Oregon Ducks: Mark Helfrich

Athlon Sports is big on lists. And we’re big on bringing you their lists because, well, it's the offseason, and it’s fun.

One annual list in particular always seems to get folks all hot and bothered, and that’s their annual ranking of the Pac-12 coaches.

Before people go all crazy on Twitter, remember, THIS IS NOT A PAC-12 BLOG LIST. We are simply sharing it because we think it’s interesting. Your thoughts are always welcomed in the mailbag.

Here’s the 2014 list that Steven Lassan put together:

  1. David Shaw, Stanford
  2. Chris Petersen, Washington
  3. Todd Graham, Arizona State
  4. Mike Riley, Oregon State
  5. Mike Leach, Washington State
  6. Rich Rodriguez, Arizona
  7. Jim Mora, UCLA
  8. Steve Sarkisian, USC
  9. Mike MacIntyre, Colorado
  10. Kyle Whittingham, Utah
  11. Mark Helfrich, Oregon
  12. Sonny Dykes, California

Some thoughts:
    [+] EnlargeRodriguez/Graham
    AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez (right) is ranked sixth on the Pac-12 coaching list by Athlon.

  • I went back to their 2013 and 2012 rankings and noticed a few interesting moves. Rich Rodriguez was No. 3 last year and is No. 6 this year. I find that interesting since he won the same amount of games last season as in 2012 (8-5), scored a signature win last season by topping No. 5 Oregon and did it without his 2012 quarterback. Granted, Arizona had a light nonconference schedule last fall, but does that warrant being dropped a quarter of the way down?
  • Two years ago, Shaw was No. 9 on their list, despite being named Pac-12 Coach of the Year in 2011. Last year, he bounced up to No. 1 and is in the top spot again. For having won back-to-back Pac-12 titles, I see no problem with him being No. 1 again.
  • My first thought was that Petersen was way too high, considering he has never coached a single game in the conference. Then I pushed that silliness out of my mind. He has coached against this conference, going 5-2 during his stint with Boise (not counting games against Utah when it was in the Mountain West or the bowl loss to Oregon State last season when he wasn’t the head coach). Plus, he’s a two-time national coach of the year. That’s a better résumé than anyone else in the league. I’ll buy him at No. 2.
  • My biggest gripe with the list is Mora at No. 7. He was No. 11 on the 2012 list and No. 8 on the 2013 list. All he has done is go 19-8, win the South title one of those two years and beat USC twice. Doesn’t that get you a statue on campus? He has bolstered the national reputation of the program and was given a nice contract extension for his work. I would slot him in either the No. 3 or No. 4 spot with Todd Graham. Both have nearly identical résumés so far. Both are 2-0 against their rival. Both have won the Pac-12 South. They have split their head-to-head games with each winning once on the road. Both have had one blowout bowl win and one bad bowl loss. The only reason I’d probably put Graham ahead is that he was named coach of the year. But Mora belongs in the upper third.
  • Sarkisian is interesting. People are quick to rip his hire at USC, but recall the coaching job he did at Washington when he first got there. He turned a winless team into a pretty good program. Petersen is coming into a much more advantageous position than when Sark first got there. How that translates to USC remains to be seen.
  • Helfrich was No. 12 in 2013. For winning 11 games in 2013, he gets that big boost all the way up to No. 11. I get the sentiment -- that the Ducks were “supposed” to go to the BCS title game last season. He can’t control an injury to his quarterback. Don’t be shocked if he’s in the top five when Athlon releases its 2015 list.
  • Whittingham has stumbled from the No. 4 spot he occupied in 2012. Like Helfrich, he can’t control the unfortunate rash of injuries that have plagued his quarterbacks since coming into the league. I know this, there aren’t many defensive-minded coaches I’d take over Whittingham.
  • Riley continues to be in the upper half of the list. Which is completely fair. He’s done more in that setting than most people could. Oregon State fans seem to clamor annually about what’s on the other side of the fence. When the day comes that Riley does step down (and I have to imagine it will be on his own terms), those complaining about change will miss him.

You get the idea. Lists are hard to put together, because everyone has a bias and an opinion. I think MacIntyre has done some great things at Colorado, and I think Washington State’s progress under Leach has been outstanding. As for Dykes, well, let’s give it another year and see what he can do with a healthy roster.

So we once again salute Athlon for making the list. Even if we don’t always agree with it.
By most football standards, last season in Eugene, Ore., was a success. Under a first-year head coach the Ducks had an 11-win season while their 273.5 rushing yards per game and 291.5 passing yards per game were among the best in the country. But there was no Pac-12 championship and no BCS bowl game (ending the Ducks’ run of four-consecutive BCS bowl game appearances). So, year two is going to be as big of a test as the first for Mark Helfrich & Co.

With spring practices beginning Tuesday, the first steps of 2014 will be taken as the Ducks look to build on what they did last season and fix the mistakes that were made and the shortcomings that plagued them.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesThe return of Marcus Mariota meant big expectations are back for Oregon's offense.
Offensively, their identity is set. Marcus Mariota decided to return to Oregon, and with that decision expectations soared for what this offense could do. The Ducks lost their No. 1 and No. 3 receivers but with Mariota slinging it behind an offensive line that returns abundant talent and experience, even average receivers could look great. The receiver depth is far better than average. Keanon Lowe and Bralon Addison need to continue to contribute at a high level as they look to make up for the loss of two of the top three receivers from 2013.

However, since the receiver experience is limited, look for Helfrich to get the tight ends more involved in the pass game as the Ducks return a trio that could help take some of the yardage burden off those WRs. In 2013 the tight end trio of Pharaoh Brown, Johnny Mundt and Evan Baylis accounted for five touchdowns and 475 yards on just 30 receptions.

The run game, again, will be no surprise to anyone. Even without De'Anthony Thomas, the Ducks should be fine. Byron Marshall -- who led Oregon with 14 rushing touchdowns and 1,038 rushing yards -- and Thomas Tyner will be able to attack defenses up front and be a very formidable matchup in the option when teams try to stop the run. They both boast good hands, so they’ll be able to help out in the pass game as well, helping Mariota put up even bigger numbers in 2014.

All of that combined will make up a high-powered offense, which is exactly what people expect out of Oregon. But the biggest question will be whether the defense can be an equal counterpart. And with an attack like Oregon’s, the defense must almost be even stronger considering it’s on the field about 10 minutes more per game than teams.

So it’s not very fair to put up their straight defensive numbers and statistics against any other team that doesn’t feature as prolific of an offense. But it is fair to say that it’s one of the bigger concerns heading into this spring and one of the facets of the game that must make the biggest strides.

Last year, Oregon was known for its deep secondary as it dared teams to throw. But in return, the Ducks struggled against the run even with an experienced group. They gave up 3.8 yards per rush and allowed opponents to convert on 65.5 percent of rushing attempts on third downs (119th nationally). Oregon returns DeForest Buckner on the D-line, but overall, the group will need to improve its numbers against the run. It’s certainly a place where players could emerge through spring ball and one of the most important position groups that must build depth.

But even with the shuffling and inexperience on the defensive line, new defensive coordinator Don Pellum will stick with the 3-4 base defense because of the depth and experience the Ducks have in their linebacker group, which returns three starters, and their defensive backs. Even though the Ducks have just one returning starter in the secondary (cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu), most of the DBs got some experience last season.

Next season could be huge for Oregon, but the foundation of what happens next December and January begins right now.
You take the van, I'll keep the dog.
Looking back at some teams the current group of Pac-12 coaches have led during their respective head-coaching careers turns up an impressive list. All 12 have coached a team to a bowl appearance, 10 have finished a season with double-digit wins and eight have had teams appear in the AP top 10.

Taking it a step further and just looking at each individual coach's best team (in college) also made for an interesting study. Choosing which teams those are is clearly a subjective process so for the purpose of consistency, the teams listed below were chosen based on the final spot in the AP poll.

Here are some notable takeaways:

  • Eight teams ended with bowl victories, but two occurred after the coach left.
  • Seven teams started unranked, but only one finished out of the polls.
  • Half of the coaches did it at their current school, four of which occurred in 2013.
  • Six teams appeared in the top 5 at some point and nine were in the top 15.
  • Three coaches immediately parlayed the success into their current job.
  • Only three of the teams won conference titles, none of which was in the Pac-12.
  • Two teams beat No. 1-ranked squads.
  • Four teams played in BCS bowls, and three were victorious.
We're not going attempt to rank them ourselves, but here they are in reverse order based on each team's final AP ranking:

No. 12 Sonny Dykes, Louisiana Tech, 2012

Dykes' record: 9-3 (4-2, third in WAC)
Final AP rank: unranked
Highest AP rank: 19
Bowl result: no bowl
The team:
The Bulldogs finished the season as the country's highest scoring team (51.50 ppg) and top-ranked offense (577.9 ypg). They rose to No. 19 in the AP poll before losing their final two games of the season, including one against Mike MacIntyre-coached San Jose State in the season finale. Louisiana Tech was offered a spot in the Independence Bowl, but it was given away while the school unsuccessfully sought other bowl options. Dykes left for Cal after the season.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesSteve Sarkisian parlayed his successful 2013 season into the head-coaching job at USC.
No. 11 Steve Sarkisian, Washington, 2013

Sarkisian's record: 8-4 (5-4, third in Pac-12 North)
Final AP rank: 25
Highest AP rank: 15
Bowl result: Beat BYU in Fight Hunger Bowl (Sarkisian did not coach)
The team:
The season began with a win against then-No. 19 Boise State, and the season ended with Broncos coach Chris Petersen being hired by the Huskies. Sarkisian departed for USC prior to the bowl. After the win against Boise, Washington debuted in the rankings at No. 19 and rose four spots before a string of three straight losses to Stanford, Oregon and Arizona State.

No. 10 Mike MacIntyre, San Jose State, 2012

MacIntyre's record: 10-2, (5-1, second in WAC)
Final AP rank: 21
Highest AP rank: 21
Bowl result: Beat Bowling Green in Military Bowl (MacIntyre did not coach)
The team:
Two years after coaching San Jose State to a 1-11 record in his first season as head coach, MacIntyre's team became the first in program history to finish in the final AP poll -- although, the Spartans were unranked when MacIntyre accepted the job at Colorado. SJSU didn't beat any ranked teams, but lost just 20-17 to Stanford, which went on to win Pac-12 and Rose Bowl championships. The other loss came to Utah State, which finished No. 16.

No. 9 Todd Graham, Arizona State, 2013

Graham's record: 10-4 (8-1, won Pac-12 South)
Final AP rank: 21
Highest AP rank: 11
Bowl result: Lost to Texas Tech in Holiday Bowl The team: In his eighth season as an FBS head coach, Graham's most recent Arizona State team was his best. The Sun Devils began the season unranked and entered and exited the Top 25 twice before closing the regular season with a seven-game winning streak. It was ranked No. 11 when it hosted Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game, but a second loss to the Cardinal kept ASU out of the Rose Bowl.

No. 8 Mike Riley, Oregon State, 2008

Riley's record: 9-4 (7-2, tied for second in Pac-10)
Final AP rank: 18
Highest AP rank: 17
Bowl result: Beat Pittsburgh in the Sun Bowl
The team:
The Beavers started unranked and lost their first two games before winning eight of nine to peak at No. 17. After a 1-2 start, it beat No. 1 USC in Corvallis, but didn't immediately build off the big win. The next week the Beavers lost to Kyle Whittingham's undefeated Utah team (more later). Riley's highest spot in the polls came in 2012, when the Beavers reached No. 7 after a 6-0 start. He was a head coach in the NFL for three years and the Canadian Football League for four, where he won a pair of Grey Cups.

No. 7 Jim Mora, UCLA, 2013

Mora's record: 10-3 (6-3, second in Pac-12 South)
Final AP rank: 16
Highest AP rank: 9
Bowl result: Beat Virginia Tech in Sun Bowl
The team:
The Bruins spent the entire season in the polls after starting at No. 21. They began 5-0 and rose to No. 9 before road losses to No. 13 Stanford and No. 3 Oregon. Mora's best coaching job came in the NFL in 2004 when he guided the Atlanta Falcons to an NFC South title and an appearance in the NFC Championship.

No. 6 Mike Leach, Texas Tech, 2008

Leach's record: 11-2 (7-1, tied for first in Big 12 South)
Final AP rank: 12
Highest AP rank: 2
Bowl result: Lost to Ole Miss in Cotton Bowl
The team:
The Red Raiders started the year at No. 12 and moved up to No. 6 after an 8-0 start. They rose to No. 2 after Michael Crabtree's memorable touchdown catch secured a win vs. No. 1 Texas. After two weeks at No. 2, the Red Raiders lost to No. 5 Oklahoma in a game that propelled Sooners quarterback Sam Bradford to the Heisman Trophy. Leach arrived at WSU in 2012.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
AP Photo/Kevin ReeceDavid Shaw's best team at Stanford didn't win the Pac-12 title.
No. 5 Mark Helfrich, Oregon, 2013

Helfrich's record: 11-2 (7-2, tied for first in Pac-12 North)
Final AP rank: 9
Highest AP rank: 2
Bowl result: Beat Texas in Alamo Bowl The team: Of all the teams on the list, none started higher than the Ducks in Helfrich's head-coaching debut at No. 3. Oregon spent eight weeks at No. 2 before losses to Stanford and Arizona in a three-game span ended any hopes of a conference or national title. The team finished ranked No. 2 in the country in both total offense (565.0 ypg) and scoring (45.5 ppg). Quarterback Marcus Mariota dealt with some late-season injury problems, but, when healthy, he was as good as any player in college football.

No. 4 David Shaw, Stanford, 2011

Shaw's record: 11-2 (8-1, second in Pac-12 North)
Final AP rank: 7
Highest AP rank: 3
Bowl result: Lost to No. 3 Oklahoma State in Fiesta Bowl The team: In three seasons as head coach, Shaw has won a pair of Pac-12 titles. But in 2011, when Oregon won the Pac-12 title, he probably had his best team. The Rose Bowl championship team the following year also finished No. 7 and has more hardware, but it didn't have Andrew Luck. Stanford started the year at No. 7, moved up to No. 3 after winning its first nine games, but then lost 53-30 at home to No. 6 Oregon. Stanford received a second consecutive BCS at-large bid, but suffered an overtime loss to No. 3 Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl. In addition to Luck, 10 other players landed on 53-man NFL rosters from the team's departing class. Stanford's low ranking of No. 8 was the best among teams on this list.

No. 3 Rich Rodriguez, West Virginia, 2005

Rodriguez's record: 11-1, (7-0 Big East champion)
Final AP rank: 5
Highest AP rank: 5 Bowl result: Beat No. 8 Georgia in Sugar Bowl The team: Freshmen QB Pat White and RB Steve Slaton were the names of note for the current Arizona coach. West Virginia started the year unranked and its lone loss came to then-No. 3 Virginia Tech. It was the first of three consecutive double-digit win seasons for the Mountaineers, who were undefeated in Big East play and capped the season with a win over No. 8 Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. A strong case can be made that West Virginia had a better team in 2007, when Rodriguez left following the regular-season finale to become head coach at Michigan. The Mountaineers were ranked No. 2 (No. 1 in the coaches poll) going into Rodriguez's final game, but lost to a 4-7 Pittsburgh team in the 100th Backyard Brawl, which cost them a chance to play for the national title. They finished No. 6.

No. 2 Chris Petersen, Boise State, 2009

Petersen's record: 14-0 (8-0, WAC champions)
Final AP rank: 4
Highest AP rank: 4
Bowl result: Beat No. 4 TCU in the Fiesta Bowl The team: Washington's new coach has quite the résumé. Many consider Boise State's undefeated 2006 team that beat Oklahoma in that's year memorable Fiesta Bowl as the school's best, but three years later the Broncos finished 14-0 and finished a spot higher in the final AP poll. They opened the season at No. 14 and started with a win against No. 16 Oregon in Chip Kelly's first game as head coach. Boise capped the season with a win against undefeated TCU in the Fiesta Bowl. The team's offensive coordinator, Bryan Harsin, is now the head coach and its defensive coordinator, Justin Wilcox, spent last season with Sarkisian at Washington and followed him to USC in the same capacity.

No. 1 Kyle Whittingham, Utah, 2008

Whittingham's record: 13-0 (8-0, Mountain West champions)
Final AP rank: 2
Highest AP rank: 2
Bowl result: Beat No. 4 Alabama in Sugar Bowl The team: In Whittingham's fourth season as head coach, the Utes finished as the nation's lone undefeated team after starting unranked. Utah opened with a win at Michigan -- Rodriguez's first game as the Wolverines' coach -- and went on to beat four teams that finished in the final AP poll, including Alabama (6), TCU (7), Oregon State (18) and BYU (25). Quarterback Brian Johnson threw for 336 yards in a convincing 31-17 win against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

Want to swap out one team for another or switch the order? Email me at Kyle.Bonagura@espn.com.

Offseason spotlight: Oregon

February, 24, 2014
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We're taking a look at a player from each Pac-12 team who could step into the spotlight in 2014.

Spotlight: TEs Pharaoh Brown, Jr. (6-6, 241); Evan Baylis, R-So. (6-6, 235); Johnny Mundt, So. (6-4, 232)

2013 summary: This tight end troika combined for 30 receptions for 475 yards and five touchdowns.

[+] EnlargePharaoh Brown
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesPharaoh Brown, who had 10 receptions for 123 yards in 2013, hopes to get more involved in the Oregon offense in the fall.
The skinny: Quick: Which Pac-12 team probably has the most talent at tight end heading into 2014? Stanford? Nope. USC? Nope. Oregon State? Well, maybe. The Beavers are pretty stacked at the position, too. But Oregon, which has long had good tight ends -- future NFL players, in fact -- laboring mostly in obscurity, has a dynamic threesome that coach Mark Helfrich and offensive coordinator Scott Frost need to more fully integrate into their offense this spring and fall. All three of these guys are big and athletic. Note the yards per catch: 12.3 for Brown, 17.8 for Baylis and 17.6 for Mundt. Brown started five of the last nine games after missing the first three games with an injury, finishing with 10 catches for 123 yards and two touchdowns. His injury provided the opportunity for Mundt to turn in one of the true "what the heck?" performances of 2013, when the freshman caught five passes for 121 yards and two touchdowns in his starting debut against Tennessee, though his best moment might have been a vicious and effective stiff arm to an SEC defender. He didn't, however, keep up the pace, finishing with 16 receptions for 281 yards and three TDs. Baylis might have been playing the best of the three at season's end, though he finished with just four receptions for 71 yards. QB Marcus Mariota's top two passing targets next fall are sure to be receivers Bralon Addison and Keanon Lowe, but there is no reason the tight end position can't boost the Ducks' offensive diversity with 50 or 60 receptions, not to mention help in the running game in two-tight end sets. Who says you can't use Stanford's "jumbo" formation in an up-tempo offense?

Previous spotlights

Coordinator changes: Pac-12 North

February, 19, 2014
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So far, only three Pac-12 teams retained their 2013 offensive and defensive coordinators: Arizona, Colorado and Washington State.

Here's a look at who's in, who's out and what it means, starting in the North Division:

California

Out: Defensive coordinator Andy Buh, who will be reassigned as a position coach, probably linebackers, if he remains in Berkeley. Coach Sonny Dykes also fired defensive tackles coach Barry Sacks and defensive backs coach Randy Stewart.

In: Art Kaufman, whose defense at Cincinnati ranked ninth in the nation last season.

Thoughts: Kaufman, 55, takes over perhaps the worst defense in Cal history, a unit that was injury-ravaged but also was often unsound and seemingly uninspired, allowing an eye-popping 46 points per game in 2013. The good news: If the injury issues resolve themselves with the healthy return of talented players such as defensive end Brennan Scarlett, safety Avery Sebastian, defensive tackle Mustafa Jalil and cornerback Stefan McClure, the improvement could be dramatic. Dykes also hired Greg Burns to coach the secondary. He was at USC from 2002-05 and Arizona State from 2008 -11. He spent last season at UMass.

Oregon

Out: Longtime defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti retired.

In: Don Pellum was promoted from linebackers coach.

Thoughts: The promotion of the 51-year-0ld Pellum stuck with the "Oregon Way" of promoting from within, though there was mutual interest between coach Mark Helfrich and former USC coordinator Clancy Pendergast. Pellum won't have to rework much with the Ducks' hybrid 3-4 scheme. As noted here, since 2009, "the Ducks have finished no lower than third in the Pac-12 in yards-per-play allowed. That includes leading the conference in 2009, 2010 and, yes, 2013, when the Ducks finished seventh nationally by that metric." The Ducks did falter a few times last season, most notably against Stanford, Arizona and Oregon State, and often had trouble against physical running games as well as on third down. Helfrich did make a quasi-outside hire when he brought in Erik Chinander to take over the Ducks' outside linebackers, which Aliotti coached. Chinander, 34, is a former Oregon graduate assistant who worked under Chip Kelly with the Philadelphia Eagles last season.

Oregon State

Out: Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf left to become the quarterbacks coach for the New York Giants.

In: John Garrett, who was the wide receivers coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season. He was on the staff of the Dallas Cowboys from 2007-12, where his brother Jason Garrett is the head coach.

Thoughts: Garrett, who last coached in college at Virginia from 2004-06, shows that coach Mike Riley remains married to a pro-style scheme. Garrett will also coach quarterbacks and tight ends, but it has not yet been determined who will call plays -- Riley has done so for the past two seasons. Garrett and Riley have known each other since 1991, when Garrett played receiver for Riley's San Antonio Riders of the World Football League. The good news for Garrett is the Beavers are strong at QB (Sean Mannion) and deep at tight end. The bigger questions are making the running game more consistent and replacing WR Brandin Cooks' production.

Stanford

Out: Defensive coordinator Derek Mason, who became the head coach at Vanderbilt.

In: Lance Anderson was promoted from outside linebackers coach, a position he will continue to coach.

Thoughts: Another promotion from within that will ensure the Pac-12's best defense has schematic continuity. Anderson has been at Stanford for seven seasons. He coached DTs from 2007-09. He was also the recruiting coordinator from 2007-11. The Cardinal also hired Peter Hansen as inside linebackers coach. He replaces David Kotulski, who was named Vanderbilt’s defensive coordinator under Mason. That was another move that maintains continuity, as Hansen spent the 2009 and 2010 seasons at Stanford as a defensive assistant before following Vic Fangio and Jim Harbaugh to the San Francisco 49ers.

Washington

Out: Steve Sarkisian brought most of his staff from Washington to USC, including defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, but not offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau, who was not retained by new Huskies coach Chris Petersen

In: Offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith and defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski

Thoughts: Smith, the overachieving former Oregon State QB, is a real up-and-comer. Petersen trusts him enough to give him play-calling duties, even though he was not the offensive coordinator last year at Boise State. He'll also coach quarterbacks, so he'll play a central role in determining who wins the starting job this fall. Before joining Petersen at Boise State, Smith spent the 2010 and 2011 seasons as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Montana. Kwiatkowski spent the previous four seasons coordinating the Boise State defense. He was the defensive line coach before being elevated to defensive coordinator in 2010, when he replaced Wilcox. The Broncos led the Western Athletic and Mountain West Conferences in total defense and scoring defense in each of his first three seasons and were third and second, respectively, in 2013.

Washington State

No change: Head coach Mike Leach is his own offensive coordinator and Mike Breske is back to coordinate the Cougars defense, which was disappointing in 2013, slightly lagging behind its 2012 numbers.

Final Pac-12 Power Rankings

January, 15, 2014
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If you don't like where you ended up in the Power Rankings, you should have played better.

Click here for Week 15's Power Rankings. Note that these rankings reflect the totality of the season.

1. Stanford (11-3, 7-2): Oregon finished higher in the final polls, but Stanford is the Pac-12 champion. And everyone out West remembers what happened Nov. 7.

2. Oregon (11-2, 7-2): The Ducks spent most of the season as a national title contender, but the regular season ended with a thud. The bowl victory over Texas was nice, and when you think about it, 11-2 and a final No. 9 ranking is, well, not too bad for Mark Helfrich's debut season.

3. Arizona State (10-4, 8-1): If the Sun Devils had taken care of business in the National University Holiday Bowl and grabbed an 11th win, this would have been a special season. As it turned out, it was merely a very good one.

4. UCLA (10-3, 6-3): The Bruins fell short of the South Division title because of a loss to Arizona State, but a 10-3 finish with a final No. 16 ranking tells the ultimate story: UCLA is trending up. Oh, and in case anyone forgot, there also was that second consecutive victory over USC for coach Jim Mora. Did anyone forget? Anyone? Bueller?

5. USC (10-4, 6-3): The Trojans had two seasons: the miserable start under Lane Kiffin and the strong second half under interim coaches Ed Orgeron and, in the bowl game, Clay Helton. Going 10-4 and finishing ranked 19th, particularly under the trying circumstances, is about the best that could have been hoped. Other than losses to UCLA and Notre Dame. That part could have been better.

6. Washington (9-4, 5-4): After three consecutive 7-6 seasons, the Huskies broke through in 2013, finishing 9-4 and ranked 25th. Credit goes to Steve Sarkisian for turning around a program that went winless the year before he arrived. He leaves behind a team with plenty of potential for new coach Chris Petersen.

7. Arizona (8-5, 4-5): The Wildcats had an interesting season. In part, their eight wins were because of a pillow-soft nonconference schedule that was a guaranteed 3-0 start. But they also beat Oregon and won a bowl game, dominating Boston College on both sides of the ball. On the downside is a second consecutive defeat to their friends in Tempe.

8. Oregon State (7-6, 4-5): The Beavers started horribly with a loss to Eastern Washington then rolled off six consecutive wins. Then, with the schedule ramping up considerably, they lost five in a row to finish the regular season. The strong performance in the Hawaii Bowl against Boise State took some of the sting out of the losing streak. But only some.

9. Washington State (6-7, 4-5): If the Cougars had won their bowl game, they would have been seventh here. Losing to Colorado State is bad under any circumstances, but the way the Cougs wilted at the end was horrid and should operate as fuel to motivate the team this offseason. Still, despite losing their final two games and finishing with a losing record, getting back to a bowl game was a big deal in the second season under Mike Leach.

10. Utah (5-7, 2-7): A second consecutive losing season is not what Utes fans have come to expect, even with a red-letter win over Stanford. Further, they are 5-13 in Pac-12 play in the past two seasons. There were major injury issues, most notably to QB Travis Wilson, but Utah can't be happy with its early performance in the conference. On the plus side, beating BYU and Utah State means state rivals don't have much room to rib the Utes.

11. Colorado (4-8, 1-8): There wasn't anywhere to go but up for Colorado after going 1-11 in 2012, and the Buffaloes went up this season under first-year coach Mike MacIntyre. They were still mostly outclassed in Pac-12 play, but there were signs of taking a step forward. The question now becomes, can they move up in the South Division?

12. California (1-11, 0-9): It was perhaps the most miserable season in Cal history in the first year under Sonny Dykes. The injuries were so epidemic it almost became comical -- almost -- but the effort and execution from the healthy players wasn't so hot either. The Bears need to show improvement next fall or the going could be tough for Dykes.

Season wrap: Oregon

January, 15, 2014
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Oregon was ranked No. 3 before the season, therefore an obvious national title contender. Oregon was 8-0 and ranked No. 3 in the BCS standings in Week 11, and the general consensus was that if the Ducks won out, their Pac-12-fueled strength-of-schedule would earn the Ducks a berth in the national title game.

Of course, we all know what happened. First, the loss at Stanford, when the Cardinal pushed the Ducks around at the line of scrimmage, and quarterback Marcus Mariota was severely limited by a knee injury he suffered the previous week in a win over UCLA.

The Ducks were still in the Rose Bowl and/or BCS bowl hunt. At least until they were blown out at Arizona on Nov. 23.

An 11-2 campaign and final No. 9 ranking is typically nothing to sniff at for any team. But there's nonetheless a feeling the Ducks, who finished in the top five the previous three seasons, slipped a little in coach Mark Helfrich's first season.

You can read our graded review of Oregon here.

Offensive MVP: Mariota, a front-runner for the Heisman Trophy until the Stanford loss, completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 3,665 yards with 31 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He also rushed for 715 yards, averaging 7.4 yards per carry, with nine TDs. He finished ranked No. 1 in the nation in ESPN.com's Total QBR rating. After he decided to return for his redshirt junior season, he figures to be near the top on just about every preseason Heisman Trophy list.

Defensive MVP: While cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is the Ducks' most talented defender, there's a reason that teammates voted defensive end Taylor Hart the Ducks defensive MVP. Hart was the, er, heart and soul of the Ducks' defense. He finished with 75 tackles, which ranked fourth on the team, with 3.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for a loss. He also had five pass breakups, two quarterback hurries and three forced fumbles.

Best moment: While the Ducks were riding high after a dominant fourth quarter gave them a 42-14 victory over UCLA on Nov. 2, the 30-7 win over Texas in the Alamo Bowl was the best moment. Or, at least, the most sentimentally satisfying moment, as the Ducks said goodbye to longtime defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti with a dominant defensive effort, holding the Longhorns to 236 yards and 13 first downs. Further, until he started suffering cramps in the second half, the nation got to see what Mariota can do when healthy. The Ducks, after a tough final third of the season, went out with a solid win, one that should boost spirits heading into the offseason.

Worst moment: While the Stanford loss probably hurt the most, the worst moment was the horrid effort at Arizona during a 42-16 loss. After a week in which receiver Josh Huff and running back De'Anthony Thomas expressed disappointment at the idea of playing in the Rose Bowl, the Ducks looked unmotivated and sloppy while taking a beating in Tucson, Ariz., a defeat that knocked the Ducks out of Rose Bowl contention. Mariota threw two of the four interceptions he threw all season, and the defense yielded 482 yards.
Oregon believes in its culture and it believes in continuity. It's found its last three head coaches by promoting from within instead of conducting a national search for a shiny name fronting another program, as many others do. So why should anyone be surprised that second-year head coach Mark Helfrich opted to promote from within to replace retiring defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti?

Oregon confirmed Tuesday what The Oregonian reported over the weekend: Linebackers coach Don Pellum, 51, an assistant at Oregon for 23 years, would be promoted to replace Aliotti and run the Ducks defense in 2014.

[+] EnlargeDon Pellum
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesNew defensive coordinator Don Pellum has been on the Oregon coaching staff for 23 years.
Is it a flashy hire? No. Will it strike fear into Pac-12 offensive coordinators? No. Will some Ducks fans be disappointed? Probably.

But after a season in which some fans believed Oregon seemed to lose its way, to lose its identity, Helfrich seems to be saying with this decision that he plans to stay the course and prioritize continuity and familiarity. It's a tip of the cap to a significant part of what got the program to where it is.

Pellum knows his players. He knows the schemes the Ducks have run under Aliotti. He knows what has worked and what hasn't. He's done a heck of a job coaching the Ducks linebackers.

As noted in the news release on the hiring:
In the past 20 seasons, he has been credited with much of the development of 27 all-conference honorees. In addition, as many as six of his players have either earned their way into NFL camps over the course of the last four years, or can expected to do so when practices begin this summer.

"I have never learned or grown so much under a single coach than I did under Coach Pellum," former Ducks linebacker Michael Clay said in the release. “He immediately commands the respect from his players unlike anyone I have ever come across and gets the max out of everyone he comes into contact with.

"No coach is prepared like DP. Without his knowledge and guidance, I wouldn't have been the player I was. He put me in a position where I could thrive for the University of Oregon. They could not have hired a better person."

When Aliotti announced his intentions to retire, there was some immediate sentiment that Helfrich should promote from within, though the top name there was secondary coach John Neal. Yet new USC coach Steve Sarkisian had just let Clancy Pendergast go, and Pendergast's version of the 3-4 scheme seemed like a nice fit for the Ducks. As the Pac-12 blog noted, Pendergast had done an outstanding job transforming the Trojans defense in 2013.

While Helfrich isn't likely to reveal how many folks he talked to or how far those talks went, there was some mutual interest between Pendergast and Oregon. It was Helfrich's call to go in another direction.

Hiring Pendergast would have been viewed as a strong move. The same could be said for Helfrich landing another big name with a strong track record running a defense. A proven coordinator also likely would get more benefit of the doubt if the Ducks defense takes a step back next fall, which it might do because it's losing five starters.

Helfrich is taking a chance promoting Pellum to his first coordinator job. There is a risk. Helfrich is well -aware there's little margin for error coaching Oregon these days, where an 11-2 finish and No. 9 final ranking is harrumphed by many newly demanding Ducks fans.

But his instinct on this was to go with Pellum, to go with a long-time Duck -- a former Oregon linebacker, in fact -- and that is a decision that reveals a lot about Helfrich.

The issue, of course, becomes simple going forward. If the Ducks continue to rank among the best defenses in the Pac-12, as they have during their rise into the nation's elite, then Pellum's promotion will prove to be an inspired decision. And perhaps a long-term solution.

But if the Ducks defense slips, then Helfrich's decision will become a negative evaluative mark for those still trying to figure out whether he has the stuff to maintain the Ducks' surge to the top of the Pac-12.

Season review: Oregon

January, 9, 2014
Jan 9
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We continue our team-by-team review of the Pac-12 with Oregon.

[+] EnlargeMariota
Soobum Im/USA TODAY SportsA healthy Marcus Mariota made a huge difference for the Oregon offense.
Offense: Things were going pretty well there, for a while. The Ducks stormed out of the gates and scored at least 50 points in their first five games and in six of their first seven. Then Marcus Mariota quietly, partially, tore his MCL and Oregon’s offensive decline was evident. They went from scoring an average of 57.5 points per game in the first seven to 31.3 over the final six. Still, they averaged more than 45 points per game, which was fourth nationally, and they were a top-10 rushing team and a top-25 passing team. All in all, the Ducks were again one of the most dominant offensive teams in the country. Obviously, as Mariota goes, so go the Ducks. In the first seven games, pre-injury, he was completing 62 percent of his throws with 19 touchdowns, zero interceptions and an adjusted QBR of 95.3. He also had nine rushing touchdowns. Post-injury, his completion percentage actually went up to 64 percent because he wasn’t running, but that also means he had zero rushing touchdowns, 12 passing touchdowns, four interceptions and an adjusted QBR of 79.9 percent. Still, he finished as the national leader in adjusted QBR, Byron Marshall was a 1,000-yard rusher and Josh Huff and Bralon Addison were a vicious receiving duo. Aside from a couple of games, the Ducks offense was explosive and potent. Grade: A

Defense: Stanford and Arizona used similar tactics in their wins over the Ducks. Run, rinse, repeat. Tyler Gaffney carried the ball 45 times and Terrance Mitchell and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu were as advertised, combining for eight interceptions and Derrick Malone posted a team-high 105 tackles with two interceptions. Avery Patterson also pitched in three picks as the Ducks were plus-seven in turnover margin. But the lingering problem all year was third-down defense, where the Ducks allowed teams to convert better than 40 percent of the time -- which was 10th in the conference. In the games when things got tight, the defense wasn’t able to get off the field. Grade: B

Special teams: The kicking game is always an, ahem, adventure, when it comes to the Ducks. But this year things were a little more consistent. Matt Wogan was a solid 7 of 9 and Alejandro Maldonado was 3 of 5. Though neither converted a kick beyond 40 yards (Wogan attempted only one and missed, Maldonado didn’t attempt any). Plus, there were three missed PATs on the year (Wogan missed two, Maldonado one). Maldonado was solid at punting and the kick return and coverage teams were steady. Addison returned two punts for touchdowns and De’Anthony Thomas returned one kick for a score. Grade: B+

Overall: Again, we base a lot of these grades on what the expectation was versus where the team finished. And despite an 11-win season, the Ducks, once thought to be a national championship contender, failed to meet those expectations. In fact, they failed to make it to a BCS bowl game. The loss to Stanford was viewed as disappointing -- but certainly not shocking. The loss to Arizona was head-scratching. And from a public relations standpoint, the Ducks didn’t have a great year. Still, they did win their bowl game and finished ranked in the top 10. There’s something to be said for that. And we’re in no way calling Mark Helfrich’s first year as coach a bust. He won a bowl game in his first year – which Chip Kelly never did -- and probably learned a few lessons along the way. When you have a title-game-or-bust mentality, every loss is heart-wrenching. But we also understand that injuries can impact a team -- especially injuries to a Heisman-contending quarterback. Grade: B.

Lunch links: Happy New Year!

January, 1, 2014
Jan 1
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And there’s a hand my trusty friend, And give me a hand o’ thine;
And we’ll take a right good-will draught, for auld lang syne.

Mailbag: Is DAT out of position?

December, 27, 2013
12/27/13
5:30
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Welcome to the final -- Miller version! -- mailbag of 2013.

Follow the Pac-12 blog on Twitter.

To the notes!

Nick from Phoenix writes: Chip Kelly and Oregon surprised many a few years ago when they flipped DeAnthony Thomas from USC by promising him a chance to play offense and not make him a corner, as USC planned to do. After showing some flashes and putting together a pretty good freshman season, he seems to have plateaued as a player. He's got amazing speed and is a tremendous returner but he's too small to be a starting running back and isn't a true WR. After his freshman season I thought he would be guaranteed to leave school after his junior year. Now I can't imagine him being drafted in the first two rounds in April. He's a player without a position. All of this brings me to my question. Did Oregon do him a disservice by making him an offensive player? Given the athletic ability DAT possesses, he would have made an amazing corner and we could possibly be talking about him as a top 5 pick this year. He would still be able to flourish in the return game (where he is at his best). I really think the Oregon staff blew it with him, just like they blew it with Arik Armstead (letting him be an OK defensive lineman when he has the physical skill set to be a transcendent offensive tackle).

[+] EnlargeDe'Anthony Thomas
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesAfter a hot start, De'Anthony Thomas missed four games and had his least productive season.
Ted Miller: The starting point for this discussion is what the player wants. And that is a slippery slope in recruiting. Often what is obvious to a plurality of seemingly objective observers is not obvious to the player himself. Or his family. Or "advisors."

The good news here is Oregon and USC both told the truth in recruiting. USC coaches told De'Anthony Thomas they saw him as a cornerback. Some coaches will say whatever they can to get a player, all the while having a plan to make a switch as soon as possible. Oregon, obviously, stuck to its word with both Thomas and Armstead.

I think the issue with Armstead is more clear-cut than Thomas. Armstead is a potential NFL All-Pro at left offensive tackle, based on his skill set, and a CFL player on the D-line, based on his performance as defensive end/tackle thus far. I personally think he is leaving millions of dollars on the table by playing defense. In fact, if he were my son, I would relentlessly hound him to make the switch. I might even touch base with the Oregon coaches on the matter to see what they think, though I'm not sure the guy who replaces the retiring Nick Aliotti will want to give up any more big bodies from his D-line, which will take some big hits heading into 2014 in any event.

As for DAT, you could make a strong case that he's more naturally a corner than an offensive player due to his size. But he'd also be on the small side for an NFL corner, and there's the issue of make-up. Does he have the natural aggressiveness to go mano-a-mano in press coverage against a bigger receiver? Can he attack a 220-pound running back in the open field? DAT might be more naturally suited to avoid rather than seek contact.

The question for DAT with the NFL is fit. A team looking for an offensive weapon who's not built for 20 touches a game could do a lot worse than Thomas. The St. Louis Rams fell in love with speedy but diminutive Tavon Austin and picked him in the first round last spring. He's had a pretty darn good rookie season. He seems like a good comparison to DAT (and not the short but stocky guys, such as Maurice Jones-Drew, who are built like fire hydrants).

There is no question DAT's pure athletic ability will get him drafted, this spring or next, though what round is difficult say. The ultimate answer on his NFL career, however, will come down to durability. How many touches -- and games -- can he give an NFL team? And for how many years?

Alex from Davis, Calif., writes: I have a great play idea for Washington State when they have an 8 point lead, ~ 2 minutes to go in a game and the other team is out of timeouts. It may be too wacky and zany for Mike Leach, though. Here's how it goes: the team lines up in a "victory" formation, takes a knee, lets the play clock go as close to zero as possible and repeats the play two more times. Then they take a delay of game penalty before punting to make the other team go more than 25 yards for the winning score. I know, I know. Way too crazy. It make soooooo much more sense to try and run a QB option play (or run the ball at all when you haven't done it all year) than it does to simply take a knee and run the clock.

Ted Miller: I'm with you, as are most folks. Even some with true football smarts, such as other coaches.

But Mike Leach, an unquestionably smart man, does things his own way. His reply would be the ole "I am what I am," which means not taking a knee there, and that is what got him where he is. He believes in being aggressive.

The thing about Leach is he's not going to go, "My bad. I should have done things differently. You second-guessers are correct!" Not his style.

Further, while there were about 785 different things the Cougars could have done to ensure a victory against Colorado State, Leach would simply note the most basic one would be holding onto the football, which I'm guessing he and his assistants have emphasized and drilled endlessly.

Adam from Dallas writes: After watching USC win the Las Vegas bowl and finish up with 10 wins from this crazy season. Saying it sounds unrealistic, but shouldn't Sark almost be expected to get 10 wins next season? Am I crazy?

[+] EnlargeSarkisian
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsSteve Sarkisian might get a bit of a pass in his first year, but expectations at USC are always high.
Ted Miller: While I'll need more information to know, Adam, if you are indeed crazy -- such as: Do you have a 6-foot white rabbit as a wingman when you hit the bars? -- I don't think you are off base here.

For one, USC fans tend to start their baseline of preseason expectations at 10 wins and go from there.

First, let's note that USC won 10 games on a 14-game schedule. It's not the same as the 10-2 mark in 2011. Then let's wait until the NFL defection numbers are in. There are some names on the board who could make a big difference if they opted to return next year.

As it stands now, though, USC should be in the thick of a tightly contested South Division. That, in itself, might make a 10-win season difficult. There could be a lot of cannibalism in the South, as well as the conference as a whole.

I see UCLA as the South favorite, if QB Brett Hundley opts to return for his redshirt junior year. I see Arizona State as possibly taking a step back and Arizona taking a step forward, if it gets a satisfactory answer at quarterback. Utah becomes a factor if QB Travis Wilson is given a positive bill of health from his doctors and can play this fall. And Colorado is getting better.

The good news for USC fans, whatever their 2014 expectations, is the program will be made whole in 2015, as NCAA scholarship restrictions expire. At that point, there won't be much margin for error for Steve Sarkisian. The preseason expectations going forward will be Pac-12 title or bust, with a firm belief the Trojans should win a national title before 2020.

Josh from Wichita writes: Great article on my Cats, Ted. I did just want to make one technical correction though. It is actually a 4x4 that has 'family' written on it and not a 2x4. It's 4 inches by 4 inches, but I suppose it can be forgiven. EMAW!

Ted Miller: My bad. Guess folks won't be asking me to do any construction work anytime soon.

Jon from Berkeley writes: Just wanted to share an awesome video my friend Matt recently made about the Pac-12. Hope you like it!

Ted Miller: That is pretty cool.

DuckFam from Camas, Wash., writes: Dear PAC 12 Blog,I am sorry to say this, but you are absolutely right. The emotions you have stirred have caused such outrage that I am compelled to stand up and point out that Pink Ladies have never gotten their accolades, in spite of being the all-around most balanced in their league. This all starts with the fact that Pink Ladies don't have the history and pedigree of playing in an AQ league that the more traditional power-houses, such as Granny Smiths and Red Delicious have played in; a league, BTW, that is heavily favored east of the Rockies. They are practically unheard of down south, but Georgia is already biased anyway- what is their state famous for, again? Next, when you consider the balance of sweet to tart, combined with the fact that the ratio of crunch to crisp easily rivals that of Honeycrisp, and is far tastier than Fujis, I am not sure you can even consider Fujis any further at this point. Now Honeycrisp is certainly at the top of the game most of the time, and I grant you it is great for what it is, but if this is a case to be made with more than just personal taste and opinions, then it is time to turn to the metrics. Pink Ladies are most often in play at 1.49 per pound, and often break the .99-per-pound barrier, as many traditional ones often do, especially when they are at their best around mid-season. But given the qualities that Pink Ladies offer, as stated above, at the same economic metric as Fujis, make them a far better bet than Honeycrisp (which often hit 1.99, even at their best in the season). When compared pound to pound, or dollar to pound, or the newest metric developed by people with far too much time on their hands: the Approximate Pound Per Label Eaten, or APPLE, as it is known in some circles, Pink Ladies take down all comers, every time. Once again, though, being from a different box that doesn't say Fuji or Honeycrisp means little to no consideration, in spite of obvious fact. Proof yet again of the "tastelessness" of the East Coast bias...PS- is it September yet?

Ted Miller: My only hope is the "Great Apple Controversy of 2013" continues into the New Year.

Mailbag: Christmas Eve edition

December, 24, 2013
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T’was the night before Christmas and the Pac-12 blog crew;
Was still smarting and miffed at the fall of Wazzu.

Dressed in an opulent red and green sweater;
Ted furiously hoped that the Beavs would do better.

The Trojans exploded and won one for ‘O;’
Only to learn Dion Bailey would go.

Utes, Bears and Buffs are home for the bowls;
Leaving their fans little reason to troll.

Two teams from the desert are still yet to play;
With RichRod and Graham hoping things go their way.

One last run for Price in his prime;
Plus he gets to Fight Hunger at the same time.

The Alamo will be Mack Brown’s last stand;
Even if the year didn’t go as the Ducks planned.

Barr’s last game will be played in The Sun;
We’re also wondering: Is Brett Hundley done?

Last but not least is the Tree vs. Sparty;
In the backfield the Cardinal hope they will party.

So enjoy Christmas Eve with your best pint of ale;
Sit back and relax to this bag of mail.

(I know, it's not as good as Chongo's).

Dylan in Boston writes: Hi Kevin, In all the reporting/speculation about Justin Wilcox following Sarkisian to Troy, it seems like everybody's overlooking the fact that the Trojans already have an A-list coordinator in Clancy Pendergast. Am I the only one confused by this? In the years Pendergast was at Cal, he did more with less than Wilcox has had at Washington (at the least the talent was comparable), particularly against my Ducks. Has Wilcox really shown enough for people to assume that he has the advantage over Pendergast?

Kevin Gemmell: Has he shown enough? I think so. I think Wilcox is an outstanding coordinator and defensive-minded coach. But you’re right, you can’t overlook the job that Pendergast did at USC this year.

The move to an odd front was a fantastic one for the Trojans. Say this for Lane Kiffin, he recognized that the Trojans needed a scheme that was going to be able to account for all of the edge speed in the league and he adjusted accordingly by bringing in Pendergast. Obviously, things didn’t work out so well on the offensive side of the ball for Kiffin. But let’s give the credit where credit is due.

The numbers for both coaches suggest major improvements since their arrival. First, Washington:

In the two seasons since Wilcox arrived, the Huskies have improved in scoring defense each year. They were giving up 35.9 points per game in 2011, followed by 24.2 in 2012 and 23.4 in 2011. They have also improved turnover margin and rushing yards allowed each of the last two years.

For USC, in one season under Pendergast, the Trojans cut their points allowed by more than a field goal, made huge strides in rush defense (167 yards allowed in 2012 compared to 120.3 in 2013) and were on the plus side of turnover margin after going minus-2 in 2012 and minus-1 in 2011 (they were plus-6 this year).

So the morale of the story is this: If you’re a Washington fan, you want Wilcox to stay in Washington. If you’re a USC fan, you’re going to be happy either way.

Peter in NorCal writes: One thing that Sark going to SC won't hurt: The Stanford-USC rivalry. It seems like David and Steve get along about as well as Jim and Pete did. Fair statement? What are your observations about the two of them (both generally, and specifically the snippiness that ensued after the Stanford/Washington game this year).

Kevin Gemmell: It’s funny that you bring that up. Every year Ted and I go to the Pac-12 spring meetings in Arizona. Basically, it’s Ted and I sitting outside of meeting rooms, waiting for the coaches to emerge, and then grabbing them for interviews. Then we sit outside, watch the coaches eat lunch, and then grab them again for more interviews.

One thing Ted and I were commenting on this year was how well all of the Pac-12 coaches get along. The Big 12 coaches meeting was going on at the same time and there was little to no interaction between those guys. But the Pac-12 coaches were all sitting together and chatting each other up after meetings.

Now, we’re not in the meetings with the coaches, so I can’t speak to how they interact. But from what I’ve seen, Sarkisian and David Shaw got along just fine.

Of course, that was last May and a lot has happened since then, including the aforementioned post-game war of words.

We don’t need to rehash all of the details, but I know Shaw objected to having his assistant and his players called out by name. And whether you agree with him retaliating with a Tuesday tirade is your personal business. Sark was ticked and probably broke a couple of unwritten rules. It happens. Shaw kept the story alive an extra couple of days by using the coaches' teleconference and his Tuesday roundtable as a pulpit to respond.

Neither coach "won" the public relations battle. And I don't think either cares. But it certainly spices things up for when the Cardinal and Trojans meet again. That -- and the fact that it's come down to the last play three of the last four meetings.

Curt in Las Vegas writes: Hey Kevin, Chip Kelly left the Oregon Ducks firmly entrenched with quality players. In 2013 going 10 and 2 and playing in the Alamo bowl to us Duck fans is a letdown! Do you think Mark Helfrich is planted at Oregon with the year he had?

Kevin Gemmell: Did Chip Kelly hurt Marcus Mariota’s knee? I think we can all agree that things took a turn for the worst for Oregon when he started coming up gimpy.

I think Helfrich is a very good coach who encountered a lot of the Year 1 obstacles every coach faces. But because it’s Oregon, a perennial top-5 program, those obstacles are magnified. When you’ve sat in a coordinator’s chair for so long and then make the jump, there is some transition and self-evaluation that is required. Ted and I took a lot of guff for picking Stanford to win the conference over Oregon for this very reason.

The Alamo Bowl is a letdown, sure. A 10-2 team playing in the deepest conference in college football deserves a shot at a BCS bowl game. But as the players have said, they need only look at themselves for where they are at.

Helfrich is going to be just fine, and Oregon is going to be just fine. He has a chance to get an 11th win -- something Kelly didn’t do in his first year. And win a bowl game. Also something Kelly didn’t accomplish. We have to see how the new College Football Playoff pans out, but I don’t see any reason why a Helfrich-led Oregon won’t be in the hunt annually.

Scott in London, England writes: Hi Kevin, I've read twice in the blog today about you mentioning how scary Arizona can be next year and it got me thinking. I know we have a lot of great transfers and recruits coming in, but I'm a bit unsure as to who exactly are supposed to be immediate impact players and how many returning starters there wil be, etc.I was wondering if you and Ted plan on doing a run down of next year's potential for each Pac team that consolidates all this into one easy blog post per team:* Transfers/JuCos and why they are good/meh* Recruits and why they are good/meh* Returners and why they are good/meh* Coaching changes and why they are good/meh (assistants too)* Schedule goods and bads* Will there be an El Nino, etc...I would say I'm an above-avg fan but I really don't have the Google-Fu skills or time to compile all this and I think every Pac fan would appreciate it a series like that.Maybe you guys already do that during the offseason or preseason, but I think it could also be good after bowl season.You can think of it as your first chance to be the, "We told you so" guys. Thanks for reading, always enjoy your stuff. Keep up the good work.

Kevin Gemmell: I can assure you there will be plenty of time in the offseason for all sorts of schedule analysis, roster breakdowns etc. etc. Ted and I are happy to fill the void during the offseason, as we do every year.

Just a heads up on Arizona. Among some of the key players who will be coming off the scout team are Cayleb Jones, Davonte’ Neal and Connor Brewer. They will all be eligible in 2014 after transferring.

Jones is a wide receiver who is transferring from Texas, and he’s reunited with Brewer, a former Longhorns quarterback. Neal, from Scottsdale, is a transfer receiver from Notre Dame who made a push to become eligible in 2013, but the NCAA denied his hardship waiver. You put him in with Austin Hill, who should be fully recovered from his knee injury and should be high on the Belitnikoff watchlist, along with David Richards, Nate Phillips and Samajie Grant and you have a receiver corps that is as good as any in the conference -- probably the country.

Quarterback will be an issue and Anu Solomon is one to watch. I had this in Lunch Links today. It’s a good read from Anthony Gimino breaking down Arizona’s QB prospects for next year.

Essentially, the Wildcats have a bunch of really exciting skill players that will make the South that much more exciting. They do lose three seniors on the defensive line, so guys like Luca Bruno, Calvin Allen and Jack Banda will have to step up.

But Arizona does indeed have some scary potential next year.

Mike in Maple Valley, Wash. writes: Your definition of "Coug" was pretty spot on. You said it has been an effective term since 2005. The origin may actually go back to the 1975 Apple Cup. To "Coug it" is a ceremonial act hand down from one generation to another.

Kevin Gemmell: First off, Maple Valley sounds like the most delicious place on earth.

Second, that was a phrase pulled straight from the Urban Dictionary, and the submission was entered in 2005, so unfortunately I can’t take credit for it. I didn’t put the link in though because Urban Dictionary has a lot of non-blog-friendly expressions and sayings. You’re free to Google it yourself.

I called no joy in writing that piece. But I do think Washington State is moving in the right direction under Mike Leach. Speaking of that column ...

Andy in Fort Collins Colo. writes: You’re Washington State take was so one-sided and arrogant. How about giving the Rams a little credit instead of making excuses. (And Merry Christmas).

Kevin Gemmell: Ah, thanks Andy. Merry Christmas to you.

It was a Washington State-centric story because I’m the Pac-12 reporter and I cover the Pac-12 and Washington State is a Pac-12 team and it appeared on the Pac-12 blog. See the trend?

Did you email all of the beat writers in Pullman and Spokane and the surrounding areas and chastise them for their coverage? The folks at CougCenter do a heck of a job. And their stuff was a bit one-sided.

I don’t think it’s arrogant to say the Pac-12 is a better conference. I’ve covered both, so I feel like I’m qualified to weigh in on this. In the 12 games the two conferences have played so far, the Pac-12 has gone 11-1 and outscored the Mountain West, on average, 38.5 to 20.

Arizona should beat UNLV. And it did. Colorado should beat Colorado State. And it did. Oregon State and USC should beat Hawaii. And they did. Oregon State should beat San Diego State. And it did. UCLA should beat Nevada. And it did. Stanford should beat San Jose State. And it did. USC and Utah should beat Utah State. And they did. USC should beat Fresno State and Washington should beat Boise State. And they did.

For what it’s worth, I did include in the piece that Colorado State deserved the win for not quitting. And anything is possible (especially in Albuquerque, it seems) when you have two weeks to prepare.

That goes for tonight’s matchup between Oregon State and Boise State. The Broncos certainly aren’t the same team they were a month ago. And I’m not totally sure which Oregon State team we’re going to get. If it’s the explosive Sean Mannion-to-Brandin Cooks connection, the Beavs should be fine. If it’s not, then Boise State certainly could win.

Such is the nature of bowl season.

Merry Christmas from the Pac-12 blog.
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!

Humble Alamo Bowl win a must for Ducks

December, 11, 2013
12/11/13
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From a public relations standpoint, Oregon lost too many days in 2013.

From former tight end Colt Lyerla leaving the team and his subsequent drug-related arrest to high-profile players making verbal miscues -- and of course the world’s most watched snowball fight -- the Ducks had more drama than their first-year coach probably would have preferred. A bad November on the field didn’t help, either.

[+] EnlargeMark Helfrich
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesCoach Mark Helfrich and the Ducks could get to 11 wins with a victory over Texas in the Valero Alamo Bowl.
So it was no surprise that after a disappointing bowl placement -- disappointing in the fact that it’s not a BCS bowl game -- Oregon had two of its most respected and well-spoken ambassadors handle the talking.

In the first five minutes of chatting with the media following Sunday’s bowl selection, quarterback Marcus Mariota and center Hroniss Grasu -- both who have decided to pass up the NFL for one more season -- couldn’t work in the words “honor” and “blessed” enough when talking about their spot in the Valero Alamo Bowl against Texas.

Maybe that’s how they really feel. Maybe it’s not. But from here on out, as the Ducks look to rehab their image, the message has to be one of sheer elation and excitement to be playing in a bowl game. Any bowl game.

“This season has been a blessing and an honor to be able to play for such a great team,” Grasu said. “It’s been a lot of fun. A couple of things didn’t go our way but there is no one to blame for that but ourselves. We wouldn’t be in this position if we didn’t shoot ourselves in the foot. But it happened. You have to move on. Now we have to worry about what we can control and that’s getting better. Going through finals and then preparing to play Texas in the Alamo Bowl, which is a big honor to play in. That’s all we can control right now.”

Another word they both used a lot was “opportunity.” That’s the key.

This is a big opportunity for Oregon. It’s an opportunity to get coach Mark Helfrich his first bowl victory and reach the 11-win mark, something Chip Kelly didn’t do in his first year. It’s an opportunity to show the recruits that the month of November was simply a hiccup and Oregon football isn’t going anywhere. It’s an opportunity to show the rest of college football that Oregon has neither been exposed nor is on a downward trend.

“It was tough and it is unfortunate,” Mariota said. “But we put ourselves in this predicament. We didn’t give ourselves a lot of room. We had the opportunity. But we’re blessed and it’s a great opportunity and we’re looking forward to it … I think for the most part guys are going to be exited. We have a lot of guys from Texas. A lot of guys that haven’t been to Texas. It’s going to be an awesome, awesome venue. We’re playing one of the most traditional programs in the country.”

Almost every college football fan in the country -- yes, even a few in Oklahoma -- wanted to see Alabama-Oregon in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Even if it weren’t for a national championship, it’s still a dream matchup that has been speculated on for years. But geography, travel and the fact that the SEC and Big 12 have a schedule alliance coming were all contributing factors to the Ducks being on the outside -- despite only losing to Pac-12 champion Stanford and the nation’s best running back in Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey. That those losses came in November magnifies their impact.

If there is disappointment in the ranks, and there has to be, now isn’t the time to let it show. Now is the time to exude confidence and humility at the opportunity placed before them. Now is the time for Mariota, who said he hopes to be 100 percent for the bowl game, to go out and show why he deserved to be in New York as a Heisman finalist. He could also start off his 2014 campaign with a bang.

“I don’t think anyone is disappointed,” Grasu said. “It’s an honor to play in this bowl game against Texas. Getting a bowl win in the Alamo Bowl against Texas would a big momentum boost in the offseason and getting ready for next season. It’s really exciting. We have a lot of guys coming back, but we can’t look to next season because we’re preparing to play Texas.”

Oregon’s reputation as an elite program, combined with a bowl win, likely gets them into single digits in the final rankings. Mariota’s return makes them a preseason top-10 team in 2014. There will be many, many more days to win. And it has to start on Dec. 30.

Preferably, quietly.

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