NCF Nation: USC Trojans
A flurry of commitments and decommitments has led to considerable movement in the latest class rankings update. Several top-10 programs added ESPN 300 prospects, including Tennessee, which picked up top-10 ILB Darrin Kirkland Jr. The Vols already have a class that features a talented group of defensive linemen, and have now added a big, powerful inside linebacker that can develop into a tough downhill run-stopper. Butch Jones now has Tennessee in contention for a second-straight top-five finish.
Outside the top 10, USC landed a verbal from in-state tight end Tyler Petite, a tall, lengthy prospect with the size, speed and leaping ability to potentially create mismatches as a receiving target at the position. After landing the former Duke commit, USC's class features eight ESPN 300 prospects.
Ole Miss also saw a move up in the rankings with a pair of additions. The Rebels landed ESPN Junior College 50 QB Chad Kelly, a player who is physically gifted enough to be a strong candidate to replace QB Bo Wallace, a one-time junior college transfer himself. Ole Miss, who not sits at No. 17, also landed ESPN 300 OT Michael Howard. He is a lean OL prospect that needs to fill out, but is an athletic and tenacious player and with development could end up being a real strong pick-up out of Florida for the Rebels.
Inside the rankings
Coach Art Briles has had two very distinct luxuries when it comes to recruiting in today's complicated landscape -- recruiting in the shadows and recruiting without pressure. Both are actually in many ways, one in the same. As Briles has built this program, he's been able to do it his way without public pressure or booster interference because early on, nobody thought it could be done and nobody cared.
This staff was able to go after who they wanted, on their own timetable and without much scrutiny. In today's recruiting world, that's a huge luxury. Players like Levi Norwood, Antwan Goodley or Tevin Reese, who was a late qualifier, were all bypassed by other Power 5 programs, but nobody even noticed Baylor signed them or griped, "who are these guys" on signing day.
As a result, prospects like these were brought along at a normal pace and developed properly by the coaching staff. Redshirting the bulk of the classes for the first few years has also been huge for the Bears. The challenge going forward will be dealing with increased program exposure and expectation level which almost always brings with it increased recruiting scrutiny from boosters and fans alike. But the Bears don??t need to change a thing.
To see the full class rankings, click here.
Though he still has a year of college eligibility remaining, Mariota will almost certainly declare for the 2015 NFL draft, so the Pac-12 will have to look elsewhere to repeat the Heisman feat. Here are some early 2015 candidates. Key word here is "early," as we have yet to finish 2014 and some of the players below are still deciding if they will be back next year. Keep that in mind as we quickly imagine the potential future.
Scooby Wright, LB, Arizona
Aside from Mariota, the only Pac-12 player to finish in the top 10 of Heisman balloting was this dominant desert stud. Wright earned four second-place votes and 13 third-place votes, and it would be tough to argue with either of those evaluations based on his absurd 2014 production. Wright's numbers in tackles, sacks, tackles for loss and forced fumbles were all either at or near the top of the nation; he was the only player who averaged over two TFL per game, and that race wasn't remotely close. It's clear that Arizona has an absolute machine working the middle of its defense. Yes, the Heisman Trophy has a clear bias toward the offensive side of the football, but Wright was awesome enough to earn 17 votes at linebacker -- as a sophomore.
Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon
This 230-pound bruiser did his best to give new meaning to the term "true freshman" in 2014. Aside from displaying remarkable vision, Freeman physically pounded opposing defenses like a battle-hardened senior. He supplied Oregon's rushing attack with an irreplaceable dose of physicality. The first-year statistical returns are as eye-popping as they were pad-popping: 1,299 yards, 5.6 yards per carry, 16 touchdowns. With Mariota almost certainly moving on, the Ducks' offense may center more on this young tank in 2015, and that focus could thrust Freeman into Heisman contention.
Cody Kessler, QB, USC
Kessler was the only quarterback in the nation to attempt over 400 passes and throw fewer than five interceptions in 2014. In the not-so-distant past, those kinds of numbers would automatically thrust a USC quarterback into the midst of the Heisman Trophy discussion. Kessler, however, flew under the radar throughout the entire campaign. If he decides to return to USC for his senior season, expect him to generate a big amount of preseason hype. Related note: Running back Javorius Allen and wide receiver Nelson Agholor also have eligibility remaining. If those two are back in Troy next year, include them as possible big-time award candidates too.
Paul Perkins, RB, UCLA
Statistically, 2014 was an excellent campaign for this Bruin, who is a redshirt sophomore. He led the Pac-12 in rushing, racking up 1,378 yards on a league-best 6.0 yards per carry. Perkins will have to score more touchdowns to generate more Heisman hype. He found pay dirt only nine times this season, but 2015 will likely present an opportunity to enter the end zone more often, as touchdown machine Brett Hundley has indicated that he will likely be moving on to the NFL. That means that Perkins may become the centerpiece of UCLA's offense. More touches, more glory.
Jared Goff, QB, California
Goff's statistical output was impressive in 2014 (3,973 yards, 35 touchdowns, 7 interceptions), but any hype surrounding him was quickly extinguished by memories of the Bears' nightmarish 2013 campaign (1-11). Cal improved to 5-7 this season, but it still failed to earn a postseason berth. Given the upward trajectory of Sonny Dykes' program, that likely won't be the case in 2015. There's a strong chance that Goff will be the quarterback of a winning team. If he continues to post gaudy numbers under that scenario (also likely), this talented gunslinger will arrive on the radar for major postseason awards. Don't sleep on him.
D.J. Foster, RB/WR, Arizona State
If wide receiver Jaelen Strong returns to ASU for his final year of eligibility, keep an eye out for him. But that seems unlikely, so the top Sun Devil to watch will probably be the versatile Foster, who was the only Pac-12 player to finish with more than 1,000 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards in 2014. Foster's 59 catches were second to only Strong in Tempe, and his explosiveness makes him a prime sizzle candidate if he decides to stay in school for one more season. Side note: Don't forget freshman running back Demario Richard, who averaged 5.7 yards per carry as a 17-year-old this season.
Nick Wilson, RB, Arizona
If you enjoy watching impressive freshman running backs, Wilson is a good player to follow. He delivered an awfully dynamic inaugural campaign in Rich Rodriguez's system, delivering 5.9 yards per carry and more than 100 ground yards per game. Wilson's 15 rushing touchdowns were second among Pac-12 running backs, so second-year improvement would absolutely make him a contender for some major hardware in 2014.
Pelini's former assistant coaches may have needed it even more, according to Barney Cotton.
"It was great for our coaching staff to get out here and be with our players," said Cotton, the eight-year Nebraska assistant and interim coach. "This was really good for us."
The 58-year-old Cotton, a former offensive lineman at Nebraska and Omaha native, served as run game coordinator and tight ends coach under Pelini. He and eight other assistants, unsure of their futures, are set to remain on staff through the Dec. 27 National University Holiday Bowl against USC.
Before Wednesday, the last time they gathered with the Huskers, a celebration followed Nebraska's 37-34 overtime win at Iowa to cap a 9-3 regular season.
"What I'm drawing more on is my strength," Cotton said. "I really have a very simple job, and that's to help our players finish out the best way, and to help this coaching staff stay cohesive and united and keep loving each other."
Cotton sent each of his three sons to play at Nebraska, including Jake, a senior offensive guard and co-captain this season, and sophomore tight end Sam.
The elder Cotton said he nearly broke down three times in a 20-minute meeting with the Huskers after Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst addressed the team over the decision to fire Pelini at the end of seven seasons that included no fewer than nine victories each.
Many of the Nebraska players have struggled to accept the move.
"I've learned a lot of life lessons since I've been here," senior cornerback Josh Mitchell said Wednesday. "The biggest one that Coach Bo taught us was to focus on the process. It's about being a man. Sometimes things in life just don't go the way you want them to go, but you've got to move on. Life goes on."
Mike Riley, introduced Friday in Lincoln as Pelini's replacement, met for about 30 minutes last week with Cotton. They talked in general, Cotton said, about Nebraska football and state of Nebraska. Cotton said no members of the old staff have learned if they would receive a chance to coach for Riley.
The new coach, on the road recruiting through the contact period that ends Sunday, will not be involved in Nebraska's bowl preparations. He is believed to have added four assistants at Nebraska from his previous job at Oregon State.
Nebraska received a waiver from the NCAA, similar to Ohio State in 2011, that allows it employ two coaching staffs. Riley's new staff cannot be involved in coaching this month; the Cotton-led group cannot recruit.
The practice on Wednesday was the first of three this week. Nebraska will conduct a normal series of practices next week and travel to San Diego before Christmas for the National University Holiday Bowl.
Despite the circumstances, the Huskers said they will not lack organization or motivation this month.
"I know the team is fired up right now," Mitchell said. "I know they want to have a great time. Everyone is just excited to get away from everything and play some football. As competitors, you've got to go out, strap it up and have some fun."
This trip marks the Huskers' fourth to the Holiday Bowl and third since 2009. Nebraska lost to Steve Sarkisian-coached Washington 19-7 in the 2010 Holiday Bowl, sandwiched between regular-season Nebraska wins over the Huskies in 2010 and 2011.
Sarkisian is at the end of his first season USC, the Huskers opponent in this year's Holiday Bowl. The Trojans own a 3-0-1 record against Nebraska, including wins in 2006 and 2007.
"We're going out there, expecting to win," senior safety Corey Cooper said. "Guys have a lot of different reasons why they want to win. It."
Cotton said he laid out four objectives for the players.
"Honor God with your effort," he said. "Honor your teammates with your effort. Honor coach Bo with your loyalty and love and support, along with your effort. And let's reveal our character one last time together in the Holiday Bowl."
Of the old staff, "we do know what our future is."
"We know that we've got one last chance together," Cotton said. "That's our future here. And I hope and pray that everybody gets an opportunity to do what they want to do next year."
Being proven otherwise, however, seems to be turning into an annual tradition in the South, which has had three different winners in the last three years. And if you thought the division was crazy in 2014, hang on, because it might plunge itself deeper into capricious insanity in 2015 and beyond.
"It's anybody's guess," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham when asked to handicap the South next season. "But I have to believe it's one of the toughest divisions in all of college football. It was very close this year, obviously. We had a lot of teams lumped up there at the top. Every year is its own entity and set of circumstances. I can't speak to next year. But right now it's anybody's guess."
But the 2014 season saw a clear power shift within the depth of the conference. For the first time since expansion, the South had a winning record against its northern counterparts, going 15-10.
"The South has definitely resurged," said Stanford coach David Shaw. "Every game against those guys is difficult. Trying to handicap it for next year would be like trying to handicap this year. It's impossible."
Adding to the impossibility is that five of the six teams in the division are likely to return a quarterback with substantial starting experience. Barring any surprise defections, draft declarations or injuries, only UCLA will be without a quarterback with significant time as a starter.
"Once again, that means you are going to see offenses executed extremely well week in and week out," said Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre, whose team is the only one in the division not ranked in the Top 25. "All the quarterbacks in somehow, someway, have broken records at their school. You're looking at quality players coming back that can score points each Saturday."
Given the Trojans historical success, it seems almost shocking that USC is yet to win a division title. Maybe that changes as the Trojans roster slowly starts to rebuild itself in the post-sanctions era. Maybe not. The trio of previous victors -- all with head coaches who were hired following the 2011 season -- show no indication of slowing down. Plus the Utes are on the rise and Colorado is putting a more competitive product on the field. The Buffs were "in" seven of their nine conference games. Anyone think they are going to be worse next year?
"The thing that can happen is any team in the South can beat any team," MacIntyre said. "I think that's where it's at. We had double-overtime with UCLA and definitely could have won it. We were in there with everyone (in the South) except USC. There's a lot of parity, but there is also high-caliber football."
Meanwhile up North, the divide might be growing. The Ducks will have to find a replacement for Heisman winner Marcus Mariota (oh come on, like it's not going to happen) and we're not exactly sure what we're going to get from the Cardinal. You have to imagine things will be smoother in Year 2 of the Chris Petersen era at Washington, but there will be losses on defense. Shaw pointed to Cal as a team on the rise, but defense will again be a concern. So outside of Oregon, you have to question which North team could do the most damage against the South. Oregon State will have a new coach. Washington State is still rebuilding. The Ducks were the only team up North to be ranked. And even if the Cardinal thump Maryland in their bowl game, the chances of them finishing ranked are slim.
"We've got a lot of guys coming back so I know we'll be in the mix," Shaw said. "But I know this, next year will be as crazy as it was this year. And in the South, I don't know who has the edge. But it's going to be exciting."
That's a safe assumption ... until proven otherwise.
Kevin Hogan, QB, Stanford: Hogan didn't have explosive weapon Ty Montgomery, but he registered his best career game anyway in Stanford's 31-10 spoiler whipping of UCLA. After a a frustrating season, Hogan delivered laser-like precision with his throws on Friday. He completed his first 12 and delivered on intermediate routes and deep strikes alike. Final line: 16-for-19, 234 yards, 2 TD, and 6.6 yards per rush.
Stanford defense: The Cardinal's 7-5 finish conceals this to some extent, but the team's defense was the best in the Pac-12 this season -- and statistics suggest that the race for this honor wasn't close. The unit flexed its muscles again at Rose Bowl, holding an explosive UCLA offense to a meager 3.9 yards per play -- by far the Bruins' lowest output of the season (no other Pac-12 team had held them under 5 yards per play). This was a balanced Stanford effort; David Parry and Henry Anderson spearheaded a ferocious pass rush, while the Cardinal's defensive backs locked down Brett Hundley's vertical passing threat.
Nick Wilson, RB, Arizona: After a remarkable season, the Wildcats are headed to the Pac-12 championship game for a rematch against Oregon. Wilson is one of many reasons why. The freshman's performance in Arizona's 42-35 victory over ASU burned the Sun Devils' mercurial run defense: 24 carries, 178 yards, 7.4 yards per rush. Wilson's 72-yard third quarter run gave the Wildcats a commanding 35-21 lead they would not relinquish.
Scooby Wright, LB, Arizona: He's a monster on a weekly basis, and the Wildcats' most important game of the season provided no exception. Wright led Arizona's defense with 13 tackles, two sacks, and five tackles for loss. He now leads the nation in the latter category by a huge margin (28 tackles for loss, or 2.33 TFL per game when no other player is averaging over 2 TFL). Wright also forced his nation-leading sixth fumble on an early sack, and that set the tone: The Wildcats recovered and scored the opening touchdown.
Travis Wilson, QB, Utah: Wilson finished 25-for-37 for 311 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions in the Utes' 38-34 win over Colorado. This was an important time for a good performance; Kyle Whittingham's club came into the game having lost three of four. They needed Wilson to finish his topsy-turvy regular season strong, and that's just what he did.
Cody Kessler, QB, USC: A star in Eugene is on solid track to win the Heisman trophy -- and deservedly so -- but Kessler's big number exploits at least deserve mention in the helmet sticker department. He embarrassed the Notre Dame defense on Saturday, amassing 372 yards and six touchdown passes through three quarters in the Trojans' 49-14 whipping of the Irish. Kessler's favorite target early was George Farmer, and then Nelson Agholor (12 catches, 120 yards) became his receiver of choice. Final regular-season line: 36 TD, 4 INT. Not bad.
Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon: Let's keep this simple: 367 passing yards, four passing touchdowns, two rushing touchdowns, six total touchdowns, and a 47-19 Civil War victory. New York City will be inviting Mariota soon, and at this point, he's the favorite to take home the Heisman hardware.
Dwayne Washington, RB, Washington: Washington's 60-yard third quarter touchdown run gave the Huskies a commanding 21-0 lead in the Apple Cup, and the rout was fully on at that point as Chris Petersen's squad capped the regular season on a high note in Pullman. Washington, a player who's aptly named to succeed in the state's famed rivalry, finished with 135 yards on 16 carries (8.4 average) and two touchdowns. The Huskies won 31-13.
Friday, Nov. 28
Stanford at UCLA, ABC: The Cardinal are the two-time defending Pac-12 champions, but they're now in a position to play spoiler to UCLA's title bid. A win locks up the South for the No. 8 Bruins and keeps them in contention for the four-team College Football Playoff. Stanford will be without offensive star Ty Montgomery (shoulder), so UCLA figures to have a good chance to beat the Cardinal for the first time since 2008.
Saturday, Nov. 29
Utah at Colorado, Pac-12 Network: The Utes are slipping badly and the Buffs are 0-8 in Pac-12 play. There's certainly hope in Boulder after Arizona drubbed Utah 42-10 in Salt Lake City last week. Kyle Whittingham's club is staggering, and Colorado's Mike MacIntyre -- who strongly feels his program is making progress -- would love nothing more than an uplifting win entering a critical offseason.
Notre Dame at USC, Fox: This is another contest pitting two clubs coming off losses. The 2014 season has taken a turn for the worse on both Figueroa St. and in South Bend, but one of college football's most storied rivalries is an intriguing watch regardless. The Irish will be playing this game without Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones, their two best defensive linemen. They've given up 30-plus points in six straight games for the first time in their 126-year history. Yes, that's Javorius Allen licking his chops.
BYU at Cal, Pac-12 Network: The Bears have one more crack at securing the bowl eligibility that will earn them vital December practice time. The opponent is BYU. The Cougars have won three straight games in their effort to salvage what once looked like a season of complete misery following Taysom Hill's injury. But those wins came against shaky competition: Jared Goff's unit should move the ball against a BYU defense that surrendered 55 points to Boise State.
Oregon at Oregon State, ABC: There's plenty on the line in the Civil War: While the Ducks battle for a College Football Playoff spot and a Marcus Mariota Heisman trophy, the Beavers will scrap for bowl eligibility in Sean Mannion's final season. Remember the upset havoc that Reser Stadium can wreak. Oregon is certainly the better team, but nothing is guaranteed heading into Corvallis.
Washington at Washington State, ESPN: The Cougars played well as they built up a 24-21 lead at ASU last week, but turnovers helped knock the wheels off in the second half. Still, Mike Leach's club smells opportunity here: This Apple Cup is in Pullman, and Washington is a weaker opponent than the Sun Devils. The Huskies' Cyler Miles played efficient football last week; Chris Petersen will ask for more of the same out of his quarterback so that Wazzu's Luke Falk (601 passing yards vs. ASU) stays on the sideline. Falk did turn the ball over last week, though, and the Huskies are known to generate takeaways from time to time (24 this season).
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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
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.