Pac-12: Gary Andersen

Colorado gets an early -- and chilly? -- start to spring practices Monday, leading the Pac-12 out of the gate.

Not to be caught off guard, here are five major issues confronting the North Division as spring practices begin.

Here's what we had to say about the South.

1. Oregon post-Mariota: The Ducks are not only replacing their quarterback, they are replacing the best player in program history. Heck, Marcus Mariota, the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner, is one of the greatest players in Pac-12 history. Oregon was good before Mariota and will be good after him. Still, he's been behind center for three years, so this is a significant transition. Further, with many suspecting the starting job is Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams' to lose, and he won't arrive until the summer, that means the establishment of a post-spring pecking order won't even approach an endgame. The guy with the most at stake is junior Jeff Lockie, Mariota's backup the past two years. He needs to make a strong statement with his play and leadership. If he does, it could give him a meaningful advantage when Adams arrives.

2. QB questions: The Ducks aren't the only North team uncertain at QB. In fact, only California with Jared Goff and Stanford with Kevin Hogan are set 100 percent behind center. Oregon State is replacing Sean Mannion in what figures to be a wide-open competition, one made more wide open by the departure of Mike Riley and arrival of Gary Andersen. While Washington has a returning starter in Cyler Miles, he was inconsistent in 2014 and could face a challenge from K.J. Carta-Samuels and touted true freshman early arrival Jake Browning. At Washington State, Luke Falk did a good job stepping in for an injured Connor Halliday -- he's certainly the front-runner to win the job -- but Mike Leach isn't going to hand him the starting spot by any means.

3. A new sheriff in Corvallis: Riley shocked just about everyone when he bolted for Nebraska after 14 seasons -- including the last 12 -- leading the Beavers. It wasn't an overwhelmingly sad departure, though, as more than a few Beavers fans had grown frustrated with the recent state of the program, particularly when compared to rival Oregon. The hiring of Andersen away from Wisconsin also seemed like a bold move, one that generated plenty of enthusiasm among the boosters. But Andersen will be adopting new schemes on both sides of the ball with a roster full of uncertainty. With a getting-to-know-you phase, spring will be much different in Corvallis this year.

4. Getting defensive: The biggest difference between the Pac-12 North and South divisions heading into spring is defensive turnover and/or questions. The South welcomes back a lot of defensive starters, while the North doesn't. Oregon State has just two defensive starters coming back and Stanford has just four. While Washington has six, it also loses three first-team All-Pac-12 performers in LB Shaq Thompson, OLB/DE Hau'oli Kikaha and DT Danny Shelton. Oregon has seven coming back, but it's rebuilding its secondary and replacing end Arik Armstead. Washington State has nine starters returning but it has a new coordinator in Alex Grinch after Mike Breske was fired. Cal has eight starters coming back, but it played lousy defense in 2014, ranking last in the conference with 39.8 points per game. North defenses figure to get a lot of attention this spring.

5. Year 2 for Chris Petersen: Perhaps the Pac-12's biggest story last spring was the arrival of Petersen, who was lured away from a celebrated run at Boise State to replace Steve Sarkisian, who bolted for USC. Petersen inherited a team that looked talented enough to make a run at the North title, or at least make a legitimate challenge to the Oregon-Stanford domination. It didn't come to pass. The Huskies were inconsistent on both sides of the ball, particularly on offense, and finished a lackluster 8-6 after a rotten performance in the TicketCity Cactus Bowl against Oklahoma State. The 2015 Huskies have just 12 position-player starters returning, so they will have many depth-chart questions to address this spring. On the plus side, there should be a good deal of familiarity between players and coaches, both in terms of scheme and approach. This looks like a year of transition for the program, but Huskies fans will be looking for signs of growth under Petersen that would suggest good things happening in the future.
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To the notes!

Andrew from Phoenix writes: Can this post-season please put to bed this obsession with "ranking" conferences? Here we are, a week after the season is ended, and we're debating whether the Pac-12 or SEC is the best conference in college football. For what it's worth they are 1 and 2, yet, the representatives of those conferences went 1-5 in the big games. So, then what is it really worth? The Big XII took an absolute nosedive as a whole, yet TCU had the second best postseason of all teams, and will be ranked in the Top 5 to start the season. Florida St got ragged all season for being in the "weak" ACC, whose #2 and #3 teams put an absolute shellacking on comparable teams from "stronger" conferences. The Big 10 is allegedly "back" after going 5-5 in the bowl season, but they only have 3 teams in the whole conference (Ohio St, Michigan St, and Wisconsin) with a prayer of finishing above 5th in the Pac South. Didn't seem to hurt Ohio St much against Oregon, did it? So, please try to convince me why it matters that Wisconsin beat Auburn, Stanford smoked Maryland, and Clemson crushed Oklahoma.

Ted Miller: To your first question, the answer is no. No, we can not put to bed this "obsession with 'ranking" conferences."

For one, it's necessary in college football, because we have to make subjective distinctions between teams that don't play each other. Whether it's the traditional national polls, the BCS system, or our new College Football Playoff, we have to rank teams, and how the conferences perform is one of the best ways -- the best way? -- we can do that.

Is it an exact science? No. Is it a way of conducting business that is laden with potential for bias and agenda? Absolutely.

Some, by the way, might argue that very subjectivity, an inescapable historical fact of college football, is one of the reasons the sport is so popular with its fans. Without an objective system -- such as large-scale playoffs used in pro sports -- a cherished U.S. institution therefore flourishes in college football: Endless, blathering debate, fueled by paranoia and manufactured offenses and cherry-picked "facts!"

It's a beautiful thing.

Another cherished institution is part of this: Regionalism. Due to the serendipity of a fan's or, often, a media member's birth location, that region becomes the source of all that is good and accomplished, and every other region is inferior, no matter how informed said fan or media member is on said other region. We all know from our present political reality that actually knowing stuff no longer matters and, in fact, can be a burden when debating with a louder and more pithy interlocutor.

But, hey, I'm not a scientist!

So the SEC fan thinks the Pac-12 is soft, and the Pac-12 fan thinks the Big Ten is slow, and the Big Ten fan things the Big 12 is finesse, and the Big 12 fan thinks the ACC is a basketball league, and the ACC fan thinks the SEC is overrated, etc., etc.

It. Will. Never. End.

And for that I am thankful.


Robert from New York writes: I've seen a lot of hype around USC for next season, and I'm not really sold on why. USC had a losing record against the Pac-12 South in 2014, including a blowout loss to UCLA. They're losing key players on both sides of the ball, and have a coach who has never won more than eight regular season games. Are sportswriters getting excited because they want a brand-name school to be elite, or am I missing something?

Ted Miller: Robert, you sound like some of my Pac-12 blogmates, so you are not alone in voicing some skepticism with the Trojans.

My case leads with this: Among its 16 returning position-player starters, USC welcomes back the most experienced, accomplished quarterback in the conference, Cody Kessler, and he will be playing behind an offensive line that will be the best in the Pac-12 (And USC fans should take heart for that 2016 opener against Alabama, because that should be an epic battle at the line of scrimmage between the Trojans and Crimson Tide). That offensive line welcomes back all five starters, led by senior, first-team-All-Pac-12 center Max Tuerk, as well has a good crew of backups.

Sure, there are some big hits, particularly with early departures, such as defensive end Leonard Williams, receiver Nelson Agholor, and runing back Javorius Allen. USC is going to need some young guys to step up. But finding ready-to-play youngsters is rarely a problem for USC, and, oh by the way, Steve Sarkisian is well on his way to signing what could end up a top-five class.

It will also help that Trojans should be well into the 70s in terms of scholarship players next fall. Though they won't get close to the maximum 85 scholarship players permitted by NCAA rules in their first post-sanctions season, they will be far above the 60 or so they played with in 2014. This will be a much deeper team in Sarkisian's second season.

As for doubting Sark, that's not unreasonable. No, he hasn't won a national title or a conference title, or even 10 games in a season. Yes, there were some times during his first season in which the Trojans seemed poorly prepared, poorly motivated, and poorly coached. You, by the way, could also say the same about Oregon. And Ohio State and Alabama, which went 7-6 and lost to UL Monroe in Nick Saban's first year in Tuscaloosa.

But, from today's vantage point, USC looks like the team with the fewest big questions in the Pac-12, though UCLA and Oregon could quickly counter with impressive clarity at quarterback.

I wouldn't be surprised if the Trojans are in the CFP discussion late into the 2015 season.

Does the USC "brand" play a role in that perception? Probably. But brand names have been pretty good bets over the long haul in college football.


Michael from Corvallis, Ore., writes: With Gary Andersen's staff poaching several assistants and recruits from Utah, not to mention two consecutive games going into OT, is there a chance Utah-Oregon State becomes an actual rivalry?

Ted Miller: Maybe, but it won't be because of any ill-will between the coaching staffs. Andersen and Utah coach Kyle Whittingham are extremely close -- both have said that to me within the past calendar year, Whittingham just a few weeks ago.

Whittingham also doesn't begrudge defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake jumping to Oregon State, because he knows it was a wise move professionally in the short and long term, particularly if Sitaki wants to be a head coach, which he does. Sitake needs to spread his wings outside of what had become a comfort zone in Salt Lake.

Further, being in different divisions, the Utes and Beavers will have a two-year hiatus coming up as the schedule rotates in 2017-2018.

Utah's chief rival remains BYU. Hard to believe that will change anytime soon, and it will be good to see the renewal of the Holy War in 2016. The Utes will develop Pac-12 rivalries, particularly in the South Division. But it will take time for ill-will and turf-wars to develop.

But Michael, if Utah/Oregon State is particularly annoying you, have at those dastardly Utes/Beavers (don't want to assume your preference just because you live in Corvallis).


Wayne from Mesa, Ariz., writes: With the 2014-15 Bowl Season all wrapped up, I was wondering what your thoughts were and what feedback you may have heard with regard to the new bowl lineup for the PAC-12. Granted, it was more of a tweak over the previous 4 years, but still featured new venues (Santa Clara and Tempe), new opponents (2 Big Ten teams), a slight change in the pecking order (Sun Bowl moved down, Foster Farms up), and of course, altered timing to allow for the New Year's Six. I attended the Sun Bowl, cheering on the Sun Devils. The local fan turnout and community support for that game in El Paso was very impressive! I am a bit concerned about the on-going PAC-12 fan support and enthusiasm for the Cactus Bowl. One wonders if this looks like just a late season PAC-12 road game. Local Phoenix news featured mostly Oklahoma State stories, and thank goodness the Big 12 team once again brought a big group of fans and much excitement to Tempe.

Ted Miller: The Pac-12 bowl lineup is about as good as it can be. Pretty nice mix of games against the ACC, Big Ten, and Big 12. Certainly the Pac-12 bowls have upgraded under commissioner Larry Scott.

I know some grumble about the bowl lineup. They want a matchup with an SEC team or a bowl game in Florida, but the SEC has a great bowl lineup, and Florida doesn't have much interest in bringing a Pac-12 team across the country. It's a choice of the marketplace, not due to managerial incompetence with the Pac-12 or some conspiracy of forces to keep the Pac-12 down.

Of course, if there's a business person on the West Coast who wants to offer up a $5 million per-team payout to lure a top SEC team across the country for a new bowl game against a Pac-12 team, I'm sure the SEC and Pac-12 would listen.

Grading each of the head-coaching hires 

December, 30, 2014
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With Jim Harbaugh’s entertaining introduction at Michigan on Tuesday, this latest turn of the coaching carousel seems to be winding down. The results: Seven Power 5 programs have new head coaches, and four Group of 5 schools hired coordinators from flourishing Power 5 offenses. Beginning with Michigan’s big splash -- one that is dominating the news cycle, even though we’re fewer than 48 hours from the first College Football Playoff semifinal -- here are grades for those 11 hires:

Michigan Wolverines
New coach: Jim Harbaugh (former San Francisco 49ers head coach)
Grade: A+
Harbaugh said Tuesday he isn’t comfortable with the idea of being Michigan’s savior, but he’d better get used to it because that’s the expectation. He didn’t face that sort of pressure when he resurrected Stanford, but he certainly did each year in the NFL, where he averaged 12 wins a season and took his team to a Super Bowl. Harbaugh is an A-plus hire because he’s equipped for the challenge, and as an alum, he’s emotionally invested in the product. As college coaches told me this week, Michigan could not have done any better. It sought Harbaugh from the start of the process, and it got him.

The question
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It started with a rumor and a casual conversation. There were search firms and lists, but there were also back channels, innuendo and a lot of "this guy talked to that guy who heard this..." going on.

That's how the process of expediting Gary Andersen from Wisconsin to Oregon State began.

"A lot of it, we figured, was probably rumors," said Oregon State athletic director Bob De Carolis. "But you talk to people and you hear things. Maybe things aren't as rosy as they should be. A lot of it was probably rumors, but you follow up on it to make sure if there is some truth to it."

But in a matter of days, rumors became facts, facts became introductions and introductions led to Andersen being named Oregon State's new head coach less than a week after Mike Riley's jolting departure to Nebraska.

[+] EnlargeGary Andersen
Susan Ragan/USA TODAY SportsAthletic director Bob De Carolis (at left) said the hiring process to get coach Gary Andersen to Oregon State all happened very quickly.
The running joke is that every athletic director has a list in his back pocket of football coaches they'd hire should the rainy day come. And on Dec. 4, when news broke that Riley was leaving Oregon State, De Carolis went into what he called "attack mode."

"It wasn't in my back pocket, that was for sure," De Carolis said with a chuckle. "That's a bit of urban myth. I think what you do at our level, you watch people over time and you keep people in the back of your mind. You never know. We didn't think with Coach Riley's situation that anything was imminent. We weren't thinking that way. But once we got an inkling that something was happening, we went into attack mode."

Within two days, De Carolis had what he called a "robust" list of candidates -- names that were acquired through various channels. Some contacted De Carolis through their agents. Others called on their own. Some OSU reached out to. He looked at Power 5 coaches, Group of 5 coaches, FCS coaches and out-of-work coaches working in assorted media.

"You'd be surprised to hear the people that might be willing to have a conversation," De Carolis said.

But the name he kept hearing through those casual conversations was Andersen's.

"On that Saturday, his name popped up and our interest popped up when we heard that might be a possibility," De Carolis said. "We got connected with his representatives to make sure it was accurate and we scheduled a face-to-face for Tuesday [Dec. 9]."

De Carolis said a total of five candidates were interviewed for the job, and overtures toward Andersen were made following the Big Ten championship game. By Sunday, the parties had connected and by the following Tuesday, De Carolis and Andersen agreed to a deal in principle. The next day, Andersen was introduced as OSU's 28th head coach.

"It was all such a whirlwind," Andersen says. "You know how these things go. They reached out, agents talked and that whole process. Things rolled very, very quickly."

Just as Riley's departure was a college football bombshell, Andersen's hire was also met with dropped jaws.

"I get it. I understand it," Andersen said. "We won nine games and 10 games and got to two Jan. 1st bowl games. We had tremendous success on the field and I was lucky to be part of it. I get the fact that 'why would you do that?' But what I don't understand is the perception of why you'd leave Wisconsin and the Big Ten for Oregon State and the Pac-12. I have a tremendous amount of respect for both conferences and both programs. Oregon State and Wisconsin matchup and are very comparable. That's my opinion."

Now Andersen takes over a program that is home for the holidays in a league that is surging. Their rivals are in the Rose Bowl, one game away from going to the national championship and the balance of power in the league is in a state of flux. Priority No. 1, he said, will be focusing on the roster that's in place.

"You break everything down with your team first," Andersen said. "I don't think you can worry about what you're fighting. You have to put yourself in a position to get your roster put together. ...You want to run your style. The style we want to move into. Look at us at Wisconsin, we were only able to do that to a certain point because where we were. We had the best running back in the country [Melvin Gordon] so we just put the ball in his hands. We're not the smartest coaches in the world, but we're not the dumbest either."

With facility upgrades coming, De Carolis said he believes Andersen is walking into a pretty good situation.

"There's this misnomer that we don't have resources," De Carolis said. "We've got resources ... the good news going forward is Coach Andersen is taking a situation that's not exactly broken. A lot of things we're going to do here will hopefully help him take it to the next level."
New Oregon State coach Gary Andersen doesn’t expect everyone to fully understand why he left Wisconsin for Corvallis.

“This is just where I believe I was told to go,” he said. “A lot of people think that’s strange or weird, but that’s how I work.”

From a football standpoint, it will always be puzzling. He was just two years into a promising tenure at a place where the College Football Playoff would have been a realistic yearly aspiration. At Oregon State, that won’t be the case. Success will be measured differently, and it’s foolish to believe Andersen doesn’t realize that.

[+] EnlargeGary Andersen
Susan Ragan/USA TODAY SportsGary Andersen's move from Wisconsin to Oregon State might be seen as unconventional, but the coach feels that the Beavers are a great fit for him.
Reading the tea leaves to find reasoning that’s easier to understand than the explanation Andersen offered isn’t easy. Some have questioned whether the move was rooted in his desire to be closer to his native Utah, but it’s hard to imagine a shorter plane ride to Salt Lake City made that much of a difference.

Others have wondered if Wisconsin’s more stringent admissions restrictions could have been wearing thin. That could have been the case, but years of evidence shows Wisconsin has attracted more highly-regarded talent than Oregon State.

During his introductory press conference on Friday, Andersen kept going back to “fit.” He was careful not to say anything that reflected poorly on Wisconsin, where he went 19-7 over the past two seasons, but also wasn’t exactly specific in what made Oregon State the more desirable location.

“There’s fits in life and there’s opportunities that come your way and when you see a fit, and you look at it and you get that feeling,” he said. “At least what I believe, I believe I’m told where to go ... and I believe I got the feeling that’s telling me where I’m supposed to go and there’s no doubt this is where I’m supposed to be.”

He shot down speculation there was a rift with Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, who will coach the Badgers in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day, but also spoke to the importance of the people he’ll work with.

“To me, it’s the people that are behind the doors that matter the most,” Andersen said.

One of those people is Oregon State president Dr. Ed Ray, who was in a jovial mood Friday -- the norm for one of these events -- as he conveyed his excitement with the university's high-profile hire.

“To any doubters I want you know that when you come to play Oregon State anywhere and especially here in our house, you better bring your A-game or we’re going to kick your butts," Ray said.

While going through the interview process, Andersen sought Utah coach Kyle Whittingham’s opinion of Oregon State.

“Kyle and I usually talk about once a week or so,” said Andersen, who served as Whittingham’s defensive coordinator at Utah for four years. “He’s a good friend of mine and I respect his opinion. I asked him what he thought and he thought it was a quality university.”

But can he win there? Well, that'll be an uphill climb.

Former coach Mike Riley sent a clear message with his decision to pick up and leave for Nebraska: Winning isn’t on the immediate horizon for the Beavers.

It’s hard to see it any other way.

And when faced with that reality at 61 years old, Riley’s decision to chase success after years of loyalty doesn’t need to be forgiven. If the Beavers were primed to make a run at the Pac-12 North, this move doesn’t happen, and it’s really that simple.

Those circumstances are also what make Oregon State’s ability to land Andersen so interesting.

Only time will tell if Andersen is, in fact, the right fit for Oregon State, but he's about as good a hire the Beavers could have hoped for and made a strong first impression speaking to a room of an estimated 350 people.

No new coach is going to stand behind a microphone and aspire for nine-win seasons, so Andersen made the obligatory declaration.

"If you're not fighting to win a championship," he said. "If you're not going tout to win the Civil War, then you're in the wrong business."

Andersen wasn't ready to announce any staff members, but gave a timeline for early next week when those official announcements will start to roll in.
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Over the past few years, when the frustrations of a vocal segment of Oregon State fans would crescendo after a poor performance, and they would demand the defenestration of long-time good guy coach Mike Riley, more than a few Beavers fans as well as media types would question the exit strategy. As in: Who's going to come to Corvallis and do a better job? And if said coach is found, is he going to stick around?

Wisconsin's Gary Andersen is a pretty darn good answer. And, just like Riley bolting for Nebraska, no one saw this one coming.

Anderson is no sure thing. He has some notable warts on his résumé and hasn't won much of anything, other than a 2012 WAC title at Utah State before that football conference went under. But he's also won 30 games over the last three years and he's bolting a Big Ten power for Oregon State after just two years. So he wants to come to Corvallis and lead the Beavers, post-Riley. He wants to leave a state where he's the lead dog playing in an 80,000-seat stadium and, instead, square off as an underdog against a rich state rival that has become a national power.

[+] EnlargeGary Anderson
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesGary Andersen went 19-7 in two seasons as Wisconsin's head coach.
Not to sound like a Pollyanna -- or, to be more new school, sound like Emmet Brickowski from the "Lego Movie" -- but this continues our theme of "Everything is awesome!" Everybody might just win with these two surprising coaching moves. Riley seems like a good fit for Nebraska after things were starting to seem a bit stale with him and the Beavers, and now Andersen, who has strong western roots, seems like a good fit for the Beavers.

Well, everybody wins other than Wisconsin, which has now seen its past two coaches bolt for jobs that didn't seem like promotions. After leading the Badgers to three consecutive Big Ten titles, Bret Bielema actively, though quietly, sold himself to Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long before leaving after the 2012 season. Anderson went 19-7 in two seasons with Wisconsin, winning the Big Ten's West Division this year, but he obviously didn't view Madison as a destination job.

Why would Andersen leave? Maybe he prefers the West Coast. Maybe he's concerned about the long-term power of the Big Ten compared to the Pac-12. Maybe he thinks Urban Meyer and Ohio State are on the cusp of Big Ten domination. Maybe he doesn't like Wisconsin's demanding academic standards. Maybe he thinks Wisconsin is cheap when it comes to anteing up salaries for assistant coaches.

Maybe he'll answer that question during a news conference Friday in Corvallis, though my guess is he's not going to be too forthright when it comes to kicking dirt on a program he left in the lurch.

Andersen has a long history as a Utah assistant coach and is good friends with Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham. He's a defensive specialist, and his coordinator at Wisconsin, Dave Aranda, is highly respected. That's good because the Beavers will be rebuilding their defense in 2015. His offensive coordinator at Wisconsin, Andy Ludwig, however, has a mixed-bag history in the Pac-12, having coached at California, Oregon and Utah.

As for the warts on his résumé we previously referred to, you can start with his last game -- a 59-zip loss to Ohio State. That was such an atrocious showing there were conspiracy theories afterward that the Badgers threw the game so the Buckeyes could get into the College Football Playoff and boost the Big Ten. That's about as ridiculous as saying Pac-12 officials conspired to give Arizona State a victory over Andersen and the Badgers in 2013 through comedically bad late-game decisions.

The Badgers also blew a 17-point third-quarter lead at LSU to open the season and lost to a Northwestern team that fell to California and went 5-7 overall. In 2013, with a BCS bowl berth in sight, the Badgers were upset by Penn State on the season's final weekend.

That said, Andersen is the sort of respected hire that will generate some much-needed energy and optimism into the Beavers' program. It also helps that the athletic department announced a $42 million makeover of the Valley Football Center not long before word of Andersen's hiring broke. Ah, Pac-12 money doing its thing, boosting facilities and the top-to-bottom quality of conference coaching staffs.

Of course, Andersen has got to find a way to quickly close the Civil War gap. He's got to figure out a way to be more competitive with the Ducks. While Beavers fans probably won't expect a berth in the CFP in the next three years, they probably will demand a victory over Oregon in that span.

Still, after a period of stagnation under Riley and then the uncertainty of "Who's next?" Oregon State appears to be emerging into a hopeful place. For a team sitting home during the postseason as its rival eyeballs a national championship, that's about the best a fan base can expect.

National links: Calm before the storm 

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

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

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

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

And it starts in two days.


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Todd Graham thinks he’s got a pretty good football team. Now -- finally -- he’s going to have an opportunity to showcase it.

The Sun Devils kick off a four-game stretch that rivals any in the country in terms of difficulty. It starts this week with No. 20 Wisconsin coming to Sun Devil Stadium. They follow it up next week with a trip to No. 5 Stanford, then host USC and then to Dallas to face No. 21 Notre Dame on a neutral field.

[+] EnlargeTodd Graham
Matt Kartozian/US PresswireTodd Graham says this four-game stretch is a chance for ASU to takes its program "to the next level."
This is not the time to be shying away from adversity.

“We get an opportunity to play the Big Ten champion, then the Pac-12 champion and then USC and Notre Dame, who played for the national championship,” Graham said. “We think that is a great opportunity for our program and great exposure for our program. We can take our program to the next level.

“Our kids are excited. I’m excited. Our fans are excited. It’s going to be a blackout game. This is what college football is all about.”

We’ll learn a lot about the Sun Devils over the next month. How good are they, really? Picked by some to finish second in the Pac-12 South, picked by others to win the division, the expectations for the Sun Devils are considerable.

A home victory this week lands them in the top 25. A loss isn’t devastating -- Graham has already said he values conference games above all else -- but losing at home would certainly be setback for a team trying to break into the national spotlight.

“We’re going to know exactly where we are,” Graham said. “We’re playing one of the best teams in the country. They’ve been to the last three Rose Bowls, defending Big Ten champion and their offense is 602 yards per game. The defense is physical. I don’t know about a coming out party or anything like that, but I think in this game we’ll find out exactly where we are at.”

In ASU’s favor is the fact that it gets the Midwest team -- probably not acclimated to the desert -- at home. The temperature at kickoff is estimated to be 100-degrees plus. Plus the Sun Devils -- specifically quarterback Taylor Kelly -- has played better at home since being named the starter last season. In seven career starts at home, Kelly is completing 74.2 percent of his throws with 19 touchdowns to just three interceptions. Worth noting, too, that the Sun Devils are 8-0 all-time against the Big Ten conference when playing at home.

“He’s been very efficient,” Graham said. “He’s faster. This year he has a mastery of the offense where as last year he was trying to learn it.”

Wisconsin, led by new coach Gary Andersen (once rumored for a couple of Pac-12 jobs), has opened 2013 with a pair of shutouts for the first since 1958. Impressive? Well, one of those teams was UMass and the other was Tennessee Tech, so it’s about as impressive as ASU blanking Sacramento State 55-0 in its opener. In other words, neither team has really been tested yet.

“We played a team we should dominate and we did,” Graham said. “... We want to get better every week because it’s only going to get tougher from here for us. This is our chance to show that we have a really good football program."
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.

Nope.

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.

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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.”

 

Take 2: B1G vs. Pac-12

July, 12, 2013
7/12/13
9:00
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Your B1G and Pac-12 bloggers have been grinding away on their respective leagues' nonconference primer series. Here's the Big Ten series, and here's the Pac-12 series. Part of the fun is learning about other teams in other conferences and what they bring to the table. The Pac-12 and Big Ten face each other five times during the regular season. The Pac-12 got the better of the matchups last year. Will this year be different? Brian Bennett and Kevin Gemmell decided to talk it over.

Brian Bennett: The first thing I look at for Big Ten-Pac-12 matchups in any given season is where the games are staged. Big Ten teams don’t seem to think the West Coast is the Best Coast; they are just 5-20 in true road games against the Pac-12 since 2000, and that includes an 0-3 mark on the road versus the Pac-12 last year. (The league also has just one win in its past 10 Rose Bowls, but not all of those games came against the Pac-12.)

[+] EnlargeGary Andersen
AP Photo/David StlukaNew coach Gary Andersen and the Badgers will have their hands full at ASU this season.
So it’s not good news for the league that I cover that three of these five matchups are located far left of the Midwest. If there’s any reason for optimism, it’s that the Big Ten teams should be substantial favorites in two of the road games -- Northwestern at Cal in the opener and Ohio State against those same Bears in Week 3. Cal is intriguing because of new coach Sonny Dykes, but Northwestern and Ohio State are both legitimate Top 20 teams with conference-title aspirations; if they can shake off the jet lag and contain the Bears’ passing attack, they should take care of business.

The two most interesting games -- and what look like virtual toss-ups -- are Wisconsin at Arizona State, and UCLA at Nebraska. The Badgers have a lot of returning talent, but a new head coach and different schemes on both sides of the ball. It’s also going to be a clash of styles, with the Badgers’ power running game going up against Arizona State’s spread offense. Will Gary Andersen’s team have its new systems figured out by then, and is Wisconsin’s defense -- particularly its inexperienced secondary -- fast enough to handle the Sun Devils?

UCLA-Nebraska is probably not getting enough attention as a must-watch game this year. Last year’s shootout in Pasadena, Calif., featured nonstop pingpong action, and both teams figure to have topflight offenses again. The Cornhuskers have a perilously young defense, but Bo Pelini’s teams usually defend much better at home than on the road. Quarterback Taylor Martinez -- who grew up a Bruins fan but was recruited by them as a defensive back -- will be highly motivated to beat UCLA his senior year. This is Nebraska’s only major test in the first seven games, and it’s one I think the Huskers have to find a way to win.

Finally, there’s Washington at Illinois. The Illini get the benefit of home turf, sort of, as the game will be played at Soldier Field in Chicago. We’ll see if Tim Beckman’s crew will inspire enough fans to show up by Week 3. While Washington has been mediocre for what seems like forever, I can’t confidently pick Illinois to beat any half-decent power conference opponent at this point.

In the end, I say the Big Ten manages a winning record this time around against the Pac-12, taking the two games in Berkeley, Calif., and the one in Lincoln, Neb. A 3-2 mark sounds about right, though if Wisconsin can pull off the win in the desert, that could be a good sign for both the Badgers and the league as a whole.

Kevin Gemmell: I'm going 3-2 also, but in favor of the Pac-12. After all, if we were in total agreement, it would make for a pretty boring Take 2. So I'll play the contrarian when it comes to UCLA-Nebraska.

[+] EnlargeJim Mora
William Mancebo/Getty ImagesCoach Jim Mora and UCLA allowed just six points in the second half of last year's win against Nebraska.
We agree on the Cal games versus Northwestern and Ohio State -- though I think Cal is going to give both of those teams a better run than they are banking on. I like what Andy Buh is doing with a defense that could be sneaky good. And the Bears have some explosive depth at wide receiver. But ultimately it's a rookie quarterback -- whomever Dykes chooses among Zach Kline, Jared Goff and Austin Hinder -- and a team that will still have some growing pains as new systems are installed on both sides of the ball. Like you with Illinois, I'm not ready to give the Bears the green light yet. However, last year's game in Columbus, a 35-28 win for Ohio State, should serve as a reminder not to take Cal lightly. No doubt, the Buckeyes will remember Brendan Bigelow and his four carries, 160 yards and two touchdowns.

Both halves of the Pac-12 blog have been saying we believe Washington is going to get over that seven-win hump this year after three straight seasons of mediocrity. The Huskies have a lot of pieces in place with a returning quarterback, a 1,400-yard rusher, good receivers, a good line and the top tight end in the country. Their defense made huge strides last season in the first year under Justin Wilcox, and we're expecting another leap forward in 2013. What scares me is Washington's inconsistent play on the road the past few seasons. During the Huskies' trio of 7-6 seasons, they are 14-5 in Seattle (last year they played at CenturyLink Field) and 6-11 on the road. The past two years they are 11-2 at home and 3-8 on the road (0-2 in their bowl games at neutral sites). If the Huskies want to have a breakout year, they are going to have to win away from home. Steve Sarkisian actually talked about this in a Q&A we did back in April. But they certainly have the talent to win this game.

The ASU-Wisconsin game is really a critical one for the Sun Devils. It kicks off a four-game stretch (with no bye weeks) that also includes Stanford, USC and Notre Dame. ASU is another team looking for some national credibility, and this is its first opportunity to get some. You're right to talk about the ASU offense, but that defense -- which ranked first nationally in tackles for a loss and second in sacks last season -- is going to be crazy good with Will Sutton and Carl Bradford leading the attack. I'm banking on a good game, but ultimately one ASU wins at home.

That brings us to UCLA-Nebraska, a game I'm also surprised more people aren't geeked up about outside of the respective fan bases. This should be a fantastic showcase for both leagues. Brett Hundley impressed in his freshman campaign, and I think this game is going to be a spotlight for two of the country's most athletic quarterbacks. I was in Pasadena for the game last season, and what actually stood out to me was UCLA's defense -- particularly in the second half. The Bruins allowed only six points, and kept Martinez to 11 yards rushing and the Huskers to 106 total yards in the final 30 minutes. They should be improved in Year 2 under Jim Mora and Lou Spanos. If the Bruins pull this one off, it's going to be because of what they can do defensively.

Nonconference primer: USC

July, 1, 2013
7/01/13
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We continue our series taking a closer look at each Pac-12 team's nonconference schedule.

USC

at Hawaii, Aug. 29
  • Coach: Norm Chow (3-9), second year
  • 2012 record: 3-9, 1-7 Mountain West
  • Returning starters: 9 offense, 8 defense
  • Offensive headliner: We met the offensive line in the Oregon State nonconference primer. Wide receiver Scott Harding is back after catching 20 balls and a pair of touchdowns last year with a 12.8 yards-per-reception average.
  • Defensive headliner: Linebacker Art Laurel posted 51 tackles, including 13.5 for a loss and four sacks last season while also forcing a fumble.
  • The skinny: This is actually the first time we'll see Hawaii this season, though they make back-to-back appearances against the Pac-12 and will travel to the mainland a week later to face Oregon State. Last year's game was a blowout in LA, with the Trojans winning 49-10. The first play of the game was a 75-yard touchdown from Matt Barkley to Marqise Lee. Many thought it was a harbinger. Many were wrong. Will be interesting to see how Taylor Graham, a QB transfer from Ohio State, factors in.
Boston College, Sept. 14
  • Coach: Steve Addazio, first year
  • 2012 record: 2-10, 1-7 ACC
  • Returning starters: seven offense, nine defense
  • Offensive headliner: Chase Rettig returns at quarterback after completing 54.2 percent of his throws with 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 2012.
  • Defensive headliner: One of the coolest names for a linebacker in all of college football -- Steele Divitto -- is back after posting 92 tackles last year while forcing a pair of fumbles and recovering four of them.
  • The skinny: The Eagles return a lot of players -- particularly on defense -- but it was a defense that gave up a lot of yards and never got much pressure -- ranking 120th last year in sacks and tackles for a loss. It's been a couple of down years, but they are only a few seasons removed from being an 11-win team. They should improve on the two wins from last year, but it's still better to get them early in the season.
Utah State, Sept. 21
  • Coach: Matt Wells, first year
  • 2012 record: 11-2, 6-0 WAC
  • Returning starters: eight offense, seven defense
  • Offensive headliner: Quarterback Chuckie Keeton, a first-team all-league performer, returns after completing 67.6 percent of his throws for 3,373 yards with 27 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
  • Defensive headliner: Linebacker Jake Doughty led the team with 109 tackles and also notched 3.5 tackles for a loss and a sack while earning first-team all-league honors.
  • The skinny: Keeton is back, but he also has all five starters on the line protecting him -- a group that helped departed running back Kerwynn Williams rush for 1,512 yards and 15 touchdowns last year. Former offensive coordinator Matt Wells was promoted as head coach after Gary Andersen took the Wisconsin job, so continuity is in place. This is a squad that topped Sonny Dykes' Louisiana Tech team and Mike MacIntyre's San Jose State team last year. Their only losses were to BYU and Wisconsin by a combined five points.
at Notre Dame, Oct. 19
  • Coach: Brian Kelly (28-10), fourth year
  • Returning starters: six offense, eight defense
  • 2012 record: 12-1, Independent
  • Offensive headliner: Wide receiver T.J. Jones matched the team high last season with 50 catches for 649 yards and four touchdowns.
  • Defensive headliner: Behind that stout defensive front, linebacker Dan Fox is back after posting 63 tackles last season, including two for a loss.
  • The skinny: So ... last year's game was ugly. The Trojans ended 2012 by losing five of their last six -- including three straight. This one was sandwiched in between losses to UCLA and Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl and the Irish were able to punch their ticket to the BCS championship game at the Trojans expense. This is the second of three Pac-12/Notre Dame showdowns.
Thoughts: The Trojans are one of the few teams in the league that don't have an FCS team on their nonconference schedule. That being said, Hawaii and Boston College shouldn't be considered much of a threat. Because the Trojans play at Hawaii, they get to add an additional game -- and that's Utah State -- a team that's risen the ranks of the non-BCS hierarchy the last few seasons. How they do under a new coach (even though he was promoted from within) will be interesting to see. The fact that the Trojans will have already played three games prior to their meeting with the Aggies is in USC's favor, especially as Lane Kiffin and Co. continue to break in a new quarterback. Notre Dame is obviously a historical rivalry, and last year the Irish provided a twisty dagger in the vein of shortcomings that was USC in 2012. Retribution should be on USC's mind. Two games are very winnable, one game smells like a trap and the other is a rivalry game. Fans and players should expect nothing less than 4-0, though 3-1 wouldn't be outrageous considering they are playing in South Bend.
We continue our series taking a closer look at each Pac-12 team's nonconference schedule.

Arizona State

Sacramento State, Sept. 5
  • Coach: Marshall Sperbeck (30-37), seventh year
  • 2012 record: 6-5, 4-4 Big Sky
  • Offensive headliner: Running back Ezekiel Graham is the top offensive threat, rushing for 861 yards and five touchdowns last season. Not huge numbers, but he also makes his mark as a receiver out of the backfield, catching 40 balls for 406 yards and two touchdowns last year.
  • Defensive headliner: Linebacker Todd Davis has led the Hornets in tackles the past couple of seasons and there's little reason to think he won't again. He posted 103 tackles last year -- including an impressive 13.5 for a loss.
  • The skinny: Not to worry. It's just an FCS team, right? Well, considering the Hornets have beaten Pac-12 teams in back-to-back years, that should at least perk the ears of ASU up a little bit. They topped Oregon State 29-28 in overtime in 2011 and then a year later beat Colorado, 30-28, on a walk-off field goal by a walk-on kicker. The chance of an upset isn't likely. But the history suggests enough to not sleepwalk through this game.
Wisconsin, Sept. 14
  • Coach: Gary Andersen, first year
  • Returning starters: eight offense, six defense
  • 2012 record: 8-6, 4-4 Big Ten
  • Offensive headliner: Wide receiver Jared Abbrederis headlines a pretty deep wide receiving corps. A first-team All Big Ten selection last year, he caught 49 balls for 837 yards and five touchdowns. The former walk-on QB is tops among all active FBS players with an average of 16.7 yards per catch. He's also a dangerous punt returner.
  • Defensive headliner: Linebacker Chris Borland needs 144 tackles this season to become Wisconsin's all-time leader. He's forced 14 career fumbles -- the most in school history and most among active NCAA players.
  • The skinny: Andersen was a hot name among potential Pac-12 coaching vacancies, but last year's WAC coach of the year instead ended up in the land of cheese. Last year the Badgers became the third Big Ten team to play in three consecutive Rose Bowls -- though they lost all three, including to Stanford last season and Oregon in 2011-2012. New offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig also has strong ties to the Pac-12, having worked at Cal, Utah and Oregon.
Notre Dame, Oct. 5 (In Arlington, Texas)
  • Coach: Brian Kelly (28-10), fourth year
  • Returning starters: six offense, eight defense
  • 2012 record: 12-1 Independent
  • Offensive headliner: Skill position players are more fun to talk about, but left tackle Zack Martin will be starting for the fourth straight year and he's a captain. Watching him against ASU's defensive front will be a great game within the game.
  • Defensive headliner: Take your pick between defensive end Stephon Tuitt or noseguard Louis Nix. Both are elite playmakers and present a defensive front that rivals the talent and athleticism of ASU's.
  • The skinny: The last time we saw Notre Dame, it was getting run up and down the field by Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game. But before that, the Irish were perfect -- including wins over Stanford and USC. Though they tiptoed through quite a few rain drops along the way -- and haven't had the quietest of offseasons -- this should be a game of national interest. Both teams will have already played tough games (ASU: Wisconsin, at Stanford, USC; Notre Dame: at Michigan, Oklahoma) but a potential meeting of Top-25 teams on a neutral site will draw plenty of intrigue.
Thoughts: No, I don't think Sacramento State will make it three in a row. ASU should out-distance and out-muscle the FCS squad fairly early. But the rest of the nonconference slate will get the Sun Devils some national attention. The Wisconsin game is intriguing. But because what the Sun Devils bring to the table -- that's a very winnable game. Notre Dame is the really interesting one. Not only because of the little bit of nastiness that's built up between the programs in recent weeks, but because it's on a neutral site and it comes after three straight games against Wisconsin, at Stanford and home to USC. That's a brutal gauntlet that could either propel ASU into the national spotlight or leave them scrambling to pick up the pieces. A 3-0 record is very possible. Going 2-1 is probable and 1-2 is the worst-case scenario (we're not even putting 0-3 on the table).
We know that it's probably going to take some time for Mike MacIntyre to get things off the ground at Colorado. After a difficult first two seasons in the Pac-12, that's seen the Buffs win just four games over that span, head coach Jon Embree was fired after 2012. That paved the way for MacIntyre, who helped turn San Jose State into a Top 25 team.

He chatted with ESPN senior writer Ivan Maisel about the big building project ahead of him. It's a great read as MacIntyre talks about how he's been down this road before.

Here's what he told Maisel:
"Every person, when I told them I was thinking about taking the job," MacIntyre said of San Jose State, "there wasn't one person, not one person out of the 100 I asked, who told me I should take the job. And then when we were successful, I had people call me and tell me, 'I thought we'd never hear of you again. I thought your career would be over as a head coach when you took that job.'"

The story also talks about how Butch Jones and Gary Andersen both passed on Colorado -- meaning MacIntyre took on a job that that scared others off.
"I just think that sometimes when you're not being successful in any business or any organization, you kind of isolate and make assumptions about other people," MacIntyre said. "I think in any business or corporation or team, once you knock down barriers and knock down walls, and start being vulnerable, then you can grow. And that's what we are working on now."

You can read all of Maisel's story here.

Pac-12 links: Butch Jones to Colorado?

November, 30, 2012
11/30/12
2:30
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Happy Friday.
 

Lunch links: Paging Mr. Gary Andersen

November, 29, 2012
11/29/12
2:30
PM ET
Well, it's a well known fact, Sonny Jim, that there's a secret society of the five wealthiest people in the world, known as The Pentavirate, who run everything in the world, including the newspapers, and meet tri-annually at a secret country mansion in Colorado, known as The Meadows.

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