Pac-12: Pete Carroll

Now that Chip Kelly is no longer his problem, Stanford coach David Shaw is more than happy to discuss the former Oregon coach. In fact, he took it a step further.

"Chip Kelly is one of my favorite subjects because he is so much more simplistic than we all think that he is," Shaw said. "I think he’s cagey. I think he’s very wily. He’s very confident in what he believes in, but it’s not willy-nilly. It’s very calculated."

Shaw saw it up close for six seasons. He became the Stanford offensive coordinator on Jim Harbaugh’s first staff in 2007 -- the same year Kelly landed at Oregon in the same capacity -- and matched wits as head coaches in 2011 and 2012. By the time Kelly made the jump to the NFL following the 2012 season, Shaw was a believer -- convinced Kelly’s system would work on Sundays.

[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
Rich Schultz/Getty ImagesChip Kelly will match wits with another former Pac-12 coach, Jim Harbaugh, when Kelly's Philadelphia Eagles face Harbaugh's San Francisco 49ers on Sunday at Levi's Stadium.
"That’s the thing that Chip and I both said before he left," Shaw said. "Their mentality at Oregon -- and now at Philadelphia -- was really not that different than our mentality [at Stanford], which is to run the ball and use whatever people are trying to do to take away the run to add to our passing game."

"It’s going to look very complicated, but it’s really not."

Now in his second year as the coach of the Eagles, Kelly returns to the Bay Area this weekend to renew a coaching matchup with Harbaugh and the 49ers. The last time Kelly and Harbaugh coached against each other, the Ducks came back from down 21-3 to win 52-31 and hand Stanford its only loss of the 2010 season. Coincidentally, LaMichael James, who ran for 257 yards and three touchdowns in that game for Oregon, was released by the 49ers on Sept. 8.

Both Shaw and Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said this week that it's tough for either of them to root for specific teams because of all their former players scattered among NFL rosters, but Helfrich admitted he makes one exception.

"I've said it before, that's how much I like Chip Kelly, I've been a lifelong Cowboys fan and now I'm an Eagles fan," he said. "So, I'll be excited to root for them if we can."

Harbaugh
Much like how the 49ers invested a second-round pick in James during Harbaugh’s first draft, the Eagles did the same with former Stanford tight end Zach Ertz in Kelly's first. A Bay Area native, Ertz called Shaw this week to ask if he would be making it to Levi's Stadium for the game -- but because Sunday will also be the first full day for Stanford’s Notre Dame prep, Shaw said best-case scenario is that he would make it out for pregame warm-ups before getting back to the office.

Kelly’s connection with the 49ers' staff is more than just an adversarial one. After leaving Stanford to become the offensive coordinator with the 49ers prior to the 2011 season, Greg Roman traveled to Eugene to spend time with Kelly on the Oregon campus.

"I’d heard so much about that nice facility they had up there and I had lot of respect for Chip and what he had done competing with him for a couple years," Roman said. "Got to get up there to visit with him and meet with him, talk ball. He’s a football guy."

And during Kelly’s final season at Oregon in 2012, he took advantage of an opening in the schedule to make an in-season return visit to the 49ers’ headquarters in Santa Clara to meet with Roman and Harbaugh.

"Two guys I have great, great respect for," Kelly said. "Two really good football coaches."

Between Harbaugh, Kelly and former USC coach Pete Carroll with the Seahawks, the NFC turned into somewhat of a playground for former Pac-10/12 coaches last year. The trio combined to go 35-13 during the regular season, and after the Seahawks' demolition of Denver in the Super Bowl, it was clear San Francisco, was the league's second-best team.

Now the question that's begging to be asked: Who's next?
Back in 2007 new Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh seemed pretty foolish when, like a bombastic Don Quixote, he trash-talked USC and coach Pete Carroll. For no particular reason, he volunteered to a reporter that Carroll would soon bolt for the NFL. Then, at Pac-10 media day, a smirk flickered across his face when he archly announced that USC "may be the best team in the history of college football."

When challenged about his motives, he unveiled what became a program catchphrase: "We bow to no one at Stanford" -- pretty much saying he didn't give a rat's tookus if he bothered USC, Carroll or anyone else.

[+] EnlargePete Carroll, Jim Harbaugh
AP Photo/Matt SaylesThings started getting testy between Stanford and USC when Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll were at the helm.
Great fun ensued, of course. That first season, Harbaugh and Stanford shocked USC 24-23 as a 41-point underdog behind a backup QB, ending the Trojans' 35-game home winning streak. Any chance that would be viewed historically as college football's version of Halley's Comet was squelched in 2009 when Stanford drubbed USC 55-21, aggressively running up the score in the fourth quarter, including a gratuitous attempt at a 2-point conversion.

"What's your deal?" an irritated Carroll famously asked a smug Harbaugh during a wonderfully ungenial handshake.

Nonetheless, we had no idea what the actual deal would become between USC and Stanford. Early on, Stanford's success appeared to be a curious and anomalous run, a surprising reversal of fortune that briefly thickened the Pac-10 plot but seemed certain to be only temporary. Carroll and Harbaugh would both bolt to the NFL, where their personal rivalry has remained just as spicy. USC's short-term future was burdened with NCAA sanctions. Stanford's future seemed burdened by, well, being Stanford, the most elite academic institution playing FBS football.

When David Shaw, a polished Stanford graduate, ascended from offensive coordinator to replace Harbaugh, few imagined he'd maintain a top-10 program. There was a suspicion that Harbaugh built what he did because he was crazy enough to make it happen. Shaw was way too normal.

Yet here we are, two days away from a renewal of what has become the Pac-12's most meaningful cross-division rivalry. While Stanford-Oregon mostly has decided the Pac-12 champion the past four years, there's been little drama in their actual games, with only the 2012 contest being an actual nail-biter.

Three of the past four USC-Stanford games have been decided essentially on the game's last play, twice by field goals, once in triple-overtime. Average margin of victory in those four games? Five points. National importance? Stanford may have played Florida State in the BCS National Championship last year if not for being upset 20-17 at USC. In 2012, USC was ranked No. 2 in the nation before Stanford exposed the Trojans 21-14, starting a spiral from which former USC coach Lane Kiffin never recovered. QB Andrew Luck became Andrew Luck during thrilling Stanford wins in 2010 and 2011.

Both teams are star-laden NFL pipelines. Stanford, the two-time defending Pac-12 champ, enters this game ranked 13th, just a little annoyed at how Oregon and UCLA have grabbed the biggest preseason headlines in the conference. USC is 14th, a team with fewer than 60 available scholarship players but as gifted with its starting 22 as just about any team in the nation.

Both crushed overmatched foes last weekend and looked impressive in doing so. The Trojans added a wrinkle for this go-round by switching from their long-standing pro-style scheme to an up-tempo offense under new coach Steve Sarkisian, who notes "up-tempo" isn't a transition from a power to a finesse attack, only a means to create more touches for his talented skill players.

If the football part of football wasn't enough, if we needed to introduce some new drama and personalities at loggerheads to liven things up, it's worth noting that Shaw and Sarkisian engaged in a public war of words after last year's Stanford-Washington game. Sarkisian, then the Huskies' coach, accused Stanford of faking injuries in order to slow down his up-tempo offense, going so far as to specifically point a finger at Cardinal defensive line coach Randy Hart. Shaw wasn't happy with the accusation, and he opened that week's Pac-12 coaches teleconference with a lengthy and strongly worded statement.

"I believe it's unprofessional to call out an assistant coach on another team," Shaw said. "It's unprofessional and it's disrespectful. The only D-line coach that I know of that's ever instructed players to fake injury works at the University of Washington."

That would be controversial coach Tosh Lupoi, now working at Alabama, who was suspended in 2010 while at California for instructing players to fake injuries against Oregon. Sark, however, never backed away from his assertions.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillSteve Sarkisian has his hands full with off-the-field drama at USC, but Saturday's game at Stanford is at the forefront of his worries this week.
While it might be fun if Sarkisian and Shaw continued to eyeball each other's throats, that doesn't seem to be the reality. It appears, rather, that they have agreed to disagree and let the issue die. Though they both admit they haven't revisited the conflict in order to make a formal peace, they also pointed out they've spoken amiably multiple times since then -- a couple of times, in fact, within range of reporters -- and they claim to respect and like each other.

"We had a disagreement in the heat of the moment; both of us have moved on," Sarkisian said.

Offered Shaw, "There is no animosity whatsoever."

Still, one suspects there are at least some residual fumes from this squabble, since a few Stanford players also took issue with Sarkisian's accusation.

There is another Shaw on the sidelines of this game, though figuratively: USC CB Josh Shaw, who last week went from heroic to notorious. Coupled with Anthony Brown calling Sarkisian a racist after the running back quit the team -- a charge that has been supported by absolutely no one -- USC was dealing with substantial tumult and unfavorable national headlines last week. It may have been a bit surprising that the Trojans overcame those distractions to efficiently dismantle Fresno State 52-13, setting a Pac-12 record by running 105 plays.

An easy way for Sarkisian to change the narrative around his program and to win over Trojans fans who remain skeptical about his hiring is to beat the Cardinal on Saturday. Winning cures just about everything in college football.

In any event, even without Harbaugh and Carroll sniping at each other, we know the deal between USC and Stanford. It has endured as an annual battle imbued with drama and meaning, with the winner Saturday likely pushing into the top 10 and announcing itself as a Pac-12 and national contender.

And who knows? Maybe the postgame handshake will offer up another memorable exchange.
The 2014 Pac-12 season starts tonight, and that is unquestionably a righteous thing. The first week's slate of games? Well, it's not exactly going to awaken any echoes. Still, Confucius say he who casts a disrespectful glance at a season opener finds his beer warm and his prayers to the college football gods unanswered.

Yet with all due respect, the Pac-12 plays five games versus overmatched FCS foes and is double-digit favorites in four other games. The only underdog is California, which visits Northwestern.

Ah, but that second Saturday. That, my friends, is a biggie. Not entirely across the conference, but two games will attract beaucoup Pac-12 and national eyeballs and are decidedly meaningful in terms of setting up the first season of the College Football Playoff.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
AP Photo/Don RyanMarcus Mariota and Oregon can make a significant statement with a win over Michigan State in Week 2.
Start with No. 8 Michigan State's visit to No. 3 Oregon. This might be the biggest nonconference matchup of the season, and it's even bigger after the season-ending injury to Ohio State QB Braxton Miller. The Spartans are now the clear favorites in the Big Ten, as the Ducks are the popular preseason pick in the Pac-12. It might look like a Rose Bowl, but it probably ends up operating like a CFP elimination game. Or validation game.

It's an intriguing matchup, too: Celebrated offense versus celebrated defense, with the Ducks, led by preseason Heisman favorite Marcus Mariota, facing Spartans defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who might be the best in the business.

Meanwhile, No. 11 Stanford plays host to No. 15 USC. The Trojans used to feast on the Cardinal. Now this is a bitter and highly competitive rivalry. What makes this game fun is the rivalry is as much player-based as fan based. That bitterness ignited between Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh -- "What's your deal?" -- and has maintained its burn over the past few years, with the teams exchanging major upsets the past two seasons.

It also won't cool things down, at least in terms of perception, that new Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian and Stanford coach David Shaw were at public loggerheads last year over the Cardinal allegedly faking injuries in a tight victory over Sark's Washington team. While it might be responsible to note that Shaw and Sarkisian seem to get along well and chat amiably at coaching functions, that would de-sensationalize an angle the Pac-12 blog would prefer to jump up and down and point at next week.

It also has been established, though less publicly, that more than a few Stanford players were extremely unhappy with Sarkisian's accusation, most notably DE Ben Gardner, whose NFL career has already been waylaid by the shoulder issue that hampered him against the Huskies.

We also must add that the irreverent Stanford band surely is already clicking its collective heels over the possibilities the "Josh Shaw Tall Tale of Heroism" offers for a halftime snark.

Even if you cast aside the emotions, this is a big Pac-12 game. The winner figures to establish itself as a top-10 team and national contender. While they occupy different divisions, one will end up 0-1 in conference play and the other will be 1-0. In what figure to be tight races in both divisions, that one-game swing could prove critical.

A USC victory would be a significant event in the South Division. The Trojans don't play Oregon, as UCLA does. Arizona State doesn't, either. The Bruins and the Sun Devils both play Stanford. The Sun Devils visit USC. In other words, in terms of schedule strength among the contenders, a USC win over Stanford might change the perception of the South race.

Of course, from a coach's perspective we are getting ahead of ourselves. USC plays host to Fresno State on Saturday. While the Bulldogs don't look like the formidable foe the Trojans whipped in the Las Vegas Bowl a year ago, they certainly have a pulse. Stanford plays UC Davis and Oregon plays South Dakota. Both will roll, though some Davis folks have pointed out the Aggies upset the Cardinal in 2005, one of the notable moments of Walt Harris' coaching tenure.

As you well know, sports teams play one game at a time.

"We approach this game, literally, exactly like every other one," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said of South Dakota and, by extension, Michigan State. "To do anything else would be a conflict of our process, disrespectful to our opponent and to the game."

While Helfrich and Shaw admit that they spent plenty of time this offseason reviewing Michigan State and USC/Washington film knowing about their big dates in Week 2, the nature of football is routine, and routine dictates you prepare for each game the same way.

Dangers of looking ahead this week? Unlikely. For one, it's the first game of the season. The opportunity to play a real game in front of a crowd after a long preseason camp is a reward in itself. Don't expect players to be blasť and unfocused.

And there are stakes for players in game one, no matter how undecorated the foe is, according to Shaw.

"We have a lot of guys still competing for things, for who's going to get more playing time," he said. "I'd feel bad for the guy who shows a sign of not focusing on the task at hand. He's going to meet with a not very happy Coach Shaw."

Timing right for USC, Sark marriage

August, 21, 2014
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USC safety Taylor Mays didn't exactly grin from ear to ear at the question back in 2008, but his face did acknowledge that the reporter had offered him an underhanded pitch that he could belt out of the L.A. Coliseum in any direction he wished.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsIn his second stint as a college football head coach, Steve Sarkisian faces the pressure of guiding a national powerhouse program in USC.
Mays and the top-ranked USC Trojans had just made No. 5 Ohio State look like a high school team in a 35-3 whipping that wasn't nearly as close as the final score suggested. The question was whether the Buckeyes had been shocked by just how much better the Trojans were. Mays paused, seeming to savor the question as he coolly assessed the contents of his locker, before delivering a response.

"Many teams wonder what this SC thing is about -- why have we been so successful these past years," he said. "We came out there and showed them. They're Ohio State and that means something. But we prepare so well that we just do what we do."

There was a time under Pete Carroll when USC pretty much won games when they got off the bus. They simply looked a whole lot better -- bigger, faster, more confident -- than anyone else in college football. Reporters and fans would encircle the Trojans' open scrimmages, particularly during Competition Tuesdays, and marvel at the talent level and intensity.

New USC coach Steve Sarkisian was Carroll's top offensive assistant for much of that run from 2002 to '08 before heading off to Washington. He missed the 2004 BCS national title season while spending an unhappy year with the Oakland Raiders, as well as the start of the program's decline in 2009, a 9-4 finish after the Trojans had lost just nine games in the previous seven seasons. Then Carroll bolted for the Seattle Seahawks.

So Sarkisian knows what things were like during the Trojans' most recent dynastic run. He was there for its creation. A Southern California native, he knows the area, the program's traditions and how quickly expectations can become stratospheric. He knows what he is taking over. And getting himself into.

He knows USC is one of the most powerful brands in college sports, one whose name and logo have impact in South Florida, Ohio and Texas, as well as in its home territory.

"When you have that SC interlock on your chest and you walk into a school [to recruit], whether it's in Southern California or anywhere else, this talks about 11 national championships, six Heisman Trophies, more NFL draft picks, more All-Americans, more All-Pros, more Hall of Famers than any other school," Sarkisian said. "So it's a powerful brand."

Sarkisian also knows timing. He knows it's better not to be the "man after the man," as his friend Lane Kiffin was with Carroll. Sarkisian was Carroll's personal preference to replace him, and then-athletic director Mike Garrett made a play for Sarkisian before offering the job to Kiffin. Sarkisian was then heading into his second season at Washington and felt it wouldn't be the right time to bail out on the Huskies.

Oh, and he also knew NCAA sanctions were on the horizon, though there was little indication at the time that they would be as severe as they ended up being.

Good timing? As of June, USC is no longer yoked with those sanctions that included the loss of 30 scholarships over three years. After signing a highly rated class in February, despite limits, Sarkisian could have the Trojans at around 80 scholarship players next fall, according to ESPN.com's Garry Paskwietz, not far below the limit of 85, and substantially better than the numbers that have made depth the team's most worrisome issue since 2010. The Trojans presently rank 14th in the nation and first in the Pac-12 in the ESPN.com recruiting rankings.

Timing? Even during Carroll's run, USC's facilities were second-rate. No longer. After putting $120 million toward new and renovated buildings, including the 110,000-square foot John McKay Center, USC matches up with the most elite teams.

Timing? Sarkisian inherits 18 returning starters from a team that won 10 games in 2013. The Trojans should be contenders in the South Division this fall, emerging from so-called crippling sanctions in pretty good shape after averaging "only" 8.8 wins per season from 2009 through last year.

Of course, his timing isn't that perfect. He's got a UCLA problem that Carroll didn't have to contend with. The Bruins are surging under Jim Mora and are hardly quaking at the prospect of USC again being whole. It's notable that Sarkisian and Mora have long had a cordial relationship, though that might be difficult to sustain going forward.

"I think [hiring Sarkisian] has given them a shot of energy that I wish they didn't get," Mora quipped at Pac-12 media days. "I have great respect for Sark, and I like him as a person and as a coach. I just know he's going to make my job harder."

While USC can again sign a full recruiting class of 25, which should make the going tougher for all 11 other Pac-12 teams, there's also some undercurrent of smugness within the conference from coaches and fans that Sarkisian hasn't truly earned a job like USC and that he isn't much different from Kiffin. His critics dubbed him "Seven-Win Steve" after he led Washington to three consecutive 7-6 seasons, a rut that had some Huskies fans putting him on the hot seat heading into the 2013 season.

The Huskies improved to 9-4 last season, finishing with a Top 25 ranking for the first time since 2001. Some also seemed to forget that Sarkisian inherited a team that went 0-12 in 2008. While there's been an odd effort to rewrite the history of how down the program was back then, it was outscored 463-159 that season and hadn't posted a winning record since 2002. Washington went 1-10 in 2004 and 2-9 in 2005. Further, majestic Husky Stadium was falling apart.

Chris Petersen has inherited a team from Sarkisian that's played in four consecutive bowl games, is ranked in the preseason, and is playing in a beautifully renovated stadium.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY SportsUSC Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian was optimistic at Pac-12 media days, saying: "I think we have a chance to do something special this year."
This is not to say Sarkisian did a perfect job at Washington. He made mistakes like most first-time head coaches, including sticking with overmatched defensive coordinator Nick Holt for too long. Yet the feeling among USC insiders is that the Trojans are getting Sark 2.0, and he's surrounded himself with a staff that is touted for its X's and O's acumen (most notably defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox) as well as its recruiting savvy. Sarkisian retained receivers coach Tee Martin, one of the most quietly important coups of the transition.

Sarkisian isn't necessarily bringing back Carroll's "Win Forever" rhetoric and culture. For one, he runs an up-tempo offense, not Carroll's pro style, and a 3-4 hybrid defense, not Carroll's 4-3. That could be seen as part of Sarkisian's maturation, of finding his own way. When Sarkisian took the Washington job after the 2009 Rose Bowl, Carroll actually told him that he needed to be his own man, not mimic Carroll.

"His final words to me walking out was, 'Go be you, because when adversity strikes, the real you is going to come out anyway,'" Sarkisian said.

For USC fans, adversity has already struck and stuck hard. Sarkisian's charge is to make sure those adverse days are done. Adversity going forward is losing more than two Pac-12 games.

Or is that losing more than one game, period?

Pac-12 rivalry heat meter

August, 11, 2014
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A college football rivalry never exactly cools off, at least among the emotionally involved. But rivalries do go through upticks and downticks of relevance, both regionally and nationally.

So which Pac-12 rivalries are heating up, stagnating or cooling as we head into the 2014 season?

USC Trojans-UCLA Bruins

The facts: USC leads the series 46-30-7 and has won 12 of the last 15 games, but the Bruins have won two in a row under Jim Mora, including a 35-14 domination last year.

The meter: Sizzling and rising.

The animosity between the fan bases is always strong, but what makes a rivalry truly heat up is relevance. And substantial stakes. This rivalry is gaining in both areas. USC is one of the preeminent football programs in the nation, even though UCLA fans hate to read that. UCLA is the rising western power under Mora, even though USC fans mock the idea. USC has a new coach in Steve Sarkisian and is moving past NCAA sanctions. UCLA is a top-10 team eyeballing the College Football Playoff. Know what I say? Release the hounds!

Arizona Wildcats-Arizona State Sun Devils

The facts: Arizona leads the series 47-39-1, but Todd Graham has won the last two against Rich Rodriguez, including a 58-21 blowout last year in Tempe. Before that, the visiting team has won eight of the last 13 matchups, including the last four -- games that were decided by a total of 15 points.

The meter: Blistering and heating up.

While Oregon-Washington fans provide the most blowback to the Pac-12 blog -- Yakety Yak! Oh, yeah! Yakety Yak -- Arizona and Arizona State fans are a strong No. 2. It used to be the fans hated each other and whined a lot -- "You cover them more... waaaaaa!" -- because both teams were fairly mediocre. But the Sun Devils won the South Division last year and are now 2-0 under Todd Graham against the Wildcats and Rich Rodriguez. With both programs trending up in an overall sense, the rivalry is gaining relevance. It also helps that Graham and Rodriguez don't particularly care for each other.

Oregon Ducks-Washington Huskies

The facts: Washington leads the series 58-43-5, but the Ducks have won 10 straight in the series by at least 17 points, including a 45-24 win in Seattle last year.

The meter: Hot but stagnating.

This has long been the most bitter Pac-10/12 rivalry but it has experienced a dramatic power shift to the Ducks. Sorry Huskies, you know it's true. It seems like Oregon fans these days are more worried about winning that darn absent national title than fretting about that team from up North. Now, if Washington and new coach Chris Petersen go into Autzen Stadium and steal one this year... well, that can't happen. Can it? Maybe that possibility needs to be debated.

USC-Notre Dame Fighting Irish

The facts: USC has won nine of the last 12 meetings, but the Fighting Irish has won three of the last four, including a 14-10 win last year. Since 1967, USC has gone 24-20-3 in the series.

The meter: Simmering with many hoping for a boil (particularly TV executives)

As far as national rivalries go, this one is without peer. It's an annual classic that matches two of college football's top powers. Lately, both teams have been nationally relevant, albeit not on an annual basis, and that's the issue. This rivalry is more about national relevance than bitterness. What it needs to heat up is for both teams to be national contenders with the winner in line for the College Football Playoff.

Washington-Washington State Cougars

The facts: Washington leads the series 68-32-6, including a 27-17 victory last year. The Cougars have lost 11 of the last 16 Apple Cups, but are 1-1 under Mike Leach.

The meter: Simmering with lots of potential spice

Have you stopped and pondered just how fun this one might get if Petersen and Mike Leach get their programs' performances to match their respective coaching reputations? For one, in terms of the media, it could be a Don James-Jim Walden deal where Petersen is a "2,000-word underdog" to the loquacious Leach. As it is at present, the Cougars really, really hate the entitled Huskies but the Huskies reserve their most bitter distain for Oregon.

Oregon-Oregon State

The facts: Oregon leads the series 61-46-10 and has won the last six meetings, including a 36-35 thriller in Autzen Stadium last year.

The meter: Warm but in need of another log on the fire

Know what bothers Oregon State fans? When some Ducks fans say they root for the Beavers when the two aren't playing. It probably isn't a statement of emotional fact, but Oregon fans recognize it as the ultimate patronizing gesture. See above with Washington: The Beavers really, really hate the entitled Ducks but the Ducks reserve their most bitter distain for Washington. Now, if the Ducks start to slide a bit and the Beavers push past them in the North Division -- or at least become Oregon's equal again -- this one will immediately boil over, potentially returning to the back-and-forth turf battle it was from 1998-2008, when it was one of the conference's most interesting and meaningful rivalries.

USC-Stanford Cardinal

The facts: In a series that dates back to 1905, USC holds a 59-29-3 lead, but Stanford has won four of the last five meetings. Still, a year after Stanford upset the then-No. 2 Trojans, USC returned the favor by knocking off No. 4 Stanford 20-17 last fall.

The meter: Most rivalries are more about the fans than the players. This one might be more about the players than the fans. These two teams go at each other -- hard. Things really picked up steam with former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh mouthing off about Pete Carroll, then backing it up with two wins, including the classic "What's your deal?" game in 2009. Stanford started USC's and Lane Kiffin's downward spiral in 2012, while the Trojans ended the Cardinal's national title hopes in 2013. And I personally enjoy watching the Stanford band drive the Coliseum crowd crazy -- "And now a tribute to a great USC graduate... Joe Francis!"

California Golden Bears-Stanford

The facts: Stanford leads the Big Game rivalry 54-44-10 and has won four in a row, including a 63-13 blowout last year.

The meter: Luke warm until Cal rights itself

The Big Game is a great rivalry with a great history. The problem is getting the two teams to be good at the same time. Cal dominated the rivalry under Jeff Tedford until 2009. Now the Cardinal is fully in control. Second-years Bears coach Sonny Dykes probably could win over the Old Blues by pulling the upset this fall, but that will mean winning as a double-digit underdog.

BYU Cougars-Utah Utes

The facts: Utah leads the series 57-34-4. Utah has won four straight and nine of the last 12 games with the Cougars, including a 20-13 victory last year in Provo.

The meter: Always hot but chilling for two years

Utah has dominated this bitter series of late, most notably since joining the Pac-12, but there will be a two-year hiatus until the Holy War is renewed in 2016. That is unfortunate, as the series hasn't been interrupted since BYU didn't field teams during World War II (1943-45). Further, BYU is presently outside looking in, as it is not a Power Five conference member. It will be interesting to see how things go in the future.

Utah-Colorado Buffaloes

The facts: Colorado leads the series 31-26-3, 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. As Pac-12 members, Utah leads 2-1 having won two in a row.

The meter: Tepid while awaiting some seasoning

Sure, this is a bit of an artificial rivalry. They are paired as rivals because they joined the conference together. But as both start to develop their Pac-12 legs, you can count on this rivalry heating up. They will be compared for a long time. Neither wants to be the one not measuring up. And don't forget the "Red Bike Incident."
Pac-12 media days start Wednesday at Paramount Studios in Hollywood, California, and your entire Pac-12 gang -- we're going by either #4pac or #pac4, we haven't decided yet -- will be there soaking in the evasive and clichéd quotes while plumbing for revealing and interesting nuggets to share with you.

There are plenty of topics to cover, from the perhaps unprecedented quality and experience at quarterback, to two new coaches who have familiar faces, to the new four-team College Football Playoff.

Arizona, California, USC, Oregon, Washington State and Utah will appear on Wednesday, while Arizona State, Oregon State, UCLA, Washington, Stanford and Colorado follow up on Thursday. You can see the players on hand and the schedule here. This is the first time the Pac-12 has spread out its preseason media event over two days.

The preseason media poll will be released Wednesday, and the Pac-12 blog is going out on no limb guaranteeing you that Oregon will be picked to win the North and UCLA will be picked to win the South.

As a public service, we've provided you with a cheat sheet so you can contemplate the world as a reporter might. Below are questions for each of the conference's 12 teams that are sure to be asked, less warm-and-fuzzy questions that should be asked, and idle bits of whimsy that the Pac-12 blog wishes would be part of the proceedings.

(Unless otherwise noted, the questions are intended for the head coach.)

Arizona Wildcats, coach Rich Rodriguez
What will be asked: Can you give us an idea of your pecking order at quarterback?
What should be asked: What did Wildcats fans say to you this summer about being 0-2 against Arizona State?
Whimsical interlude: If Todd Graham and Donald Sterling were being attacked by wolves, whom would you save?

Arizona State Sun Devils, coach Todd Graham
What will be asked: Who will step up on your rebuilding defense?
What should be asked: You turn 50 in December: Do you expect to retire as the Sun Devils' coach?
Whimsical interlude: If Rich Rodriguez and Justin Bieber were being attacked by wolves, whom would you save?

California Golden Bears, coach Sonny Dykes
What will be asked: What's your team's attitude after going 1-11 in your first season?
What should be asked: What are specific mistakes you made last season that contributed to your team's struggles?
Whimsical interlude: Compare and contrast your hometowns of Big Spring and Lubbock, Texas, to Berkeley.

Colorado Buffaloes, coach Mike MacIntyre
What will be asked: Is your team ready to take the next step in the Pac-12?
What should be asked: What is your program's chief deficiency, and how are you addressing that in recruiting?
Whimsical interlude: Just thinking out loud here, but -- Ralphie, are you certain she has no remaining eligibility?

Oregon Ducks, coach Mark Helfrich
What will be asked: How will quarterback Marcus Mariota be better this season than last?
What should be asked: What were some of the challenges and transitional pains you've learned from after replacing a larger-than-life coach in Chip Kelly?
Whimsical interlude: Marcus, here are five loaves and two fishes. There are a lot of hungry reporters here. So, you know, do your thing.

Oregon State Beavers, coach Mike Riley
What will be asked: How does the offense change without wide receiver Brandin Cooks?
What should be asked: Is it possible for the Beavers to catch up to Oregon without the kind of support the Ducks get from Nike founder Phil Knight?
Whimsical interlude: Sean Mannion, please re-create for us the worst temper tantrum you've ever seen Coach Riley throw.

Stanford Cardinal, coach David Shaw
What will be asked: Who will step up to lead your rebuilding defense?
What should be asked: The media have again picked Oregon, the two-time defending Pac-12 North champions, to eclipse you. Is that a slight to your program, and if not, how do you interpret it?
Whimsical interlude: Jordan Richards, you are a public policy major. Please compare and contrast the deontological perspectives of Kant, Mill and Rawls.

UCLA Bruins, coach Jim Mora
What will be asked: How do you manage all the hype and high expectations that surround your team and quarterback Brett Hundley?
What should be asked: What do you need from the UCLA administration to maintain and build on your present advantage in your rivalry with USC?
Whimsical interlude: Jim, what does your dad think of the new college football PLAYOFFS?

USC Trojans, coach Steve Sarkisian
What will be asked: How will your up-tempo offense work while you have depth issues due to scholarship limitations?
What should be asked: What mistakes did you make at Washington that you'll avoid at USC?
Whimsical interlude: Steve, what would be the most interesting revelation if you, Pete Carroll, Jim Mora and Lane Kiffin went out for drinks?

Utah Utes, coach Kyle Whittingham
What will be asked: Explain how your quarterback situation sets up with Travis Wilson and transfer Kendal Thompson and how each fits in new coordinator Dave Christensen's offense.
What should be asked: Have Utah fans underestimated how difficult it would be to move up from the Mountain West to the Pac-12?
Whimsical interlude: You've had six offensive coordinators in six years. Please match each with one of Snow White's seven dwarfs, assuming that this stupid question automatically makes you Grumpy.

Washington Huskies, coach Chris Petersen
What will be asked: What was it about Washington that lured you away from Boise State?
What should be asked: What did quarterback Cyler Miles tell you about his role in two separate fights that occurred after the Super Bowl?
Whimsical interlude: OT Ben Riva: You are the only offensive lineman here. There are eight quarterbacks, three receivers and a bunch of defensive guys. First, what's the worst prima donna behavior you have witnessed? And second, is this pretty much an offensive lineman's seventh level of hell?

Washington State Cougars, coach Mike Leach
What will be asked: With a veteran quarterback and a deep corps of receivers, what are your expectations for your offense this fall?
What should be asked: Did your job get more difficult or easier with the hiring of Chris Petersen at Washington?
Whimsical interlude: Connor Halliday and Darryl Monroe: Here is a 10-question quiz on your coach's book about Geronimo, which I'm sure you've read. You have two minutes. Go!
video

USC officially will be done with NCAA sanctions on Tuesday, so the Los Angeles Times published a package this weekend looking back and projecting forward, talking to -- or getting turned down for interviews by -- some of the key players in the most egregious miscarriage of justice in the history of NCAA enforcement.

It's not inaccurate to say the NCAA's indefensible and farcical ruling against USC football is a notable part of the organization's humiliating and entirely justified downward momentum over the past four or so years, both in terms of public perception and in the courtroom, as well as the movement for autonomy among the Big Five conferences.

The NCAA is incapable of fairly and consistently policing its member organizations. That's as good a reason as any to diminish its power.

From the Times:
As many of you know, I've ranted and raved about the USC case numerous times through the years -- such as this and this and this. While some have implied that the source of my strong feelings on the matter emerges from some sort of USC/Pac-12 bias, that's simply inaccurate. It's always been about facts and fairness. Truth is, it's been a pretty easy argument to win -- over and over again.

That said: This feels like a great week for the Pac-12 blog. I am weary of the whole mess. Too often it disturbed my typical Zen-like equilibrium.

USC has spent the last four years getting justifiably mad. The Trojans best course going forward is to get even.
USC coach Steve Sarkisian named Cody Kessler his starting quarterback this week, though he noted that Kessler will have to continue to defend the position against competition from redshirt freshman Max Browne during fall camp.

It wasn't a big surprise. After all, Kessler was the 2013 starter and acquitted himself fairly well, particularly over the second half of the season with Clay Helton calling plays instead of deposed coach Lane Kiffin.

Still, Sarkisian is following in the philosophical footsteps of his mentor, Pete Carroll, who believed it was best to name a starting quarterback by the end of spring practices.

As we've noted a few times, Carroll called this "anointing." He believed that by anointing a starting quarterback in the spring, that allowed the QB to carry authority into the offseason. Teammates would recognize the crown on his head, as they might not if two or more candidates officially remained on even footing.

The anointing ended intrigue. It ended media speculation players would read. It ended an offseason rivalry that might split players into bailiwicks, based on personal preferences both on and off the field.

So Sarkisian has his way of doing it.

Then there's most other coaches. They prefer keeping their cards close to their chests. They like the intrigue. They like the prolonged competition. They want to measure offseason work and mental toughness. Who gets better from April to August? Who seems to take control of the locker room or huddle on his own, without the anointing from a coach?

SportsNation

Is it better to announce a starting quarterback after spring practices or wait until the end of fall camp?

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    69%
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    31%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,235)

So we have the two true QB competitions in the Pac-12 this spring: Arizona and Washington, where neither Rich Rodriguez nor Chris Petersen is likely to give us a firm idea of their starter until perhaps as late as the week before the season opener.

Of course, there's not 100 percent purity of approach here. If Kessler hadn't outplayed Browne, Sarkisian almost certainly wouldn't have made an announcement. And if Rodriguez or Petersen were sitting on an Andrew Luck-type talent right now, they probably would go ahead and pull the trigger and announce him as the No. 1 guy.

Fact is, the present consensus is neither Arizona nor Washington has any clear pecking order. The Wildcats have four guys who didn't separate themselves this spring, and the Huskies still have to see where the suspended Cyler Miles, the 2013 backup, fits into their plans.

Yet there is a clear philosophical difference here.

So what do you think? Is it better to anoint a starting QB after spring practices in order to give him a leadership role over the summer, or is it better to wait as long as possible to foster uncertainty and, therefore, continued competition?

Lunch links: Rich Rod talks spring

February, 27, 2014
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If that’s true, if you don’t know who I am, then maybe your best course ... would be to tread lightly.

Mailbag: USC can't again dominate?

February, 7, 2014
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Welcome to the mailbag, the best gateway to Friday happy hour.

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

To the notes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Kidding!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve Sarkisian Q and A

December, 23, 2013
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LAS VEGAS -- Steve Sarkisian smiled as he walked through the lobby of the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas wearing a USC pullover, jeans and loafers.

USC’s new head coach was more of a coach-in-waiting last weekend as he met with parents, players and coaches in Las Vegas before officially taking over the reins following USC’s 45-20 win over Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl.

Sarkisian watched the game from a suite in the press box along with USC athletic director Pat Haden and met with the team as the players boarded the team bus after the game.

“I want them to enjoy it and embrace it,” said Sarkisian, 39. “I couldn't be more proud of them, that they were able to come out and perform the way they did. They deserve it. I just tried to stay out of the way, the best I could. Now I get to get my hands on them and get going -- and there's a lot to work with, that's for sure.”

Before Sarkisian gets going, he sat down with ESPNLosAngeles.com for a wide-ranging interview about taking over the team and about his plans for the future of USC football.

ESPNLA: When Lane Kiffin was fired five games into the season, most figured Pat Haden would spend the final two months of the season trying to secure a “home run” hire to replace him. No disrespect, but after a 34-29 record at Washington, you were not viewed as a” home run hire” by many. Why do you think you’re the right hire for USC?

Sarkisian: I think I’m one of their own. I’ve always considered myself a part of the Trojan family. I come here with a dedication to do everything in my power for them, to work my tail of to get this place back to where it needs to be and belongs to be. I’ve got rich ties to this program. I was here in some of the best years this program has ever had. I think we have an exciting, innovative offense that will kick-start this program and make it the dynamic program offensively that we know we can be. I know I’m going to recruit Southern California extremely well. But at the end of the day, whether you agree with my hiring or not, let’s judge the hiring three or four years down the road. Then come tell me if you think it was a good hire or not. I’m like a recruit. Every coach probably has stars on them. I don’t know if I’m a three-, four- or five-star coach, but that really doesn’t matter in recruiting. It’s the results that you have that really earn those stars so we’ll go see how many stars I can earn.

ESPNLA: Lane Kiffin left Tennessee after one season to come back to coach USC. You left what you had built at Washington over five years to come back and coach USC. You both could have carved your own paths elsewhere but came back. What is it about the USC job that makes it a “dream job” for you?

Sarkisian: I was born and raised in Southern California. I’ve watched the USC football program from the first day I can remember watching football. They won Rose Bowls and national championships and had all those great players. In my youth, those were some of the best years ever in USC history, in the 1970s. I’ve always held on to that. I also had my time here as an assistant coach with Pete [Carroll] and some of the great memories and experiences and teams that we had. So for me, when this opportunity came, I had to take it.

What makes it unique for me is, first of all, it's home, second, the rich history and tradition that this place has, and third, I can vividly remember talking to Pete as a young coach. He asked me, “What do you want? What are you looking for in this profession? Where are you headed?” I told him, “I want your job.” I remember saying that to him a long time ago. I think this is the best job in America. People come here to be the best and that’s why I chose to come here.

(Read full post)

Sarkisian critics get their wish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is no lack of strong possibilities for the Huskies.

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

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

Pac-12, nation now fret Haden's next hire

September, 30, 2013
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There is something undeniably reprehensible about dancing on the grave of a fallen coach. The celebration of a person's perceived failure at his life's work is unseemly. We all know big-time college coaches are big boys who are paid well. We all know that now-terminated USC coach Lane Kiffin brought on much of the ill will he received by how he conducted himself.

Still, the nationwide cackling over Kiffin getting fired in the early morning hours Sunday doesn't represent a high moment in our sports culture.

This grab for measured compassion is made here, however, because of a cold and unfortunate reality that will seem like another potshot at Kiffin. Outside of the Kiffin household, the folks most unhappy about his getting pink-slipped are coaches, administrators and fans of the other 11 Pac-12 teams. And probably some fans of other national powers who have moved on from chortling about Kiffin's fate to asking the most important question.

[+] EnlargeKiffin
Kyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsPac-12 teams knew what they were getting with Lane Kiffin on the USC sideline. Now the sleeping giant has the potential to wake up.
What if USC now hires its Nick Saban? Or, to localize it: Pete Carroll, take two?

Because the right coach at USC competes for national titles on a regular basis. The tradition is there. The facilities, once below standard, are vastly improved. The rich recruiting territory is there. And the ability to ante up big checks for an A-list coach and his staff is there.

Further, the next coach won't be freighted with the ready-made and mostly legitimate excuse Kiffin made when things went wrong on the field: NCAA-mandated scholarship reductions that made the USC roster thinner than those of their opponents. Those end after the 2014 recruiting class and season. The next coach can make the program whole in 2015, his second season.

USC, with 85 scholarships and the right coach, will immediately challenge Oregon and Stanford atop the Pac-12, and Alabama, LSU and Ohio State, etc., for national supremacy.

That's why the other Pac-12 schools are mourning Kiffin's departure. While he was tough to compete with on the recruiting trail -- his clear strength -- other schools were hoping that Kiffin would become the Trojans' "Meander Coach." That's the sort of coach rival teams want to stay atop a college football superpower, such as USC.

A Meander Coach is a coach who does just enough to hang on for several years but falls short of program standards. While not a complete disaster, he allows a program to slip a few notches in the conference and national pecking order. Good examples of this would be Bob Davie at Notre Dame, Ray Goff at Georgia and Earle Bruce at Ohio State.

A Meander 2013 season for USC under Kiffin would have been 9-4 in a 13-game schedule. Kiffin probably would have coached the Trojans in 2014 with that record, particularly if it included a win over Notre Dame or UCLA. But athletic director Pat Haden had seen enough through a 3-2 start, capped by a humiliating 62-41 loss at Arizona State on Saturday, to understand that barely good enough was not even going to happen. So he made his move.

Now the hope around the Pac-12 and the nation is that Haden gets his coaching pick wrong. Haden, a former USC and NFL quarterback and Rhodes scholar, is extremely bright and knowledgeable about football, but the odds are pretty good he will get it wrong. After all, to get from John McKay and John Robinson to Carroll, USC had to go through Ted Tollner, Larry Smith and Paul Hackett. Just as Alabama had to go through Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione and Mike Shula to get to Saban. Notre Dame and Tennessee also can teach lessons about superpowers struggling to find the right guy.

Former AD Mike Garrett's hiring of Carroll? Complete luck. It was a desperation move after Garrett was turned down by Dennis Erickson, Mike Bellotti and Mike Riley. The Carroll hiring also was widely panned when it was announced. He was seen as a slightly goofy chatterbox and washed-out NFL coach. Perceptions changed, but only because the wrong hire turned out to be right.

One benefit Haden has bought himself with a midseason termination is time. While plenty of other teams are going to fire their head coaches, Haden is the first in the ring. While it's certain he already has a short list of favorite candidates that probably is not unlike the lists every publication has written up since Kiffin was fired, he also can sit back a few weeks and get a measure of who's interested. There will be plenty of back-channel feelers from agents of NFL head coaches and assistant coaches as well as college head coaches and assistant coaches.

A successful precedent for Haden to consider is Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne's handling of the transition from Mike Stoops to Rich Rodriguez. Just like Haden, Byrne fired Stoops midseason after an embarrassing loss before a bye week and installed a veteran coach, Tim Kish, as his interim head coach. He then conducted a stealth coaching search over the next six weeks, breaking the news of his hiring of Rodriguez on Twitter.

Byrne gave himself a head start with the hiring process. He got his first choice hired before the season ended and gave his new coach a head start with recruiting. He also accelerated the getting-to-know-you phase compared to all the other teams looking for a new head coach in December. Byrne even received a boost from Kish's version of the Wildcats, who won three of their final six games, including a win over archrival Arizona State.

Other Pac-12 coaches are now fretting the same thing happening with the Trojans: What if USC suddenly starts playing inspired football under interim coach Ed Orgeron? It's entirely possible the Trojans will be a better team going forward, meaning the Sun Devils are grateful Haden didn't take action after the Trojans lost at home to Washington State on Sept. 7.

As for Haden's coaching search, it will be a bit more high-profile than Byrne's. The Trojans are a national team. So in the next few weeks there will be a cacophony of public denials. They will be meaningless. Saban repeatedly said without ambiguity that he wasn't leaving the Miami Dolphins for Alabama. Until he did. And who knew that Bret Bielema was so eager to bolt Wisconsin for Arkansas?

The two biggest problems the USC coaching search encountered after Carroll bolted for the Seattle Seahawks that led to the Kiffin hiring are gone: (1) upcoming NCAA sanctions, and (2) no one wanting to be the guy-after-the-guy.

So know that just about everybody is in play. Until they're not.

The Pac-12 and the college football nation didn't feel too good about Kiffin in 2011, when he led the Trojans to a 10-2 record and won at Oregon and Notre Dame. But in the past 18 games, they embraced his USC tenure. They wanted him inside Heritage Hall as long as possible.

Now there is worrisome uncertainty among 11 other Pac-12 teams, not to mention folks like SEC commissioner Mike Slive and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany. If Haden hires the right guy, the Trojan colossus will dust itself off and rise with a cocky grin. Rose Bowls and national championships will shortly follow.

No trashing Lane Kiffin on USC side

September, 29, 2013
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Lane Kiffin has suffered through the slings and arrows from media and fans during all three of his head-coaching stops, so the distinguishing aspect of USC's news conference on Sunday over his termination was that no one said anything bad about Kiffin.

Athletic director Pat Haden, who deemed it "disrespectful" to talk about his upcoming coaching search, started by thanking Kiffin and lauding his effort. He said he had received no complaints about Kiffin from assistant coaches or players. Interim coach Ed Orgeron said Kiffin was always receptive to him and said he would have handled the early-season QB controversy the same way. The players said they had been 100 percent behind Kiffin.

Haden also again noted that Kiffin had been handed a tough job. Severe NCAA sanctions undoubtedly made it more difficult to win like USC is accustomed to winning.

And yet ...

"I’ve said all along, we’ve graded on a curve," Haden said, "but we failed on the curve, too."

Haden said he made his final decision during the Trojans' 62-41 loss at Arizona State, but he also noted that "this has been brewing for a while. It hadn't felt particularly good, even since the Hawaii game."

Haden said he and Kiffin met for 45 minutes at the airport after the USC charter landed around 3 a.m. Haden admitted that Kiffin was blindsided and fought for his job.

"Lane was clearly disappointed," Haden said. "Lane is a great recruiter. He battled me. He really tried to keep his job and I respect that."

There will be changes with Kiffin gone. For one, Orgeron said QBs coach Clay Helton will take over as offensive coordinator and playcaller, though Orgeron added that he didn't think the offense would change much philosophically. Cody Kessler will remain the starting QB.

Orgeron also said USC will again open practices to the media.

"I want us to have some fun over these next eight games and let the chips fall where they may," he said.

Of course, the first question is whether Orgeron has a chance to become permanent head coach. Orgeron was head coach at Ole Miss from 2005 to 2007, so he knows the basics of running a program and he has a long history at USC, ranging back to the glory days under Pete Carroll. To this, Orgeron would merely say he is focused on the Trojans' next eight games, but he didn't seem to want to close the door on the possibility.

It will be interesting to see how the players react. Orgeron is as fiery a coach as there is in the nation, and his intensity works on players in practice, games and in recruiting. But can he re-motivate a team that is pretty media savvy when it comes to saying the right things to reporters at news conferences but that also seems pretty indifferent on the field?

We'll get our first impression when Arizona visits on Oct. 10, a Thursday night game.

Said Orgeron, "We're here to answer the bell."
It is a whole new ball game with recruits out West now that Lane Kiffin is out at USC.

The Trojans’ Class of 2014 recruiting efforts mirrored the product on the field. There were a few bright spots like highly regarded ESPN 300 defensive end Malik Dorton (Bellflower, Calif./St. John Bosco), ESPN 300 linebacker D.J. Calhoun (El Cerrito, Calif./El Cerrito) and ESPN 300 offensive lineman Toa Lobendahn (La Habra, Calif./La Habra), but it was also a class full of incompletions, fumbles and big misses.

[+] EnlargeTalamaivao
Erik McKinney/ESPN.comThe Trojans hope a new coaching staff will sway recruits like Viane Talamaivao (committed to Alabama) to USC.
The Trojans, in one of the deepest hotbeds of talent in the entire country and with one of the proudest football traditions around, were able to lure only seven commitments and watched conference rivals Arizona, Arizona State, Stanford, UCLA and Washington blow past them on the recruiting trail. Recruits and high school coaches throughout the Southland also raised major concerns about the way Kiffin interacted with -- or some say flat-out ignored -- many top local prospects and coaches when they would come for unofficial visits or wanted to talk shop.

You have to win the recruiting wars in Los Angeles if you’re going to dominate at USC. It’s something that Pete Carroll figured out the second he stepped into Heritage Hall, but Kiffin was never able to fully embrace.

However, the Trojans now have a chance to reset things.

If USC makes the right hire, there’s still a real chance to lure a number of the West’s best prospects. Twenty-seven of the Top 100 and eight of the top 15 prospects in California have yet to make up their minds.

Plus, there will be kids who are committed to other schools that will take a long look at the Trojans again with a new coach in charge. You can bet that players like ESPN 300 offensive lineman and Alabama commit Viane Talamaivao (Corona, Calif./Centennial), ESPN 300 athlete and Arizona commit Marquis Ware (Los Angeles/Salesian), Elite 11 quarterback and Miami commit Brad Kaaya (West Hills, Calif./Chaminade) and many other committed players in California will get calls from the new USC staff.

In recruiting, nothing can erase the errors of the old and give a school some new momentum like a coaching change.

USC now has the chance to right its recruiting wrongs. Coupled with the fact recruits and high school coaches still consider the Trojans Los Angeles’ football team, USC’s run to signing day in February could alter the Pac-12 for years to come.

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