NCF Nation: NCAA
A name and a number are grabbing headlines Friday after the NCAA reached a settlement in the lawsuit filed against the association by two Pennsylvania state officials.
The name is Joe Paterno, the late Penn State football coach. The number is 409, the total victories Paterno's record once again displays, making him college football's winningest coach.
But Friday's settlement is really about four letters -- NCAA -- and the four-letter words that should be used to describe its repeatedly shoddy approach to crisis management. Two and a half years after the NCAA stepped into uncharted waters, opting to levy historic penalties against Penn State and its football program in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, the association sunk.
"The NCAA," Pennsylvania state Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman said, "has surrendered."
Corman and state Treasurer Robert McCord justifiably claimed victory in their lawsuit against the NCAA. Friday's settlement invalidates the consent decree Penn State had agreed to in July 2012, and all the remaining penalties imposed on the university, including the 112 vacated wins in football between 1998 and 2011.
The NCAA's intent in pursuing penalties against Penn State was understandable, perhaps even justified, but its methods were flawed right from the very start: July 23, 2012.
Hours after NCAA president Mark Emmert announced historic sanctions against Penn State, penalties the school had agreed to by signing a consent decree, I spoke via phone with Oregon State president Ed Ray, the chair of the NCAA's executive committee. Ray had attended the NCAA's news conference in Indianapolis that day, before flying back to Oregon.
In the interim, Penn State president Rodney Erickson had told media outlets that if he hadn't signed the consent decree, the NCAA would have imposed the so-called death penalty on Penn State's football program, suspending play for the 2012 season.
So I asked Ray about the possibility of imposing the death penalty:
President Erickson was quoted today as saying that Penn State accepted that deal because if not, you would have decided to suspend play. Can you confirm that?
Ray: I've known Rod for a long time. I didn't hear what he said. I was on a plane flying back to Oregon. But I can tell you categorically, there was never a threat made to anyone about suspension of play if the consent decree was not agreed to.
So it wasn't as though you said, "Take this deal or we're shutting you down"?
Ray: That was never even a point of discussion within either the executive committee or the Division I board.
So right away, there were questions about how the NCAA had gone about obtaining the consent decree. Emmert had made the decision to step into the mud, and he seemed to get dirty right away.
Penn State bought the apparent bluff at the time, but now it's the NCAA that's folding.
The NCAA's news release announcing the settlement begins with the line: "Programs serving child sexual abuse survivors will now receive millions of dollars as part of the NCAA's proposed settlement with Pennsylvania state officials."
University of South Carolina president Harris Pastides, a member of the NCAA's board of governors, added in a statement: "Continuing this litigation would further delay the distribution of funds to child sexual abuse survivors for years, undermining the very intent of the fine. While others will focus on the return of wins, our top priority is on protecting, educating and nurturing young people."
That's true, but it's also well-spun. Make no mistake, this was a huge loss for the NCAA and once again underscored the association's dysfunctional approach to crisis management.
"The agreement we've reached represents a complete victory," Corman said at a news conference in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
He later likened the settlement to achieving the mercy rule.
"They were way behind in the case," he said.
Although Corman's political victory lap and sports-themed statements seemed inappropriate, given the sensitive and tragic nature of what went on at Penn State during Sandusky's tenure, he's right about the NCAA's rush to judgment. It was an incredibly emotional time, days after the university-commissioned Freeh report lambasted top Penn State officials, including Paterno, for their failure to take appropriate action against Sandusky when allegations first surfaced against the assistant coach.
There was unprecedented pressure on the NCAA from both the public and media to act. There also was the fundamental question of whether the NCAA had a role in punishing Penn State. This was new territory, and the NCAA, under Emmert's leadership, had to decide whether to cross into it.
Two and a half years later, it's clear the association veered far off course.
The problems were there from the start in the bumbling way Emmert approached Erickson about the death penalty and consent decree.
In a deposition obtained by USA Today, Erickson said Emmert told him, "Presidents want blood. He said they would like to shut your program down for multiple years; never seen them so angry or upset. He thought the only way to head this off would be to craft a package of what he said would be very, very severe sanctions; that he might -- he emphasized might -- be willing to get the boards to look favorably upon."
The NCAA contends that the presidents discussed the death penalty early in the process but removed the option before voting on sanctions. But according to USA Today, on the same day the sanctions were announced, David Berst, the NCAA's vice president for Division I governance, wrote in an email to the Conference Commissioners Association that many presidents had favored the death penalty.
People lied here, either to Penn State or to one another. The NCAA, known for being slow, finalized the Penn State penalties only 11 days after the Freeh report went public. The climate might have demanded action, but prudence would have been a better approach. Or avoidance, as difficult as that would have been.
Not surprisingly, much of the focus is on the restored wins, Paterno's legacy and what's next. Current and former Penn State players are tweeting #409, a tribute to Paterno's restored wins total. Many want the Paterno statue restored outside Beaver Stadium.
But this is far from over.
The NCAA said it will "aggressively defend" itself in the lawsuit brought by Paterno's family, which in a statement called Friday's proposed settlement "a great victory for everyone who has fought for the truth in the Sandusky tragedy."
The Paterno family statement adds of the sanctions: "It was a grievously wrong action, precipitated by panic, rather than a thoughtful and careful examination of the facts."
After what has surfaced about the NCAA's methods, there's truth to that.
Asked Friday at the NCAA convention whether he had any regrets in pursuing penalties against Penn State, Emmert replied, "We don't ever want to have to repeat this exercise."
It's important to know your limitations.
The NCAA didn't in the summer of 2012, and it paid the price in the winter of 2015.
That program is 37-18 (.673) in the four-plus seasons since he left, which isn't bad for many teams, particularly when operating with scholarship reductions. But this is USC, and Carroll went 97-19 (.836) in nine years. He won seven consecutive Pac-10 titles and two national championships. The program he led to 34 consecutive victories during a remarkable span of dominance, however, is coming off an enfeebled effort at Boston College. While those NCAA sanctions will no longer yoke the program going forward, they are still being painfully felt, see a scant 61 scholarship players available Saturday against Oregon State.
USC fans are going to cheer for Carroll in absentia on Saturday, as well they should. But for some there will be a tangle of competing feelings, which are aggravated by the uncertain present and future of the program.
Very few fame narratives are straight lines in our culture. While college football isn't Hollywood or national politics in terms of a Pavlovian response to scandal, you can't name too many coaches who posted careers without well-reported embarrassments, particularly over the past two decades when media coverage expanded exponentially. At least, not too many successful ones.
While the totality of their work on the field and general consensus about their overall character often wins out over the longterm for their lasting public perception, a legitimate evaluation can't ignore the ugly events that happened under their watch. So it is with Carroll.
He took over a foundering national power that went 19-18 over the three seasons before he arrived and built a dynasty. He went 6-1 in BCS bowl games. The Trojans also were crushed by NCAA sanctions for extra benefits Reggie Bush and his parents received when Carroll was head coach. More than a few outsiders, as well as a few insiders, believe Carroll dashed for the Seattle Seahawks in 2009 after spurning previous NFL entreaties because he wanted to get out while the getting was good.
There were other reasons that might have motivated him to leave, other than the NCAA. It shouldn't be omitted that Carroll bolted after his worst season since 2001, his first at USC. The Trojans had lost three of their final six games in 2009, including the humiliating 55-21 "What's your deal?" defeat to Jim Harbaugh and Stanford. His last game was an Emerald Bowl victory over Boston College -- no irony intended -- and the Trojans finished 9-4 overall.
There were whispers that his magic was gone, a not entirely unpopular take with opposing coaches. Carroll had started to miss on some recruits, and others who had sign ended up becoming highly rated busts.
Carroll has repeatedly and adamantly denied he left because he was worried about the direction at USC or impending NCAA sanctions. In fact, this summer he told the Los Angeles Times that he wouldn't have left the Trojans, even for a five-year contract worth about $35 million and near total control over personnel decisions, if he'd known how severe the sanctions would be.
That's an eyebrow-raising assertion that can't be measured for factuality, so you can choose to believe it or not. While there are many, many coaches more predisposed to spout bull manure than Carroll, he has always been media savvy and is not above a little gamesmanship during interviews. He knows saying that might score him some points with USC fans. It is, however, just words.
Of course, what he produced on the field is his truest measure, at least for how we, the observing class, evaluate his professional output. His hiring in December 2000 was widely mocked as bumbling athletic director Mike Garrett settling for his fourth choice. A lot of pundits wondered if his "Win Forever!" shtick would work in the NFL, where he'd previously failed, when the Seahawks gave him a big and blank check. He's proven two sets of naysayers wrong, joining Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer as the only coaches to win a Super Bowl and a college national championship.
He's even won the PR battle with the NCAA. The overwhelming consensus now is the 2010 sanctions against USC were unfair, even borderline corrupt. That ruling, in fact, might even be viewed as a Point A for the NCAA's recent decline into a feckless body that can neither govern effectively nor enforce rules. With Ohio State, North Carolina, Miami and Penn State seemingly being far worse transgressors of rules and decorum in recent years than USC under Carroll -- Head coaches lying! Academic fraud! A booster running amuck! A child molester on staff! -- the Bush ruling has become more of a negative reflection on the NCAA than Carroll.
In 2000, Carroll was a coaching afterthought. Nearly 14 years later, he's persevered into rarefied air, where he merits consideration for greatness.
USC fans are going to cheer when Carroll's name is announced and remember him fondly on Saturday, as well they should. It's also probably time for the conflicted to untangle their feelings about the man.
When challenged about his motives, he unveiled what became a program catchphrase: "We bow to no one at Stanford" -- pretty much saying he didn't give a rat's tookus if he bothered USC, Carroll or anyone else.
"What's your deal?" an irritated Carroll famously asked a smug Harbaugh during a wonderfully ungenial handshake.
Nonetheless, we had no idea what the actual deal would become between USC and Stanford. Early on, Stanford's success appeared to be a curious and anomalous run, a surprising reversal of fortune that briefly thickened the Pac-10 plot but seemed certain to be only temporary. Carroll and Harbaugh would both bolt to the NFL, where their personal rivalry has remained just as spicy. USC's short-term future was burdened with NCAA sanctions. Stanford's future seemed burdened by, well, being Stanford, the most elite academic institution playing FBS football.
When David Shaw, a polished Stanford graduate, ascended from offensive coordinator to replace Harbaugh, few imagined he'd maintain a top-10 program. There was a suspicion that Harbaugh built what he did because he was crazy enough to make it happen. Shaw was way too normal.
Yet here we are, two days away from a renewal of what has become the Pac-12's most meaningful cross-division rivalry. While Stanford-Oregon mostly has decided the Pac-12 champion the past four years, there's been little drama in their actual games, with only the 2012 contest being an actual nail-biter.
Three of the past four USC-Stanford games have been decided essentially on the game's last play, twice by field goals, once in triple-overtime. Average margin of victory in those four games? Five points. National importance? Stanford may have played Florida State in the BCS National Championship last year if not for being upset 20-17 at USC. In 2012, USC was ranked No. 2 in the nation before Stanford exposed the Trojans 21-14, starting a spiral from which former USC coach Lane Kiffin never recovered. QB Andrew Luck became Andrew Luck during thrilling Stanford wins in 2010 and 2011.
Both teams are star-laden NFL pipelines. Stanford, the two-time defending Pac-12 champ, enters this game ranked 13th, just a little annoyed at how Oregon and UCLA have grabbed the biggest preseason headlines in the conference. USC is 14th, a team with fewer than 60 available scholarship players but as gifted with its starting 22 as just about any team in the nation.
Both crushed overmatched foes last weekend and looked impressive in doing so. The Trojans added a wrinkle for this go-round by switching from their long-standing pro-style scheme to an up-tempo offense under new coach Steve Sarkisian, who notes "up-tempo" isn't a transition from a power to a finesse attack, only a means to create more touches for his talented skill players.
If the football part of football wasn't enough, if we needed to introduce some new drama and personalities at loggerheads to liven things up, it's worth noting that Shaw and Sarkisian engaged in a public war of words after last year's Stanford-Washington game. Sarkisian, then the Huskies' coach, accused Stanford of faking injuries in order to slow down his up-tempo offense, going so far as to specifically point a finger at Cardinal defensive line coach Randy Hart. Shaw wasn't happy with the accusation, and he opened that week's Pac-12 coaches teleconference with a lengthy and strongly worded statement.
"I believe it's unprofessional to call out an assistant coach on another team," Shaw said. "It's unprofessional and it's disrespectful. The only D-line coach that I know of that's ever instructed players to fake injury works at the University of Washington."
That would be controversial coach Tosh Lupoi, now working at Alabama, who was suspended in 2010 while at California for instructing players to fake injuries against Oregon. Sark, however, never backed away from his assertions.
"We had a disagreement in the heat of the moment; both of us have moved on," Sarkisian said.
Offered Shaw, "There is no animosity whatsoever."
Still, one suspects there are at least some residual fumes from this squabble, since a few Stanford players also took issue with Sarkisian's accusation.
There is another Shaw on the sidelines of this game, though figuratively: USC CB Josh Shaw, who last week went from heroic to notorious. Coupled with Anthony Brown calling Sarkisian a racist after the running back quit the team -- a charge that has been supported by absolutely no one -- USC was dealing with substantial tumult and unfavorable national headlines last week. It may have been a bit surprising that the Trojans overcame those distractions to efficiently dismantle Fresno State 52-13, setting a Pac-12 record by running 105 plays.
An easy way for Sarkisian to change the narrative around his program and to win over Trojans fans who remain skeptical about his hiring is to beat the Cardinal on Saturday. Winning cures just about everything in college football.
In any event, even without Harbaugh and Carroll sniping at each other, we know the deal between USC and Stanford. It has endured as an annual battle imbued with drama and meaning, with the winner Saturday likely pushing into the top 10 and announcing itself as a Pac-12 and national contender.
And who knows? Maybe the postgame handshake will offer up another memorable exchange.
"Many teams wonder what this SC thing is about -- why have we been so successful these past years," he said. "We came out there and showed them. They're Ohio State and that means something. But we prepare so well that we just do what we do."
There was a time under Pete Carroll when USC pretty much won games when they got off the bus. They simply looked a whole lot better -- bigger, faster, more confident -- than anyone else in college football. Reporters and fans would encircle the Trojans' open scrimmages, particularly during Competition Tuesdays, and marvel at the talent level and intensity.
New USC coach Steve Sarkisian was Carroll's top offensive assistant for much of that run from 2002 to '08 before heading off to Washington. He missed the 2004 BCS national title season while spending an unhappy year with the Oakland Raiders, as well as the start of the program's decline in 2009, a 9-4 finish after the Trojans had lost just nine games in the previous seven seasons. Then Carroll bolted for the Seattle Seahawks.
So Sarkisian knows what things were like during the Trojans' most recent dynastic run. He was there for its creation. A Southern California native, he knows the area, the program's traditions and how quickly expectations can become stratospheric. He knows what he is taking over. And getting himself into.
He knows USC is one of the most powerful brands in college sports, one whose name and logo have impact in South Florida, Ohio and Texas, as well as in its home territory.
"When you have that SC interlock on your chest and you walk into a school [to recruit], whether it's in Southern California or anywhere else, this talks about 11 national championships, six Heisman Trophies, more NFL draft picks, more All-Americans, more All-Pros, more Hall of Famers than any other school," Sarkisian said. "So it's a powerful brand."
Sarkisian also knows timing. He knows it's better not to be the "man after the man," as his friend Lane Kiffin was with Carroll. Sarkisian was Carroll's personal preference to replace him, and then-athletic director Mike Garrett made a play for Sarkisian before offering the job to Kiffin. Sarkisian was then heading into his second season at Washington and felt it wouldn't be the right time to bail out on the Huskies.
Oh, and he also knew NCAA sanctions were on the horizon, though there was little indication at the time that they would be as severe as they ended up being.
Good timing? As of June, USC is no longer yoked with those sanctions that included the loss of 30 scholarships over three years. After signing a highly rated class in February, despite limits, Sarkisian could have the Trojans at around 80 scholarship players next fall, according to ESPN.com's Garry Paskwietz, not far below the limit of 85, and substantially better than the numbers that have made depth the team's most worrisome issue since 2010. The Trojans presently rank 14th in the nation and first in the Pac-12 in the ESPN.com recruiting rankings.
Timing? Even during Carroll's run, USC's facilities were second-rate. No longer. After putting $120 million toward new and renovated buildings, including the 110,000-square foot John McKay Center, USC matches up with the most elite teams.
Timing? Sarkisian inherits 18 returning starters from a team that won 10 games in 2013. The Trojans should be contenders in the South Division this fall, emerging from so-called crippling sanctions in pretty good shape after averaging "only" 8.8 wins per season from 2009 through last year.
Of course, his timing isn't that perfect. He's got a UCLA problem that Carroll didn't have to contend with. The Bruins are surging under Jim Mora and are hardly quaking at the prospect of USC again being whole. It's notable that Sarkisian and Mora have long had a cordial relationship, though that might be difficult to sustain going forward.
"I think [hiring Sarkisian] has given them a shot of energy that I wish they didn't get," Mora quipped at Pac-12 media days. "I have great respect for Sark, and I like him as a person and as a coach. I just know he's going to make my job harder."
While USC again signed a full recruiting class of 25, which should make the going tougher for all 11 other Pac-12 teams, there's also some undercurrent of smugness within the conference from coaches and fans that Sarkisian hasn't truly earned a job like USC and that he isn't much different from Kiffin. His critics dubbed him "Seven-Win Steve" after he led Washington to three consecutive 7-6 seasons, a rut that had some Huskies fans putting him on the hot seat heading into the 2013 season.
The Huskies improved to 9-4 last season, finishing with a Top 25 ranking for the first time since 2001. Some also seemed to forget that Sarkisian inherited a team that went 0-12 in 2008. While there's been an odd effort to rewrite the history of how down the program was back then, it was outscored 463-159 that season and hadn't posted a winning record since 2002. Washington went 1-10 in 2004 and 2-9 in 2005. Further, majestic Husky Stadium was falling apart.
Chris Petersen has inherited a team from Sarkisian that's played in four consecutive bowl games, is ranked in the preseason, and is playing in a beautifully renovated stadium.
Sarkisian isn't necessarily bringing back Carroll's "Win Forever" rhetoric and culture. For one, he runs an up-tempo offense, not Carroll's pro style, and a 3-4 hybrid defense, not Carroll's 4-3. That could be seen as part of Sarkisian's maturation, of finding his own way. When Sarkisian took the Washington job after the 2009 Rose Bowl, Carroll actually told him that he needed to be his own man, not mimic Carroll.
"His final words to me walking out was, 'Go be you, because when adversity strikes, the real you is going to come out anyway,'" Sarkisian said.
For USC fans, adversity has already struck and stuck hard. Sarkisian's charge is to make sure those adverse days are done. Adversity going forward is losing more than two Pac-12 games.
Or is that losing more than one game, period?
Except it is a big deal, at least to the coaches who can now occupy strength and conditioning sessions and hold film study with their players.
The NCAA partially adopted a rule from the hardwood in October allowing a maximum of eight hours of mandatory workouts for players for eight weeks of the summer. What football coaches really care about, however, is the ability to watch those conditioning sessions and meet with their players for up to two hours each week. Any on-the-field work with footballs is still prohibited.
It is uncharted territories for most coaches, who are used to relying on third-party word of mouth from the program’s strength coach and upperclassmen on how summer workouts are progressing and whether freshmen are adjusting. Some coaches began mapping out how they would use their eight hours when the rule was passed, while others will take the pulse of the team and adjust accordingly. For some, they’ll protect the details of those hour splits as if it were the playbook.
“We have to carve out [player meetings] with our strength coach, time that we can take away from his hours because you’re not adding extra time,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “There is this model that I’m not interested in giving up to anybody, that we think gives us a balance.”
Notre Dame is still debating between Everett Golson and Malik Zaire as its starting quarterback, so Kelly can spend part of the summer mentally preparing both for the upcoming competition. He will institute a “spring ball installation” of the core offensive plays and defensive structure, “something we’ve never been able to do in June.” He’ll also show his quarterbacks all of their mistakes in previous settings in hopes of limiting them once the season begins.
The vast majority, if not all, are in favor of the rule, although to varying degrees. Indiana’s Wilson has walk-on players who could eventually earn a scholarship, so those players feel a need to attend summer workouts. He knows that means some will take out additional loans for summer school.
For the coaches, with summers now filled with prospect camps and recruiting visits, there are fewer hours to break away from the football facility. Wilson will take advantage of the change, but he wonders whether coaches will suffer from the burnout a 365-day coaching calendar lends itself to. The NCAA implemented a two-week summer dead period to combat the evolving recruiting calendar, but Wilson knows some coaches will stick around to watch tape with players.
“It’s a little ironic they added a rule that for two weeks a recruit can’t come in but added a rule so you can spend that time with your players,” first-year Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson told ESPN.com.
Added Wilson: “How do we find the balance? It’s nice we can work with them, but it’s finding a balance where your coaches can find sanity. It’s nice we can talk legally but … I think you can overcoach.
“It will be interesting after year one, whether coaches will say they want to do more or do less.”
No school returns fewer starters in 2014 than Utah State, so coach Matt Wells is tasked with making sure those players who will be asked to step up this fall are physically and mentally able. He is also cognizant that his staff spending too much time with the team this summer could produce undesired results.
“We’re going to still lean on player-led meetings, voluntary meetings the coaches aren’t in because it builds leadership in your team and in position groups,” Wells told ESPN.com. “We’ve benefitted from that the last three summers from an increased leadership role, and I think it’s important for the players to have a break from the coaches.”
For first-year coaches such as Clawson, the new rule will narrow the learning curve this fall as his players continue to adjust to his offensive and defensive ideologies. Clawson is seemingly like most coaches, though, in that he does not favor using the full two hours for Football 101 seminars. Wake Forest’s new coach is not deviating much from the old summer status quo.
When he and his staff assessed the Demon Deacons following the spring, he felt strength and conditioning was lacking most. So when mandatory summer workouts kicked off, he decided he’d only spend 30 minutes to an hour each week meetings with players.
“It didn’t make sense to take two hours away from that,” he said.
That could change in the coming weeks, though. While some schools already have their entire incoming freshman class on campus, Clawson won’t see all of his until July. He said the previous rule preventing coaches from working with freshmen lacked common sense.
“It used to be awful, the first time a freshman’s ever on campus and you can’t be around them,” Clawson said. “When these guys first get here, you need to have some involvement. Part of recruiting is parents trusting you with their son, and first time they drop them off, to not be allowed around them was very hard.”
2. Duke doesn’t have quite that much experience, but the Blue Devils do return 15 starters from the school’s first 10-win team in 72 years. Veteran players might not improve a record as much as you think, but Duke’s schedule certainly is dressed for success. The nonconference opponents: Elon, at Troy, Kansas and -- hey, a bowl team! -- Tulane. On the ACC schedule, there’s no Florida State, no Clemson, and no Louisville. That’s not a schedule -- that’s a work of art.
3. NCAA president Mark Emmert will begin his testimony Thursday morning in the O’Bannon antitrust case, and anyone hoping to save some semblance of the current system has to be a little nervous. Emmert is faced with defending a form of amateurism that he is trying to deconstruct even as he defends it. That would be hard for anyone, much less someone who has the shown the ability to immerse himself in hot water when speaking without prepared remarks.
USC officially will be done with NCAA sanctions on Tuesday, so the Los Angeles Times published a package this weekend looking back and projecting forward, talking to -- or getting turned down for interviews by -- some of the key players in the most egregious miscarriage of justice in the history of NCAA enforcement.
It's not inaccurate to say the NCAA's indefensible and farcical ruling against USC football is a notable part of the organization humiliating and entirely justified downward momentum over the past four or so years, both in terms of public perception and in the courtroom, as well as the movement for autonomy among the Big Five conferences.
The NCAA is incapable of fairly and consistently policing its member organizations. That's as good a reason as any to diminish its power.
From the Times:
- The inimitable Chris Dufresne says it's time for USC to look ahead and recover its position among college football's elite.
- Former USC coach Pete Carroll, who just won a Super Bowl with the Seattle Seahawks, defends himself and the program and says he would have never left if he knew the severity of the NCAA penalties.
- Ex-USC assistant Todd McNair's lawsuit against the NCAA is going forward and his case is very strong.
- USC athletic director Pat Haden looks back and forward.
- The one bright side to the experience is USC's compliance department is much better.
- Whatever happened to former AD Mike Garrett?
- And what's the deal between USC and Reggie Bush?
- The sanctions are ending but the effects remain.
- Oh, and just what were those sanctions again?
As many of you know, I've ranted and raved about the USC case numerous times through the years -- such as this and this and this. While some have implied that the source of my strong feelings on the matter emerges from some sort of USC/Pac-12 bias, that's simply inaccurate. It's always been about facts and fairness. Truth is, it's been a pretty easy argument to win -- over and over again.
That said: This feels like a great week for the Pac-12 blog. I am weary of the whole mess. Too often it disturbed my typical Zen-like equilibrium.
USC has spent the last four years getting justifiably mad. The Trojans best course going forward is to get even.
Arizona State gave Todd Graham a one-year extension and a $300,000 raise, his $2.7 million salary now ranking in the top half of the Pac-12. The contract will run through June 30, 2019.
Meanwhile, Arizona is giving Rich Rodriguez less but is being more creative. Rodriguez's base salary will get a boost of $220,000 to $2 million annually, but the university also is considering a significant retention bonus based on a $17.68 million stock offering from a booster.
From the Arizona Daily Star:
The proposal, which will be voted on by the Arizona Board of Regents next week, offers [athletic director Greg] Byrne 20 percent share of the stock, while [basketball coach Sean] Miller and Rodriguez will get 35 percent each if they meet the retention criteria: Each needs to stay at UA at least four years and cannot leave voluntarily before eight years in order to receive it.
Under the stock’s current value, Byrne would receive a bonus of $3.536 million while Miller and Rodriguez would each earn $6.2 million if they met the retention criteria. At the end of eight years, the three could keep the stock or sell it.
But let's not get bogged down in the numbers, other than to at least note that Graham and Rodriguez should pick up the tab the next time they take you to dinner.
Graham is 18-9 after two seasons. He led the Sun Devils to the South Division title last fall and a final national ranking. He's recruiting well. But it's just as notable that a program long known for lacking focus and discipline -- both on and off the field -- has become among the best at both within the conference. Academics and citizenship are up. Penalty flags and arrests are down.
Graham has his critics. He's probably not ever going to win everyone over. But he's doing it right in Tempe.
Rodriguez, with a lot less talent, has nearly matched Graham, going 16-10 with a pair of bowl victories. He, however, is 0-2 head-to-head in the rivalry, something that makes Wildcats fans a bit grumpy.
Rodriguez is widely considered within the business to be one among a small handful of true offensive innovators. While some dwell on his failed tenure at Michigan -- a hopeless mismatch that was aggravated by a dysfunctional athletic department and a sabotaging Lloyd Carr -- Rodriguez's track record speaks for itself. He's one of the 10 or 15 best coaches in the nation.
Both schools have good coaches who fit, and administrators and boosters know it. They want them to stick around. Both programs seem headed for consistent spots in the Top 25. While the South Division is rugged, particularly with a rising UCLA and USC emerging from NCAA sanctions, both should be in the thick of the divisional race most seasons.
When both teams are good, a rivalry is better. That appears to be where these two are headed. That means more national relevance and, therefore, more national attention. That is good for both schools, at least as long as one or the other doesn't establish a strong pattern of dominance.
Finally, this Pac-12 blogger truly enjoys that every time he's in Tucson or Tempe he's rapturously surfeited with snipes and gripes about the other program. We expect this joy only to increase as this pair moves up in the national pecking order, thereby marinating traditional bitterness with meaningful stakes to wrestle away from each other.
PHOENIX -- The overriding message coming out of Pac-12 meetings is that major changes in college football governance are now inevitable, even if the details and long-term consequences of those changes remain unclear.
The Big Five conferences will meet in August and almost certainly obtain a new autonomy level within the NCAA structure. At that point, major rules changes, including those that significantly bolster the support and benefits provided to athletes, will start to be formulated. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott intimated that things could move fairly quickly thereafter, so his message to conference coaches and athletic directors was basically to buckle up.
"Quickly is a relative concept, but deadlines are good," Scott said. "I think if we get the autonomy that we've asked for, the commissioners will be setting out a very aggressive timetable to put proposals out ... I expect we'll have a very intensive process over the next four months -- September through December -- where practitioners from our campuses are working on different agendas, including those with a deadline of January, specific proposals that can be voted upon by the 65 schools [in the Big Five]."
So "quickly" might mean?
"The goal is to implement whatever changes we're going to implement for the 2015-16 year," Scott said.
Chief among those would be cost of attendance scholarships, which could vary significantly by team and conference. Scott, however, noted that doesn't create a massive change of direction and complication because the pure value of tuition scholarships also vary by team and conference.
What does need to be implemented to prevent any fudging is a clear formula that all 65 schools apply to calculate the new value of their cost of attendance scholarships.
"I don't think it will that big of a deal, but there will be issues to work through in terms of a common method of determining the full cost," Scott said.
There is a significant degree of consensus within the Big Five conferences for adopting the cost of attendance scholarships, and it appears there is unanimity within the Pac-12.
"These are a lot of things that are going to be costly for us but I think are necessary and in line with what I believe we should be doing for our student-athletes," said Washington State athletic director Bill Moos, echoing other conference ADs.
While Scott was unwilling to admit that the Northwestern football union challenge and Ed O'Bannon lawsuit against the NCAA were driving the oncoming changes, he did concede the legal challenges to the NCAA governance structure and the publicity surrounding them weren't too far from administrators' minds.
"Is it some of these external challenges driving it? I would say no. There's been a recognition for some time [about these issues]," Scott said. "But I'd say external pressures bring a helpful focus and helpful push to get these things done."
While the potential move was an intriguing idea, it also isn't a done deal.
"I think there was a lot of positive feeling about it," Scott said. "Some objected. There are some pros and cons."
Said Moos: "Personally, I think [Levi's Stadium] is the way to go."
Said USC athletic director Pat Haden: "I think the current model has actually worked pretty well, the home host. I know the CEOs are debating that and discussing that. I don't think any decision has been made. Quite honestly, at USC, we don't mind the home-host model because we think we've got a chance of hosting."
Shrugged Washington's Scott Woodward: "I'm ambivalent. I trust the league and what they want to do. I have no problem one way or the other."
If the title game is going to be played in the new 49ers stadium on Dec. 5, a decision almost certainly would be announced in June, when the Pac-12 presidents meet.
"If we are going to make the move, it wouldn't be later than that," Scott said.
So it appears that the summer, once a quiet time for college football news, will be anything but that this year.
PHOENIX -- As has been typical in recent years, there's a lot going on in college football, even in May. So there will be plenty to talk about when Pac-12 coaches and athletic directors get together with commissioner Larry Scott over the next two days at the posh Arizona Biltmore Hotel.
While there will be plenty of housecleaning issues -- such as reviews of officiating and the reduction of contact in practices -- Scott acknowledged there were two areas for which he expects the most curiosity and discussion: NCAA governance reform and the new College Football Playoff.
"We'll obviously spend a good amount of time on that," he said.
The simple answer before the meetings begin is that the Pac-12 is in favor of both, even if some conference coaches believe the SEC didn't act in good faith when it opted to give itself an annual advantage by continuing to play only eight conference games. The Pac-12 and Big 12 play nine, and the Big Ten will play nine in the future.
"The way the system works is every conference can make their own decision," Scott said.
"What we've done, along with my other conference colleagues, is really significant -- we have stipulated that strength of schedule is going to be a critical component in sorting teams at the end of the season," he said. "No conference has stronger strength of schedule than we have."
Last year, the Pac-12 played the four toughest schedules in the country and eight of the top 13. Every conference team's schedule ranked among the nation's 42 toughest schedules. By way of comparison, Alabama's strength of schedule was ranked 47th and national champion Florida State's schedule was ranked 62nd.
The Pac-12 also figures to show a united front in favor of significant NCAA governance reform as it applies to the five major conferences and against the idea of athletes unionizing and being termed employees.
"We're absolutely supportive of having more flexibility with the five conferences to do more for student-athletes," Scott said. "At the same time, we think unionization is the wrong answer. We don't see student-athletes as employees. We think that would be a misguided take."
That position won't have to be sold to many athletic directors or coaches, but a few are curious about how the logistics will work out.
"I'm interested to find out where this meal thing is going and what it might mean and where we are with the stipend," Oregon State coach Mike Riley said. "I'm in that viewpoint that we need to really examine ways we can help these kids -- any way we can without getting into that world of paying salaries for players."
After these two major topics, the conference will review the Pac-12 title game, which will be played on Dec. 5 this year, another Friday night contest after the game was played on Saturday this past season in front of an (almost) packed house at Arizona State. Playing on Friday night is popular with no one -- other than Fox, which chose the date -- so that might inspire some grumbling. Two years ago at Stanford, the Friday night kickoff was an unmitigated disaster in terms of attendance.
While Scott said most are happy with the No. 1 seed hosting the game, there will be some give and take over potentially different formats.
"We feel good about our model, but we'll always look at options," he said. "We've got a lot of great NFL venues in the footprint. That's something we'll definitely look at as well."
One thing that won't get talked about, at least not in terms of advancing any positive agenda, is DirecTV, which continues to not broadcast the Pac-12 Network. Scott said there has been no advancement in the often contentious negotiations.
Meanwhile, more than a few athletic directors will be watching DirecTV's negotiations with the fledgling SEC Network.
If the NCAA Football Rules Committee gets its way, college football teams no longer will be penalized 15 yards if one of its players really didn’t target an opposing player.
But teams could actually be penalized for delay of game for – get this – playing too fast.
A few coaches of teams that utilize no-huddle, hurry-up offenses – which are becoming more and more common at the FBS level – immediately blasted the proposed substitution rules change, saying its only intention is to slow them down.
“It’s a joke. It’s ridiculous,” said Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez. “And what’s most ridiculous is did you see what the penalty is going to be called? Delay of game! How is that a delay of game? That’s the ultimate rules committee decision. Make the game slower and call it delay of game.”
“First off, [I] doubt it will pass,” Washington State coach Mike Leach said. “Second, it’s ridiculous. All this tinkering is ridiculous. I think it deteriorates the game. It’s always been a game of creativity and strategy. So anytime someone doesn’t want to go back to the drawing board or re-work their solutions to problems, then what they do is to beg for a rule. I think it’s disgusting.”
The rules changes proposed by the NCAA Football Rules Committee will be submitted to the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel for discussion on March 6.
In an NCAA statement, the NCAA Football Rules Committee said “research indicated that teams with fast-paced, no-huddle offenses rarely snap the ball with 30 seconds or more on the play clock.” The NCAA statement also said the proposed rules change also “aligns with a request from the Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports that sport rules committees review substitution rules in regards to player safety.” In the NCAA’s non-rules change years, proposals can only be made for safety reasons or for modifications that enhance the intent of a previous rule change, according to the NCAA statement.
Leach and Rodriguez aren’t buying that slowing down hurry-up offenses would make players safer.
“Where’s all the data that proves this is a player safety issue? I don’t buy it,” Rodriguez said. “What about making it so you can’t blitz seven guys? That’s a dangerous thing for a quarterback.”
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, whose team also runs an uptempo offense, wants to know if there is actual proof that uptempo offenses cause more injuries to players.
"Is there documented medical evidence that supports this rule change that tempo offenses are putting players at a higher degree of risk than others? If there is then show it to us," Freeze told ESPN.com Wednesday night. "Where is it? They're going to have to show us some evidence. If there's not any evidence, then they should table it.
"You can do it the last two minutes of the game. Isn't that when you should be most fatigued?"
Added Leach: “That’s really insulting that they are hiding behind player safety just because somebody wants an advantage. That’s crazy.”
This past season, fast-paced, no-huddle offenses continued to operate faster and faster in college football. Baylor, which led FBS teams in scoring (52.4 points) and total offense (618.8 yards), averaged 82.6 offensive plays in 13 games. Texas Tech averaged a whopping 87.3 offensive plays under first-year coach Kliff Kingsbury, and Fresno State averaged 83.6 offensive plays.
But some coaches, including Alabama’s Nick Saban and Arkansas’ Bret Bielema, have criticized hurry-up offenses, arguing that they give offenses an unfair advantage and don’t allow them to adequately substitute defensive players.
““All you’re trying to do is get lined up [on defense],” Saban told ESPN.com in September. “You can’t play specialty third-down stuff. You can’t hardly scheme anything. The most important thing is to get the call so the guys can get lined up, and it’s got to be a simple call. The offense kind of knows what you’re doing."
It's always been a game of creativity and strategy. So anytime someone doesn't want to go back to the drawing board or re-work their solutions to problems, then what they do is to beg for a rule. I think it's disgusting.” -- Washington State coach Mike Leach
But Leach contends it’s unfair to handcuff offenses because defenses can’t keep up with the pace.
“My suggestion is rather than spending a bunch of time coming up with a bunch of really stupid rules, spend that time coaching harder,” Leach said. “Worry about your own team and try to make your product better rather than trying to change the game so you don’t have to do anything.”
Freeze also believes that allowing defenses to rotate players in and out more frequently under this rule will put offensive linemen who are a part of uptempo offenses at more risk for injury because they will potentially face fresher defensive linemen every few snaps.
"If anything, you may be making it more dangerous for the offensive line because they're going to face 12 five-star defensive linemen from Alabama rotating every three plays," he said.
To Freeze, taking away the opportunity to snap the ball as fast as possible is taking away a major fundamental advantage that any offense can use against opposing defenses, which are allowed as much movement as possible before a play is even run.
"Since the start of football, defenses can line up wherever they want to," Freeze said. "They can move around as much as they want to before the snap. … They can do whatever they want to do, that's fine. I coach defense, too, that's great. The one thing that has always been offenses' deal is snapping the ball. That's the only thing we have."
The proposed change to the sport’s new targeting rules seems like a no-brainer after a slew of controversial decisions during the 2013 season. Under current NCAA rules, which went into effect this past season, players penalized for targeting opposing players were ejected from the contest and their teams were penalized 15 yards. But officials were allowed to review the play and determine whether a targeting foul actually occurred. If officials determined the play wasn’t targeting, the player’s ejection was overturned but the 15-yard penalty was still enforced.
If the proposed rule change is approved, the ejection and the penalty won’t be enforced. However, if a defender is penalized for a personal foul in conjunction with the overturned targeting foul, such as roughing the passer, a 15-yard penalty will still be enforced.
In games in which instant replay is not in use, the committee recommended an option to permit on-field officials to review targeting calls during halftime that were made during the first half. Officials then could reverse the targeting call and allow the player to compete in the second half.
ESPN.com’s Ted Miller and Edward Aschoff contributed to this report.
Tom Hosty, the NCAA’s Director of Enforcement, notified University of Washington President Michael Young in a formal letter delivered today that the NCAA has “now completed the inquiry into those matters” and that “the enforcement staff does not believe that further action is warranted” in the investigation.
First off, USC: How's it feel to get good news from the NCAA? Weird, huh?
For this is very good news for Sarkisian, ensconced in his new digs at USC. He was Lupoi's head coach at Washington, and the NCAA has new enforcement guidelines that are supposed to hold the head coach more accountable than in the past for the "rogue" actions of his assistants. If the NCAA had found that Lupoi had provided extra benefits to the recruit in question, former Lynnwood (Wash.) High defensive lineman Andrew Basham, Sarkisian could have been exposed to sanction himself.
The same goes for Washington, which is good news for new coach Chris Petersen and his staff.
And, obviously, this is good news for Lupoi, whose college coaching future was on the line. He released a statement on Twitter Monday night.
"I want to thank the NCAA and the UW for their professionalism and thoroughness during this investigation," he wrote. "I stated from the beginning that an honest and thorough investigation would clear my name, and prove these attacks against me were untrue. The results speak for themselves."
So this means all three parties under scrutiny can move on. Lupoi, who took a buyout from Washington and wasn't hired at USC because of these accusations, now needs to find a job. Widely considered an ace recruiter, it will be interesting to see if he's quickly grabbed by another college program or if he opts to seek an NFL job.
The problem for Lupoi, of course, is just getting accused of recruiting violations is often enough to make head coaches -- and athletic directors -- wary of hiring a guy. We shall see.
Then there's the alleged whistleblower Mike Davis, a track coach and advisor to Basham, who made the accusations to the NCAA, LA Times and Seattle Times. He told the newspapers he could document $4,500 in payments from Lupoi.
The Seattle Times reported "Davis and his wife met with a UW official and two NCAA investigators for a combined five hours in Seattle on Dec. 20, two days after the allegations first surfaced in a Los Angeles Times report." It appears, however, that Davis was unable to produce compelling evidence beyond his inflammatory accusation.
So, barring the unlikely event that new evidence is produced, Lupoi, USC and Washington can tip their caps at each other and go their separate ways, (mostly) no worse from the NCAA wear and tear.
Then when you put it in the context of the tumultuous season -- a maelstrom of coaching uncertainty and chaotic swings of momentum -- it seems like Trojans fans should officially declare the strangest season in program history at least a moderate success, perhaps as successful as it could have been. Well, other than losses to Notre Dame and UCLA.
Further, it shows the players have pride. A substantial handful -- both seniors and underclassmen -- are eyeballing the NFL draft, and it wouldn't have been shocking if they gave an indifferent performance against Fresno State, a team that arrived with plenty of motivation. Quarterback Cody Kessler told Kevin last week that the Trojans were focused and motivated, and it proved to me more than empty, tell-the-reporter-something-pretty talk.
Said Kessler, "Getting us to 10 wins puts us in an elite group. We have a chance to finish things off right -- especially for our seniors. These guys have been through everything. Sanctions. Coaching changes. We owe it to them to give it everything we’ve got to get a win.”
So the players who are leaving, which might include leading juniors such as receiver Marqise Lee, defensive end George Uko, linebacker Hayes Pullard, safety Dion Bailey and cornerback Josh Shaw, can feel good about how they finished things. If this performance was a tribute to former interim coach Ed Orgeron, then you can be sure Coach O was howling with delight somewhere while watching the game.
But what about those who are staying?
The big news coming out of the Las Vegas Bowl other than the final score was that new coach Steve Sarkisian will retain offensive coordinator Clay Helton, who served as the interim head coach for the bowl game. That's probably good news for Kessler, who blossomed once Helton took over the offense from fired coach Lane Kiffin.
Of course, Sarkisian, like Kiffin, calls his own offensive plays, so if another opportunity arises for Helton, particularly one that includes play-calling duties, he might opt to leave.
In fact, who's staying and who's going applies to both the players and coaches. We probably won't get official word on the makeup of Sarkisian's staff until after Washington, his former team, plays BYU in the Fight Hunger Bowl on Friday night. The Huskies under new coach Chris Petersen also have kept their plans quiet.
The big questions: Will Huskies defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and quarterbacks coach Marques Tuiasosopo follow Sarkisian south? If Wilcox shortly arrives at Heritage Hall, then where does current USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast end up? In one year, he transformed one of the nation's most underachieving defenses into one of its best. Hard to imagine he stays unemployed for long.
This whole blending together of USC's and Washington's -- and Washington's and Boise State's -- 2013 staffs has certainly inspired plenty of gossip among other assistant coaches.
Another question: Tosh Lupoi.
The Huskies ace recruiter and defensive line coach is being investigated by the NCAA following allegations that he paid for private tutoring for Husky football recruit Andrew Basham, with Basham's former high school track coach, Mike Davis, spilling the beans to the Los Angeles Times and Seattle Times last week.
What that means in the short term is that Lupoi won't be hired by USC, and he might be out of a job until the NCAA rules on his case. What it means in the big picture for two Pac-12 football programs in transition is hard to say, as Washington, USC and Sarkisian have significant interests in the matter.
Due to new NCAA rules, Sarkisian could be exposed, which means USC could suffer for violations that occurred in Seattle.
And, yes, feel free to question the timing of these allegations being reported and speculate on where the sour grapes originated that spawned the investigation.
An offshoot of Lupoi's troubles is the Trojans’ need for a defensive line coach, which probably is why Sarkisian told ESPNLA 710 on Sunday that he's going to make another run at Orgeron to see if he's interested in returning to USC.
That could be interesting. Or it could just be idle talk.
Once all the administrative and personnel issues are settled, then we'll start to take a measure of the Sarkisian administration and how things might stack up in 2014. Trojans fans first want to see where their team ends up on Feb. 5, national signing day. Then it's on to spring practice, where Kessler likely will have to prove himself again, though Helton staying on should provide his candidacy a boost.
USC's bowl win was impressive. It surely made Trojans feel good, inside and outside the locker room. But the reality is it was as isolated as a pleasant fan experience can be. A win in the Las Vegas Bowl and finishing in the lower half of the nation's top-25 isn't what Trojans pine for. With this next recruiting class the last one limited by NCAA sanctions, most are ready to see the program regain its footing among the Pac-12 and nation's elite.
Sarkisian officially took the keys of the program on Saturday. By Sunday, the euphoria from the bowl win probably started to waft away inside Heritage Hall.
The real business begins now.
Scary movie -- Worst loss of the season: Washington headed to Arizona State ranked 20th, with national pollsters being forgiving of consecutive, competitive losses to Stanford and Oregon. A shocking 53-24 beatdown delivered by the Sun Devils, and the Huskies were dumped from the national rankings. The new storyline was a familiar one: Another seven-win season?
Haunted House: Arizona State struggles on the road, but it certainly has horrified visitors to Sun Devil Stadium. Of course, we can start with the, er, unusual finish against Wisconsin. Then there's the dismantling of both USC and Washington. Sure, the Sun Devils looked like a different team -- in a bad way -- while losing at Stanford and to Notre Dame in Cowboys Stadium, but visiting foes often leave Tempe with a haunted look.
Thriller: The most exciting Pac-12 game so far this year is Oregon State's 51-48 overtime win at Utah. The Beavers jumped to a 20-7 lead, but the Utes tied things in regulation with a 21-point fourth quarter, including a 9-yard run from QB Travis Wilson for the tying TD on third-and-goal with 21 seconds left in the game. On the Beavers' side of things, QB Sean Mannion converted two critical fourth-down plays in the fourth and then threw the winning TD pass in overtime to, of course, Brandin Cooks.
Nightmare in Eugene -- Biggest debacle of the season: Tennessee took a 7-0 lead at Oregon, and the folks in orange maybe starting thinking about "SEC!" chants. Then the Ducks scored 59 unanswered points by the end of the third quarter. Oregon fans started chanting "We want Bama."
House of horrors: Horrors? We give you USC. The Trojans fired coach Lane Kiffin as he got off the team bus at LAX after a 62-41 beatdown at Arizona State, and they have suffered through epidemic injuries that are even worse for a team crippled by scholarship reductions. Meanwhile, the program has watched as the NCAA reduced Penn State's sanctions and provided a reprieve for Miami, which overlooked the scandalous doings of now-incarcerated booster Nevin Shapiro while under the leadership of late athletic director Paul Dee, who chaired the Committee of Infractions against USC.
Cursed team: California, losers of 10 consecutive Pac-12 games, might be headed for its worst season since the regrettable Tom Holmoe Era. Start with one of the toughest schedules in the nation. Then move on to a roster decimated by injuries. The Bears have been slow to adjust to new schemes on both sides of the ball, and they presently ranked last in the conference in both scoring offense and scoring defense.
- Arizona running back Ka'Deem Carey: The Sheriff in "Blazing Saddles"
- California's 2009 and 2010 recruiting classes: The Knack.
- Utah QB Travis Wilson: Thing.
- Arizona State coach Todd Graham: A monchhichi.
- UCLA coach Jim Mora: Dick Tracy
- Oregon State WR Brandin Cooks: Flash.
- Stanford LB Shayne Skov: William Wallace.
- Colorado WR Paul Richardson: Steve Smith
- Washington RB Bishop Sankey: The Pope.
- Former USC coach Lane Kiffin: Lindsay Lohan.
- Washington State coach Mike Leach: Gene Wilder.
- UCLA OLB Anthony Barr: Verb.
- Marcus Mariota: Ed Smith.
- The NCAA Committee on Infractions: Lloyd Christmas & Harry Dunne
- The Pac-12 & DirectTV: The Zax
- Oregon State CB Larry Scott: Larry Scott.
- Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott: Larry Scott.
We point that out because that's about the only thing Oregon isn't doing well right now.
Others are deceptive. Oregon ranks sixth in total defense but is No. 1 in the far more revealing stat of average yards surrendered per play, where they rank eighth in the nation at 4.46 yards. The Ducks are 10th in red-zone offense, but their touchdown percentage in the red zone -- 72.1 percent -- ranks second.
This seems like a team with few, if any, holes. So what are the Ducks' weaknesses?
"I haven't seen any," said California coach Sonny Dyke, whose Bears lost 55-16 at Oregon on Sept. 28. "They are incredibly fast. I think the difference this year is they are throwing the ball so much better. Their receivers are faster, bigger, stronger, more physical, making more plays than in the past."
In the preseason, there were three questions about Oregon: 1. How would Mark Helfrich do stepping in for Chip Kelly? 2. What would be the pecking order at running back and how would De'Anthony Thomas be used? 3. How would the Ducks replace the dynamic linebacking troika of Dion Jordan, Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay?
Check, check and check.
The 7-0 record, No. 2 ranking in the national polls -- No. 3 in the BCS standings -- and 40-point average margin of victory suggest that Helfrich is doing fairly well. He might be a softer touch than Kelly -- though he's not afraid to tweak a reporter or two -- but he's not taking any mercy on the field.
Running back? The bottom line is the Ducks are No. 2 in the nation in rushing with 332.4 yards per game, 17 yards better than last year's average, and they've done that with DAT missing the last four games with an injury. Backups Byron Marshall and true freshman Thomas Tyner are both averaging 6.7 yards per carry and have combined for 16 touchdowns. Marshall, a sophomore, ranks 19th in the nation with 106.6 yards rushing per game.
Linebacker? Tony Washington, who replaced Jordan, has nine tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. Jordan had 10.5 tackles for loss and five sacks in 2012. Derrick Malone leads the Ducks in tackles with 59. And, really, the bottom line is the defensive numbers, including a run defense that ranks 22nd in the nation.
"I think [the Ducks defense is] certainly the best they've been," Dykes said. "The secondary is really, really good. They are good at linebacker and they are pretty active up front."
Of course, Dykes is a first-year Pac-12 coach who hasn't been dealing with Oregon during its rise to consistent top-five team, though he was Arizona's offensive coordinator from 2007 to 2009. If we're going to ask whether this version of Oregon might be the best yet, we need to ask someone who's seen them all.
Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, whose Huskies have lost 10 in a row to Oregon, including five defeats during his tenure, let out a big breath when asked if this was the Ducks' best team.
"Hooof," he said. "We've played some pretty good ones. I think the balance they have on offense is probably the best that they've been."
The general consensus is Marcus Mariota is the Ducks' best quarterback during its recent run. He might, in fact, as former Ducks All-American QB Joey Harrington recently volunteered, be the best in program history. Mariota brings a dangerous downfield passing game to a longstanding dominance running the ball. As for the defense, it's very good, though it remains to be seen whether it's as good as the 2010 unit or even the talented crew of 2012 that battled numerous injuries.
Still, every coach who has played the Ducks probably feels there's something he wishes he might have attacked more or tried to exploit.
"I think there is a lot of places," Washington State coach Mike Leach said. "There's always a lot of places."
Washington State lost 62-38 at Oregon last weekend, with Leach's Cougars adding two late touchdowns to make the gap less dramatic. Quarterback Connor Halliday set a number of Pac-12 and NCAA passing records in the game -- he completed 58 of 89 passes for 557 yards -- but also threw four interceptions, one of which Terrance Mitchell returned 51 yards for a touchdown.
"Oregon is really fast," Leach said, echoing a common theme. "As you play Oregon, everything they do -- they can reel plays in quicker. They react to everything quicker. Very explosive... Oregon hits you in the mouth when you throw one up."
Of course, speculating on Oregon's seeming lack of weaknesses and its standing among other accomplished Ducks teams is a mostly a meaningless academic exercise when five regular season games remain ahead, including a visit Saturday from No. 12 UCLA. In fact, the next five Pac-12 games (combined opponent record of 26-7) are far tougher than the first four (combined record of 12-16).
Helfrich isn't really biting, either. When asked about areas of concern, he pointed back to the preseason questions and implied the jury is still out at linebacker.
Yet his overriding conclusion sounded very Chip Kelly-ish, while also offering plenty of room to read between the lines.
"I think everything," he said. "In every phase we can get better, starting with me, everything we do."
That's either coachspeak -- we need to get better every day -- or carries a more ominous implication: No weaknesses? Best Oregon team? You haven't seen anything yet.