Pac-12: Anu Solomon

Barring any surprises, seven Pac-12 teams will welcome back starting quarterbacks in 2015. Though the list isn't as glittering as it was last year, when 10 starters returned, including eventual Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, it's a strong crew, as good a group any other Power 5 conference will offer up.

That does mean five teams will feature new starters next fall, though that doesn't necessarily mean there will be five wide-open competitions. For example, senior Mike Bercovici is probably more locked into Arizona State's starting job than a couple of returning starters. His potential is a big reason the Sun Devils will be counted among the conference favorites next fall.

[+] EnlargeMike Bercovici
AP Photo/Gus RuelasMike Bercovici threw 12 TD passes with four interceptions this season, and flashed plenty of potential for Arizona State.
Not only is Bercovici a senior competing with four freshmen -- two redshirts -- he came off the bench this season for Taylor Kelly and played well in three starts. He knows coordinator Mike Norvell's offense and owns a big arm that should add a significant downfield passing component.

"I see [playing this season] as a big learning experience," Bercovici said. "Being here for four seasons and, in my fourth season, I finally get to see the field as a backup. I always wanted to prove to my teammates that I’ve been prepared."

He added, "Some of the success I had this year and some of the mistakes I made are all going to help me move on to the 2015 season."

Utah and Washington both welcome back returning starters in Travis Wilson and Cyler Miles, but there figures to be some intrigue this upcoming spring and fall as they try to hold onto their jobs, with Wilson most notably embroiled in a on-going, two-season competition with Kendal Thompson.

Like Bercovici, Washington State's Luke Falk gained valuable experience this season when he replaced an injured Connor Halliday, and he is a heavy favorite to win the Cougars starting job. Oregon, Oregon State and UCLA appear to have wide-open competitions, with the Bruins featuring touted incoming freshman Josh Rosen taking on an incumbent field led by Jerry Neuheisel this spring.

Bercovici was in a tight competition with Kelly heading into the 2012 season, but Kelly won the job and went on to become one of the most successful quarterbacks in program history. That could have sown the seeds of a rivalry between the two, or Bercovici could have transferred. Instead, he and Kelly became close friends.

That is why Bercovici had mixed feelings when he replaced a struggling Kelly in the Territorial Cup loss to Arizona.

"It was definitely tough to see him come off the field as a senior and for myself to come in, but we didn’t really have time to think about that during the game," he said. "Some times you have bad days when things aren’t going your way. It just sucks I couldn’t lead us to victory in that fourth quarter."

That said, he sees the Hyundai Sun Bowl against Duke on Dec. 27 as being "Taylor's game."

"This is the last time he’ll be in a Sun Devils uniform," he said. "I know he’s going to go out with a bang.”

After that, though, Bercovici will be eager to fill the ensuing vacancy behind center for a Sun Devils team expected to be in the South Division and national mix.

"This team knows this is my job moving forward," he said.

Here is how the Pac-12 sets up at quarterback for 2015, pending any unexpected NFL early entries.

2015 RETURNING STARTERS

Arizona: Anu Solomon

The skinny: Though Solomon was impressive as a redshirt freshman first-year starter, he wasn't terribly efficient, ranking 61st in the nation in Total QBR and 55th in standard passing efficiency. So there is plenty of room to get better. The good news is 1,000-yard rusher Nick Wilson will be back, as will a strong crew of receivers. The offensive line has some notable holes.

California: Jared Goff

The skinny: He threw for 331 yards per game with 35 TD passes and just seven interceptions as a true sophomore. If you are looking for a player who could breakout as a national name next fall, Goff might be your man. He has an NFL future. He also has a strong supporting cast coming back on offense -- nine returning starters -- including a deep and talented group of receivers.

Colorado: Sefo Liufau

The skinny: He passed for a school-record 28 touchdowns, but also led the Pac-12 with 15 interceptions and was briefly benched late in the season. That said, the true sophomore has talent and will likely improve as a third-year starter as the young players around him grow up. It also would help him and the Buffs if receiver Nelson Spruce returns for his senior year instead of entering the draft.

Stanford: Kevin Hogan

The skinny: Hogan ranked sixth in the Pac-12 in QBR, despite being a third-year starter with a strong group of experienced receivers. Though the Cardinal running game and offensive line was a disappointment, there were plenty of times when Hogan was inconsistent in terms of both throwing and decision-making. What Stanford wants is for Hogan to return for his senior year and play like he did against California and UCLA for an entire season. Coach David Shaw said Hogan, who was dealing with tough family situation during the season, would be the starter if he returned and wouldn't face a challenge from touted freshman Keller Chryst.

USC: Cody Kessler

The skinny: If he opts to return for his senior season, Kessler will be an All-American candidate after throwing for 36 TDs with just four interceptions and ranking sixth in the nation in QBR. If there is one criticism of Kessler, it is that he feasted on inferior foes, but didn't turn in an A-list performance against ranked teams, most notably an ineffective showing against UCLA. He should greatly benefit from the maturation of a number of young but talented players forced into action this fall, most notably on the offensive line.

Utah: Travis Wilson

The skinny: This might be the Pac-12's most interesting quarterback situation. Wilson is set to become a four-year starter, but he also might not return to the Utes for his final season. That's because coaches might want to go with Kendal Thompson, who briefly replaced Wilson in the starting lineup before getting hurt. If that's the case, Wilson can transfer with no penalty, because he is set to graduate in 2015. Utah looks like it's going to be stacked on both sides of the ball next fall -- 16 other position-player starters are set to return -- but quarterback remains the issue, as it has since Utah joined the Pac-12.

Washington: Cyler Miles

The skinny: Miles also could face a challenge for his starting spot, though the rising junior also flashed ability at times while doing a good job of protecting the football -- see just three interceptions -- and played better the second half of the season. And who might provide a legitimate challenge, as no other quarterback on the roster appears capable of unseating him. It will be interesting to see how quickly touted incoming freshman Jake Browning picks things up this spring.

2015 COMPETITIONS*

Arizona State: Mike Bercovici, Sr; Manny Wilkins, RFr; Coltin Gerhart, RFr.; Brady White, Fr.; Bryce Perkins, Fr.

The skinny: Bercovici is more certain here than a couple of the conference's returning starters. He gained valuable experience this season replacing an injured Kelly, throwing 12 TDs with four interceptions, and flashed plenty of potential, including A-list arm strength. Though the Sun Devils have stocked up on young quarterbacks, including a pair of touted incoming freshmen, Bercovici is almost a certainty here.

Oregon: Jeff Lockie, Jr.; Ty Griffin, RSo.; Taylor Alie, RSo.; Morgan Mahalak, RFr., Travis Waller, Fr

The skinny: Lockie was Mariota's backup this season and has thrown 30 passes in his career -- one TD! -- which means he will have more experience than Mariota did when he took over as a redshirt freshman. It also was a strong indicator of a pecking order when Jake Rodrigues and Damion Hobbs opted to transfer after spring practices, as they were both behind Lockie. Both Alie and Mahalak, however, have skills, and Waller is expect to be around this spring to join the fray. And perhaps there will be a wild-card transfer?

Oregon State: Luke Del Rio, So.; Brent VanderVeen, Jr., Nick Mitchell, RFr.; Marcus McMaryion, RFr., Kyle Kempt, RSo.

The skinny: This one is wide open. Not only is there no clear leader, but you also have a new coaching staff under Gary Andersen with new schemes. VanderVeen started the season as Sean Mannion's backup, but Del Rio took over that spot about three game into the season. He threw 18 passes in mop-up duty, making him the only Beavers quarterback with any game experience. Might Andersen try to lure away Austin Kafentzis, a four-star quarterack from Sandy, Utah, from his commitment to Wisconsin, where Kafentzis originally planned to enroll early to play for Andersen? And what about James Pensyl, a 6-foot-7 hurler from Land O'Lakes, Florida, who committed to Mike Riley?

UCLA: Jerry Neuheisel, Jr., Asiantii Woulard, RSo.; Mike Fafaul, RJr., Aaron Sharp, RFr., Josh Rosen, Fr.

The skinny: Neuheisel was Brett Hundley's backup this season, and came off the bench to lead the Bruins past Texas. He is a capable, charismatic guy who probably relishes the idea of being counted out by many due to the arrival of Rosen. Rosen, however, is the guy many will be watching. Perhaps the best quarterback in the 2015 recruiting class, he will participate in spring practices when he can immediately put himself into the mix.

Washington State: Luke Falk, RSo.; Peyton Bender, RFr.; Tyler Hilinski, Fr.

The skinny: Falk started fast then faded a bit after coming off the bench to replace the injured Connor Halliday, but he is the overwhelming favorite here. In four games, he threw for 1,859 yards with 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions, with six of those picks coming in his last two games. Still, he didn't look like a walk-on. He looked like an A-list redshirt freshman suddenly thrust into action who was struggling against good teams. Coach Mike Leach won't make it seem like Falk is locked in during spring practice, but it's his job to lose.

*Listed year in school is for 2015

Play that changed the Pac-12 race

December, 16, 2014
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Seeing that Oregon, the eventual Pac-12 champion, won the North Division by three games, no single play greatly changed the Ducks' conference trajectory. The same can't be said for South champion Arizona, a team whose impressive late-season run could have been waylaid in September in its conference opener against California.

Everyone remembers the stunning play, which set a season-long tone for late-game dramatics in the Pac-12. The Wildcats beat Cal 49-45 on a 47-yard Hail Mary pass from redshirt freshman quarterback Anu Solomon to senior receiver Austin Hill on the final play of the game. The ball traveled about 63 yards in the air, and Hill caught it in the back corner of the end zone, amid a crowd that included four Bears defenders.

If that unlikely completion isn't made and everything else held true to form, UCLA would have won the South, emerging from a four-team tie with Arizona, Arizona State and USC. Each would have finished with a 6-3 conference record, but the Bruins would have prevailed with a 3-0 record among those tied teams.

Would UCLA have had a better chance against Oregon in the Pac-12 title game? Maybe. You never know.

Further, it's reasonable to wonder if Arizona's season might have suffered some season-long consequences from losing to Cal, which failed to win a conference game in 2013. The Wildcats were coming off close wins against UTSA and Nevada, showing little evidence they would become a conference contender. Twelve days after needing a miracle to beat the Bears, the Wildcats won at Oregon, a red-letter and transformative victory for Rich Rodriguez's team.

Funny thing about Arizona's Hail Mary against Cal: It was mostly par for the course in the fourth quarter. The play capped a stunning 36-point run in the final frame after the Wildcats trailed 28-6 at halftime. Solomon had four of his five touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, the Hail Mary being his 73rd pass of the game. Heck, Cal scored 14 points in the fourth quarter, which typically would bode well after leading by 22 at the break.

Three times a championship for Arizona?

December, 5, 2014
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Oregon's shocking 42-16 loss at Arizona in 2013 was explained away by the usual suspects of excuses. Oregon was flat after losing to Stanford two weeks before. The planets curiously aligned and Arizona played a perfect game. All the bounces went toward the Wildcats and away from the Ducks.

In fact, that loss was widely viewed -- at least among the chattering classes -- as fuel for the Ducks against Arizona on Oct. 5 in Eugene. Then-No. 2 Oregon was playing inside the friendly confines of boisterous Autzen Stadium, and Wildcats redshirt freshman quarterback Anu Solomon was making his first road start in the Pac-12. In their previous game, the Wildcats needed a Hail Mary pass to beat California. Oregon was expected to exact revenge -- in spades.

Of course, we all know what happened. Arizona, without playing a perfect game and without a series of "lucky" breaks, won 31-24. It outrushed, outgained and outplayed the Ducks. Sure, Oregon has some injury issues. Sure, the game was horribly officiated. But egregious calls went both ways. The Wildcats just played better.

Since that loss, the Ducks are 7-0 and again ranked No. 2. Their average winning margin has been 24.3 points per game. They have scored at least 40 points in seven straight games and gained at least 500 yards in six straight. Both are the longest active streaks in the FBS, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

“They’ve been rolling right by people," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. "In all three phases, they’ve been dominant. I think our guys see that. They know they are a better team.”

Ah, but Rodriguez and defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel seem to have some secret sauce for cooking the Ducks. While Stanford was once viewed as Oregon's nemesis, now the Wildcats are that team.

Take Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, who is trying to lock up the Heisman Trophy, the Pac-12 title and a berth in the College Football Playoff with a win over No. 7 Arizona on Friday night in Levi's Stadium. Since the start of last season, Mariota has a 62.0 Total QBR in two games against Arizona, 30 points lower than against all other FBS opponents. Since the start of last season, two of Oregon’s three lowest-scoring games have come against Arizona.

Over the past two years, Mariota and the Ducks have averaged 47.9 points per game and 7.6 yards per play. Against Arizona, that total falls to 20 ppg and 6.2 ypp.

So Arizona has twice put together a plan that has thwarted the heavily favored Ducks. The question is whether they stick to the basics of the previous plans that worked before or make significant tweaks in anticipation of Oregon making adjustments?

“You don’t want to confuse your own players too much," Rodriguez said. "You don’t want to have them out there thinking. You want them to play fast, especially when you’re playing a team as fast as Oregon.”

That means Arizona plans to stick to the schemes that won it the South Division championship and earned it 10 regular season wins, including one over the Ducks. Oregon also probably wants to be itself, as in playing like the team it has been the past seven games.

Recall that the loss to Arizona was supposed to have exposed Oregon's Achilles' heel: its offensive line. It was decimated by injuries and, combined with the preceding game against Washington State, had surrendered 12 sacks in two games. The return of offensive tackle Jake Fisher and, to a lesser extent, Andre Yruretagoyena, has bolstered the Ducks' line significantly. It has yielded just 17 sacks in the Ducks other 10 games.

Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said the Ducks had to make adjustments within their schemes and with the personnel to get the line to gel. The unit has been playing significantly better, though it has to be a concern that All-America center Hroniss Grasu is still out with a knee injury.

One line of thinking is the Ducks' desire for vindication should provide extra fuel. If so, Helfrich is fine with that. Whatever increases focus.

“The thing we always talk about is channeling your energy to preparation," Helfrich said. "Whatever it is, if it’s getting beat the last two times we’ve played these guys, if that motivates you to have a great practice today, perfect. Use it.”

That said, you'd think the Pac-12 championship and a potential berth in the playoff would be motivation enough.

Oregon expected to be here when the season began. No one predicted the Wildcats would crash the party. Yet it's Arizona that comes in with the favorable head-to-head ledger. That suggests both teams should be plenty confident in their personnel and plan when they strap it on for the 2014 conference crown.
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TUCSON, Ariz. -- Shortly after leading Arizona to a 42-35 win over archrival Arizona State on Friday, a red-letter victory that had the additional reward of earning the Wildcats the Pac-12's South Division championship, coach Rich Rodriguez fielded a question about his team finding a way into the inaugural College Football Playoff.

You could see the wheels in Rodriguez's mind start to rumble. Perhaps a quote from Shakespeare would be appropriate on this day when his scrappy team ended up atop a rugged division -- the SEC West of the West -- few thought it would win back in August? Or maybe some Tennyson would give his charges their due?

[+] EnlargeScooby Wright
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriScooby Wright helped Arizona seal the Pac-12 South title with two sacks on Friday.
Ah, Arizona's playoff possibilities? "There's a chance -- you ever seen the movie 'Dumb and Dumber?'" Rodriguez said.

Yes, the laughing media gathering seemed to indicate, it had. And there is a chance if Arizona bests No. 2 Oregon next Friday in the Pac-12 title game at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California. The Wildcats, ranked 11th in this week's CFP rankings, almost certainly need some help from teams rated above them, but they already received some of that when UCLA got blown out by Stanford, thereby making the Territorial Cup stakes the South. They'll need the selection committee to be broadminded enough to see a potential 11-2 record against the Wildcats' schedule as being among the best four bodies of work this season -- as in better than what some one-loss teams did. And Arizona also has a bit of a Baylor problem with its weak nonconference slate. But, yes, Lloyd Christmas, we're saying there's a chance.

First things first, though: the Ducks. That game in itself is pretty darn interesting. As much as folks talked about Oregon having a "Stanford problem" after losing to the Cardinal in 2012 and 2013, the Ducks' more recent issue is the Wildcats, who are riding a two-game winning streak in the series and -- oh, by the way -- handed Oregon its lone defeat this season on Oct. 2 -- in a shocked Autzen Stadium, no less.

"Our guys should have a little confidence because we played pretty well against them the last two times," Rodriguez said.

The team that beat No. 13 Arizona State will have a chance against the Ducks. The Wildcats got 178 yards rushing and three touchdowns from true freshman running back Nick Wilson, while redshirt freshman quarterback Anu Solomon, questionable before the game with a foot/ankle injury, turned in a poised, mostly efficient performance with a pair of touchdown passes, including a 20-yarder to Samajie Grant that provided the winning margin.

Meanwhile, the Wildcats defense continues to produce timely plays, with All-America candidate Scooby Wright leading an attack that produced seven sacks and two turnovers. Wright rolled up a game-high 13 tackles -- nine solos -- with two sacks and five tackles for a loss. One of those sacks came on the Sun Devils' final possession, one that concluded with a fourth-down stop on the Wildcats 40-yard line, which sent the sold-out crowd into hysterics.

"We were flying around out there like there was no tomorrow," was Wright's assessment.

Last year, Arizona State buried the Wildcats 58-21, which gave Sun Devils coach Todd Graham a 2-0 lead against Rodriguez in the Territorial Cup. It also capped a regular season in which the Sun Devils captured the South Division crown. This was the programs' first meeting as ranked teams since 1986. So there was a lot at stake, both in emotional and tangible terms.

While Rodriguez previously had not been one to drum up the importance of the rivalry, his tune changed a bit afterward.

"You try not to put too much pressure on a rivalry, but let's be honest -- there is," Rodriguez said.

Whatever happens in the Pac-12 title game -- the Ducks figure to be double-digit favorites, even with the Wildcats' win this season -- winning the South by beating Arizona State was a big moment for Rodriguez and the Wildcats, who might end up in the Fiesta Bowl even if they lose to Oregon. The program hasn't reached double-digit wins since 1998, but now there's a sense that the Wildcats and Sun Devils are going to be crossing paths as ranked teams on a fairly regular basis going forward.

At least as long as Rodriguez and Graham are calling the shots.

Said Rodriguez: "We're not there yet but we are on our way."

Territorial Cup has hate and relevance

November, 25, 2014
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What makes a great college football rivalry? Two things: 1. Passionate and legitimate ill will; 2. National relevance.

Arizona and Arizona State have long had the former, with the bad feelings advancing beyond the typical state rivalry because of a handful of historical issues, including the University of Arizona fighting against "Tempe Normal School" becoming an accredited university in the late 1950s. That one still grates on Sun Devils elders, while snarky Wildcats fans will call ASU "Tempe Normal" just to be annoying.

[+] EnlargeRich Rodriguez
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesRich Rodriguez and the Wildcats get a shot at rival Arizona State on Friday.
Those bad feelings ticked another notch forward when Arizona hired Rich Rodriguez and Arizona State hired Todd Graham. They don't like each other.

They were once friends, with Rodriguez hiring Graham away from a high school job in Texas to coach at West Virginia in 2002, but that clearly is no longer the case. Neither says much about the other on the record, but during a visit to ESPN's offices by Pac-12 coaches shortly after they were hired, they stood in stony silence for several minutes just a few feet from each other without making eye contact, despite a certain charming reporter offering up some wonderful repartee that typically would inspire conviviality from even a pair of gargoyles.

That dislike extends through the coaching staffs. Arizona assistants Calvin Magee and Tony Dews, who worked for Rodriguez at West Virginia and Michigan, spent a single season coaching with Graham at Pittsburgh after Rodriguez was fired at Michigan. When they rejoined Rodriguez at Arizona, Graham called them "mercenaries," according to a tweet from Paul Zeise of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Yet history and personal feelings go only so far in the national college football conversation when your team is simply battling for bowl eligibility. Or one team is good and the other shows up only as a spoiler. That has been the case more often than not in the Territorial Cup, which was first contested in 1899, 13 years before Arizona became an official state in the union.

That is where Graham and Rodriguez have most enriched this rivalry: Both teams are now good. This will be the first time they meet as ranked teams since 1986. Both are 9-2. The last time they met as teams with at least nine wins? 1975. Arizona State has posted nine wins in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1996-97. Arizona owns its best record since 1998.

Both are 6-2 in Pac-12 play. If UCLA should lose to Stanford in a game played simultaneously with the Territorial Cup at 3:30 p.m. ET, then the champion of Arizona also becomes the Pac-12 South Division champ and would play Oregon for the conference title on Dec. 5. Further, the winner also might set itself up to be selected as practically a home team for the Fiesta Bowl. That is, unless the winner somehow beats Oregon in the Pac-12 title game and slips into the College Football Playoff, a not outrageous scenario, by the way.

“This game is the single most important game every year for us and for our fans," Graham said. "Obviously it has a lot more meaning with both teams going for 10th win and Pac-12 South championship on the line. So, yeah, there’s a little extra to it.”

Said Rodriguez: "I don’t believe that ‘if you only win one game but you beat ASU, it’s a good year,’ but it is the most important game on our schedule because it is the rivalry game. The rivalry game is always the most important when you see it with no records. Now that we both have had pretty good years and have even more at stake, this makes it of added importance."

Of added importance to both coaches, though perhaps more for Rodriguez: Graham is 2-0 against Rich Rod since they arrived in the desert. No Arizona State coach opened his career in Tempe at 3-0 versus the Wildcats. While folks in Tucson appreciate the undeniably good job Rodriguez has done rebuilding the program, they also would really, really not like to spend a third year listening to Sun Devils fans squawking at them.

In the Sun Devils' last visit to Tucson, they overcame a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to win 41-34. Last year, the Sun Devils rolled the Wildcats 58-21, a blowout win that earned them home-field advantage in the Pac-12 title game against Stanford.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Kelly
AP Photo/Troy WayrynenTaylor Kelly and the Sun Devils are looking to finish the season strong.
The intrigue this year is at quarterback. Arizona's starter, impressive redshirt freshman Anu Solomon, couldn't play the second half of the Wildcats' win last weekend over Utah because of an ankle injury that has been hounding him for some time. He's decidedly questionable, and senior Jesse Scroggins will make his first career start if Solomon can't play.

For Arizona State, there's senior Taylor Kelly. The three-year starter wants to finish his career 3-0 against the Wildcats. He has been inconsistent since returning from a foot injury, but he seemed to find his rhythm in the second half last week against Washington State. His life also will be easier with the expected return of receiver Jaelen Strong from a concussion.

Arizona's home-field advantage might not be much of an advantage. The Sun Devils have won five of the past seven in Tucson, and this rivalry has surprisingly not favored the home team of late. The visitor owns an 8-6 edge in the past 14 matchups, and the Sun Devils' win in Tempe last year ended a four-game winning streak for the road team.

Good news for those who like thrillers: Seven of the past 10 games have been decided by a touchdown or less. The four games before last year's blowout were decided by a total of 15 points, with a fourth-quarter comeback, two blocked extra points, a late field goal and a red zone stand being the difference.

Graham said the game is about the players, not the coaches. Rodriguez, though he probably doesn't want to be seen as agreeing with Graham, said about the same.

"There is a lot of stake," he said. "It is our 19 seniors' last home game, so I would be shocked if preparation wasn’t at an ultimate high.”

National links: Calm before the storm 

November, 25, 2014
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Let’s just get this out of the way: Last week in college football was kind of dull.

Unless, that is, you’re into watching the single-game FBS rushing record fall for the second straight Saturday. (So who breaks it this week?) Yes, last week was dull, unless, of course, you’re into Florida State’s weekly high-wire act, re-awakenings at Arkansas and Minnesota or UCLA’s continued stranglehold on Los Angeles.

My point is, the latest set of games didn’t significantly impact the College Football Playoff picture -- at least in comparison to the past few weeks. Barring some craziness at the selection-committee table, the top four on Tuesday night is going to look no different than last week’s edition.

But Week 13 was simply the calm before the storm. Not so sure? Check out first nine paragraphs Gene Wojciechowski’s BMOC column. The rocky road to Dec. 9 is enough to make a fan of any playoff contender choke on his or her turkey dinner.

And it starts in two days.

Young Arizona QB/RB duo thriving

October, 9, 2014
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Solomon/WilsonCasey Sapio/USA TODAY SportsArizona's offense has been just fine in the hands of QB Anu Solomon, front, and RB Nick Wilson.
Conventional wisdom says the younger a player is, the more likely he is to fold in high-pressure situations for the simple fact that inexperience will win out. Makes sense in theory.

Yet Arizona quarterback Anu Solomon and running back Nick Wilson have flipped the script and are performing with the poise and confidence of third-year starters. Theories and conventional wisdom need not apply.

The youngest backfield tandem in the Pac-12 -- Solomon is a redshirt freshman and Wilson is a true freshman -- is also the most successful pairing in the league heading into Week 7. Wilson ranks second in the conference in rushing yards (574), rushing yards per game (114.8), yards per carry (6.4), and is tied for first in rushing touchdowns (6). Solomon commands an offense that ranks fourth in the league in scoring (39.8 PPG) and second in total offense (574 YPG). He is completing 63.6 percent of his throws with 14 touchdowns to four interceptions.

"Cool under pressure," is the way Oregon coach Mark Helfrich described the duo in the wake of Arizona’s 31-24 win against Oregon last week at Autzen.

Coach Rich Rodriguez said he saw Solomon's ability to handle tense situations when he was locked in a quarterback competition coming into the season. From there, he continued to lay on the pressure to see just how much the redshirt freshman could take. For Wilson, it was simply a matter of throwing the true freshman into the fire and seeing how he responded.

"We try to make practices more difficult than games, so I think that’s really helped their development," Rodriguez said. "...We thought (Wilson) was special when we signed him. What you don’t know is how quickly they learn the system when they get here. He’s a quick learner. And when he gets in the game, he’s competitive and strong. He’s giving us some good play, which is not totally surprising. But the fact that he’s learned so well and been so composed out there as a true freshman is really good to see."

Said Solomon: "It’s all about being comfortable in uncomfortable situations. And the coaches put us in a lot of uncomfortable situations in practice. A lot of times we fail. And that’s where we learn from it so we don’t make those mistakes in games. I think that’s helped us be calm and poised."

Now 5-0 and ranked 10th in the country, the Wildcats return home this week for a South Division showdown with USC. The expectations have never been higher.

"We can’t get caught up in all of that," Solomon said. "It’s impossible not to hear it when you’re getting so much acknowledgement. We just have to nod our heads and forget it. Everything we’ve accomplished is in the past. This is USC week. We can’t let the Oregon win or the Cal win influence us in any way.

"Hungry and humble."

Humility is something Solomon learned at a young age. In 2009, he was named the starting quarterback at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas. All he did was compile a 57-3 record as a starter and win four state championships. But he had to learn to bark orders at seniors while also earning their respect.

The same holds true now. At 19 years old, he’s telling guys who will be in the NFL this time next year what to do and how to do it. That takes a certain kind of personality.

"I try to pay attention to their leadership first," Solomon said. "I know what’s going through their minds. 'You want my respect, you have to earn it.' But it’s part of the job. Everything you do is earned."

Four of the Wildcats five games this season have been determined by a touchdown or less. The past two have included a fourth-quarter tie or deficit. So they are already used to playing in tight games.

"We came into this season as underdogs, and we’ve worked hard for everything we’ve earned," Solomon said. "We want to be relevant. We want the nation to know what we’ve done during the summer and the offseason. We worked our tails off. We just have to keep doing what we do and stay humble."
If Arizona's shocking 31-24 victory at No. 2 Oregon on Thursday is indicative of the sort of spectacle ahead on this epic weekend of college football, we all might want to invest in seat belts for our easy chairs. And perhaps don helmets ourselves.

The story entering the game was the Ducks seeking revenge for last year's embarrassing blowout loss in Tucson. It also was a good opportunity for QB Marcus Mariota to look all Heisman-y in front of a national audience on ESPN, even if kickoff was at 10:30 p.m. ET. While the Ducks' injury-riddled offensive line and inconsistent defense had been thoroughly picked over by analysts, the general feeling was the Wildcats were a good but not good enough squad to take advantage. What's more, as poised as redshirt freshman QB Anu Solomon had looked during a 4-0 run, he couldn't be expected to win his first Pac-12 road start in fearsome Autzen Stadium, right?

[+] EnlargeArizona Wildcats
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesArizona turned the Pac-12 on its ear with the upset at Oregon.
So much for pregame themes and conventional wisdom, smirks college football. On a week when everything was going horribly wrong for Michigan, bitterly dispatched former Wolverines coach Rich Rodriguez and his staff delivered a team that was poised and well-prepared and simply tougher than the Ducks. No one saw it coming, which means it was entirely predictable.

Yet in our unexplored new age of the inaugural College Football Playoff, the question every game between ranked or unbeaten or contending teams inspires is "What does it mean?"

The best answer is horribly lame: We don't know. Really. There's already been lots of typing, tweeting and chatter about this game, but we have no idea what this Week 6 contest means in the big picture going forward and, most notably, how it might resonate with the 13-person selection committee.

Those first rankings won't come out until Oct. 28. The best we can say at this moment is that Oregon is probably no longer a candidate for a coveted top-four spot. And Arizona, at least at this moment, is.

Oregon entered this game owning the best win in college football this season: 46-27 over Michigan State, a team that presently is ranked 10th, despite that defeat. Now the Wildcats own the best win this season. Ole Miss is going to try to steal that title on Saturday against Alabama, but there's no way the Rebels outsmart and outman Nick Saban's boys, right?

Arizona will be greeted with some degree of skepticism by pollsters in advance of the selection committee's "Hello, World" moment. The Wildcats 15 days before needed a Hail Mary pass to beat California, which didn't win a Pac-12 game last year, and had not been able to put away UTSA and Nevada until late in the fourth quarter. Yet with USC coming to town on Oct. 11, and road trips to Washington State and UCLA ahead, the Wildcats can quickly prove they are not one-hit wonders and establish legitimacy that would quash any skepticism.

As for Oregon, as dismal as this all seems -- The House that Chip Kelly Built is A-Crumbling! -- there is an immediate opportunity for redemption: a visit to No. 8 UCLA on Oct. 11.

What if OT Jake Fisher gets healthy, DE Arik Armstead's ankle turns out to be a mere flesh wound and Mariota decisively outplays Bruins QB star Brett Hundley? An impressive road win against the Bruins would certainly push the Ducks back into the national picture, particularly with the mighty SEC West also poised to start cannibalizing itself.

While Oregon seemed like the best bet to do the unlikely and negotiate the Pac-12 schedule unbeaten, the reality is that few expected the Pac-12 champion to be all shiny and 13-0 and dressed in an immaculate tuxedo for the selection committee. This conference is too hard for that. One quarter of the way in, the most notable indication was that the bottom and middle had risen up to meet a slightly stooped top third. The putative leaders -- Oregon, UCLA, Stanford, USC, Arizona State -- were each flawed teams, while bottom-feeders Cal and Colorado were suddenly good enough to scare anyone.

And Arizona, a midlander, was good enough to whip the Ducks.

There is a pessimistic side to all this for the Pac-12, starting with Oregon. If the Ducks' offensive line doesn't get a guy or two back, it won't be able to block many of the remaining teams on its schedule. While the Arizona defense is extremely well-coordinated by Jeff Casteel and plays well as a conglomerative unit, its front-seven talent doesn't match UCLA, Washington, Stanford, Utah and Oregon State. Mariota, as good as he is, can't continue to take this sort of beating -- 12 sacks in the past two games.

This defeat could be merely a sign of things to come for Oregon. What we saw Thursday night suggests two or three more losses wouldn't be shocking, and that would definitely make things difficult for second-year coach Mark Helfrich.

This, in fact, might be the state of the conference. The North and South Division champions might meet with two losses apiece. That would testify to the depth and quality of the conference, but it also might only get a respectful tip of the cap from the CFP selection committee.

Of course, we don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves. Seemingly every time we try to script the Pac-12 season, we are forced to do a rewrite.

The seat belts and helmets, though, do feel like sound advice.
Mark Helfrich's 15-2 record at Oregon is the best start of any Pac-12 coach since Pappy Waldorf went 16-1 beginning in 1947 at Cal, but that second loss was a doozy. While there was no shame in losing 26-20 at No. 6 Stanford last season, the 42-16 shellacking the Ducks suffered at Arizona two weeks later was stunning.

The Wildcats handed Oregon its first defeat to an unranked team since 2009. The 26-point margin was the program's biggest since losing 44-10 to USC in 2008. The defeat ended a run of four consecutive BCS bowl berths, and included an added dose of negative publicity when receivers De'Anthony Thomas and Josh Huff turned up their noses during the preceding week at the prospect of playing in another Rose Bowl.

[+] EnlargeMark Helfrich
AP Photo/Steve DykesMark Helfrich knows the Ducks may have extra motivation on Thursday after last season's loss to Arizona.
This accumulation of negatives unleashed the naysayers who wasted little time insisting that it demonstrated that Helfrich couldn't match the leadership of former coach Chip Kelly.

Helfrich, clearly aware of this, didn't bob and weave with the media after the game. He didn't snarl, either. Or pass the buck.

"Very sluggish in every phase. That's 100 percent my fault," he said. "I have to figure out exactly which levers to pull and buttons to push."

While Kelly repeated his "forward-looking" mantra ad infinitum, Helfrich admitted at the time the Ducks were due some "inward-looking." Ten months later, No. 2 Oregon prepares for the Wildcats to visit Autzen Stadium on Thursday night. Helfrich completely embraces the Ducks' "win the day" philosophy -- he helped establish it, as Kelly's offensive coordinator -- including only looking forward to playing "nameless, faceless opponents." But, he said this week, he doesn't write off the idea that some of his players might find some additional motivation from the events of Nov. 23, 2013, in Tucson.

“Anytime you don’t give somebody your best shot, that should leave a bad taste in your mouth," Helfrich said. "There were some guys that felt that way. It certainly looked that way on film. Hopefully that contributes to fuel the engine of your process.”

It was a strange game. Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota threw his first two interceptions of the season, ending a Pac-12 record streak of 353 passes without a pick. It was the first of three Oregon turnovers. The Ducks also turned the ball over on downs twice and were flagged eight times for 66 yards.

Mariota looked as stunned as Oregon fans after the game. "I have never been blown out like this before in my life," he said at the time.

Yet, as bad as the Ducks looked, Arizona deserved plenty of credit. It played a near-flawless game in all three phases. The Wildcats had no turnovers, just two penalties, converted 11 of 16 third downs and were 6-for-6 with six touchdowns in the red zone. Critically, the Wildcats tackled well in space. They yielded some big plays but not any huge plays, as the Ducks had six plays of more than 20 yards but none longer than 30 and none reached the end zone.

That's pretty much the formula for beating anyone, but tackling in space is particularly noteworthy against the Ducks.

“That’s what’s going to be the key again," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said.

The biggest new variable in this year's game is Wildcats quarterback Anu Solomon making his first road start in Pac-12 play. While Solomon made his first career road start in the Alamodome against UTSA, Autzen Stadium is a far more challenging venue. Further, Solomon had his worst game of the season against the Roadrunners in terms of traditional pass efficiency rating and Total QBR.

“He’s kept his poise pretty well," Rodriguez said of Solomon. "This will be a test for him. He’s shown a lot of maturity. I’m sure there will be a few mistakes but I think he’s got the kind of mentality that if he does make a mistake or two to shake it off and keep playing.”

Helfrich was asked this week if he'd figured out "which levers to pull and buttons to push" to avoid another lackluster performance. Not surprisingly, he didn't divulge a eureka moment.

That's because there's no magic. A team like Oregon, a national title contender for the past five seasons, has no margin for error. Every bad weekend is judged harshly and analyzed endlessly. There's no "oh, well," any more for Oregon. Wins are expected, and any loss is a cause for panic.

Helfrich has posted a historically good start to his career, but coaching the Ducks after Kelly has left him with a fan base that owns a "national title or bust" mentality. Ultimately, the loss at Arizona a year ago only serves as an Exhibit A for an unsurprising truism for all teams aspiring to be champions.

Said Helfrich: “It doesn’t just happen. Winning is really hard. You have to earn every single bit of it.”
If you’ve watched any Arizona football this year, you might have noticed that the Wildcats have a penchant for the dramatic.

Sure, the last game comes to mind. And the fact that Arizona scored 36 points in the fourth quarter and needed a 47-yard Hail Mary as the clock expired to beat Cal certainly qualifies as dramatic.

But it wasn’t just that game. After a blowout win in their opener against UNLV, the last three for the Wildcats have been nip-and-tuck. Coach Rich Rodriguez said he’s not sure if there’s a common denominator between this team and being able to win close games. But he’s glad they do.

“I hope it’s the fact that our guys don’t worry or don’t get too concerned about the scoreboard and just play 60 minutes,” Rodriguez said. “Every coach talks about it. We talk about it quite a bit. In fact we talk about it before every game. No matter what happens, we’re going to play for 60 minutes and then we’ll look up and see what the score is.”

As the Wildcats prep for a huge showdown with No. 2 Oregon Thursday night, it’s worth taking a look at the fourth quarter of Arizona’s past three games to see just how tight things got.

Arizona-UTSA win probabilityESPN Stats and Info
Game analysis: At one point, UTSA had a 74 percent probability of winning this game. That was in the second quarter after taking a 14-13 lead. But the Wildcats battled back and took a 26-16 lead into the fourth quarter.

Fourth-quarter analysis: Things got dicey halfway through the final frame. Though Arizona’s probability of winning never dropped below 50 percent, it did dip down to 59.8 when UTSA took over at their own 20 trailing 26-23 with 5:09 left to play.

Tipping point: With the score still at 26-23, UTSA picked up a first down at its own 31. But on second down, Tucker Carter was intercepted by Jared Tevis. UTSA’s win probability dropped to 3 percent.

Arizona, NevadaESPN Stats & Infomation
Game analysis: Despite jumping out to a 3-0 lead, Nevada never had better than a 43.6 percent chance of winning this game. The metrics account for Arizona being at home and the fact that the Wildcats can score a silly amount of points. They built a 21-6 lead in the second quarter, but Nevada came back to tie things up in the third, making things a little more uncomfortable than the home team probably would have liked.

Fourth-quarter analysis: Of the three games we’re examining here, this was the easiest fourth quarter for the Wildcats. Even after Nevada pulled to within a touchdown with 6:01 to play, its odds of winning never reached above 16.9 percent.

Tipping point: After Anu Solomon connected with Cayleb Jones on a 24-yard touchdown strike five seconds into the fourth quarter, Arizona’s win probability shot up from 63 percent to 94.4. But as the next graphic will show us, every second counts.

Arizona, CalESPN Stats and Info
Game analysis: By virtue of being home, Arizona started with a 62.5 percent chance of winning. But as Cal scored point after point, that probability dropped down to the 3- and 4-percent range. Then, wackiness ensued.

Fourth quarter analysis: Even as the Wildcats began their march toward erasing a 31-16 deficit, their win probability rarely spiked. The closest they got was a 41.6 probability when Solomon and Jones hooked up for 15 yards with 2:44 left to play, cutting Cal’s lead to 45-43. That dropped almost seven percentage points after the failed two-point conversion.

Tipping point: Just before the "Hill Mary," Cal’s chances of winning were 87.9 percent. One play changed it all. Solomon and Austin Hill wrote themselves into Arizona lore with an iconic play that will fill highlight videos for years to come.

Upstart QBs headline Cal-Arizona game

September, 19, 2014
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By the end of Saturday night, either Cal quarterback Jared Goff or Arizona quarterback Anu Solomon will have four career wins.

Both lead undefeated teams into the first conference game of the season for either school. And in a conference silly with veteran quarterbacks, these two represent the future of the Pac-12 at the position.

In five combined games this season, they are completing 64.5 percent of their throws with 15 touchdowns to just two interceptions. Goff, a sophomore who started last season as a true freshman, has the Bears clicking to the tune of 43 points per game. Solomon, making just his fourth career start, headlines the No. 1 total offense in the league, which averages 582.7 yards per game.

There’s a reason the over/under for this game is in the 70s.

[+] EnlargeJared Goff
AP Photo/Jeff ChiuJared Goff had success against the Arizona secondary last season, throwing for 289 yards and four TDs.
For Goff, Year No. 2 has been anything but a sophomore slump. Last season he army-crawled his way uphill through the muck and mess that was Cal’s 2013 season, picking up only one win but a lot of lessons along the way. In two games this year, he’s completing almost 68 percent of his passes -- up from 60.3 percent last season -- and he’s already guided the Bears to a road win over a Big Ten opponent.

Call it a sophomore surge.

“[Goff] is a year older and he looks even stronger. And the second year in the system is a big deal,” said Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez. “To play as a freshman as well as he did is remarkable. But now he’s kind of a seasoned veteran. He’s seeing the whole field and … playing with a lot of confidence. That’s for sure.”

For Solomon, this would be a pretty good start to his career -- having already earned wins over UNLV, UTSA and Nevada. Some might call that a sneaky tough schedule, especially for a guy with zero career snaps before this season.

Through the first three games of his career, Solomon is completing 62 percent of his throws with eight touchdowns and one interception. For comparison, through Goff’s first three career starts, he was completing 61 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and four interceptions. Goff also had to face a ranked Northwestern team and No. 4 Ohio State in two of his first three games.

Still, Solomon has impressed coach Sonny Dykes, despite the limited body of work.

“They have played a couple of tight ballgames and it seems to me when the game gets tight, he plays better,” Dykes said. “When things tightened up against UTSA, he played well and I thought the same thing against Nevada. I think that’s a real sign of maturity and I think that’s impressive for a guy that’s only played in three ballgames.”

Against Arizona last season, Goff posted a career-high four touchdown passes in a narrow 33-28 loss. Or as Rodriguez describes it: “He threw it around pretty good on us last year.” Goff matched that number two weeks ago against Sacramento State and, according to Dykes, is playing with the confidence you’d expect from a guy with a year’s worth of experience.

“The biggest thing is last year he was still learning the plays,” Dykes said. “Now he’s run them all a couple hundred times. Everything happens faster. He sees things faster. He can anticipate better. The receivers are a year better. Everybody is on the same page, better than they were. The only way you have growth at the quarterback position is by playing and getting reps. He’s gotten a lot of reps.

“The more he plays, the better he’s going to get. We think he’s already pretty good. But we think he has a chance to be really good.”

Both teams boast outstanding receiving corps, which certainly helps out younger quarterbacks. That’s going to put a ton of pressure on the secondaries. Heading into this game, the Wildcats rank 10th in the conference in pass efficiency defense.

“Teams have attacked us through the air and had some success,” Rodriguez said. “Some people say that’s a secondary problem. No, it’s a total problem. Sometimes we aren’t getting a pass rush on and sometimes when you’re a little ahead teams will throw on you. But there’s no question we have to shore things up in a hurry because we’ve got some great throwing teams coming up. Including one coming in this weekend.”
On the surface, Arizona's schedule over the first third of the season is notably weak. The Wildcats whipped overmatched UNLV, just as they did last year, outlasted UTSA, another team that prefers to go by its initials, and survived a fourth-quarter challenge from Nevada. Up next is a visit from California, which went 1-11 last year.

If your audience were patient, you could attempt to explain how that schedule was reasonably solid. UNLV was a bowl team last year, UTSA is the nation's most experienced team and Nevada was coming off a win over Washington State. Cal? It's already won at Northwestern and has looked nothing like the easy out it was in 2013.

[+] EnlargeJared Goff
Bob Stanton/USA TODAY SportsThe Arizona defense will have to pressure Cal's Jared Goff -- who has 510 passing yards and 7 touchdowns in two games this season.
You could also make an esoteric argument that Arizona deserves some respect for negotiating a schedule of teams that is good enough to beat you but not good enough in terms of pedigree to naturally captivate the focus of a crew of 18 to 23-year-old players.

But who has time to listen to that?

In other words, Arizona is aiming to become the least glamorous 4-0 team in the nation this weekend. There's only a remote shot the Wildcats will earn a top-25 ranking with a victory. A loss? They'd immediately be voted off Relevancy Island by the unforgiving college football cognoscenti.

A year ago, Arizona also started 3-0 against an ostensibly -- OK, an actually -- weak nonconference schedule. It then got bricked at Washington and lost at USC. Thereafter they never really became a major factor in the South Division race.

Most observers, Pac-12 or otherwise, are taking a wait-and-see approach with the Wildcats. We'll see when they visit Oregon on Oct. 5, a week that will feature the Ducks denying any revenge angle for the shocking whipping they took in Tucson a year ago. We'll see when USC comes to town on Oct. 11 and during back-to-back road games at Washington State and UCLA.

So it probably won't be until the end of October that we will have an idea if Rich Rodriguez is going to produce something special in his third season in Tucson. Yet it's also worth nothing the Wildcats are seemingly in a better spot, at least offensively, than they were a year ago.

Freshman running back Nick Wilson has so far produced Ka'Deem Carey-like numbers (149.7 yards per game; 6.8 ypc). Redshirt freshman quarterback Anu Solomon ranks seventh in the Pac-12 in passing efficiency with a rating that is more than 45 points higher than B.J. Denker's number after three 2013 starts. While the points are slightly down after three games -- 39.7 ppg versus 43.7 -- the total yards and yards per play are way up.

Rodriguez can be pretty stingy with compliments, but he's tipped his cap to Wilson and Solomon, noting that Wilson is “way advanced mentally” and Solomon is “harder on himself than we would be." If you know Rich Rod, that is the highest of praise. For one, it's difficult to imagine any QB being harder on himself than Rodriguez, who is perennially the bad cop for offensive coordinator Rod Smith.

The jury, however, is out on the Wildcats defense. They dominated the early schedule a year ago -- 8.7 ppg through three games -- and ended up as the Pac-12's most improved unit last year. That included turning in a Stanford-like performance against the Ducks offense.

The defense, with some notable losses from the 2013 unit, has struggled against the pass so far this year -- yielding a 64.6 completion rate -- and in the redzone, where foes have scored touchdowns on seven of 11 drives inside the 25-yard line. Nevada quarterbackCody Fajardo completed 29 of 39 passes for 321 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions in Arizona's 35-28 win last weekend.

"Defensively, we didn’t do a good job getting off blocks, and we blew a couple coverages which was uncharacteristic of us," Rodriguez said. "That allowed them to control the ball and limit our possessions. We have to get better defensively."

He then added, “No question we’ve got to shore things up in a hurry because we’ve got some great throwing teams [in Pac-12], including one coming in this weekend.”

Cal has a passing attack that can give any defense some trouble, particularly if quarterback Jared Goff gets time to throw. Seeing that the Wildcats don't have a dominant pass-rusher, it's likely they will have to use a variety of blitzes to disrupt Goff, whose so far been on point as a true sophomore. That is a high-risk, high-reward strategy that the Bears likely are anticipating.

Cal will land in Tucson with a lot of confidence. The Bears view last year as an unfortunate alignment of the football planets, one that created an injury-plagued disastrous anomaly. Even then, they played Arizona tough a year ago, using a late touchdown to only lose at home by five points, their closest conference game.

We don't yet know a lot about Arizona. Cal's visit might prove to be a more revealing matchup that it appeared to be in the preseason.

Injuries, implosion muddle South picture

September, 15, 2014
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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Wait. That's been used before. But, with apologies to Dickens, it fits. The Pac-12 weekend was a tale of one division, two teams, two cities, two quarterbacks, and it was a day of thrills and it was a day of misery.

The plot certainly thickened in the Pac-12's South Division on Saturday, but not necessarily in a good way.

A week after posting a gritty upset at Stanford, USC was humiliated at Boston College, while UCLA cobbled together a win over Texas behind scrappy, ebullient backup QB Jerry Neuheisel. Neuheisel's services were required because Heisman Trophy candidate Brett Hundley was knocked out of the game in the first quarter with an elbow injury. His status remains uncertain, though there was reasonable hope based on initial reports that his injury wasn't serious.

[+] EnlargeAntwaun Woods
Winslow Townson/Getty ImagesUSC's shocking loss to Boston College underscored the vulnerability within the Pac-12 South division.
Our second city is Tempe, Arizona, where UCLA will be on Thursday, Sept. 25, squaring off with defending South Division champion Arizona State, which beat Colorado on Saturday but also lost its star senior quarterback, Taylor Kelly, who beat out Hundley for second-team All-Pac-12 last year. Seeing Kelly on crutches due to a foot injury -- and his body language -- probably won't fuel great expectations that he will be ready for the Bruins.

The UCLA-Arizona State game was one we eyeballed in the preseason as a major measuring stick in the battle for the South. A significant part of the appeal was the quarterback battle. That hasn't changed, only now the intrigue is whether it will be Neuheisel for UCLA and Mike Bercovici for Arizona State. A week ago, that quarterback news would have heavily favored the Sun Devils. While Bercovici isn't the runner Kelly is, he's got one of the best arms in the conference and is well-versed in the Sun Devils offense. He is expected to win the starting job as a fifth-year senior next fall. Neuheisel was widely viewed as a career backup with a well-known father -- former UCLA QB and coach Rick Neuheisel -- but his second-half performance against the Longhorns suggested he can be more than a rudimentary game manager.

Both teams have an off week, when they can either get healthy or retool their plans. The stakes continue to be high, perhaps more so after USC threw up on itself with a wet-noodle performance at Boston College. While a nonconference game doesn't affect the Trojans' Pac-12 standing, it certainly made them look extremely vulnerable heading into a much-needed bye week. Other than USC fans, the most miserable folks watching that game surely root for Stanford, which probably can't believe it lost to the Trojans just a week before.

What this implosion and these injuries reveal in a wider sense is vulnerability in the South. In the preseason, UCLA looked like a decisive South favorite. Then USC made a statement with a win over the Cardinal. Arizona State was lurking with a great offense and a questionable defense. At this point, however, none of these three teams is scaring anyone. And don't look now, but Arizona and Utah remain unbeaten and have shown flashes that suggest they might be factors in a divisional race that previously seemed limited to the aforementioned troika.

The Wildcats play host to California on Saturday. Lo and behold, the Bears also are unbeaten, and this game suddenly possesses some potential meaning it didn't seem to have in the preseason. If Cal gets the upset, it can fully erase last season's misery and start thinking bowl game. If Arizona gets the win, it will be 4-0 and eyeballing the Top 25 with a visit to No. 2 Oregon looming on Thursday, Oct. 2.

Arizona appears suspect on defense, but the offense, with impressive redshirt freshman QB Anu Solomon, a good O-line, deep corps of receivers and breakout freshman running back Nick Wilson, will make the Wildcats a threat to any foe.

Utah visits Michigan on Saturday. While the Wolverines don't look like they'll be hailing in much victory this season, a Utes win would certainly raise more than a few eyebrows. While Utah's trouble hasn't been in nonconference games since joining the Pac-12, a 3-0 start would hint they are not a South afterthought, particularly if the offense continues to shine with QB Travis Wilson.

While Oregon's win over Michigan State coupled with Stanford's loss to USC only boosted the Ducks' status as North Division favorites, the South intrigue has seemingly spiderwebbed since the beginning of the season. The race appears more wide open and complicated. UCLA's visit to Arizona State remains a major measuring stick, but it's just as likely either team would sacrifice that game -- as horrible as that sounds -- to know it will get its starting quarterback back healthy for the rest of the season.

What about the rest of Pac-12?

September, 9, 2014
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A lot the Pac-12 focus through Weeks 1 and 2 were on Oregon, Stanford, UCLA and USC. The reason for that was preseason hype and big games, as well as off-field issues (USC).

But, as some of you have pointed out, there are eight other Pac-12 teams. Though these teams have mostly played under-the-radar games that haven't been terribly revealing, it still seems reasonable to take a measure of the Pac-12 teams that have yet to play a marquee matchup.

Arizona (2-0): The Wildcats actually got plenty of preseason and early-season coverage for two reasons: 1. Interesting QB competition; 2. They've played FBS teams on Friday and Thursday nights so far, which means more ownership of the available window. The Wildcats are receiving votes in both polls. The visit from Nevada on Saturday could be tricky. Ask Washington State.

What we've learned: That QB Anu Solomon can look great. And not so great. Same with the defense. The Wildcats might be a dark horse in the South Division. Or they might not be. Keep in mind, this team could be 4-0 and potentially ranked as it heads into a bye week before visiting Oregon on Thursday, Oct. 2.

Arizona State (2-0): Sun Devils fans are probably the most annoyed with their lack of attention after winning the South Division last year. The biggest reason for the lack of coverage is the opponents: An FCS team in Week 1 (Weber State) and New Mexico, a team that has gone 10-53 over the past five-plus years. At this time last year, ASU already had a win over Wisconsin, with Stanford, USC and Notre Dame the next three games. And, curiously, Arizona fans were complaining about all the attention the Sun Devils were getting.

What we've learned: Nothing. Zero. We already knew the QB Taylor Kelly, WR Jaelen Strong and RB D.J. Foster would be good. We also haven't learned much about a rebuilt defense. While the visit to Colorado could be somewhat revealing, the Buffaloes already lost to Colorado State. No, the Sun Devils won't take center stage, despite a national ranking, until UCLA visits on Thursday, Sept. 25.

California (2-0): Cal fans, just look at that record. Let it flow over you like warm sunshine. Your Bears already have doubled their 2013 win total! ESPN reporter and College Football Playoff guru Heather Dinich ranked you 25th! While neither win -- Northwestern nor Sacramento State -- rates as earth-shattering, the Wildcats are a Big Ten team and, well... 2 and Oh!

What we've learned: Probably a lot. For one, Cal is no longer a patsy. That doesn't mean it surges to bowl eligibility in Year 2 under Sonny Dykes, but this is clearly a vastly superior team compared to the hapless 2013 version. The Bears played better in their first two games than they did at any point last season. Welcome back to the living, Cal. The Pac-12 blog again awaits those joyous 12,000-word sabermetrically sound breakdowns of why Stanford might have the same red zone futility it had against USC in the Big Game.

Colorado (1-1): It wasn't just that the Buffaloes lost to Colorado State in the opener, it was that they lost because the Rams owned the line of scrimmage. Not good. The performance at UMass, which went 1-11 last year, also was pretty mediocre, though there was some flint shown in a comeback victory. Buffs bowl hopes feel pretty remote.

What we've learned: It might be another slog for Colorado. The preseason hope for Season 2 of Mike MacIntyre's rebuilding job was a strong 2-0. That would give a young team confidence. But, based on the early returns, this team could take a step back compared to 2013. Even the visit from Hawaii, which challenged both Washington and Oregon State, looks like a tossup. Of course, if the Buffs go nose-to-nose with the Sun Devils on Saturday ...

Oregon State (2-0): Bottom line is 2-0 is good for a team that has been notoriously slow out of the gate, even during good years. While things got a little testy with Hawaii in the second half, there's reason for optimism as the Beavers head into the bye week before playing host to San Diego State.

What we've learned: Not too much. We don't yet know what to make of Hawaii, which is obviously much improved over the program that won four games over the past two-plus years. It appears the Beavers rushing offense is much better, as it is averaging 170 yards per game compared to 94 last year. A trip to USC on Sept. 27 could be a major reveal.

Utah (2-0): The Utes looked good over the weekend on both sides of the ball while whipping Fresno State, but they've been outstanding in nonconference games as a member of the Pac-12, going 10-1. It's the conference games that will measure Utah's improvement.

What we've learned: There have been some hints that this might be Utah's best Pac-12 team, and that starts with quality behind center in QB Travis Wilson. Seeing that Michigan got pounded by Notre Dame, there's no reason Utah can't go into the Big House and get a win after their off week. At 3-0, Utes fans would be thinking about more than just any old bowl game. Still, the visit from Washington State the following weekend is more important than the Ann Arbor jaunt.

Washington (2-0): The Huskies have been pushed to the brink by Hawaii, which went 1-11 last year, and an FCS team, as Eastern Washington scored 52 points against a struggling pass defense. The offense looked much better with QB Cyler Miles behind center, but the defense -- the perceived preseason strength -- has been mediocre-to-bad so far.

What we've learned: We've learned new coach Chris Petersen didn't bring a magical formula to make the Huskies dominant on both sides of the ball, at least not immediately. This team started off in the Top 25 but tumbled out after an unimpressive opener, and the battle with Eastern Washington didn't help the team's image. Still, Washington should open 4-0 before playing host to Stanford on Sept. 27. That's when we take a true measure of the Huskies.

Washington State (0-2): No team has been more disappointing than Washington State. Just about every projection had the Cougars at 2-0, but they are the opposite. It's possible that Rutgers and Nevada will prove to be quality bowl teams, but that doesn't help a program that saw itself rising in the Pac-12 North.

What we've learned: Learned? That the defense and the offensive line still have issues, and those issues create problems for a team that can only pass the ball. Of course, it's possible the Cougs will be better when they get back to familiar Pac-12 terrain. The test of the season probably will come with back-to-back games at Utah and against California on Sept. 27 and Oct. 4. The Cougs probably must win both to have bowl hopes.
Rich Rodriguez, Larry CokerIcon SportswireRich Rodriguez and Arizona should be wary of the challenge posed by Larry Coker's UTSA team.
When you first saw UTSA on Arizona's 2014 schedule, you probably had two reactions: 1. Who the heck is "ut-sa?" 2. Look at the Wildcats loading up their schedule with patsies again.

We're now guessing that perception has changed, at least for folks who bothered to check out last week's scoreboard. The ole Roadrunners of UTSA, coached by former Miami head man Larry Coker, went into Houston's fancy new stadium and slammed the Cougars 27-7.

UTSA held Houston, among the preseason AAC favorites, to 208 total yards. The Cougars had 26 yards rushing. Check that: It was minus-26 yards rushing, much of the backward portion coming from four sacks. The Roadrunners forced six turnovers.

Call it a horrible open house for the Cougars if you will, but the Roadrunners certainly look like the nation's best program -- at least in the category of programs playing just their fourth year of football.

When you toss in that Arizona is going to be on the road Thursday with a redshirt freshman quarterback, Anu Solomon, making his second career start and first in front of unfriendly fans, well, this one looks a little dangerous. Coach Rich Rodriguez, whose team beat UTSA 38-13 last season, said the Wildcats are fully focused and are aware this doesn't figure to be a cakewalk.

"Looking at the Houston score and watching the film over the past few days has got our guys' attention," Rodriguez said. "It wasn't just a big win. It was a big win on the road in a tough environment. They completely took over that game."

While the Roadrunners aren't loaded with talent, they are loaded with experience. Phil Steele, in fact, rated them the nation's most experienced team, with 19 starters back as well as a large group of 2013 letter winners, including 18 fifth-year seniors.

On the plus side for the Wildcats: One of the new starters is quarterback Tucker Carter. Though he's a senior who saw action last year, the JC transfer doesn't have much more experience than Solomon.

Solomon had an auspicious debut against UNLV. After a slow start, he regrouped to complete 25 of 44 passes for 425 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. He also rushed eight times for 50 yards. He led a Wildcats offense that piled up 787 yards, a school record.

While a first road start for a youngster is typically a concern, Solomon has a reputation of being unflappable.

“He’s always been calm and collected and never gets too flustered," offensive tackle Mickey Baucus said. "He had a couple of overthrows in the first half, and then he settled down and had the game he had. He reminds me a lot of Nick Foles, because he never got too rattled when the game wasn’t going his way. I think Anu is going to be fine. He is going to have a calm and collected attitude and he’ll do well.”

When Arizona scheduled UTSA, getting two home games for this visit, it probably seemed like a walkover. Now it seems like a test, particularly of a young QB's poise.

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