Pac-12: Nick Saban

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To the notes!

Rob from Northern Oregon writes: Ted, the up-tempo offenses have been targeted by [Nick] Saban because he cannot beat them in an even odds situation. Rather than meet the fight head-on, Mr. Saban (I use Mr. loosely here) has attempted to circumvent the situation by enacting a rule change, based upon player safety. I pose this: Has anyone looked into the health and safety issues related to being over 300 pounds and maintaining that mass throughout a college career? I suspect that even the most rudimentary study would show decreased lifespan, increased health problems and overall reduction in the quality of life that results from being fed and manipulated like a stockyard cow while in college. Player safety advocates might want to adopt a maximum BMI rule for college players if safety is such a concern. Lean and mean … It takes a lean horse for a long ride.

Ted Miller: "Cannot beat?" Well, Nick Saban has been pretty successful winning games. We probably should grant him that.

And there have been plenty of studies about BMI [Body Mass Index] and lifespan. People who are obese have more health problems. Generally, we can say weighing 300 pounds is not healthy. But adopting a maximum BMI sounds like it might be legally complicated, and I'd guess most 300-pound college football players are more physically fit than an average U.S. citizen.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/Dave MartinJudging by this week's mailbag, Pac-12 fans aren't real big on Nick Saban right now.
Still, I hear you. You could do all sorts of things to improve player safety. Most, of course, would dramatically change the game.

You could remove face masks, which would increase the number of broken noses but might reduce the number of concussions because players would be forced to form tackle instead of leading with their head/helmet.

You could eliminate blitzes and zone defenses. If defenses were forced to be more predictable, then you'd have fewer blow-up shots on offensive players.

You could reduce the number of players on the field. You could reduce the size of the field.

You could make the game two-handed touch. Or use flags. Or have a player from each team debate what should happen on each play and then have a judge rewards or subtracts yards based on the merits of their arguments. The Ivy League might like that.

What's most interesting about this debate about so-called player safety is that the folks who want to slow down the up-tempo teams are simply saying this: Football is dangerous.

And that, unfortunately, is true.

Saban, one of the leaders of the slow-down movement, this week compared football to smoking cigarettes. Seriously. I will include the quote so we can all slap our foreheads in unison.

Said Saban, "The fastball guys (up-tempo coaches) say there's no data out there, and I guess you have to use some logic. What's the logic? If you smoke one cigarette, do you have the same chances of getting cancer if you smoke 20? I guess there's no study that specifically says that. But logically, we would say, 'Yeah, there probably is.'"

(Slap!)

The slow-down folks are saying, "Because football is dangerous, and up-tempo teams run more plays, and plays are football and are therefore dangerous, we should try to reduce the number of plays in a game. For safety's sake."

Heck, why not shorten the game instead? Play eight-minute quarters. That would reduce the number of plays and reduce the number of injuries and no one would have to change their scheme.

(Shortly I will get an email from the TV side of ESPN saying, "Hush.")

The point here is simple: The slow-down folks want to slow the game down because they play slow-down football. They believe slow-down football gives them an advantage, and up-tempo teams are being mean and taking away that advantage. So, they scheme, let's change the rules and force folks to play the slow way, which means slow-down teams will win more.

Saban's Alabama team has become like USC was from 2002-2008 -- it's physically superior to just about any other team in the nation. Because his players can consistently win one-on-one battles, he wants to minimize strategy. He wants to line up and run a play. Wait 25 seconds, run another play. And see what happens.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Saban and Alabama's bitter rival, Auburn, is now coached by up-tempo maestro Gus Malzahn, owner of a gigantic football brain, one that might be even as big as Saban's. That matchup is on track to become one of the great annual stories in college football -- the Iron Bowl as essentially a national playoff game on a regular basis.

That's not what Saban wants, though. He's not happy with all these spunky teams with all their brainy football. He wants them to behave, get out of the way and let him win national championships.


JohnV8r from El Dorado Hills, Calif., writes: Which is more likely to happen: The SEC is penalized by the playoff selection committee for only playing an eight-game conference schedule, or the other power conferences move to an eight-game conference schedule because the SEC does not end up being penalized by the selection committee for their eight-game conference schedule?

Ted Miller: While others might disagree, I think the SEC is going to face pressure to play a nine-game conference schedule AND at least one high quality nonconference game a year, or it will be penalized.

That's at least if the selection committee has guts and wants to be fair. It can't be swayed by the "just trust us" justification we heard so often during the BCS era.

How would this go? Well, let's look at 2014 in the SEC East.

Let's say both South Carolina and Missouri finish 11-1, but Missouri's loss is on Sept. 27 in Columbia, S.C., so the Gamecocks win the East tiebreaker due to the head-to-head victory. South Carolina then goes on to the SEC championship game, and Steve Spurrier wins the press conference but loses to Alabama.

So Alabama is in the four-team playoff.

Then the SEC apologists would chime in: There is no WAY you can keep a one-loss SEC team out of the playoff! No matter that Missouri wouldn't have played Alabama, LSU and Auburn. Paired with a weak nonconference schedule, the Tigers set up as a team that shouldn't get the automatic benefit of the doubt when comparing them to other one-loss AQ conference teams.

For example, in this 2014 scenario, there is no way in Hades that Missouri should be able to slip in ahead of Stanford, which plays an exponentially tougher schedule next year. And there is no way in Hades that the Tigers should get into the playoff over an unbeaten team from an AQ conference, such as an Ohio State or Oklahoma State.

The very idea that a 14-team conference wants to play fewer conference games than 12- and 10-team conferences is beyond competitive reason. Isn't the conference schedule about figuring who the best teams in said conference are? How can you even compare Missouri's schedule with East rival Florida's? The Gators play Alabama and LSU (and, by the way, Florida State)?

The ONLY reason for playing eight conference games instead of nine is to rig the system.

I mean, just imagine if someone tried to force up-tempo teams to slow down by rigging the system with a new rule. But no one would ever do that, right?


Michael from Fairbanks, Alaska, writes: How long will it take for coach Chris Petersen to turn the Dawgs into a Pac-12 powerhouse and beat Oregon on a consistent basis?

Ted Miller: 426 days. Plus or minus.

I don't think Washington fans should expect the Huskies to immediately eclipse Oregon -- and Stanford -- in the North pecking order. I suspect Petersen will need to get the lay of the Pac-12 land for a couple of years and also get at least a few recruiting classes with "his" guys.

My impression during the 2013 Oregon-Washington game is that the rivalry is narrowing after a decade of Ducks dominance, despite the Huskies’ fourth-quarter meltdown. While some Huskies fans seem eager to cast aspersions at what Steve Sarkisian accomplished, he rebuilt a staggering program and left a top-25 team behind when he bolted to USC.

I don't see any reason for the Huskies to fall out of the Top 25 the next couple of years. The question is, do they move into the top 10 with Oregon and Stanford? They aren't alone, by the way, in wanting to get there.

There is, however, a back door, at least with the Ducks. What if Mark Helfrich is not able to maintain what Mike Bellotti/Chip Kelly built? What if the Ducks end up missing Nick Aliotti more than some expect? Washington could move past Oregon because Oregon might not remain a top-10 team. I'm not saying I think that will happen, only that it's a reasonable possibility.

I talked to a Pac-12 coach the other day who said Petersen is going to get things going quickly. He termed him one of the nation's truly elite coaches. Which is nice, if you're a UW fan.

Many of us suspect the same. But it's now up to Petersen to justify the plaudits that have been flung his way for years while playing in a major conference.


aztr81 from Phoenix writes: I've grown tired hearing the debate on the 10-second rule (i.e., the "Saban Rule"). If a coach doesn't like the pace of the game, CALL A TIMEOUT!!! Out of timeouts? Then keep control of the football and keep the other team's offense off the field! (Example, Stanford vs. Oregon, or Notre Dame vs. Arizona State.) Goodness, gracious, it really is a joke that certain individuals or organizations are trying to fundamentally change the game we love. End of rant. Thank you.

Ted Miller: You're welcome.

Mailbag: Saban's evil plot

February, 14, 2014
Feb 14
5:30
PM ET
Greetings. Welcome to the mailbag.

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To the notes!

Haggmeez from Cincinnati writes: What are your thoughts on the proposed new 10-second defensive substitution window rules, or what I'm calling "The Oregon Rule." Please explain to me how teams with smaller, faster players can ever expect to beat teams with bigger, stronger players if speed is not a viable weapon. I feel like I'm watching Nick Saban tell Chip Kelly to get off of his lawn in slow motion. Please make it stop. Football needs FEWER esoteric rules instead of more.

[+] EnlargeSaban
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsNick Saban would not win any popularity contests on the West Coast.
0006shy from Los Angeles writes: I just saw the proposed rule change to punish hurry-up offenses. What a joke! What an absolute joke! If the NCAA truly cares about player safety then they should ban games against FCS teams (USC, UCLA and Notre Dame have NEVER played an FCS team.) Nick Saban's five-star athletes pounding Chattanooga players for 60 minutes creates far more serious injuries than a no-huddle offense ever will.

John from Eugene, Ore., writes: Please, reassure us Pac-12 fans that this ridiculous rule change intended to slow down uptempo offenses is not going to pass. Please tell me that just because the rest of the football world seems to worship the ground Nick Saban walks on, that doesn't mean that the NCAA will pass rules that give him exactly what he's whining for? I can't imagine I'm the only person writing in on this. There's no way this proposed change is actually made, is there?

Ted Miller: Don't forget Arkansas coach Bret Bielema. He's as much behind this as Saban.

Further, yes, it is notable that the sudden concern for player safety comes from coaches who don't run uptempo attacks and have been gashed by them over the past few seasons. Hmm.

And, yes, their motives are, at best, 97.6 percent disingenuous. Bielema and Saban, a fantastic football coach who reportedly once ignored and stepped over a convulsing player, and others who support this proposed rule change, are doing so to gain a strategic advantage. Pure and simple.

The diversity of schemes in college football is one of the biggest reasons the sport is so popular. I can tell you without any doubt whatsoever that the sport would not be as popular -- probably not nearly so -- if everyone ran Alabama's or, yes, Stanford's offense.

A fast-paced game not only is fan-friendly, it -- as Haggmeez notes -- gives teams that rely on smaller, faster players a better chance to compete with teams with a gaggle of five-star recruits with NFL measurables.

As uptempo coaches such as Arizona's Rich Rodriguez have noted, if you really are concerned about player safety, make blitzing illegal. That would reduce the number of blow-up shots during game by 30 percent, a number that was arrived at with just as much science as went into this effort to thwart uptempo offenses.

Do I think it will pass? No.

But the NCAA is involved. It's presence tends to inspire stupid and/or disingenuous things to happen.


Andrew from Agoura Hills, Calif., writes: Very happy to see that my top 25 list ran this past week (for the second year in a row, might I add). Obviously, since I kept all the same players on my list as the official Pac-12 Top 25, I didn't have any major problems with it. My question is in regard to the logic behind the order of some of the choices. In your response to my list, you mentioned that most people would probably pick Marcus Mariota first if holding a conference draft, and I tend to agree with that. But in that same scenario, someone like Marqise Lee would certainly be among the top 10 picks too, and I don't think he belongs in the top 25 for this past season. Later, you continue to assert that Will Sutton belongs ahead of Leonard Williams, even though (I assume) you and Kevin were responsible for Williams being named an ESPN first-team All-American. I guess my question is, when does production/accolades overshadow potential/other intangibles (like positional value), and when is it the other way around?

Ted Miller: Don't expect perfect logic. There are a variety of considerations -- many subjective -- that go into our weekly power rankings of teams, as well as our top-25 ranking of players.

It's a blend of factors such as postseason accolades, statistics, NFL prospects, positional value and a player's pure value to his team. Kevin doesn't consider NFL prospects as much as I do, though I think of that consideration as more of my mental draft picking -- as in, who would I pick first? -- when making a tough distinction.

That was my thinking for Mariota over Arizona RB Ka'Deem Carey. You could argue that Carey was more accomplished in 2013, but I'd still say that Mariota's numbers plus his overall value, which is augmented by his playing the most important position, give him the edge.

You noted Marqise Lee. Good question. Lee, in terms of talent and potential, certainly is among the top 25 players in the Pac-12. Probably top 10. But you have to take into account what he actually did this season. His numbers, in large part due to poor QB play and injuries, were not very good. So his down numbers get prioritized over his talent, knocking him off this list.

In some ways, my "draft" idea also overlaps with production -- what a guy actually did that past season. And poor production mutes pure talent factors. See also, Thomas, De'Anthony.

Similar reasoning, by the way, also cost Stanford DE Ben Gardner. The coaches still gave him a first-team All-Pac-12 nod, despite his missing the season's final six games because of injury, but we pretty much ruled him out because of that. Not his fault, but that still seems reasonable to me.

As for Sutton and Williams, most would project Williams having a higher NFL upside. He also had slightly better numbers than Sutton this year, though Williams was a defensive end and Sutton a tackle. Yet what kicked Sutton up a notch was the simple fact he -- again -- was named the Pac-12's Defensive Player of the Year by the coaches. That was slightly surprising, but it also was something that validated the idea that Sutton's numbers were down from 2012 because of blocking schemes that were obsessed with him, an invaluable benefit for a defense.

Are we always 100 percent consistent? No. But we do try.


Jonathan from New York writes: With respect to your concerns about Stanford being able to replace Tyler Gaffney's productivity at the running back position, I wonder if you had any insight into whether Barry Sanders has the potential to have a 1,500-yard season. It's true that Coach Shaw didn't give him enough carries this year to come to any conclusions, and even on the punt return unit he mostly had fair catches. But I don't know whether Sanders had such little playing time because Gaffney was just so dependable and successful, or whether it was because Sanders was not showing much potential in practice. Perhaps you don't know any more than I do, but I'd be curious for your take if you have any thoughts.

Ted Miller: My guess is Stanford won't have a back gain 1,500 yards next year. My guess is it will be more of a committee effort. I also think the Cardinal still will run the ball well, just not in the Toby Gerhart, Stepfan Taylor, Tyler Gaffney one-workhorse way.

Of course, in advance of the 2014 season, I expected it to be 60-40 between Gaffney and backup Anthony Wilkerson. Gaffney just played too well to take him out.

As for Sanders, I really have no feeling for how things will play out for him next fall. While it's fun to imagine him being a clone of his father, perhaps the most thrilling ball-carrier in NFL history, it's probably unfair to expect him also to have once-in-a-generation talent.

Sanders will be competing with Remound Wright and Ricky Seale for carries, and I've heard little that suggests one is leaps and bounds superior to the other. They seem to have complementary skill sets, so that suggests they each get touches. As the season progresses, one would expect a more clear pecking order to develop.

This, by the way, is a good review of where the Cardinal stands at running back heading into spring practices.


Mitty from Saint Joe, Calif., writes: Which Pac-12 fan base do you most like to target with passive-aggressive shots? I've only noticed one. Kevin will get the same question because he targets the same fan base.

Ted Miller: Passive-aggressive? Moi?

I've always thought of myself as aggressive-aggressive, though my fuse, thankfully, has grown longer in my fourth decade.

Kevin and I, on occasion, discuss tweaks, insults and rants directed at us in the comment sections or elsewhere, but it takes up less of our time than you might think. We don't hold grudges. We really do try our best to remain as objective and fair as possible with all 12 teams. I've never heard anything from an official representative of a school -- coach, AD, sports information director, etc. -- suggesting we were being unfair or favoring or disfavoring a program. That's a fact we take a lot of pride in.

What I have noticed is that fans of teams that aren't doing well tend to think we are unfair to their team, whether that's about win-loss record or recruiting. The inescapable fact is teams that are winning get more coverage, just as teams that sign highly ranked recruits get more attention on national signing day.

Of course, more coverage for a team probably means more of their fans are showing up on the blog, and fans come in all forms. There clearly has been an "Oregon Effect" since the blog started in 2008. Ducks fans, by my unscientific estimates, seem to be the most active here, expressing both love and hate for your gentle bloggers.

But mostly love. Because it's impossible not to, in the end, love the Pac-12 blog.


GoCougs from Chandler, Ariz., writes: Kevin forgot about one Pac-12 alum's participation in the Super Bowl. Please pass on the love for Steve Gleason.

Ted Miller: Great stuff.

Gleason is an inspiration. An all-time great.

If the NCAA Football Rules Committee gets its way, college football teams no longer will be penalized 15 yards if one of its players really didn’t target an opposing player.

But teams could actually be penalized for delay of game for – get this – playing too fast.

A few coaches of teams that utilize no-huddle, hurry-up offenses – which are becoming more and more common at the FBS level – immediately blasted the proposed substitution rules change, saying its only intention is to slow them down.

“It’s a joke. It’s ridiculous,” said Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez. “And what’s most ridiculous is did you see what the penalty is going to be called? Delay of game! How is that a delay of game? That’s the ultimate rules committee decision. Make the game slower and call it delay of game.”

[+] EnlargeRich Rodriguez
AP Photo/John MillerArizona coach Rich Rodriguez calls a proposal to penalize quick snaps with a delay-of-game penalty "ridiculous."
The NCAA committee recommended a rules change that will allow defensive units to substitute within the first 10 seconds of the 40-second play clock, excluding the final two minutes of each half. So in effect, offenses won’t be allowed to snap the ball until the play clock reaches 29 seconds or less. If the offense snaps the ball before then, it would be penalized five yards for delay of game. Under current rules, defenses aren’t guaranteed an opportunity to substitute unless the offense subs first.

“First off, [I] doubt it will pass,” Washington State coach Mike Leach said. “Second, it’s ridiculous. All this tinkering is ridiculous. I think it deteriorates the game. It’s always been a game of creativity and strategy. So anytime someone doesn’t want to go back to the drawing board or re-work their solutions to problems, then what they do is to beg for a rule. I think it’s disgusting.”

The rules changes proposed by the NCAA Football Rules Committee will be submitted to the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel for discussion on March 6.

In an NCAA statement, the NCAA Football Rules Committee said “research indicated that teams with fast-paced, no-huddle offenses rarely snap the ball with 30 seconds or more on the play clock.” The NCAA statement also said the proposed rules change also “aligns with a request from the Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports that sport rules committees review substitution rules in regards to player safety.” In the NCAA’s non-rules change years, proposals can only be made for safety reasons or for modifications that enhance the intent of a previous rule change, according to the NCAA statement.

Leach and Rodriguez aren’t buying that slowing down hurry-up offenses would make players safer.

“Where’s all the data that proves this is a player safety issue? I don’t buy it,” Rodriguez said. “What about making it so you can’t blitz seven guys? That’s a dangerous thing for a quarterback.”

Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, whose team also runs an uptempo offense, wants to know if there is actual proof that uptempo offenses cause more injuries to players.

"Is there documented medical evidence that supports this rule change that tempo offenses are putting players at a higher degree of risk than others? If there is then show it to us," Freeze told ESPN.com Wednesday night. "Where is it? They're going to have to show us some evidence. If there's not any evidence, then they should table it.

"You can do it the last two minutes of the game. Isn't that when you should be most fatigued?"

Added Leach: “That’s really insulting that they are hiding behind player safety just because somebody wants an advantage. That’s crazy.”

This past season, fast-paced, no-huddle offenses continued to operate faster and faster in college football. Baylor, which led FBS teams in scoring (52.4 points) and total offense (618.8 yards), averaged 82.6 offensive plays in 13 games. Texas Tech averaged a whopping 87.3 offensive plays under first-year coach Kliff Kingsbury, and Fresno State averaged 83.6 offensive plays.

But some coaches, including Alabama’s Nick Saban and Arkansas’ Bret Bielema, have criticized hurry-up offenses, arguing that they give offenses an unfair advantage and don’t allow them to adequately substitute defensive players.

It's always been a game of creativity and strategy. So anytime someone doesn't want to go back to the drawing board or re-work their solutions to problems, then what they do is to beg for a rule. I think it's disgusting.

-- Washington State coach Mike Leach
“All you’re trying to do is get lined up [on defense],” Saban told ESPN.com in September. “You can’t play specialty third-down stuff. You can’t hardly scheme anything. The most important thing is to get the call so the guys can get lined up, and it’s got to be a simple call. The offense kind of knows what you’re doing."

But Leach contends it’s unfair to handcuff offenses because defenses can’t keep up with the pace.

“My suggestion is rather than spending a bunch of time coming up with a bunch of really stupid rules, spend that time coaching harder,” Leach said. “Worry about your own team and try to make your product better rather than trying to change the game so you don’t have to do anything.”

Freeze also believes that allowing defenses to rotate players in and out more frequently under this rule will put offensive linemen who are a part of uptempo offenses at more risk for injury because they will potentially face fresher defensive linemen every few snaps.

"If anything, you may be making it more dangerous for the offensive line because they're going to face 12 five-star defensive linemen from Alabama rotating every three plays," he said.

To Freeze, taking away the opportunity to snap the ball as fast as possible is taking away a major fundamental advantage that any offense can use against opposing defenses, which are allowed as much movement as possible before a play is even run.

"Since the start of football, defenses can line up wherever they want to," Freeze said. "They can move around as much as they want to before the snap. … They can do whatever they want to do, that's fine. I coach defense, too, that's great. The one thing that has always been offenses' deal is snapping the ball. That's the only thing we have."

The proposed change to the sport’s new targeting rules seems like a no-brainer after a slew of controversial decisions during the 2013 season. Under current NCAA rules, which went into effect this past season, players penalized for targeting opposing players were ejected from the contest and their teams were penalized 15 yards. But officials were allowed to review the play and determine whether a targeting foul actually occurred. If officials determined the play wasn’t targeting, the player’s ejection was overturned but the 15-yard penalty was still enforced.

If the proposed rule change is approved, the ejection and the penalty won’t be enforced. However, if a defender is penalized for a personal foul in conjunction with the overturned targeting foul, such as roughing the passer, a 15-yard penalty will still be enforced.

In games in which instant replay is not in use, the committee recommended an option to permit on-field officials to review targeting calls during halftime that were made during the first half. Officials then could reverse the targeting call and allow the player to compete in the second half.

ESPN.com’s Ted Miller and Edward Aschoff contributed to this report.

Mailbag: USC can't again dominate?

February, 7, 2014
Feb 7
5:30
PM ET
Welcome to the mailbag, the best gateway to Friday happy hour.

Follow the Pac-12 blog on Twitter. We keep typing that because it's for your own good.

To the notes.

Ben from Los Angeles writes: Ted, I agree that parity has changed the Pac-12. The differences are negligible among the top recruiting schools. I think it's unlikely that the differences will account for the conference champion. When Pete Carroll coached at USC, it had a big talent advantage almost every week. No more, and I'm not sure it will return. USC couldn't fill 19 slots with top-150 players, so how will six more slots deliver superiority? Practice players, but not superiority. All the schools have money, all the CA schools are good schools (UW, too); the coaching has spiked. Who wants to be third team when you can start at another good school, with a good coach?

Ted Miller: The Pac-12 has reached a perhaps unprecedented state of quality depth, but parity probably isn't the right word. The last time a team other than Oregon or Stanford won the Pac-12/10 was USC in 2008, which at that time was riding a streak of six consecutive conference titles.

(Washington State fans: Which was the last team to win the conference not named USC, Oregon or Stanford? Anyone? Anyone?)

But I understand your general point, which concerns USC returning to the dominance of the Pete Carroll Era. Yet even there I don't completely agree.

Simple question: If Nick Saban were named USC's coach tomorrow, what would be the over-under for national titles over the next 10 years? Five? The potential for another USC dynasty is there, and it would be easier to build one at USC than any other Pac-12 school.

While the Pac-12 is unquestionably deeper than it has traditionally been, I do not think that guarantees that USC, the conference's biggest national brand, can't again become, at the very least, first among equals -- see Alabama in the SEC.

It certainly won't be easy, in large part because the conference has upgraded its coaching quality across the board. But the Trojans' late run in recruiting under Steve Sarkisian suggests the USC brand retains allure among young athletes, and not only in Southern California. UCLA coach Jim Mora said as much in an interview with Bruce Feldman of CBS Sports.

"We're still fighting the years and years of great teams that Southern Cal had," Mora said. "A lot of these kids in the area grew up watching Reggie Bush and the other greats. What we're trying to do is turn the tide as quickly as we can, but sometimes it's a little slower than you want, but it all starts with winning the game. I am so excited with the local kids that we signed."

(Notice how he said "Southern Cal." USC folks don't like to be called that, so much so that it's noted in the football media guide and weekly game notes).

How much difference would it have made for USC to have a full array of 25 scholarships, which it will next February? I think a lot -- as in top-five class a lot.

Sarkisian and his staff are relentless and enthusiastic recruiters. They have a chance to perennially sign classes that are in the battle for best in the nation, just like Carroll.

Of course, it's the job of the other 11 Pac-12 coaches, starting with Mora, to make sure that doesn't happen.

And, by the way, there's also the larger question of whether Sark and his staff can coach those Trojans players up as well as Carroll and his staff, which included Sarkisian, once did.


Josh from Lake Stevens, Wash., writes: Big IF here, but if Cyler Miles is suspended or dismissed, who is more likely to take over for him, Jeff Lindquist, Troy Williams (my vote) or KJ Carta-Samuels?

Ted Miller: I have no idea. No one does. New year. New coaching staff. New offense. And none of those guys has any significant experience.

Lindquist, a rising sophomore, would have a slight advantage just by being the most senior guy. I have heard good things about Williams. I think Carta-Samuels, an incoming freshman, would be a huge long shot.

But this is pure speculation. For one, we should wait and see how the investigation plays out. If I were a betting man, I'd wager Miles doesn't get kicked off the team.


Peter from Calgary, Alberta writes: Stanford has been a run-first, power running football team for a number of years now. They've lost 80 percent of their starting offensive line and don't have a proven running back going into the 2014 season. Discuss.

Ted Miller: Stanford loses RB Tyler Gaffney and four outstanding offensive linemen, but Stanford won't lose its identity in 2014. The Cardinal offense will be a run-first, smashmouth team.

For one, I expect LT Andrus Peat, a rising true junior, to develop into an All-American next year. So QB Kevin Hogan's blind side should be well-covered. Further, the offensive line won't be as inexperienced as it appears because the Cardinal's "jumbo" packages have allowed guys such as guards Josh Garnett and Johnny Caspers and OT Kyle Murphy to get plenty of experience the past two seasons.

There might be some growing pains, but this will be a good line. If it stays healthy, it probably will be as good as any Pac-12 line by season's end.

As for running back, that's more a question mark. Remound Wright, Ricky Seale and Barry Sanders all have skills, but none of them had more than 20 carries last year. Heck, incoming freshman Christian McCaffrey might even get into the mix.

Still, even with Hogan and all his receivers coming back, I don't think you'll see the Cardinal throw the ball 40 times a game. They might throw more, but David Shaw isn't going to abandon a style that has paved the way for consecutive Pac-12 titles.


Gerald from Atlanta writes: SEC fan here. You might remember me. I am the SEC fan from Norcross, Ga., who has been harassing you for years on this SEC/Pac-10/Pac-12 debate. Watching this Super Bowl, I have no choice but to eat crow and recant. I was wrong. You West Coast guys were right. Pete Carroll is an outstanding coach and would have massacred any SEC team during their run, even one led by Nick Saban or Urban Meyer. It took a loaded Mack Brown (who I still say was somewhat underrated as a coach) Texas team led by Vince Young (whose NFL failure was due to a head coach and fan base in Nashville who didn't want him, long story) to just barely eke by Carroll and USC, and now I see why. So I apologize, mea culpa, sorry that USC was treated unfairly by the BCS, glad that the BCS is ending, so on and so forth. P.S. Go Auburn Tigers. And 2010 was awesome no matter what the rest of the country thinks. At the very least it was revenge for 2004.

Ted Miller: Someone needs to go down to hell and see if it's frozen over. Oh, never mind -- I'll just call Nick Saban and ask.

Kidding!

This might not mean much to many of you, but Gerald has been a longtime Pac-12 blog and mailbag gadfly. Not sure what to make of this note.

Perhaps someone has stolen his mailbag handle and the real Gerald will read this and his head will explode.

Perhaps Gerald has joined a 12-step program for trolling.

Perhaps Gerald had a good weekend in Vegas, which included taking the Seahawks in the Super Bowl.

Perhaps he's just trying to soften us up before launching a counterattack to our unguarded flank.

Or perhaps this will start a trend, and all of the Pac-12's blog myriad and often profane critics will suddenly see the error of their ways and profess only love for your kindly Pac-12 insiders.

Wait. That would be incredibly boring. Let's not let that happen.

Sarkisian critics get their wish

December, 2, 2013
12/02/13
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Lane Kiffin only became USC's coach in 2010 because Steve Sarkisian didn't want to leave Washington. "It wasn't the time," he told me.

On Monday, Dec. 2, 2013, however, the time was right, as USC hired Sarkisian to replace Kiffin, two good friends who coached the Trojans' offense together under Pete Carroll.

It's an interesting and perhaps surprising hire. It will receive a mixed reaction.

More than a few Washington fans, while grateful that Sarkisian led the Huskies back from a long-term tailspin that crashed and burned with an 0-12 season in 2008, were growing impatient. The program hadn't taken the proverbial next step, hadn't yet made a move against the Oregon-Stanford hegemony in the Pac-12's North Division. The Huskies went 7-6 three years in a row and only gained a Sarkisian-high eighth win Friday with a victory over Washington State in the Apple Cup regular-season finale.

So more than a few Washington fans will receive the news with: "Good riddance."

That such sentiments, arguably emotional and unreasonable, exist, and Sarkisian was fully aware of them, is probably part of the reason he deemed it time to leave Washington.

So Sarkisian's Huskies critics get their wish: a new coach.

The search could be concluded quickly if athletic director Scott Woodward opts to promote defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who almost certainly will follow Sarkisian to USC if Washington doesn't hire him. Wilcox is a true up-and-comer, a young but proven coach who built quality defenses at Boise State, Tennessee and Washington.

Of course, there is a big-fish candidate the Huskies might make a run at: UCLA coach Jim Mora. He played for Don James at Washington and has long been a favorite among more than a few boosters who wanted to hire him previously, when Mora was in the NFL.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesSteve Sarkisian turned around Washington but had trouble reaching the next step.
Mora said a few weeks ago that he has never interviewed for the Huskies job or been approached by a representative of the school. UCLA and Mora have been a good match, and the Bruins almost certainly would do everything they could to retain him.

For one, Mora has beaten USC twice in a row, including a 35-14 blowout Saturday. Second, it would send a bad message about the pecking order in Los Angeles, no matter the recent results, if USC hired away the Washington coach, and then Washington hired away the UCLA coach. Do the transitive property on that one.

Another big-fish name that will pop up: Boise State's Chris Petersen. While his name has been attached to every major coaching vacancy since Petersen started working magic for the Broncos -- including USC, UCLA and Washington before it hired Sarkisian -- there might be some legitimacy in his candidacy for the Huskies.

Boise State slipped decidedly in the national pecking order this fall, going 8-4, which included a loss to Washington. With the advent of the four-team playoff in 2014, Boise State might find itself outside looking in among the national powers even more than it did under the BCS system. If Petersen was ever going to leave Boise State, this might be the time. While he didn't seem like a good fit for the hurly-burly of Los Angeles, laid-back Seattle might be more to his liking.

Another current coach whose name is sure to come up is Tim DeRuyter, who has done a fantastic job rebuilding Fresno State. The Bulldogs went 9-4 his first season and are 10-1 this year, and was seen as a likely BCS buster from a non-AQ conference before they lost to San Jose State on Friday.

Another intriguing possibility is Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. The former Idaho quarterback was Sarkisian's offensive coordinator from 2009 to 2011 before being lured away by Nick Saban in 2012. He was highly thought of even before he spent two years under Saban -- a pair of seasons where he's been privy to Saban's celebrated "The Process."

There is no lack of strong possibilities for the Huskies.

Many Washington fans will be disappointed about Sarkisian leaving. A vocal minority will celebrate it.

The bad news for sportswriters? USC and Washington don't play again until 2015, so the emotions won't be as raw when the programs clash for the first time, with Sarkisian adorned in cardinal and gold instead of purple.

James' death darkens UW's bad weekend

October, 21, 2013
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There was no sign in the first quarter at Arizona State that Washington football was about to experience one of its worst weekends of all time.

The Huskies ended Arizona State's first possession -- a three-and-out -- with a sack. They then drove 60 yards for a touchdown. On that drive, quarterback Keith Price was 4 of 7 for 46 yards, and running back Bishop Sankey rushed for nine yards and a TD.

The Sun Devils drove for a first-and-goal at the Washington 7-yard line but had to settle for a field goal as the Huskies defense tightened. Cornerback Marcus Peters grabbed an interception of Arizona State QB Taylor Kelly. When the bell rung for the second quarter, the Huskies had momentum and a 7-3 lead.

So there was no flat start, no obvious hangover from consecutive defeats to Stanford and Oregon, losses that had done little damage to the 20th-ranked Huskies' national credibility.

What happened over the next three quarters, however, was a disaster. The Huskies were outscored 50-17, and that even doesn't seem to impart how horrid they looked against a hungry Arizona State team.

Said Sankey afterward, “We got out-competed."

That's about the worst thing that can happen to a football team. That's about caring and grit and fight and shared purpose and everything that speaks to the character of a football team above and beyond talent and scheme.

[+] EnlargeWashington Huskies
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesSteve Sarkisian is looking for answers after an "embarrassing" performance in a 53-24 loss to Arizona State.
And then, on Sunday, it was announced that Washington coaching icon Don James had lost his fight with pancreatic cancer.

A football defeat pales next to the loss of a great coach and a great man, but the juxtaposition of the events is notable.

James was "The Dawgfather," the man who built a football dynasty in the Northwest. Nick Saban's much-celebrated "process" -- that's Don James, whom Saban has repeatedly cited as his biggest influence.

How great was James at his peak? Sports Illustrated once made a list of the three best coaches in college football. Don James was No. 1. And No. 2. And No. 3.

I second what Bob Condotta wrote here: I never covered the Huskies under James, but I had several chats and interviews with him. He couldn't have been more accommodating. I always got a kick from telling former players how avuncular James seemed now because they'd inevitably relate stories about his stern, evaluative stare and his intimidating presence above practices standing on his coaching tower. Those stories also brought deja vu as a former sportswriter in Alabama because that was exactly how Bear Bryant's former players recalled him.

Both groups always concluded by calling James/Bryant "a great man." Not a great coach. A great man.

Of course, James cast a huge shadow over the program after his abrupt departure before the 1993 season, a move of protest against the Washington administration's reaction to onerous conference and NCAA sanctions. The program has never escaped his shadow of sustained excellence through five coaches.

Yet just three weeks ago, this version of the Huskies felt like the most "James-ian" collection yet. Sure, there were too many penalties. But the 4-0 start was typified by physicality, efficiency, running the ball and playing tough defense. That was Don James football. The Huskies didn't look like a top-10 team, but they looked like a top-25 team cut in a Jamesian mold that longtime Huskies fans could embrace.

"That," they would say. "Is how we want Washington football to look."

So how did it look over the final three quarters in Tempe?

Said coach Steve Sarkisian, “That was embarrassing." He, in fact, said it twice in case anyone missed it.

The 212 yards of lackluster offense falls on Sarkisian. The 585 yards and 53 points the previously stout defense yielded falls on coordinator Justin Wilcox.

The stunningly uninspired performance falls on everyone.

"I know we appeared a little tired tonight," Sarkisian said. "We didn’t appear as fast; we didn’t appear as physical. We appeared as a team who got a little bit lethargic. Maybe we’re a little emotionally drained, but I don’t know. That’s an excuse and there are none. We don’t have time for excuses. We have to fix it.”

The red-letter issue for Sarkisian is the solution to long-standing problems, which started almost immediately after James departed, seems to be eluding him, just as it did the four coaches who preceded him. The Huskies have posted impressive wins, even impressive seasons -- see a 2000 Rose Bowl team under Rick Neuheisel -- but there's been no Jamesian consistency.

Jamesian consistency isn't just about winning season-to-season or game-to-game. It's a moment-by-moment attention to detail, and that includes the Xs and Os, recruiting the right players and the totality of the emotional and mental focus of the locker room.

Jamesian consistency -- apologies to Huskies fans for again pointing this out -- looks a lot like what Oregon has captured with its "win the day" culture.

Seattle Times columnist Jerry Brewer noted that Washington has had at least a three-game losing streak in every season since 2004. He then added that the blowout loss at Arizona State had an unfortunately familiar feeling -- another uninspired performance on the road:

It felt like last season’s 52-17 loss at Arizona. It felt like the 38-21 loss at Oregon State in 2011. It felt like the 44-14 loss at Arizona in 2010, or the 48-21 loss at Oregon State in 2009.

Every year, there is one of these. It’s a trend, not an anomaly. And until the Huskies stop losing their minds like this, they won’t return to prominence.


Speculating on an elusive "return to prominence," of course, makes every Husky fan nostalgic for Don James.

[+] EnlargeDon James
Bernstein Associates/Getty ImagesWashington is still trying to replicate the consistent success it had under Don James.
There is no one trying harder to solve this than Sarkisian, who has always embraced James, both as a person and as a symbol for the program's aspirations. Sarkisian was a stand-up guy after the abysmal performance in Tempe.

"I have to do a better job as a coach of keeping our guys motivated and positive and energetic, because when you’re in our conference, every week it’s a new challenge," he said. "We had a couple tough losses the last two weeks, and we just didn’t bring the same energy, physicality, and ultimately execution this week that we had the previous two weeks, which gave us a chance in those games. That points right to me. I have to do a better job.”

It's good that Sarkisian is taking the blame. He also knows a pat on the back for being a stand-up guy lasts just a few seconds before the high-pressure reality of a zero-sum, results-oriented business resumes. He's a big boy making a lot of money, and that money is for wins, not words.

The Washington program -- the college football nation, really -- saluted the passing of a legend on Sunday.

It's up to Sarkisian, his coaches and players to not allow the high hopes for the 2013 season to pass based on what happened Saturday.

Mailbag: Pac-12 North vs. SEC West

October, 4, 2013
10/04/13
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Any chance every game this weekend can be as interesting as UCLA-Utah?

Welcome to the mailbag. If your life needs just a tad more "oomph," follow the Pac-12 blog on Twitter. It's loaded with oomph, as well as many vitamins and minerals.

To the notes!

Daniel from Pullman, Wash., writes: Ted-Last Saturday morning I was listening to ESPN Radio and they were debating the match-ups of the Pac-12 North and the SEC West (on neutral fields). I believe their match-ups were Al vs. OR, LSU vs. Stanford, Tex AM vs WA, Ole Miss vs OSU, Auburn vs. WSU, and Miss St or Ark vs Cal. One voted these match-ups 4-2 in favor of the SEC, and the other scored it 3-3. (Note: I think both picked LSU over Stanford.) How would you see these match-ups playing out?

Ted Miller: The first challenge is matching the seven-team SEC West versus the six-team Pac-12 North. To make things easy, goodbye Arkansas.

Further, we don't really know how each division ultimately will stack up. Our speculation is only slightly educated here, as any would be not even halfway through season.

So start with Oregon-Alabama. This is a potential national title game. There are two ways to look at it. Is this a regular season game with just one week to prepare? I'd give a slight edge to Oregon with that. If it was a national title game, with three weeks to prepare, I'd give the Crimson Tide an edge. For this exercise, we'll go with the Ducks.

I'd pick Stanford over LSU. Just like I'd pick Stanford over Georgia, which just beat LSU. Suspect that Stanford would consistently outflank the Tigers with sophisticated schemes. A few years ago, LSU's team speed would have been an issue. No longer.

I'd take Texas A&M over Washington in a barnburner. I'd take a healthy Oregon State -- as in the Beavers after their off week -- over Ole Miss. The Rebels wouldn't be able to handle Sean Mannion and Brandin Cooks.

Auburn beat Washington State 31-24 on its home field, but the Cougars outgained the Tigers 464 to 394. In a neutral field rematch, I'd go with the Cougs.

Cal would be able to outscore Mississippi State, though I'd feel better with that one if the Bears didn't have so many injuries on defense.

So there you go: 5-1 Pac-12 North.

End of discussion! Right?


Andrew from Phoenix writes: Ted,Why all the volatility in Arizona State's perception? The last 3 weeks the media and PAC fans have gone from "they're ready for the national stage" to "looks like they're not that good" back to "this team can do some damage." The consensus outside of the biggest ASU homers and UA trolls was ASU would be about 8-4, just in or just out of the Top 25, and needing an upset @UCLA to win the South. I have seen nothing on the field this season that should change that. Bottom line is they demolished a poor team, handily beat (with some blemishes) a mediocre team, played a toe-to-toe in a toss up with a good team, and got their mistakes shredded by an elite team. Why so much drama?

Ted Miller: It's Kevin. He's the man behind the curtain pulling all these levers that make people crazed with drama.

I don't feel like much has changed about the perception of Arizona State, at least among those who esteemed the Sun Devils in the preseason. This is a good team, probably a top-25 team, one that is moving up in the Pac-12 and national pecking order but is not yet on the Oregon/Stanford level. And, yes, it looks like the best challenger for UCLA in the South Division, particularly after USC imploded.

But there is a logical reason for the volatility: The Sun Devils' schedule. How many teams have played three tough, AQ-conference opponents in their first four games? And with such a variety of results.

Wisconsin, 32-30 win: Controversial ending yes, but the game showed the Sun Devils are top-25 caliber.

Stanford, 42-28 loss: The Sun Devils might be a top-25 team, but they've got a ways to go to move toward the top-10.

USC, 62-41 win: An impressive offensive showing against a previously outstanding defense. More positive evidence that the program is taking steps forward under Todd Graham.


Guess what? There will be more drama on Saturday. A win over Notre Dame will provide another uptick. And a loss will add some skepticism, as well as a second fall from the national polls.


Kevin from Reno, Nevada writes: Why is Ohio State ranked ahead of Stanford? After watching ASU play Wisconsin and then Stanford, it was clear that Stanford is on an entirely different level of physicality and talent than Wisconsin. That same Wisconsin team almost beat Ohio State on the road. Also, Cal was completely over-matched against Oregon, but competed almost respectably against Ohio State. Stanford may be better than Oregon this year.

Ted Miller: At least we'll get an answer with Oregon-Stanford on Nov. 7.

But I hear you. Obviously your Pac-12 bloggers agree with you. I'd comfortably pick Stanford over Ohio State, and I suspect a lot of folks would, too. While it's dangerous to use the transitive property in college football, your point about Wisconsin is at least partially valid.

I suspect the reason most folks who are voting Ohio State ahead of Stanford are doing so is because they did so in the preseason, and the Buckeyes have yet to lose.


Andrew from Agoura Hills, Calif., writes: Now that Lane Kiffin is out the door, we've started to hear all the names of potential candidates: Kevin Sumlin (my personal favorite), Jack Del Rio, Jeff Fisher, Steve Sarkisian, Chris Petersen, etc. One name that I haven't really seen included in any of these hypothetical lists is Alabama DC Kirby Smart. Do you think he will be considered by Pat Haden and the USC braintrust? He seems to be on track to eventually be a head coach, and his credentials are very impressive for a young coach. The two problems I see are that he 1) has resisted overtures in the past, possibly because he is in line to follow Saban at 'Bama and 2) is devoid of any head coaching experience. What do you think of Smart as a candidate for the Trojans?

Ted Miller: There certainly are worse choices.

The other knock, fair or unfair, on Smart is that Saban is the ultimate brains behind the Crimson Tide's defense. Still, working under Saban for an extended period of time should overcome that as a downside. He knows Saban's "Process," which is like learning about the stock market from Warren Buffett.

My impression is Smart is shortly going to get an opportunity in the ACC or SEC. He's a child of the South and probably wants to stay down there.

In fact, if you are looking for a darkhorse candidate for USC, what about Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier? He calls Alabama's plays, has time learning from Saban and knows the Pac-12, as he was Steve Sarkisian's offensive coordinator at Washington before heading to the SEC. He also has Big Ten and NFL experience.

While USC is surely going after a big-time name with head coaching experience, many, many great hires have been first-time head coaches, such as John McKay, Bob Stoops, Chris Petersen and Chip Kelly.


Saul from Los Angeles writes: I get it, you hate your former home up there in Seattle. Why you instantly think the Washington head coach job sucks is beyond me and Wilcox would rather go to USC to be an assistant coach when he could be a head coach. You are insufferable.

Ted Miller: Every week, there are angry notes in the mailbag that make me go, "Huh?" I get that when you write about college football, you will make folks mad. Just part of the job. But what always baffles me is when I get an interpretation of one of my positions that is untethered to any actual position I can ever recall taking.

Saul isn't the only one. It appears many Alabama fans believed this story on USC's coaching search implied Pat Haden might hire Nick Saban. That conclusion apparently was based on my typing, "What if USC now hires its Nick Saban? Or, to localize it: Pete Carroll, take two?"

I spent 20 minutes trying to figure out what got Saul's feathers raised. Apparently it is this from my chat Thursday:
Ryan (Baja): Hypothetical: Sark goes to USC. Question: What happens to Justin Wilcox?

Ted Miller: THAT is a big question. I was, in fact, thinking about that today. I'd think Washington would give him a hard look. It's just a matter of time before he's a head coach. It might, in fact, be a matter of just a couple of months. He'll have options, including one to follow Sark to LA and get a big raise.

To be clear: I think Washington would seriously consider Wilcox if Sarkisian left for USC and I'm SURE Wilcox would take the job.

If there is an implication my chat comment that Wilcox would rather be offensive coordinator at USC than head coach at Washington, then I humbly apologize. He would not. What I wanted to suggest is that if Wilcox was offered a head coaching job for a non-AQ program, he still might opt to follow Sarkisian to USC and wait for an AQ job. Such as, you know, a place like Washington.

The big hypothetical here is Sarkisian going to USC. It's possible, by the way, that Sark would say no to USC again, just as he did when it went after him before hiring Lane Kiffin.

And, if it needs to be clarified, there is not a person who has ever talked to me about Seattle who doesn't know how much I love that town.
I love power. But it is as an artist that I love it. I love it as a musician loves his violin, to draw out its sounds and chords and harmonies.

Pac-12 coaches not among the elite?

April, 10, 2013
4/10/13
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Everybody loves rankings lists, and college football fans -- by necessity -- seem to like lists even more than average folk.

So we have Athlon making another list. First it ranked Pac-12 coaches. Now it ranks all 125 coaches for FBS programs.

Obviously, any ranking like this is highly subjective, as Kevin noted with his notes on the Pac-12 coach rankings.

I really like Athlon's top three. That would be mine. If Chip Kelly were still at Oregon, I'd rank him third, but he is not.

After that? Well, there were some head-scratchers.

LSU's Les Miles way down at No. 24? New Arkansas and former Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema buried at No. 25? Vanderbilt's second-year coach James Franklin way up at 17? Three words: No, No, No.

There is no conceivable way to rank Franklin ahead of Miles, WHO HAS WON A NATIONAL TITLE!, nor is it reasonable to rate Franklin over Stanford's David Shaw, WHO HAS WON A ROSE BOWL, nor Bielema who owns THREE BIG TEN TITLES and won 68 games in seven years at Wisconsin.

Franklin? He's done some nice things at Vandy, making a terrible program respectable, but please identify for me a signature win from 2012? Or 2011. I'll wait here.

Yep. Nada.

Just last season, Shaw, who is No. 1 in the Pac-12 but only 20th in the nation, beat Oregon, which finished ranked No. 2, and WON THE ROSE BOWL. He's a muffed field goal away from winning consecutive BCS bowl games.

Vanderbilt, winners of the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl over the doughty NC State a year after losing to Cincinnati in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, took advantage of a weakened SEC East, and it's notable that the one adventurous nonconference tilt ended up a double-digit loss at Northwestern. You know: The so-called slow Big Ten.

And I think Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is a bit high at No. 12, too.

(Deep breath) OK ... I'm OK.

Anyway: Here's how Athlon ranked the Pac-12 coaches in the nation (national rank).
  1. David Shaw, Stanford (20)
  2. Mike Riley, Oregon State (21)
  3. Rich Rodriguez, Arizona (22)
  4. Todd Graham, Arizona State (29)
  5. Mike Leach, Washington State (31)
  6. Mike MacIntyre, Colorado (44)
  7. Steve Sarkisian, Washington (45)
  8. Jim Mora, UCLA (54)
  9. Kyle Whittingham, Utah (55)
  10. Sonny Dykes, California (56)
  11. Lane Kiffin, USC (57)
  12. Mark Helfrich, Oregon (73)

Mailbag: Oregon losing ground?

January, 18, 2013
1/18/13
6:00
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Welcome to the mailbag.

Click here to follow the Pac-12 blog on Twitter.

And now, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Mailbag.

Bishop from Eugene, Ore., writes: Let's assume that Marc Helfrich takes over as head coach, and the upcoming NCAA sanctions don't include a post season ban, How do you feel about those "Way to early" predictions you made. Can Oregon still chase the ever so elusive National Championship bid? Or is "RoseBowl or Bust" the best we can hope for now?

Ted Miller: Chip Kelly's departure puts a big question mark by Oregon. No way around it. If I were redoing the first 2013 Pac-12 power rankings, I'd do a reversal at the top and rate Stanford No. 1 and Oregon No. 2 for that reason alone.

Does that mean I don't think Oregon can win the national or Pac-12 championship in 2013 without Kelly? No. It merely means uncertainly has been introduced into the equation that wasn't there before. We have to account for that. We can suspect that Helfrich will do fine -- as good or maybe even better than Kelly -- but he's never been a head coach before.

Heck, the Ducks could run the table even if Helfrich doesn't turn out to be the long-term answer. There's enough talent and leadership left behind for the team to run itself. For a precedent for that, recall when offensive coordinator Larry Coker took over for Butch Davis at Miami in 2001 and went unbeaten and won a national title his first season, but was fired five years later. The Ducks aren't as talented as that epically good crew of Hurricanes, but it's a reasonable parallel.

As I've noted before with personnel issues when evaluating teams for the season to come: When there's an obvious void to fill, and the individual filling it is unproven, projecting everything turning out peachy isn't sound reasoning. It's optimism.

The truth is, it will take a few years to get a good measure of Helfrich as a head coach. We need to see him recruit an entire team and put his stamp on the Ducks in terms of the totality of the program before passing an educated judgment.




Sorael from Illinois writes: Hey Ted, Am I the only person who thinks the media and fan negativity around the USC program will actually help them? If Kiffin is a decent coach at all(it's debatable), he can use this to foster an us-against-the-world, no-believes-in-us type of mentality. I could see this being, just the right type of motivation to get the USC players from a me-first to a team-first focus. A focused USC TEAM would be scary for the rest of the conference.

Ted Miller: No, there's a guy in Des Moines who thinks the same thing.

Your thinking is reasonable. It's clear the Trojans didn't do as well as the front-runners in 2012, which was notably different than their going 10-2 in 2011 with just about the same personnel, when they were feeling forgotten and disrespected.

"Us against the world" or "no respect" can help a locker room remain focused and motivated. Stanford coach David Shaw is clearly a believer in that. Many athletes respond to outside doubt, particularly when a coach repeatedly points it out. In contrast, Chip Kelly actively avoided that -- at least he claimed to when speaking to reporters.

So maybe that will help the Trojans. Many of them were celebrated prep athletes who'd never encountered adversity before, so maybe they will grow after getting their lips bloodied.

But motivational ploys only go so far, just like the overrated pregame speech.

What wins games is a constant attention to detail and an obsession with getting better, which includes all aspects of the game -- mental, physical and emotional.

Lane Kiffin can point to all the negativity at the start of spring practices. He can talk about how folks are writing off the Trojans. He may have his players' rapt attention while he speaks. But the real issue for Kiffin is the consistent quality of the day-to-day process of running his football team.

And, yes, I've been reading too many Nick Saban quotes.




Peter from Tempe, Ariz., writes: What can you tell me about Arizona State's chances thus far against Notre Dame next year? Clearly we have a lot of time between now and the game but if you were Todd Graham and staff looking ahead what's your biggest worry? They obviously have a very good defense but I don't think many people were impressed offensively. It seems like we have a great opportunity to pull an upset considering who we have coming back defense-wise. Assuming our JC WR recruits pan out we could have a very potent offense too.

Ted Miller: I think Arizona State has a good chance to win that game if it ignores a crowd that will be heavily in favor of Notre Dame inside Cowboys Stadium and plays to its potential.

That, to me, is the biggest issue: the environment. Notre Dame will not be athletically superior to the Sun Devils.

Notre Dame welcomes back 14 position player starters, and QB Everett Golson should take another step forward. Further, the Fighting Irish have been recruiting well under Brian Kelly. Still, the program is a few players away from being super-elite. I suspect several teams would have bested the Irish in the national title game, including Oregon and Stanford (recall that Stanford nearly won at Notre Dame before it switched to Kevin Hogan at QB).

I think the Pac-12 is fully capable of going 3-0 against Notre Dame next year, with Stanford and USC also getting their annual shots at the Irish.




John from El Dorado Hill, Calif., writes: Ted, if you were a Las Vegas handicapper and Team A had an extra week to prepare for Team B (who did not have an extra week to prepare for Team A), how many points would that be worth for Team A when you set the opening line?

Ted Miller: 4.378 points.

There are too many variables to your question, though I'm sure someone could pencil out the math by reviewing historical results. I'm just not sure how much you can trust an average number when you're dealing with specific teams that introduce myriad variables.

How good are Team A and Team B? Is one or the other about overwhelming you with talent (like LSU), or is it scheme-heavy (like Boise State)? What about injuries? Does the extra week provide critical extra time for one team to get healthy, while not doing so for the other? Is one of the teams coached by Nick Saban and the other by, say, Tyrone Willingham?

I think a mediocre team with a mediocre coach won't get much benefit from an extra week of preparation against a good team with a good coach. And the opposite is also true.

I will say I think extra prep time is a demonstrable an advantage. Just consider this season in the Pac-12:
  • Oregon State 27, UCLA 20.
  • Arizona 52, Washington 17
  • Oregon 43, Arizona State 21
  • UCLA 45, Arizona State 43.

In each case the winning team had extra time, though it wasn't always an extra week.
Chip Kelly is not one to do things the conventional way, even leaving Oregon for the Philadelphia Eagles. He plays football by a different tempo and he lives by a different tempo. When you think he will zig, he zags. And he has a flair for the dramatic.

The big news on Jan. 7 was that Kelly had turned down his NFL suitors, including the Eagles. He didn't feel the need to comment then, which might be telling as to his reversal of course that would send shock waves across the Pac-12 and college football less than 10 days later.

Kelly went for the double shocker. It was shocking to learn he had decided to stay at Oregon after a flurry of interviews following a Fiesta Bowl victory over Kansas State. And now, three weeks before national signing day, it's shocking that ESPN's Chris Mortensen broke the news of his departure to the Eagles.

[+] EnlargeMark Helfrich
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports Ducks offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, the heir apparent to Chip Kelly, doesn't have head-coaching experience.
Every indication is that offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich will be promoted to replace Kelly after the school negotiates some bureaucratic hiring hoops, as Oregon has a state law requiring public universities to interview at least one minority candidate for head-coaching positions. That was the word a year ago when Kelly nearly left for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and USA Today has already reported the passing of the torch to Helfrich in the event of Kelly's departure.

Kelly was 46-7 over four seasons at Oregon, leading the Ducks on their most successful run in program history. The Ducks have played in four consecutive BCS bowl games, winning the past two, including their first Rose Bowl victory since 1917. Oregon has finished ranked in the top five for three consecutive seasons.

Kelly doesn't owe any more to Oregon. That success is enough. Fans shouldn't feel bitter or betrayed. Sure, the NCAA may shortly impose sanctions on the program over Kelly's involvement with street agent Willie Lyles. That is a black mark. But it's unlikely those penalties will be harsh enough to erase the brilliance that came before.

For Kelly, 49, this is an opportunity to test his considerable football acumen at the highest level. While he is known for his innovative, up-tempo, spread-option style of offense, know that Kelly is all about winning. He will adapt to his personnel and the differences in the NFL game. He won't, say, have his $18 million quarterback running the option 15 times a game.

And if things don't work out in the NFL, Kelly will have his pick of college jobs. It will be like Nick Saban's ill-fated tour in Miami. There's little risk for him in taking his NFL shot.

As for Oregon, there will be questions. While Helfrich will bring system and program continuity and should be able to retain a significant number of Ducks assistant coaches, including defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, he's not Kelly, nor does he have head-coaching experience.

Helfrich has been a quarterback coach at Boise State, Arizona State and Colorado -- he was the Buffs' offensive coordinator, too -- before Kelly hired him in 2009.

"He's really smart, really intelligent," Kelly said at Fiesta Bowl media day when asked why he made Helfrich his first offensive coordinator. "He brought a different perspective to our staff, because he had a different background. He wasn't a spread guy. I wanted to bring someone in who wasn't going to tell us what we already knew."

When asked what advice he'd give to Helfrich if he became a head coach, Kelly said he'd give him the same advice former Oregon coach Rich Brooks gave Mike Bellotti and Bellotti gave him: "Be yourself. You can't be someone else."

While Helfrich has a lighter touch -- more of a polished, people person -- than Kelly, that could mean little on the field and in the locker room. The question will be whether he can command the same respect and dedication that Kelly did. Can he maintain the Ducks' "Win the day" culture that was as efficient and productive as any in the country?

After the Fiesta Bowl win, Oregon's players were asked about Kelly potentially leaving and Helfrich taking over. They seemed uniformly confident that Helfrich would be up to the task.

"Expect the same," All-American running back Kenjon Barner said. "Nothing will change."

Said offensive lineman Kyle Long, who is expected to be an early-round NFL draft choice this spring: "Seamless transition. [Kelly and Helfrich are] cut from the same tree. I'll tell Duck Nation right now, Coach Helfrich is a brilliant coach. Great relationships with his players and other staff members. We all love Helf."

Kelly certainly left his successor a strong hand. The Ducks welcome back 15 position-player starters next fall, including star redshirt freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota. When the 2012 season ended, the Ducks were widely viewed as a top-five team in 2013, perhaps as high as No. 2 behind two-time defending national champion Alabama.

While it's nice to have a good team coming back, Kelly's successor also will inherit high expectations. Ducks fans are no longer satisfied with a top-25 team that plays in a nice bowl game. They expect Pac-12 championships. They expect to compete for national titles. And more than one loss is a disappointment.

If the 2013 Ducks go 10-3, a record that was outstanding before Kelly arrived, there will be immediate grumbling.

While Oregon fans are probably wringing their hands with worry, fans of 11 other Pac-12 teams are elated, most particularly those at Oregon State and Washington, the Ducks' most bitter rivals. Kelly had built a juggernaut, even if it was toppled atop the conference this fall by Stanford. Now there is an opportunity to change the balance of power in both the Pac-12 North Division and the Northwest.

When it was reported that Kelly was returning to Oregon nine days ago (Kelly had not talked about it), college football retained its West Coast equilibrium. There seemed to be renewed clarity, at least in the short term.

His departure leaves an uncertain void. While many believe Helfrich can capably fill that void, the uncertainty will remain until toe meets leather and the Ducks continue to produce the fancy-pants, winning product that Kelly brought to Eugene.

Pac-12 bold predictions for 2013

January, 15, 2013
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As all of you know, the Pac-12 blog -- Kevin and myself -- is bold. Not bold like, "Hey, this is a bold cabernet!" but bold like a guy willing to jump into a volcano to save his remote control.

There is no fear with the Pac-12 blog. None. Other than cockroaches. We don't like those. And I personally found "The Ring" pretty unsettling, but it's not as if I woke up with nightmares for a month or anything ("Don't you understand, Rachel... she never sleeps!").

The point is you folks out there know we'd storm the beaches at Normandy in Speedos to protect your freedoms.

Bold.

So, without further delay, we present BOLD PREDICTIONS for 2013.

The Pac-12 will dethrone the SEC and win the final BCS national title: The SEC's streak of seven national titles will come to an end in an appropriate place: the Rose Bowl. But who will do the honors, ruining Alabama and Nick Saban's hopes for a three-peat?

That team will be Oregon: The Ducks have a lot of nice pieces coming back in 2013 -- 15 position players -- but the key one will be Heisman Trophy-winning QB Marcus Mariota.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
AP Photo/Bruce SchwartzmanCan Marcus Mariota lead Oregon to a national championship?
Yes, that's Heisman Trophy-winning QB Marcus Mariota: Mariota will be in New York with USC receiver Marqise Lee and Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel, but it will be the Hurling Honolulan walking away with the bronze statue this time.

No Pac-12 coach will be fired in 2013: Considering there's only one coach truly on the hot seat, what we're really saying is...

Lane Kiffin and USC will post a bounce-back season: We expect the Trojans to win 10 games -- that's with a highly favorable 13-game schedule, by the way -- and return to the national rankings. Although the Trojans won't return to dominance, they will play better all-around football in 2013, and it will be enough to quiet Kiffin's critics -- at least enough for him to return in 2014. We don't, however, expect USC to win the South Division.

Oregon will play Arizona State in Pac-12 title game: The Sun Devils will emerge from a pack that includes the Trojans and UCLA to win the South.

Stanford won't win the North, but it will play in a BCS bowl game. Again: The Cardinal will lose only to Oregon and finish ranked in the top five.

The Pac-12 will finish 2013 with six teams in the Top 25: That will be six of this seven: Oregon, Stanford, Washington, Arizona State, UCLA, USC and Oregon State.

The Washington renaissance will arrive: The Huskies will finish 9-3 in 2013, opening the new Husky Stadium in style.

Colorado will win four games in Year 1 under Mike MacIntyre: And Buffs fans will be reasonably encouraged.

Washington State will go 5-7 in Year 2 under Mike Leach: And Cougs fans will be reasonably encouraged, particularly when the offense starts to look Leachian.

The sledding will be rough in Sonny Dykes' first season at California: The Bears don't have great talent coming back, but the schedule is the biggest problem. By my guess, Dykes will play eight ranked teams in his first season, including a strong Big Ten duo at home the first and third weekends of the season (Northwestern and Ohio State).

Arizona's offensive numbers will make everyone realize how good Matt Scott was: Arizona averaged 37 points and 522 yards per game last year because of QB Matt Scott, who ranked seventh in the nation in total offense with 338.5 per game. He was a perfect fit for Rich Rodriguez's K offense. We expect the Wildcats' offense to take a step back in 2013, whether B.J. Denker or JC transfer Jesse Scroggins wins the QB job. As good as national rushing champion Ka'Deem Carey is, he will find the holes a bit smaller without Scott, even with a solid offensive line coming back.

Defenses will continue to rise: Arizona State defensive tackle Will Sutton and UCLA outside linebacker Anthony Barr will be first-team preseason All-Americans, and Stanford will again have one of the nation's top 10 defenses. But we also expect across-the-board improvement on defense.

But it will still be the Conference of QBs: Mariota will win the Heisman and again earn the first-team All-Pac-12 nod, but the battle for second-team will be hot between Arizona State's Taylor Kelly, Stanford's Kevin Hogan, UCLA's Brett Hundley and Washington's Keith Price, who will be the conference's Comeback Player of the Year.

Players of the Year? Mariota and Barr will win the offensive and defensive player of the year awards in the conference. Sutton and Stanford's David Yankey will repeat as Morris Trophy winners as the best linemen. Incoming Oregon running back Thomas Tyner will win offensive freshman of the year, and USC redshirt freshman linebacker Jabari Ruffin will earn defensive freshman honors.

Breakout player: Junior Oregon State receiver Brandin Cooks will earn first-team All-Pac-12 honors with Marqise Lee.

Breakout player II: Dykes will figure out a way to get talented junior running back Brendan Bigelow touches. Bigelow will make Dykes glad he did.

Speaking of newcomers: Utah doesn't look as if it sets up for a great 2013, in large part thanks to issues on both lines. But things might perk up if 6-foot-4, 330-pound defensive tackle Junior Salt proves equal to expectations. And stays healthy. Salt was a JC transfer -- a former Florida recruit -- who sat out last year after breaking his foot in August. Coach Kyle Whittingham practically blushed talking about him and how he made Star Lotulelei look small.

And Oregon State's starting QB in 2013 is ...: Heck, what do you think we are... psychic?

Cal coaching search begins

November, 27, 2012
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California, a week past the 11-year Jeff Tedford Era, is presently a program in limbo. It has a skeleton staff of five coaches trying to maintain a recruiting presence, while athletic director Sandy Barbour hopes she can manage a coaching search in total secrecy.

Even if she succeeds, that won't stop the blather. Media folks -- yes, that includes me -- will trot out lists of the usual suspects, and then the Internet will go wild with rumors, many of which will begin with, "I just talked to a guy [a big booster, someone in the athletic department, random insider, etc.] who said that Coach X is on his way to Berkeley to sign a contract!"

And "Coach X" is surely to be Boise State's Chris Petersen.

Cal has retained DHR International to lead the search. Typically, I'd slap my forehead over that because these search firms charge a lot of money for very little. But, as Jon Wilner reported, Glenn Sugiyama is handling Cal's account, and his track record includes former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh and San Jose State head coach Mike MacIntyre, who figures to get a look from Cal.

(Still, I bet Wilner, Kevin and I -- and a bottle of Lagavulin 16yr -- could give Cal just as good a list of candidates, with far more first-hand insight, for a Amazon.com gift certificate and a table at Chez Panisse on a Friday night).

[+] EnlargeCal's Jeff Tedford
Kelley L Cox/US PRESSWIRECal's hefty buyout of Jeff Tedford could make finding his replacement more of a challenge.
It will be interesting to see how Cal plays this. It is unlikely it will be able to afford to lure away a "big-name" coach, which would be expensive and subsequently would inspire many, many frowns on upper campus.

For example, Louisville coach Charlie Strong was essentially a runner-up to Tedford 11 years ago. He makes $2.3 million coaching a Big East team. Making that much in Louisville is equivalent to making $3.4 million in Oakland. Further, he has been connected to the vacancy at Arkansas, where he surely would take a substantial leap across the $3 million line.

The next tier is made up of up-and-coming college head coaches, top coordinators or perhaps an NFL coach looking to jump back to the college ranks for whatever reason.

Cost, again, is a big issue, and it's not just about the head coach. In fact, Cal administrators need to pay as much attention to the assistant coaches as the head coach. It should be one of the first interview questions: "We like your stuff. Give me 10 or 15 coaches you'd want to hire, starting with your coordinators."

Yet emphasizing a quality staff means budgeting about $1 million for offensive and defensive coordinators, and at least $1.4 million for the other seven positions. And these are conservative numbers, folks.

If you pay the head coach between $2.5 and $3 million, then you're talking about $5 million-plus annually for a quality staff, top-to-bottom. Meanwhile, Cal is paying off Tedford -- nearly $7 million -- and his former staff.

Doing this right ain't going to be cheap.

Still, there's plenty to sell California.

  • Brand new facilities that are outstanding. Among the best in the conference.
  • The program is on solid ground. There's enough talent on hand to make a quick turnaround, see UCLA.
  • Good recruiting area. The Bay Area isn't as rich as Southern California, but it's darn good.
  • A national brand as the nation's best public university. That means a chance to recruit nationally.
  • There is good fan support, and it isn't crazy-nutso, expecting every season to end with a BCS bowl victory.
  • And, of course, becoming Cal's coach means a chance to chat regularly with the Pac-12 blog. (Sandy, you can't undersell that!).

So now we trot out a list.

It's just a list. Barbour didn't email it to me. It might be useful/entertaining for Colorado fans, too.

Head coaches

Chris Petersen, Boise State: We couldn't leave him out! If I were a betting man, I'd say the only place that could lure him away from the comfort of Boise is Oregon. I do love this, though, a wonderful mix of journalism and unabashed fandom. Great effort guys.

Charlie Strong, Louisville: He's done a great job at Louisville, but the general feeling is he wants an SEC job.

Mike MacIntyre, San Jose State: He went 10-2 with a San Jose State program that was left for dead. It gave Stanford a better game than Cal did. The scuttlebutt on him is very good.

Sonny Dykes, Louisiana Tech: Dykes' team is 9-3 after losing to San Jose State -- score one for MacIntyre. He's a former Arizona offensive coordinator who learned offense from Mike Leach. Just a matter of time before he gets a big job.

Tim DeRuyter, Fresno State: He's done a really nice job turning Fresno State (9-3) back around in one year. Just ask Colorado.

Art Briles, Baylor: Briles makes $2.5 million and seems to love Baylor. Defense not a selling point.

Gary Andersen, Utah State: Not only did Utah State go 10-2 this year -- beating Utah -- it lost to BYU and Wisconsin by a combined five points. Also something to be said for a guy who's been around for a while. He spent five seasons as the assistant head coach, defensive coordinator and defensive line coach at Utah, where he worked under Urban Meyer and Kyle Whittingham.

Dave Doeren, Northern Illinois: He took over a MAC power and is 22-4 in two seasons. Colorado also might be interested, but Doeren is a guy who is probably eyeballing a Big Ten job.

Darrell Hazell, Kent State: If you're going to list Doeren as a hot coaching candidate, as lots of folks do, how can you not list Hazell, who is a former Ohio State assistant in his second year leading a program that plays Northern Illinois for the MAC title on Friday? The Golden Flashes' last league title came in 1972. That 6-5-1 team, by the way, featured Pro Football Hall of Famer Jack Lambert, Alabama coach Nick Saban and Missouri coach Gary Pinkel.

Willie Taggart, Western Kentucky: A former Stanford assistant, he's done a great job building a respectable program at Western Kentucky.

Coordinators

Mark Helfrich, offensive coordinator, Oregon: How highly respected is Helfrich? He might be the top candidate to replace Chip Kelly if Kelly bolts for the NFL.

Noel Mazzone, offensive coordinator, UCLA: He's coached everywhere, but really has found his offensive legs the past few years. Made Brock Osweiler into an NFL QB at Arizona State, and appears to be doing the same with Brett Hundley at UCLA.

Pep Hamilton, offensive coordinator, Stanford: He was part of the Jim Harbaugh transformation at Stanford, which included building an offense that emphasized a physical, downhill running game. He's worked with Andrew Luck, but his best selling point may be the midseason transition to redshirt freshman QB Kevin Hogan.

Derek Mason, defensive coordinator, Stanford: A frontrunner for the Broyles Award given annually to the nation's top assistant coach. He's built the Cardinal into a defensive power -- see the upset at Oregon on Nov. 17.

Justin Wilcox, defensive coordinator, Washington: Highly respected coordinator who rebuilt the Huskies defense from abysmal to pretty good this fall. Played at Oregon and coached at Cal, Boise State and Tennessee, so he knows the national landscape. It's only a matter of time before he gets a head coaching job.

Bob Diaco, defensive coordinator, Notre Dame: Have you seen the Notre Dame defense? 'Nuff said. Other than he seems like a guy who'll end up in the Big Ten.

Kirby Smart, defensive coordinator, Alabama: See Diaco. It also helps that he's coached under Nick Saban, so he knows how a national power conducts business.

Todd Monken, offensive coordinator, Oklahoma State: You want offense? The Cowboys are the answer to Oregon in the Big 12.

Lorenzo Ward, defensive coordinator, South Carolina: Steve Spurrier arrived at South Carolina as an offensive genius, but Ward is a big reason the Gamecocks are now known for defense. A great recruiter with a lot of charisma. Likely a guy who wants to stay in the SEC.

NFL

Ron Rivera, head coach, Carolina Panthers: My mailbox suggests a lot of Cal fans are hoping this former Bear is done with the Panthers and wants to come back to Berkeley. Could be the latest incarnation of Pete Carroll/Jim Mora.

Greg Roman, offensive coordinator, San Francisco 49ers: What Chip Kelly is to the spread, Roman is to the Harbaugh-ian creativity of power football. You know: All those tight ends shifting around everywhere. He probably will be a top NFL candidate, too, which is a problem.

Hue Jackson, defensive backs, Cincinnati Bengals: Lots of college and NFL experience. He served one year as the Bears offensive coordinator under Steve Mariucci, and is a former Oakland Raiders head coach, so he knows the Bay Area.

More deflating news for Kiffin, USC

November, 8, 2012
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Turns out it's been a deflating season for USC in more ways that one.

From ESPN LA: "USC fired a student manager for deflating five game balls below regulation levels for the USC-Oregon game last Saturday, the school announced late Wednesday."

Deflated balls are easier to catch and hold on to, so the idea is the manager was trying to help the Trojans' offense. The Pac-12 has fined and reprimanded USC.

USC also reported this:
When informed of this allegation by the Pac-12, USC investigated it immediately. The student manager confirmed that he had, without the knowledge of, or instruction from, any USC student-athlete, coach, staff member or administrator, deflated those game balls after they had been tested and approved by officials prior to the game.

So this unnamed manager acted alone and without the knowledge of anyone else. Hmm. Pause for a second and allow your credulity to catch up. Now slap your forehead and shake your head. My guess is you just duplicated what USC AD Pat Haden did when he first learned of this small but notable embarrassment.

And, by the way, it's almost worse if the student manager did act alone. That would mean he felt safe and empowered within the culture of the program to take unilateral action. You think any of Nick Saban's student managers feel that way at Alabama?

A couple of things have happened this year with Kiffin and USC, none of them good.

The secondary narrative in August when everyone, including yours truly, was touting USC's national title hopes, was Kiffin's newfound maturity. We all were pointing out that, after all the media and fan recriminations, perhaps Kiffin actually was a good football coach.

Kiffin might indeed still become one. He's a bright guy and a good recruiter. But those two steps forward last season have been followed by three steps back this fall.

It's not just about three losses for a team many thought might go undefeated. It's about embarrassing, minor news items that feel, for the lack of a better term, childish.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
Rich Barnes/US PresswireUSC coach Lane Kiffin can't seem to shake off-field drama this season.
We've had him storming out of a post-practice news conference over an innocuous question, a reaction that was ridiculous whether Kiffin's irritation was real or feigned. We've had USC orchestrate a dubious jersey switch against Colorado that served no purpose other than making Kiffin look bad. And now we have deflated footballs from a -- riiiight -- rogue student manager.

If I were Haden, I'd tell Kiffin I needed five minutes today. Then I'd tell him not to talk. Only listen:
Lane, stop it. Coach your team. Focus on the details of coaching your team to execute better. Focus on creating a winning culture. Focus on schemes and game plans. Focus on recruiting. But stop being cute. Stop trying to beat the system. We are USC. We are not quirky. We are not into obsessing about creative ways to ferret out small advantages. We're about lining up and playing better football than the other team because our players are more talented. I do not want to read about or even hear through the rumor mill that you team is doing anything creative or quirky. You're a smart guy. But stop trying to outsmart people. Use your brain to become a better coach.

I'd also add that Kiffin needs to prepare for some serious offseason reflection. Chiefly, he needs to question whether it is time for him to make changes at coordinator on both sides of the ball, which means evaluating the Trojans' two staff members with the last name Kiffin.

Just a week ago, we wrote about the distinguishing consistency of programs such as Alabama under Saban and Oregon under Chip Kelly. There is nothing cute about the way Saban and Kelly conduct business. Their sole obsession is creating a well-oiled machine that matches their vision of what a football team should be.

Kiffin might yet become a fine football coach. But the first thing he needs to do is get out of his own way.
There was so much anticipation for Nov. 3, which was circled in red as soon as the 2012 schedules came out: Oregon at USC. "That," everyone said, "is going to be big."

It's two days after. While Ducks coach Chip Kelly won't pause and reflect, we can. And here's where we are: It feels like Oregon has its best team ... ever.

While the defense didn't walk away from a 62-51 win over USC feeling great about itself, the Ducks' offense reached a new level of ludicrous speed that was simply extraordinary against the Trojans' quality defense. Don't gloss over this: A USC defense had never given up so many points. Never. Nor had it ever given up 730 yards. Never! Heck, that was 107 yards more than a legendary Notre Dame squad piled up in 1946 while setting the mark that lasted 66 years.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Charles Baus/Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesQuarterback Marcus Mariota has helped Oregon average over 54 points per game in 2012.
This Oregon offense, with a redshirt freshman quarterback, has significantly better numbers than the 2010 squad that played for the national title.

The Ducks rushed for 286.2 yards per game in 2010. They are rushing for 341.2 this season. They averaged 530.65 yards in 2010. They average 561.2 yards this season. They averaged 47 points per game in 2010. They average 54.33 this season. Their passing efficiency number in 2010 was 151.72. It's 159.94 this season.

This squad is younger on the offensive line than the 2010 crew, but it's far more physically gifted. And QB Marcus Mariota is a better passer and runner than Darron Thomas, notably more consistent and accurate. Thomas completed 61.5 percent of his passes in 2010. Mariota is completing 70.5 percent of his throws.

In fact, Mariota now ranks No. 1 in the Pac-12 and No. 7 in the nation in passing efficiency. The Pac-12 blog is officially retiring the word "test" from further stories on Mariota.

Receiver is the one area where the 2010 Ducks look superior, but one of the overlooked revelations from the USC game is how well the receivers played. Josh Huff turned in perhaps his best game, catching six passes for 125 yards and two touchdowns. Seven different players caught passes.

Of course, it's slightly bogus to compare the 2010 and 2012 numbers at this point. There's a lot of football left. In fact, there might be the toughest football ahead, particularly the next three -- or four -- opposing defenses.

Oregon visits California on Saturday. You might recall that the only team to shut the Ducks' offense down in 2010 was the Golden Bears at home. Further, Stanford and Oregon State are ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in both scoring and rushing defense in the Pac-12. In fact, Stanford is No. 1 and Oregon State No. 5 in the nation in run defense, and both are ranked in the nation's top 20 in scoring defense.

The odds are against the Ducks rolling up 730 yards against either. But, of course, we would have typed the same about the Trojans.

And then there could be a Pac-12 title game. At this moment, the favorite to win the South Division figures to be the winner of the USC-UCLA game on Nov. 17, but predicting how the South might go feels like a week-to-week thing.

It's easy to begin salivating over the idea of this Chip Kelly Oregon offense facing a Nick Saban Alabama defense for the national title. I will admit that among a gaggle of sportswriters in L.A. for the game, it came up more than once.

Still, Nov. 3 didn't set up like most expected. The Trojans failed to live up to their preseason projections. Nov. 3 was a measuring stick, a significant one, but not one that provides a decisive verdict.

What the Pac-12 became this year was deep, not top-heavy, as expected. Seven different teams have been ranked this season, and five are ranked in the latest BCS standings. No one saw the Beavers' rise coming, nor were Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA expected to be such tough outs.

So these Ducks can be evaluated only on the totality of the season, which is as it should be. Their ultimate achievement won't be owning Nov. 3. It will be running the table in a deep Pac-12.

Best Oregon team ever? That's my impression. But let's wait and answer that on Nov. 30.

Or on Jan. 7.

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