NCF Nation: Kyle Whittingham

The only thing the Pac-12 has to fear in the new era of the College Football Playoff is itself. Oh, and other conferences gaming the infant system.

Whatever negative perceptions formerly were held about the Pac-12 -- finesse, pass-first, defense-optional league with half-full stadiums -- are mostly dead. Though there always will be trolling mouth-breathers with tired insults, Pac-12 folks now can show up to the verbal brawl with facts and numbers and game scores and commence to deliver a dose of frenzied verbal MMA that leaves said trolls whimpering for mercy.

OK, perhaps that's going overboard. But the Pac-12 deserves credit for two things: (1) Its rating as the nation's No. 2 conference (2) Making things tougher on itself than any other conference.

The overwhelming national consensus is the Pac-12 ranks second to the SEC. As ESPN Stats & Information noted in January, "Overall, the Pac-12 finished with six teams ranked in the AP Top 25 and five teams ranked in the top 10 of ESPN's Football Power Index. As a result of its strength in the computers, the Pac-12 was the clear No. 2 conference in the Power Rankings."

[+] EnlargeRich Rodriguez
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsThe Pac-12's $3 billion broadcasting deal with ESPN and Fox has been followed by an influx of big-name coaches like Arizona's Rich Rodriguez.
It wasn't just ESPN. Jeff Sagarin ranked the Pac-12 No. 2 in 2013. Phil Steel ranked the Pac-12 the No. 2 conference in 2012 and 2013, and also projected it as No. 2 in 2014. Athlon Sports did the same. In fact, if there is a conference rating system that ranked the Pac-12 anything different in 2013 and projects a lower rating this fall, we haven't seen it.

Another vote in the Pac-12's favor comes from an unquestionably unbiased -- cough, cough -- constituency: Pac-12 coaches.

"[The SEC] should claim themselves as the best league in the country because they've earned it," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. "But to go through the Pac-12 and win a national championship may be the most difficult thing to do because of our schedule."

Ah, that's the worrisome rub. No other conference rides the scheduling tricycle like the Pac-12: 1. Challenging nonconference slate; 2. Nine-game conference schedule; 3. Conference championship game.

While some conferences have improved their nonconference scheduling, they don't play nine conference games. The Big 12 does play nine conference games, but it doesn't play a championship game. Pac-12 coaches aren't shy about noting that a conference team, in almost all cases, will have to play at least 11 quality games -- one tough nonconference foe, nine conference games and the Pac-12 title game -- to earn a spot in the CFP. No other conference can claim that.

There is a big reason the other conferences can't: They don't want to.

"Fair or unfair, whatever the words you want to use, we play a nine-game schedule and a conference championship game and other conferences don't on purpose," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. "There is obviously a reason for that."

That's the big issue for the Pac-12 heading into the season. There is no longer a worry about respect or the perception of the Pac-12. Rather, it's about how unscathed a conference champ can hope to be against such a demanding schedule, and whether the committee will stick to its stated insistence that strength of schedule will be paramount. When a conference plays eight of the nation's 13 toughest schedules, as the Pac-12 did in 2013, the challenge to go unbeaten or even to lose just one game is far greater.

Of course, this issue won't be solved today, or even in the next couple months. The ultimate answers will be delivered in January when four semifinalists are picked and seeded.

So then, how did the Pac-12 gain ground in the perception battle -- one that has the conference starting with six teams ranked in the preseason USA Today coaches poll, including three in the top 11 with two others receiving votes?

The easy answer: money. The $3 billion broadcasting deal with ESPN and Fox was a game-changer. That money has flowed into facilities improvements and more aggressive investments in coaching -- head coaches and assistants. A concomitant influx of A-list coaches, most notably Mike Leach, Rich Rodriguez, Todd Graham, Jim Mora and Chris Petersen, has boosted the conference's Q-rating. Those coaches also have been able to hire and -- critically -- retain key assistants with competitive salaries, such as Arizona State offensive coordinator Mike Norvell ($700,000), UCLA offensive line coach Adrian Klemm ($650,000), Washington State defensive line coach Joe Salave'a ($275,000) and USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox (north of the $800,000 he made at Washington), among others.

No team has had a better, and perhaps more unfortunate, seat while watching the Pac-12 improve than Utah. The Utes joined the conference in 2011 as a program that had posted two unbeaten seasons and won two BCS bowl games as a member of the respected Mountain West Conference. Though they went a solid 4-5 in conference play in 2011, they slipped to 3-6 in 2012 and 2-7 in 2013, with lineups that might have been better than the 2011 squad.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
AP Photo/Eric GayOregon's Marcus Mariota is part of an impressive group of returning QBs in the Pac-12 this season.
"The thing that has been very apparent with the Pac-12 in 2011 when we entered, is the Pac-12 now is far superior from top to bottom," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "The progress this conference has made in the last few years is phenomenal."

What separates the Pac-12 this season -- and could make it a legitimate threat for the No. 1 conference -- is behind center. Not only does the conference welcome back 10 starting quarterbacks, a majority of those are NFL prospects.

"I've never seen anything like this," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "You have multiple guys that you could say could be the No. 1 pick overall in the draft. You have multiple guys in the conference that could be All-Americans and lead the nation in quarterback rating or lead the nation in passing."

The most notable quarterbacks are Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley, Heisman Trophy candidates blinking brightly on NFL radars who lead teams favored to win their respective divisions. Hundley will get an early showcase game against Texas, and Mariota and the Ducks play host to Michigan State, the Big Ten favorite, in Week 2. And the Ducks and Bruins could meet each other twice this season.

But they also must contend with Arizona State's Taylor Kelly, Oregon State's Sean Mannion, USC's Cody Kessler, Stanford's Kevin Hogan, Washington State's Connor Halliday, Utah's Travis Wilson, California's Jared Goff and Colorado's Sefo Liufau, each capable of posting a spectacular individual performance that could spawn an upset.

The Pac-12 is plenty hyped heading into the 2014 season. There is no perception problem. There might, however, end up being a reality problem. If the Pac-12 champion ends up with two losses, and the selection committee has a handful of Power Five conference teams with one or fewer defeats, the Pac-12 could get a respectful tip of the cap but end up out of luck in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
Randy EdsallTony Quinn/Icon SMIThere's no easy winning formula for Randy Edsall and Maryland as they transition to the Big Ten.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham knew exactly what to expect -- and where to focus -- when his Utes moved from the Mountain West in 2011 to the Pac-12: Recruit better prospects. Upgrade the facilities. Break down new opponents.

But that didn't make the transition any easier.

The Utes made a big splash that first season and finished 8-5, before dropping to 5-7 in the two seasons thereafter. Whittingham knew a drop-off like that was possible -- a move into one of the Power Five carries with it certain risks -- but that doesn't mean any challenges caught the 54-year-old head coach off guard.

"No real surprises," Whittingham told ESPN.com. "Nothing blind-sided us from a football perspective. It was exactly as anticipated. ... The bottom line is it's just a process transitioning. We're not making excuses -- people don't care; we have to win -- but it takes time to ramp up."

With three programs set to officially join a new power conference Tuesday -- Louisville to the ACC; Maryland and Rutgers to the Big Ten -- that process will play out once again. New members know they'll have to adjust, improve and upgrade before taking a step forward in their new conferences. But that doesn't make the task any easier.

Since 2000, a dozen other football programs have transitioned into one of the Power Five conferences. And, in their first seasons, only three teams improved upon their previous year's record -- with just two watching their win total increase by more than one. For most teams, the acclimation has been gradual.

"There are no shortcuts," Whittingham added. "But I don't think there's anything that's undiscovered or a secret. It's pretty simple and pretty plain."

In one interview after another, five coaches told ESPN.com the same three keys for transitioning successfully: improve recruiting, upgrade facilities and figure out those new teams. That really shouldn't come as a shock, as those tips are useful for any team in any circumstance. But when it comes to transitioning, several coaches said, those priorities are magnified.

All of a sudden, during that conference transition, Utah's great facilities in the Mountain West didn't quite pass muster with USC's 110,000-square-foot sports facility or Oregon's $68 million football building. So it unveiled its own new facility last fall. In 2004, Virginia Tech's old Big East recruiting footprint wasn't enough to dominate long-term in the ACC. So the staff immediately sought out prospects in Georgia and the Carolinas. And, in 2005, Boston College's staff was forced to scout nine new opponents on a schedule that ballooned from No. 74 in terms of strength to No. 22. So, even during "off time," some coaches stared at their laptop screens morning to night.

Each team needed to improve in that area immediately or risk falling behind their conference foes. Transitioning is a constant arms race, after all, a game where teams that tread water end up sinking. There's no such thing as being stationary in college football, especially during such a transition. Especially during that first season.

"It's definitely more of a burden that first season, for sure. No doubt," said former Boston College assistant Jerry Petercuskie, who helped oversee the Eagles' transition to the ACC and currently coaches at FCS Elon. "But there's no magic in it. It's just getting your players to play and adapting to the enemy."

Truthfully, several coaches said, there's not much they can do to quicken that Year 1 transition. Payoffs in recruiting and facility upgrades aren't immediate; the main short-term advances come from locking yourself in the film room and studying up on new opponents.

In other words, the recipe for such immediate success isn't a big secret either. Of the three teams that did improve their record that first season, they all returned solid teams that boasted solid quarterbacks. Texas A&M had Heisman winner Johnny Manziel (7-6 record to 11-2), Virginia Tech started first-team All-ACC QB Bryan Randall (8-5 to 10-3), and Pitt had NFL draft pick Tom Savage under center (6-7 to 7-6).

So, until that increased recruiting focus starts to yield changes on the field, most coaches during the transition spend a considerably higher amount of time figuring out opposing schemes, opponents and situations.

"When you're away from the office, every coach is looking at the opponent. You need to figure out that new enemy," Petercuskie said. "[Coaches] are a paranoid group of people. We don't want to go out on a Saturday afternoon in front of a national TV audience and get embarrassed. So we're going to do whatever we have to do."

Added Tom Bradley, who coached at Penn State during its move to the Big Ten and is currently the senior associate head coach at WVU: "I would say it took a couple of years for us to really get a beat on teams -- to understand the fans and feel comfortable with the climate you're entering. What do they like to do in certain situations? Not knowing that definitely made it harder."

No one can say for sure exactly how Louisville, Rutgers and Maryland will fare in their new conferences: Virginia Tech assistant Charley Wiles believes the Terrapins are already a bowl-caliber team; Temple assistant Ed Foley thinks Rutgers will wind up in the middle of the pack. But everyone knows what these teams have to do to succeed.

They can't win in Year 1 without a solid group of returners. They have to upgrade their facilities to stay competitive. And above all -- Whittingham said this was 80 percent of the transition – they need to recruit well. Do all that, and the wins will roll in faster than the fans' question marks.

Transitioning successfully is as simple -- and as difficult -- as that.
There was a general feeling of cautious optimism when Utah quarterback Travis Wilson was cleared for non-contact participation this past spring. Pretty obvious reason for that. Just a few months before, the general feeling was his career was over because of a pre-existing medical condition that was discovered only after he suffered a concussion against Arizona State.

That pre-existing condition diagnosed in November was termed an injury to an intracranial artery. While the Pac-12 blog isn't a doctor, I think we can all agree that just sounds bad. When team physician David Petron felt he needed to tell Utes fans at the time, "We do not believe it is life-threatening," well, it was fairly obvious the issue was different than a torn something or other.

[+] EnlargeTravis Wilson
AP Photo/Rick BowmerTravis Wilson helped lead the Utes to an upset win against Stanford last season.
So it rates as more than just your run of the mill positive team news that Wilson has been fully cleared by doctors to rejoin the Utes. Whether you root for Utah or not, you have to feel good that a young man will get to resume playing a game he loves. Not too far in the background is the revelation that said intracranial artery has remained stable, which has to be reassuring for Wilson and his family, whatever happened with football.

Yet after we raise our glass to what is important in the grand scheme, we then can get reductive again: Football. What does this mean for the Utes?

For one, it means the Utah offense gets a two-year starter back, a guy who at his best looks like a legitimate Pac-12 quarterback. Recall that last season, after a dreadful game against UCLA, Wilson helped lead the Utes to an upset win against Stanford. At that point in mid-October, Utah was 4-2, those two losses coming in overtime to Oregon State and, despite six interceptions, by seven points to the Bruins, the eventual South Division champion. Though six interceptions put a dent in Wilson's overall numbers, it is notable that his efficiency rating at the time was just four points lower than Arizona State's Taylor Kelly, who ended up second-team All-Pac-12.

When healthy, Wilson has looked like a guy who can make the Utes a legitimate threat in the South Division.

Of course, our using the word "healthy" to describe a Utah quarterback has sent Utes fans scrambling to knock on wood, rub their rabbit's feet or burn incense in front of their Jobu shrine. The last time a Utah quarterback made it through a season without injury was in 2008.

So ... what happened in 2008? Anyone recall? Utah fans might want to remind dismissive Pac-12 fans about that.

Our feeling is that if Wilson is healthy for 12 regular-season games, Utah will return to the postseason this fall.

Wilson's return, however, is not without intrigue. Just a few paragraphs down in the news release from the school announcing Wilson's clean bill of health, it said, Wilson "will enter fall camp No. 1 on the depth chart, although he must beat out five other scholarship QBs to regain his starting job."

Hmm.

It is also curious that those five quarterbacks were listed in a news release about Wilson's medical clearance:
Battling Wilson for the starting job when fall camp opens on Aug. 4 will be Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson, redshirt freshman Conner Manning and junior Adam Schulz, along with redshirt freshman Brandon Cox and true freshman Donovan Isom.

Here is a guess that Thompson is the chief reason Utah is conspicuously writing Wilson's name in pencil as the No. 1 quarterback. Though Thompson is mostly an idea -- he did very little for the Sooners -- new offensive coordinator Dave Christensen clearly thinks Thompson has a shot to unseat Wilson. The institutional position -- via news release, no less -- is that this is an earnest competition, and Wilson's present lead is mostly about seniority. With pressure increasing on coach Kyle Whittingham to get Utah back to its winning ways, seniority only means you get the first piece of pizza on Day 1 of preseason camp. Little else.

If Thompson comes in and is decisively better than Wilson, then fine, that is how competitive sports work. You compete and sometimes you lose a competition and get relegated to second string. If Thompson beats out Wilson, then Utes fans should assume before the opener that he is pretty good. In that scenario, they also should feel pretty good about finally having a backup quarterback -- Wilson -- who inspires confidence.

But if the competition is close, things could be testy. There is the whole New Guy vs. Veteran deal, for one. More than a few players probably will feel loyal to Wilson. That could divide the locker room. And what if Thompson wins the job but struggles early in the season? How long before Christensen and Whittingham give him the hook, creating a quarterback controversy?

The same, by the way, could be written about Wilson starting slowly.

I know: We are negatively speculating on a day when the news is supposed to be good. Yes, we are Debbie Downers. But Utah's news release brought this up first, not the pure-as-the-driven-snow Pac-12 blog.

This, of course, is ultimately not a day for Utah hand-wringing. It is a day of good news for the quarterback position, and those have hardly been plentiful since the Utes joined the Pac-12.

The love of competition, after all, is probably why Wilson started playing football. Being medically cleared means he can resume that bit of grittiness that makes sports rewarding.
Looking back at some teams the current group of Pac-12 coaches have led during their respective head-coaching careers turns up an impressive list. All 12 have coached a team to a bowl appearance, 10 have finished a season with double-digit wins and eight have had teams appear in the AP top 10.

Taking it a step further and just looking at each individual coach's best team (in college) also made for an interesting study. Choosing which teams those are is clearly a subjective process so for the purpose of consistency, the teams listed below were chosen based on the final spot in the AP poll.

Here are some notable takeaways:

  • Eight teams ended with bowl victories, but two occurred after the coach left.
  • Seven teams started unranked, but only one finished out of the polls.
  • Half of the coaches did it at their current school, four of which occurred in 2013.
  • Six teams appeared in the top 5 at some point and nine were in the top 15.
  • Three coaches immediately parlayed the success into their current job.
  • Only three of the teams won conference titles, none of which was in the Pac-12.
  • Two teams beat No. 1-ranked squads.
  • Four teams played in BCS bowls, and three were victorious.
We're not going attempt to rank them ourselves, but here they are in reverse order based on each team's final AP ranking:

No. 12 Sonny Dykes, Louisiana Tech, 2012

Dykes' record: 9-3 (4-2, third in WAC)
Final AP rank: unranked
Highest AP rank: 19
Bowl result: no bowl
The team:
The Bulldogs finished the season as the country's highest scoring team (51.50 ppg) and top-ranked offense (577.9 ypg). They rose to No. 19 in the AP poll before losing their final two games of the season, including one against Mike MacIntyre-coached San Jose State in the season finale. Louisiana Tech was offered a spot in the Independence Bowl, but it was given away while the school unsuccessfully sought other bowl options. Dykes left for Cal after the season.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesSteve Sarkisian parlayed his successful 2013 season into the head-coaching job at USC.
No. 11 Steve Sarkisian, Washington, 2013

Sarkisian's record: 8-4 (5-4, third in Pac-12 North)
Final AP rank: 25
Highest AP rank: 15
Bowl result: Beat BYU in Fight Hunger Bowl (Sarkisian did not coach)
The team:
The season began with a win against then-No. 19 Boise State, and the season ended with Broncos coach Chris Petersen being hired by the Huskies. Sarkisian departed for USC prior to the bowl. After the win against Boise, Washington debuted in the rankings at No. 19 and rose four spots before a string of three straight losses to Stanford, Oregon and Arizona State.

No. 10 Mike MacIntyre, San Jose State, 2012

MacIntyre's record: 10-2, (5-1, second in WAC)
Final AP rank: 21
Highest AP rank: 21
Bowl result: Beat Bowling Green in Military Bowl (MacIntyre did not coach)
The team:
Two years after coaching San Jose State to a 1-11 record in his first season as head coach, MacIntyre's team became the first in program history to finish in the final AP poll -- although, the Spartans were unranked when MacIntyre accepted the job at Colorado. SJSU didn't beat any ranked teams, but lost just 20-17 to Stanford, which went on to win Pac-12 and Rose Bowl championships. The other loss came to Utah State, which finished No. 16.

No. 9 Todd Graham, Arizona State, 2013

Graham's record: 10-4 (8-1, won Pac-12 South)
Final AP rank: 21
Highest AP rank: 11
Bowl result: Lost to Texas Tech in Holiday Bowl The team: In his eighth season as an FBS head coach, Graham's most recent Arizona State team was his best. The Sun Devils began the season unranked and entered and exited the Top 25 twice before closing the regular season with a seven-game winning streak. It was ranked No. 11 when it hosted Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game, but a second loss to the Cardinal kept ASU out of the Rose Bowl.

No. 8 Mike Riley, Oregon State, 2008

Riley's record: 9-4 (7-2, tied for second in Pac-10)
Final AP rank: 18
Highest AP rank: 17
Bowl result: Beat Pittsburgh in the Sun Bowl
The team:
The Beavers started unranked and lost their first two games before winning eight of nine to peak at No. 17. After a 1-2 start, it beat No. 1 USC in Corvallis, but didn't immediately build off the big win. The next week the Beavers lost to Kyle Whittingham's undefeated Utah team (more later). Riley's highest spot in the polls came in 2012, when the Beavers reached No. 7 after a 6-0 start. He was a head coach in the NFL for three years and the Canadian Football League for four, where he won a pair of Grey Cups.

No. 7 Jim Mora, UCLA, 2013

Mora's record: 10-3 (6-3, second in Pac-12 South)
Final AP rank: 16
Highest AP rank: 9
Bowl result: Beat Virginia Tech in Sun Bowl
The team:
The Bruins spent the entire season in the polls after starting at No. 21. They began 5-0 and rose to No. 9 before road losses to No. 13 Stanford and No. 3 Oregon. Mora's best coaching job came in the NFL in 2004 when he guided the Atlanta Falcons to an NFC South title and an appearance in the NFC Championship.

No. 6 Mike Leach, Texas Tech, 2008

Leach's record: 11-2 (7-1, tied for first in Big 12 South)
Final AP rank: 12
Highest AP rank: 2
Bowl result: Lost to Ole Miss in Cotton Bowl
The team:
The Red Raiders started the year at No. 12 and moved up to No. 6 after an 8-0 start. They rose to No. 2 after Michael Crabtree's memorable touchdown catch secured a win vs. No. 1 Texas. After two weeks at No. 2, the Red Raiders lost to No. 5 Oklahoma in a game that propelled Sooners quarterback Sam Bradford to the Heisman Trophy. Leach arrived at WSU in 2012.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
AP Photo/Kevin ReeceDavid Shaw's best team at Stanford didn't win the Pac-12 title.
No. 5 Mark Helfrich, Oregon, 2013

Helfrich's record: 11-2 (7-2, tied for first in Pac-12 North)
Final AP rank: 9
Highest AP rank: 2
Bowl result: Beat Texas in Alamo Bowl The team: Of all the teams on the list, none started higher than the Ducks in Helfrich's head-coaching debut at No. 3. Oregon spent eight weeks at No. 2 before losses to Stanford and Arizona in a three-game span ended any hopes of a conference or national title. The team finished ranked No. 2 in the country in both total offense (565.0 ypg) and scoring (45.5 ppg). Quarterback Marcus Mariota dealt with some late-season injury problems, but, when healthy, he was as good as any player in college football.

No. 4 David Shaw, Stanford, 2011

Shaw's record: 11-2 (8-1, second in Pac-12 North)
Final AP rank: 7
Highest AP rank: 3
Bowl result: Lost to No. 3 Oklahoma State in Fiesta Bowl The team: In three seasons as head coach, Shaw has won a pair of Pac-12 titles. But in 2011, when Oregon won the Pac-12 title, he probably had his best team. The Rose Bowl championship team the following year also finished No. 7 and has more hardware, but it didn't have Andrew Luck. Stanford started the year at No. 7, moved up to No. 3 after winning its first nine games, but then lost 53-30 at home to No. 6 Oregon. Stanford received a second consecutive BCS at-large bid, but suffered an overtime loss to No. 3 Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl. In addition to Luck, 10 other players landed on 53-man NFL rosters from the team's departing class. Stanford's low ranking of No. 8 was the best among teams on this list.

No. 3 Rich Rodriguez, West Virginia, 2005

Rodriguez's record: 11-1, (7-0 Big East champion)
Final AP rank: 5
Highest AP rank: 5 Bowl result: Beat No. 8 Georgia in Sugar Bowl The team: Freshmen QB Pat White and RB Steve Slaton were the names of note for the current Arizona coach. West Virginia started the year unranked and its lone loss came to then-No. 3 Virginia Tech. It was the first of three consecutive double-digit win seasons for the Mountaineers, who were undefeated in Big East play and capped the season with a win over No. 8 Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. A strong case can be made that West Virginia had a better team in 2007, when Rodriguez left following the regular-season finale to become head coach at Michigan. The Mountaineers were ranked No. 2 (No. 1 in the coaches poll) going into Rodriguez's final game, but lost to a 4-7 Pittsburgh team in the 100th Backyard Brawl, which cost them a chance to play for the national title. They finished No. 6.

No. 2 Chris Petersen, Boise State, 2009

Petersen's record: 14-0 (8-0, WAC champions)
Final AP rank: 4
Highest AP rank: 4
Bowl result: Beat No. 4 TCU in the Fiesta Bowl The team: Washington's new coach has quite the résumé. Many consider Boise State's undefeated 2006 team that beat Oklahoma in that's year memorable Fiesta Bowl as the school's best, but three years later the Broncos finished 14-0 and finished a spot higher in the final AP poll. They opened the season at No. 14 and started with a win against No. 16 Oregon in Chip Kelly's first game as head coach. Boise capped the season with a win against undefeated TCU in the Fiesta Bowl. The team's offensive coordinator, Bryan Harsin, is now the head coach and its defensive coordinator, Justin Wilcox, spent last season with Sarkisian at Washington and followed him to USC in the same capacity.

No. 1 Kyle Whittingham, Utah, 2008

Whittingham's record: 13-0 (8-0, Mountain West champions)
Final AP rank: 2
Highest AP rank: 2
Bowl result: Beat No. 4 Alabama in Sugar Bowl The team: In Whittingham's fourth season as head coach, the Utes finished as the nation's lone undefeated team after starting unranked. Utah opened with a win at Michigan -- Rodriguez's first game as the Wolverines' coach -- and went on to beat four teams that finished in the final AP poll, including Alabama (6), TCU (7), Oregon State (18) and BYU (25). Quarterback Brian Johnson threw for 336 yards in a convincing 31-17 win against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

Want to swap out one team for another or switch the order? Email me at Kyle.Bonagura@espn.com.
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
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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."


While the specifics of UCLA coach Jim Mora’s new contract agreement through the 2019 season aren’t yet known, he could be getting more money for his assistant coaches and football facility upgrades.

And does anyone else find it just a tad coincidental that the news broke just as Steve Sarkisian was being introduced as USC’s new coach?

This is a huge step forward for the Bruins, who are recognizing the progress the program has made under Mora. It’s a declaration that they are ready to be more than just a basketball school.

As the Pac-12 blog mentioned this morning, there was a strong possibility that if the Bruins brass didn’t make a commitment to Mora and the football program, he could pursue the Washington job that was vacated by Sarkisian’s move to USC.

[+] EnlargeJim Mora
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesJim Mora signed a contract extension with UCLA through the 2019 season.
Mora made sense for the Huskies given his roots in Seattle, where he played and owns a home. And it’s not the first time his name has been floated for the job. The extent to which he has been pursued in the past 24 hours probably won’t ever come to light. But no doubt, phone calls were made and interests were gauged.

This was the smart play by Mora and the Bruins. They won the Pac-12 South championship in Mora’s first season and were in the thick of the South hunt up until the final two weeks of the 2013 regular season. Through two seasons, the Bruins are 18-8 with Mora at the helm and 9-1 against South Division teams.

More importantly, they are 2-0 against USC. And that gave Mora leverage to push for the things he needed to keep the program moving in the right direction. Wisely, UCLA’s decision-makers concurred.

From a conference perspective, Mora staying put means a hyper-competitive Pac-12 South for years to come. Todd Graham has the Sun Devils in the Pac-12 title game in his second year. Rich Rodriguez has the Wildcats bowling for two straight seasons and they’ll be getting a boost next year from multiple transfers. USC figures to be a player again with Sarkisian at the helm. And let’s not forget that Kyle Whittingham’s Utah team beat Stanford and seems to be on the edge of breaking through, while Colorado got to four wins in its first season under Mike MacIntyre.

While we’ll never know for sure if Washington was going to offer Mora the job (or if it did), the fact that he’s no longer in the running leaves a void. ESPN’s Joe Schad has reported that Boise State coach Chris Petersen could be in the mix. Petersen was also linked to the USC job. Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox has been rumored to go with Sarkisian to USC, but that could change if he’s offered the position at Washington.

Other reported names include Alabama assistant Doug Nussmeier and Missouri coach Gary Pinkel.

All Huskies fans can do is sit and wait. And watch next year’s USC-UCLA game feature their former coach on one side and a former player on the other.

Pac-12 weekend rewind: Week 13

November, 25, 2013
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Taking stock of Week 13 in the Pac-12:

Team of the week: Arizona played with near-perfect execution in all three phases while upending No. 5 Oregon 42-16. While the lead to that game was the Ducks' listless effort, the Wildcats deserve plenty of credit for getting after Oregon and closing the deal with authority. The win certainly thickened the plot for the Territorial Cup on Saturday against the Wildcats good buddies in Tempe.

[+] EnlargeSamajie Grant
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesReceiver Samajie Grant (three catches, 38 yards) and the Wildcats jumped all over Oregon early and routed the Ducks.
Best game: Arizona State looked like it was going to blow out UCLA. Then it looked like it was going to choke in the second half. Yet the Sun Devils pulled themselves together just in time and kept the Bruins out of the end zone on their final two possessions in a 38-33 victory. The Sun Devils are a Territorial Cup win away from playing host to Stanford in the Pac-12 title game, which could yield the program's first Rose Bowl since the 1996 season.

Biggest play: UCLA faced a third-and-6 from the Arizona State 7-yard line with five minutes left in the fourth quarter, but QB Brett Hundley was sacked by Sun Devils LB Chris Young for a loss of 13 yards. Bruins kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn, who beat Arizona State with a last-second field goal a year ago, then missed the 38-yard attempt that would have closed the gap to two points.

Offensive standout: Arizona RB Ka'Deem Carey rushed for 206 yards and four TDs on 48 carries in the Wildcats' upset win over Oregon. It was his 14th consecutive 100-yard-plus rushing game, an active streak that now is tied for longest by an FBS player over the past 10 seasons (Jerome Harrison, 2004-05). His 48 carries is a new school record and the most so far this season by any FBS running back. He had just two negative yards. He became Arizona's career rushing leader with 3,913 yards, eclipsing Trung Canidate (1996-99). He also set a new school record for career touchdowns with 49, surpassing Art Luppino (1953-56).

Offensive standout II: Stanford WR Ty Montgomery scored five touchdowns in the Cardinal's blowout Big Game win over California. He rushed 31 yards for a score and had TD receptions of 50, 12, 72 and nine yards. He finished with five catches for 160 yards.

Defensive standout: Arizona State LB Chris Young had three sacks and a game-high 13 tackles (12 solo) in the Sun Devils' win at UCLA. The sacks cost the Bruins 27 yards, and two of them came on the Bruins' final two desperation possessions in the fourth quarter.

Defensive standout II: Washington CB Marcus Peters had six tackles, two interceptions, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in the Huskies' blowout win at Oregon State.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Kelly
Harry How/Getty ImagesArizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly was 20-of-27 for 225 yards and a touchdown in the Sun Devils' win over UCLA.
Special teams standout: Washington kicker Travis Coons was 2-of-2 on field goals with a long of 44 yards against Oregon State. He also was 9-of-9 on PATs and had three of his four punts killed inside the Beavers 20-yard line.

Smiley face: The state of Arizona: Both the Wildcats and Sun Devils posted impressive wins on Saturday, thereby making the Territorial Cup as meaningful as it has been in years.

Frowny face: The state of Oregon: Both the Ducks and Beavers posted embarrassing performances on Saturday, thereby making the Civil War the least meaningful it has been in years.

Thought of the week: It's great that the Pac-12 is deep. It's great to have nine bowl-eligible teams. But the most important take-away from the conference's late-season swoon in the national picture is this: THE NINE-GAME CONFERENCE SCHEDULE. If the SEC and ACC refuse to play nine conference games, the Pac-12 must -- absolutely must -- revert to an eight-game schedule as we move forward with the four-team playoff. It's simply not fair that on a weekend of major Pac-12 match-ups, most SEC teams are giving themselves a week off with cupcake foes.

Questions for the week: Will rivalry week produce any upset thunderclaps? If USC beats UCLA, that's a thunderclap because it would make Orgeron a frontrunner to become the Trojans' next permanent coach. If Arizona beats Arizona State, that's a thunderclap because the Wildcats would show they are certainly not yielding state dominance to the surging Sun Devils, who would have a much better shot at the Rose Bowl at home in the Pac-12 title game rather than at Stanford. If Washington State beats Washington, that's a thunderclap because Huskies fans might run out of patiences with Steve Sarkisian. If Oregon State beats Oregon, that's a thunderclap because Ducks fans would seriously start to question first-year coach Mark Helfrich. If Colorado beats Utah, that's a thunderclap because the Buffaloes would eclipse the Utes in the Pac-12 pecking order and make Kyle Whittingham's seat hot. And if Notre Dame beats Stanford, that's a thunderclap because the Fighting Irish would be crowned Pac-12 champions by the court of public opinion after also beating ASU and USC.

Pac-12 Power Rankings: Week 13

November, 25, 2013
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If you don't like where you are in the Power Rankings, play better.

Click here for last week's Power Rankings.

1. Stanford: It seems in some ways that Stanford eclipses Oregon in the Pac-12 North based on the teams' head-to-head result. The Cardinal, by the way, could do the conference a favor by beating Notre Dame on Saturday. Otherwise the Fighting Irish, with wins over Stanford, Arizona State and USC, could claim their own Pac-12 title.

2. Arizona State: You can't undersell what Todd Graham has done in Tempe. If the Sun Devils beat rival Arizona on Saturday, they will play host to Stanford in the Pac-12 title game. So there are considerable stakes outside of pride. And we know how well the Sun Devils play at home. The result earlier this season at Stanford might be meaningless.

3. Oregon: It has been a long time since the Ducks weren't Nos. 1 or 2 in the Power Rankings. After getting blown out at Arizona, coach Mark Helfrich said there needed to be some "inward" looking inside the locker room. Can the Ducks regain their mojo? The Civil War against Oregon State will be a pretty grumpy affair, without substantial external stakes for either team for the first time in a long time.

4. USC: The Trojans, as expected, improved to 6-1 under interim coach Ed Orgeron after whipping Colorado. Yet, much of the present goodwill would be surrendered with a second consecutive loss to UCLA. If Orgeron delivers a victory, however, his candidacy to become the next head coach takes on substantial legitimacy.

5. UCLA: Losing at home to Arizona State hurt, but the Bruins know exactly how to turn their frowns upside down: Beat USC. That also would boost their bowl options, of course.

6. Washington: While there has been a lot of hyperventilating about Steve Sarkisian and the inconsistent Huskies, the ultimate story will be written over the next two games, starting with Friday's Apple Cup. If Washington beats Washington State and then wins a bowl game, it will finish 9-4, and that would represent a strong step forward after three consecutive 7-6 seasons. On the downside, anything less would cap a disappointing season, and certainly wouldn't cool Sarkisian's coaching seat.

7. Arizona: While Arizona's friends up North have taken a solid lead in the battle of second-year head coaches between Rich Rodriguez and Graham, the Wildcats can take back a lot with an upset win in Tempe. Not only would they boost their bowl prospects and make Rich Rod 1-1 versus Graham, they'd force the Sun Devils to travel to Stanford for the Pac-12 title game, which would substantially reduce their Rose Bowl chances.

8. Washington State: The Cougars are bowl eligible, but they could become bowl eligible with a bang -- as well as positively giddy -- with a second consecutive upset win over the hated Huskies in Seattle. An added consolation would be seeing Sarkisian's seat heat up substantially and seeing a potential shift in the balance of power in the state.

9. Oregon State: That was a dreadful performance against Washington. The worst I've personally witness from the Beavers. Coach Mike Riley is a class act and a heck of a guy, but he needs to answer for that. It wasn't about losing to the Huskies. It was about how it went down at home, with a listless, uninterested effort.

10. Utah: While there are legitimate excuses for how Utah's season has gone, the loss at Washington State, even without QB Travis Wilson, delivered a resounding thud to Year 3 in the Pac-12. The Utes are 1-7 in conference play. A loss at home to Colorado on Saturday would make coach Kyle Whittingham's seat hot heading into 2014.

11. Colorado: While the Buffaloes were brought back down to Earth after getting pounded by USC, they showed admirable fight in the second half. Concluding the season with a road win over Utah would bode well for the future. And it would mean the Buffs finish 10th in the Pac-12 Power Rankings, not 11th.

12. California: The best news for the Bears is the season is over. Little went right in Sonny Dykes' first season, and he took the blame upon himself after the blowout Big Game defeat to Stanford. There is plenty of justifiable fan frustration. Dykes' first question is his staff, particularly on defense. He probably needs to make some changes. And then he needs to look at his roster and decide who cares about winning and who doesn't.

Ducks try to get back on track vs. Utah

November, 14, 2013
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The words “bounce back” and “Oregon” don’t often share the same sentence -- unless, of course, it’s referring to a team that’s recovering from one of Oregon’s 55-point shellackings.

But rarely are we talking about the Ducks themselves needing to bounce back. Oregon has dropped all of five games in the last four seasons. They haven’t lost back-to-back games since the collapse at the end of the 2007 season. Seldom is there a day they aren’t winning.

[+] EnlargeStanford crushes Oregon's Marcus Mariota
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesThe Ducks are looking to get back on track offensively after rushing for only 62 yards against Stanford.
And yet here they are, again, on the outside of the BCS standings looking in following a loss to Stanford. Once again, the Cardinal attacked Oregon right at the heart of what it is all about. Stanford stifled the running game, kept the Oregon defense on the field for more than 42 minutes and out-physicaled the Ducks up and down the field.

After watching the game field, there was plenty to lament for coach Mark Helfrich.

“From an offensive side of the ball, schematically, there was a lot of stuff there,” Helfrich said. “In a game when there aren’t many snaps or many possessions and we have three red zone turnovers, miss a couple of throws, drop a couple of balls, slip a couple of times, everything is magnified. Defensively we have to figure out a way to get off the field. They did a good job of running a goal-line, four-minute offense and pounding us.

“From a coaching standpoint, you’re looking at what we coulda, woulda, shoulda done differently from that aspect, win or lose. We’ve done a good job of evaluating what happened and moving on, just as we would after a win.”

The team trying to give the Ducks their second straight loss for the first time in six years is Utah -- the only team to beat Stanford. Since that win, however, the Utes have gone on a three-game slide and have yet to win outside the state of Utah.

Having lost a tight 20-19 game to Arizona State, the team at the top of the South Division, and beating Stanford, the team at the top of the North Division, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said there is a level of discouragement as his team struggles for bowl eligibility.

“Frustrating is a fair word,” Whittingham said. “We have been in several close ball games. I think six have been decided by one touchdown or less. We have to figure out how to pull off more of those tight ones. The positive is we’ve been able to stand toe-to-toe with the best teams in the Pac-12. But nobody cares about being close. You need to get some wins.”

The Utes are continuing to find their footing as a team in a major BCS conference. Case in point, Oregon is the fourth ranked team Utah is facing this season. This is the first time ever Utah has played four ranked teams in a single season. This is also the first time Oregon and Utah meet as conference foes.

“It seems like I say this every week,” Whittingham said. “It’s like a broken record. There is a lot of talent in this league and Oregon is right up there ... bottom line is you are what and who your record says you are and right now we’re not good enough. We’re continuing to try and find answers.”

Oregon looks to answer some questions about the offense -- which rushed for just 62 yards against the Cardinal. Like Stanford, Utah boasts a strong pass rush. The Utes are tops in the nation with an average of 3.67 sacks per game. Schematically, Utah poses a different attack than Stanford, but Helfrich sees the parallels.

“They both wear red and white jerseys and have a block letter logo,” Helfrich joked. “They play hard. Their scheme is different. But they are big, they are physical and they tackle well. So in that regard they are very similar ... we don’t need any other motivation other than those guys beat Stanford.”

Both quarterbacks, Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and Utah’s Travis Wilson, have sustained some injuries over the last few weeks. Mariota’s reported knee injury was a question in the Stanford game. Wilson returned from a hand injury last week -- though Whittingham said the offensive line protection was so poor that he wasn’t able to get a fair evaluation. He said the Utes might “shuffle the deck” to fix the leaky offensive line.

For the Ducks, it’s a matter of re-focusing. And Helfrich is confident his team will do that.

“I think our leadership showed immediately after our last game in the locker room and has continued through practice,” he said. “Those guys have done a nice job of that and our coaches have done a nice job of turning the page.”

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 11

November, 7, 2013
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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
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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.

Utes using bye week to regroup

November, 1, 2013
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It seemed like so long ago that a wave of rabid Utah fans descended from the stands of Rice-Eccles Stadium to storm the field and celebrate arguably the greatest regular season win in school history. Utah’s signature victory over Stanford now feels more like a one-week aberration rather than the mark of a team ready to take a significant step forward in the Pac-12.

Since that time Stanford has gone on to beat back-to-back ranked teams and has climbed back into the BCS conversation. Utah has traveled a different path, dropping consecutive road games at Arizona and USC. A hand injury to quarterback Travis Wilson, untimely wide receiver drops and suspect offensive line play have all contributed to a two-game tailspin that has turned whatever sweetness lingered from the Stanford win into a bitter aftertaste.

“We have a great deal of confidence defensively,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “I think the defensive guys are in a good state of mind. Offensively we have to regroup and get back to playing the football we were the first five weeks. We have to get Travis back to playing the way he was the first five weeks and the offensive line has to get back on track.”

[+] EnlargeKyle Whittingham
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsTurnovers and offensive struggles have been issues this season for Kyle Whittingham's Utes.
Through those first six games when Utah went 4-2, the Utes averaged 37 points and 469.3 yards per game. Wilson was completing 61 of his passes and had 13 touchdowns to 10 interceptions (six came in one game).

But the last two weeks have looked a lot more like the 2012 Utah offense that struggled to move the ball in the air and produce points. It hit a season-low last week at USC when the Utes failed to reach the end zone, producing just a field goal in the loss to USC with 201 total yards and four turnovers.

The Utes are on bye this week -- putting an emphasis on health, rest, and of course recruiting. They return home next week to host an Arizona State team that scorched Washington State last night and is ranked in the AP top 25 but not the BCS standings.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do offensively,” Whittingham said. “We’ve had our poorest performance of the season by far and we have to come up with some answers as to what we’re going to do moving forward. That’s right on the top of the list.”

Turnovers, both creating them and eliminating them, continue to be an issue for the Utes, who rank 11th in the league in turnover margin at minus-7. Despite linebacker Trevor Reilly ranking second in the country with three forced fumbles, Utah is last in the conference with just 10 forced turnovers.

“Just got to keep working on it,” Whittingham said. “We work on it every day in practice, we have turnover circuits and things that we do and emphasize in practice on a daily basis. Plus, we've missed out on a bunch of opportunities this year. It's not like we haven't had several opportunities to intercept the football. The ball's been on the ground several times now. We've had the opportunity to recover several fumbles, but we have the opportunity to recover more than what we've gotten. So, we just got to keep working and keep preaching it.”

The Utes are trying to avoid missing the postseason for the second straight year. With four games left, they need to figure out a way to find two wins against conference foes. So far they are 0-3 against the Pac-12 South with two games remaining against the North and two versus the South.

Next week the Utes first need to exorcise some demons from the shellacking they took last year at the hands of the Sun Devils. Then it’s back-to-back road trips to No. 2 Oregon and Washington State before closing the year against Colorado.

The bye week comes at an opportune time to fix some of the problems that have ailed them. And, of course, getting Wilson healthy is a top priority.

“We never use [injuries] as an excuse,” Whittingham said. “If you are out there playing, you have to perform. The reality of it is his hand is pretty banged up. This bye week comes at a good time in that respect. Hopefully we get that thing feeling better. But if we put a guy on the field he’s expected to play to a certain level and we were not able to get that done.

“He’s a competitive kid. He’s got a lot of pride. He takes a lot of pride in what he does. Even though he was very disappointed by the last couple of weeks, I’d say he’s going to be just fine from a mental standpoint and come back and play well against Arizona State."

Stanford offers showcase game for Cooks

October, 24, 2013
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Who the heck is this Brandin Cooks guy, the Oregon State Beaver who is on track to become just the second NCAA player to eclipse 2,000 yards receiving in a single season?

He's fearless.

"He's a fearless-type guy is what I noticed," Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre said. "He's not real big but he's physical. He can go up and get a football with two or three people around him, and consistently does that. Every film I watched, he did that a couple of times a game."

Cooks is fast. And tough.

[+] EnlargeBrandin Cooks
Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsBrandin Cooks had a season-high 14 of his FBS-leading 76 receptions against San Diego State.
"He has exceptional speed," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "He's tough. And [Sean Mannion] is the perfect quarterback to complement what Brandin does as a receiver. He's so accurate and is such a great thrower."

Cooks is explosive.

"I watched the explosive pass cut up [Monday] night," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "Wow. The quarterback is doing a great job sliding in the pocket and buying some time and throwing it deep and Cooks is just running by everybody. The key for us [on Saturday] is to try to keep him in front of us as best we can. Let him catch the ball in front of us and try to gang tackle."

Cooks is a high-character guy with a strong work ethic.

"Brandin is pretty much the same guy every day," Oregon State coach Mike Riley said. "He got to this point because of his talent and work ethic. He just comes to work every day. I haven't noticed any change in him from the time he arrived on campus. He's driven and he's also a great character guy."

And Cooks is chill. He entertained a couple of reporters on the phone on Tuesday, repeatedly deferring credit to his teammates, Mannion in particular, while lying on his back on the Beavers practice field, taking in a beautiful day in Corvallis (according to a photo texted afterwards to the Pac-12 blog).

So Cooks is a lot of things that add up to being good -- as in Biletnikoff Award good. But who gets the majority of credit for the nation's most potent passing attack, the receiver who leads the nation in receptions (10.9 per game), receiving yards per game (168.0) and touchdowns (12), or the QB who leads the nation in passing yards per game (427.4) and touchdown passes (29)?

"I'll give it straight to Sean," Cooks said. "He's the commander and chief of the offense. I'm just doing my job and he's putting the ball there."

That's a question ultimately for the college football nation to decide, as both have worked their way into the conversation for All-American honors as well as national awards, perhaps even the Heisman Trophy. That the college football nation should even care about Mannion-to-Cooks is a bit surprising, considering the Beavers lost their season-opener to Eastern Washington, an FCS team, though it's important to note that 49-46 debacle was about a defensive meltdown. Cook and Mannion were their typical brilliant selves that day.

Six consecutive wins later, however, and the Beavers plopped into the No. 25 spot in the BCS standings. They've been operating mostly under the radar throughout their winning streak, but now the schedule's degree of difficulty is ramping up substantially, starting with a visit from No. 6 Stanford on Saturday.

It's a big opportunity for the program to move up in the Pac-12 and national pecking order, and for Mannion-to-Cooks to showcase its stuff to the college football nation.

"You can only keep us under the radar for so long if we keep doing what we're doing," Cooks said. "That's the beautiful thing about this game. College football can change in a minute."

Change is good, and Cooks has undergone some since he arrived at Oregon State as a speedy, sure-handed but undersized pass-catcher from Stockton, Calif. As a true freshman, he caught 31 passes for 391 yards, but with just 162 pounds on his 5-foot-10 frame, he wasn't much of a physical presence.

He was up to 179 pounds last year while catching 67 passes for 1,151 yards as Robin to Markus Wheaton's Batman. This fall, he's now a yoked 186 pounds. He hasn't lost any speed, and he's complemented that with an ability to win most mano-a-mano battles with handsy cornerbacks trying to disrupt his routes and rhythm.

Cornerbacks still try to get into Cooks' head. That is the cornerback way. They like to tell Cooks that he's not going to do that stuff he has done to everyone else to them.

"I get it sometimes. They get hyped up," Cooks said. "But it kind of slows down as the game gets going, when our team is gashing them. That's our trash talking for them."

It helps Cooks that the Beavers have a pretty good supporting cast of pass-catchers around him, which makes defenses pay for doubling him up, using bracket coverages or rolling their zone his way. No. 2 receiver Richard Mullaney has caught 32 passes for 538 yards with a stout 16.8 yards per reception, and 25 of his catches have produced either a first down or touchdown. Five other Beavers have at least 16 receptions.

But Cooks is clearly the lead dog. The junior already is fourth on the school's career receiving list with 2,718 yards. He needs just 276 yards to move past Wheaton into third place. His next TD reception will give him 21 for his career, breaking the school record shared by James Newson (2000-03) and Mike Hass (2002-05).

Cooks knows he hasn't yet played a defense close to the quality of Stanford's. The Cardinal last week shut down the Bruins high-flying passing attack.

"Their whole defense is a great defense," Cooks said. "You see minimal mistakes."

Who the heck is Brandin Cooks? He gets an opportunity to introduce himself to a national audience against the Cardinal.

Trojans, Utes battle to rebound

October, 23, 2013
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Two programs that have had to pick themselves up off the mat more than they’d probably prefer over the last two seasons will square off Saturday in Los Angeles in a game that will likely shape the pecking order of the Pac-12 South.

Utah travels to USC, and neither team feels particularly good about what it did this past week. Coming off a huge victory over Stanford, the Utes were flat in their first out-of-state road trip of the season in a 35-24 loss at Arizona.

[+] EnlargeTravis Wilson
AP Photo/Rick BowmerThe celebration from Utah's upset win over Stanford didn't last long, as the Utes fell to Arizona this past weekend.
The Trojans were offensively unimpressive in a 14-10 loss at Notre Dame.

A bowl berth still seems very much a possibility for both teams. The Trojans (4-3, 1-2) play 13 regular-season games this season because of their Week 1 trek to Hawaii. And with California and Colorado still on the schedule, it’s hard to imagine the Trojans not eking out at least two wins over the final six.

The road to the postseason is a little tougher for the Utes (4-3, 1-3). With trips to Oregon and Washington State sandwiched between home dates with ASU and Colorado, Utah is hoping it’s one-year bowl absence last season proves to be more of a freak occurrence rather than routine.

Most troubling to Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, however, was that he has no explanation for why his team lacked the sizzle it showed two weeks ago in upending Stanford.

“I think that was our first out-of-state road trip and that could have played into it a little bit,” Whittingham said. “We were flat coming out. We had a good week of preparation. There were really no indicators we were going to come out flat. For whatever reason we weren’t real fired up in the first half ... We didn’t get it done. We lost some of the momentum we had from the Stanford win. Now we have to move forward and try to get that corrected this week.”

This wasn’t the first time it’s happened, either. Whittingham cited last season's 24-21 win over No. 25 BYU, which was followed by the Utes being blasted on the road by Arizona State. In 2011 they erased a 14-13 halftime deficit to win at Pittsburgh 26-14, only to tank on the road a week later at Cal.

“I talked with Coach (Dennis) Erickson afterwards and he said that’s happened to him so many times over the course of his career and he didn’t have a great answer either, other than it happens,” Whittingham said. “It’s happened to us a couple other times ... I wish I had an answer. If I had an answer than I wouldn’t let it happen. But it did.”

And now the Utes have to wash it away. With five opportunities left to find two wins, this game takes on even greater importance for Utah -- which will have to either sweep at home or pick up at least one out-of-state road win to become bowl eligible.

“The Pac-12 has become a meat grinder just like the SEC, in my opinion,” Whittingham said. “Every single week you’re going to be challenged. I don’t want to paint the picture that it was us being flat, or this and that, why we lost. Arizona is a darn good football team. They deserved to win. Ka'Deem Carey is one of the best backs in the country and did a number on us. You have to be able to play your ‘A’ every week in order to have a chance to win. We did play our ‘A’ game against Stanford and didn’t quite play up to that level this week.”

Interim USC coach Ed Orgeron is banking on his players’ peppier attitude to guide them after one opportunity after another slipped through hands in South Bend. Numerous times throughout the game the Trojans had an opportunity to re-take the lead, but either missed field goals or penalties or poor execution contributed to their downfall. Orgeron said he’s confident the Trojans have moved on.

“I really feel like we came back with a good attitude,” he said. “We’ve put the last one behind us. I really like the feeling of this team and their attitude. But we have to play well Saturday.

“They have a good mindset, whether they read (what's written about the team) or not. It’s none of our business. They are going to do what they want to do. They are grown men. But I think they are pretty focused.”

Both teams are hoping to get marquee playmakers back for this week. Utah quarterback Travis Wilson sat the second half of the Arizona game with a hand injury. Whittingham said it’s early, but he’s hopeful Wilson be ready to play. USC wide receiver Marqise Lee also missed the second half of the Notre Dame game when he aggravated his sprained knee.

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