USC Trojans: Andrew Luck
Greg in Salt Lake City writes: "If you don't like where you are in the Power Rankings, play better." Oh, like maybe beat No. 5 Stanford? Done. Wait, that didn't really help. Utah is a few turnovers away from being undefeated, they get better every week and just beat Stanford. Because Power Rankings take the most recent games into account more we should definitely be ahead of Oregon State and Washington -- neither of which has beat a team that is still ranked. I would think a former MWC guy would show a little more respect ;)
Kevin Gemmell: I appreciate the passion, Greg. I really do. And I particularly appreciate the emoticon wink. And as a former MWC guy, I've followed Utah's rise in that conference and transition to the Pac-12 with great interest.
For the record, it did help. You moved up from seventh to sixth in this week’s Power Rankings.
No, you shouldn’t be ahead of Oregon State or Washington. You lost to Oregon State. Any way you slice it, the Beavers have more wins and beat you at home. As for Washington, we’ll find out more about them this week when the Huskies travel to Arizona State. Washington lost to Stanford on the road by a field goal. You beat Stanford at home by two field goals. Washington’s two losses have been to top-five teams. Utah’s losses have been to a top 15 team and an unranked team. Plus Utah has had the luxury of not having to go out of state yet.
I think the Stanford win was a critical stepping stone for the Utes, but it’s how they follow it up that will be extremely telling.
This isn’t the Mountain West where the entire season boils down to one game against TCU. You beat Stanford. Great. Now can you go on the road and beat Arizona? At USC? Can you avenge the beating you took last year from ASU? Can you win at Autzen?
Recall Washington scored two wins over top-10 teams last year, but still finished with seven wins and the season was perceived as unsuccessful. If Utah fails to make it to the postseason, how much does this one win really mean? Not a whole lot. You'll be viewed as the team that just caught Stanford on a bad day on the road rather than a team that is climbing the Pac-12 pecking order.
It was a good win. What are you going to do with it?
Ducku03 in Eugene writes: Hey Kevin I've been reading a lot about that Heisman Moment that takes a candidate over the top. It seems to me that all of these moments, the media talks about, are come-from-behind moments that give their team a miraculous win. Isn't it a little unfair to degrade a Heisman campaign just because your team is always ahead in the fourth quarter such as the case for Marcus Mariota?
Kevin Gemmell: Aside from “mandatory” and “colonoscopy,” there are no two words put together that irk me more than “Heisman” and “moment.” It’s a sham. A fluke. Just as I railed in last week’s mailbag about one play being a determining factor in a game, one moment doesn’t, couldn’t, shouldn’t determine something as important as a Heisman.
I can think of about two dozen Heisman moments for Marcus Mariota already. And, as you noted, none of them involved a come-from-behind victory. That’s because he’s got his team so far ahead.
I’ve written a couple of times on the Heisman in recent years. It’s a completely subjective award that is open to all kinds of interpretation. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but I happen to disagree with how some people go about their voting process. That’s what makes the Heisman so controversial. As I noted in 2011, Andrew Luck had plenty of Heisman moments, they just weren’t “traditional” Heisman moments.
I don’t think Mariota’s campaign will be slowed down if the Ducks don’t have a come-from-behind-fourth-quarter win. What he’s done so far has been too impressive. Obviously, the Stanford game will be of significance. It will be nationally televised and East Coast voters should stay up to watch.
The whole Heisman exercise has gotten out of hand. It’s taken on such a life of its own that it’s essentially downgraded the importance of some other awards like the Maxwell and Walter Camp, the Outland and the Rimington. I hate that the metrics aren’t there for linemen or defensive players to win it. And the spread offense has completely slanted the playing field in favor of quarterbacks. The whole process feels less like a celebration of greatness and more like, well, a mandatory colonoscopy.
Tommy Trojan in a beach chair on the beach writes: I know and the USC faithful know how important a win against ND this weekend is for the future of the program and for the rivalry. What does a USC win mean in the world of the Pac-12 down the stretch?
Kevin Gemmell: In terms of the standings, not a whole lot. In terms of their perception, it’s huge. USC’s brand has taken a huge hit over the last 12 months. With that comes negative recruiting from other schools and a general uneasy feeling about the state of the program.
But USC is still a brand. And it will endure. Because there are always going to be elite athletes who want to come to USC.
The Trojans aren’t out of the South Division hunt yet, but they’ll need some help along the way. All they can do is hope to win out and restore the confidence of the fan base and potential future Trojan players. Winning at Notre Dame would be a huge first step toward rebuilding that.
Chris in Foresthill, Calif. writes: Sonny Dykes is on record that Cal has the prerequisites “location, facilities, weather, academics and access to state-wide and national talent” to be a national championship contender. I don’t see it due to the predominance of pro sports in the Bay Area. In three to five years, do you see Cal as a contender, pretender or also-ran?
Kevin Gemmell: I think what we have right now, this year, with Cal is the perfect storm of a young team adjusting to new schemes, a horrific string of injuries and one of the toughest schedules in the country.
The Bears have been able to move the ball, they just haven’t been able to score. I still think the skill position players are really good, they just haven’t been able to translate it on the field on Saturdays.
Losing 10 of 11 potential starters on defense doesn't help. Dykes said today that he's never seen this many season-ending injuries in one year in his career.
In three to five years I think Cal should certainly be a mainstay in the postseason. Cal has too many advantages not to, at the very least, be a six-win team. I’m cutting Dykes and Co. some slack simply because of all the dice loaded against them this season. But there are still six opportunities left for progress. And six opportunities for a lot of younger players to get some valuable experience.
Don in Newberg, Ore. writes: Kevin, Most impressive aspect of the Ducks' win @ Washington? When the season started, there was no argument that Oregon's best three offensive players were Mariota, DAT and Lyerla. They beat the Dawgs without two of those three. That says something.
Kevin Gemmell: I’d argue that Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Terrance Mitchell were right up there in terms of preseason hype. And so far Oregon’s secondary has been beastly. I’d say that was the most impressive aspect.
Keith Price did what he could, but the Ducks held him to his lowest output of the season in terms of yards and touchdowns. His longest pass was 28 yards. His completion percentage was below 60 percent for just the second time this year (the Arizona rain game was his lowest).
For as much as people want to talk about what Oregon is doing on offense -- and full disclosure, I’m one of those guys talking about their offense -- the defense has quietly been one of the best in league. Just as it was quietly one of the best in the league last year, and the year before that. They are allowing a league-low 13.8 points per game and have only allowed four touchdowns in the air. Be impressed with the offense. But don’t forget what the guys on the other side of the ball are doing.
Darin in Monterey, Calif. writes: I have a couple of questions about QBR ratings. Can you explain to me how you get a high QBR rating? Mariotta has an average of 96 or something like that and Mannion only has 82. When Oregon State played Colorado Mannion only recorded a QBR of 61, while scoring 6 TDs. … I understand that Colorado isn't exactly a powerhouse, but Mariotta scored a 96 QBR against Nicholls St. while throwing less touchdowns and about the same pass completions. So, what’s the difference?
Kevin Gemmell: You basically have two different QBR ratings. One is raw QBR, the other is adjusted QBR. Adjusted takes into account the strength of opponent and various other factors.
Essentially, it boils down to how much of a contribution did the quarterback make? What was his completion percentage on first, second or third down? What were the circumstances under which a touchdown was scored?
Here’s the complete guide to the QBR that fully explains it all. It’s a lot to take in, and requires reading it a few times. But once it all settles, you’ll start to look at QB stats differently.
Like all stats, it’s not a complete representation of the player. But it’s, in my opinion, the best statistical measuring stick out there.
Scappoozer in Scappoose, Ore. writes: I won't say I told you so. I like your coverage of Pac-12 football and a little homerism to boot but you and Ted have never jumped on your potential champions bandwagon the way the SEC bloggers have never wavered over Alabama. You start your article by saying Oregon is the national title contender we thought they were, huh? Last week Ted puts Stanford back to No. 1 in the Power Rankings? Pick a team and stick with them. Win the Decade is soooo sweet. You drank the Washington Kool-aid, yes they are a good team but pupil of the spread was not ready to beat the teacher of the spread. I've said all along Stanford is too slow and it showed, Washington might be better. I just felt like nationally and through voting the rest of the nation were closer to reality than the Pac-12 bloggers I follow. Washington was overrated and you guys always had them ranked too high and they are not ready to compete for a national championship let alone a Pac-12 championship. Our local reporters can't even pronounce our QB's name correctly, it's MARIO-TA. Go Ducks!
Kevin Gemmell: First off, the “I told you so” doesn't fly with me. I went back through my entire mailbag for the last six months and this is the first note I got from you. But I’m happy to answer it.
Second, I challenge you go to back through the blog and find a single instance where either Ted or I wrote that Washington was ready to compete for a national championship. I’ll save you the time. It’s not there. Neither of us ever wrote that.
Did Ted and I like Washington coming into the season? Yep. Still do. Did we expect them to be where they are right now? Yep. No shame in losing on the road to Stanford and at home to Oregon.
The Stanford is too slow argument doesn’t work, either. Does anyone really think Ty Montgomery looked slow the last couple of weeks?
Yes, Ted did put Stanford on top of the Power Rankings last week. As he noted, he and I squabbled over that decision. But since he gets the final byline, he pulled rank. Just as he had Paul Richardson at No. 10 in his midseason top 10 player re-ranking. But since I had the final byline, I swapped Richardson out for Montgomery and I pulled rank.
I get it. You’re excited about your team. We’re excited about them too. Coming into the season, we both felt it was 50-50 with Stanford and Oregon, and our only reservations where the coaching change. It’s clear now that Mark Helfrich has done a phenomenal job and the Ducks haven’t missed a beat. In fact, they’ve gotten better.
We've said all season long we thought the Pac-12 had two teams that could challenge for a national championship. Oregon was always one of those teams.
So go ahead and keep being excited for your team and their possible date with the BCS championship game. But don’t forget what happened last year when everyone said Stanford was down. All they did was run off 12 straight, beat Oregon in Eugene and win the Rose Bowl.
Be confident. Be excited. Be proud. But don’t get cocky until you’re holding a crystal ball.
That, my new friend from whom I expect to hear more, you can quote me on.
Taylor Kelly had won the gig at ASU. Jordan Webb set foot on campus and was almost instantly Colorado’s starter. Marcus Mariota outdistanced Bryan Bennett. Josh Nunes was Andrew Luck’s successor. Brett Hundley was an exciting unknown, and Jeff Tuel was the guy to lead WSU’s Air Raid.
Of course, simplicity doesn’t always last. Be it injury or performance, Webb and Nunes weren’t the starters at the end of the season and Tuel went back-and-forth with Connor Halliday. Mariota, Kelly and Hundley, however, went on to be three of the four most efficient quarterbacks in the league.
Which leads us to this year’s crop of quarterback competitions. It’s not as cut-and-dried as it was a year ago. At least two of them are ongoing and will probably stretch into the first weeks of the season.
The No. 24 Trojans open against Hawaii with Cody Kessler and Max Wittek still in the hunt for the right to replace Matt Barkley. Coach Lane Kiffin, however, said he has zero concerns that the competition hasn’t been resolved.
“I see it as completely opposite,” Kiffin said during Tuesday’s Pac-12 conference call. “I think they have both performed so well. We feel great about both of them running our offense. I see it as a positive. I think they've really worked on their weaknesses … that way we don’t have to call the game any different based on who is in. We can do all of our stuff.”
Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez hasn’t picked his guy yet, either. Though he did say he has seen some recent progress from B.J. Denker, Javelle Allen and Jesse Scroggins. A week ago, it was thought that as many as four or five guys could still be in the mix.
“I’d be more concerned if none of them made progress,” Rodriguez said. “In the last week and a half, they have all made some pretty good progress. B.J. Denker and Javelle Allen, the guys that have been in the program, have made pretty good progress. And Jesse Scroggins has gotten better as well. I feel good about that. There’s no question there is always more concern when you don’t have experience there. B.J. has been in the system for a year and Javelle has been in the system for a year. We feel pretty confident they can run the whole entire offense and with Jesse it’s just a matter of time.”
And time is on Arizona’s side. The Wildcats don’t exactly have a pressing first month of the season. They host Northern Arizona this weekend, followed by a trip to UNLV before hosting UTSA on Sept. 14. Then it’s a bye week before opening league play at Washington.
One report last week had Oregon State playing the quarterback shuffle heading into Week 1. But Mike Riley put that to rest yesterday when he named Sean Mannion his starter.
“I had told some stories in the past of experience with two quarterbacks playing, but never intended to start a rotation situation here at all,” Riley said. “We intended to name a starter and then have kind of left it up in the air … Sean is the starter and we’ll go into the game like that.”
Connor Wood won the job at Colorado -- ending a QB competition that started with six but dwindled after injuries and transfers.
"He's big, he's athletic, he's got a strong arm, and he's a talented athlete," said coach Mike MacIntyre, who noted he was also very pleased with the progress of freshman Sefo Liufau. "He really started capturing the essence of our offense and understanding where to go with the ball and where to go with our run game. He kept improving."
Cal coach Sonny Dykes took a different approach, naming Jared Goff his starter as soon as he could.
“Anytime you have a starting quarterback, I think everyone is more comfortable,” Dykes said. “The quarterback is more comfortable. The skill-position players can start to get on the same page. You develop a relationship with the center and quarterback and their ability to communicate with each other and the sense of timing that needs to exist there. I think what it does is settle everybody down.”
Team of the week: Stanford didn't just beat No. 2 USC, it physically dominated the Trojans in a 21-14 victory, the Cardinal's record fourth consecutive win in the series. First, there was the post-Toby Gerhart Era. Then there was the post-Jim Harbaugh Era. Then there was the post-Andrew Luck Era. Maybe it's just the Stanford Era? The Cardinal is now squarely in the Rose Bowl race. And maybe the national title hunt.
Biggest play: On third-and-10 from the 50 in the fourth quarter, Stanford QB Josh Nunes was under pressure. He scrambled and found himself bottled up and cut off. Yet a player not exactly known for his athleticism juked the USC defense and cut for a 13-yard gain and a first down. Two plays later, he hit TE Zach Ertz for a 37-yard TD and a 21-14 lead, the final margin of Cardinal victory.
Biggest play II: California had No. 12 Ohio State on the ropes. The score was tied with just under four minutes left in the game, and the Buckeyes faced a third-and-7 from their 28-yard line. QB Braxton Miller was forced from the pocket, but the Bears secondary gagged and let Devin Smith get free behind the coverage. The ensuing 72-yard TD pass provided Ohio State its 35-28 margin of victory.
Biggest play III: BYU had a first-and-10 on the Utah 25-yard line, down 10-7 in the third quarter. Lined up in a shotgun formation, QB Riley Nelson wanted to change the play. While he was barking signals, his center delivered the snap, which rolled past an unaware Nelson. Utah's Mo Lee scooped up the loose ball and rambled 47 yards for a TD. The Utes would need those points in a 24-21 win.
Offensive standout: Stanford RB Stepfan Taylor was the best player on the field against USC. He rushed 27 times for 153 yards and a 59-yard TD and caught five passes for 60 yards and a 23-yard score in No. 21 Stanford's upset win over No. 2 Trojans.
Defensive standout: UCLA CB Sheldon Price matched a school record with three interceptions in the Bruins' 37-6 win over Houston.
Special teams standout: Not a lot to choose from. Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas returned four punts for 87 yards against Tennessee Tech, though he did fumble one.
Smiley face: Cal RB Brendan Bigelow brought life to the Bears by doing his best De'Anthony Thomas at Ohio State, rushing for 160 yards on just four carries -- yes, an average of 40 yards per carry! He had touchdown runs of 81 and 59 yards, and both were spectacular. Might he give the Bears offense a weapon that turns around their season?
Frowny face: Can anyone kick a freaking field goal? USC has no kicker, and Arizona, California, Oregon, Stanford and Utah were a combined 1-for-10, with the Bay Area schools going 0-for-6.
Thought of the week: Two of the Pac-12's five unbeaten teams will go down this weekend because of head-to-head matchups. Arizona travels to Oregon, while UCLA plays host to Oregon State. We'll get a better measure of contenders and pretenders this weekend.
Questions for the week: Is Oregon's Thomas ready to make a Heisman Trophy statement against Arizona? The set-up seems perfect: an ESPN game against a questionable defense. With USC and QB Matt Barkley going down, the Heisman race has opened up. Can Thomas be his fancy self and win the affection of the pundits?
2. The unkind road and the unkind team. In each of the past five seasons, USC has lost either its first or second conference road game, including its first in three of the past four seasons. That's kind of an alarming statistic, and it might help explain why the Trojans are favored by single digits in most locations for this game. Of course, it's an even more unsettling stat that this season’s crop of USC seniors -- Matt Barkley included -- hasn't beaten Stanford in their college careers. That hasn't happened to a USC class with a regular opponent in more than a decade. Stanford Stadium isn't the loudest, craziest opposing atmosphere in the conference. But many of the Trojans' older players may have memories of a 37-35 loss on a game-ending field goal two years ago at Stanford enter their heads at various times Saturday.
3. A real running back. Stanford's Stepfan Taylor hasn't played like a particularly elite running back thus far this season, but he's thought of as one around the country. He may be the best back the Trojans face all year, so it could be a telling test for the USC front seven. Linemen Morgan Breslin and Antwaun Woods have played better than expected through two games. But can they keep it up when a capable, varied running game is thrown into the mix? If this is the first game this season USC sees the originally planned linebacking crew of Dion Bailey, Lamar Dawson and Hayes Pullard on the field together shortly after kickoff, can they handle the Cardinal's run game as a group? Will the Trojans' secondary be unified enough to prevent long runs?
4. Media distraction? It's easy to overstate the impact here -- and let's first clarify that few of USC's players may have even heard about what happened this week with the status of injuries and the local media – but it's quite unlikely thee events will affect play. But if Lane Kiffin were to somehow lose this week, he'd get absolutely roasted in subsequent days by the national media for worrying about the practice suspension of a local reporter in the middle of an important game week. He'll of course say it wasn't a distraction, but the results will stand alone. It's kind of a ready-made critique of a college football coach: If they don't win, what's the point of being so secretive about your players' injuries, anyway?
5. The tandem. Most in-game signs are pointing to Silas Redd 's eventual takeover of the Trojans' No. 1 running back role and Curtis McNeal's quiet demotion to the second spot. If it's going to happen, this will be the week it does, with USC needing to establish a consistent run game early against Stanford's solid defense. Then again, there's always the possibility that Kiffin has been keeping McNeal extra fresh, what with 16 carries in two games, so he can succeed in a game like this one. If Redd again gets 60 to 70 percent of the total carries and performs well, it's safe to assume he's USC's top back -- regardless of whether he's officially defined as such by Kiffin and Co.
Prediction: USC 41-30.
Ted Miller: Stanford has two chief keys against USC on Saturday. It must run the ball well. And it must contain USC's passing attack. The reason the Trojans are going to win this football game -- and end a three-game losing streak in the series -- is Stanford won't be able to do either consistently.
Against San Jose State and Duke, the Cardinal averaged 3.7 yards per rush. I know this is a risky thing to type, but you guys know I'm not afraid to write bold things: USC's defense has more talent than San Jose State and Duke. No, really.
Nunes throwing a lot is what USC wants. Stanford is still lacking at receiver, so the Trojans' back half will have a significant athletic advantage. And it doesn't hurt that Nunes and not old what's-his-name will be delivering the ball.
Speaking of athleticism at receiver ... hey, USC! Robert Woods and Marqise Lee. And tight ends Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer. Those are four superior athletes, all of whom made plays last year against the Cardinal.
Quarterback Matt Barkley threw for 284 yards and three touchdowns in last year's triple-overtime classic, and Stanford is replacing three starters from its secondary. Barkley's numbers will be big on Saturday.
Against San Jose State and Duke, Stanford grabbed four interceptions and surrendered just one touchdown pass. That's the good news. The bad news is a 67.3 percent completion rate and 290 yards passing per game. And just five sacks seems modest for a team with such a salty, talented front seven.
While Stanford's scheme is about stopping the run first and foremost, which it has done very well in the first two games, it might have to change its approach against the Trojans. More nickel and dime looks will mean the Cardinal will be forced from their comfort zone. And that could open up the Trojans' running game.
A balanced USC is a scary thought, with Barkley & Co. ready to pull the trigger on a deep fade route when they see one-on-one coverage.
Then there's this: What about a close game? USC is capable of winning this one going away, but that's not what I foresee. I expect the game to be won in the fourth quarter.
Stanford has won consecutive nail-biters against the Trojans. It's difficult to not attribute that ability to win the fourth quarter to having an advantage at quarterback. That advantage now belongs to USC by a wide margin. And that will be the difference.
Kevin Gemmell: A good debater can come at a problem from all sides. But since ESPN wouldn't hire one just for a Take 2, and since Ted went first, I guess I'll take a swing at making the case for Stanford. We both picked the Trojans to win, but détente makes for poor debate.
Stanford coach David Shaw knows how to attack the Trojans. When Shaw was coaching quarterbacks and wide receivers with the Baltimore Ravens, you know who the defensive coordinators were? Mike Nolan and Rex Ryan. You don't think he picked up a couple of tips on how to call plays against a sophisticated, Rex Ryan defense? The past five meetings, when Shaw was either offensive coordinator or head coach, Stanford has increased its total offensive yards in every game against the Trojans. As a playcaller, Shaw is 4-1 and averages 413 total yards and 39 points per game against USC.
But there are intangible factors at play. The Cardinal have to be -- at least a little bit -- in the heads of Trojans players given the circumstances of the last few meetings. It's not a matter of USC "owing" one to Stanford from a tight game the previous year. The Trojans owe the Cardinal three, and there are only so many times you can go to the "we-owe-them-one" well. At some point, that becomes a mental hurdle.
The world expects USC to win this game. But here's a little worm that might be wiggling into a few Trojans' brains.
What if they don't?
What if Stanford takes a 14-0 lead? What if there's a pick-six or a special-teams touchdown that swings momentum and it all starts to fall apart? It probably will take something out of the ordinary -- a special teams touchdown, a crucial turnover or a trick play (anyone know if Nunes can catch?) to swing the tide. But the Cardinal lead the conference in turnover margin at plus-5. They've allowed fewer red-zone touchdowns than any team in the Pac-12 (except Oregon State, which has played one game). USC's defense is allowing teams to convert third downs at an alarming 45.5 percent. It's one thing to give up yards and allow completions. But the longer Stanford's offense stays on the field, the less time the Trojans' touted troika is playing.
Stanford's defense, which looked sluggish in the opener, was much livelier and motivated when Shayne Skov returned to the lineup last week. Expect the same emotional boost when Ryan Hewitt returns to the offense. Barring any setbacks on his ankle, he's expected to play. And his presence opens up a lot for Stanford: stronger run blocking, more receiver options, more diversity in offensive personnel groupings and formations.
Anyone who remembers last year's Stanford-Oregon game knows the Cardinal buckled under the weight of expectation. Every victory was another ton of bricks they carried leading up to that moment. This game has similar implications, sans the bricks. All of the pressure is on the Cardinal & Gold, not the Cardinal.
We know about Tavita Pritchard's last-minute touchdown to Mark Bradford in 2007, giving the Cardinal (41-point underdogs) a shocking victory and ending USC's 35-game home win streak. We know the Trojans stomped the Cardinal a year later. We certainly remember Toby Gerhart's three-touchdown performance, the 2-point conversion attempt and the Pete Carroll/Jim Harbaugh "what's your deal?" moment.
Well, would you look at that ... we're rehashing the gory details. Oh well, no reason to stop now.
We remember Nate Whitaker's field goal with four seconds left in 2010 and the triple-overtime thriller in 2011.
"I think it's a little more friendly rivalry and respectful rivalry maybe between the coaches than the last couple of coaches," USC coach Lane Kiffin said with a laugh. "Any time you go to the last play of the game two years in a row -- in what I think were extremely well-played games by both teams, very exciting games, great quarterback play -- yeah, it's become a rivalry. ... That's a lot of credit to Stanford. For a few years it wasn't. Obviously, Coach Harbaugh came in and really changed it and Coach [David] Shaw has picked up the flag and ran from there."
You probably won't see any mid-field fireworks between Kiffin and Shaw. The two go back a long time.
"The thing you have to remember about me and Lane, our dads worked together for years and we've known each other for a long time," Shaw said. "I have the utmost respect for Monte and since I've known Lane, he's been nothing but upfront and straight-forward with me. There is no animosity between us except for those 60 minutes on Saturday."
Of course, we also remember the playful jab Kiffin took at Shaw in the spring.
The No. 21 Cardinal have won the past three meetings and four of the past five. And it's no surprise that a guy named Andrew Luck was at the helm for those three. But Luck is gone and Matt Barkley returns at quarterback for the No. 2 Trojans. He's back to settle that unfinished business. And though he'll never admit it, part of it is probably getting a win over Stanford, the only Pac-12 team he has failed to beat in his career.
And he has as good a chance as any this year. His wide receivers -- Robert Woods and Marqise Lee -- are the best in the country. Something that Shaw is very aware of.
"In all the years I was in the NFL and studied college wide receivers, and since I’ve been here studying different offenses, I’ve never seen a college team with two guys like this. There’s never been [a pair like them] in the modern era," Shaw said.
"There are three ‘explosions’ for a receiver. There’s explosion off the ball, explosion into the cut, and explosion after the catch. Usually, they decrease, with the last one not as big as the two before. With Woods, all three are explosive. It’s like Joey Galloway in his prime. You see the same thing from Marqise Lee, except a bigger version.”
Heading into this week the Cardinal are allowing the highest completion rate of any defense in the conference. But that doesn't concern Shaw, who said he'll give up short passes all day. It's about third-down defense, red-zone defense and making tackles.
It's the making tackles part that could be troublesome, especially when dealing with Lee. The sophomore sensation has gained 73.4 percent of his 263 receiving yards this year have come after the catch.* Worth noting, too, that Stanford safety Ed Reynolds leads the conference in interceptions (3) and is tied for second in passes defended (4).
And the Cardinal have their own offensive concerns in the post-Luck era. Last year, the Cardinal had the fewest three-and-out drives in all of FBS when Luck was running the show. So far this year, they rank 75th* while converting just 28 percent of the time on third down. The Cardinal have to keep drives alive to keep Barkley off the field. No easy task against Monte Kiffin's defense.
"You can't put him in a box and say he's a Tampa-2 guy because every known blitz to man, he's done at some point," Shaw said. "Whether it's strongside blitz, weakside blitzes, secondary blitzes, three-down nickel blitzes; he's got it all in his bag and it's just what he chooses to do that week. We're preparing for a variety of things."
For Kiffin and the prep-not-hype-motivated Trojans, a lot of them are trying to treat this just like any other game as they continue to make a push toward a national championship.
"I think when you come to a place like SC, you end up being a lot of people's rivals," Kiffin said. "I guess that's the best way to describe it. We end up being everyone's rivalry. Obviously, the most historic rivalry out of conference is Notre Dame. Then UCLA is cross-town. Now Oregon and Stanford within the last few years have become big rivalries as well."
Saturday marks another chapter in what has been a fantastic run between these two teams. Vegas puts the Trojans as a 10-point road favorite. On paper, that makes sense. If you check this morning's blog predictions, I have the Trojans winning by two touchdowns. But just be prepared for anything to happen. Because lately, in matchups between these two teams, anything does.
* ESPN Stats & Information
But to take the words of the Trojans, the events of Oct. 29, 2011, will have no bearing on the events come Saturday at Stanford.
"That was last year," said USC cornerback Nickell Robey, who intercepted Luck and returned it the other way for a touchdown. "This year is going to be totally different.
"They're a new team this year; we're a new team. We're only focused on the present."
Robey's play came with a little more than three minutes left in the game last October and the score tied at 27. The expectation was that Luck and Stanford would drive down the field, eat up clock, and score the game winner as time expired, but Robey quickly reversed that.
However, the Cardinal scored with ease on the ensuing drive, and, after USC failed to get a field goal off in the final seconds of regulation, the teams went into overtime.
Everything was even until USC running back Curtis McNeal fumbled into the end zone in the third overtime and Stanford recovered to win the game.
Now, USC captains, including T.J. McDonald, are stressing the importance of winning this week's tilt for self-serving purposes and not any sort of revenge against Stanford after three straight losses to the Cardinal.
The Trojans are finding that proposition a tough line to toe, though.
"It's definitely in the back of your head," McDonald said Wednesday of not tasting victory against Stanford. "You never want to end your career knowing you never beat a team."
Chip Kelly is pondering how to get 10 more plays per game out of his offense.
Rich Rodriguez and Mike Leach are re-re-revolutionizing their attacks.
David Shaw is trying to figure out how to get nine offensive linemen, five tight ends and three fullbacks on the field at once.
Lane Kiffin has more offensive toys than an FAO Schwarz display.
"Option, option spread, I, heavy-I, pistol, triple-backs, full house, triple tights; it's something new every week," said Oregon linebacker Michael Clay. "It makes every week pretty interesting."
The Pac-12 is widely regarded as the conference of offenses. And they are only getting better. Prior to 1990, only twice has a team led the conference with a scoring average of more than 40 points. Since 1990, it's happened nine times -- including USC's conference best of 49.1 points per game in 2005.
That means being a defensive player in the Pac-12 is awfully difficult.
As the spread offense became chic and more teams were stretching defenses, they were forced to respond in kind. Gone are the days of everyone lining up in a base 4-3 and slugging it out. Now defenses are evolving into multiple fronts, exotic and disguised coverages and zone blitzes.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham should know. He and UCLA coach Jim Mora are the only head coaches in the conference with a defensive background.
"We're definitely the minority," Whittingham said with a laugh. "It's a broad spectrum. Defensively, in this day and age, you have to be able to defend it all anyways. When the spread became en vogue 10-12 years ago it caught on like wildfire. Now almost everyone has a version of it. You have to be equipped to deal with whatever you come across week in and week out and have a scheme that is flexible enough and adaptable enough that you can cover all of your bases.
"Things go in cycles. The spread becomes en vogue and takes a while for the defense to catch up. Then the zone blitz was giving offenses fits and the offenses had to catch up to that. I think everything in football is cyclical and if offense has the upper hand right now, it won't be too further down the road where that role is reversed."
And that time might be coming sooner than later. Utah, California, USC, Oregon and Stanford all have defenses that are very good and bordering on elite. But the numbers don't always add up because in this conference, you are going to give up yards and you are going to give up points.
"Part of it is innovation," Shaw said. "Part of it is Chip Kelly and Mike Leach and Rich Rodriguez. The thing is, you can use the word 'spread' offense for half the teams in our conference, but they are all different. You can say 'pro-style' offense, which is what you would say about us and USC, but they are so different. The hard part of playing defense in our conference is every single week, you are playing against something you didn't see the week before.
"Cal has a pro-style offense. But their passing is different than our pass game and their running is different than our running game. And theirs is different from USC's. You are going to play a nine-game conference schedule and every single offense you play is going to be completely different. Defensive coordinators -- and we've got a really good group in this conference -- defensive coordinators and players have to flush a lot of what you watched the week before and study film hard the next week because you're going to see a different animal."
The conference also has the players to back up the defensive hype. Stanford linebackers Chase Thomas and Shayne Skov are projected as two of the best at their positions. Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei is regarded as the best defensive tackle in the nation and McDonald is a returning All-American.
And while perception might never really change nationally since the conference keeps chugging out A-list offensive players, Washington quarterback Keith Price says he's seen the difference.
"The difference between us and some of those other conferences is the defensive linemen," Price said. "We've always had good skill players. They say the trenches is what separates the SEC from the other conferences. But you can see now that our conference is starting to get there. When you look at teams like Cal and Utah, their defensive lines are really tough."
If you want to see where your team stood on Jan. 10, go here.
The schedule does not factor into these. This is a projected pecking order based on where a team stands right now.
And if you don't like where your team is in the post-signing day Power Rankings, then I'd suggest whining about it until your team plays better.
1. USC: The Trojans ranked 13th in the final recruiting rankings with just 12 signees. They will be ranked in the preseason top 5, perhaps even No. 1. If things go according to plan, USC will blow a big raspberry at Paul Dee next January.
2. Oregon: The Ducks surprisingly lost QB Darron Thomas to the NFL, but the far more important news is not losing coach Chip Kelly to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. A strong recruiting class and another likely top-5 preseason rankings sets the Ducks up nicely to enter the national title chase.
3. Stanford: Stanford signed the best recruiting class in the Pac-12. It was ranked 12th by ESPN Recruiting and much higher by just about every other recruiting service. While the Cardinal have big holes to fill -- most notably behind center -- a glance through the roster suggests those rooting for the program to topple after a grand rise are going to be disappointed.
4. Washington: Much of the recruiting season had been disappointing for the Huskies, particularly losing almost all of the top in-state prospects, including a pair of A-list linemen who would have addressed major needs. But Steve Sarkisian made a series of aggressive moves rebuilding his coaching staff, most notably with the hiring of defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and ace recruiter Tosh Lupoi. That supplies much of the positive momentum here.
5. Utah: The Utes signed a strong recruiting class and welcome back a wealth of starters from a team that won eight games without much production at QB. The promotion of 24-year-old Brian Johnson to offensive coordinator was a surprising move, particularly with fans rooting for a "celebrity" hire. It could prove to be a stroke of genius, but the onus is now on Johnson to make it become so.
6. UCLA: The Bruins are the big climbers from our Jan. 10 power rankings -- moving up from No. 10 -- but that's what happens when new coach Jim Mora punches back at skepticism with an outstanding recruiting class. A team that looked like a "neh" is moving closer to a "maybe."
7. California: Despite all the hand-wringing over the loss of Lupoi and receivers coach Eric Kiesau to Washington, the Bears still signed a top-25 recruiting class that addresses needs. Still, perception matters, and at present, Bears fans seem more worried than optimistic. Nothing, of course, a few wins in a shiny remodeled stadium can't change.
8. Arizona: Rich Rodriguez's recruiting class finished at or near the bottom of the Pac-12, according to most rankings. That said, Rodriguez got his man at defensive coordinator, Jeff Casteel, which is significant because most trace the problems at Michigan to his failure to do so for the Wolverines.
9. Washington State: The Cougars didn't soar in the recruiting rankings just because of the hiring of coach Mike Leach. Still, that doesn't appear to be dampening the enthusiasm in Pullman.
10. Arizona State: New coach Todd Graham did a solid job salvaging the Sun Devils' recruiting class. But the loss of QB Brock Osweiler to the NFL and the NCAA's rejection of receiver T.J. Simpson's bid for a sixth year of eligibility leave the program with plenty of questions on offense. And just as many on defense.
11. Oregon State: The Beavers were victimized by a handful of late recruiting flips that put dents in what was shaping up to be a strong class. And the loss of secondary coach Keith Heyward to Washington also was a blow. On the plus side, the Beavers will see 17 returning starters during spring practices.
12. Colorado: The Buffaloes remain at the bottom because the bottom line is this: They welcome back 13 starters from a team that went 3-10 and ranked last in both scoring offense and scoring defense. Still, coach Jon Embree put together a solid recruiting class, one that could become the foundation of his substantial rebuilding project.
Some games, however, are better than others, mostly because of the location and magnitude of the game. So here are my top-six game-day environments from 2011.
1. Rose Bowl: Oregon vs. Wisconsin: Not much to say here. It's the Rose Bowl. All the other ESPN.com bloggers are doing lists, but they are playing for No. 2 because the Rose Bowl is the most righteous sports atmosphere in all the world. Other than the World Cup final.
2. Stanford at USC, Oct. 29: An instant classic. Two high-quality teams with super-elite quarterbacks going blow for for blow until it was decided in Stanford's favor in triple-overtime. And with 93,607 on hand, it was an old-school crowd at the Coliseum.
3. Oregon vs. LSU, Cowboys Stadium: Cowboys Stadium is the ultimate statement of sporting excess, which is to say it's awesome. And this was a rare season-opener matching top-five teams from the two best conferences over the past decade or so. And it would have been a good game if we could have made the third quarter disappear, eh Ducks?
4. Arizona State at Oregon, Oct. 15: Went to Autzen Stadium three times this season, and this was the best atmosphere. Crowd of 60,055 was a stadium record, and they were thrilled when backup quarterback Bryan Bennett came off the bench for an injured Darron Thomas to lead the Ducks to 17 unanswered points in a come-from-behind 41-27 win.
5. Oregon at Stanford, Nov. 11: I did not attend this game, but here's what Stanford blogger Kevin Gemmel had to say: "The Cardinal faithful packed Stanford Stadium for arguably the biggest game in school history that ultimately ended with a resounding thud. The pregame atmosphere was phenomenal. But as it became more apparent the Cardinal were not going to win, the once excitable, sellout crowd became placid and subdued. Great atmosphere, but only for about a quarter and change."
6. Missouri at Arizona State, Sept. 9: Many have forgotten how well the Sun Devils started the season. This 37-30 overtime win on ESPN was played in front of a packed house at Sun Devil Stadium -- 70,236 -- and just about everyone was wearing black for a "blackout." Might have been quarterback Brock Osweiler's best game.
And so we have our way-too-early 2012 power rankings.
By the way, schedule does not factor into these. This is a projected pecking order based on where a team stands right now -- Jan. 10, 2012.
And, by the way No. 2, if you don't like where your team is in the way-too-early power rankings, then I'd suggest whining about it until you get to play better.
By the way No. 3, Nos. 1 & 2 were easy. The rest is pretty darn murky, not in small part due to four new coaches.
1. USC: The Trojans welcome back 19 starters from a top-five team, including quarterback Matt Barkley. They beat Oregon in Autzen Stadium on Nov. 19. USC might be the preseason No. 2. Or No. 3.
2. Oregon: The Ducks have a strong mix of talent coming back from a team that won the Rose Bowl, but it's not just about 16 returning starters. If you want a reason to favor the Ducks over the Trojans, it's depth. Oregon welcomes back most of its two-deep. By the way, old Ducks fans probably grin about the idea of their team having better depth than USC.
3. Utah: The Utes welcome back 18 starters, though replacing both offensive tackles will be a huge task this spring. The defense has a chance to be beastly. The key? Utah proved it can win eight games with poor-to-middling quarterback play. But does a healthy Jordan Wynn -- back to late 2009, early 2010 form -- mean 10 wins?
4. Stanford: Many will count out the Cardinal, post-Andrew Luck. The Pac-12 blog will not. The over-under with this team is eight wins. Two gigantic holes on the offensive line and at both safeties are major issues, as is quarterback.
5. Washington: The Huskies welcome back seven starters on both sides of the ball, including up-and-coming quarterback Keith Price. The question is how quickly the defense can improve under Justin Wilcox.
6. California: While Cal only welcomes back 11 starters, there's plenty of intriguing talent on the roster, particularly on defense. Will quarterback Zach Maynard take a step forward? And what about his receivers after Keenan Allen? The pressure is on Jeff Tedford to win inside a renovated Memorial Stadium in 2012. If things come together, he just might do that.
7. Arizona: The Wildcats have more potential than most realize, starting with five returning starters on the offensive line and three defensive starters returning from injury, as well as an experienced quarterback in Matt Scott, who looks like a nice fit for Rich Rodriguez's spread-option offense.
8. Washington State: With 18 starters back, I'll go ahead and type it: New coach Mike Leach will lead the Cougars to a bowl game. And, hopefully, someone tips their cap to former coach Paul Wulff for collecting some solid talent, including two quarterbacks, Jeff Tuel and Connor Halliday, who appear capable of flinging the rock as Leach likes to, as well as a potential All-American receiver in Marquess Wilson.
9. Oregon State: The Beavers could be a surprise team if all the young players who were inconsistent in 2011 grow up in 2012, starting with true freshman quarterback Sean Mannion. With 17 starters back, experience won't be an issue. But those returning players went 3-9, so it's difficult to project a top-half finish. At least, not at this point.
10. UCLA: New coach Jim Mora doesn't start with an empty cupboard -- 16 starters are back. But the overall talent is dubious and, even more challenging, Mora needs to rebuild a culture. Further, taking the Bruins back to a pro-style offense, if that's the ultimate plan, might be a struggle in Year 1. First question: Is Kevin Prince the quarterback, or does Mora go with talented redshirt freshman Brett Hundley?
11. Arizona State: The Sun Devils tumbled in these rankings when quarterback Brock Osweiler, curiously, opted to enter the NFL draft. With just 10 starters back, a quarterback with no real game experience -- whoever wins the job -- and a challenging locker room, new coach Todd Graham might find the going rough in Year 1.
12. Colorado: The Buffs welcome back 13 starters from a team that went 3-10 and ranked last in both scoring offense and scoring defense. The rebuilding job on offense, in particular, will be significant with the loss of quarterback Tyler Hansen, running back Rodney Stewart and receiver Toney Clemons. The rebuilding job in Boulder won't happen overnight-- or over two seasons -- for second-year coach Jon Embree.
The Trojans welcome back their top rusher, top three receivers, four starting offensive lineman and a guy by the name of Matt Barkley.
The Trojans looked like a preseason top-10 team a month ago. They looked like the preseason Pac-12 South Division favorites. But when Barkley announced Thursday, "I have not yet finished my journey as a Trojan football player," it sent a shockwave across the college football landscape.
Remember that little girl staring at the TV snow in "Poltergeist"? All together now: "They're baaaaack!"
Barkley makes USC a national title contender. Barkley makes things around Heritage Hall feel like it's 2002-2008 all over again. Barkley means Trojans fans can stop thinking about the injustice it suffered when the NCAA whacked it with severe sanctions and start dreaming of BCS bowls again.
Just FYI: Miami on Jan. 7, 2013. What happened the last time the Trojans played in South Florida with big stakes?
Ah, the Oregon fans have just arrived. To borrow a phrase: Not so fast, my friend.
The Ducks are the three-time defending Pac-12 champions. They've got a whole bunch of key guys coming back in 2012, too. They, too, are a certain top-10 team, perhaps top-five. They will be the overwhelming favorites to win the North Division.
Both have highly favorable schedules. USC's nonconference schedule: Hawaii (with head coach Norm Chow!), at Syracuse and Notre Dame. Oregon's is, well, pitiful: Arkansas State, Fresno State and Tennessee Tech.
Oh, then there is this little date for both in LA next year. The Pac-12 schedules aren't official yet, but the conference confirmed to the Pac-12 blog that USC and Oregon will play in the Coliseum next fall. That regular-season game, not hard to project as a matchup of top-five teams, very likely could lead to a rematch in the Pac-12 title game, which could be a gateway to the national title game for the winner.
Ducks and Trojans: Feel free to talk amongst yourselves.
Meanwhile, Barkley, by passing up a chance to be a top-10 NFL draft pick as Matt Leinart and Andrew Luck did before him, immediately established himself as the leading 2012 Heisman Trophy candidate. His status as front-runner is only slightly less firm than Luck's was last year when he announced a shocking return.
And that point -- thump -- should provide a speed bump of moderation for our foray into admittedly hysterical hyperbole about Barkley and USC. Just about every time you try to write a college football season's story before it plays out, you end up being wrong.
Preseason predictions can be completely off: Oklahoma was the consensus preseason No. 1 this year. Or they can be slightly off: Luck and the overwhelming Heisman favorite in August. Or they can fall just short in the end: USC as the best team in college football history in 2005.
Or, then again, sometimes they are spot-on: USC in 2004 was preseason No. 1 as well as the postseason national champion.
Still, while grand scenarios are merely reasonably conceived potential endings for something that is a year away and laden with unforeseen variables, there is no downside on this day for USC. In fact, it spiderwebs positives throughout the program, from making the future at QB more secure, to bolstering the present recruiting effort, to getting USC fans excited and reinvested again, ready to fill up the Coliseum next fall.
By the way, USC folks aren't the only ones smiling. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott is grinning ear-to-ear. He sees another bright, articulate Heisman Trophy candidate who conducts himself with class acting as the face of the conference, as Luck did this past fall. He sees two big ticket national title contenders in 2012, just as the conference's new TV contract kicks in. He's got broadcast partners -- ESPN and Fox -- as well as a new Pac-12 Network that are going to be thrilled that the conference's ratings-driving bell cow is back under the klieg lights in LA.
Toss in four new, high-profile coaches, and there are plenty of sexy story lines for the Pac-12 in 2012.
The week started with USC fans slapping their foreheads over Ohio State's middling NCAA sanctions for severe infractions. It was a frustrating reminder of the seeming cosmic forces that conspired to end the USC dynasty, including Pete Carroll skipping town back to the NFL.
But the week ends with an early Christmas gift for USC. Matt Barkley telling it, "I am staying because I want to finish what I started."
Yes, college football fans across the country pricked up their ears Thursday and thought, "Drat. I hear those darn "Tribute To Troy" drums again."
Next year? Not so certain.
Of course, if USC quarterback Matt Barkley opts to return for his senior year, he'll instantly become the favorite. But who's betting he'll return? James also could return, but that seems unlikely. The same could be said for Washington running back Chris Polk.
USC receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee? Washington quarterback Keith Price? Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler? Cal wide receiver Keenan Allen? Washington State wide receiver Marquess Wilson? Utah running back John White?
My take: Woods and Oregon's multipurpose threat De'Anthony Thomas are the Pac-12's top candidates, as of today.
But this uncertainty is not just a Pac-12 thing. As the venerable Heisman Pundit points out, it should be a wide open race nationally. It's quite possible that the preseason list of Heisman candidates won't include the eventual winner (and, really, who had Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III in their Heisman pool in August?).
The race for the 2012 Heisman appears to be wide open, especially assuming you can cross the following names off this year’s top 10 in the voting list due to either early entry into the NFL draft or expiration of eligibility:
1. Robert Griffin III
2. Andrew Luck
3. Trent Richardson
4. Montee Ball
5. Tyrann Mathieu
6. Matt Barkley
7. Case Keenum
8. Kellen Moore
9. Russell Wilson
10. LaMichael James
Whereas this past season had five of the top six finishers in the Heisman race returning, it’s very likely that nine of 10 from this season will not return (something that hasn’t happened since 2005). That means the race for the 2012 Heisman is likely to be wide open, with no real front runner in place.
And HP is not a believer in Mathieu coming back and winning next fall.
He does, however, make his own list, which includes Thomas but not Woods. He also includes USC running back Curtis McNeal.
On Thomas: "An electric will o’ the wisp who can score on the ground, in the air or by returning kicks and punts. Should be the star of yet another fine Oregon team."
On McNeal: "The USC running back position is a favorite of Heisman voters. McNeal averaged 120 yards per game and nearly 7 yards per carry in his last six games, which could point to an even bigger season in 2012."
Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson likely starts out the 2012 season as the favorite, which probably means he won't win -- see Luck. After that, everyone is just going to list returning offensive players who had good numbers in 2011.
Instead, he opted to return for his redshirt junior year, spent much of the season as the prohibitive Heisman favorite but finished second to Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III on Saturday.
If any of you are worried about Luck being crushed by disappointment, we'd like to reassure you that things will likely be OK for him. Something is sure to come up in terms of career options, we suspect. We hear he's got some real talent as an architect.
Matt Barkley, QB, USC: If Barkley returns for his senior year, he will be on everyone's preseason shortlist. He might even be considered the favorite. He'd have a high-profile team that should win, plenty of name recognition, and a supporting cast that could help him put up big numbers.
LaMichael James, RB, Oregon: Most would project James entering the NFL draft. But perhaps this will intrigue him: If he returns for his senior year and produces a fourth consecutive 1,500-yard season, he'd become the conference's all-time leading rusher, easily breaking USC's Charles White's 6,245 mark, set from 1976-79. That also, of course, would probably get him another invitation to New York for the Heisman ceremony.
Robert Woods, WR, USC: Woods will be a consensus preseason All-American. If Barkley comes back, Woods likely would play second fiddle. But if Barkley leaves, Woods still figures to put up good numbers, even with a first-year starter at quarterback. On the downside -- which is really an upside -- fellow receiver, sophomore Marqise Lee, is also an All-American candidate.
De'Anthony Thomas, WR/RB, Oregon: Thomas was just freak-show good in so many different ways in 2011 as a true freshman that he seems almost certain to become a Heisman candidate. In fact, he might be the most likely player on this list to get invited to New York because he's definitely coming back and a lot of folks already know who he is.
Chris Polk, RB, Washington: Polk is likely off to the NFL, but if he opts to return he and quarterback Keith Price would make plenty of preseason Heisman lists. Polk should put up big numbers as a rusher but his ability as a receiver would also give him a chance to put up big numbers. The Huskies will need to take another step in terms of win-loss record, though, for his candidacy to gain any momentum.
Marquess Wilson, WR, Washington State: Wilson has been highly productive for two seasons. But what if new coach Mike Leach helps him put up ludicrous numbers and the Cougars start winning? Hey, you never know.
Is QB Matt Barkley going to put on a big show in his final game at USC? Or is this not going to he Barkley's last game at USC? In any event, UCLA's only chance to win this game is if Barkley is off, which he hasn't been of late. And, if Barkley throws another four TD passes or so, does he deserve some Heisman Trophy consideration? Or at least, does he have a chance to steal All-Pac-12 first-team honors from Andrew Luck?
Does Oregon State have any chance in the Civil War? Oregon is a four-TD favorite over Oregon State. The Ducks appear headed to a third consecutive Pac-12 title and BCS bowl game, while the Beavers are headed toward a second-consecutive losing season. That combination has Oregon State fans a tad grumpy. So, can the Beavers come into Autzen Stadium and challenge the Ducks? It will take a perfect game. But Oregon State's beating Washington last weekend showed that the Beavers still have some fight and can't be completely written off.
Does Arizona State have any fight left? Speaking of teams with dubious fight, there's Arizona State. The Sun Devils collapse has been odd because their three consecutive embarrassing losses, nonetheless, haven't stopped this from being true: The Sun Devils are still in the Rose Bowl hunt. If Arizona State wins and UCLA loses and Utah wins this weekend, the Sun Devils win the South Division and play for the Pac-12 title on Dec. 2. But after three consecutive defeats, it doesn't appear the Sun Devils care much. Maybe they will be motivated by the 50-17 humbling they suffered at Cal last season. Or maybe they'll just wake up and play up to their capabilities. Or maybe they'll just stink it up and watch coach Dennis Erickson walk away.
John White, John White, John White: At this moment, you could make an argument that Utah running back John White is the best running back in the Pac-12. Yes, better than Oregon's LaMichael James and better than Washington's Chris Polk. White leads the conference with 1,377 yards rushing and is second with 14 TDs, ahead of both James and Polk. Anyway, suffice it to say, White is really good even though the opposing defense knows White is coming because the Utes don't throw much. Colorado has the worst run defense in the conference. That's trouble. Two hundred rushing yards for White might guarantee him first-team All-Pac-12 status.
Nick Holt vs. Marshall Lobbestael: Washington's defense was supposed to be good this year. It hasn't been. Nick Holt is the Pac-12's highest paid defensive coordinator not named Monte Kiffin. Marshall Lobbestael is Washington State's No. 3 QB. He started the season as Jeff Tuel's backup, played well while Tuel was hurt, then was displaced by talented freshman Connor Halliday. But both Tuel and Halliday are hurt for the game, and the gritty Lobbestael now faces Holt's defense. Who wins?
Arizona reaction on Rodriguez week: Arizona notched a huge win over rival Arizona State last weekend. It was emotional and surely satisfying during a lost season. But now the Wildcats have to get up for another game against Louisiana-Lafayette. How will the Wildcats respond after an emotional win, playing against an opponent that won't inspire much awe, but one that is -- oh, by the way -- 8-3. Will there be any reaction to the hiring of Rich Rodriguez? The Wildcats new coach is watching, and he likely will raise an eyebrow at players who step up. And those who don't.