NCF Nation: Big Ten
The SEC has seven teams ranked in the AP Top 25, including three of the top five teams in the country in Auburn, Alabama and Missouri.
The SEC’s strong out-of-conference record has a lot to do with its success in the polls; the SEC is 47-9 in nonconference games, including 3-1 last Saturday against the ACC.
Vanderbilt, Georgia and South Carolina all defeated their ACC rivals on Saturday, and the SEC’s only out-of-conference loss this past weekend came at the hands of then-No. 2 Florida State.
However, the biggest debate heading into conference championship weekend is whether the SEC deserves a spot in the BCS National Championship to defend its seven straight titles.
If the season ended today, the top team in the ACC would face off against the top team in the Big Ten. According to ESPN Stats and Info’s Conference Power Rankings, the ACC and Big Ten are the lowest-ranked conferences among the five major ones, and the SEC is by far the top conference in the country.
However, the debate is not necessarily which conference is the best, but which team is the most deserving.
When looking at ESPN’s Championship Drive Ratings – a system that determines the most deserving teams in the country -- Ohio State and Florida State are both ranked higher than the top team in the SEC.
Looking deeper by using ESPN’s Football Power Index – a predictor of future strength -- Ohio State should be favored by three points over Auburn and six points over Missouri on a neutral field.
It appears the Pac-12 and Big 12 will be on the outside looking in on the national title debate despite ranking second and third, respectively, in ESPN’s Conference Power Rankings. Both conferences have depth, but their biggest issue is that there is no “elite” team at the top.
Keep an eye on the bowl matchups announced next Sunday to see how conference strength plays into bowl selections. In the last three seasons, the SEC has the best record in bowl games among the five major conferences (17-11) while the Big Ten has the worst record (9-16).
Before the season, five Pac-12 teams were ranked. As we head into the final weekend of the regular season, five Pac-12 teams are ranked. Nine Pac-12 teams are bowl-eligible, the most in conference history. That's the same number as the 14-team SEC, which has six ranked teams.
We wrote this on Aug. 26:
The Pac-12 needs to go at least 2-1 against [Notre Dame] and finish the regular season with a 31-6 nonconference record. That would mean going 29-5 in the first four weeks.
Guess what happens if Stanford beats Notre Dame on Saturday? The Pac-12 would go 31-6 in nonconference games, though 1-2 versus Notre Dame, and 22-5 versus FBS teams and 6-3 versus the AQ conferences.
And yet, if you're a big-picture Pac-12 observer, the season feels disappointing.
The Pac-12 is not only out of the national title picture, but it won't get a second BCS bowl team for the first time since 2009. That will cost 12 athletic departments about $500,000, money that most expected to get again this year. The Pac-12 has just one top-10 team: No. 8 Stanford. For just the second time since 2000, the Pac-12 could finish the season without a team ranked in the top five. The Cardinal will need to win out in order to climb that high.
Sometimes being deep and good costs you. That's the often counterintuitive reality of college football, where perception rules the day.
Lots of conferences talk about "cannibalism," which means a conference eats up its own with a brutal conference schedule. But it became the reality in the Pac-12 this year while being a myth in other conferences.
Consider the BCS standings. Click the schedules of the teams ranked No. 2 through No. 7, the teams behind Alabama and ahead of Stanford, vying for a spot in the title game. We'll wait here.
Done? Did you notice something? Of course you did.
No. 2 Florida State, No. 3 Ohio State, No. 4 Auburn and No. 7 Oklahoma State each have just one victory over a team that is presently ranked in the BCS standings. No. 5 Missouri and No. 6 Clemson? They have zero wins over currently ranked teams.
Meanwhile, No. 8 Stanford has wins over No. 12 Arizona State, No. 13 Oregon and No. 22 UCLA. Arizona State has wins over No. 15 Wisconsin, No. 23 USC and UCLA. Oregon has a win over UCLA. USC has a win over Stanford.
The Pac-12 grind was like no other conference this year. Utah, for example, was good enough to beat Stanford, Utah State and BYU -- combined record 24-10 -- but enters the final weekend at 1-7 in conference play.
Washington fans were throwing up their hands after consecutive losses to Sanford, Oregon and Arizona State. Of course, those three are each ranked in the top 13. The Huskies' four losses all came to ranked teams.
Washington State is just 6-5 but was good enough to beat USC (which beat Stanford), Arizona (which beat Oregon) and Utah (which beat Stanford). Oh, and the Cougars outgained Auburn 464-394 in a tight, 31-24 road defeat, with the Cougars undone by three turnovers.
Everyone knows what's coming, right? Yep, we're again going to point to the nine-game conference schedule. The Pac-12 and Big 12 play nine conference games. The Big Ten has announced it will start playing nine in 2016. The ACC and SEC have both talked about it, but then have hidden behind excuses for not playing nine games.
The ACC and SEC say they don't want to play nine games because of intraconference rivalry games such as Georgia-Georgia Tech, Clemson-South Carolina and Florida State-Florida. Of course, this is pure disingenuousness. At least they could just be honest and admit they are trying their darnedest to make things as easy on themselves as possible.
The thinking in the ACC and SEC, with the new four-team playoff coming, is to wait and see, to really and truly see how important strength of schedule is going to become.
None of this means any Pac-12 team could beat Florida State, a team I believe is very good. And we'll likely get to see what the Pac-12 champ will do against Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.
In fact, if the Pac-12 flops in its bowl games, there will be plenty of chuckling over this "world's deepest conference" talk. There are no excuses this year, with USC eligible and just one BCS bowl team.
Yet if the four-team playoff began this year, Pac-12 folks can see what's at stake. We don't yet know how much money teams and conferences that earn spots in the playoff will pocket, but it will be north of the $18 million the teams/conferences playing for the final BCS title this year will receive.
If Pac-12 coaches, athletic directors and administrators end up watching as the SEC or ACC pockets an extra, oh, $40 million after placing two teams in the playoff while the Pac-12 gets some nice parting gifts, then perhaps there would be a sense of urgency about making sure that every major conference plays the same number of conference games.
That, above all else, will be the critical issue for the Pac-12 as we make a transition into the playoff era.
The SEC continued to build upon its lead in the rankings after five of its top teams rose in the AP Poll. The SEC now has six teams ranked in the top 13 of the poll. No other conference has more than two teams in the top 13. 11 of the SEC’s 14 teams (79 percent) are also ranked in the top 50 of the FPI, the highest percentage of any conference.
The Big Ten
The Big Ten gained 3.9 points in the conference rankings after its top teams won on Saturday. Michigan State held Michigan to -48 rushing yards and confirmed that it has an elite defense. As a result, the Spartans rose six spots in the AP Poll and eight spots in the FPI. Michigan State’s emergence is important for the Big Ten because there is a perception that Ohio State is the only elite team in the conference.
The Big 12
The Big 12 fell 3.7 points in the rankings after Texas Tech lost its second straight game. The Red Raiders have fallen 15 spots in the AP Poll in the past two weeks, including 10 spots after their 18-point loss to Oklahoma State. There are now four teams in the Big 12 with no more than one loss in conference play. Each of those teams plays at least two games against the other three teams to end the season. That chaos at the top of the Big 12 will begin on Thursday night when Oklahoma travels to Baylor.
Next Week’s Slate of Games
Next week features seven different games that will shape conference races:
--SEC: LSU travels to Alabama on Saturday in a game that could eliminate LSU from the race for the SEC West.
--Pac-12: Oregon heads to Stanford on Thursday (9 pm ET, ESPN) in a game that will likely determine the winner of the Pac-12 North.
--Big 12: As mentioned above, Baylor hosts Oklahoma on Thursday in its first major test of the season.
--ACC: Miami (FL) will look to bounce back against Virginia Tech on Saturday in a game that could go a long way towards determining the winner of the ACC Coastal division.
--Big Ten: Nebraska heads to Michigan on Saturday in a must-win game for the Cornhuskers if they want to keep pace with Michigan State in the Big Ten Legends division.
--American: UCF hosts Houston on Saturday (7 pm ET, ESPN2)in a matchup of the only two undefeated teams in AAC play. If UCF wins, it will have beaten Louisville and Houston, the two 7-1 teams in the American Athletic Conference heading into this weekend.
--MAC: Ohio travels to Buffalo on Tuesday (8 pm ET, ESPN2) with first place up for grabs in the MAC East.
These games may not necessarily have a major impact on the conference rankings, but they will help determine the strength of the best teams in each conference.
For a refresher on the formula for the conference power rankings, click here
To the sixth-year Nebraska coach, for instance, if you're not with the Huskers, you're against them. If you're not getting better, you're getting worse.
Why, then, does the same principle not apply to his starting quarterback?
Taylor Martinez is not helping Nebraska win.
Pelini's methodology would seem to suggest that he helped the Huskers lose on Saturday. In his first action since Sept. 14, the senior quarterback hobbled through a 34-23 loss at Minnesota, often appearing out of sync with teammates. From start to finish, the offense operated in disjointed fashion.
When one quarterback struggled, the other guy played. It's a strategy with flaws, for sure, but it worked.
Apparently it's not an option the Huskers want to explore with Martinez at the helm.
Why the double standard, a practice that seems so at odds with Pelini's overriding approach to the game?
The coach said after the game that Martinez was "the least of our problems."
"Let's not go there and act like Taylor Martinez lost this football game for us," Pelini said. "Our problems today were far beyond who our quarterback was."
He's right that the Huskers had big problems against Minnesota – the inability to win the line of scrimmage, poor tackling, mental errors, dropped passes, questionable distribution of the football, two turnovers lost and none gained.
But if Pelini really believes that the quarterback ranked as the least of Nebraska's problems, he's failing to pay attention or just trying to protect Martinez.
His play on Saturday, at a minimum, fits squarely in the middle of the items that require attention.
It's easy -- and typically too convenient – to blame the quarterback when things out of his control go awry. The quaterback makes an impact on every offensive play, so he gets too much credit and too much blame.
But Nebraska needs its quarterback to do more than avoid losing. When the Huskers built this team over the offseason and into August, it expected to rely on a quarterback who could win games, especially with a defense that needed time to mature.
It expected a guy like South Carolina senior Connor Shaw, who rallied his team from a 17-point deficit on Saturday to beat Missouri after the Gamecocks' win probability fell below 3 percent in the third quarter.
It expected Martinez to play the way he did last year in the Big Ten, leading four second-half comebacks from double-digit deficits.
He's not there. The Nebraska coaches must know it. And the statistics show it.
Total QBR is an ESPN-calculated metric that accounts for a quarterback's overall execution – a Pelini buzzword -- in relation to his team's performance. It rates quarterbacks on a zero-to-100 scale.
A score of 50 is average.
Martinez's QBR on Saturday was 19.6, the sixth-lowest single-game figure of his career. His opponent-adjusted QBR against the Gophers was 14.6, better only in his 43 career starts than against Michigan in 2011, a 45-17 Nebraska loss, and a 13-7 win over Iowa in 2012, a game played in horrendous weather conditions.
The least of Nebraska's problems?
That would be laughable, if not so painful for the 20,000 Huskers fans who converged on Minneapolis over the weekend.
And the decisions of Pelini and offensive coordinator Tim Beck are more puzzling in light of the performances over the past three games of Armstrong and Kellogg.
Against South Dakota State, Illinois and Purdue, the two quarterbacks combined to produce a QBR of 78.9, the 17th-best figure nationally over that time.
Good quarterbacks win games, period. The top five QBR figures of 2013 belong to Marcus Mariota of Oregon, Bryce Petty of Baylor, Jameis Winston of Florida State, Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M and Georgia's Aaron Murray.
Nebraska thought it had a quarterback in that category this season. They coached on Saturday as if they had a quarterback in that category. Clearly, in his current state of health, Martinez is not there.
Lest we forget the context, Martinez returned Saturday from six weeks off. Pelini has said since September that turf toe kept the quarterback out.
Martinez, after the game, disputed the assessment, describing the problem as a separate ailment to his foot in addition to a shoulder injury. He said he wasn't 100 percent, which was obvious, despite the insistence from Pelini and Beck that Martinez would not return until completely healthy.
Together, they're delivering a message about as muddled as the offense was disconnected on Saturday.
And now Pelini has this to consider: Among the masses in Minneapolis who watched in disappointment sat Chancellor Harvey Perlman, first-year AD Shawn Eichorst and many other figures important to the athletic department, including hundreds of the program's top donors who traveled on a once-a-year, school-planned trip for Memorial Stadium suite-holders.
Most will return to watch the Huskers on Saturday in Lincoln against Northwestern, which has lost four consecutive games.
For Nebraska, again, there's no gray area: Win this week or face the darkest hour in Lincoln since 2007, the season before Pelini's arrival as head coach.
Rarely does their strategy involve the opponent. This one did: Shift Husker Bob Y-Go.
Minnesota offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover called it for the first time on Saturday as the Gophers opened their second drive of the third quarter.
Ahead by four points, they sent 6-foot-6, 302-pound freshman Ben Lauer wide like a receiver. He settled into a stance at the snap, providing a distraction just long enough for tight end Drew Goodger to flash open and snag a pass from Philip Nelson that gained 21 yards.
Four plays later, Nelson scored. Minnesota went back to the 6-5, 265-pound Goodger twice more in the third quarter for a total of 68 yards -- more than double his receiving yardage total in six games this year prior to Saturday.
The Gophers rushed for 271 yards, the most allowed by Nebraska in an already disappointing defensive season, and they did it by running downhill. Few big gains; just a consistent, powerful, deflating attack that stung Nebraska in ways the Huskers never imagined might happen at this venue.
You see, Minnesota has long served as a Nebraska doormat, like an out-of-conference version of Kansas or Iowa State before the Huskers' 2011 Big Ten entry. The victory on Saturday snapped a 16-game Nebraska winning streak in the series.
Minnesota last beat the Huskers in 1960. Nebraska won the past 12 games by an average of more than 40 points.
“Those games have no meaning to us,” said Tracy Claeys, the Gophers’ acting coach and defensive coordinator under Jerry Kill before the Minnesota coach took a medical leave to undergo treatment for his epileptic seizures.
Kill watched again on Saturday from the press box. He attended practice last week and spoke to the Gophers before the game. He came to the locker room again at halftime and told the other coaches to leave him with the players.
Claeys said he’s never spent time around a coach as competitive and caring as Kill, a rare mix.
“To have him around just means so much,” Claeys said. “We want to make sure we do him well.”
They sure did, storming back from a 10-0 deficit with 17 straight points in the first half, then burying the Huskers with a late defensive stand and a 34-yard touchdown march to ice it in the final minute.
Minnesota completed just eight passes. But it controlled the line of scrimmage. It forced two turnovers and committed none. It sacked Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez four times.
A small army of Huskers limped off the field.
“We know who we are,” Minnesota running back David Cobb said, “and we know what we like to do.”
Cobb rushed for 138 yards on 31 carries. The junior from Killeen, Texas, talked to the Huskers in the recruiting process, he said, but Nebraska didn’t offer a scholarship.
“If you’re going to win Big Ten football games,” Claeys said, “you’ve got to run the ball and stop the run.”
It stings for Nebraska, because that plan, for decades, epitomized Nebraska. So much of what happened on Saturday stings for the Huskers. The name of the jumbo formation, the method through which Minnesota inflicted misery.
And then there’s this: Limegrover said the Gophers pored over film of Wisconsin’s 70-31 victory over the Huskers last year in the Big Ten championship game. Some of Minnesota’s misdirection and sweep plays came straight from that film.
You mean, the Huskers haven’t fixed that yet?
“This game comes down to blocking and tackling,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said, “and we didn’t do that very well.”
Really, it’s about more than that for Nebraska. It’s about a painful loss on Saturday that harkened images of an era in this program that began a decade ago with defeats to programs like Kansas and Iowa State and ended with the 2007 hiring of Bo Pelini that was supposed to stop such madness.
Claeys said after the game that “there are bigger wins out there for us.”
Painful words again for Nebraska, but the coach is right. Minnesota, after consecutive Big Ten wins for the first time since 2010, is bowl eligible in October and plays Indiana and Penn State before a tough finishing stretch against Wisconsin and Michigan State.
The Gophers celebrated Saturday on the field with Minnesota students, but they're not ready to rest on this success.
“Whatever we’re doing right now is working,” sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson said, who replaced starter Mitch Leidner after three possessions.
It’s an odd mix, for sure, the quarterback rotation and uncertain coaching situation.
“On the inside, as a staff, we could see it getting better,” Claeys said. “But the kids needed something to give them belief.”
Saturday gave them belief.
Claeys said he was a freshman in high school when Nebraska visited Minnesota 30 years ago and won 84-13. Some old-timers at Minnesota bitterly remember that game. None of the current Gophers, of course, were alive.
The Huskers also played UCLA and Wyoming out of conference in 1983, winning by a total of 68 points -- opponents that combined to outscore Nebraska by 17 points this season.
It’s a new age at Nebraska.
At Minnesota, too, and for the better here.
It was last Thursday or Friday, with several of his position coaches on the road to recruit as Nebraska progressed through a bye week. Pelini, the head coach of six years and a former defensive coordinator, met with his linebackers and defensive backs to review practice from the previous day.
They talked long and hard about the mistakes, much of it the same stuff that has plagued the Huskers through four games to the tune of 25 first downs allowed per outing, 463 yards and a field goal short of 30 points.
“The exact same things we talked about,” Pelini said. “It came back to eye discipline. It came back to reading your keys. It came back to your focus. It’s why you have to keep putting them through it.
“That’s why every single day and every single rep are important.”
His point? There’s no replacement for experience.
The Nebraska defenders don’t have much of it. Their opponent on Saturday is led by a quarterback with a career full of experience -- good, bad and downright miserable.
Senior Nathan Scheelhaase, the fourth-year Fighting Illini starter, owns an edge in the Big Ten opener for both teams over the Nebraska defense in a category that remains out of the Huskers’ control.
Only time can close the experience gap for Pelini’s youthful defenders. And time, it seems, is running thin for the Blackshirts, with three October games to grow up before a difficult November stretch arrives.
For now, it’s about surviving Scheelhaase, the one-time Husker recruiting prospect out of Kansas City, Mo., who has enjoyed a rebirth this season in operating the Illinois offense.
Scheelhaase versus the Nebraska defense: the matchup appears one-sided in favor Illinois. How it unfolds on Saturday will loom large in the Illini’s upset bid against a Nebraska team that looks vulnerable, in large part, because of its leaky pass defense.
The Huskers have surrendered 284.3 yards per game through the air to rank 105th nationally out of 123 FBS teams. Nebraska ranks 85th in allowing opponents to complete 63 percent of their throws, and Husker foes Wyoming, Southern Miss, UCLA and South Dakota State have averaged 8.42 yards per pass attempt to rank 106th.
“I’m a realist,” Pelini said, “and I knew what we were going to be facing and what we were going to continue to face as the season goes on. I expect us to get better.”
Meanwhile, Scheelhaase averages 9.52 yards per pass attempt to rank 13th nationally. He leads the Big Ten in completions and passing yardage, and his 12 touchdown passes rank second in the league to Ohio State backup Kenny Guiton.
It represents a significant reversal for Scheelhaase, who threw just four touchdown passes, with eight interceptions, a year ago in 10 games as Illinois lost its final eight games under first-year coach Tim Beckman.
New offensive coordinator Bill Cubit has helped the QB raise his completion percentage to a career-best 67.2.
In addition to the struggles of 2012, Scheelhaase endured the Illini collapse in 2011, when it started 6-0 but lost six straight to end the regular season, costing coach Ron Zook his job.
Predictably, all of it helped shape the Scheelhaase of today.
“I’ve grown a lot from the good times and the tough times,” he said. “I’ve learned to seize the moment when it’s there. And when you’re playing with a bunch of guys who’ve been through the experience of ups and downs, it really pulls you close together.”
His words offer promise for the Nebraska defense, though not necessarily in the short term.
This is still the group that was gouged for 465 yards, including 227 on the ground, last time out on Sept. 21 by FCS-level SDSU in a 59-20 Husker victory.
Defensive end Randy Gregory, a bright spot amid the lows for the Nebraska defense, said he expects to see a different unit on the field against Illinois than the group that couldn’t stop South Dakota State in the first quarter two weeks ago.
“I hope it’s changed a lot,” Gregory said. “There’s a lot of things we need to focus on and fix. I expect that we’ll have done that.”
For Scheelhaase, moving past Illinois’ offensive failures involved a clean wipe of the slate. The Illini scored more than 20 points just once in Big Ten play last year -- and that came in a 30-point loss to Ohio State.
“Everybody’s put the past in the past,” he said. “It’s behind us. The vibe this year is that we can do a lot more than what people expected us to do. We don’t have to worry about what’s happening on the outside, what people are thinking about us.
“We just have to worry about having great days at practice and playing with confidence on Saturday.”
To avoid a 15th consecutive Big Ten loss, Illinois must beat a team that Scheelhaase has long admired. He was initially offered a scholarship by former Nebraska coach Bill Callahan in 2007. Scheelhaase visited Memorial Stadium for the USC game that year and again for Pelini’s first spring game seven months later.
“It was an honor to get a chance to be recruited by them,” Scheelhaase said.
He said he’s looked forward to Saturday since Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011.
“I knew what an exciting experience this would be, not only for me but for my teammates,” he said. “I’ve been telling the guys all week to take in the moment -- take in what’s it all about that.”
Spoken like a man of experience.
The Jackrabbits scored two touchdowns on nine plays, covering 176 yards in less than three minutes to open the game -- often running straight at Nebraska.
But that’s not what Pelini referenced. He’s talking about the next possession, when the Huskers stacked the box with eight defenders, and still South Dakota State running back Zach Zenner churned for 15 yards on the first play, followed by gains of 4 and 5 up the middle.
“There is zero,” Pelini said, “zero excuse for that.”
Replacing seven senior starters from a year ago, the Huskers knew they would face growing pains this fall. Some of what we’ve seen this month, though, is rooted more deeply than in Nebraska’s lack of experience.
“Every week with this group, right now, feels like it’s a new adventure,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said, “whether it’s from quarter to quarter or half to half or game to game. There are times that we show signs of being pretty good, and then there are times where it’s hard to watch.
“I don’t know how to say it other than that.”
He could say it like this: The Huskers have two weeks to prepare for Illinois and the start of Big Ten play. And based on the results of late – FCS-level South Dakota State scored just three points after the first quarter on Saturday but still totaled 465 yards – Nebraska coaches and players must decipher the cause of their defensive woes and fix them fast.
Statistics here tell just part of the story. But an important part.
In the first 12 games of last season, Nebraska ranked first nationally in passing yards allowed per game (152.2), first in opponent completion percentage (45.5), second in yards per opponent passing attempt (5.16), 13th in yards per opponent play (4.59) and 23rd in points per opponent drive (1.44).
In six games since, in the same categories, Nebraska is 105th (277.5 passing yards per game), 82nd (62.4 percent completion rate), 116th (9.35 yards per opponent passing attempt), 118th (7.45 yards per opponent play) and 105th (2.58 points per opponent drive).
Something is wrong. Pelini said it’s a missing attitude.
Pelini discussed it Saturday with former Huskers tight end and current associate athletic director Jamie Williams before the coach roasted the defense in his postgame news conference.
“You’ve got to have a killer instinct,” said Pelini, who was defensive coordinator at Nebraska, Oklahoma and LSU. “In football, no one’s going to give you anything. You’ve got to take it. You’ve got to earn it. If you don’t have that kind of approach, it’s not going to work out well for you.
“Right now, we’re not playing with a type of attitude that you need to take to the field defensively. There has to be a sense of urgency every time you line up.”
The Huskers have endured struggles at all three levels.
Newcomer Randy Gregory at defensive end is a bright spot. Freshmen Avery Moss and Vincent Valentine have played well on the line, but veterans Jason Ankrah and Thad Randle aren’t showing up.
True freshman linebackers Nathan Gerry and Josh Banderas were benched for Zaire Anderson and David Santos in the first half on Saturday. Anderson appeared to play well, but missed assignments continued to plague the unit.
In the secondary, Stanley Jean-Baptiste, with interceptions in every game this year, is a star in the making. The safeties are a different story, especially at the spot next to Corey Cooper.
“They’re playing too tentative,” Pelini said.
The Huskers lack aggression, in general, on defense. Pelini and defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski talk regularly to the linemen about exploding at the snap, initiating contact with the players across the line of scrimmage.
“I wasn’t doing that the first series,” Gregory said. “The defensive line as a whole, we weren’t doing that.”
Gregory doesn’t know how to make the fixes or even what to say to his teammates.
“I don’t think anybody knows what to say,” he said, “but we’ve got to come in with the mindset that we’re going to stop them.”
Others sounded more confused. A couple defenders said they thought the Huskers played well defensively on Saturday. Meanwhile, Pelini described it as “the worst defensive performance of the season.”
He issued a promise, too.
“I’ll get this fixed,” the coach said. “Trust me there.”
Interesting choice of words. Trust, it seems, is wearing thin among the Nebraska defense these days.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Somebody’s going to bring it up if for no reason other than because Nebraska is entering a bye week and the defense is a depressing topic and he throws such a pretty ball.
Why not go with Tommy Armstrong?
The redshirt freshman quarterback looked spectacular in his starting debut, a 59-20 Husker victory over South Dakota State on Saturday at Memorial Stadium -- in his own way just as good as another redshirt freshman who got everyone so excited three years ago this month.
He led five drives. Four went for touchdowns. The other ended when Kenny Bell fumbled after a catch and run to the SDSU 10-yard line. Armstrong finished 12-of-15 passing for 169 yards and a touchdown. He rushed five times for 38 yards. He didn’t commit a turnover.
“It’s what we’ve been saying, since he’s been here,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “He’s just a gamer. That’s what he is. He thrives in situations like this and played extremely well.”
Freshmen quarterbacks create a sparkle in the eye of every fan. They offer a promise of something better.
Stop right there, though. This is Martinez’s team. Sure, he has looked out of sync this year, especially last week in a 41-21 loss to UCLA. He has yet to prove he can lead Nebraska to a championship.
But before the subject gains steam and the crowd here grows restless when the offense sputters behind Martinez for a couple series in Big Ten play, remember this: Armstrong will have his day. Soon, too. It’s just not now, as long as Martinez is healthy.
Martinez started 32 straight games before Saturday and 43 in his career, more than any Nebraska quarterback.
He’s not Wally Pipp.
And Armstrong is not the answer. Not yet, anyway.
That said, wow, the kid looked good. Armstrong faced just four third downs on his five possessions. The Huskers converted all of them, two on Armstrong completions to go-to receiver Quincy Enunwa and two on runs by Imani Cross.
Armstrong played with a swagger. Coach Bo Pelini mentioned it after the game. Armstrong set the tempo. He got the Huskers off fast, a problem before Saturday. Nebraska ate chunks of yardage on its first possession, covering 24 yards, 13, 28 and 5 for the touchdown.
“It took us back to summer,” Armstrong said. “When our number is called, we have to set the tone. That’s one thing we did, we set the tone for the defense.”
Armstrong said he couldn’t sleep on Friday night.
The quarterback envisioned this moment since he arrived last year from Texas, where he directed Cibolo Steele to a pair of 5A title-game appearances. Armstrong learned how to lead from running back Malcolm Brown and defensive tackle Marquis Anderson, who left Steele before Armstrong for Texas and Oklahoma, respectively.
So when the moment arrived this week, he embraced it.
And when South Dakota State answered his opening pair of touchdown drives with scores of its own and Armstrong turned the offense to Ron Kellogg III, only to watch the Huskers lose a fumble and FCS-level Jackrabbits go ahead, the young QB gathered teammates on the sideline.
“I told them, ‘Hey, don’t worry, we’re going to go down and score and get a stop,' " he said “That’s pretty much the mindset.”
It happened. He returned after Kellogg directed a TD march and led an 11-play, 80-yard drive, hitting Sam Burtch for 16 yards in the end zone.
On the touchdown, Cethan Carter flashed wide open before Armstrong hesitated a bit and found Burtch near the corner.
South Dakota State was slow to react. A better defense might have made Armstrong pay. That’s about the only critique of him from this game. And it’s a stretch.
Armstrong showed no sign of losing his rhythm by sitting out after his first two drives, then for two more after his third possession -- a difficult ask of any quarterback, let alone a freshman in his first start.
“He handled it like a pro,” Kellogg said.
Pelini said he learned nothing about Armstrong that he didn’t already know. And Pelini doesn’t care if the performance came against South Dakota State or Michigan State.
“I look at the execution,” said Pelini, whose team opens league play in two weeks against Illinois. “It doesn’t matter who you’re executing against.”
Armstrong learned he would start from Beck after Pelini told the media on Tuesday that it appeared likely. At the end of a difficult week for the program following the loss to UCLA and a storm of controversy around the coach, a big ovation greeted Armstrong as he took the field.
Of course. He’s the freshman, the fresh face. But don’t go there. It’s not time.
Here’s what we learned: Armstrong, after Saturday, owns the edge next spring over Johnny Stanton, who’s redshirting this fall, when Martinez and Kellogg are gone.
For some, considering the apparent stalled progress of this program, the future can’t get here fast enough.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- This was the other shoe.
It dropped with a thud that resounded beyond the borders of this state at the end of an already difficult day for Nebraska coach Bo Pelini.
Make that embattled Nebraska coach Bo Pelini.
His comments, made to Nebraska play-by-play announcer Greg Sharpe and longtime athletic department official Chris Anderson, were recorded without his knowledge after Pelini’s postgame news conference as he prepared to tape an interview with the Husker Sports Network.
And here is what you should know, Nebraska fans: This is your coach. This is Pelini. A tirade like this is not out of character for the 45-year-old Ohio native.
Pelini has regularly accosted local media members in such fashion over coverage with which he disagreed. I got the phone call once when I worked for Omaha World-Herald, covering his first three seasons in Lincoln -- and many others heard the same tone and language evident in that ugly audio.
Someday, such boorish actions were going to bite him. It was a matter of when. Until Monday, it didn’t matter what Bo said to the media behind closed doors. It didn’t impact the team or the Nebraska program. Typically, he did it to blow off steam and rarely mentioned the incidents after his initial tirade.
But this latest revelation changed the game. Pelini made it public. He went after the fans.
The same Nebraska fans lauded by the school as the best in college football. The same fans who have sold out an NCAA-record 328 consecutive games. The same fans who make possible his salary of nearly $3 million a year as the highest-paid public employee in state history.
The uncovering of this audio came hours after Pelini responded sharply to the suggestion by former Nebraska quarterback Tommie Frazier that the Huskers dump their entire defensive staff.
Pelini defended his staff and players on Monday and talked of embracing former players. But then, he said of Frazier, a popular figure: “If he feels like that, then so be it. We don’t need him.”
Bad idea. Better to take the high road. No need to dignify Frazier’s emotional outburst on Twitter from Saturday in the wake of the Huskers’ 41-21 loss at to UCLA.
Just say it doesn’t matter.
But that’s not Bo. It does matter to him. He saw Frazier’s words as an attack on his coaches, and Pelini spoke his mind. He is fiercely loyal toward his assistants.
Again, that’s him -- for better or worse. He’s not changing.
And all of this comes on the heels of Pelini’s comments earlier Monday, in which he said he created a culture at Nebraska that placed too much pressure on the Huskers to perform. He talked of how he pushed the team too hard, often taking the fun out of football.
“At the end of the day,” Pelini said, “that comes back on me. Have I been doing the right things? Am I doing the right things? Are [the players] enjoying their experience?”
He said he determined that no, they were not enjoying it enough. He saw it Saturday. When things went awry against UCLA, the Huskers didn’t come together; they fell apart.
“I wholeheartedly failed in that regard on Saturday for whatever reason,” Pelini said.
But given the chance to display a more diplomatic persona just moments after his admissions of soul-searching, Pelini took the bait and criticized a Husker great.
The coach released a statement through Nebraska on Monday night, apologizing for his 2011 words. He took responsibility and said he was “venting following a series of emotional events.”
“These comments are in no way indicative of my true feelings,” Pelini said in the statement. “I love it here in Nebraska and feel fortunate to be associated with such a great university and fan base.”
First-year athletic director Shawn Eichorst, also in a statement, said he was “disheartened and disappointed” by Pelini’s comments. Eichorst said he had spoken with Pelini and chancellor Harvey Perlman and “expressed our deep concern.”
Perlman was more blunt: “I am disappointed and in discussions with Shawn Eichorst about addressing the issue.”
How this plays in the coming days may loom large in Pelini’s future at Nebraska.
When the bottom fell out on former coach Bill Callahan in 2007, he had little equity upon which to stand with the fans. Their relationship disintegrated quickly. It helped seal his fate.
For most of his five-plus seasons, Pelini has remained in good standing with the fans.
But the temperature was already changing after the loss on Saturday. It marked Nebraska’s most lopsided loss to a nonconference opponent at home since 1961, one year before the sellout streak began.
A poll on the Lincoln Journal-Star's website Monday night asked fans if Pelini should be fired. The results? Right down the middle.
In this last official week of summer in Lincoln, the events of Monday just turned the situation icy -- and intensified the heat on Pelini.
There was dominance in the mid-to-late 1990s.
Chaos followed, from about 2002 until Bo Pelini arrived to coach in 2008.
Now, it’s relevance -- or a lack thereof.
Nebraska last finished a football season ranked in the top 10 in 2001, the same year it most recently played in a BCS bowl game. And while Pelini’s record is impressive -- he sits among four first-time coaches to win nine games in each of his first five seasons -- the Huskers finished outside of the top 15 in four of those years.
Nebraska is not moving the meter nationally. It is not connecting consistently with elite recruits. It rates as an afterthought outside of its conference and, often, outside of its state.
The Huskers over the past few years have failed on the big stage. In three conference title games, Nebraska lost heartbreakers to Texas in 2009 and Oklahoma a year later before Wisconsin ran it out of Lucas Oil Stadium last December.
The same Badgers welcomed Nebraska rudely to the Big Ten two years ago in a top-10 showdown.
The next opportunity comes Saturday at noon ET. The Huskers dropped in the Associated Press poll after each of their two wins to open this season. A victory over 16th-ranked UCLA won’t entirely fix Nebraska’s image, but it’s the only way the Huskers can stay relevant until November.
With South Dakota State on deck and a soft opening set of Big Ten games that include Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota, the Huskers won’t make any noise if they’re 6-1 when Northwestern visits on Nov. 2.
Not until a Nov. 9 trip to Michigan would Nebraska demand more than a passing glance on the national landscape.
Unless, that is, it wins on Saturday.
The road back to relevance goes through Michigan. Until then, UCLA offers Nebraska its only ticket to the big show.
Senior defensive end Jason Ankrah said he understood the "sense of urgency."
It's time to make a statement, he said.
"We set our goals to do certain things this year," Ankrah said, "and they're just another team in our way."
That said, the Huskers wanted UCLA on their schedule this year, according to Ankrah, after the Bruins beat Nebraska 36-30 last year at the Rose Bowl.
"We're in the same boat as a lot of other teams," linebacker Michael Rose said. "We're a program trying to re-establish ourselves. We've got the right players and the right coaches. I don't think there's a lack of respect at other places for Nebraska."
No, but Rose got to know a pair of high-profile recruits two years ago after he committed to Nebraska. The Huskers made the final two for Devin Fuller out of New Jersey and Andrus Peat of Arizona.
Fuller is now a top receiving target for UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley. Peat starts at left tackle for Stanford. Maybe a couple of conference titles this century would have provided an edge for the Huskers.
Senior center Cole Pensick grew up around this program. His dad, Dan, played defensive tackle for former coach Tom Osborne. Cole attended Lincoln Northeast High School. To him, relevance was never the issue. Friends of his father surrounded Cole as a kid. He lived through the championship era of the '90s and heard stories about the significance of Nebraska football to a worldwide fan base.
"It's kind of giving me chills right now just thinking about it," Pensick said, "how many people out there love Nebraska."
I-back Ameer Abdullah came to Lincoln from Homewood, Ala., learning quickly of the tradition.
Abdullah, discussing the importance of Nebraska's relevance, rattled off a few stats -- the Huskers have won more games than any other program over the past 50 years. They've sold out every home game since 1962.
The list continues.
Nebraska's notable tradition and passionate fan base, at some point, provide a crutch: The Huskers have fought for a decade to regain their edge, but hey, no program can claim more victories since 1970.
Ankrah grew up in Maryland. He graduated high school in 2009. Before Nebraska began to recruit him, Ankrah said, he knew little about the Huskers.
"I'm not going to lie," Ankrah said. "I did not know where Nebraska was."
That's relevance for you. Irrelevance, more precisely.
UCLA is coming to Lincoln. Opportunity awaits.
The last two drives, which covered 114 yards, took all of five plays and 53 seconds. When time expired as Brett Smith’s heave from the Cowboys’ 31-yard line falling harmlessly in Nebraska territory, a distinct feeling of relief blanketed Memorial Stadium.
Should it have instead been dread of what’s to come? The Nebraska defense is trending in a dangerous direction.
Wyoming’s 35 first downs are the most ever surrendered by the Huskers. The Cowboys’ 28 plays of 10 yards or more (on 74 offensive snaps) matched UCLA -- which visits Lincoln on Sept. 14 -- as the most recorded by an FBS program in the opening week of college football this year.
Defensive coordinator John Papuchis, in the aftermath on Saturday, described the fourth-quarter feeling as a “nightmare.”
“It’s a win,” Papuchis said, “but it’s not good enough.”
Yet Bo Pelini, the Huskers’ sixth-year coach who cut his teeth as a defensive coordinator in the Big 12 and Southeastern Conference, said he watched film into the early hours of Sunday, then went to bed hours after the game with a “pretty good” feeling about his team.
“There were a lot of positives that came out of it that got masked,” Pelini said.
Admittedly, Pelini is not a stats guy.
So perhaps he’s not concerned that in Nebraska’s past 12 quarters against Wyoming, Georgia and Wisconsin, it has allowed more than 1,800 yards of total offense. Each of those games sit among the nine highest total-yardage outputs ever produced by a Nebraska foe.
Including a loss to UCLA last year in which the Bruins gained 653 yards, the second-highest figure all time against Nebraska, that’s four of the top nine in the past 12 months.
Pelini, who’s not known for his tolerance of poor defensive execution, talked on Monday in positive tones about growth. He used a form of the word “learn” four times in his 2-minute, 15-second opening statement.
Of Saturday’s debacle, Pelini said the Nebraska coaches may have oversimplified matters for their young defenders. Most of the mistakes, he said, were mental.
What gives? Why all the patience and understanding?
“I’ll put it this way,” he said. “It’s very fixable. The things that hurt us the other day are very fixable.”
Meanwhile, the natives are growing restless. They’re waiting for Pelini and his staff to actually fix it.
The coach praised Smith, who accounted for 475 yards, including 383 through the air. Smith consistently avoided the Nebraska pass rush, revamped with new contributors Vincent Valentine, Avery Moss and Randy Gregory.
“I think he has a unique feel for not only scrambling,” Pelini said, “but when to step up in the pocket and when to flush himself.”
Smith nearly flushed the Huskers’ NCAA-record streak of season-opening wins.
Don’t look now, but UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley is even better. He showed it against Nevada last week, ranking third nationally in Total Quarterback Rating.
Southern Miss awaits on Saturday. It has lost 13 straight games, including a 49-20 decision in Lincoln a year ago.
It could be a get-well game for the Huskers.
Nebraska needs it after Wyoming.
“Everyone was just over-hyped,” senior cornerback Ciante Evans. “Guys were worried about not making mistakes too much, and they were just over-thinking the game. But that just comes with the season opener.”
Last year, it came with several games. After an offseason to replay in their minds the bludgeonings delivered by Wisconsin and Georgia, the Huskers sought a change of pace to start this year.
They’ll have to wait at least another week.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska came back from a pair of first-half deficits and survived a late Wyoming rally to win its NCAA-record 28th straight season opener, 37-34 on Saturday night.
The Cowboys, of the Mountain West Conference, showed surprising resolve, gaining 602 yards before a Nebraska school-record crowd of 91,185 in the 326th consecutive sellout at Memorial Stadium.
The 18th-ranked Huskers rebounded from a sluggish start to score 21 consecutive points in the second and third quarters.
But Wyoming never went away as quarterback Brett Smith hurt the Huskers with both his arms and feet. Smith threw for 383 yards and rushed for 92. He fired a pair of late touchdown passes to nearly erase a 16-point deficit. His 29-yard strike to Jalen Claiborne with 6:02 to play made it 37-27, and a 47-yard dart to Robert Herron with 1:32 left sliced the lead to three points.
Nebraska cornerback Josh Mitchell sacked Smith on a two-point conversion attempt after the first of Wyoming's fourth-quarter TDs, and the Cowboys failed to recover an onside kick after the second.
Wyoming stopped the Huskers quickly in the final two minutes to regain possession, but its final drive ended short of midfield.
It was over when: Smith scrambled wildly, using all of the final 11 seconds to throw across midfield as time expired at the end of a frantic fourth quarter. A pair of holding calls stymied Wyoming’s last possession, but it converted a fourth-and-11 to its 31-yard on a 14-yard strike to Claiborne before the errant heave fell to the turf, allowing the Huskers and their record crowd to sigh deeply.
Game ball goes to: Senior cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste came up big several times -- none more important than an interception of Smith late in the first quarter. With the Cowboys already up 7-3, the 6-foot-3 Jean-Baptiste outwrestled freshman Tanner Gentry at the goal line, ending Smith’s streak of passes without a pick at 183. On the next Wyoming possession after Nebraska went up 10-7, Jean-Baptiste delivered a big hit on Gentry. Jean-Baptiste then fought through a block to corral receiver Claiborne for no gain on a third-and-2 reception to force the Cowboys’ only three-and-out series of the first half.
Stat of the game: Eight. The number of consecutive running plays Nebraska called on scoring drives midway through the second quarter and early in the third. The eight runs totaled 144 yards and two touchdowns, turning a 14-10 Wyoming lead into a 24-14 Nebraska edge. Against a rush defense that ranked 117th nationally a year ago, the Huskers, before turning to the run, called passes on six of seven plays in the first half, resulting in two incompletions, three receptions for 14 yards, a 3-yard Taylor Martinez scramble and two punts. The turnaround began with Ameer Abdullah’s 62-yard scamper and ended with a bruising 31-yard TD burst by Imani Cross.
Unsung hero: One man cannot replace the excellence in the kicking game provided over the past seven years by Alex Henery and Brett Maher, both of whom handled place-kicking and punting duties. So Nebraska went with three guys, and they all showed well. Sophomore Mauro Bondi consistently blasted kickoffs deep; senior Pat Smith, despite missing an extra point, connected on his lone field goal try from 24 yards; and redshirt freshman Sam Foltz boomed four punts for an average of 49.2 yards.
Best improvisation: It was a bit early to say Wyoming had Nebraska on the ropes, but the Huskers, down 7-0, had already muddled through one unproductive possession when, on the third play of their second series, Martinez fumbled the snap on third-and-5. The senior QB chased it down, bought some time with his legs and threw downfield. His pass sailed long, but tight end Jake Long caught the deflection to extend the drive with a 26-yard gain. The drive ended with Pat Smith’s field goal.
What Nebraska learned: The Huskers aren't ready for UCLA, who will visit Lincoln on Sept. 14 with QB Brett Hundley, a better version of Brett Smith. Wyoming’s third-year starter tormented the Blackshirts for much of Saturday. He ran effectively and used his feet to avoid pressure in the pocket. Hundley will inflict more pain if the front seven can’t dial up additional pressure. When the Huskers got to Smith, defensive end Randy Gregory was called for roughing the passer to negate a sack. Offensively, it went about as expected until the final minutes. Martinez showed nice composure. The backs ran well, and the receivers were sure-handed.
What Wyoming learned: If it can find a way to slow opponents’ running games, the Cowboys ought to improve significantly on their 4-8 finish of a year ago. Wyoming unexpectedly controlled this game for much of the first half and simply ran out of time at the end. It features a nice group on offense, with the multitalented Smith, running back Shaun Wick and several capable receivers.
Or the Pac-12 could piddle around, win some and lose some, and then fall into the college football conference gaggle, howling about a lack of respect while disingenuously trash-talking the superior conferences.
We will get a pretty good measure of where the conference stands, at least in terms of depth, in the first four weeks, when 34 of the 37 nonconference games are played. Further down the road, Notre Dame will play a key role in the overall standing of the conference, with dates in Week 6 against Arizona State, Week 8 with USC and Week 14 with Stanford.
The Pac-12 needs to go at least 2-1 against the Fighting Irish and finish the regular season with a 31-6 nonconference record. That would mean going 29-5 in the first four weeks.
That isn't that demanding of a number. The conference went 25-11 in regular season nonconference games in 2012, but that number was skewed by Colorado going 0-3. In Year 1 under Mike MacIntyre, it's not unreasonable to project the Buffaloes going 2-1 in their first three games, which is exactly what we're doing.
The 31-6 mark includes 20 games that rate fairly close to sure-things, though, of course, those don't truly exist in college football. Moreover, it doesn't include any true long-shot, underdog win picks.
Now we know what you're thinking. You're not thinking about the general gist of this column. You're wondering how we projected your team's nonconference mark. Sorry, we're not going to tell you. So, well, pffft. And we mean that in the nicest possible way.
We're not going to tell you if we have California splitting its two Big Ten showdowns at home. We're not going to tell you which six teams we project going unbeaten in their nonconference schedules. That's not the point here. We will predict games on a week-to-week basis every Thursday. This post today is about the big picture.
That said, it's not difficult to figure out which games will operate as measuring sticks, starting with Notre Dame.
Washington's opening-weekend showdown with Boise State is big for the conference and big for the Huskies. As good as Boise State has been during the BCS era, that doesn't change the fact that an AQ team losing at home to a non-AQ team looks bad -- and registers that way nationally. Recall how everyone giggled after the Broncos pushed Georgia around in 2011.
Northwestern is good -- a Big Ten contender -- but it's not easy flying across the country to play a game in Berkeley. California has talent on both sides of the ball. Many of those players nearly won at Ohio State a year ago.
Arizona State needs to at least split with Wisconsin and Notre Dame. Both those games are winnable for a talented Sun Devils team, one that isn't getting as much preseason respect as it deserves in large part because of the horrid face-plant at Missouri last year.
USC needs to be 3-0 before it visits the Irish.
The Pac-12 needs to show it can win the games it's supposed to win, win on the road and beat ranked teams.
While the Pac-12 race determines the bowl pecking order, from BCS games to the New Mexico Bowl, these regular-season nonconference games probably mean more in terms of national perception. An 8-4 Arizona State team that beats Wisconsin and Notre Dame is probably more likely to be ranked in December than an 8-4 Arizona State team that lost to both.
If Oregon goes unbeaten other than a home loss to Tennessee, well, that would have SEC folks crowing and would probably take the Ducks out of the discussion of best one-loss team. Unless the Volunteers won the SEC title, which they won't.
The general feeling is nonconference scheduling is going to improve nationally over the next few years -- as in more big-program matchups -- because it will be a key component of how the selection committee for the four-team playoff make distinctions.
It would be a good idea for the Pac-12 to distinguish itself in nonconference games this fall. And not just for what it means this season. While winning in 2013 shouldn't have anything to do with what transpires in 2014, everyone knows that present subjective perceptions can be reinforced by past patterns. Any subtle boost could end up being the difference when the committee finds itself trying to decide a pecking order for six one-loss teams.
Five Pac-12 teams were ranked in the preseason Associated Press poll. The Pac-12/10/8 has never had five teams ranked in the final AP poll, though that would change if new members Colorado and Utah were included in the tabulation.
What that means is the preseason perception of the Pac-12 is strong heading into the 2013 season, perhaps as strong as it has been in a while. The last time as many as four conference teams were ranked in the preseason AP poll was 2006.
Depth? Eight conference teams received votes. National title contenders? Oregon is ranked third and Stanford fourth.
Last year, the general consensus was the SEC was the best conference, and the Pac-12 and Big 12 were candidates for No. 2. This fall, more than a few folks are projecting the Pac-12 as a contender for best conference, though dethroning the SEC, which had six teams in the top 12 of the preseason poll, is as much about ending a streak of seven consecutive national titles as overall strength.
However one views the strength of various conferences, there obviously is a perception that the Pac-12 is on the uptick in 2013.
There are season-specific reasons for this. For one, a lot of starters are coming back, particularly among the better teams.
Pac-12 teams average 16.3 returning starters. The average over the past decade was 14.9. Those 2013 numbers are particularly good at the top. The conference's top seven teams from a preseason perspective -- Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, Oregon State, USC, Arizona State and Washington -- average 16.5 returning starters. For the sake of comparison, the SEC's top six teams (Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Texas A&M, Florida and South Carolina) average 12.3 returning starters.
They say defense wins championships, so it's good that an average of 7.4 defensive starters are back. They also say the game is won in the trenches. Only one conference team, Utah, doesn't welcome back at least three starters on its offensive line. Seven teams welcome back four starters, compared to just two (Arizona and USC) a year ago.
Further, of those top seven teams, six welcome back their starting quarterbacks. Among that group, only USC is replacing its 2012 starter.
Arizona is replacing its starting quarterback, Matt Scott, but it nonetheless was among the teams getting votes in the AP poll. Second-year coach Rich Rodriguez said he thinks the conference has more than five Top-25 teams, and he thinks there's a paper trail behind the conference's improving perception.
He then added with a laugh, "I wish it wasn't that way. I wish it was just us. But everybody is kind of moving up."
How much more money are Pac-12 teams taking in? Well, according to the conference's tax filings for 2011-12, the most recent available fiscal year, revenues jumped 58 percent over the previous year to $175.5 million. And that doesn't include the $3 billion TV deal with ESPN and FOX, which started last season and will pay members an average of $20.8 million over the next 12 years.
That money is paying for facilities upgrades across the conference. In fact, every conference team has -- or is planning to -- significantly upgraded facilities, whether that's stadiums, weight rooms or football buildings.
California last year completed the most expensive facility upgrades in college sports history -- total cost of $474 million -- and immediately went from having some of the worst facilities in AQ conference football to having some of the best. Oregon's new football building has been a national sensation, while the renovation of Husky Stadium will put it on the short list of best college football venues. Arizona, USC and Utah have recently opened fancy new football buildings, while Arizona State's stadium remodel plan is, well, out of this world looking.
These facilities, the conventional wisdom goes, will make Pac-12 programs more competitive in recruiting and will provide state-of-the-art support for the athletes already on hand. The Pac-12 has been playing catch-up in the college football arms race, and now it seems it has caught up.
Of course, the Pac-12 continues to have a self-imposed challenge that the SEC, Big Ten and ACC don't face: a nine-game conference schedule. If the Pac-12 played eight conference games, there would be six fewer losses scattered throughout the conference every year, and that would bolster national perception. It particularly would boost perceptions of depth, as more 6-6 teams would be 7-5 and 8-4 teams would be 9-3.
For many Pac-12 coaches, quality depth has been a major factor preventing the conference from playing for more national titles.
"What I like to say about our conference is it's tough every single week," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "You don't have a group at the top and a group at the bottom. You're going to play tough games every single week."
It appears that might be even more true in 2013, at least if preseason polls are to be believed.
But there is a singularly most convincing way for the Pac-12 to distinguish itself in front of the nation this season: Win the final BCS National Championship before the four-team playoff begins in 2014.
Oregon and Stanford are ranked Nos. 3 and 4 in the preseason Associated Press poll, just like they were in the preseason coaches' poll.
Two-time defending champion Alabama is No. 1. Ohio State, which went unbeaten last season but was bowl ineligible due to NCAA sanctions, is No. 2.
As for the rest of the Pac-12, UCLA is 21st, USC 24th and Oregon State 25th -- just like the coaches' poll.
No, North Carolina wasn't ranked.
Arizona State was the equivalent of 30th. Washington and Arizona also received votes. So eight Pac-12 teams got some love from pollsters. Conclusion? The Pac-12 has national title contenders and depth.
Now, can it win the big one?
The SEC led all conferences with six ranked teams, all of which were in the top 12. The Pac-12 and Big Ten had five each. The Big 12 had four.
TOP 25 SCOREBOARD
Final 20 Duke 7 1 Florida State 45 Final 2 Ohio State 24 10 Michigan State 34 Final 5 Missouri 42 3 Auburn 59 Final 17 Oklahoma 33 6 Oklahoma State 24 Final 7 Stanford 38 11 Arizona State 14 Final 25 Texas 10 9 Baylor 30 Final 16 UCF 17 Southern Methodist 13 Final Utah State 17 23 Fresno State 24