NCF Nation: Stanford Cardinal

If Oregon wins the inaugural College Football Playoff, the Pac-12 will cap the greatest season in its history, including iterations as the Pac-8 and Pac-10. Perhaps we should toss an "arguably" in there, particularly if the conference's seven other bowl teams go belly-up in some form or fashion, but why be wishy-washy?

After Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota was the overwhelming winner of the Heisman Trophy on Saturday, the Pac-12 completed a sweep through the award season like some morphing of "Titanic," "Ben Hur" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" at the Oscars. Combine Mariota with Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright, and the Pac-12 has produced the season's most decorated offensive and defensive players. Not since 2002, when USC QB Carson Palmer won the Heisman and Arizona State LB Terrell Suggs swept most defensive awards has this happened.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesMarcus Mariota and the Oregon Ducks have a chance to make this a historic season for the Pac-12.
Mariota also won the Maxwell and Walter Camp player of the year awards, as well as the Davey O'Brien and Unitas awards as the nation's top QB. Wright won the Lombardi, Bednarik and Nagurski awards. Further, UCLA linebacker Eric Kendricks won the Butkus Award, Utah defensive end Nate Orchard won the Hendricks Award and Utah punter Tom Hackett won the Ray Guy Award.

Toss in eight players on the All-America team -- from seven different schools -- and six teams ranked in the final pre-bowl CFP rankings and it feels like an unprecedented season for national recognition in the Pac-12.

Well, at least if the Ducks take care of business.

The season Palmer and Suggs were college football's most celebrated players, just two Pac-10 teams ended up ranked, though both were in the top 10 (USC and Washington State), while Colorado, then in the Big 12, also finished ranked. In 2004, USC won the national title, Trojans QB Matt Leinart won the Heisman and California finished in the top 10. Arizona State also finished ranked, while Utah went undefeated, though as a Mountain West Conference member. Obviously, if you fudge with conference membership issues, you can make things look better retroactively than they were in their present time.

In 2000, three teams -- No. 3 Washington, No. 4 Oregon State and No. 7 Oregon -- finished ranked in the top seven. In 1984, the Pac-10 won the Rose (USC), Orange (Washington) and Fiesta (UCLA) bowls and finished with three top-10 teams, including No. 2 Washington, which was victimized by BYU's dubious national title.

So there have been plenty of impressive seasons, just not anything as scintillating as 2014 if Oregon wins the title.

Oregon, of course, hoisting the new 35-pound, cylindrical trophy as the last team standing is hardly a sure thing. First, the Ducks get defending national champion Florida State in the Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual. While many have questioned the Seminoles this season because every game has been a nail-biter, that doesn't change the fact the nation's only unbeaten Power 5 conference team -- winners of 29 games in a row, no less -- own the fourth quarter. In football, owning the fourth quarter is almost always a good thing.

If Oregon manages to win that CFP semifinal game, the good money is on it getting a shot at top-ranked Alabama in the national title game, though throwing funereal dirt on Ohio State this season has proved difficult. Ohio State is the Count Dracula of college football this season -- perennially undead. That duly noted, knocking aside Alabama -- the game's most dynastic program, led by its most celebrated coach in Nick Saban -- while the Crimson Tide also stand as the bell cow of the dominant SEC would be the ultimate achievement for a team and conference eager to solidify its super-elite standing.

The simple fact that Oregon has not won a national title in football -- and the Pac-12/10 hasn't claimed one since 2004 -- stands out on both literal and symbolic levels. There has not been a first-time national champion since Florida won in 1996, while a Pac-12/10 team other than USC hasn't won one since Washington in 1991. Before that, if then-Big 8 member Colorado's 1990 title doesn't count, it's UCLA in 1954.

So Oregon taking that final step into the light would represent a pretty dramatic development, particularly after the school already upgraded its trophy case with its first Heisman. It would complete a climb started in the 1990s and show other mid-to-low-level Power 5 teams that all they need to transform into a superpower is good coaching, strong administration and a sugar-daddy billionaire booster.

As for the conference in general, it would be a big deal to have a non-USC national title in the coffers, and it would be further validation of the depth and quality of the conference. Last season, for the first time since 2009, the conference didn't finish with a top-five team, but for the first time ever it finished with six teams ranked in the final AP poll. So the Ducks at the top would provide some nice symmetry.

As for the entire postseason, the Pac-12 is favored in seven of its eight bowl games, with UCLA being only a slight underdog to Kansas State, with the line trending down since opening at 3 1/2 points. So the conference is set up for success. Anything fewer than six wins -- including Oregon in the Rose Bowl -- would be a disappointment, an underachievement.

You know, not unlike last season, when the conference went 6-3 and graded a mere "Gentleman's C" from the Pac-12 blog.

While Washington and Oregon State fans will be hard-pressed to force out a "Go Ducks!" and USC fans probably aren't ready to admit a new member to the college football penthouse, if Oregon can make its tide rise to the top -- and roll the Tide along the way -- it will boost all Pac-12 ships.

Pac-12 bowl projections: Week 14

December, 2, 2014
Dec 2
Half the Pac-12 is included in the latest College Football Playoff rankings and Arizona is up to No. 7, giving the Pac-12 two options -- along with No. 2 Oregon -- for the four-team playoff.

The teams meet Friday in the Pac-12 championship at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California. If Oregon wins, it's a shoo-in for the playoff, but Arizona would also have a strong case if it beats the Ducks for the second time this season. Even if Arizona loses, the Wildcats would be a strong candidate for the Fiesta Bowl, which it hasn't played in since 1994.

Stanford has never played in what is now the Foster Farms Bowl, which makes the Cardinal an attractive option for the local bowl -- especially after it knocked UCLA out of playoff contention with a 31-10 win at the Rose Bowl on Friday.

California's loss to BYU and Oregon State's loss in the Civil War in the final week of the regular season left the conference with eight bowl-eligible teams. Here are the current projections:

College Football Playoff semifinal (Rose Bowl presented by Northwestern Mutual): No. 2 Oregon
VIZIO Fiesta Bowl: No. 7 Arizona
Valero Alamo Bowl: No. 15 UCLA
National University Holiday Bowl: No. 25 USC
Foster Farms Bowl: Stanford
Hyundai Sun Bowl: No. 17 Arizona State
Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl: No. 23 Utah
Cactus Bowl: Washington

What we learned in the Pac-12: Week 14

November, 30, 2014
Nov 30
A few things we learned this week in the Pac-12.

And when the smoke cleared, Arizona emerged with the South Division title: In the preseason, UCLA was all the talk in the South Division. Some folks liked USC's overall talent. Others thought Arizona State would have enough on offense to compensate for a rebuilt defense and couldn't be counted out as the defending champs. No one picked Arizona to win the South. The Wildcats were replacing their quarterback and running back Ka'Deem Carey. The defense was still highly questionable. The O-line and receivers looked pretty good, but that was about it. And yet, in Year 3 under Rich Rodriguez, it's the Wildcats who endured and then conquered what might be the toughest division in college football, with apologies to the SEC West, with a 42-35 victory over Arizona State on Friday. Oh, and when they square off with North champion Oregon for the Pac-12 title on Friday in Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California, it will be the Wildcats owning a two-game winning streak in the series. And with an upset over the Ducks, the Wildcats might still end up entering the College Football Playoff discussion.

[+] EnlargeRich Rodriguez
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesRich Rodriguez and Arizona snuck up on everyone in the Pac-12 South to qualify for the Pac-12 championship game.
UCLA has not arrived: Most years, a nine-win regular season that included a victory over USC would be a good season for UCLA. But not this year. Not when the Bruins were widely viewed as a contender for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Not when two of the Bruins' losses came to teams they -- at least on paper -- should have beaten. Not when your QB is Brett Hundley and the depth chart reveals few weak areas. Jim Mora has made UCLA relevant again. He's pushed the Bruins back into the Pac-12 and national conversation. But that brings with it a new set of challenges. The next step for the program is to shrug off these challenges and legitimately enter the national title discussion -- in November instead of August.

Mariota wins the Heisman: Oregon QB Marcus Mariota completed 19 of 25 for 367 yards with 4 touchdowns in Oregon's 47-19 Civil War win over Oregon State. He also rushed for 39 yards and 2 scores. So that's six more TDs, giving him 47 total TDs for the season -- not to mention a receiving TD -- with just two interceptions. He's the best player in college football bar none. He's put up huge numbers against a schedule complete with a rugged Pac-12 slate and a nonconference win over a top-10 Michigan State team. Go ahead and engrave his name on the Heisman Trophy.

Kevin Hogan has awakened: Stanford and Hogan, in particular, were having a season that could be charitably termed as highly disappointing. Yet after a strong performance against California in the Big Game, Hogan was simply brilliant in Stanford's 31-10 upset of UCLA. He completed 16 of 19 passes for 234 yards -- two passes were dropped -- with 2 touchdowns and no interceptions. That gave him a scintillating 98.6 Adjusted QBR, easily a season high. He also rushed 7 times for 46 yards. He wasn't sacked, so that means his O-line, also disappointing this season, dominated a front that recorded five sacks in a blowout win over USC the previous week. There has been some talk over whether Hogan, a fourth-year junior, might enter the NFL draft, talk that included some smirks from observers. He looked like an NFL QB against UCLA.

Sark gets a boost: It has not been an easy first season at USC for Steve Sarkisian, and getting blown out last weekend by UCLA started the outraged hyperventilation among some Trojans fans. Well, stomping on Notre Dame typically turns USC frowns upside down, at least partially, so a 49-14 victory should calm folks down. While an 8-4 regular season won't ever be acceptable for USC, if Sarkisian can get a ninth win in a bowl game and then sign a top-10 recruiting class, his critics will quiet a bit -- at least until the first defeat of 2015.

No ninth Pac-12 bowl-eligible team: With California losing 42-35 to BYU and Oregon State falling, both finish 5-7 and are not eligible for a bowl. Cal went 1-11 last year, so five wins is a significant improvement. But that mark for the Beavers has some folks in Corvallis wondering about the direction of the program.

Oregon not only Pac-12 team eyeing CFP

November, 26, 2014
Nov 26

The first rule of College Football Playoff is you talk about College Football Playoff.

The second rule is you assume nothing. Well, that's completely wrong. The entire -- and endless! -- discussion involves projecting ahead, making assumptions about teams winning here or winning there.

So that's what we're going to do here.

As is quantified here by the inimitable Sharon Katz of ESPN's Stats & Information, UCLA is squarely in the playoff hunt, even as a two-loss team trying to eclipse one-loss teams, such as TCU, Baylor, Ohio State and Mississippi State.

She notes: "If UCLA were to beat Stanford and Oregon, the average current FPI ranking of UCLA’s 11 wins would be 33, the best in the nation." Then she concludes, with a question: "[If UCLA were to win out,] could the committee really leave a two-loss Pac-12 champion, with the hardest schedule in the nation, out of the playoff?"

The answer is no.

UCLA as the 11-2 Pac-12 champion will be in the playoff, and there's nothing any other bubble teams can do about it. There are two reasons -- the most important reasons, ones we've seen bandied about incessantly in regards to the selection committee: 1) merit, 2) best four teams. The Bruins would have earned a spot based on a demonstrably superior résumé, including a victory over the Ducks which would function as an eraser for one of their two defeats. And the Bruins would pass the sight test as one of the four best teams by posting the most distinguished win of 2014 on the last day of the season (over No. 2 Oregon).

I already hear the whining out there. Hush. There is no counterargument that is valid. You have lost out to the cruel mistresses of facts and logic. So we are not going to waste time with folks who insist on fighting a losing fight only because of the colors they wear on Saturday.

The more spicy issue is the Territorial Cup. Say UCLA loses to Stanford, and the winner of No. 13 Arizona State at No. 11 Arizona on Friday becomes the Pac-12 South Division champions. That's where things get interesting.

That is this week's only matchup of top-13 teams, meaning the winner can post the weekend's most meaningful victory. In the scenario with UCLA losing, that also means the winner could post the final weekend's most meaningful victory -- again, over No. 2 Oregon in the Pac-12 title game. Consecutive weekends of meaningfulness! The selection committee surely will imbibe that like a 22-year-old single malt.

Arizona's strength of record currently rates 11th and Arizona State's is 13th. Those two ratings would skyrocket, while other teams vying for a top-four spot would slide.

But how could the Wildcats/Sun Devils make up so much ground? Well, we've seen teams gain incredible traction in human polls with a run of wins that seemed impressive at the time. Mississippi State went from unranked to No. 1 after beating LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn. Of that troika, Auburn, at No. 15, is the committee's only presently ranked team, and Texas A&M and LSU play on Thanksgiving Day hoping to avoid a fifth defeat.

So clear-thinking folks, which we are sure committee members are, would see the Wildcats/Sun Devils as worthy of a rapid climb based on veritably impressive wins validated by a season's worth of work. Conversely, in the 20/20 vision of retrospect, the Bulldogs' rise would be a fun, if temporary, illusion worthy of nostalgia -- "I remember when our Bulldogs beat No. 2 Auburn!" -- but certainly not justifying a playoff spot.

What about other teams trying to insinuate themselves into the playoff? Unless Auburn upsets Alabama, Mississippi State's only remaining game is against flagging, No. 19 Ole Miss. TCU has Texas and Iowa State, a pair of unranked teams. Ohio State has its rivalry game with Michigan and then a matchup with either No. 18 Minnesota or No. 14 Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. Baylor has Texas Tech and No. 12 Kansas State on Dec. 6, a matchup that could significantly bolster the Bears' case.

Ah, but Baylor has its pastry-soft nonconference schedule holding it back. If it comes down the the Bears and, say, Arizona, then the Pac-12 team is surely ... er... what? The Wildcats played UNLV, UTSA and Nevada in its nonconference schedule? Well, cut off my legs and call me shorty, that's not a very Pac-12 thing to do.

It's fortunate that Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne has a great sense of humor. He'd surely be amused -- just like the folks at Baylor -- if the committee cited that weak slate as the reason the Wildcats got left at the altar.

In any event, this is probably all idle speculation. A few more major plot twists are nearly certain. Based on history, at least a couple of the teams in the top-eight fighting for positioning are going to go rear-end-over-tea-kettle, including a member of the top-three that has been practically written into the playoff with an ink pen.

But if you retain anything from these scribbles, it must be this: The first rule of College Football Playoff is you talk about College Football Playoff.

UCLA has legit playoff case if it wins out

November, 26, 2014
Nov 26
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsBrett Hundley and the Bruins could be on track for big things.

In the past few weeks, the playoff discussion has centered around the remaining zero- or one-loss teams from Power 5 conferences.

There is one two-loss team, however, that may have an argument for inclusion when all is said and done.

UCLA faces Stanford Friday (3:30 ET, ABC) with a chance to clinch the Pac-12 South. With a win against the Cardinal, UCLA will face Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game. If UCLA wins out, it will have a résumé worthy of discussion for the playoff.

UCLA has played the hardest schedule in the nation, according to ESPN’s strength of schedule rankings. The Bruins have not only played a nine-game Pac-12 schedule, but their out-of-conference slate also is the hardest of any Power 5 team.

The Bruins opened their season at Virginia in a game that kicked off at 9 AM PT. In Week 2, they faced Memphis, the current first-place team in the American Athletic Conference, and followed that game with a trip to Arlington to face Texas in Week 3.

The Bruins traveled close to 8,000 miles (counting return trips) before their first conference game and escaped with a 3-0 record. Two of those wins were against fellow Power 5 opponents; excluding Notre Dame, Florida State is the only other Power 5 team with multiple out-of-conference wins against Power 5 opponents.

Add in that UCLA’s conference schedule is the 12th-hardest in the nation before a potential Pac-12 Championship Game, and there will be no argument from the committee that the Bruins were not tested.

A difficult schedule affords the Bruins more opportunities for signature wins. UCLA has six wins against teams currently ranked in the top 40 of ESPN's Football Power Index, second-most in the FBS behind Alabama. If the Bruins win out, they will add two current FPI top 20 wins to their résumé.

One of the arguments against UCLA is that it played close games in the beginning of the season against lesser opponents. Since those games, however, the teams that UCLA beat have risen in the rankings. UCLA’s first six opponents all rank 42nd or better in the FPI after two of those teams began the season outside the top 42.

If UCLA were to beat Stanford and Oregon, the average current FPI ranking of UCLA’s 11 wins would be 33, the best in the nation.

Strength of Record
Many will point to UCLA’s two losses, to Utah and Oregon. The Oregon game was not even as close as the 12-point final scoring margin suggests.

ESPN’s Strength of Record metric accounts for both wins and losses to measure the difficulty of achieving a team’s record, given its schedule. UCLA, with two losses, currently ranks sixth in Strength of Record, ahead of one-loss Baylor and Ohio State. That means that it would be harder for an average top 25 team to achieve UCLA’s 9-2 record than either Baylor’s or Ohio State’s record.

If UCLA beats Stanford and Oregon it will likely jump into the top four in Strength of Record. The Bruins would likely have the same record as Oregon but will have played a tougher schedule in achieving that record. Similarly, assuming TCU and Baylor win out, the Bruins would have as many wins as those teams but significantly more quality wins, including a victory against one of the top teams in the nation (Oregon).

All of these arguments are contingent on UCLA winning out. Beating Stanford at home and Oregon on a neutral field is not an easy feat.

ESPN’s Football Power Index projects that the Bruins have a 24 percent chance to win out, but if they were to do it, could the committee really leave a two-loss Pac-12 champion, with the hardest schedule in the nation, out of the playoff?

A great mystery has been lost amid the jocularity surrounding celebrity journalist and sixth-grader Charlie Papé's quizzing Oregon coach Mark Helfrich about the future of Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota. While we can all appreciate that top topics of conversation at Papé's O'Hara Catholic School in Eugene are "Jesus, girls and Marcus Mariota," what has been over looked is Papé mentioned four topics of interest but never provided that final topic.

While Papé's life story is certain to shortly be developed into a movie -- think one part "Network," one part "Frozen" and one part "Wonder Years" -- we feel certain that elusive No. 4 concerns who will be the Pac-12's South Division champion, for that is a potential and worrisome foil for his troika of topics. It is against whom Oregon fans -- girls and boys, of course -- could see their prayers answered (or not) and against whom Mariota could secure the Ducks' first Heisman Trophy (or not).

After all, there has to be a villain menacing Papé's sixth-grade trinity, right?

[+] EnlargeJim Mora
Ric Tapia/Icon SMIIf Jim Mora's Bruins beat Stanford on Friday, UCLA will meet the Ducks in a conference title game that is setting up to have major national significance.
A lot became clear in college football this weekend, and not just that Helfrich clearly enjoys sixth-graders more than adult reporters. For one, the Heisman race is now down to two outstanding athletes: Mariota and Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, who is posting a historically good season. The only problem with Gordon's candidacy is not a person in the world would select him over Mariota in a football draft, and that includes all those Badgers jumping around in Madison. With Mariota, Wisconsin would be unbeaten.

Second, the once-muddled South picture will be resolved with finality on Friday before nightfall.

If UCLA beats Stanford at home, the Bruins will not only play Mariota and the Ducks for the conference title on Dec. 5 in Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, they also will be well positioned to play themselves into the College Football Playoff. Their case for the CFP could be decisively made, in fact, with the opportunity to erase one of their two losses by beating the No. 1 or No. 2 team on the final day of the season.

Ah, but down in the desert of Tucson they will be rooting hard for the Cardinal while simultaneously renewing the love fest that is the Territorial Cup. If the Bruins fall, the winner between Arizona and Arizona State captures the South title. Both teams figure to be ranked near the top-10 when the selection committee announces its rankings on Tuesday. The Wildcats and Sun Devils haven't met as ranked teams since 1986. Further, with both sitting at 9-2, this is the first meeting in which both will have at least nine wins since 1975. So, yeah, this is a big Territorial Cup.

And guess what? If the Territorial Cup winner paired that quality victory with a win over Oregon, it also would have a good case for the CFP, though it's likely a couple of dominoes would have to fall ahead of the Wildcats and Sun Devils in the rankings.

Though we should make no assumptions of any kind for Saturday, which includes what the Ducks do at Oregon State in the Civil War, Friday should be a great fun, a joyous conflagration of rivalry and national relevance.

Last year was a breakthrough for the Pac-12. Six teams finished ranked and nine played in bowl games. Five teams posted double-digit wins. There were no naysayers -- at least credible naysayers -- to the conference's overall depth and strength.

Yet there was a chink in the 2013 armor: Just one team, No. 9 Oregon, was ranked in the final AP top 10. The conference was highly respected and completely out of the national picture, though obviously Stanford, ranked No. 5 after winning the Pac-12 title, could have made some noise if it had beaten Michigan State in the Rose Bowl.

That is the step forward the conference can take as we hit the home stretch of 2014, with winning the conference's first national title since 2004 being the biggest and most elusive prize. The Pac-12 title game is setting up to have major national significance, so fans from all corners of the country as well as many in flyover and frozen states will tune in. Some folks out West will be agitating for the Pac-12 title game to become a de facto CFP play-in game, even with a two-loss champion, and fans from other regions need to watch in order to make themselves into educated trolls so they can best fight against this position on Twitter afterward.

Oregon, as a 12-1 Pac-12 champ, by the way, would have the strongest case for the No. 1 overall seed.

This past week, a reader and Arizona fan questioned the idea of Pac-12 collectivism -- the idea that a fan of a Pac-12 team should also root hard for the conference in general. He made a fair and not uncommon point, one that aligns with the big-city vibe of the Pac-12 and its pro sports towns.

But college football isn't set up like pro sports, even with this new playoff. It's still a beauty contest and whom you hang out with matters. You can't just root for one team and wish ill on all others. Six teams ranked in the top-20 and more than one perceived national title contender bolsters Colorado just like it bolsters Oregon. It also pays better when they distribute cash from the new playoff/bowl model.

Further, it's fun to know that a prominent TV in a Jackson, Mississippi, sports bar will be tuned to the Pac-12 on Friday, or that a crew of Ohio State students will be marinating in a Columbus apartment checking out the Territorial Cup, or that a dad in Dallas will shush his children so he can better counter the arguments stacked against his TCU/Baylor team by these darned, overrated Pac-12 squads.

Now what we really need is for Papé to contact a friend at Holy Spirit Catholic School in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and get him to tell Nick Saban about the gospel of Jesus, girls, Marcus Mariota and the Pac-12 South.

Pac-12 Power Rankings: Week 13

November, 23, 2014
Nov 23

Pac-12 helmet stickers: Week 13

November, 23, 2014
Nov 23
All six Pac-12 games on Saturday were decided by at least three scores. For that, Pac-12, I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul ... but here are some helmet stickers.

Taylor Kelly, QB, Arizona State: Kelly and the Sun Devils got off to a horrible start against Washington State, but that's but a distant memory after the senior finished strong in a 52-31 victory. He completed 12 of his final 14 passes for 188 yards and four touchdowns.

Nick Wilson, RB, Arizona: The freshman ran for a career-high 218 yards on 20 carries with three touchdowns, including a 75-yarder, in Arizona's 42-10 victory over Utah. As Wilson goes, so do the Wildcats. Arizona is 8-0 when Wilson rushes for 19 or more yards.

Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon: In his final game at Autzen Stadium (probably), Mariota turned in a typical performance: 24 for 32, 323 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and ran for 73 yards and another score on eight carries in a 44-10 victory over Colorado. His 42 touchdowns this year (passing and rushing), breaks Matt Barkley's single-season Pac-12 record from 2011.

Blake Martinez, LB, Stanford: Martinez recorded two interceptions and forced a fumble to help Stanford force five turnovers in a 38-17 victory against California -- the most it has forced in a game since Nov. 27, 2010 against Oregon State. He's the first player with two interceptions in the Big Game since Cal's Nnamdi Asomugha in 2001.

Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA: Hundley threw for 326 yards, accounted for four touchdowns and broke Cade McNown's school record for total offense (now at 11,353) in the Bruins' 38-20 victory over USC. He's also the first UCLA quarterback since McNown to win three consecutive games against the Trojans.

Cyler Miles, QB, Washington: Miles turned in his best performance of the season, completing 18 of 23 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns without an interception to help the Huskies become bowl eligible with a 37-13 victory over Oregon State.

Vince Mayle, WR, Washington State: Mayle showed why he's a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award with 15 catches for 252 yards -- his sixth 100-yard receiving game of the season. He cracked the 100-catch mark in the game (101) and set WSU's new single-season receiving record (1,404 yards).

What we learned in the Pac-12: Week 13

November, 23, 2014
Nov 23
A few things we learned this week in the Pac-12.

South Division picture clearer: With UCLA's 38-20 whipping of USC and Arizona's 42-10 bludgeoning of Utah, the Trojans and Utes are out of the South Division race. So it comes down to UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State on the final weekend of the regular season to see who plays North Division champion Oregon on Dec. 5 for the Pac-12 title. UCLA controls its fate: It wins the South if it beats Stanford on Friday. If UCLA loses to Stanford, the winner of the Territorial Cup on Friday is the Pac-12 champion. Funny thing: Both games are 12:30 PT kicks, so they will be contested simultaneously, which means the Sun Devils and Wildcats likely will be doing some scoreboard watching during their rivalry game.

[+] EnlargeEric Kendricks
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsUCLA rolled over USC 38-20, which gave the Bruins three straight wins in the cross-town rivalry.
Battle for L.A. goes to UCLA: UCLA has now won three in a row against USC for the first time since it won eight in a row from 1990 to 1998, so Bruins third-year coach Jim Mora has officially established a trend, even if this was Steve Sarkisian's first go-around over the Victory Bell. This was a big one, with both teams ranked and the South Division still available for the taking. UCLA, by the way, also keeps its hopes for a berth in the College Football Playoff alive -- hopes that will be pretty good if they win out and take the conference crown over Oregon. Next big question: Who wins the L.A. recruiting battle? By the way, USC has a lot of guys coming back in 2015, while UCLA will be breaking in a new QB with Brett Hundley likely heading to the NFL after he provided Bruins fans a troika of L.A. rule during his tenure. With UCLA rising under Mora and USC now free of NCAA sanctions, this rivalry should only get better -- as in, more nationally relevant.

This is the biggest Territorial Cup in a long time: Arizona and Arizona State, both 9-2 overall and 6-2 in the Pac-12, will meet in the Territorial Cup as ranked teams for the first time since 1986. The most recent time both teams had at least nine wins was 1975 (ASU 10-0, Arizona 9-1). The South Division is still undecided. Next Friday, with everyone stuffed with turkey, this will be great fun in Tucson. Big question, though: Will Arizona QB Anu Solomon, who left the Wildcats' win over Utah with a lower-leg injury, be available?

Newly bowl eligible: Stanford's 38-17 win over Cal and Washington's 37-13 win over Oregon State made each team bowl-eligible and gave the Pac-12 eight eligible teams. Cal and Oregon State still can become bowl-eligible on the final weekend. Cal needs to beat BYU at home on Saturday, while the Beavers need to end their six-game losing streak in the Civl War against state Oregon.

Cal is much better, but Stanford still rules the Big Game: Cal and Stanford entered the Big Game with matching 5-5 records, but the Cardinal made a dominant statement and won their fifth in a row in the series. That means no Stanford senior will experience life without The Axe. Entering the game, it was a matchup of a good offense (Cal) versus a good defense (Stanford) and a bad offense (Stanford) versus a bad defense (Cal). We learned Stanford's good defense is better than Cal's good offense, and its bad offense is better than Cal's bad defense.

Washington State's freshman QB Luke Falk has lots of potential, but he hasn't yet arrived: Falk was impressive coming off the bench to replace an injured Connor Halliday against USC and had a brilliant starting debut at Oregon State and a strong start at Arizona State, when the Cougs jumped ahead 21-7 against the Sun Devils. But things went haywire thereafter, and Falk started looking like a freshman. He committed five turnovers (four picks and a fumble) in a game the Cougars lost 52-31. He threw for 601 yards and three TDs, and he has shown plenty of good things that point to a strong future running Mike Leach's offense. But the performance in Sun Devil Stadium showed he's still got ways to go, which really shouldn't be surprising.

Pac-12 bowl projections: Week 12

November, 18, 2014
Nov 18
A week ago, the Pac-12 was positioned well for a conference championship game that would have amounted to a quarterfinal in the College Football Playoff. Then Oregon State decided to play its best game of the year, a 35-27 upset of then-No. 6 Arizona State, and ruin that scenario.

It would have been fun, but now Oregon looks like the conference's only realistic hope of earning one of the four playoff spots.

However, the Beavers' win also created a more likely scenario, in which 10 Pac-12 teams will be bowl eligible. There are currently six bowl-eligible teams, but that number will grow to eight after this weekend, with Stanford playing Cal and Washington playing Oregon State. All four need just one more win to hit the threshold.

Here are the teams that still have work to do to go bowling:

California (needs one win): vs. Stanford, vs. BYU
Stanford (needs one win):
at Cal, at UCLA
Oregon State (needs one win): at Washington, vs. Oregon
Washington (needs one win)*: vs. Oregon State, at Washington State

And here's our weekly attempt to map out where the Pac-12 teams will end up come bowl season:

College Football Playoff: Oregon
VIZIO Fiesta Bowl: UCLA
Valero Alamo Bowl: Arizona State
National University Holiday Bowl: USC
Foster Farms Bowl: Arizona
Hyundai Sun Bowl: Utah
Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl: Stanford
Cactus Bowl: Washington
Hawaii Bowl**: California

*Washington needs to win seven games to become bowl eligible because it had four nonconference games, which was allowed because of its trip to Hawaii.
**at large

Pac-12 bowl projections: Week 11

November, 11, 2014
Nov 11
Well, that was a surprise.

Oregon jumped over Florida State and into the No. 2 spot in the latest rankings from the College Football Playoff selection committee, solidifying the concept that a one-loss Pac-12 team -- Oregon or Arizona State -- will be in the inaugural four-team playoff. The Sun Devils, who beat previous No. 10 Notre Dame 55-31 on Saturday, moved up three spots to No. 6.

The current top four is No. 1 Mississippi State, No. 2 Oregon, No. 3 Florida State and No. 4 TCU. No. 5 Alabama sits between Arizona State and the playoff group.

The committee's respect for the Pac-12 isn't limited to just those two. UCLA (11), Arizona (14) and three-loss Utah (23) are also part of the the top 25.

Oregon, Arizona State, UCLA, USC, Arizona, Utah are the conference's six bowl-eligible teams, but that number could grow to as many as 10. Here's what lies ahead for the four teams not quite eligible in the Pac-12:

California (needs one win): at USC, vs. Stanford, vs. BYU
Stanford (needs one win):
vs. Utah, at Cal, at UCLA
Oregon State (needs two wins): vs. Arizona State, at Washington, vs. Oregon
Washington (needs one win)*: at Arizona, vs. Oregon State, at Washington State

While none of those teams are a lock to go bowling by any means, only Oregon State figures to be on the outside looking in when the dust settles.

Here's our weekly attempt at mapping out where the Pac-12 teams will end up come bowl season.

College Football Playoff: Oregon
VIZIO Fiesta Bowl: Arizona State
Valero Alamo Bowl: UCLA
National University Holiday Bowl: USC
San Francisco Bowl: Arizona
Hyundai Sun Bowl: Utah
Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl: Stanford
Cactus Bowl: Washington
Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl**: California

*Washington needs to win seven games to become bowl eligible because it had four nonconference games, which was allowed because of its trip to Hawaii.
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Pac-12 bowl projections: Week 10

November, 4, 2014
Nov 4
As expected, Oregon moved up to No. 4 in the latest version of the College Football Playoff committee's rankings, which places the Ducks in position to play in the inaugural four-team playoff.

Oregon debuted at No. 5 last week, but its 45-16 win against two-time defending Pac-12 champion Stanford, coupled with previous No. 4 Ole Miss' 35-31 loss to No. 3 Auburn, moved the Ducks up with three games left in the regular season. Should Oregon get through games at No. 17 Utah, home against Colorado, at Oregon State and the Pac-12 championship game, it would likely result in a berth in the playoff.

Last week's top three remained the same -- 1. Mississippi State; 2. Florida State; 3. Auburn -- and the Ducks are followed by No. 5 Alabama, No. 6 TCU, No. 7 Kansas State and No. 8 Michigan State.

No. 9 Arizona State moved up five spots and, like Oregon, has an obvious path the playoff. If the Sun Devils win out -- beginning this week against No. 10 Notre Dame -- they would be a strong candidate, given their fives wins against teams currently ranked by the committee.

The three other Pac-12 teams in the committee's Top 25 are still technically in contention for a playoff spot, but it would take a very unlikely set of circumstances for Utah, No. 18 UCLA or No. 19 Arizona to finish in the top four.

The committee will officially announce the four playoff teams Dec. 7.

Here's our weekly attempt at mapping out where the Pac-12 teams will end up come bowl season.

College Football Playoff: Oregon
Fiesta Bowl: Arizona State
Valero Alamo Bowl: Utah
National University Holiday Bowl: UCLA
San Francisco Bowl: Arizona
Hyundai Sun Bowl: USC
Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl: Stanford
Cactus Bowl: Washington
Heart of Dallas Bowl*: California
And just like that, we have Pac-12 clarity. Or potential clarity, which some fussbudgets might insist is nothing like clarity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pac-12 bowl projections: Week 9

October, 28, 2014
Oct 28
If the regular season ended today, Oregon would not be in the first four-team College Football Playoff.

The 12-member playoff selection committee revealed its first Top 25 rankings on Tuesday, and slotted the Ducks at No. 5. However, with several weeks left, the Ducks remain in good position to climb into a playoff spot by the end of the season.

The top four teams are: 1. Mississippi State; 2. Florida State; 3. Auburn; and 4. Ole Miss. Ole Miss and Mississippi State will play each other on Nov. 29.

At No. 12, Arizona led a group of four other Pac-12 teams in the selection committee's Top 25. The Wildcats were followed by No. 14 Arizona State, No. 17 Utah and No. 22 UCLA.

Besides UCLA, which has two losses, all of those teams have a conceivable route to the playoff by winning out. No matter what happens elsewhere, it would be very difficult to leave out a one-loss Pac-12 team, regardless of who it is.

The committee will officially announce the four playoff teams on Dec. 7.

Here's our weekly attempt at mapping out where the Pac-12 teams will end up come bowl season.

College Football Playoff: Oregon
Fiesta Bowl: Arizona
Valero Alamo Bowl: Utah
National University Holiday Bowl: Arizona State
San Francisco Bowl: UCLA
Hyundai Sun Bowl: USC
Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl: Stanford
Cactus Bowl: Washington
Heart of Dallas Bowl*: Cal
* at-large
The apparent diminished status of Stanford 's visit Saturday to Oregon, the Pac-12's game of the year the previous four seasons, fits in with 2014's chaotic profile, though you could make a case that 2013 demonstrated little is truly won in early November because the Cardinal and then the Ducks both face-planted after last season's game, blowing national title hopes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, yeah, when so-called pundits throw out predictions this week, the wise ones won't hold too much confidence this game is going to be predictable -- or lack ramifications, both regional and national.