Pac-12: Nick Aliotti

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This weekend can't possibly be as nutty as last weekend ... could it?

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To the notes!

Dominic fro Tucson writes: Now that Oregon and UCLA both have one loss. Both teams were projected to play in the Pac-12 championship and both are playing this Saturday. My question is: Will the loser of the Oregon/UCLA game be left out of the Pac-12 championship game and as a potential playoff contender as well?

Ted Miller: Probably, but maybe not.

The loser of the UCLA-Oregon game will have two Pac-12 defeats at the midseason mark, which isn't good, but a loss won't have tiebreaker impact in either division. As the Bruins have lost to Utah, they would need the Utes to lose two more times to win a South Division tiebreaker (we are not going to even wade into potential three-way ties, etc...). The Ducks' loss to Arizona doesn't hurt them in a North tiebreaker.

The first question: Could 7-2 in Pac-12 play win the North/South Division? Absolutely. Arizona is not only the Pac-12's only undefeated team, it's also the only team undefeated in conference play. But the Wildcats, who play host to USC on Saturday, still have a road date with UCLA, so Arizona's margin for error is only one game if it lost in the Rose Bowl on Nov. 1. As for the North, Oregon will be the division champion if it loses to UCLA but then wins out. So that's pretty simple.

Ergo, if UCLA loses to Oregon but finishes 10-2 overall and 7-2 in Pac-12 play and then bests the Ducks in the Pac-12 title game, I'd rate the Bruins shot as solid to be a candidate for the College Football Playoff. The strength of schedule would be impressive enough to even eclipse a two-loss team from the SEC West, particularly a team like Mississippi State, which played a weak nonconference schedule.

Same for Oregon. The Ducks as Pac-12 champions at 11-2 would have a strong resume, particularly if Michigan State ends up the Big Ten champ at 12-1.

There is so much football left that projecting forward is pretty futile. If you want a confident statement from me, however, here it is: The only Pac-12 teams that you can say are definitely not going to be invited to the CFP are Colorado and Washington State. As no other teams have more than two losses, everyone else seems to still have a mathematical chance.

And, yes, you might use that line from "Dumb and Dumber" to wrap up my thoughts here.


Tom from Seattle writes: I would like to propose a rule that no "official" polls can be conducted until ... until November 1st. With most major programs playing, well, no one in their non-conference schedule, it would seem many of the rankings are based off of last weeks rankings, rather than the state of college football that week. Arizona didn't "jump up," they were as good before they beat Oregon as they were afterward. realistically, the only polls that matter are the final polls anyway, and weekly polls give something for everyone to talk about, but I worry that speculation in September lead to deception in December.

Ted Miller: The College Football Playoff took your advice, pretty much, Tom. It's not releasing its first poll until Oct. 28, and the selection committee has repeatedly claimed it will not be influenced by the existing polls that have been infuriating everyone since August.

You note two important issues with the national polls, though: 1. They tend to stick too much to preseason expectations; 2. People love talking about polls.

The first is the problem inherent within the national polls, and the second is why the national polls continue to exist in their longstanding format. The public loves them.

And, yeah, the media sorta enjoys that Sunday boost when the polls come out and everyone feels compelled to react -- Perfect! Horrible! Conspiracy! -- to what ultimately will be absolutely meaningless within a week or two.


Steve from Los Gatos, Calif., writes: Wasn't this supposed to be the year that Stanford's offense brought back the stud TE glory days? What happened?

Ted Miller: Yes. And the production at tight end thus far is notably better than 2013. Austin Hooper's 15 receptions for 189 yards with a touchdown is already better than what the Cardinal got from the position last season, and Eric Cotton's four receptions for 72 yards sets him up to eclipse the total production from the position last season, too.

But, no, it's not like the days of Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, three current NFL starters. That troika might be difficult to duplicate over the next 100 or so seasons. And, yes, it's concerning that tight ends didn't catch a pass against Notre Dame.

The problem is not tight end, though. It's the Stanford offense as a whole. The offensive line has been underwhelming and quarterback Kevin Hogan hasn't taken a step forward as a third-year starter. The redzone offense, you might have heard, has been particularly awful.

With the talent on hand, particularly at receiver, the Cardinal offense should be better than it has been through five games, and if we are folks who believe the buck stops with the leadership, then head coach David Shaw, who calls the plays, and offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren, also share significant blame.

Stanford's offensive mediocrity, in other words, has been a total team effort. And a total team effort -- and maybe a little flexibility in terms of adhering to an identity -- is the only way to solve the problem.


Matt from San Jose writes: Why has Jared Goff been getting ZERO recognition from the media for the job he has done in year 2 as Cal's QB? I know the 4Pac have been talking him up in recent weeks, but there is no national recognition. He's been spurned for player of the week a couple of times, and his numbers are off the charts, yet he doesn't even have a single vote or any consideration on the Heisman tracker. Come on, 22 TDs to 3 picks (two of which were drops by the WRs) is pretty freakin' impressive, along with a 4-1 record, which could just as easily be 5-0. Interested to hear your guys' thoughts on the matter.

Ted Miller: Well, there's this from Kyle Bonagura this week. And Goff's rating in ESPN.com's Total QBR is notable.

And there's this. And our friends at the California Golden Blogs posted this headline: "Jared Goff Starts to Garner National Attention."

But, yes, Goff has yet to make a dent in the national Heisman trackers. There is a good reason for that, though. His team went 1-11 last season, and folks are only starting to raise an eyebrow at Cal's surprising 4-1 start.

If Goff continues to rate in the top-five in QBR and continues to put up big passing numbers and Cal continues to win games, he'll start to get more national attention. In fact, if he plays a key role in the Bears winning two of their next three home games -- Washington, UCLA and Oregon -- I'd guess he'd start to get plenty of national acclaim.

And there also would be an NFL scout or two raising an eyebrow.


Tim from Atlanta writes: I wonder if the extent of Oregon's defensive troubles have been at least a bit exaggerated ... WSU and Arizona have proven to be very good offensive teams, and the MSU offense has looked pretty impressive since leaving eugene. Before Armstead got hurt against AZ, the ducks had given up 3 points. and really, giving up 31 to WSU in pullman (albeit missed-PI aided) isn't THAT BAD. The O-Liine's struggles the last 2 weeks seem to be a much greater concern, as oregon should be able to win games giving up 31 to a team that just gave up 45 to Cal the game before. Seems the D is taking the fall for the O's poor performances the last 2 games.

Ted Miller: I agree to some extent. I definitely think the Ducks' biggest problem is the offensive line. I also think if offensive tackle Jake Fisher were healthy, the Ducks would be unbeaten and no one would be talking about sack numbers.

Another absolutely irrelevant observation: If the Ducks' projected starting offensive line -- including Fisher and tackle Tyler Johnstone -- was injury-free, the Ducks would be an overwhelming No. 1 right now and the Heisman Trophy discussion would pretty much be over.

"If only..." again, is a pretty stupid exercise in sports or just about anything else. But I thought I'd type that to make some Ducks feel better.

My perception of the Ducks' defense is there have been more obvious breakdowns compared to past years. When coach Mark Helfrich talked to Chantel Jennings about "miscommunication" being an issue, I thought about how good a communicator former coordinator Nick Aliotti was.

To me, "miscommunication" means coaches aren't getting their message across to players. That falls on the coaches.

Yet your larger point about the Ducks facing a number of top-flight offenses so far is valid. It's also fair to note we should expect some growing pains when you change coordinators, even if continuity was one of the biggest reason to promote Don Pellum instead of, say, hiring Clancy Pendergast.

It's too early to deliver a verdict on the Ducks' defense, just as it's way too early to deliver a verdict on Helfrich's second season. Let's see how things stack up when the calendar flips into December.


Ross from Portland writes: This is for Erik McKinney and all Pac-12 Blog Staff: So there I was, drinking my favorite Oregon Micro Beer, Black Butte Porter, and reading the Pac-12 Blog... And then I started to read Erik McKinney's Piece- "Ducks finding recruiting success by heading south." And all was fine, until I took a drink while reading the paragraph below..."Oregon's annual trip to Southern California will take place Saturday, and recruits in the area will flock to the game -- of course, UCLA's rise and recruiting prowess has plenty to do with that as well. But a visit from the Ducks is akin to the circus coming to town, billboards and all. "And so, I busted out laughing hard, when he wrote, "the Ducks is akin to the circus coming to town...". Problem is, my mouth was still all full of Oregon's finest. And I ended up spitting, actually spraying, my whole entire computer screen, wall and whole desk, from laughter while drinking the beer. Note to self: Never drink any liquids while reading the Pac-12 blog. Doing so may erupt much laughter, erupt much liquid, and create a big mess.

Ted Miller: Ross, Kevin has patented the "Gemmell Grabber" (TM) -- "Reading the Pac-12 blog ... well then expect to expectorate! -- and I'm sure he'd send you one for the very low price of $99.95.

It's a retractable computer shield that uses Bluetooth technology and a handy iPhone AP. As a bonus, it comes shaped like your favorite Pac-12 defensive back sporting his home uniform.

And if you order now, you'll get a copy of my bestseller, "Pac-12 Predictions: I guarantee [insert your team] wins this weekend!"

Mailbag: Pressure on Oregon?

August, 1, 2014
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Welcome to the mailbag, the first with Pac-12 teams on the field getting ready for the 2014 season.

Yes, your team is destined for great things. But only if you follow me on Twitter.

To the notes!

Kevin from Columbus, Ohio, writes: How much pressure should be placed on Don Pellum at Oregon considering the Ducks have lost to Stanford two years straight? A third time would be a clear indication Oregon's defense can't stop the beef of Stanford and sends an even stronger message that Oregon won't be able to stop an SEC team if it makes it to the national title game.

Ted Miller: A third consecutive Oregon loss in the series might suggest that Stanford has the Ducks' number, but it has no relevance to the SEC. I can count on four fingers the number of SEC teams that wouldn't wilt on the line of scrimmage against Stanford -- or be multi-TD underdogs to the Ducks.

You might want to ask Tennessee fans about Oregon's defense, though some were rendered mute and blind by 59 unanswered points. Further, compare and contrast Oregon's defensive effort against Auburn and LSU with what other SEC defenses did to those teams in 2010 and 2011.

[+] EnlargeDon Pellum
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesDon Pellum and Oregon's defense will have some pressure based on high expectations.
But to take your general premise seriously, I don't think there's any particular pressure on new Ducks defensive coordinator Don Pellum. I think there's pressure on Oregon, period.

That's what happens when your program rises to the super-elite. Think about it: What would rate a successful season for the Ducks in 2014? Nothing less than the Pac-12 championship, and if that doesn't include an invitation to the first College Football Playoff, I'd bet more than a few Oregon fans would give the season a harrumph.

Oregon finished 11-2 last year with a final No. 9 ranking. From a long-term perspective, it was one of the best seasons in program history. From the perspective of the last five years, Mark Helfrich's first season after replacing Chip Kelly was a bit of a letdown.

Helfrich knew what he was getting into. The new reality is many Oregon fans now expect their Ducks to win the Pac-12 title and be in the national championship mix annually. (Oregon fans over 50 just slapped their foreheads.) Some might say Helfrich won't completely win over some fans until he wins the title, the one thing Kelly couldn't quite accomplish.

As for Pellum, he will encounter the same sort of pressure Helfrich is experiencing. He is replacing longtime defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, who quietly built a nationally ranked defense while laboring in the shadow of the Ducks high-powered, up-tempo offense. For some fans to completely buy in to Pellum, they'll need to see the Ducks continue to rank among the conference's statistical leaders. For an even pickier contingent, the defense will need to improve.

How can it improve? Ah, we now come to your point about "beef," but perhaps from a different angle. While Oregon's offensive struggles against A-list defenses over the past five years have tended to grab the headlines, the defense also has, at times, fallen short, though I'd assert it has mostly measured up in big games.

The key issues does appear to come down to "beef:" In six of the Ducks' eight defeats since 2009, they've been outrushed. Further, there's no question that Stanford controlled both lines of scrimmage in last year's victory. The Ducks defensive front seven couldn't get a stop in the first half. That's why one of the messages coming out of the offseason is Oregon's intention -- apparently realized -- to get bigger.

Just so everybody knows, by the way, it's no longer the SEC that worries coaches across the country. That conference faces a major talent drain this season, particularly behind center. It's Florida State. The Seminoles are stacked.


Costi from Phoenix writes: Ted, As an Arizona fan, Rich Rod's comments really troubled me to the Key Questions for Pac-12 South Coaches. Watching the UofA play ASU the past two years, it has seemed like Rich Rod has not taken this rivalry very seriously. On the other hand it is my belief that Todd Graham has probably made the Territorial Cup the most important game on the schedule. I am a strong believer in the idea that in this state there are two seasons, the regular season and the Territorial Cup. Do you think Rich Rod's job could potentially be in peril with a third loss to the Devils despite another successful bowl-eligible season? Or am I over-reacting? Is the rivalry game just going to be another game on our schedule if we continue to have winning seasons?

Ted Miller: Respectfully, Costi, you are overreacting. Rich Rodriguez takes every game seriously. Heck, the guy takes every play in practice seriously. He knows how important the Territorial Cup is. He's plenty aware of his being 0-2 against his good buddy Todd Graham. There won't be a person in the country who will want to win that game next year more than Rodriguez.

No, I don't think Rodriguez will be in trouble if he loses a third consecutive game to the Sun Devils after another winning season. I don't think that's even been whispered by any significant decision-maker associated directly or indirectly with the football program.

In 2012, the Wildcats pretty much threw up on themselves in the fourth quarter and the Sun Devils played a mentally tougher game on the road. In 2013, the Sun Devils were a lot more talented on both sides of the ball.

This year? It's a lot closer to a toss-up in terms of talent, though Arizona State has a third-year starting QB in Taylor Kelly who won't worry too much about playing in Tucson. Rodriguez's life would be much easier with a win. But another loss won't be catastrophic if the Wildcats have a good season, such as entering the game with eight or so wins.

Rodriguez's chief goal isn't just to post winning or even eight- or nine-win seasons. It's not even to consistently beat Arizona State. He wants to win the conference championship and get the Wildcats to their first Rose Bowl.


Joe Bruin from Westwood writes: Hey Ted... It's me, Joe! All of us Bruins fans should have listened to Coach Neuheisel when he said, "Punting is winning." Truer words were never spoken, and we all took it for ridicule. Now, anyone who enjoys, watches, or plays the game of football knows that field position is huge. How big (or small) will the loss of Sean Covington affect our season? Should Bruins fans be worried? I don't know how Matt Mengel is going to fare this season, but we are going to need good field position this year, especially against teams like Oregon, Stanford, and ASU. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

Ted Miller: I'm sure glad that folks don't record my off-the-cuff comments for posterity.

Miller in 1985: "Folks, the mullet is here to stay. It's a haircut that best conveys masculinity."

Miller in 1991: "MC Hammer is certain to be remembered as the best rapper in history."

Miller in 1999: "Rarely would I recommend a stock based on a sock puppet, but Pets.com is a sure winner!"

Miller in 2001: "Why does Britney Spears date Justin Timberlake? She's so much more talented than him."

Miller in 2007: "You should buy real estate. That market will never crash."

Miller in 2008: "I think we've finally got a President and Congress that are going to work together!"

Miller in 2010: "At least we know Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver will be married forever!"

Miller in 2012: "Stanford beat Oregon in Autzen Stadium with a redshirt freshman QB? Ha!"

My wife has a much longer list, by the way.

As a freshman, Covington ranked fourth in the Pac-12 in punting and, perhaps more important, UCLA ranked second in the conference in net punting. So before he transferred, Bruins fans knew they had a A-list punter coming back, one who could significantly help the underrated field-position game.

Now the Bruins have uncertainty at the position. That's not a positive, though in terms of where uncertainty really worries you, punter is down the list. It might, in fact, be at the bottom of said list.

In a close game, you'd like to have a good punter. But you'd rather have Brett Hundley, Eric Kendricks, Myles Jack, Eddie Vanderdoes and Fabian Moreau.

Or you should simply expect Noel Mazzone's offense to never need to punt.


Gary from La Grande, Ore., writes: Which scratch-and-sniff ticket scent do you anticipate will be most popular? Locker Room Melange or Really Offensive Linemen?

Ted Miller: Time to musk up, eh? I hear "Really Offensive Lineman" is made with real bits of Hroniss Grasu and Tyler Johnstone, so you know it's good. Sixty percent of the time it works every time.

What would Ode to Chip Kelly smell like? Something that crossed sarcasm and a bacon cheeseburger?

I'll be honest. If Oregon made tickets that smelled like Pok Pok in Portland, I'd probably buy one even though I get a media pass.

Coordinator changes: Pac-12 North

February, 19, 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, starting in the North Division:

California

Out: Defensive coordinator Andy Buh, who will be reassigned as a position coach, probably linebackers, if he remains in Berkeley. Coach Sonny Dykes also fired defensive tackles coach Barry Sacks and defensive backs coach Randy Stewart.

In: Art Kaufman, whose defense at Cincinnati ranked ninth in the nation last season.

Thoughts: Kaufman, 55, takes over perhaps the worst defense in Cal history, a unit that was injury-ravaged but also was often unsound and seemingly uninspired, allowing an eye-popping 46 points per game in 2013. The good news: If the injury issues resolve themselves with the healthy return of talented players such as defensive end Brennan Scarlett, safety Avery Sebastian, defensive tackle Mustafa Jalil and cornerback Stefan McClure, the improvement could be dramatic. Dykes also hired Greg Burns to coach the secondary. He was at USC from 2002-05 and Arizona State from 2008 -11. He spent last season at UMass.

Oregon

Out: Longtime defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti retired.

In: Don Pellum was promoted from linebackers coach.

Thoughts: The promotion of the 51-year-0ld Pellum stuck with the "Oregon Way" of promoting from within, though there was mutual interest between coach Mark Helfrich and former USC coordinator Clancy Pendergast. Pellum won't have to rework much with the Ducks' hybrid 3-4 scheme. As noted here, since 2009, "the Ducks have finished no lower than third in the Pac-12 in yards-per-play allowed. That includes leading the conference in 2009, 2010 and, yes, 2013, when the Ducks finished seventh nationally by that metric." The Ducks did falter a few times last season, most notably against Stanford, Arizona and Oregon State, and often had trouble against physical running games as well as on third down. Helfrich did make a quasi-outside hire when he brought in Erik Chinander to take over the Ducks' outside linebackers, which Aliotti coached. Chinander, 34, is a former Oregon graduate assistant who worked under Chip Kelly with the Philadelphia Eagles last season.

Oregon State

Out: Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf left to become the quarterbacks coach for the New York Giants.

In: John Garrett, who was the wide receivers coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season. He was on the staff of the Dallas Cowboys from 2007-12, where his brother Jason Garrett is the head coach.

Thoughts: Garrett, who last coached in college at Virginia from 2004-06, shows that coach Mike Riley remains married to a pro-style scheme. Garrett will also coach quarterbacks and tight ends, but it has not yet been determined who will call plays -- Riley has done so for the past two seasons. Garrett and Riley have known each other since 1991, when Garrett played receiver for Riley's San Antonio Riders of the World Football League. The good news for Garrett is the Beavers are strong at QB (Sean Mannion) and deep at tight end. The bigger questions are making the running game more consistent and replacing WR Brandin Cooks' production.

Stanford

Out: Defensive coordinator Derek Mason, who became the head coach at Vanderbilt.

In: Lance Anderson was promoted from outside linebackers coach, a position he will continue to coach.

Thoughts: Another promotion from within that will ensure the Pac-12's best defense has schematic continuity. Anderson has been at Stanford for seven seasons. He coached DTs from 2007-09. He was also the recruiting coordinator from 2007-11. The Cardinal also hired Peter Hansen as inside linebackers coach. He replaces David Kotulski, who was named Vanderbilt’s defensive coordinator under Mason. That was another move that maintains continuity, as Hansen spent the 2009 and 2010 seasons at Stanford as a defensive assistant before following Vic Fangio and Jim Harbaugh to the San Francisco 49ers.

Washington

Out: Steve Sarkisian brought most of his staff from Washington to USC, including defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, but not offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau, who was not retained by new Huskies coach Chris Petersen

In: Offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith and defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski

Thoughts: Smith, the overachieving former Oregon State QB, is a real up-and-comer. Petersen trusts him enough to give him play-calling duties, even though he was not the offensive coordinator last year at Boise State. He'll also coach quarterbacks, so he'll play a central role in determining who wins the starting job this fall. Before joining Petersen at Boise State, Smith spent the 2010 and 2011 seasons as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Montana. Kwiatkowski spent the previous four seasons coordinating the Boise State defense. He was the defensive line coach before being elevated to defensive coordinator in 2010, when he replaced Wilcox. The Broncos led the Western Athletic and Mountain West Conferences in total defense and scoring defense in each of his first three seasons and were third and second, respectively, in 2013.

Washington State

No change: Head coach Mike Leach is his own offensive coordinator and Mike Breske is back to coordinate the Cougars defense, which was disappointing in 2013, slightly lagging behind its 2012 numbers.

Poll: Top defense in 2014?

February, 14, 2014
Feb 14
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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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    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?
Get this. Stanford’s Lance Anderson actually wanted to be a defensive coordinator in the Pac-12. Crazy, right? Biletnikoff winners to lose sleep over; Doak Walker finalists dashing and gashing for 20 yards a pop; and All-American offensive linemen that must be displaced. Oh, the humanity.

“There are some pretty good quarterbacks, too,” says Anderson.

Oh yeah, the quarterbacks.

[+] EnlargeLance Anderson
Peyton Williams/Getty ImagesLance Anderson, who has been on Stanford's staff since 2007, will have to replace some big names on the Cardinal's 2014 defense.
Anderson has his wish. With the departure of Derek Mason, who was named the head coach of Vanderbilt last month, Anderson takes over one of the most respected defensive outfits in all of college football. The Cardinal have led the conference in scoring defense and been ranked in the top 15 nationally in three of the last four years. They live by the mantra #partyinthebackfield and have put the brakes on some of the nation’s top offenses.

Now it’s Anderson’s turn to add his own flavor to the scheme -- however minor it might be.

“Every year we tweak a little bit no matter what,” said Anderson, who first came to Stanford in 2007 with Jim Harbaugh. “We go back and watch film and do all of our self-scouting and analysis. We try to find places where we can get better and improve and that’s naturally going to lead to tweaking. I think every coordinator has a different feel and some stuff you might like a little better than the other guy.

“We’ve been in a system for a few years now and I think the kids are really comfortable with that. They like it. And I think the systems we’re in on both sides of the ball suit our personnel really well. Vic Fangio came in in 2010, installed the system at that point and we’ve kept it pretty similar ever since.”

That includes transitions from Fangio to the co-defensive coordinator team of Jason Tarver and Mason to just Mason and now to Anderson, who will continue to work with the outside linebackers after coaching the defensive tackles his first two seasons on The Farm.

Equally known as a top-flight recruiter, Anderson must now help the Cardinal transition to life without some of their marquee players. Gone next year are linebackers Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy, defensive end Ben Gardner and safety Ed Reynolds. All were major contributors in one form or another to Stanford’s appearances in four straight BCS bowl games.

Despite those losses, Anderson is confident the Cardinal have the depth -- both in and out of the locker room -- to stay atop the defensive standings.

“I look at guys like A.J. Tarpley and Jordan Richards who have played a lot of football and they really stand out,” Anderson said. “Both guys display some natural leadership and they are well-respected by their teammates. Henry Anderson and David Parry are a couple of other guys who are really looked up to among the defensive players. I think we’ll be OK.”

Interestingly enough, the Pac-12 has seen the defensive coordinators from the top five scoring defenses move on after the 2013 season. Mason went to Vanderbilt, Nick Aliotti retired at Oregon, Justin Wilcox moved to USC with Steve Sarkisian, Lou Spanos returned to the NFL and Clancy Pendergast was not retained with the Trojans after Sarkisian came in. Three of those were replaced internally, with Anderson, Don Pellum (Oregon) and Jeff Ulbrich (UCLA) all being promoted. Pete Kwiatkowski joins Chris Petersen in Washington by way of Boise State and Wilcox followed Sark. So despite the transitions, the continuity among coaching staffs remains relatively unscathed.

However, that combination of coordinator shuffling, along with some A-list offensive players returning in 2014, makes for an interesting setup. The Pac-12 is known for its offensive diversity, and when you factor in the possibility of nine teams returning their starting quarterback, the dice seem loaded to the offensive side of the ball.

“There is a lot of offensive talent in this league and it doesn’t look like that’s going to slow down,” Anderson said. “The quarterbacks all have experience. It’s not going to be easy.

“We know that every week we are going to be tested. All we can do is try to go out and learn the techniques and the fundamentals and get the physical and mental mastery of the position. Once we get that in spring ball and the preseason, it’s just matter of going out and applying what we’ve learned during the season. Every week is going to be different. All we can do is prepare the best we can, master the position and try to apply it on Saturdays in the fall.”
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 wrap: Oregon

January, 15, 2014
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Oregon was ranked No. 3 before the season, therefore an obvious national title contender. Oregon was 8-0 and ranked No. 3 in the BCS standings in Week 11, and the general consensus was that if the Ducks won out, their Pac-12-fueled strength-of-schedule would earn the Ducks a berth in the national title game.

Of course, we all know what happened. First, the loss at Stanford, when the Cardinal pushed the Ducks around at the line of scrimmage, and quarterback Marcus Mariota was severely limited by a knee injury he suffered the previous week in a win over UCLA.

The Ducks were still in the Rose Bowl and/or BCS bowl hunt. At least until they were blown out at Arizona on Nov. 23.

An 11-2 campaign and final No. 9 ranking is typically nothing to sniff at for any team. But there's nonetheless a feeling the Ducks, who finished in the top five the previous three seasons, slipped a little in coach Mark Helfrich's first season.

You can read our graded review of Oregon here.

Offensive MVP: Mariota, a front-runner for the Heisman Trophy until the Stanford loss, completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 3,665 yards with 31 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He also rushed for 715 yards, averaging 7.4 yards per carry, with nine TDs. He finished ranked No. 1 in the nation in ESPN.com's Total QBR rating. After he decided to return for his redshirt junior season, he figures to be near the top on just about every preseason Heisman Trophy list.

Defensive MVP: While cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is the Ducks' most talented defender, there's a reason that teammates voted defensive end Taylor Hart the Ducks defensive MVP. Hart was the, er, heart and soul of the Ducks' defense. He finished with 75 tackles, which ranked fourth on the team, with 3.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for a loss. He also had five pass breakups, two quarterback hurries and three forced fumbles.

Best moment: While the Ducks were riding high after a dominant fourth quarter gave them a 42-14 victory over UCLA on Nov. 2, the 30-7 win over Texas in the Alamo Bowl was the best moment. Or, at least, the most sentimentally satisfying moment, as the Ducks said goodbye to longtime defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti with a dominant defensive effort, holding the Longhorns to 236 yards and 13 first downs. Further, until he started suffering cramps in the second half, the nation got to see what Mariota can do when healthy. The Ducks, after a tough final third of the season, went out with a solid win, one that should boost spirits heading into the offseason.

Worst moment: While the Stanford loss probably hurt the most, the worst moment was the horrid effort at Arizona during a 42-16 loss. After a week in which receiver Josh Huff and running back De'Anthony Thomas expressed disappointment at the idea of playing in the Rose Bowl, the Ducks looked unmotivated and sloppy while taking a beating in Tucson, Ariz., a defeat that knocked the Ducks out of Rose Bowl contention. Mariota threw two of the four interceptions he threw all season, and the defense yielded 482 yards.
Oregon believes in its culture and it believes in continuity. It's found its last three head coaches by promoting from within instead of conducting a national search for a shiny name fronting another program, as many others do. So why should anyone be surprised that second-year head coach Mark Helfrich opted to promote from within to replace retiring defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti?

Oregon confirmed Tuesday what The Oregonian reported over the weekend: Linebackers coach Don Pellum, 51, an assistant at Oregon for 23 years, would be promoted to replace Aliotti and run the Ducks defense in 2014.

[+] EnlargeDon Pellum
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesNew defensive coordinator Don Pellum has been on the Oregon coaching staff for 23 years.
Is it a flashy hire? No. Will it strike fear into Pac-12 offensive coordinators? No. Will some Ducks fans be disappointed? Probably.

But after a season in which some fans believed Oregon seemed to lose its way, to lose its identity, Helfrich seems to be saying with this decision that he plans to stay the course and prioritize continuity and familiarity. It's a tip of the cap to a significant part of what got the program to where it is.

Pellum knows his players. He knows the schemes the Ducks have run under Aliotti. He knows what has worked and what hasn't. He's done a heck of a job coaching the Ducks linebackers.

As noted in the news release on the hiring:
In the past 20 seasons, he has been credited with much of the development of 27 all-conference honorees. In addition, as many as six of his players have either earned their way into NFL camps over the course of the last four years, or can expected to do so when practices begin this summer.

"I have never learned or grown so much under a single coach than I did under Coach Pellum," former Ducks linebacker Michael Clay said in the release. “He immediately commands the respect from his players unlike anyone I have ever come across and gets the max out of everyone he comes into contact with.

"No coach is prepared like DP. Without his knowledge and guidance, I wouldn't have been the player I was. He put me in a position where I could thrive for the University of Oregon. They could not have hired a better person."

When Aliotti announced his intentions to retire, there was some immediate sentiment that Helfrich should promote from within, though the top name there was secondary coach John Neal. Yet new USC coach Steve Sarkisian had just let Clancy Pendergast go, and Pendergast's version of the 3-4 scheme seemed like a nice fit for the Ducks. As the Pac-12 blog noted, Pendergast had done an outstanding job transforming the Trojans defense in 2013.

While Helfrich isn't likely to reveal how many folks he talked to or how far those talks went, there was some mutual interest between Pendergast and Oregon. It was Helfrich's call to go in another direction.

Hiring Pendergast would have been viewed as a strong move. The same could be said for Helfrich landing another big name with a strong track record running a defense. A proven coordinator also likely would get more benefit of the doubt if the Ducks defense takes a step back next fall, which it might do because it's losing five starters.

Helfrich is taking a chance promoting Pellum to his first coordinator job. There is a risk. Helfrich is well -aware there's little margin for error coaching Oregon these days, where an 11-2 finish and No. 9 final ranking is harrumphed by many newly demanding Ducks fans.

But his instinct on this was to go with Pellum, to go with a long-time Duck -- a former Oregon linebacker, in fact -- and that is a decision that reveals a lot about Helfrich.

The issue, of course, becomes simple going forward. If the Ducks continue to rank among the best defenses in the Pac-12, as they have during their rise into the nation's elite, then Pellum's promotion will prove to be an inspired decision. And perhaps a long-term solution.

But if the Ducks defense slips, then Helfrich's decision will become a negative evaluative mark for those still trying to figure out whether he has the stuff to maintain the Ducks' surge to the top of the Pac-12.

Highs & lows in Pac-12 statistics

January, 14, 2014
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There were many remarkable performances in the Pac-12 this year. And some remarkably bad ones. Of course, one team rolling is another team getting rolled.

Here are some high & low lights of the 2013 season (conference games only).

And some of these are intriguing because they say the opposite thing.

Such as …

Worst rushing performance: Washington rushed for negative-5 yards at Arizona State on Oct. 19 in a 53-24 defeat.

Best rushing performance: Washington rushed for 530 yards at Oregon State in a 69-27 win on Nov. 23.

Best yards per rush: Washington averaged 9.1 yards per carry at Oregon State.

Most points: Washington at Oregon State.

Most rushing TDs: The Huskies at seven rushing touchdowns at … well, you get the picture.

[+] EnlargeOregon Ducks
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesThe Oregon Ducks had plenty to celebrate when they piled up 755 yards against Colorado on Oct. 5.
Most yards: Oregon gained 755 yards at Colorado on Oct. 5.

Most yards per play: USC averaged 9.8 yards per play at California on Nov. 9.

Longest run: USC running back Javorius Allen had a 79-yard touchdown run at Cal.

Longest pass: Cal QB Jared Goff connected with Chris Harper for an 89-yard TD against Washington State on Oct. 5

Fewest pass completions: Utah completed just six passes against Arizona State in a 20-19 defeat on Nov. 9.

Worst completion percentage: Utes QB Travis Wilson completed 28.6 percent of his throws against the Sun Devils.

Best completion percentage: Arizona's B.J. Denker completed 86.4 percent of his throws -- 19 of 22 -- against Oregon on Nov. 23.

Most interceptions: Wilson threw six interceptions in the Utes 34-27 loss to UCLA on Oct. 3.

Shortest "long" pass in a game: USC's longest completion against Washington State on Sept. 7 went for 8 yards.

Longest field goal: Arizona's Jake Smith (vs. Cal) and Colorado's Will Oliver (vs. Arizona) both made 53-yard boots.

Longest punt: Utah's Tom Hackett posted a 70-yard punt against Arizona State.

Best punt average in a game: Cal's Cole Leiniger averaged 54.2 yards on four punts at Colorado.

Longest punt return: USC's Nelson Agholor returned a punt 93 yards for a TD at Cal. He also had a 75-yard TD on a punt return in that game.

Longest kick return: Stanford's Ty Montgomery went 100 yards for a touchdown at Utah on Oct. 12.

Most fumbles lost: Cal lost four fumbles at Oregon on Oct. 28.

Most sacks allowed: UCLA gave up nine sacks to Arizona State on Nov. 23.

Most sacks by a player in a game: Both Arizona State's Chris Young (vs. UCLA) and Arizona's Sione Tuihalamaka (vs. Arizona State) had three.

Most penalties: UCLA had 13 penalties for 100 yards at Utah.

Most penalty yards: The Bruins had 122 yards in penalties -- on 11 flags -- against Colorado.

Touchdowns in one game: Montgomery had five at California on Nov. 23 (four receiving, one rushing).

Most rushing yards in a game: Washington's Bishop Sankey gained 241 yards against Cal.

Most passing yards in a game: Washington State's Connor Halliday passed for 557 yards at Oregon. (Just don't remind Nick Aliotti).

Most passing touchdowns in a game: Oregon State's Sean Mannion threw six touchdown passes against Colorado.

Most receiving yards in a game: Oregon State WR Brandin Cooks had 237 yards receiving at Cal on 13 receptions.

Most receiving TDs in a game: Montgomery had four against Cal.


Pac-12 bowl season? A gentleman's C

January, 3, 2014
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The Pac-12 went 6-3 in its bowl games. On Dec. 9, the Pac-12 blog noted, "Anything less than 6-3 would be a major disappointment."

So the Pac-12 didn't notch a "major disappointment" this bowl season. And there was much rejoicing. Yay.

Sure, conference teams were favored in all nine games, but you can't win them all, right? A .667 winning percentage is solid by just about any measure. The super-awesome SEC is just 5-2 with a couple of tough games remaining.

SportsNation

How would you grade the Pac-12's postseason?

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    4%
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    51%
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    36%
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    8%
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Discuss (Total votes: 4,913)

Why then am I so underwhelmed?

Short answer: It should have been better. Our Pac-12 bowl season grade? A gentleman's "C."

Part of the problem was the matchups, which were unusually forgiving. USC's blowout win over No. 20 Fresno State in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl was the only win over a ranked team, mostly because the only other ranked team the Pac-12 played this bowl season was Stanford against No. 4 Michigan State in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by VIZIO, a 24-20 Spartans victory.

Another part of the problem was how things went down.

While Washington State fans seem split on whether the Pac-12 blog is allowed to call the Cougars' monumental double-dog-derp against Colorado State by the term that everyone immediately thought of (don't worry, we won't type "Couged it"), that was a quintessential example of a team forcibly yanking defeat from the jaws of victory.

Then there was Arizona State against Texas Tech in the National University Holiday Bowl. For whatever reason, the Sun Devils simply didn't show up. We apologize for seeming to not give Texas Tech credit for a great win, but the Red Raiders need to understand the Sun Devils they played looked nothing like the Sun Devils of 2013. That game was utterly shocking, at both a player and coaching level. Todd Graham was right to take the blame afterward. His team wasn't ready to play.

That game reminded me of a coach who once told me that having a senior-laden team can become a mixed blessing for a bowl game. Sometimes, senior leadership provides focus to a locker room. And, sometimes, seeing that the seniors won't be accountable to the coaching staff and their teammates the following fall, they lose interest and start looking ahead to their own futures. My guess is the latter happened with Arizona State.

Stanford? It hardly played a perfect game, but the Rose Bowl was simply a good, hard-fought matchup that Michigan State took from Stanford, instead of the Cardinal giving it to the Spartans. The result served more as a validation of the Big Ten champs than a reduction of Stanford's national status.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Wilkerson
Jonathan Moore/Getty ImagesAnthony Wilkerson and Stanford didn't slip up too badly in the Rose Bowl loss to Michigan State.
That take mostly rings true for the Pac-12's bowl season. Going 6-3 won't represent a retreat; it won't cause a negative national re-evaluation of the strength of the conference. For one, if Auburn loses to Florida State in the national title game, no conference will post a dominant bowl season. Big 12 champion Baylor losing to Central Florida in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl and Alabama losing to Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl showed that bowl-season nuttiness can affect even the heaviest of favorites.

So kudos to USC, Oregon State, Washington, Oregon, Arizona and UCLA for taking care of business in their bowl games.

USC and Washington won despite coaching turmoil. The Ducks showed what a healthy Marcus Mariota looked like and gave defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti a great farewell with a dominant performance on that side of the ball. Oregon State, Arizona and UCLA brought their A-games and dominated.

My general feeling is the carryover to 2014 will be at least four and probably five teams ranked in the preseason: Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, USC and maybe Arizona State.

The Pac-12 bowl season was only OK. It could have been worse; it could have been better.

That's nothing to aspire toward, but at least the conference won't have to spend the offseason wringing its hands over its national status as we head toward the first season of a four-team College Football Playoff.

Pac-12 lunch links

December, 30, 2013
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She could not explain in so many words, but she felt that those who prepare for all the emergencies of life beforehand may equip themselves at the expense of joy.

Predictions: Alamo and Holiday bowls

December, 30, 2013
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Kevin improved to 3-1 for the bowl season by picking Washington over BYU in the Fight Hunger Bowl and is 78-18 on the year. Ted is 0-4 in the bowl season and 74-22 on the year.

Valero Alamo Bowl: Oregon vs. Texas

Kevin Gemmell: Again, this is a question of motivation for me. Does Oregon want to be there? Probably not. But the news that Nick Aliotti will be stepping down after this game, in my mind, balances out the fact that Mack Brown is also leaving. Nationally, it’s not as big of a story. But Aliotti is as much an Oregon institution as Brown is to Texas. Marcus Mariota is healthy and De'Anthony Thomas always does his best work in bowl games. On paper, Oregon is a far superior team, and probably a little ticked off. That could be a scary combination for Texas. Oregon 48, Texas 24.

Ted Miller: So… how are your bowl picks going? I've been trying to catch Gemmell by picking against the Pac-12 and, yeesh, that hasn't gone well. The problem is: If I start picking the Pac-12 teams, will that jinx them? If you don't believe in jinxes, chat up your favorite Oregon State or California fan about what happens to their teams when I pick them to win football games. They think I'm the guy smugly insisting the Titanic is unsinkable. Oh well. As for the Valero Alamo Bowl, I'm given pause by Texas playing inspired football in Mack Brown's last game and the possibility of Oregon being flat as it is playing its first non-BCS bowl game since 2008. But the word in Eugene is QB Marcus Mariota is back to 100 percent. The Ducks are the better team, and if they show up they win decisively. Oregon 40, Texas 24

National University Holiday Bowl

Kevin Gemmell: Not having Marion Grice -- if that is the case -- hurts. But it doesn’t hurt enough to sway my opinion too much. D.J. Foster is more than capable of shouldering the load -- but they do lose a little bit of versatility on offense without both of them on the field at the same time. Still, there is no better back-shoulder connection in the country than Taylor Kelly to Jaelen Strong, and Chris Coyle is a mismatch for most teams. Defensively, ASU’s opportunistic unit -- which notched a league-high 21 interceptions -- should add a couple of more against an uncertain Texas Tech quarterback to be named and a team that throws a lot. Arizona State 42, Texas Tech 24.

Ted Miller: Texas Tech is a little like Oregon State is that its schedule was backloaded. The Red Raiders are bad on defense, ranking 92nd in the nation in run defense and 89th in scoring defense. They throw the ball around a lot -- nearly 400 yards per game -- but aren't terribly efficient, ranking 58th in the nation in passing efficiency. Even without Grice, the Sun Devils should be able to move the ball and put up points. And I'm not sure you can beat the Sun Devils with a one-dimensional offense. Arizona State only loses this one if it plays sloppy, which it hasn't done often this fall. Arizona State 45, Texas Tech 28.

USC's Pendergast factor

December, 28, 2013
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A couple of you have asked about the difference Clancy Pendergast made for USC's defense this fall, which is a pretty easy to quantify.

And it seems some of you asked specifically because Oregon is now looking for a defensive coordinator after Nick Aliotti announced his retirement Friday after the Valero Alamo Bowl on Dec. 30.

We sometimes do take requests at the Pac-12 blog.

With seven starters back from the 2012 unit, the improvement was dramatic and across the board, despite the Trojans switching schemes from Monte Kiffin's 4-3 Tampa 2 to Pendergast's 3-4 -- or 5-2, as he calls it.

Here are the numbers:
2012 Pac-12, 2013 Pac-12

Scoring defense 5th (24.3 ppg), 2nd (21.3ppg)

Total defense 7th (394.0 ypg), 1st (341.2 ypg)

Rushing defense 8th (167.0 ypg), 2nd (126.7 ypg)

Passing defense 4th (227.0 ypg), 1st (214.5 ypg)

Pass Eff. Def. 6th (123.9), 3rd (114.0)

Opponent 1sts, 9th (22.6), 2nd (18.5)

Oppoent 3rd percentage 8th (38.0), 2nd (36.8)

Red zone def percentage 6th (81.1), 1st (63.4)

Further, the Trojans ranked in the nation's top 32 in every above number. In 2012, they didn't rank that highly in any of the above numbers. In fact, their highest national ranking was 40th in scoring defense.

And those 2013 numbers, by the way, including the absolute white flag performance at Arizona State, a 62-41 defeat, had a lot more to do with effort than scheme, which is why Lane Kiffin was fired the same night.

Pendergast has received plenty of praise for the job he did this year at USC. This makes clear it was justifiable.

Just saying, Ducks.
A few years ago, my wires got crossed even more than normal and I somehow ended up believing a homestanding but underdog Washington team just might beat Oregon. So I picked the Huskies to upset their hated rivals. It was a bad pick, and an Oregon person let me know about it -- profanely and vociferously -- immediately after the Ducks' blowout win.

It was Ducks defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti.

At the moment, I was shocked and, yes, a bit hurt. I thought I had a great relationship with Aliotti and I had no idea he'd even be aware of, much less give two flips about, my weekly Pac-12 picks.

Oh, but he did. And that's an important part of Nick Aliotti you need to know. Behind the avuncular public face, he's a fiery competitor who is motivated by folks doubting him and his players.

[+] EnlargeNick Aliotti
Steve Conner/Icon SMINick Aliotti spent 24 years on the Oregon coaching staff, including 17 as defensive coordinator.
We've chatted -- professionally and casually -- perhaps 20 times since then, and more than a few times he brought up that moment and apologized for it again and again, and then went on to great lengths to flatter the Pac-12 blog and make it blush.

"You've always been great to me," he'd say. "And I appreciate what you do."

That's an important part of Aliotti you need to know. He's a genuinely good fellow. Gracious. Funny. Self-effacing. And I don't know if I know anyone, particularly among members of the Fourth Estate, who'd say differently.

He also is a heck of a defensive coach, which is why more than a few folks are probably surprised that he has chosen to hang it up at just age 59, announcing his retirement Friday effective after the Ducks' date with Texas in the Valero Alamo Bowl on Dec. 30.

He has been a fixture at Oregon under four coaches -- 24 years total, 17 as defensive coordinator. He had a brief run in the NFL when Rich Brooks was with the St. Louis Rams, and he spent a year at UCLA getting scapegoated by Bob Toledo, which was such bad form from Toledo that his career swirled into the muck shortly thereafter, his having irrevocably broken his positive karmic balance.

While the Ducks have been known more for their offense during their rise to the nation's elite, Aliotti consistently put together defenses that ranked highly in the Pac-12 and nation, particularly when you went beyond obvious statistics -- such as yards per game -- and used more advanced metrics that accounted for the Ducks offense having no interest in time of possession.

Aliotti will be missed, as a coach and a personality.

"Nick's contributions to the football program at the University of Oregon cannot be overstated," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said in a statement. "His dedication to the success of this program will certainly leave a lasting impression that is hard to measure. I want to thank him for his loyalty and efforts to help make Oregon football what it is today, and wish him and his wife, Kathy, a long and happy retirement."

The first question, of course, even before we ponder the future of the Ducks defense, is whether Aliotti will stay retired. That competitive fire might enjoy a break, but after he watches the 2014 season, you'd have to wonder if his coaching jones might return. Heck, a smaller program might even want to shake his tree a bit and see if he'd be interested in one thing he's missed out on in his career: A head coaching job.

I'd rate Aliotti's potential return a definite maybe. He certainly won't be off the coaching radar when a year from now someone needs a coordinator.

[+] EnlargeClancy Pendergast
Joe Andras/WeAreSC.comClancy Pendergast transformed USC's defense in one season with a system similar to Oregon's 3-4.
As for what's next for Oregon, two names were all over the Twitterverse this afternoon: Justin Wilcox, a former Oregon player, and Clancy Pendergast, who transformed USC's defense this fall.

Wilcox, as reported by CBS's Bruce Feldman, is shortly expected to follow Steve Sarkisian from Washington to USC. He also is one of the nation's highest paid assistant coaches, making more than double the $370,000 Aliotti made this fall. Aliotti, by the way, is the Ducks' highest paid assistant coach.

As for Pendergast, he'd be a great hire, wouldn't cost $800,000 a year and he's available because of Wilcox's expected arrival in Los Angeles. He knows the Pac-12, having coached the past four years at California and USC, and that can't be discounted when you consider the diversity of offenses in the conference.

ESPN's Adam Schefter has reported Pendergast might be eyeballing an NFL job, but one suspects he is looking only for the best situation -- and perhaps some stability. Considering Oregon ran a hybrid 3-4 under Aliotti, and Pendergast ran the same sort of thing at Cal and USC, calling it a 5-2, the transition would be smooth.

If Helfrich and Pendergast haven't already chatted, that's a call the Ducks first-year coach should seriously consider making. Nothing like hiring a guy who's almost a sure-thing.

Of course, neither of those guys would hold court during a postgame media briefing like Aliotti. His winding, often lengthy, stream of consciousness answers that often ended up having little to do with the original question made postgame stories on the Ducks defense far more colorful.

And reporters were talking to him because his defense, though typically overshadowed by the Ducks prolific offense, was more often than not among the best coached units in the Pac-12.

Mailbag: Is DAT out of position?

December, 27, 2013
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Welcome to the final -- Miller version! -- mailbag of 2013.

Follow the Pac-12 blog on Twitter.

To the notes!

Nick from Phoenix writes: Chip Kelly and Oregon surprised many a few years ago when they flipped DeAnthony Thomas from USC by promising him a chance to play offense and not make him a corner, as USC planned to do. After showing some flashes and putting together a pretty good freshman season, he seems to have plateaued as a player. He's got amazing speed and is a tremendous returner but he's too small to be a starting running back and isn't a true WR. After his freshman season I thought he would be guaranteed to leave school after his junior year. Now I can't imagine him being drafted in the first two rounds in April. He's a player without a position. All of this brings me to my question. Did Oregon do him a disservice by making him an offensive player? Given the athletic ability DAT possesses, he would have made an amazing corner and we could possibly be talking about him as a top 5 pick this year. He would still be able to flourish in the return game (where he is at his best). I really think the Oregon staff blew it with him, just like they blew it with Arik Armstead (letting him be an OK defensive lineman when he has the physical skill set to be a transcendent offensive tackle).

[+] EnlargeDe'Anthony Thomas
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesAfter a hot start, De'Anthony Thomas missed four games and had his least productive season.
Ted Miller: The starting point for this discussion is what the player wants. And that is a slippery slope in recruiting. Often what is obvious to a plurality of seemingly objective observers is not obvious to the player himself. Or his family. Or "advisors."

The good news here is Oregon and USC both told the truth in recruiting. USC coaches told De'Anthony Thomas they saw him as a cornerback. Some coaches will say whatever they can to get a player, all the while having a plan to make a switch as soon as possible. Oregon, obviously, stuck to its word with both Thomas and Armstead.

I think the issue with Armstead is more clear-cut than Thomas. Armstead is a potential NFL All-Pro at left offensive tackle, based on his skill set, and a CFL player on the D-line, based on his performance as defensive end/tackle thus far. I personally think he is leaving millions of dollars on the table by playing defense. In fact, if he were my son, I would relentlessly hound him to make the switch. I might even touch base with the Oregon coaches on the matter to see what they think, though I'm not sure the guy who replaces the retiring Nick Aliotti will want to give up any more big bodies from his D-line, which will take some big hits heading into 2014 in any event.

As for DAT, you could make a strong case that he's more naturally a corner than an offensive player due to his size. But he'd also be on the small side for an NFL corner, and there's the issue of make-up. Does he have the natural aggressiveness to go mano-a-mano in press coverage against a bigger receiver? Can he attack a 220-pound running back in the open field? DAT might be more naturally suited to avoid rather than seek contact.

The question for DAT with the NFL is fit. A team looking for an offensive weapon who's not built for 20 touches a game could do a lot worse than Thomas. The St. Louis Rams fell in love with speedy but diminutive Tavon Austin and picked him in the first round last spring. He's had a pretty darn good rookie season. He seems like a good comparison to DAT (and not the short but stocky guys, such as Maurice Jones-Drew, who are built like fire hydrants).

There is no question DAT's pure athletic ability will get him drafted, this spring or next, though what round is difficult say. The ultimate answer on his NFL career, however, will come down to durability. How many touches -- and games -- can he give an NFL team? And for how many years?

Alex from Davis, Calif., writes: I have a great play idea for Washington State when they have an 8 point lead, ~ 2 minutes to go in a game and the other team is out of timeouts. It may be too wacky and zany for Mike Leach, though. Here's how it goes: the team lines up in a "victory" formation, takes a knee, lets the play clock go as close to zero as possible and repeats the play two more times. Then they take a delay of game penalty before punting to make the other team go more than 25 yards for the winning score. I know, I know. Way too crazy. It make soooooo much more sense to try and run a QB option play (or run the ball at all when you haven't done it all year) than it does to simply take a knee and run the clock.

Ted Miller: I'm with you, as are most folks. Even some with true football smarts, such as other coaches.

But Mike Leach, an unquestionably smart man, does things his own way. His reply would be the ole "I am what I am," which means not taking a knee there, and that is what got him where he is. He believes in being aggressive.

The thing about Leach is he's not going to go, "My bad. I should have done things differently. You second-guessers are correct!" Not his style.

Further, while there were about 785 different things the Cougars could have done to ensure a victory against Colorado State, Leach would simply note the most basic one would be holding onto the football, which I'm guessing he and his assistants have emphasized and drilled endlessly.

Adam from Dallas writes: After watching USC win the Las Vegas bowl and finish up with 10 wins from this crazy season. Saying it sounds unrealistic, but shouldn't Sark almost be expected to get 10 wins next season? Am I crazy?

[+] EnlargeSarkisian
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsSteve Sarkisian might get a bit of a pass in his first year, but expectations at USC are always high.
Ted Miller: While I'll need more information to know, Adam, if you are indeed crazy -- such as: Do you have a 6-foot white rabbit as a wingman when you hit the bars? -- I don't think you are off base here.

For one, USC fans tend to start their baseline of preseason expectations at 10 wins and go from there.

First, let's note that USC won 10 games on a 14-game schedule. It's not the same as the 10-2 mark in 2011. Then let's wait until the NFL defection numbers are in. There are some names on the board who could make a big difference if they opted to return next year.

As it stands now, though, USC should be in the thick of a tightly contested South Division. That, in itself, might make a 10-win season difficult. There could be a lot of cannibalism in the South, as well as the conference as a whole.

I see UCLA as the South favorite, if QB Brett Hundley opts to return for his redshirt junior year. I see Arizona State as possibly taking a step back and Arizona taking a step forward, if it gets a satisfactory answer at quarterback. Utah becomes a factor if QB Travis Wilson is given a positive bill of health from his doctors and can play this fall. And Colorado is getting better.

The good news for USC fans, whatever their 2014 expectations, is the program will be made whole in 2015, as NCAA scholarship restrictions expire. At that point, there won't be much margin for error for Steve Sarkisian. The preseason expectations going forward will be Pac-12 title or bust, with a firm belief the Trojans should win a national title before 2020.

Josh from Wichita writes: Great article on my Cats, Ted. I did just want to make one technical correction though. It is actually a 4x4 that has 'family' written on it and not a 2x4. It's 4 inches by 4 inches, but I suppose it can be forgiven. EMAW!

Ted Miller: My bad. Guess folks won't be asking me to do any construction work anytime soon.

Jon from Berkeley writes: Just wanted to share an awesome video my friend Matt recently made about the Pac-12. Hope you like it!

Ted Miller: That is pretty cool.

DuckFam from Camas, Wash., writes: Dear PAC 12 Blog,I am sorry to say this, but you are absolutely right. The emotions you have stirred have caused such outrage that I am compelled to stand up and point out that Pink Ladies have never gotten their accolades, in spite of being the all-around most balanced in their league. This all starts with the fact that Pink Ladies don't have the history and pedigree of playing in an AQ league that the more traditional power-houses, such as Granny Smiths and Red Delicious have played in; a league, BTW, that is heavily favored east of the Rockies. They are practically unheard of down south, but Georgia is already biased anyway- what is their state famous for, again? Next, when you consider the balance of sweet to tart, combined with the fact that the ratio of crunch to crisp easily rivals that of Honeycrisp, and is far tastier than Fujis, I am not sure you can even consider Fujis any further at this point. Now Honeycrisp is certainly at the top of the game most of the time, and I grant you it is great for what it is, but if this is a case to be made with more than just personal taste and opinions, then it is time to turn to the metrics. Pink Ladies are most often in play at 1.49 per pound, and often break the .99-per-pound barrier, as many traditional ones often do, especially when they are at their best around mid-season. But given the qualities that Pink Ladies offer, as stated above, at the same economic metric as Fujis, make them a far better bet than Honeycrisp (which often hit 1.99, even at their best in the season). When compared pound to pound, or dollar to pound, or the newest metric developed by people with far too much time on their hands: the Approximate Pound Per Label Eaten, or APPLE, as it is known in some circles, Pink Ladies take down all comers, every time. Once again, though, being from a different box that doesn't say Fuji or Honeycrisp means little to no consideration, in spite of obvious fact. Proof yet again of the "tastelessness" of the East Coast bias...PS- is it September yet?

Ted Miller: My only hope is the "Great Apple Controversy of 2013" continues into the New Year.

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