USC Trojans: Andrew Luck

Links: Graham buys 'Poison' home

June, 23, 2014
Jun 23
11:30
AM PT
It was like certain dinners I remember from the war. There was much wine, an ignored tension, and a feeling of things coming that you could not prevent happening. Under the wine I lost the disgusted feeling and was happy. It seemed they were all such nice people.
Happy Friday.
 

Lunch links: QB Mariota's return

March, 12, 2014
Mar 12
11:30
AM PT
You take the van, I'll keep the dog.
Looking back at some teams the current group of Pac-12 coaches have led during their respective head-coaching careers turns up an impressive list. All 12 have coached a team to a bowl appearance, 10 have finished a season with double-digit wins and eight have had teams appear in the AP top 10.

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

Here are some notable takeaways:

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

No. 12 Sonny Dykes, Louisiana Tech, 2012

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

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

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

No. 10 Mike MacIntyre, San Jose State, 2012

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

No. 9 Todd Graham, Arizona State, 2013

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

No. 8 Mike Riley, Oregon State, 2008

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

No. 7 Jim Mora, UCLA, 2013

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

No. 6 Mike Leach, Texas Tech, 2008

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

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

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

No. 4 David Shaw, Stanford, 2011

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

No. 3 Rich Rodriguez, West Virginia, 2005

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

No. 2 Chris Petersen, Boise State, 2009

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

No. 1 Kyle Whittingham, Utah, 2008

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

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

Pac-12 leads all-under-25 NFL team

February, 18, 2014
Feb 18
7:00
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Elliot Harrison of NFL.com wanted to make a list of up-and-coming NFL players, so he tapped an all-under-25 NFL team, and nine of his 26 selections played in the Pac-12.

Not only that, the conference, stereotyped as offense-first, had just as many defensive players -- four -- as offense. And his omission of Star Lotulelei, the former Utah defense tackle now starring for the Carolina Panthers, is notable because he finished fourth in the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year vote.

Further, these nine guys came from seven conference teams, so this isn't just about USC's pipeline of five-star recruits to the NFL.

Here's the Pac-12 players on his team.

Offense
QB Andrew Luck (Stanford), Indianapolis Colts
WR Keenan Allen (California), San Diego Chargers
OT Tyron Smith (USC), Dallas Cowboys
OG David DeCastro (Stanford), Pittsburgh Steelers

Defense
DT Jurrell Casey (USC), Tennessee Titans
LB Vontaze Burfict (Arizona State), Cincinnati Bengals
LB Kiko Alonso (Oregon), Buffalo Bills
CB Desmond Trufant (Washington), Atlanta Falcons

Special teams
P Johnny Hekker (Oregon State), St. Louis Rams

Of these players, only Burfict and Allen received high recruiting rankings from ESPN.com. Burfict was the nation's No. 1 inside linebacker and Allen was the nation's No. 5 "athlete." ESPN.com ranked Luck the nation's seventh-best quarterback in 2008.

Casey, DeCastro, Trufant and Alonso rated as solid to off-the-radar prospects in most recruiting rankings.

So, again, the best response when Pac-12 teams don't rate highly in recruiting rankings to shrug and move on with your day.
Welcome to the second half.

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.
It all seemed so simple before Week 1 of last year. Six quarterback competitions, six resolutions before the first game of the year.

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.

[+] EnlargeMax Wittek and Cody Kessler
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsMax Wittek (13) and Cody Kessler (6) will both see time at QB for the Trojans.
The moral of the story: Don’t fear the unknown. But don’t be too comfortable with it, either.

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.”

Pac-12 weekend rewind: Week 3

September, 17, 2012
9/17/12
10:00
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Taking stock of the third week of games in the Pac-12.

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.

[+] EnlargeJosh Nunes
Kyle Terada/US PresswireCardinal quarterback Josh Nunes had one of the biggest plays of the week in the Pac-12.
Best game: Utah's 24-21 win over BYU wasn't pretty. It wasn't, really, even deserving of a "best" tag. But it was really weird, particularly the ending, and weird is often noteworthy. On a weekend when four games came down to the fourth quarter, the Holy War had the most breathless finish because it had two breathless finishes.

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?

Five things to watch: USC-Stanford

September, 14, 2012
9/14/12
11:33
AM PT
LOS ANGELES -- The No. 2-ranked USC Trojans begin Pac-12 conference play Saturday against the Stanford Cardinal at Stanford Stadium (4:30 p.m. PT). Here are five things to watch:

[+] EnlargeMatt Barkley and Robert Woods
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillMatt Barkley and the Trojans hope to turn around a trend that has seen them stumble early out of the blocks in conference play ... as well as lose three consecutive contests to Stanford.
1. No Luck. How much of a problem? By now, just about everybody knows the Cardinal are without former all-everything quarterback Andrew Luck, who graduated to the NFL after last season and now starts for the Indianapolis Colts. What not everybody knows is the name of his replacement: Josh Nunes, a fourth-year player from Upland, Calif. He's been good so far, making few of mistakes that often plague first-time starters. But many of the Trojans weren't afraid to say this week that Nunes is not yet comparable to Luck. For the Cardinal, the obvious narrative after they barely snuck by the San Jose State Spartans to win their opener was growing pains with a first-year signal-caller. But Nunes demonstrated improvement against Duke in Week 2. If they were to upset the Trojans, that would obviously be a sign his growth process has accelerated quite a bit.

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.

Take 2: Trojans vs. Cardinal

September, 14, 2012
9/14/12
9:00
AM PT
Pretty straight forward this week. The first Pac-12 Conference game features two ranked teams with a fun recent history. Make your case:

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.

[+] EnlargeMarqise Lee, Robert Woods
Shelly Castellano/Icon SMIMarqise Lee and Robert Woods (2) are as good a receiving tandem as Stanford coach David Shaw says he's seen.
If Stanford's offensive line can't get a push against San Jose State and Duke, it will not do so against the Trojans. Which means new starting quarterback Josh Nunes will be forced to throw into a very good secondary, one that already has four interceptions.

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.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
Kyle Terada/US PresswireStanford is 4-1 against the Trojans with David Shaw calling the offensive plays.
On paper, this game should be a double-digit win for the Trojans. Even Shaw said he has never seen a pair of wide receivers like Woods and Lee on the same team in the modern football era.

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.
No need to rehash all the gory details of the past five USC-Stanford matchups. We know them by now.

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.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck, Stanford Cardinal
AP Photo/Ben LiebenbergAndrew Luck (12) leads a Stanford stampede after the Cardinal's triple-overtime victory in 2011 -- their third in a row in the series.
In short, Stanford-USC has provided us with some of the most entertaining football -- not just college football, but football -- over the past half-decade. From the on-field heroics to off-field jabbering, this matchup has blossomed into one of the better non-traditional rivalries in the conference. And it continues Saturday in the first league contest of the 2012 season at Stanford Stadium.

"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

Stanford loss: That was then, this is now

September, 12, 2012
9/12/12
4:59
PM PT
LOS ANGELES -- In what turned out to be its most disappointing loss last season, USC lost a triple-overtime thriller to Stanford at the Coliseum after Andrew Luck rebounded from a pick-six to lead his Cardinal to four consecutive touchdowns and a 56-48 win.

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."

(Read full post)

Pac-12 teams getting defensive

August, 22, 2012
8/22/12
9:00
AM PT
T.J. McDonald, Star Lotulelei, Shayne SkovUS PresswireThe Pac-12 boasts some of the best defensive talent in the country: USC safety T.J. McDonald, Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov.
In the depths of their offices, some of the best offensive minds in college football are grinding.

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.

[+] EnlargeKyle Whittingham
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillKyle Whittingham says his defense must be able to adapt to the different offenses in the Pac-12.
"You get Andrew Luck one week and then Matt Barkley the next," said USC safety T.J. McDonald. "The preparation is on a whole other level compared to other conferences. There are great quarterbacks and great receivers and running backs. But the culture of this conference has changed. They've forced defenses to get better."

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."

Post-signing day Power Rankings

February, 6, 2012
2/06/12
9:10
AM PT
We like doing Power Rankings at ESPN.com. These are the post-signing day Power Rankings.

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.

Best Pac-12 atmospheres in 2011

January, 18, 2012
1/18/12
10:23
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I get paid to go to football games. It beats digging ditches for a living.

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.

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