NCF Nation: USC Trojans

National links: Who's No. 4? 

November, 24, 2014
Nov 24
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We’re inside of two weeks until Dec. 7, when the College Football Playoff selection committee announces its four picks to appear in the sport’s first national semifinals.

There will be teams left out who can make perfectly compelling cases to be playoff participants. There will be voices raised and criticisms leveled regarding which program truly deserved the final spot in the playoff. This much is a certainty.

But which teams have the best chances of cracking the field? It still seems to be a matter of conjecture beyond the top three teams: Alabama, Oregon and Florida State.

Pac-12 viewer's guide: Week 13

November, 21, 2014
Nov 21
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After two weeks on a diet, a jam-packed Pac-12 slate is back Saturday. Here's the rundown:

10 a.m.

Washington State at Arizona State, Pac-12 Network

One word: early. This game kicks off at 11 a.m. local time, but keep in mind that the Cougars' body clocks will still be set to the Pacific time zone. Mike Leach said that Washington State's hotel pregame routine will start between 5 and 6 a.m. It'll be a chance for fans to watch the Pac-12 while munching on pancakes, French toast, or -- my favorite -- crab Benedict. And it'll be a chance for ASU to wash away the horrible memory of last week's 35-27 loss at Oregon State as quickly as possible.

12:30 p.m.

Arizona at Utah, ESPN

By lunchtime, there should be a craving for a good dose of backfield pressure. #SackLackCity should be a fun place for the Wildcats' Scooby Wright to visit: He's ranked in the top three nationally in sacks and tackles for loss, so why not put him on the same field as the Utes' Nate Orchard, who's currently at the top of the sack heap? Defensive star power is the name of the game here, but keep an eye on Arizona's Anu Solomon: He must step up to the challenge of the Rice-Eccles crowd.

1 p.m.

Stanford at Cal, Fox Sports 1

Stanford's offense has been bad, but the Cardinal have found a way to score against shaky defenses this season (they've been terrible in games against ranked teams, averaging only 11.4 points per regulation in those contests). Well, good news for the Cardinal: The Golden Bears are worse than shaky on defense (39.2 points, 518 yards per game). Bad news for Stanford: Cal is at home, and it is smelling blood. Let's see what gives in the 117th Big Game. Oh, and that matchup between Jared Goff and Lance Anderson's top-ranked Cardinal defense isn't too shabby, either.

1:30 p.m.

Colorado at Oregon, Pac-12 Network

The best team in the conference meets the worst team in the conference. Prediction-wise, that's about all that needs to be said about this one. Some extra, slightly unrelated food for thought: Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre asserted that the Pac-12 South was the best division in college football, better than even the SEC West. Imagine how absurdly strong the South would be if Oregon were in it, too (I bring this up only because the SEC's top team, Alabama, happens to reside in the powerful West).

5 p.m.

USC at UCLA, ABC

Statues have been vandalized, airports have received photogenic lighting decorations, and statues have been arguably vandalized some more by duct tape (intended to protect them, but still, that's going to be a pain to remove, right?). The pregame rituals of rivalry week were fun, but it's time for some actual football with Pac-12 championship hopes on the line. The matchup of Brett Hundley and Cody Kessler is fascinating one, as is the battle between USC's frontline explosiveness and a UCLA machine that appears to be peaking at the right time.

7:30 p.m.

Oregon State at Washington, ESPN

The Beavers need one more win to earn bowl eligibility for Sean Mannion in his senior season. It's amazing what one good week (paired with a bad one) can do: Both of these teams have lost four of their past five games, but the feeling surrounding Oregon State is much more positive than the one in Seattle. The Beavers notched a huge 35-27 upset win over ASU last weekend, while the Huskies dropped a bitter 27-26 decision to Arizona. Both have a chance to finish forgettable seasons on a high note.
Aaron Rodgers said it to Packers fans and LeBron James said it to Cavaliers fans. And whomever winds up taking over as the next head coach of the Florida football program would assuredly want the same message relayed to Gators fans when it comes to the 2015 recruiting class.

R-E-L-A-X.

[+] EnlargeByron Cowart
Tom Hauck for Student SportsFive-star Byron Cowart is not letting Florida's coaching change affect his decision.
Losses on the field cost Will Muschamp his job and his successor will inherit a class with just nine verbal commits -- the fewest of any Power 5 program. With all that, panic has assuredly set in with Florida fans. But not only is it premature to worry about how this class will finish, those fans don't need to look far into history for some significant reassurance as to how strong the Gators class could be when it crosses the finish line.

While Florida doesn't share much in common with USC -- opposite coasts, different conferences, public vs. private, etc. -- there's one thing they share that is the only thing that matters in this situation. It's something that only a handful of college football programs can take advantage of. Because Florida -- like USC -- is one of college football's most visible power programs, a coaching change can lead to immediate positive effects, especially on the recruiting trail.

After the second game of the 2013 season, the Trojans might have had the least recruiting clout in the Pac-12. Dozens of high-profile USC recruits had just sat through a sloppy 10-7 loss to Washington State, complete with loud boos and chants to fire the coach.

“It was kind of a letdown,” said one ESPN 300 prospect following the game. “It's really thrown me off of them."

USC kept Lane Kiffin at the helm until Sept. 30, when the decision was made to let him go. Steve Sarkisian took over on Dec. 2 and the recruiting impact was felt almost immediately.

That decision was met with immediate excitement from prospects and galvanized the recruiting efforts in a hurry. After sitting outside the ESPN class rankings for months, the Trojans made their way back among the top 40 recruiting classes just two weeks after Sarkisian's hiring.

When the recruiting class was finished, only three prospects who originally committed to Lane Kiffin remained. The Trojans finished with 19 commitments, including the three Kiffin landed and four former Washington pledges that followed Sarkisian to USC. The Trojans finished with the No. 14 group in the country, and not only did the Trojans eventually sign Adoree' Jackson -- the lone five-star prospect in the region -- they also wound up signing the aforementioned ESPN 300 recruit that was so down on the Trojans following the Washington State loss.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesSteve Sarkisian's hiring jumpstarted USC's recruiting efforts in the final two months of the 2014 cycle.
When Florida fans look at USC carrying only three commitments from early December through signing day last year, the idea of having nine committed at this point -- including four ESPN 300 prospects -- should be rather reassuring (provided they don't take a glance at Florida State's class at the moment). What should be even more reassuring are the prospects still left on the board for Florida. ESPN 300 prospects Byron Cowart, Martez Ivey, CeCe Jefferson, Adonis Thomas and Jeffery Holland are just a few of the names in the region still looking at the Gators following the loss of Muschamp. The talent available is even greater than what the Trojans collected in sweeping ESPN 300 prospects Jackson, JuJu Smith and Damien Mama on signing day last year.

Cowart probably said it best when he told ESPN.com's Derek Tyson: "I’m still considering Florida. At the end of the day, they will pay top dollar for whoever the next head coach will be, so whoever they get will be a top coach."

Getting out in front as the first major program to announce a coaching change will be a significant benefit to Florida, as often the rumblings of a coaching change can be far more detrimental to a recruiting class than the coaching change itself. In addition, the Gators are likely guaranteed that whoever takes over as head coach will bring with him several recruits -- either because they are committed to whatever program he is coaching for right now, or his name recognition alone will be too much to turn down.

While mention of the 2015 recruiting cycle makes it feel like this class goes through just one fluid stage from first offers to signing day, the truth is that there are a number of separate recruiting seasons for these seniors. We're about to step into the two that matter most -- the months between the end of the season and the beginning of February, and the final 48 hours leading up to signing day. What matters most is the recruiting momentum that can carry a program through those periods, and Florida -- like USC last year, or a handful of programs including Alabama, Michigan, Oklahoma, Texas and a few others -- is one of those programs that has the ability to become a freight train on the trail with the right hire.
Brett Hundley, Cody KesslerAP PhotosBrett Hundley and Cody Kessler will be fighting for individual awards and the Pac-12 South title.
It's safe to assume that when the postseason awards are handed out, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota will once again be holding top honors as the league's first-team all-conference quarterback.

Second team, however is still up for grabs. And this weekend's rivalry game between USC and UCLA might move the debate. There are only two quarterbacks in the conference who are completing more than 70 percent of their throws -- UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley (72.1) and USC quarterback Cody Kessler (70.2).

And while there are plenty of dynamic players on both sidelines, it's the quarterbacks who typically take center stage in this rivalry.

"I think a big part of deciding that stuff will be in this game," Kessler said. "Brett has played really well this year. He's one of my good friends and he's done a great job. I'm happy for him. This game will probably help define that. Not just the all-conference stuff. But some of the other awards and the Battle of L.A. thing. This game has a lot of emphasis on the quarterbacks and it's going to be a fun competition."

The league's two most accurate passers took different routes to get to where they are heading into Saturday. Hundley had a "competition" in the spring of 2012, but easily emerged as the starter before the season began and hasn't looked back since. Kessler's road has been more serpentine, as he had to win over two different coaching staffs (and multiple head coaches) along the way.

No one is going to confuse the two. They play very different styles, run different schemes and bring unique skill sets to their teams. But coaches who have seen both this season agree on the same thing: Both are very good at what they do.

"Very different style, but equally effective," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who was on the winning end of both games against the L.A. schools this season. "Both of them are tremendous talents. I believe both will play a long time in this sport beyond college. Kessler is more of a traditional, pocket, NFL-type guy. Hundley is very dynamic and can run the football as well as throw it. They are both great leaders and do a great job in their respective systems. Should be a great matchup."

Even the way they handle pressure is a contrast in styles. Per ESPN Stats & Information, Kessler is completing 57.4 percent of his throws when he's under duress, which is tops among Power 5 quarterbacks. Conversely, Hundley ranks second among Power 5 quarterbacks with 391 scramble yards. One sticks in the pocket, the other uses his legs to make plays downfield.

"I think that Kessler is really doing a nice job executing that offense and taking care of the ball and not making mistakes," said Cal coach Sonny Dykes, who dropped both games to USC and UCLA. "Hundley can make a lot of plays with his feet. In some ways, he's probably at his best when he can freelance a little bit. But he's certainly capable of being a pocket guy and he does that well. I think his talent really comes out more when he's forced to make some plays with his feet and sustain some plays. They are very different that way, but they are both playing at a high level with two different styles. But both are good at what they do."

It's also worth noting that both have very strong run games supporting them. USC's Javorius "Buck" Allen leads the conference with 1,184 rushing yards. UCLA's Paul Perkins is right on his heels with 1,169 yards.

And yet for as much credit as Kessler gets for staying in the pocket and Hundley for leaving it, both aren't too bad when the roles are reversed. Kessler will never be a tuck-and-run guy, but he can improvise if needed.

"He has that in his arsenal," USC coach Steve Sarkisian said. "… He probably doesn't get enough credit for being as good of an athlete as he is. But I think we'd all prefer for him to stay within the system and utilize his reads and throws."

And Hundley -- who leads all FBS quarterbacks in completion percentage -- has to be a good pocket passer for those kinds of numbers. And when the Bruins throw on first down, he's completing nearly three out of every four passes (74.8 percent).

Of course, these two aren't alone in the quest for all-conference honors. Cal's Jared Goff and Arizona's Anu Solomon will get strong consideration. Even injured Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday still leads the league with 32 touchdown passes and 3,873 yards.

But neither is all that concerned with that right now. Both teams are still fighting for the Pac-12 South title and a date with Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game.

"There is always going to be a lot riding on this game," Hundley said. "It's the end of the season and typically both teams are doing well. This is usually the game where the South is decided and this year it's no different. We respect them as a team. They've put together a good season. We've done the same. It's two well-respected teams and we're going to go out there and put on a show."

Pac-12 Week 13 predictions

November, 20, 2014
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Why Stanford will win: Stanford winning the Big Game would be a sure-thing if I had predicted Cal to win -- as Bears fans know, my pick is like getting handed a condemning black spot from a pirate, a la "Treasure Island." But there is something to be said for the physicality of Stanford's defense being able to contain Cal's offense, as Washington's front seven did. I also suspect Stanford will get Good Kevin Hogan in this game, which should be enough to get the Cardinal bowl eligible in an otherwise disappointing season. -- Ted Miller

Why Cal will win: I like this matchup: A great offense against a great defense, and a "meh" offense against a "meh" defense. Yay, Pac-12 football! But I think Jared Goff is going to come up huge for the Bears. I'm giving the nod to the team that has more positive vibes, rather than the one dealing with disappointment. That's what I've learned from the West Coast. -- Chantel Jennings

Why USC will win: It just wouldn't feel right if the Pac-12 South finished without another change of course. Look for Cody Kessler to turn in another big game and the Trojans to avoid a three-game losing streak to UCLA -- something that has happened just three times in the series' history. -- Kyle Bonagura

Why UCLA will win: With Buck Allen and Nelson Agholor exploding on a regular basis, USC may have more top-level flash (don’t tell that to Brett Hundley, though), but UCLA has the depth advantage in this game. The Trojans’ late-game struggles have to be cause for some concern here, especially since the Bruins have been playing their best football as of late. -- David Lombardi

Why Oregon State will win: The Beavers are riding high and bowl eligibility is on the line in Sean Mannion's senior year. Last week, the Beavers played for pride. This week, it'll be to give their leader one extra game in an OSU uniform. They clicked last week and I think that will continue. I think the Beavers are going to leave Seattle with a win and extend their season one more game. -- Chantel Jennings

Why Washington will win: In losing Terron Ward, the Beavers lose a running back, a leader and a special teams contributor. That’s a big deduction this late in the season for a team not overflowing with playmakers. Combine that with a talented Washington front seven and the Huskies feel right in this one at home. Now, if Cyler Miles can just hold on to the dang ball. -- Kevin Gemmell

Unanimous picks

Why Utah will win: Home-field advantage might not mean as much as it used to in the Pac-12 this season, but I think the crowd at Rice-Eccles Stadium fuels Utah's nation-leading pass rush. It will be enough to push the Utes to victory over an Arizona offense that’s still young at key positions. -- David Lombardi

Why Oregon will win: When the best team in the conference plays the worst team in the conference, it's easy to pick the winner (even in the Pac-12). It's only a question of how much the Ducks will win by. -- Kyle Bonagura

Why Arizona State will win: The Sun Devils are going to be eager to bounce back from their loss in Corvallis and pick up win No. 9 against Washington State. Look for a better performance from Taylor Kelly and D.J. Foster, who rushed for just 51 yards against the Beavers. -- Chantel Jennings
UCLA was the hot new team in the preseason, the hip new accessory all the pundits were adding to their bantering repertoire. Quarterback Brett Hundley, cool, charismatic, immensely talented, led a depth chart with no obvious holes. Head coach Jim Mora, fresh from turning away pursuit from Texas, and his Bruins were climbers, vogue picks to break through into the inaugural College Football Playoff.

[+] EnlargeJim Mora
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesUnder Jim Mora, who has changed the culture at UCLA, the Bruins have found ways to survive close games.
Yet a series of surprisingly tight early-season games soured many. Close calls against Virginia? Memphis? Forlorn, spurned Texas? The Bruins had started out at No. 7 in the preseason AP poll but tumbled to 11th without losing. Then they attained seeming redemption, rolling over then-15th-ranked Arizona State 62-27 in front of a shocked crowd at Sun Devil Stadium. That propelled the Bruins back to No. 8, and the bandwagon again filled.

The love of college football's cognoscenti can be fleeting, though. UCLA was upset at home by Utah, not yet recognized as the salty team it is, then was pummeled at home by Oregon, the 42-30 final only made respectable by three fourth-quarter touchdowns when the Ducks were admiring their reflection in the mirror.

The Bruins were dumped from the rankings in Week 8 and only debuted at No. 22 in the first CFP rankings in Week 10. They had become an afterthought. Or -- worse -- top candidate for the season's dreaded "Most Overrated" label.

Ah, but lookie here, rising from the ashes in their power blue. While the college football nation had turned its attention to other matters -- TCU or Baylor? Unbeaten Florida State behind teams with losses? Two SEC teams in the playoff? What about Ohio State? -- the Bruins have quietly put together a four-game winning streak. Victories over Arizona and Washington, in particular, seemed to showcase the gritty team that could win with offense or defense that many anticipated seeing in the preseason.

It looked like a squad that was finding its rhythm, perhaps even peaking at the right time.

"If you were going to do a graph with us, it would be pretty jagged," Mora said of his team's improvement. "But it was always trending upward, even when it didn't seem like it."

Trending upward in the rankings, too. The Bruins, at No. 9 in the latest CFP rankings, are the second-rated two-loss team and are well within striking distance of the top four. If the Bruins beat archrival and 19th-ranked USC for a third consecutive time Saturday, dispatch Stanford in the season finale and then beat No. 2 Oregon in the Pac-12 title game, they will have a resume as good as any team in the nation. UCLA is projected to play the most difficult schedule in the FBS by the end of the regular season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, so an 11-2 mark would be pretty shiny.

The Bruins are clearly far from perfect. While their yards-per-play number on defense is respectable -- 5.2 -- they still yield 27.9 points per game. The offense has been solid overall, averaging 34.7 points per game, but it's hardly dominant and often inconsistent. While the offensive line has improved significantly -- 25 sacks yielded in the first six games versus six in the last four -- Hundley and the passing game have been middle-of-the-pack, though the Pac-12 middle is well above average.

Hundley ranks third in the Pac-12 and 14th in the nation in ESPN's Total QBR. That number has jumped significantly in large part because of Hundley's recently elevated rushing numbers. Through the first five games, he averaged just 24.4 yards rushing. In the last five, that number has perked up to 88. 4, including 131 against Arizona.

Despite everything, from lackluster performances to worrisome stats, the narrative that got interrupted -- the Bruins rising as a Pac-12 and national power -- is again in play, and that is happening because of something that is both more nebulous and bedrock: This is a mentally tough team, which refers back to previous days when few would have said that about the Bruins.

UCLA under Mora wins close games. It's 5-1 this year in games decided by eight or fewer points and 11-4 in Mora's two-plus seasons. In the three years before his arrival, the Bruins went 6-5 in games decided by eight or fewer points. The record on the road stands out even more: The Bruins are 14-4 under Mora. They were 4-15 the three years before he arrived.

While those numbers require qualification -- Rick Neuheisel recruited and redshirted Hundley, a three-year starter, much to Mora's benefit -- you can't find many naysayers concerning how the sometimes flinty Mora is changing the culture around the program. Heck, it started when he immediately put the kibosh on the Bruins' tradition of going "over the wall" and ditching a practice, thereby ending the most worthless tradition in college football.

Of course, these words could quickly melt, thaw and resolve themselves into a dew if the Bruins fall to USC. That's how it is in college football, particularly among rivals. Narratives change quickly. The Bruins would fall out of the South Division picture, and the Trojans might emerge as champs from seemingly nowhere. That might start talk of Steve Sarkisian redirecting the L.A. spotlight back to his Trojans.

Just as it is still within UCLA's reach to fully attain the heights bantered about in the preseason, so it is possible for this team to again be termed among the nation's most disappointing. This, by the way, is why college football is such great theater -- the extremes of interpretation seem perfectly valid with every plot twist.

UCLA's 2014 season? With two weeks remaining in the regular season, it still can turn out great. Or massively disappointing.
Here we are, two weeks left in the regular season, and the Pac-12 once again has a team in contention for a national championship.

But let’s be honest ... does anyone actually feel good about the prospects? Oregon -- the league’s brightest beacon of hope -- retained its No. 2 spot when the latest College Football Playoff rankings were revealed Tuesday night.

With games against Colorado (2-8) and Oregon State (5-5) remaining -- plus an opponent still-to-be-determined in the Pac-12 championship game -- the Ducks seem to be in good shape for a spot in the national semifinal in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual on New Year’s Day in Pasadena. A 69-percent chance, if you trust the ESPN metrics.

[+] EnlargeRoyce Freeman
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesThe path to the College Football Playoff seems straightforward for Royce Freeman and Oregon. But recent Pac-12 history has not been kind to teams in the Ducks' position.
The case for Oregon is compelling. Since losing to Arizona, the Ducks have won their last five games by an average of 21.6 points and have three double-digit wins over FPI Top 25 opponents -- the most in FBS. With the country’s most efficient offense led by the most efficient quarterback, it seems safe to at least start looking up hotels in the greater Los Angeles area.

But Pac-12 fans have learned to live in a world where the other shoe dangles delicately -- amassing potential energy before delivering a knockout blow at terminal velocity. We’ve seen teams with stronger resumes than the 2014 Ducks pull off amazing feats of yoga just so they could kick themselves in the rear.

In other words, Pac-12, you’ve teased us too many times before.

You know what you are, Pac-12? You’re the last number on a lottery scratcher that doesn’t hit. You’re the ace that pops up when you double down on 7-4. You’re the high-priced steak that’s undercooked and over-seasoned. You’re the last episode of The Sopranos. So much anticipation and build up, followed by an unsatisfying and jarring cut to black.

As my colleague Ted Miller likes to uncouthly say, you yak on yourself this time each year.

Will this year be different?

We thought it would be last year, before Stanford beat Oregon, USC beat Stanford and Arizona beat Oregon.

We thought 2012 would be different, until the Stanford beat Oregon.

We thought 2011 would be different, until Oregon beat Stanford and USC beat Oregon.

You can go all the way back to the league’s last national champion in 2004 and find an instance of foot-shooting almost every year. USC and Oregon did it in their national championship games in 2005 and 2010, respectively. The 2008 Trojans -- a team so ridiculously loaded with future NFL talent -- crashed and burned in Corvallis in the third game of the season. The computers never forgave them.

But before that, there were the Trojans gagging in 2006 with a mid-season loss (again in Corvallis) and a season-finale loss to UCLA. You can even go back to ’98 and dredge up the would-be UCLA-Tennessee national championship that never happened, courtesy of Miami.

We’ve already seen it with Arizona State’s collapse last weekend in Corvallis. How neat and tidy would it have been for the league to have two one-loss teams playing in the championship game with a spot in the playoffs on the line? But that’s not the league’s style. It prefers messy.

Had the Sun Devils pulled out a win last weekend, do you think the Beavers faithful at Reser Stadium would have been chanting “P-A-C, P-A-C” like some other conference we know that holds itself in such high regard? Of course not. This league’s coaches rarely talk about what’s good for the conference. They want what’s best for their own team -- national perception and conference pride be damned. And for the record, this fifth of the Pac-12 blog is just fine with that.

Colorado isn’t going to yield the floor to the gentlemen from the great state of Oregon. Nor are the Beavers gracefully going to step aside and accept their seventh straight loss to the Ducks. Those teams want nothing more than to dust the college football landscape with thermite and watch it burn.

Nothing is a lock. Nothing is even close to being a lock. If the last decade has taught us anything, it’s that the worst may be yet to come.

Or maybe this year will be different. Maybe the Pac-12 will hit that third lottery number, pull that face card, and savor that high-priced steak. Maybe this is the year the league’s national title hopes don’t have a Sopranos-esque ending and simply snap to black. Because the league clearly has one of the best teams in the country. And it would be a shame if things just cut off right in the middle of
There have been some interesting names linked to the Florida opening, but several coaches believe Marshall's Doc Holliday could be a good recruiting fit in Gainesville. Plus, many expected ESPN 300 OT Chuma Edoga to flip from USC to Georgia, but it looks like the Trojans have won the battle in the end.


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USC and UCLA renew their storied football rivalry with Pac-12 championship hopes on the line at the Rose Bowl on Saturday.

At this time, there's no new information of pregame campus vandalism, but there are pictures of a special public spectacle. The huge game assumed a prominent place in Southern California landscape Monday night, as both the Trojans and Bruins were well represented at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), one of the world's most iconic travel hubs. Airport officials alternated lighting on the imposing LAX gateway pylons between USC red/gold and UCLA blue/gold in honor of Saturday's game.

Over 60 million people fly into and out of LAX annually so thousands of travelers saw the rivalry colors during their Monday evening forays into and out of the huge airport. The lighting made for a vibrant photo slideshow courtesy Steve McCrank of the Los Angeles News Group. Los Angeles Daily News writer Jack Wang then tweeted two of McCrank's pictures.

 
This week, USA Today, in the latest of its fan index lists, catalogued the top 10 traditions in college football.

Among them, dotting the "i" at Ohio State, lighting the Tower at Texas and rolling Toomer's Corner at Auburn. All fine events, but no list of such customs in the sport is complete without the latest craze: the wait for Tuesday night.

I say that somewhat jokingly, so refrain from the angry tweets. No, I don't really think it's more fun to dream about the details of a five-minute interview with Jeff Long than to decorate an intersection with toilet paper.

But it's close.

So welcome to the fourth of seven Tuesday College Football Playoff poll unveils, where it finally gets real in the selection-committee room.

Why is this Tuesday different? Because after last Saturday, none of the remaining unbeaten or one-loss Power 5 contenders will meet in the regular season or in conference-title games.

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Pac-12 Power Rankings: Week 12

November, 16, 2014
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Pac-12 helmet stickers: Week 12

November, 16, 2014
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It's time to start sorting out the weekend mayhem in the Pac-12, starting with a look at standout players.

Nelson Agholor, WR, USC: Last season, Agholor torched California as a punt returner. This time, he etched his name into Trojans history as a wide receiver. Agholor grabbed 16 Cody Kessler passes for 216 yards and two touchdowns, becoming the first USC wide receiver ever to amass 200 receiving yards in consecutive games, in a 38-30 USC victory. Agholor has teamed with Kessler and Javorius Allen to form quite the three-headed monster on top of the USC offense, and that unit will take aim at UCLA with plenty on the line next weekend.

Su'a Cravens, DB, USC: Cravens' versatility on defense has been essential to USC's success this season, particularly after the Trojans lost physical cornerback Josh Shaw. Since then, Cravens has thrown his powerful 6-foot-1, 225-pound frame all over the field, and he did more of the same against Cal Thursday night, racking up a team-high 10 tackles, 1.5 tackle for loss, and a pass break-up. Cravens leads USC with 14 TFL and two interceptions this season. He's also broken up eight passes. It's about time he earned a helmet sticker.

Casey Skowron, K, Arizona: Call it poetic justice. Five weeks after a Steve Sarkisian icing timeout nullified his potential game-winning field goal against USC, Skowron missed his first try at the gun against Washington -- except Chris Petersen's icing timeout gave him a second chance. This time, Skowron nailed the 47-yard game winner on his second chance, sending Arizona to 27-26 victory. Demons exorcised.

Henry Anderson, DL, Stanford: The Cardinal defense showed up on Senior Day, but the team's offense again failed to deliver in a 20-17 double-overtime loss to Utah. Anderson did his job, though. The fifth-year senior registered the best game of his career in his final home game, notching three sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss, both career bests. The numbers Anderson put up Saturday surpassed those that he had posted in the previous nine.

Tom Hackett, P, Utah: The Utes and the Cardinal engaged in an ugly three-hour, evenly matched defensive brawl. Stanford ran the ball more effectively, but Utah made up for that through Hackett's sensational punting. He racked up an astonishing 402 yards on nine punts -- an average of 44.7 per boot -- and pinned the Cardinal inside their 20-yard line six times. Thanks primarily to Hackett, Stanford's average starting field position was its 18, while Utah started from its 32. That was a significant difference in this defensive struggle.

Nate Orchard, DL, Utah: If Anderson earns a helmet sticker, Orchard deserves one too: He racked up a team-leading 10 tackles and 3.5 sacks to help push Utah's national lead in sacks to 47. The Utes actually struggled against Stanford's run game, but it seemed like Orchard constantly made a huge plays at critical junctures to stymie the Cardinal.

Terron Ward and Storm Woods, RB, Oregon State: The Beavers' dynamic backfield duo punched Arizona State's defense in the face with two long first-quarter touchdown runs, and that set the tone for Oregon State's 35-27 upset win. Ward finished with 148 yards on 19 carries (7.8 yards per carry) while Woods racked up 125 yards on only 11 carries (11.4 ypc). At the end of the first quarter, both backs were averaging over 35 yards per carry. Keep in mind that this all came against a Sun Devils defense that had been smothering the run for several weeks, and it set up Sean Mannion and Jordan Villamin (four catches, 127 yards) for passing success down the stretch.
A few things we learned this week in the Pac-12.

The South is a mess, again: UCLA is now the front-runner in the division following Arizona State's 35-27 loss to Oregon State. The tiebreaker scenarios now start to get a little confusing. Luckily, Kyle Bonagura broke it all down earlier this week. You can click here to check it out. The simplest scenario would be for UCLA to win out and face Oregon (which has already locked up the North) in the Pac-12 title game. But this league doesn't do simple. It mocks simple. It laughs at you for even beginning to hope that anything will ever be simple again. So expect more chaos in the final couple of weeks.

[+] EnlargeTerron Ward
Brian Murphy/Icon SportswireFollowing its upset of No. 6 Arizona State, Oregon State has now gone 5-5 at home as an unranked team playing a top 10 team since 2000.
But the South is also awesome: Even though the league's best chance at landing a team in the College Football Playoff comes from the North (see below), the South continues to assert itself as the dominant division. It entered the week 11-6 against its northern brethren, and picked up three more wins along the way. Victories from Arizona over Washington, Utah over Stanford and USC over Cal improved the mark to 14-7. OSU's stunner over ASU prevented the sweep. The South is plenty deep and plenty talented. David Lombardi wrote about that last week, as a matter of fact.

And then there was one: We've been saying for quite some time that a one-loss Pac-12 champion gets into the College Football Playoff. That hope is still alive with the Ducks, who were on a bye this week. The optimal scenario of Oregon and a one-loss ASU team meeting in the Pac-12 championship game -- in essence a playoff elimination game -- is gone. Even if a South team does win the conference, it will be tough for a two-loss team to get in. Not saying it's impossible, but it will be hard. So the Ducks, once again, are carrying the league's postseason hopes.

Consider Kessler: Coaches will no doubt start penciling in their all-conference teams soon, if they haven't started already. I think it's safe to assume that Heisman front-runner Marcus Mariota is a sure thing for first team. But how about second team? Something to ponder: USC's Cody Kessler is completing 70.2 percent of his throws with 29 touchdowns to just three interceptions. While the Trojans have had a fairly up-and-down season, Kessler has mostly been steady. He probably deserves a lot more national recognition than he's getting.

Home warriors: Something amazing happened this week: The home teams actually did pretty good! Coming into the week, the road team was 26-13 in conference games. But with home wins from Arizona, Oregon State and USC, the visitors “fall” to 27-16. Of course, the one team that lost at home -- Stanford -- once held the nation's longest home win streak. Chalk it up to more Pac-12 lunacy this year.

Rivalry implications: The first round of rivalry games kicks off next week with UCLA and USC squaring off at the Rose Bowl and Cal hosting Stanford in the Big Game. Lots of intrigue surrounding both games. USC is coming off a win against Cal, while the Bruins were on a bye. As noted above, this is a huge game for the South Division standings. And if the Bruins win, they can lock up the division a week later against the Cardinal. For Stanford and Cal, the winner is bowl eligible. Given that one team is offensively challenged and the other is defensively challenged, it's the tale as old as time of weakness on weakness.

Coming back fresh: Four teams had a bye in Week 12: Colorado, Oregon, UCLA and Washington State. All four have varying degrees of importance for which to play. Oregon, as noted above, is looking for a spot in the playoff. Colorado can go all Skynet and blow everything up, locally and nationally. WSU got great production last week out of Luke Falk, who is auditioning to be WSU's quarterback of the future. And UCLA, of course, only has to worry about a rivalry and a division title. Given all that happened this week nationally and within the conference, probably a good week to take a breather.

A day for redemption: A couple of Pac-12 players who starred in the role of goat in previous weeks had their moments in the sun. First, Arizona kicker Casey Skowron -- who caught his share of social media bullying after missing a game-winning 36-yard field goal against USC last month -- was the hero in Tucson for nailing a 47-yarder as time expired in the Wildcats' 27-26 win over Washington. And last week, Utah's Kaelin Clay was a national punchline for his unforced fumble against the Ducks. But Saturday, he caught the first touchdown for Utah in overtime in the Utes' 20-17 win over the Cardinal. Pretty good timing by both guys to come up big.

Corvallis, the city of broken dreams: There are trap games. And then there are trap games at Reser Stadium. Since 2000, Oregon State has the best home record in FBS football as an unranked team going against a team ranked in the AP top 10 (minimum 10 games), improving to 5-5. Chantel Jennings broke down a few of those for you earlier this week.
2011-2012: The days of Northern rule

In the first three seasons after the conference's expansion to 12 teams, the Pac-12 North ruled the league. Oregon's annual November matchup with Stanford went further toward determining the league champion than the official Pac-12 championship game held a week later.

This was most apparent in 2011, the first year of the two-division, title-game format. USC, still on postseason probation that season, had the firepower to give the Cardinal and Ducks all they could handle (they took Stanford to triple overtime and beat Oregon at Autzen Stadium). But the Trojans' postseason absence took any true bite out of the South: The rest of the division was puny, and its top qualifying option for the title game was 6-6 UCLA -- a team that had already fired its head coach in Rick Neuheisel.

When the Bruins visited Eugene for all the marbles in December that season, the game was mocked as more of a ritual sacrifice on the path to Oregon Rose Bowl glory than a legitimate championship game.

In 2012, the Pac-12 South hadn't gained much tangible ground. USC was back from its probation, but the Trojans were a significantly worse team than they were the year prior. No team from the South finished the season in the AP's Top 25 rankings (three clubs from the North did), and UCLA again packed its bags for the conference title game. This time, it came against Stanford and was more competitive (27-24) than a year prior, but the closeness may have been attributed to the fact the two teams had played just six days prior (the Cardinal drubbed the Bruins 35-17 in that one).

Simply put, very little indicated the Pac-12 South was catching up to its Northern brethren. The North owned a 17-9 record in head-to-head matchups with the South in 2011 and a 16-9 mark in 2012. Four teams from the North finished with better records than the South's title-game representative in 2011, and that number only decreased to three -- still indicative of a staggering amount of imbalance -- in 2012. The heavyweights commanded this conference, and they resided in Eugene and Palo Alto.

2013: Subtle indications of a shift

The first signs of a power tilt came last season, and that initial shift has turned into a full Pac-12 South surge here in 2014. For the first time in the Pac-12's short history, the South finished the season with as many ranked teams as the North in 2013. The rise of Arizona State, the continued improvement of UCLA, and the post-Lane Kiffin resurgence of USC gave the South three 10-win teams last year, beating the North's final tally of two (Oregon and Stanford, the usual suspects).

In terms of overall record, the North's once-wide head-to-head edge was cut to just one game, 13-12. The stage was set for a Pac-12 South statement in the Pac-12 championship game, but Stanford put those thoughts on hold when they waltzed into Sun Devil Stadium and whipped Arizona State, 38-14.

The Pac-12 North was still king, but not for long.

2014: The cataclysmic change

[+] EnlargeAnu Solomon
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriArizona freshman QB Anu Solomon should help the Pac-12 South keep trending up in future seasons.
Oregon may well successfully wave the North's flag again this year -- in fact, they're favored to again win the Pac-12 title -- but, outside of Marcus Mariota's empire in Eugene, there isn't much to write home about in the division. The South, meanwhile, has seen surges from Arizona and Utah this season to enjoy unprecedented parity. Five teams have been legitimate contenders in that division this season, all while the North has completely melted away outside of Oregon.

The Ducks have clinched the Pac-12 North with two games -- more than 20 percent of the schedule -- still remaining. Stanford, suffering through its worst season this decade, is in a fight just to become bowl eligible. Washington, which won nine games last year, has struggled to replace the firepower Keith Price and Bishop Sankey brought to the offense. Oregon State, a formidable nine-win component just two years ago, is 1-10 in its last 11 conference games. Washington State has regressed to 3-7 following a year of bowl eligibility, while California has lifted itself out of the doldrums but is still hindered by the Pac-12's worst defense.

It's all added up to this: For the first time since the conference's expansion, the Pac-12 South has a winning record over the North. It stands at 11-6 right now. Stanford, the North's second-place team, has a 5-4 overall record that would be good for sixth-best in the South, better than only bottom feeder Colorado -- and it should be noted that the Buffs are showing progress, too.

This nugget is perhaps the most staggering of all: No Pac-12 North team except for Oregon has beaten a ranked opponent in 2014.

2015 and beyond: Projecting the future

Of course, numerous variables will determine the balance moving forward. But the South looks like it'll remain strong. USC's recruiting remains excellent, and the last remnants of NCAA sanctions will soon wear off. Graham has shown to be a reliable winner at ASU (the Sun Devils have won 13 of their past 15 conference games), while in-state rival Arizona is succeeding with freshmen Anu Solomon and Nick Wilson at key positions. Utah seems to have finally rediscovered its rugged identity after a rough transition to the Pac-12, and UCLA has the talent and recruiting punch to remain formidable.

Oregon will have to successfully absorb Mariota's loss, or else the Pac-12 North will be in big trouble. Stanford's prospects are a big question mark at this point, and it's unclear if Chris Petersen will have the firepower necessary to immediately improve Washington. Cal's rise is promising, but the struggles of Oregon State and Washington State are both disconcerting for the division that once ruled the Pac-12.

Only time will tell what ultimately happens, but the South has the definite overall upper hand now.

Cody Kessler quietly becomes star QB

November, 13, 2014
Nov 13
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LOS ANGELES -- Since the turn of the millennium, there has been no more celebrated spot in college football than quarterback at USC. It's produced two Heisman Trophy winners and household names pretty much every year, even after the NCAA kicked its jackboot through the front door of Heritage Hall. If you are a college football fan of just about any stripe, you know who the USC quarterback is.

So... who is the USC quarterback?

Most Pac-12 fans, after perhaps a short pause, went, "I know this... Kessler... Oh, Cody Kessler!" Just about everyone else drew a blank.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillUSC quarterback Cody Kessler has been able to celebrate 25 touchdown passes this season.
And yet Kessler is turning in a season that pretty much matches -- at least statistically -- the best of the USC QBs, and his name is replacing many of them in the Trojans record book.

Kessler has completed 69.7 percent of his throws while averaging 283 yards per game, with 25 TDs and just two interceptions. He is fourth nationally in both completion percentage and passing efficiency (168.2), and that efficiency number is on pace to break Mark Sanchez's season record of 164.6 set in 2008. Kessler ranks ninth in the nation in ESPN's Total QBR.

Against Power 5 opponents, his passing efficiency (164.7) is second best in the nation, his completion percentage (70.0 percent) is third and his passing TDs (21) are fourth. No quarterback in the nation has thrown as many passes as Kessler and had only two interceptions, and only one besides Kessler has thrown at least 25 TDs with just two interceptions.

Of course, ahead of Kessler in most measures and casting a long shadow is Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, a frontrunner for the Heisman. That isn't surprising. But it is surprising that in the Pac-12, owner the nation's deepest and most talented class of quarterbacks, it is Kessler who leads the race for second-team All-Pac-12 and not, say, UCLA's Brett Hundley or Arizona State's Taylor Kelly.

Kessler's season has not gone unnoticed, as he is one of five finalists for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, presented to the nation's top senior or fourth-year junior quarterback, along with Mariota and Hundley.

It also should be noted his numbers shouldn't be surprising as he quietly finished the 2013 season on a notable uptick, particularly after Lane Kiffin was fired. After throwing two interceptions at Arizona State last Sept. 28 -- Kiffin was fired at LAX the same night -- Kessler threw 14 touchdown passes and just three interceptions in the final nine games, and just one pick in the final five.

"If you look at the second half of last season, I think Cody really came on with his game," first-year USC coach Steve Sarkisian said. "It just continued to build on that momentum. No. 1 is his confidence, his belief in himself and the guys around him. No. 2, we were implementing a new scheme that fits his skill set. He's been making really good decisions with the football."

This season, Kessler threw a school-record seven touchdown passes against Colorado last month and followed up earlier this month with five against Washington State while reaching 400 yards for the first time in his career.

"He doesn't take any chances, that's the biggest thing," Washington State coach Mike Leach said. "They do a lot of things to make sure he's successful out there."

Leach has seen two Kesslers. In 2013, Kessler went 8 of 13 for 41 yards with an interception in a Cougars upset at USC, a notable nail in Kiffin's coffin. It has been noted frequently that Kiffin seemed to prefer big-armed Max Wittek in USC's 2013 QB competition, even though Kessler had decisively outplayed him as Matt Barkley's backup and during their spring and preseason battle. Nonetheless, Kessler has refused to take shots at Kiffin, who seemed reluctant to let Kessler throw the ball downfield, despite a talented crew of receivers.

“We had a good relationship that last year. He obviously gave me the job after a while," Kessler said of Kiffin. “[But], at times, I felt like I could do more and I wasn’t allowed to do more.”

Kessler was freed up when Clay Helton took over play-calling last season and has thrived with Sarkisian calling the Trojans' new up-tempo offense, with Helton remaining as QB coach.

Said Kessler, “I’ve really, really taken the next step with Coach Helton and Coach Sark, studying a lot more film throughout the week, knowing my opponent, knowing what look we’re going to get when we line up in what formation, knowing where I’m going with the ball each and every play.”

While Kessler's numbers have been outstanding, the ultimate measure of all USC quarterbacks is winning championships. At the very least, they need to beat UCLA and Notre Dame.

The junior almost certainly will have to wait until next year to make a run at the Pac-12 title. After a date with California on Thursday, he faces the Bruins and Fighting Irish over the next two weekends.

Here's a guess that if he beats both of them, his Q rating will go up considerably in Los Angeles and across the country.

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