USC Trojans: Steve Sarkisian

There they were, sitting together for an ESPN SportsCenter interview the other day, Steve Sarkisian and Chris Petersen.

The new head coach at USC, and the coach who might have been. The former head coach at the University of Washington, and the coach who arrived in Seattle as soon as the other passed him on the way out.

Appearing there side-by-side on television seemed so appropriate, considering they will be inexorably linked for the rest of this fascinating transition season, for the season after that and probably for the remainder of their college coaching future. Their unique career paths literally dictate the constant comparison.
Steve Sarkisian and the Trojans feel the need for speed.

If you're looking for signs of where the new USC coach is going to make his biggest imprint this fall, it would be a good idea to look at the up-tempo offense that the Trojans will utilize.

Huddling? That's a thing of the past, the Trojans will be too busy hustling to the line of scrimmage for the next play. And don't expect to see the quarterback under center much either, Cody Kessler will line up primarily in the shotgun with a single back. That means USC, the home of the modern I formation, will not use a full-time fullback and will run a lot of three-receiver sets.

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While some like to gleefully dance around a raging bonfire in nothing but a loincloth with the heads of college football coaches on pitchforks, the Pac-12 blog is less demonstrative. And more empathetic.

It believes there is no glee in seeing someone fired, even if said coach is snarky, unavailable or arrogant. Let he who is not sometimes snarky, unavailable or arrogant cast the first stone! (Pac-12 blog starts sheepishly whistling.)

That's why the Pac-12 blog cringes every year when it acts as a reluctant prophet of doom by putting a thermometer to each conference coaches' stool and announcing a temperature. It gives us no pleasure to tell the coach to slide over a bit so we can scramble some eggs and rustle up some bacon (thick cut) on a portion of his seat.

Ah, but there is good news in 2014. The Pac-12 coaching stools range from comfortably chilled to slightly warm to the touch. There are no Will Muschamps, Mike Londons or Dana Holgorsens in the Pac-12 this year.

So while there's always going to be someone stuck at No. 12 when Pac-12 teams are ranked, there's good reason to believe the conference just might get through a season without a coaching change -- at least not one created by a boot and a slamming door.

1. David Shaw, Stanford: Shaw has won consecutive Pac-12 titles. He inherited a good thing from Jim Harbaugh and made it better. He's a Stanford graduate and he loves raising his family among family in Palo Alto. While many view him as a future NFL coach -- and you never say never in coaching -- he's the most likely guy on this list to be in the same place a decade from now.

[+] EnlargeJim Mora
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsJim Mora is 19-8 in two seasons at UCLA.
2. Jim Mora, UCLA: In just two seasons, Mora has built the Bruins into a Pac-12 and national contender. He has considerable positive momentum on the field and in recruiting. The most likely scenario for departure is him leaving on his own accord. UCLA can avoid that by continuing to invest in the football program -- read: coaching salaries and facilities upgrades.

3. Todd Graham, Arizona State: Mora and Graham are really 2A and 2B, as they have both turned so-called "sleeping giants" into potentially awakening giants. While some still believe Graham could eventually have a wandering eye, every indication -- including this -- is he is setting up for the long term in Tempe.

4. Chris Petersen, Washington: Petersen is not only secure because he's in his first season with the Huskies, he's also secure because he's Chris Petersen, who's widely regarded as an elite coach. Of course, if he's a 7-5 or 6-6 Chris Petersen in December, then the Sark II jokes will begin.

5. Mike Leach, Washington State: While Leach isn't great at avoiding controversy -- he feels no need to place a filter between his brain and mouth -- his team took a big step forward last year. Further, he seems like a great fit in Pullman and with Coug fans, who enjoy his quirkiness. Finally, he's got a good and supportive AD in Bill Moos, who has tirelessly worked to improve the facilities around the program.

6. Rich Rodriguez, Arizona: Rodriguez has done a good job his first two years in Tucson, winning more than a few games he shouldn't have, as well as grabbing a pair of bowl victories. What knocks him down here is Graham's success in Tempe and Graham's 2-0 record in the Territorial Cup. Rich Rod can't afford for that to become a long-term trend.

7. Mike Riley, Oregon State: The notion that Riley could be terminated feels unlikely, but there is a faction of Beavers fans that is dissatisfied with the program, in large part because of Oregon's rise to national prominence. If those folks would write the athletic department a $68 million check, they'd have more legitimacy and a better chance of getting an audience with AD Bob De Carolis.

8. Mike MacIntyre, Colorado: MacIntyre's early returns are solid. Colorado improved in myriad ways last year. He seems like a good fit. But the Buffaloes are just 1-8 in conference games the past two seasons. You'd suspect fans are ready to show some patience, but a coach is never secure until he starts winning conference games.

9. Steve Sarkisian, USC: How can Sarkisian be all the way down here in his first year? For one, it's because his hiring wasn't overwhelmingly greeted with celebratory cheers. But it's also that USC fans have a small window for satisfaction: Pac-12 championships and national titles. You even can win a bunch of the former and not be loved if you're not competing for the latter.

10. Mark Helfrich, Oregon: Helfrich has some of the same issues as Sark, though he's in his second year leading a nouveau riche program as opposed to an old-school power. He won 11 games and was in the national title picture much of 2013 but some Ducks fans only know him for Not Being Chip Kelly. The Ducks are again Pac-12 favorites and top national title contenders. If they lose more than one regular-season game, though, some fans might become disgruntled. Not saying it's right, but it would happen.

11. Kyle Whittingham, Utah: Whittingham is the starting line on this list for where there's actually some real warmth, but he also has a strong track record with his program and a legitimate excuse: It ain't easy moving up from the Mountain West to the Pac-12. Still, Utes fans are eager to gain some traction in the South Division. Whittingham should be safe with a return to the postseason, but a third consecutive losing record could tighten the screws considerably.

12. Sonny Dykes, California: Dykes is only in his second season, which typically would mean he's safe. The conventional wisdom is a coach needs at least three and preferably five years to be fairly evaluated. But college football has become far less patient with losing -- even academic bastions like Berkeley -- and Cal has spent a bunch of cash for fancy facilities upgrades. The expectation here is Dykes will be back in 2015 if his team wins three or four games and shows improvement in terms of soundness and consistent focus. But he can't afford another feckless 1-11 season.
It's time to start our preseason position reviews. Please, hold your applause until we are finished.

Here's how we do this: We provide three evaluative categories: "Great shape," "Good shape" and "We'll see."

Hint: You'd prefer your team to be in "Great shape."

"We'll see" doesn't mean you're going to stink at said position. It means just what it says -- we'll see because there's no way at present to know.

You can review last year's rankings here.

And away we go ... starting, of course, with quarterback.

GREAT SHAPE

Oregon: Junior Marcus Mariota is -- again -- a leading Heisman Trophy candidate and a two-time first-team All-Pac-12 performer. He would have been an early-round NFL draft pick this spring if he'd opted not to return. The Ducks have some questions at receiver though.

UCLA: Junior Brett Hundley is the conference's No. 2 Heisman Trophy candidate. While Arizona State's Taylor Kelly eclipsed him for second-team All-Pac-12 last fall, Hundley's tremendous upside is why he has NFL scouts eagerly awaiting his entering the draft.

Arizona State: As noted, Kelly was the Pac-12's No. 2 QB last season, which means he was one of the nation's best at the position. It also helps his cause that he's got WR Jaelen Strong, an All-American candidate. However, Kelly does need to take fewer sacks -- you could say the same for Hundley -- and throw fewer interceptions.

Oregon State: Sean Mannion ranked second in the nation with 358.6 yards passing per game in 2013 and is also an NFL prospect. Life might be just a bit harder in the passing game without Brandin Cooks.

GOOD SHAPE

Stanford: Kevin Hogan, a third-year starter, had a good but not great sophomore season while leading the Cardinal to the Pac-12 championship. He was mostly efficient and showed a good touch downfield, but he made some surprisingly bad decisions and needs work with his intermediate passing game. He's got a good crew of veteran receivers coming back, which bodes well for him.

Washington State: Connor Halliday threw for a bunch of yards (4,597) and TDs (34) last season, but he also tossed way too many interceptions (22). Part of that was an inconsistent O-line and a neglected running game. The good news is he's in his third year under Mike Leach and has a strong crew of returning receivers. Of all the Pac-12 QBs, he might make the biggest climb this season.

USC: Cody Kessler didn't put up big numbers last season and didn't beat Notre Dame or UCLA but significantly improved after Lane Kiffin was fired. Like Kelly, he's got an A-list target coming back in WR Nelson Agholor. We expect Kessler to thrive with a new, up-tempo scheme under Steve Sarkisian.

Utah: Utah received good news yesterday when 16-game starter Travis Wilson was medically cleared to play. When healthy, Wilson has been a solid performer with good upside. He'll have to fight off a challenge this preseason from Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson though.

California: Jared Goff averaged 292 yards passing per game as a true freshman. That's good. But the Cal offense struggled to do much else but throw the ball between the 20s -- hence a conference-worst 23 points per game. He had just 18 TD passes on 531 attempts. Still, he flashed potential and has a very good crew of receivers coming back.

Colorado: Sefo Liufau became the Buffaloes' starter at midseason and often played like the true freshman he was. Furthermore, he won't have Paul Richardson serving as a safety blanket and making big plays for him. Still, Liufau's baptism by Pac-12 fire provided some seasoning that was evident this spring. The Buffs feel pretty good about having a returning starter behind center.

WE'LL SEE

Washington: While Cyler Miles flashed potential last season coming of the bench for Keith Price, logging a road victory at Oregon State in his first start, he also had an off-field issue that has muddied the waters at QB for the Huskies. It remains to be seen how quickly Miles emerges from Chris Petersen's doghouse, and if he can beat out Jeff Lindquist and Troy Williams.

Arizona: The Wildcats have no clear frontrunner in their QB competition. That's the bad news. The good news is the performances this spring were generally solid. Rich Rodriguez believes he's got a couple of guys who can win games for him. He's just not sure which guy is No. 1 between Jesse Scroggins, Connor Brewer, Anu Solomon and Jerrard Randall.

USC offseason storylines: QB

June, 24, 2014
Jun 24
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Here's a look at the top quarterback storylines for USC this offseason:

Quarterback
All eyes were focused on the quarterback position at USC this past spring, and that was for good reason. With the coveted starting role declared up for grabs by new head coach Steve Sarkisian, the offseason departure of Max Wittek and the unveiling of an up-tempo offense run out of the shotgun, there were more than a few factors in play that made this the group the one to watch throughout the March and April practice sessions.

Ultimately, it was fourth-year junior Cody Kessler who, somewhat unsurprisingly, emerged atop the depth chart in the highly-publicized position battle, but there’s still plenty to keep your eye on in terms of offseason storylines when it comes to this unit.

Kessler in charge
[+] EnlargeCody Kessler, Max Tuerk
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesExperience helped Cody Kessler win USC's starting QB job in the spring.
While the fact that Kessler, who started all 14 games for the Trojans in 2013, won out in a competition against a pair of inexperienced youngsters in second-year freshman Max Browne and early-entrant freshman Jalen Greene wasn’t exactly a revelation in itself, the decisive way in which he ran away with the job was.

Making a seamless transition into the new offense, he picked right up where he left off after a MVP performance in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, drawing praise from Sarkisian for his decision-making and arm strength.

Just as impressive, however, was his continued growth as a team leader – another important variable that played a part in the head coach’s decision.

And credit to Sarkisian for announcing his verdict when he did. Forced to share the quarterback job with Wittek through the Trojans’ first two games in 2013 under the previous coaching regime, Kessler admitted to having been rattled by the constant state of uncertainty. By announcing Kessler as the starter in the spring this time around, Sarkisian has allowed his veteran passer to get a whole summer under his belt as the man in charge of what he can now safely call his team.

If the early portion of summer drills are any indication, that move is already paying off, as Kessler has looked confident and sharp. And just how far he continues to come along in the coming weeks will undoubtedly play a significant role in determining just how efficient the USC offense is in Year 1 under Sarkisian.

Browne still competing
Kessler was the undisputed winner this past spring, but the young and talented Browne is right behind him. Kessler knows that he can’t let up for a second, particularly once fall camp starts up -- when Sarkisian said he expects the competition to “wage on.”

Browne, who has improved steadily since his initial arrival at USC as one of the most heralded members of the Class of 2013, bulked up in the spring and had more zip on his throws, but he still couldn’t manage to overtake his more seasoned counterpart.

For his part, however, Browne has said and done everything that anyone could possibly ask of him since Sarkisian announced his decision. He plans to continue to compete each and every day, and he's also made a point of putting the team ahead of himself by embracing the responsibilities that come with being the backup, a fact that has been noticeable during summer workouts when he’s been observed signaling plays into Kessler during some of the team’s 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 periods.

Ultimately, the possibility of Browne overtaking Kessler prior to the 2014 season would have to be considered a long shot. But he certainly has an extremely bright future at USC. Until his time comes, however, the Trojans would appear to have a very solid No. 2 option who will also continue to provide more than enough pressure on Kessler to ensure that he never falls asleep at the wheel.

Greene a glimpse of the future?
While it was Kessler and Browne who garnered the bulk of the attention in the competition for the No. 1 job in the spring, the most intriguing participant in the quarterback derby just might have been Greene, who arrived at USC this past January from local powerhouse Gardena (California) Serra.

As a true dual-threat quarterback, he provides a much different look at the position in USC’s offensive attack than Kessler and Browne, who both fit into the pocket-passer category. So, the big question is does Greene exemplify the kind of signal-caller that Sarkisian, ideally, wants at the helm of his offense? After all, everyone has seen the kind of success that fast-paced offenses like those featured at Oregon have had with athletic quarterbacks running the show.

Throw in the fact that USC seems to be targeting other dual-threat passers on the recruiting trail, such as Westlake’s (California) Malik Henry in the Class of 2016, and it’s not a stretch to assume that Sarkisian might have big plans down the line for a quarterback like Greene.

A strong-armed lefty, he made tremendous strides from the first practice to the No. 15 practice this past spring, drawing heavy praise from USC offensive coordinator Clay Helton as a result. Still, there’s little doubt that he still has a ways to go before he can be considered a serious contender for the starting job. But with the promise that he’s already shown, and where Sarkisian and the offense seem to be headed, maybe Browne isn’t the only quarterback to keep close tabs on with an eye toward the future.
video
Lawyers get busted on plenty. Rightfully so. They often make a living out of complicating the simple. The best lawyers elevate disingenuousness to an art form.

Yet litigation and opportunistic lawyers are forcing the NCAA -- read: college football and men's basketball -- to grow up. In the presently pitched courtroom battle of the disingenuous known as the O'Bannon v. NCAA antitrust class action lawsuit, the NCAA's already tattered credibility is hemorrhaging, and that is good news for young athletes and folks who appreciate gestures aimed at advancing toward equity and fairness in games that have long graduated from amateur to big business.

[+] EnlargePat Haden
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsUSC AD Pat Haden says moving to four-year scholarships for football and basketball will help 'refocus on student-athlete welfare.'
Take USC, which on Monday announced that it will now offer "four-year athletic scholarships to all scholarship student-athletes in the revenue sports of football and men's and women's basketball in lieu of the current practice of offering one-year renewable scholarships."

"In taking this action, USC hopes to help lead the effort to refocus on student-athlete welfare on and off the field," athletic director Pat Haden said in a statement.

First of all, we should not get carried away with this decision, which will be effective July 1. While this is unquestionably a positive move and a benefit for revenue sports athletes at USC, it's also mostly about being proactive and getting some good publicity, not institutional sacrifice.

For one, most schools, including USC, haven't been ruthlessly Machiavellian about the one-year deals. If an athlete signs, stays out of trouble and is positive in the locker room, it's rare for a school to cut him or her loose just because he or she falls short of athletic expectations.

Sure, some coaches get creative with practices that amount to cutting players. More than a few of those "injury retirements" are mutual separations between athlete and team that allow said athlete to remain on full scholarship as a student. Sure, a coach is more likely to dismiss a 20-year-old sophomore bench warmer after a citation as a minor in possession of a beer than he is a star who gets hauled off to jail for a more serious offense. And, sure, a new coach sometimes makes a few statement cuts after his first spring practices to send a message about there being a new sheriff in town.

But, really, those one-year scholarships have been typically treated as four-year agreements.

Moreover, a four-year scholarship doesn't exempt an athlete from academic and behavioral standards. Know that star players will continue to be favored with more protection than marginal contributors, whatever the scholarship papers say.

Still, this is a savvy move by Haden and USC. The Trojans' athletic department will get a headline that celebrates it for fighting the good fight, for making the life of a student-athlete at USC just a little bit better, a little more secure. When you cut to the chase, that really has been what all this ominous talk -- in some quarters -- about unionizing and pay-for-play has been about: Giving athletes a better deal.

Haden, a former star QB at USC as well as a Rhodes Scholar who made big bucks in the private sector, has long been an advocate of giving athletes a better deal, though he also is adamant that it can be done without athletes unionizing and receiving salaries. As the Big Five conferences -- Pac-12, SEC, ACC, Big Ten and Big 12 -- take irrevocable steps toward more autonomy, expect to see more individual institutions look to set their own rules. These new rules, by the way, will be about finding a competitive edge as much as nobility of purpose.

For example, while USC doesn't recruit many athletes who worry about being cut or the length of their scholarship term, it is one more selling point Steve Sarkisian can bring into an athlete's living room. It's fair to assume that more than a few mommies and daddies will like the idea of a four-year promise over a one-year one.

USC isn't alone. Northwestern administrators quickly responded on Twitter on Monday that the Wildcats have been doing four-year deals since 2012 for all sports. Kudos.

The question now is whether four-year scholarships become a rule or, at least, a popular standard, or if you see a diversity of approaches among institutions in the Big Five conferences.
The Pac-12 typically plays a rugged nonconference schedule, but the 2014 slate is, well, only fair to middling.

There's a true marque national game -- Michigan State at Oregon -- and there are three matchups with Notre Dame. But there aren't a whole lot of ranked foes from other areas of the country on the slate.

Here's how we'd rank the Pac-12's best nonconference games in 2014.

1. Michigan State at Oregon (Sept. 6): It's a top-10 -- perhaps even top-five -- matchup that looks like a Rose Bowl. Or a College Football Playoff semifinal. The Spartans shut down Stanford in the Rose Bowl in January and are eyeballing even bigger things this fall. Like the Ducks.

2. Stanford at Notre Dame (Oct. 4): This has become a strong, national rivalry. The last time the Cardinal was in South Bend, the ending was highly controversial -- the Fighting Irish wouldn't have played for the 2012 national title without a boost from the officials. This game likely reveals if one or the other is a CFP candidate.

3. Notre Dame at USC (Nov. 29): It remains the greatest intersectional rivalry in college sports. It would be a good idea for first-year USC coach Steve Sarkisian to win this one. A good way to win over his fan base.

4. Notre Dame at Arizona State (Nov. 8): The Fighting Irish tried to get out of this game. They also beat the Sun Devils last year. Arizona State should be plenty motivated in front of what is certain to be a packed house.

5. UCLA vs. Texas (Sept. 13, Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas): Texas is breaking in new coach Charlie Strong in what is really a glorified home game. UCLA is only trying to announce itself as a national title contender. While the Longhorns are down, they won't lack talent.

6. Utah at Michigan (Sept. 20): Here's a good way for the Utes to announce their return to relevance -- a trip to the Big House. Utah certainly won't be intimidated. It won in Ann Arbor 25-23 in 2008 on its way to an undefeated season. It also lost 10-7 in 2002.

7. California at Northwestern (Aug. 30): Sonny Dykes wants to get his second season off with a bang. This is a good -- and winnable -- opportunity to do just that.

8. Rutgers vs. Washington State (Aug. 28, CenturyLink Field, Seattle): The Cougars are eyeballing a breakthrough season. It will be hard to do that with an opening loss to a Big Ten team. Yes, Rutgers is now a Big Ten team.

9. Illinois at Washington (Sept. 13): The Illini don't seem too scary, but they are a Big Ten team. They didn't make things too easy on the Huskies last year, either.

10. BYU at California (Nov. 29): We've already noted how nice it would be for Dykes to get his second season off to a fast start. What about a strong finish?
This week, we've looked at the worst offenses and defenses in the Pac-12 in 2013 and speculated on which is most likely to take a step forward this fall.

We broke things down. Now it's your turn to pick which team you think is headed for better things in 2014. We polled defense Thursday, and now it's time for offense.

Here's the North Division offensive breakdown. And here's the South.

Here's the North Division graphic.


And here's the South.


There is one problem.

Our poll tool only allows for five choices, so obviously one team must be eliminated. So goodbye to Stanford, which played pretty good offense last fall and is replacing four O-line starters as well as running back Tyler Gaffney. Our expectation -- and we're forcing it down your throats! -- is the Cardinal might score a few more points per game in 2014 because of an improved passing attack, but Stanford isn't a team that obsesses about scoring more than, say, 35 because it pretty much plays to its defense in the fourth quarter.

SportsNation

Which struggling Pac-12 offense is most likely to improve in 2014?

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    14%
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    17%
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    44%
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    18%
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    7%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,612)

So who might improved the most?

California welcomes back pretty much its entire unit, and it should benefit from true sophomore QB Jared Goff and company having a full year in Sonny Dykes' system.

Washington State scored 31 points per game last season, and with a bevy of talent back to run Mike Leach's Air Raid offense, this could be the Cougars' breakthrough year. After his first season at Texas Tech, Leach's offenses averaged more than 35 points per game in eight of the next nine seasons, three times eclipsing the 40-point threshold.

While USC is adopting a new, up-tempo attack under new coach Steve Sarkisian, the Trojans have plenty of talent and could pile up points. The only question is the O-line.

Just like USC, Utah and Colorado welcome back their starting quarterbacks -- assuming that Utes QB Travis Wilson gets a clean bill of health. The Buffaloes have to figure out how to replace wide receiver Paul Richardson's production, while the Utes should greatly benefit from the return of wide receiver Kenneth Scott, who missed the 2013 season with a knee injury.

So, which team do you think shows the most improvement on offense in 2014?

Key stretch: USC

June, 4, 2014
Jun 4
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Without a doubt, every game matters.

With few exceptions, a single game doesn't define a season. A great victory can be deflated by an upset the next weekend, while a crushing defeat can be redeemed by an inspired effort later in the season.

While the Pac-12's national title contenders -- we won't name names -- need to win every game (or just about), before each season you can point to a stretch of games on the schedule that appears defining for every team. In terms of a team's goals, that stretch is most critical.

We've defined a "key stretch" as three games, though we will allow for those three games to come among four.

USC

Key stretch: Nov. 13 California, Nov. 22 at UCLA, Nov. 29 Notre Dame

Why it's critical: We could have included the visit to Washington State on Nov. 1 that precedes this troika. The Cougars, after all, upset the Trojans last season, so USC should be plenty motivated to get revenge for an embarrassing loss in front of booing fans in the Coliseum who were chanting for Lane Kiffin's head on a platter last September. And November dates in Pullman can be pretty iffy weather-wise. But really, this is about the last two games against archrivals. Cal is included because it would be pretty humiliating for new coach Steve Sarkisian to lose at home to the rebuilding Golden Bears, thereby inviting media to proclaim that the Trojans were "looking ahead."

There simply is no way for Sarkisian to have a successful first season if he loses to both UCLA and Notre Dame. And beating both would make up for just about everything bad that could happen in advance of these two games.

A third consecutive loss to UCLA, the South Division favorite, would give USC a true losing streak in the series. It would recall the dark period from 1991 to 1998 for Trojans fans, when the Bruins won eight in a row in the series.

Beating UCLA is more important than beating Notre Dame, but at least the Trojans figure to be underdogs in the Rose Bowl.

Ending Sarkisian's first year with a loss at home to the Fighting Irish wouldn't exactly go over well either, but it would be a particularly sour pill if it means the regular season concludes with consecutive painful losses. Suffice it to say, Sark's honeymoon would end quickly.

Other key stretches:
In 2012, Washington's offense averaged 24 points per game, and QB Keith Price had a horribly disappointing season. In 2013, the Huskies averaged 37.9 points per game, and Price redeemed himself.

The Huskies' friends to the east, the Washington State Cougars, averaged 20.4 points in coach Mike Leach's first season, his Air Raid offense pretty much grounded. In 2013, the Cougars averaged 31 points per game. Much better.

Every season, offenses and defenses improve or regress. Oregon and Arizona both scored fewer points in 2013 compared to 2012.

In 2011, UCLA ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in scoring offense with a measly 23.1 points per game. Oregon State was even worse, ranking 11th with just 21.8 ppg. In 2012, both made huge improvements on offense and continued to trend up in 2013.

So who is poised to make a big jump this fall? We're breaking it down by division, starting with the South.

None of these three was truly lousy on offense last year. USC ranked 60th in the nation in scoring; Colorado, 86th. So we're talking about mediocre and worse.

The good news is all three schools welcome back experienced, promising quarterbacks -- we're going to assume Utah's Travis Wilson shortly gets a clean bill of health -- and a solid collection of returning starters, both on the line and the skill positions.

That supports the notion that all three should improve in 2014, particularly with the Pac-12 losing considerable talent on the defensive side of the ball.

So who makes the biggest jump?

We're going with USC under new coach Steve Sarkisian, who was responsible for resurrecting the Huskies' offense in 2013 with a new up-tempo format. We think that offense will be a productive fit for the Trojans.

The key for USC is the offensive line, which lacks depth and might end up starting one or two true freshmen. It must grow up quickly and stay healthy. If it does, QB Cody Kessler should make a significant leap forward -- see how he mostly played over the second half of the season after Lane Kiffin's termination -- and that could push the Trojans scoring into the high 30s.

And, considering USC also should be stout on defense, scoring in the high-30s should put the Trojans squarely in the South Division race.

The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's regular feature, giving you a dose of recruiting in the mornings. Today’s offerings: We’ve reached the end of the spring evaluation period, and college coaches will head home from the road today and shift their focus to upcoming summer camps. There was plenty of movement over the last six weeks as Penn State, Clemson and USC made plenty of noise, but Texas A&M Aggies and Alabama were the stories of the spring.


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College football is not only about being good. It's about scheduling.

So let's look at how the Pac-12 schedules stack up, starting with the South Division (*-denotes FCS team; toughest nonconference game bolded):

You can review the North Division here.

ARIZONA

Nonconference slate: Aug. 30 -- UNLV (7-6); Sept. 6 -- at UTSA (7-5); Sept. 13 -- Nevada (4-8)

Pac-12 misses: Oregon State, Stanford

Road games (5): at UTSA, at Oregon, at Washington State, at UCLA, at Utah

Bye weeks: Sept. 27 (before Thursday game at Oregon); Oct. 18 (before game at Washington State)

Skinny: The Wildcats are in a dead-heat with Colorado for the most favorable schedule in the Pac-12. The nonconference slate is soft, though a trip to UTSA might be tricky, as most road games are. The conference misses are favorable, as Stanford is a top-10 team and the Beavers are a likely bowl team. The Wildcats play five conference home games; USC and Arizona State play four. As for the byes, Oregon and Washington State share them so that boon is neutralized. If the Wildcats can go 3-0 in the nonconference slate and split their conference road games, they have a good shot at eight or even nine wins.

ARIZONA STATE

Nonconference slate: Aug, 28 -- Weber State (2-10)*; Sept. 28 -- at New Mexico (3-9); Nov. 8 -- Notre Dame (9-4)

Pac-12 misses: California, Oregon

Road games (6): at New Mexico, at Colorado, at USC, at Washington, at Oregon State, at Arizona

Bye weeks: Sept. 20 (before Thursday game vs. UCLA); Oct. 11 (before visit from Stanford)

Skinny: The visit from Notre Dame, which the Sun Devils had to fight to retain as the Fighting Irish tried to opt out, gives the nonconference slate some grit. You'd think ASU would be hungry for revenge after it turned in a curiously flat performance against the Irish last season in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The trip to New Mexico is a bit odd. Each of the road conference foes will be seeking revenge after getting blistered in Tempe last season. Missing Cal, at least based on last season, is the worst miss for a South team, but that is balanced by missing Oregon, probably the best miss. UCLA is also off before that critical matchup, but the Sun Devils' bye before facing Stanford could provide an advantage -- as well as extra rest and recovery after a tough game at USC. The Sun Devils played the nation's toughest schedule in 2013, and this one might be only a slight step back.

COLORADO

Nonconference slate: Aug. 30 -- Colorado State (8-6), game in Denver; Sept. 6 -- at Massachusetts (1-11); Sept. 20 -- Hawaii (1-11)

Pac-12 misses: Stanford, Washington State


Road games (5): at UMass, at California, at USC, at Arizona, at Oregon

Bye weeks: Oct. 11 (before visit to USC); Nov. 15 (before visit to Oregon)

Skinny: The question is whether Colorado can claw its way to six wins from this schedule. It's not completely unreasonable to be optimistic. The opener against a rising Colorado State program is critical, as a win there likely secures a 3-0 record in nonconference games. Missing Stanford is good, particularly for a young team trying to regain its footing. The trip to UMass can't be completely overlooked because the Buffaloes have been so awful on the road the past few years. Will byes before road trips to USC and Oregon potentially alter the outcome of those games? We're guessing no. Still, this is a favorable slate, upon which the Buffaloes should take another step forward in their rebuilding.

UCLA

Nonconference slate: Aug. 30 -- at Virginia (2-10); Sept. 6 -- Memphis (3-9); Sept. 13 -- Texas (8-5), at Arlington, Texas

Pac-12 misses: Oregon State, Washington State

Road games (6): at Virginia, at Texas, at Arizona State, at California, at Colorado, at Washington

Bye weeks: Sept. 20 (before Thursday game at Arizona State); Nov. 15 (before USC)

Skinny: UCLA is a favorite in the Pac-12 South and a national title contender, and if it gets to the College Football Playoff playing against this schedule, it will have earned its spot in spades. While Virginia has been struggling, it is an ACC team playing at home. Texas will be looking to make a statement in its home state in Charlie Strong's first season. Therefore, the nonconference schedule should be considered above average in degree of difficulty. The Pac-12 misses are not ideal. UCLA and Stanford are the only two conference teams to miss two teams that have almost no shot for a preseason ranking. The good news is, though there are six road games, only four come in Pac-12 play. The Bruins and Sun Devils both have a bye before their big matchup. The bye before facing USC is slightly countered by the Trojans playing at home against California on Thursday, Nov. 13.

USC

Nonconference slate: Aug. 30 -- Fresno State (11-2); Sept. 13 -- at Boston College (7-6); Nov. 29 -- Notre Dame (9-4)

Pac-12 misses: Washington, Oregon

Road games (6): at Stanford, at Boston College, at Arizona, at Utah, at Washington State, at UCLA

Bye weeks: Sept. 20 (before Oregon State); Nov. 8 (before Thursday game at California)

Skinny: As usual, USC has a tough schedule, but the Pac-12 rotation of misses does provide a boost. The nonconference schedule is rugged, perhaps the Pac-12's toughest, with three solid-to-good teams that played in bowl games a season ago, though the opener against Fresno State won't be as worrisome with QB Derek Carr in the NFL. Having Notre Dame in L.A. also helps. The misses are very advantageous. Oregon is a good miss because it's a top-five team, but Washington also is ideal because it would have invited the storyline of "Steve Sarkisian versus his old team," which would have been a potential distraction. Six road games, including five in the Pac-12, is a burden. At Stanford in week two is a big early matchup, and the Trojans upset the Cardinal a season ago. The bye before Oregon State comes after consecutive road games, including a trip east to Boston, so it is of some benefit. In terms of the South outlook for the top contenders, the Trojans have an easier schedule, at least from a preseason perspective, than UCLA and Arizona State.

UTAH

Nonconference slate: Aug. 28 -- Idaho State (7-6)*; Sept. 6 -- Fresno State (11-2); Sept. 20 -- at Michigan (7-6)

Pac-12 misses: California, Washington

Road games (6): at Michigan, at UCLA, at Oregon State, at Arizona State, at Stanford, at Colorado

Bye weeks: Sept. 13 (before visit to Michigan); Oct. 11 (before visit to Oregon State)

Skinny: Utah had the two best misses -- Oregon and Stanford -- its first two years in the Pac-12, but that's in the past. Of course, the Utes beat Stanford last season, so who knows. As it is, this is one of the three of four toughest slates in the conference. Fresno State is no slouch, and a trip to Michigan is never easy. Missing Washington is pretty good, but missing Cal is not. There are six total road games, including five in conference play, one more than 2013. The bye week before Michigan is ideal, but the bye week before Oregon State is matched by the Beavers. After seeing this slate, some BYU fans might be sympathetic why the Utes are taking a break from the rivalry series. The challenge is whether their are six wins here to get the Utes back to the postseason. Other than the opener with Idaho State, no week is a gimme.

Summer Pac-12 power rankings

May, 27, 2014
May 27
9:00
AM PT
While summer is considered the "offseason," we all know there is no offseason. Every Pac-12 team is either gaining -- or losing -- ground right now due to its focus and effort at getting better, both on a team and individual level.

So how do things stand in advance of teams beginning preseason camp?

Glad you asked (and you can view the final 2013 power rankings here).

1. Oregon: I know. We always rank Oregon here, underrating Stanford and its more physical but less sexy style of play. But the return of QB Marcus Mariota and a veteran offensive line is just too tantalizing. The Ducks look like the Pac-12's best bet for an entrant in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

2. UCLA: I know. We're dropping the two-time defending Pac-12 champions to No. 3, underrating Stanford and its more physical but less sexy style of play. But the Pac-12 blog keeps reviewing the Bruins' depth chart and contemplating a trip to Vegas ... 20/1 ... hmm.

3. Stanford: The quandary with Stanford: Was the defensive front seven dominant this spring because it's going to again be among the best in the nation (probably)? Or was it because four new starters on the O-line means a step back on offense (maybe)? Two other issues: 1. Replacing D-coordinator Derek Mason; 2. Can QB Kevin Hogan improve enough on short and intermediate throws to take advantage of a strong crew of receivers?

4. USC: The Trojans enter the final season under NCAA scholarship reductions with a starting 22 good enough to win the Pac-12, but depth and health are issues. There is a lot to like on both sides of the ball, though the offensive line probably rates as the most critical question mark.

5. Arizona State: The defending South champions are going to be tough to stop on offense behind QB Taylor Kelly and WR Jaelen Strong, but replacing nine starters -- and just about all its star power -- on defense is not an issue you can write off with a "Hey, we've got lots of great JC transfers coming in."

6. Washington: The return of QB Cyler Miles from suspension provides a big boost and probably means that the Huskies can be a factor in the North race. The secondary is a concern, and that's not a good concern to have in the QB-laden conference this fall. And there is some mystery as to whether there will be growing pains during the transition to Chris Petersen from Steve Sarkisian.

7. Oregon State: We expect the Beavers defense to be better this fall compared to last season, so the big question is how do the 10 guys on offense complement QB Sean Mannion? The O-line -- again -- is a question, and it's not easy to replace the nation's best receiver. Still, we expect the 2014 Beavers to be better than the 2013 version. Perhaps much better.

8. Washington State: If you are looking for a true conference dark horse, it's the Cougars. There are questions on the O-line and on defense, but the passing game should be outstanding with third-year starter Connor Halliday and a deep, talented crew of receivers. Put it this way: What does this team look like if it improves as much in Mike Leach's third year as it did in Year 2?

9. Arizona: The Wildcats are outstanding at receiver, good on the offensive line and solid at safety. There are questions just about everywhere else, and the strange thing is that quarterback might be the least worrisome. Still, to show how we view the Pac-12's depth again this fall, the Wildcats over/under for wins is seven.

10. Utah: The Utes situation seems fairly simple. If the production at quarterback is consistent, this is a bowl team. The best bet is with a healthy Travis Wilson, though it really is about just starting the same guy all 12 games.

11. Colorado: The Buffaloes should take another step forward in Year 2 under Mike MacIntyre, but the real issue is whom can they crawl over to rise in the conference pecking order? With about six or seven projected senior starters this fall, the Buffs might not make a move up until 2015.

12. California: If the bet were to pick who finishes last in the Pac-12 in 2014, Cal or the field, I'd be reluctant to tap Cal. I'd much rather go with the field because I think the Bears were awful in Year 1 under Sonny Dykes because of an epidemic of injuries and a poorly-coached defense. The latter should be solved by the hiring of coordinator Art Kaufman, and I can't foresee the injury situation being nearly as bad.
Our first weekend with nothing but Saturday games ...

Week 3 schedule

Saturday, Sept. 13
  • NC State at USF
  • Georgia Southern at Georgia Tech
  • USC at Boston College, ABC/ESPN/ESPN2, 8 p.m.
  • Kansas at Duke
  • Louisville at Virginia, ACC Network, 12:30 p.m.
  • East Carolina at Virginia Tech, ABC/ESPN/ESPN2, noon
  • Syracuse at Central Michigan
  • Pitt at Florida International
  • Arkansas State at Miami, ESPNU, 3:30 p.m.
  • Wake Forest at Utah State
Our pick: USC at Boston College

Why you should come along: It's not often we can get to see a Pac-12 program travel this far East, so we should take advantage of the opportunity when it arises. USC will be entering its third game under new coach Steve Sarkisian, and it will be coming off what promises to be a tough road trip a week earlier at conference rival Stanford. Boston College, meanwhile, will be into the second year of the Steve Addazio regime after a promising inaugural campaign in 2013 -- one whose first loss came at the hand of these Trojans, 35-7, nearly one year to the day of this rematch.

Can the Eagles pull off the big upset and give the ACC a signature nonconference win early on? Don't underestimate this bunch, as it gave Florida State all it could handle last season during the Seminoles' national title campaign. And a night-game atmosphere should only contribute to the frenzy. Any time we can pit L.A. against Boston in any sport, we should sit back and enjoy what's in front of us. So hop on a flight to Boston, enjoy all that the city has to offer (I recommend Grill 23 for dinner Friday night) and take in what promises to be the best atmosphere of the Addazio era for the Eagles.

Road trips
If you’re a longtime USC fan from the baby boomer generation, your memory is probably still intact enough to remember the great home-and-home football series between the Trojans and the Alabama Crimson Tide back in 1970-71.

To best describe that two-game series, just think of legendary college football voice Keith Jackson bellowing out a “Whoa, Nellie!”

Although a lad in my very early 20s at the time, it’s still very easy to recall the games featuring legendary coaches John McKay and Paul “Bear” Bryant. Both games were about as high drama as a college football fan could ask for and each game had significance.


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