Pac-12: Texas Longhorns


In a new AT&T commercial, Heisman Trophy winners Bo Jackson, Doug Flutie and Herschel Walker, sitting around watching the new College Football Playoff on ESPN, try to tease Joe Montana about his not winning the bronze statue. Montana seems duly impressed.

"What an accomplishment," he says. Only he raises his hand to his face, and it features four Super Bowl rings and a ring for the 1977 national title he won at Notre Dame.

#winning!

When it comes to team sports, particularly in this country, winning championships trumps eye-popping statistics and individual accomplishments. That's why no one ranks Dan Marino ahead of Montana on lists of all-time great quarterbacks, even though Marino was a better pure passer.

This is an important sports cultural note because we are on the cusp of potentially making a huge distinction. If Oregon beats Ohio State in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T on Jan. 12, Marcus Mariota will have a strong case for the greatest quarterback in college football history. He'll have the Heisman, eye-popping numbers over three brilliant seasons and, most important, that championship. It would further boost his case that Oregon's first Heisman winner also led it to its first football national title, the Ducks then being the first first-time national title winner since Florida in 1996.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
AP Photo/Jae C. HongMarcus Mariota's passing efficiency numbers are among the best in college football history.
Ah, Florida. It can counter with two legitimate entrants to the discussion of best quarterback in college football history: Danny Wuerffel and Tim Tebow. Both put up huge numbers over multiple seasons and won Heismans. And both won national titles.

By those measures, you'd also have to include USC's Matt Leinart in the discussion. He won the 2004 Heisman and finished sixth in 2003 and third in 2005. While his overall numbers aren't as sparkly as Mariota's, Weurffel's or Tebow's, he went 37-2 as a starter and nearly won three consecutive national titles.

If winning is our primary measure, how can QBs like Tommie Frazier and Vince Young be overlooked? Frazier and Young each finished second in Heisman voting, but Frazier won consecutive national titles at Nebraska (1994 and 1995) without losing a game -- that 1995 team ranks among the best in the history of the sport -- while Young resurrected the Longhorns and won the 2005 national title.

Our old-timers are reminding us that college football is more than a few decades old. Any discussion of all-time greats needs to include TCU's Sammy Baugh, who was slinging the ball around well before passing was a significant part of the game, and the Horned Frogs claimed a national title in 1935 with Baugh behind center. The two-time All-American had 39 career TD passes and also ended up an NFL Hall of Famer.

So what is Mariota's case should he prevail against the Buckeyes? The CFP, in itself, would be a good Point A: His winning a national title will rate a bigger accomplishment than those of his predecessors because he will have to win consecutive games against highly ranked, top-four foes in order to earn that final No. 1 ranking. Those who won BCS or pre-BCS titles didn't have the added rigor of the CFP.

As for numbers, both this season and career, Mariota's case is strong. He leads the nation in Total QBR, ESPN.com's advanced metric for measuring a QB's efficiency and overall effectiveness, by a wide margin, and his 91.7 rating is third best since 2004. He finished ranked second in QBR the previous two seasons to Heisman winners Jameis Winston of Florida State and Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M. Those QBR numbers rank 10th and 17th of all time, making him the only QB since 2004 to have three seasons ranked in the top 20.

The same lofty measures hold true with standard QB efficiency ratings. Mariota is No. 1 this season after ranking seventh in 2013 and 2012. Those ratings rank 6th, 55th and 97th all-time (since 1956). His career efficiency rating ranks second all-time behind Oklahoma's Sam Bradford.

Mariota has been responsible for more touchdowns (134) and racked up more yards of total offense (12,661) than any other player in Pac-12 history. He has thrown a touchdown pass in all 40 career starts, the second-longest streak in FBS history. He is on pace to set the FBS record for career interception percentage, as only 13 of his 1,130 career attempts have been picked off (1.15 percent).

With any subjective measure, as this undoubtedly is, you can highlight or downplay aspects to suit an argument. Leinart and Frazier led dynastic runs of sustained excellence but were hardly one-star constellations for college football superpowers. Young completed an outstanding 2005 season -- second to Reggie Bush in Heisman voting -- with a tour de force performance in a thrilling victory over Leinart, Bush and USC in the national title game. Tebow finished first, third and fifth in Heisman voting, was a significant part of a second national title team, had 145 career TDs and put up strong efficiency numbers.

A further complication in this debate is blocking out how these quarterbacks were evaluated by the NFL and then produced as professionals. The only aforementioned QB who succeeded in the NFL was Baugh. Wuerffel and Tebow were widely doubted by NFL scouts in advance of the draft. Injuries ended Frazier's career before he could play on Sundays. Leinart and Young were top-10 picks in 2006, but they both flopped in the NFL.

Mariota is expected to be a top-10 pick this spring and could go No. 1 overall. In terms of NFL prospects, he's decisively better than Wuerffel and Tebow, and it's already clear he has a superior arm compared to Leinart and is far more advanced mechanically than Young. In terms of pure QB ability and talent as it would translate to the NFL, Mariota is the best prospect of the bunch, even before you factor in his ability as a runner.

Of course, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer can do his old QB Tebow a favor in this debate. If the Buckeyes triumph over the Ducks, Mariota won't get to flash a championship ring, a prerequisite for inclusion in our "best ever" conversation.
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- Without quarterback Brett Hundley, UCLA could not win. It didn't matter that Texas was beaten up and beaten down. It didn't matter that Hundley was just one guy. He was The Guy, the face of the Bruins, the biggest reason some touted them in the preseason as national title contenders. Moreover, to put it gently, the depth chart behind him was unpromising.

Backup Jerry Neuheisel? Son of Rick Neuheisel, the guy who was fired before Jim Mora built the Bruins into contenders? The guy who some suspected got a scholarship only because his dad was the head coach? No way.

So when Hundley was surrounded by trainers after going down with an apparent elbow injury in the first quarter against the Longhorns, you could sense impending doom. You could sense the Bruins, who had struggled to beat Virginia and Memphis with Hundley, joining teams such as Ohio State, Clemson, South Carolina, Georgia and Michigan State on the slag heap of exposed contenders.

[+] EnlargeJerry Neuheisel
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsBackup quarterback Jerry Neuheisel got a hero's exit after leading No. 12 UCLA to a come-from-behind 20-17 victory over Texas.
Texas thought the same thing.

"[Neuheisel and Hundley] are two different quarterbacks," Texas cornerback Quandre Diggs said. "One guy is up for the Heisman and the other guy is someone we've never heard of."

Yet there was Neuheisel eyeballing Diggs' cornerbacking counterpart, Duke Thomas, in man coverage against receiver Jordan Payton with three minutes left in the game, sensing his moment had arrived.

"As soon as I saw [Thomas'] eyes, I thought, 'Oh, my God, this might just work,'" Neuheisel said.

The Bruins were down four on Texas' 33-yard line and pretty much hadn't allowed Neuhiesel to throw downfield since he came off the bench, but offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone expected man coverage and decided Payton might get free with a double move.

In fact, Thomas appeared to bite on Neuheisel's pump fake, and the ball arrived soft and sweet into Payton's hands. Touchdown. After the defense forced a four-and-done, the Bruins hoisted Neuheisel onto their shoulders. They'd won 20-17 without Hundley to improve to 3-0.

"I felt like it was going to be a little bit of a defining moment for us," UCLA coach Jim Mora said of when Hundley went down.

While it might seem to some like an ugly 3-0 for the nation's No. 12 team, it was a dream come true for Neuheisel. Literally. He told his teammates that at halftime. He grew up dreaming of following in his dad's footsteps as the UCLA quarterback, imagining throwing winning touchdowns in his backyard. The general expectation from fans and media, however, was the redshirt sophomore would remain on the bench behind Hundley, holding for field goals and then backing up whoever won the job next year when Hundley was off to the NFL.

Yet a point of emphasis from Mora and the Bruins after their victory was never doubting Neuheisel.

"We all expected it," Payton said.

Said Mora, "His team fricken' loves him. There was never any doubt."

Well, there was and is some doubt. What's next, for one, is a big issue. Hundley's status is questionable, to say the least. Mora would only say Hundley would be evaluated by UCLA team doctors back in Los Angeles. While beating a struggling Texas team with a backup QB is one thing, the Bruins visit Arizona State on Sept. 25 after a bye week. That's an entirely different deal, a critical South Division showdown. Of course, in an unfortunate twist of fate, both teams could be without their starting quarterbacks, as Taylor Kelly suffered a foot injury against Colorado on Saturday.

Neuheisel, who completed 23 of 30 passes for 178 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions, could square off with Sun Devils backup Mike Bercovici in a game with major Pac-12, and even national, implications. The Bruins, however, were still operating inside the 24-hour rule Saturday, which means their primary concern is enjoying the present, not refocusing on the next foe.

Neuheisel is his father's son. He looks and sounds like Rick Neuheisel, and he's quick with a quip like his dad. When he walked into the postgame interview room, he noted, "Holders don't get this kind of publicity." After the elder Neuheisel led the Bruins to an upset of Illinois in the 1984 Rose Bowl, he cracked wise during a postgame interview about the Fighting Illini band blasting music behind him.

"I just talked to my dad," Jerry Neuheisel said. "He said, 'You did it. It's kind of a Neuheisel thing.'"

On a day when UCLA's crosstown rival, USC, wilted at Boston College, the Bruins found a way to dig deep, overcome adversity and win. UCLA might not be a beautiful 3-0, but it is 3-0 and that's what matters.

"They never flinched," Mora said. "They never blinked. That's kind of what we are trying to become. And we're getting closer and closer every day."

Grumpy UCLA eyeballs Texas, doubters

September, 11, 2014
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UCLA coach Jim Mora began his weekly spot on the Pac-12 coaches teleconference with a grumble and two harrumphs. Some might say there also was a dismissive snap or two. This was Grumpy Jim.

He was asked about his Bruins appearing on the Pac-12 Network series, "The Drive."

“I’ve never said the words, ‘The Drive,’ to our team," he said. "I’ve never heard our players talk about it. They’ve never asked me a question about it. It’s a complete nonentity to us.”

He was asked about his team not playing up to expectations.

"How do you know we haven't played up to our own expectations?" Mora said, adding that he's not going to "talk about what he talks to the team about."

He was asked about Texas' pursuit of him last year before he re-upped with UCLA and the Longhorns hired Charlie Strong.

[+] EnlargeJim Mora
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images"It's up to us to prove that we are a competitive, good football team to be reckoned with," Jim Mora said. "In the first two weeks, we haven't necessarily done that."
"You'll have to ask them if they considered me," he said. "I'm just excited to the coach at UCLA."

That's all he would say, even though a day later a story would appear on ESPN.com in which he provides great detail about the interview with Texas representatives.

A grumpy football coach isn't unusual, just as a coach who doesn't want to talk about his team's struggles or his flirtation with an other job isn't either. Yet after these tense initial three minutes, Mora transformed. He loosened up and became pleasant and expansive. His 10 minutes of allotted time stretched to 15. When he fielded a last question about changing a program's culture, you got the distinct feeling he was smiling while answering.

Call the analogy facile, but Mora showed that a quick turnaround is possible, and that's what he's hoping he gets from his team as it prepares to play Texas on Saturday in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. That transformation with reporters included significantly more insight about his and his team's thinking after some folks turned up their noses following unimpressive UCLA wins over Virginia and Memphis.

“We enjoy the role of underdog," he said. "We feel like we’re kind of back to where we want to be, which is people are doubting us. There’s a reason for that and we’re OK with that. It’s up to us to prove that we are a competitive, good football team to be reckoned with. In the first two weeks, we haven’t necessarily done that.”

Then Insightful Jim apologized for his insightful answer, "I hope you can get something out of that.”

We can. Mora is even more aware than critical reporters that the Bruins first two games haven't yet matched reasonable expectations for his depth chart. The good news is his team is 2-0. It's entirely valid to question, however, whether his team will prove to be the national title contender it was projected to be in the preseason. The early returns suggest not.

Mora went even further with his beat reporters Tuesday, admitting his players were "tight" the first two weeks. "I think we let the outside expectations become a little bit of a burden to us," he said.

In Game 1, the offensive line looked over-burdened by Virginia, yielding five sacks and producing little running room. In Game 2, that line surrendered four sacks, but the running game was better and the Bruins scored 42 points and gained 540 yards. Yet the defense yielded 35 points and 469 yards.

While it would be easy to say that if you combine the defense from Game 1 and the offense from Game 2, UCLA would be fine, the real issue is improvement on the offensive line, the team's most questionable area. This is not a new thing.

UCLA has surrendered 97 sacks since the beginning of the 2012 season, tied for second-most in the FBS, according to ESPN Stats & Information. It's particularly concerning that this isn't about blitzes. QB Brett Hundley has been sacked 51 times in his career on plays in which opponents have sent four or fewer pass-rushers, the most for any Power 5 quarterback in the last three seasons. Bruins QBs have been pressured (hurried or knocked down) on a Pac-12-high 24 percent of their dropbacks the last two seasons, including 24 percent this season.

And it's not just about pass blocking. UCLA is averaging 71.0 yards before contact per game this season, second-worst in the Pac-12 behind Washington State. The Bruins produced 130 plays the last two seasons that lost yards, third-most in the FBS.

Despite these worrisome numbers, Hundley and the Bruins have managed to score a lot of points, as they've averaged 36.7 points per game the past two seasons. But unreliability up front is where UCLA's 2014 great expectations might get the Miss Havisham treatment.

As for Mora and the Bruins, who have tumbled from No. 7 to No. 12 in the AP poll, the reality is being grumpy at 2-0 isn't such a bad thing. He noted that the worst thing that can happen to a team is its locker room becoming permeated with self-satisfaction.

So while a few gritty harrumphs for Texas on Saturday and Arizona State on Sept. 25 might quell the doubters, that grumpiness shouldn't ever completely go away.

Week 2 statements can be deceiving

September, 8, 2014
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Each college football season is a whodunit. Or, more accurately, it's a "who-will-do-it." It contains plot twists and turns, false leads and subtle clues about how things will play out. It's basically a 14-chapter potboiler, so if we seemed to have a couple of big reveals in Chapter 2, we should greet them with equanimity. Even skepticism.

No. 3 Oregon made the biggest national statement so far this season with a 46-27 victory against No. 7 Michigan State. The Ducks answered questions about their ability to match up with an elite physical defense and established their legitimacy. That quarterback Marcus Mariota turned in a tour de force for the Ducks further validates the preseason feeling that he was the Heisman Trophy front-runner. Also getting a hole punched in their validation cards were Ducks coach Mark Helfrich and new defensive coordinator Don Pellum.

[+] EnlargeRoyce Freeman
Phil Ellsworth/ESPN ImagesWe shouldn't punch Oregon's ticket to the College Football Playoff just yet.
Meanwhile, USC and new coach Steve Sarkisian also answered questions, though the Trojans' 13-10 triumph at Stanford was pretty much a quasi-comic thriller unto itself. For one, there's USC athletic director Pat Haden, who has never previously merited a rating on the wacko scale, apparently deciding there was some wisdom in his engaging the officials for all to see. Yes, a former USC quarterback, Rhodes Scholar and 61-year-old member of the College Football Playoff selection committee apparently didn't think making a spectacle of himself would turn out badly.

As for football, the Trojans won a second consecutive nail-biter over the Cardinal, propelling themselves into the top 10, They won in large part because Stanford couldn't get out of its own way. The Cardinal had nine drives inside the Trojans’ 35-yard line but scored just 10 points, which almost seems mathematically impossible. That red zone ineptitude would be notable for any team, but it's even more stunning when you consider Stanford's well-established reputation for disciplined, bruising, efficient play.

Nonetheless, the victory made the Trojans the second-highest rated team in the Pac-12 in both major polls. Two weeks into the season, one might call them the South Division favorite and most likely team to challenge the Ducks.

But what of USC's friends from Westwood, UCLA, the previous holder of both those designations? The Bruins improved to 2-0, but only after an unimpressive performance in an anxious 42-35 victory against lightly regarded Memphis. They continued a tumble in national estimation, falling from a preseason ranking of No. 7 to No. 12 in the latest AP poll. In Week 1 at Virginia, the Bruins' offense, particularly the line, appeared hapless. In Week 2, the defense took the day off.

UCLA is a cipher. The Bruins look good on paper -- the depth chart suggests no obvious deficiencies -- but have not looked good on turf, at least thus far. They remain unbeaten but are presently the most deserving owner of the dreaded "overrated" label. They could turn out to be the Chapter 1 good guys who end up as heels. Or the opposite. They could be lying in wait, bland and unimpressive, before leaping out of the shadows to make their heroic flourish. Feel free, by the way, to put your own spin on coach Jim Mora's brief postgame interview in which he said he liked his defense "a lot," before frumping off, leaving reporter and audience hanging.

In the preseason, there was some hope that UCLA's game with Texas on Saturday in Cowboys Stadium would be revealing. While expectations weren't terribly high for the Longhorns under first-year coach Charlie Strong, there were reasonable projections this game at least would be a matchup of ranked teams. But Texas is battling growing pains, as well as injuries and suspensions, under Strong. It just got whipped for a second consecutive season by BYU, so the Longhorns look like more of a banana peel than a national stepping-stone for the Bruins.

If UCLA loses, it probably will fall out of the Top 25, going from vogue pick for CFP semifinalist to unranked within three weeks. If it wins, most will shrug and point to the Sept. 25 date at Arizona State, a Thursday night showdown between South Division contenders, as a true measuring stick for whether the Bruins merit our preseason gushing.

This skepticism, however, carries little more authority than everyone's present approbation of Oregon. It's just fickle words, really. Fodder for the daily grind of sports fandom, this week's topic. In December, Oregon's 2-0 might not end up being any more meaningful than UCLA's 2-0. Further, UCLA at 4-0, no matter how it got there, would probably rework its popular descriptive term from "overrated" to "opportunistic."

In other words, our present takes are no more than hunches. These are educated hunches based on tangible evidence, but we all know tangible evidence often has a brief shelf life in college football. Oregon, USC and UCLA have made statements about themselves through Week 2, and it's inevitable that we react to what has been said.

That doesn't mean we won't be breaking down a rematch between Arizona State and Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game when the regular season ends.

Nonconference primer: UCLA

July, 25, 2014
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We continue with our series looking at each Pac-12 team's nonconference opponents in 2014.

UCLA Bruins

At Virginia Cavaliers, Saturday, Aug. 30
  • Coach: Mike London (18-31), fifth year
  • 2013 record: 2-10, 0-8, ACC
  • Returning starters: Seven offense, nine defense
  • Offensive headliner: Running back Kevin Parks became the first Cavalier player to rush for more than 1,000 yards in almost a decade, posting 1,031 yards and 11 touchdowns. He ranked second in the conference with 85.9 yards per game on the ground.
  • Defensive headliner: Middle linebacker Henry Coley led Virginia with 91 stops last year, including 8.5 tackles for a loss and a sack. He ranked eighth in the ACC with 7.6 tackles per game.
  • The skinny: Virginia is coming off its worst season under London, who has had a pair of 4-8 seasons with one winning season (2011, 8-5) in between. They are currently riding a nine-game losing streak and a 10-game losing streak against FBS teams (which started with a 59-10 loss last season to Oregon). After opening the year with a surprising win over BYU, it was all downhill, save for a win over VMI in between.
Memphis Tigers, Saturday, Sept. 6
  • Coach: Justin Fuente (7-17), third season
  • 2013 record: 3-9, 1-7 American
  • Returning starters: Nine offense, eight defense
  • Offensive headliner: Quarterback Paxton Lynch threw for 2,056 yards and nine touchdowns last year, while adding 127 yards and two scores on the ground. It was just the 10th 2,000-yard passing season in school history and he was just the second freshman in school history to break the 2K passing mark.
  • Defensive headliner: Defensive lineman Martin Ifedi has been getting a lot of preseason love, landing on the Bednarik, Bronko Nagurski and Rotary Lombardi watch lists. He has 20 career sacks, one shy of matching the school record.
  • The skinny: Though there were a lot of losses last season, the Tigers were still pretty competitive in games against Duke, Louisville and BCS darlings UCF. But they ended the year on a low note with blowout losses to Temple and Connecticut. Lynch returns with some experience and a pretty good receiving corps, headlined by fourth-year player Keiwone Malone. The defense should be steady with a good line and a trio of returning linebackers.
Texas Longhorns (in Arlington, Texas), Saturday, Sept. 13
  • Coach: Charlie Strong, first year
  • 2013 record: 8-5, 7-2 Big 12
  • Returning starters: Five offense, seven defense
  • Offensive headliner: Running back Malcom Brown rushed for 904 yards and nine touchdowns. He posted five 100-yard rushing performances last year, including 120 yards in the Red River Rivalry win over Oklahoma.
  • Defensive headliner: Defensive end Cedric Reed was third on the team last season with 79 tackles. He also led the team with five forced fumbles and is on the All-Big 12 preseason team and several watch lists.
  • The skinny: The Longhorns are starting anew with the Charlie Strong era. The last time we saw them, the Ducks were escorting Mack Brown into retirement following a 30-7 win in the Alamo Bowl. Texas has some rebuilding to do on the offensive line, with three starters departed. The quarterback spot is also, well, shaky. They also lose their top two tacklers from last season. But there is enough talent at the skill spots and across the defensive line to make this a potentially dangerous game.
Thoughts: For the Bruins to get to where Jim Mora wants them, anything less than 3-0 won't do. Memphis and Virginia are struggling FBS teams -- but FBS teams nonetheless, which will help the Bruins resume. But the Texas game is the one that could bring some national attention to Westwood. A lot of eyes will be on Texas to see what Strong can do with the brand-name program in his first year. A lot of eyes will also be on the Bruins, who will likely be a top 10 team to start the season with Heisman hopeful Brett Hundley at the helm. Things only get tougher for the Bruins, as they leave their nonconference schedule and jump right into a showdown at Arizona State. Then home dates with Oregon, USC and Stanford loom. The Bruins have the DNA to be one of the top teams in the country and possibly advance to the College Football Playoff. A 3-0 nonconference mark puts them on the right path. Anything less knocks them off that path.
Gas up the family station wagon and hit the Holiday Road. The Ultimate Road Trip is back! Over the next couple of weeks we're going to look at each week during the 2014 season and pick the can’t-miss game (and maybe for Thursday/Friday games, we'll work in two).

Start planning accordingly. The Ultimate Pac-12 Road Trip continues.

Welcome to Week 3

Saturday, Sept. 13
  • Wyoming at Oregon
  • Illinois at Washington
  • Army at Stanford
  • Portland State at Washington State
  • USC at Boston College
  • UCLA vs. Texas (at AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas)
  • Arizona State at Colorado
  • Nevada at Arizona
  • Byes: Cal, Oregon State, Utah
My choice: UCLA vs. Texas

Why: What an incredible Week 2 that was. Oregon made a national statement with its convincing win against Michigan State and I can’t believe Stanford-USC ended in another last-minute field goal! That had to be one happy team from the state of California.

For Week 3, let’s take a step out of our comfort zone and travel to a place not normally frequented by the Pac-12 faithful during the regular season -- Texas.

Let’s be honest. Texas isn’t what it used to be. The Longhorns are trying to get back there under new head coach Charlie Strong. But it might take a while.

However, the Texas brand still carries a ton of name value. And a win against the Longhorns at a neutral site (only by name), would be a huge boost for a UCLA program trying to make a splash on the national stage. The Bruins will likely be a top 10 team to start the season. And barring an unbelievable mishap at Virginia or home against Memphis, they will be a team the playoff committee is keeping an eye on when this game rolls around.

From an individual standpoint, this game could also be a big boost for quarterback Brett Hundley and his Heisman candidacy. Voters were already eyeing Marcus Mariota and his five-touchdown performance against Michigan State last week (three in the air, two on the ground). They aren’t going to care much what Hundley does against Virginia or Memphis. But if he goes into Texas and has a huge game, that will definitely give him a boost.

There are also, of course, the rumors that circulated about UCLA head coach Jim Mora when the Texas job became available. Whether those were substantiated or legitimate are irrelevant. They were out there -- and that adds an element of intriguing to this game.

This is a game UCLA should win, thus making it a must-win. If the Bruins want to go to where they hope they will, they have to win this game convincingly. If they do, they will get the benefit of beating a brand-name team, even if the Longhorns are currently re-branding.

Nevada at Arizona has some intrigue because it’s a rematch of the thrilling 2012 New Mexico Bowl. And Illinois’ trip to Washington is another Pac-12-Big Ten showdown. But as far as national interest goes, UCLA-Texas is the game to see this week.

You can see the rest of the road trip here.
Last week the Pac-12 blog discussed some dream nonconference matchups that we’d like to see someday. But the Pac-12 blog is firmly rooted in reality, none of this dream stuff (unless we feel like writing about it). So, let’s talk real-world, actually-happening, nonconference matchups.

So Kevin Gemmell and Chantel Jennings will take to that topic this week.

What nonconference match up are you most looking forward to in 2014?

Chantel Jennings: Easy. Has to be Michigan State-Oregon in Week 2. I grew up in Big Ten territory and before moving west this spring to cover the Pac-12, the Midwest was the only place I had ever lived. I attended the University of Michigan and saw my fair share of interesting (read: meh) nonconference games during my four years there. As a freshman, my first game was Michigan-Appalachian State. For those who don’t remember, the Wolverines lost -- that was my introduction as a student to Wolverines football. As a result, I sold my ticket for the following weekend to Oregon-Michigan (the Wolverines lost that one, too). Despite that, I’m a big fan of the historical relevance of Big Ten-Pac-12 matchups, and having closely covered the Spartans last season, I’m very excited to see what these two teams bring to the table.

Oregon QB Marcus Mariota isn’t going to have to face the vaunted "No Fly Zone" of the Spartans defense next season, but there’s plenty of talent on that side of the ball for Michigan State and there are few coordinators who are better than Michigan State's Pat Narduzzi. Plus, reigning Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Shilique Calhoun will have Mariota’s number. On the flip side, reigning Rose Bowl Offensive MVP Connor Cook is going to have to face the Oregon defense, which is no easy task. Cook lost his top receiver, but running back Jeremy Langford is back for the Spartans.

And as a side note: Michigan State has one of the best tweeters in the country in punter Mike Sadler (he’s also a tremendous punter). Between his ability to regularly get responses from Arby’s and Faux Pelini (the fake Twitter account for Nebraska coach Bo Pelini) and his wit, Sadler has one of the better athlete Twitter timelines that I’ve seen. With the Spartans playing the Ducks, there will be plenty of pre-game fodder for Sadler, and I’m looking forward to seeing how that plays out.

Kevin Gemmell: It’s a good thing you found your way West, Chantel. The Pac-12 neeehhhvvveeerrr loses to FCS teams (cough, cough).

Your pick makes sense -- not only because you’re the Oregon writer, but because that is going to be the marquee nonconference game in the Pac-12 this season. Oregon wants a seat at the playoff table, and Michigan State’s Rose Bowl win is still fresh in a lot of minds. A win will definitely strengthen Oregon’s national profile.

But I think the same can be said for UCLA, which faces Texas Sept. 13 in Arlington, Texas. Granted, the Longhorns are a former super-power transitioning from Mack Brown to Charlie Strong. But Strong’s presence gives Texas a renewed sense of national credibility, and a victory would open some eyes of folks still straddling the Bruins’ fence. Despite its recent shortcomings, Texas is still a name program.

Like Oregon, UCLA is a team expecting big things in 2014. That makes their Oct. 11 showdown at the Rose Bowl awfully interesting.

But before the Bruins get there, they have the Texas matchup, followed by a bye week, and then a Thursday night showdown with defending South champ Arizona State in Tempe. A win over Texas gives the Bruins a ton of momentum heading into a game that has essentially decided the South Division the last two seasons. A loss could send them tumbling down the rankings and stunt any forward progress heading into league play.

The Pac-12 is traditionally ambitious with its nonconference scheduling. There are three showdowns with Notre Dame this season -- ASU, USC and Stanford -- and that always makes for entertaining football. I think Utah at Michigan has some intrigue -- given Kyle Whittingham’s success over Brady Hoke when their teams sparred in the Mountain West. I also think it’s interesting that for the second straight season, a Pac-12 team will face its bowl opponent from the previous year in the season opener (Washington-Boise State in 2013, USC-Fresno State in 2014).

But in terms of games that could boost the national standing of the conference, it probably doesn’t get bigger than Michigan State-Oregon and UCLA-Texas.

Texas eyeballing Mora?

January, 3, 2014
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Texas wants to interview UCLA coach Jim Mora for its head coaching vacancy, according to multiple reports, including ESPN's NFL Insider Adam Schefter and Brett McMurphy.

Chip Brown of OrangeBloods Tweeted that Mora will interview "in the next few days." Texas has already reportedly interviewed Louisville's Charlie Strong and Vanderbilt's James Franklin. Baylor coach Art Briles also is thought to be in the mix.

Mora already turned down his alma mater Washington, thereby earning a raise for himself and his coaches along with certain guarantees about upgrades to UCLA's lagging facilities.

No question Mora would be a great hire for Texas. And he and his staff would move up a tax bracket in Austin. Or two.

Things could get interesting.
A few years ago, my wires got crossed even more than normal and I somehow ended up believing a homestanding but underdog Washington team just might beat Oregon. So I picked the Huskies to upset their hated rivals. It was a bad pick, and an Oregon person let me know about it -- profanely and vociferously -- immediately after the Ducks' blowout win.

It was Ducks defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti.

At the moment, I was shocked and, yes, a bit hurt. I thought I had a great relationship with Aliotti and I had no idea he'd even be aware of, much less give two flips about, my weekly Pac-12 picks.

Oh, but he did. And that's an important part of Nick Aliotti you need to know. Behind the avuncular public face, he's a fiery competitor who is motivated by folks doubting him and his players.

[+] EnlargeNick Aliotti
Steve Conner/Icon SMINick Aliotti spent 24 years on the Oregon coaching staff, including 17 as defensive coordinator.
We've chatted -- professionally and casually -- perhaps 20 times since then, and more than a few times he brought up that moment and apologized for it again and again, and then went on to great lengths to flatter the Pac-12 blog and make it blush.

"You've always been great to me," he'd say. "And I appreciate what you do."

That's an important part of Aliotti you need to know. He's a genuinely good fellow. Gracious. Funny. Self-effacing. And I don't know if I know anyone, particularly among members of the Fourth Estate, who'd say differently.

He also is a heck of a defensive coach, which is why more than a few folks are probably surprised that he has chosen to hang it up at just age 59, announcing his retirement Friday effective after the Ducks' date with Texas in the Valero Alamo Bowl on Dec. 30.

He has been a fixture at Oregon under four coaches -- 24 years total, 17 as defensive coordinator. He had a brief run in the NFL when Rich Brooks was with the St. Louis Rams, and he spent a year at UCLA getting scapegoated by Bob Toledo, which was such bad form from Toledo that his career swirled into the muck shortly thereafter, his having irrevocably broken his positive karmic balance.

While the Ducks have been known more for their offense during their rise to the nation's elite, Aliotti consistently put together defenses that ranked highly in the Pac-12 and nation, particularly when you went beyond obvious statistics -- such as yards per game -- and used more advanced metrics that accounted for the Ducks offense having no interest in time of possession.

Aliotti will be missed, as a coach and a personality.

"Nick's contributions to the football program at the University of Oregon cannot be overstated," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said in a statement. "His dedication to the success of this program will certainly leave a lasting impression that is hard to measure. I want to thank him for his loyalty and efforts to help make Oregon football what it is today, and wish him and his wife, Kathy, a long and happy retirement."

The first question, of course, even before we ponder the future of the Ducks defense, is whether Aliotti will stay retired. That competitive fire might enjoy a break, but after he watches the 2014 season, you'd have to wonder if his coaching jones might return. Heck, a smaller program might even want to shake his tree a bit and see if he'd be interested in one thing he's missed out on in his career: A head coaching job.

I'd rate Aliotti's potential return a definite maybe. He certainly won't be off the coaching radar when a year from now someone needs a coordinator.

[+] EnlargeClancy Pendergast
Joe Andras/WeAreSC.comClancy Pendergast transformed USC's defense in one season with a system similar to Oregon's 3-4.
As for what's next for Oregon, two names were all over the Twitterverse this afternoon: Justin Wilcox, a former Oregon player, and Clancy Pendergast, who transformed USC's defense this fall.

Wilcox, as reported by CBS's Bruce Feldman, is shortly expected to follow Steve Sarkisian from Washington to USC. He also is one of the nation's highest paid assistant coaches, making more than double the $370,000 Aliotti made this fall. Aliotti, by the way, is the Ducks' highest paid assistant coach.

As for Pendergast, he'd be a great hire, wouldn't cost $800,000 a year and he's available because of Wilcox's expected arrival in Los Angeles. He knows the Pac-12, having coached the past four years at California and USC, and that can't be discounted when you consider the diversity of offenses in the conference.

ESPN's Adam Schefter has reported Pendergast might be eyeballing an NFL job, but one suspects he is looking only for the best situation -- and perhaps some stability. Considering Oregon ran a hybrid 3-4 under Aliotti, and Pendergast ran the same sort of thing at Cal and USC, calling it a 5-2, the transition would be smooth.

If Helfrich and Pendergast haven't already chatted, that's a call the Ducks first-year coach should seriously consider making. Nothing like hiring a guy who's almost a sure-thing.

Of course, neither of those guys would hold court during a postgame media briefing like Aliotti. His winding, often lengthy, stream of consciousness answers that often ended up having little to do with the original question made postgame stories on the Ducks defense far more colorful.

And reporters were talking to him because his defense, though typically overshadowed by the Ducks prolific offense, was more often than not among the best coached units in the Pac-12.

Pac-12 players to watch during the bowls

December, 19, 2013
12/19/13
9:00
AM ET
The Pac-12 plays nine bowl games and every game is important, but here are five players upon whom the spotlight will shine just a bit brighter this bowl season.

USC DT Leonard Williams

Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl vs. Fresno State on Dec. 21

The skinny: Williams, an ESPN.com first-team All-American as a true sophomore, will lead the Trojans defense against QB Derek Carr and a high-flying Fresno State offense that wants to prove it can score on anyone. The Bulldogs ranked No. 1 in the nation in passing yards and No. 5 in scoring, but it's perhaps most impressive they've yielded just 11 sacks, which is ninth-fewest in the nation. Williams will head into the 2014 season as a preseason All-American no matter what. But he can show folks why and make a resounding statement for himself if he can get to or at least consistently harass Carr in the pocket.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesA healthy Marcus Mariota would boost Oregons chances against Texas.
Oregon QB Marcus Mariota

Valero Alamo Bowl vs. Texas on Dec. 30

The skinny: This is pretty simple: Will Mariota be 100 percent against the Longhorns? If so, will he return to his midseason form, when he was the nation's best player and the leading Heisman Trophy candidate? That means using his legs to stress the Longhorns, both with designed running plays in the read option and scrambling on passing plays. If Mariota is back to his old self, he will put himself firmly in the 2014 Heisman race. And the Ducks should roll.

Arizona RB Ka'Deem Carey

AdvoCare V100 Bowl vs. Boston College on Dec. 31

The skinny: Another simple one: Carey, the nation's No. 2 rusher, versus Andre Williams, the nation's No. 1 rusher and winner of a Doak Walker Award that should have gone to Carey if the award were truly about the nation's best running back (hush, Washington fans). Both offenses rely heavily on their workhorse running backs. Both teams have middling run defenses. The guy who leads the winning effort is probably going to be the guy with the best rushing numbers.

UCLA offensive line

Hyundai Sun Bowl vs. Virginia Tech on Dec. 31

The skinny: The Hokies are almost always good on defense because coordinator Bud Foster is one of the nation's best defensive minds. This year's unit is A-list, giving up just 17.4 points per game, which ranks eighth in the nation. The Hokies are fourth in the nation in total defense, yielding a meager 4.34 yards per play, and eighth in run defense. The Hokies also have 37 sacks, which ranks fifth in the nation. The Bruins' young offensive line -- three freshmen starters! -- yielded 34 sacks, which ranked 107th in the nation. This will be a tough matchup for UCLA.

Stanford QB Kevin Hogan

Rose Bowl Game Presented by VIZIO vs. Michigan State on Jan. 1.

The skinny: Hogan has been hot and cold this season but mostly solid. He played well in the Pac-12 championship game victory at Arizona State but threw two interceptions in November games against USC and Notre Dame. The Spartans might offer up the best defense he's seen all year, perhaps the nation's best overall unit, in fact. Most notable: Michigan State owns the nation's best run defense, yielding 80.8 yards per game and 2.7 yards per rush. While the Cardinal probably will challenge the Spartans with perhaps the nation's best offensive line and RB Tyler Gaffney, it's difficult to believe the going will be easy. Hogan will need to turn in an efficient, mistake-free performance in what might be a very low-scoring game. The Spartans also rank second in the nation in pass efficiency defense.
He puzzled and puzzed till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before. Maybe Christmas, he thought ... doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps ... means a little bit more!

Bowl primer: Valero Alamo

December, 16, 2013
12/16/13
5:30
PM ET
We continue our look at each of the Pac-12’s opponents during the bowl season.

Valero Alamo Bowl
San Antonio, Dec. 30, 3:45 p.m. (PT), ESPN
Oregon (10-2) vs. Texas (8-4)

Texas Longhorns

Coach: Mack Brown (16th season)
Record: 8-4, 7-2 Big 12
Combined opponents' record: 76-68 (.527)
Common opponents: None.
Leading passer: Case McCoy, 179-312-1,885 (57.4 percent) with 11 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Leading rusher: Johnathan Gray (injured), 159-780 with four touchdowns.
Leading receiver: Mike Davis, 49-715 with eight touchdowns.
Leading tackler: Jackson Jeffcoat, 80 tackles, 21 tackles for a loss, 12 sacks.

What to know: Texas has been in the news lately. Perhaps you’ve heard? After compiling a 158-47 record at Texas, Brown is stepping down after the Alamo Bowl. That heaps a healthy dose of emotion on to this game as his players will no doubt be looking to win one last one for Mack.

Even before Gray went down for the rest of the year with an Achilles injury in the OT win over West Virginia in early November, Malcolm Brown was already starting to get a good chunk of the running workload. He has rushed for 774 yards and nine touchdowns on 188 carries (4.1 average).

After starting the year 1-2, which included losses to BYU and Ole Miss, the Longhorns rallied to run off six straight -- including a seemingly-unlikely win (at least at the time) over No. 12 Oklahoma.

But they lost two of their last three to ranked Oklahoma State and Baylor, giving them a mark of 1-3 against ranked teams this season.

This is a question of motivation for the Ducks, who have to be lamenting missing out on a fifth-straight BCS bowl game after Oklahoma was selected ahead of them for the Allstate Sugar Bowl. On paper, the Ducks are the superior team. It’s just a question of whether they can suppress that disappointment and not let Texas get too caught up in the emotion of Brown’s departure.

Key matchup: As is always the case when you play Oregon, how are you going to stop the run? That’s something Texas hasn’t been very good at this season. The Longhorns rank 80th in the country, yielding 180.3 yards per game on the ground. They’ve also given up 21 rushing touchdowns and allow 4.2 yards per carry. The Ducks average 278.3 yards per game on the ground, which ranks ninth nationally. And all eyes should be on Jeffcoat. Depth-wise, the Longhorns are hurting defensively and are down to about three linebackers and a couple of defensive tackles. Brown said at one point he feels like they lost eight to 10 of his best players to injury. But Oregon shouldn't get too cocky. Jeffcoat is legit. Lest we forget another defensive end from Texas who spoiled the bowl hopes of a team from Oregon last year.

Mailbag: Graham contract; Angry Badgers!

September, 20, 2013
9/20/13
5:30
PM ET
Welcome to the week 4 mailbag. It will be done in sanskrit.

Follow the Pac-12 blog on Twitter. It's this new Internet thing that just might work out.

To the notes!

Scott from Norfolk, Va., writes: Todd Graham really does seem like a great fit at ASU and he really did seem to bring about a very positive and much-needed cultural overhaul to the program. That said, doesn't his contract extension and raise seem a little premature? He's great so far, but "so far" is only 15 games, in which he's 10-5. Dennis Erickson was 12-3 in his first 15 games. I have to imaging this increases Graham's buyout (though I haven't seen direct mention of it, perhaps you can inform us as to whether that's true?), so isn't ASU unnecessarily limiting its options down the road here? Or am I overreacting and this is par for the course (and it's only fair that if coaches are now getting fired after two years they should also get raises on the same time scale)?

Ted Miller: I see this as a renewal of vows, Arizona State and Graham making it clear to everyone they are happy -- at present -- with each other (and let's also note the same can be said for AD Steve Patterson, whose contract was also extended).

Of course, we all know college contracts often end up getting broken, one way or another. A coach can leave for a big-money job, at which point the new school often picks up the buyout tab, or boosters can get so worked up about a surprising downturn that the school decides to eat the contract and move on. And, yes, sometimes extensions bite a school in the butt -- see Colorado with Dan Hawkins and Iowa with Kirk Ferentz, two coaches who got big-money extensions that proved too expensive to buy out when things went south.

This new contract isn't a big risk for either party. Graham's current contract runs through 2016, this new one runs through 2018. He wasn't given a 10-year deal that could expose Arizona State should the Sun Devils start losing two years from now. As for Graham, his buyout of $1.5 million isn't terribly big. Chip Kelly's buyout at Oregon was $3.5 million.

Another interesting detail, though, is Graham is forbidden from taking a Pac-12 job through the life of the former contract. If I were a Pac-12 AD, I 'd always try to get that written into a head coach's contract. It's a good way to protect program secrets. Not saying any Pac-12 program would ever have any.

But, yes, if Texas wanted to hire Graham, it could easily handle the buyout, even though this extension is intended to prevent Graham's name from getting aggressively thrown into the rumor mill.

Why now? Well, you might have noticed the rumor mill already is starting to grind. From the ASU perspective, just about everything Graham has done thus far with the Sun Devils has been positive, and that's not just about winning.

Kevin, as you know, spent a lot of time with Graham and his staff last week. I think the picture he paints is of a highly functioning coaching staff with a strong, driven, organized leader running the show.

I know media members aren't allowed to write nice things about Graham. Kevin's and my problem is we actually have spent enough time with him to actually know what we are talking -- and writing -- about.




Sam from Sammamish, Wash., writes: I am noticing some chippiness of late between long-time conference allies, the Pac-12 and the Big Ten. Here is a link to a story about Sark thinking on the fly about where to practice on Friday prior to the game in Chicago. What the story neglects to mention is Northwestern University decided to deny UW access to its practice fields less than 24 hours prior to arrival because it would give their Big Ten brethren Illinois an unfair disadvantage. Add this questionable gesture or lack thereof to the Wisconsin/ASU officiating debacle and methinks there may be some outright animosity building up?

Ted Miller: The Rose Bowl conferences are business partners, but that doesn't mean they aren't rivals who desperately want to win and claim superiority. That sometimes involves gamesmanship, which is what it appears Northwestern did in this instance.

Here's what coach Steve Sarkisian said on the matter:
“It’s an unfortunate situation. I don’t think there’s a whole lot of love lost right now between the Big Ten and Pac-12 right now, quite honestly, especially after the Arizona State-Wisconsin game. So it is what it is. Pat Fitzgerald and I exchanged some comments, and we’re fine. I don’t know where it’s going to go from a conference level. It was unfortunate, but in the end, I think it was a positive. It just kept lending to, there’s no distractions for us on this team. If we have to walk through the streets of Chicago to a park in downtown Chicago with a light pole in the middle of the field to practice, we’ll do it. And our guys didn’t skip a beat. It actually worked out really well for us. It’s not a big deal for us anymore. We’ve moved on.”

Oh, well. I've got a really high regard for Fitzgerald, so he gets a pass from me. Sark and Huskies fans might feel differently.

The bottom line is Washington beat Illinois 34-24 and the Pac-12 is 3-2 versus the Big Ten. So pffft to our friends from the Midwest.




Bill from Portland writes: What are the odds of USC and Texas meeting in the Holiday Bowl, and if they did, would those be some of the hottest hot seats in college football? P.S. How crazy is it that in the same year it is a good possibility that USC, Texas and Nebraska may be looking for new coaches at the same time?

Ted Miller: Those certainly are some A-list jobs that might open up by season's end. Suffice it to say, there's already plenty of chatter about how those potential openings might go.

It's certainly not that long of a shot that the Trojans and Longhorns could play in the Holiday Bowl -- or the Alamo Bowl for that matter -- for the first time since their epic national title game after the 2005 season, albeit in far different circumstances. Of course, both teams will need to climb a bit in their respective conference's pecking order to make it happen, particularly 1-2 Texas.

That said, I'm not sure either team would embrace the idea, though both would like an invitation to a quality bowl game. After all, the theme of most advance stories would be: Look how the mighty have fallen!




Lee from Ripon, Wisconsin writes: You are so incredibly stupid it is beyond belief. To compare a judgment call (pass interference) with a failure of the game officials to call a play by the rules defies basic logic. Of course basic logic is obviously beyond you. But when you make statements that are factually incorrect, you really display your stupidity. The Pac-12 is the only major conference that uses officials from its league for home nonconference games. The other conferences have the game officials in essence travel with the visiting team. The game officials that worked the ASU at Wisconsin game in 2010 were from the Pac-12. The referee was the same individual who worked the Ohio State at Cal game Saturday night. It was NOT a Big Ten official who missed the pass interference call that you are basing your fallacious argument on; it was a Pac-12 official. If you weren't so fricking lazy you would have checked this out prior to making a factually incorrect statement; it is called research. I will be sending this email to the president of ESPN and suggest that they fire your sorry butt. An individual too fricking lazy to do basic research and as a result base an "argument" (what you stated doesn't meet the definition of a sound argument, but obviously the explanation of what qualifies as a sound argument is way beyond your severely limited mental capacity) isn't qualified to be a sports reporter. You aren't even qualified to be a dog catcher, or a member of the Bush cabinet. Hell, you aren't even qualified to be a Pac-12 football game official.

Ted Miller: Thank you for your interest in the Pac-12 blog. We value your input. Please press one for customer service, two for new accounts ...

Lee, you are correct. I am stupid and lazy. That has never been so clear until this week when many Wisconsin fans showed up to help become smarter-er. But, to be honest, your world of Badger sophistication frightens and confuses me. I read "factually incorrect" and I want to bury my face into my blankie. I read "fricking lazy" and "research" and I want to know, "Where did these highfalutin concepts get created... The Kollege Klub?"

But there is one thing I do know.

That referee Bill LeMonnier led a Big Ten crew on Sept. 18, 2010 inside Camp Randall Stadium for Arizona State's visit to Wisconsin.

I guess I'm just lucky my computer is connected to the Internet-S.




Don from Palo Alto, Calif., writes: Ted --Please pass this on to Kevin -- seems every time I try and click on "send email to Kevin" it displays your smiling face. Is this part of your evil scheme?I wanted to commend Kevin on his very fine profile of Todd Graham. It was well written, informative and unflinching. As a Stanford fan, and Stanford having not played ASU since 2010, I had kind of lost track of the program (although certainly the Graham hire made news). So with the game coming up this week, it was time to get into Graham and the program a bit, and Kevin's piece filled out everything very nicely. Pac-12 blog rocks!

Ted Miller: I have many evil schemes. This is not one of them, though now I'm sort of wishing it were. A guy can never have too many evil schemes, right?

Yet just two seconds ago, I was gazing at Kevin's Clooney-esque mug.

Did you click here? There are two places to send your Pac-12 mail, one to me and one to Kevin.

Typically, if you are angry and want to insult us, those notes should go to Kevin. If you want to write how great the Pac-12 blog is, those notes go to me.




Jesse from Portland writes: I know of your long gripe with the word, "Natty." However, an Oregon player first invented that word. And since it has gone global in it's usage, though originating in Oregon, we claim that word. If you actually took the time to visit every single sports forum and blog, you would quickly see that this word is used by every single fan nationally describing the NCG. It has become a universal word and has so for three years now. Get with the times. You are getting old. The only people who hate that word are Oregon haters, cause they know a Duck invented it. And because it was first invented by a Oregon player, we are NOT going to to stop using that word, not now, not ever! We are the only Pac-12 team to go to a Natty in the last eight years. And we are projected to make another one this year. So we have every right to use that word. So Natty, Natty, Natty, wish you were at the Natty. Natty is here to stay. Both now, forever and into all time. It is a Oregon thing, going to a Natty. And unless you are a Duck, you just cannot understand. You Natty old reporters ... don't like the Natty? Well ... go Duck yourself then. Natty times are here to stay!

Ted Miller: (A sigh ... and then a slow clap ... everyone in the coffee shop slowly stands and joins in).

Best case-worst case: Utah

August, 5, 2013
8/05/13
7:00
PM ET
This is the fourth in a series looking at potential dream and nightmare scenarios for all Pac-12 teams.

Understand: These are not predictions. They are extreme scenarios and pieces of fiction. You can read last year's versions here.

We're going in reverse order of my post-spring power rankings (which might not be identical to my preseason power rankings).

Up next: Utah

Best case

Bodies lay strewn across the floor of MUSS's -- "Mighty Utah Student Section" -- headquarters in a penthouse overlooking the Utah campus. The central meeting room is filled with many leather-bound books and smells of rich mahogany, but there's also a staleness rising from the hardwood floors. There's a flicker of movement. And a groan.

"Aagghhh," says the MUSS president. "A losing season!"

He hugs a commemorative ball from the 2004 Fiesta Bowl to his chest.

Across the room, the MUSS vice president crawls toward the bathroom. A moment later, she screams, "Aagghhh… there's a Duck and Tree in the bathroom!"

Another scream, this one from the other side of the room. "Aagghhh…" exclaims the MUSS secretary. "Our Ute mojo is gone!"

"Aaagghhh," says the MUSS president. "All is lost. We are nothing more than a... than a... a... Mountain West team!"

He throws the ball across the room, where it knocks over an Urban Meyer bust.

"That's not how you do it," a mellifluous yet authoritative voice says. "You should throw it straight. Step into it."

"Pac-12 blog?"

"What seems to be the problem?"

Pause.

"I'm afraid! All right? If you want to hear me say. You want to break me down? All right, I'm afraid," the MUSS president says. "For the first time in my life, I'm afraid. The Pac-12 is just too hard! Those wins while we were a Mountain West team? They weren't real!"

Pac-12 blog: You wanna tell me that those games weren't real, that you were carried? Well I don't believe it! But it doesn't matter what I believe because you're the one that's got to carry that fear around inside you, afraid that your going to be a Pac-12 patsy and afraid that you're going to be remembered as a mid-major only elevated because Texas wanted too much from Larry Scott, that you're not an elite team anymore. Well, none of it's true! But it doesn't matter if I tell you. It doesn't matter, because you're the one that's gotta settle it.

MUSS president: How did you get so tough?

Pac-12 blog: I married a woman from Alabama.

MUSS president: We beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl!

Utah whips Utah State and Weber State, then falls to No. 20 Oregon State. Travis Wilson throws four touchdown passes in a 35-20 win over BYU, the Utes' fourth consecutive win in the Holy War.

UCLA, however, pounds the Utes 33-17. Headline in Salt Lake Tribune: "Utah still not ready to compete in the Pac-12 South Division."

Up next: No. 3 Stanford.

MUSS VP: It's suicide! You've seen Stanford. You know how strong they are… you can't win!

Utah DE Trevor Reilly: Oh, MUSS VP. MUSS VP always tells the truth. No, maybe I can't win. Maybe the only thing I can do is just take everything Stanford's got. But to beat me, the Cardinal is going to have to run the ball consistently. And to run the ball consistently, Stanford is gonna have to have the heart to stand in front of me. And to do that, Stanford has got to be willing to die. I don't know if Stanford is ready to do that.

MUSS VP: That last part was a little over the top.

Wilson, playing the best game of his career, throws four long touchdown passes against the rugged Stanford defense, while his counterpart Kevin Hogan turns in his worst career effort with three picks. Still, with 20 seconds left and Utah up 34-30, Stanford faces a fourth and 1 on the Utes' 10-yard line.

Stanford OG David Yankey: I must break you.

Utah DT Tenny Palepoi: Dolph? Is that you? Yanks, did you know Dolph Lundgren went to Washington State, and is therefore a Coug? Dated Grace Jones. Think about her during this play.

Announcer: Palepoi just blew by what appeared to be a distracted Yankey and stopped Anthony Wilkerson for no gain! Utah upsets the Cardinal!

The Utes nip Arizona but fall to USC. They come back home and, after a bye, upset No. 12 Arizona State, with a raucous MUSS causing the Sun Devils' offensive line to jump offsides five times.

Utah then makes the trip to No. 2 Oregon.

The Utes lead 24-22 when Oregon kicker Alejandro Maldonado lines up for a 59-yard field goal with two seconds left.

MUSS secretary: This guy never makes a big kick.

MUSS vice president: Aagghhh! You haven't read your "A Fans' Guide to Sporting Karma!"

Right down the middle. Ducks win.

"It never feels good to lose," Utes coach Kyle Whittingham says. "But I think there's no residual doubt that we can compete in the Pac-12."

The Utes roll past Washington State and Colorado to finish the regular season 8-4. They whip Texas 35-20 in the Holiday Bowl.

Bryan Mone and Isaiah Nacua switched their commitments from Michigan and BYU, respectively, and sign with the Utes, as does tight end Dalton Schultz.

Pac-12 Blog readers meet at their annual convention at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. After 36 holes at Shadow Creek, the MUSS president takes the podium.

"During this season, I've seen a lot of changing, in the way you feel about Utah, and in the way we feel about you," he says. "I guess what I'm trying to say, is that if the Utes can change, and the Pac-12 can change, everybody can change!"

He's greeted by loud applause. Even from Oregon fans.

Worst case

A late field goal gives Utah a win over Utah State, and the Utes blow out Weber State.

Ted Miller: A 2-0 start is good for the Utes, but we don't really know them yet.

Kevin Gemmell: Correct. Over the next eight games, they play seven top-25 sort of teams, including Stanford and Oregon, which Utah didn't play its first two years of Pac-12 membership.

Miller: While they are playing those games, we can sing, "Getting to know you... getting to know alllll about you." You know, from "The King and I."

Gemmell: No.

The Utes fall 24-17 to Oregon State and then commit four turnovers in a 30-20 loss at BYU.

"A few years ago, our former quarterback Max Hall called the Utes 'classless'," Cougars QB Taysom Hill says after the game. "Not a great moment in this great rivalry, one that Utah is running away from for a couple of years. But the good news is the Utes will run away from playing BYU with class.

"Mostly because we just took them to school!"

(Block U will later pay tribute to Hill's quote as "The funniest thing anyone from BYU has ever said.")

After a bye week, Utah leads UCLA in the fourth quarter but Bruins QB Brett Hundley throws a pair of late TD passes for the win.

"I think we're close," Whittingham says.

No. 3 Stanford holds the Utes to 87 total yards in a 24-3 victory, then Utah goes down at Arizona and USC.

"Well, not that close," Whittingham says.

After another off week, Utah is slammed by No. 12 Arizona State and No. 2 Oregon, which rolls up 546 yards in front of a dispirited MUSS.

MUSS president: I am dispirited.

MUSS VP: Me too.

MUSS president: Being in the Pac-12 was supposed to be more fun.

Gemmell: Utah has lost seven games in a row. The defense, without Star Lotulelei in the middle, is getting pushed around, and the addition of co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson hasn't yielded much in the way of improvement. The question is can the Utes win a Pac-12 game this year. Probably not against Mike Leach's rejuvenated Washington State Cougars. The good news is the season finale with Colorado might provide a small bump for the offseason.

Miller: [Cackling] No... I see things going differently!

Utah, as the only Pac-12 team not bothered by Pullman weather, nips Washington State 10-9 in blizzard-like conditions.

Up next: Arch-rival Colorado.

"Aagghhh," says Whittingham. "This means I'll get asked about the Red Bike Incident again."

Reporter: Coach Whittingham, in the storied history of this rivalry, the greatest controversy seems to be the Red Bike Incident. Could you talk about your perspective on what happened?

Whittingham: No. [Whittingham then affixes a menacing stare at an extremely good looking and well-dressed reporter].

Miller: Oh... OK. No more red bike incident after this "Best case-worst case" post.

A 53-yard field goal in overtime gives the Buffaloes their only Pac-12 win of the season. The Utes finish 3-9, their worst record since 1986 under Jim Fassel.

Whittingham is hired by the Dallas Cowboys.

"Because the program so much feels like it did when he left in 1989, we're bringing back Jim Fassel!" athletic director Chris Hill says.

Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, after an emergency meeting with his presidents and athletic directors, announces that Utah will now be written in all official Pac-12 materials in a smaller type face -- two points smaller, officially -- until it posts a winning record in conference play.

"Aaagghhh," says the MUSS president.

BYU joins the Big 12. The Great Salt Lake loses its salinity.

Previous "Best case-worst case" posts

California

Washington State

Colorado

Best case-worst case: California

August, 2, 2013
8/02/13
5:30
PM ET
This is the third in a series looking at potential dream and nightmare scenarios for all Pac-12 teams.

Understand: These are not predictions. They are extreme scenarios and pieces of fiction. You can read last year's versions here.

We're going in reverse order of my post-spring power rankings (which might not be identical to my preseason power rankings).

Up next: California

Sonny Dykes shakes hands with California athletic director Sandy Barbour. It's Dec. 5, 2012.

"So do we have a deal?" Dykes asks.

"Close. But we have one more step. The most important step. Hold on," Barbour says.

Dykes' inquisitive look transforms to shock as Barbour's office begins to vibrate. Then... swoosh... thwwaaack! And Barbour's office returns to normal, only she and Dykes are gone.

Dykes opens his tightly clenched eyes. He's sitting in moodily lit but ornate room. In front of him is a large oak table, shaped like a crescent moon, at which sits a large group of distinguished looking men and women, though a couple of them are fronted by lava lamps. The air smells of fresh herbs.
Timothy Leary: Far out! Groovy! Look who turned on, tuned in and dropped in!

Philip K. Dick: I never get tired of that. Talk about passing through a scanner darkly.

John H. Schwartz: Hey, it's all superstring theory.

Saul Perimutter: Anyone getting tired of Schwartz and his 'Hey, it's all superstring theory'? Buy that guy a good meal at Chez Panisse and it's, 'Hey, it's all superstring theory.'

Dykes gives Barbour another, slightly more urgent inquisitive look.

"Sonny, I'd like you to meet Berkeley's 'Potentem Secretus Commissionibus'," Barbour says. "They have something they want to show you."

It's the movie "Citizen Kane." The first scene plays on a giant screen.

"Rosebud..." says a dying Charles Foster Kane. Then the movie clicks off.

"Great movie!" Dykes says.

A voice booms across the room, "But it's horse poop! He truly said 'Rose Bowl,' and I'm still mad at Orson Wells for messing up the most important moment in his life. Or, rather, his death."

"Sonny, this is William Randolph Hearst Jr.," Barbour says.

"Dad died in August of 1951," Hearst says. "He was a Harvard man. I went to Berkeley. But he loved the Bears just as I did. He saw Cal go to three consecutive Rose Bowls from 1949-51. Lost them all. All he wanted was just one Rose Bowl victory before he died."

"So you can imagine how we feel -- no Rose Bowl since 1959!" Jerry Mathers says. "Gee, it'a be swell to even just lose one if we could just go again in my lifetime."

"Leave it to the Beaver to cut to the chase," cackles Robert Penn Warren. "You see what I did there, right? Seriously now, Sonny, the world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter and..."

"If I have to hear about the spider web from you again," says Bill Bixby. "I'm going to get angry, and it will take more than 'All the King's Men,' to stop me from smashing you!"

"Look folks," Dykes interjects. "I get it. You want a Rose Bowl. I want a Rose Bowl. And I've got a plan. But it won't happen overnight. Just have faith."

A woman across the room lets out a deep breath.

"I've been waiting to exhale for a long time!" Terry McMillan says.

Cal beats Northwestern 30-28 when Vince D'Amato boots a 49-yard field goal with 10 seconds remaining. It whips Portland State then bests No. 2 Ohio State 24-21.

"No, this doesn't surprise me," Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer says. "They should have beaten us last year. We're pretty overrated."

The eighth-ranked Bears fall at No. 2 Oregon 42-24. Then they beat Washington State, lose at UCLA and beat Oregon State before falling at Washington. After a 35-30 win over Arizona, fifth-ranked and undefeated USC comes to Berkeley.

"Dude, I do not care that Southern Cal has beaten us nine consecutive times," quarterback Zach Kline says. "Are you the sort who goes to Vegas and plays roulette and bets black after nine red winners? Doesn't work like that. Each moment in time is its own distinct universe. The only way nine consecutive losses matters is if you allow it to matter."

Pac-12 blog: "And how do you approach the game so nine consecutive losses won't matter?"

Kline: "I'll tell you, football's not a sport, it's a way of life, it's no hobby. It's a way of looking at that field and saying, 'Hey bud, let's party!'"

Cal beats the Trojans 28-24. Kline throws a pair of TD passes and Brendan Bigelow rushes for 148 yards.

After coasting past Colorado, the 8-3 Bears head to No. 4 Stanford for the Big Game. The Cardinal previously beat Oregon but fell to USC, so all three have just a single defeat. The general feeling, with no unbeaten teams in the nation and the Pac-12 rated as the nation's best conference, is the conference champion will play for the national title against the SEC champion.

Dykes meets again with the Potentem Secretus Commissionibus.
Tom Anderson: Look Sonny! I've set up a Facebook page for this Big Game. I've made up a bunch of fake quotes from Stanford players to get your guys mad. Isn't that great?

Robbie Jones: You know there's not even one decent tree on Stanford's hill? Or do they even have a hill where one tree can grow?

Adam Duritz: Er, Mr. Jones, that observation isn't helping. Here, talk to this black-haired flamenco dancer.

Earl Warren: Sonny, did I tell you I always turn to the sports pages first, which records people's accomplishments. The front page has nothing but man's failures. But I'd really like to read about Stanford's failure on Saturday.

Pac-12 blog: So, Sonny, getting a feel for how unique it is coaching the Berkeley football team?
Kevin Hogan sneaks in from 1-yard out to give Stanford a 21-17 lead with 34 seconds left. The Cardinal kick off.

Bigelow catches the ball at the 1-yard line. He laterals it to Bryce Treggs, who laterals it to Kenny Lawler, who sends it back to Bigelow.

Who is tackled on the Cal 26.

Kline lines up in a shotgun. He takes the snap. He hands the ball to Bigelow. Who sprints right up the middle for a 74-yard touchdown. Cal wins.

"We'll," says the announcer. "That's another way to do it."

The loss knocks Stanford out of the Pac-12 title game. When Oregon beats USC by a late field goal in the conference championship, the Ducks go to the national title game and USC heads to the Rose Bowl.

Stanford loses to TCU in the Alamo Bowl. Coach David Shaw is hired by the Dallas Cowboys. He's replaced by John Mackovic.

Cal beats Texas 59-0 in the Holiday Bowl -- Dykes goes for two to hit 59 -- which inspires Longhorns coach Mack Brown to resign and finally offer an apology to Cal for, "Talking all sorts of stupid, ridiculous stuff in 2004 when the Bears were clearly better than us."

Worst case

While there's no shame in losing to a good Northwestern team, California's first performance of the Sonny Dykes era is lackluster, most noteworthy being a pair of interceptions from Kline and just 310 yards of total offense.

Bears fans, frustrated by years of sub-par QB play, were hoping for more.

After whipping Portland State, No. 2 Ohio State comes to town, a team Cal almost beat a year ago in Columbus. The good news is Bears fans get to see good QB play. The bad news is it's Braxton Miller making plays with his arm and legs as the Buckeyes roll 35-17.

Cal gets a week off, but it doesn't help at Oregon, which rolls 45-20. The Bears get a second win by beating Washington State, but they lose three in a row thereafter, falling to UCLA, Oregon State and Washington.

At this point, Dykes switches quarterbacks, going with true freshman Jared Goff. Kline had 10 touchdown passes but also 10 interceptions through eight games, and fans feel good that Dykes is willing to make a change, something that former coach Jeff Tedford seemed reluctant to do through the years.

Goff plays well in a win over Arizona, but USC sacks him six times in a 38-10 Trojans victory the next week. Dykes goes back to Kline.

The Bears slip Colorado 17-14, but Dykes switches back to Goff in the third quarter.

"Does it hurt our confidence and make us surly to go back and forth with the starting job?" Kline says. "Maybe. But I only talk about that in the locker room. Endlessly. Same with Jared. We want to make sure everyone knows how grumpy we are. I'm sure that's good for morale."

The season whimpers toward its finale: The Big Game against No. 1, unbeaten Stanford.

"We have to match their physicality," Dykes says.

Stanford outrushes Cal 287 yards to 13 in a 40-3 victory, its fourth Big Game victory in a row.
Beverly Cleary: I'm working on a new children's book: "Sonny Dykes and the Big Freaking Disappointment."

Joan Didion: So much for our year of magical thinking.

John H. Schwartz: Hey, it's all superstring theory. Except, as a Cal fan, the string is not so super.

The Cardinal beats Alabama 20-3 and win the national championship. Coach David Shaw wins the Nobel Prize for Awesomeness shortly after signing the nation's No. 1 recruiting class.

Top Dog closes in Berkeley and relocates to Palo Alto.

Karl Rove becomes Cal's new president. He immediately renames "Strawberry Canyon," "Wal-Mart Hill."

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