USC Trojans: Clancy Pendergast

Coordinator changes: Pac-12 South

February, 20, 2014
Feb 20
11:00
AM PT
So far, only three Pac-12 teams retained their 2013 offensive and defensive coordinators: Arizona, Colorado and Washington State.

Here's a look at who's in, who's out and what it means in the South Division. You can review the North Division here.

Arizona Wildcats

No change: Rich Rodriguez has proven coordinators on both sides of the ball, with the offensive humming under co-coordinators Calvin Magee and Rod Smith and the 2013 defense being the Pac-12's most improved unit under Jeff Casteel.

Arizona State Sun Devils

Out: Cornerbacks coach and special teams coordinator Joe Lorig left for Utah State, which allowed coach Todd Graham to rejigger his defensive coaching staff. Paul Randolph, a co-defensive coordinator the past two seasons, will serve as senior associate head coach and defensive ends coach.

In: Keith Patterson left West Virginia to co-coordinate the defense with Chris Ball. Patterson will coach linebackers and be the Sun Devils' defensive special teams coach. Ball will continue to serve as the safeties and defensive passing game coach.

Thoughts: A lot of these moves emerged from Graham's concern about special teams, as well as his wish to reunite with an old friend. He and Patterson, according to the press release announcing the hiring, "have a professional and personal relationship that goes back to East Central University where they were college roommates." That same press release noted that "Patterson will oversee the defense, but Graham will be heavily involved in the planning." Graham also will have a "major" role with the special teams coaching and will assist Ball with the cornerbacks. It was also announced that Chip Long, the Sun Devils tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator, will become the offensive special teams coach. As for Patterson's track record, it was a lot better at Pittsburgh than at West Virginia, where the Mountaineers allowed 33.3 and 38.0 points per game over the past two seasons.

Colorado Buffaloes

No change: Colorado's second-year coach Mike MacIntyre retained both defensive coordinator Kent Baer and offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren. Compared to 2012, the Buffaloes scored 7.6 more points per game and allowed 7.8 points fewer per game last season. The overall numbers weren't good, but it was clearly a step in the right direction on both sides of the ball.

UCLA Bruins

Out: Defensive coordinator Lou Spanos left to become the LBs coach for the Tennessee Titans

In: Jeff Ulbrich was promoted from LBs coach and special teams coordinator.

Thoughts: Ulbrich has coached perhaps the Bruins most improved position over the past two years -- linebackers -- and he deserves credit for players like Anthony Barr, Jordan Zumwalt, Myles Jack and Eric Kendricks developing into stars. He also ensures the Bruins improved defense retains schematic continuity. Named the 2013 FootballScoop Special Teams Coordinator of the Year, Ulbrich has guided the Bruins special teams unit to one of the top rankings in the country in each of the last two seasons. Ulbrich also won't have to work too hard to have credibility with his players as he was a LB San Francisco 49ers from 2000-2009.

USC Trojans

Out: Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast

In: Justin Wilcox, who followed new Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian from Washington to USC

Thoughts: Sarkisian decided to retain USC offensive coordinator Clay Helton, though like his predecessor, Lane Kiffin, Sarkisian will call offensive plays. Pendergast did a great job last year with his hybrid 3-4, which he termed a 5-2. Wilcox is widely seen as one of the nation's top defensive coordinators and a future head coaching candidate. His scheme won't be too much different than what the Trojans ran last year, though the Huskies officially ran a 4-3.

Utah Utes

Out: Co-offensive coordinators Dennis Erickson and Brian Johnson were demoted to running backs and quarterbacks coaches, respectively. Johnson then left Utah to become Mississippi State's quarterbacks coach.

In: Former Wyoming head coach Dave Christensen was hired to be the Utes’ single offensive coordinator

Thoughts: Will Christensen bring the Utes offense stability? He's their sixth different play caller in six years. The good news is he's highly regarded, getting hired at Wyoming because of the work he did with Missouri's offense. Johnson's departure probably helps reduce the feeling that there are too many cooks in the kitchen, seeing that he, Erickson and Aaron Roderick, now the Utes QBs coach after coaching receivers since 2005, have each been in the coordinator carousel at Utah. Head coach Kyle Whittingham also hired former Purdue All-American Taylor Stubblefield to coach receivers. Christensen, an offensive line specialist, will oversee tight ends.

Poll: Top defense in 2014?

February, 14, 2014
Feb 14
1:00
PM PT
The shuffling of defensive coordinators appears to be over. We think. And as previously noted, all five of the top scoring defenses in the Pac-12 last year have seen changes at the top of the defensive coaching hierarchy. Three of the hires were internal promotions and two were coordinators who stayed with their head coach while switching schools.

This is how the top five scoring defenses played out last year:
  1. Stanford (19.0 points per game)
  2. Oregon (20.5)
  3. USC (21.2)
  4. Washington (22.8)
  5. UCLA (23.2)

Who got the better end of the deal? Sounds like a poll question for you to ponder all weekend long.

Which team will lead the Pac-12 in scoring defense in 2014?

Your options:

SportsNation

Which team will lead the Pac-12 in scoring defense in 2014?

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    17%
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    30%
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    25%
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    11%
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Discuss (Total votes: 4,124)

Stanford: Derek Mason departed to become head coach at Vanderbilt and Lance Anderson was promoted from within. The Cardinal lose some marquee players but have others such as safety Jordan Richards and linebacker A.J. Tarpley returning.

Oregon: Out is longtime coordinator Nick Aliotti, who retired. In is longtime position coach Don Pellum. The Ducks lose some talent but return standout cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who gives the Ducks' secondary instant credibility.

USC: Clancy Pendergast was not retained by new head coach Steve Sarkisian. So Justin Wilcox is in after working his magic at Washington. The Trojans lost a lot of players to the draft, but a couple key players are back and there is a pretty good crop of young, talented players.

Washington: New head coach Chris Petersen brought his guy, Pete Kwiatkowski, with him from Boise State. The Huskies made tremendous strides in two seasons under Wilcox and have some pretty solid personnel returning.

Other: UCLA's Lou Spanos returned to the NFL and Jeff Ulbrich was promoted from within. Head coach Jim Mora will still oversee a lot of the defense. Though impact players like Anthony Barr and Cassius Marsh are gone, the Bruins have plenty of talent coming back. ... Arizona was sixth in the conference last year and made huge strides from 2012 to 2013. Can it keep the momentum going? ... Arizona State (seventh) also shuffled its defensive staff around with the hiring of Keith Patterson, though Todd Graham will still be heavily involved in the defense. ... Utah (eighth) is just two seasons removed from leading the conference in scoring defense. Can the Utes get back to the top?
The Pac-12 has seen a flurry of defensive coordinator movement over the last couple of weeks -- starting with the power struggle for former Washington defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox to the recent exoduses of Stanford’s Derek Mason to Vanderbilt as head coach and UCLA’s Lou Spanos to the Tennessee Titans as linebackers coach. Oregon’s promotion of Don Pellum to defensive coordinator to replace Nick Aliotti will also shine a spotlight on the Ducks’ defense in 2014 and beyond.

And then there is, of course, former USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who mysteriously continues to be out of work.

[+] EnlargeKevin Hogan, Scott Crichton
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesOregon State defensive end Scott Crichton is among the Pac-12 defensive stars entering the NFL in 2014.
Look at the top five scoring defenses in the Pac-12 in 2013: Stanford, Oregon, USC, Washington and UCLA, respectively. All five have had defensive coordinators in flux in the young offseason.

That makes for an interesting transition period for the Pac-12. Defenses had closed the gap in recent years with several teams ranking in the top 25 nationally in scoring defense. That in itself is an achievement considering the level of offensive skill players and the diversity of offenses in the conference.

But when you look ahead to 2014, there are a lot of quarterbacks coming back to man the league’s high-powered offenses -- Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley, Taylor Kelly, Sean Mannion, Connor Halliday, etc. You combine that with a massive talent drain of defensive players graduating or declaring for the NFL, plus all of the shifting within the defensive coaching ranks, and you have to wonder if 2014 is going to be the Year of Offense in the Pac-12.

Consider a few of the defensive standouts leaving: Anthony Barr (UCLA), Will Sutton (ASU), Shayne Skov (Stanford), Dion Bailey (USC), Terrance Mitchell (Oregon), Scott Crichton (Oregon State), Trent Murphy (Stanford), Carl Bradford (ASU), Deone Bucannon (Washington State), Trevor Reilly (Utah). There are a couple dozen others who aren’t mentioned who were high-impact guys like Stanford’s Ben Gardner and Ed Reynolds, Jordan Zumwalt and Cassius Marsh from UCLA and Alden Darby, Osahon Irabor and Robert Nelson from ASU.

In total, 19 of the 25 all-conference defensive players from 2013 will be gone next year -- including 10 of 12 from the first team. Plus about a dozen more that were honorable mention are leaving or graduating. That is a major hit to the defensive talent in the league.

The Pac-12 is rarely appreciated nationally for its defensive prowess, either from a player or coaching perspective. And now three of the best coordinators in the conference are gone, one has moved from Washington to USC and another is looking for a gig.

Pac-12 offenses are going to be loaded in 2014 while the defenses have huge question marks. There is plenty of young talent. Guys like Myles Jack (UCLA), Addison Gillam (Colorado) and Su’a Cravens (USC) have all made names for themselves early in their careers. There are also some very notable returners like Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (Oregon), Henry Anderson (Stanford), Shaq Thompson (Washington) and Hayes Pullard (USC).

But a lot more is gone than is coming back.

That opens the door for all sorts of comparison storylines. Wilcox did an outstanding job re-tooling the defense at Washington. And now Pete Kwiatkowski will be measured against what Wilcox was able to accomplish. Likewise, Pendergast probably should have been USC’s MVP for what he did with the Trojans in one season. Now Wilcox has to take over an outfit that is losing a lot of playmakers to the NFL. No doubt, he’ll be compared to his predecessor. Just as Pellum will be compared to Aliotti, and whoever fills the seats at Stanford and UCLA will be compared to what Mason and Spanos were able to accomplish.

The guard is changing, as it does every year in college football. This year it might be the Pac-12 defenses that take a step back.

Mailbag: Kelly, Sark and the SEC

January, 17, 2014
Jan 17
5:30
PM PT
Happy Friday. This is the Mailbag.

Follow the Pac-12 blog on Twitter. It makes trolling SO MUCH EASIER!

To the notes!

(Two exclamation points and we haven't even started! Wait … three!)

Eric from Hollywoodland, Calif., writes: I understand that the Pac-12 won a pretty major NFL draft battle in keeping the marquee QBs (Hundley, Mariota, Mannion and oft unmentioned Kelly), but why is one of the prevailing storylines STILL "SEC SO GOOD. SEC LOSES SO MANY PLAYER EARLY. ONLY SEC CAN RECOVER FROM SUCH LOSS??" Correct me if I'm wrong, but my Pac-12 educated brain tells me that 12 teams losing 25 players (2.083/team) might be even worse than 14 teams losing 28 players (2/team), right?

Ted Miller: Well, the SEC lost 32 players last year and the Pac-12 lost only 10.

And then the NFL draft happened -- 63 SEC draft picks vs. 28 for Pac-12 -- which, by the way, became the grounds for the Pac-12 blog believing the SEC might slide in 2013 while the Pac-12 might rise.

My feeling is the Pac-12 will do well in this year's draft, probably finishing a respectable distance behind the SEC. But it's a pretty clear recent trend that the SEC provides the most talent to the NFL among the major conferences.

However, it's also notable that the Pac-12's 2013 NFL rookie class was pretty darn salty, with former Oregon Ducks LB Kiko Alonso and California WR Keenan Allen being named defensive and offensive Rookies of the Year, and a number of other former conference standouts making a significant mark.




Erik from Portland writes: With [Steve] Sarkisian talking about USC going to an uptempo attack, shouldn't there be concern about whether or not the defense will be able to hold up? Aliotti alternated players constantly to keep them fresh. SC doesn't have the numbers or depth at any position (especially DL and LB) to do that.

Ted Miller: It will be a concern. It's simple math: Uptempo offenses possess the ball for shorter periods of time, which means more plays for your defense. More plays for your defense means more tired players if you aren't regularly shuffling in quality backups. USC doesn't have a lot in the way of quality backups.

One of the more impressive things about USC's defense under Clancy Pendergast this year was it attained some outstanding numbers while pretty much playing only 13 guys regularly.

Will the Trojans be deeper on defense next year? Perhaps, but only slightly so. Bottom line: Because of NCAA scholarship sanctions, USC will have no more than 72 players on scholarship in 2014, which is 13 fewer bodies than other teams are permitted.

But guess what? Sarkisian knows this. And he's a smart guy. I suspect he will pick his moments and not go all-in. I'm fairly certain USC won't be 100 percent no-huddle, uptempo next fall, particularly with a lead. I think his goal will be to control the tempo and find times to get an opposing defense off balance.

Of course, Sarkisian's desire to adopt an uptempo offense at USC is a long-term plan, at least until his philosophy changes considering this was his first year going that way. This is USC's last recruiting class that will be limited. So, starting in 2015, there should be more fresh body reinforcements.




Gee from Seattle writes: Can the SEC or any other conference put three or even four teams in the playoff next year? If so, how did this come about? Shouldn't the system allow for at least three conference champions and perhaps one at large?

Ted Miller: There are no limits on teams per conference in the four-team playoff, nor are there specific requirements for selection. The goal of the selection committee will be to pick the four best teams. Not the most deserving -- the four best.

So, yes, if a consensus from the committee is that three -- or four! -- of the best teams in the nation come from the SEC or any other conference, they will be selected.

But know that the committee also won't be eager to do that. For one, if you pick, say, three SEC teams, there's the possibility of rematches, which the committee will know fans don't like to see -- see the unpopular LSU-Alabama national title game after the 2011 season.

My guess is we're probably going to see plenty of four-team playoffs with two teams from once conference, most likely the SEC, but three will be highly unlikely.




Scott from Homewood, Calif., writes: Ted, was wondering about your final top 25 poll. Aren't you getting away from your stance of "strength of schedule should mean something" by putting Clemson so high and ahead of Stanford? Yes, Clemson won their last game against a good Ohio State team and Stanford lost their last game to a better Michigan State team. When you look at the schedules, though, they are worlds apart. Name another ranked team that Clemson beat. There are 0 such wins. Stanford beat six ranked teams. Clemson got beat by double digits in its two losses. Stanford lost their three games by single scores and two were against ranked teams. Do you really think Clemson would win on a neutral field, and if you were on the playoff committee, would you really slot Clemson ahead of Stanford looking at the seasons of both teams?

Ted Miller: I see your point. I do almost always prioritize quality wins.

The combination of a head-to-head win and strength-of-schedule is why I ranked Stanford ahead of Oregon in my final poll, even though this didn't happen in either the AP or coaches poll. The Cardinal had a lot more quality wins than Oregon, including the best one -- the Ducks themselves.

But you asked about Clemson.

Part of my ranking Clemson sixth is pretty simple: My final position on Clemson is it was an elite team in 2013. It was the same justification I used earlier in the year to rank Oregon No. 2, even though the Ducks didn't post a quality victory until winning at Washington on Oct. 12.

Now, I didn't give Clemson the benefit of the doubt much of the season. I had them ranked 13th heading into the bowl games. I jumped them up because I consider the win over Ohio State impressive.

Clemson lost two games by decisive margins, yes, but they were to Florida State, which won the national title, and South Carolina, which finished ranked fourth. Further, I watched the South Carolina game, and it was a lot closer than the deceiving final score. Clemson seemed like the better team, outgaining the Gamecocks, but it lost the turnover battle 6-0.

6-0! I bet Tigers fans were ripping their eyes out watching that.

Further, Clemson beat Georgia while Georgia was still Georgia -- fifth-ranked and an elite team that hadn't yet suffered epidemic injuries. Georgia beat South Carolina the week after losing to Clemson.

Clemson, by the way, has now beaten two top-10 teams in a row in bowl games: LSU in 2012 and Ohio State this year.

(If I had a quibble with my own ballot, in fact, it would be that I ranked Clemson sixth and Oklahoma seventh. At the time I put the ballot together, I considered Oklahoma's losses worse -- Texas and Baylor -- and the Sooners' best win -- Oklahoma State -- was devalued when the Cowboys lost to Missouri in the Cotton Bowl. I could go either way on that, because the Sooners beating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl was very impressive.)




Kevin from Orange County, Calif., writes: Regarding the Wazzu meltdown in their bowl game, why not mention the Stanford/UCLA game? Around two minutes left in the game, Stanford up 17-10 and inside UCLA 10-yard line and UCLA with no timeouts. ... Instead of going to the knee three straight times and guaranteeing a win, Shaw decides to run and try to score. The only way UCLA has a chance is a Stanford turnover or Stanford scores quickly and gives UCLA enough time to score themselves and get an onside kick (UCLA/Utah situation at the end of game). My point is why is Shaw getting a pass for his stupid play-calling at the end of that game if Wazzu is second-guessed? Only difference seems to be that Stanford won and Wazzu lost.

Ted Miller: You might have guessed this, but the bold and italics for the final sentence were supplied by me.

It is true. When a strategy works, it rarely gets criticized. And when it fails, it does.

Remember Chip Kelly's shocking onside kick early in the second quarter against Stanford in 2010, with the Cardinal leading 21-10? It was a game-changing moment. It was pure genius.

And we would have thought Kelly had lost his mind if Stanford had recovered and then driven for a 28-10 lead. We would have typed, "Just as Oregon seemed to have gained momentum after a terrible start, Kelly tried to get too fancy and he handed the game to Andrew Luck and Stanford. It's clear that Kelly is in over his head as a head coach and is never, ever, ever going to be successful."

Well, the last part was just me pouring it on.

Also, understand that the Pac-12 blog's consternation over the end game wasn't just about clock management. It was about yielding a 22-point lead, playing horrendous fourth-quarter defense and coughing up the ball two times in the final two minutes.

It was a total package of meltdown.




Eric from Culver City, Calif., writes: Am I a bad person for finding these Chip Kelly quotes hilarious? Do media folk find him condescending, or is there a small amount of joy in getting slammed by a master? I mean, who wouldn't want to get insulted by Don Rickles?

Ted Miller: Some might find him condescending, but my feeling is most reporters enjoyed working with Kelly.

Yes, he could be biting. But typically he was biting when someone asked him either: 1. A stupid question; 2. A question that he didn't want to answer. Asking the latter is often part of the reporter's job, and the truth is a biting answer is more fun than him saying, "No comment."

Further, most of his best quips aren't biting. They're him having fun. News conferences with NFL coaches are typically drab affairs. Any added color is appreciated.

As in, "This team is not going to fall for the banana-in-the-tailpipe trick."

Erroneous!

It seemed New Orleans stuck a banana in the Eagles' tailpipe.
Welcome to the mailbag, which nine out of 10 dentists agree has no bearing on your oral health.

Bobby in Phoenix writes: Mark May said the following yesterday: "I heard through the grapevine, not publicly, but privately, Todd Graham was lobbying like heck to get the Texas job," May told Burns and Gambo on Arizona Sports now on 98.7 FM Tuesday. "Chew on that one, Arizona State Sun Devils fans." I heard it from not one, but two of our reporters at ESPN, that he was lobbying to get that job. It was another one of his 'dream jobs.' Any comments? My thought would be that if not one, but TWO ESPN reporters knew about this they would... umm.... report it? When will his Pitt bias stop seeping through everything he says and Todd Graham and ASU?

Kevin Gemmell: I didn’t hear May’s comments or the interview, so I can only go off of what you said. But there is certainly a gut reaction when the rest of the country hears the name Todd Graham, they instantly think villain.

You know what’s funny is when Brady Hoke left San Diego State after two seasons, he did the exact same thing -- he sent a text blast to the players and that was that. He got on a plane and never returned to San Diego. He was lauded as a hero and treated like Caesar returning from Germania when he got to Ann Arbor. No one cared about how he left SDSU.

But this one stuck with Graham and probably will stick with him for a long time. It’s fascinating how perception and public opinion shapes who we celebrate and who we demonize.

I got to spend a lot of time with Graham this season -- including four days behind the scenes. I was given complete access to everything -- player meetings, coaches meetings, I sat with Graham, offensive coordinator Mike Norvell and the quarterbacks at the team dinner and was with the coaches for their final huddle 10 minutes before kickoff of the Wisconsin game. (I even went out the Tillman Tunnel with the team, and I can tell you that was one of the greatest moments of my career). In my time with Graham, I learned he’s the exact same guy behind closed doors as he is in front of a microphone. I really doubt he’s going to put on a four-day show -- and maintain it -- for little ole’ me. If he did, give him the Academy Award.

Is it possible he could jump ship sometime soon? Of course. The guy can coach. That’s why he keeps getting hired. And he hires great coaches to coach alongside him (Gus Malzahn, Chad Morris, Mike Norvell, etc.).

He’s always going to have the Pitt stigma that follows him. Maybe it’s deserved. Maybe it’s time to let it go. Either way, I like his style. I like his schemes. And l like his accountability. After the Holiday Bowl, he put it all on himself. That’s what a coach is supposed to do.

I’ve been lied to plenty by coaches. That comes with asking questions they don’t want to answer. But I’ve also had coaches be totally honest and stand by their word. My gut tells me Graham likes the spot he’s in and he likes the support he’s getting from the administration.


Wayne in Mesa, Ariz. writes: Why was the Pac-12 Championship Game for 2014 moved back to a Friday night? I can understand TV ratings a bit, although the 2013 game had a great Saturday evening time slot. As for attendance, the Saturday date allows for better attendance and more time for the buzz to build up -- as the incredible atmosphere in and around Sun Devil Stadium this past fall would attest!

Kevin Gemmell: Go to your living room. On your coffee table, you’ll probably see a black, rectangular object with many different buttons. Push the one that says “power” and a talking picture box will come to life, projecting real life sounds and images.

Do not be scared or attempt to interact with these moving pictures. They can’t see or hear you.

FOX has the Pac-12 championship game this year, as well as the Big Ten title game the next day. So, yes, it’s TV driven.

I think there is something to be said about being the first game of championship weekend. You get the national audience (at least those who choose to stay up) all to yourself. But from a fan perspective -- especially those attending the game -- it can be a hassle. You have to deal with work and traffic and chances are it won’t be a full stadium -- which never bodes well for the conference.


John in New York writes: USC-UCLA, Stanford-USC, Oregon-Washington, Oregon-Oregon State, Arizona-Arizona State. I'd be really interested to know how you'd rank these particular rivalries, from top to bottom?

Kevin Gemmell: Ranking rivalry games is a fairly futile exercise, because rivalries will always mean more to the folks who have a vested interest in the outcome. Try convincing an Arizona fan that the Apple Cup is more important than the Territorial Cup.

Case in point, I grew up in the Bay Area under the umbrella of the Cal-Stanford rivalry. And though I didn’t attend either school, I consider it one of the greatest rivalries there is because that’s what my personal experience is. Just as I think Will Clark is the greatest baseball player ever and it’s a shame that he’s not in the Hall of Fame.

But I also understand, given the way the Stanford-USC rivalry has played out over the last half decade, that game certainly qualifies as a rivalry. Same for Oregon-Washington and the budding UCLA-Arizona State rivalry.

I know folks are trying to make a rivalry out of the Utah-Colorado matchup. That makes sense, considering both joined the league at the same time. But rivalries aren’t artificially created. They just happen. Colorado fans will always have a bitterness for Nebraska, just as Utah fans will always consider BYU their rival.

The only reason to rank rivalries is to stir the pot and drum up some artificial controversy to give folks a reason to troll and flame.

Which is why Arizona-Arizona State is the best rivalry of all time and always will be. Discuss.


Michigan Trojan in Ann Arbor, Mich. writes: Kevin and Ted … Though I hope they get drafted and have successful NFL careers, I am a little puzzled by the early exits of Xavier Grimble, Dion Bailey, George Uko, and especially Marcus Martin (and possibly Hayes Pullard and Josh Shaw) at USC. Marqise Lee is a sure-fire 1st round pick so I cannot argue with his leaving. But the others, especially guys like Grimble and Martin, were poised to have big years, with lots of exposure that could have made them locks in the second or third round, or possibly surprise first round picks. I know some of them were redshirts, and will technically have their degree in May, but if the NFL is their first stop in terms of profession, why not maximize your potential? Most of these guys will be fourth-round picks at best, and probably have to fight to make a practice squad if they go undrafted. Do you think some of this has to do with what Sarkisian is trying to do at USC, in terms of revamping the defense, and bringing in different position coaches? I also have heard that guys were impressed by the somewhat unexpected success of early-entry guys like undrafted Nickell Robey at the next level. The exodus probably sets SC football back a few wins next year, but again, as individuals, I hope they succeed beyond expectations at the next level.

Kevin Gemmell: It’s obviously different for every guy, so there is no one magic bullet answer. Sometimes it has to do with money. Sometimes it has to do with a coaching change. And sometimes guys simply don’t want to be in school anymore.

I do think USC players are a special exception. The college experience probably hasn’t been a great one for them when you look at the ups and downs of the program the last few years. Most of these guys came in when the sanctions were announced or right in the middle of them. They had bowl bans. They had a disastrous 2012. They saw three different head coaches in 2013.

Can you really blame some of them for wanting to get out and make a little money?

Robey is a fine example of a guy who went undrafted, but had a huge year for the Bills. If I’m his friend and former teammate, that gives both hope and false hope. There’s the thought that if I don’t get drafted, I can still do what Robey did. But for every Robey, there are dozens of other guys who find themselves either on practice squads or boning up on their “ehs?” in the Canadian League. And yes, there is at least one player from a Pac-12 school on every CFL roster, except Montreal (I checked).

I do think a new coaching staff probably had something to do with it as well as the fact that Clancy Pendergast isn’t coming back. For those defensive guys, it would be their third coordinator in the last two years. That’s frustrating. So, and I’m just speculating here, in their eyes if they have to adjust to a new coaching staff, they might as well get paid in the process.


Ryan in Palo Alto, Calif. writes: More math: You wrote: "So the likelihood of the Pac-12 winning all nine games -- even though it was favored in all nine -- seemed highly unlikely. "Actually probability alone (and not underdog motivation or favorite complacency) makes your statement true. Assume for sake of argument, the Vegas line said each Pac-12 team had an 80 percent chance to win. (Of course, different lines for each team and I have no idea what line corresponds to an 80 percent win chance, but useful thought experiment). The chances of all nine teams winning still comes out to only about 13.4 percent.

Kevin Gemmell: This is why Pac-12 blog readers are the life of all social gatherings.

Season review: USC

January, 7, 2014
Jan 7
5:30
PM PT
Our season reviews continue in alphabetic order.

Next up is USC.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler, Clay Helton
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesCody Kessler showed improvement with Clay Helton calling the plays.
Offense: When taking stock of the USC offense, you really have to look at it like it was two different seasons: The Lane Kiffin swan song vs. the Ed Orgeron rebirth. The first few games were an extended tryout at the quarterback spot, which was eventually won by Cody Kessler. In the first five games under Kiffin, Kessler completed 63 percent of his throws, averaged 166.4 yards per game and had six touchdowns to four interceptions. His raw QBR was 39.9 and his adjusted QBR was 48.9. Post Kiffin, when Clay Helton stepped in to call the plays, Kessler completed 65 percent of his throws and threw 14 touchdowns to three interceptions. As a team, they averaged 26 points in the first five games and 31.7 over the final nine. We also saw the emergence of Buck Allen at tailback. Once he started getting regular carries, he had four 100-yard rushing games in his final six games and 12 touchdowns over that same span. Often-injured Marqise Lee couldn’t follow up on his 2012 Belitnikoff Award season, but Nelson Agholor came on strong. It will be interesting to see what USC looks like as an uptempo offense with Steve Sarkisian at the helm. Grade: C+

Defense: For all the heat Kiffin took – including one last final burn – he also recognized that the Trojans needed to move to an odd front to keep up with some of the perimeter speed in the league. And he knew he had the horses. Hiring Clancy Pendergast was a wise decision. In one season under Pendergast, the Trojans cut their points allowed by more than a field goal, made huge strides in rush defense (167 yards allowed in 2012 compared to 120.3 in 2013) and were on the plus side of turnover margin at plus-6 after going minus-2 in 2012 and minus-1 in 2011. Four players landed on the first- or second-team all-league squads and Leonard Williams emerged as one of the most dominant defensive linemen in the country. Statistically, the Trojans ranked in the top three or four in the league in most major categories. Yes, there were a couple of bad games. But there was a lot more good than bad as the Trojans allowed fewer than 20 points in nine of 13 games. Grade: A-

Special teams: The Trojans were first in the league in punt returns with three touchdowns (two from Agholor), but last in the league in kick returns. They were second to last in the league in touchbacks, but had one of the stronger kick coverage teams in the league. Andre Heidari was just 15 of 22 on field goals, but he came up clutch in the Stanford game. And they were 2 for 2 on onside kicks. Some units were really good. Some, not so much. Grade: C+

Overall: Few teams in college football history had to endure the kind of internal drama that USC faced this year. And to come out on the other end up – ranked in the Top 25 and winning a bowl game over a ranked team – speaks to the character of the seniors and the job Orgeron did in relief. But it wasn’t all peaches. While the Trojans did score a huge win over Stanford, they still lost to Notre Dame and UCLA – a couple of big no-nos with the fans, die-hard and casual alike. Firing a coach midseason usually means throwing up a white flag. So we certainly give credit where credit is due. The Trojans fought hard. The losses were ugly (see: State, Washington; State, Arizona; and Dame, Notre). The future of the USC program is certainly going to be an interesting one. But when you peel back all of the layers of 2013 and reflect on what USC managed to get done, it’s hard not to respect where they ended up compared to where they could have ended up. Grade: B-

Mailbag: Holiday Bowl blues

December, 31, 2013
12/31/13
5:30
PM PT
First off, a great, big thank you to everyone who sent Merry Christmas notes to the mailbag. They were received ... and appreciated.

To the notes!

Alex in Las Vegas writes: Hi Kevin: What is it that causes Pac 12 teams to lay eggs repeatedly at the Holiday Bowl? The Big 12 teams always seem to show up.

Kevin Gemmell: Though no one actually comes out and says it, there seems to be a vibe around the Pac-12 team at the National University Holiday Bowl the last few years that it somehow feel slighted or miffed to be there. Consider ASU this season. Technically speaking, it was the runner-up in the Pac-12 after losing to Stanford in the title game. But the Valero Alamo Bowl, which has the first pick of Pac-12 teams after the BCS, opted for an Oregon team that lost two conference games.

Same thing last year with UCLA -- which was the league runner-up and won its division. But it was passed over for Oregon State.

There is also something to be said for the delay between the end of the season and the actual bowl game. A lot happens to teams in three weeks. Some teams come in prepared. Other don’t. And a lot of times it’s a crap shoot on what you’re going to get. I’m pretty confident that if Arizona State played Texas Tech in early November, the Sun Devils would have rolled the Red Raiders.

But Texas Tech had that us-vs.-the-world mentality that they rallied around when no one gave them a chance. This game is a built-in trap game for the Pac-12, because the Pac-12 team is usually perceived to be the “better” of the two teams so the Big 12 team has nothing to lose.

It hasn’t been totally one-sided. Washington topped Nebraska in 2009. Oregon beat OSU in 2008 and Cal beat Texas A&M in 2006. Washington State’s last bowl appearance -- prior to this season -- was a 28-20 win over Texas in 2003.

But I’ve said many times that motivation plays a huge role in the postseason. One team looked motivated to be there last night. The other didn’t.

Dave in Bend, Ore. writes: Wilcox or Pendergast? Which one can stop run-first spread offenses with mobile QBs? USC made improvements in its defensive stats overall. While USC showed it can handle the pro style of pass-centric offenses (Stanford, BC & Fresno State) the Trojans had horrible defensive games against ASU and UCLA. The defense was also fortunate to miss both [Keith] Price and [Marcus] Mariota. Perhaps this helped the stats. Don't get me wrong if Pendergast stays (stayed), I think he might be fine but it is far from a slam dunk considering the road back to the top of the Pac 12 goes through schools with mobile QBs.

Gemmell: Well, it’s official that Justin Wilcox is headed to USC, which means an extremely good coordinator in Clancy Pendergast is going to be on the market. And I’m willing to bet Mark Helfrich has already made that phone call.

I’m guessing you’re referring to last week’s mailbag where I broke down the improvements Wilcox and Pendergast brought to their respective programs. But you raise an interesting point about the mobile QBs/spread offenses. So I took a look at how USC and Washington both faired against ASU and UCLA -- two of the schools you brought up. And the numbers are actually pretty similar.

Against both of those teams, USC gave up an average of 48.5 points, 504 total yards, 279.5 passing yards, 224.5 rushing yards, 79.5 quarterback rushing yards and two QB rushing touchdowns. Washington gave up an average of 47 points, 495.5 total yards, 227.5 passing yards, 268 rushing yards, 49.5 QB rushing yards and two QB rushing touchdowns.

So both USC and Washington struggled against those teams. And when you factor in Oregon, which Washington played but USC didn’t, the Huskies gave up 45 points, 631 total yards, 366 in the air, 265 on the ground and 88 yards and a touchdown to Mariota.

Both are outstanding coordinators and coaches and both know how to scheme. But sometimes the guys on the other side of the field are just better at what they do. And in the case of Washington and USC this season, they didn’t have the answers. It doesn’t mean one coordinator is “better” than the other. Most teams in the country struggled against UCLA, Oregon and Arizona State.

USC is getting an outstanding coordinator. Whomever gets Pendergast is going to get an outstanding coordinator. And my hope is that he stays in the Pac-12 because the league is better off with him in it.

Pac-12 fan in Reno writes: Kevin - I'm disappointed that you have allowed yourself to be duped into believing that AU is going to be scary good next season. Yes, the Wildcats have some good WRs and 8 or 9 scholarship QBs (he-he), but it takes more than that to win in the Pac-12. A defense and an O-line can come in handy in our conference. I don't see how some me-first transfers and malcontents are going to change the outlook. They will win 7 games with their SEC-like nonconference schedule, but will find the going awfully tough in the Pac-12 without Ka'Deem [Carey]. AU is a basketball school that has reached its football ceiling. Go Dawgs!!

Kevin Gemmell: I agree. It does take more than wide receivers. And I certainly don’t ever remember saying that Arizona was going to win the Pac-12. I believe the quote I used in last week’s mailbag was: “But Arizona does indeed have some scary potential next year.”

Potential being the operative word.

I still think the balance of power lies in the North Division until proven otherwise. There have been three Pac-12 championship games, and the North has won all three. Until that changes, it is still the dominant division.

However, I do think Arizona has a bunch of talented players coming off the scout team who could make them more competitive in the South Division -- which is pretty wide open. Cayleb Jones, Davonte’ Neal and Austin Hill coming back from injuries certainly are a massive boost.

But the question with Arizona is still going to be quarterback. B.J. Denker did a better job as the season progressed in the passing game, but his greatest asset was as a runner. Whomever is the starter in 2014 will likely have more a down-the-field presence than Denker did. And with that amazing wide receiver corps, they are going to do some damage offensively.

As for Rich Rodriguez, well, I think it’s just silly to say Arizona has reached its football ceiling. Just as I think it’s silly to classify the Wildcats as just a basketball school. They have spent plenty of time through the years as a ranked team. And yes, I am a RichRod fan. Not because his name is fun to say. But because he’s an offensive innovator, and his teams are fun to watch. And the fact that he’s had them in back-to-back bowl games speaks to the potential of the program.

If you really want to know what went on at Michigan, read Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football by John U. Bacon. That’ll tell you all you need to know.

Arizona might not win the Pac-12 South next season, but I can promise you the Wildcats are a team no one is looking forward to playing.

Caleb in Spokane, Wash. writes: Hi Kevin. Do you think that the Cougs losing that bowl game will hurt the quality of the players they get in the offseason? I am a die-hard Coug but seeing the worst "Couging it" of all-time, I am worried about the players for next year. Also, do you think the Cougs should stick with Connor Halliday?

Kevin Gemmell: I think Mike Leach will open up the competition, but I’d be surprised if Halliday doesn’t retain the job. There is no substitute for experience, and when you look at his numbers over the final five games, you can see a pretty clear improvement in his efficiency with 16 touchdowns to five interceptions. Even taking away the Gildan New Mexico Bowl, it’s still 10 touchdowns to four interceptions.

Then again, Leach has been known to play fast and loose with his quarterbacks, so who knows?

As for how the bowl loss impacts recruiting, I don’t think it’s going to be significant. You can check out their recruiting page here, and as you can see, there are some pretty good prospects coming in -- including a couple of highly-rated running backs.

If you’re Leach and his staff, you sell the immediate progress the program has made in just two seasons. This was supposed to be the final rebuilding year before a push to the postseason in 2014. But Leach had his own agenda, and you look back at games like USC, Arizona and Utah as the difference-makers.

The Cougars took a very big step forward, and despite the bowl loss, momentum is on their side. I think they keep it rolling into recruiting and into next year. A couple more seasons under Leach, and the Cougars could be in that eight-nine win range.

Adam in Los Angeles writes: Brett Hundley staying or going. Discuss.

Kevin Gemmell: I’m of the opinion that if Jim Mora would have gone elsewhere, then Hundley certainly would have gone. It wouldn’t have made sense for him to stick around one more season with a third head coach, a third coordinator and a third offensive system. As I previously wrote somewhere else (it all blurs, might have been a column or a story or a chat), if he’s going to learn a third system, it might as well be in the NFL.

But the fact that UCLA ponied up and extended Mora -- and more specifically gave more money to his assistants -- bodes well for his chances of staying for another season. The draft landscape is interesting next year with Mariota and Bryce Petty and maybe Jameis Winston all in the mix.

In 2013, Hundley upped his completion percentage and his raw and adjusted QBR. He took fewer sacks and threw fewer interceptions. If he can refine that raw talent just a little bit more, he could play himself into possibly being a top-five NFL pick.

USC's Pendergast factor

December, 28, 2013
12/28/13
12:30
PM PT
A couple of you have asked about the difference Clancy Pendergast made for USC's defense this fall, which is a pretty easy to quantify.

And it seems some of you asked specifically because Oregon is now looking for a defensive coordinator after Nick Aliotti announced his retirement Friday after the Valero Alamo Bowl on Dec. 30.

We sometimes do take requests at the Pac-12 blog.

With seven starters back from the 2012 unit, the improvement was dramatic and across the board, despite the Trojans switching schemes from Monte Kiffin's 4-3 Tampa 2 to Pendergast's 3-4 -- or 5-2, as he calls it.

Here are the numbers:
2012 Pac-12, 2013 Pac-12

Scoring defense 5th (24.3 ppg), 2nd (21.3ppg)

Total defense 7th (394.0 ypg), 1st (341.2 ypg)

Rushing defense 8th (167.0 ypg), 2nd (126.7 ypg)

Passing defense 4th (227.0 ypg), 1st (214.5 ypg)

Pass Eff. Def. 6th (123.9), 3rd (114.0)

Opponent 1sts, 9th (22.6), 2nd (18.5)

Oppoent 3rd percentage 8th (38.0), 2nd (36.8)

Red zone def percentage 6th (81.1), 1st (63.4)

Further, the Trojans ranked in the nation's top 32 in every above number. In 2012, they didn't rank that highly in any of the above numbers. In fact, their highest national ranking was 40th in scoring defense.

And those 2013 numbers, by the way, including the absolute white flag performance at Arizona State, a 62-41 defeat, had a lot more to do with effort than scheme, which is why Lane Kiffin was fired the same night.

Pendergast has received plenty of praise for the job he did this year at USC. This makes clear it was justifiable.

Just saying, Ducks.

Mailbag: Christmas Eve edition

December, 24, 2013
12/24/13
5:30
PM PT
T’was the night before Christmas and the Pac-12 blog crew;
Was still smarting and miffed at the fall of Wazzu.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Arizona does indeed have some scary potential next year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Such is the nature of bowl season.

Merry Christmas from the Pac-12 blog.

2013 review: USC defense

December, 24, 2013
12/24/13
6:00
AM PT
Determined to find a greater level of success against those uptempo, spread offenses that have shredded USC in recent years, Clancy Pendergast was brought in this past offseason by Lane Kiffin to replace his father, Monte Kiffin, as the team’s defensive coordinator. Installing a vastly different defense, both in terms of look and philosophy, this unit showed tremendous improvement, ranking No. 1 in the Pac-12 in passing defense and No. 2 in rushing defense.

Defensive line

A fast and attacking bunch, the Trojans defensive line spearheaded a defense that compiled an impressive 91 tackles for loss, including 35 sacks.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Williams
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesSophomore defensive end Leonard Williams had an All-American season.
Headlining the group was defensive end Leonard Williams. A 6-foot-5 sophomore with off-the-charts physical tools, he had arguably the best season of any Trojan, ranking No. 2 on the team with 74 tackles, including 13.5 for a loss, on his way to garnering ESPN.com First Team All-American honors.

Fourth-year junior George Uko lined up opposite Williams at the other end spot, compiling 36 tackles and five sacks of his own, and Antwaun Woods did a solid job at nose tackle when the Trojans went to their 5-2 look. He also took reps at end on occasion.

The outside linebackers emerged as a key piece of the puzzle in the new defensive scheme, with SAM linebacker Devon Kennard and Predator linebacker Morgan Breslin providing steady pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Kennard, who has played everywhere from middle linebacker to defensive end in his career, finally found his niche standing up on the outside, pacing the Trojans with nine sacks. Breslin, who made a huge impact in 2012 as a junior college transfer, had his season cut short because of a hip injury, though he still managed to record 4.5 sacks in five games. Sliding into the lineup for Breslin midway through the season was J.R. Tavai, who had spent the entirety of his career on the interior. An exceptional athlete with unique football instincts, his standout play allowed the defense to continue on its forward path without a hitch.

Jabari Ruffin, Marquis Simmons, Scott Starr and Kevin Greene were others who played at outside linebacker.

Inside linebackers

Under the direction of first-year coach Mike Ekeler, the inside linebackers set the tone as a group that played with a high level of physicality, with fourth-year junior MIKE linebacker Hayes Pullard serving as the leader. Racking up 14 tackles against UCLA, he finished with a team-best 94 stops.

After a spirited competition with sophomore Anthony Sarao in the spring, junior Lamar Dawson emerged as the starter at WILL linebacker, recording 35 tackles before going down with a torn ACL during an October practice. With Dawson sidelined, Sarao stepped in and looked right at home, showcasing a nonstop motor and a nose for the ball.

Michael Hutchings and Quinton Powell are freshman reserves who figure to factor heavily into the equation down the line.

Secondary

It was an up-and-down season for a secondary that struggled at times in coverage, particularly at cornerback. They did end on a high note, helping to corral Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr and the nation’s No. 1 passing attack in the Trojans' 45-20 Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl victory.

[+] Enlarge Josh Shaw
Jaime Valdez/USA TODAY SportsJosh Shaw, a natural safety, responded well at cornerback, often covering a team's top receiver.
Kevon Seymour was one of the primary starters at cornerback. An athletic-looking sophomore who arrived at USC in 2012 with plenty of hype, he was victimized at times this year by opposing offenses, but he certainly finished up strong in the bowl matchup, collecting a team-best seven tackles on his way to earning defensive outperformer of the game honors.

With Torin Harris and a hobbled Anthony Brown unable to provide stability in starting opportunities, Josh Shaw, a natural safety, found himself sitting atop the depth chart at the opposite cornerback spot for the second consecutive season. Commonly pitted against the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver, he did a nice job of containing elite pass-catchers such as Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks and Colorado’s Paul Richardson, finishing up with four interceptions to go along with 67 stops.

Ryan Henderson, Ryan Dillard and Devian Shelton also saw brief time at cornerback.

While the situation was somewhat muddled at cornerback during the early stages, it immediately became apparent that the Trojans had a wealth of talent at safety. Fourth-year junior Dion Bailey, who made the switch from linebacker to safety, more than proved himself at nickelback. Announcing Monday that he will forgo his senior season to enter this May’s NFL draft, he paced the Trojans with five interceptions.

With Shaw settling in at cornerback, senior Demetrius Wright was the primary starter at free safety. Having been buried on the depth chart for much of his career, he stepped into his new role and was solid. At strong safety, the impact of freshman Su’a Cravens was a revelation. One of those rare playmakers who only comes around so often, he played more like a seasoned veteran than a green, first-year performer, and there’s no doubt that he has a bright future.

Another freshman, Leon McQuay III, also earned valuable playing time. He also looks primed for a big 2014 campaign. Senior Gerald Bowman played sparingly early, but was ultimately sidelined with a shoulder injury and will be back next season after redshirting.

Video: One Good Thing -- USC's finish

December, 23, 2013
12/23/13
5:30
PM PT

Two things stood out for USC in its blowout win over Fresno State: QB Cody Kessler playing well and the Trojans defense dominating. Kessler will be back in 2014. But what about defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast?
With the news that junior safety Dion Bailey will make himself available for the NFL draft, that is one piece of the Trojans' defensive puzzle that is known for next year.

[+] EnlargeClancy Pendergast
Joe Andras/WeAreSC.comUSC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast did wonders with the Trojans in 2013.
In the coming weeks, the Trojans will find out if other draft-eligible defensive stalwarts such as defensive end George Uko, linebacker Hayes Pullard and cornerback Josh Shaw will stay in school or choose to follow Bailey to the next level.

Those decisions will obviously have a huge impact on the fortunes of the 2014 USC defense as all of those players had prominent roles in the success this season. But there is another important cog in the defensive machine that is also unclear in terms of being back: defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast.

New USC coach Steve Sarkisian has filled six spots on his staff -- including the news over the weekend that Trojans offensive coordinator Clay Helton would be retained -- but there has been no confirmed news as far as his plans for the defensive coordinator spot.

There is a lot of speculation that Justin Wilcox -- who served for the past two seasons as defensive coordinator for Sarkisian at Washington – would be coming down to join the staff at USC. The Huskies play in the Fight Hunger Bowl on December 27 so any update on Wilcox will likely come after that game.

Wilcox has certainly developed a reputation as an up-and-coming coach who bolstered the Huskies' defense and received consideration for the Boise State head coaching job after Chris Petersen left the Broncos to replace Sarkisian at Washington.

A quick check of Pendergast’s one-season body of work, however, has many USC fans wondering why Pendergast wouldn’t be a natural option to keep on the staff as well.

Pendergast took over a USC defense that gave up 394 yards per game in 2012, the second highest total in school history, and over 24 points per game, the fourth highest mark. In 2013 under Pendergast, the Trojans led the conference in passing defense and red zone defense and were No. 2 in total defense, run defense and scoring defense.

That improvement was seen with many of the same players that were on the team in 2012, except for a few key losses in current NFL players T.J. McDonald and Nickell Robey. There was a change in scheme, from the 4-3 to the 5-2. There were depth issues, coaching changes and double duty for Pendergast, who also served as secondary coach. And there was success against both ends of the offensive spectrum -- his defense held up against the physical power running attack of Stanford and against the highest-ranked passing game in the country with Fresno State.

There was improvement with many individual players. Devon Kennard had spent three years playing out of position and was coming off a missed season due to injury, but he ended up leading the team in sacks and was a Lott IMPACT Trophy finalist. Leonard Williams was named an ESPN All-American. Pendergast took a safety in Shaw and made him a valuable corner, J.R. Tavai moved from an interior D-lineman to a stand-up OLB and Bailey made the effortless switch from linebacker to safety.

Pendergast isn’t flashy, but he’s a relatively quiet coach on the field who holds his players accountable and gets obvious results. Players like Shaw have been quick to praise him for the work that was done this year. Oh, and if you want NFL swag, he’s also got Super Bowl experience from a stint with the Arizona Cardinals.

There is a lot on Sarkisian’s plate in terms of filling out his staff but one of his best options might just be to find a way to keep Pendergast around if at all possible.

After bowl win, big questions for USC

December, 23, 2013
12/23/13
9:00
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When you cup your hands around USC's 45-20 blowout victory over No. 20 Fresno State in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl and assume singular focus on the event itself, it's impossible to not be impressed, to not think, "Now that is USC football."

Then when you put it in the context of the tumultuous season -- a maelstrom of coaching uncertainty and chaotic swings of momentum -- it seems like Trojans fans should officially declare the strangest season in program history at least a moderate success, perhaps as successful as it could have been. Well, other than losses to Notre Dame and UCLA.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesThings seem to be looking up for Cody Kessler, left, Buck Allen and the Trojans.
Still, winning 10 games, including a bowl game, and ending up nationally ranked is pretty respectable when it's produced by an injury-ravaged, scholarship-reduced team that has called four different men its head coach between August and today.

Further, it shows the players have pride. A substantial handful -- both seniors and underclassmen -- are eyeballing the NFL draft, and it wouldn't have been shocking if they gave an indifferent performance against Fresno State, a team that arrived with plenty of motivation. Quarterback Cody Kessler told Kevin last week that the Trojans were focused and motivated, and it proved to me more than empty, tell-the-reporter-something-pretty talk.

Said Kessler, "Getting us to 10 wins puts us in an elite group. We have a chance to finish things off right -- especially for our seniors. These guys have been through everything. Sanctions. Coaching changes. We owe it to them to give it everything we’ve got to get a win.”

So the players who are leaving, which might include leading juniors such as receiver Marqise Lee, defensive end George Uko, linebacker Hayes Pullard, safety Dion Bailey and cornerback Josh Shaw, can feel good about how they finished things. If this performance was a tribute to former interim coach Ed Orgeron, then you can be sure Coach O was howling with delight somewhere while watching the game.

But what about those who are staying?

The big news coming out of the Las Vegas Bowl other than the final score was that new coach Steve Sarkisian will retain offensive coordinator Clay Helton, who served as the interim head coach for the bowl game. That's probably good news for Kessler, who blossomed once Helton took over the offense from fired coach Lane Kiffin.

Of course, Sarkisian, like Kiffin, calls his own offensive plays, so if another opportunity arises for Helton, particularly one that includes play-calling duties, he might opt to leave.

In fact, who's staying and who's going applies to both the players and coaches. We probably won't get official word on the makeup of Sarkisian's staff until after Washington, his former team, plays BYU in the Fight Hunger Bowl on Friday night. The Huskies under new coach Chris Petersen also have kept their plans quiet.

The big questions: Will Huskies defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and quarterbacks coach Marques Tuiasosopo follow Sarkisian south? If Wilcox shortly arrives at Heritage Hall, then where does current USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast end up? In one year, he transformed one of the nation's most underachieving defenses into one of its best. Hard to imagine he stays unemployed for long.

This whole blending together of USC's and Washington's -- and Washington's and Boise State's -- 2013 staffs has certainly inspired plenty of gossip among other assistant coaches.

Another question: Tosh Lupoi.

The Huskies ace recruiter and defensive line coach is being investigated by the NCAA following allegations that he paid for private tutoring for Husky football recruit Andrew Basham, with Basham's former high school track coach, Mike Davis, spilling the beans to the Los Angeles Times and Seattle Times last week.

What that means in the short term is that Lupoi won't be hired by USC, and he might be out of a job until the NCAA rules on his case. What it means in the big picture for two Pac-12 football programs in transition is hard to say, as Washington, USC and Sarkisian have significant interests in the matter.

Due to new NCAA rules, Sarkisian could be exposed, which means USC could suffer for violations that occurred in Seattle.

And, yes, feel free to question the timing of these allegations being reported and speculate on where the sour grapes originated that spawned the investigation.

An offshoot of Lupoi's troubles is the Trojans’ need for a defensive line coach, which probably is why Sarkisian told ESPNLA 710 on Sunday that he's going to make another run at Orgeron to see if he's interested in returning to USC.

That could be interesting. Or it could just be idle talk.

Once all the administrative and personnel issues are settled, then we'll start to take a measure of the Sarkisian administration and how things might stack up in 2014. Trojans fans first want to see where their team ends up on Feb. 5, national signing day. Then it's on to spring practice, where Kessler likely will have to prove himself again, though Helton staying on should provide his candidacy a boost.

USC's bowl win was impressive. It surely made Trojans feel good, inside and outside the locker room. But the reality is it was as isolated as a pleasant fan experience can be. A win in the Las Vegas Bowl and finishing in the lower half of the nation's top-25 isn't what Trojans pine for. With this next recruiting class the last one limited by NCAA sanctions, most are ready to see the program regain its footing among the Pac-12 and nation's elite.

Sarkisian officially took the keys of the program on Saturday. By Sunday, the euphoria from the bowl win probably started to waft away inside Heritage Hall.

The real business begins now.

3 up, 3 down: USC 47, Colorado 29

November, 24, 2013
11/24/13
5:08
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LOS ANGELES – A look at the positives and negatives from USC’s 47-29 victory over Colorado on Saturday.

Three up
1. USC first-team defense
Spearheaded by another strong effort by the front seven, the Trojans' defensive starters completely stymied the Buffaloes. In fact, Colorado’s offense failed to put up any points against USC when the entire first-team defense was on the field. Clancy Pendergast’s group was particularly impressive in the first half, allowing just 30 yards on the ground, while also limiting Sefo Liufau to 43 yards on 4-of-15 passing, a fumble and an interception. Cornerback Josh Shaw also did quite a job on Buffaloes star wide out Paul Richardson, holding him without a catch until midway through the third quarter.

2. Javorius Allen
Allen continued his string of outstanding play, running for a career-best 145 yards to go along with three touchdowns -- despite missing some time in the first half with a shoulder injury. He compiled 112 of his rushing yards in the second half, and the third-year sophomore tailback appeared to grow stronger and more determined following his fumble to open the third quarter. He deserves a ton of praise for the resiliency he showed. His three rushing touchdowns gives him a total of nine in the past four games.

3. Soma Vainuku
Another player who has really come on as of late, Vainuku had arguably his best game as a Trojan on Saturday. Making a name for himself as a special teams demon this fall, the physical fullback blocked a Darragh O’Neill punt in the first quarter, and the ball flew out of the end zone for a USC safety. It was Vainuku’s third blocked punt of the season. But it was on offense where the Eureka (Calif.) native made perhaps his biggest mark against the Buffaloes. Entering the game without a single carry to his credit in 2013, he exploded for 70 yards on 5 rushing attempts, with his 52-yard touchdown jaunt clinching the game for the Trojans.

Three down
1. USC first-half rushing offense
Amassing just 37 rushing yards in the first half, the Trojans offensive line struggled early and the USC tailbacks couldn’t do much of anything on the ground against Colorado. That was a surprise considering the Buffaloes entered the game ranked No. 103 in the FBS against the run (210.4 yards allowed per game). To the credit of the USC offensive line, however, they did come back with a much better performance in the second half, opening lanes and allowing Allen and Co. to get rolling. The Trojans finished with a more-than-respectable 243 rushing yards.

2. USC second-half defensive lapse
With the Trojans leading 37-7 late in the third quarter, interim coach Ed Orgeron opted to bring in the reserves, and Colorado's offense really got going for the first time all night. Without a significant push up front by the Trojans, Liufau had plenty of time to throw downfield and the Buffaloes offense put 22 points in the fourth quarter. Cutting the USC lead to 11 points with just over three minutes remaining in the contest, Colorado’s comeback bid ultimately ended when Will Oliver’s onside kick was recovered by Leon McQuay III.

3. USC punting
USC punter Kris Albarado has had some big outings this season, but Saturday's matchup wasn’t one of them. Averaging just 30.2 yards on six punts, he was noticeably off from the start of this game. His 17-yard boot in the fourth quarter was the low point of his night, with Colorado quickly converting the mistake into its final touchdown.

Orgeron makes Haden's search complicated

November, 18, 2013
11/18/13
3:30
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We could try to quantify how much better USC is under Ed Orgeron the past six games compared to Lane Kiffin during the season's first five, but that really is pretty easy. We don't need numbers. We need only three words:

Everything is better.

USC is less sloppy. It's more disciplined. It's protecting the football. USC is playing better offense. It's even playing better defense, if you consider the schedule. It's better on special teams.

[+] EnlargeOrgeron
AP Photo/Don RyanUnder interim coach Ed Orgeron, the Trojans are 5-1. USC faces Colorado on Saturday.
The epidemic injuries that were once an excuse for poor play are now further grounds to give credit to Orgeron and his staff for finding a way to get it done under adverse circumstances.

Obviously, USC is playing with far more passion. And you can't undersell this: Its players are having way more fun.

"We absolutely love him," USC quarterback Cody Kessler said after the 20-17 win over Stanford. "We'd run through a brick wall for him. He has that look in his eye that you can tell that when he talks to you he really does care. I gave him a hug after the game, and I don't know if he'd want me saying this, but I saw his eyes water up. It's awesome when you play with someone who has that same passion."

How can you dispute or diminish that? You can't.

But the question then becomes: Is that enough to hire him to be the next USC head coach? That is, reportedly, the $6 million question.

When you look at how USC is playing and the Trojans' 5-1 record since Orgeron took over, it's impossible to not give his candidacy legitimacy. Further, that already strong résumé will become measurably stronger if the Trojans win out, which would include a victory over highly ranked rival UCLA, and they would thereby finish the regular season with a 10-3 record and a high national ranking.

At that point, Orgeron would own the locker room and probably have significant momentum with the Trojans' fan base. That would make it difficult for athletic director Pat Haden not to hire him.

The expectation when Orgeron took over for Kiffin after a humiliating 62-41 loss at Arizona State was the Trojans would play better because the season-long hot-seat talk surrounding Kiffin would be over, thereby allowing players to breathe easier and play looser. That improved play, however, wasn't expected to include a 5-1 record and a win over Stanford, ending a four-game losing streak in the series.

In fact, the Pac-12 blog's expectation was the "Hire Coach O!" talk would end with losses to Stanford and UCLA. The Pac-12 blog was wrong, at least so far. Further, when the Pac-12 blog conceived of writing this column about USC's improvement under Orgeron, it expected to, after giving Coach O a tip of the cap, recommend against hiring him, no matter how the now seemingly charmed season ended.

Yet, after further review, there is not enough evidence to overturn the ruling in the stands and the locker room, at least if USC wins out and wins its bowl game.

The only advice the Pac-12 blog has for Haden, though, is this: Don't allow the emotions of the moment to overrule your long-term vision for this coaching hire. A serious evaluation of Orgeron should begin now, if it hasn't already, and there are myriad considerations besides his popularity among the players.

One doesn't have to look far for examples of internal promotions producing great results: Chris Petersen taking over for Dan Hawkins at Boise State, Chip Kelly taking over for Mike Bellotti at Oregon and David Shaw taking over for Jim Harbaugh at Stanford. Although those three programs were already successful, you could make the case that USC's circumstances are similar because, well, it's USC.

The next USC coach isn't rebuilding a program. His job is to maximize the potential of a college football superpower, one that no longer will be yoked with NCAA sanctions after the 2014 recruiting class. Orgeron just might be able to do that.

Of course, we also have precedents that suggest that promoting from within or hiring an interim coach because of his initial success and support of the locker room doesn't always yield long-term success.

Larry Coker took over in Miami after Butch Davis bolted and won a national title in his first season. He went 35-3 his first three seasons, in fact, losing the national title game in Year 2 and winning the Orange Bowl in Year 3. But then things went south and, after a 7-6 season in 2006, he was fired. Coker was a strong short-term answer but not one for the long term.

As interim coach after Rich Rodriguez left for Michigan, Bill Stewart led West Virginia to a stunning upset of No. 3 Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. But after three consecutive 9-4 seasons and an off-the-field controversy, he was pushed aside in favor of his head-coach-in-waiting, Dana Holgorsen.

We know what great college head coaches look like: Urban Meyer and Nick Saban top the list. I'd throw in Bill Snyder at Kansas State. But after them, there are no sure things. Petersen is not a sure thing because he has never been a head coach in an automatic-qualifying conference. Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin has an impressive recent track record, but that track record in an AQ conference is only two years and includes one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in college football history.

The NFL guys such as Jon Gruden, Jeff Fisher and Jack Del Rio? Not sure things by a long shot.

So the risk of hiring Orgeron isn't that much greater. Sure, he went a dismal 10-25 at Ole Miss, but his thus-far-successful audition running the USC program provides a strong counter to that. He's not only learned from his mistakes; he's also coaching in an environment he knows how to navigate. It's also noteworthy that he's clearly motivated his assistant coaches to care about and focus on their present jobs instead of giving USC 60 percent while the other 40 percent pining about their future employment.

The apparent formula for an Orgeron administration would go like this: He plays the CEO and lets his coaches coach, which means Clay Helton runs the offense, Clancy Pendergast runs the defense and John Baxter runs the special teams. Orgeron leans on his strengths: motivation, chemistry, emotions and recruiting.

The big question would then be whether Orgeron can be consistently and obsessively detail-oriented as all good head coaches are. Can he maintain discipline and run a tight ship? Will he lead a recruiting effort based on insightful evaluation rather than star rating? Can he skillfully handle all the off-the-field responsibilities that head coaches deal with?

My guess is that Haden immediately realized after the Stanford game -- and not before -- that Orgeron deserved at least a raised eyebrow. Haden will be practically forced to make a more thorough evaluation of Orgeron if the Trojans beat UCLA.

"When you have a father figure like Coach O treating us all like sons and putting us under his arm, we want to run through a brick wall for him," linebacker Hayes Pullard said. "One team, one heartbeat, we wanted to carry that over. We wanted to show him that we are with him no matter what."

That's inspiring and meaningful. But there's more to being a head coach than getting your players to run through brick walls.

At this point, however, Orgeron is not only getting his guys to run through those brick walls, he's also getting them to hit the wall in the correct place and use good technique while doing so.

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