USC: Brett Hundley

3-point stance: Pac-12 adjustments

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
5:30
AM PT
1. When USC finished practice Tuesday, center Max Tuerk and quarterback Cody Kessler stayed behind to work on snaps. Tuerk, a junior, has started 14 games at guard and six at tackle. But the Trojans need a center, so he’s learning the position this spring. He learned to tape his fingers -- two rings of tape on two fingers, one ring of tape on the other two -- and to carry a towel, all to keep sweat off the ball. He has learned to stay lower and, as he put it, get his feet in the ground faster. “The more reps you take, you don’t have to think about the snap as much,” Tuerk said. “You can think about the blocks.”

2. UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley is working more under center this spring. “It’s different,” the redshirt junior said. “Being under center and being in the shotgun are two different views. When you are under center, you are right there. ... You have to take your seven-step drop, push up in the pocket while keeping your shoulders (level).” If Hundley has a peccadillo, it is maintaining the balance of his shoulders. UCLA coach Jim Mora said he wants to work Hundley under center to expand the offense. If it helps Hundley in the 2015 NFL draft, even better.

3. Stanford wide receiver Jordan Pratt will be 29 years old when the football season begins. He enrolled after spending eight seasons pitching in the Dodgers’ minor-league system. “I’ll make a comment, ‘Yeah, I remember, Sept. 11, 2001, I got called out of my high school class,’” Pratt said. His teammates respond, “‘High school? I don’t even remember that. I was in preschool.’ There is this time gap. Sometimes I relate better to the TAs in my class than I do the other students. It’s a lot easier for me to talk to the professors. It’s a little easier for them to relate, too.”

Offense 3-headed monsters: Pac-12 South

March, 24, 2014
Mar 24
5:30
PM PT
You remember the three-headed monster, right? It's about returning production that will scare -- terrify! --opponents. Or not.

On offense, it's elite combinations at quarterback, running back and receiver.

On defense, it's elite combinations of a leading tackler, a leader in sacks and leader in interceptions.

[+] EnlargeKevon Seymour, Taylor Kelly
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesTaylor Kelly could have Arizona State's offense off and running this fall.
This year, we're breaking things down by division.

First up: South Division offense three-headed monsters.

There are two "pure" offensive three-headed monsters in the South: USC and Utah. Both welcome back their leading passer, rusher and receiver, though some fans might be surprised to know that Marqise Lee didn't lead the Trojans in receiving last season.

The biggest mystery team? Arizona, which is replacing its leading passer and rusher and has several wild cards who might challenge to be the first pass-catching option. Typically we'd project a starter, but the Wildcats seem to be completely wide open at QB and RB. So they get a "?" at both positions.

Otherwise, the projections of new starters aren't terribly unpredictable.

1. Arizona State

QB Taylor Kelly, RB D.J. Foster, WR Jaelen Strong

The skinny: If you were ranking three-headed monsters nationally, this might be a top-10 troika. You have a three-year starter at quarterback who passed for 3,635 yards and 28 TDs last year, a receiver who caught 75 passes for 1,122 yards and versatile running back who's dangerous as a runner or receiver.

2. UCLA

QB Brett Hundley, RB Jordan James, WR Devin Fuller

The skinny: Hundley starts the season as a top Heisman Trophy candidate. James started off great last year -- 116 yards rushing per game with a 6.3 yards per carry average in the first four games -- before getting hurt. While WR Shaq Evans is off to the NFL, Fuller leads a strong crew of returning receivers.

3. USC

QB Cody Kessler, RB Javorius Allen, WR Nelson Agholor

The skinny: This is a strong threesome, though some see Kessler being threatened by redshirt freshman Max Browne this spring. Allen surged in the second half of the 2013 season, when he rushed for most of his 785 yards (5.8 yards per carry), but the Trojans have a lot of depth at the position. Agholor is a frontrunner for first-team All-Pac-12 honors after catching 56 passes for 918 yards last year.

4. Utah

QB Travis Wilson, RB Bubba Poole, WR Dres Anderson

The skinny: If Wilson is cleared medically and is 100 percent full-go, he's got a chance to be a good QB, building on what he did while healthy in 2013. Poole is the Utes' leading returning rusher, though he could face a challenge from a handful of other backs, including redshirt freshman Troy McCormick and juco transfer Devontae Booker. Anderson will be joined by Kenneth Scott, who suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the 2013 opener.

5. Colorado

QB Sefo Liufau, RB Michael Adkins, WR Nelson Spruce

The skinny: Liufau was solid as a true freshman starter last year. He should be much better this fall. Adkins combined with Christian Powell to essentially split 1,000 yards rushing in 2013, with Powell offering the power option. Spruce was a solid No. 2 behind Paul Richardson last year, but it remains to be seen how he will perform as option No. 1.

6. Arizona

QB ?, RB ?, WR Austin Hill

The skinny: We honestly have no idea who will start at QB and RB next year, and the Pac-12 Blog believes that's probably not far from what Rich Rodriguez is thinking today. If we were going to go with complete conjecture at QB, we'd bet on a showdown between Texas transfer Connor Brewer and redshirt freshman Anu Solomon. Same thing at running back, where it seems likely a true or redshirt freshman replaces Ka'Deem Carey. Even Hill is a projection here based on his outstanding 2012 numbers, as he sat out last season with a knee injury. Sophomore Nate Phillips is the Wildcats' leading returning receiver.

Spring position breakdown: Punters

March, 11, 2014
Mar 11
12:00
PM PT
Our look at position groups in the Pac-12 concludes with punters.

Arizona: Drew Riggleman is back after handling all of the punting responsibilities last season. He averaged 40.1 yards per kick, pinned 18 inside the 20 and had 12 kicks of 50-plus yards. He ranked eighth in the conference -- though the difference between first (Utah’s Tom Hackett) and Riggleman was an average of 3.4 yards.

Arizona State: Punting was one of ASU’s biggest issues last season. Matt Haack started to come on strong at the end of the season and will likely challenge Alex Garoutte, who averaged 38.8 yards per kick last season. Should Haack win the job, Garoutte is always an option with his rollout style. Quarterback Taylor Kelly has also been known to offer the occasional boot. He punted six times last season, once for 50-plus, and had three downed inside the 20.

California: Cole Leininger is back after a very solid season for the Golden Bears, where he was tied for second in the conference with an average of 42.9 yards per kick. Cal has four punters on the roster in addition to Leininger. And while he’s mostly unchallenged, there are plenty of backup options.

Colorado: Third-team all-conference punter Darragh O'Neill returns and was a midseason Ray Guy candidate last season. He averaged 40.5 yards per punt last year and pinned 22 inside the 20.

Oregon: Alejandro Maldonado handled the punting duties last season and made a couple of appearances as a kicker before the job went to Matt Wogan. Expect Wogan to handle all kicking responsibilities, though some walk-ons will also get looks.

Oregon State: Keith Kostol is back as a third-year starter. He finished last season tied for fifth in the conference with an average of 40.5 yards per punt. He also put 23 kicks inside the 20.

Stanford: Ben Rhyne returns to handle the punting duties for the Cardinal. He was one of the best in the conference last season with an average of 42.9 yards per kick -- just half a yard behind Hackett. He had 12 kicks of 50-plus yards and put 15 inside the 20.

UCLA: Sean Covington is back after having a very solid season, where he posted an average of 42.6 yards per punt. Do-it-all quarterback Brett Hundley punted once last season, but it’s safe to assume that Convington’s job is secure.

USC: Kris Albarado didn’t post an impressive yards-per-punt average (37.1), but he was very good at pinning opponents, with 27 kicks inside the 20. And of his 64 kicks, almost half were fair-caught.

Utah: Hackett was last season's first-team all-conference punter, so expect some preseason All-American hype for him. As noted earlier, he led the conference with an average of 43.4 yards per punt and buried 27 kicks inside the 20.

Washington: Travis Coons pulled double-duty last season. In addition to nailing 15 of 16 field goal attempts, he also averaged 40.4 yards per punt and had eight kicks of 50-plus yards to go with 23 inside the 20. Korey Durkee did some punting in 2012 before Coons won the job, so he’ll get the first look in 2014. Newcomer Tristan Vizcaino could also get looks at kicker and/or punter.

Washington State: Wes Concepcion was the starter in the final two games as punter last season. With Mike Bowlin gone, he should be the favorite to handle punting duties full time. Concepcion punted 12 times last season for an average of 36.2 yards. Eight of those 12 were fair catches and three were inside the 20.

Previous positions

Kicker
Safety
Cornerback
Linebacker
Defensive end
Tight end
Quarterback
Running back
Receiver
Offensive line
Defensive tackle

Take 2: Biggest Pac-12 spring issues

March, 7, 2014
Mar 7
9:00
AM PT
There are plenty of issues Pac-12 teams will be addressing this spring. Here are some that are front and center for your Pac-12 insiders.

Ted Miller: Spring practice is the official transition from taking stock of the 2013 season, including recruiting, to looking ahead to next fall. The 2013 season was all about top-to-bottom depth for the Pac-12 -- and the lack of an elite national-title contender. That might be the case again in 2014, but if the conference is going to be nationally relevant in Year 1 of the four-team College Football Playoff, I think it will be because of the depth and quality of the quarterbacks.

If Travis Wilson is cleared to play at Utah, 10 Pac-12 teams welcome back their 2013 starters, and many of these guys are All-American candidates, most notably Oregon's Marcus Mariota, UCLA's Brett Hundley, Arizona State's Taylor Kelly and Oregon State's Sean Mannion.

[+] EnlargeBrett Hundley
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsHaving Brett Hundley back makes UCLA the favorite in the Pac-12 South.
The big question for these guys is if they can be better this season than last. If that happens -- for the above four and the six other returning starters -- then it should be a high-flying season with lots of offense. And perhaps a team emerges as a candidate for the playoff.

What most interests you this spring with the Pac-12?

Kyle Bonagura: As a result of the continuity at quarterback, offenses should be in line for a collective step forward. How far could be determined by how quickly the conference's seven new defensive coordinators acclimate to -- and perform at -- their new jobs.

We won't get a great read on how that process is going during the spring, but it'll be interesting to see in what ways defenses evolve moving forward.

For Arizona State, Oregon, Stanford and UCLA, the change will be minimal. Todd Graham will remain heavily involved in how ASU plays defense, and the other three promoted staff members will use the framework and schemes already in place. USC might have a new staff, but considering coach Steve Sarkisian and defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox were in the conference last season, it should be an easy transition.

I'm more interested to see how things play out at California and Washington.

Washington is set up for success with the much-anticipated arrival of longtime Boise State coach Chris Petersen, who brought his defensive coordinator for the past four seasons, Pete Kwiatkowski. They have a talented front seven to work with and a favorable early schedule that will allow the staff to iron out any kinks: at Hawaii, Eastern Washington, Illinois, Georgia State.

Art Kaufman's job taking over the Cal defense won't be as easy. The Golden Bears should be in better shape than last season from a health and experience standpoint -- the latter partially a result of 2013's injury woes -- but there's a lot of ground to cover between where they were and being competitive.

Ted Miller: One team that had coaching continuity at both coordinator spots is Arizona, and I think the Wildcats are setting up to be a dark horse in the Pac-12 South, though I do see UCLA as a strong favorite at this point. The intrigue with Arizona, though, is at quarterback. It seems like the most wide-open competition in the conference.

If Cyler Miles gets back in Petersen's good graces, he's got a significant lead for the Washington QB vacancy. At USC, I think that Cody Kessler is likely to retain his starting job over touted redshirt freshman Max Browne. Kessler steadily improved as a difficult season went on, and he still has his 2013 offensive coordinator/position coach in Clay Helton. At Utah, a healthy Wilson starts for the Utes.

But Arizona has four guys with a legitimate shot at winning the starting QB job this fall: Redshirt freshman Anu Solomon, senior Jesse Scroggins, sophomore Connor Brewer and junior Jerrard Randall. Solomon was one of the jewels of the 2013 recruiting class, while the other three are transfers from A-list programs -- Scroggins from USC, Brewer from Texas and Randall from LSU.

The first big question will be whether Rich Rodriguez narrows the field at the end of spring practices. How much does he want to establish a clear pecking order? You'd think at least one of these guys is going to be relegated to fourth place because there are only so many practice reps to go around.

The good news is the guy who wins the job is going to have an outstanding crew of receivers. He won't have running back Ka'Deem Carey lining up as a security blanket behind him, but Rodriguez's offenses almost always run the ball well. The Wildcats will average more than 200 yards rushing again next season, I feel confident saying that.

The million-dollar question -- the difference between competing for the South title and winning eight games again -- is how efficient the guy behind center is.

Any position battles particularly intrigue you this spring?

Kyle Bonagura: Like you, I'm really intrigued to see how the quarterback competition at Arizona progresses. That's a lot of pressure for the three guys who already transferred from big-time programs. All of them clearly want to play, and it makes you wonder if one of them will end up at an FCS school before the season starts.

The most high-profile battle outside of quarterback has to be at Stanford, where four guys are competing to replace Tyler Gaffney at running back. I was out at the Cardinal's first open practice of the spring last week -- and will be out there again on Saturday -- and what stood out immediately was how balanced the reps were. If Remound Wright, Ricky Seale, Barry Sanders and Kelsey Young didn't have equal reps with the first team, it was close.

However it plays out, it's unlikely Stanford will feature one back like it has the past six years with Gaffney, Stepfan Taylor and Toby Gerhart.

Wright probably holds a slight edge in terms of the overall package -- largely because of his capabilities in pass protection -- but there are more similarities than differences in comparing each guy. A lot of people ask about Sanders because of his famous father (my favorite football player as a kid), but the reality with him is that expectations were probably too high when he arrived. His name and recruiting profile are to blame, and the coaching staff isn't going to force his development.

Young, who switched back to running back from receiver, might be the most dangerous with the ball in his hands and Seale, a fifth-year senior, might have the best grasp of the offense.

Video: Pac-12 South top returning players

February, 28, 2014
Feb 28
7:00
AM PT
video
Toni Collins and ESPN Pac-12 reporter Ted Miller discuss some of the top spring storylines and returning players in the Pac-12 South Division.

Spring position breakdown: QBs

February, 24, 2014
Feb 24
4:00
PM PT
Spring has sprung in the Pac-12, with Stanford starting spring practices this week and several schools following suit next week.

Ergo, we break down where teams stand with each position group, starting with quarterbacks.

Arizona: The Wildcats probably have the most wide-open QB competition, with four guys having a legitimate chance to replace the departed B.J. Denker. Three are transfers from big-time programs: senior Jesse Scroggins (USC), sophomore Connor Brewer (Texas) and junior Jerrard Randall (LSU). The fourth, redshirt freshman Anu Solomon, was one of the biggest stars in the 2013 recruiting class. Don't expect much to be settled by the end of spring, though coach Rich Rodriguez might at least allude to some sort of pecking order. Or a top three.

Arizona State: The Sun Devils are strong at QB with senior Taylor Kelly, a third-year starter who has put up big numbers the past two seasons, and junior Mike Bercovici, a big-armed backup -- perhaps, in fact, the best backup in the Pac-12. That's why Michael Eubank opted to transfer to Samford in Birmingham, Ala. It will be interesting to see which of the youngsters on the roster emerge as a No.3, a guy who might challenge Bercovici in 2015.

California: It seems unlikely that sophomore Jared Goff will be unseated, particularly after Zach Kline opted to transfer. Goff was uneven last season -- his entire team was -- but flashed plenty of potential. He and a talented crew of receivers should get better this spring. The big question might be whether anyone challenges senior Austin Hinder for the backup job.

Colorado: Sophomore Sefo Liufau is solid as the returning starter. He took some lumps last season but also flashed plenty of promise -- as both a player and leader. After him, there's junior college transfer Jordan Gehrke, a redshirt sophomore, the likely backup. Depth is a problem, at least this spring. As the Boulder Daily Camera noted, "Five quarterbacks have left the CU program either to transfer to other schools or give up the sport entirely since the start of spring football last year. A sixth completed his eligibility last season." That's why the Buffs added walk-on Trent Sessions to the roster. He worked with the equipment staff last year.

Oregon: The Ducks probably feel pretty good about their third-year starter, junior Marcus Mariota, a leading 2014 Heisman Trophy candidate who would have been a first-round pick if he'd entered the 2014 NFL draft. The competition for the backup spot, however, will be interesting because Mariota is almost certain to enter the NFL draft after the season. Sophomores Jeff Lockie and Jake Rodrigues are 2A and 2B, with Lockie first off the bench as the backup in 2013, but Rodrigues the more physically talented player as a runner and passer.

Oregon State: Like their friends to the north, Oregon State is fortunate its 2013 starter, Sean Mannion, decided to return instead of entering the NFL draft. Mannion's chief focus will be finding some receivers to replace the production of the departed Brandin Cooks. The battle for the backup job also will be interesting between sophomore Brent VanderVeen and redshirt freshman Kyle Kempt. Of course, their battle might not resolve things much for 2015, with incoming Alabama transfer Luke Del Rio joining the fray after sitting out a season.

Stanford: It seems unlikely that two-year starter Kevin Hogan will be challenged for the starting job this spring, even though he had some ups and downs in 2013, but there is no lack of talent battling for the backup job. Junior Evan Crower was the backup in 2013, but redshirt freshman Ryan Burns is a big-time talent. As is incoming freshman Keller Chryst, who officially will arrive in the fall but, as a Palo Alto resident, figures to hang around spring practices.

UCLA: Heading into his third season running the offense, Brett Hundley gives the Bruins one of the best starting quarterbacks in the nation. He's a proven dual threat and leader who will be refining his game this spring and building chemistry with his receivers. After him, however, things are a bit iffy, in large part because of the 2013 preseason transfer of T.J. Millweard to Kansas. The chief competitors for the backup job are Jerry Neuheisel, the 2013 backup, and redshirt freshman Asiantii Woulard, with Woulard being the guy with the most future upside. Of course, there is another QB out there some UCLA fans might be thinking about.

USC: The returning starter facing the most formidable challenge to his starting job this spring is probably Cody Kessler, even though Kessler played well in the second half of the 2013 season. With the transfer of Max Wittek, touted redshirt freshman Max Browne, at the very least, sets up to be a high-quality backup next season. But plenty of folks think Browne has a legitimate shot to unseat Kessler, particularly with new coach Steve Sarkisian taking over.

Utah: There's still no final word on the long-term health issue that might end QB Travis Wilson's career, though you'd think something would be announced before the Utes begin spring practices on March 18. If Wilson gets cleared, the good bet is on him returning to the starting job. If not, a spring competition will begin between Adam Schulz, who stepped in when Wilson went down, and redshirt freshmen Conner Manning and Brandon Cox. In the fall, dual-threat QB Donovan Isom arrives.

Washington: Keith Price, a three-year starter, is gone, but the Huskies seemed fairly set at QB with sophomore backup Cyler Miles appearing plenty capable of stepping into the cockpit this spring. In limited action last season, Miles completed 61 percent of his throws for 418 yards with four TDs and two picks, and he also showed good mobility, rushing for 200 yards. The pecking order at least seemed set, that is, until Miles got into some off-field trouble that threatens his status for spring practice and perhaps beyond. If Miles is still suspended, that means opportunity comes knocking for sophomore Jeff Lindquist or redshirt freshman Troy Williams to make an impression.

Washington State: Connor Halliday will be a senior, three-year starter and the Cougars' top leader in the third season running Mike Leach's "Air Raid" offense. He figures to put up huge numbers this fall with a strong crew of receivers. His 2013 backup, sophomore Austin Apodaca, opted to transfer, perhaps believing that redshirt freshman Tyler Bruggman had the inside track to the starting job in 2015. Depth is a bit of a question, with the No. 3 this fall likely being true freshman Peyton Bender.

Talent drain leaves Pac-12 defenses in flux

January, 20, 2014
Jan 20
7:00
PM PT
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, Eric Kendricks, 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: 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.

Pac-12 should roll through bowl games

December, 9, 2013
12/09/13
3:08
PM PT
The Pac-12 is favored in eight of its nine bowl games, as Oregon State is the only underdog in its matchup with Boise State in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl.

That's good news and bad news.

The good news is the conference has an excellent chance to post an impressive bowl record. The bad news is it has a chance to embarrass itself, too. Anything less than 6-3 would be a major disappointment.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsMarcus Mariota and the Ducks struggled to the finish line, but they hope to have a strong showing against Texas in the Alamo Bowl.
Of course, the Pac-12 blog has always taken a dim view of judging a conference by its bowl record, despite its annual inevitability. The college football postseason is filled with teams with varied motivation, not to mention coaching turnover -- see Washington and USC, as well as Boise State. Still, a program is responsible for itself.

The biggest reason the Pac-12 should thrive this bowl season is also the biggest negative for the conference: just one BCS bowl team, unlike the SEC, Big Ten, ACC and Big 12, and unlike the previous three seasons. Yep, the deepest Pac-12 perhaps in history ended up being a negative when it came to handing out bowl invitations.

The most aggrieved party is No. 10 Oregon, the only eligible at-large team to be passed over. The Ducks were hoping to be pitted against Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, but the bowl went with Oklahoma, honoring a relationship with the Big 12 and perhaps thinking the Sooners will travel better than the Ducks.

Not to incur the wide-eyed wrath of Oregon fans, but the Sooners' case probably was stronger on merit, too. The Ducks lost two of their final four games, and they barely slipped by 6-6 Oregon State in the Civil War to conclude the season. Oklahoma is riding a three-game winning streak that was capped by impressive victory over No. 6 Oklahoma State on Saturday. Paired with the Sooners other quality win -- at Notre Dame -- that's more impressive than the Ducks best wins (UCLA and Washington). And the Sooners losses, to Baylor and Texas, are at least comparable to the Ducks' (Stanford and Arizona). According to ESPN Stats & Information, Oregon's and Oklahoma's schedules were pretty equivalent, the Ducks ranking 50th and the Sooners 55th.

Sure, Oregon would be favored against Oklahoma, but the Sugar Bowl folks took the temperature of the respective fan bases and found more smiles in Norman than Eugene.

Finally, to be honest, the way Oregon looked over the final month of the season suggests they'd be better off allowing the Sooners to deal with Alabama and Nick Saban.

As for the conference champions, kudos to Stanford for negotiating the nation's fourth-most difficult schedule with an 11-2 record. In fact, the Cardinal is ranked No. 1 in ESPN Stats & Information "Championship Drive Rating," which measures a team's overall merit -- the "difficulty of achieving their W-L or better and how well they control games using in-game win probability; both adjusted for quality of opponent."

Of course, Stanford, which opened as a 3-point favorite against Michigan State in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO, is where the Pac-12's overall offseason perception will start. It figures to get a tough fight from the defensive-minded Spartans. A Cardinal loss would diminish the Pac-12's national perception as a whole -- as in trickle down from the Big Ten champion being superior to the Pac-12 champ.

Oregon's matchup with Texas in the Valero Alamo Bowl is interesting. If both teams show up with their best game, Oregon wins by two or three touchdowns. But the Ducks over the final four weeks of the season would lose to Texas. The Ducks need to be motivated. They need to know, for one, that the Longhorns figure to be fired up, as they are perhaps playing their last game with Mack Brown as their coach.

The biggest mismatch of the conference's bowl season might be Arizona State against Texas Tech in the National University Holiday Bowl. The Sun Devils have won seven of eight -- the loss coming Saturday in the Pac-12 title game -- and are among the nation's hottest teams. The Red Raiders? They've lost five in a row, the last four being blowouts.

UCLA is in a similar situation in the Hyundai Sun Bowl against Virginia Tech. The Bruins have won four of five, while the Hokies have lost three of five. Virginia Tech's defense will challenge Bruins QB Brett Hundley, but the Hokies are horrid on offense.

USC and Washington will be the conference's biggest question marks due to coaching changes. The Trojans face a very good Fresno State team led by QB Derek Carr in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, while the Huskies face a BYU team that ran all over Texas earlier this season in the Fight Hunger Bowl. Under normal circumstances, both matchups would favor the Pac-12. But these aren't normal circumstances.

Oregon State will face a Boise State squad with the same deal in the Hawaii Bowl. While this is a down year for the Broncos, it's hard to bet against Boise State with Chris Petersen in a bowl game. But he's now in Seattle. The Beavers, by the way, really need to win this game, otherwise it's going to be a sour offseason in Corvallis.

Meanwhile, Arizona makes the longest trip to meet Boston College in Shreveport, Louisiana for the AdvoCare V100 Bowl. This is interesting just because you have the top two running backs in the country in Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey and Boston College's Andre Williams.

Finally, Washington State will be playing in its first bowl game since 2003 in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl against Colorado State. The Cougars have wins over USC, Utah and Arizona. The Rams' best win is over 5-7 Wyoming. Mike Leach and the Cougs should roll.

Again, when you added it all up, 9-0 is not unreasonable and 7-2 is almost pessimistic. But bowl games are funny things, and this has been a funny season.

As we move into a four-team College Football Playoff with a selection committee weighing who's in and who's out, perception might become even more important than it was with the quintessentially subjective BCS.

The Pac-12 seemed like -- at the very least -- the nation's second best conference, no matter the BCS bowl situation. It needs to make good on that during the bowl games.

Mailbag: Sark, Mora and all-league teams

December, 3, 2013
12/03/13
5:30
PM PT
Pushed the mailbag back a few hours to field some questions on Steve Sarkisian, the all-league teams and more. Plenty to talk about with only two teams playing this week.

Tim in Atlanta writes: Is there really any justification for Josh Huff being left off the 2nd team all-Pac team this year? He had 200 more yards than montgomery and 57% more TD than Strong. Standings shouldn't matter in this, and the fact that Huff is the first WR in years to have 1000 yards in Oregon's spread-it-around system should say a lot. Seems like voters punished him for Oregon's offensive firepower instead of rewarding a guy for standing out on a team full of offensive talent... or maybe they didn't the game on friday.

Kevin Gemmell: Well, the voters are the coaches. And having talked to the coaches over the last couple of years, I can tell you this isn’t something they farm out to assistants. The ones I’ve spoken with about the process take it pretty seriously.

The stats are there, no question. And I was sitting in a bar in Pasadena Friday night watching the Civil War feeling very happy for Huff to have that kind of a game. He’s taken a lot of heat over the last month -- some of it was deserved, some of it wasn’t.

But I think that also could have played a factor. Coaches are bias, just like everyone else who votes. They have their favorites. And perhaps Huff’s Rose Bowl comments didn’t sit well with the coaches. I’m just speculating, but I don’t think it’s too far of a reach.

A lot of questions and speculation about the Pac-12’s Rose Bowl partner – including questions from Kelly in Bend, Ore., Josh in Mesa, Ariz., and Greg in San Francisco. So I’ll lump them all together into one answer. It breaks down to this: Could Alabama play in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO.

Kevin Gemmell: Short answer: yes, with an if. And no, with a but.

The winner of the Pac-12 championship game heads to the Rose Bowl no matter what, since neither Stanford nor Arizona State are under consideration for the VIZIO BCS National Championship game.

The Big Ten is a different story since Ohio State is now in play for the title game. If Ohio State beats Michigan State, chances are it goes to the BCS championship game and therefore the Big Ten forfeits its entry into the Rose Bowl. That leaves a void.

The obvious solution is Michigan State to Pasadena. The kicker, however, is whether Michigan State is still in the top 14 of the BCS rankings. If Michigan State wins, it will go to the Rose Bowl. If it loses and falls out of the top 14, a replacement team needs to be found.

The optimal solution is for either Michigan State to win or Ohio State to win, but Michigan State puts up a good enough fight that it stays within the top 14. There is nothing the Rose Bowl committee wants more than a Pac-12-Big Ten matchup for the 100th game. Preserving that tradition is important to them.

But it might be out of their control.

Assuming Florida State goes to the championship game, the Discover Orange Bowl would have the first pick at filling its spot. It’s hard to imagine Alabama slipping through. However, if for some reason it does, then I wouldn’t be shocked for the Rose Bowl to snatch up Alabama. But a few things need to happen for that scenario to play out.

John in Los Angeles writes: A case for [Jim] Mora being Coach of the Year. First, let me say I don't know much about the other teams in the conference. Being in LA I of course know the saga of Southern Cal, and I do think Coach Orgeron has done a great job. That having been said, here are my points (in no particular order save point 1).
  1. The death of a player: You have brought this up a few times and it likely goes without saying how this impacted the team. Some might say kids this age are resilient and there is some truth to that notion. However I still think Mora did a great job in handling the situation.
  2. Replacing Franklin: I don't really remember seeing this mentioned much other than at the start of the season. Franklin not only became the schools leading rusher he was a team leader. That is a tough combination to replace.
  3. Replacing the secondary: This job became even harder when Riley had to retire. I don't know how young we were back there but IIRC it was fairly young all season.
  4. Injuries along the offensive line: This one is pretty well documented.
  5. Freshman punter: I don't think people appreciate how good Jeff Locke was last year in terms of field position. Then to have to replace him with a true freshman to boot (pun intended).

With all of those things UCLA was one poor half away from winning the South. Like I said, I don't know much about the other teams and what they had to go through this year. But I think going 9-3 with 2 of the three losses coming on the road to (then) top 5 teams in back to back weekends and the only other loss to a top 20 team with having to deal with all the stuff above, Mora deserves some serious consideration for Coach of the Year.

Kevin Gemmell: This one came in on Sunday, before the coach of the year was named, but I still think everything John just mentioned is worth addressing, because everything he says is correct. And I don’t know what the totals were in terms of voting for coach of the year. I have to imagine Mora got a few votes.

But it’s tough to ignore the job Todd Graham has done at Arizona State. Before the season, most people didn’t expect the Sun Devils to win the South (outside of the Pac-12 blog) and they started the year unranked. When you look at the schedule they played and the way they won games down the stretch -- home and away, blowouts and come-from-behinds -- I would have voted for Graham also.

Mora did a fantastic coaching job this year. And winning at the Coliseum last week was obviously a huge step forward for the program. But they had a chance to seize control of the division at home and couldn’t get it done.

From where ASU started the season -- unranked -- to where it is now, Graham was the right choice.

The Heisman Committee in New York writes: Kevin, you told us recently that the Pac-12 would send 1 Heisman finalist and it would be Marcus Mariota? Should Carey go? Should he take Mariota's place? Is there any chance we invite both? Do either have a chance of beating Winston and the field given Winston's legal troubles? We're so overwhelmed by this season that we could really use all the help we can get.

Kevin Gemmell: Pretty sure I told you that in October during a chat. Chat answers are obviously gut feelings at the time, and at the time Mariota seemed like a safe choice.

Have the circumstances changed? Absolutely. I think when all is said and done, it should either be Ka'Deem Carey or Bishop Sankey who represents the Pac-12 in the Heisman voting. I made a case earlier today for one of the two Pac-12 backs winning the Doak Walker. And I think if the Heisman doesn’t go to a quarterback, then it should go to one of the two backs. And I’d be a Carey lean simply because of the consistency every week.

Yes, Sankey supporters, I know he sat out a lot of the Idaho State and Colorado games. Carey missed time too. Both are phenomenal backs and regular Pac-12 blog readers know that I’ve been high on Sankey for a very long time.

But his performances in the ASU and UCLA games are the sort of showing that haunt players when it comes to postseason awards. If I were a voter, my main focal point would be consistency and complete body of work. And Carey showed that against the toughest competition he played his best ball.

Emily in LA writes: Well, I guess you can ignore my last question now that it's completely irrelevant after today's news. I'll withhold judgment on Sarkisian (and learn to spell his name) after I see how he does, but I'm still sad about Coach O leaving.

Kevin Gemmell: Emily submitted a question on Sunday showing support for Ed Orgeron and questioning whether the UCLA loss should play a major factor in Pat Haden’s decision. It can still be answered despite the changes, because we now have the benefit of hindsight.

I’m pretty sure it didn’t rest on that one game -- though it probably made it easier. No doubt, Orgeron did a magnificent job. He tapped into something special with his players and rode it for as long as he could.

For kicks, let’s say he were named the head coach. A lot of the inspiration he had this season -- that nothing-to-lose attitude -- would be gone. That’s not to say he couldn’t get the job done. But these past seven weeks have been a pretty exceptional situation.

Haden is thinking about the long-term health of the program. It can’t just be five weeks from now. It has to be five years from now. And it’s tough to separate the emotion of what went on the last few weeks with what the future is going to hold.

Keep in mind though the two games Orgeron did lose -- Notre Dame and UCLA. Those are rivalry games. USC fans expect their team to beat Cal and Utah and yes, even Oregon State in Corvallis. But they also expect wins over rivals. And that’s something Orgeron failed to provide.

Don’t get me wrong. The Pac-12 blog was very impressed with what Orgeron was able to do. And there is obviously a level of disappointment in him leaving.

But he had to go. Sark needs a clean slate to start with, and Orgeron’s presence, while probably wanted by the players, would have been more of a distraction to the new administration.

It’s like breaking up with your girlfriend, but tagging along with her on dates so you can tell her new man her likes and dislikes. It’s uncomfortable and awkward.

Pac-12's lunch links

December, 2, 2013
12/02/13
11:30
AM PT
Nobody's ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I'm still standin', I'm gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren't just another bum from the neighborhood.

USC Grades: Poor showing vs. UCLA

December, 2, 2013
12/02/13
10:43
AM PT
The tangible stakes in Saturday’s rivalry game were practically nil. Do UCLA and USC fans really care whether their team plays in the Sun Bowl or the Las Vegas Bowl? What UCLA’s 35-14 semi-domination did was send one team, UCLA, into the off-season with sky-high expectations and the other, USC, into the off-season with more uncertainty.

Some of that could be cleared up any day now, with ESPN’s Joe Schad reporting that the Trojans’ coaching search could be concluded by the middle of this week. The joy ride under interim coach Ed Orgeron would have had a far happier conclusion if his team had showed up with a little more fight in its final regular-season game.

PASSING ATTACK

The UCLA defense, plus some key early drops by his receivers, conspired to make Cody Kessler look ordinary, which is exactly what USC fans fret that he is. Kessler was sacked six times, under pressure most of the game and he completed just 17 of his 28 passes for 174 yards and a touchdown. There were times Kessler moved the team effectively, but it was a game devoid of big plays, so the momentum -- and the crowd -- never really got in the Trojans’ corner. If there was a bright spot, it was the emergence of talented tight end Xavier Grimble into the offense. He caught Kessler’s only passing touchdown in the third quarter.

Grade: C

RUSHING ATTACK

Orgeron said he was a little disappointed his team didn’t run the ball better, especially early in the game. Eventually, the run game emerged, but by then, UCLA was leading, so the Trojans were more apt to pass. Javorius Allen rushed for 123 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries, going over 100 yards for the fourth time in five games. Other than that, the Trojans mustered virtually no rushing attack. In part due to a couple of injuries, the Trojans weren’t able to establish their bread and butter -- a power run game -- and that allowed UCLA to set the tempo.

Grade: C

IN THE TRENCHES

The two turning points of Saturday’s game, both emotionally and tangibly, for USC came when two of their starting offensive linemen had to be carted off the field with injuries. Center Marcus Martin injured his knee in USC’s first possession of the first quarter and was replaced by former walk-on Abe Markowitz. Tackle Aundrey Walker broke his ankle in USC’s first possession of the second half and has already undergone surgery, meaning he’s out for the Trojans’ bowl game. He was replaced by John Martinez. Given those twin body shots, the line performed about as well as could have been expected. UCLA has some talented pass rushers, none more talented than linebacker Anthony Barr, who had two sacks and forced a fumble.

Grade: C

DEFENSE

According to Orgeron, the Trojans prepared all week to stop Brett Hundley’s quarterback draws, but it sure didn’t look like it. It seemed as if every time the Bruins needed a first down, the talented quarterback just shot up the middle for 10 to 20 yards and moved the chains, or dashed around end for a touchdown. In all, UCLA had 396 total yards of offense. Hundley ran for 80 yards and two touchdowns and completed 18 of 27 pass tries for 208 yards.

The Trojans’ pass coverage was spotty. Josh Shaw largely shut down receiver Shaq Evans, but Kevon Seymour had a rough evening.

Grade: C

SPECIAL TEAMS

In addition to the two injuries on the offensive line, this was where the biggest breakdown came. Coach John Baxter is a respected special teams coach, but in a big game, his units didn’t perform well. In fact, that’s putting it kindly. Punter Kris Albarado averaged just 33.5 yards per punt, one of them a shanked 15-yarder that set up a UCLA touchdown. More punishing were breakdowns on kick coverage. UCLA cornerback Ishmael Adams had returns of 37, 47 and 46 yards. Field position was in UCLA’s favor all game, helping tilt the game their way.

Grade: F

COACHING

The day after the most disappointing loss in his coaching life, Orgeron was back on the recruiting trail. He hosts a big weekend for recruits on Dec. 13. If reports are true and athletic director Pat Haden is looking outside for his new head coach, he will need to put some effort into finding a way to retain Orgeron, one of the nation’s best recruiters. That way, the Trojans can guarantee themselves another good class in February, just as the sanctions begin to ease. Orgeron sounded resigned to his fate. If you’re a USC coach on the bubble, losing to Notre Dame and UCLA usually bursts it. Jim Mora’s team seemed to have more consistent energy and focus.

Grade: B-

What we learned in the Pac-12: Week 14

December, 1, 2013
12/01/13
10:00
AM PT
Five things we learned in the final week of the regular season:

We have a venue: On the strength of Arizona State’s 58-21 win over Arizona, the Sun Devils will host Stanford in the third Pac-12 championship game next week in Tempe. How big is this? Consider that Stanford stretched its home winning streak to 16 games by beating Notre Dame, it’s pretty big. The Sun Devils have now won eight consecutive games at home. And while last week’s win at UCLA was a huge maturity moment for the Sun Devils, they are still a decidedly better team when they are playing in the desert. Recall the shellacking Stanford put on the Sun Devils earlier this year on The Farm. Both of Stanford’s losses this year have come on the road. This sets the stage for a very intriguing game with a spot in the Rose Bowl on the line.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesSure, the uniforms were blinding, but the Civil War was well worth risking your vision for as Oregon edged Oregon State.
Rivalries provide thrills: Show of hands: If we would have said Thursday night that one of this weekend’s rivalry games would come down to a single point, how many people would have said The Civil War? Honestly? We wouldn’t have, either. Utah-Colorado is blossoming into a nice little season finale. The Apple Cup kept our interest most of the game. And for those with polarized sunglasses who were able to stand the glare of Oregon-Oregon State, you saw a pretty good game. Others fizzled as UCLA pulled away from the Trojans in the second half and Arizona State routed the Wildcats. Also at question is what's going to happen with the coaching situation at USC -- which again seems unstable after the Trojans were blown out by their rivals. Did Ed Orgeron do enough to warrant dropping the "interim" from his title? Or was it simply a nice run that had to come to an end?

Sankey vs. Carey: No one is going to argue that Bishop Sankey and Ka'Deem Carey aren’t great running backs. In fact, they are two of the best in the country and both have NFL futures. A mini-debate has raged the last few weeks as to which one is better. There is, of course, no real wrong answer because both are outstanding. The good news is both players will be first-team all-league. But if you were looking for a lasting impression, it’s hard to ignore what Sankey did against his rival, rushing 34 times for 200 yards and a touchdown. Carey had pretty good numbers against ASU, but the game was so lopsided that they didn’t count for as much. Either way, phenomenal seasons from both players.

Irish halted: Notre Dame is not the unofficial Pac-12 champ. On the strength of Stanford’s 27-20 win, the Cardinal were able to halt Notre Dame’s stranglehold on Pac-12 teams. Dating back to last season, the Irish were riding a four-game winning streak -- having knocked off Stanford, USC twice and Arizona State. But a 189-yard rushing performance from Tyler Gaffney and a pair of picks from Wayne Lyons helped the league salvage a bit of dignity and avoid a second straight year of being swept.

Now, we wait: The regular season is over. It happens that fast. It seems like only a few days ago your Pac-12 bloggers were laying out their predictions for the season (yes, we’re going to link that post every chance we get). For California, Colorado and Utah, there is work to be done. Utah seems on the verge of breaking through, but can’t seem to keep a quarterback healthy. Colorado made great strides in its first season under Mike MacIntyre, but he’ll be the first to say no one is happy with how the year turned out. And Cal, well, it just needs to get healthy. The rest of the league now awaits its postseason fate. The Cardinal and Sun Devils will square off for a Rose Bowl berth. The rest of the league is likely going bowling -- though a couple of teams will be orphaned and will need to find a bowl game to pick them up. What we learned about the Pac-12 this year is what we learn every year. There’s never an easy week.

Five things: UCLA at USC

November, 30, 2013
11/30/13
6:00
AM PT
Five things to watch as No. 22 UCLA (8-3, 5-3 Pac-12) takes on No. 23 USC (9-3, 6-2) on Saturday at the Coliseum (5 p.m. PT, ABC).

Take back the City: This one is for the bragging rights of Los Angeles and, after the UCLA victory in 2012, the Bruins have talked a lot this week about how this game is an opportunity to show that they run the town now. The Trojans, of course, will point to 12 USC victories in the last 14 matchups, and the fact that the Bruins have not won in the Coliseum since 1997. The USC players know that the best way to put a stop to any talk of UCLA momentum is a win Saturday.

Real ball: When UCLA coach Jim Mora talked about facing the USC offense this week, he clearly relished the challenge of going against a “physical, downhill” offense, as opposed to so many of the spread offenses that are prevalent in the conference today. Mora called it “real ball” and he can expect to see plenty of it in this game. The Trojans have been running the ball well lately, with 240 or more rushing yards in three of the past four games. Buck Allen has nine rushing touchdowns in those four games and the USC offensive line has played particularly well.

Contain Hundley: It’s no secret that UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley is one of the top dual-threat players in the country. He ranks No. 2 in the Pac-12 in passing efficiency and the ball gets spread around, as 26 Bruins have caught passes this year. But where Hundley can often be most dangerous is when he takes off to run. He has more than 500 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on the ground this year. The biggest issue for UCLA is that their offensive line will start three freshmen who will be attempting to block Leonard Williams, Devon Kennard & Co.

Senior Day: Among the USC seniors who be playing their final game at the Coliseum are a group of eight players who were a part of the final recruiting class of Pete Carroll at USC: De’Von Flournoy, Kevin Graf, Kevin Greene, Torin Harris, Devon Kennard, John Martinez, Marquis Simmons and Simi Vehikite. Those players signed up for what they thought would be a continuation of the Carroll dynasty but they were subjected instead to harsh NCAA penalties for violations that took place long before they arrived. They were also part of a resurgence at end of their final USC season that helped restore a great sense of pride to the program.

Finish the script: The last seven weeks has brought an amazing turnaround and nothing could finish it better than a win over the Bruins in the Coliseum. All the feel-good emotion around the Trojans right now would reach a crescendo if USC can find a way to avenge the loss last season in the Rose Bowl. Of course, a Trojans victory on Saturday would also result in a landslide of public opinion in favor of retaining interim coach Ed Orgeron.

Plenty at stake for Trojans, Bruins

November, 27, 2013
11/27/13
1:00
PM PT


Arizona State’s 38-33 victory over UCLA last week solidified one thing: Neither UCLA nor USC will be playing in the Pac-12 championship game.

Los Angeles has represented the South Division the first two years of the title game. UCLA went both times, but USC fans will always hold a 50-0 asterisk over the Bruins’ heads for 2011.

Still, motivation isn't an issue when these teams meet.

The Bruins have won just twice in the last 14 meetings, and they haven’t won at the Coliseum since 1997. But they won last year in a game that was (almost) the final insult on an otherwise train-wrecked 2012 for the Trojans.

[+] EnlargeEd Orgeron
AP Photo/Eric RisbergA USC win over UCLA could help interim head coach Ed Orgeron remove the "interim" from that title.
Both coaches will tell you their teams aren't preparing any differently. And it’s probably true. But below the undertow of mutual respect and coaching clichés is a bitterness that goes back decades. To say nothing of the fact that bowl pecking order also comes into play.

“We do understand that this is our rivalry game and this is a game that’s huge for our fan base and huge for our players,” USC interim coach Ed Orgeron said. “… No disrespect, but this is a game that we want to win very badly.”

It’s a huge game for Orgeron, also, because he has put himself in position to lose the “interim” status from his title. Since Lane Kiffin was fired after the Sept. 28 Debacle in the Desert, Orgeron has led the Trojans to a sterling 6-0 mark in Pac-12 play and a 6-1 record overall. They've resurfaced in the BCS rankings at No. 23, one spot behind the No. 22 Bruins.

Mark Saxon of ESPN Los Angeles summed it up best:
This next game is the kind of thing Ed Orgeron was born for. He’s a fiery motivator who loves to talk about USC tradition and will find the right emotional buttons to push to have his team excited about Saturday’s game.

UCLA coach Jim Mora recognizes it, also.

“You see an energy,” Mora said. “I don’t know if you call that a tangible or an intangible. But you see an energy and enthusiasm and passion and a group of guys going out and having a lot of fun … They are a team that’s filled with a lot of good football players. There’s a lot of talent over there and they are playing with a lot of confidence right now. Their energy and their confidence level is apparent.”

Mora is hoping that confidence isn't something his guys are lacking following their loss to the Sun Devils, who claimed the Pac-12 South title and sacked quarterback Brett Hundley nine times in the process.

The Trojans, who rank fourth in the conference with 33 sacks on the year, are hoping they can make a similar impact against a UCLA offensive front that starts three true freshmen.

“[Hundley] can make you miss,” Orgeron said. “We had a hard time getting him down last year. We thought we rushed the passer very well but we could not get him down. He’s the key to their offense. They have a very good scheme. They are very well-coached. It should be a tough ballgame.”

Mora has been equally impressed with the play of USC’s quarterback, Cody Kessler. In the first five games of the year, Kessler was completing 63.4 percent of his throws with an average of 166.4 yards per game with six touchdowns to four interceptions. In the seven games since Orgeron took over and Clay Helton started calling the offense, Kessler is completing 65.8 percent of his throws, averaging 231 yards per game with nine touchdowns and two interceptions.

“When you have talent like Cody does and you get an opportunity to play, like he’s getting, and you gain that experience, like he is, you’re going to get better,” Mora said. “This is a talented young man and he’s getting snaps and he’s feeling more comfortable in that offense and he’s getting a rhythm with his receivers. Talent plus experience, that equals good performance.”

Being the biggest show in town comes with its share of distractions. Yet both coaches said they believe their players aren't going to get caught up. Mora especially praised his young team for showing great resiliency following each of their three losses this season.

“I think our young men do a good job of that every week, of focusing on what it’s going to take to go out and play their best,” Mora said. “We talk about having zoom focus and eliminating distractions and following our routine. This week is no different. You prepare like you prepare. You focus on what you’re supposed to focus on. All that periphery stuff doesn't necessarily affect what happens on the field. Our guys have a firm grasp of that and I think that helps us.

“These are two very proud programs with a lot of tradition. Our schools sit about 12 miles from each other and this town is very divided between Trojan and Bruin. There is a lot of pride that goes along with being either a Bruin or a Trojan.”

SPONSORED HEADLINES

2013 TEAM LEADERS

PASSINGATTCOMPYDSTD
C. Kessler361236296820
RUSHINGCARYDSAVGTD
J. Allen1357855.814
T. Madden1387035.13
RECEIVINGRECYDSAVGTD
M. Lee5779113.94
N. Agholor5691816.46
TEAMRUSHPASSTOTAL
Offense174.2218.1392.3
TEAMPFPAMARGIN
Scoring28.521.37.2