Pac-12: Nevada Wolf Pack

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

Rutgers at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, Thursday, Aug. 28
  • Coach: Kyle Flood (15-11), third season
  • 2013 record: 6-7, 3-5 AAC
  • Returning starters: nine on offense, seven on defense
  • Offensive headliner: running back Paul James. A first-team All-AAC pick after leading the conference with 97.9 rushing yards per game. He rushed for 881 yards in nine games with nine touchdowns, but was held out of four games due to a broke bone in his right leg and was limited during the spring.
  • Defensive headliner: Linebacker Steve Longa. Longa received numerous freshman All-American accolades after leading the Scarlet Knights with 123 tackles, starting all 13 games at middle linebacker. He was the team's co-defensive MVP with Marcus Thompson.
  • The skinny: Like WSU, Rutgers finished 6-6 in the regular season a year ago, only to drop below .500 with a loss in their bowl game (to Notre Dame). But unlike WSU, the Scarlet Knight had exactly zero impressive wins. None of the teams they beat finished with a winning record as they combined to go 17-54 -- with only 11 of those wins against FBS teams. With as many returners as it has, Rutgers should be better, but that doesn't mean it'll be anymore competitive now that it's moved to the Big Ten.
at Nevada, Friday, Sept. 5
  • Coach: Brian Polian (4-8), second season
  • 2013 record: 4-8, 3-5 Mountain West
  • Returning starters: seven on offense, nine on defense
  • Offensive headliner: Quarterback Cody Fajardo. Fajardo is among the school's all-time leaders in total offense (third), rushing yards (10th), rushing touchdowns (eighth), passing yards (eighth) and passing touchdowns (11th). He's on the watch lists for both the Maxwell Award, given to the nation's best player, and Davey O'Brien Award, given to the nation's best quarterback.
  • Defensive headliner: defensive end Brock Hekking. Hekking was a first-team All-Mountain West selection as a junior in 2013 after recoding nine sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss. He's on the Lombardi Award watch list and is a Pac-12 blog candidate for the best hair in college football.
  • The skinny: Polian is a bright coach with a good future in front of him, but the Wolf Pack took a big step back in his first year in Reno, finishing with a losing record for the first time since 2007. Mike Leach coached Texas Tech to a 35-19 win at Nevada in 2008 and WSU visited in 2005, a 55-21 win for the Cougs. The last time a Pac-12 team made the trip to Nevada, Colin Kaepernick led the Wolf Pack to a 52-31 win against Cal in 2010.
Portland State, Saturday, Sept. 13
  • Coach: Nigel Burton (18-27), fifth year
  • 2013 record: 6-6, 3-5 Big Sky
  • Returning starters: seven on offense, four on defense
  • Offensive headliner: Receiver Kasey Closs. A one-time walk-on, Closs caught 63 passes for 1,167 yards and eight touchdowns last season to rank fourth in the Big Sky in receiving yards per game. Against Cal, Closs caught five passes for 160 yards.
  • Defensive headliner: Linebacker Corey Crowder. The Vikings lose their top three tacklers from a year go, which leaves Crowder as the leading returning tackler after he made 59 stops in 2013.
  • The skinny: Portland State's trip to Pullman will be the first game of the year at Martin Stadium, which is looking good these days. It'll also be the second Pac-12 game for the Vikings after they open the season at Oregon State. Neither of these games figure to be anything like the close encounter they had in Berkeley against hapless Cal last year, especially considering the the Vikings lose talented running back D.J. Adams and have just four returning starters on defense.
Considering its long history of Polynesian influence, it should come as no surprise that the Pac-12 led the way with 15 players named to the preseason watch list for the inaugural Polynesian College Football Player of the Year Award.

Headlining the list is Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, USC safety Su'a Cravens, Oregon State center Isaac Seumalo, Washington linebacker Hau'oli Kikaha and BYU linebacker Alani Fua.

The award was established by the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame, which inducted its first class of members in January. That group of seven included Kurt Gouveia (BYU), Olin Kreutz (Washington), Kevin Mawae (LSU), Junior Seau (USC), Jack Thompson (Washington State), Herman Wedemeyer (Saint Mary's College) and Ken Niumatalolo (Navy/Hawaii).

The full breakdown of players on the watch list by conference is as follows: Pac-12 (15), Mountain West (12), Independents (4), American Athletic (1), Big 12 (1) and Sun Belt (1).

Here is the complete list (34 total):
Five finalists will be announced on Nov. 20 with the winner set to be named on Dec. 9.

Nonconference primer: Arizona

July, 14, 2014
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Today we start a new series looking at each team’s nonconference opponents in 2014.

ARIZONA

UNLV, Friday, Aug. 29
  • Coach: Bobby Hauck (13-38), fifth year
  • 2013 record: 7-6, 5-3 Mountain West
  • Returning starters: eight offense, six defense
  • Offensive headliner: Wide receiver Devante Davis caught 87 balls for 1,290 yards and a school-record 14 touchdowns last season.
  • Defensive headliner: Safety Peni Vea had 108 tackles and two interceptions last season.
  • The skinny: The Rebels return four of five starters on the offensive line (much like the Wildcats), but are still undecided on a starting quarterback (much like the Wildcats). Quarterbacks Nick Sherry and Blake Decker are battling to replace Caleb Herring, and the Rebels must replace their all-time leading rusher in Tim Cornett (much like the Wildcats and Ka’Deem Carey). For all the similarities, let's not forget Arizona blew out the Rebels 58-13 last year in Vegas.
At UTSA, Thursday, Sept. 4
  • Coach: Larry Coker (19-15), fourth year
  • 2013 record: 7-5, Conference USA
  • Returning starters: nine offense, 10 defense
  • Offensive headliner: Running back David Glasco II returns as the leading rusher from last season after posting 496 yards and five touchdowns on 95 carries.
  • Defensive headliner: Safety Triston Wade is back after posting a team-high 94 tackles with a pair of interceptions and five breakups.
  • The skinny: The Roadrunners are done with their transition and are now a full-fledged NCAA Division I FBS team and eligible for postseason play. They closed last year on a five-game winning streak, but have to replace quarterback Eric Soza, the only quarterback UTSA has known since its inception. Look for UTSA to be in contention for the CON-USA title.
Nevada, Sept. 13
  • Coach: Brian Polian (4-8), second year.
  • 2013 record: 4-8, 3-5 Mountain West
  • Returning starters: seven offense, nine defense
  • Offensive headliner: Cody Fajardo is a dangerous dual-threat quarterback who threw for 13 touchdowns last year (to just three interceptions) while also rushing for 621 yards and eight scores. If he played on a higher-profile team, he’d probably get some Heisman buzz.
  • Defensive headliner: Senior defensive end Brock Hekking has posted 24.5 tackles for a loss and 17 sacks over the past two seasons.
  • The skinny: The Wolf Pack struggled in the second half of last season, dropping tight games to San Diego State, UNLV and BYU, snapping a streak of eight straight bowl appearances. But with Fajardo at the helm, they are always a threat to score. Polian tabbed Scott Boone, a longtime and very successful FCS coordinator, to fix a defense that ranked 102nd nationally in 2013 (34.4 points per game).
Thoughts: It’s tougher than last season, mainly because all three of these teams figure to be better than last year. The Rebels finally found the postseason under Hauck (losing in the Heart of Dallas Bowl to North Texas) and UTSA, which would have been bowl eligible if not for its NCAA transition, has a ton of continuity. No doubt, Rich Rodriguez remembers what Fajardo and Nevada are capable of from the 2012 New Mexico Bowl. With all of that said, Arizona should be considered a favorite in all three games. They have a better offensive arsenal, a secondary that is very strong and two of those three games are at home. Anything less than 3-0 would be considered surprising. Anything less than 2-1 would evoke this.

Pac-12 helmet stickers: Week 1

September, 1, 2013
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Oregon State QB Sean Mannion threw for 422 yards, and receiver Brandin Cooks had 13 catches for 196 yards in the Beavers' upset loss to Eastern Washington, but you don't get a helmet sticker when your team loses to an FCS foe.

So who does?

Andy Phillips, K, Utah: This might be the best story of the week, as Phillips, a former U.S. alpine skier who had never played competitive football before his kickoff against Utah State, kicked field goals of 45, 19 and 38 yards and was perfect on three extra points in the Utes' 30-26 victory. Oh, and he perfectly executed an onside kick that might have been the biggest play of the game. See this video.

Dion Bailey, S, USC: Bailey's switch back to his native position of safety from linebacker paid off against Hawaii. He led the Trojans' defense with seven tackles, a sack and an interception in their 30-13 victory.

Keith Price, QB, Washington: A poor 2012 season is officially old news for Price. In the Huskies' 38-6 win over No. 19 Boise State, he completed 23 of 31 passes for 324 yards with a pair of touchdowns, which gave him 56 for his career, a new school record, eclipsing Cody Pickett. He also rushed for 25 yards. His efficiency rating of 176.8 would have led the nation in 2012.

Washington's defense: The Huskies held Boise State to their lowest point total since 1997 (a 58-0 loss to Washington State). The Broncos gained only 3.9 yards per play. Their longest running play from scrimmage was 18 yards. The Huskies are paying second-year coordinator Justin Wilcox a lot of money. He is worth it.

Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA: Hundley completed 22 of 33 passes for 274 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions in the Bruins' 58-20 win over Nevada. He also rushed for 63 yards on seven carries with two TDs. The Bruins' offense, guided by Hundley, gained 647 yards.

Chris Harper, WR, California: Harper caught 11 passes for 151 yards and two touchdowns in the Bears' 44-30 loss to Northwestern.

Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon: Marriota rushed for 113 yards and two TDs on just five carries -- 22.6 per rush -- and passed for 234 yards and a score in the Ducks' 66-3 blowout win over Nicholls State.

Tra'Mayne Bondurant, S, Arizona: Bondurant had two interceptions in the Wildcats' 35-0 won over Northern Arizona, including one he returned 23 yards for a touchdown. He also tied for the team lead with seven tackles, adding one for a loss.

Pregame: UCLA vs. Nevada

August, 31, 2013
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PASADENA, Calif. –- As far as Week 1 challenges go, the Bruins could be in for a big one with Nevada quarterback Cody Fajardo -– a dual-threat athlete with a favorable history of picking on Pac-12 teams.

With 20 career starts, and his favorite wide receiver from last year, Brandon Wimberly, coming back, look for Fajardo to have another strong season. In fact, using ESPN’s adjusted QBR rating, Fajardo ranked 18th in the country last year in efficiency, 10 spots ahead of Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez, a “bigger name” quarterback the Bruins will see in a couple of weeks.

Against two Pac-12 teams last year (Cal and Arizona) he completed 74 percent of his throws (47 of 63) and rushed for 237 yards and three touchdowns.

First-year head coach Brian Polian is sure to bring a little of what he learned the last few years at Texas A&M and Stanford. But second-year offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich is pretty much running the show on offense.

Look for a lot of the same pistol/read-option principles we’ve seen from Nevada over the last decade. Keep an eye on UCLA left OLBs Aaron Wallace and Myles Jack, who should rotate a lot playing opposite Anthony Barr. Having to set edges against Fajardo will be very beneficial when they have to do it in two weeks against Martinez.

A quick look at today's Pac-12 slate

August, 31, 2013
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The Pac-12 is 3-0. The going won't be as easy in some stadiums today.

Here's what's ahead.

Nicholls State at No. 3 Oregon, 4 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1: These teams have never met, and it's unfortunate they will Saturday. Nicholls State went 0-7 in the Southland Conference last year, its lone 2012 win coming over NAIA Evangel. Oregon State beat Nicholls State 77-3 last year when the Beavers were legitimately trying not to score. As The Oregonian has pointed out, it's likely the Autzen Stadium points record (72, recorded against New Mexico in 2010 and Nevada in 1999) will be broken.

Eastern Washington at No. 25 Oregon State, 6 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network: Oregon State leads the series against the FCS power 2-0, last winning 56-17 in 2006. It was announced Monday afternoon that Sean Mannion will start at QB for the Beavers over Cody Vaz, who still might see some playing time.

Washington State at Auburn, 7 p.m. ET, ESPNU: Auburn leads the series 1-0, beating the Cougars 40-14 in 2006. This will be the debut of Tigers coach Gus Malzahn, as well as his starting QB Nick Marshall. Two years removed from a national title -- won in a nailbiter over Oregon -- Auburn went 3-9 last fall and fired coach Gene Chizik. Malzahn was the Arkansas State coach last year, but he also was Chizik's offensive coordinator in 2010. The Tigers welcome back 17 starters.

Nevada at No. 21 UCLA, 10 p.m. Pac-12 Network: First meeting. After Chris Ault retired -- again -- Brian Polian became the Nevada coach. The Wolf Pack has 12 starters back from a 7-6 team, most notably QB Cody Fajardo, a dynamic pass-run threat. He rushed for 1,100 yards and passed for 2,786 yards last year, accounting for 32 total TDs.

No. 19 Boise State at Washington, 10 p.m. Fox Sports 1: The series is tied 1-1. Boise State beat the Huskies 28-26 in the Las Vegas Bowl last year, while the Huskies prevailed in 2007, 24-10. The Broncos have only 10 starters back from their 11-2 team, while the Huskies welcome back 20. While Boise State QB Joe Southwick didn't put up big numbers last year, he was extremely efficient over the latter third of the season.

No. 22 Northwestern at California, 10:30 p.m., ESPN2: Northwestern leads the series 1-0 -- a 20-14 win in 1949. The Wildcats welcome back 17 starters from a 10-3 team that beat Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl last year. That includes the outstanding combination of QB Kain Colter and RB Venric Mark. They combined for more than 2,200 yards rushing last year. This is the debut of Cal coach Sonny Dykes, who replaced Jeff Tedford, as well as true freshman QB Jared Goff.

Pac-12 predictions: Week 1

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

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

Let's hear it for the old guys!

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

Thursday

UTAH STATE at UTAH

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

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

USC at HAWAII

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

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

Friday

NORTHERN ARIZONA at ARIZONA

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

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

Saturday

NICHOLLS STATE at OREGON

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

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

EASTERN WASHINGTON at OREGON STATE

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

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

NEVADA at UCLA

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

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

BOISE STATE at WASHINGTON

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

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

NORTHWESTERN at CALIFORNIA

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

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

WASHINGTON STATE at AUBURN

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

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

COLORADO STATE vs. COLORADO

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

Ted Miller: I stared at the Colorado depth chart Tuesday and had an interesting reaction that surprised me: maybe. The Buffs should have won this game last season, and I think they're better than in 2012. Colorado 30, Colorado State 27
We're looking at some of the top individual performances in the Pac-12 in 2012.

Up next: Hill in the clutch

Who and against whom: After a sluggish start for the Arizona offense, wide receiver Austin Hill stepped up big time in the fourth quarter of the New Mexico Bowl to help lead an improbable 49-48 come-from-behind win over Nevada.

The numbers: Hill caught a game-high eight balls for 175 yards with a pair of touchdowns.

A closer look: Things looked grim when the Wolf Pack jumped out to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter. Yet inch-by-inch, the Wildcats clawed their way back into the game and trailed 31-28 at halftime. They were grim again when Nevada claimed a 45-28 lead heading into the fourth. That's when Hill really stepped up. His 63-yard touchdown reception from Matt Scott -- the longest passing play of the 2012 season for Arizona -- cut the deficit to 45-35. Then with 46 seconds left in the game, Hill caught a 2-yard touchdown from Scott -- setting up a wild final minute. On the final drive, just before Tyler Slavin's go-ahead touchdown catch with 19 seconds left, Hill hauled in a 21-yard catch that set up the game winner. His 175 receiving yards were an Arizona bowl game record and the two touchdowns gave him 11 on the season -- which also matched a school record.

Oregon ends Pac-12 season on uptick

January, 4, 2013
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At least two people whispered the unthinkable to me after the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.

"That," they said, "was a boring game."

That, I realized after some pondering, is what happens when the superior team plays an outstanding game: 35-17 is what happens when Oregon plays well in all three phases against a good but less talented Kansas State team.

Boring, at least if you're an Oregon fan, is good. It means the guys who were supposed to make plays did.

[+] EnlargeKenjon Barner
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsRunning back Kenjon Barner and Oregon turned in a dominant performance against Kansas State.
All-American playmaker Kenjon Barner? He rushed for 120 of his 143 yards in the second half. Check.

First-team All-Pac-12 quarterback Marcus Mariota? He passed for two scores and ran for another, winning offensive MVP honors. Check.

Fancypants playmaker De'Anthony Thomas? He returned the opening kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown and turned in a brilliant 23-yard run for a score on a screen pass. Check.

Senior leader and All-Pac-12 linebacker Michael Clay? He led the Ducks with nine tackles, including two for a loss and a sack, winning defensive MVP honors.

And the one thing that folks in other college football regions have too often and ignorantly questioned about the Ducks -- defense -- showed up big-time, holding one of the nation's most potent offenses to 17 points and 283 yards.

Winning in all three phases, including special teams? Check.

If Chip Kelly opts to give the NFL a try, Ducks fans should simply tip their cap to him. He's earned that opportunity by taking a good program and making it great over the past four years.

Stanford, by the way, turned in a much different sort of show against Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, but it also was effective. The Cardinal ran the ball and played good defense -- you know: Was all Stanford-y -- and thereby gave the Pac-12 two victories in BCS bowl games.

Those wins on the biggest stages for the conference were a bit of a salve for a mediocre, 4-4 bowl season.

Arizona needed a dramatic -- and really still unbelievable -- rally to nip Nevada. Arizona State was vastly superior to Navy. Both Oregon State and Washington blew games they led in the fourth quarter to Texas and Boise State, respectively. UCLA got bricked by Baylor on both sides of the ball. And USC turned in a humiliating performance against Georgia Tech, one that has Trojans fans lighting torches and marching to Heritage Hall, at least if my mailbag is any indication of sentiments.

The Pac-12 was favored in seven of the eight matchups, Boise State-Washington being the lone exception. So 7-1 was expected, 6-2 would have been solid, and 5-3 defensible. However, 4-4 is simply underwhelming.

The good news is the crowing from other AQ conferences should be muted.

The Big 12 is 4-4 pending the result of the AT&T Cotton Bowl between Oklahoma and Texas A&M on Friday night. The SEC is 3-3, with two of its top-10 teams going down in Florida and LSU. It's got the Cotton Bowl, BBVA Compass Bowl between Ole Miss and Pittsburgh on Saturday, and the national title game between Alabama and Notre Dame on Monday ahead.

If the SEC wins all three of those games, thereby securing a seventh national title, it will make a clear statement of superiority. But one or two slips, even with a national title victory, would nick the SEC's perception of dominant depth.

The funny thing about the bowl season, in fact, is the ACC and Big East roaring like angry puppies. The two most maligned AQ conferences over the past few years (well, other than the 2-5 Big Ten), are a combined 7-3. The ACC, at 4-2, beat LSU (Clemson) and USC (Georgia Tech) on the same day.

So the Pac-12 probably won't be an easy target for trolling. It finished 2-2 against the Big 12 this season -- 1-2 in bowl games, plus Arizona's regular season win against Oklahoma State -- so the potential argument for second best conference is mostly a moot point. The Pac-12 is clearly better at the top. The Big 12 is better at the bottom. And the middle probably goes to the Big 12 after it beat the Beavers and Bruins. Stagger all that however you wish.

More good news: The Pac-12 is well-positioned to take a step forward next year, perhaps even to challenge the SEC.

Oregon and Stanford will be preseason top-10 teams, likely top-five. You could make arguments for preseason rankings for Oregon State, UCLA, Washington, Arizona State and USC. The bottom of the conference also should be better as Colorado couldn't possibly be worse, and Washington State and California surely can find more than three wins in 2013.

Oregon State and UCLA figure to topple when the final rankings come out next week, while Oregon and Stanford will finish in the top-four. No other conference will have two teams ranked higher.

It was a solid season, if a bit top-heavy. It wasn't predictable, which can be viewed as a good thing. USC started the season as the biggest story in college football, and its fall from esteem became an epic tale of woe, inspiring national mockery.

As things set up for 2013, the Pac-12 appears poised to take another step forward in terms of depth.

But will a team rise to the fore and challenge for the national title?

Feel free to talk amongst yourselves on that one.

Pac-12 bowl season face plant?

December, 31, 2012
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Last year, the Pac-12 had a quasi-valid excuse for its 2-5 face plant in the bowl season.

Because 10-2 and fifth-ranked USC was ineligible for the postseason, the conference was missing a quality team, and the Trojans' absence forced everyone other than Oregon up a notch in the bowl selection pecking order.

Of course, while you were trying to explain that, you were Nelsoned five times by trolls from other conferences.

The Pac-12, favored in seven of its eight bowl games, is presently 2-3 with three bowl games to play. It owns wins over Nevada and Navy, hardly a powerhouse pair. UCLA got bludgeoned by Baylor, and Washington and Oregon State threw up on themselves while blowing leads to Boise State and Texas, respectively.

The Big 12 showdown with the Pac-12 for the title of "Second Best Conference" has gone to the fly-over states, even if Oregon beats Kansas State.

The Bruins are likely to fall out of the final top 25. The Beavers also figure to tumble.

Stanford faces a no-win situation in the Rose Bowl. It's playing unranked, five-loss Wisconsin. Anything less than a dominant win will be greeted with a national, "Neh."

An Oregon loss will be met with a variety of dismissive insults. And it's not hard to imagine USC losing to the only bowl team with a losing record, Georgia Tech, today in the Hyundai Sun Bowl.

Are we on the brink of a complete meltdown, one that comes after we less than a month ago entertained the notion of going 8-0?

It's possible.

Why does that matter? Because it affects the next set of preseason rankings, and -- more important -- it sends ripples of negative perception out as we head toward a four-team playoff in 2014.

If the Pac-12 is widely viewed as the third best conference, well behind the SEC and Big 12, then when a selection committee compares, say, 11-1 Stanford and 11-1 Baylor for a playoff spot, it's likely going to leave the Pac-12 team behind.

Even with the new playoff, perception will be a critical ingredient in the process. Perhaps even more critical than before under the BCS system.

Sure, things could start to trend up in 2013, which looks promising for the conference. But perception isn't a one-year deal.

It might pain many of you to say the following, but we humbly suggest you consider repeating this: "Go Trojans;" "Go Cardinal;" "Go Ducks."

Sorry ... couldn't hear you guys over the crickets.

Arizona may have growing pains in 2013

December, 17, 2012
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During the early afternoon on Saturday, one half of the Pac-12 blog was standing in line waiting to talk to Santa -- er, his kids, his kids were waiting to talk to Santa -- while the other half was watching that little bit of nuttiness going on between Arizona and Nevada in New Mexico.

The obvious question: No, the Pac-12 blog didn't use its pull with Santa, which as you all know is considerable, to get the Wildcats an early gift. But it's no surprise you might feel that way about that "No-way-that-just-happened" 49-48 victory.

The following pretty much happened:
Ted: My iPhone is trying to fool me -- Siri is mad because she saw me admiring the new Samsung Galaxy. It says Arizona won 49-48. That can't be right. It was 45-28 entering the fourth quarter.

Kevin: I have to redo the entire Instant Analysis. The first one was composed in elegantly wrought heroic couplets. It was Pulitzer worthy.

Ted: What the heck happened?

Kevin: Well ... you sorta had to see it.
[+] EnlargeKa'Deem Carey
AP Photo/Eric DraperArizona will surely be counting on star RB Ka'Deem Carey for heavy production in 2013.
What an interesting first year for coach Rich Rodriguez, eh?

The Wildcats posted a number of nice wins (Oklahoma State, USC and Washington), a couple of blowout losses (49-zip at Oregon, 66-10 at UCLA) and a pair of blown big games (54-48 in overtime to Stanford and 41-34 to Arizona State).

In consecutive games to finish the season, they yielded a 10-point fourth-quarter lead to their good friends from Tempe, and they overcame a 17-point deficit in their bowl game, one that featured their own players fighting each other on the sidelines. So, yeah, you couldn't take much for granted with this team, even them not punching each other.

The end result is an 8-5 finish, including Arizona's first bowl win since 2008. The program has won eight games twice since going 12-1 in 1998, but no more.

So, despite the loss to the Sun Devils, it's fair to call this a successful season for Rich Rod.

In the preseason, this looked like a team that would be hard-pressed to reach six wins and earn a bowl berth. The offense looked potentially strong, but the defense didn't pass the sight test, particularly up front.

That impression proved true, but QB Matt Scott was so good -- as were RB Ka'Deem Carey and WR Austin Hill -- that the offense was (mostly) able to overcome a struggling defense.

And don't view this as a ripping of defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel. Casteel got as much as he possibly could out of this overmatched unit, one that featured no All-Pac-12 players and just two -- LB Jake Fischer and safety Jared Tevis -- that earned honorable mention.

So what does the future hold? Well, Scott will be gone and the defensive front will be a glaring question mark heading into spring practice. Few will project the 2013 team improving on eight wins.

The good news? Well, it's nice to have a returning consensus All-American in Carey as a first option, and the offensive line and corps of receivers should be solid, though both have some holes to fill.

The defense? That's an interesting question. Twenty-one of 22 players on the two-deep from the New Mexico Bowl are scheduled to return in 2013, including all 11 starters. But that's not necessarily a good thing, particularly on the D-line, where the Wildcats got pushed around all season.

Further, Scott was second-team All-Pac-12 this year and couldn't have played much better (and tougher). A legitimate dual-threat who fit perfectly into Rodriguez's spread-option attack, he far exceeded preseason expectations as a passer. From our vantage point, he played himself into the 2013 NFL draft this fall.

He won't be easy to replace. The competition between backup B.J. Denker, former USC QB Jesse Scroggins, a junior college transfer who will arrive this spring, and redshirt freshman Javelle Allen will be interesting to watch. Scroggins, a once-touted recruit, is much more of a pro-style passer than Denker or Allen, so comparing their skills sometimes will have an apples & oranges feel -- not unlike Nick Foles vs. Matt Scott a few years back.

Rodriguez said when he was hired that it takes a few years for him to recruit to his systems on both sides of the ball, obviously alluding to what he wasn't given at Michigan. The moderate success this season might fuel the sort of fans who expect improvement every year, and that group might end up feeling grumpy this time next year.

Still, there's no question the program feels healthier than it did a year ago. The biggest problem, in fact, might only be that the program up north feels a tad bit more sprightly.

How's that for an opener to the bowl season? Twice the Arizona Wildcats overcame three-score deficits -- also recovering an onside kick in the final minute -- to shock Nevada in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl. Here's how it all went down in Albuquerque, N.M.

It was over when: Not until the clock read zeros, seriously. After cutting the score to 48-42 with 42 seconds left, the Wildcats recovered the onside kick at their own 49. They needed only three plays to move 51 yards. With 19 seconds left, Matt Scott connected with Tyler Slavin on a 2-yard pass to tie the score at 48-48, and the PAT from John Bonano was the deciding margin. Nevada quarterback Cody Fajardo was intercepted in the closing seconds to complete Arizona's comeback.

Gutsy call: With 3:20 left in the game and Nevada leading 45-35, Wolf Pack coach Chris Ault opted to go for it on fourth-and-1 at the Arizona 11-yard line. Nevada converted and forced Arizona to use all of its timeouts. Allen Hardison then hit a 25-yard field goal to put Nevada up 48-35, and that appeared to be the clincher. "Appeared" being the operative word.

Second guessing: As good as Ault's call was there, you question burning a timeout to ice Bonano on the go-ahead PAT. It turned out to be meaningless because of the interception, but with 19 seconds left, timeouts could have been very valuable.

Game ball goes to: No questions here. Although much of the attention was on the running backs, Arizona’s Ka'Deem Carey and Nevada’s Stefphon Jefferson, it was Fajardo who turned in a gritty performance. He ran for 139 yards and a touchdown and threw for 255 yards and three touchdowns. Tip of the cap goes to his Arizona counterpart, Scott, who tossed for 369 yards and three TDs and showed a lot of poise on the go-ahead drive.

Unsung hero: Arizona linebacker Marquis Flowers recovered the onside kick that allowed the Wildcats to go ahead -- and came up with the interception with 13 seconds left.

Stat(s) of the game: As expected, plenty of offense. The teams combined for 1,234 yards and 70 first downs (39 from Nevada).

Pregame: Gildan New Mexico Bowl

December, 15, 2012
12/15/12
9:00
AM ET
Arizona (7-5, 4-5 Pac-12) vs. Nevada (7-5, 4-4 MWC)

WHO TO WATCH: Don't blink, or you might miss the running backs. Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey leads the nation in rushing yards per game, and Nevada's Stefphon Jefferson is right behind him at No. 2 nationally. They have a combined 42 touchdowns on the ground this season. Carey, a consensus All-American, has done more with less (275 carries), averaging 6.3 yards per carry, and Jefferson has been more of a workhorse, averaging 4.9 yards per carry on 341 attempts.

WHAT TO WATCH: Safeties and linebackers. Because, as good as both running backs are, both quarterbacks are equally potent with their legs. Matt Scott (Arizona) and Cody Fajardo (Nevada) are second on their teams in rushing behind Carey and Jefferson, respectively. Both will run some option; both will spread defenders out with designed runs; and both will scramble if nothing is open through the air. The better "spy" defender could be the difference-maker.

WHY TO WATCH: If watching the nation's top two statistical running backs isn't enough motivation, you need to find a new hobby. Both are fantastic players. But if you do need another reason, it's the first bowl game of the postseason -- so there is some novelty there. Two explosive offenses -- both ranking in the top 20 in scoring -- should make for a fun postseason kickoff.

PREDICTION: Arizona has traveled a far more difficult road to its 7-5 season, playing five ranked teams and going 2-3 versus Top 25 competition. Nevada played just one ranked team -- Boise State -- and fell 27-21. The Wildcats are more battle-tested. Arizona 41, Nevada 31.

Video: Gildan New Mexico Bowl preview

December, 14, 2012
12/14/12
4:19
PM ET

Two of the nation's top rushers take the field in the New Mexico Bowl on Saturday (1 p.m. ET -- ESPN).

Gildan New Mexico Bowl predictions

December, 14, 2012
12/14/12
3:23
PM ET
The Pac-12 bowl season gets an early start on Saturday with Gildan New Mexico Bowl between Arizona and Nevada.

Kevin and Ted own the same record for the season: 66-25.

ARIZONA vs. NEVADA

Kevin Gemmell: I'm guessing our season-record tie isn't going to be broken on this one. I think Nevada can be potent -- but they also haven't seen the quality competition week in and week out that Arizona has. The Wildcats are a better team than their 7-5 record indicates. The Wolf Pack won't be able to keep up with Ka'Deem Carey, Matt Scott and the rest of the Arizona offense. This one might produce some points, so I'll take Arizona in a high-scoring affair. Arizona 41, Nevada 31.

Ted Miller: I suspect the time off will have benefited Arizona QB Matt Scott, who was beaten up over the final few games of the season. Nevada is 111th in the nation in rushing defense, yielding 213.17 yards per game. That's not a good thing when you're facing the nation's leading rusher in Ka'Deem Carey. Arizona 44, Nevada 24.

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