Pac-12: Colorado Buffaloes

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To the notes!

Matt from Sunnyvale, Calif., writes: While eight of the Pac-12 teams are in the midst of bowl season, the other four are prepping for the holidays. In analyzing the conference's "worst" team (according to thy mighty power rankings), how would the Buffs have stacked up in any of the other Power 5 conferences this year? Besides playing in the SEC West, I think they could have an extra 2-4 wins under their belts in the ACC or Big Ten. How do the Buffs matchup to the Kansases, Purdues or Wake Forests of the Power-5 conferences? Bonus question: Clancy Pendergast has to get a look for DC at CU, no? Would be a great addition!

Ted Miller: If Colorado hired Clancy Pendergast it would instantaneously upgrade its defense, a schematic equivalent of checkers to chess, no question. Guessing he'll have some options this offseason, though.

The first part of your question is interesting, though I may extrapolate on it my own way -- as I am wont to do.

When you ask, "How would the Buffs have stacked up in any of the other Power-5 conferences this year?" my overriding thought is the Buffs would have been far better off as long as they didn't play in the SEC West. In the SEC East, ACC, Big 12 and Big Ten, the Buffs would have won more games. They lost four Pac-12 games this season by five points or less, and two of those defeats were to teams that remain nationally ranked.

In fact, we're going to crown Colorado the best worst Power-5 conference team.

In the interest of fairness, here are the candidates.
  • Wake Forest (3-9, 1-7 ACC): Ranked 127th in the nation in points per game (14.8) and rushing yards per game (39.9). Lost to Louisiana Monroe. Best win was 6-3 in double-overtime over Virginia Tech.
  • Purdue (3-9, 1-7 Big Ten): Lost to Central Michigan. Best win was at Illinois. Lost six straight to finish season.
  • Iowa State (2-10, 0-9 Big 12): Lost to North Dakota State. Gave up 38.8 points per game, which ranked 118th in nation. Best win at Iowa 20-17. Lost six straight to finish season.
  • Vanderbilt (3-9 0-8 SEC):Lost to Temple. Ranked 106th in the nation or worse in passing yards, rushing yards, points for and points against. Best win? Massachusetts?
  • Colorado (2-10, 0-9 Pac-12): Lost to Colorado State. Ranked 120th in the nation in points allowed (39.0 -- yeah, time to change coordinators). Best win? Hawaii.

Among those five, we'd rank Colorado first, Iowa State second, Purdue fourth, Wake Forest third and Vanderbilt fifth.

Bruce from Salt Lake City writes: If you could create a bowl this year -- we will call it TEDwrites Bowl -- and pit two Pac-12 teams against each other, which matchup would you like to see (again)? Also, what are the big plans for the summer?

Ted Miller: If I could replay one game this year it would be Stanford at Notre Dame. I can't help but wonder if the Cardinal's 2014 might have been much different if they didn't urp so horribly in South Bend. You could say the same about their Week 2 loss against USC, but the Trojans were a much better team than the Fighting Irish.

As far as matching Pac-12 teams, you'd of course like to see teams that didn't play each other have a go: Stanford-Arizona, Oregon-Arizona State, USC-Oregon and Utah-Washington.

It also would be fun to rematch some meaningful rivalry games: USC-UCLA and Arizona-Arizona State.

But if I were to pitch a Pac-12 matchup for a bowl game, it would be USC versus Washington: The Steve Sarkisian Bowl.

The winner gets a ninth win -- no seven-win seasons here! -- and you'd either get a dose of hush to Husky fans who ripped Sarkisian when he bolted Washington for USC or you'd get a really grumpy crew of Trojans fans dealing with lots of purple crowing.

My big plan for the summer? Other than my evil plan for world domination? Reducing my sanctimony, reading more classics of English literature and caring less about politics.

David from Calgary writes: It seems like another regular season of football has come and gone. With the postseason in front of us, do you think this could be the year where the #Pac12Fans will finally start rooting for the conference as a whole and not just their individual team?

Ted Miller: Yes and no.

No, Pac-12 fans don't seem predisposed to be as regionally united as those from the Southeast. No, you won't get too much cheering from Huskies and Beavers fans if Oregon wins the national title.

But there is some burgeoning collectivism among Pac-12 fans. You see it all over ESPN.com, when Pac-12 fans troll the SEC posts almost as gleefully as SEC fans troll the Pac-12 posts. ESPN, by the way, thanks you for your trolling compulsions.

Beyond that, if the Pac-12 goes 7-1 in bowl games and wins the national title, I'd bet Huskies fans would use that against SEC fans in an argument, as long as they didn't have to say, "And Oregon beat Alabama for the national title." They'd just say, "And a Pac-12 team beat Alabama for the national title."

The abstraction might be palatable, as opposed to the celebration of a specific rival team.

And you can bet that if Oregon wins the national title, particularly over the Crimson Tide, a "Pac-12! Pac-12!" chant will erupt in Cowboys Stadium, an acknowledgment and counter to the "SEC! SEC!" chant we've heard so much over the past decade.
Barring any surprises, seven Pac-12 teams will welcome back starting quarterbacks in 2015. Though the list isn't as glittering as it was last year, when 10 starters returned, including eventual Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, it's a strong crew, as good a group any other Power 5 conference will offer up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2015 RETURNING STARTERS

Arizona: Anu Solomon

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

California: Jared Goff

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

Colorado: Sefo Liufau

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

Stanford: Kevin Hogan

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

USC: Cody Kessler

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

Utah: Travis Wilson

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

Washington: Cyler Miles

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

2015 COMPETITIONS*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Listed year in school is for 2015
Coming strictly from a win-loss standpoint, Colorado’s second season under coach Mike MacIntyre would be evaluated as a complete and utter failure. And in the results-driven world of college football, maybe that’s fair -- 2-10 is 2-10, right?

Except that would also be lazy, and fail to take into account the magnitude of the mess left by previous coach Jon Embree, whose 2012 team might have been the worst Power 5 team in the country. The cupboard wasn’t just bare for MacIntyre, it was rotting at a dump. This was never going to be a quick turnaround, and -- much like the case when he arrived at San Jose State in 2010 -- a lot of losing would have to precede winning. That should have been well understood even before the Pac-12 South transformed into the country’s it division with five ranked teams.

There will come a time when MacIntyre’s job should be more heavily evaluated by wins and losses -- maybe even next season -- but to do so this year would ignore tangible headway.

[+] EnlargeMike Macintyre
Joe Faraoni/ESPN ImagesColorado coach Mike Macintyre on his team: "You build from the ground up. That's what we did at San Jose State and that's what we're doing here, and I believe we have the foundation set now."
"I think [playing in the Pac-12 South] makes it harder to notice progress maybe in the win column, but I do see progress," MacIntyre said. "I think everybody that’s watched us play every game has noticed progress. Now is that the answer we want? No way. We want to win football games, and we will next year."

The theme that followed Colorado from its first game to its last was its inability to finish. In six of its 10 losses, Colorado held a second-half lead, and four times those leads came in the fourth quarter or overtime. But saddled with the Pac-12’s youngest roster and minimal depth, the Buffs repeatedly found new ways to give them up.

"I think even people who don’t really follow Colorado were like, 'Oh my gosh, they just barely got beat again,'" MacIntyre said. "Everybody was kind of pulling for us in a way."

MacIntyre’s six wins in two seasons is the same total he had after two years at San Jose State, which won 10 games in Year 3 (the 10th came after MacIntyre already left for Colorado) and finished No. 21 in the AP poll.

"You build from the ground up. That’s what we did at San Jose State and that’s what we’re doing here, and I believe we have the foundation set now," MacIntyre said. "I think we can start punching through in some of those close games and we’ll win some of those close games."

Offensively, Colorado was usually good enough to give itself a chance. It averaged 28.5 points and 439.2 yards per game, which both rank as the program’s best marks in at least a decade. Sophomore quarterback Sefo Liufau set the school record with 3,200 yards passing, and junior receiver Nelson Spruce caught a school-record 106 passes and 12 touchdowns.

It wasn’t just all about the passing game, either. Colorado’s 154.6 rushing yards per game and 4.1 yards per carry both rank as its second-best averages since 2004. There are still obvious areas where progress needs to be made on offense, but those concerns pale in comparison to the other side of the ball. Only two Power 5 teams -- Cal and Texas Tech -- gave up more points per game than Colorado (39.0), and none gave up more yards per play (6.55).

On Monday, Colorado parted ways with defensive coordinator Kent Baer and defensive line coach Andy LaRussa, both of whom were announced as part of the initial staff at UNLV under new coach Tony Sanchez. Baer and LaRussa both made the move with MacIntyre from San Jose State.

Last week, MacIntyre said he wanted the staff to return in tact, but noted that everyone will have to make their own decisions on different opportunities that come up.

"The assistant-coaching world is an interesting place," he said. "I lived in it for a long time, and there’s all different reasons for different things happening."

Considering how poorly the defense played, it stands to reason that Baer -- who made $$450,000 in Boulder -- and LaRussa might have been encouraged to seek out other options, but regardless of the circumstances that led to their departures, it’s easy to see how a coaching change could be beneficial. There is no immediate timetable for when their replacements will be hired.

When the new coaches are added, they will step into an improved situation from a personnel standpoint. Colorado added three junior college players to its defense last week and loses just two seniors. MacIntyre estimated about 60 percent of the defensive snaps were played by freshmen and sophomores, and that group will have "eight or nine good players" added to the mix, who will either be new to the team or coming off injury.

"We need to make a big jump on the defensive side," he said. "I definitely think we will. That’s not a hope, that’s a definite."

But will that translate to wins? We'll see.
Happy Friday. Welcome to the mailbag. Pac-12 bowl season starts Saturday. Yay.

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To the notes!

Duckzila from Portland writes: The Oregon offense typically feasts on teams that are undisciplined on defense. My perception is Florida State is a team that relies on athleticism and freelances quite a bit on the defense side of the ball. Even when they shut down Georgia Tech in the second half of the ACC championship, they were helped out by an inaccurate quarterback missing open plays downfield. To be fair, I definitely suffer from seeing college football through green and yellow shaded glasses, and haven't watched a ton of FSU games this year. I'm curious if you see the FSU defense the same way?

Ted Miller: No, I don't see Florida State's defense that way.

What I see is a talented unit that was rebuilding after being dominant during 2013's national title campaign, one that was breaking in a new coordinator, one that was then riddled by injuries. I see a defense that is on track to be as healthy as it has been all season against Oregon.

I see a defense that is adept at making adjustments. The Seminoles gave up 174 points in the first half this season. They yielded just 125 in the second half. Oregon's underrated defense gave up 141 points in the first half and 151 in the second half. I see a defense that overcame an offense that was stunningly turnover-prone -- the Seminoles' 27 turnovers would have been the highest total in the Pac-12. Oregon had just eight turnovers this season.

Further, and this isn't a terribly original point: Defenses tend to excel after extended pre-bowl preparation. The extra time helps a defense train its eyes, accustom itself to potential misdirection and create a laser-like focus on its keys. Ducks fans saw that when two offensive juggernauts, Auburn and Oregon, played a low-scoring, 22-19 slugfest for the 2010 national championship.

If Oregon's offense wins the battle with FSU's defense, I doubt we will say it's because FSU was undisciplined. I think we'll say it's because the Oregon offense is just really freaking hard to stop.


Matt from Washington, D.C. writes: Ted-According to ESPN, Washington was tied with FSU for the most All-Americans yet won eight games, none against a high-quality team. With the shadow of Dan Hawkins looming large and so much talent leaving this year, what are the reasons for optimism for UW fans moving forward in the Petersen era?

Ted Miller: It's not unfair to say Chris Petersen's first season was underwhelming, even disappointing. He inherited talent that hinted at 10 wins in the regular season and he won eight. He didn't beat a ranked team and the Huskies struggled against overmatched foes. While he's not one to navel-gaze in front of the media, my guess is Petersen will be as self-critical about himself and his staff as any message board.

So why be optimistic? Well, Petersen went 92-12 at Boise State and won two Fiesta Bowls, a record that far surpasses Dan Hawkins or, really, any coach outside of a Power 5 conference. There's a reason folks so celebrated his hiring. The guy is smart. He's detail-oriented. He has a system. Some of the things that cost the Huskies this year -- such as giving mouthy, me-first cornerback Marcus Peters the boot -- probably will pay off in the long term as Petersen establishes his culture.

Yet Petersen might need to recalibrate some. Playing a Pac-12 schedule is different than playing one or two Power 5 foes a year and trying to earn your big-boy-football bona fides. In the Pac-12, you play a marquee game against Oregon... and then you play a marque game against Arizona State the next weekend.

As much as he's emphasizing "OKGs -- Our Kind of Guys" in recruiting, he's probably going to need a more generous gray area when evaluating prospects, particularly ones who run 4.4-second 40-yard dashes and weigh more than 300 pounds. He also might need to rethink some spots on his coaching staff.

Yes, the Huskies take some huge roster hits heading into 2015, particularly on defense and the offensive line. Eight wins next year probably would be an overachievement. But Petersen wasn't hired for immediate flash. He was hired to return Washington to long-term glory. Those are two different processes, and the latter often includes worse short-term growing pains.


Ramon from Chatsworth, California, writes: The Pac-12 South was an extremely tough division this season. The toughest, if you ask me. With the way the season ended for TCU and Baylor, which Pac-12 south team has the highest chances of being affected, positively and negatively, by their out-of-conference schedule in 2015?

Ted Miller: Arizona State, UCLA, USC and Utah will be in good shape if the College Football Playoff committee is reviewing their nonconference schedules. Arizona and Colorado will not be.

Here are the schedules.
  • Arizona: UTSA, at Nevada, Northern Arizona
  • Arizona State: Texas A&M (Houston), Cal Poly, New Mexico
  • Colorado: at Hawaii, UMass, Colorado State (Denver), Nicholls State
  • UCLA: Virginia, at UNLV, BYU
  • USC: Arkansas State, Idaho, at Notre Dame
  • Utah: Michigan, Utah State, at Fresno State

Obviously, the Buffaloes are aiming for bowl eligibility, not a berth in the CFP, and have scheduled accordingly. Arizona is another matter, as the Wildcats' nonconference schedule is Baylor-esque and would be viewed dimly by the committee.

Of course, the Wildcats didn't envision they would be in the hunt this season, at least from the past scheduling perspective of athletic director Greg Byrne. If the Wildcats again surge in 2015, their nonconference schedule will be a problem, unless they emerge from the Pac-12 unbeaten.

2014 Pac-12 All-Underrated team

December, 17, 2014
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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.
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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
PM ET
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.

Plenty of grumpy teams in Pac-12

December, 1, 2014
Dec 1
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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.

Oregon not only Pac-12 team eyeing CFP

November, 26, 2014
Nov 26
12:00
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The first rule of College Football Playoff is you talk about College Football Playoff.

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

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

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

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

The answer is no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pac-12 Power Rankings: Week 13

November, 23, 2014
Nov 23
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What we learned in the Pac-12: Week 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And while Mariota tops NFL draft boards from coast to coast -- including our own Mel Kiper's -- the redshirt junior hasn't officially announced where he will play next season.

So after the game, one industrious 12-year-old student reporter from O'Hara Catholic School in Eugene took it upon himself to get to the bottom of it. Head coach Mark Helfrich fielded the hard-ball question from sixth grader Charlie Papé.

It didn't take long for Papé's comment to catch on across Twitter.

Mailbag: Humbug to Pac-12 pride

November, 21, 2014
Nov 21
6:00
PM ET
Happy Friday.

Follow me on Twitter. It's the first step toward making your life into an epic poem.

To the notes?

Luke from Tucson, Ariz., writes: Thank you to Kevin Gemmell for writing the following: "This league's coaches rarely talk about what's good for the conference. They want what's best for their own team -- national perception and conference pride be damned. And for the record, this fifth of the Pac-12 blog is just fine with that." I find a lot of writing in the blog is around the narrative of the Pac-12 winning a national championship. This seems reasonable considering it is the Pac-12 blog. However, I pose the question: How many people read this blog because they are fans of the conference and how many people read because they are fans of a team in the conference? I'd argue the latter is a much larger portion. The narrative pretending their is some sort of overall conference strategy where we all pull the rope to win a national title is a little silly. I'm an Arizona fan. If Oregon makes it to the playoff will I cheer for them? Yes. Is Oregon winning a national title one of my goals as an Arizona fan coming into the season? Absolutely not. Fans from 10 other teams in the conference feel the same way.Buffs fans don't care if OSU "flipped the script" and now ASU doesn't get to be part of a de facto playoff game against Oregon. Buffs fans want a conference W, and go to your blog for insight on how they get there. Same with me. If the Ducks win a national title I'll be happy for them and happy for the conference. But that's it, slightly happy.

Ted Miller: Interesting point, and this is a position I've heard before from Pac-12 fans. It's pretty much a big-city, pro-sports attitude, where a team has no notable, vested interests in the success of, say, its league or division. It also tends to mean you're a not an obsessive college football fan, in that obsessive college football fans follow the entire game nearly as much as their own team, see the constant trolling that goes on between the ESPN.com conference blogs.

I'm not going to tell you how to be a sports fan. That's entirely your call, and we appreciate you visiting ESPN.com. I do, however, have a position on this, which I'm sure shocks you.

First off, I think what Kevin is noting is that Pac-12 teams don't have any intention of laying down to further a rival's national title hopes, which should surprise no one. We both talk to coaches all the time about what's "good" for the conference. What these coaches want is the Pac-12 to receive the same deference as the SEC, and they'd prefer themselves and not their top rivals to be the conference's bell cow.

Of course their overwhelming interests are their own teams, which sign their paychecks, but they also understand a shared interest. That would include, for example, the Pac-12 playing a nine-game conference schedule while other conferences play only eight. Just about every Pac-12 coach believes that is a problem because it ensures the conference has six more losses in its collective standings every season, though it's more front and center for coaches whose teams presently have a national outlook compared to coaches who are just trying to win a conference game.

And you better believe there's shared interests in a conference with revenue sharing. When the Pac-12 got two BCS bowl teams, each team pocketed an additional $500,000, plus or minus, so Pac-12 rivals tend to be frenemies. That won't change in the College Football Playoff, when the Pac-12 getting left out will cost every conference team big money.

I view it as no coincidence that you got your feathers up, Luke, when an Arizona State loss at Oregon State was bemoaned as a lost opportunity for the conference to stage a Pac-12 championship game as a play-in contest for the inaugural College Football Playoff between a pair of highly rated teams. Of course, your emotional reaction to any sympathy for the Sun Devils, whose misfortune you surely were rejoicing about on Saturday, colors your position.

But this also comes down to a pretty straightforward cost-benefit analysis, something the SEC and its rabid rivalries picked up on before the rest of the nation: A rising (Crimson?) tide lifts all ships. While your emotions are almost entirely invested in loving your team and hating your top rivals, there's also the practical shared interest within Power 5 conferences of wanting to distinguish the conference as a whole, to look better top to bottom than the other four major conferences, to be first among so-called equals. Without the purity of an extensive playoff, as there are in pro sports, there's still a beauty contest going on every year in college football, and it's all about regional perceptions.

For example, Alabama fans were in a quandary when Auburn played Oregon for the national title. How could they possibly root for Auburn -- ever?! Many couldn't bring themselves to do it. But many did in the name of SEC solidarity. And the many who couldn't still salved their feelings when the Tigers won the title by saying, "Well, at least the SEC kept the national championship streak going."

I expect that to be the same for many in the Pac-12. Many Washington and Oregon State fans surely couldn't root for the Ducks to win a national title, but if that had happened there would have been a part of them that recognized the Pac-12 taking down the SEC as a good thing for the Pac-12 and, by extension, themselves.

This doesn't mean you begin every season rooting for your team and the Pac-12 in general on equal footing. But there is unquestionably a shared interest.

Let's say Arizona is approaching the end of the 2015 regular season and is ranked No. 6 in the college football rankings. You turn on the TV and see a pundit saying, "Arizona has looked great this year, but the Pac-12 is down. That's why you have to give the edge to a second SEC team getting into the playoff."

You'd probably find your self becoming more of a collectivist.

Caleb from Astoria, Ore., writes: If Utah wins out, UCLA beats USC, Stanford beats UCLA, and Arizona beats Arizona State, this leaves all five teams at 6-3 in Pac-12 play. Who would go to the Pac-12 Championship game?

Ted Miller: Utah.

Tiebreaker: The Utes and UCLA, with 3-1 records against the other four, would eliminate Arizona, Arizona State and USC. Then the Utes would win out because of their head-to-head win over UCLA.

Spencer from Indianapolis writes: This year the Pac 12 bowls have a new selection process. Do you feel like some of the better teams might slip to a lower bowl because of fan base, location, and so on? I feel like my Utes might slip down because they are not as big of a draw as others. I also feel like some other teams may slip down as well. Just wondering your thoughts on the process this year.

Ted Miller: If you are talking about major bowls outside the playoff -- the Peach, Fiesta, Cotton and Orange bowls -- the selection committee is also placing teams in those games based on its rankings, which means those old, annoying considerations -- such as selling hotel rooms -- won't play a predominant role in picking teams. That's unquestionably a good thing.

As for the Pac-12's existing bowl partnerships, those will be mostly the same. While the SEC, ACC and Big Ten have taken more control over the bowl selection procedure, the Pac-12 still has a rule that allows bowls to pass over a team as long as there is no more than a one-game difference in conference record.

So the, say, Alamo Bowl could pass over Utah in favor of USC, even though the Utes beat the Trojans as long as USC is no more than one-game behind the Utes in the conference standings.

But that's no different than any other year.

Aaron Tigard, Ore., writes: Hey PAC, Sad days here. With Marcus Mariota's latest transgression, how does this impact the team and his draft prospects? Based on the coverage, I have to imagine that Coach Helfrich has no option other than removing him from the team, posthaste. Will the CFP committee take this into account? As for "Menace" Mariota, is there an NFL team out there who will be willing to take a chance on a player who clearly has off-the-field issues? Should he even declare for the draft or should he transfer to Portland State for a year to rehab his image?

Ted Miller: Mr. Subtle immediately picked up on your facetiousness here. And I get it. Most folks speed -- ranging between sometimes and all of the time. Mariota is unquestionably a high-character guy, not in the sense that he's a great football player who hasn't been arrested and handles the media well but in the sense that he'd be viewed as a paragon of what a young man should be even without football. There are no naysayers to this. And snarky me has looked for them.

Yet let's not make light of driving 80 mph in a 55 mph zone. That's a bad thing. You'd feel differently if there had been an accident and someone who was obeying traffic laws had been injured. Considering that speeding occurs in 33 percent of all fatal accidents, this is not something to sniff at. Aggressive speeding is selfish and stupid and dangerous.

Of course, part of this is me being 45 and having two children. I've become a militant slow driver -- as in I never go over 10 miles above the speed limit. I also take a passive-aggressive joy in making tailgating speeders lives miserable. Pull up to my bumper to show me I'm going too slow for you? Well, I'll show you slow.

When you're in your 20s, you often think you're immortal and bad things only happen to other people. Or you are above the rules. After all, your life is so important and you are in a hurry and everybody needs to just get out of your way because you are late and that isn't your fault it's these slow drivers!

Mariota is a fine young man. He also needs to slow the freak down.

Pac-12 morning links

November, 19, 2014
Nov 19
8:00
AM ET
The sea was angry that day, my friends -- like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli.

Leading off

It's depth chart Wednesday and with all 12 teams in action, that means you get 11 depth charts to peruse with UCLA the usual odd team out. Josh Shaw’s return

One of college football’s weirdest stories of the season -- Decade? Ever? -- added a new chapter Tuesday when USC announced it had reinstated defensive back Josh Shaw. Shaw, as nearly everyone with a pulse knows, has been suspended since late August after concocting an imaginary rescue of his drowning nephew to hide the fact that he jumped from the third floor following an argument with his girlfriend.

There are several levels of stupidity to the whole ordeal, but the decision to reinstate Shaw was justified. It was time. By most accounts, Shaw is a good kid who made a couple bad choices and they spiraled out of control. The embarrassment he has dealt with -- and will continue to deal with for years, no doubt -- has served as more than enough punishment. It’s still be to determined if he can make an impact on the field after missing so much time, but, for his sake, hopefully he can. It’ll be an important step in putting this mess behind him.

News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

Cal running back Jeff Coprich was surprised at the conclusion of practice Thursday with word that he had been named to the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team. A video featuring Coprich’s community service played on the stadium video board and he was given a trophy.



Utah punter Tom Hackett may be the best punter in the country and on Monday he explained how punting is basically “kicking bacon down a field for people’s entertainment.”



Of course that resulted in fun with Photoshop

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