Pac-12: USC Trojans

Happy Friday. Welcome to the mailbag. Pac-12 bowl season starts Saturday. Yay.

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To the notes!

Duckzila from Portland writes: The Oregon offense typically feasts on teams that are undisciplined on defense. My perception is Florida State is a team that relies on athleticism and freelances quite a bit on the defense side of the ball. Even when they shut down Georgia Tech in the second half of the ACC championship, they were helped out by an inaccurate quarterback missing open plays downfield. To be fair, I definitely suffer from seeing college football through green and yellow shaded glasses, and haven't watched a ton of FSU games this year. I'm curious if you see the FSU defense the same way?

Ted Miller: No, I don't see Florida State's defense that way.

What I see is a talented unit that was rebuilding after being dominant during 2013's national title campaign, one that was breaking in a new coordinator, one that was then riddled by injuries. I see a defense that is on track to be as healthy as it has been all season against Oregon.

I see a defense that is adept at making adjustments. The Seminoles gave up 174 points in the first half this season. They yielded just 125 in the second half. Oregon's underrated defense gave up 141 points in the first half and 151 in the second half. I see a defense that overcame an offense that was stunningly turnover-prone -- the Seminoles' 27 turnovers would have been the highest total in the Pac-12. Oregon had just eight turnovers this season.

Further, and this isn't a terribly original point: Defenses tend to excel after extended pre-bowl preparation. The extra time helps a defense train its eyes, accustom itself to potential misdirection and create a laser-like focus on its keys. Ducks fans saw that when two offensive juggernauts, Auburn and Oregon, played a low-scoring, 22-19 slugfest for the 2010 national championship.

If Oregon's offense wins the battle with FSU's defense, I doubt we will say it's because FSU was undisciplined. I think we'll say it's because the Oregon offense is just really freaking hard to stop.


Matt from Washington, D.C. writes: Ted-According to ESPN, Washington was tied with FSU for the most All-Americans yet won eight games, none against a high-quality team. With the shadow of Dan Hawkins looming large and so much talent leaving this year, what are the reasons for optimism for UW fans moving forward in the Petersen era?

Ted Miller: It's not unfair to say Chris Petersen's first season was underwhelming, even disappointing. He inherited talent that hinted at 10 wins in the regular season and he won eight. He didn't beat a ranked team and the Huskies struggled against overmatched foes. While he's not one to navel-gaze in front of the media, my guess is Petersen will be as self-critical about himself and his staff as any message board.

So why be optimistic? Well, Petersen went 92-12 at Boise State and won two Fiesta Bowls, a record that far surpasses Dan Hawkins or, really, any coach outside of a Power 5 conference. There's a reason folks so celebrated his hiring. The guy is smart. He's detail-oriented. He has a system. Some of the things that cost the Huskies this year -- such as giving mouthy, me-first cornerback Marcus Peters the boot -- probably will pay off in the long term as Petersen establishes his culture.

Yet Petersen might need to recalibrate some. Playing a Pac-12 schedule is different than playing one or two Power 5 foes a year and trying to earn your big-boy-football bona fides. In the Pac-12, you play a marquee game against Oregon... and then you play a marque game against Arizona State the next weekend.

As much as he's emphasizing "OKGs -- Our Kind of Guys" in recruiting, he's probably going to need a more generous gray area when evaluating prospects, particularly ones who run 4.4-second 40-yard dashes and weigh more than 300 pounds. He also might need to rethink some spots on his coaching staff.

Yes, the Huskies take some huge roster hits heading into 2015, particularly on defense and the offensive line. Eight wins next year probably would be an overachievement. But Petersen wasn't hired for immediate flash. He was hired to return Washington to long-term glory. Those are two different processes, and the latter often includes worse short-term growing pains.


Ramon from Chatsworth, California, writes: The Pac-12 South was an extremely tough division this season. The toughest, if you ask me. With the way the season ended for TCU and Baylor, which Pac-12 south team has the highest chances of being affected, positively and negatively, by their out-of-conference schedule in 2015?

Ted Miller: Arizona State, UCLA, USC and Utah will be in good shape if the College Football Playoff committee is reviewing their nonconference schedules. Arizona and Colorado will not be.

Here are the schedules.
  • Arizona: UTSA, at Nevada, Northern Arizona
  • Arizona State: Texas A&M (Houston), Cal Poly, New Mexico
  • Colorado: at Hawaii, UMass, Colorado State (Denver), Nicholls State
  • UCLA: Virginia, at UNLV, BYU
  • USC: Arkansas State, Idaho, at Notre Dame
  • Utah: Michigan, Utah State, at Fresno State

Obviously, the Buffaloes are aiming for bowl eligibility, not a berth in the CFP, and have scheduled accordingly. Arizona is another matter, as the Wildcats' nonconference schedule is Baylor-esque and would be viewed dimly by the committee.

Of course, the Wildcats didn't envision they would be in the hunt this season, at least from the past scheduling perspective of athletic director Greg Byrne. If the Wildcats again surge in 2015, their nonconference schedule will be a problem, unless they emerge from the Pac-12 unbeaten.

2014 Pac-12 All-Underrated team

December, 17, 2014
Dec 17
5:00
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You've surely already seen plenty of glittering All-Pac-12 teams. Here's the All-Pac-12 team from the conference coaches. And here's ESPN.com's version. Lots of star value. While there were a few tough omissions with legitimate differences of opinion -- running back? defensive front seven? -- there also was plenty of consensus, particularly if you made two teams.

Yet there also were some very good players who got just about no recognition and should have. That's why we're creating an "All-Underrated" team.

The idea was to spotlight players, mostly upperclassmen, who didn't make the first- or second-All-Pac-12 teams from the coaches or from ESPN.com.

Funny thing is, this team was also pretty darn difficult to make. There was lots of star value in the Pac-12 this season, and lots of good players who got lost in the shadows of those stars.

OFFENSE

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Harry How/Getty ImagesCody Kessler was quietly efficient for USC, throwing 36 touchdowns and only four interceptions.
QB: Cody Kessler, Jr., USC: Kessler completed 71 percent of his passes for 3,505 yards with 36 TDs and just four interceptions. He was second in the Pac-12 and sixth in the nation in Total QBR.

RB: Daniel Lasco, Jr., California: Ranked sixth in conference with 92.9 yards per game, finishing the season with 1,115 yards and 12 TDs, which ranked third among conference running backs.

RB: Byron Marshall, Jr., Oregon: After leading the Ducks in rushing last season, Marshall did most of his work as a receiver this year, but we're putting him here because this is his natural position. He led the Ducks with 61 receptions for 814 yards with five touchdowns while also rushing for 383 yards and a TD, averaging 7.7 yards per carry.

WR: Austin Hill, Sr., Arizona: Hill wasn't the super-productive guy he was in 2012 before his knee injury, but he was a clutch and critical contributor to the Wildcats high-powered offense. He ranked second on the team with 45 receptions for 605 yards with four touchdowns. He also showed versatility as a tight end and demonstrated a willingness to block.

WR: Isiah Myers, Sr., Washington State: Finished second on the Cougars with 78 catches, and his 972 receiving yards were fifth-most in the Pac-12. His 12 touchdown catches tied for the Pac-12 lead and tied for the second-most in WSU history. He posted three 100-yard games and finished his career sixth in WSU history with 164 receptions and tied for fourth with 19 career touchdowns.

WR: Jordan Payton, Jr., UCLA: He led the Bruins with 63 receptions (8th on all-time UCLA single-season list) and 896 yards (10th) with seven touchdowns. His 14.2 yards per catch tied for second in the Pac-12.

OL: Joe Dahl, Jr., Washington State: The left tackle allowed just one sack in WSU’s Pac-12 record 771 pass attempts and earned the team’s “Bone” Award (given to the team’s best offensive lineman following each game) a team-best six times. He has started all 25 games he has been at WSU, starting 12 at left guard before moving to left tackle in the New Mexico Bowl last year.

OL: Josh Mitchell, Jr., Oregon State: He stepped in for injured All-American candidate Isaac Seumalo and became the leader of the Beavers offensive line, the one constant for a unit that used six different combinations.

OL: Vi Teofilo, Jr., Arizona State: A physical blocker who got better as the season wore on, he earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors from the coaches.

OL: Hamani Stevens, Sr., Oregon: Slid over from left guard to center when All-American Hroniss Grasu went down and did a solid job. Was the only Ducks linemen to start every game this season.

OL: Daniel Munyer, Sr., Colorado: The Buffaloes best O-lineman -- the Buffs yielded the second-fewest sacks in the Pac-12 -- he graded out at 90.9 percent this season with a team-best 51 knockdowns.

DEFENSE

DL Andrew Hudson, Sr., Washington: Hudson ranked fourth in the Pac-12 with 11.5 sacks, and his 0.88 sacks per game ranked 13th in the nation. Finished fourth on the Huskies with 71 tackles, including 14.5 for a loss, with three forced fumbles.

DL David Parry, Sr., Stanford: A force in the middle of Stanford's dominant defense, he had 30 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks. He also had six QB hurries.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Hardison
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesMarcus Hardison (1) was an impact player on the Arizona State defensive line this season.
DL: Marcus Hardison, Sr., Arizona State: Ranked fifth in the conference with 10 sacks. He also had 40 tackles, including 14.0 tackles for a loss, with two forced fumbles and two memorable interceptions.

LB: Jared Norris, Jr., Utah: Led the Utes and was fourth in the conference in total tackles (108) and tackles per game (9.0). His 10.0 TFL is tied for 10th. He also had four sacks.


LB: Blake Martinez, Jr., Stanford: More than a few folks think Martinez manned the middle of the Stanford defense this fall better than Shayne Skov did the previous few seasons. He led the Cardinal with 96 tackles and had six tackles for a loss, four sacks and two forced fumbles.

LB: J.R. Tavai, Sr., USC: Despite missing two games with a knee injury, he led the Trojans with seven sacks. Also had 47 tackles, including 12 for losses, with two deflections, a fumble recovery and a team-best three forced fumbles. Won USC’s Chris Carlisle Courage Award.

LB Michael Doctor, Sr., Oregon State: Doctor returned from an ankle injury that killed his 2013 season and finished with 62 tackles (third on the team). He also tied for the team lead with three interceptions, including a pick-6 off Taylor Kelly in the Beavers' upset of Arizona State. Doctor also had two forced fumbles and a recovery.

S: Jordan Simone, Jr., Arizona State: Former walk-on finished second on the Sun Devils with 90 tackles, including 4.5 for a loss, and a sack. He also had two interceptions and a forced fumble.

S: Jared Tevis, Sr., Arizona: While he got lost amid the deserved hoopla for LB Scooby Wright III, Tevis, a former walk-on, finished second on the Wildcats with 119 tackles, including nine for loss, with four sacks and two interceptions. Most of that production came in the second half of the season.

CB: Alex Carter, Jr., Stanford: Carter didn't have a lot of numbers -- 39 tackles, one interception, one forced fumble -- but there are a lot of observers who might rate him right up with Oregon's Ifo Ekpre-Olomu as an NFL prospect.

CB: Eric Rowe, Sr., Utah: Third in the Pac-11 in passes defended per game (1.18). Tied for fourth in total passes defended (13). Looks like he could be the next NFL cornerback out of Utah.

SPECIALISTS

K: Cameron Van Winkle, So., Washington: Led the Pac-12 in field goal percentage after connecting on 20 of 23 kicks -- 87 percent -- with a long of 51.

P: Darragh O'Neill, Sr., Colorado: Had a 44.1 average, which ranked third in the conference, and had 27 punts inside the 20 -- second in the Pac-12 -- including 14 inside the 15. 66.7 percent of his punts (65) were not returned.
video
If Oregon wins the inaugural College Football Playoff, the Pac-12 will cap the greatest season in its history, including iterations as the Pac-8 and Pac-10. Perhaps we should toss an "arguably" in there, particularly if the conference's seven other bowl teams go belly-up in some form or fashion, but why be wishy-washy?

After Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota was the overwhelming winner of the Heisman Trophy on Saturday, the Pac-12 completed a sweep through the award season like some morphing of "Titanic," "Ben Hur" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" at the Oscars. Combine Mariota with Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright, and the Pac-12 has produced the season's most decorated offensive and defensive players. Not since 2002, when USC QB Carson Palmer won the Heisman and Arizona State LB Terrell Suggs swept most defensive awards has this happened.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesMarcus Mariota and the Oregon Ducks have a chance to make this a historic season for the Pac-12.
Mariota also won the Maxwell and Walter Camp player of the year awards, as well as the Davey O'Brien and Unitas awards as the nation's top QB. Wright won the Lombardi, Bednarik and Nagurski awards. Further, UCLA linebacker Eric Kendricks won the Butkus Award, Utah defensive end Nate Orchard won the Hendricks Award and Utah punter Tom Hackett won the Ray Guy Award.

Toss in eight players on the ESPN.com All-America team -- from seven different schools -- and six teams ranked in the final pre-bowl CFP rankings and it feels like an unprecedented season for national recognition in the Pac-12.

Well, at least if the Ducks take care of business.

The season Palmer and Suggs were college football's most celebrated players, just two Pac-10 teams ended up ranked, though both were in the top 10 (USC and Washington State), while Colorado, then in the Big 12, also finished ranked. In 2004, USC won the national title, Trojans QB Matt Leinart won the Heisman and California finished in the top 10. Arizona State also finished ranked, while Utah went undefeated, though as a Mountain West Conference member. Obviously, if you fudge with conference membership issues, you can make things look better retroactively than they were in their present time.

In 2000, three teams -- No. 3 Washington, No. 4 Oregon State and No. 7 Oregon -- finished ranked in the top seven. In 1984, the Pac-10 won the Rose (USC), Orange (Washington) and Fiesta (UCLA) bowls and finished with three top-10 teams, including No. 2 Washington, which was victimized by BYU's dubious national title.

So there have been plenty of impressive seasons, just not anything as scintillating as 2014 if Oregon wins the title.

Oregon, of course, hoisting the new 35-pound, cylindrical trophy as the last team standing is hardly a sure thing. First, the Ducks get defending national champion Florida State in the Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual. While many have questioned the Seminoles this season because every game has been a nail-biter, that doesn't change the fact the nation's only unbeaten Power 5 conference team -- winners of 29 games in a row, no less -- own the fourth quarter. In football, owning the fourth quarter is almost always a good thing.

If Oregon manages to win that CFP semifinal game, the good money is on it getting a shot at top-ranked Alabama in the national title game, though throwing funereal dirt on Ohio State this season has proved difficult. Ohio State is the Count Dracula of college football this season -- perennially undead. That duly noted, knocking aside Alabama -- the game's most dynastic program, led by its most celebrated coach in Nick Saban -- while the Crimson Tide also stand as the bell cow of the dominant SEC would be the ultimate achievement for a team and conference eager to solidify its super-elite standing.

The simple fact that Oregon has not won a national title in football -- and the Pac-12/10 hasn't claimed one since 2004 -- stands out on both literal and symbolic levels. There has not been a first-time national champion since Florida won in 1996, while a Pac-12/10 team other than USC hasn't won one since Washington in 1991. Before that, if then-Big 8 member Colorado's 1990 title doesn't count, it's UCLA in 1954.

So Oregon taking that final step into the light would represent a pretty dramatic development, particularly after the school already upgraded its trophy case with its first Heisman. It would complete a climb started in the 1990s and show other mid-to-low-level Power 5 teams that all they need to transform into a superpower is good coaching, strong administration and a sugar-daddy billionaire booster.

As for the conference in general, it would be a big deal to have a non-USC national title in the coffers, and it would be further validation of the depth and quality of the conference. Last season, for the first time since 2009, the conference didn't finish with a top-five team, but for the first time ever it finished with six teams ranked in the final AP poll. So the Ducks at the top would provide some nice symmetry.

As for the entire postseason, the Pac-12 is favored in seven of its eight bowl games, with UCLA being only a slight underdog to Kansas State, with the line trending down since opening at 3 1/2 points. So the conference is set up for success. Anything fewer than six wins -- including Oregon in the Rose Bowl -- would be a disappointment, an underachievement.

You know, not unlike last season, when the conference went 6-3 and graded a mere "Gentleman's C" from the Pac-12 blog.

While Washington and Oregon State fans will be hard-pressed to force out a "Go Ducks!" and USC fans probably aren't ready to admit a new member to the college football penthouse, if Oregon can make its tide rise to the top -- and roll the Tide along the way -- it will boost all Pac-12 ships.

Mailbag: South shall rise again!

December, 12, 2014
Dec 12
5:30
PM ET
Happy "Mariota wins the Heisman" Eve!

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To the notes!

Stu from Seattle writes: I know you all posted this week that the Pac-12 South will be wide-open next year -- and I agree completely -- but if you had to handicap the division, based on players returning, plus those likely to go pro early (a lot of critical 'SC players on that list, it seems), who do you favor RIGHT NOW to end up on top? No pressure.

Ted Miller: At first, I thought I could just pop something out there when I picked this question. It was like a fat fastball coming at me just where I like it. Swing! Then I did some depth-chart reviews. Ah, Stu, you got me with the ole changeup.

Honest answer is I have no clue how to stack things up right now. You could make a compelling case for five teams, and the sixth, Colorado, stacks up like a potential bowl team if things fall favorably here and there. My initial intention, in fact, was to pick Utah, knowing that would flummox many of you traditional Pac-10 sorts. And you know how I enjoy flummoxing you traditional Pac-10 sorts.

Things are very interesting in the South, but we can't truly stack things up until we know who's entering the NFL draft early. We can make assumptions on some guys -- Arizona State WR Jaelen Strong and USC DE Leonard Williams seem sure to bolt -- but you just never know. There are going to be some surprise players staying and some surprise players going.

[+] EnlargeNelson Agholor
Harry How/Getty ImagesThe draft decision of Nelson Agholor and others will likely tip the balance of power in 2015 in the Pac-12 South.
At this point, I'm a slight lean to Arizona State. No, USC. No, ASU. Hmm. OK, I'll say the Sun Devils, but I might change my mind. In an hour.

How do things stack up?

Arizona: Lots of skill and name players returning, but BIG hits on O-line and on defense. Still, QB Anu Solomon, RB Nick Wilson, LB Scooby Wright and a deep crew of receivers is a good place to start.

Arizona State: Mike Bercovici is pretty much like a returning starter at QB, and the defense will be much more experienced next fall. There is not a significant area that stands out as a weakness.

UCLA: While most will focus on QB Brett Hundley leaving -- and there could be other early defections -- the Bruins could potentially welcome back 18 starting position players. So the big question is whether touted incoming QB Josh Rosen will be ready, or is there some other answer behind center?

USC: We can't judge the Trojans until guys announce whether they are staying or going. If it's just one or two guys -- Williams? WR Nelson Agholor? -- then USC will be in the thick of things. And maybe the favorite.

Utah: I've got Utah with potentially 17 position players coming back, though RB Devontae Booker bolting for the NFL would be a big hit. The offensive line will be a huge strength and there's good talent coming back on defense. Will the QB position -- I know: broken record -- take a step forward?

This, obviously, is a topic we will revisit. A lot.


Tim from Salt Lake City writes: Do you expect the strength and depth of the Pac-12 South to last? Everything is about balance. For one team to win, another has to lose (not a terribly profound statement, I know). This year, that balance came in the form of several teams underachieving in the North, but Cal and Washington are trending up. Plus, I'm not ready to declare Stanford's reign over based on one underwhelming season. Could things be more balanced next year and, if so, which South team is most likely to regress?

Ted Miller: I don't see any South regression. It might, actually, end up stronger in 2015 than it was this year, particularly if players stick around instead of entering the draft and UCLA solves its QB question adequately.

The North, actually, is a better candidate for regression. Perhaps a significant one. I think Oregon will slip post-Marcus Mariota, but the Ducks still welcome back a strong core of talent. I expect them to be a slight favorite again in 2015, particularly with Stanford taking some huge hits on defense.

As for Cal and Washington trending up, I'm with you on the Bears, but I don't know about the Huskies, who take some monster losses on defense and aren't really scintillating on offense either. Oregon State will be breaking in a new coach and quarterback and rebuilding its defense, while Washington State fills me with uncertainty after I just knew last August the Cougars would take a big step forward this year.

I actually think the Cougs could be dangerous in 2015, but I'm not going to type that because it surely would throw the jinx on them, and Coug fans would blame me for doing that.


Brian from Boston writes: Looking at Cody Kessler's upcoming decision, I can't help but wonder, would he be off leaving after this year? It pains me to say it but, although his stock is not nearly as high as Matt Barkley's was after his junior year (even though his numbers are better), if he leaves now he will be a second-day pick but will probably end up on a better team, with less expectations. However, if he stays, he could get hurt, his numbers could decline and his stock could drop, or he could end up having much higher expectations.

Ted Miller: I think Kessler wants to come back, though I think he's more torn at present than he was several weeks ago, when he was talking about lobbying other Trojans considering the NFL to stick around.

You could make a case either way. Kessler has certainly boosted his stock this season, but he could play his way solidly into the first round next year.

I don't think he'll be fretting playing his way into a high draft pick and then ending up on a bad team. I've never heard a college player say he left early to avoid being drafted sooner the next year, fearing an early first-round pick could become his ruin.


David from Beaverton, Oregon, writes: Fun/hypothetical question -- you guys like those, right? For each Pac-12 team if you could take one player from another Pac-12 team and add them to said team, who would you take and why? And maybe we need some boundaries on this, like no QB's or something like that, because it would be boring if everyone chooses Mariota. The player can either make the new team better or more interesting. For example, as an Oregon fan, while I like our front seven a lot, I think we could really take it up a notch with a top-flight pass rusher like Hau'oli Kikaha. But wouldn't it also be really interesting if Nelson Agholor,was on the team even though he's probably not needed as much? Imagine him in space with the other Ducks playmakers. Anyway, what do you think?

Ted Miller: I actually do this all the time. My favorite in 2014 was imagining what Utah might have been this year with Marcus Mariota at quarterback.

(Inserting pause here for Utah fans to emerge from their swoon, though Washington fans are surely noting the Huskies were the only other Pac-12 team to recruit Mariota).

I'm not going to go through each team because every team could benefit from a Strong or Agholor or a Williams or an Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. But I do have one.

What if Arizona defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel and his 3-3-5 scheme could get a monster nose tackle, such as a Danny Shelton? You think Scooby is productive now? Imagine what he could do with a massive, demands-a-double-team presence in front of him.


Michael from Steubenville, Ohio, writes: When the Rose Bowl hosts the semifinal between Oregon and Florida State, will the winner receive the Leishman Trophy?

Ted Miller: Yep. The Rose Bowl folks are treating this one just like any other Rose Bowl, though obviously it's not a traditional Pac-12-Big Ten matchup. It's the 101st Rose Bowl, quasi-pure and simple -- or the Twitter-unfriendly "College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual."


Mike from Dublin, California, writes: This is a great video that was made by UCLA covering the point when Eric Kendricks won the 2014 Butkus Award. It's a real tear-jerker and something worth watching and sharing.

Ted Miller: Yes, that is very cool.


Kevin from San Francisco writes: Win or Lose, Buffs forever.

Ted Miller: So it's cool video day.

Stacking up Pac-12 for bowl season

December, 8, 2014
Dec 8
11:00
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Oregon will get a crack at the national title as the No. 2 seed in the College Football Playoff opposite No. 3 Florida State, the defending national champions. Arizona earned a spot in the Vizio Fiesta Bowl against Boise State, which doesn't sound scintillating but earns the Pac-12 an extra $4 million.

Outside of the major bowls, only one of the opponents is ranked in the final CFP rankings (No. 11 Kansas State, which is playing UCLA in the Valero Alamo Bowl), but six Pac-12 foes boast at least nine wins. Nebraska, which is 9-3 and plays USC in the National University Holiday Bowl, is 25th in the AP poll.

Some initial impressions.

College Football Playoff semifinal (Rose Bowl presented by Northwestern Mutual) No. 2 Oregon (12-1) vs. No. 3 Florida State (13-0): This one is pretty simple for Oregon and the Pac-12. The conference wants to win its first national title since 2004, while the Ducks are looking for their first national title, period. So this is all about national validation for both parties.

Meanwhile Florida State is trying to repeat, which would begin talk of a dynastic run under Jimbo Fisher, who could then boost himself up near the top of the list of nation's best coaches. If Mark Helfrich were to bring a national title back to Eugene, he probably would never have to hear about Chip Kelly's shadow again.

Obviously, it's an outstanding matchup of quarterbacks, with last year's Heisman Trophy winner, Florida State's Jameis Winston, squaring off with Marcus Mariota, a heavy favorite to take home the bronze statue on Saturday.

Oregon fans need to be prepared for national pundits to again speculate on how the Ducks will hold up on the line of scrimmage against a big, bad team from the Southeast. But on the optimistic side of things, beating the Seminoles and then, perhaps, Alabama in the national title game would eliminate that narrative forever.

VIZIO Fiesta Bowl No. 10 Arizona (10-3) vs. No. 20 Boise State (11-2): While the Wildcats are thrilled to be playing in a major bowl so close to home, the matchup doesn't provide much juice. Beating the Broncos won't impress many folks, and losing would be a major hit to Arizona's Q-rating.

You'd think the Wildcats will be plenty motivated to avoid that. For one, they looked awful while getting blown out by Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game, so they want to wash that taste out of their mouths. A big home crowd should help get their adrenaline flowing.

The extra prep time should help get QB Anu Solomon healthy, as he's been battling a pesky ankle issue for weeks.

While Boise State is a solid 11-2, it doesn't have a marquee victory like it has in most seasons. Its best win came early in the season over Colorado State. The Broncos got drubbed in their season opener by Ole Miss 35-13.

You can expect, of course, that the Broncos will be plenty hungry to take a bite out of a Pac-12 team. Not only that, they want to show the nation that they will be fine post-Chris Petersen under coach Bryan Harsin.

Valero Alamo Bowl No. 14 UCLA (9-3) vs. No. 11 Kansas State (9-3): This is an A-list matchup that both the Pac-12 and Big 12 would really like to win in order to obtain some degree of bragging rights versus the other. Both teams also are coming off disappointing defeats, with the Bruins particularly smarting after they yielded the South Division title by getting blown out by Stanford the final weekend of the regular season.

In fact, this could be a line of demarcation game for UCLA. Win, and it's reasonable to call the season moderately successful (if underwhelming). Lose, and the season is a certifiable failure, at least based on lofty preseason expectations.

It's also UCLA QB Brett Hundley's last game. The season didn't turn out like he wanted, but this is his chance to go out on a high note after he and coach Jim Mora combined to rebuild the Bruins into a contender.

National University Holiday Bowl No. 24 USC (8-4) vs. Nebraska (9-3): An immediate concern for USC is whether Nebraska picks up some of that juju new coach Mike Riley sometimes had against favored Trojans teams in the past.

It will be interesting to see how both teams react after disappointing seasons. Steve Sarkisian could use a bowl win to quiet some of his vocal critics who gave him less than a one-year honeymoon. Nebraska players were unhappy that Bo Pelini got fired, so they will either play with fire as a tribute to him or show a jaded lack of interest.

As always with USC at the end of the season, it also will be interesting to see how many players announce their NFL intentions after the game.

Foster Farms Bowl Stanford (7-5) vs. Maryland (7-5): Hey, a rare Pac-12-ACC matchup... wait. At the very least, this game will help Pac-12 fans learn that Maryland now plays in the Big Ten.

It has been a trying and disappointing season for Stanford, which has become accustomed to major bowls, but it's also notable that the Cardinal played great in its last two games, dominating California and UCLA. QB Kevin Hogan, particularly, seemed to find his rhythm.

Hyundai Sun Bowl No. 15 Arizona State (9-3) vs. Duke (9-3): This is not where the Sun Devils wanted to be. If they had beaten arch-rival Arizona, it would be them, not the Wildcats, in the Fiesta Bowl playing in front of a home crowd. So El Paso is a few notches below where Todd Graham's team wanted to be.

But they better not take Duke lightly, as they did Texas Tech last year in a dreadful Holiday Bowl performance. While David Cutcliffe's crew suffered a late-season swoon, losing two of their final three games -- just like ASU -- it's looking to finish nationally ranked for a second consecutive season, which doesn't happen often in Durham. At least not in football.

Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl No. 23 Utah (8-4) vs. Colorado State (10-2): Hey, it's a Mountain West reunion!

This is a tough matchup for the Utes because the Rams are pretty impressive, though there's also the possibility they could be flat after losing coach Jim McElwain to Florida. Colorado State beat Colorado and Boston College this season, so it's earned a couple of Power 5 scalps already, even if it lost to Air Force the final weekend of the season.

And, of course, Utes coach Kyle Whittingham's name has been buzzing about for some open jobs out there, including Michigan.

Cactus Bowl Washington (8-5) vs. Oklahoma State (6-6): These are two teams trying to salvage disappointing seasons with a bowl win.

The Cowboys had lost five Big 12 games in a row by double-digits before shocking rival Oklahoma on Saturday. Did they find their rhythm, or will that emotional win diminish their focus for this one?

For Washington, first-year coach Chris Peteresen could use a win to remind Huskies fans why they were so excited when he was hired away from Boise State.
NEBRASKA CORNHUSKERS (9-3) VS. USC TROJANS (8-4)
DEC. 27, 8 P.M. ET, QUALCOMM STADIUM, SAN DIEGO (ESPN)

NEBRASKA BREAKDOWN

Season highlights: Nebraska started 5-0 for the first time since 2010. It amassed a Big Ten-record 784 yards in the opener against Florida Atlantic and won in resounding fashion at home against historical nemesis Miami, grinding out 343 rushing yards. The Huskers reached nine wins for the seventh straight season under Bo Pelini. They saw receiver Kenny Bell and I-back Ameer Abdullah shatter records and capped the regular season by matching the largest road comeback in program history in a 37-34 overtime win at Iowa on the day after Thanksgiving.

Season lowlights: Michigan State stole the thunder from Nebraska’s high-powered offense, holding the Huskers to 1.3 yards per rushing attempt in a big-game disappointment nearly erased by a late Nebraska charge. Six weeks later, there was no comeback at Wisconsin as Melvin Gordon gouged the Huskers for a then-FBS record 408 rushing yards in a five-touchdown loss that ultimately cost Pelini his job. A week later, Minnesota won at Memorial Stadium for the first time since 1960, eliminating the Huskers from contention for the West Division title. On Nov. 30, Pelini was fired.

Player to watch: With a month to heal from a Nov. 1 knee sprain, Abdullah should get an opportunity to go out in a flash. His 4,500 career rushing yards rank behind only Mike Rozier, with 4,780, in Nebraska history. A Doak Walker Award finalist, Abdullah topped 200 yards four times and registered a play-of-the-year candidate with his 58-yard catch-and-run in the final seconds to beat McNeese State. Only the knee injury, which knocked him out against Purdue and severely limited him in three other games, kept Abdullah from a run at 2,000 yards.

Motivation factor: It remains to be seen how the Huskers respond in practice to the Pelini firing, met with anger from many players. Can interim coach Barney Cotton rally the team? The answer is likely yes, considering the cohesiveness of this group and the connection formed with the outgoing staff. They figure to play with abandon. For some Huskers, it’s an opportunity to make a first impression on new coach Mike Riley, who won’t be involved with the game but, no doubt, wants to see his team in action.
-- Mitch Sherman

vs.
USC BREAKDOWN

Season highlights: Three wins stand out. The Steve Sarkisian era got off to a great start when the Trojans won at then-No. 13 Stanford on Sept. 6, ending the Cardinal’s 17-game home winning streak -- then the longest active streak in the country. The Trojans’ most significant win of the year came at eventual Pac-12 South Division champion Arizona, which entered the game 6-0 and ranked No. 10. Lastly, the Trojans’ 49-14 win against rival Notre Dame was the one of the most lopsided wins in the 86-game history of the series.

Season lowlights: If not for a Hail Mary to lose against Arizona State, USC would have won the South. It still would have won the division with a win against UCLA but instead lost 38-20. Josh Shaw’s fictitious hero tale was the most prominent of many off-the-field issues that didn’t put USC in a good light. It came just a few weeks before AD Pat Haden was fined $25,000 following a bizarre incident in which he confronted officials in the second half of a game against Stanford.

Player to watch: DL Leonard Williams. Despite being possibly the best pro prospect in the country -- ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. has him No. 2 on his latest Big Board -- Williams has managed to fly somewhat under the radar. While other players in the Pac-12 put up massive sack numbers, the shared opinion among coaches and scouts is that Williams is the best defensive lineman. The bowl will likely be his final game in a USC uniform, but Williams, a junior, has not announced whether he will enter the NFL draft.

Motivation factor: Assuming QB Cody Kessler comes back, USC will be among the favorites in the Pac-12 South next year thanks to its returning young talent. If the Trojans end the year with a big win, they may also have some momentum when recruiting heats up ahead of signing day on Feb. 4.
-- Kyle Bonagura

Pac-12 bowl projections: Week 14

December, 2, 2014
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Half the Pac-12 is included in the latest College Football Playoff rankings and Arizona is up to No. 7, giving the Pac-12 two options -- along with No. 2 Oregon -- for the four-team playoff.

The teams meet Friday in the Pac-12 championship at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California. If Oregon wins, it's a shoo-in for the playoff, but Arizona would also have a strong case if it beats the Ducks for the second time this season. Even if Arizona loses, the Wildcats would be a strong candidate for the Fiesta Bowl, which it hasn't played in since 1994.

Stanford has never played in what is now the Foster Farms Bowl, which makes the Cardinal an attractive option for the local bowl -- especially after it knocked UCLA out of playoff contention with a 31-10 win at the Rose Bowl on Friday.

California's loss to BYU and Oregon State's loss in the Civil War in the final week of the regular season left the conference with eight bowl-eligible teams. Here are the current projections:

College Football Playoff semifinal (Rose Bowl presented by Northwestern Mutual): No. 2 Oregon
VIZIO Fiesta Bowl: No. 7 Arizona
Valero Alamo Bowl: No. 15 UCLA
National University Holiday Bowl: No. 25 USC
Foster Farms Bowl: Stanford
Hyundai Sun Bowl: No. 17 Arizona State
Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl: No. 23 Utah
Cactus Bowl: Washington

Plenty of grumpy teams in Pac-12

December, 1, 2014
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It's been another banner year for the Pac-12, one that might even get better if the conference wins its first national title since 2004. Five teams are ranked, eight are bowl-eligible and seven won eight or more regular-season games.

Yet there's a lot of grumpiness out there. As in: The only two fan bases that seem completely satisfied with their seasons belong to the South and North division champions, and Oregon's satisfaction is entirely contingent on getting revenge against Arizona on Friday in Levi's Stadium.

The Ducks were the overwhelming preseason pick to win the North, as they received 37 of 39 votes in the preseason media poll. Oregon also was the decisive favorite to win the conference title, earning 24 of 39 votes. So it's no surprise that the Ducks, led by bell-to-bell Heisman Trophy favorite Marcus Mariota, are eyeballing a spot in the College Football Playoff, the program's first national title twinkling on the horizon.

[+] EnlargeRich Rodriguez
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesRich Rodriguez's Arizona Wildcats weren't expected to be a Pac-12 contender, but are playing for the championship on Friday.
Meeting high expectations is rarely easy, and second-year coach Mark Helfrich is on the cusp of doing so. Those who questioned whether Helfrich was up to replacing that Magical Football Coaching Leprechaun Chip Kelly have quieted down a bit, though Helfrich's true measure might best come post-Mariota.

As for Arizona, the team that will square off with the Ducks for the Pac-12 title, nobody picked the Wildcats to win the South Division, much less the entire conference. The Wildcats were relegated to fourth in the South in the preseason poll, closer to fifth-place Utah than third-place Arizona State.

Dramatically exceeding expectations is rarely easy, and third-year coach Rich Rodriguez already has done so. When he wins Pac-12 Coach of the Year, as he most certainly should, it will be a gleaming vindication for him after his unfortunate tenure at Michigan. The man -- and his A-list staff -- can flat-out coach, and that's why Wildcats fans might want to reposition border patrols to the east in order to prevent suitors from invading Tucson, most notably Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley.

After those two teams, however, everyone else seems to have at least a harrumph or two, though odds are good this will be a rare season without a firing.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham started the season on some hot seat lists, but the Utes' 8-4 mark, which includes their first winning record in Pac-12 play, has reignited optimism in Salt Lake City and hushed Whittingham's critics. The season was far from perfect or devoid of "what-ifs?" But there's no question it was successful after consecutive losing campaigns, particularly if the Utes cap it with a bowl victory.

Arizona State, which flashed playoff potential during a five-game winning streak, didn't finish strong. It was upset at Oregon State, and Sun Devils fans have a hard time being happy about any season that includes a loss to That Team From Down South. Still, the Sun Devils entered 2014 with plenty of questions and were burdened with youth and injuries but still finished 9-3. Hard to believe too many clear-thinking folks are truly disappointed with the direction of the program under Todd Graham.

You can pretty much draw a line there between the satisfied and aggrieved, though there's a wide range between disgruntled and DISGRUNTLED.

California and UCLA are interesting cases for different reasons. Cal went 1-11 last year and was pretty much the worst Power 5 conference team. So you'd think a 5-7 finish with four losses by eight or fewer points would rate as significant improvement. UCLA went 9-3 and beat USC, which would qualify as a huge success most years in Westwood.

Yet Cal started 4-1, and Bears fans clearly envisioned bowl eligibility ahead. Also, with Stanford apparently swooning, they anticipated retaking the axe in the Big Game. But after being blown out by the Cardinal, getting clipped at home by BYU to conclude the season and suffering through atrocious defense only a little better than last season, there was hardly a warm glow coming from Bears fans Saturday about progress under Sonny Dykes.

Jim Mora's rebuilding job at UCLA has been justifiably celebrated, but the Bruins began the season as Pac-12 co-favorites and were widely viewed as the conference's second-most-likely team to make the playoff behind the Ducks. In the Pac-12 media poll, they received 37 of 39 votes to win the South and 13 votes to win the conference.

While the season had ups and downs, the Bruins nonetheless were still in position to meet preseason expectations until they went belly-up Saturday against Stanford. The reaction among Bruins fans afterward was a combination of deflation and aggravation, which might actually be better than previous seasons of resignation. But it also shows you how fine the line between success and seeming failure is in the college football paradigm, particularly for teams with championship hopes.

[+] EnlargeMike Riley
AP Photo/Troy WayrynenMike Riley and Oregon State lost to Oregon for the seventh consecutive season.
Many Oregon State fans have risen up against coach Mike Riley after a seventh consecutive loss to Oregon, which ensured a third losing season in five years. His once-secure status is now precarious. While Colorado under second-year coach Mike McIntyre was vastly more competitive this year than the previous two, the Buffaloes actually regressed in terms of overall record, going 0-9 and 2-10 compared to 1-8 and 4-8 a year ago.

Speaking of zigzagging rebuilding projects, Mike Leach was once viewed as Washington State's savior. Now, after a 3-9 finish in Year 3, it's fair to ask if he'll be on the hot seat in 2015. It took just one year for some USC fans to put Steve Sarkisian on the hot seat, and Chris Petersen's 8-5 finish in his first season at Washington rates as a disappointment to most Huskies fans.

How quickly can things turn negative? Just a year ago, at the end of the 2013 regular season, Stanford's David Shaw was the hottest Pac-12 coach and generally rated among the nation's best. He was widely viewed as coveted by the NFL. Now, after a 7-5 finish, more than a few fans -- and pundits -- are wondering whether Stanford's run among the nation's elite is over.

While it's easy to counsel against overreaction one way or the other or to recommend patience, soothing, measured words don't seem to stick the way they used to. Coaching has always been about "What have you done for me lately?" only now that's practically become a week-to-week judgment. The old five-year plan for recruiting and development and scheme adoption is pretty much gone.

The Pac-12 has surged in terms of revenue and national significance since expansion. But despite that -- perhaps because of it -- these are days of angst. Coaches often talk about learning to be comfortable being uncomfortable, and that's becoming relevant advice for most conference fan bases.

What we learned in the Pac-12: Week 14

November, 30, 2014
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A few things we learned this week in the Pac-12.

And when the smoke cleared, Arizona emerged with the South Division title: In the preseason, UCLA was all the talk in the South Division. Some folks liked USC's overall talent. Others thought Arizona State would have enough on offense to compensate for a rebuilt defense and couldn't be counted out as the defending champs. No one picked Arizona to win the South. The Wildcats were replacing their quarterback and running back Ka'Deem Carey. The defense was still highly questionable. The O-line and receivers looked pretty good, but that was about it. And yet, in Year 3 under Rich Rodriguez, it's the Wildcats who endured and then conquered what might be the toughest division in college football, with apologies to the SEC West, with a 42-35 victory over Arizona State on Friday. Oh, and when they square off with North champion Oregon for the Pac-12 title on Friday in Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California, it will be the Wildcats owning a two-game winning streak in the series. And with an upset over the Ducks, the Wildcats might still end up entering the College Football Playoff discussion.

[+] EnlargeRich Rodriguez
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesRich Rodriguez and Arizona snuck up on everyone in the Pac-12 South to qualify for the Pac-12 championship game.
UCLA has not arrived: Most years, a nine-win regular season that included a victory over USC would be a good season for UCLA. But not this year. Not when the Bruins were widely viewed as a contender for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Not when two of the Bruins' losses came to teams they -- at least on paper -- should have beaten. Not when your QB is Brett Hundley and the depth chart reveals few weak areas. Jim Mora has made UCLA relevant again. He's pushed the Bruins back into the Pac-12 and national conversation. But that brings with it a new set of challenges. The next step for the program is to shrug off these challenges and legitimately enter the national title discussion -- in November instead of August.

Mariota wins the Heisman: Oregon QB Marcus Mariota completed 19 of 25 for 367 yards with 4 touchdowns in Oregon's 47-19 Civil War win over Oregon State. He also rushed for 39 yards and 2 scores. So that's six more TDs, giving him 47 total TDs for the season -- not to mention a receiving TD -- with just two interceptions. He's the best player in college football bar none. He's put up huge numbers against a schedule complete with a rugged Pac-12 slate and a nonconference win over a top-10 Michigan State team. Go ahead and engrave his name on the Heisman Trophy.

Kevin Hogan has awakened: Stanford and Hogan, in particular, were having a season that could be charitably termed as highly disappointing. Yet after a strong performance against California in the Big Game, Hogan was simply brilliant in Stanford's 31-10 upset of UCLA. He completed 16 of 19 passes for 234 yards -- two passes were dropped -- with 2 touchdowns and no interceptions. That gave him a scintillating 98.6 Adjusted QBR, easily a season high. He also rushed 7 times for 46 yards. He wasn't sacked, so that means his O-line, also disappointing this season, dominated a front that recorded five sacks in a blowout win over USC the previous week. There has been some talk over whether Hogan, a fourth-year junior, might enter the NFL draft, talk that included some smirks from observers. He looked like an NFL QB against UCLA.

Sark gets a boost: It has not been an easy first season at USC for Steve Sarkisian, and getting blown out last weekend by UCLA started the outraged hyperventilation among some Trojans fans. Well, stomping on Notre Dame typically turns USC frowns upside down, at least partially, so a 49-14 victory should calm folks down. While an 8-4 regular season won't ever be acceptable for USC, if Sarkisian can get a ninth win in a bowl game and then sign a top-10 recruiting class, his critics will quiet a bit -- at least until the first defeat of 2015.

No ninth Pac-12 bowl-eligible team: With California losing 42-35 to BYU and Oregon State falling, both finish 5-7 and are not eligible for a bowl. Cal went 1-11 last year, so five wins is a significant improvement. But that mark for the Beavers has some folks in Corvallis wondering about the direction of the program.
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How the game was won: USC jumped out to a 35-0 lead, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly benched ineffective starting quarterback Everett Golson (7-for-18, 75 yards, 0 touchdowns, 1 interception) and the Trojans coasted to finish the regular season 8-4. At no point was this a competitive game.

Game ball goes to: USC quarterback Cody Kessler. He finished 32-for-40 with 372 yards passing, 6 touchdowns and no interceptions. He is the first player to throw six touchdown passes against Notre Dame, and one of two quarterbacks to throw for at least six touchdowns in two games this season without an interception. At the time the game ended, Kessler ranked second in the country behind Western Kentucky's Brandon Doughty (44) with 36 touchdown passes.

What it means: The win was a good statement for USC headed into the bowl-selection process but doesn't mean much in the grand scheme of things for either team after they both faded late during the regular season. Steve Sarkisian became the third USC coach in history to win his debut against Notre Dame, and the Trojans reclaimed possession of the Jeweled Shillelagh. For Notre Dame, the question moving forward is at quarterback: Golson or Malik Zaire?

Best play: Kessler's 48-yard touchdown pass to George Farmer to open the scoring was a thing of beauty and set the tone for type of day it would be.

What's next: Both teams are done with the regular season and await their bowl destinations.

Take 2: Notre Dame vs. USC

November, 26, 2014
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Notre Dame and USC look to salvage disappointing seasons Saturday at the Coliseum. Both teams have four losses apiece. Both also have young teams that return plenty of talent for 2015.

So which team is closer to a national title? Matt Fortuna and Kyle Bonagura debate.

Fortuna: One needs to just look at Notre Dame's starting 22 from this past Saturday to see what the near-term future could possibly hold for this program: Seventeen of those players have eligibility remaining for next season. That does not include Sheldon Day and Joe Schmidt, two of the Irish's top front-seven players, who were sidelined with injuries. That also does not include end Ishaq Williams or corner KeiVarae Russell, both of whom might return next season after serving academic suspensions this fall.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Harry How/Getty ImagesGoing into his first Notre Dame game as USC's head coach, Steve Sarkisian is trying to get what has been an elusive eighth win.
Of course, Notre Dame's 7-4 record suggests that there is plenty to improve upon, and things are far from rosy right now in South Bend. Still, they are a competent holder away from likely being 9-2. And when they are at full strength, they showed just how close they might really be to an elite team, taking defending national champion Florida State] to the wire in Tallahassee. Bumps were expected this year with a young defense and a new coordinator in Brian VanGorder, and injuries (and costly offensive turnovers) have only made the situation look more dire through this three-game losing streak.

Still, with so much coming back and with so many younger guys being forced into bigger roles now, much will be expected from the unit in 2015 — as will be the case with Everett Golson and the offense, which is bubbling with potential (and, at times, production) but at times cannot help but trip over itself and give the ball away.

Bonagura: It’s actually going to be pretty tough to differentiate between the teams because their stories this season and how they’re positioned for the future are so similar. The one major difference is that USC has been up against a stacked deck because of NCAA sanctions that have limited its scholarships.

The Trojans came into the season with just 65 recruited scholarship players (85 is the maximum) and have not had more than 57 of them available for any game this year. That lack of depth has required first-year coach Steve Sarkisian to give significant playing time to 11 true freshmen, eight of whom have combined for 45 starts. For comparison’s sake, 18 of USC’s 22 listed starters this week have eligibility remaining -- although receiver Nelson Agholor and defensive lineman Leonard Williams are widely expected to leave early for the NFL.

Despite all that, it took a Hail Mary (against Arizona State) and a touchdown pass with eight seconds left (against Utah) to prevent the Trojans from winning the Pac-12 South, which had five of its six teams ranked in the College Football Playoff rankings just last week. There’s no reason to believe this team won’t be a more dangerous threat to compete for the Pac-12 title next year, which would put it in the playoff and national championship mix.

Matt, Sarkisian said this week that the USC-Notre Dame game is arguably the biggest rivalry game in college football. I think that’s a stretch -- and seemed like strange timing, considering the Trojans just lost to UCLA -- but I’m interested how in it’s perceived on the other side. Notre Dame obviously has a lot of rivals, so where does this one stack up?

Fortuna: Well, we all know Michigan is not a Notre Dame rival, right? Just ask Irish fans, who are oh-so-happy to tell you that they no longer need the Wolverines … right after they shell out record-setting ticket prices to see them.

But Michigan became a casualty of the Irish's ACC scheduling agreement because of a clause in the series' contract. And both schools are probably better off for the time being, considering the national scheduling flexibility each now has, and considering the fact that each has no shortage of annual rivalries anyway.

The Wolverines have Ohio State and Michigan State. Notre Dame has Navy, Stanford and, of course, USC, the biggest of them all.

It is hard to think of a rivalry that can compare to this one when you consider all of its unique factors: Non-league, non-regional, brand names. And yet in many ways, these programs are so similar: Rich histories, constant recruiting battles, fake drowning nephews and fake dead girlfriends …

Still, no team gets Notre Dame fans riled up quite the way USC does. They are raised on disliking that team from L.A., more than anyone else. From the Bush Push to Lane Kiffin, there is plenty of hate. And likely an underlying respect: These programs have the most NFL draft picks. They have seven Heisman Trophy winners apiece. They each have 11 claimed national titles.

They are massively successful, and they are certainly in position to be that way again by the time they meet next year in South Bend, Indiana. But what about this year? What do you think is the biggest carrot the four-loss Trojans are playing for Saturday as they face a fellow four-loss rival?

Bonagura: This is one of those games that shouldn't require much motivation. Even if they played in an empty high school stadium, you get the sense that the game would matter a lot. That said, losses to UCLA and Notre Dame in back-to-back weeks wouldn't be the way to build momentum for the program -- recruiting, fan support, general development, etc. -- at the end of Sarkisian's first season. It's only one game, but 8-4 just has a different vibe than 7-5, and the last thing Sarkisian needs is another seven-win season.

There's also the added element of what the game means for the Notre Dame vs. Pac-12 series this season. The Irish got by Stanford on a late touchdown pass, but turned in a poor showing at Arizona State a couple weeks ago, leaving this to serve as a rubber match of sorts. Since 2004, Notre Dame is 18-13 against Pac-12 teams and has won five of the last seven.

Oregon not only Pac-12 team eyeing CFP

November, 26, 2014
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The first rule of College Football Playoff is you talk about College Football Playoff.

The second rule is you assume nothing. Well, that's completely wrong. The entire -- and endless! -- discussion involves projecting ahead, making assumptions about teams winning here or winning there.

So that's what we're going to do here.

As is quantified here by the inimitable Sharon Katz of ESPN's Stats & Information, UCLA is squarely in the playoff hunt, even as a two-loss team trying to eclipse one-loss teams, such as TCU, Baylor, Ohio State and Mississippi State.

She notes: "If UCLA were to beat Stanford and Oregon, the average current FPI ranking of UCLA’s 11 wins would be 33, the best in the nation." Then she concludes, with a question: "[If UCLA were to win out,] could the committee really leave a two-loss Pac-12 champion, with the hardest schedule in the nation, out of the playoff?"

The answer is no.

UCLA as the 11-2 Pac-12 champion will be in the playoff, and there's nothing any other bubble teams can do about it. There are two reasons -- the most important reasons, ones we've seen bandied about incessantly in regards to the selection committee: 1) merit, 2) best four teams. The Bruins would have earned a spot based on a demonstrably superior résumé, including a victory over the Ducks which would function as an eraser for one of their two defeats. And the Bruins would pass the sight test as one of the four best teams by posting the most distinguished win of 2014 on the last day of the season (over No. 2 Oregon).

I already hear the whining out there. Hush. There is no counterargument that is valid. You have lost out to the cruel mistresses of facts and logic. So we are not going to waste time with folks who insist on fighting a losing fight only because of the colors they wear on Saturday.

The more spicy issue is the Territorial Cup. Say UCLA loses to Stanford, and the winner of No. 13 Arizona State at No. 11 Arizona on Friday becomes the Pac-12 South Division champions. That's where things get interesting.

That is this week's only matchup of top-13 teams, meaning the winner can post the weekend's most meaningful victory. In the scenario with UCLA losing, that also means the winner could post the final weekend's most meaningful victory -- again, over No. 2 Oregon in the Pac-12 title game. Consecutive weekends of meaningfulness! The selection committee surely will imbibe that like a 22-year-old single malt.

Arizona's strength of record currently rates 11th and Arizona State's is 13th. Those two ratings would skyrocket, while other teams vying for a top-four spot would slide.

But how could the Wildcats/Sun Devils make up so much ground? Well, we've seen teams gain incredible traction in human polls with a run of wins that seemed impressive at the time. Mississippi State went from unranked to No. 1 after beating LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn. Of that troika, Auburn, at No. 15, is the committee's only presently ranked team, and Texas A&M and LSU play on Thanksgiving Day hoping to avoid a fifth defeat.

So clear-thinking folks, which we are sure committee members are, would see the Wildcats/Sun Devils as worthy of a rapid climb based on veritably impressive wins validated by a season's worth of work. Conversely, in the 20/20 vision of retrospect, the Bulldogs' rise would be a fun, if temporary, illusion worthy of nostalgia -- "I remember when our Bulldogs beat No. 2 Auburn!" -- but certainly not justifying a playoff spot.

What about other teams trying to insinuate themselves into the playoff? Unless Auburn upsets Alabama, Mississippi State's only remaining game is against flagging, No. 19 Ole Miss. TCU has Texas and Iowa State, a pair of unranked teams. Ohio State has its rivalry game with Michigan and then a matchup with either No. 18 Minnesota or No. 14 Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. Baylor has Texas Tech and No. 12 Kansas State on Dec. 6, a matchup that could significantly bolster the Bears' case.

Ah, but Baylor has its pastry-soft nonconference schedule holding it back. If it comes down the the Bears and, say, Arizona, then the Pac-12 team is surely ... er... what? The Wildcats played UNLV, UTSA and Nevada in its nonconference schedule? Well, cut off my legs and call me shorty, that's not a very Pac-12 thing to do.

It's fortunate that Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne has a great sense of humor. He'd surely be amused -- just like the folks at Baylor -- if the committee cited that weak slate as the reason the Wildcats got left at the altar.

In any event, this is probably all idle speculation. A few more major plot twists are nearly certain. Based on history, at least a couple of the teams in the top-eight fighting for positioning are going to go rear-end-over-tea-kettle, including a member of the top-three that has been practically written into the playoff with an ink pen.

But if you retain anything from these scribbles, it must be this: The first rule of College Football Playoff is you talk about College Football Playoff.


A great mystery has been lost amid the jocularity surrounding celebrity journalist and sixth-grader Charlie Papé's quizzing Oregon coach Mark Helfrich about the future of Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota. While we can all appreciate that top topics of conversation at Papé's O'Hara Catholic School in Eugene are "Jesus, girls and Marcus Mariota," what has been over looked is Papé mentioned four topics of interest but never provided that final topic.

While Papé's life story is certain to shortly be developed into a movie -- think one part "Network," one part "Frozen" and one part "Wonder Years" -- we feel certain that elusive No. 4 concerns who will be the Pac-12's South Division champion, for that is a potential and worrisome foil for his troika of topics. It is against whom Oregon fans -- girls and boys, of course -- could see their prayers answered (or not) and against whom Mariota could secure the Ducks' first Heisman Trophy (or not).

After all, there has to be a villain menacing Papé's sixth-grade trinity, right?

[+] EnlargeJim Mora
Ric Tapia/Icon SMIIf Jim Mora's Bruins beat Stanford on Friday, UCLA will meet the Ducks in a conference title game that is setting up to have major national significance.
A lot became clear in college football this weekend, and not just that Helfrich clearly enjoys sixth-graders more than adult reporters. For one, the Heisman race is now down to two outstanding athletes: Mariota and Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, who is posting a historically good season. The only problem with Gordon's candidacy is not a person in the world would select him over Mariota in a football draft, and that includes all those Badgers jumping around in Madison. With Mariota, Wisconsin would be unbeaten.

Second, the once-muddled South picture will be resolved with finality on Friday before nightfall.

If UCLA beats Stanford at home, the Bruins will not only play Mariota and the Ducks for the conference title on Dec. 5 in Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, they also will be well positioned to play themselves into the College Football Playoff. Their case for the CFP could be decisively made, in fact, with the opportunity to erase one of their two losses by beating the No. 1 or No. 2 team on the final day of the season.

Ah, but down in the desert of Tucson they will be rooting hard for the Cardinal while simultaneously renewing the love fest that is the Territorial Cup. If the Bruins fall, the winner between Arizona and Arizona State captures the South title. Both teams figure to be ranked near the top-10 when the selection committee announces its rankings on Tuesday. The Wildcats and Sun Devils haven't met as ranked teams since 1986. Further, with both sitting at 9-2, this is the first meeting in which both will have at least nine wins since 1975. So, yeah, this is a big Territorial Cup.

And guess what? If the Territorial Cup winner paired that quality victory with a win over Oregon, it also would have a good case for the CFP, though it's likely a couple of dominoes would have to fall ahead of the Wildcats and Sun Devils in the rankings.

Though we should make no assumptions of any kind for Saturday, which includes what the Ducks do at Oregon State in the Civil War, Friday should be a great fun, a joyous conflagration of rivalry and national relevance.

Last year was a breakthrough for the Pac-12. Six teams finished ranked and nine played in bowl games. Five teams posted double-digit wins. There were no naysayers -- at least credible naysayers -- to the conference's overall depth and strength.

Yet there was a chink in the 2013 armor: Just one team, No. 9 Oregon, was ranked in the final AP top 10. The conference was highly respected and completely out of the national picture, though obviously Stanford, ranked No. 5 after winning the Pac-12 title, could have made some noise if it had beaten Michigan State in the Rose Bowl.

That is the step forward the conference can take as we hit the home stretch of 2014, with winning the conference's first national title since 2004 being the biggest and most elusive prize. The Pac-12 title game is setting up to have major national significance, so fans from all corners of the country as well as many in flyover and frozen states will tune in. Some folks out West will be agitating for the Pac-12 title game to become a de facto CFP play-in game, even with a two-loss champion, and fans from other regions need to watch in order to make themselves into educated trolls so they can best fight against this position on Twitter afterward.

Oregon, as a 12-1 Pac-12 champ, by the way, would have the strongest case for the No. 1 overall seed.

This past week, a reader and Arizona fan questioned the idea of Pac-12 collectivism -- the idea that a fan of a Pac-12 team should also root hard for the conference in general. He made a fair and not uncommon point, one that aligns with the big-city vibe of the Pac-12 and its pro sports towns.

But college football isn't set up like pro sports, even with this new playoff. It's still a beauty contest and whom you hang out with matters. You can't just root for one team and wish ill on all others. Six teams ranked in the top-20 and more than one perceived national title contender bolsters Colorado just like it bolsters Oregon. It also pays better when they distribute cash from the new playoff/bowl model.

Further, it's fun to know that a prominent TV in a Jackson, Mississippi, sports bar will be tuned to the Pac-12 on Friday, or that a crew of Ohio State students will be marinating in a Columbus apartment checking out the Territorial Cup, or that a dad in Dallas will shush his children so he can better counter the arguments stacked against his TCU/Baylor team by these darned, overrated Pac-12 squads.

Now what we really need is for Papé to contact a friend at Holy Spirit Catholic School in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and get him to tell Nick Saban about the gospel of Jesus, girls, Marcus Mariota and the Pac-12 South.

Pac-12 Power Rankings: Week 13

November, 23, 2014
Nov 23
2:00
PM ET

What we learned in the Pac-12: Week 13

November, 23, 2014
Nov 23
2:47
AM ET
A few things we learned this week in the Pac-12.

South Division picture clearer: With UCLA's 38-20 whipping of USC and Arizona's 42-10 bludgeoning of Utah, the Trojans and Utes are out of the South Division race. So it comes down to UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State on the final weekend of the regular season to see who plays North Division champion Oregon on Dec. 5 for the Pac-12 title. UCLA controls its fate: It wins the South if it beats Stanford on Friday. If UCLA loses to Stanford, the winner of the Territorial Cup on Friday is the Pac-12 champion. Funny thing: Both games are 12:30 PT kicks, so they will be contested simultaneously, which means the Sun Devils and Wildcats likely will be doing some scoreboard watching during their rivalry game.

[+] EnlargeEric Kendricks
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsUCLA rolled over USC 38-20, which gave the Bruins three straight wins in the cross-town rivalry.
Battle for L.A. goes to UCLA: UCLA has now won three in a row against USC for the first time since it won eight in a row from 1990 to 1998, so Bruins third-year coach Jim Mora has officially established a trend, even if this was Steve Sarkisian's first go-around over the Victory Bell. This was a big one, with both teams ranked and the South Division still available for the taking. UCLA, by the way, also keeps its hopes for a berth in the College Football Playoff alive -- hopes that will be pretty good if they win out and take the conference crown over Oregon. Next big question: Who wins the L.A. recruiting battle? By the way, USC has a lot of guys coming back in 2015, while UCLA will be breaking in a new QB with Brett Hundley likely heading to the NFL after he provided Bruins fans a troika of L.A. rule during his tenure. With UCLA rising under Mora and USC now free of NCAA sanctions, this rivalry should only get better -- as in, more nationally relevant.

This is the biggest Territorial Cup in a long time: Arizona and Arizona State, both 9-2 overall and 6-2 in the Pac-12, will meet in the Territorial Cup as ranked teams for the first time since 1986. The most recent time both teams had at least nine wins was 1975 (ASU 10-0, Arizona 9-1). The South Division is still undecided. Next Friday, with everyone stuffed with turkey, this will be great fun in Tucson. Big question, though: Will Arizona QB Anu Solomon, who left the Wildcats' win over Utah with a lower-leg injury, be available?

Newly bowl eligible: Stanford's 38-17 win over Cal and Washington's 37-13 win over Oregon State made each team bowl-eligible and gave the Pac-12 eight eligible teams. Cal and Oregon State still can become bowl-eligible on the final weekend. Cal needs to beat BYU at home on Saturday, while the Beavers need to end their six-game losing streak in the Civl War against state Oregon.

Cal is much better, but Stanford still rules the Big Game: Cal and Stanford entered the Big Game with matching 5-5 records, but the Cardinal made a dominant statement and won their fifth in a row in the series. That means no Stanford senior will experience life without The Axe. Entering the game, it was a matchup of a good offense (Cal) versus a good defense (Stanford) and a bad offense (Stanford) versus a bad defense (Cal). We learned Stanford's good defense is better than Cal's good offense, and its bad offense is better than Cal's bad defense.

Washington State's freshman QB Luke Falk has lots of potential, but he hasn't yet arrived: Falk was impressive coming off the bench to replace an injured Connor Halliday against USC and had a brilliant starting debut at Oregon State and a strong start at Arizona State, when the Cougs jumped ahead 21-7 against the Sun Devils. But things went haywire thereafter, and Falk started looking like a freshman. He committed five turnovers (four picks and a fumble) in a game the Cougars lost 52-31. He threw for 601 yards and three TDs, and he has shown plenty of good things that point to a strong future running Mike Leach's offense. But the performance in Sun Devil Stadium showed he's still got ways to go, which really shouldn't be surprising.

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PAC-12 SCOREBOARD

Saturday, 12/20
Monday, 12/22
Tuesday, 12/23
Wednesday, 12/24
Friday, 12/26
Saturday, 12/27
Monday, 12/29
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