six tackles for a loss, four sacks and two forced fumbles.

LB: J.R. Tavai, Sr., USC: Despite missing two games with a knee injury, he led the Trojans with seven sacks. Also had 47 tackles, including 12 for losses, with two deflections, a fumble recovery and a team-best three forced fumbles. Won USC’s Chris Carlisle Courage Award.

LB Michael Doctor, Sr., Oregon State: Doctor returned from an ankle injury that killed his 2013 season and finished with 62 tackles (third on the team). He also tied for the team lead with three interceptions, including a pick-6 off Taylor Kelly in the Beavers' upset of Arizona State. Doctor also had two forced fumbles and a recovery.

S: Jordan Simone, Jr., Arizona State: Former walk-on finished second on the Sun Devils with 90 tackles, including 4.5 for a loss, and a sack. He also had two interceptions and a forced fumble.

S: Jared Tevis, Sr., Arizona: While he got lost amid the deserved hoopla for LB Scooby Wright III, Tevis, a former walk-on, finished second on the Wildcats with 119 tackles, including nine for loss, with four sacks and two interceptions. Most of that production came in the second half of the season.

CB: Alex Carter, Jr., Stanford: Carter didn't have a lot of numbers -- 39 tackles, one interception, one forced fumble -- but there are a lot of observers who might rate him right up with Oregon's Ifo Ekpre-Olomu as an NFL prospect.

CB: Eric Rowe, Sr., Utah: Third in the Pac-11 in passes defended per game (1.18). Tied for fourth in total passes defended (13). Looks like he could be the next NFL cornerback out of Utah.

SPECIALISTS

K: Cameron Van Winkle, So., Washington: Led the Pac-12 in field goal percentage after connecting on 20 of 23 kicks -- 87 percent -- with a long of 51.

P: Darragh O'Neill, Sr., Colorado: Had a 44.1 average, which ranked third in the conference, and had 27 punts inside the 20 -- second in the Pac-12 -- including 14 inside the 15. 66.7 percent of his punts (65) were not returned.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Ifo Ekpre-Olomu Injury A Game-Changer
Trevor Matich discusses how the loss of Ducks CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu will affect Oregon in the Rose Bowl presented by Northwestern Mutual.
VIDEO PLAYLIST video

PAC-12 SCOREBOARD

Saturday, 12/20
Monday, 12/22
Tuesday, 12/23
Wednesday, 12/24
Friday, 12/26
Saturday, 12/27
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
Friday, 1/2
Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Monday, 1/12