Oregon Ducks: Mike Riley

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.
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.

Coordinator changes: Pac-12 North

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
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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.

Mailbag: Stars don't always align

February, 11, 2014
Feb 11
5:30
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Last mailbag from me for a couple of weeks. If you've been saving up some really irritating and insulting questions, be sure to send them here.

Chris in Tempe, Ariz., writes: Great piece on the coaching carousel! My thought is that, of course it won't. Unfortunately for the coaches, football (all sports, in fact) IS a zero-sum game. There are winners and losers. And losers can no longer be tolerated. Thirty years ago, before big TV deals, coaches had the luxury of time. When you have the pressure of a multi-million dollar athletics budget riding, mostly, on your team's success: Time = money. Translated: Win now or else. While [Sonny] Dykes or Mac [Mike MacIntryre] might need five years to really implement a plan for success, they won't get it. They'll get three years (probably), but if they aren't hitting .500 AND staying competitive (in particular with their rivals), Year 4 is a crap shoot at best. They need to show success each and every year, and if they don't, they're going to get canned. And even if those coaches do win, that means some other coach lost to those teams. Unthinkable! Cue the hot-seat music for them. The zero-sum world is a tough one. Keep up the great work, and enjoy your "offseason."

[+] EnlargeSonny Dykes
AP Photo/Eric RisbergIt was a rough first season for Sonny Dykes, but he'll get at least a couple more to try to right the ship at Cal.
Kevin Gemmell: Thanks, Chris. There was a lot more from my conversations with Rick Neuheisel and Mike Riley that didn’t make the final product. But that’s why we have the mailbag, so I can get deeper into it.

Both guys agree that five years – minimum – is about how long a coach should be given the opportunity to turn a program around. Neuheisel hit on the most important point. That being the quarterback spot and the fact that you really only have one shot with a quarterback. If you swing and miss, or if he gets injured, there goes your coaching tenure with that school.

We (Neuheisel and myself) also talked about Riley, Sonny Dykes and Kyle Whittingham. We didn’t talk as much about Mike MacIntyre because there was some solid progress in Year 1.

With Whittingham, Neuheisel took the same philosophy as the Pac-12 blog, in that his program needs time to adjust to all the ins and outs of playing in a major conference. I’m on record as saying that I believe a full recruiting cycle – five years in the league – is a good gauge. And given how many times the Utes have changed offensive coordinators, it’s obvious Whittingham is trying to find the pieces to make it all work. He’s being proactive. But the quarterback situation has been so unbelievably unfortunate that it’s tough to get some traction.

With Dykes, it wasn’t all quarterback. Jared Goff did pretty well for a true freshman, all things considered. But it’s obvious he needs seasoning. There were just so many problems with that team, from offense to defense to special teams, that you can’t really lay it all on one aspect of the game.

And with Riley, well, he was on the hot seat after a 3-9 2011 only to storm back to a 9-4 2012. As Neuheisel said, “Last time I checked, they haven’t moved Corvallis any closer to the good players. If I were betting, I’d bet on Riley.” I would, too.

The name of the game is time. You have to show some immediate progress in order to get more time (like Mike Leach, David Shaw, Todd Graham, Jim Mora, who have all signed extensions). I think MacIntyre has done that. I think Whittingham still has time before his seat gets toasty and I think Dykes will get a couple of years to put things together. Riley isn’t going anywhere.

So for the immediate future, unless a coach leaves on his own, I think we’re going to see this lineup of head coaches for at least a couple of seasons. That’s a good thing. Because this is a very, very sharp group.


SDZald in San Diego writes: Nice breakdown on recruits to the Pac-12 by state. Can you enlighten us a bit more by breaking down the recruits from California into northern and southern regions?

Kevin Gemmell: When I read this request, I was reminded of when Ace Rothstein demanded an equal number of blueberries be placed in every muffin. And the baker’s response: “Do you know how long that’s going to take?”

It took a good few hours to break them all down by state. And going back through and determining which part of the state would probably take longer since there would be some Google-mapping involved.

However, here’s a compromise. I’ll likely do that post again next season. Now that I know to look for it, I’ll go through NorCal. Vs. SoCal while I’m actually doing the research the first time around. Deal?

I spent 18 years living in NorCal and the last 15 in SoCal (plus a few scattered states for four years) and the two halves are very much like two different states.

I’d wager a significant majority comes from SoCal (if we set the marker at, say, Bakersfield). Though there are a few Fresnos in there as well.


Chris in NorCal writes: I'm wondering how many other Stanford targets weren't able to gain admission to the university? It's typically a small number because the football program doesn't spend time recruiting players that they don't think will meet the admission standards.

Kevin Gemmell: Stanford doesn’t release the names of players who weren’t admitted. Consider it sort of an amateur-athlete professional-courtesy.

David Shaw did say, however, that there were only “about 80” high school seniors who could have qualified and been accepted. So if you buy that, it makes their recruiting haul all the more impressive.

As one of the few true national recruiters, Stanford has to comb the country to find the right type of guys. Shaw told me once that oftentimes they’ll try to identify position groups and recruit accordingly. For example, if there is a really good year for offensive linemen, they’ll identify that group, find which ones could be academically eligible, and go after that group like crazy and then adjust as needed to fit that group.

As it stands, there are only so many 4.4 wide receivers available (that’s GPA and 40 time). When you look at Stanford’s fraction of the pie, it’s pretty miniscule.

As for how many didn’t make it in, we’ll never really know unless the players come out and say so.


Andy in Lebanon, Ore. writes: Ted and Kevin! Everyone "says" they know better than to focus so hard on these star ratings. But every year signing day rolls around and everyone acts like they will solely determine the next four years anyway.Give me a 3-star LaMichael James or Kenjon Barner over 5-star RB Lache Seastrunk, who will whine and leave. Give me a 3-star Jeff Maehl over 4- and 5-star Devon Blackmon and Tacoi Sumler. Give me a 3-star David Paulson over a 5-star basket case like Colt Lyerla. Give me a 3-star Kyle Long. Hroniss Grasu. Terrance Mitchell. Michael Clay. And most of all, give a gangly 3-star QB from Hawaii named Marcus Mariota. Understand, at this point in the game, using these star ratings is the only thing we have to go on and in a long offseason, you are going to go on it. Not every 5-star is useless like Seastrunk and not every 3-star shatters QB records. But it just seems so silly to me that people are focusing so hard on the rating and not on if a program got the guys it really wants.

Kevin Gemmell: Stars are essentially predictions. And … this just in … sometimes predictions are wrong! I was just getting into the San Diego media scene when there was a hot debate over Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf. A few years later I was covering a can’t-miss prep superstar named Dillon Baxter.

Sometimes you swing and miss.

Every year around this time, I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a head coach a few years ago (it was off the record, so names will not be used to protect the innocent). He and I were actually just discussing this again a few weeks ago.

He was recruiting a two-star player who hadn’t received an offer yet. Then a major West Coast school, for kicks, let’s say USC, made him an offer. The next day he jumped to four stars on the recruiting boards. The coach snarkily asked me, “how the hell did he get so good overnight?”

The point is, the star system is what it is – a system. And human systems are flawed. Yes, it’s nice to have a good recruiting class with a bunch of four-star guys and the occasional five-star. But it’s the teams that develop two- and three-star players into all-conference guys (you cited Marcus Mariota, Ben Gardner is another that comes to mind and there are countless others) that truly make the biggest impact.

Stars are nice. But the name of the game is player development.


Bryce in San Francisco writes: Would you please expand your post about Pac-12 alumni in the Super Bowl to include a conference breakdown? Given the number of key contributors coming from the Pac-12, I wonder if there might be a chance for major bragging rights.

Kevin Gemmell: Found this, which should help break it down. By my count, there were only 16 who were active according to the final gamebook. But given the way the Pac-12 players performed – and the winning coach is a Pac-12 alumnus – I’d say a little chest thumping is in order.


Joe Bruin in Westwood writes: Hey Kev, do you have an Instagram or a Twitter I could follow you at?

Kevin Gemmell: No Instagram, but Ted and I share the Pac-12 blog’s Twitter account. You can follow here. 56K and growing. That’s right, @mileycyrus, we're coming for you. Coming like a wrecking ball.

Mailbag: SOS and top-25 grousing

January, 31, 2014
Jan 31
5:30
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Happy Friday. Welcome to the mailbag.

Follow the Pac-12 blog on Twitter.

By the way, we will be reviewing the top-25 list on Monday, explaining some of our thinking, and looking ahead.

So stay tuned! To the notes!

RidingTheRange from Dallas writes: Thanks for your Top 25 list! I enjoy this every year. However, with Top 25 lists, they always encourage witty banter. And here's my suggestion: Where is Ty Montgomery? If memory serves me correct, the KR/PR from Utah was rated last year. Montgomery was a much more integral part of the Stanford offense (though the offense as a whole was not particularly potent). Any word on where he would actually fall or if there was any debate between the Pac-12 bloggers?

Ted Miller: I suspect the list last year will be more controversial than this year's. Kevin fired off a first draft to me and Kyle a few weeks ago, and that list stuck pretty well with minimal changes. We also knew the handful of players who would be tops among the "HOW CAN YOU LEAVE OFF [PLAYER X]? YOU HAVE LOST ALL CREDIBILITY!"

Utah's Reggie Dunn ended up at No. 25 last year because he returned four kickoffs for touchdowns, which had never been done before. Yes, it was controversial. To me, the worst omission from the list was Desmond Trufant, and we not unfairly took a lot of crud for it. Kevin felt more strongly about Dunn than I did, but I'd also say that setting an NCAA record is pretty darn shiny on a résumé.

Montgomery returned two kicks for touchdowns in 2013 and was the Cardinal's leading receiver, ranking ninth in the Pac-12. You could make a case for him.

But here's what I typically say to folks making the case for another player: Who do you take off our top-25 to make room for Montgomery?

Here's the bottom six:

No. 20: Trevor Reilly, DE/OLB, Utah
No. 21: Sean Mannion, QB, Oregon State
No. 22: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington
No. 23: Hroniss Grasu, C, Oregon
No. 24: Josh Huff, WR, Oregon
No. 25: Myles Jack, LB/RB, UCLA

That's a pretty strong group to break into.


Bobby from Phoenix writes: Carl Bradford not in the top 25? You guys were very generous to put in Sutton, Grice and Kelly, but I can't imagine a list without Bradford! Rabble rabble rabble!

Ted Miller: Bradford was one of the top guys who got left out, along with several All-Pac-12 defenders, such as Stanford safety Ed Reynolds, Washington defensive end Hau'oli Kikaha, USC LBs Devon Kennard and Hayes Pullard, etc.

I'm surprised more Washington fans aren't griping about leaving out Kikaha, who finished second in the Pac-12 with 13 sacks. We rated him higher than Bradford, who had 8.5 sacks, and I personally found leaving him out one of our toughest calls, in large part because he came back from two knee surgeries this season.

Bradford had a good, but not great, season. In fact, I'm not sure he'd rank better than fifth on the Sun Devils defense this season, behind DT Will Sutton, DB Alden Darby, CB Robert Nelson and LB Chris Young.

Further, with all that talent, I do question why the Sun Devils' defense wasn't better, ranking eighth in the Pac-12 in yards per play -- 5.5 -- and seventh in scoring (26.6 ppg).


Spencer from Orem, Utah, writes: I would argue that Anthony Barr is better than Ka'Deem Carey. I would be interested on your thoughts on why you disagree.

Ted Miller: You could argue that. I'm sure many folks are guessing that Barr is headed to a better NFL career as a perennial All-Pro.

NFL prospects factor more in my judgments than they do with Kevin. To me, it's a safeguard against getting too googly-eyed about statistics. That said, what separates Carey are his numbers. To quote our review:
"[Carey] ranked second in the nation with 157.1 yards per game. He completed his career by topping 100 yards in 16 consecutive games, a Pac-12 record and a streak that hasn't been accomplished by any other back in a decade. He is Arizona’s career rushing leader (4,232 yards) and ranks seventh in Pac-12 history."

Barr had a great season and earned consensus All-American honors, just like Carey. But his best football is in front of him. His numbers -- 10 sacks (No. 3 in the conference) and 20 tackles for a loss (No. 2) -- were good, but not epically good, like Carey's.

Further, I think UCLA's defense wouldn't have collapsed without Barr. If you took Carey away from Arizona, the Wildcats would have lost at least a touchdown from their scoring average of 33.5 and wouldn't have sniffed bowl eligibility.

So that's the distinction.


Undeniable Stanford Homer from East "of" Palo Alto writes: My question is about the top 25 players list for this past season. I understand the issues with rankings vs. grades is same reason why people do rankings over grades -- you get to say 1 player is "better" then another player because of their standing in the rankings. As we all know, the top 10 players are all All-Pac-12 performers, but by ranking them you infer that one is better than the other, causing intrigue and argument (which is both good and bad). What I am wondering is when you compile this list, how do you have eight players better than David Yankey, and five players ahead of Trent Murphy. The former was the best player on the best team on the best unit in the Pac-12 (hard to argue unit but this question is too long for my explanation already, and hard to argue with Morris but he already had one) and the latter is the best defensive player (depends on if you look at qualitative data, the DPOY by coaches vs. quantitative data, statistics). I know you have reasons why you chose players over these two outstanding athletes but i just would like to hear them.

Ted Miller: We rated Yankey at No. 8 as the Pac-12's top offensive lineman, despite his playing guard and not tackle. I don't think guards would make the top 10 many years. But Yankey, a unanimous All-American, is a beast.

That said ... I'm not sure he's better than UCLA OG Xavier Su'a-Filo, who won the the Morris Trophy over Yankey, an award voted on by opposing defensive players. Yankey got more All-American love, but Su'a-Filo, who ranked 12th, was just as beastly. It will be interesting to see who ends up better in the NFL.

So who do you drop from our top seven in order to boost Yankey? That's a pretty salty group.

Murphy is the most interesting case. The Pac-12 blog named Murphy the conference Defensive Player of the Year after the coaches went with Sutton. Why? Murphy ranked second in the nation and first in the Pac-12 with 15 sacks and fourth in the nation and first in the Pac-12 with 23.5 tackles for a loss.

Like Carey, his numbers speak for themselves, as well as his being the best player on the conference's best defense.

So how did he end up rating behind Barr at No. 3? And how do I type this without immediately contradicting my explanation for putting Carey ahead of Barr (epic numbers!)?

We have debated this before, and I've had what some might call controversial takes. I ranked Matt Barkley and Matt Scott higher in 2012 than many might have in large part based on the notion of, "If you were drafting Pac-12 players for your team, what would be the selection order?"

That's not specifically about NFL prospects. It's about who you subjectively view as being the best college player.

While I think Murphy was the most accomplished defensive player in the Pac-12 this year, I also think Barr was the best defensive player. If I were drafting Pac-12 players for the Ted Miller Super Awesome squad, I'd pick Barr before Murphy.

But would I pick Barr before Carey? I'd rate that a toss-up. Ergo, I fall back to Carey's numbers for our ranking order.


Paul from Boise, Idaho, writes: I'm willing to bet nobody would have guessed that at the end of the year, both Marqise Lee and De'Anthony Thomas would be left out of the illustrious Pac-12 postseason top 25. It seems every season a team or a top-tier player plays subpar, either because of injury or an underperforming team. Would the blog care to take a gamble and bet on somebody next year that is in danger of underperforming?

Ted Miller: Injuries are the biggest reason neither Lee nor Thomas made the Top 25, though Thomas was pretty underwhelming much of the year.

There's no way I'd speculate on who might get hurt next fall. That's sort of morbid.

Further, only eight guys will be back next season: 1. Marcus Mariota; 8. Brett Hundley; 10. Leonard Williams; 14. Taylor Kelly; 15. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu; 21. Sean Mannion; 23. Hroniss Grasu; 25. Myles Jack.

Of that list, the most challenged will be Mannion because he loses No. 4 Brandin Cooks.

I expect Mannion's passing numbers to go down in any event because I suspect coach Mike Riley will work a lot harder to be more balanced next fall. The key for Mannion is being more efficient and avoiding the mistakes that littered his season's second half.


Haggmeez from Cincinnati writes: Here we are, just one week before national signing day and the Pac-12 has a whopping 35 combined commits in the ESPN 300. By contrast, Alabama and LSU have a combined 32 ESPN 300 commits just between the two of them (not including the JC 50). I'm not usually one to buy into recruiting rankings at face value, but the disparity is fairly staggering. Do you think that the Pac-12 is going to be able to continue to keep up with the amount of raw physical talent that is being basically channelled into these southern power programs?

Ted Miller: Yes.


Jack from La Quinta, Calif., writes: Ted and Kevin, many thanks for your work in keeping the Pac-12 Blog current and interesting. However, I am still smarting over your season grade of B-plus for Stanford. Stanford won its division, won the Pac-12 championship and was only defeated by four points in the Rose Bowl by the third-ranked team in the country -- certainly no blowout. But they only deserve a B-plus. I think you place too much emphasis on the postseason -- bowl games, a national championship and ranking the Pac-12 against other conferences. The road to a Pac-12 championship should be your primary emphasis. The rest is gravy. Many Oregon players started looking too far ahead, to a national championship instead of next Saturday's game. Look where they ended up. The Rose Bowl on 1/1/14 was not a worthy goal for Oregon. Your thinking plays a part in influencing players, coaches and fans and your current emphasis is not in the best interest of the sport. I certainly would not give Stanford a solid A for their work. They lost two games on their way to the Pac-12 championship and the Rose Bowl. But, this is no less than an A-minus performance -- unless winning the Pac-12 conference championship is no big deal and is only a stepping stone to more worthy goals.

Ted Miller: Is this an example of the grade inflation at Stanford that Cal fans are always telling me about?

You meet expectations, you get a B. You want an A? Exceed expectations.

Stanford has become an elite team -- a Pac-12 and national title contender. It's not graded the same as most other teams. It has a smaller margin for error. 11-3 is a good, but not great, season on The Farm these days. That should feel like good news, by the way.

Stanford and Oregon were co-favorites to win the Pac-12. Both Kevin and I picked Stanford to win the Pac-12. By winning the Pac-12, the Cardinal therefore met expectations. If the Cardinal had won the Rose Bowl, they would have received an A-minus.

What are the knocks on Stanford's season?

It lost to two teams it was better than: Utah and USC. And, in a toss-up matchup with Michigan State in the Rose Bowl, it got solidly beaten.

Good, but not great.

No Pac-12 team received an A this year. An "A" for Stanford and Oregon would have been a final top-five ranking and a BCS bowl win. An "A" for, say, Washington State, would have been eight wins, including the Apple Cup, and a bowl victory.

Just like Stanford, Arizona State also got a B-plus, the highest grade any Pac-12 team received from us this year. If the Sun Devils had won their bowl game, they would have received an A-minus. UCLA also got a B-plus. If it had won the South Division and its bowl game, it would have received an A-minus.

The Pac-12 blog doesn't believe in grade inflation. It is a demanding taskmaster. It believes in high standards.

And awesomeness.


UCLA Fan from Federal Way, Wash., writes: I was just wondering why I haven't seen anyone talk about how after it was all said and done, the four hardest schedules of the year belonged to Pac-12 teams. Including those four, eight Pac-12 teams were ranked in the top 13 for strength of schedule. There was only one SEC team in the top 13. I haven't heard anyone talk about this, and would like to hear your opinion about what this says about the SEC vs. Pac-12 discussion, among other things.

Ted Miller: It shows that the Pac-12 was the deepest conference, top to bottom, in the nation. Not sure anybody really disagrees with that. Further, in a year when the Pac-12 did well overall, it means the nine-game conference schedule significantly boosted strength-of-schedule measures.

If this continues to be a pattern going forward, the Pac-12 should do well in the eyes of the selection committee for the four-team college football playoff, which has said it will put an emphasis on strength of schedule.
video
Earlier this morning, we took a look at who might replace the guys who jumped to the NFL in the South Division. Here’s a look at the North.

Leaving: Brendan Bigelow, RB, Cal

The replacement: Khalfani Muhammad and Daniel Lasco are both coming back, so there is at least some experience at the position. Jeffrey Coprich and Darren Ervin could also see some time. Incoming freshman Devante Downs is built more like a fullback but could also see some carries in the running game.

Leaving: Richard Rodgers, WR, Cal

The replacement: Stephen Anderson is a possibility to emerge at inside receiver. Darius Powe is going to see action regardless of whether it’s inside or outside and Raymond Hudson, Jacob Wark, and Drake Whitehurst are all possibilities.

Leaving: Khairi Fortt, LB, Cal

The replacement: Nathan Broussard is coming off an injury and Raymond Davison and Jason Gibson are moving back to linebacker from safety. Juco transfers Sam Atoe and Jonathon Johnson could help. Also, Downs (see the Bigelow section) comes in as an athlete, and putting him on the defensive side of the ball is a possibility.

Leaving: Kameron Jackson, CB, Cal

The replacement: Darius Allensworth and Trey Cheek will get the most looks. Cedric Dozier saw some starting time last season. He’s not a lock but has some experience. Isaac Lapite, Adrian Lee and Joel Willis are also possibilities. Stefan McClure should also be back from his 2013 injury, and Cameron Walker, who was playing out of position at safety, might move back to corner.

Leaving: Viliami Moala, DT, Cal

The replacement: Jacobi Hunter should be the main guy, but transfers Trevor Kelly and Marcus Manley should help out across the line. Austin Clark is still waiting to hear about his sixth year of eligibility, but if he gets it, he and Mustafa Jalil could shuffle up and down the line as they look to replace the graduated Deandre Coleman as well.

Leaving: Chris McCain, DE, Cal (Previously dismissed from team)

The replacement: Kyle Kragen and Puka Lopa were the top two guys to replace McCain after he left. Brennan Scarlett is also expected back and Johnson could be in the mix. The coaching staff seems to be really high on him.

[+] EnlargeDe'Anthony Thomas
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesDe'Anthony Thomas' unique set of skills will be hard for Oregon to replicate.
Leaving: De'Anthony Thomas, RB, Oregon

The replacement: Unless Oregon is hiding another multitalented back who can run like DAT, there is no "real" replacement. Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner should continue to get the work as the primary 1-2 punch, but it will be interesting to see if the Ducks use either in a more dynamic way like they did Thomas.

Leaving: Colt Lyerla, TE, Oregon (Left the team earlier in the season).

The replacement: Pharaoh Brown, Evan Baylis and John Mundt will all continue to get work, probably in that order. They all pitched in in some capacity after Lyerla left the team, so the Ducks should be in good shape at the position.

Leaving: Terrance Mitchell, CB, Oregon

The replacement: That Ifo Ekpre-Olomu opted to return bodes well for the Ducks. Troy Hill would have been the obvious selection, but he remains suspended indefinitely, and his future with the program is in question. Dior Mathis has experience and the coaching staff is high on redshirt freshman Chris Seisay. Juco transfer Dominique Harrison enrolled early and will participate in spring ball, so there are options.

Leaving: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State

The replacement: Much like USC’s dilemma with Marqise Lee, The Beavers' task of replacing a Biletnikoff winner is no easy one. Victor Bolden is the logical choice. He returned kicks, ran a few fly sweeps and was Cooks’ immediate backup. But a big wide receiver class last year that included Bolden, Hunter Jarmon and Walter Jones could make things more interesting in the spring.

Leaving: Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State

The replacement: Lavonte Barnett was the backup all season but didn’t have much production. Jaswha James has bounced around a bit -- mostly at linebacker -- but has finally settled at DE and had a nice bowl performance. Titus Failauga is also a possibility as Mike Riley went out of his way to specifically mention him during a recent teleconference. There are also rumblings that Obum Gwacham -- a talented athlete who hasn’t worked out at wide receiver -- could move to defensive end.

Leaving: David Yankey, OL, Stanford

[+] EnlargeDavid Yankey
AP Photo/Ben LiebenbergStanford has a lot of offensive linemen with experience, but replacing an All-American such as David Yankey is never easy.
The replacement: A member of Stanford’s lauded offensive line recruiting class of 2012, Joshua Garnett has already seen his share of playing time. That’s one of the big advantages of being an offensive lineman at Stanford. With their multiple offensive-linemen sets, there is plenty of rotation. Then again, Yankey was a two-time All-American -- it's tough to replace that.

Leaving: Cameron Fleming, OL, Stanford

The replacement: Like Garnett, Kyle Murphy was part of the ’12 class and has also seen his share of action on the offensive line. The Cardinal are replacing four offensive linemen, but most of those replacements -- such as Garnett and Murphy -- already have some playing experience.

Leaving: Ed Reynolds, FS, Stanford

The replacement: Good question. All of Stanford’s free safeties are gone, while returning strong safeties include Jordan Richards and Zach Hoffpauir. Someone could make a switch, or it’s possible that former quarterback Dallas Lloyd, who is now making the transition to safety, could play here.

Leaving: Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington

The replacement: Jesse Callier started the 2012 season, but a season-ending injury gave rise to Sankey. Dwayne Washington seems like he could be an every down-type back, while Callier excels in third-down situations or as a changeup back. Deontae Cooper will also see carries.

Leaving: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington

The replacement: Joshua Perkins was the No. 2 all season, so there’s little reason to think he won’t graduate to No. 1. He’s more receiver than blocker, but he’s got talent and shouldn’t have a problem assuming the role of the outgoing Mackey winner.

Pac-12's lunch links

January, 14, 2014
Jan 14
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We were on a break.
Actually, Peter, I wanted to tell you, I was listening to Sarah's iPod the other day, and amidst the interminable dross that's on that thing, I found one track that I quite liked. So I checked what it was, and it was actually one of yours, and it kind of reminded me of a dark, gothic Neil Diamond. It's great.

Pac-12 lunch links: UCLA loses Kendricks

December, 23, 2013
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And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, every one!

Pac-12's lunch links

December, 5, 2013
12/05/13
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All I wanted was to eat the chicken that is smarter than other chickens and to absorb its power.

Civil War features two grumpy teams

November, 29, 2013
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If misery loves company, the Civil War might be more civil this season. At least, Oregon and Oregon State -- fans, coaches and players -- can commiserate with each other on what horrible losses and disappointing season downturns feel like.

The Ducks and Beavers arrive at their annual showdown with their mid-season swagger replaced by a limp. The Ducks, eyeballing the national title game much of the year, have lost two of three and now must contemplate their first BCS bowl-less season since 2008. The Beavers, 6-1 a month ago, had bounced back from an opening loss to Eastern Washington to regain a national ranking, but they are now riding a four-game losing streak that was capped by a miserable white flag performance against Washington.

The Ducks were blown out last weekend 42-16 by an Arizona team that had lost at home the previous week to Washington State. The Beavers gave up 692 yards -- 530 yards rushing! -- in a humiliating 69-27 home loss to the Huskies.

What went wrong for the Beavers? "What didn't?" replied coach Mike Riley.

"I would have to say that was as out of character as I've seen us play ever," Riley said. "I shouldn't say I'm at a loss, but we just have to coach better and play better."

Oregon also seemed to lose its poise last week. First, De'Anthony Thomas and Josh Huff caused a stir midweek by saying they weren't excited about playing in the Rose Bowl. That inspired national chortling about karma when the Ducks face-planted, thereby eliminating themselves from consideration from the slighted Granddaddy.

The loss also created some tension for first-year coach Mark Helfrich when the inevitable, "That wouldn't have happened to a Chip Kelly coached team," was broached by a fan base that hadn't suffered through a loss to an unranked team since 2009, Kelly's first season. Helfrich made no excuse for the Ducks’ woeful performance.

"We certainly didn't play up to our normal standard and like I said on game day that starts and ends with me," Helfrich said.

So what of the Civil War? Oregon is a three-touchdown favorite, but the real question is do both teams show up with something resembling their A-game? Or does just one?

"The team that handles wherever they are right now the best has the best chance to look good and play well," Riley said. "Now these guys are really good, so we're going to have to be so drastically different than we were last Saturday night. Can we do that is our issue?"

The Beavers’ biggest problem is obvious: They can't run the ball. They rank 120th in the nation with 72.8 yards rushing per game. Once they hit the second half of a backloaded schedule, opposing defenses were able to scheme up the previously potent passing game, and that has led to an offensive regression, particularly for QB Sean Mannion. He threw just three interceptions in the first eight games. He's thrown 10 in the past three.

Riley, however, brushed off talk that Mannion's confidence has taken a major hit.

"I get the question, but he's actually good," Riley said.

If Mannion starts slowly against the Ducks, it would be reasonable to wonder if Riley might turn to back senior Cody Vaz, who started five games in 2012 but was beaten out in the preseason by Mannion, a junior.

The Ducks’ quarterback, Marcus Mariota, hasn't slipped as steeply as Mannion, but he's proven fallible after becoming a leading Heisman Trophy contender through the first eight games. For one, he threw his first two interceptions of the year against Arizona, though the first wasn't his fault by any stretch. Second, he's beaten up, starting with a knee spring suffered against UCLA four weeks ago. He also appeared to get his bell rung late in the loss to Arizona, but he told reporters this week he has passed all concussion tests and will start against the Beavers.

Mariota is the least of the Ducks’ problems. Uncharacteristic offensive sloppiness and a flagging defense have been the larger issues. And, not unlike the Beavers last week against Washington, the focus and effort didn't seem very Oregon-like against Arizona.

"We did a little bit of introspection following the game, talked through that," Helfrich said. "Talked about exactly what we have to do to fix that. I think our guys responded well these last couple of days."

Both teams are headed to the postseason, so this won't be their final game. Yet both coaches know how their team performs in this game will be carried by their fans into the offseason, either as a representation of resilience or a red flag suggesting sagging morale.

Both coaches are counting on a bounce-back performance, one that means the game will reward the better team, not the one that can muster the least indifference.

"They flushed it well," Helfrich said. "The last couple of days have been very spirited, very physical practices. They are ready to get back at it."

What's the greatest chapter in your book? Are there pages where it hurts to look?
What's the one regret you can't work through? You got it baby, mine would be you.

Pac-12's lunch links

November, 25, 2013
11/25/13
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I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.

Pac-12 Power Rankings: Week 13

November, 25, 2013
11/25/13
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If you don't like where you are in the Power Rankings, play better.

Click here for last week's Power Rankings.

1. Stanford: It seems in some ways just that Stanford now eclipses Oregon in the Pac-12 North based on the teams' head-to-head result. The Cardinal, by the way, could do the conference a favor by beating Notre Dame on Saturday. Otherwise the Fighting Irish, with wins over Stanford, Arizona State and USC, could claim their own Pac-12 title.

2. Arizona State: You can't undersell what Todd Graham has done in Tempe. If the Sun Devils beat rival Arizona on Saturday, they will play host to Stanford in the Pac-12 title game. So there are considerable stakes outside of pride. And we know how well the Sun Devils play at home. The result earlier this season at Stanford might be meaningless.

3. Oregon: It has been a long time since the Ducks weren't Nos. 1 or 2 in the Power Rankings. After getting blown out at Arizona, coach Mark Helfrich said there needed to be some "inward" looking inside the locker room. Can the Ducks regain their mojo? The Civil War against Oregon State will be a pretty grumpy affair, without substantial external stakes for either team for the first time in a long time.

4. USC: The Trojans, as expected, improved to 6-1 under interim coach Ed Orgeron after whipping Colorado. Yet, much of the present goodwill would be surrendered with a second consecutive loss to UCLA. If Orgeron delivers a victory, however, his candidacy to become the next head coach takes on substantial legitimacy.

5. UCLA: Losing at home to Arizona State hurt, but the Bruins know exactly how to turn their frowns upside down: Beat USC. That also would boost their bowl options, of course.

6. Washington: While there has been a lot of hyperventilating about Steve Sarkisian and the inconsistent Huskies, the ultimate story will be written over the next two games, starting with Friday's Apple Cup. If Washington beats Washington State and then wins a bowl game, it will finish 9-4, and that would represent a strong step forward after three consecutive 7-6 seasons. On the downside, anything less would cap a disappointing season, and certainly wouldn't cool Sarkisian's coaching seat.

7. Arizona: While Arizona's friends up North have taken a solid lead in the battle of second-year head coaches between Rich Rodriguez and Graham, the Wildcats can take back a lot with an upset win in Tempe. Not only would they boost their bowl prospects and make Rich Rod 1-1 versus Graham, they'd force the Sun Devils to travel to Stanford for the Pac-12 title game, which would substantially reduce their Rose Bowl chances.

8. Washington State: The Cougars are bowl eligible, but they could become bowl eligible with a bang -- as well as positively giddy -- with a second consecutive upset win over the hated Huskies in Seattle. An added consolation would be seeing Sarkisian's seat heat up substantially and seeing a potential shift in the balance of power in the state.

9. Oregon State: That was a dreadful performance against Washington. The worst I've personally witness from the Beavers. Coach Mike Riley is a class act and a heck of a guy, but he needs to answer for that. It wasn't about losing to the Huskies. It was about how it went down at home, with a listless, uninterested effort.

10. Utah: While there are legitimate excuses for how Utah's season has gone, the loss at Washington State, even without QB Travis Wilson, delivered a resounding thud to Year 3 in the Pac-12. The Utes are 1-7 in conference play. A loss at home to Colorado on Saturday would make coach Kyle Whittingham's seat hot heading into 2014.

11. Colorado: While the Buffaloes were brought back down to Earth after getting pounded by USC, they showed admirable fight in the second half. Concluding the season with a road win over Utah would bode well for the future. And it would mean the Buffs finish 10th in the Pac-12 Power Rankings, not 11th.

12. California: The best news for the Bears is the season is over. Little went right in Sonny Dykes' first season, and he took the blame upon himself after the blowout Big Game defeat to Stanford. There is plenty of justifiable fan frustration. Dykes' first question is his staff, particularly on defense. He probably needs to make some changes. And then he needs to look at his roster and decide who cares about winning and who doesn't.

Cardinal ball requires white knuckles

November, 6, 2013
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When the Andrew Luck era ended at Stanford, coach David Shaw knew for his team to maintain the high standard of play, it would have to commit to the old evolutionary adage of adapt to survive.

Gone were the 43 points per game the team enjoyed during Luck’s senior year -- Shaw’s first year as head coach. With the graduation of a player like Luck, Stanford’s offensive production was expected to take a step back.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
Ron Chenoy/US PresswireStanford coach David Shaw credits his team's record in close games to the players' resilience.
And it did.

Since the start of the 2012 season, the Cardinal have averaged just 29.6 points per game -- two touchdowns fewer on average per contest than when Luck was running the show. And yet during that stretch, Stanford has still gone 19-3 against opponents that boast a 62.6 winning percentage. That ranks 10th among all FBS teams over the last year and a half.

The Cardinal have adapted and survived behind a brutalizing defense and power-running game. Though they aren’t scoring as many points, they are speeding the game up by slowing it down. And they are winning.

Good enough has been good enough for Stanford.

Since the start of the 2012 season the Cardinal are 10-3 in games decided by one possession (eight points). In those 22 games, their margin of victory is 11.6 points. As Shaw is fond of saying, football isn’t a beauty contest.

“We expect to be in tight games,” Shaw said. “We practice it. We spend a lot of time working on red zone. A lot of time working on overtime, two-minute offense, two-minute defense, the things that happen at the end of the game, so when we get in those times during the game, we just act and react.”

Compare that to No. 3 Oregon, Stanford’s opponent Thursday night in Palo Alto in a game that is sure to have a massive impact on the Pac-12 and BCS pecking order. Over that same stretch, the Ducks have enjoyed a margin of victory of 32.1 points per game. While the Cardinal have been in 13 one-possession games, Oregon has been in one. Just one. For those with a short memory, it was last year’s 17-14 overtime loss to the Cardinal at Autzen.

“All it really means is we’re doing our job and executing,” said Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. “We don’t look at something like that as a bad thing. You execute and you win a ball game. That’s what the main intent is. In any situation we have confidence the coaches will do an awesome job preparing us and we’ll go out there with confidence and be comfortable in whatever situation.”

This year could present another close situation. Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said he’s expecting another tight, drag’em-out showdown with the veteran Cardinal defense.

“When you look at their defense and their two-deep, 15 or 16 are seniors,” Helfrich said. “And there is so much depth. So much continuity. It feels like we’ve been playing against Trent Murphy and [Shayne] Skov and [A.J.] Tarpley for 20 years. They are obviously very confident in what they do, and I think their offense will grind it out and create some situations. But I know at the end of the game they are going to have confidence. Hopefully so will we.”

Maturity and experience is obviously a big reason for Stanford’s success in close games. Take the last win -- a 20-12 victory over Oregon State in Corvallis. A late fumble could have swung the momentum to OSU’s favor. But the veteran Cardinal defense stiffened and preserved the win.

“They played us well not only physically, but they played a very smart game,” said Oregon State coach Mike Riley. “I think the combination of what they have, which is physical talent and lots of experience, is a positive for them.”

The Cardinal, however, will be without one of their veteran leaders in defensive end Ben Gardner, who is out of the rest of the year with a pectoral injury. The fifth-year senior was a team captain and has been an integral part of Stanford’s defensive success for not only his pass-rushing abilities, but also for his ability to occupy blockers which opens things up for the outside linebackers. However, the Cardinal will get defensive end Henry Anderson back, who has been out since September with a knee injury. Josh Mauro, who has been filling in for Anderson, will replace Gardner.

Despite Gardner’s absence, there isn’t much this Cardinal team hasn’t seen. And it’s that experience they’ll draw from against an Oregon team that averages more than 55 points per game.

“When things don’t go our way during the game, we don’t lament over it,” Shaw said. “I think our maturity helps that. When you don’t play your best football and end up in a tight game, we don’t have a lot of guys spending a lot of time being upset how they didn’t play well in the first or second or third quarter. They know it’s a tight game. They know they have a chance to win it so let’s go out and win it.”

And the Cardinal also know they are going to have to get their offense moving more efficiently than it has in the last three games -- two of which were decided by eight or fewer points. Stanford has averaged slightly more than three touchdowns per game. And a lot of that falls on the shoulders of quarterback Kevin Hogan.

“When Kevin has a not-great game, it’s mechanics, and we’ve got to keep working on that and get him to be consistent and he’s working extremely hard,” Shaw said. “Everybody hates when I say it, but he’s still young. We don’t have a huge sample size of him playing football. He played so well early that everyone is shocked when he doesn’t have a great game. But I think the arrow is still pointing up. He’s got a chance to be a great college quarterback and we hope that surfaces again this week coming up.”

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ESPN 300 Ranking Motivates Byron Cowart
After a recent rise into the top 10 overall, defensive end Byron Cowart of Armwood (Seffner, Fla.) joins ESPN's Matt Schick to discuss recruiting and the new ESPN 300.Tags: Byron Cowart, Armwood, ESPN 300, RecruitingNation, high school football recruiting, Matt Schick
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