NCF Nation: Cowboys Stadium

Notre Dame wanted out of its series with Arizona State, but the Sun Devils wanted to play. A compromise was announced Tuesday that is a win for the Sun Devils.

The Fighting Irish will visit Tempe on Nov. 8, 2014, but the Sun Devils won't make a return trip to South Bend, Ind., in 2017.

The meeting scheduled for Oct. 5, 2013, between the teams at Cowboys Stadium outside Dallas has nothing to do with this game contract. It's still on.

A statement from ASU vice president for athletics Steve Patterson:
“We’re pleased that Notre Dame was able to resolve its scheduling issues in a way that allows it to play at Sun Devil Stadium in 2014. ... Our entire Sun Devil family -- season ticket holders, fans, students, alumni -- and our entire community here in the Valley have been looking forward to playing Notre Dame in Tempe since the original agreement was signed in 2008. While the game at Notre Dame in 2017 has been canceled, what is most important to us is that the game in Tempe has been saved."

Notre Dame, which has been reworking its schedule after it agreed to play five ACC football games per year from 2014 on, apparently had a weakness in its negotiating position with ASU: Not including a buyout in the original game contract.
There should be no joy when a college football player shows "poor academic judgment," as Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson described his turn of misfortune, thereby earning a suspension that ended his 2013 season before it began.

So stop smiling, particularly you guys in Tempe, Los Angeles and Palo Alto.

Seriously, that's not terribly charitable.

In any event, Golson's academic pratfall dramatically changes the complexion of the three Pac-12 games with Notre Dame this season: Arizona State in Cowboys Stadium on Oct. 5, USC on Oct. 19 and at Stanford on November 30.

While Golson was inconsistent as a redshirt freshman starter last fall, he still was good enough to lead his team to an undefeated season and a berth in the national title game. Word this spring was he looked more in command and greatly improved, which makes sense for a second-year starter. It's not unreasonable to believe the big-armed, speedy dual-threat QB would have been more of a dual threat this fall, perhaps significantly more, a guy who well fit what coach Brian Kelly wants to do on offense.

There is no way to sugarcoat it: Notre Dame just got worse. And that benefits the Irish's opponents.

With Golson back, one could overlook obvious issues for an offense that only finished 78th in the nation in scoring last year. Now, not so much. As's Matt Fortuna pointed out, this offense "features two new starting linemen, is down its top two running backs from last year, and has no sure answer to replace record-setter Tyler Eifert at tight end."

So the Irish are going to -- again -- lean heavily on their defense. Arizona State, USC and Stanford each have offenses that, at least in terms of potential, can more than match up with what should again be a good Notre Dame defense. And all three should have an advantage when their defense squares up with the new-look Irish offense, particularly Stanford.

With Golson gone, the most obvious answer is experienced senior Tommy Rees. He has 18 career starts and has played well at times, but he's far from big armed and he doesn't have the running ability Golson has. Life gets much easier for a defense when the opposing QB isn't a substantial run threat.

While it's unseemly to leap into the air and click your heels together over a foe's misfortune, it is fair to say that Todd Graham, Lane Kiffin and David Shaw didn't have their Memorial Day weekend ruined by this news.
The question concerns Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly: What's next for him after a strong starting debut as a sophomore? Both head coach Todd Graham and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell make the same observation in separate interviews.

"In the eight games we won last year, Taylor didn't throw any interceptions," Graham said.

"And in the five games we lost," Norvell said, "he threw at least one."

[+] EnlargeTaylor Kelly
Ron Chenoy/US PresswireTaylor Kelly "commands our team," coach Todd Graham said. "He's a guy with all the intangibles, a guy we completely trust."
It's an interesting factoid -- all nine interceptions in five losses -- one you can imagine has been brought up to Kelly by both a few times. You also could read too much into it. Other than his first-ever road start against a mediocre-to-bad Missouri team, those losses came against good teams.

But it also aligns with what Kelly needs to do this fall to take the proverbial next step: Take charge and be consistently excellent so Arizona State becomes better than those other good teams.

Graham calls it mastering the offense. Kelly knows it's about stepping up at critical moments.

"When things hit the fan, that's when I've got to play my best," Kelly said. "When things would start to hit the fan last year, I would kind of panic and start forcing things. Or if we were down, I'd feel I had to make a play. After watching film, I realize I need to take the easy route and take what the defense gives me."

Be smart. Command the huddle. Distribute the ball to the playmakers. Step up and deliver in big moments. That's what veteran quarterbacks do, and that's what will get Kelly and the Sun Devils to the Pac-12 title game with a shot at the Rose Bowl.

It's reasonable to project. Kelly blew away preseason expectations last year, eclipsing 3,000 yards passing while ranking second in the Pac-12 and ninth in the nation in passing efficiency. He threw 29 touchdown passes and rushed for 516 yards and a score. Even incremental improvement should make him an all-conference candidate, though the same can be said for a number of outstanding Pac-12 quarterbacks.

It's strange to recall that a year ago the idea of such a projection would have seemed ridiculous. Kelly finished 2012 spring practice third in the Sun Devils quarterback competition behind Mike Bercovici and Michael Eubank. More than that, there was some talk of reducing his reps and making it a two-man race heading into fall camp.

"We came this close to making it a two-man race because of my belief that it's hard to rep three guys," Graham said. "That would have eliminated Taylor Kelly. I'll be honest. He was third team coming out of spring, and that was where he should have been. He improved that much over the summer."

The same can be said for the 2012 season. Kelly showed resilience by bouncing back after bad games. The poor showing at Missouri? He threw 11 touchdown passes in the next three games with no picks. A four-game losing streak killing the momentum of a previously promising season? Kelly threw eight touchdown passes with no picks as the Sun Devils finished with three consecutive victories, including a comeback victory in the Territorial Cup.

"I think he got better every single game," Graham said. "There is no substitute for experience. What gives me the most confidence in this team is we have a quarterback who I completely trust, who has all the intangibles it takes to be a great quarterback and a great leader."

There is a question, and it affects Kelly directly: Receiver.

Kelly has a good tight end/H-back in Chris Coyle. Running backs Marion Grice and D.J. Foster are skilled pass-catchers. But there's a dearth of talent and experience at wideout.

Said Kelly, "It's been a work in progress."

It's an issue whose solution lies in the unknown: Arizona State needs at least two, perhaps three, incoming receivers to show up ready to play immediately. The Sun Devils signed five receivers, topped by the touted Jaelen Strong (Said Graham, "As dynamic a receiver as I've seen on film."), and they will be immediately thrown into the rotation.

While Graham also frets about special teams, the Sun Devils' potential advance to a 10-win sort of team depends on giving Kelly some A-list targets who will keep an opposing defense honest.

Further, there won't be much of a preseason, getting-to-know-you process. Games 2-4 go: Wisconsin, at Stanford, USC and Notre Dame in Cowboys Stadium.

Yet this team is fully capable of handling a front-loaded schedule and climbing the national rankings. And that feeling starts with Kelly.

"He commands our team. He's a guy with all the intangibles, a guy we completely trust," Graham said. "We have a quarterback who is a championship-level quarterback. That gives you a chance."
SEC and Big 12 folks have been tweaking the Big Ten and Pac-12's love of the Rose Bowl of late. That made me grin because the primary motivation for those tweaks was jealousy.

Don't buy that assessment? Well, then what do you make of this: The SEC and Big 12 champions, starting in 2014 after the current BCS contract expires and we presumably adopt a four-team playoff, will meet annually in a prime time New Year's Day "bowl" game.

[+] EnlargeMike Silve
Darrell Walker/Icon SMICommissioner Mike Slive and the SEC have a bowl agreement with the Big 12 that is nearly identical to the Rose Bowl model used by the Big Ten and Pac-12.

Unless, of course, the SEC and/or Big 12 champions are selected for the four-team playoff, which one is almost certain to be and both are likely to be.

But, if one or both is selected for the playoff, then, just like the Rose Bowl, a No. 2 team from both or either conference will be selected.

So the SEC and Big 12 have adopted the Rose Bowl model in its entirety. Other than the fact that they can't play in the Rose Bowl stadium as the sun goes down over the San Gabriel Mountains.

The location has not been set. The Sugar Bowl (SEC) and Fiesta Bowl (Big 12) already have a dog in this fight, but expect bids to come from Jerry Jones and his deluxe Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, as well as a play from Atlanta.

By the way, the Rose Bowl jealousy stuff is mostly good-natured ribbing while I'm gaping at another sudden shift in college football's tectonic plates.

Folks, this stuff is amazing, and there's a stunning plot twist seemingly on a weekly basis -- Florida State to the Big 12? Notre Dame back in play?

The main take-away: This is a step closer to four power conferences, with the ACC and Big East finding their footing suddenly precarious.

And, if you want to worry, Pac-12 fans, it looks like the SEC and Big 12 are being far more aggressive -- read: expansionist -- as college football remakes itself. Keep in mind that the Pac-12 could have ended the Big 12 last September and become the first 16-team super-conference if Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech had made a jump.

Pac-12 presidents might end up regretting their decision not to expand -- and giving Oklahoma, in particular, the shaft. Newly enriched by a mega-TV deal, they might have lost track of the big picture while they were counting their money.

Commissioner Larry Scott has long held that further consolidation at the top of college football was inevitable. This is another example of him proving right, though this time without a blockbuster deal for Pac-12 folks to celebrate.

This latest news is a reason to get nervous. Or to just marvel at how quickly the game has changed.

Oregon just won't go away

November, 14, 2011
When Oregon trudged off the Cowboys Stadium field after a 40-27 loss to LSU on Sept. 3, just about everyone counted them out. That was made real when they were poleaxed by pollsters, dropping from No. 3 to No. 13 and No. 14 in the AP and coaches' polls, respectively.

That will teach Oregon -- and anyone else -- to agree to a marquee nonconference matchup against an elite team that everyone wants to see!

Most turned away from the team with loud uniforms. Andrew Luck and Stanford were now the interesting team in the Pac-12, and Oklahoma, Alabama, Wisconsin, Oklahoma State, Boise State, Florida State, Texas A&M and those LSU Tigers were the real contenders.

[+] EnlargeLaMichael James
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireCoach Chip Kelly, RB LaMichael James and the Ducks are aiming for the national title game.
But teams, as they are wont to do in college football, started falling by the wayside, and the Ducks kept coming. It was quiet at first. Nevada bludgeoned a week after LSU; a pounding of Arizona on the road; California and Arizona State dispatched with prejudice.

And when Oregon gamboled off the field after a 53-30 victory over Stanford, just about everyone started counting them back in.

It made me recall that cool sequence at the beginning of Rocky III when Clubber Lang is, one by one, clubbering a sequence of foes on a bigger and bigger stage, and his dominance is attracting the worried attention of Rocky's manager Mickey.

And just as Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" ends, Clubber barks at Mickey, "I want Balboa! I want Balboa! You hear that, Old Man?"

Said Ducks running back De'Anthony Thomas after the game, "I feel like if we get another shot at [LSU] again, I feel like it will be a better game."

Not exactly the same sort of bravado, but LSU is more Ivan Drago than Rocky.

Oregon would like to play LSU again with an offensive line and defensive front seven that have jelled. It would like to play LSU again with a healthy LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner. It would like to play LSU without four turnovers, including two fumbles from Thomas.

It is a longshot to happen. And to be absolutely fair to how things went down in game one -- it sure as heck was as much about LSU's size and speed as turnovers -- and how good LSU has looked since then, my guess is few, including our friends who look at things without emotion in Las Vegas, would pick the Ducks to win a rematch.

It would, however, be interesting. Let's recall that the last offensive-minded evil genius to get a rematch in a national championship game against a defensive power -- Florida and Steve Spurrier in 1996 with Florida State -- won and won big.

If Oregon wins out impressively, and some dominoes fall here and there, maybe it will happen. It just won't happen today, this week or next. So let's bracket off the national title stuff.

And, as we look big picture, let's bracket off the potential endgame with L'Affair de Willie Lyles. I've talked to smart people who think Oregon may get hammered, and I've talked to smart people that think they won't. You never know with the NCAA, an institution where logic and fairness aren't always part of the process.

The big picture is this: Oregon is on the cusp of a third consecutive conference title. It's won 19 consecutive conference game, all but three by double-digits. If I were projecting coach Chip Kelly's record after his third season ends this January, I'd guess 34-5 (.875). Yes, I'm projecting a BCS bowl victory.

And Oregon will be a preseason top-five team in 2012 and will be the overwhelming favorites to win a fourth consecutive conference title, even if running back LaMichael James doesn't come back.

2013 looks like it will set up nicely, too.

Get the point? Oregon, barring a bomb from the NCAA, is set up for the long haul. It's on the cusp of becoming one of "those" programs. You know, where nine wins is viewed as a rebuilding year.

Of course, all the Ducks haters are barking about the lack of a Rose Bowl victory much less a national title. True. Snarky, but fair. That's why some of this hangs on the Ducks taking care of business in whatever January bowl they end up playing in.

Said Thomas, "I wouldn't want to play us."

Oh, there are lots of fans of lots of teams across the country that would have smart alec replies to that. That's the trash talking, message board, comments section face of college football.

But also know that plenty of measured, football-smart fans -- even LSU and Alabama fans -- watched the tour de force display against Stanford and thought to themselves, "I don't want to play them."

UCLA to play Texas in Cowboys Stadium

November, 10, 2011
UCLA and Texas enjoyed their series so much they've decided to sign a new game contract and upgrade their venue.

The Bruins and Longhorns have agreed to play in Cowboys’ Stadium in 2014, the LA Times reported. The date has been tentatively set for Sept. 13, according to Chris Foster's story, which noted "The Bruins have a game against Virginia scheduled for that day, but the two schools will work out a change."

UCLA and Texas split a home-and-home series this season and last with both winning on the road. UCLA whipped Texas 34-12 in Austin in 2010, and the Longhorns whipped the Bruins 49-20 in the Rose Bowl this year.

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 4

September, 22, 2011
Ten issues to consider heading into the fourth week of games.

Pressure Barkley: USC QB Matt Barkley comfortable in the pocket? That's not a good thing for a defense, particularly when he gets to find receiver Robert Woods. USC has allowed just two sacks this year, and Arizona State will be missing its best pass-rusher -- defensive end Junior Onyeali, who's out indefinitely with a knee injury -- so the Sun Devils might need to get creative with blitzes. You know, like they've done with linebacker Vontaze Burfict this year, see four sacks.

[+] EnlargeUSC's Matt Barkley
Kelvin Kuo/US PRESSWIREMatt Barkley has passed for 892 yards, nine touchdowns and just one interception so far this season.
Foles on his own? Arizona QB Nick Foles is a heck of a player but he will not beat Oregon on his own. He needs help from the Pac-12's worst running game, its worst defense and an offensive line that has yielded seven sacks.

Washington D needs to step up: Arizona has the worst defense in terms of yards allowed in the conference, but the Huskies are the worst in terms of points surrendered: 36.7 ppg. And the Huskies are 11th in the conference in yards allowed, too. Coordinator Nick Holt is the conference's best paid defensive coordinator (without the last name "Kiffin," at least), and it was widely believed in the preseason that the Huskies had enough talent to be an A-list defense this fall. The early results have been terrible. A visit from California to start the Pac-12 schedule is a heck of an opportunity for Holt and the UW D to reverse their fortunes.

No slow start in the 'Shoe, Colorado: As pointed out by the Boulder Daily Camera: "The Buffs have been outscored 40-20 in the first half in the first three games and 14 of the Buffs' 20 first-half points came against [Colorado State]." It wouldn't be a good idea to fall behind early against Ohio State in the Horseshoe. For one, having lost 19 in a row on the road, it likely wouldn't help the Buffaloes' confidence. Second, Ohio State's grind-it-out offense is much better playing from ahead than playing from behind -- see below.

Brehaut takes over: Richard Brehaut has an opportunity to decisively win the UCLA QB job. He just needs to put up numbers in a victory at Oregon State. Most observers have long felt coach Rick Neuheisel has favored Kevin Prince in the Bruins' seemingly endless QB competition, but Neuheisel will favor the guy who gets him a W. Brehaut should have a chance against the Beavers' pass defense, which is the worst in the Pac-12.

Osweiler bounce back: ASU QB Brock Osweiler was lights out at home against Missouri but he struggled at Illinois. Now he's back home facing USC, which has beaten the Sun Devils 11 consecutive times. Osweiler needs to regain his Missouri form -- or at least approximate it -- in order for Arizona State to jump to the front of the Pac-12 South Division pecking order.

Ducks make statement: After losing to LSU in Cowboys Stadium, which inspired many national pundits to write Oregon off, the Ducks quietly rolled up a pair of dominant wins at home against inferior foes. But now Oregon opens the Pac-12 schedule on ESPN2 with a chance to make a statement: "We're still here." If the Ducks can match -- or eclipse -- Stanford's impressive 37-10 win in Tucson last weekend, they likely will hush some of the doubters.

Zach Maynard's first road test: The Cal QB has been solid in the Bears' first three games, but playing at Husky Stadium is not something he's done before, certainly not during his days as the starting QB at Buffalo. While the Huskies' defense has been vulnerable, it's also faced three experienced QBs. Expect the Huskies to throw a lot at Maynard, whose biggest weakness in the early going has been accuracy.

Colorado run D vs. Ohio State: Colorado ranks fifth in the Pac-12 in rushing defense, and it will surely gang up on the run at Ohio State. The Buckeyes had only 209 total yards at Miami last weekend, including 35 yards passing. The way to stop the Buckeyes' offense, who completed a dreadful 4 of 18 passes against the Hurricanes, is to force them to throw. Can the Buffs do that?

Mannion the man? While Oregon State redshirt freshman QB Sezan Mannion saw a lot of action in the first two games, this is his first official game as the Beavers' starter. He's going to get some help with receiver James Rodgers and tight end Joe Halahuni returning to action, but it will be up to Mannion to deliver the ball on time and in the right spot against UCLA.

Oregon wants to become road warriors

September, 21, 2011
Oregon coach Chip Kelly recently groused about how hard it is to get elite teams to sign a home-and-home series with his Ducks. While money, as it often is in college football, is an issue, the biggest reason is teams don't want to get their butts kicked. Kelly's crew has won 18 in a row at home, last losing to Boise State on Sept. 20, 2008.

So when you ask Kelly about what he's learned about his team during a pair of home blowouts after it lost to LSU in Cowboys Stadium, he doesn't make any sweeping pronouncements of newfound skill, confidence or maturity.

"We're a good team at home," he said. "What we've got to learn now is how do we play on the road?"

[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireChip Kelly's Oregon squad will try to regain their momentum by beating Arizona on the road Saturday.
That's a fair point. Though Oregon has lost only five games over the past two-plus seasons, each has been outside the friendly confines of Autzen Stadium.

And the numbers show a decided difference, too. The Ducks averaged 59 points at home last season and 36.7 points on the road. They averaged 41.6 points at home in 2009 and 29.7 point on the road. On defense, the Ducks held foes to 14.8 points at home in 2010 and 22.0 points on the road. In 2009, it was 20.4 at home and 27.7 on the road.

Of course, every team is better at home, and the quality of the home and road schedules matter. But when your team is trying to join the super-elite, those are numbers coaches notice and point out to players. For example, Auburn last season played better defense on the road, and averaged 45.8 points at home and 36.3 points on the road. In 2009, Alabama averaged 32.7 points at home and 31.4 points on the road. Those are the last two national champions.

So Kelly wants his team to take its A-game -- its Autzen-game -- to Tucson to face reeling Arizona.

Speaking of the Wildcats, a lot has been made of their seven-game losing streak to FBS foes. No one likes a seven-game losing streak.

But some perspective, folks. Four of those games were against top seven-ranked foes, and a fifth was against an Oklahoma State squad that finished 2010 ranked 13th. The Ducks will be the Wildcats third top-10 opponent in three weeks.

"This has been a perfect storm and we've got to weather it," said Arizona coach Mike Stoops (a visit to No. 23 USC is next, by the way).

Further, Stoops is a defensive coach. His most infamous sideline frowns and gesticulations come when his defense is not doing what he wants it to do. And that's been happening a lot of late, seeing that his defense ranks 111th in the nation.

Oregon, by the way, will be bringing the nation's No. 6 offense, the third consecutive top-20 offense the Wildcats will have faced, which is also a good reason the defense has looked so lousy. You might be surprised, however, that the fiery Stoops has become philosophical, preaching the power of positive thinking and learning from adversity.

"You have to look at where it's exposing our weak areas, where we have to get better," he said.

Stoops then is probably noting his run game, which ranks 116th in the nation with an anemic 55.7 yards per game. The Ducks defensive weakness, at least thus far, has been against the run, see 214.3 yards per game, which ranks 11th in the Pac-12. So that's an interesting weakness-on-weakness matchup.

It's more likely, though, this one will come down to a showdown of strength on strength: Wildcats quarterback Nick Foles versus a good Oregon pass defense, which ranks No. 1 in the conference.

Kelly is a big fan of Foles.

"I think Nick is one of the top quarterbacks in the country, not only in this conference," he said. "I don't think he gets nearly enough credit."

Of course, we could have another barn burner. The last time the Ducks visited in 2009, they won a thrilling 44-41 decision in double-overtime, a game that it looked like the Wildcats had in the bag. Until they didn't.

"I remember Jeremiah Masoli just running around making plays," Stoops said. "He made some incredible plays down the stretch. We couldn't come up with that last play to win the game."

Oregon doesn't want that. It wants to come in a take care of business -- like Stanford did in Tucson last weekend -- and look like a team that shouldn't yet be written out of national title contention.

Stoops' team is just trying to weather the storm. But he sees "speed everywhere" with Oregon. And he knows no team brings an offensive maelstrom like the Ducks.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- The weeks of hype -- and controversy -- are almost over. In 90 minutes, No. 3 Oregon and No. 4 LSU will start butting heads and we'll get some football answers instead of speculation.

Oregon's high-tempo, spread option offense will get another shot at a big-fast-mean "SEC defense." The Ducks will get an opportunity to end a pattern of struggling to move the ball against A-list defenses that get extra time to prepare.

What tweaks might have Chip Kelly come up with during his extra time to prepare? Are the Ducks going to be pass-first, as they were forced to be against Auburn. Or will the running game get going with LaMichael James, Kenyon Barner and true freshman De'Anthony Thomas?

Suspensions anyone? We'll see what LSU looks like without starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson and Russell Shepard, its best receiver. We'll see what the Oregon defense looks like without CB Cliff Harris, and -- most likely -- MLB Kiko Alonso.

Is LSU going to be conservative and rely on its defense and 223-pound running back Spencer Ware? Or will it let Jarrett Lee throw the ball around, thinking a Harris-less secondary isn't as worrisome?

What nutty things do the coaches have planned?

Just like Kelly isn't afraid to go for it on any fourth down or do an on-side kick to open a second half, Les Miles has never been one to shy away from trickeration. Miles, who's 23-0 in regular-season nonconference games, even succeeds when he makes major gaffes.

Miles, however, won't eat the grass at Cowboys Stadium. It's artificial. That would be gross.

While the superficial position is to compare the LSU and Auburn defenses, but that's not really accurate. LSU's is better and more talented at all three levels. Only it has two new starting DTs, not Nick Fairley disrupting things in the middle.

Still, the Tigers secondary is vastly superior to Auburn's. If the Ducks have no running game, it will be tougher going throwing it. And much more risky.

Further, the Ducks are breaking in two new offensive linemen, one of whom -- OG Ramsen Golpashin -- is a 275-pound former walk-on.

Oregon also is breaking in five new starters on its front-7 on defense, though the new guys have plenty of experience. The Ducks defense held up well versus its offense this spring and preseason. Most in green believe the defense will do fine.

After all, no SEC defense did a better job against Cam Newton and Auburn last year.

The stakes are simple: The winner immediately becomes a national title contender. The winner, in fact, might -- should -- move up to No. 1 in the major polls, which means it will have poll position in the title chase.

Things are quiet here at present. But that won't last 80,000 fans are going to pack this place -- a significant majority of them in LSU purple -- and the talk will end and the best season-opener in decades will start to provide some answers.
Nobody likes sounding relentlessly redundant, but if the story doesn't change the story doesn't change.

For all that Oregon has accomplished in two years under Chip Kelly, it has flopped against highly rated nonconference foes who have had extra time to prepare for the Ducks high-tempo, spread-option attack.

  • In 2009, the Ducks opened at Boise State. While that game is most remembered for LaGarrette Blount's post-game meltdown in Kelly's debut, Boise State fans will be glad to remind you the Broncos held the Ducks to 31 yards rushing in a 19-8 victory.
  • The Ducks righted themselves dramatically in 2009 and earned a berth opposite Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. But the Buckeyes held the Ducks to 260 yards in a 26-17 victory
  • And, finally, in the national title game against Auburn, the Ducks only scored 19 points. They gained 449 yards but only 75 on the ground.
[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireOregon coach Chip Kelly and the Ducks would score a big win for the Pac-12 with a defeat of LSU on Saturday.
Those three games, against which there is little counter argument, other than the Ducks Pac-10 success, have inspired this sort of analysis: Oregon needs to get more physical.

If you have ever played football, you surely understand that when a football player has his physicality doubted, well, that's pretty galling.

Before all you Ducks get bent over this, keep in mind that Kelly has been a stand-up guy about this very point. In all three instances, he admitted the Ducks got beat at the point of attack. Further, during preseason camp, I asked running back LaMichael James about what went wrong against Auburn.

"Their defensive line was overpowering our offensive line," he said. "That was just the way it was."

How do you think this goes over with a Ducks offensive lineman? Department of "Truth Hurts."

Here's the good news: Oregon can end such talk on Saturday. All it has to do is take it to No. 4 LSU, a program as physically talented in terms of future NFL potential as any in the nation.

That's the micro-economic level of the super-cool-awesomeness of this marquee season-0pener in Cowboys Stadium.

Any one else curious to see what Kelly's got up his sleeve to counter LSU's extra prep time to school itself on the Ducks misdirection?

The macro-economic level is this: Pac-12 versus SEC. One game for a regular-season's worth of trash talking.

You might have heard the SEC has experienced some football success of late. On occasion, SEC fans will take a moment to remind you of it. There is a rumor, in fact, that five consecutive seasons have ended with a happy ending in some SEC outpost, the latest against the Pac-12's newest top-dog.

That would be Oregon.

To be honest, last January, I though Oregon was going to pound Auburn. I didn't think a two-player team -- no matter how good those two players were -- could beat the Kelly and the Ducks. The last time I had such a strong hunch about a game and was so completely wrong was when Washington pushed Miami around in 2000. (This is not to say I've had a long run of correct strong hunches about games before January. They just don't come by very often before marquee matchups).

Even if you throw out the stakes specific to Oregon and the Pac-12, this game has huge meaning nationally. The winner could -- should, in my mind -- rise to No. 1 in both major polls. Voters should reward the winner for showing the courage to play this game, which is great for college football at a time college football needs something great to distract fans from a stunning onslaught of scandals. A couple of which, rumor has it, might involve these two teams, territory we're choosing not to explore at this moment.

So if Oregon wins, it could rise to No. 1. If LSU has a successful season in the rugged SEC West, that win will grow in value. But even if LSU falters, the Ducks will be in position to play again for the national title if they keep winning.

Further, the odds aren't terrible that Oregon could arrive at Stanford on Nov. 12 and we find ourselves eyeballing two unbeaten teams. It could be a One-Two matchup even. At the worst, if the Ducks and Cardinal face each other without a blemish on either slate, it will be the biggest Pac-12 game in years (last year's game also matched unbeaten teams but was much earlier -- Oct. 2 -- in the season). If Stanford prevailed, it also could crow about beating the team that beat LSU and likely would play for the national title if it finished 12-0.

If Oregon loses to LSU, the Ducks could still have a great season. They could rally and perhaps get back into the national title hunt. And there's always the Rose Bowl, hardly a terrible destination. One nonconference game can't completely make or break a season.

But an Oregon victory would give the program a level of early-season gravitas it has never had. It would silence any remaining doubters, both of the Ducks and the Pac-12.

So, yes, you have heard correctly: This game is very, very big.
The coaches poll is out, and it makes clear the stakes will be huge when Oregon faces LSU in Cowboys Stadium on Sept. 3.

The Ducks, who lost the national title game to Auburn last January, are ranked No. 3. And LSU is No. 4.

Don't be surprised if the winner of that game leaps over No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 2 Alabama for the top spot in the poll.

Stanford also received plenty of respect from the coaches, ranking sixth, but no other Pac-12 team was in the top 25.

Arizona State just missed as the No. 1 team among the "others receiving votes," which translates to No. 26. The Sun Devils play No. 21 Missouri on Sept. 9, so they will have an early shot to move up.

Utah is 28th and Arizona is 32nd. Oregon State and Washington also received votes.

USC isn't eligible to receive votes in the coaches poll due to NCAA sanctions. The Trojans could be ranked in the AP poll.

Six of the 59 coaches casting votes are from the Pac-12: Colorado's Jon Embree, Oregon State's Mike Riley, Stanford's David Shaw, California's Jeff Tedford, Utah's Kyle Whittingham and Washington State's Paul Wulff.
Every season, certain games get circled in red pen. And because Pac-12 teams aren't fraidy-cats like many teams in other AQ conferences, some of those are nonconference games.

Such as Oregon facing LSU in Cowboys Stadium. That could be the national game of the year, pitting two teams expected to be ranked in the preseason top-five in the season opener.

Hard to beat that.

Of course, you might just get two more top-five teams starting nose-to-nose when the Ducks visit Stanford on Nov. 12. Oregon handed the Cardinal its only loss last year, and the Cardinal will be thinking about revenge. Oh, and the game will feature Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck and Oregon running back LaMichael James, so it might decide the Heisman Trophy, too.

Stanford plays two other potential marquee games. For one, it's developed a bit of a rivalry with USC. In 2009, coach Jim Harbaugh ran up the score on the Trojans in the Coliseum. Last season, the Cardinal broke the Trojans hearts with a last second field goal for a second consecutive victory. Might USC spoil a special Stanford season?

Stanford's final game also is of note: a visit from Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish are always a draw, even when they are down. But coach Brian Kelly is expected to have them back up. And who knows what the stakes might be for the Cardinal?

Finally, the potential top two teams in the conference's south division meet on Sept. 24 when USC visits Arizona State. That's a measuring stick game for both programs. Are the Sun Devils for real? Is USC back? One or the other team figures to be ranked afterward.

What's your take?
Oregon coach Chip Kelly isn't thinking about LSU, the Ducks' marquee season opener in Cowboys Stadium. Nor is he fretting the recent headlines that connect his program to recruiting services and so-called "street agents" that are raising some NCAA eyebrows.

You know what his focus is on this spring? Guess. Correct. Kelly's focus is on "winning the day."

"I know I sound like a broken record," he said.

LSU is "not even on the radar." And potential distractions due to L'Affair de Willie Lyles?

"I've never brought it up once," Kelly said. "Our kids aren't distracted by anything you guys write."

There are personnel issues that Kelly is paying attention to, and these are much like the questions fans have.

[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
Kirby Lee/US PresswireChip Kelly is looking for leaders to emerge this spring.
"The lines. Leadership. We lost a lot of good leaders," he said. "Who's going to step up?"

The Ducks lost three of five starters on the offensive line and three of four on the D-line. There are also two linebackers, two receivers and a cornerback to replace.

Still, none of these voids seems terribly worrisome. There appear to be capable -- and in nearly every case experienced -- players ready to step into starting roles.

Tackle Mark Asper and guard Carson York are returning starters on the line, while Darrion Weems has plenty of starting experience. "After that, it's up in the air. We'll be unproven there in at least two spots," Kelly said.

On the defensive line, end Terrell Turner is the lone returning starter, but he'll also be the team's only starter out all spring with a leg injury. The Ducks, however, consistently played nine guys last year and six are back. Two new faces to watch are Isaac Remington, a JC transfer in 2010 who redshirted, and Jared Ebert, a JC transfer from 2011, who will participate in spring practices.

"We're confident with six of the guys we have coming back, now we've just got to find out who those other three guys are going to be," Kelly said.

While Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger are gone at linebacker, Josh Kaddu is back, as are Michael Clay, Boseko Lokombo and Dewitt Stuckey. Also, Kiko Alonso, who sat out last year with a knee injury, will almost certainly be in the mix.

Josh Huff and Lavasier Tuinei are two experienced returning receivers. Kelly said it was "up in the air" after that, but pointed to a strong recruiting haul that included four freshmen receivers.

The Ducks lost cornerback Talmadge Jackson, but senior Anthony Gildon, who owns nine career starts, is back, and there are plenty of intriguing youngsters who could challenge him for the starting spot. Kelly said he wants four corners who can play.

And Kelly emphasized returning starters won't get a free pass -- even stars will be pushed to get better. With quarterback Darron Thomas, it will be working on fundamentals -- his footwork, throwing motion, getting set quicker, etc. And running back LaMichael James needs to become more of a weapon in the passing game.

"No one has ever arrived," Kelly said.

As for leadership, Thomas and James are two leading candidates, but the Ducks had 16 captains last year. Kelly believes in leadership by committee, and he's not going to make stump speeches for guys to step up.

"That will happen by how it shakes itself out. You can't force that," he said. "Leadership should be shared. You've got 22 starters. It's the ultimate team sport. Sometimes it's tough to put that on the shoulders of one guy."
The blue turf is always a story. It's, er, different. But how much would anyone care if Boise State hadn't won 56 consecutive regular-season games on it? "College GameDay" wouldn't be setting up shop in front of Bronco Stadium on Saturday unless the team that plays on so-called Smurf Turf was really, really good. As in "No. 3 in the nation and might play for the national title" good.

A home-field advantage? Absolutely. Bronco Stadium ain't big -- capacity is officially 33,500 -- but it's darn loud. Still, Boise State beat Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl on green turf, and it beat TCU in the Fiesta Bowl in January on green turf, and the Broncos got the same positive result a few weeks back against Virginia Tech on green turf. Those last two victories were part of a 16-game winning streak, nine of which came on boring, ol' green grass.

The turf is blue, but the team is what leaves nearly every opponent green with envy. Or is it seeing red?

[+] EnlargeOregon State practice field
AP Photo/Corvallis Gazette-Times/Scobel WigginsThe Beavers practiced on a blue field to prepare for playing at Bronco Stadium.
"They're darn good," said Oregon State coach Mike Riley, whose 24th-ranked squad will try to end the Broncos' home winning streak on Saturday. "They've got good players and they are extremely well coached. That's the biggest factor."

Nonetheless, Oregon State this week went to great lengths to give its players a feel for seeing blue underfoot. The school painted a practice field "reflex" blue and then dressed its scout team in the same color.

Riley said the decision was based as much on "fun" as strategy. And the Beavers' players don't seem to be too taken by the notion of a blue-turf mystique.

"The turf is blue and their jerseys are blue, but there’s 11 guys over there," linebacker Dwight Roberson said. "I don’t feel like the blue turf has to do with anything. It’s a field; you play football on it. For me, it’s nothing different than playing any other football game.”

More than a few coaches whose teams have struggled inside Bronco Stadium, however, have observed that the blue-on-blue effect does provide a competitive advantage, a notion Riley shares. His team was a victim during the winning streak, falling 42-14 in 2006 after jumping to an early 14-0 lead.

"I think it is an advantage for sure," he said. "Even watching them on film, it's hard to get numbers. It all blends together."

Boise State, a veteran group that welcomed back 22 of 24 starters from last year's unbeaten team, plays with such precision opponents can't afford to lose track of players morphing into the playing surface. So there's method to the madness of a blue practice field.

But the bigger issue is slowing down junior quarterback Kellen Moore, whose extraordinary efficiency has transformed him from lightly regarded recruit ignored by the Pac-10 into a leading Heisman Trophy candidate. His offensive line has yielded just one sack, and the Beavers' pass rush has been limp in the early going, recording just two sacks in two games.

Moore has shown little inclination to get rattled by pressure. The three-year starter has thrown just 14 interceptions in three seasons, 10 of which came as a freshman.

"This guy is the best at extending the play a little bit by moving in the pocket," Riley said. "He doesn't get sacked. It's beautiful quarterbacking."

Said cornerback James Dockery, "He just seems to make all the right decisions. He knows how to manage the game and win. He's a winner."

[+] EnlargeRyan Katz
Tim Heitman/US PresswireOSU quarterback Ryan Katz will be making his first true road start against the Broncos.
The Beavers will counter with sophomore Ryan Katz, who will be making his first "true" road start, considering the TCU game in Cowboys Stadium was considered a neutral field -- and, to be honest, was half-full and not terribly loud.

Katz has mostly avoided major mistakes (see four touchdown passes, no interceptions) but he's completing under 50 percent of his throws and is averaging just 151 yards passing per game. Yet Broncos coach Chris Petersen, who's 26-0 at home since taking over for Dan Hawkins in 2006, said he's been impressed with Katz on film.

"He's got some tremendous physical tools," he said. "He's going to be really, really good."

Katz's main assignment: Get the ball to the Rodgers brothers, running back Jacquizz and receiver James, and hope they find space in which to maneuver.

Boise State's defense held Virginia Tech to just 314 yards in its 33-30 victory. Meanwhile, its offense is averaging 516 per game, though much of that came in Game 2 against hapless Wyoming.

The Broncos are proficient and experienced on both sides of the ball. While some might dismiss them as a well-coached "system" team that thrives in a weak conference, Riley said he sees plenty of talent on game tape.

"Maybe they weren't five-star guys going in, but they're five-star guys going out," Riley said of Boise State's recruiting and development.

A college football nation will be divided on this one. Haters of the BCS system and fans of non-automatic qualifying programs -- though probably not TCU or Utah -- will be rooting hard for the Broncos. Fans from AQ conferences who want one fewer obstacle to the national title game or even a BCS bowl game will be rooting hard for the Beavers.

The Beavers absorbed the blue all week. To a man, they seem to think that the least of their worries is the color of the turf.

Said safety Lance Mitchell: "I think that’s more for 'GameDay' and the fans. We will practice on it, so if it helps us get prepared for it, that’s all good.”

What to watch in the Pac-10: Week 4

September, 23, 2010
Ten issues to consider heading into the fourth week of games.

1. Is Oregon's offense that good? Oregon ranks No. 1 in the nation in total offense and scoring offense. It ranks No. 2 in rushing offense. But the Ducks haven't played anyone with a defense as fast and as talented at Arizona State. Quarterback Darron Thomas withstood the atmosphere of Tennessee, but how will he do against a defense that can run with the Ducks?

2. Can Oregon State disrupt Kellen Moore's rhythm? Over the past 15 games, Oregon State has struggled to pressure the passer. Boise State does a great job protecting QB Kellen Moore, and Moore does a great job of getting rid of the ball quickly. Moore, a savvy quarterback who is very accurate, will pick the Beavers apart if he's not worried about getting hit. Gabe Miller? Stephen Paea? Blitzing LBs? Time to show your stuff.

[+] EnlargeDarron Thomas
AP Photo/Wade PayneOregon quarterback Darron Thomas proved himself on the road at Tennessee. Can he have continued road success in conference?
3. Let down for Arizona? The party was HUGE in Tucson after the Wildcats beat No. 9 Iowa. But, as Mike Stoops observed, it doesn't mean much if they drop their Pac-10 opener. Perennial powers learn how to manage their emotions and play with the same focus and intensity every week. The Wildcats want to become a perennial power. Well, that means playing as well against Cal as they did vs. Iowa.

4. Texas run D vs. UCLA run O: Here's the surprising prediction of the week: UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince and the Bruins passing attack will awaken at Texas. The Bruins receivers are good, and Prince has thrown well before. The problem in the first three games was a lack of practice continuity because Prince was nursing injuries. But UCLA has to have balance to be successful. Texas boasts the nation's No. 1 run defense, but the Bruins have run well this year. If UCLA creates any run threat, Prince will have a much easier time making plays downfield in the passing game, particularly if the Longhorns put too much stock in game film from games one through three.

5. Luck on the big stage: Sure, Notre Dame is 1-2 and hasn't been a factor nationally for a while. But games at Notre Dame still include a national platform on NBC. And if Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck puts up big numbers against a struggling Fighting Irish defense, he'll start to create serious Heisman Trophy talk. And Stanford will formally announce its national relevance.

6. Cougs O-line vs. USC D-line: The Washington State offensive line has struggled, giving up 10 sacks in the first three games and failing to consistently open holes. USC"s front-seven is talented, particularly the defensive line, though the numbers haven't always supported that. If Cougars quarterback Jeff Tuel gets time, he can make plays. If USC is all over him, this will be another blowout defeat in Pullman.

7. No retreat for Threet: Arizona State quarterback Steven Threet's performance through the first three games, particularly his strong effort at Wisconsin, showed he's a Pac-10 quality quarterback, and the Sun Devils might be a factor in the conference. But he hasn't seen a defense with as much speed as Oregon. Ever. He's going to be chased at a faster rate, and the DBs are going to close on his throws at a faster rate. Can Threet and the ASU offense play fast enough to keep up and make plays?

8. Rodgers brothers get another shot on the big stage: Jacquizz and James Rodgers have put up decent numbers so far. And neither played poorly vs. TCU in the marquee opener at Cowboys Stadium. Still, these two All-Americans have a special opportunity on a national stage to make statements for themselves and the Beavers. If Jacquizz Rodgers can help the Beavers control the ball in the running game, and James Rodgers can make big plays in the passing game, there could be an upset on the blue turf.

9. Riley needs to play like a senior: Senior quarterbacks know how to play on the road. Senior quarterbacks know how to bounce back from adversity. Senior quarterbacks know how to lead a team that is down on itself. If Cal is going to notch the upset at Arizona, the likelihood is that Kevin Riley will set the tone early and turn in a strong performance.

10. Stanford's passing defense faces test: The big question for Stanford entering the season was pass defense. The early returns are outstanding: The Cardinal ranks No. 1 in the nation in pass defense. Notre Dame, however, is a far different animal than UCLA and Wake Forest. It is averaging 318 yards passing per game. Does Stanford really have an elite defense? We shall see.