Pac-12: Orange Bowl

Mailbag: Ducks doldrums, post-Stanford

November, 8, 2013
11/08/13
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Welcome to the mailbag, post BCS championship game relevance.

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To the notes!

Jeff from Portland writes: Ted, Please, help me off the ledge here. How in the world can Oregon gain back national credibility and be seen as something more than just a pretty face that can't perform when it matters most. The team has seen some wonderful moments over the past few years, but it feels like there have been more heartbreaking moments than great ones. Listened to several talking heads who pointed out that this wasn't just a loss but a setback for a program hoping to shed its reputation as a team who couldn't come through against a great defense. Instead, with perhaps the best version yet (on both sides of the ball), the Ducks fell way short. What's next? Can Oregon gain back respect anytime soon?

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsOregon has beaten highly ranked opponents before, including No. 5 Kansas State in 2012.
Ted Miller: Well, first of all, the Ducks have won two consecutive BCS bowls, beating a pair of top-10 teams in the process: No. 5 Kansas State, the 2012 Big 12 champion, and No. 10 Wisconsin, the 2011 Big Ten champ. Oregon is 7-6 against top-15 teams since 2009 -- five top-10 wins -- so it has won plenty of big games.

I also think it's fair to ask: Would you rather have the Ducks win more big games but also get upset more often by unranked teams? I understand where your frustration is coming from, but the root cause of it is a flawed belief that there's only one type of successful season: An undefeated one.

Oregon is 8-1 and likely still will be a top-10 team on Monday for crying out loud.

But, yes, there is a foundation for those questioning Oregon: In pretty much every loss since 2009, the Ducks were beaten at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Oh, you can debate specific details of most of those games -- and specific things that went wrong unrelated to the line of scrimmage -- but it's generally true enough that it has become the accepted reality of the college football nation.

Yes, Oregon has lost some credibility as a member of the sport's super-elite, as a national title contender. Just as Stanford was once questioned about its team speed while it was getting blistered by Oregon, now the Ducks are being questioned for their ability to stand up to big, physical (yet still athletic) lines.

How can Oregon regain that credibility? Well, for one, it could beat Stanford next year. In the near-term, it could win the rest of its games, then win a BCS bowl as an at-large team, perhaps the Orange vs. Clemson or the Sugar vs the No. 2 SEC team.

"Wait!" you say, "a No. 2 SEC team?"

The way I see it, if Notre Dame wins the rest of its games and beats Stanford in the season finale, then the Orange Bowl, with the first choice in this year's rotation, would pit the Fighting Irish against the No. 2 ACC team (assuming Florida State is in the national title game). Then the Sugar Bowl could match Oregon with an SEC team.

(Of course, the Sugar Bowl might, in that case, chase the No. 2 Big Ten team, thinking it might sell more hotel rooms, flipping off the nation which would prefer an A-list matchup).

Oh, and there also is the possibility, if Stanford loses at USC, that the Ducks could meet unbeaten Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.


Duckzkila from Portland writes: Ted, do you think Stanford has the blueprint for stopping the Ducks? My thoughts on this is Stanford has less of a blueprint and more the Ducks Number. I say this because Stanford's three wins came in three different manners. The first was a shootout, where Toby Gehardt and Andrew Luck killed us. Last year was and epic defensive performance on Stanford's part. Though some will say last nights was also an epic defensive performance on Stanford's behalf, I disagree. Don't get me wrong they played pretty darn good, they forced 2 turnovers, and harassed Super Mariota into looking like less than average Mariota. Oregon was able to move the ball on them though. The real reason they won was their ability to execute a gameplan, with very little Margin for error. They did what no other team has been able to do to the Ducks, make time of possession matter. My point is there are not very many teams in the country that would have the patience to go Gaffney for 4, Gaffney for 4, Gaffney for 3 all night. I'd wager there are even less teams with the ability to execute like Stanford did. Kudos to Stanford, they became Bizzaro Oregon last night, and through holding the ball for a huge amount of time, and paying the drives off, they put a ton of pressure on Oregon to score on every position, effectively flipping the script- Stanford style. I apologize for the long note, but just as they take away the shoe strings of suicidal inmates, they should probably take away an Oregon's fan access to the internet after soul crushing losses.

Ted Miller: I think much of what you said is correct. I think Stanford whipped Oregon more because of its offensive line than the defensive effort, though both were outstanding.

[+] EnlargeKevin Hogan
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsStanford's ability to convert third downs with Kevin Hogan and Tyler Gaffney was the difference.
The most telling number to me? Stanford was 14 of 21 on third down, converting seven in a row during their three scoring drives in the first half. When that streak ended, they immediately converted on a fourth and 1 and then converted two more third downs.

The Ducks were only 3 of 10 on third down.

Moreover, Stanford did play an almost perfect game. It won the turnover battle 2-0 and was penalized just twice for 10 yards, compared to 10 for 81 yards for Oregon.

There were so many "what if?" moments for Oregon. What if Marcus Mariota didn't under throw a wide-open Josh Huff on what should have been an easy touchdown in the first quarter? What if De'Anthony Thomas didn't fumble inside Stanford's 5-yard line? What if Ifo Ekpre-Olomu's interception stood?

But you want to know what I thought the game's biggest play was?

With 8:26 in the second quarter, Stanford took over on its 2-yard line after the DAT fumble. On third and 6, it looked like Stanford QB Kevin Hogan was about to fall down on a scramble. Instead, he righted himself, and two Ducks completely whiffed on the tackle short of the first down, allowing Hogan to gain 12 yards.

Instead of giving the ball back to Oregon with good field position, Stanford proceeded to burn the rest of the first half clock with a 21-play drive, kicking a short field goal to go up 17-0 at the break.

It was a simple moment when Hogan executed and the Ducks' defense didn't. It's moments like that that kill dreams of a national title.


Michael from Tempe, Ariz., writes: I know we have yet to see how Taylor Kelly will play tomorrow against Utah, but after last night's horrific performance by Mariota, would you say that TK is closing the gap between them?

Ted Miller: "Horrific" is a tad strong.

Mariota's national perception certainly took a hit last night, though hopefully folks realize he was playing on a bad knee. He probably deserves at least a hat tip for toughness, despite the poor-to-middling performance.

Ultimately the measure between the two in terms of, say, first-team All-Pac-12, will be about the totality of the season. If Arizona State wins out -- particularly if it wins the Pac-12 title game -- Kelly would be in play to eclipse Mariota as the Pac-12's No. 1 QB.

Kelly's numbers are very good. The biggest difference at present is Mariota has zero interceptions and Kelly has eight.


David from Mesa, Ariz., writes: So with Oregon's loss last night, can you help explain how the pac 12 would solve this scenario? ASU wins out, and is 8-1 in conference, Stanford loses to SC next week and finishes 7-2, and Oregon wins out to go 8-1. Obviously the winners of the North and South are Oregon and ASU respectively...but who hosts the game? They didn't play this year.

Ted Miller: The team ranked higher in the BCS standings would host. That almost certainly would be Oregon.


Nathan from Phoenix writes: Ted-Don't you think it was low class of Oregon to continue to run out their number 1's and throw the football in the 4th quarter against Stanford when the game was clearly over? I mean I guess they only care about stats, and Stanford got the most important stat of all the Win. Oh, and you can tell Oregon fans I said that.

Ted Miller: Got lots of these from Washington State fans who are still mad at Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti for his ill-advised comments after the Ducks-Cougars game.

I get it. I hear you. Not exactly the same scenario, but I hear you.

I hope you feel better now and we can move on.

Stanford is more than Andrew Luck

August, 26, 2011
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Is it the "Stanford Andrew Lucks"? Or is it more accurate to call the nation's No. 7 team the "Andrew Lucks of Palo Alto"? Or perhaps just "Andrew Luck!!!!"

[+] EnlargeCoby Fleener
AP Photo/Lynne SladkyStanford tight end Coby Fleener, left, is part of an impressive supporting cast that surrounds quarterback Andrew Luck.
Everyone knows who Andrew Luck is: the 2010 Heisman Trophy runner-up who would have been the No. 1 overall pick in this past spring's NFL draft if he hadn't decided to return to Stanford, where he ended up on the cover of every college football preview magazine.

Luck is widely hailed as the best quarterback prospect in years. Decades, perhaps. And he casts a big, obscuring shadow. That shadow has inspired some ignorance of the Cardinal's across-the-board talent, not to mention some raised eyebrows over whether Stanford is really that good.

Just 11 returning starters, some note. No more Jim Harbaugh, others fret. No consistent tradition of winning, some calculate.

Stanford, it seems, is widely viewed as Andrew Luck and a bunch of nerdy stiffs. It has become a popular team for some to call overrated or questionable, although folks who make such charges typically reside east of the Mississippi.

We're here, as usual, to help. Overrated? That's Georgia, a team that welcomes back just 12 starters from a 6-7 team that lost at Colorado last season yet is somehow ranked 19th in the AP poll.

Stanford actually might be underrated.

Just 11 starters? Fine. But eight of them are first-rate NFL prospects. Three were first-team All-Pac-10 and two were second-team in 2010. Five others earned honorable mention.

Heck, six of them started for the Cardinal team that nearly beat Oklahoma in the 2009 Sun Bowl. That doesn't include Luck, by the way, because he was out with a broken finger.

"No one worries about Andrew getting all the attention," said linebacker Shayne Skov, last seen rolling up 12 tackles and three sacks in a dominant victory against Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl. "He's earned all of it."

True, but Stanford's supporting cast merits more than a passing notice. Or, even worse, ignorance. So we asked new coach David Shaw -- Stanford's offensive coordinator under Harbaugh -- to help with some colorful commentary.

Let's start at tight end, where the ridiculousness of riches is mind-boggling.

Coby Fleener was second-team All-Pac-10, and Mel Kiper rates him the fourth-best senior tight end in the nation. And he might be the Cardinal's third-best tight end. Levine Toilolo beat Fleener out for the starting job last fall before blowing out his knee. He's freaking huge: 6-foot-8, 260 pounds.

"He has uncanny hand-eye coordination," Shaw said. "He can make awkward-body catches. We're looking for him to be a big threat in the red zone. At the same time, he is a dominating, physical blocker."

Then there's 6-foot-6 Zach Ertz. Said Shaw, "He has a little bit of everything. He's a great -- not a good, a great -- route runner at 245 pounds who can get down the field. But he also has taken to blocking as well. He's one of those guys who sticks his face in there. We can do a little bit of everything with him as a blocker and receiver."

Oh, and that Fleener guy, who caught six passes for 173 yards and three touchdowns in the shellacking of Virginia Tech? Shaw: "It's hard to find a guy who is 6-foot-5, 250 pounds who outruns defensive backs. It almost doesn't make sense how fast he is."

This depth at tight end is one reason replacing the two leading receivers from last season isn't a huge concern. Another reason: Chris Owusu.

Owusu isn't included among the 11 returning starters because he was hurt much of last season. But that didn't stop Kiper from rating him the No. 5 senior receiver. When healthy, Owusu is an explosive player -- see 18.4 yards per catch in 2009 with five touchdowns.

Shaw: "When Chris is healthy, I think he's one of the most explosive athletes in the nation."

Next there's the offensive line. Just two starters are back, but they are the best two starters any offensive line in the nation welcomes back. Both tackle Jonathan Martin and guard David DeCastro are likely first-round NFL draft picks.

Shaw on Martin: "He's over 300 pounds but doesn't look like it. He's athletic, he's strong, he's a leader and he doesn't make mistakes. He doesn't get beat. He's going to be as good as anybody in the nation."

And DeCastro: "He is athletic, he is strong, he is physical and he is nasty."

Skov on the 315-pound DeCastro: "He's just a force."

Last but not least on offense, there's running back Stepfan Taylor, who very quietly rushed for 1,137 yards and 15 touchdowns last season, averaging 5.1 yards per carry.

Shaw: "We talk about him as that old Cadillac. He's not the flashiest thing on the block but, dog-gone-it, you look up at it at the end of the day and it had a heck of a day. He is steady; he does everything right. He has uncanny balance and quickness."

By the way, Taylor's backup, 220-pound true sophomore Anthony Wilkerson, is a beast.

What about defense?

Let's start with Skov. Said Shaw, "Shayne is a nasty football player. He is fast, he is explosive, he has great anticipation. He's fun to watch."

Skov volunteered outside linebacker Chase Thomas as the most underrated player on the Cardinal defense. He has 14.5 sacks over the past two seasons. Said Shaw: "He's hard to block. He's slippery. He's quick. He's got a lot of different moves. He's great with his hands. He finds his way to the ball. He finds his way to the quarterback. And he plays the entire game in a bad mood."

At safety, there's Delano Howell. While all four members of the secondary have starting experience, Howell leads the way with 23 starts. Shaw: "He's our enforcer. Whenever we need a big hit, he's the guy who makes it. He's one of those guys we try to slow down a bit in practice just because he only plays one way and we can't play a game just with the people left over."

Skov also said free safety Michael Thomas was underrated. He and end Matt Masifilo both earned honorable mention All-Pac-10 in 2010.

Further, Stanford recruited well under Harbaugh and Shaw. It has signed three consecutive top-25 classes. The Cardinal are almost certain to produce stars this season we don't even know about right now. (Here's a guess: LB James Vaughters and CB Wayne Lyons.)

So there you have it. Stanford, my friends, is not a one-star constellation.

But that Luck kid is pretty darn good.

"Yes, he is," Shaw said.

Pac-12 North impact game

July, 7, 2011
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The question: What is the biggest impact game in the Pac-12 North?

The answer is obvious: Oregon at Stanford on Nov. 12.



In 2010, Stanford's visit to Oregon was the Pac-10 game of the year. The then-fourth-ranked Ducks fell behind the No. 9 Cardinal 21-3 in the first quarter, but erupted offensively and rolled to a 52-31 victory.

It would become the undefeated Ducks' marquee victory on their way to the national title game because it ended up as the only blemish on Stanford's ledger. The Cardinal would go on to dominate Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl, while the Ducks were nipped by Auburn on a last-second field goal for the national title.

Further, the game featured a pair of eventual Heisman Trophy finalists: Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck and Oregon running back LaMichael James.

So as the offseason churns toward the 2011 campaign, it's impossible not to see the rematch in Palo Alto as not only the impact game of the year in the first iteration of the Pac-12 North Division, but also the game of the year in the entire conference. And it might even become the game of the year nationally.

Both teams are almost certainly preseason top-10 teams. Both, in fact, could become national title contenders. The Ducks, in particular, could be riding high if they open with a victory against LSU. At the very least, the winner will be well-positioned to win the division.

Further, both Luck and James are back. They will be consensus preseason All-Americans and leaders on just about any short list of Heisman Trophy candidates. Luck would have been the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft if he had not decided to return to the Farm.

So the game has it all in terms of impact: Stars on a big stage playing for big stakes.
On Friday, the Pac-10 becomes the Pac-12, and life as we all have known it ends.

But before we move on as a 12-team league, let's look back at the best of a 10-team league.

On Wednesday, we looked at the best players. Thursday, it's the best teams.

We've listed 12 teams because that's the new magic number (Arizona fans, see if you can guess who came in 13th).

Again, no team before 1978 -- when Arizona and Arizona State joined the Pac-8 -- was considered.

1. 1991 Washington: The Huskies finished 12-0 and split the national title with Miami.

Best player: Defensive tackle Steve Emtman won the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award.

Point differential: Washington outscored its foes 495-115.

Best win: Whipped Michigan 34-14 in Rose Bowl. Wolverines finished ranked sixth.

Comment: Four wins over teams that finished ranked in the final top 25, including road victories at No. 15 Nebraska and at No. 8 California. Featured one of the great defenses in college football history, yielding just 9.2 points and 67.1 rushing yards per game. Eight Huskies earned first-team All-Pac-10 honors.

2. 2004 USC: While the NCAA and BCS have nixed it in their own ways, the Trojans finished 13-0 and won the national title on the field.

Best player: Quarterback Matt Leinart won the Heisman Trophy.

Point differential: USC outscored its foes 496-169.

Best win: Crushed Oklahoma 55-19 in the national title game.

Comment: Basically a push for dominance with 1991 Washington. Beat four teams that finished ranked in the top 25, including the bludgeoning of Oklahoma. Eight Trojans earned first-team All-Pac-10 honors.

3. 2003 USC: The Trojans finished 12-1 and split the national title with LSU. Their only loss came in triple overtime at California.

Best player: Receiver Mike Williams was a consensus All-American.

Point differential: 534-239.

Best win: The completely dominant 23-0 victory at then-No. 6 Auburn in the opener set the tone for the season -- and caused many Pac-10 fans to question how good these highly rated SEC teams really are.

Comment: The Trojans finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in both polls but lost out playing in the BCS title game because of the computer polls. LSU fans have been thanking the computers for that glitch ever since.

4. 2005 USC: A 34-game winning streak came to an end with a nail-biting loss to Texas in the national title game. The Trojans finished 12-1.

Best player: Reggie Bush won the Heisman Trophy.

Point differential: 638-297.

Best win: The 34-31 win at Notre Dame -- the "Bush Push" game -- was one of the all-time greats.

Comment: Perhaps the best collection of offensive players in the history of college football: Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, Dwayne Jarrett, Ryan Kalil, Sam Baker and Taitusi Lutui earned first-team All-Pac-10 honors. And don't forget LenDale White, Winston Justice, Steve Smith and Dominique Byrd.

5. 1978 USC: Finished 12-1 and split national title with Alabama. Lost to Arizona State, 20-7.

Best player: Charles White was a unanimous All-American.

Point differential: 318-153

Best win: A 24-14 win over the team that "claimed" the other half of the national title.

Comment: Split national title -- coaches liked the Trojans; AP the Crimson Tide -- despite a decisive 24-14 USC at Alabama. So much for head to head.

6. 1979 USC: Finished 11-0-1 and No. 2 behind Alabama. Tied Stanford 21-21.

Best player: Charles White won the Heisman Trophy.

Point differential: 389-171

Best win: The 17-16 win over Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, in which White ran for a record 247 yards, including the game-winning touchdown with just more than a minute remaining.

Comment: Team featured four future College Football Hall of Famers in White, Marcus Allen, Ronnie Lot and Brad Budde. By the way, THAT undefeated, untied Alabama team was really, really good: Outscored foes 383-67. So no sour grapes on that one.

7. 2001 Oregon: The Ducks finished 11-1 and ranked No. 2 in both polls. The only loss was 49-42 versus Stanford (a really, really weird game, if you recall).

Best player: Quarterback Joey Harrington finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting.

Point differential: 412-256.

Best win: A 38-16 win over Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl.

Comment: The Fiesta Bowl victory caused plenty of folks to bemoan the Nebraska-Miami matchup in the BCS title game, considering Colorado had blown out Nebraska the final weekend of the regular season. As for the Stanford loss, the typically straightforward AP noted the game had "everything but aliens landing on the Autzen Stadium turf."

8. 1984 Washington: Finished 11-1 and ranked No. 2 behind BYU. Lost to USC ,16-7.

Best player: Defensive tackle Ron Holmes was a consensus All-American.

Point differential: 352-145

Best win: Shocked Oklahoma 28-17 in the Orange Bowl. Sooners finished ranked sixth.

Comment: A controversial season. Before the Orange Bowl, Sooners coach Barry Switzer lobbied hard for the winner to be declared the national champion. As it was, BYU won the national title after beating a bad Michigan team in the Holiday Bowl. Does anyone believe BYU was better than the Huskies? No.

9. 2010 Oregon: The Ducks finished 12-1 and No. 3 in both polls, losing the national title game to Auburn.

Best player: Running back LaMichael James finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting.

Point differential: 611-243

Best win: The Ducks handed Stanford its only loss, 52-31, after trailing 21-3 early. Cardinal finished ranked No. 4.

Comment: An innovative, exciting team to watch, one that played faster than perhaps any big-time college team in history.

10. 1996 Arizona State: Finished 11-1 and ranked No. 4 in both polls. Lost Rose Bowl -- and potential national championship -- to Ohio State, 20-17.

Best player: Quarterback Jake Plummer finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting.

Point differential: 488-216

Best win: The Sun Devils trounced top-ranked, two-time defending national champion Nebraska, 19-0.

Comment: The Sun Devils lost one of the most dramatic Rose Bowls, when the swashbuckling Plummer was out-swashbuckled by Joe Germaine, who was raised in Arizona as an ASU fan.

11. 2000 Washington: The Huskies finished 11-1 and ranked No. 3, their only loss coming at No. 7 Oregon. They beat Purdue 34-24 in the Rose Bowl.

Best player: Marques Tuiasosopo finished eighth in the Heisman Trophy voting.

Point differential: 387-270

Best win: Beat Miami, 34-29. Hurricanes finished ranked No. 2.

Comment: This is not the most talented team on the list. In fact, some have rated the 2000 Oregon State team -- see below -- ahead of the Huskies. And based on NFL results, the Beavers were more talented than the Huskies. But head to head matters, and the win over Miami is better than anything Oregon State did.

12. 2000 Oregon State: The Beavers finished 11-1 and ranked No. 4, their only loss a 33-30 decision at Washington, which finished ranked No. 3.

Best player: Running back Ken Simonton was first-team All-Pac-10.

Best win: Beat Oregon 23-13 in Civil War. Oregon finished ranked seventh in the coaches poll.

Comment: One or two more plays at Washington, and the Beavers would have played for the national title. And they, by the way, were more talented than the Oklahoma team that did win the title. Notable Beavers: Ken Simonton, Chad Ochocinco (the Chad Johnson), T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Chris Gibson, DeLawrence Grant, LaDairis Jackson, Dennis Weathersby and Eric Manning. They spanked Notre Dame 41-9 in the Fiesta Bowl.
Nice graphic here from The Stanford Daily, which shows how BCS bowl teams made out financially.

Stanford says it broke even -- though the private school refuses to release official financial data -- in the Orange Bowl, while Oregon took a $312,437 loss from its appearance in the BCS national title game.

Auburn won the national championship by beating the Ducks, but it also lost nearly twice as much ($614,106).

Of course, no team got fleeced worse than Connecticut, which got smacked with a $1,757,998 deficit, in large part due to unsold tickets.

Ohio State was the big winner, pocketing $288,876 after expenses.
STANFORD, Calif. -- There is no one in the world who would disagree with this statement: "New Stanford coach David Shaw is very different from former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh." Where Harbaugh was boisterous, eccentric and often moody, Shaw is measured, polished and mellow.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
Kyle Terada/US PresswireNew Stanford coach David Shaw has big shoes to fill after the Cardinal went 12-1 last season under Jim Harbaugh.
Whatever his personality, Harbaugh proved he's a heck of a college football coach by rebuilding Stanford into a national power, one that finished 12-1 in 2010 with a final No. 4 ranking. The question for Stanford fans is whether Shaw can sustain that success.

Shaw has repeatedly said he's going to be his own man and not try to reinvent himself as the second-coming of Harbaugh. That said, it's clear that Harbaugh's tenure, which Shaw was a key part of as offensive coordinator, created a culture that worked on the Farm, one that both took advantage of the school's high academic standards -- read: smart players -- while also going against type -- read: a bullying, in-your-face style.

"There will be subtle differences," Shaw said. "But the biggest thing is the mentality is not going to change. We played with an attitude, a mentality, a certain amount of toughness and physicality. That's not going to change. Coach Harbaugh and I are different personalities, but when it comes down to it, we are ball coaches who believe in tough, hard-nosed, physical football. We believe that's what's going to win and what Stanford football should be known for."

It's clear that this has been Shaw's message this spring. The man out front has changed, and that means some things will be different, but foundational values have not. The motto first articulated last season by center Chase Beeler -- 'We're going to win with character but we're also going to win with cruelty" -- remains in place.

And just because Shaw is a smooth operator unlikely to head-butt players wearing helmets -- as Harbaugh did -- doesn't mean there's no killa' inside.

"Coach Shaw may seem a little more laid back on the surface, but I guarantee you he's just as passionate as Coach Harbaugh was," quarterback Andrew Luck said.

Luck, of course, is a good starting point for any first-year coach. Having the best quarterback in the nation shepherding your offense helps a coach sleep at night. Further, the Cardinal is loaded at running back and might be the nation's most talented team at tight end (Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo are going to play on Sundays). The offensive line lost three starters but welcomes back two first-team All-Pac-10 performers in tackle Jonathan Martin and guard David DeCastro. The defense is strong at linebacker and solid in the secondary. The big questions are receiver and defensive line.

Beyond personnel, Shaw and Stanford will need to adapt to their new place in the college football firmament: Front-runner. The Cardinal will be ranked in the preseason top-10 and are expected to battle with Oregon for the top spot in the new Pac-12. In fact, when you look at the schedule and the talent returning, it's not a stretch to note that every game is winnable. The Cardinal likely will be underdogs only once this fall -- the Ducks visit on Nov. 12 -- and even that game might be a pick 'em.

It's clear the Cardinal is eyeballing Oregon, which overcame a 21-3 deficit to stun Stanford 52-31 in Eugene last year.

Said Luck, "Everybody on the West Coast knows that you have to beat Oregon if you want to do anything out here."

Said defensive coordinator Derek Mason, "The team we have to go get is the Oregon Ducks. Oregon is king of the hill."

Of course, there are 11 other opponents on the schedule who Stanford won't sneak up on. Know that coaches across the conference have spent plenty of time thinking about Stanford's complicated offense and hybrid 3-4 defensive scheme this offseason. No doubt hey will muster up some counterpunches this fall. Shaw and company will need to maintain the edgy attitude while continuing the scheme creativity that seemed to keep foes off balance on both sides of the football in 2010.

In any event, the glory of 2010 and its blowout Orange Bowl victory against Virginia Tech won't win any games in 2011.

"Andrew [Luck] put it best one time. He said, 'Football is a meritocracy,' and that's what he loves about it," linebacker Shayne Skov said. "Every week you have to prove yourself. It doesn't matter what you did the week before."

For Shaw to sustain success, he's going to have to maintain what works, while developing an eye for quickly ascertaining what needs to change. He's going to have to continue to recruit elite athletes who can get into Stanford. And he's going to have to do it his way.

There's considerable momentum, but it's also not easy being the man-after-the-man. There are plenty of potential pratfalls when taking over leadership from a larger-than-life person. Yet Shaw isn't fretting that philosophical big picture.

"To me, going down that track, that gets you off focus, off of what is important," he said. "Every single year, every single team is different. What won for us last year isn't necessarily going to win for us next year. We went through this two years ago with Toby [Gerhart]."

Ultimately, Shaw won't be measured by whether he matches those colorful, Harbaugh-ian moments ("What's your deal?"). He'll be measured by whether he matches Harbaugh's winning.

Utah-Colorado were once bitter rivals

April, 4, 2011
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On Friday, we pondered the "rivalry" between Utah and Colorado as the newest members of the Pac-12. The general gist was the "hate" would have to develop.

But Colorado sports information director Dave Plati -- and many of you with a memory that goes back to the 1950s -- pointed out that the schools once had a big football rivalry.

Noted Plati in an email: "CU-Utah was THE rivalry from about 1910 to 1947 in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference and then into the Mountain States Conference... Utah dealt CU perhaps its biggest blow in its first 99 years of football in 1961. We were riding high, just beat Missouri to basically clinch the Big 8 crown, and Utah came into Boulder and won 21-12."

The teams played virtually every year from 1903-1962. Colorado leads the series 30-24-3. There's even a Wikipedia page on the rivalry.

Plati then noted that the worst Colorado loss to Notre Dame, 21-6, in the Orange Bowl after the 1989 season: "Otherwise we’re 12-0, national champs, and that team would merit mention among the all-time greats."

And then there's the skiing thing: Colorado has 17 NCAA titles, Utah 9.

Pac-10 top 25 from 2010: No. 1

March, 21, 2011
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We conclude our countdown of the Pac-10's 25 best players from 2010.

Note: Because we are ranking players based on this past season, it's Pac-10, not Pac-12.

Here are the preseason rankings (click each name to read the blurb).

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
AP Photo/Lynne SladkyAndrew Luck led Stanford to a 12-1 season and an Orange Bowl win.
No. 1. Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford

2010 numbers: Luck ranked third in the nation in passing efficiency. He threw for 3,338 yards with 32 touchdowns and eight interceptions, completing 70.7 percent of his passes. He also rushed for 453 yards and three scores.

Preseason ranking: No. 4

Making the case for Luck: Well, the NFL's case would be picking Luck first overall in the draft this spring, but Luck thumbed his nose at expectation and said he wanted to get his Stanford degree and opted to return for his redshirt junior season. But this ranking isn't about NFL projections or that Luck embodies everything you'd want a student-athlete to be. He's not No. 1 because we like him. And he's not even No. 1 because if you asked any college coach in the nation who'd he picked first heading into the 2011 season, he'd take Luck and not even think about it for a moment. Luck, the 2010 Heisman Trophy runner-up, put up huge numbers last fall and led the Cardinal to its best season in the modern era. Stanford finished with a 12-1 record and a dominant Orange Bowl win over Virginia Tech, in which Luck threw four touchdown passes and earned MVP honors. Luck had two mediocre games last season: He threw two interceptions in back-to-back games against Notre Dame and Oregon. But over the final eight games he threw 19 touchdown passes and just four picks. And 71 percent completion rate is just sick, particularly when you consider he was throwing to just an average corps of receivers.

No. 2. LaMichael James, RB, Oregon
No. 3. Stephen Paea, DT, Oregon State
No. 4 Darron Thomas, QB, Oregon
No. 5. Mason Foster, LB, Washington
No. 6. Juron Criner, WR, Arizona
No. 7. Chris Polk, RB, Washington
No. 8. Cameron Jordan, DE, California
No. 9. Jacquizz Rodgers, RB, Oregon State
No. 10. Chase Beeler, C, Stanford
No. 11. Omar Bolden, CB, Arizona State
No. 12. Jeff Maehl, WR, Oregon
No. 13 Vontaze Burfict, LB, Arizona State
No. 14. Matt Barkley, QB, USC
No. 15. Brooks Reed, DE, Arizona
No. 16. Tyron Smith, OT, USC
No. 17. Kenny Rowe, DE, Oregon
No. 18. Nick Foles, QB, Arizona
No. 19. Casey Matthews, LB, Oregon
No. 20. Talmadge Jackson, CB, Oregon
No. 21. Akeem Ayers, LB, UCLA
No. 22. Cliff Harris, CB, Oregon
No. 23. Jermaine Kearse, WR, Washington
No. 24. Jurrell Casey, DT, USC
No. 25. Shane Vereen, RB, California
Stanford has a secret: 2010 wasn't only about Andrew Luck. And, if things go according to plan, 2011 won't be either.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireAndrew Luck is just part of the reason Stanford has high expectations this season.
It's not that Stanford doesn't recognize the benefit of having the best quarterback in the nation. It does. But the program's transformation from also-ran to BCS bowl winner was more about attitude than Luck.

That attitude -- play with "character and cruelty" --started up front under former coach Jim Harbaugh, and that attitude will remain in place under new coach David Shaw, at least according to offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, whom Shaw promoted from receivers coach.

"We are a power running team," Hamilton said. "We are going to get off the bus running power. We're going to establish and control the line of scrimmage. We want to out-physical our opponent."

Of course, when you're beating a defense up at the line of scrimmage, it makes it a lot easier for any quarterback. And when your quarterback likely would have been the top pick in this spring's NFL draft, well, you're in pretty good shape when the goal is to keep a defense guessing and off-balance.

Just consider the numbers from the 40-12 beatdown of Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl. Sure, Luck got lots of attention for throwing four pretty touchdown passes. But the Cardinal rushed for 247 yards and two scores, and averaged eight yards a carry.

There, however, is work to be done this spring. The Cardinal needs to replace three starters from its 2010 line, including All-American center Chase Beeler. So it's not unreasonable to wonder if the offensive line will continue to be -- to use Hamilton's phrase -- "big, tough guys who enjoy imposing their will on their opponent."

Hamilton thinks so, in large part because of the two coming back: left tackle Jonathan Martin and right guard David DeCastro, who both earned first-team All-Pac-10 honors.

"Their personalities, their physical mentalities will permeate amongst the rest of the offensive line group," he said.

Khalil Wilkes and Sam Schwartzstein are battling to replace Beeler. Kevin Danser has been running with the first unit at left guard, while Tyler Mabry is the right tackle. Cameron Flemming and David Yankey also could play their way into the mix.

Still, the Cardinal might take a step back at the line of scrimmage, at least early in the season. Last year's unit welcomed back four starters, and it was widely hailed in the preseason as perhaps the best unit in the Pac-10 after it had paved the way for Toby Gerhart's runner-up finish in the 2009 Heisman Trophy race. As good as Martin and DeCastro are, and as intriguing as the new talent is, it often takes lines time to mesh.

That's where Luck comes in. As a third-year starter, he should be able to carry the load at times in the passing game. An outstanding athlete, he's fully capable of making plays outside of the pocket or with his feet if protection breaks down. But he's also adapting to change with the departure of his two leading receivers, Doug Baldwin and Ryan Whalen.

"He has some new wide receivers, so he has to work to develop some continuity with those guys," Hamilton said.

With Chris Owusu sitting out, those "new" receivers include Griff Whalen, Jamal-Rashad Patterson and Drew Terrell (each is at least a third-year player).

Hamilton doesn't envision Luck's role changing this year, even with his national celebrity as the leading Heisman Trophy candidate. He certainly doesn't want Luck to feel like he needs to transform into an alpha dog in the locker room. That would mean Luck isn't being himself.

"His personality is something that teammates gravitate towards. They all want to reach his level of success. He has field credibility in our locker room," Hamilton said. "He says the right thing at the right times. I don't see that changing."

The offense will try to retain the identity from the "Harbaugh Transformation," but there will be some tweaks to schemes, without question. Said Hamilton, "It's premature to say we've established our offensive identity."

As for life post-Harbaugh, Hamilton said he doesn't expect things to be any less emotional or edgy in the locker room. Sure, Shaw is smoother and less eccentric than Harbaugh. But that doesn't mean he lacks intensity.

"Coach Shaw brings a lot of emotion as well," said Hamilton, who also coached with Shaw when both were with the Baltimore Ravens. "When he's in front of the cameras, he gives a perception that he's laid back. But he's a fiery guy. He's as competitive as any other coach in college football, or in the NFL for that matter."

And if he is successful in 2011, it won't all be about Luck.

Jeremy Stewart back for Stanford

February, 23, 2011
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An interesting item came out of Stanford's first spring practice Monday: tailback Jeremy Stewart has been granted a medical redshirt, so he'll be in the backfield mix next fall.

Stewart did very little last year before rushing for 99 yards in the Orange Bowl, but he bolsters an already strong group of running backs led by Stepfan Taylor, who rushed for 1,137 yards in 2010. Toss in junior Tyler Gaffney and sophomore Anthony Wilkerson, and the Cardinal backfield looks as deep as any in the conference.

Jon Wilner further reported that Usua Amanam, who played tailback last year, is getting a look at cornerback.

Also, per Wilner, the starting O-line went line this: right tackle Tyler Mabry, right guard David DeCastro, center Khalil Wilkes, left guard Kevin Danser and left tackle Jonathan Martin.

While that's three new starters -- and count on there being lots of competition this spring as some younger guys make pushes -- let's just say that Martin and DeCastro, both first-team All-Pac-10 performers in 2010, form a pretty salty foundation.

Pac-12 links: Is Cal going all Stanford-y?

February, 8, 2011
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I must not only punish, but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.

Best-worst case redo: Stanford

February, 1, 2011
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Every preseason we take a look at potential best-case and worst-case scenarios for every Pac-10 team. While these are often tongue-in-cheek, they nonetheless represent the top and bottom we see for each team.

So it might be worthwhile to revisit each.

Next up is Stanford, which finished 12-1 after whipping Virginia Tech in the Discover Orange Bowl.

Best Case: 12-1 with a Rose Bowl win against Ohio State and a final No. 2 ranking.

What was right: A number of Stanford fans have written, pointing out how much the 2010 season resembled the Cardinal's "best case." Most notable is the final spot in the BCS standings at the end of the regular season: No. 4. The best case gets the final record -- 12-1 -- correct, including a BCS bowl victory and final top-5 ranking. Quarterback Andrew Luck did end up staying. Moreover, the whole tone of Stanford gradually earning national respect approximated what actually happened.

What was wrong: Stanford's lone loss was at Oregon, not at Washington, which it whipped 41-0. The Big Game win against California was a blowout, not a nailbiter. The BCS bowl was the Orange, not the Rose. The Cardinal finished ranked fourth, not No. 2. Coach Jim Harbaugh bolted for the San Francisco 49ers instead of signing a lifetime contract.

Worst case: A 7-6 finish after a win against Temple in the Eagle Bank Bowl.

What was right: Well, seven wins were correct, as was the loss at Oregon. Stanford did win its bowl game. Harbaugh did leave.

What was wrong: A lot, most particularly envisioning the defense as being particularly weak. Stanford's defense ended up being one of the best units in the nation. Harbaugh did leave, but for the NFL, not Michigan. California most certainly didn't play in the Rose Bowl. Luck is returning for his junior year. Stanford hired David Shaw, not Walt Harris, though that was entirely a joke.

Conclusion: Considering it was one of the best seasons in program history, it makes sense that the "best case" prevails here by a wide margin. And going 1 for 2 with Harbaugh and Luck is probably as much as anyone could ask for.

Big payout for two BCS bowl teams

January, 25, 2011
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How much was the Pac-10's second BCS bowl berth worth this year? Try $6 million, or $600,000 per team.

The conferences and institutions participating in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) today released unofficial and estimated data of the net revenue from the 2010-11 games Tuesday, and the Pac-10 received a windfall because it placed two teams in BCS bowl games -- Oregon in the national title game and Stanford in the Orange Bowl -- for the first time since 2002.

The Pac-10, SEC and Big Ten each were paid $27.2 million as automatically qualifying BCS conferences with two BCS bowl teams.

The ACC, Big East and Big 12 got $21.2 million each.

And because the Pac-10 is the only 10-team conference that got a share for two BCS bowl teams, that extra $6 million was divided fewer times and therefore meant money money for each school.

Top-heavy ain't so bad sometimes, eh?

Pac-12 offseason to-do list

January, 21, 2011
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What tops the to-do list in the newly formed Pac-12 this offseason? Read on.

Hey, why are there 12 teams here? Hey, it's because the Pac-10, the conference we've known since 1978, is now the Pac-12, with two new teams -- Utah and Colorado -- and North and South divisions and a conference championship game. It will take some getting used to. For one, goodbye nine-game, round-robin schedule; hello conference misses. And hello this debate: "The North rules!" "No way, man, the South is where it's at!" In any event, the dynamic will be different, and you can count on coaches thinking about how it will be -- in recruiting and on the field -- over the coming months.

Solving the QB intrigue: Arizona, Oregon, Oregon State, USC, Utah and Washington State are set at quarterback. Oh, and Stanford, too. But five schools have varying degrees of intrigue (and even Arizona needs to figure out what to do with capable backup Matt Scott). Arizona State needs to establish a pecking order between Brock Osweiler and Steven Threet. At Colorado, Tyler Hansen returns from an injury and will try to fight off a challenge from junior college transfer Brent Burnette this spring. California has a wide-open competition with a bunch of names and no clear favorite (transfer Zach Maynard?). Is true freshman Brett Hundley ready to take over at UCLA, or are Kevin Prince or Richard Brehaut going to prevail? (And will Prince be ready to compete this spring after knee surgery?). And Washington is a battle between Keith Price and Nick Montana.

Tending to the hot seats: No Pac-10 coach was fired this year, though newcomer Colorado dispatched Dan Hawkins. But that might not be the case after the 2011 season, seeing that a couple of seats range from steamy to warm. Topping the hot-seat list are UCLA's Rick Neuheisel and Washington State's Paul Wulff. Both need to win this season to survive. Neuheisel, coming off his second 4-8 season in three years, probably needs seven or eight wins. Wulff probably needs to get his team to a bowl game. Arizona State is expected to be a top-25 team. If it's not, Dennis Erickson could be in trouble. Arizona coach Mike Stoops and California coach Jeff Tedford might not be on hot seats, per se, but their seats aren't as comfortably chilled as they once were.

Hello, my name is Coach New Guy: Two Pac-12 teams welcome new coaches: Jon Embree at Colorado and David Shaw at Stanford. Shaw will need no introduction to his players; he was the Cardinal's offensive coordinator under Jim Harbaugh, who bolted to the San Francisco 49ers. (I'm concerned I will suffer some sort of Harbaugh withdrawal this spring.) But he's rebuilding an outstanding coaching staff that suffered a major brain drain on both sides of the ball, including Greg Roman (offense) and Vic Fangio (defense). Embree has stocked his staff with plenty of familiar names and faces and lots of impressive NFL pedigree, which will appeal to recruits. Still, both are first-time head coaches so it will be interesting to see how they adjust to their big corner offices.

Where's the beef? Most Pac-12 teams take significant hits on their offensive or defensive lines -- or both, in the case of Arizona, Oregon and Stanford. Colorado loses just one lineman, but that's left tackle Nate Solder, a likely first-round NFL draft pick. Arizona, Oregon, Stanford, UCLA and USC must replace at least three offensive line starters. Arizona, Arizona State, California, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, Utah and Washington State need to replace at least two on the D-line. If you watched the conference's two BCS bowls -- Stanford in the Discover Orange and Oregon in the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game -- you saw what happened when you win the battle in the trenches.

Top 10 Pac-10 moments of 2010

January, 18, 2011
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How can a football season be reduce to top 10 moments? It certainly isn't easy.

You might have your own ideas. There certainly are a few that were difficult to leave out.

We tried for diversity here: Games, performances, teams and plays. We came up with a list of 18 and then whittled things down.

Feel free to disagree.

1. Dyer circumstances: Was Michael Dyer down? Oregon fans say yes, but the game -- and replay -- officials said no in the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game. The end result was a 37-yard run for the Auburn running back to Oregon's 23-yard line late in the fourth quarter, which set up the Tigers game-winning field goal in a 22-19 Ducks defeat.

2. The tying drive: What was the biggest moment that led to Oregon tying the national title game at 19-19? First came Ducks linebacker Casey Matthews forcing a fumble from Auburn quarterback Cam Newton on a first-down run. Then came a 29-yard pass from Darron Thomas to D.J. Davis on a fourth-and-5 play. Or maybe it was the third-down shovel pass to LaMichael James that gave the Ducks a 2-yard TD. And don't forget Jeff Maehl's leaping catch for the 2-point conversion. It was a magnificent moment of almost.

Andrew Luck
Joel Auerbach/Getty ImagesAndrew Luck threw for 3,338 yards and 32 touchdowns this season.
3. Pleasant fumble return: Oregon safety Eddie Pleasant's 51-yard fumble return against Stanford was the turning point of the Ducks' Pac-10 game of the year win over Stanford. It was tied 31-31 in the third quarter, but Stanford was driving into Oregon territory after an Andrew Luck pass to Chris Owusu converted a third down. But Owusu fumbled on a hit from Javes Lewis and Pleasant rumbled to the Cardinal 3-yard line. A James run later and the Ducks took control.

4. It's better to be Luck than merely good: Luck was masterful in the Discover Orange Bowl, completing 18 of 23 passes for 287 yards with four touchdowns in a 40-12 win over Virginia Tech. So that's what all those NFL scouts were talking about.

5. Polk's plunge: You don't get much more basic than this: Fourth-and-goal from the 1 with just two seconds left, the game -- and bowl eligibility -- on the line. When Washington running back Chris Polk scored a TD as time expired to give the Huskies a 16-13 win at California, it became the centerpiece of a late-season surge that got Washington to its first bowl game since 2002. And it knocked the Bears out of the postseason.

6. Locker hurts Nebraska: Washington quarterback Jake Locker's 25-yard TD run against Nebraska on the first possession of the third quarter of the Bridgepoint Education Holiday, which came immediately after he completed a 26-yard passing to wide receiver D'Andre Goodwin on third-and-8, gave the Huskies a 17-7 lead. It was the moment when everyone went, "Wow, the Huskies might beat a team that stomped them 56-21 on Sept. 18."

7. UCLA pounds Texas: While it ended up not meaning a thing -- Texas wasn't that good; UCLA finished 4-8 -- don't forget how shocking UCLA's dominant 34-12 win at Texas was. No one -- no one! -- saw it coming.

8. For the defense: Stanford's defense held Locker and Washington to just 107 total yards in a 41-0 shutout win in Husky Stadium, the Huskies' first shutout home loss since 1976. It was one of three shutouts for the Cardinal, whose transformation on defense was (almost) as big a story this year as Luck.

9. Five at the half: USC quarterback Matt Barkley passed for a school-record-tying five touchdowns ... in the first half ... in USC's 48-14 blowout win over California. Barkley finished with 352 yards passing, but the Trojans, who led 42-zip at the half, opted not to run the score up.

10. Blowing PATs in the desert: Arizona State beat rival Arizona 30-29 in double-overtime because James Brooks blocked two extra point attempts from Wildcats kicker Alex Zendejas. The first PAT probably would have won the game for Arizona in regulation. The second ended the game in the second OT. While the Sun Devils didn't earn bowl eligibility, the win sent them into the offseason with momentum for what figures to be a promising 2011 campaign. For the Wildcats, it was the fourth of what would become five consecutive defeats to end the season.

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