Pac-12: Bret Bielema

Mailbag: Awaiting Bielema apology

February, 21, 2014
Feb 21
5:30
PM ET
Welcome to the mailbag.

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To the notes!

[+] EnlargeBret Bielema
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsBret Bielema should focus on coaching instead of trying to push rules that suit his style.
Mike from Portland writes: Brett Bielema. Horrible human being without shame? Or unscrupulous opportunist who has the hubris to bend the rules of the game to fit his coaching style?

Ted Miller: "Horrible human being" is way too strong, but Bielema should be ashamed of himself, even after he tried -- and failed -- to explain himself more fully here.

First off, his "Death certificates" answer was simultaneously crass and groundless, a terrible combination. If you are going to offend people, you sure as heck should be tethered to some defensible reality.

That Bielema seemingly connected the tragic death of California's Ted Agu during a team workout with the need to slow down up-tempo offenses during games is nonsensical. And ugly.

Considering not a single defensive player -- I can't even believe I'm typing this -- has died of exhaustion due to playing against an up-tempo offense, we can only assume Bielema was making an illogical connection to Agu just for shock affect. It's mind-blowing.

Bielema should apologize, no question. Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long also should yank Bielema into his office and tell him, "Bret, you went 3-9 last year and were winless in SEC play. This program hasn't been winless in conference play since 1942. Stop talking and start coaching."

There is exactly zero concern for player health among the coaches who want to slow down up-tempo offenses. Zero. It's 100 percent a con game designed to thwart a style of play that is giving these coaches trouble.

Consider this quote from Bielema:
"If one of those players is on the field for me, and I have no timeouts, I have no way to stop the game," Bielema said. "And he raises his hand to stop the game, and I can't do it. What am I supposed to do?

"What are we supposed to do when we have a player who tells us he's injured?"

Well, if a player is injured, he's injured. The game stops. Always has, always will. So that is not an issue.

In fact, fake injuries are the actual issue, when defenders play-act an injury in order to stop the game and then are required to sit out only one play before returning. That's the rule that should be changed. For the sake of player safety, a player who falls to the ground injured should have to sit out the rest of the series. You know: To make sure he's safe.

What Bielema is actually talking about is what if his 320-pound defensive tackle who typically dominates is a little winded and is no longer effective? He wants us to feel sorry for his exhausted, pork-and-potato-stuffed player.

Well, coach, get your fat guys in shape or make other schematic adjustments. Hey, how about forcing a three-and-out? That would help, wouldn't it? Your players won't get tired if they make third-down stops. Ask Stanford. The Cardinal defenders looked fresh, happy and healthy after they dismantled Oregon's up-tempo offense for a second consecutive season in November.

You know: Coach.

Rather, apologize, hush and then coach.

 




Jake from North Salt Lake City writes: What's the outside perception of Utah? Because right now it's terribly negative around here about the future. People are assuming this is [Kyle Whittingham’s] last year and there's not a lot of momentum. Pretty gloomy around here. I personally feel we are closer than it feels and have just had some bad luck. When you lack quality depth injuries are magnified. So are we closer than it feels or are we doomed?

Ted Miller: You're doomed. All is lost. Go read some Sylvia Plath or Samuel Beckett. Or go listen to some Radiohead.

Wait. You, Jake, do retain some optimism. Good.

My first thought is, as I've written before, Utah fans might want to slow down on pushing Kyle Whittingham out the door. He's a good coach with a proven track record. Many Utah fans probably had an overly optimistic expectations for the ease of transition to Pac-12 play.

For comparison's sake, consider the travails of TCU, another former Mountain West power that moved up to an AQ conference. Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson was once viewed as a super-elite coach, but his team went 2-7 in the Big 12 last year, a down one for the conference.

What we're learning is Utah and TCU as MWC powers were able to beat quality AQ teams on any given day -- even in BCS bowl games (TCU over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, Utah over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl) -- but it's not so easy to play, say, Stanford, Arizona, USC, Arizona State and Oregon over a stretch of six weeks.

Has Whittingham been flawless? No. His revolving door at offensive coordinator hasn't been a good thing, and the Utes lack of depth at quarterback has bitten them in the rear the past three seasons.

I don't really think you can get a good measure of Utah in the Pac-12 until it's gone through a full recruiting cycle in the conference -- four or five years of telling recruits they will be playing in the Pac-12.

As for next year, the Utes have a lot of questions, starting with the long-term health of QB Travis Wilson. It won't be easy to gain ground in an improved and deep South Division. It seems reasonable to hope for bowl eligibility, but it's also difficult to imagine a roof any higher than seven or eight wins.

While that might feel like doom and gloom to Utes fans right now, to me, it's more a matter of measured, realistic patience.

 




Pac-12 Fan from Reno, Nev., writes: You and Kevin keep fawning all over Arizona's "most improved defense," but apparently refuse to acknowledge that the "astounding" improvement was courtesy of one of the weakest non-conference schedules in college football. Of course they improved, their best non-conference opponent was ... UNLV? I think it is far more telling to look at how the defense performed against WSU (at home), UCLA (at home) and the beatdown administered by a mediocre ASU. Stinky. C'mon Ted, keep it real dude.

Ted Miller: Dude! I will keep it real for you.

Let's kick nonconference games to the curb.

In 2012 Pac-12 games, Arizona yielded 520 yards per game, which ranked last in the conference. In 2013 Pac-12 games, Arizona gave up 439.9 yards per game, which ranked eighth.

In 2012 Pac-12 games, Arizona yielded 6.32 yards per play, which ranked 11th in the conference. In 2013 Pac-12 games, Arizona gave up 5.59 yards per play, which ranked seventh in the conference.

In 2012 Pac-12 games, Arizona yielded 39.6 points per game, which ranked 11th in the conference. In 2013 Pac-12 games, Arizona gave up 30.0 points per game, which ranked seventh in the conference.

Dude!

 




Haggmeez from Cincinnati writes: I've been seeing a really interesting mixture of predictions for Oregon in 2014. Vegas seems to think Oregon has a 7 to 1 chance to play for a title, while ESPN's Will Harris seems to think that Oregon's ship has sailed and will finish the season unranked. What is your prediction for Oregon's 2014 and why?

Ted Miller: Here's Harris' take on Oregon:
Oregon still has supporters at the betting window, but the Ducks are no longer a contender. This coaching staff is unlikely ever to win even a division crown, and our bet is that this team ends the season unranked. The Pac-12 North is still the stronger division, but Stanford and Washington will be the league's top powers for the next few years and the biggest challenge from the Pac-12 South may eventually come from Arizona. The whole league is improving rapidly, and Oregon won't be regaining its dominant status any time soon.

Harris also thinks the Big Ten is the No. 2 conference behind the SEC.

[Inserts pause into mailbag answer for readers to recover their poise].

Everybody has opinions. That I think Harris' is, well, a little quirky here doesn't in any way suggest he doesn't have a right to it.

As for me, Oregon is a decided favorite in the North Division, in large part because of the return of QB Marcus Mariota. Stanford, the two-time defending North champion, takes significant hits on both sides of the ball. There's no way you can count the Cardinal out, but the Ducks will be the consensus pick in the North by writers who cover the Pac-12.

Washington has uncertainty at QB and a new coach. I expect there to be a bit of an adjustment period. And both Stanford and Washington visit Autzen Stadium in 2014.

Oregon ends the season unranked? I doubt that's Harris' real "bet." That feels like he wants some attention from Oregon fans.

Oregon will end the 2014 season ranked. That's a 94.9 percent lock. Cut it out. Hang it on your wall. It's more likely to snow here in Scottsdale this month than for the Ducks to finish the 2014 season unranked.

If anyone would like to "bet" me that -- for entertainment purposes only, of course -- I'd be glad to.

The Big Ten? Really?

 




Rob from Seattle writes: I recall you have a particular affinity for NoLa cuisine but a Google search does not turn up any recommendations of yours. I am going for a wedding in April and the wife and I are budgeting for one irresponsibly great meal. If price is no object, where would you eat in New Orleans? Appreciations in advance and enjoy the Chris Petersen era!

Ted Miller: My wife and I got married in New Orleans and we spent a lot of time there while we were dating, but I've only been back there a handful times since I moved to the West Coast in 1999, and just once since Katrina.

Typing that just made me depressed. Sigh.

The great thing about New Orleans food is the quality of old and new, high and low. You will get nearly as much pleasure out of breakfast near the quarter and a Po-boy on Bourbon street as a highfaluting dinner at one of the highly rated restaurants.

When my wife and I were dating, we ate at Palace Cafe on Canal -- brunch, lunch and dinner -- typically at least once during our visits. It just always felt very New Orleans-y. It's a Brennan's restaurant, the grand old family of New Orleans.

There are a lot of new-school, post-Katrina restaurants that have received national acclaim. You can find those after spending some time on Google. Also, you might want to check out Bravo's Top Chef's most recent season. It was set in New Orleans, and featured plenty of local color.

I always tell people you have to eat at Commander's Palace at least once. It's a special place. And where Emeril Lagasse became Emeril Lagasse.

Also strong entries for the old school list: Antoine's, Galatoires and Arnaud's.

You will not starve. Or lose weight.

 




Tanner from Gilbert, Ariz., writes: One of the bright spots in my day today was seeing a link on Twitter to an article written by ESPN's Pac-12 blog about the "Top five Pac-12 student sections." I didn't even necessarily want to read the article, I just knew I had send a message of congratulations. Just bravo. Just yes. Oh, and of course I ended up reading the article. ASU should be number 1 for all these excellent reasons: heck who cares. Over 1,000 Facebook shares in several hours (more than previous "15 articles combined) was all I needed. I love it. You guys always produce great work, and I NEED the occasional silly article like this (from excellent writers who have never sat in any of the referenced student sections) to make me smile. Thanks again for the great work. I can't stop typing because I can't stop smiling. But really, Arizona State should be No. 1. Just trust me.

Ted Miller: The very idea that we would do a post just to stir things up! Tanner, I'm hurt.

As for the ASU fan section: You might be right. There's always next year, right?

(It's always fun to get notes from fans who seem to "get" the Pac-12 blog and its humble raison d'etre).

Pac-12 lunch links

February, 21, 2014
Feb 21
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Happy Friday!

Mailbag: Saban's evil plot

February, 14, 2014
Feb 14
5:30
PM ET
Greetings. Welcome to the mailbag.

Follow the Pac-12 blog on Twitter.

To the notes!

Haggmeez from Cincinnati writes: What are your thoughts on the proposed new 10-second defensive substitution window rules, or what I'm calling "The Oregon Rule." Please explain to me how teams with smaller, faster players can ever expect to beat teams with bigger, stronger players if speed is not a viable weapon. I feel like I'm watching Nick Saban tell Chip Kelly to get off of his lawn in slow motion. Please make it stop. Football needs FEWER esoteric rules instead of more.

[+] EnlargeSaban
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsNick Saban would not win any popularity contests on the West Coast.
0006shy from Los Angeles writes: I just saw the proposed rule change to punish hurry-up offenses. What a joke! What an absolute joke! If the NCAA truly cares about player safety then they should ban games against FCS teams (USC, UCLA and Notre Dame have NEVER played an FCS team.) Nick Saban's five-star athletes pounding Chattanooga players for 60 minutes creates far more serious injuries than a no-huddle offense ever will.

John from Eugene, Ore., writes: Please, reassure us Pac-12 fans that this ridiculous rule change intended to slow down uptempo offenses is not going to pass. Please tell me that just because the rest of the football world seems to worship the ground Nick Saban walks on, that doesn't mean that the NCAA will pass rules that give him exactly what he's whining for? I can't imagine I'm the only person writing in on this. There's no way this proposed change is actually made, is there?

Ted Miller: Don't forget Arkansas coach Bret Bielema. He's as much behind this as Saban.

Further, yes, it is notable that the sudden concern for player safety comes from coaches who don't run uptempo attacks and have been gashed by them over the past few seasons. Hmm.

And, yes, their motives are, at best, 97.6 percent disingenuous. Bielema and Saban, a fantastic football coach who reportedly once ignored and stepped over a convulsing player, and others who support this proposed rule change, are doing so to gain a strategic advantage. Pure and simple.

The diversity of schemes in college football is one of the biggest reasons the sport is so popular. I can tell you without any doubt whatsoever that the sport would not be as popular -- probably not nearly so -- if everyone ran Alabama's or, yes, Stanford's offense.

A fast-paced game not only is fan-friendly, it -- as Haggmeez notes -- gives teams that rely on smaller, faster players a better chance to compete with teams with a gaggle of five-star recruits with NFL measurables.

As uptempo coaches such as Arizona's Rich Rodriguez have noted, if you really are concerned about player safety, make blitzing illegal. That would reduce the number of blow-up shots during game by 30 percent, a number that was arrived at with just as much science as went into this effort to thwart uptempo offenses.

Do I think it will pass? No.

But the NCAA is involved. It's presence tends to inspire stupid and/or disingenuous things to happen.


Andrew from Agoura Hills, Calif., writes: Very happy to see that my top 25 list ran this past week (for the second year in a row, might I add). Obviously, since I kept all the same players on my list as the official Pac-12 Top 25, I didn't have any major problems with it. My question is in regard to the logic behind the order of some of the choices. In your response to my list, you mentioned that most people would probably pick Marcus Mariota first if holding a conference draft, and I tend to agree with that. But in that same scenario, someone like Marqise Lee would certainly be among the top 10 picks too, and I don't think he belongs in the top 25 for this past season. Later, you continue to assert that Will Sutton belongs ahead of Leonard Williams, even though (I assume) you and Kevin were responsible for Williams being named an ESPN first-team All-American. I guess my question is, when does production/accolades overshadow potential/other intangibles (like positional value), and when is it the other way around?

Ted Miller: Don't expect perfect logic. There are a variety of considerations -- many subjective -- that go into our weekly power rankings of teams, as well as our top-25 ranking of players.

It's a blend of factors such as postseason accolades, statistics, NFL prospects, positional value and a player's pure value to his team. Kevin doesn't consider NFL prospects as much as I do, though I think of that consideration as more of my mental draft picking -- as in, who would I pick first? -- when making a tough distinction.

That was my thinking for Mariota over Arizona RB Ka'Deem Carey. You could argue that Carey was more accomplished in 2013, but I'd still say that Mariota's numbers plus his overall value, which is augmented by his playing the most important position, give him the edge.

You noted Marqise Lee. Good question. Lee, in terms of talent and potential, certainly is among the top 25 players in the Pac-12. Probably top 10. But you have to take into account what he actually did this season. His numbers, in large part due to poor QB play and injuries, were not very good. So his down numbers get prioritized over his talent, knocking him off this list.

In some ways, my "draft" idea also overlaps with production -- what a guy actually did that past season. And poor production mutes pure talent factors. See also, Thomas, De'Anthony.

Similar reasoning, by the way, also cost Stanford DE Ben Gardner. The coaches still gave him a first-team All-Pac-12 nod, despite his missing the season's final six games because of injury, but we pretty much ruled him out because of that. Not his fault, but that still seems reasonable to me.

As for Sutton and Williams, most would project Williams having a higher NFL upside. He also had slightly better numbers than Sutton this year, though Williams was a defensive end and Sutton a tackle. Yet what kicked Sutton up a notch was the simple fact he -- again -- was named the Pac-12's Defensive Player of the Year by the coaches. That was slightly surprising, but it also was something that validated the idea that Sutton's numbers were down from 2012 because of blocking schemes that were obsessed with him, an invaluable benefit for a defense.

Are we always 100 percent consistent? No. But we do try.


Jonathan from New York writes: With respect to your concerns about Stanford being able to replace Tyler Gaffney's productivity at the running back position, I wonder if you had any insight into whether Barry Sanders has the potential to have a 1,500-yard season. It's true that Coach Shaw didn't give him enough carries this year to come to any conclusions, and even on the punt return unit he mostly had fair catches. But I don't know whether Sanders had such little playing time because Gaffney was just so dependable and successful, or whether it was because Sanders was not showing much potential in practice. Perhaps you don't know any more than I do, but I'd be curious for your take if you have any thoughts.

Ted Miller: My guess is Stanford won't have a back gain 1,500 yards next year. My guess is it will be more of a committee effort. I also think the Cardinal still will run the ball well, just not in the Toby Gerhart, Stepfan Taylor, Tyler Gaffney one-workhorse way.

Of course, in advance of the 2014 season, I expected it to be 60-40 between Gaffney and backup Anthony Wilkerson. Gaffney just played too well to take him out.

As for Sanders, I really have no feeling for how things will play out for him next fall. While it's fun to imagine him being a clone of his father, perhaps the most thrilling ball-carrier in NFL history, it's probably unfair to expect him also to have once-in-a-generation talent.

Sanders will be competing with Remound Wright and Ricky Seale for carries, and I've heard little that suggests one is leaps and bounds superior to the other. They seem to have complementary skill sets, so that suggests they each get touches. As the season progresses, one would expect a more clear pecking order to develop.

This, by the way, is a good review of where the Cardinal stands at running back heading into spring practices.


Mitty from Saint Joe, Calif., writes: Which Pac-12 fan base do you most like to target with passive-aggressive shots? I've only noticed one. Kevin will get the same question because he targets the same fan base.

Ted Miller: Passive-aggressive? Moi?

I've always thought of myself as aggressive-aggressive, though my fuse, thankfully, has grown longer in my fourth decade.

Kevin and I, on occasion, discuss tweaks, insults and rants directed at us in the comment sections or elsewhere, but it takes up less of our time than you might think. We don't hold grudges. We really do try our best to remain as objective and fair as possible with all 12 teams. I've never heard anything from an official representative of a school -- coach, AD, sports information director, etc. -- suggesting we were being unfair or favoring or disfavoring a program. That's a fact we take a lot of pride in.

What I have noticed is that fans of teams that aren't doing well tend to think we are unfair to their team, whether that's about win-loss record or recruiting. The inescapable fact is teams that are winning get more coverage, just as teams that sign highly ranked recruits get more attention on national signing day.

Of course, more coverage for a team probably means more of their fans are showing up on the blog, and fans come in all forms. There clearly has been an "Oregon Effect" since the blog started in 2008. Ducks fans, by my unscientific estimates, seem to be the most active here, expressing both love and hate for your gentle bloggers.

But mostly love. Because it's impossible not to, in the end, love the Pac-12 blog.


GoCougs from Chandler, Ariz., writes: Kevin forgot about one Pac-12 alum's participation in the Super Bowl. Please pass on the love for Steve Gleason.

Ted Miller: Great stuff.

Gleason is an inspiration. An all-time great.

If the NCAA Football Rules Committee gets its way, college football teams no longer will be penalized 15 yards if one of its players really didn’t target an opposing player.

But teams could actually be penalized for delay of game for – get this – playing too fast.

A few coaches of teams that utilize no-huddle, hurry-up offenses – which are becoming more and more common at the FBS level – immediately blasted the proposed substitution rules change, saying its only intention is to slow them down.

“It’s a joke. It’s ridiculous,” said Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez. “And what’s most ridiculous is did you see what the penalty is going to be called? Delay of game! How is that a delay of game? That’s the ultimate rules committee decision. Make the game slower and call it delay of game.”

[+] EnlargeRich Rodriguez
AP Photo/John MillerArizona coach Rich Rodriguez calls a proposal to penalize quick snaps with a delay-of-game penalty "ridiculous."
The NCAA committee recommended a rules change that will allow defensive units to substitute within the first 10 seconds of the 40-second play clock, excluding the final two minutes of each half. So in effect, offenses won’t be allowed to snap the ball until the play clock reaches 29 seconds or less. If the offense snaps the ball before then, it would be penalized five yards for delay of game. Under current rules, defenses aren’t guaranteed an opportunity to substitute unless the offense subs first.

“First off, [I] doubt it will pass,” Washington State coach Mike Leach said. “Second, it’s ridiculous. All this tinkering is ridiculous. I think it deteriorates the game. It’s always been a game of creativity and strategy. So anytime someone doesn’t want to go back to the drawing board or re-work their solutions to problems, then what they do is to beg for a rule. I think it’s disgusting.”

The rules changes proposed by the NCAA Football Rules Committee will be submitted to the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel for discussion on March 6.

In an NCAA statement, the NCAA Football Rules Committee said “research indicated that teams with fast-paced, no-huddle offenses rarely snap the ball with 30 seconds or more on the play clock.” The NCAA statement also said the proposed rules change also “aligns with a request from the Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports that sport rules committees review substitution rules in regards to player safety.” In the NCAA’s non-rules change years, proposals can only be made for safety reasons or for modifications that enhance the intent of a previous rule change, according to the NCAA statement.

Leach and Rodriguez aren’t buying that slowing down hurry-up offenses would make players safer.

“Where’s all the data that proves this is a player safety issue? I don’t buy it,” Rodriguez said. “What about making it so you can’t blitz seven guys? That’s a dangerous thing for a quarterback.”

Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, whose team also runs an uptempo offense, wants to know if there is actual proof that uptempo offenses cause more injuries to players.

"Is there documented medical evidence that supports this rule change that tempo offenses are putting players at a higher degree of risk than others? If there is then show it to us," Freeze told ESPN.com Wednesday night. "Where is it? They're going to have to show us some evidence. If there's not any evidence, then they should table it.

"You can do it the last two minutes of the game. Isn't that when you should be most fatigued?"

Added Leach: “That’s really insulting that they are hiding behind player safety just because somebody wants an advantage. That’s crazy.”

This past season, fast-paced, no-huddle offenses continued to operate faster and faster in college football. Baylor, which led FBS teams in scoring (52.4 points) and total offense (618.8 yards), averaged 82.6 offensive plays in 13 games. Texas Tech averaged a whopping 87.3 offensive plays under first-year coach Kliff Kingsbury, and Fresno State averaged 83.6 offensive plays.

But some coaches, including Alabama’s Nick Saban and Arkansas’ Bret Bielema, have criticized hurry-up offenses, arguing that they give offenses an unfair advantage and don’t allow them to adequately substitute defensive players.

It's always been a game of creativity and strategy. So anytime someone doesn't want to go back to the drawing board or re-work their solutions to problems, then what they do is to beg for a rule. I think it's disgusting.

-- Washington State coach Mike Leach
“All you’re trying to do is get lined up [on defense],” Saban told ESPN.com in September. “You can’t play specialty third-down stuff. You can’t hardly scheme anything. The most important thing is to get the call so the guys can get lined up, and it’s got to be a simple call. The offense kind of knows what you’re doing."

But Leach contends it’s unfair to handcuff offenses because defenses can’t keep up with the pace.

“My suggestion is rather than spending a bunch of time coming up with a bunch of really stupid rules, spend that time coaching harder,” Leach said. “Worry about your own team and try to make your product better rather than trying to change the game so you don’t have to do anything.”

Freeze also believes that allowing defenses to rotate players in and out more frequently under this rule will put offensive linemen who are a part of uptempo offenses at more risk for injury because they will potentially face fresher defensive linemen every few snaps.

"If anything, you may be making it more dangerous for the offensive line because they're going to face 12 five-star defensive linemen from Alabama rotating every three plays," he said.

To Freeze, taking away the opportunity to snap the ball as fast as possible is taking away a major fundamental advantage that any offense can use against opposing defenses, which are allowed as much movement as possible before a play is even run.

"Since the start of football, defenses can line up wherever they want to," Freeze said. "They can move around as much as they want to before the snap. … They can do whatever they want to do, that's fine. I coach defense, too, that's great. The one thing that has always been offenses' deal is snapping the ball. That's the only thing we have."

The proposed change to the sport’s new targeting rules seems like a no-brainer after a slew of controversial decisions during the 2013 season. Under current NCAA rules, which went into effect this past season, players penalized for targeting opposing players were ejected from the contest and their teams were penalized 15 yards. But officials were allowed to review the play and determine whether a targeting foul actually occurred. If officials determined the play wasn’t targeting, the player’s ejection was overturned but the 15-yard penalty was still enforced.

If the proposed rule change is approved, the ejection and the penalty won’t be enforced. However, if a defender is penalized for a personal foul in conjunction with the overturned targeting foul, such as roughing the passer, a 15-yard penalty will still be enforced.

In games in which instant replay is not in use, the committee recommended an option to permit on-field officials to review targeting calls during halftime that were made during the first half. Officials then could reverse the targeting call and allow the player to compete in the second half.

ESPN.com’s Ted Miller and Edward Aschoff contributed to this report.

Pac-12, nation now fret Haden's next hire

September, 30, 2013
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There is something undeniably reprehensible about dancing on the grave of a fallen coach. The celebration of a person's perceived failure at his life's work is unseemly. We all know big-time college coaches are big boys who are paid well. We all know that now-terminated USC coach Lane Kiffin brought on much of the ill will he received by how he conducted himself.

Still, the nationwide cackling over Kiffin getting fired in the early morning hours Sunday doesn't represent a high moment in our sports culture.

This grab for measured compassion is made here, however, because of a cold and unfortunate reality that will seem like another potshot at Kiffin. Outside of the Kiffin household, the folks most unhappy about his getting pink-slipped are coaches, administrators and fans of the other 11 Pac-12 teams. And probably some fans of other national powers who have moved on from chortling about Kiffin's fate to asking the most important question.

[+] EnlargeKiffin
Kyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsPac-12 teams knew what they were getting with Lane Kiffin on the USC sideline. Now the sleeping giant has the potential to wake up.
What if USC now hires its Nick Saban? Or, to localize it: Pete Carroll, take two?

Because the right coach at USC competes for national titles on a regular basis. The tradition is there. The facilities, once below standard, are vastly improved. The rich recruiting territory is there. And the ability to ante up big checks for an A-list coach and his staff is there.

Further, the next coach won't be freighted with the ready-made and mostly legitimate excuse Kiffin made when things went wrong on the field: NCAA-mandated scholarship reductions that made the USC roster thinner than those of their opponents. Those end after the 2014 recruiting class and season. The next coach can make the program whole in 2015, his second season.

USC, with 85 scholarships and the right coach, will immediately challenge Oregon and Stanford atop the Pac-12, and Alabama, LSU and Ohio State, etc., for national supremacy.

That's why the other Pac-12 schools are mourning Kiffin's departure. While he was tough to compete with on the recruiting trail -- his clear strength -- other schools were hoping that Kiffin would become the Trojans' "Meander Coach." That's the sort of coach rival teams want to stay atop a college football superpower, such as USC.

A Meander Coach is a coach who does just enough to hang on for several years but falls short of program standards. While not a complete disaster, he allows a program to slip a few notches in the conference and national pecking order. Good examples of this would be Bob Davie at Notre Dame, Ray Goff at Georgia and Earle Bruce at Ohio State.

A Meander 2013 season for USC under Kiffin would have been 9-4 in a 13-game schedule. Kiffin probably would have coached the Trojans in 2014 with that record, particularly if it included a win over Notre Dame or UCLA. But athletic director Pat Haden had seen enough through a 3-2 start, capped by a humiliating 62-41 loss at Arizona State on Saturday, to understand that barely good enough was not even going to happen. So he made his move.

Now the hope around the Pac-12 and the nation is that Haden gets his coaching pick wrong. Haden, a former USC and NFL quarterback and Rhodes scholar, is extremely bright and knowledgeable about football, but the odds are pretty good he will get it wrong. After all, to get from John McKay and John Robinson to Carroll, USC had to go through Ted Tollner, Larry Smith and Paul Hackett. Just as Alabama had to go through Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione and Mike Shula to get to Saban. Notre Dame and Tennessee also can teach lessons about superpowers struggling to find the right guy.

Former AD Mike Garrett's hiring of Carroll? Complete luck. It was a desperation move after Garrett was turned down by Dennis Erickson, Mike Bellotti and Mike Riley. The Carroll hiring also was widely panned when it was announced. He was seen as a slightly goofy chatterbox and washed-out NFL coach. Perceptions changed, but only because the wrong hire turned out to be right.

One benefit Haden has bought himself with a midseason termination is time. While plenty of other teams are going to fire their head coaches, Haden is the first in the ring. While it's certain he already has a short list of favorite candidates that probably is not unlike the lists every publication has written up since Kiffin was fired, he also can sit back a few weeks and get a measure of who's interested. There will be plenty of back-channel feelers from agents of NFL head coaches and assistant coaches as well as college head coaches and assistant coaches.

A successful precedent for Haden to consider is Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne's handling of the transition from Mike Stoops to Rich Rodriguez. Just like Haden, Byrne fired Stoops midseason after an embarrassing loss before a bye week and installed a veteran coach, Tim Kish, as his interim head coach. He then conducted a stealth coaching search over the next six weeks, breaking the news of his hiring of Rodriguez on Twitter.

Byrne gave himself a head start with the hiring process. He got his first choice hired before the season ended and gave his new coach a head start with recruiting. He also accelerated the getting-to-know-you phase compared to all the other teams looking for a new head coach in December. Byrne even received a boost from Kish's version of the Wildcats, who won three of their final six games, including a win over archrival Arizona State.

Other Pac-12 coaches are now fretting the same thing happening with the Trojans: What if USC suddenly starts playing inspired football under interim coach Ed Orgeron? It's entirely possible the Trojans will be a better team going forward, meaning the Sun Devils are grateful Haden didn't take action after the Trojans lost at home to Washington State on Sept. 7.

As for Haden's coaching search, it will be a bit more high-profile than Byrne's. The Trojans are a national team. So in the next few weeks there will be a cacophony of public denials. They will be meaningless. Saban repeatedly said without ambiguity that he wasn't leaving the Miami Dolphins for Alabama. Until he did. And who knew that Bret Bielema was so eager to bolt Wisconsin for Arkansas?

The two biggest problems the USC coaching search encountered after Carroll bolted for the Seattle Seahawks that led to the Kiffin hiring are gone: (1) upcoming NCAA sanctions, and (2) no one wanting to be the guy-after-the-guy.

So know that just about everybody is in play. Until they're not.

The Pac-12 and the college football nation didn't feel too good about Kiffin in 2011, when he led the Trojans to a 10-2 record and won at Oregon and Notre Dame. But in the past 18 games, they embraced his USC tenure. They wanted him inside Heritage Hall as long as possible.

Now there is worrisome uncertainty among 11 other Pac-12 teams, not to mention folks like SEC commissioner Mike Slive and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany. If Haden hires the right guy, the Trojan colossus will dust itself off and rise with a cocky grin. Rose Bowls and national championships will shortly follow.
The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's latest feature, giving you a daily dose of recruiting in the mornings. Today's offerings: Todd Graham has done a good job of expanding Arizona State’s recruiting borders, Bret Bielema has Arkansas rolling in state with 2015 prospects and whether Miami fans should be worried about Brad Kaaya’s appearance at a USC practice.

Pac-12 coaches not among the elite?

April, 10, 2013
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Everybody loves rankings lists, and college football fans -- by necessity -- seem to like lists even more than average folk.

So we have Athlon making another list. First it ranked Pac-12 coaches. Now it ranks all 125 coaches for FBS programs.

Obviously, any ranking like this is highly subjective, as Kevin noted with his notes on the Pac-12 coach rankings.

I really like Athlon's top three. That would be mine. If Chip Kelly were still at Oregon, I'd rank him third, but he is not.

After that? Well, there were some head-scratchers.

LSU's Les Miles way down at No. 24? New Arkansas and former Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema buried at No. 25? Vanderbilt's second-year coach James Franklin way up at 17? Three words: No, No, No.

There is no conceivable way to rank Franklin ahead of Miles, WHO HAS WON A NATIONAL TITLE!, nor is it reasonable to rate Franklin over Stanford's David Shaw, WHO HAS WON A ROSE BOWL, nor Bielema who owns THREE BIG TEN TITLES and won 68 games in seven years at Wisconsin.

Franklin? He's done some nice things at Vandy, making a terrible program respectable, but please identify for me a signature win from 2012? Or 2011. I'll wait here.

Yep. Nada.

Just last season, Shaw, who is No. 1 in the Pac-12 but only 20th in the nation, beat Oregon, which finished ranked No. 2, and WON THE ROSE BOWL. He's a muffed field goal away from winning consecutive BCS bowl games.

Vanderbilt, winners of the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl over the doughty NC State a year after losing to Cincinnati in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, took advantage of a weakened SEC East, and it's notable that the one adventurous nonconference tilt ended up a double-digit loss at Northwestern. You know: The so-called slow Big Ten.

And I think Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is a bit high at No. 12, too.

(Deep breath) OK ... I'm OK.

Anyway: Here's how Athlon ranked the Pac-12 coaches in the nation (national rank).
  1. David Shaw, Stanford (20)
  2. Mike Riley, Oregon State (21)
  3. Rich Rodriguez, Arizona (22)
  4. Todd Graham, Arizona State (29)
  5. Mike Leach, Washington State (31)
  6. Mike MacIntyre, Colorado (44)
  7. Steve Sarkisian, Washington (45)
  8. Jim Mora, UCLA (54)
  9. Kyle Whittingham, Utah (55)
  10. Sonny Dykes, California (56)
  11. Lane Kiffin, USC (57)
  12. Mark Helfrich, Oregon (73)

Cal hires Buh as defensive coordinator

December, 17, 2012
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New California coach Sonny Dykes probably has made life easier for the Bears' chief rival, but he's made a key hire on his staff.

Dykes has tapped Andy Buh as his new defensive coordinator. Buh is not only a former Stanford assistant, he also spent the past season coaching linebackers for Rose Bowl-bound Wisconsin, which is preparing to play Stanford on Jan. 1 while dealing with massive coaching upheaval.

Before arriving at Wisconsin, Buh, 39, spent two seasons as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at Nevada. He was Stanford's linebackers coach in 2007 and co-defensive coordinator in 2008 and 2009, the year before the Cardinal hired Vic Fangio and switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base scheme.

It has been reported that Buh had an offer to join former Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema’s staff at Arkansas but "felt joining Cal and new coach Sonny Dykes was a better fit."

Buh's hiring first appeared on footballscoop.com, which also reported that Randy Stewart was hired away from Eastern Michigan to coach Cal's defensive backs. Stewart, 54, was defensive backs coach and recruiting coordinator at Cal from 1997 through 2001.

It has been reported by multiple sources that Utah State defensive coordinator Dave Aranda was offered the position first but turned it down.

Cal, Colorado coaching updates

December, 5, 2012
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Cincinnati coach Butch Jones remains Colorado's top choice to replace Jon Embree -- he reportedly has a firm offer from the Buffaloes -- but his decision might have been delayed by the surprise opening at Rose Bowl bound Wisconsin.

Jones is a Midwest guy, and the departure of Bret Bielema to Arkansas might intrigue him enough to pass on the Buffs.

What might be the Plan B? From the Boulder Daily Camera:
Sources said they wrote at least one new name down on a dry-erase board. CU officials would be interested in talking with Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter, San Jose State coach [Mike MacIntyre] and at least one other possible candidate whom they only began to consider Tuesday.

CU has either ruled out or been told there is no reciprocal interest from candidates such as Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe, Brigham Young coach Bronco Mendenhall and Utah State coach Gary Andersen.

As for California, the lead name is Louisiana Tech coach Sonny Dykes, the former offensive coordinator at Arizona. There have been reports that he and San Jose State's MacIntyre interviewed with Cal officials over the weekend. The Bears also reportedly talked to Kent State coach Darrell Hazell, but he's been hired by Purdue.

Of course, as Arkansas has taught us, don't be surprised if names that aren't bouncing around in media reporters suddenly appear when the ink dries on new contracts.

 

 

Take 2: Any second-week upsets?

September, 7, 2012
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Are there any upset specials on the menu in Week 2? Your Pac-12 bloggers can think of a couple.

Ted Miller: Wisconsin whipped Oregon State 35-0 last year. No way the Beavers can notch an upset against Wisky, right? A 35-plus point swing? Please.

Believe it. For one, we expect the Beavers to be much better than they were last year. And this Badgers team seems potentially much worse.

[+] EnlargeMike Riley
Steven Bisig/US PresswireOregon State coach Mike Riley welcomes back 17 starters.
Beavers better: QB Sean Mannion is no longer a redshirt freshman snagging a job away from a returning starter who was popular in the locker room.

Wisky worse: New Badgers QB Danny O'Brien, a Maryland transfer, is solid, but he's no Russell Wilson. Wilson made the Badgers last year, giving them a potent, efficient passing attack to complement a physical running game.

Beavers better: While things are chippy in Corvallis after consecutive losing seasons, the Beavers and coach Mike Riley mostly had a newsless offseason, only losing secondary coach Keith Heyward to Washington. They have stability.

Wisky worse: The Badgers have six new coaches, and among their losses was offensive coordinator Paul Chryst.

Beavers better: Oregon State welcomes back 17 starters.

Wisky worse: The Badgers welcome back only 11 starters.

Beavers better: Those seven freshmen or sophomore starters for Oregon State from a year ago will be far more seasoned.

Wisky worse: The Badgers, no matter how they say they won't, will have to difficult time mustering a focused respect for Oregon State, based on how easy things were a year ago.

Beavers better: They are playing at home, not in front of 80,000 hostile fans in Camp Randall Stadium.

Wisky worse: While it's not good that Oregon State's opener against Nicholls State was postponed, the Beavers got to stay home and watch the Badgers struggle in a 26-21 win over Northern Iowa. That game film, which Badgers coach Bret Bielema really, really didn't want Oregon State to see, surely boosted the Beavers confidence.

I think Oregon State is going to be better on both lines of scrimmage. I think Mannion's maturity as a passer will make it easier for the Beavers to establish an adequate running game. And I don't think the Badgers offensive line, replacing three starters, will be as good this fall.

Last year, the Beavers were outrushed 208 yards to 23. I think that number will be far closer this go-around.

Finally, there's this: Nobody on the Wisconsin defense can keep up with receiver Markus Wheaton. We know this because nobody on the Badger defense could keep up with De'Anthony Thomas in the Rose Bowl, and Wheaton is faster than Thomas.

No, this game is not 50-50. Or even 60-40. If the Beavers do win, it will be an upset, and just about everyone will be surprised.

Our point here is merely to prepare you to not be that surprised.

Kevin Gemmell: Wow. That was pretty compelling. Can't refute any of that, only to say that the last product we saw from Oregon State was the last product they had on the field in 2011. And it wasn't great. I too believe Oregon State will be much better this year, but if I were picking an upset in Week 2, I'd go with a team I've already seen in action (a lesson learned from my Washington State debacle last week).

[+] EnlargeJohnathan Franklin
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesUCLA running back Johnathan Franklin ran for 214 yards in the opener against Rice.
Just so we're clear, I'm on record with a prediction that Nebraska beats UCLA. I was asked in my chat on Wednesday to assign a percentage to UCLA's chance of winning. And I went with 49 percent.

Were the Bruins outstanding in Week 1? No. But they won on the road with a rookie quarterback (never easy) and for the most part they were pretty good considering all of the youth they put out there. And that youth was evident, especially in the first half when the defense yielded 24 points and 282 yards.

Ah, but here's a little not-so-secret secret, Jim Mora can coach. Consider the second half -- a couple of tweaks to what Rice was doing on offense and the Bruins surrendered just 76 yards in the final 30 minutes -- only crossing into the UCLA half once. I asked Mora to explain the defensive difference between halves and his answer was satisfactory. UCLA didn't do a lot of full tackling in the fall camp, so they were a little rusty. Makes sense.

UCLA can't win this game on athleticism alone. Because Nebraska can match them speed-for-speed and player-for-player. In fact, when you look at the rosters side-by-side, it's probably a draw in terms of who has the better athletes. So UCLA will have to take advantage of the wealth of coaching knowledge it has on the sidelines and exploit the mismatches it does have.

For example, UCLA's offensive line is young and probably inferior to Nebraska's defensive front. So expect a lot of quick passes from second-time-starter Brett Hundley. No reason to make those guys pass block for three seconds, because they probably won't be able to. Nebraska will pressure Hundley far more than Rice did.

Also, Joseph Fauria is a mismatch for any linebacker or safety in the country. I wouldn't be shocked to see the Bruins ride that guy to the tune of nine or 10 catches. And we'll find out whether Johnathan Franklin is as good as his three-touchdown, 214-yard rushing performance against Rice suggests.

Defensively, they need an answer for Taylor Martinez. I'm not going to pretend to have it. But I will say Datone Jones might finally be maturing into the player we all thought he could be and a little pressure -- especially against a team on the road -- can go a long way.

This is going to be a competitive game, and much like your Oregon State scenario, no one should be shocked if the Bruins walk away from this game 2-0.
Almost exactly year ago, Oregon State was suffering total program misery.

First, it opened with a home loss to FCS foe Sacramento State. Then, it got drubbed 35-zip at Wisconsin.

[+] EnlargeMike Riley
Steven Bisig/US PresswireIs Oregon State coach Mike Riley on the hot seat?
Amid those two dispiriting defeats -- the Beavers would start a shocking 0-4 -- Oregon State made a surprising change at quarterback, benching returning starter Ryan Katz in favor of redshirt freshman Sean Mannion.

Sure, Katz had gone 5-7 as first-year starter, but he'd flashed a huge arm and plenty of promise. Yet a leak that started dripping while an injured Katz sat out 2011 spring practices became a torrent by the end of fall camp. Katz couldn't afford a slow start, and that's what he had. And he lost his job. From the outside, it seemed to happen very quickly, and it surprised even the writers who covered the team every day.

The end result was locker room upheaval, an embarrassing 3-9 finish and Katz transferring to San Diego State, where he is now the starter. Oh, and there are now grumbles that coach Mike Riley, two years ago probably the most secure coach in the conference, is now on the hot seat.

Hot seat talk or not, things feel far more stable now.

"Those are difficult times," Riley recalled this week. "With the young men here, that's not easy. We've managed to avoid those kinds of issues right now."
What's the same compared to last year is a Week 2 game with No. 13 Wisconsin on Saturday. What's different is this year's FCS opener, Nicholls State, cancelled its visit last weekend due to hurricane concerns in the Gulf Coast. There's no QB controversy for the Beavers, as this is solidly Mannion's offense. And the Badgers are making the long trip to Corvallis.



"It's as big a nonconference game as Oregon State has ever hosted," Riley said.

There are two ways to look at last year's game: 1. The Beavers got whipped, as they were outgained 397 yards to 284 and outrushed 208 yards to 23; 2. The Beavers shot themselves in the foot with stupid penalties and special teams mistakes.

Of course, it was a combination. But Oregon State held up physically better than the final tally suggests. Some might recall that Wisconsin's first touchdown came after Johnny Hekker produced the only backwards punt most football fans have ever seen. Or will ever see.


Said Riley at the time, "Just bad football."

This matchup seems far more manageable for the Beavers. While the Badgers have imported another ACC QB, this year's Russell Wilson is former Maryland QB Danny O'Brien, only 11 starters are back from last fall's 11-3 team that lost to Oregon in the Rose Bowl. Further, coach Bret Bielema lost not only his highly respected offensive coordinator, Paul Chryst, now the head coach at Pittsburgh, but also five other coaches.

Last weekend, the Badgers barely escaped with a 26-21 win over Northern Iowa. While they still look like the favorite in the Big Ten Leader's Division, they presently don't look like a top-10 team.

While it's probably a negative that Oregon State didn't get its first game jitters out last weekend, it does have some advantage in having seen Wisconsin play and having the Badgers not get to do the same.

Riley has said over and over the Beavers, in order to get back to where they were in the conference pecking order, need to run the ball and stop the run better. The Badgers and Heisman Trophy candidate Montee Ball will present an immediate and challenging measuring stick on potential improvement going both ways.

"We'll see a lot about who we are." Riley said.

The Beavers are in a far better place than they were a year ago. But have they improved enough that they can turn a blowout defeat into a "We're back!" upset?

PASADENA, Calif. -- Instant analysis from Rose Bowl Stadium where No. 5 Oregon defeated No. 10 Wisconsin 45-38:

How the game was won: Both teams traded scores and major momentum swings. But Oregon had just a little too much speed at its skill positions for Wisconsin's defense to match. As the Badgers slowed down with just 10 points in the second half, the Ducks were able to eke out a close victory thanks to a couple of key turnovers. Everyone thought this could be a shootout, and we weren't disappointed by one of the most entertaining Rose Bowls ever. Oregon just had a little bit more explosiveness.

Turning point: Wisconsin had the ball with a chance to tie the score, and Russell Wilson completed a 29-yard pass to Jared Abbrederis inside the Oregon 30. But Terrance Mitchell knocked the ball free near the sideline, and the Ducks recovered with 4:04 left. Even though Oregon's quick-strike offense isn't built to bleed the clock, the Ducks picked up a couple of first downs to leave Wisconsin with less than a minute to drive the field. The Badgers had two big second-half turnovers, including Wilson's interception near the end of the third quarter, just his fourth of the season. That was enough in a game where stops were at a premium.

Stat of the game: The two teams combined for 1,130 total yards. Oregon averaged 9.7 yards per play.

Player of the game: Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas. He didn't get a lot of touches but made the most of them. He had a 91-yard and a 64-yard touchdown run to finish with 155 yards rushing and two touchdowns. Honorable mention to quarterback Darron Thomas (17-of-23 for 269 yards and three touchdowns, with an interception) and running back LaMichael James (25 carries for 159 yards and a score). James moved into second place on the Pac-12's career rushing list.

Unsung hero of the game: Oregon receiver Lavasier Tuinei did not have a great season but came up huge in the Rose Bowl. He finished with eight catches for 158 yards and two touchdowns, with several drive-extending grabs.

Second guessing: Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema burned two timeouts early in the third quarter, one to try and challenge a kick return that De'Anthony Thomas almost downed outside of his own end zone. That left the Badgers unable to stop the clock late when they had a chance to tie the score. Wilson spiked the ball at the 25-yard-line after a long completion with two seconds left, but the officials ruled that there was no time left for another play. Bielema was also questioned after taking timeouts before the Hail Mary that Michigan State completed in an earlier loss this season.

What it means: Oregon won its first Rose Bowl since 1917 and proved it could win a BCS game after losing close ones the previous two years. Head coach Chip Kelly will no longer be questioned about winning big games. Bielema could continue to hear that criticism after his team suffered its second straight heartbreaking Rose Bowl loss. Without Wilson and most likely Montee Ball next season, Wisconsin might have missed a window to do something special this season. Oregon should be a top 5 team to start next season even if James goes pro, as both Thomases and Kenjon Barner return to form a strong nucleus

Record performance: The 83 combined points were the most in Rose Bowl history, eclipsing the 80 points combined between Washington and Iowa in 1991. Oregon and Wisconsin also set records for the most points scored in the first quarter (28) and in any half (56) in Rose Bowl history.
PASADENA, Calif. -- Sometimes storylines become so redundant that they feel like cliches. Reporters get just as bored with them as coaches and players do. But redundancy itself implies that something has been there and is there again and hasn't yet gone away.

[+] EnlargeOregon's Chip Kelly
Jason O. Watson/US PRESSWIREFor Oregon and coach Chip Kelly, a victory against Wisconsin would put to rest questions about their ability to win big games.
When Oregon coach Chip Kelly and the Ducks were asked about what it would "mean" to win a BCS bowl game after losing two in a row, they mostly swatted the question aside. Kelly, for one, repeatedly insisted he's not a believer in legacies.

"We've always been a forward-thinking operation," Kelly said. "I find it humorous when people talk about 19-, 20-, 21-year old kids and what they're legacy is going to be. They're just kids."

Well, not really. Teams that win Rose Bowls become a part of history. Teams and players that win Rose Bowls are remembered. They become the connective tissue of the fan experience, such when a single 25-year-old fan here today 15 years from now will tell his 10-year-old son how he was there when LaMichael James rushed for 180 yards and three touchdowns against Wisconsin.

No legacy? Balderdash. And as forward-looking as Kelly wants to be, his counterpart Bret Bielema, whose Badgers lost here a year ago, knows that losing the last game of the season on a big and storied stage is something that's doesn't make it easy to avert a backwards glance.

"This is the feeling you'll have in your mouth for the next seven to eight months until we get ready for our opener a year from now," he said.

Winning a Rose Bowl is a gift that keeps on giving. And losing one is a wound that festers. All the forward-thinking in the world won't change that.

So we have a game that both teams want to win even more because both ended their 2010 seasons with such a wound.

Another redundancy: This is a classic Rose Bowl cliche: Big Ten power vs. Pac-12 flash. Oregon is fast. Wisconsin is huge. And both teams are extremely good at what they do.

"It's almost scary how balanced they are," Kelly said. "When you play most teams, you want them to play left-handed, and let's take away their strength. But they have strengths in both facets."

Still, both teams are going to focus on stopping the run first. If one team has consistent success running the ball, it's likely going to win. But it's also possible the defense will step up -- see last year's national title game between the Ducks and Auburn -- and make things difficult for the offenses. It's possible big plays in the passing game will provide a critical difference.

Will the Ducks, a good pass-rushing team, be able to disrupt the timing of the mobile and extremely efficient Russell Wilson, who has been sacked 23 times this sea? Will the Badgers be able to handle dumps to James and De'Anthony Thomas in space?

Those are the Xs and Os questions.

But the ultimate question is this: Which team walks away knowing it won't have to deal with "Can't win the big one" questions next year?

James ranks among Pac-12's best ever

January, 1, 2012
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LaMichael JamesEzra Shaw/Getty ImagesLaMichael James is 122 rushing yards shy of having the second most career yards in the Pac-12.
LOS ANGELES -- LaMichael James didn't win the Heisman Trophy. He didn't defend his 2010 Doak Walker Award. He wasn't again a unanimous All-American.

So, yeah, maybe some would say that the nation's leading rusher, who led his team to a third consecutive Pac-12 title and another BCS bowl game, had a down year.

But here's his consolation prize, presented by the Pac-12 blog: He's the greatest player in Oregon history. And, when you list the best running backs in Pac-12 history, you need to start considering James shortly after you tick off former USC running backs Charles White and Marcus Allen.

Consider:

  • James is the first running back in Pac-12 history to rush for more than 1,500 yards in three consecutive seasons.
  • James is the only running back in Pac-12 history to post three of the 20 best single-season rushing totals: No. 10, No. 20 and No. 14 (and counting).
  • He needs one rushing touchdown in the Rose Bowl against Wisconsin to break a tie with former USC running back LenDale White and move into second place on the all-time rushing touchdown list with 53.
  • He's rushed for 4,923 yards in his career. He needs 122 yards rushing in the Rose Bowl to pass former Oregon State running back Ken Simonton and move into second place on the conference's career rushing list.
  • He finished 10th in the Heisman Trophy voting a year after finishing third, when he won the Doak Walker Award as the nation's best running back.
  • His 288 yards rushing at Arizona is the 10th-best performance in Pac-12 history.
  • He has seven 200-yard rushing games and 25 100-yard rushing games.

Obviously, this is up for debate, but keep in mind this isn't about NFL success. And it's not only about statistics. It's the total package of numbers, team achievement and general spectacular play.

But, yes, it's fair to say that getting those 122 yards he needs to move into second place on the conference's all-time list in a win over Wisconsin would substantially strengthen his case. The only thing his résumé lacks is a marquee performance in a victory in the final game of the season.

Of course, there is one chief tweak often directed at James: He's a system back. Oregon has produced big rushing numbers every season since Chip Kelly took over the offense in 2007.

"We are a very good running offense, and statistics will match that up," Kelly said. "But when you are a very good running offense, you have very good running backs. Anyone who runs for three consecutive 1,500-yard seasons, you're not a system guy."

Badgers coach Bret Bielema has watched a lot of tape of Oregon's offense. It's a heck of a system, he said. But James often makes up his own system.

"Incredible player," Bielema said. "The thing I always say about kids is you have a player who can make something out of nothing and you have a special player. Obviously, they have very well-designed plays to get him in a position to have success, but sometimes those things are cut off, and he still makes a great play."

Kelly noted that James often improvises, such as his reverse-field, 72-yard touchdown run at Tennessee in 2010.

"I can point out runs where it's, 'How did he do that?'" Kelly said. "His highlight-tape runs are him making those runs on his own."

[+] EnlargeLaMichael James
Craig Mitchelldyer/US PresswireLaMichael James could break all the major Pac-12 rushing records if he stays for his senior season.
Another point on James' side: He's accomplished everything he has in just three years. If he opts to return in the fall and not enter the NFL draft, he could end all arguments and make himself the best running back in Pac-12 history without question.

If he plays his senior season and stays healthy, he'd almost certainly break White's seemingly unbreakable conference record of 6,245 career rushing yards. He also could break Simonton's career touchdown record of 59. He also could win the Heisman Trophy for a Ducks team that has the look of another BCS bowl team, perhaps even a national title contender.

He'd also likely break the FBS career rushing record set of 6,397 yards set by Wisconsin's Ron Dayne in 1999.

See: End of argument.

But, of course, James is expected to announce shortly after the Rose Bowl -- and before the Jan. 15 deadline -- that he is going to enter the NFL draft. It was a question James entertained over and over again this week, but he never tipped his hand. He wouldn't reveal when he expected to make a decision.

"Me coming here and thinking about my future, that's completely selfish," he said.

As for those who don't believe James hasn't made a decision, as he insists he hasn't, James said, understandably, "Whatever."

"It doesn't really matter what everyone else believes," he said. "If I went around thinking, hey, this guy doesn't believe this or that, then my life would be miserable. I don't care what anyone else has to say or think about my future. That's why it's called my future."

That James is here is a minor miracle in itself. His father was killed before he was born. His mother gave him up. He was raised by his grandmother until she died of cervical cancer when he was a high school junior. James then lived alone in Texarkana, Texas, until he went north to Oregon.

Not everything has been perfect at Oregon, either. In February 2010, James was arrested after a fight with his ex-girlfriend, which included a charge of domestic abuse. When the facts eventually came out, it became clear that James didn't handle a situation well but also didn't assault anyone. Nonetheless, some folks -- fans and media -- still incorrectly and unfairly bring up his arrest in an effort to diminish James.

There is, however, no diminishing his career, which includes the sociology major being named to the Pac-10 All-Academic team in 2010.

The last question James was asked at Rose Bowl media day: Are there times you even surprise yourself on the field?

Said James, "Half the things I do, I still wonder like, how did I do that? I just run. Everything is instinctive to me."

Although James and his instincts likely won't be back next season, he certainly will be remembered. That's what happens when you're the greatest player in school history and on a short list ranking the best running backs in conference history.

Bielema, Kelly becoming Rose regulars

December, 31, 2011
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Bret Bielma, Chip KellyUS Presswire/AP PhotoEither Wisconsin's Bret Bielema, left, or Oregon's Chip Kelly will win his first BCS bowl game Monday.


LOS ANGELES -- On Saturday morning in a hotel ballroom, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema and Oregon coach Chip Kelly will stand together and pose for pictures with the Rose Bowl trophy. It's the kind of staged, sometimes forced, photo op that occurs before every big game.

Stare at this particular picture a bit longer, though. Appreciate the similar traits each man brought to this moment, even though they are in many ways unique. Try to imagine how they'll look in the same pose when they are older. Because this image is likely to be repeated in the future.

Here is Oregon making its second Rose Bowl appearance in three years, and here is Wisconsin back in Pasadena for the second consecutive season. Kelly and Bielema are quickly becoming the faces of the most tradition-laden bowl game, even if they are not exactly cut from a traditional cloth.

One (Kelly) played and coached for more than a decade at the relative outpost of New Hampshire before suddenly emerging as the titan of West Coast football. The other (Bielema) is thoroughly Midwestern -- born in Illinois, played linebacker at Iowa, defensive assistant for the Hawkeyes and Kansas State -- yet knows how to merge new-school fun with old-school, power football.

Kelly is hailed as a genius, the offensive innovator whose forward-thinking, high-speed spread attack plays perfectly to the video-game generation. Bielema's scheme is more brute than scoot but is almost equally as effective. Kelly's Ducks have averaged 43.1 points per game since he became head coach in 2009. In that same time frame, Bielema's Badgers have averaged 39.2.

"What Bret's done with that program, as a coach from the outside you really kind of admire it," Kelly said. "There's a consistency to it. He has a style of offense he plays and a style of defense he plays, and they stick to that. And they're really, really good at it."

Both coaches have achieved a lot at a young age. Kelly is 48, while Bielema turns 42 on Jan. 13.

"I think with his age being a little bit closer to ours, it makes him a lot easier to relate to," Wisconsin linebacker Kevin Claxton said of Bielema. "He knows what we're thinking and going through."

Both men can be described as players' coaches. Kelly handled the very difficult LeGarrette Blount punching controversy in his very first game as head coach with a solid measure of both discipline and compassion for his player. Bielema pumps up rap music at practice and gives his players the freedom to be themselves. Kelly's players buy into his cult of personality. Bielema is more like your favorite uncle.

"He's so outgoing," said quarterback Russell Wilson, whom Bielema recruited as a transfer from NC State over the summer. "He tried to get to know me quickly, like he was my best friend, to be honest with you. But at the same time, he makes you work. He wants to see the best out of you and all his players."

Both men are single in a profession in which being seen as a family man is a good career choice. Bielema is engaged and plans to wed next spring, while Kelly dislikes discussing his private life.

Kelly and Bielema are liked but probably not loved by all their peers. They'll ruffle feathers on occasion with the way their teams continue to pile on the points during blowouts. If you're an opposing team's fan, you'd probably describe them as arrogant. You'd also secretly wish they were your team's coach.

The only real knock on either is a perceived failure to win games. Which is mostly ludicrous, considering that Bielema is 60-18 in six seasons and Kelly is 33-6 in three years at their respective schools. One guy is going to win his first BCS game on Monday night, while the other will have to fight off the "can't win the big one" charge a little harder.

Neither is blessed with an abundance of in-state talent from which to build his program. But Kelly has Phil Knight, those wild uniforms and that offense to attract skill players from around the country. Bielema likes to say his program isn't sexy, but there is no greater destination for an offensive lineman or a running back who wants to earn national honors and go to the NFL. The success of Wilson at quarterback has signaled to other skill players that you can do more at Wisconsin than just grind it out.

Bielema and Kelly are arguably the most successful examples ever of the head-coach-in-waiting practice. That idea is falling out of vogue now, but every school would do it if the transition went as well as it looked in Madison and Eugene. Bielema inherited a Badgers team that won 10 games in Barry Alvarez's final year; Kelly took over after Mike Bellotti won 10 games his last season.

There are subtle differences between the two, of course. Kelly has a heavy hand in play calling on offense, while Bielema delegates more to his assistants (which has helped two coordinators land head-coaching jobs in the past two seasons).

"One of the things I made as a decision early on as a head coach, I wasn't going to be involved in play calling on offense or defense," Bielema said. "I just call the good plays. ... I let guys coordinate and run it, but I'll always have constant feedback on things I like, dislike, and the way I see things unfold during practice."

Bielema is as accessible as any coach at a major program. He's unafraid to open his doors to the media, like when he allowed ESPN to follow Wilson around for a special last summer. Kelly is a little more roped-off, particularly to local reporters. But when he talks, he often gives thought-provoking and colorful answers.

Kelly's reputation has taken a hit with the ongoing NCAA investigation involving recruiting service owner Willie Lyles. Bielema has steered clear of any NCAA issues thus far.

Kelly told reporters on Friday that Bielema couldn't be considered an "up-and-coming" star head coach, because six years is a long time to be in the same job these days. That's true. But these two seem like prime candidates to build a lasting legacy where they are. Bielema enjoys a close relationship with Alvarez, now the Wisconsin athletic director, and has shown no inclination toward leaving Madison. Kelly insisted on placing a $4 million buyout in his contract to ward off potential suitors.

So take a look at the trophy photo again. Or don't. You'll probably have a chance to see it staged again soon.

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