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Mailbag: Nonconference showdowns, parsing contenders

Happy Friday. Welcome (back) to the mailbag.

The season ... it's not that far away. Right?

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To the notes!

John from Phoenix writes: The Pac-12 has some pretty solid Power 5 non-conference matchups this season. In which game do you think it will be most important for the Pac to pull out a win to further build conference perception? And which loss could prove most costly? I expect the Oregon-Michigan State game to garner the biggest headlines, but I feel like a W there can only do so much since national audiences now expect Oregon to be strong.

Ted Miller: Oregon at Michigan State, a battle of preseason top-10 teams, is the biggest Pac-12 nonconference game of 2015, at least from our perspective today. The winner of that game immediately makes a national statement, as the Ducks did last year with their impressive win over a Spartans team that went on to finish 11-2 and ranked No. 5.

Further, if the Ducks win and Michigan State goes on to win the Big Ten -- eclipsing favored Ohio State -- that would be circled in red by the College Football Playoff selection committee, something that could benefit the Ducks, or whoever won the Pac-12 ahead of Oregon, greatly.

Of course, there are plenty of other games that could boost the conference.

  • USC at Notre Dame: If either intends to be in the CFP conversation, this might be a must-win. Stanford also plays host to the Fighting Irish the final weekend of the regular season in a game that could be meaningful nationally.

  • Arizona State vs. Texas A&M: Well, here's a coveted Pac-12-SEC matchup that could have season-long ramifications and establish rule over the good old "transitive property" when comparing the two conferences. Seeing that the game will be played in NRG Stadium in Houston, it's pretty much a road game for the Sun Devils. Big opportunity for ASU to make a national statement.

  • Michigan at Utah: The Utes should win this game, but an impressive win on a big stage with a lot of eyeballs on it due to the Jim Harbaugh factor would boost the Utes' Q-rating considerably. It could also make RB Devontae Booker a major Heisman Trophy candidate too.

  • California at Texas: A win in Austin could give the Golden Bears and coach Sonny Dykes a significant early season boost as a potential factor in the Pac-12 North. At the very least, this game could allow Cal to demonstrate the depth of the Pac-12.

Mark from Bradenton, Fla., writes: A gambling establishment has USC's over/under win total for the regular season at 8 1/2. For a team that many consider a playoff contender that seems like a low number. Is 8 wins a disaster for Sark and staff given the expectations coming into the season? Or should the fans readjust their expectations given the scholarship limitations and loaded division USC is faced with?

Ted Miller: At first glance, that does seem like a low number. But then you look at USC's schedule, which includes a rugged jaunt through the South Division, likely the deepest division in college football, games with Oregon and Stanford from the North and the aforementioned trip to South Bend.

Other than Arkansas State and Idaho, there are no gimmes -- trips to Cal and Colorado will be challenges, trust me.

To me, a reasonable fan should pin his hopes on nine wins being a minimal acceptable number, barring catastrophic injuries. If Steve Sarkisian and the Trojans win the South Division, it's difficult to imagine that would be considered a failure, even if it doesn't position USC for a spot in the CFP.

USC fans have a right to have high expectations. Hey, it's USC. But if the Trojans win the South -- beating UCLA in the process, by the way -- that should put a check mark in the "successful season" category for Year 2 under Sarkisian.

Torsten writes: We're less then 100 days away from the start of the regular season and I'm curious what you are looking forward to the most about this coming season? Not which game or potential headline, but what part of College Football (stadium atmosphere, food, band, part of the grind, etc.) you're missing the most and can't wait until you get to experience it again.

Ted Miller: I love the ebbs and flows of a season, how pundits (cough) and fans overreact to games in September and October and how uncertainty winnows away -- or not! -- as we get deep into November.

Such as: Oregon beats Michigan State... Mark Helfrich is a genius! The Ducks lose to Arizona... Helfrich is not up to the job! The Ducks beat Florida State... Helfrich has arrived! The Ducks lose to Ohio State... Helfrich can't lead us to the promised land!

What I found most fun at Pac-12 meetings was chatting with Helfrich and realizing he's pretty much exactly the same as when he was Chip Kelly's offensive coordinator -- a highly intelligent grinder with a wry sense of humor who doesn't take himself too seriously.

While that might seem like a random observation for your question, that's actually one of the rewards of this job -- insights into the inner-workings of guys trying to be successful in the highly competitive world of college football.

I enjoy watching how people conduct themselves, often without cameras around. I enjoy witnessing the real emotions immediately after a game. I like players who are confident enough in their communication abilities to actually provide insights into what they do and what they think.

And I still, even after 20 years covering college football, get goosed before every big game, particularly when the teams charge out of the tunnels just before kickoff.

Douglas from Singapore writes: Has the “Sleeping Giant” in Tempe finally awaken? Has Graham really turned this team into contenders or just a better more disciplined team? The victories have not brought Top 10 recruiting classes, etc.

Ted Miller: The short answer is yes. The Sleeping Giant is awake -- and being "better and more disciplined" seems like a wise way to roll out of bed.

The Sun Devils have established themselves under Graham as a top-25 program, and the seeming trajectory remains upward (see consecutive 10-win seasons). Sun Devil Stadium is being renovated and recruiting is on the uptick, even if it's not yet "top-10."

The next step is the top 10, which is still a few clicks away from the CFP.

Graham, not one for understatement, often talks about "winning championships" -- Pac-12 and even national -- and that's part of his relentless optimism and salesmanship. Is it going to happen? No idea. But it has become perfectly reasonable to believe it can, and that wasn't the case five years ago.

Collin writes: How do you see Jim Leavitt changing the defense in Boulder this upcoming season? I can't remember his defenses at South Florida so I don't know the style he likes to play with.

Ted Miller: While Leavitt ran a 4-3 as South Florida's head coach, based on what came out of spring practices, the Buffaloes will be adopting a 3-4/hybrid scheme this fall. That's not only the trend in the Pac-12 -- only Utah and Cal use a 4-3 base -- but Leavitt worked under Vic Fangio, a 3-4 guy, with the San Francisco 49ers the past four years.

As for what he brings to the Buffaloes, South Florida was consistently strong on defense during his tenure, particularly as the program grew into a legitimate FBS team. From 2006 until his final season of 2009, the Bulls ranked 18th, 38th, 24th and 19th in the nation in scoring defense.

They also never allowed more than 5.0 yards per play during that span. For comparison's sake, the only Pac-12 team under 5.0 yards per play last season was Stanford.

My expectation is Colorado and California will be the two most improved defenses in the conference this fall, though we should note part of that is how bad they were last season.

Bruce writes: A lot of the talk around the Utes fan boards is about the absolute dominance of this year's defense squad. Many fans believe this to be the nastiest D-line and linebackers corp since the Sugar Bowl. In addition, the secondary is vastly improved...I know, I know, Eric Rowe is gone, but Reggie Porter, who was a planned starter last year (but didn't play due to injury), has been showing his dominance as an amazing cover corner. Plus the safeties with Tevin Carter are in good hands. I know Stanford holds the title of Defense Champions in the PAC-12, but what do you think of the Utes chances of stealing that title away this year?

Ted Miller: With seven starters back from the Pac-12's No. 4 defense, Utah certainly has a chance to rank at or near the top of the Pac-12 and among the national leaders. There's good talent on all three levels, with the front seven looking like the Pac-12's best.

That said, UCLA has eight starters back from an underrated crew, including All-Pac-12 players on all three levels.

Stanford, with only four starters back on defense, is probably going to surprise some folks, but it does have a lot of questions.

So I'd rate the Utes and Bruins as the favorites for the "Best Defense in the Pac-12" prize heading into fall camp.

Andre from Deep in the Woods writes: Since the start of the BCS era (1998) the Ducks have the second most wins among Power-5 teams, dwarfing Alabama's win total by 31 games, so why does it seem that our program still doesn't get the respect it deserves?

Ted Miller: Since 2008, the Ducks' worst final ranking in the AP poll is No. 11 in 2009. They've finished ranked in the final top 4 four of the past five seasons, including No. 2 twice.

How is Oregon not getting respect?

But as to the implications of your question as to why some might still tweak Oregon, it's pretty simple: Oregon has accomplished everything a program can accomplish but finishing No. 1.

For Oregon to join the super-duper-awesome elite, it needs to win a national championship.

And, really, do any Ducks fans disagree with that?

Eric from Placerville, Calif., writes: Heroic couplets? I prefer the Haiku:

CU Buffs Football

Leaving Their Lost Decade Now

Ted Miller Says Yes

Ted Miller: Ted Miller says "maybe," but that would break Haiku form.