Pac-12: Lane Kiffin

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.

National links: Beware the big day 

October, 28, 2014
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Welcome to terrific Tuesday. Or terrible Tuesday. All depends on your perspective.

The College Football Playoff selection committee began deliberations on Monday in Grapevine, Texas. Tonight at 7:30 p.m. ET, Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long will unveil to a most curious audience the first-ever CFP rankings.

It's a historic time -- and surely chaotic.

Marc Tracy of the New York Times, in assessing the moment, writes that “historians will most likely date the end of the era of good feelings to 7:31.”

With that in mind, some advice for fans from the Big Ten to the SEC:
Back in 2007 new Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh seemed pretty foolish when, like a bombastic Don Quixote, he trash-talked USC and coach Pete Carroll. For no particular reason, he volunteered to a reporter that Carroll would soon bolt for the NFL. Then, at Pac-10 media day, a smirk flickered across his face when he archly announced that USC "may be the best team in the history of college football."

When challenged about his motives, he unveiled what became a program catchphrase: "We bow to no one at Stanford" -- pretty much saying he didn't give a rat's tookus if he bothered USC, Carroll or anyone else.

[+] EnlargePete Carroll, Jim Harbaugh
AP Photo/Matt SaylesThings started getting testy between Stanford and USC when Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll were at the helm.
Great fun ensued, of course. That first season, Harbaugh and Stanford shocked USC 24-23 as a 41-point underdog behind a backup QB, ending the Trojans' 35-game home winning streak. Any chance that would be viewed historically as college football's version of Halley's Comet was squelched in 2009 when Stanford drubbed USC 55-21, aggressively running up the score in the fourth quarter, including a gratuitous attempt at a 2-point conversion.

"What's your deal?" an irritated Carroll famously asked a smug Harbaugh during a wonderfully ungenial handshake.

Nonetheless, we had no idea what the actual deal would become between USC and Stanford. Early on, Stanford's success appeared to be a curious and anomalous run, a surprising reversal of fortune that briefly thickened the Pac-10 plot but seemed certain to be only temporary. Carroll and Harbaugh would both bolt to the NFL, where their personal rivalry has remained just as spicy. USC's short-term future was burdened with NCAA sanctions. Stanford's future seemed burdened by, well, being Stanford, the most elite academic institution playing FBS football.

When David Shaw, a polished Stanford graduate, ascended from offensive coordinator to replace Harbaugh, few imagined he'd maintain a top-10 program. There was a suspicion that Harbaugh built what he did because he was crazy enough to make it happen. Shaw was way too normal.

Yet here we are, two days away from a renewal of what has become the Pac-12's most meaningful cross-division rivalry. While Stanford-Oregon mostly has decided the Pac-12 champion the past four years, there's been little drama in their actual games, with only the 2012 contest being an actual nail-biter.

Three of the past four USC-Stanford games have been decided essentially on the game's last play, twice by field goals, once in triple-overtime. Average margin of victory in those four games? Five points. National importance? Stanford may have played Florida State in the BCS National Championship last year if not for being upset 20-17 at USC. In 2012, USC was ranked No. 2 in the nation before Stanford exposed the Trojans 21-14, starting a spiral from which former USC coach Lane Kiffin never recovered. QB Andrew Luck became Andrew Luck during thrilling Stanford wins in 2010 and 2011.

Both teams are star-laden NFL pipelines. Stanford, the two-time defending Pac-12 champ, enters this game ranked 13th, just a little annoyed at how Oregon and UCLA have grabbed the biggest preseason headlines in the conference. USC is 14th, a team with fewer than 60 available scholarship players but as gifted with its starting 22 as just about any team in the nation.

Both crushed overmatched foes last weekend and looked impressive in doing so. The Trojans added a wrinkle for this go-round by switching from their long-standing pro-style scheme to an up-tempo offense under new coach Steve Sarkisian, who notes "up-tempo" isn't a transition from a power to a finesse attack, only a means to create more touches for his talented skill players.

If the football part of football wasn't enough, if we needed to introduce some new drama and personalities at loggerheads to liven things up, it's worth noting that Shaw and Sarkisian engaged in a public war of words after last year's Stanford-Washington game. Sarkisian, then the Huskies' coach, accused Stanford of faking injuries in order to slow down his up-tempo offense, going so far as to specifically point a finger at Cardinal defensive line coach Randy Hart. Shaw wasn't happy with the accusation, and he opened that week's Pac-12 coaches teleconference with a lengthy and strongly worded statement.

"I believe it's unprofessional to call out an assistant coach on another team," Shaw said. "It's unprofessional and it's disrespectful. The only D-line coach that I know of that's ever instructed players to fake injury works at the University of Washington."

That would be controversial coach Tosh Lupoi, now working at Alabama, who was suspended in 2010 while at California for instructing players to fake injuries against Oregon. Sark, however, never backed away from his assertions.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillSteve Sarkisian has his hands full with off-the-field drama at USC, but Saturday's game at Stanford is at the forefront of his worries this week.
While it might be fun if Sarkisian and Shaw continued to eyeball each other's throats, that doesn't seem to be the reality. It appears, rather, that they have agreed to disagree and let the issue die. Though they both admit they haven't revisited the conflict in order to make a formal peace, they also pointed out they've spoken amiably multiple times since then -- a couple of times, in fact, within range of reporters -- and they claim to respect and like each other.

"We had a disagreement in the heat of the moment; both of us have moved on," Sarkisian said.

Offered Shaw, "There is no animosity whatsoever."

Still, one suspects there are at least some residual fumes from this squabble, since a few Stanford players also took issue with Sarkisian's accusation.

There is another Shaw on the sidelines of this game, though figuratively: USC CB Josh Shaw, who last week went from heroic to notorious. Coupled with Anthony Brown calling Sarkisian a racist after the running back quit the team -- a charge that has been supported by absolutely no one -- USC was dealing with substantial tumult and unfavorable national headlines last week. It may have been a bit surprising that the Trojans overcame those distractions to efficiently dismantle Fresno State 52-13, setting a Pac-12 record by running 105 plays.

An easy way for Sarkisian to change the narrative around his program and to win over Trojans fans who remain skeptical about his hiring is to beat the Cardinal on Saturday. Winning cures just about everything in college football.

In any event, even without Harbaugh and Carroll sniping at each other, we know the deal between USC and Stanford. It has endured as an annual battle imbued with drama and meaning, with the winner Saturday likely pushing into the top 10 and announcing itself as a Pac-12 and national contender.

And who knows? Maybe the postgame handshake will offer up another memorable exchange.

Timing right for USC, Sark marriage

August, 21, 2014
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USC safety Taylor Mays didn't exactly grin from ear to ear at the question back in 2008, but his face did acknowledge that the reporter had offered him an underhanded pitch that he could belt out of the L.A. Coliseum in any direction he wished.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsIn his second stint as a college football head coach, Steve Sarkisian faces the pressure of guiding a national powerhouse program in USC.
Mays and the top-ranked USC Trojans had just made No. 5 Ohio State look like a high school team in a 35-3 whipping that wasn't nearly as close as the final score suggested. The question was whether the Buckeyes had been shocked by just how much better the Trojans were. Mays paused, seeming to savor the question as he coolly assessed the contents of his locker, before delivering a response.

"Many teams wonder what this SC thing is about -- why have we been so successful these past years," he said. "We came out there and showed them. They're Ohio State and that means something. But we prepare so well that we just do what we do."

There was a time under Pete Carroll when USC pretty much won games when they got off the bus. They simply looked a whole lot better -- bigger, faster, more confident -- than anyone else in college football. Reporters and fans would encircle the Trojans' open scrimmages, particularly during Competition Tuesdays, and marvel at the talent level and intensity.

New USC coach Steve Sarkisian was Carroll's top offensive assistant for much of that run from 2002 to '08 before heading off to Washington. He missed the 2004 BCS national title season while spending an unhappy year with the Oakland Raiders, as well as the start of the program's decline in 2009, a 9-4 finish after the Trojans had lost just nine games in the previous seven seasons. Then Carroll bolted for the Seattle Seahawks.

So Sarkisian knows what things were like during the Trojans' most recent dynastic run. He was there for its creation. A Southern California native, he knows the area, the program's traditions and how quickly expectations can become stratospheric. He knows what he is taking over. And getting himself into.

He knows USC is one of the most powerful brands in college sports, one whose name and logo have impact in South Florida, Ohio and Texas, as well as in its home territory.

"When you have that SC interlock on your chest and you walk into a school [to recruit], whether it's in Southern California or anywhere else, this talks about 11 national championships, six Heisman Trophies, more NFL draft picks, more All-Americans, more All-Pros, more Hall of Famers than any other school," Sarkisian said. "So it's a powerful brand."

Sarkisian also knows timing. He knows it's better not to be the "man after the man," as his friend Lane Kiffin was with Carroll. Sarkisian was Carroll's personal preference to replace him, and then-athletic director Mike Garrett made a play for Sarkisian before offering the job to Kiffin. Sarkisian was then heading into his second season at Washington and felt it wouldn't be the right time to bail out on the Huskies.

Oh, and he also knew NCAA sanctions were on the horizon, though there was little indication at the time that they would be as severe as they ended up being.

Good timing? As of June, USC is no longer yoked with those sanctions that included the loss of 30 scholarships over three years. After signing a highly rated class in February, despite limits, Sarkisian could have the Trojans at around 80 scholarship players next fall, according to ESPN.com's Garry Paskwietz, not far below the limit of 85, and substantially better than the numbers that have made depth the team's most worrisome issue since 2010. The Trojans presently rank 14th in the nation and first in the Pac-12 in the ESPN.com recruiting rankings.

Timing? Even during Carroll's run, USC's facilities were second-rate. No longer. After putting $120 million toward new and renovated buildings, including the 110,000-square foot John McKay Center, USC matches up with the most elite teams.

Timing? Sarkisian inherits 18 returning starters from a team that won 10 games in 2013. The Trojans should be contenders in the South Division this fall, emerging from so-called crippling sanctions in pretty good shape after averaging "only" 8.8 wins per season from 2009 through last year.

Of course, his timing isn't that perfect. He's got a UCLA problem that Carroll didn't have to contend with. The Bruins are surging under Jim Mora and are hardly quaking at the prospect of USC again being whole. It's notable that Sarkisian and Mora have long had a cordial relationship, though that might be difficult to sustain going forward.

"I think [hiring Sarkisian] has given them a shot of energy that I wish they didn't get," Mora quipped at Pac-12 media days. "I have great respect for Sark, and I like him as a person and as a coach. I just know he's going to make my job harder."

While USC can again sign a full recruiting class of 25, which should make the going tougher for all 11 other Pac-12 teams, there's also some undercurrent of smugness within the conference from coaches and fans that Sarkisian hasn't truly earned a job like USC and that he isn't much different from Kiffin. His critics dubbed him "Seven-Win Steve" after he led Washington to three consecutive 7-6 seasons, a rut that had some Huskies fans putting him on the hot seat heading into the 2013 season.

The Huskies improved to 9-4 last season, finishing with a Top 25 ranking for the first time since 2001. Some also seemed to forget that Sarkisian inherited a team that went 0-12 in 2008. While there's been an odd effort to rewrite the history of how down the program was back then, it was outscored 463-159 that season and hadn't posted a winning record since 2002. Washington went 1-10 in 2004 and 2-9 in 2005. Further, majestic Husky Stadium was falling apart.

Chris Petersen has inherited a team from Sarkisian that's played in four consecutive bowl games, is ranked in the preseason, and is playing in a beautifully renovated stadium.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY SportsUSC Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian was optimistic at Pac-12 media days, saying: "I think we have a chance to do something special this year."
This is not to say Sarkisian did a perfect job at Washington. He made mistakes like most first-time head coaches, including sticking with overmatched defensive coordinator Nick Holt for too long. Yet the feeling among USC insiders is that the Trojans are getting Sark 2.0, and he's surrounded himself with a staff that is touted for its X's and O's acumen (most notably defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox) as well as its recruiting savvy. Sarkisian retained receivers coach Tee Martin, one of the most quietly important coups of the transition.

Sarkisian isn't necessarily bringing back Carroll's "Win Forever" rhetoric and culture. For one, he runs an up-tempo offense, not Carroll's pro style, and a 3-4 hybrid defense, not Carroll's 4-3. That could be seen as part of Sarkisian's maturation, of finding his own way. When Sarkisian took the Washington job after the 2009 Rose Bowl, Carroll actually told him that he needed to be his own man, not mimic Carroll.

"His final words to me walking out was, 'Go be you, because when adversity strikes, the real you is going to come out anyway,'" Sarkisian said.

For USC fans, adversity has already struck and stuck hard. Sarkisian's charge is to make sure those adverse days are done. Adversity going forward is losing more than two Pac-12 games.

Or is that losing more than one game, period?

Pac-12 rivalry heat meter

August, 11, 2014
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A college football rivalry never exactly cools off, at least among the emotionally involved. But rivalries do go through upticks and downticks of relevance, both regionally and nationally.

So which Pac-12 rivalries are heating up, stagnating or cooling as we head into the 2014 season?

USC Trojans-UCLA Bruins

The facts: USC leads the series 46-30-7 and has won 12 of the last 15 games, but the Bruins have won two in a row under Jim Mora, including a 35-14 domination last year.

The meter: Sizzling and rising.

The animosity between the fan bases is always strong, but what makes a rivalry truly heat up is relevance. And substantial stakes. This rivalry is gaining in both areas. USC is one of the preeminent football programs in the nation, even though UCLA fans hate to read that. UCLA is the rising western power under Mora, even though USC fans mock the idea. USC has a new coach in Steve Sarkisian and is moving past NCAA sanctions. UCLA is a top-10 team eyeballing the College Football Playoff. Know what I say? Release the hounds!

Arizona Wildcats-Arizona State Sun Devils

The facts: Arizona leads the series 47-39-1, but Todd Graham has won the last two against Rich Rodriguez, including a 58-21 blowout last year in Tempe. Before that, the visiting team has won eight of the last 13 matchups, including the last four -- games that were decided by a total of 15 points.

The meter: Blistering and heating up.

While Oregon-Washington fans provide the most blowback to the Pac-12 blog -- Yakety Yak! Oh, yeah! Yakety Yak -- Arizona and Arizona State fans are a strong No. 2. It used to be the fans hated each other and whined a lot -- "You cover them more... waaaaaa!" -- because both teams were fairly mediocre. But the Sun Devils won the South Division last year and are now 2-0 under Todd Graham against the Wildcats and Rich Rodriguez. With both programs trending up in an overall sense, the rivalry is gaining relevance. It also helps that Graham and Rodriguez don't particularly care for each other.

Oregon Ducks-Washington Huskies

The facts: Washington leads the series 58-43-5, but the Ducks have won 10 straight in the series by at least 17 points, including a 45-24 win in Seattle last year.

The meter: Hot but stagnating.

This has long been the most bitter Pac-10/12 rivalry but it has experienced a dramatic power shift to the Ducks. Sorry Huskies, you know it's true. It seems like Oregon fans these days are more worried about winning that darn absent national title than fretting about that team from up North. Now, if Washington and new coach Chris Petersen go into Autzen Stadium and steal one this year... well, that can't happen. Can it? Maybe that possibility needs to be debated.

USC-Notre Dame Fighting Irish

The facts: USC has won nine of the last 12 meetings, but the Fighting Irish has won three of the last four, including a 14-10 win last year. Since 1967, USC has gone 24-20-3 in the series.

The meter: Simmering with many hoping for a boil (particularly TV executives)

As far as national rivalries go, this one is without peer. It's an annual classic that matches two of college football's top powers. Lately, both teams have been nationally relevant, albeit not on an annual basis, and that's the issue. This rivalry is more about national relevance than bitterness. What it needs to heat up is for both teams to be national contenders with the winner in line for the College Football Playoff.

Washington-Washington State Cougars

The facts: Washington leads the series 68-32-6, including a 27-17 victory last year. The Cougars have lost 11 of the last 16 Apple Cups, but are 1-1 under Mike Leach.

The meter: Simmering with lots of potential spice

Have you stopped and pondered just how fun this one might get if Petersen and Mike Leach get their programs' performances to match their respective coaching reputations? For one, in terms of the media, it could be a Don James-Jim Walden deal where Petersen is a "2,000-word underdog" to the loquacious Leach. As it is at present, the Cougars really, really hate the entitled Huskies but the Huskies reserve their most bitter distain for Oregon.

Oregon-Oregon State

The facts: Oregon leads the series 61-46-10 and has won the last six meetings, including a 36-35 thriller in Autzen Stadium last year.

The meter: Warm but in need of another log on the fire

Know what bothers Oregon State fans? When some Ducks fans say they root for the Beavers when the two aren't playing. It probably isn't a statement of emotional fact, but Oregon fans recognize it as the ultimate patronizing gesture. See above with Washington: The Beavers really, really hate the entitled Ducks but the Ducks reserve their most bitter distain for Washington. Now, if the Ducks start to slide a bit and the Beavers push past them in the North Division -- or at least become Oregon's equal again -- this one will immediately boil over, potentially returning to the back-and-forth turf battle it was from 1998-2008, when it was one of the conference's most interesting and meaningful rivalries.

USC-Stanford Cardinal

The facts: In a series that dates back to 1905, USC holds a 59-29-3 lead, but Stanford has won four of the last five meetings. Still, a year after Stanford upset the then-No. 2 Trojans, USC returned the favor by knocking off No. 4 Stanford 20-17 last fall.

The meter: Most rivalries are more about the fans than the players. This one might be more about the players than the fans. These two teams go at each other -- hard. Things really picked up steam with former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh mouthing off about Pete Carroll, then backing it up with two wins, including the classic "What's your deal?" game in 2009. Stanford started USC's and Lane Kiffin's downward spiral in 2012, while the Trojans ended the Cardinal's national title hopes in 2013. And I personally enjoy watching the Stanford band drive the Coliseum crowd crazy -- "And now a tribute to a great USC graduate... Joe Francis!"

California Golden Bears-Stanford

The facts: Stanford leads the Big Game rivalry 54-44-10 and has won four in a row, including a 63-13 blowout last year.

The meter: Luke warm until Cal rights itself

The Big Game is a great rivalry with a great history. The problem is getting the two teams to be good at the same time. Cal dominated the rivalry under Jeff Tedford until 2009. Now the Cardinal is fully in control. Second-years Bears coach Sonny Dykes probably could win over the Old Blues by pulling the upset this fall, but that will mean winning as a double-digit underdog.

BYU Cougars-Utah Utes

The facts: Utah leads the series 57-34-4. Utah has won four straight and nine of the last 12 games with the Cougars, including a 20-13 victory last year in Provo.

The meter: Always hot but chilling for two years

Utah has dominated this bitter series of late, most notably since joining the Pac-12, but there will be a two-year hiatus until the Holy War is renewed in 2016. That is unfortunate, as the series hasn't been interrupted since BYU didn't field teams during World War II (1943-45). Further, BYU is presently outside looking in, as it is not a Power Five conference member. It will be interesting to see how things go in the future.

Utah-Colorado Buffaloes

The facts: Colorado leads the series 31-26-3, and this is both teams’ longest series against any Pac-12 team. They played annually from 1903-62 with four exceptions, but then the rivalry went dormant for 49 years before it resumed in 2011 as Pac-12 members. As Pac-12 members, Utah leads 2-1 having won two in a row.

The meter: Tepid while awaiting some seasoning

Sure, this is a bit of an artificial rivalry. They are paired as rivals because they joined the conference together. But as both start to develop their Pac-12 legs, you can count on this rivalry heating up. They will be compared for a long time. Neither wants to be the one not measuring up. And don't forget the "Red Bike Incident."
Pac-12 media days start Wednesday at Paramount Studios in Hollywood, California, and your entire Pac-12 gang -- we're going by either #4pac or #pac4, we haven't decided yet -- will be there soaking in the evasive and clichéd quotes while plumbing for revealing and interesting nuggets to share with you.

There are plenty of topics to cover, from the perhaps unprecedented quality and experience at quarterback, to two new coaches who have familiar faces, to the new four-team College Football Playoff.

Arizona, California, USC, Oregon, Washington State and Utah will appear on Wednesday, while Arizona State, Oregon State, UCLA, Washington, Stanford and Colorado follow up on Thursday. You can see the players on hand and the schedule here. This is the first time the Pac-12 has spread out its preseason media event over two days.

The preseason media poll will be released Wednesday, and the Pac-12 blog is going out on no limb guaranteeing you that Oregon will be picked to win the North and UCLA will be picked to win the South.

As a public service, we've provided you with a cheat sheet so you can contemplate the world as a reporter might. Below are questions for each of the conference's 12 teams that are sure to be asked, less warm-and-fuzzy questions that should be asked, and idle bits of whimsy that the Pac-12 blog wishes would be part of the proceedings.

(Unless otherwise noted, the questions are intended for the head coach.)

Arizona Wildcats, coach Rich Rodriguez
What will be asked: Can you give us an idea of your pecking order at quarterback?
What should be asked: What did Wildcats fans say to you this summer about being 0-2 against Arizona State?
Whimsical interlude: If Todd Graham and Donald Sterling were being attacked by wolves, whom would you save?

Arizona State Sun Devils, coach Todd Graham
What will be asked: Who will step up on your rebuilding defense?
What should be asked: You turn 50 in December: Do you expect to retire as the Sun Devils' coach?
Whimsical interlude: If Rich Rodriguez and Justin Bieber were being attacked by wolves, whom would you save?

California Golden Bears, coach Sonny Dykes
What will be asked: What's your team's attitude after going 1-11 in your first season?
What should be asked: What are specific mistakes you made last season that contributed to your team's struggles?
Whimsical interlude: Compare and contrast your hometowns of Big Spring and Lubbock, Texas, to Berkeley.

Colorado Buffaloes, coach Mike MacIntyre
What will be asked: Is your team ready to take the next step in the Pac-12?
What should be asked: What is your program's chief deficiency, and how are you addressing that in recruiting?
Whimsical interlude: Just thinking out loud here, but -- Ralphie, are you certain she has no remaining eligibility?

Oregon Ducks, coach Mark Helfrich
What will be asked: How will quarterback Marcus Mariota be better this season than last?
What should be asked: What were some of the challenges and transitional pains you've learned from after replacing a larger-than-life coach in Chip Kelly?
Whimsical interlude: Marcus, here are five loaves and two fishes. There are a lot of hungry reporters here. So, you know, do your thing.

Oregon State Beavers, coach Mike Riley
What will be asked: How does the offense change without wide receiver Brandin Cooks?
What should be asked: Is it possible for the Beavers to catch up to Oregon without the kind of support the Ducks get from Nike founder Phil Knight?
Whimsical interlude: Sean Mannion, please re-create for us the worst temper tantrum you've ever seen Coach Riley throw.

Stanford Cardinal, coach David Shaw
What will be asked: Who will step up to lead your rebuilding defense?
What should be asked: The media have again picked Oregon, the two-time defending Pac-12 North champions, to eclipse you. Is that a slight to your program, and if not, how do you interpret it?
Whimsical interlude: Jordan Richards, you are a public policy major. Please compare and contrast the deontological perspectives of Kant, Mill and Rawls.

UCLA Bruins, coach Jim Mora
What will be asked: How do you manage all the hype and high expectations that surround your team and quarterback Brett Hundley?
What should be asked: What do you need from the UCLA administration to maintain and build on your present advantage in your rivalry with USC?
Whimsical interlude: Jim, what does your dad think of the new college football PLAYOFFS?

USC Trojans, coach Steve Sarkisian
What will be asked: How will your up-tempo offense work while you have depth issues due to scholarship limitations?
What should be asked: What mistakes did you make at Washington that you'll avoid at USC?
Whimsical interlude: Steve, what would be the most interesting revelation if you, Pete Carroll, Jim Mora and Lane Kiffin went out for drinks?

Utah Utes, coach Kyle Whittingham
What will be asked: Explain how your quarterback situation sets up with Travis Wilson and transfer Kendal Thompson and how each fits in new coordinator Dave Christensen's offense.
What should be asked: Have Utah fans underestimated how difficult it would be to move up from the Mountain West to the Pac-12?
Whimsical interlude: You've had six offensive coordinators in six years. Please match each with one of Snow White's seven dwarfs, assuming that this stupid question automatically makes you Grumpy.

Washington Huskies, coach Chris Petersen
What will be asked: What was it about Washington that lured you away from Boise State?
What should be asked: What did quarterback Cyler Miles tell you about his role in two separate fights that occurred after the Super Bowl?
Whimsical interlude: OT Ben Riva: You are the only offensive lineman here. There are eight quarterbacks, three receivers and a bunch of defensive guys. First, what's the worst prima donna behavior you have witnessed? And second, is this pretty much an offensive lineman's seventh level of hell?

Washington State Cougars, coach Mike Leach
What will be asked: With a veteran quarterback and a deep corps of receivers, what are your expectations for your offense this fall?
What should be asked: Did your job get more difficult or easier with the hiring of Chris Petersen at Washington?
Whimsical interlude: Connor Halliday and Darryl Monroe: Here is a 10-question quiz on your coach's book about Geronimo, which I'm sure you've read. You have two minutes. Go!
video 
You want controversy? You want regional bias? You BCS-raised, college football young'uns don't know squat. Consider Exhibit A: USC and Alabama in 1978.

USC went to Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama, on Sept. 23, 1978, and whipped the top-ranked Crimson Tide 24-14 in front of 77,313 fans who didn't appreciate West Coast cool rolling over their southern-fried team like an army of deranged surfers.

The technical term for that in college football parlance is a "head-to-head victory." That the win was accomplished on the road provided it even more gravity as an objective and seemingly insurmountable measure of two teams. Ergo, when the season ended with both USC and Alabama winning New Year's Day bowl games following one-loss seasons, it was obvious who should be ranked No. 1. That would be the Trojans, of course.

[+] EnlargeSam Cunningham
University of Southern California/Getty ImagesUSC fullback Sam Cunningham turned in a big performance in the Trojans' 1970 victory over the Crimson Tide.
Au contraire. The Associated Press poll voted the Crimson Tide No. 1 after they nipped regular-season No. 1 Penn State in the Sugar Bowl. USC had to settle for the UPI -- coaches' poll -- national title after beating No. 5 Michigan in the Rose Bowl.

Even today, if you throw this Apple of Discord onto a bar table between Tide and Trojans adherents over 50, spittle will fly, veins will bulge, and the unique righteous indignation of college football fans will thunder forth like water over Niagara Falls.

That just begins the story of USC-Alabama, which might have the most storied seven-game all-time series in college football history. Or is that Alabama-USC?

So if we are overbrimming with joy at the prospect of the Crimson Tide and Trojans opening the 2016 season in the eighth annual Cowboys Classic at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, in a Labor Day weekend, neutral-site game, please forgive us.

This, my friends, is what we've all been craving. If this is the luscious fruit brought forth by the new College Football Playoff demanding more challenging scheduling, then let's give the sport's powers-that-be a collective fist bump. They have, rightfully, been taking a lot of grief lately, most notably in the courts. If we can, for a moment at least, block off consideration of the monstrosity of the cash flow certain to gush from this one. Let's instead awash ourselves in the anticipation of the game itself.

Alabama and USC are without question two of college football's preeminent powers. They might be college football's two preeminent powers. They have combined for 26 national championships (11 by USC, 15 by Alabama), 66 bowl victories (32 USC, 34 Alabama), seven Heisman Trophy winners (6 USC, one Alabama), 272 first-team All-Americans (161 USC, 111 Alabama), 797 NFL draftees (483 USC, 314 Alabama), 52 College Football Hall of Fame players (31 USC, 21 Alabama) and such legendary coaches as USC's Howard Jones, John McKay, John Robinson and Pete Carroll and Alabama's Wallace Wade, Frank Thomas, Bear Bryant and current head coach Nick Saban.

Whew. While Notre Dame and Michigan fans are jumping up and down, waving their arms, this matchup is about as special as it gets, particularly when you project forward that both are likely to be top-10 teams to start 2016.

As for the series itself, Alabama leads 5-2. The Tide's biggest wins came in the 1946 Rose Bowl and in the Coliseum in 1971 and 1977, a decade in which both teams were dominating their respective regions. USC's other victory, a 42-21 blowout in 1970 in Birmingham, is often credited with pushing forward the integration of college football in the South, as the Trojans' African-American players, particularly fullback Sam Cunningham, tailback Clarence Davis and quarterback Jimmy Jones, turned in big performances. That game has been the subject of many stories and documentary films.

When those iconic helmets are standing opposite each other, there might be a few goose bumps from the old-timers that prove contagious to those who don't recall much from the pre-BCS age.

As for the present, the plot is also pretty thick. For one, the SEC and Pac-12 are the top two conferences in college football, and there's little reason to believe that will change much over the next three seasons. This game, therefore, could operate as a season-long measuring stick for both leagues. CFP committee members might be willing to apply the transitive property if they should be forced to make distinctions between Pac-12 and SEC teams that didn't play -- as in, "Well, UCLA beat USC and USC beat Alabama and LSU lost to Alabama, so UCLA should eclipse LSU."

Finally, there's the Lane Kiffin angle. Kiffin, you might have heard, was fired five games into the 2013 season as USC's head coach. He is now Alabama's offensive coordinator, a pairing with Saban that seems, well, interesting. Kiffin might be somewhere else in 2016, but it certainly would be a notable sidebar to the game if he is not.

By the way, Saban will be 65 in 2016. He might not be atop the Crimson Tide when this game rolls around.

Hmm. Lane Kiffin, Lane Kiffin. Hmm.

Ah, there is a lot to ponder with this one. Plenty of topics that will percolate. And ferment. Perhaps it's good we have two full seasons between now and this showdown to hone our hyperbole.
It's time to start our preseason position reviews. Please, hold your applause until we are finished.

Here's how we do this. We provide three evaluative categories: "Great shape," "Good shape" and "We'll see."

Hint: You'd prefer your team to be in "Great shape."

"We'll see" doesn't mean you're going to stink at said position. It means just what it says -- we'll see because there's no way at present to know.

You can review last year's rankings here.

We continue the series with running backs.

GREAT SHAPE

Oregon: The combination of Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner should be as dangerous as ever. De'Anthony Thomas never really grew into the role as an every-down back, but Marshall carried 168 times for 1,038 yards and 14 touchdowns. Tyner slowly picked up more carries and finished with 115 for 711 yards and nine touchdowns. Folks are also excited to see what incoming freshman Royce Freeman brings to the table. This is a scary corps, even before you realize that Marcus Mariota also carried 96 times for 715 yards and nine touchdowns last year.

USC: The emergence of Buck Allen was a pleasant surprise after he spent much time in Lane Kiffin purgatory. He boasted 5.8 yards per carry to go with 785 yards and 14 touchdowns. He'll be pushed by Tre Madden, Justin Davis and D.J. Morgan, who is back after missing all of 2013 with a knee injury. This is a group that could do damage in Steve Sarkisian's up-tempo offense. Think about what Bishop Sankey did last year.

Arizona State: Marion Grice was a touchdown machine. But D.J. Foster is no slouch after rushing for 501 yards and catching 63 passes for 653 yards in a dual-threat role. The local product is explosive and has big-play speed. Deantre Lewis and Kyle Middlebrooks, back from injury, provide depth since Mike Norvell won't want to pass up the opportunity to use Foster in the slot at times. The depth has ASU teetering on the Great Shape/Good Shape fence, but Foster's experience and explosiveness give ASU a perfect replacement for Grice. So we're confident saying ASU is in great shape with him at the helm.

GOOD SHAPE

UCLA: No, we're not going to list Myles Jack as a running back. Get over it. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone told the Pac-12 blog he's been looking for Jordon James to make strides as a "one-cut" runner. He believes he has. And Paul Perkins and Steven Manfro will press for carries with the intriguing Craig Lee waiting in the wings. Keep in mind it was quarterback Brett Hundley who led the Bruins in carries (160), yards (748) and touchdowns (11). Maybe ... just maybe ... we'll see Jack also pick up a few carries. The Bruins are dedicated to the run (only Oregon has more carries over the last three seasons) and they have the depth to deliver.

Stanford: No Tyler Gaffney. Four of five starters on the line are gone. Surely this is the year Stanford's running game takes a step backward, right? Probably not. The line will feature five members of the heralded 2012 recruiting class and a committee approach with Remound Wright, Ricky Seale, Barry Sanders and Kelsey Young seems likely. Only Oregon and UCLA have attempted more rushes over the last three seasons, so the Cardinal are going to continue to be dedicated to the ground game. There is a lot of untapped potential with this group and they have a coach who loves to run the football. There are a lot of unknowns, but Stanford's recent history of success running the football warrants the benefit of the doubt to put them in the "Good Shape" column.

Utah: For now, it looks like Bubba Poole will be the primary back. But Kyle Whittingham and Co. are excited about the emergence of JC transfer Davontae Booker and the complementary role Troy McCormick might play. They aren't married to the idea of a single back. In fact, Whittingham told the Pac-12 blog he'd like to have situational flexibility. This trio provides that at Utah for the first time in a while. Spreading things out is a priority for new offensive coordinator Dave Christensen. But don't be surprised to see a balanced attack if these three see success.

Colorado: The Buffs are surprisingly deep in the running backs department, with seasoned players like Christian Powell, Michael Adkins II, Tony Jones and Donta Abron returning. Powell (562 yards, three touchdowns) provided the power while Adkins emerged as a fine complement with 5.2 yards per carry (103 carries, 535 yards and six touchdowns). Look for the coaching staff to keep using those two in unison as a thunder-and-lightning tandem.

Oregon State: The running game, or lack thereof, has been a sore spot for Mike Riley the last couple of seasons. However, with last year's combination of Sean Mannion and Brandin Cooks the personnel dictated 603 passing attempts. With Cooks gone, the staff will look to Terron Ward and Storm Woods (who combined for 240 carries, 998 yards and 11 touchdowns) to build off of last year's showing of 94.4 yards per game -- which was 11th in the conference. This tandem has the potential to be very good. It just has to go out and show it.

Washington State: That the Cougars return their top two rushers from last season, Marcus Mason and Teondray Caldwell, bodes well -- even in an offense in which the running back serves more to keep the opposition in check than to run the football. However, it might be Theron West and redshirt freshman Jamal Morrow who get the majority of the carries. The coaching staff was high on Morrow in the spring and if the Cougs can do just enough to keep the safeties guessing, it might open things up more for the Air Raid's primary objective.

WE'LL SEE

Arizona: The Wildcats have to replace Ka'Deem Carey. No easy task. And it was made worse by the recent news that Pierre Cormier's won't be returning. That leaves carries to be divided among Nick Wilson, Zach Green and Terris Jones-Grigsby. Jonathan Haden is still waiting to get cleared and Jared Baker missed the spring with an injury from last year's ASU game. Look for special packages with DaVonte' Neal as well. The Wildcats are silly with wide receivers, which could help open things up in the running game.

California: The Bears averaged just 122.2 rushing yards per game last year -- ninth in the league. Despite the reputation for being a pass-happy team, the coaches would actually prefer more balance, so they'll need better production out of oft-injured Daniel Lasco and Khalfani Muhammad. The departed Brendan Bigelow had the most carries (105) last year, but Muhammad and Lasco combined for 141 totes for 762 yards and six touchdowns. Muhammad is the burner at 175 pounds while Lasco has the bigger frame at 200 and change. Incoming freshman Tre Watson is also an intriguing prospect.

Washington: Like Arizona, the Huskies must replace a phenomenal back in Sankey. But there are options. Dwayne Washington was the No. 2 behind Sankey last year, rushing for 332 yards and four touchdowns on 47 carries. Behind him are Jesse Callier, who was the original starter in 2012 before his injury gave rise to Sankey, and Deontae Cooper. Both have a history of knee injuries. Jomon Dotson and Lavon Coleman could see time. We'll see isn't necessarily a bad thing. It just means, we'll see.

OTHER POSITION REVIEWS

Quarterback
It's time to start our preseason position reviews. Please, hold your applause until we are finished.

Here's how we do this: We provide three evaluative categories: "Great shape," "Good shape" and "We'll see."

Hint: You'd prefer your team to be in "Great shape."

"We'll see" doesn't mean you're going to stink at said position. It means just what it says -- we'll see because there's no way at present to know.

You can review last year's rankings here.

And away we go ... starting, of course, with quarterback.

GREAT SHAPE

Oregon: Junior Marcus Mariota is -- again -- a leading Heisman Trophy candidate and a two-time first-team All-Pac-12 performer. He would have been an early-round NFL draft pick this spring if he'd opted not to return. The Ducks have some questions at receiver though.

UCLA: Junior Brett Hundley is the conference's No. 2 Heisman Trophy candidate. While Arizona State's Taylor Kelly eclipsed him for second-team All-Pac-12 last fall, Hundley's tremendous upside is why he has NFL scouts eagerly awaiting his entering the draft.

Arizona State: As noted, Kelly was the Pac-12's No. 2 QB last season, which means he was one of the nation's best at the position. It also helps his cause that he's got WR Jaelen Strong, an All-American candidate. However, Kelly does need to take fewer sacks -- you could say the same for Hundley -- and throw fewer interceptions.

Oregon State: Sean Mannion ranked second in the nation with 358.6 yards passing per game in 2013 and is also an NFL prospect. Life might be just a bit harder in the passing game without Brandin Cooks.

GOOD SHAPE

Stanford: Kevin Hogan, a third-year starter, had a good but not great sophomore season while leading the Cardinal to the Pac-12 championship. He was mostly efficient and showed a good touch downfield, but he made some surprisingly bad decisions and needs work with his intermediate passing game. He's got a good crew of veteran receivers coming back, which bodes well for him.

Washington State: Connor Halliday threw for a bunch of yards (4,597) and TDs (34) last season, but he also tossed way too many interceptions (22). Part of that was an inconsistent O-line and a neglected running game. The good news is he's in his third year under Mike Leach and has a strong crew of returning receivers. Of all the Pac-12 QBs, he might make the biggest climb this season.

USC: Cody Kessler didn't put up big numbers last season and didn't beat Notre Dame or UCLA but significantly improved after Lane Kiffin was fired. Like Kelly, he's got an A-list target coming back in WR Nelson Agholor. We expect Kessler to thrive with a new, up-tempo scheme under Steve Sarkisian.

Utah: Utah received good news yesterday when 16-game starter Travis Wilson was medically cleared to play. When healthy, Wilson has been a solid performer with good upside. He'll have to fight off a challenge this preseason from Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson though.

California: Jared Goff averaged 292 yards passing per game as a true freshman. That's good. But the Cal offense struggled to do much else but throw the ball between the 20s -- hence a conference-worst 23 points per game. He had just 18 TD passes on 531 attempts. Still, he flashed potential and has a very good crew of receivers coming back.

Colorado: Sefo Liufau became the Buffaloes' starter at midseason and often played like the true freshman he was. Furthermore, he won't have Paul Richardson serving as a safety blanket and making big plays for him. Still, Liufau's baptism by Pac-12 fire provided some seasoning that was evident this spring. The Buffs feel pretty good about having a returning starter behind center.

WE'LL SEE

Washington: While Cyler Miles flashed potential last season coming of the bench for Keith Price, logging a road victory at Oregon State in his first start, he also had an off-field issue that has muddied the waters at QB for the Huskies. It remains to be seen how quickly Miles emerges from Chris Petersen's doghouse, and if he can beat out Jeff Lindquist and Troy Williams.

Arizona: The Wildcats have no clear frontrunner in their QB competition. That's the bad news. The good news is the performances this spring were generally solid. Rich Rodriguez believes he's got a couple of guys who can win games for him. He's just not sure which guy is No. 1 between Jesse Scroggins, Connor Brewer, Anu Solomon and Jerrard Randall.
In 2012, Washington's offense averaged 24 points per game, and QB Keith Price had a horribly disappointing season. In 2013, the Huskies averaged 37.9 points per game, and Price redeemed himself.

The Huskies' friends to the east, the Washington State Cougars, averaged 20.4 points in coach Mike Leach's first season, his Air Raid offense pretty much grounded. In 2013, the Cougars averaged 31 points per game. Much better.

Every season, offenses and defenses improve or regress. Oregon and Arizona both scored fewer points in 2013 compared to 2012.

In 2011, UCLA ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in scoring offense with a measly 23.1 points per game. Oregon State was even worse, ranking 11th with just 21.8 ppg. In 2012, both made huge improvements on offense and continued to trend up in 2013.

So who is poised to make a big jump this fall? We're breaking it down by division, starting with the South.

None of these three was truly lousy on offense last year. USC ranked 60th in the nation in scoring; Colorado, 86th. So we're talking about mediocre and worse.

The good news is all three schools welcome back experienced, promising quarterbacks -- we're going to assume Utah's Travis Wilson shortly gets a clean bill of health -- and a solid collection of returning starters, both on the line and the skill positions.

That supports the notion that all three should improve in 2014, particularly with the Pac-12 losing considerable talent on the defensive side of the ball.

So who makes the biggest jump?

We're going with USC under new coach Steve Sarkisian, who was responsible for resurrecting the Huskies' offense in 2013 with a new up-tempo format. We think that offense will be a productive fit for the Trojans.

The key for USC is the offensive line, which lacks depth and might end up starting one or two true freshmen. It must grow up quickly and stay healthy. If it does, QB Cody Kessler should make a significant leap forward -- see how he mostly played over the second half of the season after Lane Kiffin's termination -- and that could push the Trojans scoring into the high 30s.

And, considering USC also should be stout on defense, scoring in the high-30s should put the Trojans squarely in the South Division race.

Life is full of great joys. A child's smile. A roasting whole pig. A sunset at the beach. A sunset at the beach with a child's smile and a roasting whole pig. And a drink with an umbrella in it. Hitting a point at a Vegas craps table covered in chips.

Yet for some of you, there is no greater joy than the Pac-12 blog face planting. We imperiously prognosticate -- some might call it "doing our job" but let's not get bogged down in nuance -- and we often end up going rear-end-over-tea-kettle. Pointing that out in colorful ways is not unlike a second Christmas morning for some of you.

In 2012, the Pac-12 blog was practically the Walmart of bad predictions. You might recall our doe-eyed affection for Matt Barkley-led USC. We were exposed early and often.

So, as we start to formulate many of our preseason predictions for 2014, it seems worthwhile to look back the 2013 preseason in an effort to establish how often we were stupid and how often your favorite blind squirrels actually found nuts.

We'll start with our preseason list of the Pac-12's top-25 players. And here's our postseason list.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesHey, turns out we were right about Oregon's Marcus Mariota being the Pac-12's top player.
The postseason top 10:
No. 1: Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon
No. 2: Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona
No. 3: Anthony Barr, LB, UCLA
No. 4: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
No. 5:Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington
No. 6: Trent Murphy, LB, Stanford
No. 7: Will Sutton, DT, Arizona State
No. 8: Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA
No. 9: David Yankey, OL, Stanford
No. 10: Leonard Williams, DE, USC

The preseason top 10:
No. 1: Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon
No. 2. Will Sutton, DT, Arizona State
No. 3. Marqise Lee, WR, USC
No. 4. Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
No. 5. Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA
No. 6. Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona
No. 7. Trent Murphy, OLB, Stanford
No. 8. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon
No. 9. David Yankey, OG, Stanford
No. 10. Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State

As noted here, there were plenty of changes between the two.
Who made the preseason list and missed the postseason list?
3. Marqise Lee, WR, USC
11. Ed Reynolds, S, Stanford
14. De'Anthony Thomas, RB, Oregon
17. Kevin Hogan, QB, Stanford
19. Morgan Breslin, OLB, USC
20. Colt Lyerla, TE, Oregon
21. Carl Bradford, LB, Arizona State
25. Ben Gardner, DE, Stanford

Notes: Injuries or getting the boot (Lyerla) was the biggest reason these guys fell off the postseason list. Reynolds' numbers fell off, and the Cardinal's pass defense slipped to the middle of the conference, but I'm sure David Shaw would tell us we blew it. Hogan had a good season but maybe didn't take as big a step forward as some of us thought he would. Bradford, as previously noted, had a good, but not great, season and was eclipsed by other players.

Still, there wasn't much to be embarrassed about with either list.

Here's how Kevin and I voted in the Pac-12 preseason media poll:
Kevin Gemmell's ballot

North

  1. Stanford
  2. Oregon
  3. Washington
  4. Oregon State
  5. Washington State
  6. California
South

  1. Arizona State
  2. UCLA
  3. USC
  4. Arizona
  5. Utah
  6. Colorado
Pac-12 title game champion: Stanford

Ted Miller's ballot

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsAnd yes, we nailed the Stanford-Arizona State title game matchup with Stanford heading to the Rose Bowl.
North

  1. Stanford
  2. Oregon
  3. Washington
  4. Oregon State
  5. California
  6. Washington State
South

  1. Arizona State
  2. USC
  3. UCLA
  4. Arizona
  5. Utah
  6. Colorado
Pac-12 title game champion: Stanford

Hmm. It appears that we both picked the divisional winners and Pac-12 champion correctly. We, clearly, rock.

Did you notice anything about Kevin's ballot. It looks exactly like the final Pac-12 standings. He, by the way, never, ever mentions that.

How about the preseason power rankings versus the final version?

The top-six in both matches up precisely. Betting that's the first time that has happened since the Pac-12 blog began in 2008.

The bottom six is far less precise, though no team is more than two spots different in the final ranking than in the preseason version.

Then there were our self-proclaimed "Bold Predictions."

As more than a few of you have pointed out, these often are not so bold, but that doesn't stop them from being wrong. Further, because they were made in January of 2013, some of them actually ran counter to our late-summer predictions, such as picking Stanford as the Pac-12 leader. The switch from Oregon came after Chip Kelly left for the Philadelphia Eagles.

We made 19 predictions. Seven were correct or mostly so:

  • The Pac-12 will finish 2013 with six teams in the Top 25: That will be six of this seven: Oregon, Stanford, Washington, Arizona State, UCLA, USC and Oregon State.
  • The Washington renaissance will arrive: The Huskies will finish 9-3 in 2013, opening the new Husky Stadium in style.
  • Colorado will win four games in Year 1 under Mike MacIntyre: And Buffs fans will be reasonably encouraged.
  • The sledding will be rough in Sonny Dykes' first season at California: The Bears don't have great talent coming back, but the schedule is the biggest problem. By my guess, Dykes will play eight ranked teams in his first season, including a strong Big Ten duo at home the first and third weekends of the season (Northwestern and Ohio State).
  • Arizona's offensive numbers will make everyone realize how good Matt Scott was: Arizona averaged 37 points and 522 yards per game last year because of QB Matt Scott, who ranked seventh in the nation in total offense with 338.5 per game. He was a perfect fit for Rich Rodriguez's K offense. We expect the Wildcats' offense to take a step back in 2013, whether B.J. Denker or JC transfer Jesse Scroggins wins the QB job. As good as national rushing champion Ka'Deem Carey is, he will find the holes a bit smaller without Scott, even with a solid offensive line coming back.
  • Defenses will continue to rise: Arizona State defensive tackle Will Sutton and UCLA outside linebacker Anthony Barr will be first-team preseason All-Americans, and Stanford will again have one of the nation's top 10 defenses. But we also expect across-the-board improvement on defense.
  • But it will still be the Conference of QBs: Mariota will win the Heisman and again earn the first-team All-Pac-12 nod, but the battle for second-team will be hot between Arizona State's Taylor Kelly, Stanford's Kevin Hogan, UCLA's Brett Hundleyand Washington's Keith Price, who will be the conference's Comeback Player of the Year.
  • Breakout player: Junior Oregon State receiver Brandin Cooks will earn first-team All-Pac-12 honors with Marqise Lee.

The last one was mostly about Cooks breaking out, as he did as the Biletnikof Award winner. The Huskies went 9-4, but it's certainly fair to term the season a "renaissance." Arizona's offensive numbers went down, but B.J. Denker, while limited, turned in a better season than most expected.

Some were way off. Such as:
[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesBut about that Lane Kiffin will quiet his critics thing ... um, did we mention that we did say USC would win 10 games and they did?
Lane Kiffin and USC will post a bounce-back season: We expect the Trojans to win 10 games -- that's with a highly favorable 13-game schedule, by the way -- and return to the national rankings. Although the Trojans won't return to dominance, they will play better all-around football in 2013, and it will be enough to quiet Kiffin's critics -- at least enough for him to return in 2014. We don't, however, expect USC to win the South Division.

He was fired before midseason, though the Trojans did win 10 games, including their bowl victory.

And, of course, our Oregon enthusiasm -- national champs! Marcus Mariota wins Heisman! -- didn't come to pass.

Then there were our week one bowl projections:

VIZIO BCS National Championship: Stanford vs. BCS
Rose Bowl Game Presented by VIZIO: Oregon vs. Big Ten
Valero Alamo: Washington vs. Big 12
Holiday: Arizona State vs. Big 12
Hyundai Sun: UCLA vs. ACC
Las Vegas: USC vs. MWC
Fight Hunger: Arizona vs. BYU
Gildan New Mexico: Washington State vs. MWC

Four of those were correct -- the Holiday, Sun, Las Vegas and New Mexico.

Finally, there were our "Best case-worst case" flights of fancy. There is a strong possibility this series will be retired. It feels as if it might have jumped the proverbial shark.

(We typed the exact same thing last year, but this year we, unfortunately, mean it).

LOS ANGELES -- When the day comes that USC football needs a culture change, touchdowns will be worth 10 points, swine will take to flight and I’ll win a Brad Pitt look-alike contest.

USC football is a culture unto itself. It knows what it is with its 11 national championships, 32 bowl wins and six Heisman Trophy winners. Changing coaches doesn't have to be synonymous with changing culture, especially after you won 10 games the previous season.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsNew USC coach Steve Sarkisian is embracing the school's standard for winning.
Perhaps a culture restoration might be in order, however, following a tumultuous 2013 that fractured the fan base and divided the devout.

Enter Steve Sarkisian, a top lieutenant of the Pete Carroll era who left to make his mark in the Pacific Northwest and returns to Troy unfazed by the championship-or-bust mentality.

"All of these guys come here to be the best, and that reminded me why I came back here. I want to be the best," Sarkisian said. "This place breeds that environment, that culture. That jumps out at you the moment you are on campus.

"You can go back 50 years of USC football. Every decade they have gone on a run: The 2000s and the run that Pete [Carroll] had; the 90s and what Coach [John] Robinson was able to do; The 80s, the era there with Rodney Peete and everything, and the early 80s what they were doing into the 70s with Coach [John] McKay and the run that he had and into the 60s, and it goes on. I just feel like now is our time. We’re about due for another run. Here we go, and we’ve got half the decade left to do it. I have a firm belief that we can because history tells us that we should."

Of course, that run can’t start until the Trojans officially kick off the 2014 season on Aug. 30 against Fresno State. In the meantime, there is only so much the new coaching staff can do to win back the hearts and minds of skeptics still smarting the final mediocre months of the Lane Kiffin era.

Public opinion was already down following a massively disappointing 7-6 season in 2012. It crested when Kiffin was fired following a blowout loss to Arizona State in the fifth game of last season. That begat the brief Ed Orgeron era, which included a 6-2 record -- though losses to rivals Notre Dame and UCLA were contributing factors to Orgeron not getting the job. After Sarkisian was announced as coach, Orgeron stepped down and Clay Helton led the Trojans to a 45-20 win over Fresno State in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl. Helton was retained as offensive coordinator, and, at least for now, there is stability in the football office.

With crippling sanctions in the past, Sarkisian & Co. made a huge national statement by landing the league’s top-ranked recruiting class, which included lauded prospects Adoree' Jackson, Juju Smith and Damien Mama. Sarkisian has opened up spring ball to the public and done everything possible to reunite the fan base.

"Ultimately, it’s going on the field and performing and doing what we’re here to do and that’s win football games," Sarkisian said. "Are we going to try to win them all? There’s no doubt we are. Are we going to win them all? I don’t know. I don’t know. The football is shaped a funny way for that very reason. It bounces in funny directions sometimes. But you have to put yourself in position to be successful, and I think we’re doing that."

Helton, one of just two holdovers from the Kiffin era (along with receivers coach Tee Martin), understands the expectations from his time on campus. Even defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who was Sarkisian’s defensive coordinator at Washington, is prepared for the fact that a 10-win season might not be good enough for USC’s standards. In his mind, those expectations shouldn’t be daunting. They should be embraced.

"If that’s what you’re worried about, then you don’t come here," Wilcox said. "That’s what you sign up for. We expect to win. We should be good. We should win championships. I don’t think about like that [as daunting]. If I did, or if any of us did, we shouldn’t come here. But every one of us jumped at the opportunity to come here. The expectations are extremely high, but that doesn’t change how we operate. That wouldn’t say much about you as a coach: 'Now you’re really going to work hard because you're at USC.' It shouldn’t matter if it’s Division III or high school or USC. You coach to be the best you can be."
It’s not Vegas, baby. But Manhattan Beach will do.

Actor Vince Vaughn has purchased former USC coach Lane Kiffin’s Manhattan Beach house for $6.5 million, according to the L.A. Times.

The 7,308-square-foot-property is a Craftsman-style home that was built in 2002. (Full disclosure, I didn’t know what craftsman style was. I had to look it up). The six-bedroom, seven-bathroom house sits on a half-acre lot and has a swimming pool/spa, outdoor kitchen and guesthouse.

Kiffin was fired five games into the 2013 season and has since been hired as the offensive coordinator at Alabama. He was 28-15 in three-plus seasons with the Trojans, including a 10-2 record in 2011. Chances are, Kiffin didn’t get to spend much time enjoying the spoils and amenities of the property. He regularly spent his nights sleeping in his office. So far, it sounds like he's doing well in Tuscaloosa.

No word yet on whether Vaughn will be installing a regulation dodgeball court. But I think we can all agree that would be so money.

Q&A: USC coach Steve Sarkisian

February, 13, 2014
Feb 13
5:30
PM ET
There were some skeptical raised eyebrows when USC hired Steve Sarkisian away from Washington, but a strong performance on national signing day and the resulting highly rated recruiting class has engendered hope and enthusiasm now among the Trojans faithful.

Sarkisian signed the No. 1 class in the Pac-12, despite scholarship limitations due to NCAA sanctions, and next year those limitations will be gone. Now, however, the focus turns to the football part of football, with spring practices set to begin March 11. Sarkisian has a team coming back that figures to be nationally ranked and in the thick of the Pac-12 South Division race, even with only 70 scholarship players.

With his recruiting class signed and sealed, it seemed like a good time to check in with Sarkisian and see what's on his immediate horizon.

Have you settled in in Los Angeles yet, house and family all together?

Steve Sarkisian: The family is here. We are all together. We have not gotten a house yet. I don't think you ever settle down in Year 1. I think Year 1 on a job, there is always a lot of moving parts. I say jokingly, when you take a new job it's like somebody opened up a puzzle box and dumped all the pieces on the ground and you start putting the pieces of the puzzle together. I don't think you do that in a couple of months. That takes about a year to put all the pieces to the puzzle together. But it has been a really efficient couple of months so far on the job.

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AP Photo/Jae C. HongUSC coach Steve Sarkisian is shifting gears from recruiting to spring practice.
You going to miss taking a boat to the office, as you could at Washington?

Sarkisian: Quite honestly, I will. I will miss that. That was a unique treat there in Seattle. But I get to go to the Pacific Ocean now, so that's pretty cool.

What was the general message during recruiting? How did you sell USC under you and your coaching staff?

Sarkisian: First of all, USC is a tremendous product. We have a product where we get to go into any household, whether that be in Southern California or anywhere around the country, that has had amazing football accolades for decades. It's a tremendous university. Our president was just mentioning there were 51,000 applicants this past year for 2,700 spots for the freshman class. It's an unbelievable place that way. But also there is the opportunity to come and play early. We'll open up fall camp this year with 70 scholarship players, and that's if everybody is healthy. So there's an opportunity for these guys to come in and compete and compete early and to be on the forefront of something we think is going to be really special. For this university to withstand what they were able to withstand with those sanctions, winning 10 games two out of the past three years, I think is tremendous. And now, here we go, we get to take off. We signed 19 players in this year's class. We get to sign 25 next year. That's 44 new players in a 12-month span. I think we're about to take off again. That's what this school has done historically over decades. They've had tremendous runs and I think we are poised for another great one.

What's on the top of your to-do list now?

Sarkisian: Right now we're implementing our schemes on offense, defense and special teams. We're trying to get all the coaches settled in, one, with their families with housing all all that -- they've been hitting it pretty good on the road. But the biggest thing is getting our schemes implemented as a staff. We've got new staff members on both sides of the ball. Then there's really getting to know our players who are in the midst of an offseason conditioning program right now. Getting to know them, their body types, their movements, how they fit in our schemes. And then we're preparing for spring practice, which is coming pretty quickly here in a month on March 11.

Let's talk quarterbacks. Cody Kessler is a returning starter who played well over the second half of the season, but Max Browne is a talented guy. How does that position stand right now, wide open or is the job Kessler's to lose?

[+] EnlargeMax Browne
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsMax Browne will get his shot this spring to try to unseat Cody Kessler.
Sarkisian: We're going to let these guys compete like crazy. Just like we are with every other position on our roster. The thing I promised the team on my first day on the job is there would be a clean slate for everybody. Guys are going to get an opportunity to compete. I think it's a great opportunity for Max to feel like there's a crack in the door and let's see how far he can take it. I think it's a unique opportunity for Cody to continue to improve because Max is going to give him all he's got. If that's the case, that's when you play really good football. That's when you get pushed to the highest levels. I know those two guys are going to compete like crazy, along with Jalen Greene, a kid we got mid-year who I have high aspirations for. I think for everybody on our roster, with a clean slate on which to compete, is going to be special for everybody.

One of the challenges Lane Kiffin faced was managing his practices -- how much contact, etc. -- with limited scholarship players. You'll be right around 70 guys next fall: What's your feeling on hitting at practice?

Sarkisian: Quite honestly, we're still going through that, trying to figure it out. We don't have to make that decision today. We do have a plan in place to visit with some people who have left college football and moved on to the NFL and how they've managed the NFL roster at practice, guys who have been in the NFL for some time, and how they manage their rosters. We're going to make sure our practices are extremely efficient. We going to have to be physical, but we're going to be efficient when we are physical. I think at the end of the day for us, come the fall, we want a healthy team that is capable of playing physical, fast, smart football. That's not going out to beat each other up on the field every single day. It's be smart when you are doing it, to understand to give guys enough breaks in between. It's about having enough information, seeing how the people at the highest level are doing it that have come from what they knew at the college level. It can serve as a good model for us.

I know you haven't even gone through spring practices, but where do you feel good about this roster and where are some areas of concern?

Sarkisian: I think we are a really talented and deep defense. I think the guys we have returning, as well as a couple of guys who redshirted a year ago, to go along with some of the kids we just signed, I'm really excited about the athleticism and physicality of our defense, especially the front seven. Offensively, the running back position is probably as good as there is in the country when you look at the first four guys, when you look at Buck Allen, Tre Madden, Justin Davis and Ty Isaac. I think Nelson Agholor is a phenomenal wide receiver. I think we are going to have to figure out the right combination of offensive linemen. We're going to need some young guys to play there. The depth is not great there on the offensive line. I would say the strength of this team, today, going into spring practice, is our defense, and offensively for us figuring out the guys coming off of injury, whether it's [receivers] George Farmer, Steven Mitchell, how we're going to implement those guys, and then play to the strengths of those guys we have on offense.

You and Lane Kiffin have been friends a long time. It's kind of a strange situation in which you would follow your friend into a job, to replace your friend who has been fired. How has your relationship endured with you taking over a team he once coached?

Sarkisian: I think it's been fine. Lane is a really good football coach. I think he's going to do a really good job at Alabama. Sometimes when you get into situations, it's not about how much football you know. Sometimes it just doesn't work right; it just doesn't play out right. I have a great deal of respect for Lane. He's a good football coach. He's going to do great things. I hope what we bring to this program is something that is going to be really effective that gets us right back to the top, competing for championships year in and year out.

Finally, you ran an effective uptempo offense at Washington last year. Do you have any feelings about the NCAA's proposed rule changes, not allowing an offense to snap the ball before the play clock reaches 29 seconds?

Sarkisian: I was a little caught off-guard by it, quite honestly. I think the reality is that if we are talking about safety, if a player is injured, then he should be injured and get medical attention. If he is fatigued, he's fatigued. That's not injured. In basketball, when a player is fatigued, they don't let him just walk off the court and somebody else comes in. You have to wait for a dead ball or else call a timeout. I'm a little surprised by it. It kind of came out of left field. We'll see what happens. We'll see how it plays out. Not a lot of teams snap the ball within 10 seconds, anyway, so I wonder how often a team will snap the ball at 29 seconds and the defense will have 13 men on the field.
When USC defensive back Josh Shaw learned Steve Sarkisian would be the Trojans' new head coach, it was as if a four-year-old wish was finally granted.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
AP Photo/Jae C. HongDespite the familiarity, Steve Sarkisian says it will take some time before he feels "settled" at USC.
During the recruiting process, Shaw, a Southern California native, developed a strong bond with Sarkisian. Shaw liked Sarkisian and so did Shaw's family, but Washington wasn't the right fit. Shaw had his sights set on the SEC and chose Florida.

"I wanted to play for Coach Sark," Shaw said, "but you never choose a school for the coach."

Shaw's career path is a case in point.

He played for two coaches in two years at Florida -- Urban Meyer and Will Muschamp -- three coaches last year at USC -- Lane Kiffin, Ed Orgeron and Clay Helton -- and Sarkisian will become No. 6 in five seasons when the Trojans open at home against Fresno State on Aug. 30.

For Shaw, adjusting to a new head-coaching personality has become old hat, and he said the transition at Florida was similar to the most recent change at USC.

"Coach Muschamp came in, [and] he gained our respect instantly," Shaw said. "We knew he had the team's best interest at heart. He wanted to win; we wanted to win."

And Sarkisian?

"That first meeting [on] the day he was hired, he told us he didn't expect for us to trust him right away and that it's earned," Shaw said. "He said it was going to be a process that he'll work at."

So far, so good.

Despite not having played a game for Sarkisian, he was one of the crutches Shaw leaned on the most after the bowl game and before deciding to return to USC for his final year of eligibility.

"There was already some familiarity with us [because of recruiting], but after several talks, we've grown closer," Shaw said. "We sat in his office, and he looked me right in the eye as we discussed what would be the best decision for my future."

The same guidance was there for the five players who opted to enter the NFL draft -- Marqise Lee, Xavier Grimble, Marcus Martin, George Uko and Dion Bailey -- but Sarkisian said he wasn't caught off guard by any of their decisions.

"For those guys that have been here for three and four years, I knew I wasn't going to win them over in one 30- or 40-minute meeting," Sarkisian said. "I just let them know I would be there for them one way or another. For the guys that decided to leave, we're going to do everything we can to support them, too."

When Sarkisian started meeting with players individually, there were two points he wanted to cover right away.

"I think, first and foremost, they understand why I chose to come to USC," Sarkisian said. "And that's to be the best. I want to coach with the best coaches; I want to coach the best players.

"The second piece is I wanted to learn why they chose USC. A lot of times it's for the the same reason, to win championships."

Winning championships is all Sarkisian knew in his previous stints with the Trojans.

After he was elevated from offensive assistant to quarterbacks coach under Pete Carroll in 2002, USC earned at least a share of the conference title each season Sarkisian was on staff. He took a foray into the NFL as quarterbacks coach of Oakland Raiders in 2004, but aside from that, he was there for six of the seven BCS bowl berths during Carroll's tenure.

His last season on staff before taking over at Washington in 2009 also happens to be the last time USC won a conference title.

Despite being home in Southern California and his familiarity with USC, "settled" isn't the term Sarkisian would use to describe his current situation, and he doesn't expect that to change for some time.

"I don't know in Year 1 if you're ever settled in," he said. "Certainly not in six weeks. There are just so many facets to the job, new problems you have to work through, everything is constantly moving."

Especially when it comes to hiring a coaching staff and recruiting.

Sarkisian's staff appeared to be set before defensive line coach Bo Davis, a week after joining the staff at USC, had a change of heart and opted to join Nick Saban's staff at Alabama.

With national signing day on Feb. 5, Sarkisian had to move fast to find a replacement. He settled on Georgia's Chris Wilson, a former defensive coordinator at Mississippi State, after contacting "some of the best defensive line coaches in the country."

USC will begin spring practice on March 11.

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