NCF Nation: Mark Helfrich

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Oregon had a Stanford problem. And then it didn't. It had an Arizona problem. And now it doesn't after stomping the Wildcats 51-13 in the Pac-12 championship game.

The Oregon program had a Heisman Trophy problem, but that likely ends Dec. 13 when quarterback Marcus Mariota takes home the bronze statue after a brilliant season capped by his MVP performance Friday night against Arizona. His five touchdowns against the Wildcats -- two passing, three rushing -- gave him 53 for the season against just two interceptions.

The Ducks have solved problems and touched -- or will touch -- the lofty places in college football. Just about all of them. Save one: The program has never won a national title. It's finished a season ranked second -- twice. It's played for a BCS national title and fallen just short against Auburn after the 2010 season.

Now, its win over the Wildcats is certain to secure either the No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the inaugural College Football Playoff. The Ducks, ranked second in the rankings this past week, will be playing in the Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual on Jan. 1, semifinal opponent TBD on Sunday when the selection committee makes its final announcement.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsMarcus Mariota's performance against Arizona all but handed him the Heisman, which would leave Oregon with just one final frontier to conquer.
Oregon improved to 12-1 on the season and took revenge for its only blemish, a 31-24 home defeat to Arizona on Oct. 2. At the time of that defeat, more than a few folks pronounced Oregon dead and questioned the leadership of coach Mark Helfrich, who was still laboring under the shadow of former coach Chip Kelly. Helfrich and the Ducks began the process that got them to the top of the Pac-12 for the first time since 2011 by showing up on Oct. 3 ready to get back to work.

"The next day, every single guy in our program was on the practice field 25 minutes before they had to be fixing it," Helfrich said. "It wasn't, 'Hey, you screwed this up. You did this wrong.' It's, 'How do we get better?'"

Oh, Oregon got better. A lot better. Since that loss, the Ducks are 8-0 with an average winning margin of 26.0 points per game. They have scored at least 40 points in eight straight games and gained at least 500 yards in seven straight. Both are the longest active streaks in the FBS, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Mariota and the Ducks offense started slowly and didn't really get in sync until the second half, but the defense made things easy, as it dominated the Wildcats, who had just 25 total yards and two first downs at halftime. When the offense caught up, it was lights-out.

And Mariota's final numbers were Heisman-esque. He completed 25 of 38 passes for 313 yards. For the season, he has 3,783 passing yards and 669 rushing yards.

"If this guy isn't what the Heisman Trophy is about, I'm in the wrong profession," Helfrich said.

For Arizona, it was just an ugly night, one that might knock it out of a major bowl. To cut to the chase, nothing worked. The Wildcats scored their first touchdown on a 69-yard strike against broken coverage to make it 30-7 and added a second tally on the game's final play.

"They played well and we didn't," coach Rich Rodriguez said. "They outcoached us and outplayed us."

Oregon appears to be peaking at the right time. After battling injuries all year, it's got three weeks to get healthy, starting with center Hroniss Grasu.

The only place Oregon hasn't reached is No. 1. The Ducks have positioned themselves to obtain that elusive prize. The question now is: Can they finish?


SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The box score Saturday morning will show that No. 2 Oregon won the Pacific-12 Conference championship game by embarrassing No. 7 Arizona 51-13. It will tell the early-to-bed reader that Oregon gained 627 yards of total offense and that quarterback Marcus Mariota threw for two touchdowns and ran for three. If he had an ounce of showdog in him, Mariota would have struck a Heisman pose before he left the wet Levi's Stadium grass.

[+] EnlargeRoyce Freeman, Jared Tevis
AP Photo/Ben MargotOregon's Royce Freeman evaded Arizona's Jared Tevis during a first half in which the Ducks struggled to get going.
If you didn't see the game, you would surmise the Ducks dominated a top-10 team on their way to coach Mark Helfrich's first conference championship, a 12-1 record and an all-but-official invitation to the Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual semifinal of the first College Football Playoff.

All of that is true, as far as it goes. But the truth is, Oregon needed nearly the entire first half to figure out how to get out of its own way. The statistics won't show how the Ducks overcame their early offensive mistakes (10 first-half penalties!) and the rain-slick conditions.

"Offensively, we were a little bit tight," said Helfrich, the second-year coach. "A bunch of guys that were trying to make it 42-0 on two plays, and that's very difficult."

Oregon might have wanted to play well because of the stakes, or to avenge Arizona's 31-24 victory on Oct. 2.

"We had a lot of motivation going into this game," Mariota said. He added later, "I think, overall, the feelings and emotions of the game kind of got to us a little bit."

Pacific-12 Conference commissioner Larry Scott on Friday hailed the College Football Playoff as a vast improvement over the old poll-and-computer-driven system. Speaking before the conference championship game, Scott pointed out that the selection committee, unlike the voting coaches and media members, actually watches the games.

For a while there, the entire Pac-12 had to hope the selection committee switched over to the MAC championship, or "Shark Tank" or "A Very Grammy Christmas" -- anything but the exhibition staged before 45,618 on a drizzling, misting night.

"I was pounding the table up in the box," Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost said. "Honestly, we should have had a bigger lead earlier. I give a ton of credit to them. If you watch tape of them in the red zone, their defense is really good."

But once the Ducks settled down, they made quick work of the Wildcats. The Mariota who came out of the locker room at halftime, the one who completed all 10 of his third-quarter passes for 121 yards and two touchdowns, is the Heisman guy.

The Wildcats' defense hung in there for some time, but in the end, there's no sugarcoating the its performance. That's the worst any team has played in a meaningful postseason game since Nebraska trailed Miami 34-0 at halftime of the 2001 BCS championship game. Though they trailed only 23-0 at the half, the Wildcats might have outdone the Huskers.

The Arizona that gained at least 450 yards in nine of its 12 games didn't board the flight from Tucson, Arizona. These Wildcats produced 25 yards and two first downs in the first half.

"Well, they played well. We didn't," coach Rich Rodriguez said. Terse may be an understatement. "Outcoached us, outplayed us, did a nice job. We didn't execute well."

The fifth of six consecutive three-and-outs in the first half captured the ineptitude. It began when DaVonte' Neal ran forward to catch a short punt near midfield, smacked into a teammate and went down like he had been decleated. The offense followed with a sack and another sack. On third down, freshman quarterback Anu Solomon avoided a sack by being called for intentional grounding.

By halftime, the Wildcats had lost the game. By the second half, center Steven Gurrola had lost his cool, getting ejected for fighting. His backup, Carter Wood, appeared to lose his lunch at one point just as he snapped the ball, which pretty much summed up the Wildcats' performance.

Solomon, who has battled injuries over the past few weeks, didn't play well in the first half and didn't play at all in the second. His backup, Jesse Scroggins, threw a 69-yard touchdown in the third quarter when the Ducks secondary blew a coverage. Scroggins' backup, Jerrard Randall, ran for a 25-yard touchdown on the game's final play.

Arizona played so poorly that it may have jeopardized what appeared to be a shoo-in bid to the VIZIO Fiesta Bowl. That would have reverberations all the way down the Pac-12's bowl lineup. The long view will say Arizona still won 10 games for only the third time in its history. And maybe the long view will diminish focus on what was an awful night for the Wildcats.

After a slow start, it turned out to be a championship night for the Ducks.

Oregon's shocking 42-16 loss at Arizona in 2013 was explained away by the usual suspects of excuses. Oregon was flat after losing to Stanford two weeks before. The planets curiously aligned and Arizona played a perfect game. All the bounces went toward the Wildcats and away from the Ducks.

In fact, that loss was widely viewed -- at least among the chattering classes -- as fuel for the Ducks against Arizona on Oct. 5 in Eugene. Then-No. 2 Oregon was playing inside the friendly confines of boisterous Autzen Stadium, and Wildcats redshirt freshman quarterback Anu Solomon was making his first road start in the Pac-12. In their previous game, the Wildcats needed a Hail Mary pass to beat California. Oregon was expected to exact revenge -- in spades.

Of course, we all know what happened. Arizona, without playing a perfect game and without a series of "lucky" breaks, won 31-24. It outrushed, outgained and outplayed the Ducks. Sure, Oregon has some injury issues. Sure, the game was horribly officiated. But egregious calls went both ways. The Wildcats just played better.

Since that loss, the Ducks are 7-0 and again ranked No. 2. Their average winning margin has been 24.3 points per game. They have scored at least 40 points in seven straight games and gained at least 500 yards in six straight. Both are the longest active streaks in the FBS, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

“They’ve been rolling right by people," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. "In all three phases, they’ve been dominant. I think our guys see that. They know they are a better team.”

Ah, but Rodriguez and defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel seem to have some secret sauce for cooking the Ducks. While Stanford was once viewed as Oregon's nemesis, now the Wildcats are that team.

Take Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, who is trying to lock up the Heisman Trophy, the Pac-12 title and a berth in the College Football Playoff with a win over No. 7 Arizona on Friday night in Levi's Stadium. Since the start of last season, Mariota has a 62.0 Total QBR in two games against Arizona, 30 points lower than against all other FBS opponents. Since the start of last season, two of Oregon’s three lowest-scoring games have come against Arizona.

Over the past two years, Mariota and the Ducks have averaged 47.9 points per game and 7.6 yards per play. Against Arizona, that total falls to 20 ppg and 6.2 ypp.

So Arizona has twice put together a plan that has thwarted the heavily favored Ducks. The question is whether they stick to the basics of the previous plans that worked before or make significant tweaks in anticipation of Oregon making adjustments?

“You don’t want to confuse your own players too much," Rodriguez said. "You don’t want to have them out there thinking. You want them to play fast, especially when you’re playing a team as fast as Oregon.”

That means Arizona plans to stick to the schemes that won it the South Division championship and earned it 10 regular season wins, including one over the Ducks. Oregon also probably wants to be itself, as in playing like the team it has been the past seven games.

Recall that the loss to Arizona was supposed to have exposed Oregon's Achilles' heel: its offensive line. It was decimated by injuries and, combined with the preceding game against Washington State, had surrendered 12 sacks in two games. The return of offensive tackle Jake Fisher and, to a lesser extent, Andre Yruretagoyena, has bolstered the Ducks' line significantly. It has yielded just 17 sacks in the Ducks other 10 games.

Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said the Ducks had to make adjustments within their schemes and with the personnel to get the line to gel. The unit has been playing significantly better, though it has to be a concern that All-America center Hroniss Grasu is still out with a knee injury.

One line of thinking is the Ducks' desire for vindication should provide extra fuel. If so, Helfrich is fine with that. Whatever increases focus.

“The thing we always talk about is channeling your energy to preparation," Helfrich said. "Whatever it is, if it’s getting beat the last two times we’ve played these guys, if that motivates you to have a great practice today, perfect. Use it.”

That said, you'd think the Pac-12 championship and a potential berth in the playoff would be motivation enough.

Oregon expected to be here when the season began. No one predicted the Wildcats would crash the party. Yet it's Arizona that comes in with the favorable head-to-head ledger. That suggests both teams should be plenty confident in their personnel and plan when they strap it on for the 2014 conference crown.
If multiple media reports on Sunday are correct, the University of Alabama at Birmingham is on the verge of becoming the first FBS school to eliminate its football program since Pacific in 1995.

Although UAB students and fans held a rally on Sunday night in a show of support for the football team, Sports Illustrated reports that the school will fire athletic director Brian Mackin and announce the elimination of football this week.

Sunday’s news was not a shock, as word began to spread around Birmingham a month ago that the university was studying football’s long-term financial viability. Although first-year coach Bill Clark led the Blazers to a remarkable turnaround, finishing 6-6 and achieving bowl eligibility for just the fourth time since UAB joined the FBS in 1996, UAB noticeably refused to commit to Clark or to the program’s future.

At the root of the issue are the decades of distrust between UAB, its supporters and the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees, which governs UAB, Alabama and Alabama-Huntsville. Blazers fans claim that the Board not only offers preferential treatment to the football factory in Tuscaloosa, but that it frequently undermines the UAB program -- and they cling to numerous conspiracy theories as to why that might be the case.
There will be subplots aplenty when Auburn visits Georgia on Saturday.

As is often the case, the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry will impact the SEC divisional races. It’s the rematch of last season’s “Miracle at Jordan-Hare” when Ricardo Louis caught the game-winning touchdown pass off a deflection from two Georgia defenders. It will be former Georgia cornerback and current Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall’s first game back in Sanford Stadium since Mark Richt kicked him off the team after the 2011 season.

And in case you hadn’t heard, Saturday night’s game will mark the return of Georgia tailback and former Heisman Trophy front runner Todd Gurley.


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The SEC has a table for one, and perhaps two, reserved at the College Football Playoff cafe. Even if things get really wacky (see: LSU beating Alabama on Saturday night), some team from the league that has produced seven of the past eight national champions will claim a spot in the final four.

Does the Pac-12 have the same luxury? My colleague Chris Low thinks it does, arguing on Thursday's kickoff show that the Pac-12 champ will make the playoff no matter what. I think the Pac-12 champ should make the playoff, but I'm not as certain as Chris that it will.

The question here is whether Pac-12 depth truly resonates with the playoff selection committee. I recently spent five days in Pac-12 country, and coaches repeatedly pointed to the depth the league has this season.

"If you played all the teams in the Pac-12 and all the teams in the SEC, it would be harder to go through the Pac-12 undefeated," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez told me.


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EUGENE, Ore. -- Marcus Mariota defies standard definition, so don't view him through such a primitive lens.

Change your settings before it's too late. Mariota is best enjoyed in high definition, and not just because of the Technicolor uniforms he and his Oregon teammates wear in games.

Mariota's mental mastery of Oregon's offense is becoming once-in-a-generation type stuff. The Ducks junior is functioning on a level rarely seen among college quarterbacks, a plane that has coach Mark Helfrich describing him like a post-doc student, enrolled in "Quarterback 303" or "Mariota 505."

Mariota doesn't fit the sometimes significant, somewhat meatball-y image of a tomato-faced quarterback spewing fire and passion with neck veins bulging and, often, mixed results (hello, Philip Rivers). He can lead with emotion -- more on that later -- but it's not his secret sauce.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
AP Photo/Ryan KangOregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is operating at a historically high level.
The numbers illustrate Mariota's complete command of Oregon's offense.

Season: 26 touchdown passes, two interceptions, an FBS-leading 187.2 quarterback rating, 10.2 yards per pass attempt (second in FBS), 68.1 completion percentage, 5.8 yards per rush, seven rushing touchdowns.

Career: 89 touchdown passes, 12 interceptions, team-record 644 completions, 66.4 completion percentage, 171.2 quarterback rating, 31-4 record as Oregon's starter and 10,760 yards of offense.

His career QBR of 88.4 is the second highest among players in the past 10 seasons, just ahead of Heisman Trophy winners Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston and just behind Cam Newton, another Heisman recipient.

"He's freakishly smart, especially when it comes to football," Ducks offensive coordinator Scott Frost told ESPN.com. "He sees things and processes things so quickly that he just doesn't make a ton of mistakes."

Mariota's mistakes also underscore his advanced approach to the game. Frost attributes most interceptions to two primary causes: bad eyes and getting flustered under pressure.

Mariota's interceptions stem from overthinking, but not in the standard sense. Helfrich calls it "thinking along with the route," which is fine as long as the route is run correctly.

But if Mariota's intended target veers off course or loses leverage, Mariota course corrects by still throwing on time and on target, when the right throw would be to the sideline benches.

"He knows what that guy's supposed to be doing," Helfrich said, "and almost tries to will it back. If the guy's running the wrong route, just throw it away."

Mariota's second-quarter interception Oct. 24 against Cal snapped a streak of 253 attempts without a pick, the second longest in Pac-12 history behind a run of 353 attempts set by, yep, Mariota.

"I was giving him crap, like, 'I'm so happy you threw that because of this elephant in the room,'" Helfrich said, before adding, "Not really, and it was a mental mistake."

Oregon can live with such mistakes because they happen so infrequently, and because Mariota's mind is normally such an asset. It is Frost's and Helfrich's jobs to teach quarterbacks about coverages, how to anticipate blitzes and how personnel fits a particular play.

But they can only do so much to help their players absorb the information. Mariota makes it easy for them.

"You don't even have to draw it up," Helfrich said. "You can just talk about it and he gets it. That's such a huge deal for that quarterback to be able to think about it over and over again without having to watch it, or even without having to do it. Because that's a thousand reps you can have without wear and tear of playing anybody."

Mariota processes at 5G speed, which helps when he's under duress. "Unflappable," one Pac-12 assistant described him.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, Mariota ranks second among Power 5 quarterbacks in completion percentage against the blitz this season (76.5). He's seventh in yards per attempt against the blitz (10.4) and third in percentage of passes resulting in touchdowns against pressure (17.6).

"I don't see his blood pressure going up," Frost said. "When he's in there, he stays calm and executes."

But Mariota's calmness and kindness has been interpreted by some as a drawback. Is he too chill to lead an NFL locker room? After Oregon's 45-16 win against Stanford on Saturday, Mariota was asked if he's too nice.

"That's people's opinions," he said. "When it's all said and done, I believe that my teammates will know who I am and play for me, and that's all you can ask for."

It's all that matters right now. Mariota is a more cerebral quarterback, and, as Helfrich often says, Oregon's quarterbacks don't have that "look-you-in-the-eye moment in the huddle" because the Ducks don't huddle.

But he also has evolved from the high school kid so quiet during an Oregon camp that half the staff wasn't sold on him, preferring his polar opposite, Manziel.

"When it comes to competition, he's as cutthroat as anybody," Frost said. "Marcus is at a place where he's been the front-runner for being the first quarterback [drafted]. Any time you're that guy, there's more scrutiny.

"They're trying to find something wrong with him."

Let them nitpick. It's their jobs.

The rest of us should appreciate a player who doesn't come around very often at the college level, one with a strong arm, nimble feet and, most important, a beautiful mind.
And just like that, we have Pac-12 clarity. Or potential clarity, which some fussbudgets might insist is nothing like clarity.

[+] EnlargeCharles Nelson
AP Photo/Ryan KangCharles Nelson and No. 5 Oregon still have to face Utah, Colorado and Oregon State this season.
After impressively exorcising its Stanford demons a day after All Hallows' Eve, Oregon owns a decisive lead in the Pac-12 North Division and is likely to earn a promotion Tuesday into the top four of the College Football Playoff rankings. If the Ducks win out, they are all but certain to earn a berth in the inaugural four-team playoff.

Meanwhile, the nutty South emerged from the fog with a new leader: Arizona State. The defending South Division champion, left for roadkill after yielding a 62-27 drubbing at home to preseason division favorite UCLA on Sept. 25, now stands as the South's highest-ranked and only one-loss team. If the Sun Devils win out -- which would include a victory over No. 10 Notre Dame on Saturday -- they also are all but certain to earn a berth in the playoff.

Oh, but fans of these teams should stop leaping into the air and clicking their heels together, particularly the Sun Devils. While Oregon has what amounts to an insurmountable three-game lead in the North with three games to play, the same can't be said for Arizona State and neither has much -- if any -- margin for error in the national framework. If the Sun Devils slip, then Arizona, UCLA, USC and Utah could climb back into the picture, perhaps forcing the South into one of those complicated tiebreaking tangles.

And if the Ducks let up, starting with what might be a tricky trip to Utah on Saturday, their playoff hopes could go poof and all that post-Arizona loss hand-wringing would recommence in Eugene.

So not surprisingly, winning continues to be the best recipe for remaining in a happy place.

If we contract from the inexorably forward-thinking nature of college football analysis, however, we see two teams asserting themselves in ways that just a few weeks back seemed unlikely. Recall: Oregon's offensive line was once a shambles and Arizona State couldn't stop anybody with a rebuilt defense.

Oregon yielded 12 sacks in back-to-back games against Washington State and Arizona and struggled to run the ball, but since Jake Fisher returned from injury at left tackle, the O-line has transformed. Against Stanford, the Ducks surrendered just one sack and rushed for 267 yards. On a down note, RT Matt Pierson hurt his knee against the Cardinal. His status, as well as the potential return of Andre Yruretagoyena, remains uncertain.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Kelly
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsTaylor Kelly and the No. 14 Sun Devils have four games left on their schedule, including a matchup Saturday against No. 10 Notre Dame.
Utah's defensive front is outstanding, particularly on the edges with ends Nate Orchard and Hunter Dimick. So, yeah, don't start celebrating a playoff berth just yet, Ducks.

As for the Sun Devils, the defense that was young, sloppy and overwhelmed while giving up 580 yards to the Bruins has held its last three foes to an average of 12 points per game. While Stanford, Washington and Utah have been struggling to score points, there's no question a defense that replaced nine starters from 2013 has become more confident, aggressive and sounder in terms of scheme. After the game, coach Todd Graham admitted he's never had a unit improve as much in a single season.

It will be interesting to see how ASU responds against Notre Dame. The Sun Devils lost at Notre Dame 37-34 last season in an oddly flat performance. While losing to the Fighting Irish won't affect the Sun Devils' position in the South, it probably would eliminate them from the national discussion, even if they went on to win the Pac-12. Losing to Notre Dame, which has already beaten Stanford, would also hurt the Pac-12's overall Q-rating while bolstering the Irish's chances to take a coveted playoff spot.

As for the South race, the Sun Devils have a far more forgiving schedule ahead than Arizona and UCLA. The Wildcats have four remaining conference games, including a visit to Utah, and UCLA has Washington, USC and Stanford on the slate. USC, which lost to the Sun Devils on a Hail Mary pass, has only two remaining conference games -- California and at UCLA -- before concluding with a visit from Notre Dame.

Will the Irish be going for a Pac-12 sweep that final weekend? That would be pretty galling for a conference that views itself as every bit the rival of the SEC for the nation's top conference.

Yet the present is newsworthy enough for the Pac-12. On a weekend when Oregon and Arizona State made conference and national statements, including Ducks QB Marcus Mariota establishing himself as a solid Heisman Trophy favorite, it still shouldn't be overlooked that Washington State lost QB Connor Halliday to a season-ending leg injury against USC and Oregon State QB Sean Mannion eclipsed Matt Barkley for the most career passing yards in Pac-12 history (12,454).

Halliday, a brash, swashbuckling battler, was on pace to challenge a number of passing records before he went down, while the Beavers' struggles this fall shouldn't reduce Mannion's career achievement.

In the end, however, the winners get the headlines, and Oregon and Arizona State have made themselves the Pac-12's headlining teams. Now, can they get to a Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 5 without suffering another blemish, thereby making the title game, in effect, a national quarterfinal that also crowns a Pac-12 Coach of the Year?

Say the Ducks and Devils (hopefully): "We're just focused on Utah/Notre Dame."

National links: Beware the big day 

October, 28, 2014
Oct 28
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Welcome to terrific Tuesday. Or terrible Tuesday. All depends on your perspective.

The College Football Playoff selection committee began deliberations on Monday in Grapevine, Texas. Tonight at 7:30 p.m. ET, Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long will unveil to a most curious audience the first-ever CFP rankings.

It's a historic time -- and surely chaotic.

Marc Tracy of the New York Times, in assessing the moment, writes that “historians will most likely date the end of the era of good feelings to 7:31.”

With that in mind, some advice for fans from the Big Ten to the SEC:

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The apparent diminished status of Stanford 's visit Saturday to Oregon, the Pac-12's game of the year the previous four seasons, fits in with 2014's chaotic profile, though you could make a case that 2013 demonstrated little is truly won in early November because the Cardinal and then the Ducks both face-planted after last season's game, blowing national title hopes.

What's notable about this season's contest is it is not a battle of highly ranked teams. Well, No. 5 Oregon remains so, but Stanford, loser of three games, has been relegated to the "other's receiving votes" category. Ten years ago, that would have been a nice thing on The Farm. Now, folks in Palo Alto, California, have intermingling fretful thoughts about their football team with their next tech start-up idea -- "What about an app that makes every offensive lineman play like David DeCastro?!"

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY SportsWith one loss this season, Marcus Mariota and the Oregon Ducks have four more games in the season to prove they're playoff contenders.
Meanwhile, the once-dominant North Division is no longer the Pac-12's beachfront property. The South owns a 9-4 advantage in games this season against the North, and a pair of South showdowns should displace Oregon-Stanford as the main attractions Saturday: No. 18 Utah at No. 15 Arizona State and No. 14 Arizona at No. 25 UCLA.

Only two relevant FBS teams remain undefeated, No. 1 Mississippi State and No. 2 Florida State, and the odds are against both (either?) getting home unscathed. That means, as we'll get our first look at the rankings of the College Football Playoff selection committee on Tuesday, there will be plenty of jockeying among one- and even perhaps two-loss teams over the next month. Ergo, the Pac-12 is weltering with potential intrigue, and Stanford-Oregon is far from exempted from this.

While Oregon remains atop the Pac-12 pecking order, that standing is tenuous. That, in and of itself, is not terribly shocking. The Ducks' defense and offensive line are suspect. What is surprising is the ultimate usurper is now most likely to come from the South Division in the Pac-12 title game. Did anyone in the entire universe speculate in the preseason that Oregon at Utah on Nov. 8 could have more big-picture meaning than Stanford at Oregon? Answer: No.

Yet Oregon-Stanford is not easily dismissed for four reasons of national import: (1) It could decide the Heisman Trophy, (2) it could decide whether Oregon will remain a candidate for one of four spots in the playoff, (3) it could show whether the Ducks' offense has solved its "Oh, no, a big physical defense!" syndrome and (4) it could get folks off coach Mark Helfrich's back for, well, a week or two.

No. 1 is obvious. Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is the best college football player in the nation. Everyone knows this. If every FBS team disbanded today and we held a draft, every single coach in the nation would select him first. Yes, that includes Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher.

But we also know the Heisman isn't always about being the best player. If Mariota ends his career 0-3 against Stanford, that will be held against him by voters, and not without justification. Winning matters. If Mariota can't elevate his game against his nemesis, his candidacy will lack the requisite magic voters want. In fact, considering Stanford's status drop, almost exclusively because of a sagging offense, the national audience will tune in to watch Mariota battle a rugged, yes, SEC-ish defense -- with the scoreboard being a secondary concern, at least initially.

As for the potential result, here's a guess that more than a few of you watching Stanford dismantle Oregon State 38-14 on Saturday thought the team in red looked awfully familiar. Not only was Stanford predictably dominant on defense, despite a couple of key injuries, it also broke out of its offensive malaise despite some boneheaded moments from quarterback Kevin Hogan, who, by the way, is 2-0 versus Oregon. It's entirely possible the Ducks' fair-to-middling defense will encounter an offense ready to play its best football of the season, and that is a plot-thickener.

Yet if Oregon hangs up, say, 35 points -- a total no team has approached this season -- in a victory over the Cardinal, we could get a momentous sweep of our four reasons of national import. With a Heisman-like performance from Mariota, the Ducks could polish their CFP bona fides, pending, of course, a clean slate through Dec. 5. National critics would have to tip their caps to the Ducks taking care of business against an A-list defense, and Helfrich could stand before a mirror at his home and -- privately, of course -- unleash his barbaric yawp over the roofs of Eugene, Oregon.

A defining Oregon win, some might be smirking, has been predicted by many (cough) the previous two seasons but not come to fruition. While this version of the Cardinal doesn't appear as complete as the 2012 and 2013 vintages, hindsight has tended to hold sway in this rivalry. Hogan winning as a first-year starter in Autzen Stadium in 2012? Not a chance. Mariota and the Ducks' offense -- averaging 55.6 points per game -- getting slowed down last fall? Please.

So, yeah, when so-called pundits throw out predictions this week, the wise ones won't hold too much confidence this game is going to be predictable -- or lack ramifications, both regional and national.
The introduction of Chris Petersen to the Washington-Oregon rivalry comes as quite a relief to the ink-stained wretches who write about college football. Redundancy and predictability are the sworn enemies of the scribbling class, and the Huskies-Ducks rivalry has been a model of redundancy and predictability for a decade, with the boys in green -- or, you know, whatever -- owning the purple team by at least 17 points in the last 10 matchups.

With Petersen now fronting the Huskies, that's an item of interest that a journalist can wrap a lead around. He or she doesn't have to immediately recycle the droning, "Is this the year Washington breaks through?" One can observe that Petersen not only was once a Ducks assistant -- from 1995-2000 under Mike Bellotti -- when he started a longstanding friendship with second-year Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, but he also was 2-0 against Oregon while heading Boise State, where he was 92-12 and was universally esteemed for his Huge Football Brain.

[+] EnlargeChris Petersen
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images"I know about the Oregon-Washington stuff," Huskies coach Chris Petersen said, "but that's not my focus, getting them fired up. To me, this needs to be about us."
"Huge Football Brain"? That hints at Chip Kelly, which means Huskies fans have stopped reading and now have thrown themselves on their prayer rugs and begun wailing to the college football gods that Washington really, really would like Petersen to become Washington's version of Kelly. Or, even better, Don James, Take 2.

With Huskies fans duly distracted by their invocations, we'll note to the tittering Oregon fans that the Ducks will be celebrating the 20-year anniversary of an obscure moment in their team's history on Saturday. While video of Kenny Wheaton's pick-six interception against Washington in 1994 is as difficult to find as a white peacock, it does exist, and there's a quiet minority of Ducks fans who believe it was a meaningful moment in the transformation of the program.

Those Oregon fans obsessed with such esoterica will be glad to know the Duck will don throwback uniforms to honor the occasion, of which at least one Oregon administrative Twitter feed observed this week: "Prior to 'The Pick' Oregon all-time had a .495 Win% (359-366-34). Since that game, Oregon is .731 (177-65)."

So, yes, call us a wee bit sarcastic when we poke fun by minimizing the impact of "The Pick," unquestionably the Ur-moment in Oregon football history, a highlight that plays immediately before every Ducks home game.

And the reason it is the definitive before-after line for the program's rise to West Coast and national prominence is not only that it was the key play in a run to the program's first Rose Bowl since 1958, it was that it happened so dramatically against the Huskies, the established Northwest power that Ducks fans most hated.

Which brings us back the rivalry and the two head coaches. Both know the rivalry well. That means they will at least acknowledge its biliousness, unlike Kelly, who seemed to enjoy telling reporters how much he liked former Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, knowing it would inspire forehead slaps among the Ducks faithful.

"Do I understand the rivalry as a native Oregonian? Absolutely," Helfrich said. "I know the history of that very well and what it means to our fans."

And yet, it's all about an established winning process with the Ducks, and that centers on preparing the same every week for a "nameless faceless opponent."

Echoed Petersen, "I know about the Oregon-Washington stuff, but that’s not my focus, getting them fired up. To me, this needs to be about us."

That carries over to Helfrich's and Petersen's friendship. Both insisted in the preseason it would overcome them being at professional loggerheads in the Pac-12's North Division, though they admitted this week they hadn't talked thus far this season. Both also insisted this week that it has no impact on their emotions or preparation for the game. Which, you know, is as it should be.

Petersen, while at Boise State, handed the Ducks their last nonconference loss at home in 2008, and then spoiled Kelly's head coaching debut in 2009. While that's an interesting factoid, it's also far less relevant than how well the Ducks offensive line, which recovered nicely in a win at UCLA with offensive tackle Jake Fisher back in the lineup, will play against the Huskies stout front-7, led by nose guard Danny Shelton, defensive endHau'oli Kikaha and linebacker Shaq Thompson.

What Oregon showed last week while redeeming itself after flubbing around in a home loss to Arizona is that when the offensive line is playing well, the offense hums along like in days of old. Petersen knows his team can't allow QB Marcus Mariota to feel comfortable.

"He might be the best player in college football, so that’s a problem right there," he said.

Another interesting factoid: Neither QB has thrown an interception this year. Because Cyler Miles isn't the playmaker that Mariota is, it's probably more critical for him to maintain his clean sheet Saturday.

So here we are, back at the redundancy: Is this the Huskies year? Maybe. Stranger things have happened this season. A lot stranger. But all the history and emotions don't hold a lot of weight with either coach. Whether the Huskies break through or the Ducks make like Spinal Tap's amplifiers and go up to 11, the coaches just view the game as X's and O's either doing what they want them to do or not.

Noted Petersen dryly, "So it doesn’t necessarily have to do with anything in the past. It comes down to playing good football."
The home field used to be a sanctuary -- a safe haven for teams looking to gain an edge on their opponents with the support of a noisy and raucous student body.

In the old days, there was a word for that: Advantage.

But the 2014 Pac-12 season has taken that advantage and blown it all to Hades. Through 18 conference games this season the road warriors hold a decisive 14-4 edge over the home team. And the audible antics of Autzen, the ringing reverb of Rice-Eccles or the tympanic torture of Husky Stadium haven't been immune.

[+] EnlargeArizona
AP Photo/Steve DykesCelebration scenes like the one Arizona held at Autzen Stadium on Oct. 2 have been extremely common in the Pac-12 this season.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” USC coach Steve Sarkisian said.

Sarkisian’s response echoed the sentiment of nearly all of the Pac-12 coaches, who could find neither rhyme nor reason as to why the Pac-12’s home cooking this season has tasted more like week-old leftovers.

“It’s a crazy year in the Pac-12,” said Stanford coach David Shaw, whose team once held the nation’s longest home winning streak at 17 games, only to see that snapped in Week 2 against USC . “It’s just shaping up that way. It’s hard to explain it any other way. Every week is tough. Every game is hard. It’s tough to win on the road. And then the road teams are winning in crazy fashion. Everything is up for grabs this year.”

There are two ways to look at this -- depending on how full or empty your glass is. Either the Pac-12 has the worst home conference record in college football, or the best road record. In conference-only games, the Pac-12 ranks last among all FBS conferences with its 22.2 winning percentage at home. The Big 12 (6-7) is the only other league below .500.

One fairly sound theory, presented by Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, is that with so many veteran quarterbacks, environment isn’t a factor because experience is winning out. Sounds logical -- except for the fact that his quarterback, in his second career road start, won at Autzen. Or that Mike Bercovici, Arizona State’s backup, won at The Coliseum in his first career road start.

UCLA coach Jim Mora actually tried to talk through an explanation, only to come up with nothing.

“I’ve thought a lot about that,” Mora said. “I can’t put my finger on anything. I wish I could, obviously, as do I’m sure the other coaches. I’ve actually given it a lot of thought the last week or so. I can’t come up with anything quite yet. Other than maybe there’s a psychological element to when you go on the road you close ranks a little bit and that sense of mission. Maybe? Maybe that helps you a little bit? But that doesn’t seem logical to any of us who are used to the home-field advantage.

“I wish I knew.”

One word the coaches kept coming back to was “parity.” With every Pac-12 team sitting on at least one conference loss and all but Colorado with a league win, the congruity within the conference has all but eliminated the concept of home-field advantage.

While that’s fun for the fans, it creates national problems while trying to lobby for a spot in the first College Football Playoff.

“I think our conference has this perception of parity equals mediocrity,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. “There are a couple of conferences where parity equals strength. I think it’s the strongest it’s ever been top to bottom.”

Helfrich did offer one other explanation: “It’s a non-leap year? I have no idea.”

This might help: Through the first 18 conference games, the home team has a minus-11 turnover margin and the average margin of victory (or defeat) has been slightly more than four points. When you consider one home game was won on a Hail Mary, another was lost on a Hail Mary, and three more home games were lost on missed field goals, one or two plays could significantly swing the win/loss total.

That’s why league newcomer Chris Petersen isn’t putting too much stock into the trend -- at least not yet. Having only played two conference games, his Huskies fit the trend so far -- losing at home to Stanford and winning at California.

“I think this will play out,” he said. “If the records are that skewed by the end of the season, there’s something to it. We’re only two games into it so I don’t know. It will be interesting to see at the end [of the] season where everybody is.”

Every coach in America will say his school has the best fans in the country. Even if he doesn’t believe it, there’s probably a tiny footnote somewhere in the Mayflower Compact that requires him to say so. But that doesn’t mean their minds aren’t in overdrive trying to make sense of what has already been a season short on logic.

“It’s been the exact opposite in year’s past,” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “I can’t explain it other than maybe it’s the matchups ... the hardest thing to do is win on the road.”

The record suggests otherwise. And for now, most of the coaches are just chalking it up to another unexplained phenomenon in the continued zaniness that is the Pac-12.

Oregon, UCLA still in playoff race

October, 8, 2014
Oct 8
9:00
AM ET

If Oregon wins the rest of its games, it's going to be in the College Football Playoff. You can take that to the bank. If UCLA wins the rest of its games, it's going to be in the College Football Playoff. You can take that to the bank.

So, really, little has changed for Oregon and UCLA as they prepare to square off Saturday in the Rose Bowl, despite both suffering upset losses at home last weekend. They are still within shouting distance of the top 10, and a victory over the other will be the sort of marquee win that should carry plenty of weight with the selection committee when it publishes its first rankings on Oct. 28.

But the stakes, in fact, might be a little higher. A second loss -- while perhaps not catastrophic, based on how the season has gone in the Pac-12 and nationally -- would leave no margin for error as the No. 12 Ducks and No. 18 Bruins try to win their respective divisions in the conference.

The big picture, with teams such as Oklahoma, Alabama and Texas A&M also losing last weekend, offers something tangible a coach can sell to his players -- no potential season endgame has been taken off the table. The only conference that might win a final record tie against the Pac-12 is the SEC, and that might be limited only to SEC West teams. Even then, if Oregon or UCLA end up with the same record as, say, Mississippi State, both would have a strong case based on having a far more ambitious nonconference schedules and the Pac-12's nine-game conference slate.

We don't yet know if the selection committee will bow to the SEC orthodoxy of "just because." It might not, if "just because" is the foundation of the SEC argument, as opposed to what happened during an entire season.

There's already a lot of blood in the water and there's likely to be much more carnage. In other words, things likely will only get more muddled and confusing.

"There are not many teams out there that don't have a wound," UCLA coach Jim Mora said. "It's how you recover. It's how you respond."

That said, prolonged consideration of the big picture is not what any coach wants. They want laser-like focus: on the immediate present, on Saturday's opponent, this practice, this play at practice.

"I think it's really important that we don't think about that or talk about [the playoff]," Mora said. "It's counterproductive to what you are trying to accomplish. It's great for college football. It stirs up interest and it keep your fans involved and gives commentators something to talk about that's exciting. But for the teams, at least for our team, it's just so important that we work the process."

That process is about correcting issues and moving on and not looking back in mourning over what transpired last week. Both the Ducks and Bruins are desperately trying to solve problems on their offensive lines and improve communication on defense after both broke down several times while losing to Arizona and Utah, respectively.

While both coaches are aware that their fans are wringing their hands over last week's surprising results, they also note that this fits in with one of the major preseason themes: The Pac-12 is as deep in quality teams this season as it has ever been, and there are no easy weeks.

"The reality of what coaches were saying in the preseasons media stuff is coming to fruition," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. "There is a ton of parity in this conference."

Oregon or UCLA still could rise above that parity and reenter the national dialogue. But that process starts only with a win on Saturday.
If Arizona's shocking 31-24 victory at No. 2 Oregon on Thursday is indicative of the sort of spectacle ahead on this epic weekend of college football, we all might want to invest in seat belts for our easy chairs. And perhaps don helmets ourselves.

The story entering the game was the Ducks seeking revenge for last year's embarrassing blowout loss in Tucson. It also was a good opportunity for QB Marcus Mariota to look all Heisman-y in front of a national audience on ESPN, even if kickoff was at 10:30 p.m. ET. While the Ducks' injury-riddled offensive line and inconsistent defense had been thoroughly picked over by analysts, the general feeling was the Wildcats were a good but not good enough squad to take advantage. What's more, as poised as redshirt freshman QB Anu Solomon had looked during a 4-0 run, he couldn't be expected to win his first Pac-12 road start in fearsome Autzen Stadium, right?

[+] EnlargeArizona Wildcats
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesArizona turned the Pac-12 on its ear with the upset at Oregon.
So much for pregame themes and conventional wisdom, smirks college football. On a week when everything was going horribly wrong for Michigan, bitterly dispatched former Wolverines coach Rich Rodriguez and his staff delivered a team that was poised and well-prepared and simply tougher than the Ducks. No one saw it coming, which means it was entirely predictable.

Yet in our unexplored new age of the inaugural College Football Playoff, the question every game between ranked or unbeaten or contending teams inspires is "What does it mean?"

The best answer is horribly lame: We don't know. Really. There's already been lots of typing, tweeting and chatter about this game, but we have no idea what this Week 6 contest means in the big picture going forward and, most notably, how it might resonate with the 13-person selection committee.

Those first rankings won't come out until Oct. 28. The best we can say at this moment is that Oregon is probably no longer a candidate for a coveted top-four spot. And Arizona, at least at this moment, is.

Oregon entered this game owning the best win in college football this season: 46-27 over Michigan State, a team that presently is ranked 10th, despite that defeat. Now the Wildcats own the best win this season. Ole Miss is going to try to steal that title on Saturday against Alabama, but there's no way the Rebels outsmart and outman Nick Saban's boys, right?

Arizona will be greeted with some degree of skepticism by pollsters in advance of the selection committee's "Hello, World" moment. The Wildcats 15 days before needed a Hail Mary pass to beat California, which didn't win a Pac-12 game last year, and had not been able to put away UTSA and Nevada until late in the fourth quarter. Yet with USC coming to town on Oct. 11, and road trips to Washington State and UCLA ahead, the Wildcats can quickly prove they are not one-hit wonders and establish legitimacy that would quash any skepticism.

As for Oregon, as dismal as this all seems -- The House that Chip Kelly Built is A-Crumbling! -- there is an immediate opportunity for redemption: a visit to No. 8 UCLA on Oct. 11.

What if OT Jake Fisher gets healthy, DE Arik Armstead's ankle turns out to be a mere flesh wound and Mariota decisively outplays Bruins QB star Brett Hundley? An impressive road win against the Bruins would certainly push the Ducks back into the national picture, particularly with the mighty SEC West also poised to start cannibalizing itself.

While Oregon seemed like the best bet to do the unlikely and negotiate the Pac-12 schedule unbeaten, the reality is that few expected the Pac-12 champion to be all shiny and 13-0 and dressed in an immaculate tuxedo for the selection committee. This conference is too hard for that. One quarter of the way in, the most notable indication was that the bottom and middle had risen up to meet a slightly stooped top third. The putative leaders -- Oregon, UCLA, Stanford, USC, Arizona State -- were each flawed teams, while bottom-feeders Cal and Colorado were suddenly good enough to scare anyone.

And Arizona, a midlander, was good enough to whip the Ducks.

There is a pessimistic side to all this for the Pac-12, starting with Oregon. If the Ducks' offensive line doesn't get a guy or two back, it won't be able to block many of the remaining teams on its schedule. While the Arizona defense is extremely well-coordinated by Jeff Casteel and plays well as a conglomerative unit, its front-seven talent doesn't match UCLA, Washington, Stanford, Utah and Oregon State. Mariota, as good as he is, can't continue to take this sort of beating -- 12 sacks in the past two games.

This defeat could be merely a sign of things to come for Oregon. What we saw Thursday night suggests two or three more losses wouldn't be shocking, and that would definitely make things difficult for second-year coach Mark Helfrich.

This, in fact, might be the state of the conference. The North and South Division champions might meet with two losses apiece. That would testify to the depth and quality of the conference, but it also might only get a respectful tip of the cap from the CFP selection committee.

Of course, we don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves. Seemingly every time we try to script the Pac-12 season, we are forced to do a rewrite.

The seat belts and helmets, though, do feel like sound advice.
Mark Helfrich's 15-2 record at Oregon is the best start of any Pac-12 coach since Pappy Waldorf went 16-1 beginning in 1947 at Cal, but that second loss was a doozy. While there was no shame in losing 26-20 at No. 6 Stanford last season, the 42-16 shellacking the Ducks suffered at Arizona two weeks later was stunning.

The Wildcats handed Oregon its first defeat to an unranked team since 2009. The 26-point margin was the program's biggest since losing 44-10 to USC in 2008. The defeat ended a run of four consecutive BCS bowl berths, and included an added dose of negative publicity when receivers De'Anthony Thomas and Josh Huff turned up their noses during the preceding week at the prospect of playing in another Rose Bowl.

[+] EnlargeMark Helfrich
AP Photo/Steve DykesMark Helfrich knows the Ducks may have extra motivation on Thursday after last season's loss to Arizona.
This accumulation of negatives unleashed the naysayers who wasted little time insisting that it demonstrated that Helfrich couldn't match the leadership of former coach Chip Kelly.

Helfrich, clearly aware of this, didn't bob and weave with the media after the game. He didn't snarl, either. Or pass the buck.

"Very sluggish in every phase. That's 100 percent my fault," he said. "I have to figure out exactly which levers to pull and buttons to push."

While Kelly repeated his "forward-looking" mantra ad infinitum, Helfrich admitted at the time the Ducks were due some "inward-looking." Ten months later, No. 2 Oregon prepares for the Wildcats to visit Autzen Stadium on Thursday night. Helfrich completely embraces the Ducks' "win the day" philosophy -- he helped establish it, as Kelly's offensive coordinator -- including only looking forward to playing "nameless, faceless opponents." But, he said this week, he doesn't write off the idea that some of his players might find some additional motivation from the events of Nov. 23, 2013, in Tucson.

“Anytime you don’t give somebody your best shot, that should leave a bad taste in your mouth," Helfrich said. "There were some guys that felt that way. It certainly looked that way on film. Hopefully that contributes to fuel the engine of your process.”

It was a strange game. Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota threw his first two interceptions of the season, ending a Pac-12 record streak of 353 passes without a pick. It was the first of three Oregon turnovers. The Ducks also turned the ball over on downs twice and were flagged eight times for 66 yards.

Mariota looked as stunned as Oregon fans after the game. "I have never been blown out like this before in my life," he said at the time.

Yet, as bad as the Ducks looked, Arizona deserved plenty of credit. It played a near-flawless game in all three phases. The Wildcats had no turnovers, just two penalties, converted 11 of 16 third downs and were 6-for-6 with six touchdowns in the red zone. Critically, the Wildcats tackled well in space. They yielded some big plays but not any huge plays, as the Ducks had six plays of more than 20 yards but none longer than 30 and none reached the end zone.

That's pretty much the formula for beating anyone, but tackling in space is particularly noteworthy against the Ducks.

“That’s what’s going to be the key again," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said.

The biggest new variable in this year's game is Wildcats quarterback Anu Solomon making his first road start in Pac-12 play. While Solomon made his first career road start in the Alamodome against UTSA, Autzen Stadium is a far more challenging venue. Further, Solomon had his worst game of the season against the Roadrunners in terms of traditional pass efficiency rating and Total QBR.

“He’s kept his poise pretty well," Rodriguez said of Solomon. "This will be a test for him. He’s shown a lot of maturity. I’m sure there will be a few mistakes but I think he’s got the kind of mentality that if he does make a mistake or two to shake it off and keep playing.”

Helfrich was asked this week if he'd figured out "which levers to pull and buttons to push" to avoid another lackluster performance. Not surprisingly, he didn't divulge a eureka moment.

That's because there's no magic. A team like Oregon, a national title contender for the past five seasons, has no margin for error. Every bad weekend is judged harshly and analyzed endlessly. There's no "oh, well," any more for Oregon. Wins are expected, and any loss is a cause for panic.

Helfrich has posted a historically good start to his career, but coaching the Ducks after Kelly has left him with a fan base that owns a "national title or bust" mentality. Ultimately, the loss at Arizona a year ago only serves as an Exhibit A for an unsurprising truism for all teams aspiring to be champions.

Said Helfrich: “It doesn’t just happen. Winning is really hard. You have to earn every single bit of it.”

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