Pac-12: Washington Huskies

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To the notes!

Andrew from Phoenix writes: Can this post-season please put to bed this obsession with "ranking" conferences? Here we are, a week after the season is ended, and we're debating whether the Pac-12 or SEC is the best conference in college football. For what it's worth they are 1 and 2, yet, the representatives of those conferences went 1-5 in the big games. So, then what is it really worth? The Big XII took an absolute nosedive as a whole, yet TCU had the second best postseason of all teams, and will be ranked in the Top 5 to start the season. Florida St got ragged all season for being in the "weak" ACC, whose #2 and #3 teams put an absolute shellacking on comparable teams from "stronger" conferences. The Big 10 is allegedly "back" after going 5-5 in the bowl season, but they only have 3 teams in the whole conference (Ohio St, Michigan St, and Wisconsin) with a prayer of finishing above 5th in the Pac South. Didn't seem to hurt Ohio St much against Oregon, did it? So, please try to convince me why it matters that Wisconsin beat Auburn, Stanford smoked Maryland, and Clemson crushed Oklahoma.

Ted Miller: To your first question, the answer is no. No, we can not put to bed this "obsession with 'ranking" conferences."

For one, it's necessary in college football, because we have to make subjective distinctions between teams that don't play each other. Whether it's the traditional national polls, the BCS system, or our new College Football Playoff, we have to rank teams, and how the conferences perform is one of the best ways -- the best way? -- we can do that.

Is it an exact science? No. Is it a way of conducting business that is laden with potential for bias and agenda? Absolutely.

Some, by the way, might argue that very subjectivity, an inescapable historical fact of college football, is one of the reasons the sport is so popular with its fans. Without an objective system -- such as large-scale playoffs used in pro sports -- a cherished U.S. institution therefore flourishes in college football: Endless, blathering debate, fueled by paranoia and manufactured offenses and cherry-picked "facts!"

It's a beautiful thing.

Another cherished institution is part of this: Regionalism. Due to the serendipity of a fan's or, often, a media member's birth location, that region becomes the source of all that is good and accomplished, and every other region is inferior, no matter how informed said fan or media member is on said other region. We all know from our present political reality that actually knowing stuff no longer matters and, in fact, can be a burden when debating with a louder and more pithy interlocutor.

But, hey, I'm not a scientist!

So the SEC fan thinks the Pac-12 is soft, and the Pac-12 fan thinks the Big Ten is slow, and the Big Ten fan things the Big 12 is finesse, and the Big 12 fan thinks the ACC is a basketball league, and the ACC fan thinks the SEC is overrated, etc., etc.

It. Will. Never. End.

And for that I am thankful.


Robert from New York writes: I've seen a lot of hype around USC for next season, and I'm not really sold on why. USC had a losing record against the Pac-12 South in 2014, including a blowout loss to UCLA. They're losing key players on both sides of the ball, and have a coach who has never won more than eight regular season games. Are sportswriters getting excited because they want a brand-name school to be elite, or am I missing something?

Ted Miller: Robert, you sound like some of my Pac-12 blogmates, so you are not alone in voicing some skepticism with the Trojans.

My case leads with this: Among its 16 returning position-player starters, USC welcomes back the most experienced, accomplished quarterback in the conference, Cody Kessler, and he will be playing behind an offensive line that will be the best in the Pac-12 (And USC fans should take heart for that 2016 opener against Alabama, because that should be an epic battle at the line of scrimmage between the Trojans and Crimson Tide). That offensive line welcomes back all five starters, led by senior, first-team-All-Pac-12 center Max Tuerk, as well has a good crew of backups.

Sure, there are some big hits, particularly with early departures, such as defensive end Leonard Williams, receiver Nelson Agholor, and runing back Javorius Allen. USC is going to need some young guys to step up. But finding ready-to-play youngsters is rarely a problem for USC, and, oh by the way, Steve Sarkisian is well on his way to signing what could end up a top-five class.

It will also help that Trojans should be well into the 70s in terms of scholarship players next fall. Though they won't get close to the maximum 85 scholarship players permitted by NCAA rules in their first post-sanctions season, they will be far above the 60 or so they played with in 2014. This will be a much deeper team in Sarkisian's second season.

As for doubting Sark, that's not unreasonable. No, he hasn't won a national title or a conference title, or even 10 games in a season. Yes, there were some times during his first season in which the Trojans seemed poorly prepared, poorly motivated, and poorly coached. You, by the way, could also say the same about Oregon. And Ohio State and Alabama, which went 7-6 and lost to UL Monroe in Nick Saban's first year in Tuscaloosa.

But, from today's vantage point, USC looks like the team with the fewest big questions in the Pac-12, though UCLA and Oregon could quickly counter with impressive clarity at quarterback.

I wouldn't be surprised if the Trojans are in the CFP discussion late into the 2015 season.

Does the USC "brand" play a role in that perception? Probably. But brand names have been pretty good bets over the long haul in college football.


Michael from Corvallis, Ore., writes: With Gary Andersen's staff poaching several assistants and recruits from Utah, not to mention two consecutive games going into OT, is there a chance Utah-Oregon State becomes an actual rivalry?

Ted Miller: Maybe, but it won't be because of any ill-will between the coaching staffs. Andersen and Utah coach Kyle Whittingham are extremely close -- both have said that to me within the past calendar year, Whittingham just a few weeks ago.

Whittingham also doesn't begrudge defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake jumping to Oregon State, because he knows it was a wise move professionally in the short and long term, particularly if Sitaki wants to be a head coach, which he does. Sitake needs to spread his wings outside of what had become a comfort zone in Salt Lake.

Further, being in different divisions, the Utes and Beavers will have a two-year hiatus coming up as the schedule rotates in 2017-2018.

Utah's chief rival remains BYU. Hard to believe that will change anytime soon, and it will be good to see the renewal of the Holy War in 2016. The Utes will develop Pac-12 rivalries, particularly in the South Division. But it will take time for ill-will and turf-wars to develop.

But Michael, if Utah/Oregon State is particularly annoying you, have at those dastardly Utes/Beavers (don't want to assume your preference just because you live in Corvallis).


Wayne from Mesa, Ariz., writes: With the 2014-15 Bowl Season all wrapped up, I was wondering what your thoughts were and what feedback you may have heard with regard to the new bowl lineup for the PAC-12. Granted, it was more of a tweak over the previous 4 years, but still featured new venues (Santa Clara and Tempe), new opponents (2 Big Ten teams), a slight change in the pecking order (Sun Bowl moved down, Foster Farms up), and of course, altered timing to allow for the New Year's Six. I attended the Sun Bowl, cheering on the Sun Devils. The local fan turnout and community support for that game in El Paso was very impressive! I am a bit concerned about the on-going PAC-12 fan support and enthusiasm for the Cactus Bowl. One wonders if this looks like just a late season PAC-12 road game. Local Phoenix news featured mostly Oklahoma State stories, and thank goodness the Big 12 team once again brought a big group of fans and much excitement to Tempe.

Ted Miller: The Pac-12 bowl lineup is about as good as it can be. Pretty nice mix of games against the ACC, Big Ten, and Big 12. Certainly the Pac-12 bowls have upgraded under commissioner Larry Scott.

I know some grumble about the bowl lineup. They want a matchup with an SEC team or a bowl game in Florida, but the SEC has a great bowl lineup, and Florida doesn't have much interest in bringing a Pac-12 team across the country. It's a choice of the marketplace, not due to managerial incompetence with the Pac-12 or some conspiracy of forces to keep the Pac-12 down.

Of course, if there's a business person on the West Coast who wants to offer up a $5 million per-team payout to lure a top SEC team across the country for a new bowl game against a Pac-12 team, I'm sure the SEC and Pac-12 would listen.
The Pac-12's South Division went 15-10 against the North in 2014, the first season since expansion in 2011 that the South bested the North. Of course, Oregon still won the conference crown -- in dominant fashion over Arizona, in fact -- so the South still has never won the Pac-12 title.

Perhaps the dominant Pac-12 theme heading into 2015 will be how that figures to change next December. After going a feckless 9-17 against the North in 2011, the steadily improving South is now clearly the superior division. With five ranked teams at season's end, the South was much deeper than the North in 2014, though Oregon maintained the Ducks/Stanford domination of the conference as a whole for another season.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Harry How/Getty ImagesCody Kessler and USC should be on the rise in 2015, which in turn should help keep the Pac-12 South on the rise.
Yet Stanford slipped in 2014, and it welcomes back just three starters from its dominant defense next fall. Oregon has a nice collection of players returning in 2015 -- it still figures to be the highest-ranked Pac-12 team in the preseason -- but it's also replacing the greatest player in school history in Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota.

The South's advantage heading into 2015 can be further quantified by who's coming back. For one, the South welcomes back 93 starting position players compared to 76 for the North. That's an average of 15.5 per South team compared to 12.7 for the North.

That difference is most notable on defense. South teams welcome back an average of 7.83 players on defense, while North teams welcome back only 5.17. While Stanford, Oregon and Washington were the top three teams in scoring defense in 2014, the only South team that didn't rank in the top eight was Colorado. Further, UCLA, USC and Utah each welcome back eight starters from defenses that ranked in the top four in yards per play.

On offense, the differences aren't as definitive. The South will welcome back 46 starters compared to 45 for the North, but the South is far more set at quarterback. Four of six South teams have a high degree of certainty at quarterback heading into 2015, while UCLA is the only team with a "Who the heck knows?" QB competition. Though Utah is uncertain between Travis Wilson and Kendal Thompson, both have starting experience.

In the North, only California and Stanford are certain at QB. Oregon and Oregon State will be holding wide-open competitions beginning this spring, while Washington and Washington State have returning QBs with starting experience -- Cyler Miles and Luke Falk -- who are far from certain to win the job.

Experience on the offensive line is often vital, and the South also has an advantage there with 22 O-line starters returning compared to 21 from the North (and that includes Oregon offensive tackle Tyler Johnstone, who sat out this past season with a knee injury).

What about star power? Five of the six returning first-team All-Pac-12 players hail from the South, while seven of the 11 second-team members are from the South. Heck, all four first- and second-team specialists are from the South as well.

Finally, 2015 will be the first season of Pac-12 play in which USC isn't yoked with any sort of NCAA sanctions. You might recall the Trojans won the South in 2011 and beat Oregon in Autzen Stadium in the regular season but didn't get a rematch in the title game because they were ineligible for the postseason. While USC won't be at a full 85 scholarships next fall, it has the potential to be as deep as it has been since expansion. It's difficult to believe the Trojans at full strength won't be a factor in the South, Pac-12 and nationally going forward.

Of course, the six-team South is arguably deeper than the 10-team conference USC dominated from 2002-2008 under Pete Carroll, with UCLA and coach Jim Mora, in fact, providing plenty of competition just a few miles down the road -- see three consecutive Bruins wins in the rivalry, as well as consecutive 10-win seasons.

When the conference first expanded, the initial impression was the South would be stronger. In fact, before going with a North-South split, there was significant discussion about splitting up rival teams in different divisions. Yet, for three seasons, the North proved its naysayers wrong.

Now the South appears to be cycling up. If the present trend continues through the 2015 season, it's possible we'll be asking a year from now how long that shifting balance of power will last. Or if it won't become a long-term advance.

Season review: Washington

January, 19, 2015
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Our 2014 season Pac-12 team-by-team grades continue. If you want to check out last season's reviews, click here.

Washington Huskies

Offense: First-year head coach Chris Petersen is widely considered one of the most creative offensive minds in the nation, but the Huskies offense struggled in 2014 under coordinator Jonathan Smith, the one-time overachieving Oregon State quarterback. While Washington QB Cyler Miles did a good job of protecting the football, the Huskies didn't produce much in the downfield passing game and ended up ranked eighth in passing efficiency, 10th in yards per play (5.4) and ninth in points per game (30.2) in the conference. The Huskies entered the season with high expectations on offense -- a veteran line and promising skill players -- but the production just wasn't there. Grade: D

Defense: The defense started the season with four bona fide superstars: LB Shaq Thompson, DT Danny Shelton, OLB/DE Hau'oli Kikaha and CB Marcus Peters. While the secondary after Peters was a significant question, owning one of the nation's most talented front sevens is a heck of a way to start. Yet Peters got kicked off the team for a poor attitude, and the defense ended up solid but not dominant. Shelton and Kikaha put up huge numbers and rightfully earned All-America honors. Thompson, despite also seeing significant time at running back, also earned postseason notice. As a unit, yielding 24.8 points per game (third in conference) and 5.4 yards per play (fifth in conference) is solid but certainly not elite. Grade: B-

Special teams: Kicker Cameron Van Winkle and punter Korey Durkee were above average, while the coverage teams and return teams were mostly mediocre, though it's worth noting the speedy John Ross returned two kickoffs for touchdowns. Grade: B

Overall: Petersen's first season certainly fell short of expectations. He inherited a talented roster and, well, he's Chris Petersen. The thought was his detail-oriented management would be a key ingredient in getting the Huskies over the good-but-not-great hump. Didn't happen, at least in Year One. It's possible -- likely? -- that such a drastic change in management styles from Steve Sarkisian to Petersen requires more than a year of acclimation. No one is seriously doubting Petersen's abilities, but an 8-6 finish that included a horrible effort against an inferior team in the bowl game was pretty deflating after the euphoria folks felt upon Petersen's hiring. Grade: C-

Other Pac-12 reviews:

Washington State
Considering we pretty much nailed our fearless predictions for 2014, it seems like it's never too early to get bold with projections for 2015.

Here are five bold -- bold I say! -- predictions for the offseason:

[+] EnlargeGoff
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesCal quarterback Jared Goff flew under the radar in 2014 and is primed for a breakout season.
A South team will win the Pac-12 for the first time: Since the Pac-12 split into divisions in 2011, Oregon and Stanford have split four Pac-12 championships, meaning no team from the South Division has won the conference. That will change in 2015, as the South looks like it will be the roughest division in college football, with five teams likely to start off ranked in the preseason, as they finished the 2014 season. Whoever emerges -- either Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA, USC or Utah (yes, we are leaving our options open) -- will have survived a gauntlet that will give it a steel-hones-steel edge in the title game against Oregon.

Oregon will again finish ranked in the top 10: Oregon will romp to the North crown again in 2015, so don't believe the first prediction writes the Ducks out of national relevance. In fact, when the Ducks lose the Pac-12 title game, we still suspect they will be attractive enough to get invited to a major bowl game. The Ducks' case could be helped greatly by the Pac-12 champ earning another berth in the College Football Playoff.

Two true freshmen will start at quarterback: Considering we pretty much know who will start behind center for Arizona, Arizona State, California, Colorado, Stanford, USC and Utah (at least it won't be a freshman), we're obviously opining that two of Oregon, Oregon State, UCLA, Washington and Washington State will start a freshman, true or redshirt. Considering the impressive, late-season showing by redshirt freshman Luke Falk for the Cougars, this really comes down to the other four schools. It once was rare for players in their first year of eligibility to sit in the cockpit of an FBS offense, but not any longer. We suspect that will hold true in the Pac-12 in 2015.

California's Goff will be first-team All-Pac-12 QB: While he received little national fanfare while putting up huge passing numbers, Jared Goff was perhaps the conference's most improved player in 2014. He ranked fourth in the Pac-12 in Total QBR, but that also was good enough for 12th in the nation. Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley, the top two Pac-12 quarterbacks in 2014, are off to the NFL. Enter Goff, who if he sustains his current improvement trajectory should be due for a national breakout in 2015. After throwing 18 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions as a true freshman starter in 2013, Goff threw 35 TD passes vs. seven picks this fall. He has NFL ability and a strong supporting cast coming back, particularly at receiver. While USC's Cody Kessler will top many preseason Heisman Trophy lists, don't be surprised if Goff puts up huge numbers, leads the Bears to a bowl game for the first time since 2011 and nips Kessler for first-team All-Pac-12.

There will be two coaching changes at the end of the season: If not for Oregon State's Mike Riley making a surprising jump to Nebraska, the Pac-12 would have had no coaching changes after the season. That sort of stability is not typical, and we suspect that there will be changes after the 2015 season, either from coaches bolting on their own or getting pushed out the door. You could see a coach or two get a wandering eye for the NFL or an athletic director might decide to make a change, but we're predicting that only 10 of the 12 2015 head coaches will be the same in 2016.

Pac-12 all-bowl team

January, 16, 2015
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The Pac-12 finished the season with the best bowl record among the Power 5 conferences -- 6-3 -- and generally is regarded as displacing the SEC at the No. 1 conference in 2014, even if Oregon got run over by Ohio State in the national title game.

Here's how things went.

Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl: No. 22 Utah 45, Colorado State 10
Hyundai Sun Bowl: No. 15 Arizona State 36, Duke 31
National University Holiday Bowl: No. 24 USC 45, Nebraska 42
Foster Farms Bowl: Stanford 45, Maryland 21
VIZIO Fiesta Bowl: No. 20 Boise State 38, No. 10 Arizona 30
Rose Bowl: No. 2 Oregon 59, No. 3 Florida State 20
Valero Alamo Bowl: No. 14 UCLA 40, No. 11 Kansas State 35
TicketCity Cactus Bowl: Oklahoma State 30, Washington 22
CFP National Championship Game Presented by AT&T: No. 4 Ohio State 42, No. 2 Oregon 20

[+] EnlargeByron Marshall
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesOregon's Byron Marshall notched his fourth 100-yard receiving game of the season in the Ducks' 42-20 loss to Ohio State on Jan. 12.
So who were the Pac-12 stars of the bowl season? Too many for this list, so apologies in advance for leaving off many of the fine performances.

OFFENSE

QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon: Completed 26 of 36 passes for 338 yards yards with two TDs and rushed for 62 yards and a TD in the Ducks' win against FSU in the Rose Bowl. Passed for 333 yards and two scores in the loss to Ohio State in national title game.

RB Thomas Tyner, Oregon: Rushed for 124 yards on 13 carries (9.5 yards per carry) and scored two TDs in the win against Florida State.

RB Paul Perkins, UCLA: Rushed for 194 yards on 20 carries (9.7 ypc) and scored two TDs in the win against Kansas State.

WR Darren Carrington, Oregon: Caught seven passes for 165 yards and two touchdowns in the win against Florida State.

WR Byron Marshall, Oregon: Caught eight passes for 169 yards with a 70-yard TD in loss to Ohio State.

OL Jeremiah Poutasi, Utah: The Utes rushed for 359 yards and didn't allow a sack against Colorado State.

OL Jake Fisher, Oregon: The Ducks dominated FSU up front, not allowing a sack and rushing for 301 yards.

OL Andrus Peat, Stanford: The Cardinal line led a 206-yard rushing attack in a win against Maryland and yielded just one sack.

OL Jake Brendel, UCLA: The Bruins rushed for 331 yards against Kansas State.

OL Toa Lobendahn, USC: Held All-Big Ten end Randy Gregory to four tackles and no sacks in the Trojans' win over Nebraska.

K Casey Skowron, Arizona: Went 3-for-3 on field goals with a long of 42 and good on all three PATs vs. Boise State.

DEFENSE

DL Nate Orchard, Utah: Sack and forced fumble in win against Colorado State.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Williams
Jake Roth/USA TODAY SportsTrojans defensive end Leonard Williams tackles Cornhuskers running back Ameer Abdullah in the National University Holiday Bowl.
DL Leonard Williams, USC: Had nine tackles and a sack in the win against the Cornhuskers.

DL Deon Hollins, UCLA: The outside linebacker -- yes, we are fudging here -- had three sacks in the win against Kansas State.

LB James Vaughters, Stanford: Had five tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble in win over Maryland.

LB Eric Kendricks, UCLA: Had 10 tackles, two sacks and three tackles for a loss in win over Kansas State.

LB Tony Washington, Oregon: Had four tackles and a sack against Florida State. Also forced a fumble from FSU QB Jameis Winston and returned it 58 yards for a TD.

LB Antonio Longino, Arizona State: Had a game-high 17 tackles in the Sun Devils' win against Duke.

DB Tra'Mayne Bondurant, Arizona: Had 11 tackles -- 10 solo -- with a sack, two tackles for a loss, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery against Boise State.

DB Adoree' Jackson, USC: Had seven tackles and a deflection on defense against Nebraska. Also caught three passes with a 71-yard TD and returned a kickoff for a 98-yard TD. Played 103 plays, 78 on defense.

DB Kweishi Brown, Arizona State: Grabbed the game-clinching interception in the Sun Devils' win.

DB Troy Hill, Oregon: Led the Ducks with nine tackles against FSU with a tackle for a loss and two pass breakups.

P Drew Riggleman, Arizona: Averaged 43.1 yards on seven punts, killing three inside the Boise State 20-yard line.
As usual, the Pac-12 experienced some significant star drain from players opting to enter the NFL draft before their eligibility was over -- seven first-team all-conference performers amid the crew of 16 -- and, as usual, USC was hit the hardest.

The Trojans lost four players, including their best receiver (Nelson Agholor), running back (Javorius Allen) and defensive lineman (Leonard Williams). The lone quasi-surprise was receiver George Farmer, who apparently is counting on his raw talent to overcome his notable lack of production and injury-prone nature.

While USC welcomes back quarterback Cody Kessler and a talented crew around him, that's a drain of 3,607 yards and 26 TDs from a team that is expected to be ranked in or near the top 10 to begin the 2015 season.

Overall in the conference, there were few surprise decisions. While Oregon and UCLA lost elite quarterbacks Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley as expected, two A-list running backs opted to return in Utah's Devontae Booker and Arizona State's D.J. Foster, who will switch positions to slot receiver.

Oregon got good news on defense when end DeForest Buckner decided to return, but Ducks fans might note that their marquee nonconference game at Michigan State on Sept. 12 will be against a Spartans team welcoming back quarterback Connor Cook and defensive end Shilique Calhoun.

While USC lost four players to lead the Pac-12, Oregon, Stanford, UCLA and Washington each lost two, though that counts Huskies cornerback Marcus Peters, who was kicked off the team during the season.

Arizona, Colorado and Oregon State didn't lose any players early to the NFL draft. The Buffaloes were relieved that wide receiver Nelson Spruce decided to stick around, while the Wildcats' group of receivers remains deep after Cayleb Jones decided to return for his redshirt junior season.

Here is the Pac-12's early-entry list:

Arizona State
WR Jaelen Strong

California
WR Chris Harper

Oregon
QB Marcus Mariota
DE Arik Armstead

Stanford
CB Alex Carter
OT Andrus Peat

UCLA
QB Brett Hundley
DT Ellis McCarthy

USC
WR Nelson Agholor
WR George Farmer
RB Javorius Allen
DE Leonard Williams

Utah
OT Jeremiah Poutasi

Washington
LB Shaq Thompson
CB Marcus Peters

Washington State
DT Xavier Cooper
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Oregon fans... is it time to pull out the ole Billy Baroo? As Judge Smails said, "Wooooo.... Billy, Billy, Billy... This is a biggie!"

To the notes!

Dan from Los Angeles writes: What are your thoughts on the Jim Mora handshake after the game? I thought it was tacky and lacked class.

Ted Miller: I thought Mora had every right to be angry with how Kansas State conducted itself while UCLA was in victory formation at the end of the Alamo Bowl. Hurdling the pile and leading with the helmet in that situation, as a K-State player unquestionably did, is not only dangerous it's -- oh, by the way -- illegal.

It's also bush league, false tough-guy football. My hope is Wildcats coach Bill Snyder in some way punished Dante Barnett after the game. It's also too bad Snyder hasn't stepped up and explained that Mora had a right to be angry and that his player was unquestionably in the wrong.

Because there is no question -- despite all the faux, 100 percent agenda-driven defenses speciously spouting "playing hard until the clock strikes zero" -- of Barnett's actions being wrong. You do not do what he did. Period. Hush.

That said, Mora -- and he has acknowledged this -- didn't handle the handshake as well as he could or should have. Further, this was Bill Snyder on the receiving hand of a rude dismissal, so Mora was pretty doomed from a purely reactive social media standpoint to get buried on Twitter. Snyder is not only a Hall of Fame coach -- one of the greatest of all time, in fact -- he also is a classy, ethical leader of young men.

That, too, is without question.

I know those who see the world through "My Team Wrong or Right" glasses, or those who simply hate Mora/UCLA on reflex -- thinking of a wide-eyed segment of USC fans here -- are going to counter with a bunch of nonsense and call me biased. Might be more accurate to say I'm biased toward K-State, where I enjoyed one of my favorite college football weekends of all-time last year, but I simply call them like I see them. And, making this easy, is the situation being an objective, black-white, right-wrong call.

Mora is a very emotional guy. I like that about him. I've irritated him several times and received his notorious grumpy treatment. Doesn't bother me in the least. Part of my job. He also is thoughtful and cares about his players.

That -- the emotions and caring about his players -- got the best of him in this instance.


Angelo from Ripon, Calif., writes: With the combined loses of week 14 and the bowl season in the SEC, is it safe to say that we won't have to weather another year of SEC hype and inflated preseason rankings?

Ted Miller: Nope. Most will view the SEC's decline this season as temporary -- even a blip -- and not without justification.

No question the Pac-12 and Big Ten are the winners this bowl season, that is almost as much about an SEC slide as their own success. The Pac-12, as well-argued here by Barry Tramel of the The Oklahoman, distinguished itself as the No. 1 conference, and the Big Ten is the biggest gainer in terms of improving its previously waning image.

Yet if you asked most folks -- as in those who aspire toward covering college football as objective observers -- the SEC will still be the No. 1 conference over the long haul. As in: If you had to bet $1 on which conference will win the most College Football Playoff national titles over the next 10 years, most would pick the SEC. That is based on a combination of money, fan passion and geography that is favorable to recruiting.

The general hope, again among those who aspire to objectivity, is that we are now entering a cycle with more apparent parity, in which the other Power 5 conferences at least seem to be on more equal footing. It's not good for the game for one conference to win seven consecutive national titles, as the SEC did.

For example, if the SEC wins three or four of the next 10 national titles and the other four conferences split up the other six or seven, that would be a much better trend.

More than a few of us saw this coming, in large part because of the SEC's recent NFL attrition.

All this said, I still fully support your joyous trolling of SEC folks, who have dished it out with zeal for, oh, the past decade.


Mush Huskies from Portland writes: 8-6. A few plays against Stanford and a different "chart" against Arizona, and the Huskies are sitting at 10-4. But that didn't happen, so we're still 8-6. A new coach, lots of transfers, blah blah blah... there's still a lot of supposed talent on this team -- just look at the recruiting classes -- not great, but respectable. But I repeat: 8-6. Can someone please explain how the Huskies have been "rebuilding" since Owen 12 in 2008?

Ted Miller: In 2000, Washington won the Rose Bowl and finished 11-1 and ranked No. 3. Since then, it has yielded the Northwest to Oregon and been mostly irrelevant nationally.

Why? Poor management at the administrative level, poor coaching decisions, getting eclipsed in the facilities arms race, middling recruiting, and the rise of other Pac-10/12 teams -- such as those pesky Ducks.

Steve Sarkisian rebuilt the team into respectability, but he only got the Huskies to nine wins and a final top-25 ranking in his final season before bolting to USC. Chris Petersen inherited a good if flawed team, one that probably underachieved this season. It was not the debut Huskies fans had hoped for, but it's justifiable to excuse much of what went wrong to an adjustment period between team and coaching staff.

The Huskies now might have the best stadium in the Pac-12, so facilities are no longer an issue, and savvy administrator Scott Woodward is about as football-friendly an AD as there is. Petersen's reputation suggests he will build a power in Seattle. Yet what Washington has coming back in 2015 doesn't look like a top-25 team, or one that can win the North.

Though Washington fans probably don't want to hear it, it doesn't appear likely that Petersen will deliver a quick fix. So, after 14 years of waiting, Huskies fans might just have to wait a little longer.


JT from Boston writes: Dealing in hypotheticals -- if Oregon blows out Ohio State, what is the reservation with putting Oregon up there as one of the all time great teams in College Football? Don't get me wrong, I (as a Duck fan) have my reservations -- but to blow out teams consistently is impressive (and unprecedented in recent years on such a consistent basis). Is it due to Oregon not being a traditional power house? Or that they don't have a roster filled with first day draft picks? Or has the general public (the Press included) just come to expect that when the Ducks win, they win big? To consistently perform and win by double digits, seems worthy of being put into the category of one of the all time great teams

Ted Miller: All-time great teams, for one, go unbeaten. That's pretty much the criterion for teams like 2001 Miami, 1972, USC and 1995 Nebraska, which make up my personal top three (I don't even look at teams that weren't fully integrated, as, for example, 1972 USC would have brutalized, say, 1961 Alabama).

But this Ducks team can distinguish itself as the first team to win the CFP, which would mean winning consecutive games against top-four teams. It certainly could view itself as the "truest" national champion in recent memory.


Torsten from Orlando writes: Alright. I think I speak for a lot of Duck fans when I say that I'm tired of pundits (save Fowler and Herbstreit who actually watched the Rose Bowl and have seen other Oregon games in the past few years) from ESPN and other sports outlets saying that Oregon's victory over FSU was a fluke. That FSU is still the better team. That the only reason FSU lost was because they quit. That it wasn't the Oregon defense that stopped FSU but that it was FSU itself. Apparently FSU's lack of defense on every single Oregon possession (save for the very first one) is something to just ignore. Honestly from certain news articles, potentially biased due to them coming from Central Florida, I feel like Oregon fans should be apologizing for the win. All I'm hearing myself is commentators buying into Winston's press conference and his eternal stubbornness about what really happened on New Years Day. Oregon played their hearts out that day, they are going to play their hearts out on the 12th either way that game goes, and its time people started taking notice. Why aren't these same statements being said about an Ohio State team starting a 3rd string QB who beat Bama? A great win for that team but Cardale Jones apparently won the Heisman based on how that game has been viewed. I'm afraid that even if Oregon does get its desired result Monday, the nation will consider that a fluke as well. So what gives?

Ted Miller: Fluke?

A 39-point domination a fluke? Who wrote or said that? I've not heard a single person even hint at that. Can you produce a link? Are you just projecting from FSU quarterback Jameis Winston's universally panned remarks after the game, that were wildly rated as pure doofus on the doofus meter?

Torsten, I suspect that you tend to view your obsessive Ducks fandom through a lens of grievance.

Dude, just enjoy the moment. Your team, which in 1983 played in a game notoriously dubbed "The Toilet Bowl," is playing for the national title for the second time in five years. If someone wishes to call Oregon a fluke, it will do more discredit to the speaker/writer than to the Ducks.


Derrick from Omaha writes: I am a long time fanatic Oregon fan, but always waiting to be disappointed! For the last nine weeks I have waited for the Ducks to "choke" (although with all of the injuries to great players it really would not be choking per se.). For nine weeks I have not only been wrong, but Oregon has demolished teams and covered the spread!! Please, PLEASE! Can I be wrong one more time?? Or should I get set for disappointment?

Ted Miller: Sigh.

You see? That's the sort of crap people are always trying to lay on me. It's not my fault you wouldn't play catch with your father.

You Ducks fans are seeing a whole team of psychiatrists, aren't you?

Sorry. Just thought I'd pull out a couple of "Terence Mann" quotes from "Field of Dreams" to entertain myself.

I've got Oregon fans mad at me because I picked Florida State to win the Rose Bowl. I've got Oregon fans mad at me because I've picked Oregon to beat Ohio State on Monday, because I've convinced them -- along with Cal fans -- of my magical "reverse karma" picking ability. I've got Oregon fans who think I'm a Washington fan because I worked in Seattle from 1999-2008. I've got Oregon fans whose fandom seems to be entirely based on being oppositional to a long list of perceived enemies, me included. I've got Oregon fans who are worried about the national media calling them a fluke. I've got Oregon fans who are worried about the Ducks choking.

I know Oregon has arrived because its fans are no less crazy than those of Ohio State, Alabama and Florida State.

So congrats on that. And enjoy your national championship as something to celebrate, not something to throw in everyone else's face.
Happy Friday Day After Christmas. Hope you got everything you wanted and didn't drink too much egg nog.

And, no, your gift to me has not yet arrived. Sure it will be here soon.

Follow me on Twitter here.

To the notes!

Matt from Sunnyvale, Calif., writes: While eight of the Pac-12 teams are in the midst of bowl season, the other four are prepping for the holidays. In analyzing the conference's "worst" team (according to thy mighty power rankings), how would the Buffs have stacked up in any of the other Power 5 conferences this year? Besides playing in the SEC West, I think they could have an extra 2-4 wins under their belts in the ACC or Big Ten. How do the Buffs matchup to the Kansases, Purdues or Wake Forests of the Power-5 conferences? Bonus question: Clancy Pendergast has to get a look for DC at CU, no? Would be a great addition!

Ted Miller: If Colorado hired Clancy Pendergast it would instantaneously upgrade its defense, a schematic equivalent of checkers to chess, no question. Guessing he'll have some options this offseason, though.

The first part of your question is interesting, though I may extrapolate on it my own way -- as I am wont to do.

When you ask, "How would the Buffs have stacked up in any of the other Power-5 conferences this year?" my overriding thought is the Buffs would have been far better off as long as they didn't play in the SEC West. In the SEC East, ACC, Big 12 and Big Ten, the Buffs would have won more games. They lost four Pac-12 games this season by five points or less, and two of those defeats were to teams that remain nationally ranked.

In fact, we're going to crown Colorado the best worst Power-5 conference team.

In the interest of fairness, here are the candidates.
  • Wake Forest (3-9, 1-7 ACC): Ranked 127th in the nation in points per game (14.8) and rushing yards per game (39.9). Lost to Louisiana Monroe. Best win was 6-3 in double-overtime over Virginia Tech.
  • Purdue (3-9, 1-7 Big Ten): Lost to Central Michigan. Best win was at Illinois. Lost six straight to finish season.
  • Iowa State (2-10, 0-9 Big 12): Lost to North Dakota State. Gave up 38.8 points per game, which ranked 118th in nation. Best win at Iowa 20-17. Lost six straight to finish season.
  • Vanderbilt (3-9 0-8 SEC):Lost to Temple. Ranked 106th in the nation or worse in passing yards, rushing yards, points for and points against. Best win? Massachusetts?
  • Colorado (2-10, 0-9 Pac-12): Lost to Colorado State. Ranked 120th in the nation in points allowed (39.0 -- yeah, time to change coordinators). Best win? Hawaii.

Among those five, we'd rank Colorado first, Iowa State second, Purdue fourth, Wake Forest third and Vanderbilt fifth.

Bruce from Salt Lake City writes: If you could create a bowl this year -- we will call it TEDwrites Bowl -- and pit two Pac-12 teams against each other, which matchup would you like to see (again)? Also, what are the big plans for the summer?

Ted Miller: If I could replay one game this year it would be Stanford at Notre Dame. I can't help but wonder if the Cardinal's 2014 might have been much different if they didn't urp so horribly in South Bend. You could say the same about their Week 2 loss against USC, but the Trojans were a much better team than the Fighting Irish.

As far as matching Pac-12 teams, you'd of course like to see teams that didn't play each other have a go: Stanford-Arizona, Oregon-Arizona State, USC-Oregon and Utah-Washington.

It also would be fun to rematch some meaningful rivalry games: USC-UCLA and Arizona-Arizona State.

But if I were to pitch a Pac-12 matchup for a bowl game, it would be USC versus Washington: The Steve Sarkisian Bowl.

The winner gets a ninth win -- no seven-win seasons here! -- and you'd either get a dose of hush to Husky fans who ripped Sarkisian when he bolted Washington for USC or you'd get a really grumpy crew of Trojans fans dealing with lots of purple crowing.

My big plan for the summer? Other than my evil plan for world domination? Reducing my sanctimony, reading more classics of English literature and caring less about politics.

David from Calgary writes: It seems like another regular season of football has come and gone. With the postseason in front of us, do you think this could be the year where the #Pac12Fans will finally start rooting for the conference as a whole and not just their individual team?

Ted Miller: Yes and no.

No, Pac-12 fans don't seem predisposed to be as regionally united as those from the Southeast. No, you won't get too much cheering from Huskies and Beavers fans if Oregon wins the national title.

But there is some burgeoning collectivism among Pac-12 fans. You see it all over ESPN.com, when Pac-12 fans troll the SEC posts almost as gleefully as SEC fans troll the Pac-12 posts. ESPN, by the way, thanks you for your trolling compulsions.

Beyond that, if the Pac-12 goes 7-1 in bowl games and wins the national title, I'd bet Huskies fans would use that against SEC fans in an argument, as long as they didn't have to say, "And Oregon beat Alabama for the national title." They'd just say, "And a Pac-12 team beat Alabama for the national title."

The abstraction might be palatable, as opposed to the celebration of a specific rival team.

And you can bet that if Oregon wins the national title, particularly over the Crimson Tide, a "Pac-12! Pac-12!" chant will erupt in Cowboys Stadium, an acknowledgment and counter to the "SEC! SEC!" chant we've heard so much over the past decade.
Barring any surprises, seven Pac-12 teams will welcome back starting quarterbacks in 2015. Though the list isn't as glittering as it was last year, when 10 starters returned, including eventual Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, it's a strong crew, as good a group any other Power 5 conference will offer up.

That does mean five teams will feature new starters next fall, though that doesn't necessarily mean there will be five wide-open competitions. For example, senior Mike Bercovici is probably more locked into Arizona State's starting job than a couple of returning starters. His potential is a big reason the Sun Devils will be counted among the conference favorites next fall.

[+] EnlargeMike Bercovici
AP Photo/Gus RuelasMike Bercovici threw 12 TD passes with four interceptions this season, and flashed plenty of potential for Arizona State.
Not only is Bercovici a senior competing with four freshmen -- two redshirts -- he came off the bench this season for Taylor Kelly and played well in three starts. He knows coordinator Mike Norvell's offense and owns a big arm that should add a significant downfield passing component.

"I see [playing this season] as a big learning experience," Bercovici said. "Being here for four seasons and, in my fourth season, I finally get to see the field as a backup. I always wanted to prove to my teammates that I’ve been prepared."

He added, "Some of the success I had this year and some of the mistakes I made are all going to help me move on to the 2015 season."

Utah and Washington both welcome back returning starters in Travis Wilson and Cyler Miles, but there figures to be some intrigue this upcoming spring and fall as they try to hold onto their jobs, with Wilson most notably embroiled in a on-going, two-season competition with Kendal Thompson.

Like Bercovici, Washington State's Luke Falk gained valuable experience this season when he replaced an injured Connor Halliday, and he is a heavy favorite to win the Cougars starting job. Oregon, Oregon State and UCLA appear to have wide-open competitions, with the Bruins featuring touted incoming freshman Josh Rosen taking on an incumbent field led by Jerry Neuheisel this spring.

Bercovici was in a tight competition with Kelly heading into the 2012 season, but Kelly won the job and went on to become one of the most successful quarterbacks in program history. That could have sown the seeds of a rivalry between the two, or Bercovici could have transferred. Instead, he and Kelly became close friends.

That is why Bercovici had mixed feelings when he replaced a struggling Kelly in the Territorial Cup loss to Arizona.

"It was definitely tough to see him come off the field as a senior and for myself to come in, but we didn’t really have time to think about that during the game," he said. "Some times you have bad days when things aren’t going your way. It just sucks I couldn’t lead us to victory in that fourth quarter."

That said, he sees the Hyundai Sun Bowl against Duke on Dec. 27 as being "Taylor's game."

"This is the last time he’ll be in a Sun Devils uniform," he said. "I know he’s going to go out with a bang.”

After that, though, Bercovici will be eager to fill the ensuing vacancy behind center for a Sun Devils team expected to be in the South Division and national mix.

"This team knows this is my job moving forward," he said.

Here is how the Pac-12 sets up at quarterback for 2015, pending any unexpected NFL early entries.

2015 RETURNING STARTERS

Arizona: Anu Solomon

The skinny: Though Solomon was impressive as a redshirt freshman first-year starter, he wasn't terribly efficient, ranking 61st in the nation in Total QBR and 55th in standard passing efficiency. So there is plenty of room to get better. The good news is 1,000-yard rusher Nick Wilson will be back, as will a strong crew of receivers. The offensive line has some notable holes.

California: Jared Goff

The skinny: He threw for 331 yards per game with 35 TD passes and just seven interceptions as a true sophomore. If you are looking for a player who could breakout as a national name next fall, Goff might be your man. He has an NFL future. He also has a strong supporting cast coming back on offense -- nine returning starters -- including a deep and talented group of receivers.

Colorado: Sefo Liufau

The skinny: He passed for a school-record 28 touchdowns, but also led the Pac-12 with 15 interceptions and was briefly benched late in the season. That said, the true sophomore has talent and will likely improve as a third-year starter as the young players around him grow up. It also would help him and the Buffs if receiver Nelson Spruce returns for his senior year instead of entering the draft.

Stanford: Kevin Hogan

The skinny: Hogan ranked sixth in the Pac-12 in QBR, despite being a third-year starter with a strong group of experienced receivers. Though the Cardinal running game and offensive line was a disappointment, there were plenty of times when Hogan was inconsistent in terms of both throwing and decision-making. What Stanford wants is for Hogan to return for his senior year and play like he did against California and UCLA for an entire season. Coach David Shaw said Hogan, who was dealing with tough family situation during the season, would be the starter if he returned and wouldn't face a challenge from touted freshman Keller Chryst.

USC: Cody Kessler

The skinny: If he opts to return for his senior season, Kessler will be an All-American candidate after throwing for 36 TDs with just four interceptions and ranking sixth in the nation in QBR. If there is one criticism of Kessler, it is that he feasted on inferior foes, but didn't turn in an A-list performance against ranked teams, most notably an ineffective showing against UCLA. He should greatly benefit from the maturation of a number of young but talented players forced into action this fall, most notably on the offensive line.

Utah: Travis Wilson

The skinny: This might be the Pac-12's most interesting quarterback situation. Wilson is set to become a four-year starter, but he also might not return to the Utes for his final season. That's because coaches might want to go with Kendal Thompson, who briefly replaced Wilson in the starting lineup before getting hurt. If that's the case, Wilson can transfer with no penalty, because he is set to graduate in 2015. Utah looks like it's going to be stacked on both sides of the ball next fall -- 16 other position-player starters are set to return -- but quarterback remains the issue, as it has since Utah joined the Pac-12.

Washington: Cyler Miles

The skinny: Miles also could face a challenge for his starting spot, though the rising junior also flashed ability at times while doing a good job of protecting the football -- see just three interceptions -- and played better the second half of the season. And who might provide a legitimate challenge, as no other quarterback on the roster appears capable of unseating him. It will be interesting to see how quickly touted incoming freshman Jake Browning picks things up this spring.

2015 COMPETITIONS*

Arizona State: Mike Bercovici, Sr; Manny Wilkins, RFr; Coltin Gerhart, RFr.; Brady White, Fr.; Bryce Perkins, Fr.

The skinny: Bercovici is more certain here than a couple of the conference's returning starters. He gained valuable experience this season replacing an injured Kelly, throwing 12 TDs with four interceptions, and flashed plenty of potential, including A-list arm strength. Though the Sun Devils have stocked up on young quarterbacks, including a pair of touted incoming freshmen, Bercovici is almost a certainty here.

Oregon: Jeff Lockie, Jr.; Ty Griffin, RSo.; Taylor Alie, RSo.; Morgan Mahalak, RFr., Travis Waller, Fr

The skinny: Lockie was Mariota's backup this season and has thrown 30 passes in his career -- one TD! -- which means he will have more experience than Mariota did when he took over as a redshirt freshman. It also was a strong indicator of a pecking order when Jake Rodrigues and Damion Hobbs opted to transfer after spring practices, as they were both behind Lockie. Both Alie and Mahalak, however, have skills, and Waller is expect to be around this spring to join the fray. And perhaps there will be a wild-card transfer?

Oregon State: Luke Del Rio, So.; Brent VanderVeen, Jr., Nick Mitchell, RFr.; Marcus McMaryion, RFr., Kyle Kempt, RSo.

The skinny: This one is wide open. Not only is there no clear leader, but you also have a new coaching staff under Gary Andersen with new schemes. VanderVeen started the season as Sean Mannion's backup, but Del Rio took over that spot about three game into the season. He threw 18 passes in mop-up duty, making him the only Beavers quarterback with any game experience. Might Andersen try to lure away Austin Kafentzis, a four-star quarterack from Sandy, Utah, from his commitment to Wisconsin, where Kafentzis originally planned to enroll early to play for Andersen? And what about James Pensyl, a 6-foot-7 hurler from Land O'Lakes, Florida, who committed to Mike Riley?

UCLA: Jerry Neuheisel, Jr., Asiantii Woulard, RSo.; Mike Fafaul, RJr., Aaron Sharp, RFr., Josh Rosen, Fr.

The skinny: Neuheisel was Brett Hundley's backup this season, and came off the bench to lead the Bruins past Texas. He is a capable, charismatic guy who probably relishes the idea of being counted out by many due to the arrival of Rosen. Rosen, however, is the guy many will be watching. Perhaps the best quarterback in the 2015 recruiting class, he will participate in spring practices when he can immediately put himself into the mix.

Washington State: Luke Falk, RSo.; Peyton Bender, RFr.; Tyler Hilinski, Fr.

The skinny: Falk started fast then faded a bit after coming off the bench to replace the injured Connor Halliday, but he is the overwhelming favorite here. In four games, he threw for 1,859 yards with 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions, with six of those picks coming in his last two games. Still, he didn't look like a walk-on. He looked like an A-list redshirt freshman suddenly thrust into action who was struggling against good teams. Coach Mike Leach won't make it seem like Falk is locked in during spring practice, but it's his job to lose.

*Listed year in school is for 2015

Mailbag: FSU undisciplined; Petersen flop

December, 19, 2014
12/19/14
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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
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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.

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
12/12/14
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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
12/08/14
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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.

Pac-12 bowl projections: Week 14

December, 2, 2014
12/02/14
8:00
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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

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