Pac-12: Lane Kiffin

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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
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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.

Final Pac-12 Power Rankings

January, 15, 2014
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If you don't like where you ended up in the Power Rankings, you should have played better.

Click here for Week 15's Power Rankings. Note that these rankings reflect the totality of the season.

1. Stanford (11-3, 7-2): Oregon finished higher in the final polls, but Stanford is the Pac-12 champion. And everyone out West remembers what happened Nov. 7.

2. Oregon (11-2, 7-2): The Ducks spent most of the season as a national title contender, but the regular season ended with a thud. The bowl victory over Texas was nice, and when you think about it, 11-2 and a final No. 9 ranking is, well, not too bad for Mark Helfrich's debut season.

3. Arizona State (10-4, 8-1): If the Sun Devils had taken care of business in the National University Holiday Bowl and grabbed an 11th win, this would have been a special season. As it turned out, it was merely a very good one.

4. UCLA (10-3, 6-3): The Bruins fell short of the South Division title because of a loss to Arizona State, but a 10-3 finish with a final No. 16 ranking tells the ultimate story: UCLA is trending up. Oh, and in case anyone forgot, there also was that second consecutive victory over USC for coach Jim Mora. Did anyone forget? Anyone? Bueller?

5. USC (10-4, 6-3): The Trojans had two seasons: the miserable start under Lane Kiffin and the strong second half under interim coaches Ed Orgeron and, in the bowl game, Clay Helton. Going 10-4 and finishing ranked 19th, particularly under the trying circumstances, is about the best that could have been hoped. Other than losses to UCLA and Notre Dame. That part could have been better.

6. Washington (9-4, 5-4): After three consecutive 7-6 seasons, the Huskies broke through in 2013, finishing 9-4 and ranked 25th. Credit goes to Steve Sarkisian for turning around a program that went winless the year before he arrived. He leaves behind a team with plenty of potential for new coach Chris Petersen.

7. Arizona (8-5, 4-5): The Wildcats had an interesting season. In part, their eight wins were because of a pillow-soft nonconference schedule that was a guaranteed 3-0 start. But they also beat Oregon and won a bowl game, dominating Boston College on both sides of the ball. On the downside is a second consecutive defeat to their friends in Tempe.

8. Oregon State (7-6, 4-5): The Beavers started horribly with a loss to Eastern Washington then rolled off six consecutive wins. Then, with the schedule ramping up considerably, they lost five in a row to finish the regular season. The strong performance in the Hawaii Bowl against Boise State took some of the sting out of the losing streak. But only some.

9. Washington State (6-7, 4-5): If the Cougars had won their bowl game, they would have been seventh here. Losing to Colorado State is bad under any circumstances, but the way the Cougs wilted at the end was horrid and should operate as fuel to motivate the team this offseason. Still, despite losing their final two games and finishing with a losing record, getting back to a bowl game was a big deal in the second season under Mike Leach.

10. Utah (5-7, 2-7): A second consecutive losing season is not what Utes fans have come to expect, even with a red-letter win over Stanford. Further, they are 5-13 in Pac-12 play in the past two seasons. There were major injury issues, most notably to QB Travis Wilson, but Utah can't be happy with its early performance in the conference. On the plus side, beating BYU and Utah State means state rivals don't have much room to rib the Utes.

11. Colorado (4-8, 1-8): There wasn't anywhere to go but up for Colorado after going 1-11 in 2012, and the Buffaloes went up this season under first-year coach Mike MacIntyre. They were still mostly outclassed in Pac-12 play, but there were signs of taking a step forward. The question now becomes, can they move up in the South Division?

12. California (1-11, 0-9): It was perhaps the most miserable season in Cal history in the first year under Sonny Dykes. The injuries were so epidemic it almost became comical -- almost -- but the effort and execution from the healthy players wasn't so hot either. The Bears need to show improvement next fall or the going could be tough for Dykes.

Season wrap: USC

January, 15, 2014
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The big news for USC's 2013 campaign wasn't the season itself but the firing of coach Lane Kiffin. That, however, also was the transformative moment of the season, as the Trojans bounced back from a dispiriting 3-2 start to finish 10-4 and rank 19th, rallying under interim coach Ed Orgeron.

The Trojans went 6-2 under Orgeron, but his hopes for earning the full-time job were likely dashed by two losses to Notre Dame and UCLA, USC's two chief rivals.

The second big news for the Trojans was the hiring of Steve Sarkisian away from Washington, which received a mixed reaction. But that points toward the future. Our concern is the 2013 season.

You can read our graded review of USC here.

Offensive MVP: The Trojans' offense struggled much of the season, ranking ninth in the conference with 29.7 points per game, but its most consistent weapon was receiver Nelson Agholor. With Marqise Lee in and out of the lineup with injuries, it was Agholor, a sophomore, who led the Trojans with 918 yards receiving and six touchdowns. His 16.4 yards per reception also was tops among the team's receivers. Further, he led the conference and ranked second in the nation with a 19.1-yard average on punt returns, which included two returns for touchdowns.

Defensive MVP: Defensive end Leonard Williams became one of the nation's best defensive linemen as a true sophomore. He ranked second on the Trojans with 74 tackles, including 13.5 tackles for a loss and six sacks. He also had four quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles and was named a first-team All-American by ESPN.com and third-team by the Associated Press. He is almost certain to be a 2014 preseason All-American.

Best moment: No. 4 Stanford had rallied from a 10-point first-half deficit to tie the score at 17-17, and it had the ball with more than three minutes remaining on its 40-yard line. There was plenty of time to drive for the winning field goal, but Stanford QB Kevin Hogan threw his second fourth-quarter interception to Su'a Cravens at the USC 44. The Trojans then got a 47-yard field goal from Andre Heidari, who had struggled for much of 2013, with just 19 seconds left to notch the upset, and recorded the fourth and best win of what would become a five-game winning streak under Orgeron.

Worst moment: While the 10-7 loss at home to Washington State was horrible -- the Trojans had just 193 total yards -- and was the beginning of the end for Kiffin, the 62-41 loss at Arizona State was the defeat that ended his tenure. Athletic director Pat Haden was so dismayed with the white-flag performance -- the Trojans gave up 612 yards -- that he fired Kiffin at LAX in the early morning hours of the next day. Of course, that low moment seems to spur the season's transformation so some may see Kiffin's firing as a good thing.
Actually, Peter, I wanted to tell you, I was listening to Sarah's iPod the other day, and amidst the interminable dross that's on that thing, I found one track that I quite liked. So I checked what it was, and it was actually one of yours, and it kind of reminded me of a dark, gothic Neil Diamond. It's great.

Season review: USC

January, 7, 2014
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Our season reviews continue in alphabetic order.

Next up is USC.

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

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

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

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

USC's Pendergast factor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just saying, Ducks.

Take 2: Expectations for Washington

December, 26, 2013
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Three of the Pac-12's nine bowl games are in the books and the league is 2-1 against a trio of Mountain West teams. Up next is Washington against BYU in the Fight Hunger Bowl on Friday night (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). What can we expect from yet another game that has a team going through a coaching transition? Good question.

[+] EnlargeKeith Price
Stephen Brashear/Getty ImagesKeith Price will lead an experienced group of Washington seniors into the Fight Hunger Bowl on Friday night.
Ted Miller: We saw USC play well with an interim coach. We saw Boise State fall flat with an interim coach. Now it's Washington's turn.

Do the Huskies, after coach Steve Sarkisian bolted for USC, taking much of his staff with him, show up for the Fight Hunger Bowl focused and motivated? Do they play inspired football for former Husky great Marques Tuiasosopo, who was named interim coach?

Or do they flop against a good BYU team that is perfectly capable of embarrassing an AQ conference team. Just ask Texas.

The Huskies are dealing with further intrigue. What about defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox? Is he shortly off for USC? Or will he surprise many and remain in Seattle? Then there's defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi, who is being investigated by the NCAA following allegations that he paid for private tutoring for Husky football recruit Andrew Basham.

Lupoi was almost certainly headed to USC after the bowl game, but now his future is in jeopardy.

It's fair to ask how much Wilcox and Lupoi themselves are focused and motivated for this game.

The Huskies have a good group of seniors, led by quarterback Keith Price, who are probably going to need to play an even bigger leadership role than usual in this one for Washington to win. Further, the guys who will be back next year are playing to impress new coach Chris Petersen, who likely will take a dim view of an indifferent effort.

There's been a lot of chaos surrounding the Huskies since the end of the regular season. Sometimes teams can transform chaos into an efficient, focused performance.

And sometimes they can't.

Kevin Gemmell: I think Ted hit on the key word late in his take -- leadership. When you compare the situations with USC and Boise State, you saw a Trojan team that was focused, united and rallying around common causes. For some, it was a not-so-subtle tribute to former interim coach Ed Orgeron. For others, it was a showcase before jumping to the NFL. And for still others, it was finding some closure to what has been an otherwise roller-coaster year. Whatever the reason, it all worked. It was chemistry by way of chaos.

Washington is in a similar situation to Boise in the sense that its coach left freely and wasn’t forced out the door, as was the case with Lane Kiffin and Orgeron at USC. There’s a psychological sting that goes with a coach essentially saying, “I prefer to be there, not here.” The Broncos couldn’t bounce back from that -- or the stream of controversy that followed them in Hawaii.

As far as we know, there has been no such piddling player controversies for the Huskies. And the fact that Petersen “preferred” Washington to Boise State takes a lot of the sting out of Sarkisian “preferring” USC to Seattle. There weren't many coaches in America who could inject that much immediate confidence into a program. Petersen was one of them.

Plus the Huskies are heavy when it comes to leadership. Price, Bishop Sankey, Sean Parker and solid lines on both sides of the ball give this team a solid core. This is a group that should be poised and motivated against a BYU team that, as Ted notes, has the potential to hang with an AQ team.

Bowl season is all about motivation. BYU, which plays with a perennial chip on its shoulder, has won six of its last seven bowl appearances -- including four straight. This is a team that knows how to win in the postseason and always plays with plenty of motivation.

But I think Washington has equal motivation. When Washington is at its best, it is a top 25, top 20 or even top 15 team. And for a group of seniors who have seen this program reinvent itself over the last four to five years, going out with a win cements their legacy. That should be motivation enough.

Steve Sarkisian Q and A

December, 23, 2013
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LAS VEGAS -- Steve Sarkisian smiled as he walked through the lobby of the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas wearing a USC pullover, jeans and loafers.

USC’s new head coach was more of a coach-in-waiting last weekend as he met with parents, players and coaches in Las Vegas before officially taking over the reins following USC’s 45-20 win over Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl.

Sarkisian watched the game from a suite in the press box along with USC athletic director Pat Haden and met with the team as the players boarded the team bus after the game.

“I want them to enjoy it and embrace it,” said Sarkisian, 39. “I couldn't be more proud of them, that they were able to come out and perform the way they did. They deserve it. I just tried to stay out of the way, the best I could. Now I get to get my hands on them and get going -- and there's a lot to work with, that's for sure.”

Before Sarkisian gets going, he sat down with ESPNLosAngeles.com for a wide-ranging interview about taking over the team and about his plans for the future of USC football.

ESPNLA: When Lane Kiffin was fired five games into the season, most figured Pat Haden would spend the final two months of the season trying to secure a “home run” hire to replace him. No disrespect, but after a 34-29 record at Washington, you were not viewed as a” home run hire” by many. Why do you think you’re the right hire for USC?

Sarkisian: I think I’m one of their own. I’ve always considered myself a part of the Trojan family. I come here with a dedication to do everything in my power for them, to work my tail of to get this place back to where it needs to be and belongs to be. I’ve got rich ties to this program. I was here in some of the best years this program has ever had. I think we have an exciting, innovative offense that will kick-start this program and make it the dynamic program offensively that we know we can be. I know I’m going to recruit Southern California extremely well. But at the end of the day, whether you agree with my hiring or not, let’s judge the hiring three or four years down the road. Then come tell me if you think it was a good hire or not. I’m like a recruit. Every coach probably has stars on them. I don’t know if I’m a three-, four- or five-star coach, but that really doesn’t matter in recruiting. It’s the results that you have that really earn those stars so we’ll go see how many stars I can earn.

ESPNLA: Lane Kiffin left Tennessee after one season to come back to coach USC. You left what you had built at Washington over five years to come back and coach USC. You both could have carved your own paths elsewhere but came back. What is it about the USC job that makes it a “dream job” for you?

Sarkisian: I was born and raised in Southern California. I’ve watched the USC football program from the first day I can remember watching football. They won Rose Bowls and national championships and had all those great players. In my youth, those were some of the best years ever in USC history, in the 1970s. I’ve always held on to that. I also had my time here as an assistant coach with Pete [Carroll] and some of the great memories and experiences and teams that we had. So for me, when this opportunity came, I had to take it.

What makes it unique for me is, first of all, it's home, second, the rich history and tradition that this place has, and third, I can vividly remember talking to Pete as a young coach. He asked me, “What do you want? What are you looking for in this profession? Where are you headed?” I told him, “I want your job.” I remember saying that to him a long time ago. I think this is the best job in America. People come here to be the best and that’s why I chose to come here.

(Read full post)

After bowl win, big questions for USC

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what about those who are staying?

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

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

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

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

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

Another question: Tosh Lupoi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The real business begins now.

Kessler, Trojans focused on win No. 10

December, 20, 2013
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Cody Kessler promises this year will be different.

For those with last year’s Sun Bowl debacle still fresh in their heads, there might be some cause for concern as USC heads into Saturday’s Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl against Fresno State. Motivation, or lack thereof, doomed the Trojans in the 21-7 loss to Georgia Tech. It served as the final “haha” (in the voice of Nelson Muntz) moment for those whose cup was bubbling over with USC schadenfreude in 2012.

Not again, pledges the USC quarterback. Different team. Different chemistry. Different motivation.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Charles Baus/CSMCody Kessler and the Trojans are on their third head coach this season, but they still have a chance for a 10-win season.
“Obviously last year wasn’t the season that we wanted,” said Kessler, who only appeared in one game last year and attempted two passes. “It was difficult to see where we finished compared to where we started. A lot of guys weren’t into that game. But this season speaks for itself. Getting us to 10 wins puts us in an elite group. We have a chance to finish things off right -- especially for our seniors. These guys have been through everything. Sanctions. Coaching changes. We owe it to them to give it everything we’ve got to get a win.”

Consider Kessler during the first five games, when Lane Kiffin was still the head coach. He was completing 63 percent of his throws, averaging just 166.4 yards per game and had six touchdowns to four interceptions. His raw QBR was 39.9 and his adjusted QBR was 48.9.

Since Kiffin was relieved of his duties and Clay Helton has stepped in to run the team and the offense, there have been significant improvements. He’s completing 65 percent of his throws, his yards are up (223.8), his mistakes are down (10 touchdowns to two interceptions) and he’s a more efficient quarterback with a raw QBR of 61.8 and an adjusted rating of 70.3.

Part of it has been Helton. Part of it has been the fact that he’s got more experience. And part of it was just a change of scenery.

“We’ve had three head coaches in one season,” he says with a gotta-laugh-at-it-attitude. “That’s crazy. Coach Helton and I are very close. I’m closer to him than anyone else because he’s my position coach. I spend every day with him. We have that connection. I know what he’s thinking before he ever calls it.

“But a lot also comes from experience. Playing in tough games like Notre Dame and Oregon State really helped me move forward and feel comfortable. It was hard at first switching between starts because it’s tough to establish yourself as a leader. But once I got the job, things started to work out.”

He’s hopeful things will work out one more time with his friend Derek Carr on the other side of the field. Both from Bakersfield, Calif., Kessler and Carr used to train together, so they are friends and familiar with each other’s résumés. With 48 touchdowns to just seven interceptions and more than 4,800 yards passing this season, Carr’s résumé is a little more polished. But that’s not something that concerns Kessler.

“He’s a great guy and a great quarterback, but I don’t watch a ton of offensive film,” he said. “During the game I’ll be watching because it’s back and forth. If they score, I know we have to go out and score. I know Derek and I know they are capable of putting up a lot of points. Everyone in the country knows that. So we have to eliminate turnovers and finish in the end zone. You can’t settle for field goals against these guys.”

Of course, another major distraction that they’ve tried to make a non-distraction has been the presence of new head coach Steve Sarkisian. He replaces popular interim coach Ed Orgeron, who promptly left the program when he wasn’t promoted officially to head coach. So far, Kessler said he and his teammates have been fans of Sark’s hands-off approach.

“He’s been talking to us in team meetings, but we came so far with these coaches and he’s letting them finish it out,” Kessler said. “He’s watching and talking, but his main focus is us getting the 10th win and letting these guys finish it because there was so much time and effort on their part and they deserve it.

“I think he sees how far we’ve come as a family with these coaches and Sark respects that. I think that says a lot about him. Out of respect for those guys, he wants them to coach us to hopefully what will be that 10th win.”

Mailbag: More Sankey-Carey kerfuffle

December, 17, 2013
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Postseason awards and All-America teams are a hot, and always controversial, topic this week.

Chris in Lake Stevens, Wash. writes: (Ka'Deem) Carey over (Bishop) Sankey? Are you an idiot or an Arizona grad? Sankey had more yards, more TDs and a better YPC. You've lost all credibility as far as I'm concerned.

Kevin Gemmell: Really? All credibility? Idiot? For picking a first-team All-American, a Doak Walker finalist, a guy who finished ahead of Sankey in the Heisman voting and the offensive player of the year as selected by the coaches?

Guess the coaches are idiots as well.

I’m happy to re-open the debate (and I will below). But your note smacks of uneducated fanaticism.

Chris L in Memphis writes: In making his case on East Coast bias, Ted wrote this: "Arizona RB Ka'Deem Carey is the nation's best running back." Please make the case as to how Carey is even the best back in his conference.

Kevin Gemmell: I’d be happy to, Chris. And thanks for your letter. I know this particular Chris to be an extremely educated Washington fan -- the kind that makes Washington fans look good.

First off, as I stated in last week’s mailbag, I thought Ted’s East Coast bias column was one of the strongest pieces I’ve ever read from him.

Obviously, the Sankey vs. Carey debate will rage for years. And it should. It’s fun to debate the merits, of which there are many, of two fantastic players. Washington fans will always back Sankey -- which is right. And Arizona fans will always back Carey -- which is also right. There's just a right way and a wrong way to do it (cough, cough, Chris in Lake Stevens). Because both are outstanding running backs with the physical build and skill sets to be successful running backs at the next level.

Sankey had more total yards and more touchdowns. Carey had more yards per game and 10 fewer zero or negative rushing plays (Sankey had 45, Carey 35). We won’t get into the debate of playing time because I know Sankey sat the second half of some games and Carey missed a game, etc. etc. Carey had more carries because his team didn’t have the passing attack that Washington did. The Huskies averaged 271.3 yards through the air per game with 24 touchdowns. Arizona had just 186.8 passing yards per game with 14 touchdowns. Washington leaned heavily on Sankey, but I think we can all agree that Arizona leaned more heavily on Carey.

The little separation that exists in my mind is because of Carey’s consistency. I broke this down in a column earlier this month and essentially Carey did his best work -- more than 20 yards above his average -- against the top competition.

Sankey and Carey had six games this year that involved common opponents: Oregon, ASU, California, Colorado, UCLA and Washington State. In those games Sankey averaged 144 yards with eight total touchdowns. Against the same competition, Carey rushed for 152.5 yards with 11 touchdowns.

Sankey was outstanding. But his overall season takes a hit from the ASU game (13 carries, 22 yards) and, yes, the fact that Carey’s team beat Oregon and he was a huge reason why has to weigh in.

Again, this is a Fujis vs. Honey Crisp discussion. But when you look at overall consistency -- essentially zero bad statistical games for Carey -- the fact that he did better against head-to-head competition and that he was at his best against tougher defenses, I think that justifies making a case for him as the best back in the league.

Weston in Costa Mesa, Calif. writes: Hello Kevin, I was curious to know what your view is on the state of USC football going into the next few seasons. Where does the program go if Sark doesn’t work out and is he in the hot seat right away if he doesn’t deliver in the first year (by deliver I mean anything less than an 8 win season).ThanksWestonps. I’m a Stanford fan living in a USC ruled area and everybody is talking about this.

Kevin Gemmell: This is sort of a two-parter. The first part, the state of USC football over the next few seasons, is essentially asking what do I think Steve Sarkisian can do for the program. The second part is if he doesn’t succeed, how quick will he get the hook.

I can’t imagine that if he only wins seven games in his first year that Pat Haden would put him on the hot seat. Haden showed an amazing amount of patience with Lane Kiffin and gave him the opportunity to right the ship in 2013. When it was clear the ship wasn’t being righted, he made his move.

This was a high-profile hire for USC and for Haden. A lot of eyes will be on this decision for the next few years. And my best bet is that Haden is going to do everything possible to convince people he got his guy.

As for how they’ll do? Well, there are some really, really talented players on both sides of the ball. And it was pretty clear that the Trojans underachieved with Kiffin as their head coach because they clearly had the talent to rip off five in a row and beat the No. 4 team in the country in Stanford.

We’ve said this before … USC is a brand. It is always going to attract high-profile recruits simply because it’s USC. You combine that with a bulldog of a recruiter in Sarkisian and you have to expect the Trojans will be just fine.

The question is what happens once he does get those elite athletes into the program. How does he develop the talent? How does he handle the X’s and O’s? He did an amazing job of bringing Washington back to respectability. But he never got them into the elite class. Perhaps with a few more years in Seattle he would have? We’ll never know. But that certainly plants a lingering question about what he can do at USC.

I think given the way the South sets up for the next few years, USC could certainly win it. Or ASU could repeat. Or UCLA could win its third division in four years. Or Arizona could make a run when their potential All-Universe scout team starts playing in games.

The South is so wide open right now that there really isn’t one clear-cut team that is a favorite. And I think USC has to be considered in that mix. The Trojans could win the South next year. Or they could finish fourth in the division.

I’m willing to give Sark and Haden the benefit of the doubt that they can get USC moving in the right direction. Sark might not be the biggest name nationally, but he has the pedigree that fits very well with the culture in Southern California.

Peter in Washington writes: Did you intentionally leave off the second common opponent between BYU and UW? Both teams played FCS Idaho State year as well as Boise State.

Kevin Gemmell: The simple answer would have been yes, it was intentional, because Idaho State is an FCS team and it wasn’t worth mentioning. But truth be told, I just missed it. So thanks for keeping me honest. And in the interest of getting all of the information out there, Washington beat Idaho State 56-0 on Sept. 21. BYU beat the Bengals 59-13 on Nov. 16.

Mike in Boston writes: I thought I'd give you a heads up that you came in fifth in the Cardboard's (an independently run Stanford fan community) "Predict the Score" game for predicting Stanford's game outcomes. We entered the predicted scores from your weekly post on Pac-12 games. Note, Miller sits all the way down at No. 15.

Kevin Gemmell: Awesome! Had no idea you guys were doing that. Since I finished 10 spots ahead of Ted, I think it’s fair that the next 10 rounds of non-alcoholic eggnog are on him.

Sun Devil Ric in San Diego writes: I thought I understood the politics of trophies and All-American teams, but I guess I'm still clueless. Why did ASJ win the Mackey award, but isn't named on a single All-American team yet?

Kevin Gemmell: You understand them? Really? Please share. Because I've been at this a long time and I still don't know.

Tight end was a deep position this year. And ASJ did get named third-team AA in the AP All-American team. Like every single postseason award, there is a level of subjectivity that is tough to comprehend because it's different for everyone. I wish I could climb into the minds of the voters and give you a clear-cut explanation for why things are the way they are when it comes to postseason awards. But I can't.

All I can say is I think the Mackey folks got it right.

Ryan in New York writes: Kevin, Great work by you and your partner Miller on the ESPN.com AA team. I think the Pac was well represented, and that's testimony to you and Ted spreading the good word and fighting the good fight. Well done. Happy HolidaysRC

Kevin Gemmell: Back atcha Ryan. There will never be a perfect postseason list. And I would have liked to see Anthony Barr on our list also. But the fact that Barr appears on others, as does Trent Murphy, shows just how deep and talented the Pac-12 was this season.

Looking forward to another year of why UCLA is overrated mailbag drops from you. But for now, enjoy the bowl season and the holiday season.

That goes for the rest of you, too. (Yes, Chris in Lake Stevens, even you).

Conference wrap: Pac-12

December, 16, 2013
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It’s tough to put a grade on the 2013 edition of Pac-12 football. When we look back 20 years from now, all that will probably stand out is that the Pac-12 had just one BCS bowl team in the final year of the Bowl Championship Series. So with Stanford carrying the flag for the league, its performance against Michigan State in the 100th Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio takes on a greater importance.

But this year, perhaps more than any other, the Pac-12 showed why it is one of the toughest, if not the deepest, conference in all of college football. It passed the nonconference test, going 31-6 against non-league competition -- with wins over teams from the SEC, Big Ten and ACC. It crushed the Mountain West, going 10-0 against the West Coast’s little brother conference. And three more meetings in the postseason could extend it to 13-0.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
AP Photo/Matt YorkDavid Shaw has Stanford atop a very deep conference.
Speaking of bowls, a record nine Pac-12 teams are in the postseason, 75 percent of the league. Washington State is bowling for the first time since 2003. Colorado is making headway. Utah appears right on the cusp of breaking through.

There were thrilling upsets. (Utah, Washington State and USC all get thumbs up.) There was the Week 1 Oregon State debacle. There were All-Americans, national award winners and a style of football that is uniquely Pac-12.

The influx of big-name coaches has raised the ante over the past few seasons, and that trend continued this year, with Steve Sarkisian’s move to USC and Chris Petersen’s ingress to Washington.

The South was nasty, and will be again next year. Arizona State has staked its claim. But UCLA is right on the Sun Devils’ heels, as are USC and an Arizona squad that has the potential to be very, very scary in 2014.

The North belongs to Stanford until proven otherwise. The Cardinal's recipe for beating Oregon has yielded fruit for two years. But with Marcus Mariota back for another season, you certainly have to expect the Ducks to be a top-10 team. And Petersen’s arrival makes Washington an instant player for the division.

The best thing the Pac-12 can go is finish strong in the postseason, win its BCS bowl game and head into the playoff era with plenty of momentum.


Offensive MVP: Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey
was arguably the most consistent skill player in college football this season, posting at least 100 yards in every game he played and finishing with 1,716 yards and 17 touchdowns on 322 carries (5.3 average). He also caught 26 passes and a touchdown.

Defensive MVP: With 14 sacks, Stanford linebacker Trent Murphy was the Pac-12 and the national leader in getting at the quarterback. He also ranked third nationally with 21.5 tackles for loss. Murphy posted 58 total tackles, blocked a kick, forced a fumble and returned an interception for a touchdown.

Newcomer of the year: Plenty of fantastic options, including ASU receiver Jaelen Strong and Colorado linebacker Addison Gillam. But it was UCLA linebacker/running back Myles Jack who made the biggest splash. The Bruins' true freshman posted 70 tackles with five for a loss, an interception and two forced fumbles. He also blocked a kick. As a running back he carried 37 times for 269 yards with seven touchdowns.

Biggest surprise: Washington State athletic director Bill Moos said he thought the Cougars would start being a consistent winner by 2014. Coach Mike Leach had his own timetable. In just his second season in Pullman, Leach has the Cougars in a bowl game for the first time since 2003 -- and they recorded a marquee win on the road at USC in Week 2 that ultimately helped them become bowl-eligible.

Biggest disappointment: There was no great redemption story for Lane Kiffin. In fact, the Trojans looked like a significantly improved team after he was removed from his coaching duties. Hopes were high that Kiffin would be able to turn the Trojans around after an abysmal 2012. But a 62-41 loss at ASU in Week 5 was the straw that broke the back of his fairly underwhelming tenure with the Trojans.

Best game: At the quarter pole, we went with Oregon State at Utah. At the midway post, we went with Oregon State at Utah. And now in the season wrap, we’re sticking with that. That game, now more than ever, spells out the importance of every single week. Oregon State would be home for the holidays without that dramatic 51-48 overtime victory. And because of said dramatic overtime defeat, the five-win Utes are out of the postseason again. From a pure tension and excitement level, that game was tough to beat.

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