Pac-12: Colorado State Rams

We continue with our series looking at each Pac-12 team's nonconference opponents in 2014.


Colorado State, Friday, Aug. 29 (in Denver)
  • Coach: Jim McElwain (12-14), third year
  • 2013 record: 8-6, 5-3 Mountain West
  • Returning starters: six offense, seven defense
  • Offensive headliner: LT Ty Sambrailo has started 37 games (tied for most on the team) and is getting a lot of preseason love and hype. A lot of folks think he’s got a bright NFL future.
  • Defensive headliner: Linebacker Max Morgan returns after totaling 134 stops last year, the most by a CSU player since 1996. He’s a captain and regarded as a coach on the field.
  • The skinny: Quarterback Garrett Grayson needs 1,959 yards to become the school’s all-time leading passer. He’s a veteran, the Mountain West’s top returning passer, and he has two receivers and Mackey watch list tight end coming back. On the flip side is a talented linebacking corps and a veteran secondary. This is not a Rams team to be taken lightly. (And no, Washington State fans, I won’t bring up the New Mexico Bowl again. Oops, I guess I just did).
At Massachusetts, Saturday, Sept. 6
  • Coach: Mark Whipple (49-26 from 1998-2003), seventh season
  • 2013 record: 1-11, 1-7 Mid-American
  • Returning starters: seven offense, six defense
  • Offensive headliner: Wide receiver Tajae Sharpe hauled in 61 catches for 680 yards and four touchdowns last season.
  • Defensive headliner: Linebacker Stanley Andre returns after posting 111 tackles, including six for a loss and a sack to go with one forced fumble.
  • The skinny: Whipple was hired in January to the post he held from 1998-2003, when he guided UMass to an NCAA I-AA national championship and two other postseason appearances. In between he had stops with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the University of Miami. UMass opened upgraded facilities and Whipple will return them to the pro-style system that helped them earn three A-10 titles when he was there before.
Hawaii, Saturday, Sept. 20
  • Coach: Norm Chow (4-20), third year
  • 2013 record: 1-11, 0-8 Mountain West
  • Returning starters: Seven on offense, six on defense
  • Offensive headliner: Running back Joey Iosefa led the team with 590 yards and five touchdowns last season. And he’ll be running behind a line that returns four starters.
  • Defensive headliner: Defensive back Ne'Quan Phillips returns after earning all-conference honorable mention honors last season, where he had 64 total tackles while nabbing a pair of interceptions and breaking up six passes.
  • The skinny: Things have not gone well for the Warriors since Chow has come aboard. They have just two wins over FBS teams in two seasons, and were winless all of last year up until the season finale, when they pulled off a 49-42 win over Army. They have to replace quarterback Sean Schroeder, who tossed 28 touchdowns and 2,960 yards last year. But the continuity on the line will be a plus.
Thoughts: It’s not unreasonable, Colorado fans, to feel like your team should be 3-0 in nonconference play. These are three winnable games. Colorado State is going to be a good early season test. Throw in the rivalry factor and you have an emotional game to kick off the season. That’s why we tapped it for our Week 1 Ultimate Road Trip. It’s going to be a good one. Massachusetts is in rebuilding mode and Hawaii is yet to get off the mat. The Buffs are in Year 2 of the Mike MacIntyre system. And they showed some fight in Year 1. The expectations become a little more serious now. No one expects Colorado to compete for the South title yet. But beating a pair of Mountain West teams and a MAC team that went 1-11 last year shouldn’t be too much to ask for. If Colorado goes 2-1 in nonconference, that wouldn’t be devastating. But anything less than that would be surprising. And 3-0 shouldn’t be an unrealistic expectation.
The last we saw of Washington State, it was going rear-end-over-tea-kettle against Colorado State in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl. Despite owning a 15-point lead with just over nine minutes left against a middling Mountain West team, the Cougars were, well, we're not going to type that hated term rivals use to tweak those in crimson and gray.

But it rhymes with "flooging zit."

The result was a stunning 48-45 loss that was difficult to even describe. Washington State had wrapped a bow around its first bowl game since 2003 and handed it to the grateful Rams. The Cougs had blown their chance for their first winning record in a decade.

[+] EnlargeConnor Halliday
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesConnor Halliday has good reason to believe the 2014 season could be a special one at Washington State.
The collapse was so epic and strange that it seemed perfectly reasonable to a reporter that he began an interview with Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday on Tuesday with, "New Mexico Bowl… what the hell?" And Halliday didn't miss a beat.

"I don't know," Halliday said. "I've tried to explain it to many people. I don't know how you go about it. You can point the finger in many different places. You can say you can't fumble the ball two times in a matter of 45 seconds. You also can say you shouldn't give up [25] points in a half of football. You can say we should have thrown more instead of being conservative. You can say different things, but in the end you've just got to find a way to close out the game."

True. But the result itself wasn't what pained Halliday the most. The worst part was sending out guys he'd labored beside for four years, through some pretty darn tough times, with frowns on their faces.

"Probably the hardest thing for me was that was my graduating class that was leaving," he said. "I redshirted, but I came in with all those guys. It was tough to see Deone [Bucannon] go out like that. It was tough to see Damante [Horton] go out like that. It was tough to see Elliott Bosch, our center, go out like that. It was a crappy way to send out our seniors."

Yet while there are myriad ways to parse out the misery of that defeat, the reality is it was only one game in a season that hinted at a program climbing out of the muck. In the second season under coach Mike Leach, Washington State had again become competitive. It had become bowl-eligible by winning two out of its final three games in the rugged Pac-12. Bracketing off the bowl disaster, the 2013 season ultimately suggested an upward trend in Pullman, Wash.

While some fans might still be mourning the ending of 2013, Halliday and his teammates have moved on as they eyeball the beginning of spring practices Thursday. If the bowl loss has any lingering effect, it's a reminder of what the program is trying to leave behind.

"I think we were ready to get back to work [after the bowl game]," Halliday said. "I think we are really hungry. Part of the deal that Leach has instilled in us is there is no real option, no real choice. It's just like ingrained in your mind that you get back to work. We're going to get this ship back on the right path."

Halliday's junior season was notable for more than a few passing numbers. He ranked fifth in the nation with 353.6 yards passing per game. His 34.5 completions per game ranked second in the nation. His 34 TD passes were second-most in the Pac-12.

On the downside were 22 interceptions, six more than any other Pac-12 quarterback.

Of course, Halliday didn't have much support from one of the nation's worst running games. His receivers were mostly young and therefore, at times, out of position. And he was often under duress because his line was middling and opposing defenses were pinning their ears back in full-time pass-rushing mode.

It's probably encouraging to Cougars fans, however, that Halliday doesn't play along with the option of sharing blame for the interceptions.

[+] EnlargeGabe Marks
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsGabe Marks caught a team-leading 74 passes for the Cougars last season.
"The bottom line is I play a position where the fault is on me," he said. "It doesn't matter if the receiver ran the wrong route or protection broke down. No matter what happens, it's my job to take care of the football."

The offseason message for Halliday as he heads into his senior season is pretty straightforward: Make better decisions, protect the football, and this team will take another step forward.

Said Halliday, "If we eliminate the mistakes here and there, we can really do something special."

Don't quickly discount that as typical spring optimism. While there are some holes on defense and the offensive line, Washington State welcomes back its top-10 pass catchers from last season. And we're not just talking about warm bodies. The Cougars have size, speed, experience and depth at the position that rivals any team in the Pac-12 or, really, the nation.

"Go down the list. Everybody can make a play," Halliday said."It's a great time to play quarterback here."

There's so much depth at receiver, you have to wonder if Leach might move at least one guy over to defense to bolster his young and questionable secondary.

For Halliday, however the depth chart pencils out, he expects the program to make a mark in the highly competitive Pac-12 North Division. And, yes, that means going nose-to-nose with the top programs, such as Stanford and Oregon.

"Our biggest thing is to worry about ourselves, what we can control," he said. "But we are really not that far away."

Cougs need to learn how to finish

December, 23, 2013
This has to be an awkward and confusing time for Washington State fans.

On one hand: Yay! Postseason.

On the other: Seriously?

It hurts today. Just like it hurt Saturday night. Just like it hurt yesterday. And just a head’s up, it’s going to hurt tomorrow.

[+] EnlargeKivon Cartwright, Tanner Hedstrom, Theron West, Joe Dahl
AP Photo/Matt YorkColorado State's improbable comeback victory over Washington State in the New Mexico Bowl highlighted a harsh truth -- the Cougars haven't developed a killer instinct yet.
When you balance the elation of going to a bowl game for the first time since 2003 with the downright dejection of blowing a 15-point lead in the final nine minutes, it can be jarring.

This column isn’t intended to make you feel better -- because it won’t. I don’t feel better; I’m actually still pretty ticked. Of all the bowl games for the league this postseason, this was the one the Pac-12 blog felt most confident about.

Losses like this don’t go away easily. Ask Nevada or Arizona, a couple of teams who engaged in their own improbable Albuquerque antics last season.

There’s a reason why Washington State was up 35-13 at one point. It’s because it’s the better football team. This is a Cougars squad that pushed Auburn to the brink -- at Auburn. This is the team that kept Marqise Lee to seven catches for 27 yards. The Cougars should have taken Colorado State to the cleaners and kept the change.

But they didn’t. So bully for the Rams. They deserved it. They didn’t give up.

There’s a reason why the Rams don’t have their own entry in the Urban Dictionary. But the Cougars do. And it's been there since 2005.

To blow a game when victory is almost certain, especially in the 4th quarter. Term made popular by a college football team in the northwest that blows games with consistency.

Harsh, but warranted.

At some point the players and fans will have to shake this one off. Because when the dust settles and you start to look at the season in its entirety, it shouldn’t be just about 10 bad minutes.

For starters, getting to a bowl game for the first time in more than a decade is a significant achievement -- especially in just the second year of a new coach and system. Beating USC in Los Angeles is a big achievement. Winning at Arizona is a big achievement. It’s easy for this loss to put a cloak of disappointment on what was accomplished the previous three months. Don’t let it.

“I think it’s huge to make a bowl the first time in 10 years,” said Washington State coach Mike Leach after the game. “I think that’s gigantic. I think a lot of that happened by continuing to improve. We went through an incredibly tough stretch as a team. We got better and better all year long.”

He’s right. Washington State is no longer a check in the win column. With the Pac-12 as deep as it has been in years, a Mike Leach-coached team is going to be a threat every single week.

It also got to the postseason, which is a big step forward. The next step is learning to win games like this. It’s one thing to be favored and know you are a better team. It’s a whole other thing to go out and execute.

“There was a sense of relaxation in the fourth quarter that we paid the price for,” Leach said.

I believe the expression is killer instinct, and that can only come from experience. The Cougars haven’t had much cause for a killer instinct lately. It’s an acquired taste for chum in the water, and Washington State is yet to develop that. Stanford has it. Arizona State has it. Oregon has it. The top teams in the country have it. My gut tells me that, eventually, WSU will too under Leach.

The Cougars might never ascend into the ranks of a top-five team, but they’ll learn to finish.

“I think that starts with a certain level of belief,” Leach said. “I think we’re a better team than we honestly across the board we believe we are. Confidence breeds success, success breeds confidence. Some of that is offseason and time on the practice field in order to develop those skills and get a visual of what you’re capable of individually and then as you do it together more often and become more familiar with each other you start to see it take shape. We need to continue to push and really develop that.”

Washington State… well, as your rivals often joke, you "Couged it."

It was over when: Colorado State kicker Jared Roberts booted a 41-yard field goal as time expired, capping an epic meltdown by Washington State in a 48-45 Rams victory in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl in Albuquerque. The Cougars (6-7) surrendered 18 points in the final 2:52, fumbling twice to give the seemingly beaten Rams (8-6) new life.

Game ball goes to: Colorado State running back Kapri Bibbs, who was nursing a turf toe injury, rushed for 169 yards on 27 carries with three touchdowns, including a 75-yard effort and a 1-yard burst that tied the game in the waning moments. He averaged 6.3 yards per rush.

Unsung hero of the game: Colorado State QB Garrett Grayson completed 31 of 50 passes for 369 yards and two touchdowns, leading an offense that gained 595 yards against a Cougars defense that was surprisingly hapless and unsound.

Stat of the game: The Cougars rushed for minus-10 yards. And when they tried to run the ball in order to run out the clock, it became a comedy of errors. Just after replay officials saved the Cougars from a Connor Halliday fumble on a peculiar read-option keeper, Jeremiah Laufasa fumbled on the next play, setting up the tying touchdown and two-point conversion.

What it means: It means most of the momentum Washington State gained from playing in its first bowl game since 2003 reverts to frustration. The Cougars will almost certainly make every postseason bowl game review for being the bowl season's biggest chokers.

Instead of finishing 7-6, the Cougs finish with a losing record for the seventh consecutive season.

The final three minutes of the game were devoid of poise and execution. This one will bite at coach Mike Leach and his players for a long time, at least until the 2014 season opener.

It also means the Pac-12 loses its first game in 11 matchups this year against the Mountain West Conference.

Recall this week when Pac-12 fans were irritated with's Mark Schlabach for picking the Pac-12 to go 3-6 this bowl season? Well, he picked Colorado State to beat Washington State.

To watch the trophy presentation of the Gildan New Mexico Bowl, click here.

New Mexico Bowl preview

December, 21, 2013
Washington State will take on Colorado State on Saturday at 2 p.m. ET (ESPN) in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl.

Here's a quick preview:

Who To Watch: As Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday goes, so goes the Cougars’ pass-happy offense. The key for Halliday is protecting the football. His 21 interceptions this year were five more than any other Pac-12 QB. For the Rams, it's all about running back Kapri Bibbs, who rushed for 1,572 yards and 28 touchdowns this year, averaging a stout 6.2 yards per carry.

What To Watch: Again, it starts with Halliday and Bibbs. Colorado State ranked 100th in the nation in pass-efficiency defense, so Halliday and his corps of receivers should have a good day. The Cougars ranked ninth in the Pac-12 in run defense, yielding 184 yards per game. Of course, the Cougs played four teams that ranked in the nation's top 23 in rushing.

Why To Watch: Because it's the first bowl game! Because the Cougars are excited to be playing in their first bowl since 2003. Because Mike Leach might say something amusing to a sideline reporter, before, during or after the game.

Predictions: Kevin: Washington State 41, Colorado State 28. Ted: Washington State 45, Colorado State 20.

New Mexico, Las Vegas Bowl predictions

December, 20, 2013
After correctly predicting a Stanford victory in the Pac-12 title game against Arizona State, Kevin took a one-game lead over Ted, as he stands at 75-17 and Ted is 74-18.

Nine bowl games to rule the season!


Kevin Gemmell: It has been a long drought for the Cougars -- more than a decade -- since they've been to a bowl game. Don't think they'll let this opportunity pass them by. Washington State should win, because it's the better football team, has a more dangerous offense, a more physical defense and the Cougars are far more battle-tested. They've won high-scoring games and low-scoring games. Plus the Pac-12 has dominated the Mountain West this year. A lot of times the Pac-12 team playing in the New Mexico Bowl feel slighted. That shouldn't be the case. I also like what I've seen out of Connor Halliday the last four games. He has done a much better job taking care of the ball, throwing for 10 touchdowns and four interceptions. In the first eight games he had 18 touchdowns and 17 picks. Washington State 41, Colorado State 28.

Ted Miller: There should be no question about focus and motivation for the Cougars. They've gone 6-6 against an infinitely tougher schedule than the one the Rams faced in going 7-6. And Colorado State ranks 100th in the nation in pass efficiency defense. That's not a good place to struggle when playing a Mike Leach team. The Cougs should roll and create momentum for a promising 2014 season. Washington State 45, Colorado State 20.


Kevin Gemmell: This is a scary game for the Trojans, no doubt. As noted in the New Mexico Bowl post above, the Pac-12 has been dominant over the Mountain West. But Fresno State's motivation is to show that it isn't just another Mountain West team. The Bulldogs are the Mountain West champs. Obviously, Derek Carr and Davante Adams are a significant threat. But the Trojans had the top pass defense in the conference. They've yielded only 18 touchdowns through the air, and quarterbacks are completing just 57.3 percent of their throws against the USC secondary, which has 16 picks. Plus, I doubt Fresno State has seen a pass rush like USC's. USC 31, Fresno State 28.

Ted Miller: USC is on its third head coach this season, with Steve Sarkisian waiting in the wings to become No. 4, and former offensive coordinator Clay Helton, the second interim coach, replaced the incredibly popular Ed Orgeron. The Trojans clearly were unhappy that Coach O is no longer around. Fresno State is very good on offense, with Carr particularly adept at getting rid of the ball quickly. Further, the Trojans' offensive line will be without two starters, including first-team All-Pac-12 center Marcus Martin. Finally, I can't get the dismal 2012 Sun Bowl out of my head. Fresno State 35, USC 28.

WSU takes a right turn to Albuquerque

December, 17, 2013
Washington State didn't just achieve a 6-6 record and earn its first bowl invitation since 2003 in Mike Leach's second year as coach, it did so despite playing a brutal schedule, the nation's eighth toughest, according to ESPN's Stats & Info.

The Cougars played the nation's No. 2 (Auburn), No. 5 (Stanford), No. 10 (Oregon), No. 14 (Arizona State) and No. 25 (USC) teams. They also played three other bowl teams (Oregon State, Arizona and Washington). They beat the Trojans and Wildcats -- on the road, no less -- and held serve when the schedule mercifully yielded weaker foes.

[+] EnlargeConnor Halliday
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonWashington State signal-caller Connor Halliday returns next season, along with several other top playmakers.
Heading into the Gildan New Mexico Bowl opposite Colorado State on Saturday, it certainly feels like the program is on an uptick, particularly after Leach's debut season fell well short of the high expectations he inspired upon his hiring. Year 1, in fact, felt like a disaster, with locker room dissension further tarnishing a 3-9 record, and some Cougars fans were fretting whether the future held much promise.

But Leach, as those who know him well knew he would, maintained his Sinatra and did it his way, insisting the locker room catch up to him, not the other way around.

"A lot of it was establishing expectations, raising expectations and figuring out who wanted to commit and do the work to be the best they could be," he said.

The biggest area of improvement was offense, Leach's chief area of expertise. Last season, the Cougars averaged a meager 20.4 points per game. This season, they averaged 29.8. The biggest improvement? Pass protection. The Cougs surrendered an eye-popping 57 sacks in 2012. This season, they gave up just 27, which ranked seventh in the Pac-12. That is pretty impressive considering they threw 698 passes, 76 more than No. 2 California, which gave up 35 sacks. Seven conference teams didn't even throw 400 passes.

But Leach doesn't point to the numbers when assessing the season. He sees improvement there as a natural result of a team growing up and growing together. Keep in mind that the Cougs were 4-5 on Oct. 31 after a dreary 55-31 loss to Arizona State in front of just 20,617 fans in Martin Stadium, and bowl hopes seemed dim with three tough games to play.

"Nobody took their eye off the path," Leach said. "They kept fighting together and pulling together. We steadily improved."

The Cougars are solid favorites to get a seventh win against the Rams, who didn't beat a team with a winning record, and then head into the offseason expecting to take another step forward in the Pac-12's North Division in 2014.

The first question with fans is quarterback. Connor Halliday was decidedly hot and cold this fall. He put up huge numbers, ranking fifth in the nation with 348.9 yards passing per game, but he also threw a conference-high 21 interceptions.

Halliday, however, doesn't appear to be much of a question for Leach.

"Under the best of circumstances, he's going to be hard for anybody to beat out," Leach said.

Halliday needs to not only cut down the interceptions, he needs to improve upon his 62.8 completion percentage. While not horrible by any stretch, particularly considering the Cougs offered little threat to run the ball, Leach's quarterbacks typically eclipse the 70 percent threshold when things are in sync.

Leach said the offseason focus for Halliday is "from the neck up," but he most praised his quarterback's intangibles this season, particularly his leadership, which bodes well for the offseason.

"As we hit hard times during the season, rather than flinching, he always rallied and pulled everybody together and generated an awful lot of presence and enthusiasm among our team," Leach said.

The good news is just about all the Cougs' top skill players are returning next year. The bad news is there are some questions on the offensive line and the secondary, most notably the loss of enforcer Deone Bucannon, who has earned All-Pac-12 and some All-American recognition after the season.

Leach sees two young teams in the New Mexico Bowl that should be better next fall. While he's most encouraged by how his team improved during the season, he also saw something he liked after the regular season ended, something afforded to his team for the first time since 2003: More practices.

Said Leach, "We improved this last week, too."

Colorado looks like a different team

September, 1, 2013
Colorado was perhaps the nation's worst AQ conference team last year. That won't be the case this year.

In their first game under coach Mike MacIntyre, the Buffaloes beat rival Colorado State 41-27, with quarterback Connor Wood throwing for 400 yards and two of his three touchdowns to receiver Paul Richardson, who finished with 208 yards receiving.

In last year's loss to the Rams, the Buffaloes wilted in the fourth quarter. This time, they dominated, winning the final frame 18-3 with big plays on both sides of the ball.

The biggest was a 53-yard fumble return for a TD from cornerback Greg Henderson. At the time, Colorado had just taken a 26-24 lead, so things were tight. Defensive end Chidera Uzo-Diribe forced the fumble, coming up behind Joe Hansley and slapping the ball loose.

It was a heady play. How often did we accuse a Buff of being "heady" last year?

Richardson then iced the game with a 75-yard touchdown reception with 3:36 remaining, taking a short pass the distance against busted coverage.

Wood was in complete control. While he got little support from a running game, he completed 33 of 46 with three TDs and no interceptions.

Don't forget the defense. Last year, the Buffs yielded 46 points and 499 yards per game. The Rams had just 295 yards.

Kicker Will Oliver was 4 for 4 on field goals, including a career-long of 52 yards. The only downer was poor coverage on special teams, with the Rams returning a punt 74 yards for a TD and a kick 84 yards, which set up another TD.

The Buffs play host to Central Arkansas next weekend, trying to improve to 2-0. They haven't been 2-0 since 2008.

Pac-12 predictions: Week 1

August, 29, 2013
It's prediction time! Wheeee!

Last year, Kevin and Ted tied at the end of the regular season with 66-25 records. Ah, but then came the bowl season, and -- cough, cough -- by virtue of Ted going 5-3 and Kevin going 4-4, the old guy prevailed by a single game.

Let's hear it for the old guys!

And you know who won it for Ted? Texas! How about that fudge?



Kevin Gemmell: First game, and I’m already conflicted. This one is scary with Chuckie Keeton back at QB for Utah State and all five of his linemen back to protect him. I think Utah is going to be better than it was last season, and the Utes will be looking for revenge from last year’s loss. In close games, go with the home team. Utah 21, Utah State 17

Ted Miller: This is an interesting one. Utah State changed coaches but has a lot of guys back. The Utes have preseason injury issues -- paging Brian Blechen; your defense needs you -- and those issues have made coach Kyle Whittingham grumpy. But you know why I'm picking Utah? Because I think the Utes are angry about how folks have written them off, and angry often translates well in football. And I like the MUSS being loud. Utah 24, Utah State 21


Kevin Gemmell: A good chance for both USC quarterbacks to get a lot of work against a nonthreatening opponent. Trojans should roll. USC 35, Hawaii 14

Ted Miller: USC is going to win this game, but it would be good for coach Lane Kiffin if the Trojans looked good doing it. Want to be goofy about your QB situation? Fine. You just better look good on offense. The biggest news in this one is which QB starts and, subsequently, who sets himself up to start against Washington State next week. USC 35, Hawaii 20



Kevin Gemmell: How many Arizona quarterbacks will we see in this game? I’m putting the over/under at three -- and I’m leaning toward the over. Arizona 42, NAU 17

Ted Miller: I actually think B.J. Denker is going to be the man for the Wildcats, even if other guys play. The issue is whether he remains that way. I think the only guy who would unseat him is Jesse Scroggins, and he has struggled to stay healthy. Arizona 40, NAU 14



Kevin Gemmell: The only concern here is that Marcus Mariota tweaks a fingernail pulling off his shoulder pads at halftime. Oregon 48, Nicholls State 7

Ted Miller: I'm actually afraid for Nicholls State. Oregon 101, Nicholls State 3


Kevin Gemmell: Eastern Washington is a pretty good Football Championship Subdivision team. And Oregon State fans know better than to overlook FCS teams. But I see no reason the Beavers don’t roll in this one. Oregon State 35, Eastern Washington 10

Ted Miller: The Beavers have some nagging injury issues, so they just want to win this one and get out of the game healthy. And they want Sean Mannion to justify his winning a high-profile QB competition. Oregon State 41, Eastern Washington 17


Kevin Gemmell: A good tuneup game for the Bruins against a team that has some bite. I really like what Nevada quarterback Cody Fajardo is capable of. But I like Brett Hundley better. Should be a decent game, but ultimately not enough to give UCLA a real scare. UCLA 35, Nevada 17

Ted Miller: Sitting here making this pick, I realize how Jim Mora has changed things at UCLA in just one year. For a decade or so previous to him, this is exactly the sort of game that you'd pause over, going, "Hmm ... UCLA is better but, man, do the Bruins know how to blow it!" Mora inspires confidence in terms of his team coming out in a businesslike fashion and playing like the superior collection of athletes that it is. UCLA 40, Nevada 24


Kevin Gemmell: Should be one of the closest, most competitive games in the country in Week 1. And in close games, sticking with my personal doctrine, I’ll go with the home team. Washington 24, Boise State 21

Ted Miller: These teams were tightly contested in the Las Vegas Bowl, and the Huskies look like a better team than they were last season, while the Broncos have a lot of guys to replace. Still, it comes down to Huskies QB Keith Price. If he's his 2011 self again, Washington will roll. Washington 30, Boise State 21


Kevin Gemmell: I think the Bears will show a little backbone and Jared Goff will gain some confidence. But probably not enough to beat a ranked team in his first career start. However, it’ll be closer than people think. Northwestern 35, California 28

Ted Miller: Hello, Cal fans. It's me again. I've got bad news. I think you're going to win this game. Of course, that probably means you're going to lose, because the Bears never do what I think they'll do. Or was that just a Jeff Tedford thing? I'm so conflicted. Maybe if someone brought me a calabrese from Top Dog I could make sense of it all? California 27, Northwestern 24


Kevin Gemmell: I got burned by the Cougs in the season opener last year when they were two-touchdown dogs on the road, and it haunts me to this day. Lesson learned. Auburn 28, Washington State 21

Ted Miller: Both teams went 3-9 last season, but the Tigers have a lot more size and athletes. I think the Cougars are going to put a scare into Auburn and its fans, but the Tigers' athleticism and, perhaps, the Southeastern humidity will wear WSU down in the fourth quarter. Auburn 33, Washington State 24


Kevin Gemmell: The Rams bring back nine starters on offense. But Paul Richardson is due for a multitouchdown game. Colorado will get a little vengeance from last season. Bring on the Mac attack. Colorado 27, Colorado State 17

Ted Miller: I stared at the Colorado depth chart Tuesday and had an interesting reaction that surprised me: maybe. The Buffs should have won this game last season, and I think they're better than in 2012. Colorado 30, Colorado State 27
Just about anything that could go wrong went wrong for Utah during its visit to Utah State last year. Nonetheless, there were plenty of moments when the Utes could have pulled themselves up by their Pac-12 bootstraps and cast aside a team that they had beaten 12 consecutive times.

Could've, should've, would've.

Same goes for Colorado against Colorado State in their 2012 opener. The Buffaloes had a fourth-quarter lead and plenty of opportunities to take the short drive home from Denver with a win.


Utah and Colorado are about to begin their third year of Pac-12 play. Neither is happy with what has transpired over the past two seasons. Colorado has been awful, and Utah has gone from top-25 program to a team with a losing conference record.

[+] EnlargeKyle Whittingham
Kelley L Cox/US PresswireUtah coach Kyle Whittingham admits he didn't handle the loss to Utah State last season very well.
It's not unreasonable to wonder if early-season losses to a "little brother" state rival last September -- as in non-AQ teams with a history of losing in the series -- might have taken the starch out of their seasons before they really had started, that a residual hangover lingered throughout the year.

"I think without a doubt," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "Me personally, I didn't take it well. I wasn't able to put it behind me and move forward quick enough. In this profession, that's what you've got to be able to do. You've got to be resilient and, win or lose, move forward and focus on the next opponent. I think there was a little bit of a hangover, and that's squarely on my shoulders and my fault. I'm responsible for the mindset of the program and the team."

Let's set the table with "what if" for both. What if Utes QB Jordan Wynn doesn't in the second quarter again hurt his shoulder against the Aggies, an injury that would end his once-promising career? What if Coleman Peterson wins the game in regulation with a 52-yard field goal instead of missing? What if a TD catch in overtime from tight end Jake Murphy doesn't get nullified by an offensive pass interference penalty?

(We'll pause to allow Utes fans to express themselves about that call).

Essentially, what if Utah wins? At the very least, the Utes don't suffer their first losing season in a decade. In a bigger picture of "what if," the entire season might have played out differently.

As for Colorado, it's pretty simple. If the Buffaloes had made plays in the fourth quarter of a game they seemed poised to take control of, it's possible that Jon Embree would still be the head coach, not Mike MacIntyre.

These little brother rivals also had different trajectories. Utah State rolled to an 11-2 finish, and coach Gary Andersen parlayed that into a contract coaching Wisconsin. Offensive coordinator Matt Wells takes over a team with a lot of starters back, including dynamic QB Chucky Keeton, that figures to make some noise in the Mountain West Conference this fall.

Conversely, the Rams, also in the Mountain West, lost six in a row after beating Colorado, including an embarrassing 22-7 defeat to North Dakota State, an FCS team. Still, the Rams have a lot of starters back.

Both "little brothers" probably feel good about their chances, the Aggies on Thursday and Colorado State on Sunday.

For MacIntyre, he knows that a season-opening win could provide his tenure some immediate good will from a beleaguered fan base. Of course, he's been tossed into a measuring stick game with more ramification than most first-year coaches are facing this week.

"There's a lot of emotion involved in it," MacIntyre said. "I think it's different than a lot of opening games. You're playing your in-state rival at a neutral site. That puts a little bit of added emotional context to it."

The rebuilding Buffaloes are a 3-point underdog, but their matchup with the Rams represents their best chance for a win over an FBS team in 2013. A loss would make it a hard-sell for MacIntyre to convince his guys they have any chance in Pac-12 play. A win? It might inspire enough momentum for the season to exceed expectations, thereby igniting longterm optimism.

Utah has bigger goals, but a loss to Utah State would make earning bowl eligibility suddenly seem like an uphill battle. Fans impatient with the Utes progress in the Pac-12 might then point the finger of blame at Whittingham.

In other words, these are big games for both programs.

While coaches like to pooh-pooh the idea of "must win," it's not unreasonable to believe the trajectory of both teams' seasons could be set this week against an ambitious “little brother.”

Yesterday we polled the most intriguing nonconference game in the Pac-12 North. As promised, today we poll the South Division. Here's the full nonconference primer series so you can review the games.

Not surprised to see Stanford versus Notre Dame and Washington versus Boise State as the two games people view as most intriguing. Though I thought it would have been a little closer. I voted Washington -- and I think I've pretty sufficiently hammered home my thoughts on how important that game is over the last few weeks.


What's the most intriguing nonconference game in the South Division?


Discuss (Total votes: 5,027)

On to the South, with another round of excellent matchups. Arizona State has two of them, but in the interest of getting more teams into the poll I had to make a Solomon-like choice between the Wisconsin and Notre Dame games. Some of you might agree, some won't.

So, on to the poll. What's the most intriguing nonconference game in the South Division? Your options (determined by chronological order):

Sept. 1, Colorado versus Colorado State (in Denver): One of Colorado's oldest rivals, Colorado State could provide a tone-setter for Mike MacIntyre's first season as the Buffs' coach. Last year's game was a close one, and a lot of people are eager to see what the Buffs will look like once shaped in Mac's image. Colorado gave Jim McElwain his first win as CSU's coach. We'll see if the Rams can return the favor.

Sept. 14, ASU versus Wisconsin: As noted, I was on the fence between this one and Notre Dame. But I picked this one because it's the first game of that four-game stretch that also includes Stanford, USC and then Notre Dame. If the Sun Devils don't win this one, it could be bad vibes going into those next three games. Win it, and they've got the Big Mo moving forward.

Sept. 14, UCLA at Nebraska: The return trip from last year's game at the Rose Bowl should be a great one. Two athletic quarterbacks -- two teams that will likely start in the top 25 and a fantastic showcase game for the Pac-12 and Big Ten.

Sept. 21, Utah at BYU: I think the season opener against Utah State is also critical for the Utes. But this one is the Holiest of Holies. And while discussions are in the works to keep the series going, there is still going to be a two-year gap where bragging rights will mean everything.

Oct. 19, USC at Notre Dame: A classic rivalry that always garners plenty of national attention, this year's contest has plenty of intrigue. What will USC's quarterback situation look like in mid-October? Will the Irish still have their regular-season win streak? Last year's game in LA was a microcosm of everything that went wrong for the Trojans in 2012 and they'll be eager to make amends on the road.
Only six more mailbags until media day, so enjoy each one.

As always, follow us on Twitter.

To the notes!

Greg in Los Angeles writes: Which team makes the biggest turnaround from 2012? Is it Cal with a new staff? Colorado which could double (triple?) it's win total from last year? Does USC do a 180 from it's previous miserable performance? (And no poll would be complete without an 'Oregon' option)

Kevin Gemmell: Are those my only options?

I think Cal is going to improve -- but the record might not show it simply because of who they have to play. The nonconference schedule is brutal. The North is brutal. I think I wrote something somewhere at sometime not to be surprised if Cal sneaks up on one of the top four in the North and pulls an upset. But of those top four, three of them are on the road (Oregon State is the only home game).

Colorado -- as you deftly point out -- could triple its win total. I could see that. I think Colorado State and Central Arkansas are winnable and then there might be one or two more wins out there. I think you certainly would chalk up a three- or four-win season as a victory for the Buffs and Mike MacIntyre in his first year.

As for the Trojans, I think they need at least nine wins to pick up the pieces from last year. If they only get eight, they had better beat UCLA and Notre Dame along the way. I'm not sold that the sky is falling on USC -- but I do think they are at a critical juncture. As I've noted a few times, I really like the switch to the 3-4 and think that's going to pay huge dividends because they have to do a better job stopping the run. They are right there with ASU and UCLA as legitimate contenders for the South Division. And if they end up in the Pac-12 title game, that would certainly qualify as a turnaround season.

Bob in Tempe writes: How the hell you have Washington over ASU is beyond me. Damn Californians ...

Kevin Gemmell: I'm not sure how being from California impacts the projection of a team from Washington over a team from Arizona. But I'll let that one slide.

As I noted in the future power rankings, Arizona State could very well be at the top of the rankings in 2016. Just give me one season of double-digit wins. One season with multiple wins over ranked opponents. One season where they finish the year ranked and I'll buy it.

And here's the counter argument -- you haven't seen that from Washington, either. And you're right. We haven't seen a 10-win season. But they did beat two top 10 teams last year, where Arizona State beat No. 24 Arizona in a rivalry game.

Don't get me wrong, I'm high on ASU this year. But those future power rankings were as much about building a program and sustaining success. I think Washington has already gone through the process of building up their program and now they are ready to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Whereas ASU is still in the early stages of re-branding itself under Todd Graham. That's not a knock on the program. It just takes time. And I'm convinced he's the right guy for the job. He and I were chatting yesterday, as a matter of fact, and I'm buying what he's selling.

Bob, you've inspired me! Everyone, if you feel compelled over the weekend, send me what your future power rankings will look like in 2016. Be reasonable (if possible). And try to be logical (if possible). If we get enough that are publishable, Ted and I will run some of them next week. Same format, rank them 1-through-12 with a sentence or two explaining your logic.

Harry in Minnesota writes: Kevin:Thanks for your excellent and detailed coverage of the conference and my favorite team in it, Stanford. Ok. But: I'm not clear why so many pundits ranks Brent Hundley so highly. I've watched and rewatched Hundley's two games against Stanford, and they prompted me to compare Hundley's numbers with Kevin Hogan's: PER: Hogan 148, Hundley 148 Third down PER: Hogan 142, Hundley 120.Third down conversion percentage passing: Hogan 47%, Hundley 38% Third down conversion percentage passing or rushing: Hogan 43%, Hundley 34 + runs: Hundley 19 (1.4 per game), Hogan 15 (2.5 per game)First downs rushing: Hundley 25 (1.9 per game); Hogan 19 (3.2 per game)W-L: Hundley 9-5, Hogan 6-0. On first down and with the option of giving the ball to Jonathan Franklin, Hundley was an effective quarterback. After that, but particularly on the money down (3rd), he was remarkably less effective. Of course, it may be that the pundits rank Hogan right behind him, but hesitate to say that until Hogan has more than six games to his resume. Perhaps. But I'm left with the feeling that Brent Hundley just looks the part of a fast, athletic, dangerous college quarterback; it's a Moneyball effect. Do you agree? Or am I missing something that my eyes and the statistics miss?

Kevin Gemmell: Like the fact that after first down, Hundley was left scrambling for his life? Only two teams in FBS football were worse at allowing sacks than UCLA (and both actually come from the Pac-12). Hundley takes some of the blame -- he has to get better at knowing when to throw it away. But he certainly didn't have the quality of offensive line play that Hogan did. UCLA was playing three freshman and a guy who hadn't played football in two years.

That will change this year. And I suspect Hundley will be a much better quarterback for it. He is the real deal. But I think Hogan is as well.

Both are outstanding quarterbacks. But Stanford did a much better job protecting Hogan -- literally and figuratively. Hundley was thrown right into the thick of it -- with a new coach running a new offense that he wasn't recruited for. Both had outstanding backs to lean on. Both have outstanding coaches overseeing their progress.

But they also run two very different types of systems. And if you're just watching Hundley in those two games, remember those came at the tail end of his first year as starter and he'd already been put on his back more than 40 times. It's a long season and those shots added up. He's added about 17 pounds of muscle (I was pretty shocked when I first saw him when I went up there to visit in spring ball), but he's retained his speed.

Just for funsies, let's say Hogan was at UCLA and Hundley was at Stanford (to my knowledge, Hogan wasn't offered by any other Pac-12 schools, but Hundley did receive an offer from Stanford).

Hundley wouldn't have had to learn a new system with a new coach (he would have learned for a year under Andrew Luck). And suppose was brought along slowly -- as Hogan was -- and inserted halfway into the year. My guess is we'd probably see similar results. And I think if Hogan started 14 games for the Bruins, we'd probably see close to similar results there.

In his first year as a starter, Hundley completed 66.5 percent of his throws with 29 touchdowns. I'll take that from a first-year starter.

So in the end -- Hogan or Hundley? Hundley or Hogan? I think both are perfect fits for where they are at. And the fans are the real winners because when you toss in Marcus Mariota and Taylor Kelly, you've got a really exciting crop of quarterbacks to watch each week.

Just Saying in Las Vegas writes: I am going to be the guy to say the obvious, the Pac 12 will be known as the sissy conference if this "no contact rule" is enforced. Why doesn't the Pac 12 just give up their manhood and sponsor soccer? Football is a man's sport; a violent sport. That's just how it is. It's hard to feel THAT sorry for college players when they get these huge scholarships and everything [including grades] handed to them. Then if they go pro, we're talking about millions upon millions of dollars annually. I am so glad the Big 10, Big 12, SEC, and ACC actually have some pride by continuing to allow hits in practice. I know you guys are Pac 12 cheerleaders, so get ready to be making lame excuses as to why Pac teams just aren't as tough as other power conference teams.

Kevin Gemmell: Wow, someone drank too much come-at-me-bro-juice this morning and got their TapOut undies in a bunch.

First, the premise of your note is wrong. It's not a no-contact rule. It's limiting the amount of hitting in practice -- something that a lot of schools in those conferences you mentioned are already doing. And they are doing it in the NFL also. In fact, I'm pretty sure what the Pac-12 is doing is mostly drawn from NFL policy. They'll release the official policy next month, but I promise it's nothing that already isn't being done across the country.

And you don't need to have suffered a concussion to suffer from brain damage.

You are right, though. This is a violent game. And as we move into the College Football Playoff era, there is going to be a call for standardization across the board: Standardized scheduling, number of assistants for assistants etc. And yes -- full-on hitting in practice is going to be one of those things that I believe will be regulated across college football in the coming years. You might not like it, but this is the direction of football -- professional or otherwise. And it's been happening for a while. The Pac-12 is just the first to standardize it and put out a press release about it.

So have another Rockstar and get on board, or pick another sport to follow.

But if you're feeling extra geeked up, feel free to walk up to this guy and call him a sissy. Or this guy. Or this guy. Or this guy. Or this guy. Or this guy. Or this guy. Or this guy. Or this guy. Or this guy. Or this guy.

And by the way, on this blog, you'll get a lot more respect if you actually use your name. Just saying.

Nonconference primer: Colorado

June, 21, 2013
We continue our series taking a closer look at each Pac-12 team's nonconference schedule.


Colorado State, Sept. 1 (in Denver)
  • Coach: Jim McElwain (4-8), second year
  • 2012 record: 4-8, 3-5 Mountain West
  • Returning starters: nine offense, six defense
  • Offensive headliner(s): The Rams have a deep running back corps with Chris Nwoke (who led the team in rushing in 2011) and Donnell Alexander (who led the team in 2012) both coming back.
  • Defensive headliner: Cornerback Shaq Bell is the leader of a young secondary. He was all-league honorable mention last year after posting 66 tackles, a sack, a pick and he recovered three fumbles.
  • The skinny: The Rams went through a quarterback carousel last year (which should sound familiar to Colorado fans) but appear to be settling on Garrett Grayson, last year's original starter. Last season, McElwain became the first Rams coach to win his debut in 42 years. And it came against the Buffs after they failed to hold a 17-16 fourth-quarter lead in the season opener.
Central Arkansas, Sept. 7
  • Coach: Clint Conque (98-54), 14th year
  • 2012 record: 9-3, 6-1 Southland
  • Returning starters: eight offense, nine defense
  • Offensive headliner: Quarterback Wynrick Smothers put up fantastic numbers last year, earning the league's Offensive Player of the Year honors while completing 64.9 percent of his throws for 3,103 yards with 31 touchdowns to nine interceptions. He also rushed for 449 yards and three touchdowns.
  • Defensive headliner: Sophomore defensive end Jonathan Woodard earned the league's Freshman of the Year honors last season after posting 11 tackles for a loss and seven sacks in 2012.
  • The skinny: Conque is the winningest coach in school history. They hung with Ole Miss last year and took Louisiana Tech to overtime the year before that, so they won't be intimidated at the mere thought of playing an FBS team. And the Buffs, though I don't think anyone needs reminding, fell at home to FCS opponent Sacramento State last year.
Fresno State, Sept. 14
  • Coach: Tim DeRuyter (9-4), second year
  • 2012 record: 9-4, 7-1 Mountain West
  • Returning starters: seven offense, eight defense
  • Offensive headliner: Senior quarterback Derek Carr was the 2012 MWC Offensive Player of the Year, setting a new league record with 4,104 passing yards. His 37 touchdowns last year were second all-time in league history and he has the second-highest career touchdown-to-interception ratio (63-16) of all returning FBS quarterbacks with at least 300 completions.
  • Defensive headliner: Nose guard Tyeler Davison -- a first-team all-league selection last year -- posted 43 stops last year, tops among the Bulldogs D-linemen. He also had seven tackles for a loss with three sacks and he was the only Fresno State defensive lineman to start every game last year.
  • The skinny: After taking a slice of the MWC title last year, the Bulldogs should be tough again -- though they are moving on without running back Robbie Rouse -- the school's all-time leading rusher. Interestingly enough, Rouse set the school record on a 94-yard touchdown run (his fourth touchdown of the first quarter) in a 69-14 win over Colorado last year.
Thoughts: Colorado lost two close games to open 2012 -- the first to Colorado State and the next week to Sacramento State -- and that essentially opened the flood gates for a horrific season (save the Washington State shocker). The Rams are one of CU's oldest rivals and just as the Buffs gave McElwain his first career win, Mike MacIntyre getting his first career win against CSU would add nice symmetry to the rivalry. As noted, Central Arkansas is no pushover. But both of those games should fall under the winnable category. They get Fresno State at home and should -- at least -- have a better showing than they did last year. I don't think asking for a 2-1 start is out of the question. But another 0-3 opening would kill any momentum Colorado has heading into the year with its new coaching staff.

You can see the rest of the series here.

Early odds on Pac-12 games

June, 10, 2013
Who's the favorite in the big Pac-12 nonconference and conference games this year?

Well, the process of making point spreads -- for entertainment purposes only! -- has begun. Don Best revealed the Golden Nugget's odds for 250 college games late last week.

That includes making Oregon a 4-point favorite at Stanford on Nov. 7, meaning Las Vegas believes the Ducks to be the best team in the Pac-12. Or at least it believes that's what the public believe.

We are not listing every game, only some of the notable ones.
  • Washington State at Auburn (-11.5)
  • Colorado vs. Colorado State (-3.5)
  • Boise State at Washington (-2)
  • Oregon (-21) at Virginia
  • Wisconsin at Arizona State (pick)
  • Ohio State (-21) at California
  • UCLA at Nebraska (-6)
  • Tennessee at Oregon (-25)
  • Arizona State at Stanford (-10)
  • Utah at BYU (-7.5)
  • USC at Arizona State (pick)
  • Arizona State vs. Notre Dame (-4) (Cowboys Stadium)
  • Oregon (-37) at Colorado
  • Washington at Stanford (-10)
  • Arizona at USC (-7)
  • Oregon (-14) at Washington
  • UCLA at Stanford (-10)
  • USC at Notre Dame (-5)
  • Stanford (-3) at Oregon State
  • UCLA at Oregon (-20)
  • USC at Oregon State (-2)
  • Oregon (-4) at Stanford
  • Washington at UCLA (-2)
  • Oregon State at Arizona State (-4.5)
  • Stanford at USC (-1)
  • Arizona State at UCLA (-3)
  • California at Stanford (-22)
  • Washington at Oregon State (-5)
  • Washington State at Washington (-14)
  • Oregon State at Oregon (-16)
  • Arizona at Arizona State (-5)
  • UCLA at USC (-7)

Most important game: Colorado

April, 25, 2013
Every game counts. But some games count more. Or tell us more.

We're going through the Pac-12 and picking out one game that seems most important -- or potentially most revealing -- for each team from our vantage point today.

And then we'll let you vote from a list of potential options.

We're going in reverse alphabetical order.


Most important game: Sept. 1 vs. Colorado State


Most important 2013 game for Colorado?


Discuss (Total votes: 1,922)

Why it's important: This will be the first game of the Mike MacIntyre era. It will be played in Denver's Mile High Stadium against a state rival, one that is undeniably the little brother in the Rocky Mountain Showdown.

And it's against a little brother who humiliated the Buffaloes last year, a 22-17 Rams victory that set a horrible trajectory for perhaps the worst season in Colorado history.

The Buffs never recovered from the opening-day defeat. The next week, while Colorado State was losing to North Dakota State on its way to a 4-8 finish, Colorado lost to Sacramento State, an FCS team. The next week, it was bludgeoned into submission at Fresno State, 69-14, a quintessential white-flag performance from a team that didn't seem to want to play football anymore.

You probably can trace a 1-11 finish and the firing of Jon Embree to the woeful performance against the Rams. Ergo: In order to move on and up, the program needs to win this eminently winnable game.

It needs to win for its beleaguered fans. It needs to win for MacIntyre to get off to a good start. It needs to win so the Buffs develop confidence. It needs to win because it's a Pac-12 team and Colorado State is a Mountain West Conference bottom-feeder (no offense intended, Rams).

If Colorado loses? Wait. Let's start with the good side of things.

If Colorado beats the Rams, it gets to celebrate a win for the first time since Sept. 22, 2012. It also likely would start 2-0 with Central Arkansas coming to Boulder the next week. That means it could double its 2012 win total two games into the season, which is a good thing.

Then Fresno State comes to town. There should be a revenge angle there fueling the Buffs, though the Bulldogs look like a tough out, with 16 starters back from a crew that went 9-4 last year.

So the number is 2-0. It gives a program that has been miserable something to enjoy and build on. On a less scintillating note, it's possible that those will be the Buffs' only two wins in 2013. At this point, they figure to be underdogs over the entirety of the remaining schedule, with the first three Pac-12 games being particularly tough: at Oregon State, Oregon and at Arizona State.

But the path to three or four wins only starts with 2-0.

If Colorado loses? Well, that would be bad. Fans would throw up their hands, "Same lousy team." Players would lose confidence, "Man, we stink." And that would be no fun for MacIntyre and his staff as they try to reverse the course of this once-proud but now sagging program.

MacIntyre and Colorado need a good start. They won't get one without winning the opener. So the date with the Rams is circled in red.