Pac-12: Lou Spanos

Q&A: UCLA's Jim Mora

March, 31, 2014
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UCLA opens spring football on Tuesday with high hopes and a good chance to be ranked in the preseason top 10. This is the third spring for UCLA coach Jim Mora, who has led the Bruins to a 19-8 mark in two seasons. He took a couple of minutes to chat with the Pac-12 blog before spring kicks off.

This is your third spring. What have you learned during those first two, and are you going to be doing anything different this time around?

[+] EnlargeJim Mora
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesJim Mora believes spring is a great time to go hard and be physical.
Jim Mora: Nope. Pretty much the same thing. It’s a great time to develop your younger players and start to get a feel for what your team is going to look like in the fall and start to develop that bond you need to have success. We won’t change anything. We go hard in the spring. It’s physical. It’s demanding. I think it’s a great time to get physical work in.

After the 2012 season, you closed with the back-to-back losses to Stanford and the bowl loss. Last year you closed with a win over USC and a bowl win. Do you buy into the idea of offseason momentum?

JM: No. To me, that first year, everyone says, “Oh, you lost three games in a row.” But those were three pretty different games. It wasn’t like we lost our last three regular season games. We lost our last regular season game, we lost in the Pac-12 championship game and we lost our bowl. It’s not like we had this huge slump or something. Every season is a new season. You have to develop the identity of your team. You have to commit to a certain work ethic, and our guys have done that. To me, spring ball signifies the start of a new season.

As a coach, what position battle are you most interested in?

JM: Outside linebacker, the guy who is going to replace Anthony Barr. I think that will be a good battle with Kenny Orjioke and Aaron Wallace and Deon Hollins. I’m excited to see how our defense adapts. We’ve got a new defensive coordinator. And as a staff we’ve learned a little bit more about our players and how to play in this conference and how to play college football with what teams are doing. We’re going to have to adapt a little bit, but it’s going to be fun to see.

With defensive coordinator Lou Spanos heading back to the NFL and Jeff Ulbrich being promoted from within, what kind of impact, if any, will that have on the defense?

JM: Not a lot. Just like every year, you tweak some things. It’s not going to impact it a lot. We’ve certainly made some changes. But we’re going to make changes next year, too. You continue to adapt. You try to grow. You try to add things that will make you better. You try to improve upon things you didn’t do well and you try to cut the fat so you’re not teaching things you’re not going to use throughout the year.

Was that a tough adjustment coming to the college game from the NFL? Every year in college there is going to be a lot of turnover and each season is a different team and a different personality.

JM: It’s interesting because it’s very different than the NFL. You’re right, there is more turnover. But at the same time, there is a little more certainty as well because unlike the NFL, where there is free agency so you’re adding guys, and there’s a draft where you’re adding guys who should be ready to play right away, in college you know there is going to be a natural attrition and you have a pretty good idea of who you can count on and who still needs to develop going into a season. Hopefully some of the freshmen develop, but you can’t always count on that. In some ways, as strange as it seems, it might be a little bit easier because you know what your team makeup is going to be a year in advance.

[+] EnlargeFabian Moreau
Ric Tapia/Icon SMIRising junior corner Fabian Moreau has earned positive reviews from Jim Mora.
Heading into spring, who is a player we haven’t heard of yet, but you think we’re going to hear his name a lot in 2014?

JM: I don’t know if you’ve heard his name a lot. Hopefully you don’t hear it a lot because he’s a cornerback and when you hear a cornerback’s name a lot, that means he’s making a lot of tackles because the ball is getting caught on him or he’s giving up touchdowns. But I think we have a really fine player in Fabian Moreau. Defensive backs are where I’ve worked most of my career and I think this guy has some real special traits. I think he has a chance to be a great player.

You’re big on leadership, as all coaches are. And you like to see players naturally develop into team leaders. Who are you eyeballing this year?

JM: That’s a great question. That’s the point of most uncertainty for me is -- who is going to assert themselves on the team. Four of our six team captains return, which is a real positive because they were voted captains by their teammates. You’ve got Brett Hundley. You’ve got Eric Kendricks, Jake Brendel our starting center and Ryan Hoffmeister, a linebacker and special teams guy. Xavier [Su'a-Filo] and Anthony [Barr] leaving, those are huge voids. It will be fun to see who steps up. Guys like Fabian, even though Myles Jack is only a sophomore, I think he’s got some leadership qualities to him. I don’t want to point too many guys out because there are a whole lot of guys on our team who are capable of stepping into that role.

Coordinator changes: Pac-12 South

February, 20, 2014
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So far, only three Pac-12 teams retained their 2013 offensive and defensive coordinators: Arizona, Colorado and Washington State.

Here's a look at who's in, who's out and what it means in the South Division. You can review the North Division here.

Arizona Wildcats

No change: Rich Rodriguez has proven coordinators on both sides of the ball, with the offensive humming under co-coordinators Calvin Magee and Rod Smith and the 2013 defense being the Pac-12's most improved unit under Jeff Casteel.

Arizona State Sun Devils

Out: Cornerbacks coach and special teams coordinator Joe Lorig left for Utah State, which allowed coach Todd Graham to rejigger his defensive coaching staff. Paul Randolph, a co-defensive coordinator the past two seasons, will serve as senior associate head coach and defensive ends coach.

In: Keith Patterson left West Virginia to co-coordinate the defense with Chris Ball. Patterson will coach linebackers and be the Sun Devils' defensive special teams coach. Ball will continue to serve as the safeties and defensive passing game coach.

Thoughts: A lot of these moves emerged from Graham's concern about special teams, as well as his wish to reunite with an old friend. He and Patterson, according to the press release announcing the hiring, "have a professional and personal relationship that goes back to East Central University where they were college roommates." That same press release noted that "Patterson will oversee the defense, but Graham will be heavily involved in the planning." Graham also will have a "major" role with the special teams coaching and will assist Ball with the cornerbacks. It was also announced that Chip Long, the Sun Devils tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator, will become the offensive special teams coach. As for Patterson's track record, it was a lot better at Pittsburgh than at West Virginia, where the Mountaineers allowed 33.3 and 38.0 points per game over the past two seasons.

Colorado Buffaloes

No change: Colorado's second-year coach Mike MacIntyre retained both defensive coordinator Kent Baer and offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren. Compared to 2012, the Buffaloes scored 7.6 more points per game and allowed 7.8 points fewer per game last season. The overall numbers weren't good, but it was clearly a step in the right direction on both sides of the ball.

UCLA Bruins

Out: Defensive coordinator Lou Spanos left to become the LBs coach for the Tennessee Titans

In: Jeff Ulbrich was promoted from LBs coach and special teams coordinator.

Thoughts: Ulbrich has coached perhaps the Bruins most improved position over the past two years -- linebackers -- and he deserves credit for players like Anthony Barr, Jordan Zumwalt, Myles Jack and Eric Kendricks developing into stars. He also ensures the Bruins improved defense retains schematic continuity. Named the 2013 FootballScoop Special Teams Coordinator of the Year, Ulbrich has guided the Bruins special teams unit to one of the top rankings in the country in each of the last two seasons. Ulbrich also won't have to work too hard to have credibility with his players as he was a LB San Francisco 49ers from 2000-2009.

USC Trojans

Out: Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast

In: Justin Wilcox, who followed new Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian from Washington to USC

Thoughts: Sarkisian decided to retain USC offensive coordinator Clay Helton, though like his predecessor, Lane Kiffin, Sarkisian will call offensive plays. Pendergast did a great job last year with his hybrid 3-4, which he termed a 5-2. Wilcox is widely seen as one of the nation's top defensive coordinators and a future head coaching candidate. His scheme won't be too much different than what the Trojans ran last year, though the Huskies officially ran a 4-3.

Utah Utes

Out: Co-offensive coordinators Dennis Erickson and Brian Johnson were demoted to running backs and quarterbacks coaches, respectively. Johnson then left Utah to become Mississippi State's quarterbacks coach.

In: Former Wyoming head coach Dave Christensen was hired to be the Utes’ single offensive coordinator

Thoughts: Will Christensen bring the Utes offense stability? He's their sixth different play caller in six years. The good news is he's highly regarded, getting hired at Wyoming because of the work he did with Missouri's offense. Johnson's departure probably helps reduce the feeling that there are too many cooks in the kitchen, seeing that he, Erickson and Aaron Roderick, now the Utes QBs coach after coaching receivers since 2005, have each been in the coordinator carousel at Utah. Head coach Kyle Whittingham also hired former Purdue All-American Taylor Stubblefield to coach receivers. Christensen, an offensive line specialist, will oversee tight ends.

Poll: Top defense in 2014?

February, 14, 2014
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The shuffling of defensive coordinators appears to be over. We think. And as previously noted, all five of the top scoring defenses in the Pac-12 last year have seen changes at the top of the defensive coaching hierarchy. Three of the hires were internal promotions and two were coordinators who stayed with their head coach while switching schools.

This is how the top five scoring defenses played out last year:
  1. Stanford (19.0 points per game)
  2. Oregon (20.5)
  3. USC (21.2)
  4. Washington (22.8)
  5. UCLA (23.2)

Who got the better end of the deal? Sounds like a poll question for you to ponder all weekend long.

Which team will lead the Pac-12 in scoring defense in 2014?

Your options:

SportsNation

Which team will lead the Pac-12 in scoring defense in 2014?

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    17%
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    30%
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    25%
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    11%
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Discuss (Total votes: 4,124)

Stanford: Derek Mason departed to become head coach at Vanderbilt and Lance Anderson was promoted from within. The Cardinal lose some marquee players but have others such as safety Jordan Richards and linebacker A.J. Tarpley returning.

Oregon: Out is longtime coordinator Nick Aliotti, who retired. In is longtime position coach Don Pellum. The Ducks lose some talent but return standout cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who gives the Ducks' secondary instant credibility.

USC: Clancy Pendergast was not retained by new head coach Steve Sarkisian. So Justin Wilcox is in after working his magic at Washington. The Trojans lost a lot of players to the draft, but a couple key players are back and there is a pretty good crop of young, talented players.

Washington: New head coach Chris Petersen brought his guy, Pete Kwiatkowski, with him from Boise State. The Huskies made tremendous strides in two seasons under Wilcox and have some pretty solid personnel returning.

Other: UCLA's Lou Spanos returned to the NFL and Jeff Ulbrich was promoted from within. Head coach Jim Mora will still oversee a lot of the defense. Though impact players like Anthony Barr and Cassius Marsh are gone, the Bruins have plenty of talent coming back. ... Arizona was sixth in the conference last year and made huge strides from 2012 to 2013. Can it keep the momentum going? ... Arizona State (seventh) also shuffled its defensive staff around with the hiring of Keith Patterson, though Todd Graham will still be heavily involved in the defense. ... Utah (eighth) is just two seasons removed from leading the conference in scoring defense. Can the Utes get back to the top?
The Pac-12 has seen a flurry of defensive coordinator movement over the last couple of weeks -- starting with the power struggle for former Washington defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox to the recent exoduses of Stanford’s Derek Mason to Vanderbilt as head coach and UCLA’s Lou Spanos to the Tennessee Titans as linebackers coach. Oregon’s promotion of Don Pellum to defensive coordinator to replace Nick Aliotti will also shine a spotlight on the Ducks’ defense in 2014 and beyond.

And then there is, of course, former USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who mysteriously continues to be out of work.

[+] EnlargeKevin Hogan, Scott Crichton
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesOregon State defensive end Scott Crichton is among the Pac-12 defensive stars entering the NFL in 2014.
Look at the top five scoring defenses in the Pac-12 in 2013: Stanford, Oregon, USC, Washington and UCLA, respectively. All five have had defensive coordinators in flux in the young offseason.

That makes for an interesting transition period for the Pac-12. Defenses had closed the gap in recent years with several teams ranking in the top 25 nationally in scoring defense. That in itself is an achievement considering the level of offensive skill players and the diversity of offenses in the conference.

But when you look ahead to 2014, there are a lot of quarterbacks coming back to man the league’s high-powered offenses -- Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley, Taylor Kelly, Sean Mannion, Connor Halliday, etc. You combine that with a massive talent drain of defensive players graduating or declaring for the NFL, plus all of the shifting within the defensive coaching ranks, and you have to wonder if 2014 is going to be the Year of Offense in the Pac-12.

Consider a few of the defensive standouts leaving: Anthony Barr (UCLA), Will Sutton (ASU), Shayne Skov (Stanford), Dion Bailey (USC), Terrance Mitchell (Oregon), Scott Crichton (Oregon State), Trent Murphy (Stanford), Carl Bradford (ASU), Deone Bucannon (Washington State), Trevor Reilly (Utah). There are a couple dozen others who aren’t mentioned who were high-impact guys like Stanford’s Ben Gardner and Ed Reynolds, Jordan Zumwalt and Cassius Marsh from UCLA and Alden Darby, Osahon Irabor and Robert Nelson from ASU.

In total, 19 of the 25 all-conference defensive players from 2013 will be gone next year -- including 10 of 12 from the first team. Plus about a dozen more that were honorable mention are leaving or graduating. That is a major hit to the defensive talent in the league.

The Pac-12 is rarely appreciated nationally for its defensive prowess, either from a player or coaching perspective. And now three of the best coordinators in the conference are gone, one has moved from Washington to USC and another is looking for a gig.

Pac-12 offenses are going to be loaded in 2014 while the defenses have huge question marks. There is plenty of young talent. Guys like Myles Jack (UCLA), Addison Gillam (Colorado) and Su’a Cravens (USC) have all made names for themselves early in their careers. There are also some very notable returners like Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (Oregon), Henry Anderson (Stanford), Shaq Thompson (Washington) and Hayes Pullard (USC).

But a lot more is gone than is coming back.

That opens the door for all sorts of comparison storylines. Wilcox did an outstanding job re-tooling the defense at Washington. And now Pete Kwiatkowski will be measured against what Wilcox was able to accomplish. Likewise, Pendergast probably should have been USC’s MVP for what he did with the Trojans in one season. Now Wilcox has to take over an outfit that is losing a lot of playmakers to the NFL. No doubt, he’ll be compared to his predecessor. Just as Pellum will be compared to Aliotti, and whoever fills the seats at Stanford and UCLA will be compared to what Mason and Spanos were able to accomplish.

The guard is changing, as it does every year in college football. This year it might be the Pac-12 defenses that take a step back.

Season review: UCLA

January, 8, 2014
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We continue our team-by-team review of the Pac-12 with UCLA.

[+] EnlargeBrett Hundley
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsBrett Hundley and UCLA's offense showed more strength in 2013.
Offense: In 2013, the UCLA offense scored more points per game, averaged more yards per play, was more efficient passing the ball and even averaged more rushing yards despite the graduation of Johnathan Franklin, compared to a season ago. Sacks were a huge problem in 2012, with the Bruins yielding an eye-popping 52. While yielding 36 sacks wasn't Stanford-like, it was still a significant improvement. In 2012, the Bruins had 25 turnovers. They had 16 in 2013. So, there's no question the offense improved in the second season with coordinator Noel Mazzone and quarterback Brett Hundley. All that happened despite starting three true freshmen on the offensive line much of the season. The only real hiccup for the offense came in back-to-back road games against Stanford and Oregon, when the Bruins scored 10 and 14 points, respectively. In the Sun Bowl, the Bruins rolled up 42 points against a rugged Virginia Tech defense. Grade: B+

Defense: The Bruins ranked fifth in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, allowing 23.2 points per game, 4.4 fewer than in 2012. They also allowed 0.5 fewer yards per play and moved up from eighth to fifth in pass efficiency defense. The sack numbers were way down -- 32 in 2013 vs. 47 in 2012 -- but that probably was because of coordinator Lou Spanos not believing he needed to blitz as often to stop opponents. It's notable that the Bruins yielded just 16 touchdown passes with two new cornerbacks after yielding 27 in 2012. What's more, the defense was consistent. It had a bad fourth quarter at Oregon and a bad first half against Arizona State, but that was about it. Grade: B+

Special teams: UCLA was solid on special teams, though the field goal kicking -- 14 of 21 -- wasn't terribly reliable. The Bruins ranked second in the conference in net punting, second in kick returns and fifth in punt returns. They also blocked four kicks/punts, which was second-most in the conference. Grade: B

Overall: Mora's first season in Westwood in 2012 was impressive. UCLA finished 9-5, winning the Pac-12 South Division and showed dramatic improvement on both sides of the ball. But the season concluded with three consecutive defeats, including a blowout loss to Baylor in the Holiday Bowl. This year's 10-3 record -- though the 6-3 conference record is the same and Arizona State won the division -- feels like a significant step forward. The Bruins won five of their final six games, including a second consecutive win over USC, and turned in a strong bowl performance, a 42-12 domination of the Hokies. The final No. 16 ranking shows that UCLA, which was 21st in the preseason polls, is on the move in a positive direction. The 2014 preseason ranking, spurred on by Hundley's decision to return instead of entering the NFL draft, should reflect that. Grade: B+

Bruins gain insight on running QBs

September, 1, 2013
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PASADENA, Calif. -- The UCLA Bruins passed a crucial test in Week 1, which was (mostly) containing a dual-threat quarterback. Nevada's Cody Fajardo spent the first half of Saturday night’s 58-20 Bruins’ victory at the Rose Bowl dodging over-pursuing outside linebackers and escaping edges that were thought to be contained.

In the second half, not so much. Fajardo rushed for 79 yards in the first half, but was limited to just 27 after halftime. In total, Fajardo rushed for 106 yards and two scores. There were valuable lessons learned, and they will carry the Bruins through a schedule that includes some of the nation’s top dual-threat QBs. And getting to see a versatile quarterback like Fajardo in the first game gives the Bruins a framework for what they did right and what they need to correct moving forward.

“I think it’s invaluable,” said UCLA coach Jim Mora. “(Nebraska’s) Taylor Martinez, who we see next, to me is one of the top running quarterbacks in football – at any level. For us to play a guy like we did today and for him to have the success he had and learn from it is really going to help us. To see it on film is really going to ingrain the learning in our young men. And it’s a chance for us to say what are we doing right, what are we doing wrong? What do we need to adjust? What do we need to do better?

“We can’t let quarterbacks do that to us. That’s what interesting about this college game. These quarterbacks are such threats running the football. I’m still adjusting to it. I better adjust darn quickly.”

Indeed, because after Martinez, Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, Stanford’s Kevin Hogan, Arizona State’s Taylor Kelly and Washington’s Keith Price – among others – loom.

“At the college level, everyone has a guy who can tuck and run, whether it’s designed or not,” said UCLA defensive coordinator Lou Spanos. “They are all threats. Most colleges have dual-threat guys. You have to adjust accordingly. Every call you have, someone who has to be responsible for the quarterback. It’s a great challenge every week.”

The Bruins finally got through to Fajardo in the second half with a pair of sacks -- a considerably low total for a team that ranked eighth in the country in 2012 at sacks per game -- but understandable considering the scrambling ability of Fajardo. Keenan Graham tallied both of UCLA’s sacks, one of which led to a game-changing blocked punt and touchdown that swung the momentum toward the Bruins in the second half.

It also helped that -- at least in the first half -- the Wolfpack pushed back. With a schedule that includes four teams ranked in the preseason Top 25 (and now likely a fifth after Washington’s win over No. 19 Boise state), rolling over an FBS team probably wouldn’t have been that beneficial to a Bruins team with Rose Bowl aspirations.

“In our preparation for Nevada, we knew they were going to come hard,” said UCLA offensive lineman Xavier Su’a-Filo. “That’s a good team. They pushed us in the first half and forced us to make some adjustments. That’s a good thing for our team. That was really good preparation for us as we start to get ready for Nebraska.”

For veterans like linebackers Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt, running quarterbacks at the college level aren’t much of a surprise. But for someone like true freshman linebacker Myles Jack, who tallied eight tackles and a tackle for a loss, the experience of seeing a runner early in his career was invaluable.

“I would say it was crucial for us young guys to be exposed to that early -- and not just us, the whole team,” Jack said. “Fajardo should be a Heisman candidate. He’s a great player. And for us to see someone like that in Week 1 was a good preview of what we’re going to see over the next few weeks and for the rest of the season.”

Take 2: B1G vs. Pac-12

July, 12, 2013
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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.
LOS ANGELES -- Anthony Barr came to UCLA with hopes of carrying the football. But when Jim Mora was hired, Barr was asked to give up those hopes and become a linebacker. You'd think that somewhere in the back of his mind he must be longing to carry the ball again -- at least a few more times. Suppose the coaching staff asked him to switch sides again and compete for the job vacated by Johnathan Franklin. Surely, he'd jump at that chance. Wouldn't he?

"Nope. It's too late for that. I'm a fully-committed, defensive-minded player," Barr said, soft-spoken but with a smile. "It was tough. When you've got the ball in your hands, people notice you. I think that's what guys get attached to. The limelight. The ego. You have to put that aside and do what's best for the team."

It's official. Barr's all in.

[+] EnlargeUCLA's Anthony Barr
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesUCLA's Anthony Barr had a Pac-12 best 13.5 sacks last season. He added 21.5 tackles for loss, 83 tackles, five passes defended, four forced fumbles, a blocked kick and a safety.
He said his goals for 2013 are pretty basic. "Get better at everything." Simple. To the point. Pretty universal.

No mention of being first-team all-conference (again). Not a word about Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year -- which figures to be hotly contested between him and last year's winner, Will Sutton of Arizona State. And certainly not a peep about being a Heisman defensive darkhorse. Heisman talk, he said, is reserved for quarterback Brett Hundley.

But whether or not he chooses to recognize it, he is in the limelight -- more than he ever would have been had he stayed on offense.

"He's not exactly a secret," said UCLA defensive coordinator Lou Spanos. "He has to understand that every game we play, the first look is going to be where he's lining up. Everyone knows about him. Each game, he's going to have to be at his best."

When you lead the Pac-12 in sacks, people are going to know your name. In 2012, Barr posted a league-best 13.5 sacks and was second in tackles for a loss with 21.5. He was second on the Bruins with 83 tackles (a very distant second behind Pac-12 tackle king Eric Kendricks' 149). He also defended five passes, forced four fumbles, blocked a kick and tallied a safety.

"He's a complete player," Spanos said. "He can do it all."

Hard to believe that Barr has only been practicing as a linebacker for all of eight months. The switch was made before last spring, but an injury kept him out of spring ball so he didn't even start working his technique until the middle of fall camp. Coming off of a 2011 season where he carried all of nine times as a hybrid fullback/running back for 25 yards and a touchdown, the move to defense was going to take some getting used to.

"You have to play angry," he said. "You have to be more physical and aggressive. A lot of it was good coaching. They got me ready to play in a hurry."

Despite being ranked No. 10 at the time on Mel Kiper's Big Board Insider, Barr announced on New Year's Eve that he would return to UCLA for another year -- much to the delight of his coaches and teammates. But Mora -- who probably knows the NFL better than any current college football coach -- believes it was the right call.

"He wasn't ready to go out yet," Mora said. "Obviously I'm glad he didn't go. But I think with another year, the potential is there for him to be a high, high first-round draft pick."

And as the Bruins prepare to break spring camp, Mora has even started cranking up the Heisman talk -- even if Barr won't.

However, Barr said that staying really wasn't that tough of a decision.

"I love my teammates and I love this coaching staff and I love this university," he said. "I felt like I owed it to them."

With a year of seasoning and working out as a linebacker, he's upped his weight about 10 pounds while retaining his explosive first step that gave so many offensive linemen fits last year. He's emphasized his pass coverage and believes that with another year in the 3-4 defense, the Bruins will be even better than last year -- when they were eighth nationally in sacks and 22nd in tackles for a loss. And though he'll be drawing much more attention in 2013, the coaches are confident he's poised for another oustanding season.

"He's a tremendous student and he wants to be great," Spanos said. "That's his goal. And our goal is to make him the best player he can be. He takes everything we ask and does extra. You can't say enough great things about Anthony. Really looking forward to seeing what he can do this year."
Happy Friday. The mailbag is a bit longer this week because your questions are just so darn compelling. So snuggle up to the fireplace with your laptop, iPad or Kindle, put on a pot of chamomile (that's what the Pac-12 blog readers drink, right?) and settle in.

As always, follow the blog on Twitter.

Kote in Palo Alto writes (and writes, and writes, and writes): Hi Kevin, First off, I'm thrilled about Stanford football over the past four years. I don't think any Stanford fan isn't, and if they are, they're wrong to be. That said, I am concerned about the coaching staff's alleged conservatism, but it's not the general concern that most people have cited. Instead, I'm specifically concerned about conservatism in situations that call for more spontaneity. The Rose Bowl was a great example of what I mean. Stanford jumped out to a 14-0 lead on some terrific play-calling: the pitch to Terrell who tossed it to JRP, Hogan airing it out to Ertz, and the sweep to Young. Those were great plays, but they were ones that Shaw and Hamilton probably drew up and planned out weeks before. After those first two series, the playcalling got much more conservative, and we never saw the end zone again. Then I thought about the rest of this past year, and particularly Stanford's losses. In both cases, we had a lead, and in both cases the other team came from behind to win it. We can blame Josh Nunes and an anemic offense all we want, but it seemed like things got pretty uncreative at the ends of those games (just think about ND's goal line "stand"). For whatever reason, once Stanford gets beyond the initial game plan, things seem to tighten up a bit, and the result is less scoring. The defense also stops worrying about the long ball or the trick play as well, and that makes the vintage pound-it-up-the-middle strategy less effective, too. This was true in some other games as well -- we didn't score in the second half at all against Cal, and only 3 points in the second half against SJSU. That might be selection bias, but it seemed like a lot of the time this year the offense built a lead at the beginning of the game, and we either clung on for dear life or kicked a last minute field goal or two to get the win or pad the margin. Is it possible that Shaw and his staff are good at drawing up creative plays before the game starts, but that they need to work on the confidence/grit/toughness/whatever to call gutsy plays off the cuff?

Kevin Gemmell: Let’s check the scoreboard:

Pac-12 coach of the year honors for David Shaw: 2

Pac-12 coach of the year honors for Kote from Palo Alto: 0

I poke fun in jest. But hopefully the sentiment is well taken. David Shaw is not an exciting play-caller, nor are the Cardinal built to be the greatest show on turf. He’s a very traditional West Coast offense-minded coach who plays to his strength: strong running backs and a strong offense line. Isn't that what good coaches do? Play to strengths?

That doesn’t mean he can’t mix it up with a fun play every so often. But he’s extremely calculating. Don’t think for a second that someone on their staff hasn’t sabremetricized Stanford’s success/failure ratio on certain plays in certain situations. You cite the Notre Dame game. With that offensive line and that running back, I’d go up the middle four times too. Because the odds of Stanford failing to go four yards on four plays have to be extremely long. (And depending who you ask, they did go 4 yards.)

Allow me to offer an example of gutsy play-calling. Down 23-21 with a little more than five minutes left in the game, Stanford was at the Oregon State 13-yard line. The play-calling brain trust dialed up a post route to Zach Ertz – knowing that he was going to draw man-to-man coverage from Jordan Poyer, arguably the best cover-corner in the league last year with a league high six interceptions. Ertz beat Poyer with a head fake to the corner and caught the 13-yard pass, leading to Stanford’s 27-23 victory. This wasn’t a trick or flashy play – but given the circumstances and the defender, it was a gutsy call. It was taking a chance. It just doesn't meet your definition of "gutsy."

And there is a purpose to those vintage “drive it up the middle” plays. It’s demoralizing to a defense when they get dragged up and down the field. Stanford’s approach last year was to get an early lead, and then grind teams down with long drives. It is a proven formula as old as football itself.

Shaw isn’t totally against trickery, either. We’ve seen a couple of flea flickers. The Wildcat reverse of Andrew Luck to Ty Montgomery against USC in 2011 comes to mind, as does Luck’s one-handed catch. But every risk Shaw takes offensively is extremely calculated and measured.

I appreciate where you are coming from. But the sooner you understand that Mike Martz isn't running the offense and start embracing the smashmouth culture your team has adopted, you'll be able to enjoy their success that much more.

(Read full post)

LOS ANGELES -- Sacks are good.

Sacks allowed are bad.

UCLA’s defense at getting sacks in 2012? Really good.

UCLA’s offense at allowing sacks in 2012? Really bad.

This was the schizophrenic personality of 2012 UCLA football. On one hand, a pressure-based 3-4 scheme installed by new head coach Jim Mora and defensive coordinator Lou Spanos was wildly effective at getting to quarterbacks and blowing up backfields. The Bruins jumped from 112th nationally in sacks in 2011 to eighth last year. They also improved from 87th to 22nd in tackles for a loss.

“Love this defense,” said outside linebacker Anthony Barr -- who provided the Bruins with a league-high 13.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for a loss, which was second in the Pac-12. “It’s all about pressure and playing fast. It’s so much fun.”

Expect more production with a more-of-the-same approach in Year 2.

“The next step is all 11 playing as one,” Spanos said. “Everyone knows the calls. Everyone understands the big picture. They have a sense of urgency. Each snap, they are playing like it’s their last play. They are making all the calls and communicating much better than they were this time last year.”

Sounds great. Now … about the other side of the ball …

[+] EnlargeBrett Hundley
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/USA TODAY SportsBrett Hundley and UCLA gave up more sacks per game than all but two FBS teams.
The Bruins stumbled all the way to 118th nationally in sacks allowed per game, from 67th in 2011. Only two schools were worse. Interestingly enough, both were from the Pac-12 -- Colorado and Washington State.

“Only two more spots and we can be the best of the worst,” joked offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone -- who often speaks with tongue in cheek. “That’s terrible. And it’s a combination of things. It’s a young quarterback. It’s a young offensive line. It’s having as many as seven freshmen on the field at once. And I don’t want to take the onus off of me. I need to do better job preparing those guys.

“Part of it is also the way the NCAA records sacks. In the spread, if the quarterback looks to pass but pulls it on a zone read and runs, and he gets tackled behind the line of scrimmage, that’s a sack. But that’s not an excuse. We still had about 20-something too many.”

It all evens out on the bell curve. Four Pac-12 schools were in the top eight nationally in sacks, Stanford (No. 1), Arizona State (No. 2), USC (No. 4) and UCLA. The Bruins faced all three of those opponents in 2012 and didn’t do particularly well when it came to protecting Hundley. He was sacked five times against ASU, five times against USC, seven times in the first meeting with Stanford and three times a week later in the Pac-12 championship game.

The offensive linemen -- young when they started last year but recognizing that they are no longer pups -- know they have to do a better job.

“You can make all of the excuses you want and place the blame wherever. But at the end of the day, it falls on us. Protecting the quarterback is our responsibility,” said guard Xavier Su’a-Filo.

The quarterback, for his part, acknowledges he has to get rid of the ball more quickly.

“That’s one thing that I take on myself,” Hundley said. “I try to help every aspect of this offense and it’s on me to know when to throw the ball and know what to do when I’m pressured. Sometimes you have to say screw it and take off running. That’s something that I’m working hard at this spring. We will be a lot better at that. … That offensive line is coming together really well this spring and they are going to be big and bad. I can’t wait to be behind them.”

And the head coach? Well, he finds the positive from the negative -- something not all head coaches are able to do.

“Brett had the mentality that he didn’t want to ever give up on a play,” Mora said. “I’ve seen that a lot in young quarterbacks. I would rather have that in a quarterback than a guy who gives up on a play too early, a guy that gets happy feet or gets afraid. Brett isn’t afraid. The time clock in his head just needs to say ‘Now it’s time to move out of the pocket. Now it’s time to move out of bounds and get to the next down.’ He’s maturing and he’ll get there. They are all maturing.”

Athlon ranks the Pac-12 coaches

April, 4, 2013
4/04/13
1:00
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Lists are fun. They move debate and give fans something to talk about in the offseason.

One annual list that always seems to spark some heated conversations is the Athlon Sports rankings of Pac-12 coaches.

Some very interesting moves compared to last year's list, which you can see here.

The Athlon folks rank them 1-12 using this criteria:
Many factors play into just how successful a coach is at any school. How well are the assistants paid? Are the facilities up to par with the rest of the conference? Can the coach recruit or is he more of an X's and O's manager? Are there off-the-field or age issues to take into consideration? Has a coach built a program or continued the success from a previous coach? How is the resume outside of their current position? These questions and more were posed to the editors at Athlon Sports, as they were asked to rank the coaches of each of the six BCS conferences. One thing to keep in mind - the record is not always indicative of where a coach should rank in a conference.

Here are their rankings:

    [+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
    Ron Chenoy/US PresswireDavid Shaw jumped from No. 9 on Athlon's ranking of Pac-12 coaches last season to the top spot this year.
  1. David Shaw, Stanford
  2. Mike Riley, Oregon State
  3. Rich Rodriguez, Arizona
  4. Todd Graham, Arizona State
  5. Mike Leach, Washington State
  6. Mike MacIntyre, Colorado
  7. Steve Sarkisian, Washington
  8. Jim Mora, UCLA
  9. Kyle Whittingham, Utah
  10. Sonny Dykes, California
  11. Lane Kiffin, USC
  12. Mark Helfrich, Oregon

Some thoughts:

  • Mora is way too low. We can only evaluate him on one season as a college coach, but Mora beat two of those South coaches ranked ahead of him and won the division in his first year. And given the way he's recruited so far, he doesn't seem to be a one-year anomaly. The Athlon folks take assistants into consideration -- and the UCLA coordinating duo of Noel Mazzone and Lou Spanos is one of the best in the league. Based on what we've seen so far, I'd probably have Mora at No. 3 with the Arizona coaches behind him. Though I'd swap Graham and RichRod based on what happened last season.
  • No problem with Shaw at No. 1. He's been a head coach for two seasons and won coach of the year both times. Can't argue with the results. Quite the jump as well from No. 9 last season. I remember thinking that was way too low last year.
  • I also have no issues with Riley at No. 2. That's well deserved and he has the credentials to support the ranking. If I were making a list, I'd probably have Shaw and Riley at 1-2, respectively, as well.
  • MacIntyre's ranking seems generous. No doubt, what he accomplished at San Jose State was nothing short of outstanding. But the WAC is not the Pac-12. We've seen how Utah has had issues since moving from the Mountain West -- one of the reasons Whittingham dropped from No. 4 last year to No. 9 this year. And 2013 won't really be a fair gauge given the tremendous rebuilding project MacIntyre has in front of him. Granted, Lane Kiffin and the Trojans had a horrible season last year. But at least he's won double-digit games in the Pac-12 in a season. So I wouldn't have MacIntyre above him -- or Mora for that matter. MacIntyre might end up being the best hire in the league -- but I need to see him win a few games and turn things around before ranking him ahead of established coaches who have already won in the league.
  • Speaking of Kiffin, he drops from No. 2 to No. 11. That seems a little too knee-jerk. Yes, his seat is hot. Yes, a lot of what went wrong in 2012 was his fault. But he's still 25-13 in a very tough conference. I'd rank him in the six to eight range.
  • Sarkisian and Leach are the two toughest to rank. Both have outstanding credentials as offensive-minded coaches, but the Huskies can't seem to break the seven-win barrier and the Cougars offense struggled in Year 1. Expecting better from both programs in 2013.
  • Dykes and Whittingham seem to be in the right spots.
  • Helfrich at No. 12 makes sense only because he is an unknown. With no previous head-coaching experience, we can only speculate as to what we're going to get. My guess is when they do this list again next year he'll be in the top five. Chip Kelly and the school obviously have tremendous faith in him -- and that endorsement should carry a lot of weight.

Can the Pac-12 go 8-0 this bowl season?

December, 4, 2012
12/04/12
11:30
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The Pac-12 has never before had eight bowl teams. But so what? It's only been a 12-team league for two seasons. Eight bowl-eligible teams should become the standard.

What's more important is the final bowl record. And that should -- emphasis on should -- sparkle this bowl season.

While there is no line yet on the Arizona State-Navy matchup in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, the Pac-12 is favored in six of the other seven games, including both BCS bowls (and the Sun Devils figure to be double-digit favorites). The lone underdog is Washington in the Las Vegas Bowl against Boise State, and I wonder if the 5 1/2-point spread is due largely to the Huskies' monumental choke against rival Washington State on Nov. 23.

In other words, 8-0 is a legitimate hope this bowl season. Going 7-1 would be good, too. And anything less than 6-2 will be disappointing.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireA bowl win by Marcus Mariota and Oregon over Kansas State would certainly help the Pac-12's national perception.
The first priority is the BCS bowl games. Those are high-profile matchups that everyone will watch. And pass judgment on the Pac-12.

Stanford is in a tough position. Wisconsin certainly looked better than its 7-5 record when it drubbed Nebraska, but the Cardinal won't get much credit for beating the Badgers after the Big Ten suffered through a horrible year. If the Cardinal should get upset, it certainly wouldn't boost the Pac-12's Q-rating.

But Oregon's showdown with Kansas State in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl is the real measuring stick. The Pac-12 and the Big 12 have been battling all season for the spot of "Second Best AQ Conference" behind the SEC (the SEC could sweep its bowl games, so don't expect there to be much headway in the "SEC is overrated" argument). If the Ducks beat the Wildcats, the Big 12 champs, that would be the biggest step toward establishing supremacy.

Of course, then come two more Pac-12-Big 12 matchups: Oregon State-Texas in the Valero Alamo Bowl and UCLA-Baylor in the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl. The Pac-12 is favored in each, but by less than a field goal in both cases.

If the Pac-12 wins two of three in these matchups, its claim to second-best conference would be legitimate, particularly if Oregon is one of those wins. Lose two of three, particularly if the Ducks take one of those losses, and this purely speculative trophy goes to the Big 12.

A couple more thoughts.

  • Before losing to Washington State, Washington was setting itself up as a team likely to generate plenty of 2013 buzz. The Huskies can recover considerable mojo and likely reserve a top-20 preseason ranking if they beat Boise State. But, really, it will be far more important for the Huskies to beat the Broncos in the 2013 season opener -- the re-opener for remodeled Husky Stadium -- than on Dec. 22 in the MAACO Las Vegas Bowl.
  • The Arizona-Nevada over-under started at about 75 points. I like the over.
  • Baylor averaged 578 yards and 44 points per game this year, totals that ranked Nos. 1 and 5 in the nation. But I'd rather have Arizona's offense (37 points, 522 yards, playing against much better defenses), and UCLA held the Wildcats to 10 points. To me, that's the great matchup in the Holiday Bowl: Coach Jim Mora and defensive coordinator Lou Spanos, longtime NFL guys, against one of the nation's most potent spread attacks.
  • Arizona State and USC both will be preparing for triple-option offenses. The extra time should help. But here's a guess the Sun Devils will be far more motivated than the Trojans, who certainly didn't anticipate ending up in the Hyundai Sun Bowl. And an unmotivated team trying to stop an option attack, which requires focused discipline, sometimes ends up looking bad. Really bad.
  • That said: It would be great if USC QB Matt Barkley comes back from the shoulder injury that knocked him out of the Notre Dame game and plays well. It hasn't been the season Barkley and his team imagined, but Barkley is a high-character, standup guy who remains a great ambassador for the game.
  • While it won't mean much of anything in either locker room, the Oregon-Kansas State scheduling "controversy" -- Kansas State canceled a home-and-home series with the Ducks, thereby killing a scheduled game for this season -- will be meaningful to both fan bases. The Ducks -- and a certain blog -- have trash talked the issue relentlessly, but now it's put-up or shut-up time, with each team's fan base knowing the postgame trash talk will be vociferous and seemingly unending.
And, again, here's the Pac-12 bowl schedule.

Sat., Dec. 15 Gildan New Mexico Bowl, Albuquerque, N.M. (University Stadium)

Arizona (7-5) vs. Nevada (7-5), 1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT, ESPN

Sat., Dec. 22 MAACO Bowl Las Vegas, Las Vegas (Sam Boyd Stadium)

Washington (7-5) vs. Boise State (10-2), 3:30 p.m. ET/12:30 p.m. PT, ESPN

Thurs., Dec. 27 Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl, San Diego (Qualcomm Stadium)

UCLA (9-4) vs. Baylor (7-5), 9:45 p.m. ET/6:45 p.m. PT, ESPN

Sat., Dec. 29 Valero Alamo Bowl, San Antonio (Alamodome)

Oregon State (9-3) vs. Texas (8-4), 6:45 p.m. ET/3:45 p.m. PT, ESPN

Sat., Dec. 29 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, San Francisco (AT&T Park)

Arizona State (7-5) vs. Navy (7-4), 4 p.m. ET/1 p.m. PT, ESPN2

Mon., Dec. 31 Hyundai Sun Bowl, El Paso, Texas (Sun Bowl)

USC (7-5) vs. Georgia Tech (6-7), 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT, CBS

Tues., Jan. 1 Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio, Pasadena, Calif. (Rose Bowl)

Stanford (11-2) vs. Wisconsin (8-5), 5 p.m. ET/2 p.m. PT, ESPN

Thurs., Jan. 3 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, Glendale, Ariz. (University of Phoenix Stadium)

Oregon (11-1) vs. Kansas State (11-1), 8:30 p.m. ET/5:30 p.m. PT, ESPN
This past summer, the Pac-12 Conference asked 123 media members -- you know: a gaggle of the lovely and gifted -- to vote in the Pac-12 preseason media poll.

That group of geniuses -- which included the Twin Lords of Awesomeness, Ted Miller & Kevin Gemmell -- picked Oregon to win the Pac-12 North Division and USC to win the Pac-12 South Division by overwhelming numbers: Both received 117 first-place votes, including ballots inscribed in gold leaf on granite tablets from Messrs. Miller & Gemmell (postage was a killer).

And, of that 123, 102 picked USC to win the Pac-12. There were some contrarians: 18 voted for Oregon and three voted for Arizona State to win the conference title.

[+] EnlargeStepfan Taylor
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/US PresswireWill UCLA do a better job containing Stepfan Taylor and Stanford in the Pac-12 title game on Friday?
None voted for UCLA or Stanford, which will play for the Pac-12 championship on Friday in Palo Alto.

Now, take 30 seconds to vituperate against the media.

Better?

UCLA was picked third in the South behind USC and Utah, though it did receive two first-place votes. Stanford was picked second in the North and received five first-place votes. So neither was expected to be lousy (Kevin had Stanford 10th in his preseason top 25 and Ted had them 16th). It was just expected that USC and Oregon would be top-five teams, perhaps undefeated when they met on Nov. 3.

Ah, expectations.

So how did this happen?

The simple answer is the purest form of competition: head-to-head.

With a brilliant defensive showing, Stanford won at Oregon 17-14 in overtime on Nov. 17. And in a stunning reversal of a 50-0 result in 2011, UCLA whipped USC 38-28 on the same day.

The more complicated answer? Good coaching, exceeding expectations where there were preseason personnel questions and mostly staying healthy.

Quarterback was a big question for each. No longer. You get the feeling that the Bruins (Brett Hundley) and the Cardinal (Kevin Hogan) are now quite excited about the present and future at the position, considering both are redshirt freshmen.

UCLA's defense came together nicely under new coordinator Lou Spanos, most notably with the inspired move of Anthony Barr from purgatory on offense to greatness at outside linebacker, where he might win Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year honors. Stanford's defense under coordinator Derek Mason was expected to be good, but it became great because a young secondary grew up fast and showcased improved athleticism from years past.

Both got better play on their offensive lines than most expected. And both probably feel good about the future there, based on the young guys returning in 2013.

Finally, UCLA's first-year coach, Jim Mora, and Stanford's second-year coach, David Shaw, pulled all -- or at least most of -- the right coaching levers. Both will get consideration for Pac-12 Coach of the Year. Both showed enough to suggest they are building programs that can remain at or near the top of the Pac-12 for years to come.

Neither team, however, escaped the ole "what might have been." The Bruins lost at home to Oregon State by seven points and suffered an inexplicable blowout defeat to California. The Cardinal suffered a baffling loss at Washington and were controversially nipped in overtime at Notre Dame, which is now unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the country.

Still, here they are, playing for a berth in the Granddaddy.

They also share a similar Rose Bowl drought. UCLA's last Rose Bowl appearance followed the 1998 season, a 39-31 loss to Wisconsin. The Cardinal lost to Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl the following year, 17-9.

UCLA's last Rose Bowl victory was a 45-28 win over Iowa in 1986. Stanford's was a 13-12 win over Michigan in 1972.

So both programs are pretty darn hungry for some Rose Bowl glory.

The final oddity is this: They will meet after playing each other just six days before.

Most might see this as a detriment to the game. Yet it also adds some intrigue because of the circumstances of last Saturday's game, which Stanford won easily, 35-17.

While Stanford had to win that game to win the North Division -- the Cardinal were unquestionably motivated due to important stakes -- the Bruins played knowing two things: (1) They'd already won the South Division; (2) If they won, they'd visit Oregon on Friday for the Pac-12 title.

While Stanford won at Oregon, if you took a poll of Pac-12 coaches, here's a strong hunch that most would opt to play at Stanford rather than at Oregon if a Rose Bowl berth were on the line.

So, while no one would ever admit it because it breaks the Competitors Code, there's a lingering idea that the Bruins might have more to offer this go-around than the previous, in terms of motivation and, perhaps, scheme.

That's something we can only find out on Friday when these two improbable division winners give the Pac-12 an unexpected champion.

Pac-12 chat wrap

November, 15, 2012
11/15/12
11:00
AM ET
You can read the complete chat from yesterday by left-clicking your mouse on this highlighted area or right-clicking and then selecting one of several options for opening the page. If you use Chrome, there will be three options if you right-click. Choose the option that is best for you and your family.

If that's getting too techie, you can just check out the highlights.

Angel (Tucson) [via mobile]: Just a few things. What do you think of Arizona this year? Are you impressed with what they've been able to do with so little talent on the team. I mean they're playing good football with a razor thin d and only a few players with games under their belt before this season. We were only supposed to win 3-4 games and We've been ranked at least 6 times this season. And also I was wondering what bowl game you think Arizona's going to end up in? Holiday/Hunger?

Kevin Gemmell: (2:01 PM): Color me impressed. Any time you miss the postseason and an entirely new coaching staff with new schemes on both sides of the ball comes in and you're able to make a bowl game, that's impressive. Bowl games are tricky to predict. Probably not Holiday. But expect a nice mid-level bowl.

Luci-fur (Tempe): Can the Sun Devils win their next two games? If so, is this season a huge success for first-year coach Todd Graham? If not, is there enough positive movement forward to be a happy Devil?

Kevin Gemmell (2:03 PM): Sure. And while predictions come out tomorrow morning at 6 a.m., I'll go out on a limb and tell you now I'm picking the Sun Devils. I think getting to a bowl game qualifies as a successful season for a first-year coach. It's a tangible reward for the effort. There is plenty of positive momentum around the program even if they have hit another losing streak. Talking to a couple of the guys on the team this week, you can just tell the overall attitude is better.

dan spokane [via mobile]: With the accusations [Marquess] Wilson has accused the coaching staff. And no other player has come forward what's your thoughts on this hit topic. Are they true or false? Thanks.

Kevin Gemmell (2:06 PM): There are eight sides to every issue. I'm going to wait until all investigations are done before passing judgment. I'd encourage everyone else to do the same.

CJ (Los Angeles, CA): Have you heard from scouts what type of draft pick Brett Hundley could be in the future? Does he have overall #1 potential?

Kevin Gemmell (2:14 PM): Whooaaa nelly, hit the brakes. He's played 10 games. I talk to an NFL scout once every couple of weeks just to get his thoughts on some stuff, but haven't even mentioned Hundley's name yet, and won't until probably late next season. Good player, but let's not get too far ahead of ourselves.

Cam (Ventura, CA): If you were starting a program, which QB would you rather have as a frosh building block, [Matt] Barkley or Hundley?

Kevin Gemmell (2:16 PM): Interesting question. I've always been a huge fan of pro-style football. They are two very different quarterbacks in two very different systems. As I explained in the story on the blog this morning, UCLA's offense can be a little more forgiving if a QB makes a mistake. It allows for Hundley's athleticism to get him out of trouble. But really good drop-back passers don't come around that often. So to answer the question, it depends on your philosophy. If you're a spread guy, you take Hundley. If you're pro-style, you take Barkley.

MikeDaTiger2004 (SEC Boards): Hey Kevin, we appreciate the warm welcome you showed us SEC fans yesterday on the PAC12 Lunch Links! We were there just to cheer on USC against Notre Dame!

Kevin Gemmell (2:34 PM): Thanks Mike. You're always welcome. As I said, we're good people on the Pac-12 blog. Informed, articulate and funny with a solid knowledge of football and pop culture.

Edward (Fort Campbell, KY): What is more dangerous at this point? Oregon's run game or their passing game?

Kevin Gemmell (2:51 PM): Nice when you have to ask that question, isn't it? Cal completely sold out to stop the run last week and we saw the result, six touchdown passes. Scary, scary offense.

Greg (LA): Why did everybody think [Jim] Mora was the worst of the four new coaches? He's 3-0 against the others so far.

Kevin Gemmell (2:52 PM): Great point. I think there was some trepidation about his lack of coaching in college. Really, really impressed with what he, [Bruins offensive coordinator Noel] Mazzone, [defensive coordinator Lou] Spanos et. al. have been able to do. Great hire. Hope he stays for a long time because he has the coaching staff to do great things at that school for a long time.

Eric (Olympia, WA): Worst college sports movie?

Kevin Gemmell (2:55 PM): Hmmm. "Necessary Roughness." While Robert Loggia delivers one of the greatest halftime speeches (much of which can't be repeated in the chat, I'll just say: Let us pray) the movie itself was a huge flop. Sinbad as a professor-turned-defensive end? Really? Kathy Ireland as a kicker though, yowza.

Fred (East Coast): Why do you keep projecting Stanford or Oregon State into the Rose Bowl if Oregon plays for the title? The national commentators have something like Notre Dame v. Nebraska? Would the Rose Bowl pick a 3-loss PAC 12 team over a higher-ranked outsider?

Kevin Gemmell (3:00 PM): Fred, it's still dicey. If Stanford loses to Oregon and beats UCLA, there's a good chance they'll still be in the top 14. Also depends on what happens with USC-Notre Dame. If USC wins, that helps. If a Pac-12 team is ranked in the top 14, even with three losses, and Notre Dame has a loss, I think the Rose Bowl will do everything in its power to get a Pac-12 team in there. Their first responsibility is to their partners.

UCLA could take L.A. from Trojans

November, 6, 2012
11/06/12
12:00
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Last year, UCLA "won" the Pac-12 South Division and advanced to a bowl game, "honors" that were appropriate moments for mocking finger quotes. The Bruins were two games behind USC in the South standings and coming off a 50-zip loss to the Trojans. They got a ticket to Eugene to get whipped by Oregon only because the Trojans were ineligible because of NCAA sanctions.

Then the Bruins opted to use a rules loophole that allowed them to go to a bowl game despite a losing record. Just to make things a bit messier, they also fired head coach Rick Neuheisel. And then they got pushed around by a bad Illinois team that had also fired its coach and lost six in a row before meeting the Bruins.

Ugly times. And the Trojans cackled, anticipating their sure super-awesomeness in 2012.

[+] EnlargeJim Mora
AP Photo/Nick LuceroThe annual rivalry game with USC will have more than bragging rights at stake this season for coach Jim Mora and UCLA.
Ah, but the sun is rising in Westwood under new coach Jim Mora, and the Trojans are no longer cackling at anyone. In fact, the Bruins are now casting a shadow on USC, which for the first time since 2001 trails UCLA in the BCS standings.

USC behind UCLA. In football. We'll now pause for a moment to let the UCLA folks savor that for a bit.

But wait ... there's Mora, er, more!

If the Bruins can survive a trip to Pullman, Wash., on Saturday, they will host USC on Nov. 17 with the South Division on the line. They could win the division right there and advance to the Pac-12 title game, no finger quotes or asterisk required. The secondary benefit would be putting a powder blue boot print in what was supposed to be a special season for USC.

That scenario assumes, by the way, that the Trojans don't flop at home Saturday against Arizona State. If that happens, the Bruins would merely need to win any two of their final three games -- Stanford visits on Nov. 24 -- to win the division.

In other words, UCLA controls its own destiny, which is nice.

The Bruins were picked to finish third in the South in the preseason media poll, but they've risen through the ranks with a high-powered but balanced offense and an attacking defense. The Bruins are young -- 12 true freshmen and 13 redshirt freshmen have played, with seven starting on Oct. 13 against Utah -- but the resurgence has been as much about upperclassmen with previously meandering careers finding their rhythm under a new coaching staff.

That starts with senior running back Johnathan Franklin, who has long been known equally for explosiveness and fumbles. This year, he's fourth in the nation with 133.78 yards rushing per game, he's a likely first-team All-Pac-12 selection, and he's not lost a fumble. Oh, and he became the Bruins' all-time leading rusher last weekend with 3,873 yards, breaking Gaston Green's mark from 1984-87.

Then there are guys like defensive end Datone Jones, cornerback Sheldon Price and linebacker Damien Holmes, all seniors, and receiver Shaq Evans, defensive tackle Cassius Marsh and outside linebacker Anthony Barr, all juniors, who are turning in breakout seasons.

The Bruins' offense has been reborn under coordinator Noel Mazzone and redshirt freshman QB Brett Hundley, averaging 226 yards rushing and 289 yards passing. The defense, forced to support a high-tempo offense, not unlike Oregon (the Ducks have run 739 plays; UCLA, 735), is surrendering a respectable 23.4 points per game while forcing 22 turnovers and recording 33 sacks under coordinator Lou Spanos.

And the Bruins have been good on special teams.

The lone face-plant on the schedule is a seemingly anomalous effort at California, when Hundley threw four of his eight interceptions. That sloppy, feckless performance gave rise to old bugaboos about inconsistency and softness on the road. But those grouses were answered by a comeback victory at Arizona State and a 66-10 bludgeoning of Arizona this past weekend.

Of course, things can reverse course quickly. The Bruins should be wary of the trip to Pullman, even if the Cougars have lost six in a row and seem to be having issues with new coach Mike Leach. UCLA is only 10-8-1 in Pullman all time, and it's going to be chilly for the 7:30 p.m. PT kickoff.

Still, there's legitimate hope in Westwood that Mora is not only rebuilding this program, he's also doing it quickly. The Bruins are in the thick of the South race this season, and the intriguing youth on the roster suggests a foundation for future success.

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