NCF Nation: Nick Holt

When you ask Washington's second-year defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox to describe his base scheme, his answer comes down to "somewhere in between a 4-3 and a 3-4," which means it's got a little bit of everything.

"This day and age, I think all defenses are multiple," he explained.

Wilcox turned in one of nation's best coaching jobs last fall. He took a defense that was among college football's worst in 2011 and made it more than respectable.

Improvement? The Huskies surrendered nearly 100 fewer yards and 12 fewer points per game than they did the previous season under Nick Holt. A unit that had been ranked 106th in the nation in total defense, ranked 31st. A unit that had been ranked 108th in the nation in scoring defense, ranked 39th.

And you could make a case that the Huskies talent was not appreciably better in 2012 than in 2011.

[+] EnlargeWashington's Justin Wilcox
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonThe Washington defense saw marked improvement under Justin Wilcox last season.
That said, it was far from perfect. The Huskies got pushed around by more physical teams (LSU, 41-3) and were worn out and outrun by up-tempo, spread teams (Oregon, 52-21, and Arizona, 52-17). And they turned in an execrable fourth quarter against Washington State, surrendering 18 points in a shocking overtime defeat.

In the other nine games, they yielded an average of 15.3 points per game.

So when you ask Wilcox what didn't please him, he goes general: "Consistency," he said.

Just like his defensive scheme, that encompasses a lot. For one, the Huskies still need to get bigger and faster and deeper. They have solid talent on defense but they won't yet be mistaken for Alabama or Stanford. To be consistent on defense, starters need to win one-on-one battles and there can't be a significant drop-off when the first-team guy is getting a necessary breather.

The Huskies also seemed to get overwhelmed at times, mentally as well as physically, particularly on the road. Washington played timidly in the first half at LSU, and both Oregon and Arizona had 21-point quarters at home to put those games away in the first half.

With eight starters back and improving depth, as well as a year of seasoning under Wilcox's coaching and schemes, Washington should take another step forward in 2013. It has two big questions: 1. Improving the pass rush, one of the few numbers that was statistically worse in 2012 compared to the previous fall; 2. Replacing cornerback Desmond Trufant, the most significant of two voids in the secondary and the defense as a whole.

The latter won't likely get done. While Trufant's play fell off a bit over the final third of the season due to his playing hurt -- "Dinged," Wilcox called it -- he's still a likely first-round NFL draft pick next week.

"I don't know if we have a guy on our roster who can replace what Desmond Trufant did," Wilcox said. "You try to get guys -- it might be one guy, it might be three guys -- to try and gain the productivity at the position he gave us."

Wilcox did say that cornerback Marcus Peters, who struggled at times opposite Trufant as a redshirt freshman starter, "has flashed." Senior Sean Parker is established at one safety spot, but the competitions at the other two secondary voids remain wide open as the Huskies prepare for their spring game on Saturday, Wilcox said.

As for the pass rush, that starts with junior rush end Josh Shirley, who Wilcox believes played better than was commonly thought among the Huskies fan base.

"He did a good job rushing the passer last year," Wilcox said. "He had six and a half sacks last year but he had the opportunity to have 12 or 13 if he would have finished better."

Shirley also forced six fumbles, tied for first in the conference.

It would be a huge boost if defensive end Hau'oli Jamora is able to come back in the fall after knee injuries killed his past two seasons, but that's not something Wilcox can count on. Jamora looked like a budding star as a true freshman starter in 2010.

"I love the guy. He works and is studying," Wilcox said. "He's doing everything humanly possible to get back ... that would be huge."

The idea, of course, is to "effect the quarterback with a four-man rush." Over-reliance on blitzing and rushing five or six guys is where a defense gets into trouble -- see the 2011 Huskies. It's also not just about sacks. It's about making a quarterback move and adjust and feel uncomfortable.

The challenge of every Pac-12 coordinator is the variety of Pac-12 offenses. There are a wide variety of up-tempo spreads that don't particularly resemble each other -- the Huskies are even going mostly no-huddle this spring -- and then there are pro style offenses such as Oregon State, Stanford and USC. A defensive coordinator in the conference can't scheme -- or recruit -- only one way.

So even with a year under his belt at Washington, expect to see some tweaks from Wilcox next fall.

What's his scheme?

Said Wilcox, "It's identifying what we think we can be good at and catering the scheme as best we can to fit the players were have."

Best case/worst case: Pac-12 bowls

December, 13, 2012
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Our assignment is to pose a best-case and a worst-case scenario for every Pac-12 bowl team.

So here goes.

Arizona

Gildan New Mexico Bowl, Albuquerque, N.M., Dec. 15: Arizona (7-5) vs. Nevada (7-5), 1 p.m. ET, ESPN

Best case: Arizona rolls 40-28, as quarterback Matt Scott goes out with a bang that raises NFL eyebrows, and running back Ka'Deem Carey rushes for 195 yards to sew up the national rushing title.

Worst case: Scott gets knocked out of the game early and backup B.J. Denker looks overwhelmed, raising questions about the future at QB. Carey rushes for 35 yards and loses the rushing title as Nevada rolls 42-21. Michigan fans hit the message boards with a litany of "I told you so" about Rich Rodriguez.

Washington

MAACO Bowl Las Vegas, Las Vegas, Dec. 22: Washington (7-5) vs. Boise State (10-2), 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

Best case: In a "Welcome back!" performance, QB Keith Price throws for 295 yards and three touchdowns -- matching the total TD passes the Broncos have yielded all season -- and runs for another score as the Huskies end 2012 with a statement victory that bodes well for 2013. The Huskies' hot offseason topic is how high the preseason ranking will be.

Worst case: Washington starts slowly as it has much of the season, then gives up a double-digit fourth-quarter lead as Price throws multiple interceptions. Boise State wins going away 38-17, and the Huskies' hot offseason topic is whether coach Steve Sarkisian has plateaued.

UCLA

Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl, San Diego, Dec. 27: UCLA (9-4) vs. Baylor (7-5), 9:45 p.m. ET, ESPN

Best case: That the Bruins score 45 points is not unexpected. That Baylor is held to just 17 points is unexpected. UCLA dominates on both sides of the ball, and quarterback Brett Hundley looks like a budding Heisman Trophy candidate. After the game, linebacker Anthony Barr and guard Xavier Su'a-Filo both announce they are returning for the 2013 season. Says Barr, "Unfinished business? Naaah. I just like playing with these guys."

Worst case: Baylor rolls over UCLA in a 55-30 win, as the Bruins' defense can do nothing to slow the Bears, while Hundley throws three picks. Barr and Su'a-Filo opt to leave for the NFL, as does coach Jim Mora, who is hired by the Philadelphia Eagles.

Oregon State

Valero Alamo Bowl, San Antonio, Dec. 29: Oregon State (9-3) vs. Texas (8-4), 6:45 p.m. ET, ESPN

Best case: Oregon State throttles the Longhorns 31-13 with stifling defense, but the big story is Cody Mannion -- or is it Sean Vaz? -- throwing four touchdown passes and making a strong case to be the 2013 starter.

Worst case: The Beavers become the only team that couldn't run on Texas this year, and Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz both throw two interceptions in a 30-10 defeat. Meanwhile, Oregon State makes both Case McCoy and David Ash look like superstars. "Well," say all the national commentators. "This makes a strong case for the Big 12's superiority over the Pac-12. But we've still got to see the Fiesta Bowl."

Arizona State

Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, San Francisco, Dec. 29: Arizona State (7-5) vs. Navy (7-4), 4 p.m. ET, ESPN2

Best case: Arizona State uses its superior speed on both sides of the ball to throttle Navy 48-17. After the game, consensus All-American defensive tackle Will Sutton announces he's returning for his senior year.

Worst case: Navy's triple option wears down the Sun Devils in a 28-17 victory. Even worse, the Sun Devils turn the ball over five times and commit 12 penalties for 105 yards, including two personal fouls. They look like the 2011 team, not the 2012 version under new coach Todd Graham.

USC

Hyundai Sun Bowl, El Paso, Texas, Dec. 31: USC (7-5) vs. Georgia Tech (6-7), 2 p.m. ET, CBS

Best case: Matt Barkley looks like, well, Matt Barkley, throwing five touchdown passes as the Trojans roll 40-10. As for the defense, coordinator Monte Kiffin goes out in style, with the Trojans holding Georgia Tech's option to just 225 total yards. Head coach Lane Kiffin announces after the game that he has hired Bob Diaco away from Notre Dame to be his defensive coordinator.

Worst case: Barkley tries to play but reinjures his shoulder, and the Trojans fold thereafter, ending a horribly disappointing season with a 38-17 loss. After the game, receiver Robert Woods, running back Silas Redd and cornerback Nickell Robey announce they will enter the NFL draft. Lane Kiffin also announces the hiring of Nick Holt to run the Trojans' defense.

Stanford

Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio, Pasadena, Calif., Jan. 1: Stanford (11-2) vs. Wisconsin (8-5), 5 p.m. ET, ESPN

Best case: Stanford dominates on both sides of the ball in a 30-10 victory, holding the Badgers to just 79 yards rushing and 210 total yards. Quarterback Kevin Hogan throws two touchdown passes and runs for another, while running back Stepfan Taylor rushes for 145 yards and a score. After the game, linebacker Shayne Skov, defensive end Ben Gardner and tight end Zach Ertz announce they will be returning for their senior seasons.

Worst case: Montee Ball rushes for 197 yards and two scores as Wisconsin pushes the Cardinal around in a 24-17 win. The Badgers sack Hogan four times, overwhelming the Cardinal's offensive line. After the game, Skov, Gardner and Ertz announce they will enter the NFL draft. Coach David Shaw is hired by the Philadelphia Eagles, and Walt Harris is rehired.

Oregon

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, Glendale, Ariz., Jan. 3: Oregon (11-1) vs. Kansas State (11-1), 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

Best case: Oregon starts fast and never lets up in a 51-20 blowout, with running back Kenjon Barner rushing for 187 yards and two scores and quarterback Marcus Mariota throwing for three TDs. The Ducks sack Collin Klein five times and grab two interceptions. "I'm sure glad we didn't play them in the regular season," Kansas State coach Bill Snyder says afterward. Shortly after the game, Ducks coach Chip Kelly signs a lifetime contract, opens practices and promises to be more patient with hypotheticals and other sorts of irritating questions.

Worst case: The Kansas State defense throttles the Ducks' offense, and Klein throws three TD passes in a 30-13 victory. The Ducks rush for only 101 yards. "Oregon struggles in these big games," say the national commentators afterward. "And this really makes the Pac-12 look bad." Kelly is hired by the Philadelphia Eagles. Mariota quits football to become a professional surfer. John Mackovic is hired to replace Kelly.

Next up for USC, Kiffin? Tough decisions

November, 29, 2012
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Lane KiffinHarry How/Getty ImagesSeveral steps must be taken in order for Lane Kiffin and USC to return to prominence in the future.
Our question this afternoon: "What's next for USC?"

Well, what's immediately next is the Trojans looking up at UCLA in the Pac-12 pecking order and Notre Dame in the national one. How 'ya like them apples, 'SC?

UCLA is the likely pick to repeat as Pac-12 South Division champions in 2013. They've got the QB in Brett Hundley and lots of talent coming back on both sides of the ball. And they have a decisively better coaching staff than USC, at least if we are allowed to extrapolate on the evidence we repeatedly saw on the football field this year.

A year ago, while UCLA and Notre Dame were seemingly floundering, it appeared the Trojan colossus was again rising under coach Lane Kiffin, whose bad reputation was undergoing a generous reevaluation. Yet the stratospheric expectations inspired by a 10-2 2011 season have yielded to desperation and recrimination just a year later.

The big 2013 story for USC? Kiffin's hotseat.

And yet.

While USC under Kiffin certainly no longer has a buy rating, it might be premature to sell all your shares.

For one, the team coming back in 2013 certainly won't be untalented, including 17 returning position player starters (though a few with remaining eligibility might opt to enter the NFL draft). QB Max Wittek hinted against Notre Dame that the transition to him from Matt Barkley might not be too bad. He has a wicked strong arm that could make beautiful music with receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, if Woods opts to return for his senior season.

Further, you'd think the Trojans would be plenty motivated. They were the biggest punchline in college football this year. Yeah, bigger than woeful teams like Colorado. They were historically bad as a team that was ranked No. 1 in the preseason. They were beaten soundly by archrivals whom they whipped just a year ago.

[+] EnlargeMonte Kiffin
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireShould Lane Kiffin remove his father, Monte Kiffin, as the Trojans' defensive coordinator?
This season was an unmitigated failure.

It might be easier for Kiffin to get his guys focused and motivated when everyone is taking shots at them instead of celebrating their potential awesomeness. The Trojans should be plenty angry heading into 2013. They chiefly should be angry at themselves, but here's a guess that the preseason talk -- regionally and nationally -- will give them plenty of names for an enemies list.

But before we look ahead to USC as angry underdog playing the "us against the world" card in 2013, there needs to be some rigorous backward looking evaluation of what went wrong this fall.

In this column Insider, Steve Bisheff did an outstanding job of breaking down the difficult decisions ahead for Kiffin. We're about to second much of what he said.

First off, Kiffin needs to hire two new coordinators, which means he must dump two guys by the name of Kiffin: Himself on offense and his dad, Monte Kiffin, on defense.

Monte Kiffin is one of the all-time great defensive minds. His legacy is assured. But his work has been middling-to-poor at USC. He's gotten less from USC's talent than he should have.

If Lane Kiffin needs a role model for tough decisions, he could look to his buddy Steve Sarkisian at Washington, who dumped Nick Holt as defensive coordinator last year. Holt, Kiffin and Sarkisian go way back, but Holt was doing a lousy job. That was made even clearer this fall when new coordinator Justin Wilcox produced substantial improvement with arguable less to work with than Holt had in 2011.

Then, if Kiffin feels guilty about terminating his father, he can take out his ill will toward the responsible party by firing himself. It's not just that Kiffin didn't do a good job calling plays this year -- and he didn't -- it's that he neglected other aspects of his team that, as a head coach and CEO, he should have been on top of.

Oregon's Chip Kelly can micromanage his team and call an outstanding game. Kiffin can't. That's been made clear.

There's also this: USC has the resources to hire just about anyone Kiffin wants. He could pay both coordinators $1 million. If they are worried about job security due to Kiffin's hot seat, Kiffin could give them multiyear contracts. That alone would perk up the ears of just about anyone in the country, including top NFL guys.

Remember that list of candidates we made up for the head coaching vacancy at California? Kiffin probably could get a lot of those "hot" coordinators to come work for him.

With good coordinators, the Trojans are a nine- or 10-win team next year. With no changes, the good money would be on there being no Kiffins inside Heritage Hall in 2014.

Kiffin's survival also depends on more than Xs and Os, though.

As Bisheff covered at length, Kiffin often overthinks things, and this often leads to substanceless gestures, such as not allowing teams to do Friday night walkthroughs at the Coliseum, or trying to fool woeful Colorado with players switching jerseys.

Kiffin needs to learn that the USC head coach doesn't need to outsmart his opponents, much less use gamesmanship against them. He simply needs to put a disciplined, focused product on the field with a sound plan. Talent then takes over.

If there are competing simple and complicated ideas for something at USC, about 99.9 percent of the time, the simple one would work best.

What's next for USC? Well, if you are looking three-to-five-years down the road, I'd expect the program to again be in the Pac-12 and national title hunt on a consistent basis.

USC is not going to blow up and go all Paul Hackett Era again. Athletic director Pat Haden is too smart to let that happen.

The question is simply who will be fronting the program: Kiffin or someone else.

If Kiffin clings to the status quo, it will be someone else.

Mailbag: ASU exposed or Ducks that good?

October, 19, 2012
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Welcome to the mailbag.

You can follow the Pac-12 blog on Twitter here.

To the notes.

Kevin from San Antonio writes: Was ASU totally exposed last night vs. Oregon or is Oregon so much better than everyone else that you can't use the game as a measuring stick for ASU?

Ted Miller: Neither.

Before I go off on a tangent of Football Game Rationalizing 101, let me establish what matters: Winning.

A team is what it does. Judgments in football -- all sports, really -- are what the scoreboards say when the clock expires. You can hush a guy playing football "What if?!" by merely noting, "Sure, if what happened didn't happen then the game would have been different. I will grant you that."

So, duly noted.

I suspect -- and away we go -- that the Oregon-Arizona State game would have been much different if Arizona State defensive tackle Will Sutton didn't get hurt on play No. 2. The supporting evidence I have for that position is twofold: 1. Sutton caused a fumble on play No. 2, his last in the game; 2. Sutton is a freaking beast and no defensive player in the conference has been better this fall.

Do I think Arizona State wins if Will Sutton doesn't get hurt? No. When Kevin and I both picked Oregon to win we did so assuming both teams would be at full strength.

Before the game (with a healthy Sutton), I thought Arizona State was an eight-win team, which is well ahead of where I saw them in the preseason, when I thought it was a five-or-six-win team. What I've seen this season is encouraging for the program in general, even with that dreadful first half against the Ducks.

Before the game, I thought Oregon was a top-five team and a legitimate national title contender. I feel more confident in that position after the game.

What I've learned through the years while covering something like 160 college football games live is that they are fragile things. Dumb luck plays a much bigger role in games than folks typically allow, just as one boneheaded lapse of concentration can cause massive and irreparable hemorrhaging. And a coach can roll the dice on a scheme or play call and become a genius/idiot when he truthfully is neither.

Coaches often say one play doesn't decide a game, but I think that's frequently wrong. A Stanford fan could give you two examples over the past year.

The very best coaches are able to create winning cultures that reduce the random variables and maximize their teams' performance. Such teams dominate most days and find ways to win on the rare occasions when they are out of sync. Yes, we're talking about the Oregons and Alabamas of the world.

I think if Oregon and Arizona State played 10 times at full strength in Sun Devil Stadium, half of those games would be far more competitive than what we saw Thursday night. And I think the Sun Devils might steal one. You probably could say that about most good teams matched against great teams.

Now, let's return to the part where I remind myself and you that imaginary college football doesn't matter.




John from Lake Oswego, Ore., writes: If Oregon wins out and the only loss for the Beavs is to Oregon. Could Oregon go to the natty and the Beavs to the rose bowl or would a pac12 south team go to the Rose Bowl?

Ted Miller: Did you just use the word "natty"? For shame.

John, you are not allowed to read the answer to your own question. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. It's like you're dreamin' about Gorgonzola cheese when it's clearly Brie time, baby. Step into my office. You're fired.

Stop peaking, John. You have been sanctioned. Don't make me send Kevin after you. He's from San Diego. You know what they say about hardcases from San Diego, don't you? The mild weather makes them most unpleasant, particularly in October, when the fish tacos take an inexplicable but inevitable dip in quality.

If Oregon State finishes 11-1, and Oregon wins the Pac-12 North and advances to the NATIONAL TITLE GAME, the Beavers would almost certainly go to the Rose Bowl.

Why? Because, if Oregon finishes undefeated, there isn't a scenario where the South Division loser in the Pac-12 title game wouldn't have at least three defeats. It's difficult to imagine that any team with three defeats, including one on the last weekend of the season, would be ranked in the top 14 of the BCS standings, which is required for a team to be picked for a BCS bowl.

Even if, say, USC was 9-3 and ranked 14th, the Rose Bowl would almost certainly pick a one-loss, top-10 Oregon State team, even though the Trojans are a big ticket TV attraction.




Erik from Seattle writes: I'm a concerned Husky fan. I love the staff that [Steve Sarkisian] has built and I think he's doing a solid job recruiting. I don't doubt that he was the right guy to turn this program around post-Willingham, but I walked away from the LSU, Oregon, and USC games wondering if he's the right guy to take us to the next level. How much more time do we give him? Not to be selfish, but what if he's a 7-5, 8-4, middle of the road guy? We're not competitive with Oregon, LSU, and often on the road. I know that very few teams have been competitive w/ Oregon recently and it's nearly impossible to win in Death Valley at night, but do you see him as a next level guy? Talk me off the ledge, Ted.

Ted Miller: In the six seasons before Sarkisian was hired, the Huskies won 18 games. In three and a half seasons under Sarkisian, they've won 22.

Sarkisian took over an 0-12 team and went 5-7. The Huskies hadn't won a bowl game since 2000 when Sarkisian led the Huskies to a Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska in 2010.

Further, when things didn't take a step forward in 2011, he took aggressive action to fix things, firing Nick Holt -- a longtime coaching friend -- and most of his defensive staff and hiring Justin Wilcox and luring away Tosh Lupoi from California.

Next year, Sarkisian moves his team from decrepit Husky Stadium into a newly remodeled Husky Stadium, which might be the best venue on the West Coast (we'll see).

Sure, it would be nice for Huskies fans if the program were headed for the Rose Bowl in year four under Sarkisian. But Sark inherited a major rebuilding job. He's laid a nice foundation. There are plenty of reasons for optimism.

Is he a sure thing? No. Few coaches are.

But he's a highly respected guy. He's a good recruiter. I'd advise patience. I have a hunch you might see some rewards for it in 2013.




Nick from Boise writes: I am one of those rare objective Duck fans. Among an undefeated Oregon, an undefeated K-State, a one-loss Notre Dame, and a one-loss SEC team, who deserves to play Alabama for the National Championship? My gut says the SEC team based on quality of opponents, but it is likely the computers give the edge to Oregon. And the computers are supposed to take in strength of schedule, so that must be the right answer, right?

Ted Miller: An objective Duck fan? I feel like I stepped out my front door and saw an ivory-billed woodpecker!

We've got so much football left that speculating on these sorts of scenarios is pretty useless. What if Notre Dame's one loss is a blowout defeat at USC? And what if the Big 12 starts devouring itself and Kansas State ends up with no wins over teams with fewer than three losses? And which SEC team? Not all SEC schedules are created equal.

Further, unbeaten in an AQ conference almost certainly would trump any 1-loss team in an AQ conference. If Oregon is 13-0 and the only or one of two unbeaten teams, it's almost certainly going to play for the title.

Further, the polls form two-thirds of the BCS standings versus one-third for the computers. That means if Oregon is No. 2 in both the coaches and Harris polls, its computer ranking will have to be pretty terrible for it to be eclipsed by a team beneath it in the human polls.

So, as I've said and typed before, the odds are extremely favorable that Oregon, at 13-0, would play for the national title.




Robert from Greenwood Village, Colo., writes: I just wanted to comment on the use of "curb stomp" in your article about the arizona state-oregon game. I don't think it is appropriate to use that phrase. I think by using the phrase you are paying homage to the act itself which is horrible. I think using that phrase goes right along with "oregon raped arizona state" on the level of classy that it isn't. I have heard those phrases used by young people and I think we don't need a public figure, especially one that predominately has a sphere of influence in young males, to use such barbaric language. Just keep in mind how playing football, coaching, watching and reading about football are all ways to reach people. I think that "curb stomping" is not an appropriate when considering how influential you are.

Ted Miller: I agree. A bad and pretty darn thoughtless choice of terms on my part. I winced when I re-read it.

I was writing quickly last night. Quickly and witlessly. My bad.

Huskies open with plenty of 'maybe'

August, 6, 2012
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Washington was ranked 26th in the preseason coaches poll. Now there really isn't a "26th" in the coaches poll, a 25-team list. The Huskies are merely first among the "others receiving votes." But 26th does fairly represent where the program stands in year four under coach Steve Sarkisian.

The Huskies are close to returning to the national picture. Folks know about them, respect them even. But the breakthrough from respectable to good has yet to happen.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Ted S. Warren/AP PhotoCoach Steve Sarkisian enters his fourth season, and the pressure is on for the Huskies to win.
"We're not flying under the radar anymore," Sarkisian said during a news conference Monday as the Huskies begin preseason camp. "Teams have circled us on their schedules."

Sarkisian made some bold -- and well-publicized -- offseason moves to bolster his coaching staff, particularly on defense. That one of them required firing longtime colleague and friend Nick Holt as defensive coordinator clearly demonstrated that Sark was willing to make tough business decisions to advance the Huskies up the next rung of the college football ladder. And, yes, that includes playing defense that isn't embarrassingly horrible.

What's clear is this is now Sarkisian's team, even if five fifth-year players remain from the Tyrone Willingham era. It features just 12 seniors, so it's still a young team. But there's plenty of experience coming back, certainly more than the official number of returning starters -- 13 -- suggests.

"We're becoming a more mature football team," Sarkisian said.

Still, the Huskies enter the 2012 season with quarterback Keith Price and lots of "maybe." The top three receivers from 2011 are gone, but sophomore Kasen Williams leads a promising crew coming back. Tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins appears to be a budding All-American, and the interior offensive line looks solid. But it's unclear who the tackles will be -- Sarkisian said Drew Schaefer, a two-year starter at center, will get a look at tackle. And the pecking order at running back is unclear after the departure of the highly productive Chris Polk.

The defense? The big surprise is how many potentially good players it could feature -- OLB Josh Shirley, end Hau'oli Jamora, DT Danny Shelton, safety Sean Parker, cornerback Desmond Trufant, etc. The turnaround under new coordinator Justin Wilcox could be dramatic, but let's recall more than a few folks (cough, cough) thought the Huskies' defense looked pretty salty in advance of the 2011 season.

In 2009, Sarkisian's first season, he played 16 true freshmen. Last year, he played four. It will be interesting to see how many break through this fall. Safety Shaq Thompson, one of several players likely to see action on both sides of the ball, seems like the only sure thing.

"I won't ever not play a kid because he's a freshman," Sarkisian said. "The best guys on the field are going to play for us. But I know it's harder for a freshman to get on the field now."

Another area of concern: Specialists. The Huskies are replacing two good ones.

The maturation of the program under Sarkisian, coaching upgrades and intriguing talent on both sides of the ball suggest a team ready to step forward. But when you pair the uncertainties with a brutal early schedule -- at LSU, Stanford, at Oregon and USC in the first seven weeks -- then it's not also difficult to identify some "maybe not."

That's not what Sarkisian sees, though. He sees another step in the rebuilding process. He sees a team built the way he wants to build it. He, not surprisingly, sees the hopeful side of "maybe."

"When your guys are speaking your language, your lingo, it's not coach-talk it's locker room talk, that's when I think you can really make strides," he said.

Pac-12 offseason check list

January, 20, 2012
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While recruiting season is heating up for its home stretch, national signing day is about the future. The present matters, too, and there are plenty of present matters that need attending.

What are the main areas of focus in advance of spring practices? Glad you asked.

1. Hello, my name is Coach ____________: There are four new Pac-12 head coaches: Rich Rodriguez at Arizona, Todd Graham at Arizona State, Jim Mora at UCLA and Mike Leach at Washington State. That's a lot of turnover -- one third of the league. Further, none of the four retained many members of the previous staffs. So there will be a lot of "Getting to know you" in advance of spring practices. Also, beyond head coaches, Norm Chow left Utah to become Hawaii's head coach, so the Utes need a new offensive coordinator. Washington rebuilt its defensive staff. Coach Steve Sarkisian fired defensive coordinator Nick Holt and two other coaches and saw defensive backs coach Demetrice Martin bolt for UCLA. He then raided Tennessee, California and Oregon State to replace them. Because of the Huskies, Cal will have two new assistants this spring and Oregon State one.

[+] EnlargeBryan Bennett
Jim Z. Rider/US PresswireBryan Bennett is the favorite to take over for Darron Thomas at Oregon.
2. Settled at quarterback? The only teams that have certainty at quarterback are: California, Oregon State, USC and Washington -- and some Cal fans might even harrumph that assertion. You can probably throw Arizona's Matt Scott in there as a certainty, both because he has quality starting experience and because there's no one around to unseat him. UCLA, Utah and Washington State have returning starters, but they also have plenty of intrigue. It's uncertain who takes the first snap in the opener. For Oregon, most would favor Bryan Bennett stepping in after Darron Thomas' surprising decision to enter the NFL draft, but his name isn't written atop the depth chart in ink just yet. Arizona State, Colorado and Stanford are wide-open competitions. It would be wise for any quarterback who wants to be in the starting mix to be laying groundwork with his teammates and coaches well in advance of the first spring practice.

3. Line up: Arizona welcomes back five starters on its offensive line, while USC and Washington get four starting offensive linemen back. Every other team has some degree of uncertainty with at least two voids to fill. Perhaps more than any position, the quality -- and depth -- of an offensive line can be advanced during the offseason. Hit the weight room, training table and the track -- get stronger, quicker and work off the baby fat and turn that into quality size. Right now just about every team has a guy who thinks he's going to automatically advance on the depth chart who is going to be overtaken by a youngster who is eyeballing his slack, er, rear end while doing an extra set of power cleans.

4. Taking the next step: At this point last year, Oregon defensive end Dion Jordan and Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei were just promising guys, not first-team All-Pac-12 defenders. Wide receivers Keenan Allen of Cal and Robert Woods of USC were coming off impressive freshman seasons but were facing the inevitable, "What's next?" questions, which implied the possibility of sophomore slumps. But, of course, Allen and Woods joined Jordan and Lotulelei on the All-Conference first team. Did you know that USC offensive tackle Matt Kalil wasn't even honorable mention All-Pac-10 in 2010? Kalil was a big-time talent who had yet to make a statement -- you know, the "I'm a top-five pick as the best left tackle in the NFL draft" statement. There are a lot of players who had good seasons in 2011. Good for them. But just like Oregon coach Chip Kelly, the Pac-12 blog is a forward-thinking operation. Yes, we were very impressed De'Anthony Thomas, Marqise Lee, John White, Ben Gardner, Nickell Robey, Marquess Wilson, Dion Bailey, Hayes Pullard, Brian Blechen, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Keith Price, Tramayne Bondurant, Mustafa Jalil, Stefan McClure, David Bakhtiari, Colt Lyerla, Scott Crichton, Sean Mannion, Ty Montgomery, Sean Parker, John Fullington, etc. But what are you doing to get better right now? Yes, right now. So stop reading this, wondering why your name isn't listed and go do some wind sprints.

5. Don't believe the hype -- either way: Everyone is massively overrating USC and Oregon. Top-five teams? Pfftt. So stop staring at yourself in the mirror in your tighty-whiteys, doing a most-muscular pose. I talked to your mammas and they said you ain't all that. California, Washington and Utah are eyeballing your girlfriends. Better watch out. If you don't do the work, you won't be top-five anything. And what about you Colorado, UCLA, Arizona, Oregon State, Washington State -- are you going to hear those national yawns and assume there's no hope? Are you expecting to lose and using that as an excuse to eat a Twinkie on the sofa while watching "Caddyshack" again instead of going to a workout? From now until opening day, there will be endless fan and media chatter decided how every Pac-12 teams' season is going to go. Hey, it's fun. But that doesn't decided a season. The 100 guys in the locker room do. Oh, and one final thought. Stanford? You're done. You ain't poo without Andrew Luck.

Washington hires Wilcox from Tennessee

January, 2, 2012
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Washington has raided Tennessee to replace fired defensive coordinator Nick Holt, according to ESPN.com's Chris Low.

The Huskies have hired Justin Wilcox, a former Oregon player who built his reputation at Boise State, to replace Holt. Volunteers linebackers coach Peter Sirmon, another former Duck, is also part of the deal.

This looks like the foundation of a rebuilt defensive staff. The Huskies still have two vacancies: Jeff Mills also was fired, and Demetrice Martin was hired away by UCLA. Both coached in the secondary.

Sarkisian fired Holt, Mills and linebackers coach Mike Cox following a 67-56 loss to Baylor in last week's Valero Alamo Bowl, in which the Huskies yielded 777 total yards. The Huskies' defense was, arguably, the worst in program history this season.

According to Low:
Not a lot went right for Tennessee this season, but the Vols finished 28th nationally in total defense, and Wilcox and his staff were able to hold their own with one of the youngest defenses in the country. Three true freshmen -- linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt and safety Brian Randolph -- started most of the season.

Wilcox, 35, has been a hot commodity since his red-hot run at Boise State. He was wooed by Texas last season, but elected to stay at Tennessee.

Sirmon, a Wenatchee, Wash., native, played seven seasons with the Tennessee Titans as a linebacker. He spent the 2009 season as a graduate assistant at Oregon before coming to Tennessee in 2010 as a grad assistant working under Wilcox. In addition to being one of the Vols' top assistant coaches, Sirmon also was one of the program's best recruiters

Tennessee is probably getting tired of the Pac-12. Not only have the Vols lost four consecutive games to Pac-12 teams -- California, UCLA twice and Oregon -- USC hired away after just one season coach Lane Kiffin, who did a masterful job this year leading the Trojans to a top-five ranking while the Vols finished 5-7 under Derek Dooley.

As for Wilcox's contract issues coming and going, there's this from the Knoxville News Sentinel:
Wilcox does not owe UT anything by leaving for another job. His original contract stipulated that he owed the school $300,000 if he terminated the deal before Dec. 1, 2011 -- with the exception of leaving because he obtained a Division I head coaching position -- but that clause was completely wiped out when it was amended in August.

Wilcox was to receive $700,000 in 2012, a base pay of $275,000 and a "broadcast/endorsement" payment of $475,000.

Holt -- notoriously -- made $650,000 annually, an amount the Huskies will be on the hook for in 2012 because of a two-year contract. So the expectation is Wilcox is likely to exceed that total. It certainly is more expensive to live in Seattle than in Knoxville.

But Wilcox, a Eugene, Ore., native, also likely wanted to get back to the West Coast. He figures to become a top head coaching candidate if the Huskies' defense starts to excel, so he probably has his eyes on a Pac-12 post down the road.

Before that happens, of course, the Huskies will have to start playing good defense again, something their fans have been hoping for since the mid-1990s.

Alamo was a disaster for Holt

December, 31, 2011
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The general feeling after the regular season ended was Washington defensive coordinator Nick Holt was safe heading into 2012, barring, perhaps, an utter disaster in the Alamo Bowl against Baylor.

Well, giving up 67 points and 777 yards was an utter disaster for the Huskies' defense, and that made the announcement of Holt's termination Saturday not terribly surprising.

Holt and Huskies head coach Steve Sarkisian are friends who have known each other for a long time. But sentiment wasn't enough to save Holt after his third year on the job produced one of the worst defenses in program history. It didn't help that, at $650,000 annually, he was one of the nation's highest paid coordinators.

Including Holt, Sarkisian cleaned house on defense, firing linebackers coach Mike Cox and safeties coach Jeff Mills. Toss in the departure of secondary coach Demetrius Martin, and the Huskies' defensive staff will be almost completely rebuilt in 2012. Defensive line and special teams coach Johnny Nansen is the only defensive coach who will be back next season.

What -- and who -- is next for the Huskies' defense?

Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times pointed out that Sarkisian previously tried to hire former USC defensive coach Rocky Seto, who is now defensive backs coach for the Seattle Seahawks under Pete Carroll.

Rocky Seto, who is now defensive backs coach with the Seahawks. Seto also worked with Sarkisian at USC and was offered the coordinator's job at UW in a period when Holt initially turned it down before later accepting. Seto last year was offered the defensive coordinator's job at UCLA.


Sarkisian also might be wise to take a look at Utah's Kalani Sitake. Sitake, a candidate for the Hawaii head coaching job that was filled by Norm Chow, might want to spread his wings, as head coach Kyle Whittingham still receives a lot of credit for the success of the Utes' defense.

But the contract Holt signed would raise a lot of eyebrows across the country. Sarkisian certainly can go after an A-list coordinator.

Condotta also pointed out the that all three now former assistants had two-year contracts, meaning Washington will be on the hook for another year of salaries at a total of $1.025 million: "Holt's official salary at UW was $650,004, Cox's was $220,008 and Mills' was $155,004."

In other words, Sarkisian decided that improving the Huskies' defense was an urgent need.

Washington didn't step forward in 2011

December, 30, 2011
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The Valero Alamo Bowl was a highly entertaining offensive explosion. If you want to read about offensive bowl records, go here. And Washington's 67-56 loss to Baylor certainly showed that the Huskies could score some points.

Further, Baylor was ranked 12th, was favored by 9.5 points and finished 10-3. So the Bears were supposed to win.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Brendan Maloney/US PresswireSteve Sarkisian's outfit lost five of its final seven games -- and gave up 777 yards in the finale.
Still, what does this game mean for the Huskies, for their season, which ends with a 7-6 mark that is identical to a year ago, and for their big-picture status after Year 3 under Steve Sarkisian ended with a thud?

Here's a guess that most Huskies fans feel worse than they did a year ago. For one, it's shameful to surrender 67 points and 777 yards, no matter how good the opposing offense is. It's hard to walk away from a season with those numbers on the ledger, particularly for Huskies fans who recall the glory days under Don James, when defense was the program's cornerstone.

But the bigger issue is losing five of the final seven games in 2001 after a season-ending four-game winning streak in 2010 hinted at the program advancing back into conference and national relevance. That advance seemed confirmed when Washington started this season 5-1 and earned a national ranking. But when the schedule toughened up, the Huskies failed to meet the challenge. That is the ultimate take-away from the season.

Toss in a Insider bad week with in-state recruiting, and it's hard to shake the notion that Sarkisian's reclamation project has hit a slippery spot.

The Huskies have a nice crew returning next year, most notably quarterback Keith Price. But it became clear over the second half of the season that there's still a significant divide between the Huskies and the top third of the conference. While getting better on both lines is near the top of the to-do list, the primary issue is obvious to all observers: The defense. It stinks.

Sarkisian would be justified if he called coordinator Nick Holt into his office and said, "I love you, buddy, but this isn't acceptable. We've got to go in another direction." But it appears that's not going to happen.

So, simply put, Holt will be coaching for his job in 2012. He's one of the nation's highest-paid coordinators. He needs to produce at least a top-50 defense in his fourth year.

There are still plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the Huskies' future under Sarkisian. It's still reasonable to recall the mess he inherited in 2009: A team that couldn't win a single game.

But 7-6 won't be good enough next year. And a defense that is no more stout than a petunia garden is unacceptable.

Bowl debate: Big 12 vs. Pac-12

December, 19, 2011
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The Pac-10 and Big 12 nearly got married last year, but only Colorado ended up eloping with the now-Pac-12.

You know: The conference that can count!

But the Pac-12, which has, yes, 12 teams, and the Big 12, which has 10 teams (though it's often hard to keep up with which ones), play each other in three bowl games this holiday season.

Joy to the world.

So it seemed like a good time for the Pac-12 and Big 12 bloggers -- Ted Miller and David Ubben -- to say howdy and discuss all the coming fun.

Ted Miller: Ah, David, the bowl season. Pure bliss. Unless you’re the Pac-12, which is expected to get a whipping from your conference over the holidays. We have three Pac-12-Big 12 bowl games with the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl between Stanford and Oklahoma State, the Valero Alamo with Baylor and Washington and the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl matching California and Texas. And the Big 12 is favored in all three!

Poor ole West Coast teams. What are we to do? It’s almost like the Big 12 is the SEC or something. Speaking of which, how are things with your Cowboys? Are they over not getting a shot at LSU for the national title? Are they excited about getting a shot at Andrew Luck and Stanford? We might as well start with that outstanding matchup in Glendale, Ariz.

David Ubben: You know, I was actually a little surprised. I stuck around Stillwater for the BCS bowl selection show announcement, and the players took the news pretty well. They found out an hour before, but there wasn't a ton of down-in-the-dumpiness from the Pokes. When you've never been to this point before, it's a bit difficult to develop a sense of entitlement. If Oklahoma had OSU's record and was passed over by Alabama and sent to the Fiesta Bowl for the 17th time in the past six years, you might have had a different reaction.

But Oklahoma State's first trip to the BCS and first Big 12 title aren't being overlooked. These players are looking forward to this game. There's no doubt about that.

I know the Big 12 seems like the SEC, but I have a confession, Ted. I wasn't supposed to tell anybody, but I can't hold it in anymore. When the Big 12 began back in 1996 ... wow, I'm really going to do this ... then-SEC commissioner Roy Kramer graciously allowed the league to keep two of his teams. The league made a similar arrangement with the Big Eight a century ago, and the Southwest Conference around the same time. Missouri and Texas A&M are really wolves in sheep's clothing: SEC teams just pretending to be in other leagues. So that might explain the Big 12's recent dominance.

These should all be fun games, though. I ranked two of the matchups among the top three in my bowl rankings.

As for the big one, they say you learn more by losing than by winning. Stanford got its first BCS win after last season. How do you think that experience plays into this postseason's game? I hate to ruin the surprise, but Oklahoma State's a bit better than the Virginia Tech team Stanford beat last postseason. OSU's loss to Iowa State this season is bad, but it's nothing like the Hokies' loss to James Madison last season.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeQuarterback Andrew Luck leads Stanford into its second consecutive BCS bowl, this season against Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl.
Ted Miller: Not only is Oklahoma State better than Virginia Tech, it's still questionable whether this Stanford team is better than last season's. Since we're going all crazy and whispering about the SEC, there was a feeling out West that by the end of the 2010 season the Cardinal might not only be the best team in the Pac-12 but also in the nation. They were big and physical, and quarterback Luck actually had a solid receiving corps with which to work. After a loss to Oregon in the fifth game of the season, they didn't lose again until playing, er, Oregon in this season's 10th game. If we could go back in time and have the Cardinal play Auburn, I think Stanford would have won the national title.

But that's 2010. The differences this season are the season-ending knee injury to middle linebacker Shayne Skov, who was an All-American candidate, and a slight step back on the offensive line and a lack of top-flight receivers. But if Oklahoma State fans are looking for something to worry about it is this: Stanford's running game.

The Pokes are bad against the run, and they haven't faced a team that is as physical and creative in the running game as Stanford. As much as folks talk about Luck's passing, it's his run checks that often ruin a defense's evening.

The Fiesta Bowl matchup looks like a great one, perhaps the best of the bowl season. But I’m excited to see Mr. Excitement, Robert Griffin III, in the Alamo Bowl against Washington. Of course, I’m not sure that the Huskies, their fans and embattled Huskies defensive coordinator Nick Holt are as thrilled. First, tell us about what Washington should be most worried about with Griffin. Then tell us about Baylor in general. Such as: Can the Bears stop anyone?

David Ubben: Nope. Not really.

Oklahoma State's defense unfairly gets a bad rap. Baylor's bad rap is earned. This is the same team that won five consecutive games late in the season -- but became the first team ever to win four consecutive in a single season while giving up 30 points in each.

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
Jerome Miron/US PresswireBaylor's Robert Griffin III will try to make it three straight bowl victories by Heisman Trophy winners.
That, if you ask me, says plenty about both the defense and the power of RG3. The Bears have a lot of athletes on the defense, but when four of your top five tacklers are defensive backs, well, you need a guy like RG3 to go 9-3.

The man is a nightmare. Top to bottom, he's the most accurate passer in a quarterback-driven league. Then you add in his athleticism, which he doesn't even really need to be extremely productive. It sets him apart, though, and forces defenses to account for it, and it buys him time in the pocket. How many guys break a 20-plus-yard run then hit a receiver for a game-winning 39-yard score to beat a team like Oklahoma for the first time?

How do you think Washington will try to slow him down? What has to happen for it to have some success?

Ted Miller: This game matches the 99th (Washington) and 109th (Baylor) scoring defenses. It has a 78-point over-under, the biggest of any bowl game. The offenses are going to score plenty, at least that's the conventional wisdom.

How does Washington stop RG3? His name is Chris Polk. He's a running back. Baylor gives up 199 yards rushing per game. Polk right, left and up the middle is a good way to contain Griffin. The Huskies' best hope is to reduce Griffin's touches with ball control. They also need to convert touchdowns, not field goals, in the red zone. The Huskies are pretty good at that, scoring 36 TDs in 45 visits to the red zone.

The Huskies also have a pretty good quarterback in Keith Price, who set a school record with 29 touchdown passes this season. He and a solid crew of receivers have prevented teams from ganging up against Polk. But Polk is the guy who burns the clock.

Should be a fun game. As should, by the way, the Holiday Bowl. David, Cal fans are still mad at Texas coach Mack Brown and his politicking the Longhorns into the Rose Bowl in 2004. Every team wants to win its bowl game, but the Old Blues really want to beat Brown.

Of course, neither team is what it was in 2004. Cal has an excuse. It's not a college football superpower. Sure you've been asked this before, but give me the CliffsNotes version of why the Longhorns have fallen so hard since playing for the national title in 2009.

David Ubben: Cal fans are still mad? Really? I'd suggest they get over themselves. What's anybody on that Cal team ever done, anyway? It's not like the best player in the NFL missed out on a chance to play in the Rose Bowl. Now if that were the case, we might have a problem. But honestly, I don't think Tim Tebow cares all that much about the Rose Bowl.

As for Texas' struggles …

The easy answer is quarterback play. Texas relied on Colt McCoy and Jordan Shipley more than anyone realized. When they were gone, Texas couldn't run the ball, and quarterback Garrett Gilbert never made it happen. Two seasons later, the Longhorns still don't have a quarterback.

The other big answer last season was turnover margin. Gilbert threw 17 interceptions, and the Longhorns were minus-12 in turnovers, which ranked 115th nationally.

They were still only 90th this season, and without solid quarterback play in a Big 12 dominated by passers, they scored five, 13 and 17 points in three of their five losses. Texas keeps people from moving the ball and runs the ball better this season, but without a solid passing game and a defense that changes games, it's tough to rack up wins in the Big 12.

It's been awhile since Cal was in the mix for the BCS, even as USC has fallen. Oregon answered the call and rose, but what has prevented Cal from winning the Pac-10 and Super Pac-10 since the Trojans' swoon?

Ted Miller: You mention quarterback play. Cal fans ... any thoughts? You mention Aaron Rodgers. Cal fans? Oh well, that's not very nice during this festive time of the year.

Cal has become a solid defensive team, but it has lost its offensive mojo, and that can be traced to a drop in quarterback play since Rodgers departed. The latest Bears quarterback, Zach Maynard, started fairly well then stumbled, but then seemed to catch on late in the season. It's reasonable to believe the team that gets better quarterback play -- mistake-free quarterback play -- is going to win this game.

Nice to cover a conference in which quarterback play matters, eh David?

Speaking of quarterback play and winning, let's wind it up. Our specific predictions aren't coming on these games until after Christmas. But we can handicap the Big 12-Pac-12 side of things. We have a three-game series this bowl season.

I say the Pac-12, underdogs in all three games, goes 1-2. What say you?

David Ubben: And to think, before the season all I heard was the Pac-12 had surpassed the Big 12 in quarterback play. Did somebody petition the NCAA for another year of eligibility for Jake Locker and/or clone Matt Barkley? You West Coast folk are geniuses; I figured you'd find a way. We can't all be Stanford alum ...

Clearing out all the tumbleweeds here in middle America, I'll go out on a limb for the Big 12 in this one. Every matchup is a good one, and I don't think Cal has seen a defense like Texas', and Washington hasn't seen an offense like Baylor's. People forget that, yeah, RG3 is outstanding, but the Bears also have the league's leading receiver and leading rusher.

Stanford-OSU is a toss-up, but I'll go with a perfect sweep for the Big 12. The Cowboys haven't played poorly on the big stage yet, so I'll give them the benefit of the doubt in this one, and they clean up for the Big 12 against what was almost their new conference this fall.

Oh, what could have been. Ubben and Miller on the same blog? Divided ultimately by a little thing we call the Rockies.

Holt, Huskies eyeballing RG3

December, 15, 2011
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Nick Holt can laugh now. The diverse playmaking of Baylor quarterback and 2011 Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III is so impressive, a defensive coordinator can only find amusement when asked how Washington is going to stop him in the Valero Alamo Bowl on Dec. 29.

[+] EnlargeNick Holt
Steven Bisig/US PresswireDefensive coordinator Nick Holt is preparing his Huskies for the likes of Baylor QB Robert Griffin III.
"The guy is phenomenal," Holt said.

The numbers are mind-blowing. Griffin ranked No. 1 in the nation in passing efficiency, his 192 score being 10 points higher than the marks of 2010 Heisman winner Cam Newton and Heisman finalist Kellen Moore of Boise State.

He's accounted for 4,642 total yards and 45 touchdowns. He's thrown 36 TD passes and just six interceptions. He completed 72.4 percent of his throws. Oh, and he rushed for 644 yards and nine TDs. Only five Pac-12 running backs scored more than nine rushing touchdowns.

Meanwhile, there's the Huskies defense. It didn't play well this year and Holt heard plenty about that. He's the Pac-12's highest paid defensive coordinator not named Monte Kiffin, and his defense ranked 94th in the nation. Its 33.3 points per game ranked 10th in the conference.

Of course, in the name of positive spin, there's this: The Huskies will be the sixth best defense Baylor and Griffin have faced. And they've faced some really lousy ones.

Five Baylor foes rank from 99th to 120th (Kansas in last place in FBS football) in the nation in total defense. Three others ranked in the 60s. The only top-25 defense the Bears faced was No. 14 Texas.

That said, the Bears hung 48 points and 511 yards on the Longhorns.

There's other good news for the Huskies. Like the Big 12, the Pac-12 is QB-centric. Holt and the Huskies have seen plenty of good QBs of all types this season.

Just not one who combines Andrew Luck with LaMichael James.

"He's extremely athletic and he's a great quarterback," Holt said. "He can run and throw. He's kind of the best of everybody we've played. And we've played some great quarterbacks in our conference."

The Huskies thought they would be much better on defense this year but they regressed. Losing end and top pass rusher Hau'oli Jamora in game four against California to a knee injury hurt. Youth and inconsistency at outside linebacker hurt. A lack of a consistent pass rush hurt. A tendancy to give up big plays in the passing game hurt. And poor tackling and sometimes tentative play hurt.

There is impatience among the Huskies fan base, which sees a solid offense not getting help from a porous defense.

"We're really young in a lot of key positions," Holt said. "We're getting better but we're still young. It takes time to build a great, great defense."

Holt does have something to point to that could give his team confidence: Its bowl experience in 2010.

Nebraska stomped the Huskies last year 56-21 in the regular season, rolling up 533 yards. In the Holiday Bowl, that same Cornhuskers squad produced just 189 yards in a 19-7 defeat, one of the most shocking results of the bowl season.

"It was a great turnaround," Holt said. "We played well. That's what we've got to do this game."

Of course, that Nebraska team was reeling as QB Taylor Martinez was banged up and had lost his confidence. Baylor and Griffin appear to be peaking.

Holt and the Huskies aren't going to be expected to stop Griffin and the Bears. Just slow them down. Hold them to a below-average game. Maybe force a turnover or two. And then let the Huskies offense -- QB Keith Price, RB Chris Polk and company -- get to work on the nation's 114th-ranked defense, which yields nearly 36 points per game.

Yes, most pundits expect plenty of points, see a 78 1/2-point over-under, the largest of the bowl season. Holt's charge is to make sure Baylor has at least one less than the Huskies.

What to watch in the Pac-12 bowls

December, 15, 2011
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Issues to consider heading into the Pac-12 bowl season.

A winning record would make big statement: The Pac-12 is an underdog in six of seven bowl games -- only Oregon is favored over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. That means going 4-3 would require three upsets, and the Ducks are hardly a sure thing. UCLA beating Illinois wouldn't get the Pac-12 much street credit, but the other six would, particularly the two BCS bowl games. The reality is this: When you start to see national writers picking these games, more than a few will project 0-7.

Can Oregon buck its rep, run over the Badgers? You've heard it before. Over and over. Five of Ducks coach Chip Kelly's six losses have come to teams with extra time to prepare: Season-openers against Boise State and LSU, bowl games with Ohio State and Auburn, and Stanford coming off a bye week in 2009. And in each case the Ducks' point total was below average for the season. Know how Kelly and the Ducks can put that to bed? Score 40 and rush for 200-plus yards against Wisconsin in Pasadena on Jan. 2. Even if Wisconsin wins, that would at least stop the talk about extra time "solving" the Oregon offense.

Does Andrew Luck go out big? Stanford quarterback Luck was widely -- and deservedly -- celebrated for his surprising return for his redshirt junior year instead of entering the NFL draft. He put up great numbers. His top-five team went 11-1 and is playing in a second consecutive BCS bowl game. He finished second in the Heisman Trophy race for a second consecutive year. It's hard to rate any of that as disappointing. But Luck faced higher expectations than perhaps any player who returned for his "senior" year has before, even USC's Matt Leinart in 2005. Despite being an underdog to a very good Oklahoma State team, it would seem deflating on the Farm if the Cardinal loses the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 2 and sends Luck out on a down note.

RG3 vs. Nick Holt: Many Washington fans are unhappy with the Huskies defense, and they blame highly paid defensive coordinator Holt. Holt is tight with head coach Steve Sarkisian, who has consistently backed his embattled assistant. Holt could significantly bolster his standing -- and establish some positive momentum for 2012 -- if he and his staff can figure out a way to slow down Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III in the Valero Alamo Bowl on Dec. 29. Of course, Griffin is only the Heisman Trophy winner and this season's most dynamic playmaker.

Do UCLA and Arizona State show up and fight? UCLA and Arizona State are bowl teams with fired coaches, which is a bit odd. The Bruins are playing under interim coach Mike Johnson, who will be out the door after the Dec. 31 game. The Sun Devils are playing under fired coach Dennis Erickson. How much pride and fight does either show? With Erickson on hand, there's a chance his players play hard to send him out on a good note, but Boise State is a tough foe in the Dec. 22 MAACO Las Vegas Bowl. But they might have thought of that during a four-game losing streak to end the season. The Bruins showed some fight in the Pac-12 championship game against Oregon, Rick Neuheisel's final game. But how much will they care against Illinois, which also is playing under an interim coach, in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl?

Utah's run defense vs. Georgia Tech's option: Utah ranks seventh in the nation in rushing defense, surrendering just 97 yards per game. Georgia Tech's triple-option ranks No. 3 in the country in run offense, gaining 317 yards per game. Something has to give in the Hyundai Sun Bowl on Dec. 31. Know how it's better to play Oregon after getting extra time to prepare a defense? Same goes for the Yellow Jackets.

A dish served cold for the Old Blues? California hasn't been to the Rose Bowl since 1959. It thought it was going in 2004, but something happened. Mack Brown happened. He told people Cal shouldn't go to the Rose Bowl. His team should. That pollsters should promote his team and demote the Bears in order to help the Longhorns. That's not exactly what happened -- just ask Brown and Texas fans -- but that's what Cal fans think happened. The Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl, set for Dec. 28, doesn't feature ranked teams. But it does feature a nice grudge, which will make things interesting, at least among fans.

Valero Alamo Bowl

December, 4, 2011
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Washington Huskies (7-5) vs. Baylor Bears (9-3)

Dec. 29, 9 p.m. (ESPN)

Washington take from Pac-12 blogger Ted Miller: Washington took another step forward in 2011 in the third season under Steve Sarkisian, but it needs to win the Alamo Bowl in order to finish with a better record than last season.

The big positive to the season was the surprisingly quick emergence of QB Keith Price. The expectation was he'd be a game manager after replacing Jake Locker. Instead, he was a playmaker who put up substantially better numbers than Locker did in 2010. The big negative to the season was the defense, which ranked 94th in the nation in total defense and 99th in scoring. Not good numbers considering that Nick Holt is one of the nation's highest paid defensive coordinators.

The Huskies were a little slow out of the gate. They played closer-than-they-wanted games with Eastern Washington and Hawaii and then lost at Nebraska. But then they won three in a row and were nationally ranked when they headed to Stanford. But the Cardinal humbled the Huskies 65-21, rushing for 446 yards. The Huskies beat Arizona, then lost three in a row. Getting whipped by Oregon and USC is understandable. Losing at Oregon State was not. But they bounced back with a win over rival Washington State to finish 7-5.

There was progress from a 7-6 season in 2010. If the Huskies remember the Alamo.


Baylor take from Big 12 blogger David Ubben: The Bears have become must-see TV, and Robert Griffin III is the reason why. He's athletic, elusive, and loves to sling it. Nobody throws the deep ball better, and nobody's a better player. But don't listen to the folks who claim RG3 has no help. He's throwing to one of the nation's best receivers in Kendall Wright, who'll run right by most defensive backs. Terrance Ganaway's 240-pound frame has filled out the Bears' offense, winning the Big 12 rushing title with 1,347 yards and 16 touchdowns.

It's a big year for the Bears, who might have their first Heisman winner, despite a defense that's struggled for much of the year. That said, 9-3 is 9-3, and Baylor is riding high into the postseason for the second consecutive year after a 16-year drought.

Pac-12 power rankings: Week 14

November, 28, 2011
11/28/11
9:12
AM ET
If you don't like where you are in the power rankings.... you should have played better.

Note: These are not final. They merely reflect the short-term positioning. The final power rankings will include the entire body of work.

See last week's power rankings here.

1. USC: It's been a good two weeks for the Trojans. They are playing as well as any team in the country, and that includes LSU and Alabama. Just imagine if quarterback Matt Barkley shocks the world and decides to return for his senior season. Can you say 2012 preseason top-5?

2. Oregon: Oregon just needs to avoid tripping over itself against UCLA on Friday and it will go to its third consecutive BCS bowl game after winning its third consecutive conference title. Life is good, eh Ducks?

3. Stanford: While Andrew Luck might not win the Heisman, it's hard to consider a second-consecutive 11-1 season anything but a raving success on the Farm. It's extremely likely the Cardinal will head to the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl opposite the Big 12 champion.

4. Washington: The Huskies, by virtue of winning their final game and owning victories over California and Utah, rise to the No. 4 spot, which likely means an invitation to the Valero Alamo Bowl. Also, good news that quarterback Keith Price looked all Keith Price-y against Washington State.

5. California: Shhh. Come closer. I don't want the Bears to hear this. Cal has quietly put together a nice run in November, winning three of four, the lone loss coming 31-28 at Stanford. If they were to beat a quality Big 12 team in the Bridgepoint Education Holiday, perhaps Baylor and Robert Griffin III, the Bears would post a pretty darn good season. Hey, keep it down. Don't want Cal to go all Cal on us again.

6. Utah: Utah! You were supposed to be different. The new guy who didn't know Pac-12 teams often go belly-up at unexpected times. The loss to Colorado certainly tripped up what looked like a nice run at the end of the Pac-12 schedule. You now are likely headed to the Hyundai Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas instead of the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio. Hey, once you've seen one Riverwalk, you've seen them all.

7. Arizona: The Wildcats finished their season with consecutive wins -- beating their hated rival Arizona State along the way -- and have hired a good coach in Rich Rodriguez. Successful two weeks.

8. Arizona State: Not much to say. It looked like a potentially special season, then things collapsed, and it's going to cost Dennis Erickson his job. Hugely disappointing turn in Tempe.

9. UCLA: Not much different than Arizona State. The Bruins simply never arrived at any consistently solid level of play with Rick Neuheisel. UCLA fans and administrators need to ante up: This program needs a great hire, and that means spending money. If the Bruins don't invest, things won't get better.

10. Colorado: The Buffaloes showed heart on the season's final weekend at Utah, and 26 seniors go out as winners after ending a 24-game losing streak outside of their home state. That's a nice building block for the offseason, though it's clear this program has a ways to go.

11. Oregon State: A second consecutive losing season punctuated by getting flicked aside by rival Oregon has folks grumpy in Corvallis. There will be pressure on Mike Riley to turn things around next fall. And will he need to make tough decisions with his coaching staff, to which he has been extremely loyal?

12. Washington State: It appeared the Cougars had crawled out of the conference basement, but they then lost seven of their final eight games and almost certainly cost coach Paul Wulff his job. Hiring Mike Leach, we will quickly note, would cause a nice uptick in sentiment in Pullman.

Washington: What went wrong?

November, 23, 2011
11/23/11
5:04
PM ET
Washington's defense is bad. No question.

Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times took a measure so he could quantify what Huskies fans have been feeling: This defense is historically bad.

Writes Condotta:
Washington is allowing 34.5 points a game, the second-highest in school history behind only the 38.5 allowed by the 2008 team that went 0-12 and prompted the firing of Sarkisian's predecessor, Tyrone Willingham. It's also allowing 430.4 yards per game, third-most in school history behind 2008 (451.8) and 2007 (446.4).

Coordinator Nick Holt is paid $650,000 a year -- most of any defensive coordinator in the Pac-12 not named Monte Kiffin -- to make sure the Huskies don't have a historically-bad defense.

[+] EnlargeKeith Price
AP Photo/Christine CotterWashingon's offensive line failed to protect quarterback Keith Price and gave up a conference-leading 33 sacks this season.
So, yes, many fans are calling for Holt's head on a platter, while coach Steve Sarkisian ties to advise patience as his Huskies prepare for the Apple Cup on Saturday with rival Washington State.

"It's going to take time," Sarkisian said. "Do I wish we were better? Sure. But the reality of it is, let's go win Saturday and we're 7-5 and that's a better record than we had at the end of last season.''

Sarkisian even tried to take heat off the defense by blaming himself and the offense (Sarkisian calls the offensive plays).

"What was disappointing in last week's game to me ... our defense forced us three turnovers and we didn't turn any over those turnovers into points," he said.

Sark's right in more ways than one. The offense might deserve more blame than the defense for the Huskies' three-game slide.

Before we crunch some numbers, though, let's finger the biggest reason why Washington has lost four-of-five: the schedule. Stanford, Oregon and USC supplied three of those defeats. They are each top-10 teams. The loss at Oregon State, however, was dreadful, so Huskies fans should feel free to be miserable about that one.

Back to the offense.

The Huskies averaged 35.6 points and 429.6 yards during a 6-2 start. During the 0-3 slide, they've averaged 18.3 points and 279 yards. And before we only point at the schedule, let's note the Huskies had just 315 yards against a pretty rotten Oregon State defense, though, of course, that was with backup quarterback Nick Montana playing most of the game.

The defense, meanwhile, is yielding the exact same yardage, 430.4, today as it did on Oct. 29 after a victory over Arizona made Washington 6-2. During the 6-2 start, the defense gave up 33.4 points per game. During the three-game slide, it was 37.3 -- and that's, again, with Oregon and USC on the schedule, the Nos. 1 and 3 scoring offenses in the Pac-12.

The Huskies' two offensive stars during the 6-2 start -- running back Chris Polk and quarterback Keith Price -- have seen their numbers slide. Price threw 23 touchdown passes and eight interceptions in the first eight games. He's thrown three and three in the past three, not to mention three picks in the win over Arizona. As for Polk, he averaged 127 yards rushing in the first eight games, 75 in the last three.

And let's not leave out the offensive line. Polk is a proven back, so his downturn likely can be significantly attributed to smaller running lanes. But the real eye-catcher is this: Washington gave up just 16 sacks in the first eight games. They've yielded 17 in the last three, and their 33 on the season rank last in the Pac-12.

So it's not just the defense that's been stinking up the joint.

The takeaway is this: The Huskies have not yet arrived in Year 3 under Sarkisian and Holt.

Bracket off the Oregon State game. It plays like a bit of an anomaly -- the one face plant a year a lot of teams have. The obvious trend is the Huskies can't yet go mano-a-mano with highly-ranked teams (the fourth of their five losses came at now-No. 21 Nebraska). Their four losses to ranked teams came by an average of 24.3 points.

What's the solution? Well, some might scream for Holt to be fired. And Holt shouldn't feel terribly comfortable, even though he's almost certainly coming back in 2012.

But the biggest issue can be summed up in one word: linemen. The Huskies need to get better on both lines if they are going to push into the top-third of the Pac-12.

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