Pac-12: UCLA Bruins

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PASADENA, Calif. -- Naturally, UCLA coach Jim Mora would have preferred his Bruins be a pristine 11-0, having already locked up the Pac-12 South ahead of next week’s season finale against Stanford.

But let’s be honest. When you hoist your sails in Pac-12 waters, you’re going to hit a couple of rocks.

UCLA took on water midway through the season with back-to-back losses to Utah and Oregon, and the national media just assumed the S.S. Bruin was unsalvageable.

But the Bruins bailed the water out. And five wins later -- including their most recent 38-20 pasting of USC Saturday night -- No. 9 UCLA once again finds itself hanging around for a spot in the College Football Playoff. And while swallowing a pair of home losses never sits well, perhaps the silver lining of the mid-season defeats is that the national media turned its oppressive stare away from Westwood, giving the Bruins the space they needed to grow into the team that throttled its rivals at the Rose Bowl Saturday night.

[+] EnlargeMyles Jack
Chris Williams/Icon SportswireFor the third straight season, UCLA punched USC in the mouth and defeated the Trojans by double figures, a streak that hasn't happened in nearly 60 years.
“I don’t know if it was the external pressure as much as it was the pressure we put on ourselves,” UCLA defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said. "We’ve got a young roster. They wanted it so bad. I dare to say too bad, to the point where they were pressing. This team has been built upon these guys trusting each other and loving ball and they almost lost that a bit in that mid-season lull. We dropped a couple and we swore to get back to who we are and not care about what everyone else thinks about us.”

Saturday night, UCLA looked every bit the dominant team many thought it would be when the Bruins were tapped as the No. 7 team in the country in the preseason. The defense was vicious -- sacking USC quarterback Cody Kessler six times and picking up eight tackles behind the line of scrimmage. The Trojans, who averaged 35.2 points per game coming into the game, were held to just 13 points.

Offensively, quarterback Brett Hundley shook off an early pick-six and ended up 22 of 31 for 326 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed for a 15-yard score.

And let’s not overlook the fact that the Bruins are now 3-0 against USC in the Mora era. To boot, all three wins have come by 10 points or more. The last time that happened was 1953-55, a time period that saw the Bruins win the UPI national championship in 1954.

Mora took all of two sentences to relish the significance of the win.

“We don’t bask in moments,” he said. “We’ll just move on to the next moment.”

The next moment involves a Stanford squad that is 3-0 against Mora. With a victory Friday the Bruins will clinch the Pac-12 South and face the Oregon Ducks in the Pac-12 championship game. If they lose, then Saturday’s Territorial Cup between Arizona State and Arizona will determine the division champion.

Schematically, the Bruins didn’t make any drastic overhauls when they hit their two-game skid. They took the leash off Hundley and gave him more freedom to run. And they put more of an emphasis on their base offense. But for the most part, the UCLA team Saturday -- from an Xs and Os standpoint -- was the same that won Aug. 30 at Virginia.

“Those two losses feel like 100 years ago,” offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said. “That doesn’t mean I’m not (upset) that we lost both. I think we’ve seen the offensive line really improve over the last month. And the glass-half-full is that maybe we’re a better football team because of those losses. The kids refocused, and we went back to our base, and we figured we’d just get good at what we do.”

It sounds simple enough. The result has been a spike in the national rankings and UCLA’s second win over a top-20 team in its last five games. And the Bruins are sure to climb again when the new rankings are released Tuesday, given their win over the No. 19 Trojans and Ole Miss’ loss to Arkansas.

Of course, just like when his team was ranked No. 7 in the preseason, Mora was in no mood to talk about the playoffs.

“I talk about the Pac-12 championship,” he said. “We have to win Friday. If we can win Friday, we will have another shot to win the Pac-12 championship. I don’t talk about that other stuff.”

And yet the “other stuff” can’t be ignored. Because if the Bruins were to win the conference, it would include a win over (likely) No. 2 Oregon and give them a compelling case for being the best two-loss team in the country. And if a conference championship counts for something -- as the selection committee claims -- the Bruins would have a very strong argument for inclusion.
Jim Mora acknowledges that UCLA's trajectory of improvement this season has been complicated.

"For us, if you were going to do a graph, it’s been rather jagged, but always trending upwards, even when it didn’t seem like it," he explains.

The entire gamut of feelings and evaluations have checked in with the Bruins over the course of 10 games so far -- lofty hype, bitter disappointment, maddening inconsistency, and mercurial play all come to mind.

Ultimately, the smell of success is lingering even as the dust of the chaos begins to settle. UCLA is 8-2, and with only two games remaining, they have traversed the Pac-12 South minefield well enough to control their own destiny -- not only for a conference crown, but also (potentially) for a College Football Playoff berth.

[+] EnlargeJim Mora
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesJim Mora and UCLA will have their progress on defense tested when rival USC visits the Rose Bowl.
Whether the Bruins finish the job relies heavily on their defense. Can that unit harvest the fruits of its up-and-down labor? USC is coming to the Rose Bowl on Saturday, so UCLA has its chance to answer that question against the likes of Cody Kessler, Nelson Agholor, and Javorius Allen.

A topsy-turvy campaign

For painful stretches of this season, struggles were prevalent for the Bruins. They were mainly rooted in the inability to generate a consistent pass rush; through eight games, UCLA had logged only 10 sacks.

The low point came on October 11, when Oregon ran the Bruins out of the Rose Bowl in a 42-30 game that wasn't nearly as close as the score would indicate. Boneheaded penalties damaged any promising efforts, and there weren't many of those to begin with, as UCLA didn't reach Marcus Mariota a single time. After matters quickly escalated, defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich tried to turn in his play card to Mora on the sideline during an embarrassing "I give up, you do it" moment caught by national television cameras.

"All the pressure was on us, and we let it get the best of us," linebacker Eric Kendricks said. "We got back to the fundamentals, counted on each other, and began trusting one another to do the job."

Quarterback pressure arrived the following Saturday at California. The Bruins sacked Jared Goff three times. One of those takedowns marked the coming out party of 6-foot-4 sophomore defensive lineman Takkarist McKinley, a player whose emergence has spurred the critical improvement of UCLA's pass rush.

Though the Bruins again failed to register a sack their next time out during an ugly double-overtime squeak-by at Colorado, the upward trend had begun -- even if the ascending line on that graph was jagged.

"We would see things that -- to us -- showed we were making progress," Mora said. "But I think the last couple weeks, we’ve just been a more consistent football team in all areas."

He's right. After the near-debacle at Colorado, UCLA has racked up three sacks apiece in consecutive wins against Arizona and Washington. Six of the Bruins' 16 sacks have come during the past two games. With McKinley bringing his heat, the contributions of physically imposing stalwarts Kenny Clark, Owa Odighizuwa, Eddie Vanderdoes, and Deon Hollins have begun to overwhelm opposing fronts.

A positive effect

This Bruins' defense is loaded with talent, and the development of a rigid backbone up front has allowed this stockpile to truly shine. Outside linebacker Myles Jack might generate the most hype, but Kendricks' play on the inside has been UCLA's most spectacular element. His 110 tackles trail only Arizona's Scooby Wright for the Pac-12 lead, and his sensational sideline-to-sideline play was essential in the Bruins' biggest defensive statement of the year, a 17-7 suffocation of the Wildcats. The Bruins held Arizona to just 2.4 yards per rush and 3.6 yards per pass.

"We started knowing where we fit, trusting one another to do our job, and relying on our teammates," Kendricks said. "When we did that, you saw the outcome: We played excellent football."

Ulbrich, a first-year defensive coordinator, has indicated that he is finding a comfort zone when it comes to fine-tuning the intricacies of the defense and the best ways to maximize UCLA's abundance of talent. This development is obviously helping the entire unit, but it's led specifically to improved play from cornerback Fabian Moreau and less of a reliance on the secondary in general. The defense banked heavily on the work of top cornerback Ishmael Adams (two interceptions) earlier in the season, but now the load is more evenly spread out across the entire unit.

That comes just in time for the Bruins. They have been fortunate enough to see explosive Brett Hundley performances bail them out time and time again, but that's not a sustainable winning formula -- especially with a multidimensional USC team coming in, hungry for vengeance. If UCLA is, in fact, going to rise from the ashes to make good on the preseason hype, its defense will have to carry its recent balanced success into the Rose Bowl on Saturday.

"[USC] does a little bit of everything: Tempo offense, a good quarterback, running back, offensive line, wide receivers," Kendricks said. "There are good athletes everywhere. It’ll challenge every aspect of our defense."

This test comes at the most telling time, with UCLA finally encountering the moment of truth. The can cannot be kicked any further down the road; it's time to find out if these Bruins were worthy of preseason expectations.

"If we just handle our job and our end of the bargain, everything will handle itself," Kendricks said. "That’s what we continue to do. That’s what we continue to preach."

Pac-12 viewer's guide: Week 13

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

10 a.m.

Washington State at Arizona State, Pac-12 Network

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

12:30 p.m.

Arizona at Utah, ESPN

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

1 p.m.

Stanford at Cal, Fox Sports 1

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

1:30 p.m.

Colorado at Oregon, Pac-12 Network

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

5 p.m.

USC at UCLA, ABC

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

7:30 p.m.

Oregon State at Washington, ESPN

The Beavers need one more win to earn bowl eligibility for Sean Mannion in his senior season. It's amazing what one good week (paired with a bad one) can do: Both of these teams have lost four of their past five games, but the feeling surrounding Oregon State is much more positive than the one in Seattle. The Beavers notched a huge 35-27 upset win over ASU last weekend, while the Huskies dropped a bitter 27-26 decision to Arizona. Both have a chance to finish forgettable seasons on a high note.

Pac-12's top recruiting visits 

November, 21, 2014
Nov 21
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The penultimate weekend of the regular season is upon us, and that means some serious recruiting weekends in store for several Pac-12 programs. A look at the top three recruiting visits in the Pac-12 includes one staff taking advantage of hosting its rivalry game and two others bringing in recruits to witness their final home games of the regular season.

USC at UCLA

Pac-12 morning links

November, 21, 2014
Nov 21
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Happy Friday!

Leading off

As we do every Friday, we focus our attention on some picks. Only two weeks left (not counting the bowl games). Six are already bowl eligible, two more will punch their ticket this weekend (the winners of the Stanford-Cal and Oregon State-Washington games becomes bowl eligible). So we'll have at least eight. But nine or 10 are still mathematically possible. But we'll worry about that when we have to.

The Pac-12 blog released its picks Thursday morning. Chantel Jennings went against the grain in a couple of picks and Kyle Bonagura likes the Trojans. Other than that, pretty unanimous.

As we do every week, here are some predictions from folks who cover the conference and college football nationally.

The Fox Sports tandem of Bruce Feldman and Stewart Mandel both like the Bruins in a tight game. Here's what Feldman had to say:
Brett Hundley wrecked the Trojans last season with his legs and arm, and he was very sharp in carving up USC two years ago. Despite how well Cody Kessler, Nelson Agholor and Buck Allen are playing, my hunch is the Bruins have enough athletes on defense to contain them to get away with a win. UCLA 31, USC 30.

Here are some other thoughts: Halliday update

Injured Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday spoke about the specifics of his injury for the first time Thursday. We had one report here on the blog. He also shared his frustration over the injury and the hope that he'll be playing football again within five months, which would put him in line to participate in WSU's pro day.

Here's a quote from Halliday from a story in the Spokesman-Review:
I think the hardest thing was just how close I was to being healthy throughout the year, going to the combine, getting to do all that stuff. That’s what I’ve been dreaming about since I’ve been able to dream so that was the frustrating thing: I was just three games away from that.

Halliday was putting up monster numbers. We know this because he's still leading the Pac-12 in passing with 3,873 yards and 32 touchdown passes. Here's the full transcript of Halliday's conference call with the media.

News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

The Cal band continued its annual tradition of invading the San Francisco Chronicle, which is kind of funny.



I don't know what this is or what it does ... but I think I want one.
Brett Hundley, Cody KesslerAP PhotosBrett Hundley and Cody Kessler will be fighting for individual awards and the Pac-12 South title.
It's safe to assume that when the postseason awards are handed out, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota will once again be holding top honors as the league's first-team all-conference quarterback.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pac-12 Week 13 predictions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unanimous picks

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

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

Why Arizona State will win: The Sun Devils are going to be eager to bounce back from their loss in Corvallis and pick up win No. 9 against Washington State. Look for a better performance from Taylor Kelly and D.J. Foster, who rushed for just 51 yards against the Beavers. -- Chantel Jennings

Pac-12 morning links

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20
8:00
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I guess some mistakes you never stop paying for.

Leading off

The USA Today annual database of coaches salaries, which was released Wednesday, always draws plenty of debate. Coach "X" is overpaid. Coach "Y" is underpaid. Whatever your stance, one thing is for sure ... coaches salaries are at an all-time high. And thus, the expectations are equally high.

Here’s how things shape up for the Pac-12 coaches, based on total compensation.
  • Chris Petersen, Washington, $3,681, 720
  • Rich Rodriguez, Arizona, 3,298,500
  • Jim Mora, UCLA, $3,250,000
  • Mike Leach, Washington State, $2,750,000
  • Todd Graham, Arizona State, $2,702,960
  • Kyle Whittingham, Utah, $2,200,000
  • David Shaw, Stanford, $2,012,666
  • Mike MacIntyre, Colorado, $2,010,150
  • Mark Helfrich, Oregon, $2,000,000
  • Sonny Dykes, Cal, $1,808,000
  • Mike Riley, Oregon State, $1,510,008
  • Steve Sarkisian, USC, N/A

When talking to some coaches last February for a story about potential coaching changes in the future, a few of them expressed to me that the main reason coaches only get three years now is the salaries. It used to be a coach would get at least four years -- one full recruiting cycle -- to turn a program around. Yet schools also have to spend the money to attract coaches, especially rebuilding projects. With the pressure to produce immediate results, it stands to reason that the heat gets turned up after Year 2 or 3. For now, it looks like everyone in the Pac-12 is reasonably happy with their coach, so it's unlikely we see any unforced moves in the offseason.

Player of the Year

The 15 semifinalists for the Walter Camp Award, given annually to the top player in college football, were released Wednesday with three Pac-12 players on the list.
Not to be overshadowed, the 10 semifinalists for the Doak Walker Award, which goes to the nation's top running back, was also released Wednesday. USC's Buck Allen was the only Pac-12 player named a semifinalist.

News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

If you watch one video of a punter pinning opponents inside the 10 today, make it this one.

Here's injured Buffalo Bills linebacker and former Duck Kiko Alonso chillin in some snow, because, well, why not?

Recovery

A video posted by Kiko Alonso (@elbravo_50) on


Some more Big Game motivation.

Mailbag: Oregon vs. ???

November, 19, 2014
Nov 19
8:00
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Welcome to the mailbag, where everybody knows your name and they're always glad you came. If you feel so inclined, follow me on Twitter.

Derrick in Omaha writes: Who should Oregon fear the most in a Pac-12 champ game? I don't think we need a highly ranked opponent, just one we can beat. Tough to beat UCLA twice, but USC is looking pretty good, too. And Arizona has had our number the last few years.

Kevin Gemmell: The simple answer is this: Fear everyone! There is no easy out.

Whoever the Ducks end up playing, they are going to get a unique challenge. But let's go down the line and look at the five teams left and what sort of trouble they could present the Ducks. (Relax, this is in alphabetical order).

SportsNation

Which South Division team could give Oregon the most trouble in the Pac-12 championship game?

  •  
    16%
  •  
    18%
  •  
    15%
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    34%
  •  
    17%

Discuss (Total votes: 6,454)

Arizona: The Wildcats have the benefit of beating Oregon twice in the past two seasons. Could they pull it off thrice? Oregon is a different team than the one that lost seven weeks ago. It's healthier in some places, but not in others. And as you note, it's hard to beat a team twice in one season. But the 'Cats seem to know something no one else does. If Arizona wins again, they should take a bow. (Ohhh ... See what I did there?)

ASU: The Ducks didn't see the Sun Devils this year. But you've got to think the matchup with Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Jaelen Strong (assuming both are at full health) would be a marquee storyline in this game. ASU will blitz, because that's what ASU does, and if they can keep Marcus Mariota contained, they'd have a shot. That's a big if, though.

UCLA: The Bruins have the experience of having already seen the Ducks once this season. But they had no answer for Royce Freeman, who really blossomed in this game with 121 rushing yards and two scores. But UCLA's Paul Perkins, though kept out of the end zone, rushed for 187 yards on 21 carries -- an average of 8.9 yards per touch. That could be a problem.

USC: Really good running back. Really good receiver. Really accurate quarterback who doesn't make a lot of mistakes. Really athletic defense. This one is intriguing. ...

Utah: The final score, 51-27, wasn't indicative of how close that game really was. The Utes were within a field goal with 11 minutes left, and we don't know what would have happened if the Utes had gone up 14-0 instead of the infamous 7-7 swing.

All five matchups have their pros and cons for the Ducks. Let the debate begin.




0006shy in Los Angeles writes: Hey Kevin, is it time for the rest of the country to admit that the Pac-12 South is the toughest division in college football? Five teams -- five teams! -- are still in contention to win it. Talk about cannibalizing! Sorry Sec West, your propaganda doesn't work over here on the BEST coast. With teams like Arkansas (one conference win in two and a half years), A&M (no defense at all), LSU (couldn't complete a pass even if the existence of the universe depended on it), and the Mississippi schools (eight non-conference games combined, zero against Power 5 teams), you're a distant second.

Kevin Gemmell: I think the rest of the country has, in fact, woken up and smelled the Southern goodness. That's why there are five Pac-12 South teams ranked in the most recent College Football Playoff poll with UCLA (9), ASU (13), Arizona (15), Utah (17) and USC (19). But it's not just the committee. All five are also ranked in the AP poll and the coaches' poll. So there is wide recognition that the South is deep.

That five of six teams from one division are ranked in the top 20 is awfully impressive. But for the sake of comparison, it's worth noting that the SEC West has four ranked teams and three of them are in the top 10 and all four are in the top 15.

So the question then becomes quality vs. depth. No doubt, the South is a deeper division. Even with seven teams compared to six, I'd take the bottom half of the South over the bottom half of the West any day. But does the South have more quality at the top than the West?

Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre has some thoughts on the subject, which you can read here.

For kicks, let's quickly look at the potential matchups of the top five from each division (we're going by rankings):
  • Alabama (1) vs UCLA (9)
  • Mississippi State (4) vs. ASU (13)
  • Ole Miss (8) vs. Arizona (15)
  • Auburn (14) vs. Utah (17)
  • Texas A&M (NR) vs. USC (19)

I think on any given day you have the Pac-12 South going 3-2 and the next day the West going 3-2.

So to answer your question/comment, I think the South probably has a slight edge. But that's also coming from a Pac-12 writer. But I think "distant" second might be a little too extreme. It's pretty neck and neck.




James in Corvallis writes: What are your thoughts on Jordan Villamin after the OSU upset? He has a size/speed combo that OSU hasn't had in recent memory. Could he be something special? It would be nice to have that one-two punch with Bolden and Villamin.

Kevin Gemmell: Interesting to see this question pop up, because I just asked Mike Riley about Villamin on Tuesday's conference call. And I know Chantel Jennings has a Pulitzer-worthy feature coming out on him for tomorrow, so look for that.

I'm not necessarily ready to speculate on anybody's future -- especially a wide receiver when a quarterback transition is going to occur in the very near future -- but it's fair to say he's made the most of his opportunities.

First, his measurables are outstanding. At 6-4, 240 pounds, he's certainly got the kind of frame that can give defensive backs fits. In the first five games, he had just three catches for 32 yards.

But since Richard Mullaney went out and Villamin's role has increased, he's caught 26 balls for 479 yards and four touchdowns. He had huge performances against Cal (9-140-1) and ASU (4-127-1) and appears to be gaining more confidence with every game he's played.

And that's exactly what Riley said when I asked him about him: more opportunities have led to greater confidence.

He's still a pup and learning the speed of the game. But I'd look for him to play a big role in the final two regular-season games and potentially a bowl game if the Beavers can get there.
UCLA was the hot new team in the preseason, the hip new accessory all the pundits were adding to their bantering repertoire. Quarterback Brett Hundley, cool, charismatic, immensely talented, led a depth chart with no obvious holes. Head coach Jim Mora, fresh from turning away pursuit from Texas, and his Bruins were climbers, vogue picks to break through into the inaugural College Football Playoff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will this year be different?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or maybe this year will be different. Maybe the Pac-12 will hit that third lottery number, pull that face card, and savor that high-priced steak. Maybe this is the year the league’s national title hopes don’t have a Sopranos-esque ending and simply snap to black. Because the league clearly has one of the best teams in the country. And it would be a shame if things just cut off right in the middle of

ESPN Jr. 300: What to know in the Pac-12 

November, 19, 2014
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The updated 2016 ESPN 300 was released on Wednesday, and 44 prospects from Pac-12 states are included, though the top two -- quarterbacks Malik Henry and Jacob Eason -- are committed to Florida State and Georgia, respectively. The Pac-12 holds commitments from 12 prospects in the ESPN Junior 300, as Oregon (three), USC (two) and UCLA (one) have 100 percent of their commitments included in the list.

Three recruits to watch


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

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

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

 
There is no more fertile recruiting ground for Pac-12 programs than Southern California, and when it comes to that area’s recruits, there is no more important game than UCLA-USC. While this game doesn’t always predict the program that will end up with the better recruiting class, it certainly gives the victor more recruiting momentum than any other game on the schedule. Saturday marks an important date for both programs, as the game will take place in front of some of the Southland’s top recruits, as well as more than a handful of out-of-state visitors.

A UCLA win would give the Bruins three in a row in the series and would give the coaches some significant recruiting ammunition to take into the final months of the recruiting calendar. A USC win would give coach Steve Sarkisian an opportunity to boast that the Trojans ceased all of the Bruins’ forward momentum in just his first year on the job and with a depleted roster.

It’s always entertaining when these programs get together on the field, and fun to take a look behind the scenes at a few factors that led to the makeup of these rosters and factors that will help set up future clashes. Here, we look at present and past recruiting battles that will shape or have shaped both rosters.

Biggest ongoing recruiting battles


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There is no more fertile recruiting ground for Pac-12 programs than Southern California, and when it comes to that area’s recruits, there is no more important game than UCLA-USC. While this game doesn’t always predict the program that will end up with the better recruiting class, it certainly gives the victor more recruiting momentum than any other game on the schedule. Saturday marks an important date for both programs, as the game will take place in front of some of the Southland’s top recruits, as well as more than a handful of out-of-state visitors.

A UCLA win would give the Bruins three straight in the series and give the coaches some significant ammunition to discuss going into the final months of the recruiting calendar. A USC win, on the other hand, would give head coach Steve Sarkisian an opportunity to boast that the Trojans ceased all the Bruins’ forward momentum in his first year on the job despite a depleted roster.

It’s always entertaining when these two programs get together on the field, and fun to take a look behind the scenes at a few factors that led to the makeup of these rosters, and factors that will help set up future clashes between the Los Angeles programs. Here we take a look at what kind of impact the 2014 class is already making, and what 2015 recruits could be in line to do the same next year.


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