NCF Nation: Dennis Erickson

On Thursday, we looked at the Pac-12 North Division. Today, we turn to the South:

ARIZONA

Spring start: March 3
Spring game: April 20

What to watch:
  • QB competition: Coach Rich Rodriguez has used first-year starters in his first two seasons at Arizona and will make it three-for-three in 2014. For the most part, things worked with both Matt Scott and more recently B.J. Denker, which should make Wildcats fans optimistic about what should be a wide-open competition.
  • Replacing Carey: As intriguing as the quarterback competition will be, the battle to replace all-time great Ka'Deem Carey at running back could be more important. None of the returning running backs had a carry last year, which led to this comment from Rodriguez: "Now it’s a mystery. That’s going to be one of the positions, like quarterback, that will be kind of open to see if we can get guys to get better."
  • Keep Austin healthy: After tearing his ACL last spring following a breakout season in which he caught 81 passes for 1,364 yards and 11 touchdowns, receiver Austin Hill has been given a clean bill of health. Said Rodriguez: "He is still wearing the knee brace but I think it is a little bit more precautionary. He is 100 percent doing everything. He’s even a bit bigger and stronger so he should have a big spring. I know he’s hungry to get out there, too."
ARIZONA STATE

Spring start: March 18
Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • OL changes: Auburn transfer Christian Westerman, a prototypical guard, could be the Sun Devils' best offensive lineman, which makes things interesting considering both starting guards -- Jamil Douglas and Vi Teofilo -- will be back next year. Douglas, a second-team All-Pac-12 selection, has worked at tackle in the past and could shift outside to replace first-team All-Pac-12 left tackle Evan Finkenberg.
  • Getting defensive: Coach Todd Graham's college roommate, Keith Patterson, has arrived as the defensive coordinator, but Graham will remain the play-caller and Chris Ball's title will still read co-defensive coordinator. Got all that? New coaching dynamics get sorted out in the spring, too.
  • Looking for replacements: On defense, ASU needs to replace seven starters, highlighted by DT Will Sutton, LB Carl Bradford and CBs Robert Nelson and Alden Darby. If ASU is to build off its impressive 2013 season, those holes need to be filled quickly. They'll benefit from a schedule that starts with Weber State, New Mexico, Colorado and a bye, but after that the Sun Devils have UCLA, USC and Stanford in a span of four weeks.
COLORADO

Spring start: March 3
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • QB development: Sefo Liufau's development will be interesting if for nothing else than because the jump from Year 1 starter to Year 2 starter is always intriguing with quarterbacks. It's tempting to assume a big statistical jump is coming, but it's not always that simple (see: Hogan, Kevin; Mannion, Sean; Hundley, Brett). Liufau will need to get on the same page with his receivers as they combine to …
  • … Replace Paul Richardson: Look for Nelson Spruce, D.D Goodson and Tyler McCulloch to lead what will be a much more balanced receiving corps following Richardson's early departure for the NFL. Spruce was the Buffs' second-leading receiver last year, but Goodson, going into his second season at receiver, figures to make the biggest jump.
  • Rising expectations: It took MacIntyre three years to turn San Jose State into a winner, but there was a four-win improvement in the second year. He won't match that with the Buffs, but a two-win improvement gets Colorado bowl eligible. Colorado has a chance to match last year's win total (4) in the first five games next year: vs. Colorado State, at Massachusetts, Arizona State, Hawaii, at Cal. In fact, it's probably the internal expectation.
UCLA

Spring start: April 1
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Manage expectations: The Bruins are in new territory this offseason with expectations through the roof. They'll likely be a preseason top-10 team, which will drum up chatter about a potential national championship run. Likely message from coach Jim Mora: "Tune out the noise."
  • The #Hundley4Heisman campaign: It's a real thing and Mora threw his weight behind it when he tweeted the hashtag on Jan. 26 with a picture of the Heisman Trophy. Get used to reading "Heisman candidate" next to "Brett Hundley" a lot between now and September. At times, it might feel unavoidable.
  • Leading rusher? They're set at quarterback and bring a lot of talent back at both receiver and on the offensive line, but the running back situation isn't as clear. Hundley was the team's leading rusher in 2013, but someone needs to step up to take pressure off him and LB/RB Myles Jack. It's an important spring for both Jordan James and Paul Perkins, who had varying degrees of success last year.
USC

Spring start: March 11
Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Under center? Cody Kessler is back, but coach Steve Sarkisian immediately made it known there would be an open competition for the quarterback job. Max Wittek is no longer around, but Kessler should get a serious challenge from redshirt freshman Max Browne. With a new offense to learn, spring will essentially serve as preparation period for the real competition during fall camp.
  • Catch your breath: The most noticeable change in USC during the first game will be how much faster it's playing offensively. Sarkisian installed a high-tempo offense at Washington last year and, pleased with the results, will continue to press the tempo with the Trojans. Goodbye, huddles.
  • Change it up: As is the case when new coaching staffs arrive, there will likely be a higher percentage of position changes than usual and a more fluid depth chart. It's hard to peg exactly where that'll occur with USC, but it'll be worth monitoring throughout the spring.
UTAH

Spring start: March 18
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Wilson's road back: Travis Wilson is expected to be the Utes' starting quarterback next season, but he'll be limited to non-contact drills during the spring. That's about the best news Wilson could have received following an early November discovery that he had an undiagnosed injury to an intracranial artery -- a condition that threatened his career. Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson will not join the team until after he graduates in May, but he'll be immediately eligible to play.
  • Revolving OC door: Dave Christensen moves in, Dennis Erickson moves over and Brian Johnson moves out. Kyle Whittingham introduced the Utes' seventh offensive coordinator is seven years in early January. Christensen believes in similar philosophies to what the Utes had under Erickson/Johnson, but the terminology will change and the tempo will increase.
  • Pressure building? Utah was used to winning big before it got to the Pac-12 in 2011. Whittingham lost just 20 games in his six full seasons as the school's head coach while a member of the Mountain West Conference. In the three years since, Utah's dropped 19 and qualified for just one bowl. No one should doubt Whittingham's ability as a coach -- he's a good one -- but the jump in competition has been difficult.

Johnson's move good for him, Utah

February, 11, 2014
Feb 11
1:00
PM ET
Quickly promoted and then just as quickly twice demoted at Utah, Brian Johnson will once again be viewed as a smart, up-and-coming coach next year at Mississippi State. In fact, he would still be a smart, up-and-coming offensive coordinator at Utah if his quarterback these past two seasons had been Dak Prescott, the dual-threat talent he's inheriting with the Bulldogs.

Heck, reporters would probably be wondering when he'd become the nation's youngest head coach after previously being its youngest offensive coordinator.

[+] EnlargeBrian Johnson
Boyd Ivey/Icon SMIBrian Johnson has an opportunity to redirect the trajectory of his coaching career after leaving Utah for Mississippi State.
Yes, there are good coaches and bad coaches. We get that. Some coaches fail to do their job well. But it's more than a coincidence that those considered good coaches typically have the best players, often because of dumb luck. Maybe Phil Jackson is an NBA coaching genius, a Zen master enlightening players with daily haikus and self-help books, but his best skill was winding up leading teams with Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant and Shaq.

The biggest reason the Utes' offense has mostly floundered the past three seasons as a Pac-12 member has been poor and middling play at quarterback, Johnson's responsibility. The biggest reason for poor to middling play at quarterback, however, is the designated preseason starter at the position couldn't stay healthy. Point a finger at a lack of a capable backup at the position if you want. That's fair, though that falls more on recruiting than coaching.

But do you think Johnson, the winningest quarterback in Utah history, would be in Starkville right now if Jordan Wynn and/or Travis Wilson never missed a snap?

This is not to say Johnson is merely a victim of circumstances. In big-time coaching you are either moving forward or you are failing, and Johnson going from Utah's offensive coordinator in 2012 at age 25, to co-offensive coordinator with Dennis Erickson at age 26, to only QBs coach under new coordinator Dave Christensen at age 27 sure seems like a career tumble. There is no doubt that head coach Kyle Whittingham earnestly wanted Johnson to be successful, both on a personal (he won a Sugar Bowl over Alabama with Johnson as his QB) and professional level.

But Whittingham is feeling a bit of heat in Salt Lake City, whether that is reasonable or not. As members of the Mountain West Conference, his Utes were a Top 25 team, potent on both sides of the ball. In the Pac-12, they have yet to post a winning conference record and their offense has ranked ninth, eighth and eighth in the conference in scoring over the past three seasons.

Whittingham's relentless tinkering with his offensive leadership -- six different play-callers in six years -- might seem impatient, counterproductive or even desperate, but it emerges from his desire to win. His detail-oriented mind sees things he doesn't like -- play calls, overall scheme, practice conduct, leadership style -- and he isn't afraid of making aggressive moves to change things.

What that also does is put the pressure entirely on him. The traffic in and out of the offensive meeting room has been too transient for there to be another scapegoat. Whittingham has been the constant.

Johnson's departure does un-complicate things, if just a bit. Christensen took over an offensive staff featuring three men who'd once sat in and were subsequently removed from his office. Now there's just two: Erickson and receivers coach Aaron Roderick.

There is no question who's in charge of the offense. No co-coordiantor titles to speculate about. Whittingham is all in with Christensen, an offensive line specialist who will call plays. Whittingham hopes Christensen can recreate the magic he had running a potent Missouri offense from 2001 to 2008.

Yet Christensen, even if he's the Garry Kasparov of Xs and Os, won't be successful without a good quarterback. Three years with Chase Daniel starting at Missouri cemented Christensen's reputation. If Travis Wilson's career is indeed over due to preexisting medical condition discovered late in the 2013 season, then the Utes prospects for 2014 are deeply uncertain.

Meanwhile, Johnson reunites with Bulldogs head coach Dan Mullen, who recruited and coached him as Urban Meyer's offensive coordinator. Further, Johnson also will be familiar with Mississippi State's co-offensive coordinators Billy Gonzales and John Hevesy, who also were on Meyer's staff at Utah.

While being an offensive coach in the SEC West isn't the easiest job, particularly in Starkville, Johnson is getting a good opportunity to redirect the trajectory of his coaching career.

Utah moves on with Christensen, one voice speaking for the Utah offense.

And that voice is likely echoing inside his head as you read this, "Quarterback, quarterback, quarterback."

Is Graham awakening sleeping giant  ASU?

December, 3, 2013
12/03/13
7:15
PM ET
Arizona State had a great run under Frank Kush in the 1970s. The Sun Devils went 10-2 under Darryl Rodgers in 1982. They won the Rose Bowl over Michigan after the 1986 season under John Cooper. Bruce Snyder's only loss in the 1996 season was a nail-biting Rose Bowl against Ohio State. Dirk Koetter was 9-3 in 2004. Dennis Erickson opened his ASU tenure with a 10-3 mark in 2007.

But each Arizona State surge was followed by mediocrity and losing seasons. Since Kush was controversially forced out in 1979, the only thing that has been consistent about Sun Devils football has been inconsistency.

[+] EnlargeTodd Graham
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesTodd Graham says players should take charge of leadership on a team.
That has baffled many folks, particularly sportswriters, who have repeatedly called Arizona State a "sleeping giant." In fact, the Pac-12 blog has done this a couple of times over the past five years -- here and here. It's been a national story a number of times. It's been debated. It's been a topic this season.

That's why the Sun Devils’ rise under Todd Graham should be approached cautiously. While there's plenty of evidence suggesting a cultural transformation, unfettered optimism has been a dangerous state of mind for Sun Devil fans.

How about just the facts? Graham took over a team that went 6-7 in 2011 and went 8-5 his first season. In his second, he has the Sun Devils at 10-2, ranked 11th and facing No. 7 Stanford on Saturday for the Pac-12 championship and Rose Bowl berth .

Arizona State had been a notoriously undisciplined program. In 2011, the Sun Devils ranked last in the nation in penalty yards per game. Last year, they ranked eighth in the nation, and this year they rank third.

The discipline has extended off the field. The Sun Devils have been mostly avoiding the police blotter and doing well in the classroom, see nine players earning Pac-12 All-Academic honors, the program's most since 2006.

"We've always lacked consistency," said running back D.J. Foster, a Scottsdale native. "Even before I came here, just watching stuff. I feel like this program finally has constancy with Coach Graham. His work ethic is rubbing off on the players."

Graham said that even before he took the Arizona State job he had talked to other coaches about the football program's potential, most notably Cooper, who bolted Tempe for Ohio State after going 7-4-1 in 1987. Cooper is the last Sun Devils coach whose tenure didn't end with a pink slip. Graham, who has notoriously called multiple places his "dream job," wasn't worried about the dreaded "sleeping giant" label, which typically became a subject for off-the-record derision among former Sun Devils coaches.

"I think it just points to the potential," Graham said. "This is a great place."

There was an outside perception that the team Graham took over didn't lack athletic ability but that it might be thin on character. Fair or unfair, the Sun Devils have long been dogged by a reputation as a self-centered team that lacked mental toughness. But what Graham says he found was a locker room eager to embrace change.

"I think they were somewhat tired of some of the discipline things," Graham said. "I believe young people will meet whatever standard you set."

Want buy-in? Two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton on Monday was finishing up a 15-page paper on leadership. Guess who it was about: Graham.

"It's about leadership and change in the community, and what better person to do than Coach Graham?" Sutton explained.

For Graham, however, the message that he advanced this season compared to last is players taking charge of leadership instead of the coaches. That's part of a team and a program maturing.

"Our players are leading the team," he said.

The improvement this fall has been impressive. The Sun Devils are 10-2 against one of the nation's toughest schedules and they are riding a Pac-12-best seven-game winning streak. While Stanford is the defending conference champion, it's the Sun Devils who are favored.

"This has been the best situation I've ever been in in coaching," Graham said. "We've really gelled really quickly. We had a great plan and we really fit the place. I think the players were really hungry for what we've brought."

If the Sun Devils keep winning, it certainly will bolster efforts to renovate Sun Devil Stadium, a project that is critical to the program remaining competitive. And retaining Graham.

While the previously nomadic Graham seems to -- finally -- be content, leading Arizona State to a Rose Bowl will refocus the nation on his program building skills, not his controversial departures from previous schools. Keeping him and his coaching staff happy will be an important test for the athletic department, which already is replacing athletic director Steve Patterson, who left for Texas this fall.

Further, everyone knows nothing big has been accomplished yet. This is about establishing a consistent winner, not just breaking through every five or 10 years for a magical run. It's no good if the sleeping giant just got up to grab a glass of warm milk before again retiring.

"I feel the sleeping giant is awoken but we've still got a lot more work to do and a lot more big games to win to be established as a dominant program," Foster said.

Mora, Graham build on early success

November, 21, 2013
11/21/13
12:00
PM ET
Pac-12 SouthESPN Stats & InformationArizona State and UCLA's meeting will likely determine the Pac-12 South title.

Consider the UCLA Bruins on Jan. 1, 2012. One day earlier, they had lost to Illinois, 20-14, in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. Before that, they had been blown out by Oregon in the inaugural Pac-12 championship game 49-31. That was on the heels of a 50-0 shellacking by USC. Rick Neuheisel was relieved of his job, and there was already blowback for bringing in a career NFL coach. The scuttlebutt was that Jim Mora probably couldn’t recruit a surfer to the beach.

Consider Arizona State on Jan. 1, 2012. Losers of five straight, including a 56-24 loss to Boise State in the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas. They lost the Territorial Cup. They lost to Washington State. They lost to UCLA. Dennis Erickson had been relieved of his job and there was already blowback for bringing in a perceived job-hopper from Pittsburgh. The scuttlebutt was that Todd Graham would probably use this as the next stepping stone.

[+] EnlargeJim Mora
Harry How/Getty ImagesJim Mora has UCLA fans and recruits excited about Bruins football.
Consider the Bruins and Sun Devils today. Both are in the top 20 of the BCS standings -- UCLA at No. 14 and ASU at No. 17 -- and are preparing to square off in Pasadena, Calif., Saturday in a game that could decide the Pac-12 South champion.

In two years, Jim Mora and Todd Graham have won over their respective fanbases, altered the way the rest of the country thinks about their programs and elevated them to top 20 status.

“It’s talented guys that are really serious about being a good football team,” Mora said. “It sounds really simple, but I think it is really simple. You get good players and they work hard, and they trust in what you’re telling them, and they try to do the best they can every day, and I think you have a chance to be a good football team. It’s not really as complicated as you might think. It’s an attitude.”

The hiring of Mike Leach at Washington State was considered a coup for the Cougars. The hiring of Rich Rodriguez at Arizona was a windfall for the Wildcats. Both still might be -- with the Wildcats bowl eligible for the second straight year and the Cougars on the verge of a postseason berth for the first time since 2003. But today, it’s the Bruins and Sun Devils who are the frontrunners in their division.

“Obviously, we’re both having some success,” Mora said. “We’ve put ourselves in position to play each other in a very important game. Both Coach Graham and I are in our second years in our program and I think it’s showing up in the way they play. They are physical and disciplined and tough and they play fast. They really look like they know what they are doing. They have a veteran group. They are a much older team than us and they play like it. They are impressive.”

The divisional scenarios for both teams are pretty clear. If the Sun Devils win Saturday, they will represent the South Division in the Pac-12 title game. If UCLA wins, the Bruins still would need to win next week at USC to claim their third straight division title. Graham reminds his players of the goal daily.

“We talk about it all the time,” Graham said. “It’s something we’ve been talking about all year long and since we walked in the door we’ve been talking about winning championships. Ain’t a day gone by this season we haven’t talked about Pac-12 South championship, Pac-12 championship and a Rose Bowl championship.”

Last year’s showdown in Tempe, Ariz., served as a critical moment for both teams. Not only did it propel the Bruins into first place in the South Division, which they went on to win, it was a coming-of-age moment for both team’s quarterbacks. Taylor Kelly drove the Sun Devils 56 yards and threw a 7-yard touchdown pass with 1:33 left to give ASU a 43-42 lead. Brett Hundley returned the favor by moving his team 60 yards in the final 93 seconds to set up Ka'imi Fairbairn's 33-yard field goal as time expired.

[+] EnlargeTodd Graham
Matt Kartozian/USA TODAY SportsTodd Graham and the Sun Devils can clinch the Pac-12 South title with a win over UCLA on Saturday.
Since that game, Hundley and Kelly have gone on to be two of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the conference -- maybe the country. Hundley has thrown 35 touchdowns to 12 interceptions with 11 rushing touchdowns. Kelly has thrown 38 scores to 15 picks with eight rushing touchdowns. They’ve thrown for almost identical yards (4,213 for Hundley, 4,184 for Kelly) and Hundley has completed 67.3 percent of his throws to Kelly’s 63.9 percent.

Graham said it’s what Hundley is capable of doing when plays break down that keeps him up at nights. Per ESPN Stats and Information, since the start of last season, Hundley has 687 scramble yards -- second most of any AQ quarterback behind Johnny Manziel.

“I don’t think there is another guy in the league who can extend plays the way he does,” Graham said. “The key is to make sure we don’t give up big plays. We have to minimize his impact.”

Likewise, UCLA’s touted linebacking corps has to find a way keep ASU’s Marion Grice out of the end zone. Grice has scored 20 times this season -- 10 of which have come on the ground running outside the tackles, which is tied with Washington’s Bishop Sankey and Boston College’s Andre Williams for the most among AQ running backs.

Also key will be ASU’s veteran front seven against a UCLA offensive line that is starting three true freshmen. Since the start of last season, ASU has more sacks (40) than any other AQ team when it sends five or more pass rushers. It also forces offenses to go three-and-out 47.2 percent of the time, tops in FBS.

“It’s a huge test,” Mora said. “This is a very, very, very good defensive front. I think we all recognize what a talent Will Sutton is. But the other players along that line and really their whole defense, I think they start eight seniors, they are a veteran group, they know how to play. They play hard. They have a good scheme. Their head coach is a defensive-minded guy. It’s going to be a heck of a test for us. This is certainly an enormous challenge.”

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 11

November, 7, 2013
11/07/13
10:15
AM ET
A few storylines to keep an eye on this week in the Pac-12:

  1. The big one: No. 5 Stanford will host No. 3 Oregon on Thursday night in a game that is sure to send shock waves throughout the Pac-12 and BCS Standings. A win for the Ducks likely re-catapults them back over Florida State and into the No. 2 spot of the BCS rankings -- the outcome of Alabama-LSU pending. A victory for the Cardinal keeps their national championship hopes alive, but they’d still need some help along the way to pass Ohio State and Florida State. This is just the second time that two Pac-12 teams have met while ranked in the top five of the BCS standings. The last time was No. 4 Arizona State and No. 5 Oregon in 2007.
  2. [+] EnlargeByron Marshall
    Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsByron Marshall leads the Oregon rushing attack at Stanford on Thursday night.
    Edges matter: Per the brilliant number crunchers at ESPN Stats & Info, the Cardinal will have to contain the Ducks when they try to run outside. Oregon averages 8.7 yards per rush outside the tackles, second among all AQ teams behind Wisconsin. Last season, Stanford forced Oregon to run 63 percent of the time between the tackles. And when the Ducks did get outside, the Cardinal were able to contain them to the tune of just 29 yards, 1.9 yards per rush and 1.3 yards before contact. In Oregon’s other games last season, they averaged 108.1 yards per game outside the tackles.
  3. The other side of the ball: We know about Oregon’s offense. We know about Stanford’s defense. How about when roles are reversed? The Cardinal offense hasn’t been all that productive of late, averaging just 21.6 points over its past three games. Oregon’s defense yields just 16.9 points per game -- seventh-best in the country. Turnovers will obviously be a premium for both defenses. Stanford has a zero turnover margin with 11 takeaways and 11 giveaways. Oregon, however, is plus-13 with 23 turnovers gained to 10 turnovers lost.
  4. Quotable: Always good for a one-liner, Stanford coach David Shaw was asked earlier in the week about De’Anthony Thomas’ comments that he expects the Ducks to score at least 40 points. “I don’t have an issue with that,” Shaw said. “He’s a confident young man, and they put it on film. They’ve done it. So I have no problem with that if that’s his mentality. I’m just glad he only said 40.” Seeing as Shaw has a penchant for the us-against-the-world approach for his team, here’s betting he had a different message for his defense behind closed doors.
  5. South showdown (1): UCLA heads to Tucson, where it hasn’t won since 2003 -- the first year of the Karl Dorrell era. Both teams have already achieved bowl eligibility. Both teams sit at 3-2 in conference play. Now it becomes a question of pecking order. Ka’Deem Carey has rushed for at least 100 yards in 11 straight games, which is tops in the FBS. The Bruins snapped their two-game losing streak with a win over Colorado last week. Brett Hundley posted the third game of his career with two rushing and two passing touchdowns and he accounted for 345 yards of total offense. Keep an eye on how things play out in the first 30 minutes, because the Bruins are 13-0 under coach Jim Mora when they lead at the half.
  6. South showdown (2): The Sun Devils look to strengthen their foothold on the South with a trip to Utah -- a team they blasted in Tempe last season. In fact, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said he has “horrible memories” of last season's loss and called it one of Utah’s poorest performances since joining the Pac-12. The obvious sidebar here is it’s the first time Utah offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson is facing the team he used to coach. But Whittingham said Erickson is a pretty even-keeled guy and he doesn’t expect sentiment or emotions to play a role. Whittingham also said that quarterback Travis Wilson is healed from his hand injury and won’t wear a glove. Across the field, ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly is coming off of a seven-touchdown game on the road at Washington State.
  7. Trojans rolling: Since making the coaching switch from Lane Kiffin to interim coach Ed Orgeron, the Trojans have gone 3-1, including a convincing 31-14 win last week on the road at Oregon State. For the second time this season USC had a pair of running backs post 100-yard games with senior Silas Redd rushing for 140 yards and Buck Allen collecting 133 yards (8.3 yards per catch) and 3 TDs. Allen was USC’s fourth different back to rush for 100 yards this season. Marqise Lee is also coming off an outstanding performance, grabbing five passes for a season-high 105 yards and one touchdown in the win over the Beavers. Cal is still looking for a conference win, but should have some more confidence after an improved showing last week against Arizona.
  8. Bowl eligible: So far there are six teams already bowl eligible (Oregon, Stanford, Oregon State, Arizona State, Arizona and UCLA) with two more on the verge of becoming eligible this week. USC, because of the 13-game regular season schedule sits at 6-3 overall and needs to pick up a win at California to get a spot in the postseason. Washington is at 5-3 with a visit from Colorado. Both teams are favorites, which would give the league eight teams headed to the postseason with the legitimate potential for two more (Utah and Washington State). Both have four wins and Colorado still has an outside shot. Cal is the only Pac-12 team eliminated from bowl eligibility.
  9. Star power: Two of the nation’s elite offensive playmakers square off in Seattle when Colorado visits Washington. Buffs wide receiver Paul Richardson has 57 catches for 984 yards with eight touchdowns and continues to close in on several of Colorado’s single-season receiving marks. Washington counters with running back Bishop Sankey, who enters the week as the nation’s No. 3 rusher, averaging 145.3 yards per game. He’s coming off a career-best 241-yard performance against Cal and ranks fourth nationally with 12 rushing touchdowns.
  10. Taking a breather: There are two teams on bye this week with Oregon State looking to refocus after dropping back-to-back games against Stanford and USC and Washington State taking its second bye week in the past three. The Beavers, who are already bowl eligible, close the season with two of their final three on the road; at ASU, home to Washington and at Oregon for the Civil War. With four wins, the Cougars need to win two more to teach the postseason. They are also on the road for two of their past three with dates at Arizona next week and home to Utah before closing out the Apple Cup in Seattle.

Arizona State is surging in South

November, 6, 2013
11/06/13
1:00
PM ET
Arizona State has won three games in a row in dominating fashion. Average score? 54-19, with the an average of 558 total yards of offense, including 267.3 yards rushing. Each foe’s offense was held below its season's scoring average by at least eight points.

Blowing away Colorado won't win any awards and winning at Washington State isn't terribly glamorous, but the Sun Devils’ 53-24 pounding of then-No. 20 Washington is difficult to dismiss.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Kelly
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezSince losing at Notre Dame, Arizona State has won three straight and Taylor Kelly has thrown 10 touchdown passes.
"This team is starting to do some things to resemble a team that can compete for a championship," ASU coach Todd Graham said.

Pollsters have also noticed. Arizona State is 22nd in the BCS standings and 23rd in the AP poll.

The Sun Devils seem close to breaking through in Year 2 under Graham as they prepare for a visit to Utah. They control their own destiny in the South Division and own probably the most forgiving schedule among their top competition -- UCLA, USC and Arizona. The Nov. 23 visit to UCLA, in fact, looms large as potentially the deciding game in the division, just as it did in the preseason.

But that sort of forward-looking talk is the kind that shouldn't seep into a locker room. Looking ahead is akin to inviting disappointment into the room in college football.

And, yes, Graham has noticed that too, which is why he's most happy with his team's maturity.

"All we can do is control what is in front of us," he said. "This team has been very diligent about staying focused on the job at hand and getting better every week. We control our own destiny. All we've got to do is go out and figure out a way to beat Utah and then go on to the next one."

There are, however, plenty of potential distractions this week for the Sun Devils. For one, it was announced Tuesday that athletics director Steve Patterson is leaving for the same job at Texas, which inspired some rumblings that Graham might become a candidate for the Longhorns job if Mack Brown were to retire or get fired. That won't completely go away, despite all the Nick Saban talk, or because Arizona State made it a precondition for Patterson being granted permission to interview with Texas that he agreed to not hire anyone from Arizona State.

Further, Utah's offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson was Arizona State's coach from 2007-2011, though Erickson told reporters this week that the game has no special meaning for him.

"Dennis is a pretty even keel guy," Utes coach Whittingham said. "He keeps his emotions in check. I haven't noticed any difference in his demeanor this week compared to any other."

Another issue for the Sun Devils might be overconfidence. The Utes have lost three of four, including their last two, a pair of South Division road games at Arizona and USC. Erickson's once thriving offense has taken a nose dive, in large part because his quarterback, Travis Wilson, has been battling injuries to his throwing hand. Wilson has completed just 8 of 23 passes for 66 yards with four interceptions in the last two games, and he was replaced in both by backup Adam Schulz.

And, of course, the Sun Devils brutalized the Utes 37-7 last year in Tempe.

"That was one of our poorest performances in the Pac-12 since we joined the conference," Whittingham said.

Still, the Sun Devils should be wary. The Utes are coming off a bye week, and Whittingham said Wilson is healthy and won't need the protective glove that seemed to hinder his performance at USC. Rice-Eccles Stadium is not an easy place to play, just ask Stanford, which lost there three weeks after whipping Arizona State. And the stakes are high, as a loss would remove the Sun Devils one-game lead in the division race.

Graham, however, thinks he has an ace-in-the-hole there, too: Leadership, which starts with quarterback Taylor Kelly, who is making a push for second-team All-Pac-12 QB behind Oregon's Marcus Mariota.

"I think he is the leader of our team," Graham said. "Taylor is one of the most respected people in this building just because of how he works."

Graham calls Kelly, "A tremendous giver of respect." He also is one of the nation's top dual-threat QBs, presently ranking eighth in the nation and second in the Pac-12 in total QBR.

"He's getting close to having a mastery of what we are doing," Graham said. "He's almost like having an offensive coordinator on the field. He understands the strengths and weaknesses of what we are doing."

Arizona State has been showing more strength than weakness of late. It will test the Sun Devils, however, to bring those strengths in full force to a second-consecutive road game against a rested team coming off a bye.

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 8

October, 17, 2013
10/17/13
10:15
AM ET
A few storylines to keep an eye on this week in the Pac-12:

1. Title game rematch: UCLA and Stanford will face each other for the third time in the last 10 months. Only this time it’s the Bruins who are the higher-ranked team, coming in at No. 9 after Stanford slid to No. 13 following its loss at Utah. Remember all of those side-to-side swing passes that Dennis Erickson and Utah used to keep Stanford off balance? Remember who worked for Erickson at ASU? Yep, Noel Mazzone. And UCLA loves to hit its receivers in the flat. Keep an eye on what happens after the second-half kickoff, as well. The Bruins are outscoring opponents 71-0 in the third quarter this year. Stanford has a 12-game home winning streak -- third longest in the nation -- and is 10-1 at home against ranked opponents since 2009. Stanford hasn’t lost consecutive games since the middle of the 2009 season.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesMarcus Mariota and the Ducks are expected to be one of the top two teams when the BCS standings are released on Sunday.
2. BCS time: The first Harris Poll of the season was released Sunday and featured four Pac-12 teams in the top 25: Oregon (2), UCLA (9), Stanford (12) and Washington (25). The first BCS standings will be released this week -- which comes on the heels of the announced selection committee for the College Football Playoff that starts next year. We’re all expecting Oregon to be in one of the top two spots. Question is, where will UCLA or Stanford land?

3. North vs. South: Two more critical North versus South showdowns this week with UCLA traveling to Stanford and Washington heading to Arizona State. The UCLA-Stanford game takes center stage for obvious reasons. But Washington-ASU has all the makings of a thriller. This is one of those 50-50 games that either team needs to win to show they belong in the upper tier of the Pac-12. The quarterbacks, Keith Price and Taylor Kelly, are obviously the mechanisms that make their teams go. But Washington running back Bishop Sankey (899 yards) has rushed for at least 125 yards in five of six games and ASU gives up almost 170 yards per game on the ground. Look for him to probably break 1,000 for the season by the final whistle. On the flip side, ASU’s Marion Grice already has 15 total touchdowns. He had 19 last year, so look for him to eclipse that mark in the next couple of games.

4. Making up is hard to do: Colorado will face Charleston Southern this week as a makeup for the Sept. 14 game against Fresno State that was canceled because of severe rain and flooding in Colorado. Charleston Southern is a perfect 7-0 on the year and is receiving votes in the Sports Network FCS College Football Poll. The Buffs are looking to get to 3-3 for the first time since 2010. And they are making a change at quarterback with Sefo Liufau stepping in after going 18 of 26 for 169 yards and a touchdown and two interceptions in relief against Arizona State.

5. No. 5? The Cougars are looking for their fifth win for the first time since 2007. Tough draw, however, this week with a trip to Oregon. The Ducks are averaging 56.8 points per game and are second in the country in total offense with 630.5 yards per game.

6. Taking care of the ball: Speaking of Oregon, quarterback Marcus Mariota, the Heisman frontrunner through the first half of the season, continues to impress with turnover-free performances. Though his completion percentage is down from last year, he hasn’t thrown an interception in 165 pass attempts this year -- which extends a streak dating back to last season of 233 attempts. His last interception was against Stanford. During that stretch, he’s completed 100 passes for 1,724 yards and 17 touchdowns. Receivers Josh Huff and Bralon Addison have 27 catches each for a combined 1,054 yards and 11 touchdowns.

7. Rebuilding the brand: Nothing can unite the USC fan base like a win against Notre Dame. Better yet, a win at Notre Dame. The Trojans won their first game of the Ed Orgeron era and look to follow it up against the Irish. Neither team is ranked, but the names carry a lot of weight. This is a game that could re-energize the Trojans moving forward. Marqise Lee and Morgan Breslin have both practiced and it’s looking like both will play. That should be a huge boost after getting running back Silas Redd back last week.

8. Momentum building? What do the Utes do with their big win over Stanford? Do they keep the momentum rolling? They have to go on the road for four of their next six -- including leaving the state for the first time this season when they travel to face Arizona. The Wildcats are still looking for their first conference win, though quarterback B.J. Denker had a strong statistical performance in the loss last week to USC, completing 28 of 44 passes for a career high 363 yards and four touchdowns.

9. Who needs a running game? The Pac-12’s top two passing offenses square off with Oregon State’s trip to Cal. OSU quarterback Sean Mannion has six straight games of 350 passing yards and the Beavers lead the conference with 433.2 passing yards per game and 25 passing touchdowns. Cal averages 371.3 yards in the air -- second in the league, but just 11 passing touchdowns, third worst. The Bears can move it, they just haven’t been able to convert yards into points.

10. No off week: For the second straight week, all 12 schools will be in action. This was supposed to be a bye week for Colorado, but the Charleston Southern game fills the void. Next week Arizona State and Washington State are on bye. It will be the first of two byes in three weeks for the Cougars, who will have opened the year with eight straight games following this week’s matchup with Oregon.

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 6

October, 3, 2013
10/03/13
10:15
AM ET
A few storylines to keep an eye on in Week 6 in the Pac-12. (Really? Week 6 already?)

    [+] EnlargeBrett Hundley
    AP Photo/Nati HarnikUCLA signal-caller Brett Hundley will lead the Bruins into Utah on Thursday night.
  • 50 for five? Oregon set a school record last week by scoring at least 50 points in four consecutive games. This week it faces a Colorado team that appears to be stronger than last year's but still has some holes on both sides of the ball. Sans De'Anthony Thomas, the Ducks had little trouble negotiating Cal -- and mother nature -- en route to a 55-16 win. Is a fifth straight 50-plus-point game in the cards?

  • Kicking it: Great stat from our friends at the Pac-12 offices: "Entering last weekend's play, Pac-12 teams were 186-of-188 on PATs (.989). However, weather conditions in the Pacific Northwest last weekend wreaked havoc on the kickers as high winds and rain contributed to a combined six missed extra-point attempts in games in Corvallis, Eugene and Seattle. While kickers struggled with extra points last weekend, combining for 38-of 45 (.844), they did have considerable success from further out as they connected on 8-of-9 field-goal attempts (.889)." What's the takeaway? Don't try to understand kickers.
  • Nine in a row: UCLA has both of its bye weeks in the rearview mirror and will play nine consecutive games to close out the season, starting tonight with a trip to Utah. Quarterbacks (and their offensive coordinators) take center stage in this matchup. UCLA's Brett Hundley and Utah's Travis Wilson are both off to fantastic starts. And UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone was the OC for Dennis Erickson at Arizona State. Erickson is of course now the OC at Utah.
  • Quick starts? There are lots of intriguing storylines in the Washington-Stanford matchup. For starters, it's a pair of top-15 teams, which is always exciting. But the Huskies have outscored opponents 38-0 in the first quarter and are yet to trail in a game this season. Stanford is outscoring teams 37-12 in the first frame. This kicks off the first of three straight games for the Huskies against ranked opponents, who are home to No. 2 Oregon next week and at No. 22 ASU on Oct. 19.
  • Irish x 3: The Sun Devils travel to Arlington, Texas, to take on Notre Dame -- the first of three games between the Irish and Pac-12 teams. Notre Dame will host USC under the lights on Oct. 19 and then close out the season at Stanford on Nov. 30. The Sun Devils are trying to become the first team to beat USC and Notre Dame in consecutive weeks. It has happened only 13 times that a team has played USC and Notre Dame in back-to-back weeks.
  • Raids a'plenty: Washington State travels to Cal in a showdown of the Air Raid vs. the Bear Raid. Cal coach Sonny Dykes, of course, learned his offensive philosophies from working under Washington State coach Mike Leach at Texas Tech and was his GA at Kentucky.
  • Quarterback change? Cal, which has gone with true freshman Jared Goff as its signal-caller this season, released its depth chart this week with an "or" between Goff and redshirt freshman Zach Kline. Dykes said he felt Kline deserved to get some reps, and both quarterbacks took reps with the first team offense this week. Does it mean Goff is out? Not necessarily. Goff said he's fine with the competition -- despite averaging 329.2 yards per game. Goff was 3 of 6 for 11 yards and lost a pair of fumbles in unfavorable weather at Oregon. Kline stepped in, making his collegiate debut, and was 18 of 37 for 165 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
  • Arms race: Half of the Pac-12 quarterbacks rank in the top 25 of Total QBR heading into the week: Marcus Mariota (2), Kevin Hogan (5), Brett Hundley (11), Travis Wilson (16) and Keith Price (21) are all in action this week. Sean Mannion (22) is on bye. Four of those QBs are going head to head with Wilson and Hundley tonight and Hogan and Price on Saturday.
  • Catching on: Per the hard-working folks of Arizona State's media relations office, ASU's Jaelen Strong is off to one of the best starts of any ASU wide receiver in school history. Through his first four games, he has more catches and yards than any other receiver. So far he has 31 catches for 433 yards and two touchdowns. Lenzie Jackson and Jon Mistler had four touchdowns through their first four games, but Strong is way out in front in catches and yards. He faces a Notre Dame defense that gives up 364 yards per game.
  • Taking a breather: Arizona, Oregon State and USC are on a bye this week. The Trojans return to action for the first time without Lane Kiffin when they host Arizona next Thursday. Oregon State travels to Pullman to take on Washington State on Oct. 12.

 
UCLA and USC are uncomfortably intertwined more than just about any other college football rivalry. They share a city, not just a state. Many of the players know each other, having played together or against each other during their high school careers in Southern California. Many of them cross paths on a regular basis around town.

More often than not, they exchange a fist bump and leave the posturing stares to overzealous fans. And they do chat. So yes, it's likely that during the four days since USC fired Lane Kiffin, the topic has come up and there's been a degree of Bruins curiosity.

[+] EnlargeBrett Hundley
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsBrett Hundley has accounted for 10 touchdowns this season for UCLA.
Or not.

While UCLA second-year coach Jim Mora has repeatedly expressed sympathy for Kiffin's plight, he also denies that his players give a flip about the goings-on across town.

"We don't worry about that stuff," Mora said. "We don't talk about it. We don't think about it. It's not in our orbit. That's another team. We worry about our team. Our players worry about our team. They couldn't care less what's going on over there. It doesn't matter to us. It's not going to affect us. We don't play them until late November. It doesn't matter to us. It's a nonfactor."

Mora has a point, too. Any focus on USC distracts from the present purpose: His team pays a visit to Utah on Thursday as the No. 12 Bruins open their Pac-12 schedule with a South Division showdown.

It's an interesting matchup with more than a few notable connections.

Start with UCLA’s win in last year’s meeting, with the Bruins bouncing back from a blowout loss to woeful California the week before. At the time, Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley, a redshirt freshman, was beginning to establish himself as a budding star. In the opposite huddle, true freshman quarterback Travis Wilson was making his first career start. Wilson would throw for more yards than Hundley -- 220 versus 183 -- but was far less efficient. And Hundley just killed the Utes defense with his running, accounting for 68 yards on 15 carries.

Hundley's offensive coordinator is Noel Mazzone, who was hired by Mora because of the work he did with Brock Osweiler running an up-tempo, pass-happy spread offense at Arizona State.

This offseason, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham decided he wanted to adopt an up-tempo, pass-happy spread offense. So he hired Mazzone's former boss at Arizona State, Dennis Erickson, who is one of the fathers of the up-tempo, pass-happy spread offense.

Erickson has done wonders with the 6-foot-6, 240-pound Wilson, whom Mora this week compared to the 6-foot-8, 240-pound Osweiler, who is now with the Denver Broncos.

UCLA's offense, very good last year, is putting up ridiculous numbers this season with Hundley in his second year as a starter. It ranks second in the nation in total offense (614 yards per game) and third in scoring (52.7 points per game). Balance? The Bruins are 13th in the nation in rushing (284.3 YPG) and 12th in passing (330 YPG). Efficiency? UCLA leads the nation with an eye-popping 68 percent conversion rate on third down.

Said Whittingham: "They are doing everything right on offense."

Yet perhaps no offense in the nation is as improved as Utah's. Last year, the Utes averaged 324 yards and 26.7 points per game. This year, they are averaging 505 yards and 42 points per game. Utah passed for a conference-worst 190.7 yards per game in 2012. This year it's 286 yards per game. The Utes had 16 touchdown passes all of last season. They have nine through four games this fall.

"Dennis has his handprints all over that," Mora said.

Obviously, the linchpin has been Wilson, whom Whittingham admits has thus far exceeded expectations. Wilson is simply a different player than he was as a true freshman trying to negotiate a Pac-12 schedule.

"I think there are quite a few differences," Whittingham said. "No. 1, his confidence level, his poise level, his command of the offense. He's playing very confidently right now. He's really progressed and matured a lot faster than any of us thought he would. His numbers and Hundley's numbers are almost the exact same."

[+] EnlargeTravis Wilson
Chris Nicoll/USA TODAY SportsUtah QB Travis Wilson has seen improvement this season working with Dennis Erickson.
That is -- perhaps surprisingly -- true. Wilson is third in the Pac-12 and 15th in the nation in passing efficiency, while Hundley is fourth and 16th. Hundley ranks 11th in ESPN's Total QBR, while Wilson is 16th. Hundley is averaging 282.7 yards passing per game with eight TDs and three interceptions, while Wilson is averaging 279.5 YPG with nine TDs and three picks.

Wilson has rushed for 257 yards, Hundley for 157.

"That will be an intriguing matchup, to see how the quarterbacks match up against each other," said Whittingham, making an accurate statement that no one would have said in August.

When you add up all these sparkling numbers, you figure this game won't end up 21-14, with the teams combining for less than 700 yards of offense.

Of course, the defenses will have their say, too. The Bruins have a clear advantage there, yielding 18 points per game compared to 24.2 for the Utes, but it's difficult to truly measure things based on the nonconference schedule.

As always, turnovers will be a key, something that typically starts with quarterback play. But also pay attention to third down. As previously noted, the Bruins are great at converting them on offense, but they also are pretty salty thwarting them on defense (26.7 percent). The Utes convert just 35 percent of their third downs and are at 36.6 percent on third-down defense.

For UCLA, this is the first step toward winning the South Division. Utah, on the other hand, is trying to gain traction in Year 3 in the conference. The previous two years, the Utes started Pac-12 play at a dismal 0-4. Beating the Bruins not only would prevent them from heading toward that early-oh-fer direction again, it would make a strong statement.

As in: The Utes now have a Pac-12 QB, so now they are ready to advance in the conference pecking order.

3-point stance: Changing direction

September, 11, 2013
9/11/13
5:00
AM ET
Three turnarounds in progress:

1. The third coordinator in three seasons has been the charm for Illinois senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. Illini head coach Tim Beckman snapped up Bill Cubit, fired after eight seasons (51-47) by Western Michigan, and the difference in Scheelhaase has been huge. He is completing 74 percent of his passes this season as opposed to 60 percent last year, and 10.6 yards per attempt, nearly double last year’s 5.6 yards per attempt. Illinois is 2-0 and making the Big Ten Leaders look a lot tougher.

2. Boston College head coach Steve Addazio, who always acts as if he takes his Red Bull intravenously, has injected life into the Eagles, who seemed like a team more talented than the 2-10 record that got Frank Spaziani fired a year ago. BC has matched its win total of last season thanks to a newly aggressive defense under coordinator Don Brown. The Eagles have eight sacks in two games. Last season, they had eight sacks.

3. Utah is 2-0 for the first time in three seasons thanks to an offensive explosion (100 points in two games) that reflects the touch of new co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson, the longtime passing guru who won two national championships at Miami. Sophomore quarterback Travis Wilson has more than doubled his 2012 QBR (92.0/41/7) with five touchdowns and no picks this season, as opposed to seven and six, respectively, a year ago.

Pac-12 preseason power rankings

August, 26, 2013
8/26/13
9:01
AM ET
And so it begins.

Welcome to game week. These are the preseason power rankings. You can see our post-spring power rankings here. They are different.

1. Stanford: Both Kevin and Ted went against the popular grain -- as in the Pac-12 media poll -- and picked Stanford to win the Pac-12. The biggest reason for that, other than the Cardinal winning in Eugene in 2012 and welcoming back a strong crew of starters, is the continuity in the head coaching office.

2. Oregon: The Ducks are again a preseason top-five team and national title contender, with their North Division rivalry with Stanford becoming one of college football's must-see games. There are plenty of reasons to believe that new coach Mark Helfrich, stepping up from offensive coordinator, will maintain the juggernaut Chip Kelly built, including having just about all of Kelly's assistant coaches coming back. But there is certainty only in seeing it happen on the field. The Ducks do have an advantage in terms of schedule, with Stanford playing USC, UCLA and Arizona State, and Oregon missing the Trojans and Sun Devils. And Stanford doesn't play Colorado, either.

3. Arizona State: The South Division seems to be a three-team toss-up. When Kevin and I tossed our coin, it came up with the Sun Devils. Taylor Kelly leads the offense and Will Sutton leads the defense. Pretty good start. Of course, the early schedule will reveal a lot.

4. UCLA: The Bruins have the toughest conference schedule among South Division teams, mostly because they play Oregon. ASU and USC do not. There are some questions, but QB Brett Hundley and OLB Anthony Barr are a pair of future NFL first-round picks.

5. USC: The Trojans were seventh in the spring, in large part because of residual fumes from a horribly disappointing 2012 campaign. Also, coach Lane Kiffin sits on the hottest seat in the conference. But if you look at the Trojans on paper, well, it's not too difficult to imagine this team getting on a roll, one that could lead it back into the nation's top 10.

6. Washington: The Huskies not only have 20 starters back, they also are getting back several former starters who were injured last season, most notably DE Hau'oli Kikaha -- who changed his last name from Jamora -- and OG Colin Tanigawa. Both topped the depth chart released this weekend. This team, after three consecutive seven-win seasons, sets up for a return to national relevance. The opener in newly remodeled Husky Stadium against Boise State is, well, huge.

7. Oregon State: The Beavers still haven't named a starting quarterback -- the Pac-12 blog is of the mind we'll likely see both Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz in at least the first two games. The big question, however, remains: How will things work out at defensive tackle? If that question is answered, it could be a big year in Corvallis.

8. Arizona: The Wildcats are operating under the radar because of two questions: 1) QB play; 2) defense. They are replacing the highly productive Matt Scott, and even though a lot of folks are back on defense, that unit got run over in 2012. The defense is going to be better. How much is a fair question. And how much can the guy behind center do his best Scott imitation?

9. Utah: The transition to the Pac-12 probably hasn't been as easy as most Utah folks -- coaches, players and fans -- expected. Still, if QB Travis Wilson takes a step forward under new co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson and the Utes fill some holes on defense, this team could move up at least to the middle of the conference. Needs to stay healthy, though.

10. California: When you look at the Bears' depth chart, this seems low, even with a true freshman, Jared Goff, taking over behind center with a brutal early schedule. Still, there might be some growing pains under new coach Sonny Dykes, as his schemes on both sides of the ball are very different compared with what the Bears did under Jeff Tedford.

11. Washington State: The Cougars welcome back 17 starters, and they seem certain to be improved in the second season under coach Mike Leach. The defense has sneaky-good talent, and the deep crew of receivers seems perfect for Leach's "Air Raid" scheme. Of course, dramatic improvement might mean only five victories against a rugged schedule, including the opener at Auburn.

12. Colorado: The Buffaloes should be better this season under first-year coach Mike MacIntyre, but that likely won't be enough for them to move up in this conference.

Pac-12 as NFL coaching pipeline

June, 4, 2013
6/04/13
11:00
AM ET
ESPN.com's Ivan Maisel looks at which conferences send head coaches to the NFL and makes a conclusion: "The shortest road for any FBS head coach to the NFL is through the Pac-12. In fact, no other conference even comes close."

He points out that Chip Kelly (Oregon to the Philadelphia Eagles) was the 15th Pac-12 coach to jump to the NFL since "Tommy Prothro moved crosstown from UCLA in 1971 to coach the Los Angeles Rams."

And during that span the SEC has sent three to the NFL. The Big Ten one.

Figuring out exactly why this is true is more of a challenge, particularly because folks in other regions will get mad hearing the real reason: Brains and sophistication.

[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
Matt Rourke/AP PhotoChip Kelly's offensive creativity helped him become the latest Pac-12 head coach to land an NFL head coaching gig.
Hey... take it easy. Just saying. And you Pac-12 folks need to behave.

Just look at the list: Dick Vermeil, Bill Walsh, John McKay, Mike Riley, Dennis Erickson and Chip Kelly. Those are some of the most innovative minds in football history, particularly offensive football.

Schematically, the Pac-12 -- historically and I think still at present -- is the nation's most sophisticated league. There's just more ... stuff. Playbooks are thicker. That, by the way, includes both sides of the football. The QBs are asked to do more. And that forces defenses to do more, too.

This, by the way, fits in with those who -- wrongly -- view the Pac-12 as a finesse league: A conference that is physically inferior has to use its wits to succeed.

But sophistication is about more than scheme. It's about psychology and managing people. There's more diversity on the West Coast. That complicates the job, so doing it well is meaningful. John McKay probably would have been successful coaching in Tuscaloosa. Not as sure the same could be said of Bear Bryant in Los Angeles.

Part of that is this: There's not as much "Yes, sir," "No, sir" on the West Coast as there is in other regions, particularly the Southeast and Texas, though that as a historical trend is likely narrowing. Going old school on an 18-to-23-year old from L.A. or Seattle probably won't work as well as it would on a kid from small town Alabama. The way a successful Pac-12 coach talks to and motivates his team is, in general, different. And, historically, it's probably closer to the NFL model, where the players are paid professionals and less willing to respond positively to a ranting coach.

Understand, there are plenty of exceptions to that. Frank Kush at Arizona State and Don James at Washington were as old school intimidating to their players as any of their contemporaries. Probably part of the reason neither made the NFL jump, either.

There's another level to that sophistication: Big cities. The NFL is a big-city league. So is the Pac-12. Maisel thinks this matters:
It could be that universities that share a market with NFL teams lose more coaches to the league. A school such as Boston College, clamoring for attention in a crowded market, might be more liable to hire a prominent NFL assistant coach such as Tom Coughlin, who left the Eagles for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 1994. That best explains why, even without counting Johnson or Erickson, the 22-year-old Big East has lost five head coaches to the NFL.

But there are other potential reasons:

  • Out of the box hires create fast-rising stars: Kelly, Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll each arrived in the Pac-12 in creative ways. Mike Bellotti made the inspired decision to hire Kelly away from New Hampshire. Harbaugh mostly generated head scratches when Stanford hired him away from San Diego. And Carroll was USC's 174th choice after a bumbling search. Heck, even Bill Walsh was a frustrated NFL assistant when he arrived at Stanford.
  • Previous NFL experience: Carroll had previous NFL coaching experience. So did Dick Vermeil, Bill Walsh and Dennis Erickson. Harbaugh was a longtime NFL QB. Several other guys on the list at least had a cup of coffee as an NFL assistant before taking over a Pac-8/10/12 team. You could conjecture that many of them viewed returning to the NFL as their ultimate ambition, unlike a college coaching lifer.
  • Recruiting rules in SEC: The most important skill for a head coach in the SEC is without question: Recruiting. The competition for recruits nationwide is brutal, but it's a blood sport in the Southeast. And that is not really a skill that translates in the NFL.
  • Money: Some conferences' pay scales are competitive with the NFL. The Pac-12's is not.

Pac-12's 1,000-yard receivers

May, 30, 2013
5/30/13
1:00
PM ET
Gabe Marks, Marcus PetersWilliam Mancebo/Getty ImagesIn Mike Leach's offense, WSU's Gabe Marks, left, looks like a good bet to have a 1,000-yard season.
We've looked at the Pac-12's 2,500-yard passers and its 1,000-yard rushers. Now we turn to the third wheel of the skill position tricycle: 1,000-yard receivers.

The conference featured four 1,000-yard receivers last year. One is off to the NFL: Oregon State's Markus Wheaton. One is out for the season -- or at least a significant part of it -- with a knee injury: Arizona's Austin Hill. Two others are back:
That's a good start. Lee was a unanimous All-American and Cooks could push for such recognition this fall.

There's plenty of talent after them. This is hardly a down position in the conference. In fact, several teams feel pretty good about their chances to produce a 1,000-yard pass-catcher.

Arizona: The Wildcats not only lost Hill, they also are replacing quarterback Matt Scott. Moreover, their No. 2 receiver in 2012, Dan Buckner, is gone, and the No. 3 guy was running back Ka'Deem Carey. There's solid experience returning at the position, but no one player looks like the go-to guy. The Wildcats are more likely to have three guys with over 600 yards receiving than to have one with 1,000.

Arizona State: Receiver is the Sun Devils' most questionable position. At this point, the most likely guy to go over 1,000 yards is tight end Chris Coyle. But if you were to imagine who will be the Sun Devils' top wideout in 2013, a good bet is touted juco transfer Jaelen Strong.

California: Keenan Allen is gone, but the Bears have plenty of young talent at receiver, a list topped by Chris Harper and Bryce Treggs. With new coach Sonny Dykes' new high-flying spread passing offense, it's difficult to imagine the Bears don't produce a 1,000-yard receiver.

Colorado: The Buffaloes' only legitimate A-list player is receiver Paul Richardson. He'd start for just about any Pac-12 team. And, considering how much new coach Mike MacIntyre likes to throw, Richardson seems likely to hit the 1,000-yard mark if he stays healthy.

Oregon: The Ducks are expected to throw more this season for a number of reasons -- new coach, questions at running back, etc. -- but the chief reason is because quarterback Marcus Mariota is a highly capable passer. Last year, we saw flashes of what he could do. We'll see plenty more in 2013. With De'Anthony Thomas slated to be primarily a running back, expect Josh Huff to become Mariota's favorite target.

Stanford: Stanford isn't the sort of team that produces a 1,000-yard receiver, and its most likely candidates in recent years were tight ends. But if things fell a certain way, Ty Montgomery might make a run at it.

UCLA: If you were to make a list of most likely new members of the 1,000-yard club in 2013, Bruins wide receiver Shaquelle Evans would be on it. He caught 60 passes for 877 yards last year in quarterback Brett Hundley's first year as a starter. With no Johnathan Franklin at running back, the Bruins should be throwing plenty.

Utah: The Utes should be much better throwing the ball this season. For one, quarterback Travis Wilson can only be more mature after starting as a true freshman. Second, new co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson likes to spread defenses out and throw the ball. Dres Anderson and Kenneth Scott are a good tandem, and one or the other could make a run at 1,000 yards.

Washington: The Huskies have two legit candidates -- wide receiver Kasen Williams and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. But Jenkins is working through a DUI arrest that has him presently suspended. Williams, who caught 77 passes for 878 yards a year ago, is a strong bet to be Keith Price's go-to guy.

Washington State: That list with likely new 1,000-yard receivers? Colorado's Richardson, UCLA's Evans and Washington's Williams would be on it. But atop the list would be Washington State's Gabe Marks. If he stays healthy, he's almost a sure thing, considering how much coach Mike Leach likes to throw the ball.

The Pac-12's 2,500-yard passers

May, 28, 2013
5/28/13
5:30
PM ET
Brett HundleyScott Halleran/Getty ImagesOdds are good that UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley will throw for at least 2,500 yards in 2013.
Last year, we looked at returning 3,000-yard passers, so the headline here shows how the Pac-12 has become more run-based, defensive minded of late.

And, of course, the conference's top two passers, Arizona's Matt Scott and USC's Matt Barkley, are both off to the NFL.

The returning members of the 2.5 K Club are:

  • UCLA's Brett Hundley (3,740 yards, 29 TDs, 11 Ints, No. 4 in passing efficiency)
  • Arizona State's Taylor Kelly (3,039 yards, 29 TDs, 9 Ints, No. 2 in passing efficiency)
  • Washington's Keith Price (2,728 yards, 19 TDs, 13 Ints, No. 8 in passing efficiency)
  • Oregon's Marcus Mariota (2,677 yards, 32 TDs, 6 Ints, No. 1 in passing efficiency)


There's a reason why Oregon, UCLA and Arizona State are highly thought of heading into 2013: Proven production returning behind center. And if Washington can get Price back to top form, the Huskies become a top-25 team.

So how does everyone else stack up? Which teams seem likely to get 2,500 yards passing next fall?

Well, there's lots of "To be determined" intrigue.

TBD, Arizona: B.J. Denker will enter fall camp atop the depth chart, but this one is far from over. If USC transfer Jesse Scroggins, who owns by far the biggest arms on the roster, wins the job, the Wildcats are almost sure to pass for 2,500 yards. Coach Rich Rodriguez, though widely viewed as a spread-option coach, showed last year he's comfortable throwing, so Denker or incoming freshman Anu Solomon also could put up solid passing numbers.

TBD, California: New coach Sonny Dykes likes to throw the rock around. Louisiana Tech averaged 351 yards passing per game last year. So whoever wins the QB job -- we're betting on Zach Kline -- will almost certainly hit the 2,500-yard mark.

TBD, Colorado: The Buffaloes struggled to the throw the ball last year, but new coach Mike MacIntyre might solve that, seeing his San Jose State Spartans passed for 332 yards a game last fall. Connor Wood, the frontrunner to win the job, has the arm to throw the ball around, but it's a matter of putting it all together.

TBD, Oregon State: Sean Mannion nearly made the above list, passing for 2,446 yards and 15 TDs with 13 interceptions last year, ranking fifth in the conference in passing efficiency and fourth in passing yards per game with 244.6. But he's still knotted with Cody Vaz in the competition for the starting job. If one guy starts the entire season, he will put up strong passing numbers because Mike Riley teams always do.

Kevin Hogan, Stanford: The Cardinal ranked 10th in the conference in passing last year with just 200 yards per game, but part of that was a scheme that played to a rugged defense and Hogan not winning the job until after midseason. Hogan is plenty capable, and his supporting cast is solid. Expect Hogan to at least hit the 2,500-yard mark.

TBD, USC: Whether it's Cody Kessler or Max Wittek, the USC QB will throw for at least 2,500 yards if he maintains his hold on the job. While Lane Kiffin likes balance, there are too many passing game weapons not to attack downfield, starting with All-American receiver Marqise Lee.

Travis Wilson, Utah: The Utes were last in the Pac-12 and 97th in the nation in passing in 2012, but Dennis Erickson is now their co-offensive coordinator. One of the original architects of the spread passing attack, it's highly likely Utah will substantially boost the 190.7 yards passing a game it produced last fall. Wilson is fully capable of throwing for 2,500 yards, and the Utes are solid at the receiver position.

Connor Halliday, Washington State: Halliday still isn't free-and-clear of redshirt freshman Austin Apodaca, but he's a solid frontrunner in the competition. Whoever wins the job, he will put up big numbers in Mike Leach's "Air Raid" system. The Cougars couldn't stick with a QB last year, going back and forth with Halliday and Jeff Tuel, but they still led the Pac-12 with 330.4 yards passing per game. If Halliday starts 12 games, he'll throw for 4,000 yards.
Before 2011, it was one of the great theoretical questions in college football: What would happen if you plopped an elite non-automatic qualifying team into the middle of an AQ conference?

Utah provided us an answer the past two seasons, one in which neither the pro-AQ folks nor the pro-non-AQ folks can claim complete victory -- as in: "They'd get dominated!" versus "They'd be just the same!"

The Utes have been respectable if slightly south of mediocre in the Pac-12, going 7-11 in conference play the past two seasons, albeit without facing Oregon or Stanford. That's better than Big 12 transplant Colorado as well as Washington State, California and Arizona but worse than seven other conference teams.

The Utes certainly didn't get dominated. But they also weren't much of a threat to push into the top third of the conference, as they were annually in the Mountain West.

"We definitely know we are in a harder league now," Utah quarterback Travis Wilson said. "There are no bad teams in the Pac-12. Every game is a challenge. But that's something we can't hold onto or think about. We've got to go into every game believing we are the better team and we are going to win."

[+] EnlargeTravis Wilson
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiUtah QB Travis Wilson, who has thrown five TDs and run for two more this season, says throwing them beats running them in.
Of course, Wilson was a true freshman last year -- he took over the starting job in game six against UCLA -- so he never played in the Mountain West. And that's part of the story for Utah. The strapping 6-foot-6, 240 pounder is a big "maybe" as the Utes seek to advance in the pecking order of the Conference of Quarterbacks.

The Utes defense has been respectable in Pac-12 play. The offense? Not so much.

Now, the Pac-12 blog -- and more than a few Utah insiders -- would counter that if quarterback Jordan Wynn hadn't proven a magnet for shoulder injuries, things might have been different. Just ask California fans about the 2009 Poinsettia Bowl. But, well, football isn't much of a place for woulda-coulda-shoulda.

Wilson didn't blow anyone away last year. He passed for a Pac-12-low 109 yards per game with seven touchdowns and six interceptions, but it's worth noting that his efficiency rating was better than Washington State's Jeff Tuel and Connor Halliday and essentially equal to Washington's Keith Price.

And there were plenty of moments when Wilson did things that raised impressed eyebrows. He's got potential.

He's already gone corporate this spring, cutting off his notably long locks from 2012.

Not to read too much into a coiffure, but Wilson knows his role will expand this fall compared to last and he needs to look the part. He's no longer the wide-eyed-but-trying-to-play-it-cool youngster who was handed the ball at midseason, just a few months after high school graduation (Wilson participated in 2012 spring practices). He's a returning starting quarterback in the Pac-12.

"I want to make this my team," he said. "I want to lead all these people. I know they have faith in me to do it. I want to improve on being a vocal leader."

Wilson and his offensive teammates are adjusting to the arrival of Dennis Erickson, who is sharing coordinating duties with Brian Johnson, who held the post in a solo capacity a year ago. Erickson was hired to provide the Utes' offense an identity, but Johnson remains the QBs coach and Wilson's primary conduit to the 2013 scheme.

"It's good," Wilson said. "They are both excellent coaches. They feed off each other. They both help me in different ways. I'm glad with the situation we have right now. I think it was a good thing to do."

As with Wynn the previous two years, Wilson needs to come through because the depth chart behind him is pretty questionable: A sophomore walk-on and three freshmen.

Utah figures to face some challenges in 2013. It welcomes back just 12 starters and the schedule takes a major uptick with the addition of both Stanford and Oregon, top-five preseason teams. The Utes seem likely the fall in behind UCLA, Arizona State, USC and Arizona in the South Division pecking order, at least from a preseason perspective.

But Wilson provides a point A of hope. If he leads a solid passing attack, which Utah hasn't had as a Pac-12 team, and questions get answered on both lines, the Utes might surprise some folks.

SPONSORED HEADLINES