NCF Nation: Nick Aliotti

Get this. Stanford’s Lance Anderson actually wanted to be a defensive coordinator in the Pac-12. Crazy, right? Biletnikoff winners to lose sleep over; Doak Walker finalists dashing and gashing for 20 yards a pop; and All-American offensive linemen that must be displaced. Oh, the humanity.

“There are some pretty good quarterbacks, too,” says Anderson.

Oh yeah, the quarterbacks.

[+] EnlargeLance Anderson
Peyton Williams/Getty ImagesLance Anderson, who has been on Stanford's staff since 2007, will have to replace some big names on the Cardinal's 2014 defense.
Anderson has his wish. With the departure of Derek Mason, who was named the head coach of Vanderbilt last month, Anderson takes over one of the most respected defensive outfits in all of college football. The Cardinal have led the conference in scoring defense and been ranked in the top 15 nationally in three of the last four years. They live by the mantra #partyinthebackfield and have put the brakes on some of the nation’s top offenses.

Now it’s Anderson’s turn to add his own flavor to the scheme -- however minor it might be.

“Every year we tweak a little bit no matter what,” said Anderson, who first came to Stanford in 2007 with Jim Harbaugh. “We go back and watch film and do all of our self-scouting and analysis. We try to find places where we can get better and improve and that’s naturally going to lead to tweaking. I think every coordinator has a different feel and some stuff you might like a little better than the other guy.

“We’ve been in a system for a few years now and I think the kids are really comfortable with that. They like it. And I think the systems we’re in on both sides of the ball suit our personnel really well. Vic Fangio came in in 2010, installed the system at that point and we’ve kept it pretty similar ever since.”

That includes transitions from Fangio to the co-defensive coordinator team of Jason Tarver and Mason to just Mason and now to Anderson, who will continue to work with the outside linebackers after coaching the defensive tackles his first two seasons on The Farm.

Equally known as a top-flight recruiter, Anderson must now help the Cardinal transition to life without some of their marquee players. Gone next year are linebackers Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy, defensive end Ben Gardner and safety Ed Reynolds. All were major contributors in one form or another to Stanford’s appearances in four straight BCS bowl games.

Despite those losses, Anderson is confident the Cardinal have the depth -- both in and out of the locker room -- to stay atop the defensive standings.

“I look at guys like A.J. Tarpley and Jordan Richards who have played a lot of football and they really stand out,” Anderson said. “Both guys display some natural leadership and they are well-respected by their teammates. Henry Anderson and David Parry are a couple of other guys who are really looked up to among the defensive players. I think we’ll be OK.”

Interestingly enough, the Pac-12 has seen the defensive coordinators from the top five scoring defenses move on after the 2013 season. Mason went to Vanderbilt, Nick Aliotti retired at Oregon, Justin Wilcox moved to USC with Steve Sarkisian, Lou Spanos returned to the NFL and Clancy Pendergast was not retained with the Trojans after Sarkisian came in. Three of those were replaced internally, with Anderson, Don Pellum (Oregon) and Jeff Ulbrich (UCLA) all being promoted. Pete Kwiatkowski joins Chris Petersen in Washington by way of Boise State and Wilcox followed Sark. So despite the transitions, the continuity among coaching staffs remains relatively unscathed.

However, that combination of coordinator shuffling, along with some A-list offensive players returning in 2014, makes for an interesting setup. The Pac-12 is known for its offensive diversity, and when you factor in the possibility of nine teams returning their starting quarterback, the dice seem loaded to the offensive side of the ball.

“There is a lot of offensive talent in this league and it doesn’t look like that’s going to slow down,” Anderson said. “The quarterbacks all have experience. It’s not going to be easy.

“We know that every week we are going to be tested. All we can do is try to go out and learn the techniques and the fundamentals and get the physical and mental mastery of the position. Once we get that in spring ball and the preseason, it’s just matter of going out and applying what we’ve learned during the season. Every week is going to be different. All we can do is prepare the best we can, master the position and try to apply it on Saturdays in the fall.”

3-point stance: Cheers to Aliotti

December, 30, 2013
12/30/13
5:30
AM ET
1. College football will be a lot duller Tuesday because Nick Aliotti will have coached his last game as the Oregon defensive coordinator. Aliotti has done a terrific job under Rich Brooks, Mike Bellotti, Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich. Last spring, newly a grandfather, Aliotti sounded like a guy who could live without the game. “Football doesn’t define me. It’s what I do for a living,” Aliotti said. “I just happen to be a football coach. Do you know what I’m saying? I don’t need people to interview me. To be honest with you, I’d be perfectly happy to be on the golf course, just being with my wife and my kids.”

2. The difference between a winning season and a losing season? It will be hard to find one snap more important in any bowl than Syracuse freshman Brisly Estime's 70-yard punt return to the Minnesota 14. Estime’s return with 2:00 to play set up the Orange’s winning touchdown in a thrilling 21-17 victory in the Texas Bowl. The Golden Gophers dominated the fourth quarter to that point, fighting back from a 14-3 deficit to take the lead. The best part? It was only Estime’s fourth punt return this season.

3. Miami had a 6-0 record and a No. 7 ranking when the NCAA announced in October that the Hurricanes’ sanctions would include no more bowl bans. Without that NCAA sword hanging above the Canes, they could realize their ambitions, right? Not with this defense. Miami lost four of its last six games, bookending 27-point losses to Florida State and Louisville around 18-point losses to Virginia Tech and Duke. Al Golden can now recruit without having to worry about what the NCAA will do. He needs to.
Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti is pleased. It has just been noted to him that his Ducks showcased brilliant coverage in the secondary during their 45-24 win at Washington. It's the same observation that had been made by Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian, but you get the feeling that Aliotti is not weary of hearing about it.

He admits he even allowed himself some extra time to savor the blanketing of white on black during a postgame film session with his players.

"I said, 'Look at this! There's nobody open for [Washington QB Keith] Price to throw the ball to!'" Aliotti said.

[+] EnlargeNick Aliotti
Steve Conner/Icon SMINick Aliotti spent 24 years on the Oregon coaching staff, including 17 as defensive coordinator.
Just like any other coach, Aliotti will tell you the only statistic that matters is about three letters, not numbers: W-I-N. That said, he takes a lot of pride in his defense and the players he sends onto the field. While Aliotti projects an amusing, avuncular personality, just below the surface is an intense competitor. That pride and competitiveness led to his postgame tirade two-plus weeks ago after Washington State scored two late touchdowns against his reserve players in a 62-38 Ducks win.

"That's total [bleep] that he threw the ball at the end of the game like he did," Aliotti said to reporters. "And you can print that and you can send it to [Cougars coach Mike Leach], and he can comment too. I think it's low class, and it's [bleep] to throw the ball when the game is completely over against our kids that are basically our scout team."

It might have been the most controversial moment of his 38-year career, and it cost him $5,000 after he was fined and reprimanded by the Pac-12. Aliotti apologized to Leach and called himself "embarrassed" in a release from the school two days later.

"It was probably an old guy who didn't understand the Internet, how the media can get going so fast," Aliotti said. "Just making an honest, simple statement about what I thought at the time. Obviously, I made a huge mistake by overstepping my bounds. I shouldn't have said those things. These days, you've got to be politically correct. Not one of my strong suits."

While, no, those comments weren't terribly smart coming from a veteran coach, it's not difficult to ascertain the source of Aliotti's frustration. While there typically have been hat tips to his defense during Oregon's rise to elite national power, most of the nation sees Oregon as being all about offense. That high-tempo, flashy offense is the big story when it rolls up eye-popping numbers, and it's the big story when it gets slowed down.

Recall the gloating from SEC fans about Auburn, with a middling SEC defense, shutting down the Ducks in their 22-19 victory in the 2010 national title game? Why was it not almost as notable that Oregon held Auburn to 18 fewer points than the Tigers averaged against SEC defenses?

Or when Stanford ruined Oregon's national title hopes last fall in a 17-14 overtime win, it was all about the Cardinal shutting down the Ducks with nary a mention of Aliotti's defense holding Stanford to 10 points below its season scoring average.

There's, of course, an obvious answer: The winning team sets the postgame agenda and analysis. Amid all the Ducks winning since 2009 -- 54-7 record -- the offense almost always leads.

That's apparently the big story again as No. 3 Oregon visits No. 5 Stanford on Thursday: Will the Stanford defense be able to thwart QB Marcus Mariota, the nation's leading Heisman Trophy candidate, and the Ducks again?

Yet here's a bet that the game won't turn on that. Here's a bet that Stanford's defense doesn't even approach its success from last year and that the bigger issue will be whether Stanford's struggling offense can score enough to keep it close.

Because, by the way, it's Oregon that enters the game with the Pac-12's best defense, not Stanford.

Oregon ranks first in the Pac-12 and seventh in the nation in both scoring defense (16.9 PPG) and yards per play (4.41). It leads the Pac-12 and ranks sixth in the nation in both pass efficiency defense and turnovers forced (23).

And this is happening after losing three All-Pac-12 linebackers, Dion Jordan, Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay.

Stanford coach David Shaw has noticed.

"They are missing three dynamic football players," Shaw said. "The crazy part is, without those outstanding players, the defense as a whole looks better. They are fast. They are big."

Shaw is one of more than a few Pac-12 coaches who frequently gush about Aliotti's defense, about how he maximizes his players' talents and puts them in position to be successful and how his perplexing, flexible scheme is both sound and sometimes baffling.

"It's a different scheme than most 3-4 teams," Shaw said. "It takes some getting used to, to prepare for it."

The enduring ideas about Oregon's defense, even when it is given credit, are quasi-dismissive compliments: scrappy, aggressive, quick, blitz-heavy. Those words are no longer accurate. The Ducks have comparable future NFL talent with many of the nation's top defenses, starting a secondary chock-full of future NFL starters.

Things have changed in part because winning has bolstered recruiting. The Ducks are no longer undersized. They are fast and big -- see eight defensive linemen in the regular rotation who are 6-foot-4 or taller, including three over 6-6. The secondary has become -- and will continue to be -- an NFL pipeline. And at linebacker, things are going fairly well for Alonso these days.

The improved talent has meshed with a good scheme, but Aliotti and his staff also are good at teaching and making sure each player understands what his assignments are. And trusts them.

"Our players believing in what they are doing," first-year Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. "I think Nick and the defensive staff have done a great job of taking advantage of our overall strengths and maybe hiding our potential weaknesses a little bit. I think, collectively, it's a ton of guys playing hard."

Aliotti tweaks things every year. This season, the Ducks are blitzing less, due in large part to the myriad mobile quarterbacks in the Pac-12, a group that includes Stanford's Kevin Hogan, though their respectable 2.88 sacks per game suggest they are still getting pressure on the opposing quarterback.

We won't know if this turns out to be Aliotti's best unit until season's end, but it's certainly good enough to merit a spot on the marquee next to the Ducks' ludicrous speed offense.

And, yes, Aliotti wouldn't mind if he and his players received some credit.

"It's about winning games, but we do all take pride in our job," he said.

3-point stance: Florida State is back

October, 21, 2013
10/21/13
5:00
AM ET
1. We are fooled easily in the excitement of the moment. Yet Florida State so dominated at Clemson that the 51-14 victory will be one of the seminal moments of the season. It will mark the emergence of redshirt freshman quarterback Jameis Winston in prime time, literally and otherwise. As good as Winston played, the Florida State defense played better. The Seminoles are back, and what better time? The university that dumped Hall of Fame head coach Bobby Bowden four years ago will honor him this Saturday.

2. The one complaint against the makeup of the College Football Playoff Selection Committee that has merit is that West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck, at age 53, is the youngest member. It makes sense that the commissioners wanted gravitas on the committee, and with the presence of members such as Tom Osborne, Mike Tranghese and Pat Haden, they have it. But they made room for a woman and a retired sportswriter. However hard they searched for a member under 40, they should have looked again.

3. The old protocols are butting heads with the new spread offenses, and everyone is groping for the right way to act. Should the offense throw when it’s way ahead? Baylor is averaging 64.7 points per game, and judging by the Bears’ No. 8 ranking, no one is holding that against them. Should the offense throw if it’s way behind? Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti ripped Washington State head coach Mike Leach for throwing 89 times, then apologized last night. No one knows what the rules should be any more.

Pressure? Oregon responds convincingly

October, 12, 2013
10/12/13
10:25
PM ET
SEATTLE -- When Washington running back Bishop Sankey burst through Oregon's defense for a 25-yard touchdown with 26 seconds left in the third quarter Saturday, causing the Husky Stadium crowd to erupt like a volcano of hope and joy, it was as though the second-ranked Ducks were at that moment handed a three-question exam.

How might the Ducks react to a tight fourth quarter, which they haven't faced this year? Is statistically impressive quarterback Marcus Mariota a clutch performer? And, really, does first-year head coach Mark Helfrich have the cucumber-cool of the guy he replaced, Chip Kelly?

The No. 2 Ducks sharpened their No. 2 pencils and then ...

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesMarcus Mariota was calm and confident under pressure.
They drove for two fourth-quarter touchdowns while shutting out the 16th-ranked Huskies in the final frame. Mariota was 5-of-6 for 75 yards in the fourth with a 3-yard touchdown pass and a 5-yard touchdown run. And Helfrich's version of the Ducks showed themselves as a complete and poised team, one that is clearly a national title contender after an impressive 45-24 victory.

"In a hostile environment, under some duress, when you can make some adjustments and execute those adjustments in all three phases, that's a big deal," Helfrich said. "It's a sign of a mature team."

True. The Ducks improved to 6-0 overall, and Mariota produced a Heisman Trophy worthy performance on a big stage. He completed 24 of 31 passes for 366 yards with three touchdowns and he rushed for 88 yards and another score. He has accounted for 25 touchdowns this season, 17 passing, eight rushing.

"I don't have a Heisman vote, but I'd be hard-pressed to say we'll see a better quarterback this year," Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian said of Mariota. "That guy is special. I don't know when he is planning on going to the NFL, but when he does, I think he'll be a top-five draft pick."

It was a brilliant performance from bell to bell, the Ducks 18th consecutive road victory, the longest active streak in FBS football.

As a side bar, one noted by the Oregon fans in attendance with chants of, "Ten more years," late in the fourth quarter, the Ducks recorded their 10th consecutive victory in the bitter rivalry series, and each of those wins came by at least 17 points.

At this point, that dominance seems secondary, almost academic. The average high school senior can't remember Washington beating Oregon. But it's not secondary and academic to folks who can remember when the Huskies dominated the rivalry. Defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti has been at Oregon for 21 years in three different stints starting in 1978. He paused when asked if beating the hated Huskies 10 consecutive times seemed possible during his early years at Oregon.

"This was a wild dream way back when," Aliotti said.

But Oregon is not a dream. It's 100 percent for real in all three phases. The Ducks outgained the Huskies 631 yards to 376, averaging 7.8 yards per play. They won the turnover battle 2-0. While the defense yielded 167 tough yards to Sankey, who also had a 60-yard TD run, it blanketed the Huskies' talented corps of receivers, holding Keith Price to 182 yards passing while sacking him four times.

But the star was Mariota, who didn't have his best weapon, running back De'Anthony Thomas, available due to a lingering ankle injury. Of course, it's not easy to get Mariota to talk about himself. When asked about his performance, he noted that it was "a team sport." When asked about feeling pressure in the fourth quarter, he shrugged off the question.

He threw the ball extremely well and when we covered him, he ran. We tried to spot him. We tried to blitz him. We tried to contain him. But he played a tremendous game. He's a hell of a player, and you have to give them a lot of credit. They're a really good team."

-- Washington coach Steve Sarkisian
"We have this deal that if we're prepared, we don't feel pressure," he said.

Others are better spokespersons for his Heisman campaign.

"He threw the ball extremely well, and when we covered him, he ran," Sarkisian said. "We tried to spot him. We tried to blitz him. We tried to contain him. But he played a tremendous game. He's a hell of a player, and you have to give them a lot of credit. They're a really good team."

Ducks offensive coordinator Scott Frost calls the Ducks' plays. He said Mariota's best qualities are his maturity and composure.

"It's really easy to be a play-caller when the ball is in Marcus' hands," he said.

It's not only Mariota, as he repeatedly pointed out. When receiver Josh Huff went down with what looked like a worrisome leg injury, sophomore Bralon Addison stepped up with eight catches for 157 yards and two scores. When Huff came back in the second half, looking none the worse for wear, he caught six passes for 107 yards, including a 65-yard touchdown strike from Mariota.

And the Ducks defense held the Huskies to 16 points and 178 yards below their season averages.

The big question entering the game was whether the Ducks would finally get tested. They were. That the final score suggests that they weren't only means that they earned an A-plus for this midterm exam.

Pac-12 defenses closing the gap

August, 21, 2013
8/21/13
11:00
AM ET
Changing the perception of a league is no easy task. And for the Pac-12, bucking its offense-first image may never happen.

As long as Oregon keeps gobbling up points by the minute and yards by the mile; as long as Rich Rodriguez does what RichRod does and there are Air Raids and Bear Raids about, offense will always be associated with the Pac-12. As long as De’Anthony Thomas and Marion Grice can score from anywhere; as long as Marqise Lee keeps turning a 4-yard slant into an 80-yard touchdown; as long as Ka’Deem Carey is running wild and Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley are burning up stat sheets, Pac-12 defenses will continue to be overshadowed.

And yet …

[+] EnlargeAnthony Barr
Jonathan Moore/Getty ImagesUCLA linebacker Anthony Barr leads an impressive group of defenders in the Pac-12.
“I would love to see an all-star game with our conference’s defensive players on the same team,” said Stanford coach David Shaw. “I think it would be phenomenal, and scary. Anthony Barr is borderline unblockable. Will Sutton gets in the backfield seemingly every play, single block, double block, whatever. Morgan Breslin, Sutton and Ben Gardner on the line and Shayne Skov sideline to sideline with Barr coming off the edge.

“Maybe we’re getting to a golden era for defensive players in this conference because you’ve got good defensive units and some really elite standout players.”

Last season, five Pac-12 teams ranked in the top 15 nationally in sacks per game including Stanford (first), Arizona State (second), USC (fourth), UCLA (eighth) and Washington State (14th). That’s up from three teams in the top 20 in 2011, two teams in the top 20 in 2010 and zero teams in the top 10 in 2009.

ASU and Stanford were first and second, respectively, in tackles for a loss per game, and WSU and USC ranked in the top 11. It’s a given that a lot of points will be scored in the Pac-12. But defenses are making it tougher.

“It’s been an interesting evolution,” said Oregon State coach Mike Riley, the dean of the Pac-12 who is entering his 13th season. “What you’re seeing is a premium on speed and guys with a lot of flexibility. There are still big people that need to play on the interior. But your edges -- if you’re going to lead the league in sacks -- then having a great edge rusher is always at a premium.”

Guys like the aforementioned Barr, Sutton and Breslin, Stanford’s Trent Murphy, Oregon State’s Scott Crichton, Cal's Deandre Coleman and ASU’s Carl Bradford are in that conversation. All of them are expected to rank among the nation’s best in sacks and TFLs. That should make for a heated debate when picking the league’s defensive player of the year.

And who says it will be someone from the front seven? Four Pac-12 teams were among the top 20 in interceptions last year, and Oregon led the country. The Ducks have the nation’s best cornerback duo with Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Terrance Mitchell, while Stanford boasts the outstanding safety tandem of Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards. Oregon State’s Ryan Murphy, USC’s Dion Bailey and WSU’s Deone Bucannon are also elite safeties.

Washington might have the best young defensive player in the league in Shaq Thompson.

“You can have a high-powered offense that puts up big points, but if you can’t stop anybody, it’s anyone’s game,” said Sutton. “With a great defense, you can accomplish anything.”

Those who follow the league know there have been great defenses in the past. Washington in the early '90s and Arizona’s Bear Down defense come to mind. Behind all of USC’s Heisman quarterbacks a decade ago were outstanding defenses.

“I think what we’re starting to see is the individual players and coordinators starting to get some notoriety,” said Shaw, whose team ranked fifth nationally against the run last year -- an amazing statistic considering the running backs they faced in 2012. “When Oregon started being really good and scoring a ton of points, people didn’t realize they were keeping people from scoring too and playing great defense. To this day I still think they have the most underrated defensive coordinator [Nick Aliotti] in the country.”

One of the major challenges of being a defensive coach in the Pac-12 is the diversity of offenses. Oregon’s spread is considered run-based, yet the Ducks had the most efficient passing attack in the league. Arizona’s spread is considered pass-based, yet its running back led the nation in rushing. Stanford is considered “conventional” with its pro-style, but it’ll use personnel groups with seven offensive linemen.

“I don’t even know what pro-style means anymore,” said UCLA coach Jim Mora. “The perceptions are distorted. You can break down a spread offense or a pro-style and they’ll have the same route concepts. There are only so many. But the formations are different. The personnel is different. The motion before the snap is different. The league has so many speed athletes so one of the reasons we play a 3-4 is to get more speed athletes on the field.”

It’s time, says Bucannon, to let rest of the country know the Pac-12 can play a little defense, too.

“We have fast, up-tempo teams and marquee offensive players. At the same time, there are some great defensive players on that side of the ball,” he said. “And we refuse to be overshadowed.”
In what should be the least surprising thing you read today, Mark Helfrich shortly will be named Oregon's head coach, replacing Chip Kelly, according to multiple reports.

CBS reported the announcement will come Sunday. The Eugene Register-Guard reported that receivers coach Scott Frost will be promoted to offensive coordinator, stepping into Helfrich's old job.

Here's the short report from the Register-Guard.

Helfrich, 39, is the son of an Oregon offensive lineman and grew up a Ducks fan. Here's a nice quote on him from former Ducks QB Nate Costa, given to CBS' Bruce Feldman:
“This is (Kelly's) system, people know this, so they automatically think Helfrich has little input on what happens on Saturdays. This is simply not true,” former Duck QB Nate Costa told CBSSports.com in the fall of 2012. “Helfrich doesn't get half the credit he deserves. He is one of the smartest people in the college football world and has a great football mind. He has a large amount of involvement in the game-planning, scripting and coaching on a weekly basis. He may not call all the plays on game day but he has a high amount of input in what plays are called and why they are called.”

Here's a report from The Oregonian.

While defensive line coach Jerry Azzinarro followed Kelly to the Philadelphia Eagles, Helfrich's hiring is expected to keep much of the Ducks' staff intact, including such mainstays as defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, offensive line coach Steve Greatwood, running backs coach Gary Campbell, secondary coach John Neal and linebackers coach Don Pellum.

Here's a nice profile of Helfrich.

Oregon ends Pac-12 season on uptick

January, 4, 2013
1/04/13
12:00
PM ET
At least two people whispered the unthinkable to me after the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.

"That," they said, "was a boring game."

That, I realized after some pondering, is what happens when the superior team plays an outstanding game: 35-17 is what happens when Oregon plays well in all three phases against a good but less talented Kansas State team.

Boring, at least if you're an Oregon fan, is good. It means the guys who were supposed to make plays did.

[+] EnlargeKenjon Barner
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsRunning back Kenjon Barner and Oregon turned in a dominant performance against Kansas State.
All-American playmaker Kenjon Barner? He rushed for 120 of his 143 yards in the second half. Check.

First-team All-Pac-12 quarterback Marcus Mariota? He passed for two scores and ran for another, winning offensive MVP honors. Check.

Fancypants playmaker De'Anthony Thomas? He returned the opening kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown and turned in a brilliant 23-yard run for a score on a screen pass. Check.

Senior leader and All-Pac-12 linebacker Michael Clay? He led the Ducks with nine tackles, including two for a loss and a sack, winning defensive MVP honors.

And the one thing that folks in other college football regions have too often and ignorantly questioned about the Ducks -- defense -- showed up big-time, holding one of the nation's most potent offenses to 17 points and 283 yards.

Winning in all three phases, including special teams? Check.

If Chip Kelly opts to give the NFL a try, Ducks fans should simply tip their cap to him. He's earned that opportunity by taking a good program and making it great over the past four years.

Stanford, by the way, turned in a much different sort of show against Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, but it also was effective. The Cardinal ran the ball and played good defense -- you know: Was all Stanford-y -- and thereby gave the Pac-12 two victories in BCS bowl games.

Those wins on the biggest stages for the conference were a bit of a salve for a mediocre, 4-4 bowl season.

Arizona needed a dramatic -- and really still unbelievable -- rally to nip Nevada. Arizona State was vastly superior to Navy. Both Oregon State and Washington blew games they led in the fourth quarter to Texas and Boise State, respectively. UCLA got bricked by Baylor on both sides of the ball. And USC turned in a humiliating performance against Georgia Tech, one that has Trojans fans lighting torches and marching to Heritage Hall, at least if my mailbag is any indication of sentiments.

The Pac-12 was favored in seven of the eight matchups, Boise State-Washington being the lone exception. So 7-1 was expected, 6-2 would have been solid, and 5-3 defensible. However, 4-4 is simply underwhelming.

The good news is the crowing from other AQ conferences should be muted.

The Big 12 is 4-4 pending the result of the AT&T Cotton Bowl between Oklahoma and Texas A&M on Friday night. The SEC is 3-3, with two of its top-10 teams going down in Florida and LSU. It's got the Cotton Bowl, BBVA Compass Bowl between Ole Miss and Pittsburgh on Saturday, and the national title game between Alabama and Notre Dame on Monday ahead.

If the SEC wins all three of those games, thereby securing a seventh national title, it will make a clear statement of superiority. But one or two slips, even with a national title victory, would nick the SEC's perception of dominant depth.

The funny thing about the bowl season, in fact, is the ACC and Big East roaring like angry puppies. The two most maligned AQ conferences over the past few years (well, other than the 2-5 Big Ten), are a combined 7-3. The ACC, at 4-2, beat LSU (Clemson) and USC (Georgia Tech) on the same day.

So the Pac-12 probably won't be an easy target for trolling. It finished 2-2 against the Big 12 this season -- 1-2 in bowl games, plus Arizona's regular season win against Oklahoma State -- so the potential argument for second best conference is mostly a moot point. The Pac-12 is clearly better at the top. The Big 12 is better at the bottom. And the middle probably goes to the Big 12 after it beat the Beavers and Bruins. Stagger all that however you wish.

More good news: The Pac-12 is well-positioned to take a step forward next year, perhaps even to challenge the SEC.

Oregon and Stanford will be preseason top-10 teams, likely top-five. You could make arguments for preseason rankings for Oregon State, UCLA, Washington, Arizona State and USC. The bottom of the conference also should be better as Colorado couldn't possibly be worse, and Washington State and California surely can find more than three wins in 2013.

Oregon State and UCLA figure to topple when the final rankings come out next week, while Oregon and Stanford will finish in the top-four. No other conference will have two teams ranked higher.

It was a solid season, if a bit top-heavy. It wasn't predictable, which can be viewed as a good thing. USC started the season as the biggest story in college football, and its fall from esteem became an epic tale of woe, inspiring national mockery.

As things set up for 2013, the Pac-12 appears poised to take another step forward in terms of depth.

But will a team rise to the fore and challenge for the national title?

Feel free to talk amongst yourselves on that one.

Video: Oregon DC Nick Aliotti

December, 31, 2012
12/31/12
5:00
PM ET

Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti talks about his defense, the long layoff and the Ducks' most successful senior class in program history.

Stanford's Oregon problem

November, 16, 2012
11/16/12
1:00
PM ET
Stanford is 31-5 since the beginning of the 2010 season. The Cardinal have lost three games during that span by a combined 14 points, and two of those were in overtime.

And they lost the other two, both to Oregon, by a combined 44 points.

Stanford has an Oregon problem.

"I think the entire conference has an Oregon problem," Stanford coach David Shaw countered reasonably.

True that. Oregon is on track for its fourth consecutive outright Pac-12 title. As ESPN's Brad Edwards noted this week : "If [the Ducks] can win [the Pac-12 title game] again this season, they will join John McKay's USC teams from 1966 to 1969 as the only groups in the history of that conference to win four consecutive outright titles."

[+] EnlargeJosh Huff, Kenjon Barner
Kelley L Cox/US PresswireOpponents haven't been able to slow down the Ducks' potent offense for four quarters.
So Oregon is historically good.

And Stanford, though on a historically good run for its own program, has been Wile E. Coyote to Oregon's Road Runner.

Stanford (8-2) will get another chance to change that Saturday in Autzen Stadium, with ESPN's "College GameDay" on hand. The stakes, just like the previous two seasons, are big. The winner takes control of the Pac-12 North Division. The Ducks, of course, need to win to remain in the national title chase.

Shaw didn't hold back praising Oregon (10-0) this week. It could be gamesmanship, but Shaw also seems to genuinely appreciate what coach Chip Kelly has built at Oregon. As Shaw said: "Great athletes, great scheme in all three phases."

"They know how to adjust those schemes based on what you are doing, which to me is the biggest key," he said. "You don't see them stopped for long. If you're doing something that is slowing them down, they are going to make a tweak and make you pay for it."

Well-put. That about sums up Oregon.

And yet ... what about Oregon's injury-riddled defense?

"It doesn't matter," Shaw said. "They put young guys in there, they put new guys in there, and those guys go out there and play great."

Maybe. But maybe not.

There are cracks in the Oregon facade, mostly because a number of front-line players on the Ducks' defense -- once a nationally elite unit -- are questionable or out for Saturday.

Safety Avery Patterson is out for the year with a knee injury. You might recall Oregon previously lost All-America safety John Boyett to a knee injury. Defensive tackle Wade Keliikipi also is almost certainly out with a leg injury.

Also banged up and of questionable health on the defense: DE/DT Taylor Hart (foot), DE/OLB Dion Jordan (shoulder), DT Isaac Remington (ankle) and NT Ricky Heimuli (knee). And backup cornerbacks Troy Hill and Dior Mathis didn't play last weekend against California, which is why word coming out of practice this week was that De'Anthony Thomas was taking reps on defense.

That's a lot of banged up high-quality players, particularly on the defensive line. The past two weeks, Oregon has had to rely on three true freshman D-linemen -- Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner and Alex Balducci -- often playing them at the same time.

While Stanford's offensive line is not what it was last year with David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin, it still is an above-average unit, one that likes to go mano a mano in the trenches. It's certainly much better than the Cal unit that did a fairly good job against the Ducks last weekend.

So the Cardinal may be able to control the football with Stepfan Taylor running the ball, though you can expect Ducks "Stop the Run First" defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti to dare Stanford to throw the ball with redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan, who is making his first road start.

But the bigger issue, as usual, is slowing the Ducks' explosive offense, which has gashed Stanford the past two years with big plays -- seven TD plays of 25 or more yards, not including a 40-yard pick-six last season.

Stanford has the nation's No. 1 run defense, but few teams run the ball as well as Oregon. And Ducks redshirt freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota leads the nation in passing efficiency.

Oregon, particularly playing at home, seems fully capable of outscoring Stanford if the Ducks' defense is having a bad day. A few teams have been able to slow the Ducks for a quarter here or a quarter there. But even then -- boom! -- things go haywire. Stanford has experienced that itself. Twice in the past two years, in fact.

The question then becomes simple for Stanford: Can it somehow make Mariota and the Oregon offense have a bad day for four quarters?

It's the Oregon problem, and it's not easy to solve.


With California keeping things close and injuries piling up, it looked like Oregon might be in trouble early in the third quarter. It wasn't. The Ducks, as usual, rolled, this time winning 59-17.

It was over when: It appeared Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota was hurt in the second quarter. And, in the third quarter, when California cut the Ducks lead to 24-17, it looked like the Ducks' national title hopes were threatened. But 35- and 39-yard touchdown passes from Mariota to Josh Huff made it 38-17 to start the fourth, and the Ducks then coasted home.

Game ball goes to: Mariota has gone from a very good redshirt freshman quarterback, to a good QB period, to a potential first-team All-Pac-12 QB. He completed 27 of 34 passes for 377 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions. That's a 230.79 passing efficiency rating. Yeah, through the roof. He has 28 TD passes this season.

Stat of the game: Oregon was outrushed 236 yards to 180. But the Ducks' receiving corps -- perceived to be a weakness at the beginning of the season -- caught seven total touchdown passes for 395 yards.

Unsung hero of the game: Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti. His defense was decimated by injuries. At one point, five members of his front seven were freshmen, including three true freshmen on the line. It appears he lost safety Avery Patterson (knee) for the season, the second starting safety to go down. Still, the Ducks' defense, which was getting pushed around in the first half after getting pushed around by USC, regained its footing and held Cal to a single touchdown in the second half.

What it means: This sets up a major Pac-12 North Division showdown for the Ducks with Stanford in Autzen Stadium on Saturday. It also showed, again, that the Ducks have plenty of grit when they get challenged. Cal, meanwhile, falls to 3-8. The Bears complete their season next weekend with a visit to Oregon State. Will that be coach Jeff Tedford's last game in Berkeley?
Nick Aliotti, a native of Walnut Creek, Calif., a graduate of Pittsburg High School, a former freshman MVP at running back for UC Davis, arrived at Oregon as a graduate assistant in 1978 under Rich Brooks. The Ducks celebrated his arrival by going 1-10.

After a 4-7 season the next year, Oregon State coach Joe Avezzano hired him to coach running backs. In 1984, he was the offensive coordinator at Chico State. The Ducks went 6-5 that year.

Funny how things turn out. Back then, there was little to suggest Aliotti would become a defensive coach, or that he would circle back to Oregon, or that there would be any reason to go back to Eugene. After all, if Aliotti wanted to climb the coaching ladder, didn't he want to go to a place where you had a chance to win?

Yet here he is, now close enough to an Oregon lifer that we're going to call him that, a guy who has been a firsthand witness to a program rising from nothing to respectability to legitimate goodness. And then to the cusp of greatness.

[+] EnlargeNick Aliotti
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireWhile Oregon's offense gets all the hype, Nick Aliotti's defense has also shined this season.
"I'll tell you how it feels for me personally," Aliotti said. "It feels fantastic."

And anyone who knows Aliotti, 58, will guess that there was a prelude to that quote -- "It's not about me" -- and a postlude -- "It's really, really special" -- as well as some entertaining parentheticals along the way.

Yet this season includes something new: respect.

Aliotti has been a good defensive coordinator for a long time, although his defenses often were outmanned. During the Ducks' rise under Chip Kelly, Oregon has played better defense than most folks realized, but it often required observers to look behind the numbers. And who has time for that?

Yet before this season began, more than a few pundits, including folks on the benighted East Coast, took a look at the Ducks' depth chart and noted that there were some salty characters on the mean side of the ball. The Ducks had some size to go along with their speed. There were some 300-pounders inside and there was, as coaches say, "great length" across the board, with seven of the top nine defensive linemen over 6-foot-4. And four over 6-6.

They passed the sight test.

What about the football part of football? Glad you asked. ESPN's numbers guy, Brad Edwards, took a closer look at the Oregon defense this week, noting that if you go beyond some superficial numbers that don't look impressive, you can make a case that the Ducks are playing defense on par with the finest teams in the country.

He took a measure of the Oregon defense only when an opponent was within 28 points, noting, "Using only statistics from when the score is within 28 points allows us to evaluate how teams perform when the starters are on the field and playing with maximum intensity."

What did he find? First, he found the Ducks have allowed 19 touchdowns this season -- one a pick-six against the offense -- but only seven were given up when the game margin was within 28 points.

Then he entered that into his Bat Computer.

Here's what he found. The Ducks ranked third in the nation, behind only Alabama and Notre Dame, in points per drive at 0.89. The Ducks allow just 4.03 yards per play, which ranks fourth in the nation. The Oregon defense leads the nation in red zone TD percentage at 22 percent, or four TDs allowed in 18 drives. Finally, on third-down conversion defense, the Ducks rank second, trailing only Oregon State, with a 24.7 percent success rate.

Not bad, eh?

Aliotti's defense, however, will face a major test on a big stage Saturday when it visits USC. Although the Trojans' offense has been surprisingly inconsistent this season, it still has all the main players from the squad that turned in a scintillating performance a year ago while ending the Ducks' 21-game Autzen Stadium winning streak with a 38-35 victory.

"Those great receivers and the quarterback were able to have their way with us last year," Aliotti said. "They beat our defense last year with their offense."

Matt Barkley completed 26 of 34 passes for 323 yards with four touchdowns as the Trojans rolled up 462 yards. Marqise Lee, then a true freshman, caught eight passes for 187 yards and a score. Aliotti, by the way, was perhaps more upset about the Trojans' 139 rushing yards than the passing numbers.

Barkley is a four-year starter who has seen just about every defense. He's not easy to fool. But that doesn't mean Aliotti isn't going to try.

"The best I can answer is we're going to do a little bit of all of it," he said.

And Aliotti has a lot of tricks in his bag. When you talk to opposing offensive coaches, it's clear the Ducks' defense has evolved in the past few years. Calling it "multiple" doesn't do it justice. You could almost call it "nonstandard." Aliotti will give a general idea of the evolution, but he doesn't want even that to appear in print.

USC coach Lane Kiffin coached the Trojans' offense under Pete Carroll from 2001 to '06. He sees dramatic changes.

"You see no similarities," he said. "You'd think it was a different staff. Obviously it's not; they've been there forever. I don't know what changed, but they are very different. They are very multiple. They change fronts. They disguise things very well."

Aliotti has played a lot of chess games with opposing offenses since he returned to Oregon for good in 1999. Shutting down Barkley and the Trojans on Saturday would help him further secure his grandmaster bona fides this fall.

Make it nine in a row for the Oregon Ducks over the Washington Huskies. The Ducks jumped out to a 21-0 lead before pulling away for a 52-21 win. The Ducks have won all nine games by at least 17 points. Here's how it all went down at Autzen.

It was over when: In the first quarter, the Huskies had just made their second-consecutive stop on defense. But the Huskies muffed the ensuing punt and on the next play, De'Anthony Thomas darted for a 16-yard score. It seemed like all the life just got sucked out of Washington as the Ducks put up 21 in the first quarter.

Game ball goes to: Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. When he wasn't jumping out of sacks (that was sick athleticism), he was tossing four touchdowns on 15-of-24 passing. He did have one interception early, but bounced back to hit Colt Lyerla twice, Josh Huff and Keanon Lowe for scores.

Second game ball: Nick Aliotti. Oregon's defensive coordinator has this defense playing awfully good ball. The Ducks forced five turnovers and twice stopped the Huskies on fourth down. Most of Washington's 353 yards came in the second half when the game was out of reach.

Stat of the game: 3. Avery Patterson picked off Keith Price in the first quarter and returned it 43 yards for a touchdown. The Ducks have now had a pick-six in three straight games.

What it means for Oregon: For the Ducks, they hold serve -- and get some style points along the way -- as other top 10 teams behind them collapse. The number of undefeated teams is dwindling and Oregon is right where it needs to be. If anyone was still awake on the East Coast, they saw a dominating performance on both sides of the ball.

What it means for Washington: Much like their debacle at LSU, the Huskies will have to regroup with No. 13 USC coming to town next week. For as high as they were flying after last week's win over Stanford, this was another throttling by a top-5 team. Head coach Steve Sarkisian has to get the troops to shake this one off.

Ducks' defense makes it 'a total team'

September, 23, 2012
9/23/12
4:29
AM ET
EUGENE, Ore. -- Oregon has become one of those programs that is evaluated like a binary code -- wons or zeroes. It's either winning every game as a national title contender or it is not. That was the case the previous two seasons, one that ended with a loss in the national title game and the other with a Rose Bowl victory.

And that appears to be the case again in 2012.

Oregon's blowout victory over No. 22 Arizona was an impressive win, but it was the "zero" in a 49-0 shutout that probably raised the most eyebrows across the college football nation.

On a night when the Ducks' offense sputtered early, it was the defense that stepped to the fore. Six times Arizona found itself in the red zone, and yet the bagel remained on the scoreboard. Heck, the Ducks' defense chipped in a pair of pick-sixes to win the day even without the offense's second-half assertion of will.

"It's a total team," Ducks coach Chip Kelly said.

[+] EnlargeKa'Deem Carey
Scott Olmos/US PresswireOregon's defense throttled Ka'Deem Carey and the Arizona offense, forcing five turnovers. The Ducks earned their first conference shutout since 2003.
They say "defense wins championships." "They," over the past six seasons, have mostly been SEC fans clucking about why their conference is hoisting a crystal football and others are not.

In the preseason, there was plenty of talk that the Ducks might have their best defense since their national uptick began in 2007. Yet big early leads against overmatched foes in the first three games yielded middling statistics: 24.3 points per game, 357.3 yards per game and 4.7 yards per play. Further, safety John Boyett, a potential All-American and four-year starter, was lost for the year to a knee injury.

So there were questions about how optimistic preseason projections were going to mesh with in-season reality.

Arizona arrived in Autzen Stadium unbeaten and featuring an offense that averaged 46.3 points and 604.7 yards per game, numbers rolled up against a schedule that included then-18th-ranked Oklahoma State.

It left with a zero laughing at it on the scoreboard.

"For any defense to pitch a shutout is just such an accomplishment," Oregon linebacker Michael Clay said. "It gives you confidence that we can do it to any team."

Kelly has long resisted the notion that his program has played anything but first-rate defense. The problem with posting fancy statistics was the Ducks' offense worked so fast, the defense would face more plays and possessions than an average team. More plays and more possessions inevitably led to more points and yards. Folks in the football office would point out that the Ducks' yards-per-play numbers on defense compared favorably to many of the nation's top units, but that often seemed obscure in a business that doesn't typically celebrate subtleties.

"Here it is hard to have great defensive statistics," coordinator Nick Aliotti said. "But most of the time you look at those numbers because you're losing."

Then he added, "The most important stat is the W."

True. And Oregon got that in its first test of the season, improving to 4-0 overall and 1-0 in Pac-12 play. The Ducks play Washington State in Seattle next weekend.

Yet Aliotti, a highly regarded coach who has often found ways to get his unit to play well enough to win without a bevy of budding NFL talent, admitted after the game that he was very aware of the void on the visitor's side of the scoreboard.

"Selfishly," he said, "I wanted the shutout."

This was the Ducks' first shutout in a conference game since a 35-0 blanking of Stanford in 2003. The Ducks last shut out Arizona in 1964, before the Wildcats joined the conference. In 2010, they shut out Portland State, an FCS team, 69-0.

Arizona finished with just 332 yards on 84 plays, an average of 4.0 yards per play. TCU, ranked ninth in total defense, gives up 4.39 yards per play (4.0 yards per play would rank eighth in the nation).

The Wildcats were 6-of-17 on third down and 0-for-4 on fourth down. Oregon had only one sack and just six tackles for loss, but it forced two fumbles and grabbed four interceptions.

On Oregon's first possession, it failed to convert a fourth-and-2 on its 39-yard line. It felt like a huge risk to take so early in the game on its own side of the field. But Kelly's taking that risk wasn't just about his confidence in his offense.

"I'm not averse to putting our defense on a short field because they can play," he said.

That appears true.

The Ducks' offense didn't post its best performance, though it's difficult to view 495 yards, including 228 yards rushing, as a bad evening.

But the Ducks' defense gives them the look of a national title contender. Again.
Dion Jordan is flattered, but ultimately unmoved by comparisons. Oregon's defensive end has heard most of them -- Jevon Kearse, Terrell Suggs, Dwight Freeney, to name a few. Not exactly shoddy company, mind you.

"I think it's cool and I've been compared to a few of those guys in the past," Jordan said. "But I want to bring my own game to the table. I've watched those guys in the film room. I've studied the great pass-rushers and outside linebackers that drop into coverage. I want to get as much as I can out of them and then roll that into my own game."

And if all goes according to plan, Jordan's game in 2012 will be to create chaos.

Jordan, a returning first-team all-conference defensive end last season, was one of the most disruptive players in the Pac-12, finishing fourth in the league with 7.5 sacks. There's no reason to believe he isn't poised for equal or better numbers in his senior season. Nor is it out of the realm of possibility to consider him a legitimate candidate for conference defensive player of the year.

[+] EnlargeDion Jordan
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesAt 6-foot-7, Oregon defensive end Dion Jordan is focused more on getting stronger than adding to his 245 pounds.
"First, I've got to finish up school, graduate and become a better leader for my teammates on the field," said Jordan, who totaled 13 tackles for a loss last year. "My main goal is to get after the quarterback more so I can increase those stats. That will help me and my team a lot. If I can get my hands on the ball, I believe I can get in the end zone one or two times."

Spoken like a true offensive player at heart. Coming out of Chandler, Ariz., as a 6-foot-6, 215-pound receiver/tight end hybrid, he never imagined himself on the defensive side of the ball -- or on the line, for that matter. But he's grown an inch since arriving in Eugene and is playing at about 245 pounds now -- a proportion he's happy with.

"I can definitely add more weight, but my real goal is to get stronger," he said. "Last year I played at about 240, but if I gain too much, I won't be as effective with my feet. I gotta get stronger. More time in the weight room, take care of my body and stay healthy. That's all that matters right now."

He's being touted early on as one of the top 20 players in the 2013 NFL draft -- something that's crossed his mind, but it's not on his mind. Like all good team leaders, he's got his attention focused on the first game of the season.

"When the season starts, everyone has the same record," Jordan said. "You really can't buy into the hype. All you can do is prepare and come out ready to play. Coach [Chip] Kelly makes sure we're prepared every week to compete against anybody we play. And we feel like if we prepare good enough, we can compete with anybody in the nation."

All of the ingredients are in place. Jordan plays on a high-profile team that's going to win a lot of games and is expected to be in the national championship hunt. And according to defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, he could be Oregon's best defensive player. Kelly is equally thrilled with Jordan's progress.

"I'm really excited about Dion," Kelly said. "He's really come into a leadership role this spring and he's emerged as one of the top players in our conference."

And he's one of the top players on a defense that is loaded with talent. With playmakers like Michael Clay, Kiko Alonso, Taylor Hart and John Boyett -- to name a few -- the Ducks defense looks poised to again be one of the best in the conference.

"It's not about one or two guys standing out," Jordan said. "I honestly think we all do a good job complementing each other in our own way. We work hard. If you look at previous games, not everybody is going to play their best game every week. We do a good job picking each other up."

SPONSORED HEADLINES