NCF Nation: Rose Bowl

What happened outside the Rose Bowl on Wednesday took place near Hollywood, but this was no movie.

It was a scary, and frighteningly sudden, wind event -- often called a "Dust Devil" -- that struck the area where the Rose Bowl fan fest takes place. According to KTLA, three people were treated at the scene with very minor injuries.

It was a wild scene, with tents flying high into the air, a bounce house literally bouncing to the parking lot, items landing on cars and a chill Chick-fil-A cow taking it all in before slowly leaving the scene. Watch for yourself, courtesy of the YouTube account for Ad Sport.

(Editor's note: There is a curse word included toward the end of the first video.)



And a couple more eyewitness accounts, including the bouncy bounce house captured by Vine user bidd8.

Rosebowl Tornado<9<\ #tornado #rosebowl #oregonducks

A video posted by Bethany Moss=›<;P=" Dec 12, 2014 at 1:32pm PST


In the aftermath of Florida State's ACC championship game win over Georgia Tech, coach Jimbo Fisher sat at a podium flanked by the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback who helped him win the national championship a year ago and the freshman tailback who might be the key to a second straight title, and a reporter posed a curious question.

Dalvin Cook had just run 31 times -- a high for any FSU running back under Fisher -- for 177 yards, a workhorse performance that helped Florida State eke out a two-point win and secure a place in the first College Football Playoff, and the reporter wanted to know when Fisher had last seen a freshman look so impressive.

Fisher turned toward Jameis Winston, who'd rewritten the school's record book as a freshman just a year earlier, and grinned.

"Last year," Fisher beamed.

A day earlier, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota had put the finishing touches on his own Heisman campaign by dismantling Arizona to win the Pac-12 while another freshman tailback handled much of the dirty work. Royce Freeman ran 21 times for 114 yards in that game, the eighth straight contest in which he topped 100 yards of total offense. The media there started looking for apt comparisons for Oregon's fab freshman, too.

"There's not anybody I've ever been around," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said of comparisons for Freeman.

The Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual offers perhaps the most intriguing undercard of the bowl season: a matchup of elite freshmen tailbacks toiling in the shadows of Heisman-winning QBs. At Florida State, Cook rescued the season while Winston battled turnovers and turmoil. At Oregon, Freeman shattered the image of the up-tempo tailback and set a Ducks record for freshman runners in the process.

To read David Hale's full story, click here

Rose Bowl Media Day Live recap

December, 29, 2014
12/29/14
12:50
PM ET
Florida State and Oregon met the press Monday morning and our ESPN.com team was out in full force at the Rose Bowl. Scroll through for all of the sights and sounds from Pasadena.

Much of the focus leading up to the Rose Bowl will be on the two most recent Heisman Trophy winners, Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston. However, those two aren't ever going to be competing head-to-head on the field at the same time.

Both No. 2 Oregon and No. 3 Florida State made it this far because of the talent littered throughout the rosters. While Mariota and Winston have both shown they have the ability to win games on their own, the Rose Bowl could be decided by a player who has been flying a bit under the radar but is poised to make a big splash on Jan. 1.

Here are a few players that haven't been discussed much that could have a big impact on the game.

Defensive players

Oregon: Chris Seisay. First and foremost, he's going to surpass expectations simply because so much more will be asked of him this game than has ever been asked of him. He'll be stepping into the spot vacated by Jim Thorpe Award finalist Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who suffered a career ending injury last week. Seisay, a redshirt freshman, has only accounted for 20 tackles this season due to the fact that he just really hasn't seen the field a ton. Because of this, Jameis Winston and the Florida State offense are certainly going to throw at him quite a bit more. The rest of the secondary is pretty solid -- Troy Hill, Erick Dargan, Reggie Daniels -- so why not take shots at the youngest, most inexperienced guy?

But that's where I think it'll get interesting. I feel like Seisay could have a huge game for the Ducks. Because he'll be targeted more, he'll have a chance to make some big plays (though, he'll also have chances to make some big mistakes), but I think he's going to pull through for the Ducks. Last week, Oregon defensive coordinator Don Pellum said that the game plan wouldn't change for the Ducks. “We lost a great leader, great player, great spiritual leader and everyone has got to -- it's like a hit -- everyone's got to pick it up a little more,” Pellum said. I think Seisay picks up a lot more.

Florida State: Nile Lawrence-Stample. He likely won't receive a ton of snaps, but any contribution from the defensive tackle could prove major for the Seminoles. Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher felt the senior lineman was poised for a big season before tearing a pectoral muscle against Clemson in September. He played through the injury during the game, but the tear was bad enough that Fisher said Lawrence-Stample would miss the remainder of the season. So it was a bit of a surprise when Fisher said last week that Lawrence-Stample was ready to practice and should play against the Ducks. Florida State has been thin at defensive tackle all season, and the loss of Lawrence-Stample was a tough blow. Fisher said Oregon's tempo wouldn't give Lawrence-Stample any trouble as he works back into game shape, but the 6-foot-1, 314-pound tackle is likely not going to be able to play a significant number of snaps. Still, even 20 snaps in a reserve role could be pivotal for a defensive line that will need fresh legs deep into the fourth quarter if the Seminoles plan to pull off the upset.

Offensive player

Oregon: Royce Freeman. Yes, I know he's already a player that so many people know. But I think he's going to exceed expectations by having his best game of the season. The Seminoles haven't faced a rushing attack quite like Oregon's. Not only do they have to worry about the rushing attack out of the tailback (Freeman), they have to worry about it out of the quarterback (Mariota) and a slot receiver (Byron Marshall, former running back). There's so much to focus on that I think Freeman might get lost in the shuffle just enough times to really crank off some huge runs.

Florida State has given up 3.9 yards per rush this season, but the Seminoles have also given up 69 rushes of 10 or more yards -- that's one in every seven or eight rushes. And they've shown out when they needed to. FSU held Miami's Duke Johnson to right around his season average in rushing yards per game, while keeping him to just one touchdown run and two rushes of 10 or more yards. But Johnson doesn't have the weapons around him like Freeman has. Freeman is playing his best football right now and has averaged 6.1 yards per rush over the past four games. With each game and practice he, along with Mariota and a constantly reshuffling offensive line, are finding better ways to collectively attack defensive fronts and I think with the extra two weeks of practice we're going to see a huge performance -- his biggest of the year -- out of Freeman. Put me down for it: 180 rushing yards, two rushing touchdowns (and one receiving touchdown) at 6.0 yards per carry.

Florida State: Travis Rudolph. The freshman receiver has been brilliant at times this season, dazzling with his footwork and speed. He's also made a few rookie mistakes that have led to Florida State turnovers. Rudolph's talent is undeniable, and the Florida State offense has often looked its best when Rudolph is having a productive game. The Seminoles could use a secondary receiving threat on the outside to complement Rashad Greene, who defensive backs target before every play. Florida State's young receivers have been inconsistent providing help for the senior Greene, who is the most productive receiver in school history. With Greene on the outside and Nick O'Leary on the inside at tight end, there will not be any shortage of opportunities for Rudolph to make a play. Winston has shown he isn't afraid to throw the ball in Rudolph's direction and is not lacking confidence in the freshman. With Oregon's top cornerback out, Rudolph isn't going to have the same caliber of defender standing opposite him either. Even a few catches for 60 or so yards would be a strong contribution from Rudolph and enough to shift some attention from Greene and O'Leary.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Coming into the season, the defensive line was highlighted as one position group Florida State couldn't stand to suffer any injuries. Of course, three defensive linemen went down in Week 2, and starter Nile Lawrence-Stample was ruled out for the season two weeks later.

Beset with injuries, the No. 3 Seminoles were forced to develop their depth. Three months later, while Florida State still isn't nearly as strong on the defensive line as it has been in years, the unit is in the best shape it has been all season.

Against Oregon's high-powered and uptempo offense, Florida State will need every able body ready to contribute.

"It's really important," defensive tackle Derrick Mitchell Jr. said of Florida State's depth along the line. "We're going to need a lot of guys to sub in when Oregon gives us the opportunity."

Derrick Nnadi is a reserve defensive tackle the coaching staff was high on throughout preseason camp. Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher praised the blue-chip recruit's performance all August, and Nnadi's teammates echoed those sentiments.

The 6-foot-2, 303-pound freshman rose to the occasion in Week 2 after three tackles went down in the first half against The Citadel, but Nnadi's playing time has been sporadic since then. He played in only seven of the Seminoles' 12 regular-season games, and Fisher said, like most freshmen, Nnadi had his good days and his bad days and had to work through mental and physical hurdles.

But, once again, Nnadi was called upon during desperate times. Starter Eddie Goldman, a potential first-round pick, was sidelined early against Georgia Tech in the ACC championship game, and Nnadi was tasked with helping slow down one of the country's best rushing offenses.

"He dominated in spurts," Mitchell said of Nnadi. "When you got a guy like Nnadi, who's mentally focused all week and does his job all week, it's easy once you get in."

The emergence of Nnadi was a necessity against Georgia Tech, but there won't be as much pressure on the first-year player in the Rose Bowl. Lawrence-Stample, who was initially ruled out for the remainder of the season after tearing a pectoral muscle in September, is practicing and expected to play against the Ducks.

"Nile's a heckuva player," Fisher said. "He was fixing to have a great year."

Adding Lawrence-Stample back into the fold gives the Seminoles many more options with their defensive line alignment, too. Star defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. often shifts to tackle because his 300-pound frame can handle playing on the interior. However, two of Edwards' greatest assets are his athleticism and quickness, and it's against spread offenses like Oregon that allows Florida State to best utilize Edwards' talent.

To get a sense of just how disruptive Edwards can be against uptempo and spread offenses, one only has to flip on the tape from last season's national title game. Edwards harassed speedster Nick Marshall much of the night and chased down the Auburn quarterback on a couple of occasions.

"Mario's going to play a big role," linebacker Terrance Smith said. "They're a very big spread team and like to get you out on the open and Mario is a very good open field player. For him to be able to make plays in space is going to big time."
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- A new era of wide receivers has been ushered in over the past two decades. They are bigger, faster and stronger than ever before, and they are manhandling undersized defensive backs who could provide little resistance.

The receivers -- Keyshawn, Ochocinco, T.O., et al -- could talk. Oh, could they talk, and it didn’t matter if secondaries, fans or the cameras wanted to hear it.

Almost 20 years after “Just Give Me the Damn Ball!” and 10 years since “Who Covered 85 in ’05,” maybe an unintended byproduct has fully crystallized. Those brash receivers taught future defensive reinforcements that would eventually be tasked with quieting them that one of their best tools is a voice of their own. Defensive backs -- Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson, Earl Thomas -- are now equals to their offensive counterparts in size, strength, talent and trash-talking.

[+] EnlargeRonald Darby, Jalen Ramsey
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsJalen Ramsey (bottom) isn't afraid to give receivers a piece of his mind.
Florida State's Jalen Ramsey fits the 21st century cornerbacks mold. He’s 6-foot-1 and tips the scales at 204 pounds, and he is gratuitous with the verbal blows.

“Most wide receivers are soft, honestly, so once you get in their mind, it plays into my hands,” Ramsey said. “When you get in some people minds, they won’t think how they normally would.”

It’s not as if the former freshman All-American needs any additional help from receivers. Ramsey, a sophomore, has started every game of his FSU career and was the first true freshman to start at cornerback since Deion Sanders. Ramsey is among the best defensive backs in the country, and this season he has settled into the Seminoles’ “star” role, which is essentially the nickelback in their scheme.

Few players nationally impact a game like Ramsey. He is fourth on Florida State in tackles (75), second in tackles for loss (9.5) and sacks (three), and first in interceptions (two) and passes broken up (11).

Ramsey said he’s recently noticed offenses scheming for him differently, and he feels Georgia Tech purposefully avoided him in the ACC championship game. Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, who represents the other half of a much-anticipated Jan. 1 chess match against Ramsey, raved about Ramsey’s game-breaking ability.

"If you just watch him on film, he’s a guy that will singlehandedly turn a drive and just stop it,” Mariota said. “He’s a great player. He’s going to make his plays.”

Ramsey showed no interest in exchanging pleasantries with Mariota leading up to the game, though. In a time when players are often coached to recycle football cliches or speak in ambiguities, Ramsey didn't mince words when asked about playing against the most recent Heisman Trophy winner. Ramsey didn’t dismiss or disrespect Mariota’s wildly successful season, but he wasn’t about to place an opponent on a pedestal above his own teammate, one who also happens to own a Heisman.

“That doesn’t really matter to me,” Ramsey said about playing against the 2014 Heisman winner. “Jameis [Winston] is the best player in America. I go up against him every day in practice. So it doesn’t matter.”

Those closest to Ramsey say his comments are part of a competitive drive few players across any sport can match.

“It reminds me of Kobe Bryant,” his brother, Jamal Ramsey, said.

“He doesn’t feel like he takes a back seat to anybody,” Lamont Ramsey, Jalen's father, said.

That drive in Ramsey was developed at a young age. Jamal, who is three years older than Jalen, would allow his younger brother to play pickup football and basketball with him. If there were a game going on in the neighborhood, Jalen was the youngest one playing and getting “bullied around,” Lamont joked. Jalen held his own, though, because if he weren't able to keep pace, Jamal said his brother would have been sent back home.

Ramsey wasn’t as physically impressive then as he is now. He entered high school standing just 5-foot-3 and weighing 135 pounds but trained with his father, who has tutored some of college football’s top players -- Navy’s Keenan Reynolds and Tennessee’s Derek Barnett among them. Jamal was also a quarterback at Middle Tennessee State (where Lamont also played receiver) and would pit his younger brother against MTSU’s receivers. Ramsey was once again playing up a level, which might be putting it generously considering a 5-foot-3 cornerback was responsible for guarding grown men.

“He would win some, and he would lose some, but as he got older, he got stronger and won some more,” Jamal said. “He’s always competed and didn’t want people having bragging rights over him.”

He especially didn’t want Jamal to have the upper hand. The two usually played on the same team, whether in basketball or football, so the brotherly banter was forced to come in other areas. Jamal liked the Florida Gators growing up, and Jalen cheered for Miami. Jamal likes the NBA’s Knicks, so naturally Jalen is a Heat fan.

It wasn’t until Jamal made the switch to receiver in college that the two began going head-to-head. By then, Jalen had grown; he shot up six inches as a high school sophomore. During preparations for a high school all-star game after his senior season, Jalen and Jamal took to the field.

“They were working on releases, and it was the first time [Jalen] jacked his brother up,” Lamont said. “His brother didn’t like it, and it got heated. Jalen said ‘I’m not that little dude anymore.’”

Now, as the most experienced player on Florida State’s defense, Ramsey is also not a young dude anymore. He wasn’t nearly as vocal as a freshman on a 2013 defense that now has five players logging regular minutes in the NFL. But Ramsey is one of the unit’s leaders on a new-look 2014 defense.

“It came with my role and my age. I’m more comfortable this year,” he said.

He’s more comfortable complementing his play with his talk too.

Said Jamal: “Because he’s always backed it up.”
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The Florida State offensive line wasn’t scaring defensive coordinators through the first month of the season. A unit hailed as the country’s best during the preseason had struggled clearing space for a rushing attack that ranked 103rd at the end of September.

Four games ago, Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher made a bold switch along the offensive line in the midst of an undefeated season. Before the Nov. 15 game against Miami, just as starting center Austin Barron was cleared to play after fracturing his forearm back in early October, Fisher moved all-conference performer Cam Erving from left tackle to center. That meant true freshman Roderick Johnson was being inserted at left tackle, the position responsible for Jameis Winston’s blind side.

Fisher’s roll of the dice worked. The Seminoles are averaging 146 yards rushing over their past four games -- not a sizable difference -- but they are averaging 4.8 yards per carry. They averaged less than four yards per rush in September. And in the ACC title game, FSU averaged 5.42 yards per rush, a stat that helped carry them to the No. 3 playoff seed and a date against No. 2 Oregon in the Rose Bowl.

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher
Orlando Sentinel via Getty ImagesFlorida State's offensive line has improved since a bold late-season move by coach Jimbo Fisher.
With this new starting five, Florida State might as well be Wisconsin South. Both Florida State and Wisconsin, whose offensive line’s girth is annually celebrated, have a starting five that averages 6-foot-5 along the line. The Seminoles’ combined weight across the group is actually greater than Wisconsin’s, and Florida State still has athleticism along the unit, too.

"We got great size," said Josue Matias, who is the link between Johnson and Erving at left guard. "We got intimidation off the bus. It just has a different attitude."

As early as this spring, Erving was being groomed as a potential center. Fisher originally said it was strictly for emergencies that Erving would play center, but as the 6-foot-7, 330-pound Johnson continued to hold his own in fall practice against a talented FSU defensive line, Fisher felt at some point during the season he would be able to move Erving to center.

At 308 pounds, Erving is the smallest player on the line, but he’s also maybe the most athletic. As the offensive line anchor, Erving has been effective firing off as a run blocker, but also when he’s pulling.

"Athletically you can see our difference, and in height and weight and you don’t really drop off with Rod at left tackle," right tackle Bobby Hart said.

Erving, one of the team leaders, praised the effort of Barron and fellow center Ryan Hoefeld, but he said the chemistry of this starting five just seems to be better.

"It’s all about chemistry on the offensive line," Erving said. "You got to know what each other is thinking and how you’re going to do each block. The chemistry is coming together better."

Through the first nine games, despite Florida State winning them all, there were legitimate questions as to whether the Seminoles could win a second straight national title without an effective running game. And the offensive line had struggled to protect Winston at times. The new structure of the offensive line potentially returns Florida State to its perch among football’s most talented groups as it hits its stride.

The lack of an effective run game and inconsistent offensive line play put the offense, and specifically Winston, in a weekly bind. Winston was forced to shoulder too much of the offense. Winston averaged 38.5 passing attempts per game in October. That number has dropped to 32 over the past four games.

"We’ve taken on a new identity," Erving said.

With the playoffs only two weeks away, the shift has come at the perfect time.
In what world would any team want to play the Oregon Ducks? The same Ducks who finished the season 12-1 and destroyed the only team that dared beat them, Arizona, in a Pac-12 title game rematch on Friday.

For No. 3 Florida State, that is your reward for a second straight undefeated season and third consecutive ACC title. Hop on a cross-country flight to the No. 2 Ducks’ backyard for the Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual in a New Year’s Day College Football Playoff semifinal.

[+] EnlargeDalvin Cook
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesFfreshman running back Dalvin Cook has become a key cog for the Seminoles.
And yet, maybe it is the better of the two possible scenarios for Jimbo Fisher’s Seminoles. The reality is they were never going to be ranked No. 1 and the selection committee was asked to pick FSU’s poison: Alabama or Oregon.

“Wherever you’re ranked right now, I don’t know if it matters,” Fisher said. “Every team in this playoff is a great team.”

He’s right, of course. It sounds crazy -- and maybe it is considering Oregon is outscoring opponents by almost 24 points per game -- but football is a game of matchups, and the Seminoles are better off against the Ducks, an early 8.5-point favorite.

Oregon’s offense is “off the charts,” Fisher said, but the Seminoles have the luxury of three-week period to prepare for the Ducks’ dynamic spread. Although no offense is soaring quite like the Ducks’, Florida State’s last three games have been against Boston College, Florida and Georgia Tech. All or some of those teams are predicated on the run, have mobile quarterbacks, use a lot of misdirection and run some variance of the option.

With Fisher expecting defensive tackle Eddie Goldman to be able to play, the Seminoles have the size, length and athleticism along the defensive line to pose problems for Oregon’s spread. Goldman is among the country’s best defensive tackles, and few defensive ends can control the edge like 300-pound junior Mario Edwards, who can do a standing backflip. He will have to funnel plays inside because Oregon averages 6.9 yards per rush outside the tackles. Oregon is statistically better rushing between the tackles than Alabama, too, but dreadlocked wrecking ball Derrick Henry could ravage an already thin FSU defensive front.

The running game is peaking for the Seminoles, too. True freshman running back Dalvin Cook has emerged as one of the Seminoles’ elite players, totaling 392 yards over his last two games and winning MVP of the ACC championship.

The Ducks are above average against the run in 2014, ranking 57th in yards per rush (4.12), but, Alabama ranks third nationally with an average of 2.81 yards allowed. The Ducks have also been a little bit more vulnerable in the beginning of games before they put games out of reach. Oregon allows 4.26 yards per carry in the first half but have a sub-4.0 average in the second. The Ducks have not been great on first down either, allowing nearly 5 yards per rush on first downs.

“Dalvin’s just getting better and better as each week goes by,” Seminoles senior center Cameron Erving told reporters after the game. “He’s a dynamic player. He can break tackles. He’s fast. He’s elusive. There are not enough positive things you can say about Dalvin.”

And really, who wants to match wits with Nick Saban in a championship-like setting? Saban is 5-1 in SEC title games and 4-0 in national title games when he has had weeks to prepare. That’s not knocking Mark Helfrich, who has only three losses in two seasons as head coach, but Saban has earned the $7 million check with his performances in championship games. Alabama has won all three of its national championships under Saban by at least 16 points.

All that said, there are certainly areas the Ducks can exploit the Seminoles. Florida State’s linebackers are not nearly as athletic or fast as a year ago and missed tackles have plagued the unit. Starters Matthew Thomas and Terrance Smith are not 100 percent either.

Offensively, Florida State ranks 116th out of 128 FBS teams with 27 turnovers while the Ducks have turned it over only twice. The Ducks are averaging 9.2 points off turnovers per game this season, ranked eighth in the country and have allowed only 13 total points all season off their own mistakes.

It’s an unenviable “Would You Rather” scenario for Florida State with only Alabama and Oregon as the options, but the Seminoles might matchup better -- even if just slightly -- against the Ducks.

Oregon-Michigan State laden with meaning

September, 1, 2014
9/01/14
10:00
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Marcus Mariota and Connor CookAP PhotoThe performances of Marcus Mariota, left, and Connor Cook will go a long way in determining the outcome of Saturday's Oregon-Michigan State game.
There will be no "real" Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 2015. The "real" Rose Bowl, whose purity previously had been diluted by the BCS, is a casualty of the College Football Playoff this season. While that will make many of us old fogies wince, the only constructive response is to embrace change and recognize the fulfillment of decades-long clamoring for a playoff was inevitably going to kill off some cherished institutions with its birth.

As a consolation prize, however, the college football gods have given us No. 8 Michigan State visiting No. 3 Oregon on Saturday. It's a Rose Bowl matchup the first weekend of September, with the (alleged) Big Ten best versus (alleged) Pac-12 best. With Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller out for the season and UCLA's less than scintillating performance at Virginia, this one has gained further traction as a potential CFP selection committee barometer for both teams and both conferences.

No, there will be no sunset behind the San Gabriel Mountains at Autzen Stadium, but there likely will be rosy fingers of meaning extending from whatever happens Saturday. For one, an early-season victory over a top-10 team in a nonconference game is exactly what the selection committee claims it will pay homage to. As an optional challenge boldly undertaken outside of the rote bureaucracy of conference scheduling, this game should serve as a badge of honor for teams trying to distinguish themselves to 13 judges in a conference room Dec. 7.

Ah, the committee. We can be fairly certain that, for better or worse, the great "Transitive Property of College Football" will play a role in its deliberations, and that is the perception prize the Spartans and Ducks will battle over in addition to the scoreboard numbers.

If Oregon wins, it will thereby -- transitively -- be better than any team the Spartans beat over the remainder of their season. If Michigan State ends up the Big Ten champion at 12-1, the Ducks will be viewed as the de facto Big Ten champs -- at least if the Ducks do well enough over the rest of their season to merit such an overreaching (overreacting?) designation. This playoff math would be rendered less relevant if Oregon, in this scenario, meanders to a 10-2 finish and fails to win the Pac-12's North Division.

The same goes for Michigan State, perhaps even more so because the rest of its schedule is not as demanding. If the Spartans beat a Ducks team -- in fearsome Autzen Stadium, the Pac-12's toughest road venue, no less -- that goes on to win the ostensibly SEC-ish Pac-12, their bounty could be a defensible claim to the top perch in two Power 5 conferences. That is, of course, if they take care of business over the entire season.

So the function is almost a transference of the Rose Bowl's typical season-ending meaning, just without any of the cool pageantry. A further twist is that both teams after the game become each other's biggest fans, with both winner and loser wanting the other to make the result a more impressive measure of itself.

Not that you'll hear Ducks coach Mark Helfrich or Spartans leader Mark Dantonio celebrating this sort of curlicue thinking. They've got teams with big goals, including playoff goals, but placing this game on such a pedestal could make a loss feel catastrophic within the locker room. Then what about the next 10 or 11 games?

“[This is] game No. 2. We have 10 games after that. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves," Dantonio said. "It’s not an end-all either way. That’s going to be a measuring stick game for us. Where are we at? Who are we? It will give us a little more of a sense of identity early in the season.”

Once you get past going John le Carré on potential selection committee intrigues, the football part of this football game is pretty cool, too. Although the teams share a team color of green, that's pretty much where the commonality ends, and even then, Oregon long ago went ludicrous speed on the notion of team colors and sartorial standards.

Speaking of ludicrous speed, Oregon, you might have heard, plays fast and furious on offense and piles up yards and points like a frenzying school of pirañas. Meanwhile, Michigan State, as you know, plays defense like a thick wall of titanium. Wall? It's more like an impregnable box -- with walls slowly closing together.

Last year, Oregon ranked No. 2 in the nation in total offense (565 yards per game) and No. 4 in scoring offense (45.5 ppg). Michigan State ranked No. 2 in total defense (252.2 ypg) and No. 3 in scoring defense (13.2 ppg). The Spartans also enter the game knowing they beat the Pac-12 team that beat the Ducks, given that they dispatched Stanford 24-20 in the 2014 Rose Bowl.

Of course, an over-reliance on what happened the past season is one of the greatest weaknesses in so-called college football punditry. The first weekend has already shown us that projecting forward based on returning starters and extrapolated improvement is an inexact science. Both Oregon and Michigan State are missing key players from 2013 on both sides of the ball. They also have shiny new players ready to glow.

Still, the circumstantial evidence suggests both teams will lean on their obvious strengths on Saturday. The Ducks and quarterback Marcus Mariota, a leading Heisman Trophy candidate, rolled up 673 yards without really trying in an opening win over South Dakota, while Michigan State's defense throttled Jacksonville State 45-7 yielding just 244 yards.

The obvious only goes so far. The game ultimately might swing on the secondary quantities. Spartans quarterback Connor Cook has been surging since the middle of the past year, and he was darn near perfect in the opener and actually earned a perfect rating of 100 in ESPN.com's Total QB Rating. Oregon's defense has long been given short shrift, despite ranking among the nation's leaders and sending numerous players to the NFL.

The sum conclusion is that, while we will go Rose Bowl-less this season, this is a game that has plenty to offer, both in football on Saturday and in potential micro-analyzed meaning as the season progresses.

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Arizona State was one of the nation's hottest teams heading into the Pac-12 championship game against Stanford. It had won seven in a row, the longest winning streak in the conference. Further, it was playing at home, where it was 7-0 with a 28-point average margin of victory. The Cardinal's only two losses came on the road.

That was reasonable grounds to believe that the 11th-ranked Sun Devils would fare better against No. 7 Stanford than in their Sept. 21 meeting, a 42-28 Cardinal whipping that wasn't nearly as close as the final score suggests.

Nope.

Stanford did its smashmouth Stanford thing, and Arizona State was pretty helpless to do what it wanted to do in a 38-14 victory that will send the Cardinal to its second consecutive Rose Bowl, this time opposite Big Ten champion Michigan State.

"They dominated the game -- beat us in every way you can," Arizona State coach Todd Graham said.

And how does Stanford dominate? Said Graham, "They destroyed the line of scrimmage."

[+] EnlargeTyler Gaffney
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesTyler Gaffney got Stanford off to a fast start with a 69-yard touchdown run in the first quarter.
That's Stanford's thing. While many teams are spreading out defenses and outflanking them while going up-tempo, Stanford just lines up and tries to knock you over. It's not always pretty. But when Stanford is playing its best, it often renders all schematic complexities used against it irrelevant.

Arizona State had a plan, one that it thought would make things different this time. But it couldn't get started because, as Graham said, Stanford was destroying the line of scrimmage.

"I mean, they've made changes, but the way this team operates and the way we function, it's about us," Cardinal linebacker Shayne Skov said. "Offenses will change, but what matters is what we do defensively and offensively. We have to set the tone. We never want to adjust or have to adapt. We want to be the ones setting the tempo and forcing people to adjust to our style of football."

The Cardinal is now 11-2 after playing one of the nation's toughest schedules. How good are they in big games? Stanford is 10-0 in its past 10 games versus AP-ranked opponents, including 6-0 this season.

It's fair to ask how Stanford lost two games, to Utah and USC. But you won't get many excuses from the Cardinal.

"We bring the effort every week, but we didn't get the results we wanted," Skov said.

Stanford doesn't only grind it out, however. It got its first of nine plays of longer than 20 yards on its first possession when running back Tyler Gaffney slipped around the Sun Devils defense and ran 69 yards for a touchdown.

Gaffney would go on to rush for 133 yards on 22 carries with three touchdowns, earning game MVP honors. When the Cardinal went to the Rose Bowl last year, he was a professional baseball player watching from the sidelines in Pasadena. His return to the team, spurred in large part because of that game reigniting his football itch, is a big reason he's going to play in the Granddaddy himself.

"This is exactly why you come back," he said. "This is what you play for."

He now has rushed for 1,618 yards and a Pac-12 high 20 touchdowns this season.

"There is no question that Tyler Gaffney has been the heartbeat of our offense all year," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "Gaffney, you just watch him play, and he gets stronger and stronger. He just drags guys."

While Gaffney was the offensive star, junior quarterback Kevin Hogan's performance was perhaps more notable. He has been up and down this year, but he was decidedly up against the Sun Devils, completing 12 of 18 passes for 277 yards and a score with no interceptions. He also rushed for 24 yards.

[+] EnlargeKevin Hogan
AP Photo/Matt YorkQuarterback Kevin Hogan accounted for 301 yards and a touchdown in directing the Cardinal offense.
"With some of those step-up in the pocket throws and runs, those are huge plays, and we don't win without those plays," Shaw said. "Kevin's got ice water in his veins."

Of course, in contrast to many Pac-12 teams, the Cardinal is defense-first. Stanford held an opponent to 20 or fewer points for the seventh time in as many games. The Cardinal has held opponents to 20 or fewer points in 20 of its past 25 games.

Stanford outgained the Sun Devils 517 yards to 311 and outrushed them 240 to 138, with the Sun Devils getting more than a third of their yards on the ground from a 51-yard first-quarter touchdown run from D.J. Foster. The Sun Devils' other score came on a short pass that Foster turned into a 65-yard touchdown play.

Shaw admitted there was some big-picture, retrospective thinking in his locker room leading up to the game. Stanford, which went 1-11 in 2006, is on an unprecedented run of success, as it becomes the fifth -- and final -- team to go to four straight BCS games.

"I told the players what was at stake," Shaw said. "What was at stake is their legacy."

That legacy is a very specific set of skills. It's simple. And just a bit brutal.

Explained Skov: "We're going to come after you offensively, defensively and attack the line of scrimmage. It's what we do, and we were successful today."

Today and for four consecutive seasons that featured 46 victories, most of which looked a lot like the 2013 Pac-12 championship game.

Is Graham awakening sleeping giant  ASU?

December, 3, 2013
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Arizona State had a great run under Frank Kush in the 1970s. The Sun Devils went 10-2 under Darryl Rodgers in 1982. They won the Rose Bowl over Michigan after the 1986 season under John Cooper. Bruce Snyder's only loss in the 1996 season was a nail-biting Rose Bowl against Ohio State. Dirk Koetter was 9-3 in 2004. Dennis Erickson opened his ASU tenure with a 10-3 mark in 2007.

But each Arizona State surge was followed by mediocrity and losing seasons. Since Kush was controversially forced out in 1979, the only thing that has been consistent about Sun Devils football has been inconsistency.

[+] EnlargeTodd Graham
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesTodd Graham says players should take charge of leadership on a team.
That has baffled many folks, particularly sportswriters, who have repeatedly called Arizona State a "sleeping giant." In fact, the Pac-12 blog has done this a couple of times over the past five years -- here and here. It's been a national story a number of times. It's been debated. It's been a topic this season.

That's why the Sun Devils’ rise under Todd Graham should be approached cautiously. While there's plenty of evidence suggesting a cultural transformation, unfettered optimism has been a dangerous state of mind for Sun Devil fans.

How about just the facts? Graham took over a team that went 6-7 in 2011 and went 8-5 his first season. In his second, he has the Sun Devils at 10-2, ranked 11th and facing No. 7 Stanford on Saturday for the Pac-12 championship and Rose Bowl berth .

Arizona State had been a notoriously undisciplined program. In 2011, the Sun Devils ranked last in the nation in penalty yards per game. Last year, they ranked eighth in the nation, and this year they rank third.

The discipline has extended off the field. The Sun Devils have been mostly avoiding the police blotter and doing well in the classroom, see nine players earning Pac-12 All-Academic honors, the program's most since 2006.

"We've always lacked consistency," said running back D.J. Foster, a Scottsdale native. "Even before I came here, just watching stuff. I feel like this program finally has constancy with Coach Graham. His work ethic is rubbing off on the players."

Graham said that even before he took the Arizona State job he had talked to other coaches about the football program's potential, most notably Cooper, who bolted Tempe for Ohio State after going 7-4-1 in 1987. Cooper is the last Sun Devils coach whose tenure didn't end with a pink slip. Graham, who has notoriously called multiple places his "dream job," wasn't worried about the dreaded "sleeping giant" label, which typically became a subject for off-the-record derision among former Sun Devils coaches.

"I think it just points to the potential," Graham said. "This is a great place."

There was an outside perception that the team Graham took over didn't lack athletic ability but that it might be thin on character. Fair or unfair, the Sun Devils have long been dogged by a reputation as a self-centered team that lacked mental toughness. But what Graham says he found was a locker room eager to embrace change.

"I think they were somewhat tired of some of the discipline things," Graham said. "I believe young people will meet whatever standard you set."

Want buy-in? Two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton on Monday was finishing up a 15-page paper on leadership. Guess who it was about: Graham.

"It's about leadership and change in the community, and what better person to do than Coach Graham?" Sutton explained.

For Graham, however, the message that he advanced this season compared to last is players taking charge of leadership instead of the coaches. That's part of a team and a program maturing.

"Our players are leading the team," he said.

The improvement this fall has been impressive. The Sun Devils are 10-2 against one of the nation's toughest schedules and they are riding a Pac-12-best seven-game winning streak. While Stanford is the defending conference champion, it's the Sun Devils who are favored.

"This has been the best situation I've ever been in in coaching," Graham said. "We've really gelled really quickly. We had a great plan and we really fit the place. I think the players were really hungry for what we've brought."

If the Sun Devils keep winning, it certainly will bolster efforts to renovate Sun Devil Stadium, a project that is critical to the program remaining competitive. And retaining Graham.

While the previously nomadic Graham seems to -- finally -- be content, leading Arizona State to a Rose Bowl will refocus the nation on his program building skills, not his controversial departures from previous schools. Keeping him and his coaching staff happy will be an important test for the athletic department, which already is replacing athletic director Steve Patterson, who left for Texas this fall.

Further, everyone knows nothing big has been accomplished yet. This is about establishing a consistent winner, not just breaking through every five or 10 years for a magical run. It's no good if the sleeping giant just got up to grab a glass of warm milk before again retiring.

"I feel the sleeping giant is awoken but we've still got a lot more work to do and a lot more big games to win to be established as a dominant program," Foster said.

Pac-12 Power Rankings: Week 14

December, 2, 2013
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If you don't like where you are in the Power Rankings, play better.

Click here for last week's Power Rankings.

1. Stanford: With the win over Notre Dame, Stanford defeated its sixth ranked opponent in a single season for the first time in school history. It also clinched its fourth straight 10-win season. The Cardinal had just three 10-win seasons all time before this streak. They have a chance to secure a second consecutive Rose Bowl berth on Saturday at Arizona State.

2. Arizona State: After blowing out Arizona, the Sun Devils have won seven in a row and are 7-0 at home this season with an average margin of victory of 28 points. If Stanford thinks the Pac-12 title game will be anything like the Sept. 21 game in Palo Alto, it will be in for a long night in Tempe on Saturday.

3. Oregon: The Ducks showed grit winning in the fourth quarter against Oregon State, but it's also fair to say that performance didn't look anything like the September-October squad that dominated on both sides of the ball during an 8-0 start. It seems likely Oregon will eclipse the loser of the Pac-12 title game for the Valero Alamo Bowl slot because of its national brand.

4. UCLA: UCLA's second consecutive win over USC means just what the Bruins and coach Jim Mora said afterward: They own L.A. It's also meaningful that they bounced back strong after the disappointing loss to Arizona State. Next challenge -- other than the bowl game -- is to dominate recruiting in Southern California.

5. USC: Here's a guess that the loss to UCLA likely leaves interim Ed Orgeron outside looking in as far as becoming the Trojans' next coach. Losing to both Notre Dame and the Bruins weighs down a résumé, no matter how much better the product was post-Lane Kiffin.

6. Washington: Steve Sarkisian and the Huskies got over the 7-6 hump with an eighth win in the Apple Cup. Win a bowl game and Sark and company will face a much more positive offseason compared to last year.

7. Washington State: Despite losing the Apple Cup, the Cougars are clearly on an uptick under Mike Leach. A bowl win, of course, would accelerate the upticker.

8. Arizona: It seemed as though the Wildcats used up their A-game in the upset win over Oregon. Rich Rodriguez has posted two solid seasons in Tucson, but going 0-2 versus the hated Sun Devils prevents Wildcats fans from feeling satisfied.

9. Oregon State: The Beavers' preseason worst-case scenario was the possibility of a major second-half slide. That came true, see five consecutive losses. This team needs a bowl game -- to win a bowl game -- just to wash the bad taste out of its mouth.

10. Utah: Lots of offseason questions for the Utes after a second-consecutive bowl-less season, but the chief one is at quarterback. Getting back to a bowl game in 2014 depends on it.

11. Colorado: Even while losing at Utah, it was clear that this team took a big step forward in Year 1 under Mike MacIntyre. The Buffaloes darn near notched a huge comeback on the road, showing fight until the very end. A 4-8 season and 1-8 finish in Pac-12 play might not feel very good overall, but this team is much improved compared to 2012. Now, can it take a big step forward in 2014?

12. California: There is no where to go but up, and Sonny Dykes needs to make some tough calls on his staff. The Bears could energize their fan base with some recruiting wins, seeing that none of those came in Pac-12 play.

Stakes high for ASU, Arizona

November, 26, 2013
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In terms of general bitterness, the Arizona-Arizona State rivalry over the Territorial Cup is pretty darn underrated nationally. That's understandable, though, because the game rarely has much national relevance. One team can be up or down, but it's been rare that both are good and playing for more than state pride.

[+] EnlargeTodd Graham
Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty ImagesTodd Graham (left) and Taylor Kelly are directing one of the Pac-12's best offense, but will be missing their top rusher.
That’s why Saturday’s meeting feels a bit different. For the first time since 1986, both teams enter the game with at least seven wins. Most notable: Arizona State needs to beat the Wildcats to secure home-field advantage for the Pac-12 title game against Stanford on Dec. 7.

How much does that matter? The Sun Devils are 6-0 at home this year with an average margin of victory of 26.8 points per game, including wins over two ranked teams, Wisconsin and USC, as well as a blowout victory over Washington. They are 3-2 on the road, with a 42-28 loss at Stanford, a game that was 39-7 entering the fourth quarter.

The Wildcats are trying to upgrade their own bowl prospects while playing the role of spoiler. And Arizona fans, who have never experienced a Rose Bowl, want to make it as difficult as possible for the Sun Devils to get to the Granddaddy for a third time.

Both teams are coming off the biggest victories their second-year head coaches have produced. Todd Graham and the Sun Devils captured the South Division crown with a win at UCLA last weekend. A road win like that -- over a quality foe with high stakes -- is something that has been tough to come by for ASU through the years. Rich Rodriguez and the Wildcats ended No. 5 Oregon's Rose Bowl hopes with a shocking 42-16 blowout win.

The game sets up to be hotly contested. Seven of the last nine matchups have been decided by a TD or less. The past four games have been decided by a total of 15 points. And home field often doesn't matter. The visiting team has won eight of the last 13 matchups, including the last four.

“I don’t worry about all that stuff,” Graham said. “I don’t think what happened last year has anything to do with this year. People have a whole bunch of time in their hands to spend analyzing stuff. We don’t overanalyze it.”

Despite that harrumph, Graham probably feels pretty good about what happened last year. His team won 41-34, overcoming a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit in front of a stunned Tucson crowd.

But the typically loquacious Graham might have been grumpy Monday during his news conference because his star running back Marion Grice is highly questionable with what appears to be an ankle injury he suffered in the fourth quarter at UCLA. Grice has been a TD machine this year, leading the Pac-12 and ranking fifth in the nation with 10.7 points per game. Grice also ranks first in the Pac-12 and fourth nationally in all-purpose yards with 176.5 per game.

QB Taylor Kelly is the Sun Devils second-leading rusher, though Deantre Lewis and D.J. Foster are capable backup running backs.

The most obvious personnel change between these two teams compared to last year is Arizona replacing QB Matt Scott with B.J. Denker. The Wildcats are scoring just five fewer points per game than in 2012, but the more notable development is the Wildcats dramatic defensive improvement, something that should put coordinator Jeff Casteel in line for the Broyles Award, given annually to the nation's top assistant coach.

The Wildcats are yielding nearly two fewer touchdowns per game this year compared to 2012 (21.6 points per game versus to 35.3 ppg in 2012). They are giving up 100 fewer yards per game (399 vs. 499) and nearly 40 fewer yards rushing per game (206.2 vs. 166.6). They've risen from ninth in the conference in pass efficiency defense to fourth. And they just held Oregon to its lowest point total of the season.

[+] EnlargeJeff Casteel
AP Photo/John MillerRich Rodriguez (right) has a signature win at Arizona after defeating Oregon, but it's been the play of Jeff Casteel's defense that has been surprising.
Of course, the Sun Devils are no slouch on defense either. Playing against a tougher schedule than the Wildcats, they've yielded the same total on yards per play -- 5.2 -- and rank second in the conference in total defense and third in run defense.

"They have nine seniors starting on defense and five senior backups," Rodriguez noted. "That might be the oldest defense in college football.”

It's actually seven senior starters, but Rodriguez's point is it is a veteran unit. The Wildcats start five seniors.

While the game has more tangible meaning for Graham and Arizona State, it might have more intangible meaning for Rodriguez. For one, it would be fair to say he and Graham don't have a terribly warm relationship. And in a battle for state supremacy, Rodriguez doesn't want to find himself in a 0-2 hole against Graham as they battle for state supremacy. So, yeah, this one is important for myriad reasons.

Said Rodriguez: “You’d have to be living under a rock if you play for Arizona and don’t realize how important the ASU rivalry is.”

Pac-12 weekend rewind: Week 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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