Pac-12: Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Cody Kessler quietly becomes star QB

November, 13, 2014
Nov 13
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LOS ANGELES -- Since the turn of the millennium, there has been no more celebrated spot in college football than quarterback at USC. It's produced two Heisman Trophy winners and household names pretty much every year, even after the NCAA kicked its jackboot through the front door of Heritage Hall. If you are a college football fan of just about any stripe, you know who the USC quarterback is.

So... who is the USC quarterback?

Most Pac-12 fans, after perhaps a short pause, went, "I know this... Kessler... Oh, Cody Kessler!" Just about everyone else drew a blank.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillUSC quarterback Cody Kessler has been able to celebrate 25 touchdown passes this season.
And yet Kessler is turning in a season that pretty much matches -- at least statistically -- the best of the USC QBs, and his name is replacing many of them in the Trojans record book.

Kessler has completed 69.7 percent of his throws while averaging 283 yards per game, with 25 TDs and just two interceptions. He is fourth nationally in both completion percentage and passing efficiency (168.2), and that efficiency number is on pace to break Mark Sanchez's season record of 164.6 set in 2008. Kessler ranks ninth in the nation in ESPN's Total QBR.

Against Power 5 opponents, his passing efficiency (164.7) is second best in the nation, his completion percentage (70.0 percent) is third and his passing TDs (21) are fourth. No quarterback in the nation has thrown as many passes as Kessler and had only two interceptions, and only one besides Kessler has thrown at least 25 TDs with just two interceptions.

Of course, ahead of Kessler in most measures and casting a long shadow is Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, a frontrunner for the Heisman. That isn't surprising. But it is surprising that in the Pac-12, owner the nation's deepest and most talented class of quarterbacks, it is Kessler who leads the race for second-team All-Pac-12 and not, say, UCLA's Brett Hundley or Arizona State's Taylor Kelly.

Kessler's season has not gone unnoticed, as he is one of five finalists for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, presented to the nation's top senior or fourth-year junior quarterback, along with Mariota and Hundley.

It also should be noted his numbers shouldn't be surprising as he quietly finished the 2013 season on a notable uptick, particularly after Lane Kiffin was fired. After throwing two interceptions at Arizona State last Sept. 28 -- Kiffin was fired at LAX the same night -- Kessler threw 14 touchdown passes and just three interceptions in the final nine games, and just one pick in the final five.

"If you look at the second half of last season, I think Cody really came on with his game," first-year USC coach Steve Sarkisian said. "It just continued to build on that momentum. No. 1 is his confidence, his belief in himself and the guys around him. No. 2, we were implementing a new scheme that fits his skill set. He's been making really good decisions with the football."

This season, Kessler threw a school-record seven touchdown passes against Colorado last month and followed up earlier this month with five against Washington State while reaching 400 yards for the first time in his career.

"He doesn't take any chances, that's the biggest thing," Washington State coach Mike Leach said. "They do a lot of things to make sure he's successful out there."

Leach has seen two Kesslers. In 2013, Kessler went 8 of 13 for 41 yards with an interception in a Cougars upset at USC, a notable nail in Kiffin's coffin. It has been noted frequently that Kiffin seemed to prefer big-armed Max Wittek in USC's 2013 QB competition, even though Kessler had decisively outplayed him as Matt Barkley's backup and during their spring and preseason battle. Nonetheless, Kessler has refused to take shots at Kiffin, who seemed reluctant to let Kessler throw the ball downfield, despite a talented crew of receivers.

“We had a good relationship that last year. He obviously gave me the job after a while," Kessler said of Kiffin. “[But], at times, I felt like I could do more and I wasn’t allowed to do more.”

Kessler was freed up when Clay Helton took over play-calling last season and has thrived with Sarkisian calling the Trojans' new up-tempo offense, with Helton remaining as QB coach.

Said Kessler, “I’ve really, really taken the next step with Coach Helton and Coach Sark, studying a lot more film throughout the week, knowing my opponent, knowing what look we’re going to get when we line up in what formation, knowing where I’m going with the ball each and every play.”

While Kessler's numbers have been outstanding, the ultimate measure of all USC quarterbacks is winning championships. At the very least, they need to beat UCLA and Notre Dame.

The junior almost certainly will have to wait until next year to make a run at the Pac-12 title. After a date with California on Thursday, he faces the Bruins and Fighting Irish over the next two weekends.

Here's a guess that if he beats both of them, his Q rating will go up considerably in Los Angeles and across the country.

Momentum swings to ASU, Oregon

November, 10, 2014
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The math-y folks at ESPN are incredibly helpful and pleasant. It goes without saying they are smart. Certainly smarter than me. But that doesn't stop me from assuming a smug look when they assert sportswriter standbys like "momentum" and "clutch" don't exist, are figments of our simple, myth-making imaginations.

Oh, I've seen numbers and have read the prim yet well-wrought deconstructions of what are often lumped into an "intangible" category of old fashioned sports analysis. The numbers (mostly) pencil out, no matter what our guts say after lifetimes of participating in and then watching these games.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Boyd Ivey/Icon SportswireMarcus Mariota and the Ducks improved to 9-1 overall with a big win against Utah on Saturday.
And then days like Saturday happen and our guts drag the math into the schoolyard and steal its lunch money.

On Saturday, Arizona State produced three games for the price of one against Notre Dame, taking two out of three from the Fighting Irish in a contest that, yes, produced momentum swings so stunning they surely felled cactuses outside Sun Devil Stadium. Then, as the clock closed in on the witching hour on the East Coast, Utah receiver Kaelin Clay manufactured a derp of such herculean proportions against Oregon, sports cognoscenti surely will fast track it into the Derp Hall of Fame, where it can sit next to a handful of my predictions and columns.

As, of course, you've already seen and marveled over, Clay chose to celebrate a 79-yard touchdown pass that would give the Utes a 14-0 lead over the Ducks in advance of actually scoring said TD. His dropping the ball before crossing the goal line allowed Ducks linebacker Joe Walker to go 100 yards in the other direction, thereby making the score a 7-7 knot instead of a two touchdown divide, a 14-point swing of such monumental strangeness it was akin to Bigfoot walking onto the field complaining that his iPhone had locked up and he couldn't figure out if his order to Amazon had gone through and could somebody please help.

Those were the first of 24 consecutive points from the Ducks. Utah would recover its poise and make things interesting until Oregon pulled away in the fourth quarter, but the deflation of the sequence -- both for Ute fan and Ute player -- can best be described as a swing in momentum.

As for ASU, it won Game 1 with Notre Dame, 34-3. It lost Game 2, 28-0, but won the rubber match, 21-0. Whether you define those curious clumps of unidirectional points as momentum swings or explain them with coefficients, the only conclusion one can arrive at with any certainty is college football is weird and often takes circuitous routes to expected -- or unexpected -- places.

The good news -- at least for the Ducks, Sun Devils and those of us who like bright, shiny things -- is our resulting potential endgame could be a Pac-12 title game for the ages. Or at least the best Pac-12 title game in the game's four years of existence. It sure as heck will be sexier than the 2011 matchup that pitted No. 8 Oregon against a 6-6 UCLA team coming off a 50-0 loss to USC.

If both can somehow avoid losing in advance of the Dec. 5 date in fancy, new Levi's Stadium, it likely will be a matchup of top-five teams, with the winner receiving a golden ticket invitation to the inaugural College Football Playoff. Ergo, it will be a major showcase for the Pac-12, must-see TV optimistically envisioned in 2010 when Larry Scott reconfigured the staid, analogue Pac-10 into its present hip, HD version.

No other conference championship game presently appears to have such a clear-cut, winner-takes-all, play-in potential, even the SEC, as an SEC East champion winning the SEC title game seems dubious for a playoff spot unless the Big Ten and Big 12 champions end up with a second loss.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Hardison
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesWith a win against Notre Dame, the Sun Devils drove home that they're a contender in the playoff race.
Oregon, already the North Division champion, has the easier remaining path. After a bye, it plays host to Colorado then visits rival Oregon State, two of the three Pac-12 teams currently with losing records. Arizona State heads to Oregon State on Saturday, plays host to Washington State and then takes on No. 19 Arizona in Tucson, a Territorial Cup that could end up being contested for some prime territory.

Oregon vs. Arizona State certainly has plenty to recommend it. For one, it won't be a regular-season rematch. Second, they have posted the best -- top-10 -- nonconference wins in the Pac-12, the Sun Devils whipping the Irish and the Ducks taking down Michigan State. That gives them a national resonance that teams which opted for a lackluster nonconference slate -- looking at you Mississippi State and Baylor -- don't have.

Both needed that credibility, Arizona State in particular.

"I think that we knew that this was the hump we needed to get over," Sun Devils running back D.J. Foster said of beating an Irish squad it lost to a season ago. "At the end of the day, it was just another game for us. But we knew that we had to get this win to impress some people."

There's also something to be said for showing resilience and being opportunistic. Both were hit hard by the national media after poor showings in their only defeat. Both have overcome injury concerns, though Oregon's new health woes now seem more pressing than even their early-season issues.

Of course, little has been decided, other than the Ducks reserving their spot in the title game. There's still plenty of football left, football that might provide a few more plot twists. Or momentum swings.
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TEMPE, Ariz. -- No. 9 Arizona State jumped all over No. 10 Notre Dame early and held on to win 55-31 after a furious second-half rally from the Irish.

How the game was won: Notre Dame went up 3-0, but then the Sun Devils rolled off 34 unanswered points amid a flurry of Fighting Irish -- mostly QB Everett Golson -- mistakes. Then, Golson and the Irish rediscovered their mojo in the second half, cutting the ASU advantage to 34-31 with 6:37 remaining. Would they complete a monumental comeback? Would the Sun Devils provide a monumental collapse? Nope. Arizona State drove for a touchdown and then Lloyd Carrington's 58-yard pick-six ended the intrigue.

Game ball goes to: Carrington, a redshirt sophomore cornerback, finished with eight tackles, that decisive pick-six, a sack and a forced fumble.

Best play: Jaelen Strong's one-handed touchdown catch breaks a 3-3 tie in the first quarter.

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What it means: For the playoff implications, see below. But beyond that, the Sun Devils' win gives them significant national credibility, though some East Coast-biased naysayers will ignore what the Fighting Irish did at Florida State and note they haven't yet posted a quality win. The preseason expectations for Arizona State predicted a slight downturn after they won the Pac-12's South Division last year, and that feeling was supported by the 62-27 home loss to UCLA. That game now looks like an anomaly. The Sun Devils are in good position to repeat as South champions.

For Notre Dame, the result likely will bring a steep drop in the national polls. It also probably catapults them out of contention for a major bowl game, as spots are now appointed by the CFP selection committee, which isn't going to just pick an undeserving team to sell tickets and spark TV ratings.

Playoff implications: It means Notre Dame is out of the College Football Playoff chase, and the Sun Devils are in the thick of it. If ASU wins out, including a Pac-12 title game victory, it is a near certainty to earn an invitation.

What's next: The Sun Devils will try to win their sixth in a row when they play at Oregon State. Notre Dame will try to get back on track against Northwestern back in South Bend.

Video: Dr. Lou's Picks

November, 7, 2014
Nov 7
9:42
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video

Lou Holtz makes his predictions for Notre Dame-Arizona State, Kansas State-TCU, Oregon-Utah and Ohio State-Michigan State.
Happy Friday. Welcome to the mailbag.

Follow me on Twitter. Please.

To the notes.

Oscar from Irwindale Calif., writes: At the beginning of the season expectations for UCLA where pretty similar to USC's 2012 high hopes. Fair or unfair USC also had some pretty high expectations, not by experts but by the fan base. In reality who has had a better season so for between the two? UCLA cant beat the good teams and USC cant beat the bad teams.

Ted Miller: Well, USC was preseason AP No. 1 in 2012 and UCLA was preseason No. 7 this year, but I understand your general point. That Trojans team completely collapsed. I'm not expecting that from the Bruins, who are aiming for a fourth win in a row at Washington on Saturday.

I think both USC's and UCLA's deserve "incompletes" at this point. It's too early to judge, though I'd say generally the scale is leaning toward disappointment for both. USC's losses are worse, but UCLA was widely considered a national title contender. The obvious Day of Judgment, of course, will come down to who wins their annual showdown -- a third consecutive win for the Bruins or a breakthrough for the post-sanctions Trojans.

If USC wins its final three regular-season games -- Cal, UCLA, Notre Dame -- it's difficult to believe anyone will consider Steve Sarkisian's first season a disappointment. Same can be said for the Bruins. If UCLA wins out, that would give it a solid shot to still win the South Division and get another crack at Oregon in the Pac-12 title game.

If one or the other -- both? -- ends up with 10 wins, that should rate as a pretty darn successful season, particularly with the Pac-12's depth this fall. But 10 wins without a win over the other might still taste a bit sour.




Tyler from Denver writes: Considering Notre Dame has only two wins against teams with winning records (Stanford and Rice), how bad would an ASU loss look for the Pac 12 in the playoff picture?

Ted Miller: While Notre Dame's schedule has not turned out to be as rugged as it looked in the preseason, and it hasn't yet turned in a marquee victory, let's not completely write off the performance in Tallahassee against Florida State. Whatever you want to say about the penalty that took the apparent game-winning TD off the board, the Fighting Irish certainly showed they can play with just about anybody that night.

So, yes, the most impressive moment for the Irish this year is probably a loss.

But, yes, if Arizona State loses to Notre Dame on Saturday but then went on to win the Pac-12, it would be held against the conference with the College Football Playoff selection committee. If the Sun Devils only win the South Division or even if they falter and don't win it, losing a big nonconference game will be held against the conference, even if we're just talking a national perception among fans and media.

That said, even if Notre Dame ends up 3-0 against the Pac-12, beating Stanford, ASU and USC, I think a 12-1 Oregon team winning the Pac-12 is a near certainty to receive a berth in the CFP.




Brady from Salt Lake City writes: Who has the best defense in the Pac12 ? Do we know the answer already or must we wait for the Utah-Stanford game next weekend to truly know?

Ted Miller: That Stanford-Utah game might end up 6-5, with good defenses owning struggling offenses.

Stanford has notably better numbers at present. In basic statistical terms, Stanford allows fewer points per game (16.1 ppg vs. 21.2 ppg) and yards per play (4.1 ypp vs. 4.90). Stanford's defense also rates as more efficient, according to ESPN Stats & Information metrics, as the Cardinal rank seventh in the nation and the Utes are 14th.

But Stanford is banged up and the ultimate measure will be the numbers at season's end when both have played their full nine-game conference slate. We still could see a passing of the torch from Stanford to Utah as the conference's defensive leader.




Matt from Bellevue Wash., writes: If ASU wins out (don't you just feel a Zona upset in their rivalry game, though, put me down as picking that) But if they do, and they face Oregon. Is that a winner go to the CFB playoff game? Or would ASU somehow get left out?

Ted Miller: Just like Oregon, if ASU finishes as the 12-1 Pac-12 champion, I would bet my house the Sun Devils are invited to the CFP.

Yes, what I am saying is hell will freeze over before the selection committee would pick, say, a two-loss SEC team over ASU or Oregon, teams that would arrive at 12-1 with marquee nonconference victories as well as a Pac-12 title.




Oregonian in Exile in Belgium writes: A lot of the CFP discussion has centered on which 1-loss Power 5 team might get left out of the playoffs, or whether two teams from one Conference (SEC) get in, or even if a 2-loss Conference Champion (PAC-12) could still make the playoffs. Is it a foregone conclusion that an undefeated team from a Power 5 Conference (ACC) will automatically be in the top 4? If the CFP Committee's task is to select the 4 best football teams in the nation, is it not feasible that the final four may exclude an undefeated Champion such as Florida State (anticipating FSU wins out) who consistently struggles against good or mid-level teams (OK State, Clemson, Notre Dame, Louisville)? Despite the no losses, is FSU a better football team than 1-loss teams like Oregon, Auburn, Michigan State, TCU, Kansas State, Alabama, or Arizona State?

Ted Miller: As certain as I am that a 12-1 Pac-12 champion will be invited to the CFP, I am even more certain that an unbeaten Florida State team will be invited.

The Seminoles, for one, would be an undefeated defending champion, winners of 29 consecutive games. And everyone knows they are good.

In fact, if the committee left undefeated FSU, I'd join those nutty, thin-skinned, paranoid Seminoles fans in storming the Gaylord Hotel.
And just like that, we have Pac-12 clarity. Or potential clarity, which some fussbudgets might insist is nothing like clarity.

[+] EnlargeCharles Nelson
AP Photo/Ryan KangCharles Nelson and No. 5 Oregon still have to face Utah, Colorado and Oregon State this season.
After impressively exorcising its Stanford demons a day after All Hallows' Eve, Oregon owns a decisive lead in the Pac-12 North Division and is likely to earn a promotion Tuesday into the top four of the College Football Playoff rankings. If the Ducks win out, they are all but certain to earn a berth in the inaugural four-team playoff.

Meanwhile, the nutty South emerged from the fog with a new leader: Arizona State. The defending South Division champion, left for roadkill after yielding a 62-27 drubbing at home to preseason division favorite UCLA on Sept. 25, now stands as the South's highest-ranked and only one-loss team. If the Sun Devils win out -- which would include a victory over No. 10 Notre Dame on Saturday -- they also are all but certain to earn a berth in the playoff.

Oh, but fans of these teams should stop leaping into the air and clicking their heels together, particularly the Sun Devils. While Oregon has what amounts to an insurmountable three-game lead in the North with three games to play, the same can't be said for Arizona State and neither has much -- if any -- margin for error in the national framework. If the Sun Devils slip, then Arizona, UCLA, USC and Utah could climb back into the picture, perhaps forcing the South into one of those complicated tiebreaking tangles.

And if the Ducks let up, starting with what might be a tricky trip to Utah on Saturday, their playoff hopes could go poof and all that post-Arizona loss hand-wringing would recommence in Eugene.

So not surprisingly, winning continues to be the best recipe for remaining in a happy place.

If we contract from the inexorably forward-thinking nature of college football analysis, however, we see two teams asserting themselves in ways that just a few weeks back seemed unlikely. Recall: Oregon's offensive line was once a shambles and Arizona State couldn't stop anybody with a rebuilt defense.

Oregon yielded 12 sacks in back-to-back games against Washington State and Arizona and struggled to run the ball, but since Jake Fisher returned from injury at left tackle, the O-line has transformed. Against Stanford, the Ducks surrendered just one sack and rushed for 267 yards. On a down note, RT Matt Pierson hurt his knee against the Cardinal. His status, as well as the potential return of Andre Yruretagoyena, remains uncertain.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Kelly
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsTaylor Kelly and the No. 14 Sun Devils have four games left on their schedule, including a matchup Saturday against No. 10 Notre Dame.
Utah's defensive front is outstanding, particularly on the edges with ends Nate Orchard and Hunter Dimick. So, yeah, don't start celebrating a playoff berth just yet, Ducks.

As for the Sun Devils, the defense that was young, sloppy and overwhelmed while giving up 580 yards to the Bruins has held its last three foes to an average of 12 points per game. While Stanford, Washington and Utah have been struggling to score points, there's no question a defense that replaced nine starters from 2013 has become more confident, aggressive and sounder in terms of scheme. After the game, coach Todd Graham admitted he's never had a unit improve as much in a single season.

It will be interesting to see how ASU responds against Notre Dame. The Sun Devils lost at Notre Dame 37-34 last season in an oddly flat performance. While losing to the Fighting Irish won't affect the Sun Devils' position in the South, it probably would eliminate them from the national discussion, even if they went on to win the Pac-12. Losing to Notre Dame, which has already beaten Stanford, would also hurt the Pac-12's overall Q-rating while bolstering the Irish's chances to take a coveted playoff spot.

As for the South race, the Sun Devils have a far more forgiving schedule ahead than Arizona and UCLA. The Wildcats have four remaining conference games, including a visit to Utah, and UCLA has Washington, USC and Stanford on the slate. USC, which lost to the Sun Devils on a Hail Mary pass, has only two remaining conference games -- California and at UCLA -- before concluding with a visit from Notre Dame.

Will the Irish be going for a Pac-12 sweep that final weekend? That would be pretty galling for a conference that views itself as every bit the rival of the SEC for the nation's top conference.

Yet the present is newsworthy enough for the Pac-12. On a weekend when Oregon and Arizona State made conference and national statements, including Ducks QB Marcus Mariota establishing himself as a solid Heisman Trophy favorite, it still shouldn't be overlooked that Washington State lost QB Connor Halliday to a season-ending leg injury against USC and Oregon State QB Sean Mannion eclipsed Matt Barkley for the most career passing yards in Pac-12 history (12,454).

Halliday, a brash, swashbuckling battler, was on pace to challenge a number of passing records before he went down, while the Beavers' struggles this fall shouldn't reduce Mannion's career achievement.

In the end, however, the winners get the headlines, and Oregon and Arizona State have made themselves the Pac-12's headlining teams. Now, can they get to a Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 5 without suffering another blemish, thereby making the title game, in effect, a national quarterfinal that also crowns a Pac-12 Coach of the Year?

Say the Ducks and Devils (hopefully): "We're just focused on Utah/Notre Dame."
Stanford returns to Notre Dame Stadium for the first time since 2012's controversial overtime finish in South Bend, from which the Irish came out victorious. That game ultimately ended up deciding one spot in the BCS title game. This time, both teams are contenders for the inaugural College Football Playoff. We answer critical questions ahead of Saturday's kickoff.

1. Between Kevin Hogan and Everett Golson, which team has the advantage at quarterback?

[+] EnlargeEverett Golson
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsNotre Dame quarterback Everett Golson's calmness in the red zone has led Stanford coach David Shaw to compare him to Russell Wilson.
David Lombardi (@LombardiESPN): Hogan actually owns the higher completion percentage (71) and quarterback rating by a fairly narrow margin, but a look at more details suggests that Golson is the one playing better right now. Most importantly, as Matt notes in the final answer below, Golson is doing a much better job than Hogan in orchestrating his team's red-zone offense. Stanford coach David Shaw said Golson's play has reminded him of Russell Wilson, and that's a testament to the calm control the Notre Dame quarterback has displayed this year. For Hogan, meanwhile, attaining comfort has seemed more difficult. He ran the ball a career-high 14 times at Washington, and that could be taken as an indication that he wasn't quite settled in the pocket.

2. Notre Dame has been solid offensively so far. But are the Irish prepared for success against Stanford's defense?

Matt Fortuna (@Matt_Fortuna): That's the ultimate question, isn't it? There's no doubt that this a much more dynamic offense with Golson under center, but the best team it has faced is ... Syracuse? The Irish also turned the ball over five times against the Orange, though much of that sloppiness was self-inflicted. Still, Stanford presents a tough matchup for an Irish offense that had to reshuffle its offensive line three games into the season. Notre Dame has been thoroughly mediocre on the ground and would be worse if not for Golson's ability to make plays happen with his feet when all breaks down. Saturday will reveal plenty about the Irish, for better or worse.

3. The 2012 game at South Bend was famously close. If Saturday's contest comes down to special teams, who has the advantage?

Fortuna: Ah, the wonders of FieldTurf. Notre Dame's punt return unit -- a noted atrocity during the Brian Kelly era -- has seen mass improvements this year with Cody Riggs and Greg Bryant in the backfield. Of course, the Irish are only 46th nationally (10.64 yards per return) and the Stanford team coming to town is sixth (21.22). Still, Irish punter/kicker Kyle Brindza said this week he'll try to avoid the dynamic Ty Montgomery. And Brindza -- who, it should be noted, has earned the nickname "Unreturnable" from some people in these parts for his array of touchbacks -- is on pace to break most school field-goal records. He has a knack for late-game situations, too, something the Cardinal learned two years ago. And Jordan Williamson has struggled so far this season. So the advantage here has to go to the Irish.

4. Is there one specific matchup that'll push Stanford to a win?

[+] EnlargeTy Montgomery
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesTy Montgomery and Stanford's physical receivers have a definite edge over Notre Dame's small corners.
Lombardi: There are actually two matchups that Stanford really likes. The first involves the Cardinal defense, which has been the best in the country (surrendering 4.7 points per game) so far. Notre Dame has only rushed for over 4 yards per carry in one of its four games so far, and that plays right to Stanford's strength: Lance Anderson's defense is able to pin its ears back and unleash a ferocious pass rush after it's shut down the run.

The second matchup that may really work in Stanford's favor involves the Cardinal's massive receivers and Notre Dame's small cornerbacks. Montgomery (6-2, 225 pounds) and Devon Cajuste (6-4, 227 pounds) own significant strength advantages over starting Irish corners Cody Riggs (5-9, 185 pounds) and Cole Luke (5-11, 190 pounds). Stanford will certainly look to exploit that edge in the passing game, but run blocking on the perimeter is where it may enjoy the biggest leg up.

5. Is there one specific matchup that will push Notre Dame to a win?

Fortuna: In short, quarterback play. If Golson is the Heisman candidate the early oddsmakers have pushed him to be, he will have to show it against the No. 1 defense in the country and carry Notre Dame to a win. To be more specific, though, we'll go to red zone offense. Having a playmaker under center has created so many more opportunities for the Irish than in recent years. The Irish have scored 12 touchdowns in 18 red-zone trips and have come away with points on 17 of those tries. Stanford's offense has struggled inside the 20, coming away empty-handed on seven of 19 tries.

Warning: Bold Week 6 Pac-12 declarations

September, 29, 2014
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Declarative sentences are dangerous heading into Week 6 of a college football season. History has taught us most things that appear ready to be tied neatly with a bow end up torn to shreds. But danger is the Pac-12 blog's middle name. (We just thought "Pac-12 Danger Blog" might scare some folks away and damage advertising revenue).

Ergo.

Oregon's visit to UCLA on Oct. 11 will be what we thought it would be in August

Sure, both/either the Bruins and Ducks could fall this week at home, going down to Utah and/or Arizona, and we'd pin that on the proverbial "look ahead." But the expectation is that won't happen. The Utes lost some gusto while surrendering a 21-0 lead at home to Washington State, and Arizona is more than a three-touchdown underdog in Autzen Stadium.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota, Devon Allen
AP Photo/Dean HareMarcus Mariota and Oregon will try to avoid a letdown this week against Arizona.
While neither the Bruins nor Ducks have been consistently impressive, they have produced the loudest national statements in the conference thus far. UCLA posted a dominant road win at Arizona State, while Oregon overwhelmed Michigan State in the second half.

What's most notable about the Ducks-UCLA matchup is its potential for a rematch in the Pac-12 championship game, as both appear to be front-runners in their respective divisions. Not to look too far ahead, which we are clearly doing, but that could create a quandary for the College Football Playoff. It certainly would make it more difficult to get two Pac-12 teams into the playoff.

Of course, if both arrive at the game -- and that's obviously no guarantee at this early juncture -- with multiple losses, the issue is moot. But play out the various scenarios of zero, one and two losses for each in your head. What if they split close games? What if, say, Oregon is the nation's only unbeaten team but UCLA's only defeats are close losses to the Ducks?

It could get complicated. Good thing we can call such speculation "way premature" in order to avoid taxing our brains with the myriad possibilities.

The Pac-12 needs Stanford to beat Notre Dame

If Stanford wins at Notre Dame, the Cardinal will likely jump into or at least be very close to the Top 10, which could give the Pac-12 three Top 10 teams heading into Week 7. If the Cardinal lose, it will become a big hit for them and the Pac-12 as a whole.

While the Pac-12 is widely viewed as the nation's No. 2 conference, probably by a wide margin, and its 22-4 record versus FBS foes is impressive, there already have been substantial damaging defeats.

Most obviously, whatever USC accomplishes this year will be diminished by the loss at Boston College. If the Trojans had lost amid a flurry of turnovers and miscues, that's one thing. The problem is that defeat was all about getting whipped at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. That rates as a physical issue, which is a very football-y thing.

Washington State's losses to Rutgers and Nevada also will hurt because the Pac-12 blog suspects the Cougars are going to give a lot of conference teams trouble this season, witness the so-close performance against Oregon and the huge comeback win at Utah. The Cougs are a solid team, much better than they showed against the Scarlet Knights and Nevada, which by the way are a combined 7-2. But that won't prevent pundits and rival fans from using the transitive property against the Pac-12 when the Cougs notch an upset or two.

Yet if Stanford beats Notre Dame and surges into its Nov. 1 date at Oregon with just one defeat, the Pac-12 might produce a second Top-10 matchup in less than a month. That's the sort of thing the SEC does, which inspires all that media gushing that so annoys many of you fine people.

Bottom line: A road win over No. 9 Notre Dame would provide a significant perception boost and a loss would do the same in a negative direction.

The middle stepped back instead of forward

Washington and Oregon State could have made big statements on Saturday. They didn't. Therefore that velvet rope that has separated both from the North Division VIP room, uncomfortably shared by Oregon and Stanford, is still there, still manned by a couple of beefy security guys.

You probably could say the same for Utah, which looked like a potential South contender before it completely collapsed against the Cougars. The jury is still out on Arizona State, which is dealing with an injury to QB Taylor Kelly and a not-ready-for-prime time defense. We'll see where Arizona stands Thursday at Oregon.

Despite many unanswered questions, the overall feeling about the challenging middle of the Pac-12 feels different than it did in August or even a few weeks ago. It doesn't appear as rugged. There seems to be some separation between Oregon, UCLA, Stanford and -- perhaps -- USC and the rest of the conference, though the Trojans could topple if they lose at home to the Sun Devils on Saturday.

Washington was a preseason Top 25 team, and Oregon State and Utah looked like threats to advance into the rankings. No longer. At least not at this point.

That is not to say teams can't get healthy, solve issues or simply grow up and then go on a run. In fact, it's reasonable to suspect that among the gaggle of Arizona, Utah, Washington and Oregon State, at least one will end the season in the Top 25.

At this point, however, there's little to suggest we will have an unexpected interloper breaking through in either division, challenging the consensus preseason favorites.
Welcome to the last football-less Friday mailbag of the year.

Oh. The anticipation.

You can follow me on Twitter here.

To the notes.

Elliot from Oregon writes: Give me your boldest prediction for anything PAC12 related. Don't be shy, Ted.

Ted Miller: Oh, I don't know Elliot. You want me to have an opinion on something and announce it publicly? That sounds pretty scary. What if someone disagrees with me? Or what if you guys start arguing the relative merits of my point and someone gets cross? What if it gets out on Twitter and someone trolls me or writes the dreaded, "Your an idiot" [sic].

Funny you should ask, because we will have Bold Predictions from your entire ESPN.com Pac-12 family -- the #4pac! -- on Tuesday. But I will venture forth with one -- OK three! -- before I blush, effervesce with giggles and canter shyly away.

1. The Pac-12 will go 3-0 against Notre Dame (Arizona State, Stanford and USC).

2. No Pac-12 coach will be fired during or after the season.

3. Ted Miller will be wrong.

OK, I realize the third one is pretty out there, but I've got a feeling it finally happens this year. Maybe.




Brett from Portland writes: Team X is playing in the national championship and you get to choose one Pac 12 coach to coach that team. Who do you choose?

Ted Miller: I can't choose Chip Kelly, right?

I had an immediate response: Stanford's David Shaw. He's been there, see three consecutive BCS bowl games, and he's 14-4 against top-25 teams, best winning percentage in the conference.

Then I rifled through the other options, and the Pac-12 has a lot of good ones. Chris Petersen also has BCS bowl game experience. As does Rich Rodriguez, a guy who really knows how to game plan the heck out of teams with better talent. Not unlike Petersen.

Then I thought about Jim Mora, who I'm not sure won't be the first Pac-12 coach to win the College Football Playoff.

Then I thought about coaching staffs as a whole. Does Shaw get a knock because Derek Mason is head coach at Vanderbilt and no longer coordinating the Cardinal defense? I really like Rich Rod and Mora's staffs. And then I went, wait, what about Todd Graham at Arizona State? Has anyone done a better job over the past two seasons than Graham and his staff?

Then I thought Brett and the rest of you might fall asleep while I dithered on this.

So I'm going with Shaw. Track record. Big football brain. Unwavering core beliefs. And, as a very minor consideration, he gets a boost here for being so accommodating and insightful during interviews.




Patrick from Seattle writes: With a senior-led d-line, experienced and talented linebackers, and a lockdown corner in Peters, how good can the Huskies D be?

Ted Miller: You remember the 1985 Chicago Bears? Well, imagine that unit if it also had Lawrence Taylor.

Go run into a brick wall 10 times.

Done? That's what it's going to be like playing against the Huskies this fall.

It's hard not to like the UW front seven. It's got size with 330-pound defensive tackle Danny Shelton and production with end Hau'oli Kikaha, the best returning pass-rusher in the conference. At linebacker, there is experience and high-end athleticism, led by potential first-round draft pick Shaq Thompson.

While the depth is a little questionable, I'd rate that starting crew the best in the Pac-12. Yes, better than Stanford, USC and UCLA.

The secondary is the question. Peters is an A-list cornerback, an All-American candidate, but the other three spots are going to be young and unproven. Not necessarily untalented, mind you -- see youngsters like true freshman Budda Baker and redshirt freshman Jermaine Kelly -- but you don't know about a unit until, well, you know.

Of course, an outstanding front-seven is a great thing to have when you are young in the back half. Leaving youngsters exposed for more than four seconds can be catastrophic in a league as deep at quarterback as the Pac-12. Not sure this crew up front for the Huskies will do that very often, which will make life much easier for the defensive backs.

As big a question as the secondary is new coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski, who Petersen brought over from Boise State. He's replacing Justin Wilcox, one of the best in the business, a guy who transformed a poor-to-middling unit into one of the best in the Pac-12. Kwiatkowski has lots of new toys to play with, but has never coached against the talent -- player and coaching -- that he will now square off with on a week-to-week basis.

So how good? At the very least, Huskies fans should expect to better last season's strong numbers -- 22.8 points per game; 5.0 yards per play -- which ranked fourth and tied for third in the conference. If that happens, you would have to think the Huskies will be a factor in the North Division race.




Troy from Tacoma writes: Ted, as we sit here a week out from the kickoff of the college football season, and since there are a few Pac-12 games next Thursday, it is safe to say that there won't be a Best Case-Worst Case section for each team. Honestly, reading those was my favorite part of this blog, and really got the blood flowing that the season was near. Just wanted to voice my disappointment with whoever made the decision to discontinue that part of the blog. That's all, have a good final game-less week.

Ted Miller: I truly appreciate all the notes on this, even though it seems a lot of you are angry I -- yes it was my call -- opted to end the series.

As noted before, this was simply a case of a series running its course after four years.

If you are nostalgic, just re-read last year's efforts, and those also include links to previous years.
This week we ranked the Pac-12's nonconference games. There's little question which is the best and most anticipated matchup.

SportsNation

Which is the second-best Pac-12 nonconference game in 2014?

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Discuss (Total votes: 5,445)

If the idea of Michigan State, the defending Big Ten and Rose Bowl champion and a likely top-five team, visiting Oregon, another likely top-five team, doesn't get your juices flowing, you are probably a zombie, and the proper authorities will be alerted.

But which is the second-best game? Or the one you're most excited about? We see five options. Three involve Notre Dame.

Here's how we previously framed those games.
  • Stanford at Notre Dame, Oct. 4: This has become a strong, national rivalry. The last time the Cardinal played in South Bend, the ending was highly controversial -- the Fighting Irish wouldn't have played for the 2012 national title without a boost from the officials. This game likely reveals the team that is a College Football Playoff candidate.
  • Notre Dame at USC, Nov. 29: It remains the greatest intersectional rivalry in college sports. It would be a good idea for first-year USC coach Steve Sarkisian to win this one, as it's a good way to win over his fan base.
  • Notre Dame at Arizona State, Nov. 8: The Fighting Irish tried to get out of this game. They also beat the Sun Devils last season. Arizona State should be plenty motivated in front of what is certain to be a packed house.
  • UCLA vs. Texas, Sept. 13 (Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas): Texas is breaking in new coach Charlie Strong in what is really a glorified home game. UCLA is only trying to announce itself as a national title contender. While the Longhorns are down, they won't lack talent.
  • Utah at Michigan, Sept. 20: Here's a good way for the Utes to announce their return to relevance -- a trip to the Big House. Utah certainly won't be intimidated. It won in Ann Arbor 25-23 in 2008 on its way to an undefeated season. It also lost 10-7 in 2002.

Tradition, obviously, makes the Fighting Irish a draw for national eyeballs, and USC and Stanford are traditional opponents, with the matchup with the Trojans being one of college football's great showcases.

But when something doesn't happen often, such as the Irish visiting Arizona State, that adds some juice.

Speaking of juice -- again -- UCLA's national title hopes could receive some with an impressive performance in front of a huge, antagonistic crowd in the NFL's marquee venue.

And, finally, the Big House is, well, just that: One of college football's most famous venues. The Utes could make some national noise -- and make life really, really difficult for Wolverines coach Brady Hoke -- with an upset victory.
The Pac-12 typically plays a rugged nonconference schedule, but the 2014 slate is, well, only fair to middling.

There's a true marque national game -- Michigan State at Oregon -- and there are three matchups with Notre Dame. But there aren't a whole lot of ranked foes from other areas of the country on the slate.

Here's how we'd rank the Pac-12's best nonconference games in 2014.

1. Michigan State at Oregon (Sept. 6): It's a top-10 -- perhaps even top-five -- matchup that looks like a Rose Bowl. Or a College Football Playoff semifinal. The Spartans shut down Stanford in the Rose Bowl in January and are eyeballing even bigger things this fall. Like the Ducks.

2. Stanford at Notre Dame (Oct. 4): This has become a strong, national rivalry. The last time the Cardinal was in South Bend, the ending was highly controversial -- the Fighting Irish wouldn't have played for the 2012 national title without a boost from the officials. This game likely reveals if one or the other is a CFP candidate.

3. Notre Dame at USC (Nov. 29): It remains the greatest intersectional rivalry in college sports. It would be a good idea for first-year USC coach Steve Sarkisian to win this one. A good way to win over his fan base.

4. Notre Dame at Arizona State (Nov. 8): The Fighting Irish tried to get out of this game. They also beat the Sun Devils last year. Arizona State should be plenty motivated in front of what is certain to be a packed house.

5. UCLA vs. Texas (Sept. 13, Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas): Texas is breaking in new coach Charlie Strong in what is really a glorified home game. UCLA is only trying to announce itself as a national title contender. While the Longhorns are down, they won't lack talent.

6. Utah at Michigan (Sept. 20): Here's a good way for the Utes to announce their return to relevance -- a trip to the Big House. Utah certainly won't be intimidated. It won in Ann Arbor 25-23 in 2008 on its way to an undefeated season. It also lost 10-7 in 2002.

7. California at Northwestern (Aug. 30): Sonny Dykes wants to get his second season off with a bang. This is a good -- and winnable -- opportunity to do just that.

8. Rutgers vs. Washington State (Aug. 28, CenturyLink Field, Seattle): The Cougars are eyeballing a breakthrough season. It will be hard to do that with an opening loss to a Big Ten team. Yes, Rutgers is now a Big Ten team.

9. Illinois at Washington (Sept. 13): The Illini don't seem too scary, but they are a Big Ten team. They didn't make things too easy on the Huskies last year, either.

10. BYU at California (Nov. 29): We've already noted how nice it would be for Dykes to get his second season off to a fast start. What about a strong finish?

Pac-12 predictions: Week 14

November, 27, 2013
11/27/13
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Ted went 5-1 last week and Kevin went 4-2. Both missed on Arizona's upset of Oregon, and Kevin picked Oregon State to beat Washington, which it didn't. So, Beavers fans, Kevin is now your villain!

That leaves your bloggers tied at 69-16 for the season.

Friday

WASHINGTON STATE AT WASHINGTON

Kevin Gemmell: I think this is an interesting game because -- aside from the normal rivalry -- this game has some meaning for postseason play, which is something we haven’t said in a while. I think Mike Leach has gotten every drop out of his team. But Washington’s motivation to break that seven-game seal, and the fact that they are at home, makes me lean toward the Huskies. Washington 35, Washington State 27.

Ted Miller: Both teams posted nice wins last week that they really needed. The Huskies playing at home in some ways almost feels canceled by the potential absence of Keith Price. Cyler Miles did a solid job off the bench versus UCLA and starting at Oregon State, but the Beavers' defense offered pretty much zero resistance. Still, I like a big day from Bishop Sankey in front of the home fans. Washington 42, Washington State 27.

OREGON STATE AT OREGON

Kevin Gemmell: It’s pretty obvious that an Oregon State victory would heal more wounds than an Oregon win would. At the same time, Oregon is just simply a better team right now than the Beavers. Oregon 42, Oregon State 21.

Ted Miller: You'd think both would be motivated after looking awful last week. The problem is that the Ducks' issues seem more solvable. The one-dimensional Beavers offense has been slipping since the competition got better, and the defense has yielded 130 points over the past three weeks. Oregon 45, Oregon State 20.

Saturday

ARIZONA AT ARIZONA STATE

Kevin Gemmell: I’m well aware of the recent trend of road teams winning. But I also think ASU has a ton of motivation to win this so it can stay home for the Pac-12 title game. That’s a huge, huge factor. A lot will depend on which Arizona team shows up. The one that stomped Oregon? Or the one that lost to Washington State? We’re pretty sure we know which ASU team will show up at home. Arizona State 38, Arizona 31.

Ted Miller: I witnessed Arizona beat Oregon, and the Wildcats looked fantastic on both sides of the ball. I also watched the Sun Devils outlast UCLA, one of the bigger wins for the Sun Devils in recent years. I'm taking the Sun Devils because they are great at home, the stadium will be rocking and the Wildcats have not posted a quality road win this year. Arizona State 30, Arizona 27.

UCLA AT USC

Kevin Gemmell: Toughest call of the week, and maybe the toughest call of the year. How will UCLA respond after the loss to Arizona State -- especially when the South title is no longer on the line? I don’t think any extra motivation is needed in this rivalry. But there’s a sense that USC is playing much more relaxed and loose. Also, USC is awesome at getting after the quarterback, and UCLA gave up nine sacks last week. USC 27, UCLA 24.

Ted Miller: Kevin's right, this is a tough call. It just seems like USC has a lot of momentum right now and is playing at home, and the Bruins last won in the Coliseum in 1997. USC 30, UCLA 27.

COLORADO AT UTAH

Kevin Gemmell: The Utes are a different team at home, plain and simple. I really like what Mike MacIntyre has done in this first season, and I think Colorado’s trajectory is heading north. For all of Utah’s struggles of late, that defense is still really, really tough -- especially at home. Utah 24, Colorado 13.

Ted Miller: I agree with Kevin about the Utes playing in Rice-Eccles Stadium. It's notable that their five-game slide happened during a stretch where they played four of five on the road, the lone home loss being a 20-19 nail-biter to Arizona State. I suspect QB Adam Schulz will play better in large part because the Utes should be able to run on the Buffaloes. Utah 28, Colorado 24.

NOTRE DAME AT STANFORD

Kevin Gemmell: This is still a critical game for Stanford. It doesn’t want to be heading into the title game with a loss, and if it does lose, and then loses to ASU, its bowl position could slip dramatically. A victory over a rival -- one that’s already beaten ASU and USC, by the way -- would go a long way. Stanford shouldn’t be resting on any laurels, and I don’t think it will. Stanford 31, Notre Dame 21.

Ted Miller: Notre Dame has been good enough to beat Arizona State, Michigan State, USC and BYU, but it also lost to Michigan and Pittsburgh. It's notable that two of those losses were on the road. So we're going with the homestanding Cardinal, who are unbeaten at home. Stanford 24, Notre Dame 20.

Quick look at Week 14 in the Pac-12

November, 25, 2013
11/25/13
8:30
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Here's a quick look at Week 14 in the conference. All times are ET.

Friday

Washington State (6-5, 4-4) at Washington (7-4, 4-4) 3:30 p.m. Fox: Washington leads the series 67-32-6 and is 38-15-5 in games played in Seattle. The Cougars have lost 10 of the last 15 Apple Cups, but they prevailed last year 31-28 in overtime, overcoming an 18-point Huskies fourth-quarter lead. Only since 1962 has the winner been awarded the Apple Cup trophy. The winner was awarded the Governor’s Trophy from 1934 to 1961. Washington RB Bishop Sankey enters the week as the nation’s No. 4 rusher with 143.2 yards per game. His 17 rushing TDs ranks sixth in the nation, and his 34 career TDs tied him with Napoleon Kaufman for the UW record. He needs 121 yards to eclipse Corey Dillon's single season rushing record of 1,695. After losing three in a row, the Cougars beat Arizona and Utah, thereby becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 2006. They haven't been picked for a bowl game since 2003. They won at Arizona with defense, holding the Wildcats to just 17 points, and beat the Utes with offense, scoring 49 against a defense that entered the game yielding 27 points per game. The big question for Washington is whether senior QB Keith Price will get the start. A shoulder injury last week forced Cyler Miles into action. The Huskies rushed for 530 yards last week against Oregon State.

Oregon State (6-5, 4-4) at No. 13 Oregon (9-2, 6-2) 7 p.m. Fox Sports 1: Oregon leads the series 60-46-10 and has won the last five meetings. Both teams limp into the matchup. After an 8-0 start and rising to No. 2 in the BCS standings, the Ducks have lost two of three, including a shocking 42-16 blowout loss at Arizona. The Beavers started 6-1 but have lost four in a row, including a 69-27 loss last weekend at home to Washington, a game the Huskies led 48-zip after three quarters. Oregon State gave up 692 total yards, including 530 rushing yards to the Huskies. Oregon enters the game leading the Pac-12 in scoring (47.7 ppg), total offense (573.5 ypg) and rushing offense (277.9 ypg). QB Marcus Mariota ranks second in the nation in ESPN.com's Stats & Information's Total QBR rating. Oregon State receiver Brandin Cooks ranks first in the nation in receiving yards per game with 141.8 yards per game. His 15 TD receptions is five more than any other Pac-12 receiver.

Saturday

Colorado (4-7, 1-7) at Utah (4-7, 1-7) 2 p.m. Pac-12 Network: Colorado leads the series 31-25-3, and this is both teams’ longest series against any Pac-12 team. They played annually from 1903-62 with four exceptions, but then the rivalry went dormant for 49 years before it resumed in 2011 as Pac-12 members. Last season, Utah’s 42-35 win in Boulder was its first over the Buffs since 1962. That game was a back and forth affair that was iced by Utah's Reggie Dunn producing his fifth 100-yard kickoff return of his career (an NCAA record) for the winning TD. John White rushed for 168 yards, and Utah’s four interceptions matched its season total entering the game. In this week’s NCAA rankings, Utah has the fifth-toughest schedule in the country (down from No. 2 a week ago). Utah’s schedule has been rated among the nation’s toughest all season. The combined FBS record of Utah’s opponents is 64-30 and all of its first 11 FBS opponents are bowl eligible.

No. 25 Notre Dame (8-3) at No. 8 Stanford (9-2) 7 p.m. Fox: Notre Dame leads the series 18-9 but Stanford has won three of the last four. The Fighting Irish won last year 20-13 in overtime in South Bend in controversial fashion. It appeared Stanford RB Stepfan Taylor scored twice near the goal line, but officials ruled he didn't, the second time being upheld after a replay. Notre Dame is trying to sweep the Pac-12. It previously beat Arizona State and USC. A win over Stanford, in fact, would give the Irish wins over the conference's North and South division champions. A year after going undefeated in the regular season, Notre Dame has lost to Michigan, Oklahoma and Pittsburgh. Stanford leads the Pac-12 in scoring defense, giving up 18.9 points per game. Notre Dame yields 22.5 ppg, which ranks 35th in the nation.

No. 22 UCLA (8-3, 5-3) at No. 23 USC (9-3, 5-3) 8 p.m. ABC: USC leads the series 46-29-7 and has won 12 of the last 14 games. But the Bruins triumphed 38-28 last year, snapping a five-game losing streak. UCLA last beat USC in the Coliseum in 1997. A Trojans victory would give USC its second 10-win season in the past three years and its 25th overall. UCLA head coach Jim Mora’s parents attended USC. The Trojans are 6-1 under interim head coach Ed Orgeron, a semifinalist for national coach of the year. UCLA has given up 32 sacks this year, second most in the conference. USC has 33 sacks, fourth most in the conference. USC QB Cody Kessler has completed 73 percent of his passes in the last four games. USC RB Javorius Allen has 10 TDs and three 100-yard rushing performances in the last four games. UCLA QB Brett Hundley is second in the conference in passing efficiency. The Trojans are No. 2 in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (20.2 ppg) and No. 1 in total defense (336.6 ypg). UCLA OLB Anthony Barr is second in the Pac-12 with 17 tackles for a loss. His eight sacks are tied for third.

Arizona (7-4, 4-4) at No. 12 Arizona State (9-2, 7-1) 9:30 p.m. Pac-12 Network: Arizona leads the series 47-38-1. The Sun Devils won in Tucson last season, 41-34, overcoming a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit. The visiting team has won eight of the last 13 matchups, including the last four. Seven of the last nine have been decided by a TD or less. The past four games have been decided by a total of 15 points. More than just bragging rights are on the line as a Sun Devils victory would force Stanford to come to Tempe for the Pac-12 title game on Dec. 7. Both teams are coming off big wins over high-ranked teams. ASU beat UCLA 38-33, which gave the Sun Devils the South division title, while Arizona took down No. 5 Oregon, 42-16. Arizona is yielding 21.6 points per game. Last year, the Wildcats gave up 35.6 points per game. Both teams are giving up 5.2 yards per play. The blitz-happy Sun Devils are second in the Pac-12 with 34 sacks. Arizona has surrendered just 14 sacks, second fewest in the conference.

Pac-12 Power Rankings: Week 13

November, 25, 2013
11/25/13
9:00
AM ET
If you don't like where you are in the Power Rankings, play better.

Click here for last week's Power Rankings.

1. Stanford: It seems in some ways just that Stanford now eclipses Oregon in the Pac-12 North based on the teams' head-to-head result. The Cardinal, by the way, could do the conference a favor by beating Notre Dame on Saturday. Otherwise the Fighting Irish, with wins over Stanford, Arizona State and USC, could claim their own Pac-12 title.

2. Arizona State: You can't undersell what Todd Graham has done in Tempe. If the Sun Devils beat rival Arizona on Saturday, they will play host to Stanford in the Pac-12 title game. So there are considerable stakes outside of pride. And we know how well the Sun Devils play at home. The result earlier this season at Stanford might be meaningless.

3. Oregon: It has been a long time since the Ducks weren't Nos. 1 or 2 in the Power Rankings. After getting blown out at Arizona, coach Mark Helfrich said there needed to be some "inward" looking inside the locker room. Can the Ducks regain their mojo? The Civil War against Oregon State will be a pretty grumpy affair, without substantial external stakes for either team for the first time in a long time.

4. USC: The Trojans, as expected, improved to 6-1 under interim coach Ed Orgeron after whipping Colorado. Yet, much of the present goodwill would be surrendered with a second consecutive loss to UCLA. If Orgeron delivers a victory, however, his candidacy to become the next head coach takes on substantial legitimacy.

5. UCLA: Losing at home to Arizona State hurt, but the Bruins know exactly how to turn their frowns upside down: Beat USC. That also would boost their bowl options, of course.

6. Washington: While there has been a lot of hyperventilating about Steve Sarkisian and the inconsistent Huskies, the ultimate story will be written over the next two games, starting with Friday's Apple Cup. If Washington beats Washington State and then wins a bowl game, it will finish 9-4, and that would represent a strong step forward after three consecutive 7-6 seasons. On the downside, anything less would cap a disappointing season, and certainly wouldn't cool Sarkisian's coaching seat.

7. Arizona: While Arizona's friends up North have taken a solid lead in the battle of second-year head coaches between Rich Rodriguez and Graham, the Wildcats can take back a lot with an upset win in Tempe. Not only would they boost their bowl prospects and make Rich Rod 1-1 versus Graham, they'd force the Sun Devils to travel to Stanford for the Pac-12 title game, which would substantially reduce their Rose Bowl chances.

8. Washington State: The Cougars are bowl eligible, but they could become bowl eligible with a bang -- as well as positively giddy -- with a second consecutive upset win over the hated Huskies in Seattle. An added consolation would be seeing Sarkisian's seat heat up substantially and seeing a potential shift in the balance of power in the state.

9. Oregon State: That was a dreadful performance against Washington. The worst I've personally witness from the Beavers. Coach Mike Riley is a class act and a heck of a guy, but he needs to answer for that. It wasn't about losing to the Huskies. It was about how it went down at home, with a listless, uninterested effort.

10. Utah: While there are legitimate excuses for how Utah's season has gone, the loss at Washington State, even without QB Travis Wilson, delivered a resounding thud to Year 3 in the Pac-12. The Utes are 1-7 in conference play. A loss at home to Colorado on Saturday would make coach Kyle Whittingham's seat hot heading into 2014.

11. Colorado: While the Buffaloes were brought back down to Earth after getting pounded by USC, they showed admirable fight in the second half. Concluding the season with a road win over Utah would bode well for the future. And it would mean the Buffs finish 10th in the Pac-12 Power Rankings, not 11th.

12. California: The best news for the Bears is the season is over. Little went right in Sonny Dykes' first season, and he took the blame upon himself after the blowout Big Game defeat to Stanford. There is plenty of justifiable fan frustration. Dykes' first question is his staff, particularly on defense. He probably needs to make some changes. And then he needs to look at his roster and decide who cares about winning and who doesn't.

Mailbag: Mariota's Heisman chances?

November, 15, 2013
11/15/13
5:30
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Happy Friday.

First of all, a big thank you to all Kansas State fans who contributed ideas for my "flip" visit to Manhattan, Kan. My mailbag overfloweth with perspective and suggestions. Dinner at CoCo Bolos last night was solid, as was breakfast at The Chef. If you see me in "Aggieville" tonight, don't hesitate to say "hello."

Follow the Pac-12 blog on Twitter.

To the notes.

Ian from Salt Lake City: Why has Marcus Mariota dropped nigh completely from the Heisman radar? I understand the loss to Stanford and playing poorly is a huge portion of that, but it seems to me that people, especially the media (not you or Kevin obviously), have fallen in love so much with Jameis Winston and Johnny Manziel that they brush aside Mariota like a fly. Both Mariota and Manziel lost games to their biggest competition, Mariota is putting up pretty comparable numbers to Winston with less interceptions, and Mariota is a proven winner, so why no, relatively speaking, love?

Ted Miller: There are three types of overreaction in college football. There's media overreaction, there's fan overreaction and, third, there's fan overreaction to media overreaction.

Do you define "dropped completely from the Heisman Trophy radar" as falling from No. 1 to No. 3 in media polls? Or also here. Do you define Mariota getting brushed aside "like a fly" after he posts his worst game of the season in a loss that knocks his team -- apparently -- out of the national title hunt?

Have I fallen in love with Jameis Winston? Yes. I'm man enough to admit that I am in love with Winston. I swoon at his stratospheric potential. I love the way he taken a program known for its NFL talent and mercurial performances and made it the nation's most consistently dominating team. Clemson's overwhelming performance against a very good Georgia Tech team on Thursday reminded us just how impressive the Seminoles' win in Death Valley was.

That said, if Mariota plays appreciably better than Winston and Manziel over the final three games, he still might win the Heisman. At the very least, the sophomore will get invited to New York for the ceremony.

There was an understandable and justifiable demotion of Mariota in every Heisman poll after the Ducks offense sputtered against Stanford. Three big performances, however, will background that. And if Stanford loses to USC, three big performances likely would give him another shot in the Pac-12 title game.

Those games will give him space to be evaluated over the totality of the season. They will also his toughness, which I think is being overlooked or played down after the Stanford game, to shine. Mariota should be saluted for even being out there because he was clearly playing on one good leg, and Stanford realized early on that he was not going to be a factor on designed runs or even scrambles.

By the way, Mariota still is the nation's No. 1 rated QB and has yet to throw an interception. (Throwing that in, Ian, to quell some media overreaction so your fan overreaction to media overreaction might re-react toward a more realistic place).




Paul from Vancouver, Wash., writes: Ted I am a very loyal Oregon Duck fan and was very disappointed with our loss at Stanford. That being said I think a few different bounces of the ball and the end could have played out differently. Regardless, true champions find a way to deal with adversity and we, the Ducks, did not adapt and overcome. My comment/question is this. I agree Stanford has a good team but I think there overall offensive balance is questionable. The ground game is awesome but there passing attack is average at best and tends to be liability. If Stanford gets put behind in a game and has to abandon their ground and pound game plan, they struggle, which is what happened against Utah. I believe in a game against a team that can play with them physically that Stanford will have issues due to their lack of a decent passing attack.

Ted Miller: I hear you. In fact, I think both Kevin and I have questioned Stanford at times about its middling passing game, which has shown flashes but not advanced as much this season as we anticipated it would in August. The Cardinal ranks last in the Pac-12 in passing offense with just 183 yards per game.

And yet.

Even though Stanford QB Kevin Hogan is not putting up big numbers, he ranks 17th in ESPN Stats & Information's total quarterback rating. Hogan is running the Cardinal offense efficiently, even if he only ranks fifth in the conference by the old school pass efficiency measure.

Coach David Shaw has said he would never throw if he knew he'd gain four yards every run. The Cardinal is averaging 4.8 yards per run.

Hogan has thrown well at times, and his 8.4 yards per attempt ranks third in the conference. He's accounted for 15 touchdowns -- 13 passing -- and protects the football.

And there's always this annoying tidbit: Shaw is 31-5. His Stone Age, antiquated, hopelessly conservative, 1970s football has Stanford winning 86 percent of his games.

Is Stanford the sort of team that makes a 14-point deficit look like nothing? No. Did Utah mute the Cardinal for three quarters? Yes, though I think the Utes success on offense was a bigger story in that game.

Could a team like, say, Alabama thwart Stanford because it is as big and physical as the Cardinal? Maybe.

One of the things I really wanted to see this season was for them to try.




Tony Jones from Chandler, Ariz. writes: Ted, I've been keeping an eye on the Jeff Sagarin rankings the last couple of weeks, waiting for verbal pitchforks to be hurled from Sun Devils fans ranting about how ASU is barely getting a sniff in the AP (21st), USA Today (22nd) and BCS (19th) polls while hanging out in the Top 10 in Sagarin's metrics (currently 9th). So when I saw your piece discussing the Championship Drive Ratings and Football Power Index, I was curious to see where ASU ranked. The Sun Devils rank higher in both the CDR (6th) and FPI (7th) than in Sagarin's wizardry. I'm an Arizona alum, so it makes little difference to me, but should ASU fans be Michael Crowing about where they are in the BCS and going all in with their disrespect cards? BTW, I think it's also interesting that the Wildcats are ranked 24th by Sagarin and 28th in the FPI, but are 44th in the CDR. Much bigger disparity than the Sun Devils.

Ted Miller: Kevin has Arizona State 18th and I have them 19th. And both of us have noticed how the Sun Devils rank higher with the computers, most notably the Championship Drive Rating, ESPN Stats & Information's complex metric that measures a team's resume.

But I also know why the Sun Devils are being held back due to purely human reasons.

No. 1: The controversial ending against Wisconsin. No. 2: The loss to Notre Dame.

Those are not "bad" losses. But those two results tie the Sun Devils to the wagons of the Badgers and Fighting Irish, and both provide drag.

The officiating implosion at the end of Arizona State's win over the Badgers means voters don't feel comfortable elevating the Sun Devils decisively over the Badgers, who in fact rank ahead of ASU in both polls. Voters feel further justified doing so because the Sun Devils lost to the Fighting Irish, who are presently unranked after losing to Pittsburgh.

This is a case of Arizona State's marquee win -- Wisconsin -- not earning them the poll respect it typically would, and that is understandable to a certain degree. The Badgers feel like they might miss out on an at-large invitation to a BCS bowl game because of that loss, one that they put an asterisk beside.

Yet, as I typically think when reading questions like this: Just keep winning. If the Sun Devils win the rest of their regular season games, including a Nov. 23 date at UCLA, they would jump into the top 10. And if they win the Pac-12 title game and Rose Bowl, they might finish in the top-five.




Ron from Maricopa, Ariz., writes: This article I believe is incorrect. Colorado received a waiver for playing two FCS games and theoretically they can go to a bowl if they win out. Two games are doable: Cal and Utah. USC is probably too much. But Buffs should be motivated this week for at least the possibility of a bowl.

Ted Miller: Correct. If Colorado wins its final three games -- California, USC and at Utah -- it will become bowl eligible.

And that certainly would be an amazing accomplishment for the Buffaloes in their first season under Mike MacIntyre.




Kevin from Oklahoma City writes: I know there is still plenty of season left and lots can change but out of curiosity if ASU were to win out and Stanford suffers an upset somewhere along the way, allowing Oregon to take the north...who would host the title game? Would Oregon get to host based on overall record?

Ted Miller: The team ranked higher in the BCS standings would host. That almost certainly would be Oregon. (Answer is the same from last week!)

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