Pac-12: Arizona Wildcats

2014 Pac-12 All-Underrated team

December, 17, 2014
Dec 17
5:00
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You've surely already seen plenty of glittering All-Pac-12 teams. Here's the All-Pac-12 team from the conference coaches. And here's ESPN.com's version. Lots of star value. While there were a few tough omissions with legitimate differences of opinion -- running back? defensive front seven? -- there also was plenty of consensus, particularly if you made two teams.

Yet there also were some very good players who got just about no recognition and should have. That's why we're creating an "All-Underrated" team.

The idea was to spotlight players, mostly upperclassmen, who didn't make the first- or second-All-Pac-12 teams from the coaches or from ESPN.com.

Funny thing is, this team was also pretty darn difficult to make. There was lots of star value in the Pac-12 this season, and lots of good players who got lost in the shadows of those stars.

OFFENSE

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Harry How/Getty ImagesCody Kessler was quietly efficient for USC, throwing 36 touchdowns and only four interceptions.
QB: Cody Kessler, Jr., USC: Kessler completed 71 percent of his passes for 3,505 yards with 36 TDs and just four interceptions. He was second in the Pac-12 and sixth in the nation in Total QBR.

RB: Daniel Lasco, Jr., California: Ranked sixth in conference with 92.9 yards per game, finishing the season with 1,115 yards and 12 TDs, which ranked third among conference running backs.

RB: Byron Marshall, Jr., Oregon: After leading the Ducks in rushing last season, Marshall did most of his work as a receiver this year, but we're putting him here because this is his natural position. He led the Ducks with 61 receptions for 814 yards with five touchdowns while also rushing for 383 yards and a TD, averaging 7.7 yards per carry.

WR: Austin Hill, Sr., Arizona: Hill wasn't the super-productive guy he was in 2012 before his knee injury, but he was a clutch and critical contributor to the Wildcats high-powered offense. He ranked second on the team with 45 receptions for 605 yards with four touchdowns. He also showed versatility as a tight end and demonstrated a willingness to block.

WR: Isiah Myers, Sr., Washington State: Finished second on the Cougars with 78 catches, and his 972 receiving yards were fifth-most in the Pac-12. His 12 touchdown catches tied for the Pac-12 lead and tied for the second-most in WSU history. He posted three 100-yard games and finished his career sixth in WSU history with 164 receptions and tied for fourth with 19 career touchdowns.

WR: Jordan Payton, Jr., UCLA: He led the Bruins with 63 receptions (8th on all-time UCLA single-season list) and 896 yards (10th) with seven touchdowns. His 14.2 yards per catch tied for second in the Pac-12.

OL: Joe Dahl, Jr., Washington State: The left tackle allowed just one sack in WSU’s Pac-12 record 771 pass attempts and earned the team’s “Bone” Award (given to the team’s best offensive lineman following each game) a team-best six times. He has started all 25 games he has been at WSU, starting 12 at left guard before moving to left tackle in the New Mexico Bowl last year.

OL: Josh Mitchell, Jr., Oregon State: He stepped in for injured All-American candidate Isaac Seumalo and became the leader of the Beavers offensive line, the one constant for a unit that used six different combinations.

OL: Vi Teofilo, Jr., Arizona State: A physical blocker who got better as the season wore on, he earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors from the coaches.

OL: Hamani Stevens, Sr., Oregon: Slid over from left guard to center when All-American Hroniss Grasu went down and did a solid job. Was the only Ducks linemen to start every game this season.

OL: Daniel Munyer, Sr., Colorado: The Buffaloes best O-lineman -- the Buffs yielded the second-fewest sacks in the Pac-12 -- he graded out at 90.9 percent this season with a team-best 51 knockdowns.

DEFENSE

DL Andrew Hudson, Sr., Washington: Hudson ranked fourth in the Pac-12 with 11.5 sacks, and his 0.88 sacks per game ranked 13th in the nation. Finished fourth on the Huskies with 71 tackles, including 14.5 for a loss, with three forced fumbles.

DL David Parry, Sr., Stanford: A force in the middle of Stanford's dominant defense, he had 30 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks. He also had six QB hurries.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Hardison
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesMarcus Hardison (1) was an impact player on the Arizona State defensive line this season.
DL: Marcus Hardison, Sr., Arizona State: Ranked fifth in the conference with 10 sacks. He also had 40 tackles, including 14.0 tackles for a loss, with two forced fumbles and two memorable interceptions.

LB: Jared Norris, Jr., Utah: Led the Utes and was fourth in the conference in total tackles (108) and tackles per game (9.0). His 10.0 TFL is tied for 10th. He also had four sacks.


LB: Blake Martinez, Jr., Stanford: More than a few folks think Martinez manned the middle of the Stanford defense this fall better than Shayne Skov did the previous few seasons. He led the Cardinal with 96 tackles and had six tackles for a loss, four sacks and two forced fumbles.

LB: J.R. Tavai, Sr., USC: Despite missing two games with a knee injury, he led the Trojans with seven sacks. Also had 47 tackles, including 12 for losses, with two deflections, a fumble recovery and a team-best three forced fumbles. Won USC’s Chris Carlisle Courage Award.

LB Michael Doctor, Sr., Oregon State: Doctor returned from an ankle injury that killed his 2013 season and finished with 62 tackles (third on the team). He also tied for the team lead with three interceptions, including a pick-6 off Taylor Kelly in the Beavers' upset of Arizona State. Doctor also had two forced fumbles and a recovery.

S: Jordan Simone, Jr., Arizona State: Former walk-on finished second on the Sun Devils with 90 tackles, including 4.5 for a loss, and a sack. He also had two interceptions and a forced fumble.

S: Jared Tevis, Sr., Arizona: While he got lost amid the deserved hoopla for LB Scooby Wright III, Tevis, a former walk-on, finished second on the Wildcats with 119 tackles, including nine for loss, with four sacks and two interceptions. Most of that production came in the second half of the season.

CB: Alex Carter, Jr., Stanford: Carter didn't have a lot of numbers -- 39 tackles, one interception, one forced fumble -- but there are a lot of observers who might rate him right up with Oregon's Ifo Ekpre-Olomu as an NFL prospect.

CB: Eric Rowe, Sr., Utah: Third in the Pac-11 in passes defended per game (1.18). Tied for fourth in total passes defended (13). Looks like he could be the next NFL cornerback out of Utah.

SPECIALISTS

K: Cameron Van Winkle, So., Washington: Led the Pac-12 in field goal percentage after connecting on 20 of 23 kicks -- 87 percent -- with a long of 51.

P: Darragh O'Neill, Sr., Colorado: Had a 44.1 average, which ranked third in the conference, and had 27 punts inside the 20 -- second in the Pac-12 -- including 14 inside the 15. 66.7 percent of his punts (65) were not returned.

Play that changed the Pac-12 race

December, 16, 2014
Dec 16
10:30
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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.
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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 ESPN.com 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.

Mailbag: South shall rise again!

December, 12, 2014
Dec 12
5:30
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Happy "Mariota wins the Heisman" Eve!

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To the notes!

Stu from Seattle writes: I know you all posted this week that the Pac-12 South will be wide-open next year -- and I agree completely -- but if you had to handicap the division, based on players returning, plus those likely to go pro early (a lot of critical 'SC players on that list, it seems), who do you favor RIGHT NOW to end up on top? No pressure.

Ted Miller: At first, I thought I could just pop something out there when I picked this question. It was like a fat fastball coming at me just where I like it. Swing! Then I did some depth-chart reviews. Ah, Stu, you got me with the ole changeup.

Honest answer is I have no clue how to stack things up right now. You could make a compelling case for five teams, and the sixth, Colorado, stacks up like a potential bowl team if things fall favorably here and there. My initial intention, in fact, was to pick Utah, knowing that would flummox many of you traditional Pac-10 sorts. And you know how I enjoy flummoxing you traditional Pac-10 sorts.

Things are very interesting in the South, but we can't truly stack things up until we know who's entering the NFL draft early. We can make assumptions on some guys -- Arizona State WR Jaelen Strong and USC DE Leonard Williams seem sure to bolt -- but you just never know. There are going to be some surprise players staying and some surprise players going.

[+] EnlargeNelson Agholor
Harry How/Getty ImagesThe draft decision of Nelson Agholor and others will likely tip the balance of power in 2015 in the Pac-12 South.
At this point, I'm a slight lean to Arizona State. No, USC. No, ASU. Hmm. OK, I'll say the Sun Devils, but I might change my mind. In an hour.

How do things stack up?

Arizona: Lots of skill and name players returning, but BIG hits on O-line and on defense. Still, QB Anu Solomon, RB Nick Wilson, LB Scooby Wright and a deep crew of receivers is a good place to start.

Arizona State: Mike Bercovici is pretty much like a returning starter at QB, and the defense will be much more experienced next fall. There is not a significant area that stands out as a weakness.

UCLA: While most will focus on QB Brett Hundley leaving -- and there could be other early defections -- the Bruins could potentially welcome back 18 starting position players. So the big question is whether touted incoming QB Josh Rosen will be ready, or is there some other answer behind center?

USC: We can't judge the Trojans until guys announce whether they are staying or going. If it's just one or two guys -- Williams? WR Nelson Agholor? -- then USC will be in the thick of things. And maybe the favorite.

Utah: I've got Utah with potentially 17 position players coming back, though RB Devontae Booker bolting for the NFL would be a big hit. The offensive line will be a huge strength and there's good talent coming back on defense. Will the QB position -- I know: broken record -- take a step forward?

This, obviously, is a topic we will revisit. A lot.


Tim from Salt Lake City writes: Do you expect the strength and depth of the Pac-12 South to last? Everything is about balance. For one team to win, another has to lose (not a terribly profound statement, I know). This year, that balance came in the form of several teams underachieving in the North, but Cal and Washington are trending up. Plus, I'm not ready to declare Stanford's reign over based on one underwhelming season. Could things be more balanced next year and, if so, which South team is most likely to regress?

Ted Miller: I don't see any South regression. It might, actually, end up stronger in 2015 than it was this year, particularly if players stick around instead of entering the draft and UCLA solves its QB question adequately.

The North, actually, is a better candidate for regression. Perhaps a significant one. I think Oregon will slip post-Marcus Mariota, but the Ducks still welcome back a strong core of talent. I expect them to be a slight favorite again in 2015, particularly with Stanford taking some huge hits on defense.

As for Cal and Washington trending up, I'm with you on the Bears, but I don't know about the Huskies, who take some monster losses on defense and aren't really scintillating on offense either. Oregon State will be breaking in a new coach and quarterback and rebuilding its defense, while Washington State fills me with uncertainty after I just knew last August the Cougars would take a big step forward this year.

I actually think the Cougs could be dangerous in 2015, but I'm not going to type that because it surely would throw the jinx on them, and Coug fans would blame me for doing that.


Brian from Boston writes: Looking at Cody Kessler's upcoming decision, I can't help but wonder, would he be off leaving after this year? It pains me to say it but, although his stock is not nearly as high as Matt Barkley's was after his junior year (even though his numbers are better), if he leaves now he will be a second-day pick but will probably end up on a better team, with less expectations. However, if he stays, he could get hurt, his numbers could decline and his stock could drop, or he could end up having much higher expectations.

Ted Miller: I think Kessler wants to come back, though I think he's more torn at present than he was several weeks ago, when he was talking about lobbying other Trojans considering the NFL to stick around.

You could make a case either way. Kessler has certainly boosted his stock this season, but he could play his way solidly into the first round next year.

I don't think he'll be fretting playing his way into a high draft pick and then ending up on a bad team. I've never heard a college player say he left early to avoid being drafted sooner the next year, fearing an early first-round pick could become his ruin.


David from Beaverton, Oregon, writes: Fun/hypothetical question -- you guys like those, right? For each Pac-12 team if you could take one player from another Pac-12 team and add them to said team, who would you take and why? And maybe we need some boundaries on this, like no QB's or something like that, because it would be boring if everyone chooses Mariota. The player can either make the new team better or more interesting. For example, as an Oregon fan, while I like our front seven a lot, I think we could really take it up a notch with a top-flight pass rusher like Hau'oli Kikaha. But wouldn't it also be really interesting if Nelson Agholor,was on the team even though he's probably not needed as much? Imagine him in space with the other Ducks playmakers. Anyway, what do you think?

Ted Miller: I actually do this all the time. My favorite in 2014 was imagining what Utah might have been this year with Marcus Mariota at quarterback.

(Inserting pause here for Utah fans to emerge from their swoon, though Washington fans are surely noting the Huskies were the only other Pac-12 team to recruit Mariota).

I'm not going to go through each team because every team could benefit from a Strong or Agholor or a Williams or an Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. But I do have one.

What if Arizona defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel and his 3-3-5 scheme could get a monster nose tackle, such as a Danny Shelton? You think Scooby is productive now? Imagine what he could do with a massive, demands-a-double-team presence in front of him.


Michael from Steubenville, Ohio, writes: When the Rose Bowl hosts the semifinal between Oregon and Florida State, will the winner receive the Leishman Trophy?

Ted Miller: Yep. The Rose Bowl folks are treating this one just like any other Rose Bowl, though obviously it's not a traditional Pac-12-Big Ten matchup. It's the 101st Rose Bowl, quasi-pure and simple -- or the Twitter-unfriendly "College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual."


Mike from Dublin, California, writes: This is a great video that was made by UCLA covering the point when Eric Kendricks won the 2014 Butkus Award. It's a real tear-jerker and something worth watching and sharing.

Ted Miller: Yes, that is very cool.


Kevin from San Francisco writes: Win or Lose, Buffs forever.

Ted Miller: So it's cool video day.

Stacking up Pac-12 for bowl season

December, 8, 2014
Dec 8
11:00
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Oregon will get a crack at the national title as the No. 2 seed in the College Football Playoff opposite No. 3 Florida State, the defending national champions. Arizona earned a spot in the Vizio Fiesta Bowl against Boise State, which doesn't sound scintillating but earns the Pac-12 an extra $4 million.

Outside of the major bowls, only one of the opponents is ranked in the final CFP rankings (No. 11 Kansas State, which is playing UCLA in the Valero Alamo Bowl), but six Pac-12 foes boast at least nine wins. Nebraska, which is 9-3 and plays USC in the National University Holiday Bowl, is 25th in the AP poll.

Some initial impressions.

College Football Playoff semifinal (Rose Bowl presented by Northwestern Mutual) No. 2 Oregon (12-1) vs. No. 3 Florida State (13-0): This one is pretty simple for Oregon and the Pac-12. The conference wants to win its first national title since 2004, while the Ducks are looking for their first national title, period. So this is all about national validation for both parties.

Meanwhile Florida State is trying to repeat, which would begin talk of a dynastic run under Jimbo Fisher, who could then boost himself up near the top of the list of nation's best coaches. If Mark Helfrich were to bring a national title back to Eugene, he probably would never have to hear about Chip Kelly's shadow again.

Obviously, it's an outstanding matchup of quarterbacks, with last year's Heisman Trophy winner, Florida State's Jameis Winston, squaring off with Marcus Mariota, a heavy favorite to take home the bronze statue on Saturday.

Oregon fans need to be prepared for national pundits to again speculate on how the Ducks will hold up on the line of scrimmage against a big, bad team from the Southeast. But on the optimistic side of things, beating the Seminoles and then, perhaps, Alabama in the national title game would eliminate that narrative forever.

VIZIO Fiesta Bowl No. 10 Arizona (10-3) vs. No. 20 Boise State (11-2): While the Wildcats are thrilled to be playing in a major bowl so close to home, the matchup doesn't provide much juice. Beating the Broncos won't impress many folks, and losing would be a major hit to Arizona's Q-rating.

You'd think the Wildcats will be plenty motivated to avoid that. For one, they looked awful while getting blown out by Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game, so they want to wash that taste out of their mouths. A big home crowd should help get their adrenaline flowing.

The extra prep time should help get QB Anu Solomon healthy, as he's been battling a pesky ankle issue for weeks.

While Boise State is a solid 11-2, it doesn't have a marquee victory like it has in most seasons. Its best win came early in the season over Colorado State. The Broncos got drubbed in their season opener by Ole Miss 35-13.

You can expect, of course, that the Broncos will be plenty hungry to take a bite out of a Pac-12 team. Not only that, they want to show the nation that they will be fine post-Chris Petersen under coach Bryan Harsin.

Valero Alamo Bowl No. 14 UCLA (9-3) vs. No. 11 Kansas State (9-3): This is an A-list matchup that both the Pac-12 and Big 12 would really like to win in order to obtain some degree of bragging rights versus the other. Both teams also are coming off disappointing defeats, with the Bruins particularly smarting after they yielded the South Division title by getting blown out by Stanford the final weekend of the regular season.

In fact, this could be a line of demarcation game for UCLA. Win, and it's reasonable to call the season moderately successful (if underwhelming). Lose, and the season is a certifiable failure, at least based on lofty preseason expectations.

It's also UCLA QB Brett Hundley's last game. The season didn't turn out like he wanted, but this is his chance to go out on a high note after he and coach Jim Mora combined to rebuild the Bruins into a contender.

National University Holiday Bowl No. 24 USC (8-4) vs. Nebraska (9-3): An immediate concern for USC is whether Nebraska picks up some of that juju new coach Mike Riley sometimes had against favored Trojans teams in the past.

It will be interesting to see how both teams react after disappointing seasons. Steve Sarkisian could use a bowl win to quiet some of his vocal critics who gave him less than a one-year honeymoon. Nebraska players were unhappy that Bo Pelini got fired, so they will either play with fire as a tribute to him or show a jaded lack of interest.

As always with USC at the end of the season, it also will be interesting to see how many players announce their NFL intentions after the game.

Foster Farms Bowl Stanford (7-5) vs. Maryland (7-5): Hey, a rare Pac-12-ACC matchup... wait. At the very least, this game will help Pac-12 fans learn that Maryland now plays in the Big Ten.

It has been a trying and disappointing season for Stanford, which has become accustomed to major bowls, but it's also notable that the Cardinal played great in its last two games, dominating California and UCLA. QB Kevin Hogan, particularly, seemed to find his rhythm.

Hyundai Sun Bowl No. 15 Arizona State (9-3) vs. Duke (9-3): This is not where the Sun Devils wanted to be. If they had beaten arch-rival Arizona, it would be them, not the Wildcats, in the Fiesta Bowl playing in front of a home crowd. So El Paso is a few notches below where Todd Graham's team wanted to be.

But they better not take Duke lightly, as they did Texas Tech last year in a dreadful Holiday Bowl performance. While David Cutcliffe's crew suffered a late-season swoon, losing two of their final three games -- just like ASU -- it's looking to finish nationally ranked for a second consecutive season, which doesn't happen often in Durham. At least not in football.

Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl No. 23 Utah (8-4) vs. Colorado State (10-2): Hey, it's a Mountain West reunion!

This is a tough matchup for the Utes because the Rams are pretty impressive, though there's also the possibility they could be flat after losing coach Jim McElwain to Florida. Colorado State beat Colorado and Boston College this season, so it's earned a couple of Power 5 scalps already, even if it lost to Air Force the final weekend of the season.

And, of course, Utes coach Kyle Whittingham's name has been buzzing about for some open jobs out there, including Michigan.

Cactus Bowl Washington (8-5) vs. Oklahoma State (6-6): These are two teams trying to salvage disappointing seasons with a bowl win.

The Cowboys had lost five Big 12 games in a row by double-digits before shocking rival Oklahoma on Saturday. Did they find their rhythm, or will that emotional win diminish their focus for this one?

For Washington, first-year coach Chris Peteresen could use a win to remind Huskies fans why they were so excited when he was hired away from Boise State.
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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Oregon had a Stanford problem. And then it didn't. It had an Arizona problem. And now it doesn't after stomping the Wildcats 51-13 in the Pac-12 championship game.

The Oregon program had a Heisman Trophy problem, but that likely ends Dec. 13 when quarterback Marcus Mariota takes home the bronze statue after a brilliant season capped by his MVP performance Friday night against Arizona. His five touchdowns against the Wildcats -- two passing, three rushing -- gave him 53 for the season against just two interceptions.

The Ducks have solved problems and touched -- or will touch -- the lofty places in college football. Just about all of them. Save one: The program has never won a national title. It's finished a season ranked second -- twice. It's played for a BCS national title and fallen just short against Auburn after the 2010 season.

Now, its win over the Wildcats is certain to secure either the No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the inaugural College Football Playoff. The Ducks, ranked second in the rankings this past week, will be playing in the Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual on Jan. 1, semifinal opponent TBD on Sunday when the selection committee makes its final announcement.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsMarcus Mariota's performance against Arizona all but handed him the Heisman, which would leave Oregon with just one final frontier to conquer.
Oregon improved to 12-1 on the season and took revenge for its only blemish, a 31-24 home defeat to Arizona on Oct. 2. At the time of that defeat, more than a few folks pronounced Oregon dead and questioned the leadership of coach Mark Helfrich, who was still laboring under the shadow of former coach Chip Kelly. Helfrich and the Ducks began the process that got them to the top of the Pac-12 for the first time since 2011 by showing up on Oct. 3 ready to get back to work.

"The next day, every single guy in our program was on the practice field 25 minutes before they had to be fixing it," Helfrich said. "It wasn't, 'Hey, you screwed this up. You did this wrong.' It's, 'How do we get better?'"

Oh, Oregon got better. A lot better. Since that loss, the Ducks are 8-0 with an average winning margin of 26.0 points per game. They have scored at least 40 points in eight straight games and gained at least 500 yards in seven straight. Both are the longest active streaks in the FBS, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Mariota and the Ducks offense started slowly and didn't really get in sync until the second half, but the defense made things easy, as it dominated the Wildcats, who had just 25 total yards and two first downs at halftime. When the offense caught up, it was lights-out.

And Mariota's final numbers were Heisman-esque. He completed 25 of 38 passes for 313 yards. For the season, he has 3,783 passing yards and 669 rushing yards.

"If this guy isn't what the Heisman Trophy is about, I'm in the wrong profession," Helfrich said.

For Arizona, it was just an ugly night, one that might knock it out of a major bowl. To cut to the chase, nothing worked. The Wildcats scored their first touchdown on a 69-yard strike against broken coverage to make it 30-7 and added a second tally on the game's final play.

"They played well and we didn't," coach Rich Rodriguez said. "They outcoached us and outplayed us."

Oregon appears to be peaking at the right time. After battling injuries all year, it's got three weeks to get healthy, starting with center Hroniss Grasu.

The only place Oregon hasn't reached is No. 1. The Ducks have positioned themselves to obtain that elusive prize. The question now is: Can they finish?


SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Oregon became the first team to (unofficially) punch its ticket for the first College Football Playoff, and quarterback Marcus Mariota likely locked up the Heisman Trophy as the second-ranked Ducks gained revenge against No. 7 Arizona with a 51-13 win on Friday night.

How the game was won: Oregon got off to a slow start -- it scored six points on its first four drives -- but opened up a 23-0 lead by halftime. With Arizona quarterback Anu Solomon struggling with an ankle injury, coach Rich Rodriguez sat down the freshman in the second half as a glorified scrimmage broke out before an announced crowd of 45,618 at Levi’s Stadium.

Game ball goes to: Mariota. He completed 25 of 38 passes for 313 yards and two touchdowns and ran for three more scores. He’ll go to the Heisman ceremony in New York with 3,783 passing yards, 669 rushing yards, 53 total touchdowns and just two interceptions.

What it means: The Pac-12 South, which had five teams ranked in this week’s playoff rankings, moves to 0-4 in Pac-12 championship games. Oregon’s title is its first since 2011 and ends a two-year Stanford reign.

Playoff implication: With Oregon’s spot secure, No. 5 Ohio State's and No. 6 Baylor’s chances at grabbing one of the four playoff spots have diminished. Both schools would have benefited greatly from an Arizona win.

Arizona's first-half woes: The Wildcats managed just 25 yards of offense in the first half, which is the fewest they have gained in a half in at least a decade. Since Rodriguez took over, the Wildcats have now been shut out in just four halves -- three of them are against the Ducks.

What's next: Both teams will learn their bowl fates on Sunday. Even with a loss Friday, Arizona -- the only team to have defeated Oregon this season -- seemed destined for the VIZIO Fiesta Bowl, but that no longer seems likely following its disastrous showing. Oregon’s potential opponents in the Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual on Jan. 1 include TCU, Florida State, Ohio State and Baylor.
The Pac-12 Championship Game could serve as a play-in game for the inaugural College Football Playoff. Chantel Jennings and Kyle Bonagura each give three reasons why Oregon and Arizona can win.

Three reasons why No. 2 Oregon can win:

1. With a healthier offensive line, Marcus Mariota can be Marcus Mariota. The last time these two teams faced off, the Ducks were dealing with a highly depleted offensive line. A former walk-on and true freshman were Oregon's two starting tackles. Since then, the Ducks have gotten Jake Fisher and Andre Yruretagoyena back, and though they’ve lost center Hroniss Grasu since the first meeting, the line is at a better place overall. They’ll be able to protect Mariota, giving him enough time in the pocket to a) allow plays to develop and b) make something happen if nothing is happening downfield.

2. The defense is playing with a greater sense of urgency. In early October, the Wildcats were opportunistic in making big plays and getting their running backs to make huge contributions. Since then the Ducks' defense has taken major strides forward and is playing against the run better. Another big difference is that the loss to the Wildcats has inspired the Ducks to practice better. “Guys understand that we can’t just show up on Saturdays and expect to do well,” fifth-year senior linebacker Tony Washington said. “Because of that [loss] we’ve been playing better on the weekend because we’re practicing harder during the week.”

3. Playmakers have emerged and progressed for the Ducks since that first game. Freshman wide receiver Charles Nelson was still a special teams guy when the Ducks played the Wildcats the first time around. Freshman running back Royce Freeman has grown immensely since then, too. He hadn’t recorded a single 100-yard rushing game leading into the meeting with Arizona. Since then, he's had 100-yard performances in five of the Ducks’ seven games (he rushed for 98 and 99 yards, respectively, in the other two). Byron Marshall has settled into his role much better. Darren Carrington has shown flashes, catching 14 passes for 241 yards since the Arizona game. Mariota is surrounded by more mature, well-developed playmakers and will be able to count on them to make big plays on Friday.

Three reasons why No. 7 Arizona can win:

1. Recent history. Oregon's two lone defeats in the last 16 games came against the Wildcats. That's impossible to ignore. And these weren't fluky games, either. Arizona won 41-16 last season and controlled most of the game in its 31-24 win at Autzen earlier this season. Credit goes to Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, who has outcoached Mark Helfrich in both games. There wasn't some magical formula unlocked by either game -- if there was Oregon wouldn't have run off seven straight wins in the fashion it has -- but Arizona has proven it can beat the Ducks, so there shouldn't be doubt that it can win again.

2. More experience. This could be a wash (see Oregon reason No. 3), but Arizona is better off now at quarterback because of freshman Anu Solomon's development. He had great stats before the game against Oregon on Oct. 2, but that was a product of playing significantly inferior teams. Now that Solomon has gone through a full Pac-12 slate, there's every reason to believe Arizona's offense should be equipped to score enough points to give the Wildcats a good shot at winning. Solomon has 14 touchdown passes to just three interceptions since the win against Oregon -- not quite Mariota numbers but very impressive, especially for a freshman.

3. #Pac12AfterDark. This shouldn't need much explanation. Everyone that's paid attention to Pac-12 football this season knows that when the sun goes down, the unexpected occurs. And Arizona has certainly benefitted from that. The Wildcats benefitted from two Hail Marys -- if either the Jail Mary or Hill Mary falls incomplete, Arizona doesn't win the division -- and have that team-of-destiny thing going on. Having linebacker Scooby Wright III doesn't hurt, either. His rise into the best-defensive-player-in-the-country discussion has been meteoric, and his presence will give Mariota fits.

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.

If anything has been made clear by the College Football Playoff committee's rankings over the past several weeks, it's that in its view, the Pac-12 stacks up favorably among the Power 5 conferences. With half the Pac-12 -- and five of the six teams in the South Division -- ranked in the latest batch, only the 14-team SEC has more (7).

Yet there remains a possible scenario in which the Pac-12 champion would not be a part of the inaugural four-team playoff. Not if it's No. 2 Oregon, of course. The Ducks (11-1) are locked into a trip to the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day if they end a two-game skid against No. 7 Arizona on Friday in the Pac-12 championship game.

The Wildcats, however, face an uncertain fate.

Should it beat Oregon, Arizona (10-2) would likely be the only two-loss team considered for one of the four spots and would need to jump two teams in a group that figures to consist of No. 6 Baylor, No. 5 Ohio State, No. 4 Florida State and No. 3 TCU to remain in national-title contention. A hiccup from one or more is what the Wildcats will be cheering for, but if that doesn't happen it's still possible for them to earn a berth.

For argument's sake, let's say in addition to Arizona, everyone in contention wins this weekend: Baylor over No. 9 Kansas State, Ohio State over No. 15 Wisconsin, Florida State over No. 11 Georgia Tech, TCU over Iowa State and No. 1 Alabama over No. 16 Missouri.

Alabama and Florida State are both in, no questions asked. There's no way to justify an alternative, which leaves two spots for Arizona, Baylor, Ohio State and TCU. Based on the Horned Frogs' No. 3 ranking this week, it's hard to see them falling out of favor (and the top four) with a win, but in Year 1 of the playoff era there's no precedent to develop firm expectations.

Selection committee chairman Jeff Long has said all along that they start from scratch each week and a final look at TCU's regular-season schedule would show just two wins against ranked teams -- Oklahoma and Kansas State. With a win in the Pac-12 title game, Arizona would finish with four wins against ranked teams, including to two against an Oregon team that likely wouldn't fall past No. 7.

While Arizona's two losses will be a valid point of contention for those arguing in favor of Ohio State, Baylor and TCU, it should be noted both losses were competitive games against ranked teams and one (USC) came without 1,200-yard rusher Nick Wilson. There will always be the "a loss is a loss" crowd, which is fine, but the committee has already shown it doesn't necessarily think like that with undefeated Florida State behind one-loss Alabama, Oregon and TCU.

If TCU can be ranked ahead of Florida State with only two wins against ranked teams, it's certainly within reason for Arizona to wind up ahead of Ohio State (two ranked wins and an unranked loss), which is without quarterback J.T. Barrett, and Baylor (three ranked wins and an unranked loss) despite having one more loss. Especially considering the Wildcats will have played the more difficult overall schedule and don't own a loss as bad as Ohio State's to Virginia Tech or Baylor's to West Virginia.

I haven't seen Ohio State, Baylor or TCU enough to forecast with much accuracy how any of them would fare against Arizona, so I won't pretend. The takeaway here is that Arizona shouldn't be written off because of its record. The Wildcats' body of work measures up well and if they pull off another Oregon upset, it would be interesting to see how things shake out.

With all that said, Oregon by a touchdown.

Pac-12 playoff tracker: Dec. 3

December, 3, 2014
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Friday's Pac-12 championship game between No. 2 Oregon and No. 7 Arizona won't necessarily serve as a play-in for the College Football Playoff, but it might.

Oregon
Record: 11-1 (8-1)
Rank: 2
Next big obstacle: Friday vs. Arizona at Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, California.

Reason for optimism: Nothing has changed for the Ducks over the past several weeks. They appear to be playing their best football of the season headed into Friday’s rematch with Arizona and are assured a spot in the playoff should they win. Quarterback Marcus Mariota has one last chance to make his case for the Heisman Trophy, but that appears to be sealed up regardless of what happens against the Wildcats.

Cause for concern: The Ducks have won 14 of their past 16 games and both losses were to Arizona. Of all the teams that could have come out of the South Division, Arizona was probably the one the Ducks wanted to see the least. Arizona controlled both its recent wins against Oregon, too.

Who they’ll be rooting for this week: No important rooting interests

Arizona
Record:
10-2 (7-2)
Rank: 7
Next big obstacle: Oregon

Reason for optimism: For weeks we’ve said it would be a longshot for Arizona to remain in contention, but all the necessary dominoes have fallen along the way. A win against Oregon -- which it beat on the road already this year -- would make the Wildcats an intriguing team for the playoff regardless of what happens around the country. They’d own four wins against teams that are currently ranked and both losses were competitive games against teams that are also ranked.

Cause for concern: Even if Arizona beats Oregon, it would have two losses and likely need to jump teams with only one loss to make the four-team field. That’s clearly not an ideal spot. There is some precedent with the committee ranking one-loss Alabama, Oregon and TCU ahead of undefeated Florida State, but it’s hard to gauge how they’d view Arizona. Arizona’s soft nonconference schedule -- UNLV, UTSA and Nevada -- doesn’t do it any favors either.

Who they’ll be rooting for this week: No. 9 Kansas State over No. 6 Baylor; No. 13 Wisconsin over No. 5 Ohio State; Iowa State over No. 3 TCU; No. 11 Georgia Tech over No. 4 Florida State; No. 16 Missouri over No. 1 Alabama

Pac-12 bowl projections: Week 14

December, 2, 2014
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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

Plenty of grumpy teams in Pac-12

December, 1, 2014
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It's been another banner year for the Pac-12, one that might even get better if the conference wins its first national title since 2004. Five teams are ranked, eight are bowl-eligible and seven won eight or more regular-season games.

Yet there's a lot of grumpiness out there. As in: The only two fan bases that seem completely satisfied with their seasons belong to the South and North division champions, and Oregon's satisfaction is entirely contingent on getting revenge against Arizona on Friday in Levi's Stadium.

The Ducks were the overwhelming preseason pick to win the North, as they received 37 of 39 votes in the preseason media poll. Oregon also was the decisive favorite to win the conference title, earning 24 of 39 votes. So it's no surprise that the Ducks, led by bell-to-bell Heisman Trophy favorite Marcus Mariota, are eyeballing a spot in the College Football Playoff, the program's first national title twinkling on the horizon.

[+] EnlargeRich Rodriguez
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesRich Rodriguez's Arizona Wildcats weren't expected to be a Pac-12 contender, but are playing for the championship on Friday.
Meeting high expectations is rarely easy, and second-year coach Mark Helfrich is on the cusp of doing so. Those who questioned whether Helfrich was up to replacing that Magical Football Coaching Leprechaun Chip Kelly have quieted down a bit, though Helfrich's true measure might best come post-Mariota.

As for Arizona, the team that will square off with the Ducks for the Pac-12 title, nobody picked the Wildcats to win the South Division, much less the entire conference. The Wildcats were relegated to fourth in the South in the preseason poll, closer to fifth-place Utah than third-place Arizona State.

Dramatically exceeding expectations is rarely easy, and third-year coach Rich Rodriguez already has done so. When he wins Pac-12 Coach of the Year, as he most certainly should, it will be a gleaming vindication for him after his unfortunate tenure at Michigan. The man -- and his A-list staff -- can flat-out coach, and that's why Wildcats fans might want to reposition border patrols to the east in order to prevent suitors from invading Tucson, most notably Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley.

After those two teams, however, everyone else seems to have at least a harrumph or two, though odds are good this will be a rare season without a firing.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham started the season on some hot seat lists, but the Utes' 8-4 mark, which includes their first winning record in Pac-12 play, has reignited optimism in Salt Lake City and hushed Whittingham's critics. The season was far from perfect or devoid of "what-ifs?" But there's no question it was successful after consecutive losing campaigns, particularly if the Utes cap it with a bowl victory.

Arizona State, which flashed playoff potential during a five-game winning streak, didn't finish strong. It was upset at Oregon State, and Sun Devils fans have a hard time being happy about any season that includes a loss to That Team From Down South. Still, the Sun Devils entered 2014 with plenty of questions and were burdened with youth and injuries but still finished 9-3. Hard to believe too many clear-thinking folks are truly disappointed with the direction of the program under Todd Graham.

You can pretty much draw a line there between the satisfied and aggrieved, though there's a wide range between disgruntled and DISGRUNTLED.

California and UCLA are interesting cases for different reasons. Cal went 1-11 last year and was pretty much the worst Power 5 conference team. So you'd think a 5-7 finish with four losses by eight or fewer points would rate as significant improvement. UCLA went 9-3 and beat USC, which would qualify as a huge success most years in Westwood.

Yet Cal started 4-1, and Bears fans clearly envisioned bowl eligibility ahead. Also, with Stanford apparently swooning, they anticipated retaking the axe in the Big Game. But after being blown out by the Cardinal, getting clipped at home by BYU to conclude the season and suffering through atrocious defense only a little better than last season, there was hardly a warm glow coming from Bears fans Saturday about progress under Sonny Dykes.

Jim Mora's rebuilding job at UCLA has been justifiably celebrated, but the Bruins began the season as Pac-12 co-favorites and were widely viewed as the conference's second-most-likely team to make the playoff behind the Ducks. In the Pac-12 media poll, they received 37 of 39 votes to win the South and 13 votes to win the conference.

While the season had ups and downs, the Bruins nonetheless were still in position to meet preseason expectations until they went belly-up Saturday against Stanford. The reaction among Bruins fans afterward was a combination of deflation and aggravation, which might actually be better than previous seasons of resignation. But it also shows you how fine the line between success and seeming failure is in the college football paradigm, particularly for teams with championship hopes.

[+] EnlargeMike Riley
AP Photo/Troy WayrynenMike Riley and Oregon State lost to Oregon for the seventh consecutive season.
Many Oregon State fans have risen up against coach Mike Riley after a seventh consecutive loss to Oregon, which ensured a third losing season in five years. His once-secure status is now precarious. While Colorado under second-year coach Mike McIntyre was vastly more competitive this year than the previous two, the Buffaloes actually regressed in terms of overall record, going 0-9 and 2-10 compared to 1-8 and 4-8 a year ago.

Speaking of zigzagging rebuilding projects, Mike Leach was once viewed as Washington State's savior. Now, after a 3-9 finish in Year 3, it's fair to ask if he'll be on the hot seat in 2015. It took just one year for some USC fans to put Steve Sarkisian on the hot seat, and Chris Petersen's 8-5 finish in his first season at Washington rates as a disappointment to most Huskies fans.

How quickly can things turn negative? Just a year ago, at the end of the 2013 regular season, Stanford's David Shaw was the hottest Pac-12 coach and generally rated among the nation's best. He was widely viewed as coveted by the NFL. Now, after a 7-5 finish, more than a few fans -- and pundits -- are wondering whether Stanford's run among the nation's elite is over.

While it's easy to counsel against overreaction one way or the other or to recommend patience, soothing, measured words don't seem to stick the way they used to. Coaching has always been about "What have you done for me lately?" only now that's practically become a week-to-week judgment. The old five-year plan for recruiting and development and scheme adoption is pretty much gone.

The Pac-12 has surged in terms of revenue and national significance since expansion. But despite that -- perhaps because of it -- these are days of angst. Coaches often talk about learning to be comfortable being uncomfortable, and that's becoming relevant advice for most conference fan bases.

What we learned in the Pac-12: Week 14

November, 30, 2014
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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.
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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."

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