Pac-12: Arizona State Sun Devils

Pac-12 morning links

November, 13, 2014
Nov 13
8:00
AM ET
I did not attend his funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.

Leading off

Thursday night football is back in the Pac-12 after a four-week hiatus. Remember what happened during the last Thursday night Pac-12 game? We had double overtime. You'd be wise to tune in. If you read our poll yesterday on #Pac12AfterDark, you'll note that Cal and USC -- the two teams playing this evening -- have featured prominently this year in the league's nocturnal nonsense.

There is plenty at stake when the Bears and Trojans kick off at 6 p.m. PT on ESPN. The Trojans are trying to keep pace with ASU and UCLA in the South Division race. Cal is trying to lock up a postseason spot after failing to beat an FBS team last year. Pretty remarkable turnaround.

Here are some stories heading into Thursday night's showdown.

Jeff Faraudo writes that line play is going to be critical for both teams. And Cal defensive lineman Mustafa Jalil is confident his group can hang with USC:
We’ve got to bring the fight to them. It’s a big challenge for the offensive and defensive lines. I’m 100 percent confident in our team. We’re ready to come down and get some of that Trojan.

A few more stories about tonight's matchup. Bowl math

How many Pac-12 teams are going bowling? Too soon to tell. As of this morning, six Pac-12 teams are bowl eligible for seven league-affiliated bowl games. As noted above, Cal can become bowl eligible tonight with a win at USC.

Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News breaks down all of the league's bowl scenarios here.

Should nine teams go bowling, it would be the second year in a row.

News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

Were you at the ASU-Notre Dame game last week? Find and tag yourself. And if you're curious, zoom in on the pressbox, right above the "T" in Sun Devils Stadium and you'll see ESPN's Ted Miller and Ivan Maisel trolling my stories with snarky comments.

Mailbag: How to clinch the South

November, 12, 2014
Nov 12
8:00
PM ET
Welcome to the mailbag, we've got fun 'n' games. We've got everything you want, honey we know the names. And if you feel compelled, follow me on Twitter.

Gary in Tucson, Arizona, writes: Scenario for Pac-12 south teams to win the South are what ? Also, who controls their own destiny?

Kevin Gemmell: OK. Let me see if I can do the math on this.

The most obvious scenario is ASU wins out. With one conference loss, they control their destiny. If the Sun Devils win out, the South is theirs. If they lose, things get tricky.

UCLA, with two conference losses, would have to win out. And the Bruins have a head-to-head tie breaker over the Sun Devils. So if both teams finish with two conference losses, UCLA would win the South by virtue of that tie breaker.

Then we have USC, also with a pair of conference losses. The Trojans need to finish ahead of ASU, because the Sun Devils have a head-to-head tie breaker. They would have to win out, which includes beating UCLA. That would drop the Bruins to three conference losses and out of contention.

Then we have the Wildcats, also with two conference losses, to USC and UCLA. Arizona would have to win out, finish ahead of UCLA and USC and beat ASU in the Territorial Cup. So Arizona fans are rooting for Cal Thursday night and Stanford on Nov. 28. It doesn’t matter to Arizona who wins between USC and UCLA. But both LA schools could still close out with three conference losses.

I think that makes sense …

Also, Kyle Bonagura is going to be hitting on this a little more tomorrow in the blog.

Sean in Tempe, Arizona, writes: (Question shortened for space): Honorable PAC Blog, Thank you for your hard work and not hating my team anymore, however I would like to discuss the apparent dismissal of ASU's schedule by the SI writer in the morning links. ASU has a worse résumé than Oregon, Bama, or Baylor? Aren't TCU and ASU the only teams that have played 5 top 25 teams (at the time, I know) and come out 4-1? Is our loss worse? yes, and our team was punished for it. Baylor has played ZERO teams out of conference, and lost to an unranked WVU. This makes no sense, ASU has a top 10 win, like Oregon, and additionally has played 5 ranked teams in 6 weeks, with a 6th ranked opponent waiting at the end of the schedule and a potential match up with a top 5 opponent for # 7.

Kevin Gemmell: I’m with you, Sean. We’ve been saying it for weeks, and will continue to say it. A one-loss Pac-12 champion does not, will not, cannot be left out of the playoff.

As you note, ASU’s schedule is tougher than people are giving it credit for. As of now, the Sun Devils have four wins over ranked opponents -- and three of those four are against top 20 teams. Granted, two of those teams have fallen from the rankings -- which is a by-product of the league beating up on itself.

But if ASU wins out -- including beating Oregon (which has already locked up the North) in the Pac-12 championship game -- it would have gone 6-1 against ranked teams, including wins over a pair of top 10 teams.

Leaving ASU out would be completely unjustifiable. Ted and I hit on that, by the way, in this week’s spreecast.

It bodes well for the Pac-12 that a pair of one-loss teams exist in separate divisions. If both win out, then the Pac-12 championship becomes an elimination game. Which would be the ideal scenario for the league and its fans.

Zach in Bethesda, Maryland, writes: I'm wondering what you see as the major difference between what Coach Pete walked into vs Mora/Graham/RichRod. The latter three coaches have managed to turn things around rather quickly - not only in the win/loss column, but also beating top level teams. I realize UW lost arguably the top RB/TE in the nation, along with a record setting passer, but UCLA/ASU/UA were also teams who fired their previous coaches - UW was not. While there's still a chance (albeit unlikely after what we've seen) that the Huskies win 9 or 10 games this year, they have yet to show that they can beat a legitimately ranked team.

Kevin Gemmell: There are a few differences. First, all three of those coaches you mentioned walked into the Pac-12 South – which three years ago was a lawless frontier with no real power structure. Its marquee program – USC – was still stifled by unjust NCAA sanctions and Utah and Colorado were one year in and trying to find their footing.

The reason all three came into the South was because the South was in turmoil – hence the three fired coaches.

The North already had a pair of established programs in Stanford and Oregon. The Cardinal have dropped this season – but they still beat Washington.

Secondly, as you note, the Huskies lost tremendous production in Bishop Sankey and Austin Seferian-Jenkins and tremendous leadership in Keith Price. That’s a triple-threat not easily replaced, nor has it been replaced this season.

Finally, it all starts with quarterbacks. Jim Mora inherited Brett Hundley and has developed him into what should be a first-round draft pick. Todd Graham inherited Taylor Kelly. True, he started out third on the depth chart, but Graham and Mike Norvell developed him into an all-conference player. Rich Rodriguez inherited a veteran in Matt Scott and got by on B.J. Denker while Anu Solomon developed.

Petersen isn’t working with his guys yet. And he might not fully be for a couple of years. But the guy is a two-time national coach of the year for a reason. He’s got coaching chops. I’m excited to see where this program is in four or five years.

#Pac12AfterDark is amazing theater

November, 12, 2014
Nov 12
2:00
PM ET
#Pac12AfterDark means different things to different people. It’s a warm kiss goodnight, or a swift kick to the shin (among other places). It’s the perfect Christmas present, or a stocking soaked with lighter fluid, burned to ashes, put in a blender and then burned again. Still for others, it’s simply mainlining Red Bull to stay awake to watch their favorite team.

But everyone can agree on this: #Pac12AfterDark means chaos.

The popular hashtag has become as much a staple on Saturday nights as SNL. And sometimes on Thursday and Friday nights, too.

It represents the far-out finishes, the freakish fumbles, the mind-melting marys and the prayers -- some answered, some not -- of the teams that clash under the lights. Sometimes it’s beautiful. Other times, it’s simply a beautiful disaster.

#Pac12AfterDark has provided college football fans – even those brave enough to endure the 11 p.m. ET kickoffs -- with some of the most exciting and dramatic moments of the 2014 season.

Here now are some of the top #Pac12AfterDark moments of the season.

The most recent -- and clearly most bizarre -- was Kaelin Clay’s unforced fumble at the 1-yard line last week against Oregon. We all know the story by now. Instead of going up 14-0, Joe Walker returned the fumble 100 yards to tie the game at 7-7. That one play perfectly encapsulated everything that #Pac12AfterDark is all about.



Arizona State is sixth in the most recent College Football Playoff Rankings. But the Sun Devils wouldn’t be there had it not been for the “Jael Mary,” a 46-yard touchdown pass from Mike Bercovici to Jaelen Strong as time expired to give ASU a 38-34 win over USC at the Coliseum. The Sun Devils trailed 34-25 with 3:02 left. Then the chaos really started.

Perhaps the origins of #Pac12AfterDark can be traced to a 10 p.m. ET start on Sept. 20, when Arizona scored 36 – 36! – points in the fourth quarter to erase a 15-point deficit and top the visiting Cal Bears 49-45 on the #HillMary. Anu Solomon aired out a 47-yard bomb to Austin Hill, who came down with it as the clock ran out. But #Pac12AfterDark can be fickle. A couple of weeks later, trailing 28-13 going into the fourth quarter, the Wildcats battled all the way back against the Trojans, recovered an onside kick, but lost 28-26 when Casey Skowron missed a 36-yard field goal with 12 seconds left.

SportsNation

What was the craziest #Pac12AfterDark moment this season?

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Discuss (Total votes: 4,817)

As we just learned from the Wildcats, #Pac12AfterDark can taketh away, but can also giveth. A couple of weeks after suffering the excruciating loss to the Wildcats, Cal found itself in a shootout against the Cougs in Pullman. That was a 10:30 ET kickoff, by the way. Connor Halliday threw for a record 734 yards and six touchdowns. And with 3:18 left in the game, trailing 60-59 (yeah, it’s the Pac-12), he drove his team down to the Cal 4-yard line. After failing to find the end zone twice (though replay might tell a different story on Gerard Wicks’ run, #Pac12officials), Quentin Breshears missed a 19-yard field goal with 15 seconds left that would have given the Cougs a 62-60 win.

Another late kick, another game involving USC. It started with Utah’s Davion Orphey returning a backwards pass 53 yards for a touchdown (a pass that everyone but Orphey and the officials, yay #Pac12officials, thought was a forward pass). There was Adoree’ Jackson’s 100-yard kick return and his strip of Tim Patrick at the goal line. Plenty of weird. But the dramatic crescendo was Travis Wilson connecting with Clay on a 1-yard touchdown pass with eight seconds left to lock up a 24-21 win.

And so we come full circle from Clay to Clay. One week #Pac12AfterDark is your best friend. The next, your arch rival. It cannot, will not be contained. If you’re kicking off in the Pac-12 after the sun goes down, all you can do is hope the drama is minimal.

But no promises.
It’s still three and a half weeks until College Football Playoff Selection Day, but no prediction in college football is ever premature, as evidenced by every unofficial offer given out to 13-year-old “prodigies.”

And so this week -- along with a fair amount of politicking -- brings a few shakeups in the rankings and a few fan bases energized (both positively and negatively) about what’s going on in the college football landscape.

No. 2 Oregon and No. 6 Arizona State are on course to meet in the Pac-12 championship game, and presuming both teams win out, the winner of that game should be a lock in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

[+] EnlargeCameron Smith
Matt Kartozian/USA TODAY SportsArizona State moved up three spots in this week's CFP rankings after sprinting past a ranked Notre Dame team on Saturday.
However, controversy still abounds as fans wonder why certain teams are ahead of others in the current rankings and how much perception vs. reality really has to do with it all.

Oregon jumped Florida State for the No. 2 position in this week's CFP rankings after beating a depleted but ranked Utah team while the Seminoles scored a comeback win over 4-6 Virginia. OK, that makes sense, and the Pac-12 can be happy it's finally getting the recognition it deserves.

But no conference fan base can ever be completely happy, and so the question is posed: What about Arizona State, the headliner in the Pac-12 South?

The Sun Devils jumped three spots in the rankings with a big home win over ranked Notre Dame. However, they still sit behind No. 5 Alabama (which beat LSU in overtime last weekend -- yes, LSU is ranked one spot higher than Notre Dame) and No. 4 TCU (which beat No. 13 Kansas State last weekend but has a loss to No. 7 Baylor).

Nothing is perfect, and since this is a process based on human evaluation, there are going to be differing opinions. We can expect this.

But what do the coaches have to say about it all?

“To me, I think you need to look at strength of schedule and who the opponents are,” Arizona State coach Todd Graham said. “Also, how you’re playing at that time. ... So many people’s win-loss record can have scheduled three real easy nonconference games and improve [their] win-loss record real easily.”

Who could Graham possibly be talking about?

Hmmm ... let’s give it one guess.

Maybe, just maybe, Graham is talking about Florida State. The Seminoles are ranked No. 3 in this week’s committee rankings, three spots ahead of the Sun Devils. However, when looking at the common opponent -- which the committee has said it would consider -- there seems to be quite a disparity.

Last weekend Arizona State beat Notre Dame by 22 points. Yes, three-plus touchdowns. That’s a pretty solid margin of victory. However, Florida State only beat the Fighting Irish by four points.

“I think they should take into account that that’s the No. 1 team in the nation [Notre Dame] almost beat; they took them down to the wire,” Graham said of the Irish. “I think ... even though they came back, we still had a dominating victory over them.”

Graham said he believes the two biggest factors in the committee’s decision should be the strength of schedule and which team wins the conference.

Currently, both his team and the team he was previously alluding to (cough, cough, FSU) are poised to play in their respective conference championships. So they’re both good in that category.

But where the Sun Devils get the advantage over the Noles is in strength of schedule. Arizona State has faced off against three opponents currently in the top 25 of the committee’s rankings, amassing a 2-1 record against that trio. The Sun Devils beat Notre Dame and Utah while dropping -- in terrible fashion -- a game to UCLA. If they can make it to the Pac-12 championship game, they’ll have the chance to face No. 2 Oregon and truly make a statement.

Florida State, on the other hand, has faced two top-25 opponents -- No. 18 Notre Dame and No. 19 Clemson -- and walked away with close wins in both. FSU would likely meet No. 21 Duke in the ACC championship game, giving it another top-25 matchup on its resume. But really, are we comparing Duke and Oregon football right now?

Oregon coach Mark Helfrich would certainly have something to say about that.

His team has gone from No. 5 to No. 4 to No. 2 in the three weeks the committee’s rankings have existed. That was following wins over Cal, Stanford and Utah, only the latter of which is ranked in the top 25.

Even so, it sounds as though Helfrich isn’t exactly sure what will be weighed when it comes to his team’s schedule. Yes, Oregon has a loss, but it comes with a caveat -- the Ducks lost at a time when they were starting a true freshman and former walk-on at both offensive tackle positions. And yes, the committee has said it would take injuries into account. Since then, left tackle Jake Fisher has returned and the offensive numbers have greatly improved.

The Ducks are 3-1 in competition versus current top-25 teams, with wins over No. 11 UCLA, No. 12 Michigan State and No. 23 Utah and a loss to No. 14 Arizona.

Overall, this seems to be kind of what everyone expected with the first season of the College Football Playoff -- in that no one really knew what to expect, so everyone should be prepared for anything and everything.

It’ll be up to the committee to choose what it values. At the end of the day, no one -- except those committee members -- really knows how it’ll go down, and the best thing the Pac-12 contenders can do is keep winning.

“You can say you’re not going to count certain things or you are going to count certain things, but at some point someone is making an individual, subjective decision and something is going to come into play,” Helfrich said. “The biggest thing is winning versus losing. I don’t know. I don’t know the percentage to which that will actually affect anything.”

And you know what, Mark, neither does anyone else for sure.

Pac-12 morning links

November, 12, 2014
Nov 12
8:00
AM ET
Goodnight you princes of Maine, you kings of New England.

Leading off

It's depth chart Wednesday! Four Pac-12 teams are on bye this week -- Colorado, Oregon, UCLA and Washington State. Here are the updated depth charts for the remaining eight teams. As always, some notes are listed below. Notes

At Cal, a little bit of movement in the front seven with Tony Mekari moving from backup defensive tackle to defensive end. Also, Jalen Jefferson and Jake Kearney have an "or" between them at linebacker. Kearney did not play against Oregon State with a shoulder injury.

At Stanford, safety Zach Hoffpauir is expected to return after missing the Oregon game. And though defensive tackle David Parry was never off the depth chart, he should be back this week after also missing the Oregon game.

Along the offensive line at USC, Khaliel Rodgers is listed at left guard with Toa Lobendahn at left tackle. Defensively, John Plattenburg is challenging Leon McQuay for the strong safety spot.

At Utah, the battle between Brandon Cox and Conner Manning to back up Travis Wilson will be interesting to follow. Also, with the season-ending injury to receiver Tim Patrick, Kenneth Scott moves to the X receiver and Kenric Young moves in at Z. The Utes will look to get a medical redshirt for safety Tevin Carter, which puts Marcus Williams as the primary free safety.

At Washington, former wide receiver John Ross is listed as a starting cornerback in the spot previously filled by Marcus Peters (for more, see the link below).

Ranking reaction

The latest College Football Playoff rankings were released Tuesday and a pair of Pac-12 teams are looking pretty good. The Oregon Ducks moved all the way up to No. 2 (clearly, the committee has a lot of respect for Utah) and the Arizona State Sun Devils jumped up to No. 6.

Here's what selection-committee chair Jeff Long had to say about the Sun Devils:
They've got two Top 25 wins, and then they have two additional really quality wins against USC and at Washington, so that certainly factored into their body of work. And yes, (the loss to) UCLA, our No. 11 team, it was without their quarterback (Taylor Kelly). That was a factor in our determination of how strong we feel Arizona State is at this time.

Here are a couple of more reactions: News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

Don't you know Cody Kessler's loco?



Game on!

Pac-12 enjoying many happy returns

November, 11, 2014
Nov 11
11:00
AM ET
If you play in the Pac-12, there’s never been a better time to be a return man. Because business is booming.

Already with 19 kicks returned for touchdowns -- punt and kickoff -- the Pac-12 is the leading conference in FBS football this season when it comes to taking it to the house. The SEC -- with two additional teams -- is next with 16.

This is by far the greatest season for returners since the Pac-12 became the Pac-12 in 2011. That year, the conference saw 14 kicks returned for scores. The number declined the next two years (13 in 2012 and 12 in 2013) before a massive spike this season. In fact, the Pac-12 this season has the highest rate of kicks returned for a touchdown per game than any other league since the SEC in 2011.

[+] EnlargeKaelin Clay
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsUtah's Kaelin Clay is tops among Pac-12 returners with four touchdowns (3 on punts, 1 on kickoffs).
Asked for any sort of rhyme or reason for the special teams spike, almost every Pac-12 coach pointed to one common element: Great returners.

“Returns start with returners that have a knack for making people miss and hitting those creases,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, whose team has a league-high four returns (three punt, one kick). “It’s either something you have or you don’t have. It’s tough to train a guy to become a great returner. The No. 1 factor would be that there are a bunch of athletes in this conference that have that capability to miss the first guy, make the next two or three miss as the case may be and finding those creases in the coverage and hitting them.”

Whittingham’s guy, Kaelin Clay, has been the class of the league when it comes to returns. With three scores on punt returns and another on kickoffs, he leads a very talented group. But he’s not the only one with multiple scores. California’s Trevor Davis (two kick returns), Oregon’s Charles Nelson (two punt returns), Stanford’s Ty Montgomery (two punt returns) and USC’s Nelson Agholor (two punt returns) are also in the multi-TD club.

Players with one touchdown include Arizona’s Cayleb Jones (kick) and DaVonte' Neal (punt), Oregon State’s Ryan Murphy (kick), UCLA’s Ishmael Adams (kick), USC’s Adoree' Jackson (kick) and Washington’s John Ross (kick) and Dante Pettis (punt, Washington's first since 2003).

One can argue the flip side, being that kick coverage in the Pac-12 is down. Only Arizona, Oregon and Washington haven't yielded a special teams touchdown. Washington State has the dubious honor of allowing a league-high six returns for touchdowns this season.

“In our case, I think we need more of an identity on defense and our lack of that has hurt us on special teams,” said head coach Mike Leach, who swapped special teams coaches midseason. “I think individual effort (plays a role), we’ve had some young guys out there. I feel like we should be playing better on special teams across the board.”

Funny thing, those special teams touchdowns. Sometimes they play out exactly as they are drawn up. Other times it’s simply outstanding athleticism from a return guy that makes the difference.

“You can put the film on and there are times when you don’t block anybody and the guy runs it back 100 yards for a touchdown, and there are other times if you don’t have a special return guy, you block everybody and he still gets tackled,” Cal head coach Sonny Dykes said. “There are so many skilled athletes in this league and guys that are capable of big returns. I think it starts there.”

We can all pretty much agree that having an outstanding crop of returners is by far the most important element of the equation. But there are a few other factors to consider. For starters, scoring in the league is up. The Pac-12 leads all conferences with 34.1 points per game. That’s the highest it’s been since the league expanded to 12 teams and the highest scoring average in at least a decade. More points means more kickoffs. There are also lots of sacks and tackles for a loss, which creates more punts.

Additionally, most teams use younger players on special teams to give regular defensive starters a rest. You throw talented returners into the mix and you have return touchdowns trending up.

“When you don’t have depth, the No. 1 part of your team that gets hurt is special teams,” Dykes explained. “There’s more kickoffs and it’s a wide-open league. Everyone is going through what we are. You’re kicking off a lot, and then having to play young players on those coverage units, and the combination of really good returners is usually the recipe for disaster.”

Well, only if you’re on a coverage team.

Weekend recruiting wrap: Pac-12 

November, 11, 2014
Nov 11
10:00
AM ET
video
There wasn't much movement on the Pac-12 recruiting scorecard this weekend, but Utah was able to bounce back from a tough loss to Oregon by scoring a commitment, and Arizona State might have set the stage for one of the conference's stronger runs toward signing day with a big win against Notre Dame. Elsewhere, Stanford is looking to gain some recruiting momentum after some time without a commitment, and several Pac-12 targets are headed out of the area this weekend.

National links: Bias on the committee? 

November, 11, 2014
Nov 11
8:30
AM ET
I have grave news to bring you. The College Football Playoff selection committee is biased.

Yes, the 12-member panel tasked to solve the nation's problems choose the sport's first four-team playoff includes people with real-life experiences, likes and dislikes.

Some of them, apparently, have ideas about the way the game ought to be played and coached.

Take a deep breath and remember, this is what we wanted.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Pac-12 morning links

November, 11, 2014
Nov 11
8:00
AM ET
Ray, if someone asks if you are a god, you say, "Yes!"

Leading off

As we hit the final stretch of the 2014 regular season (seriously, can you believe it's already Week 12?), The Eliminator grows more and more hungry for teams on the out. Another Pac-12 team was claimed when the Utah Utes fell to Oregon on Saturday in Salt Lake City.

That leaves four Pac-12 teams still in the conversation. Oregon and Arizona State are considered "in contention," while UCLA and Arizona qualify as "on the fence." Here's what The Eliminator has to say about the Bruins.

Were we too quick to completely write off the Bruins? Since losing consecutive home games against Utah and Oregon in early October, UCLA has won four straight games, including a 44-30 win Saturday at Washington. The Bruins trail Arizona State by one game in the loss column of the Pac-12 South standings, and they have remaining home games against rival USC on Nov. 22 and Stanford on Nov. 28. The Bruins certainly seem to be peaking at the right time, and they have two impressive victories: 62-27 at Arizona State on Sept. 25 and 17-7 over Arizona on Nov. 1.


Worth noting, too, is that of the 17 teams still in the mix, the Pac-12 has the second most. The SEC has five, the Bigs have three each, and the ACC has two. And if I might editorialize for a moment (it's my links column, so I can), this should serve as further evidence that, for all the self-inflicted wounds the Pac-12 causes itself, it's deep and talented, and its champion deserves a seat at the table. A one-loss conference champ should be a lock. But a two-loss is probably just as deserving.

More playoff chatter

ESPN has The Eliminator, Sports Illustrated has Bubble Watch. SI's Colin Becht breaks down the ins and outs for all the bubble teams, including Oregon and Arizona State. The case for the Ducks is a fairly easy one. But Becht notes Arizona State has a tougher road ahead. From his story:

Compared to the other one-loss teams, Arizona State’s resume looks pretty pedestrian for now. Its strength of schedule is the second worst; its wins, while respectable, aren’t as strong as Oregon’s, Baylor’s or TCU’s; its loss isn’t as understandable as TCU’s or Alabama’s. Basically, every team except for Ohio State can point to a reason it’s more deserving of a playoff spot than the Sun Devils.


While we're on the topic of one-loss teams, here's a question to ponder...

News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

Where in the country does college football resonate most? An interesting, interactive chart from the New York Times paints the picture.
At face value, the Week 12 slate in the Pac-12 isn't sexy, particularly when compared to the doozies the conference has enjoyed in recent weeks. Four clubs again have byes, and there's no truly marquee matchup that stands out from the bunch.

The conference has consistently been giving us "are you not entertained?!" moments, so this initial look at this week's docket may trigger some feelings of withdrawal. But we'll stick with the "Gladiator" theme in our search for some perspective. The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (the real guy, not the one featured in the movie), might have been a hidden fan of this Week 12 about 1,800 years ago.

"Look beneath the surface; let not the several quality of a thing nor its worth escape thee," he said.

And that's exactly what we're going to do. Because while this cluster of games hasn't made the massive initial splash of its predecessors, there's enough material to make for another engaging weekend.

A Tasty Appetizer: California at USC

At 5-4, the Bears are one win away from bowl eligibility. This trip to Los Angeles and home dates against Stanford and BYU remain on the schedule. Conventional wisdom says that final game against the Cougars will be Cal's best chance to notch win No. 6, but since when does conventional wisdom mean anything in college football? The Bears are averaging 42 points per game this season. They trail only Oregon in the Pac-12, and that explosiveness makes them dangerous on a weekly basis. Jared Goff receives the majority of adulation in Berkeley, but he's enjoyed some critical support on the ground: Only two conference running backs have averaged over five yards per carry while rushing for at least 10 touchdowns. Oregon stud Royce Freeman is one, while Cal's Daniel Lasco is the other.

The Bears must maintain this offensive balance to close out the season, because their Pac-12 worst defense simply isn't at the necessary level yet. That's why Cody Kessler (25 touchdowns, two interceptions) is licking his chops this weekend, and that's why this matchup has some potential Thursday night insanity in it. The Trojans have been good against the run defensively, but if Lasco finds some room to work, there'll be a shootout in the Coliseum (the Pac-12 really is built for Gladiator references).

Saturday's first course: Washington at Arizona

Following the dismissal of cornerback Marcus Peters and a number of injuries on the defensive side of the ball, the Huskies are reeling. Washington has been able to find some success on offense by using Shaq Thompson's top-flight talents at running back, but it was clear during the 44-30 home loss to UCLA that this is a football team struggling with limited resources. Still, there are plenty of intriguing pieces to watch in action here. It sounds as if dinged up national sack leader Hau'oli Kikaha (nation-leading 16.5 sacks) will play this weekend, and that sets the table for a potentially explosive matchup against young quarterback Anu Solomon. The Wildcats, who are coming off a 38-20 win against Colorado, have a strong set of receiving options, and they may pose big problems for a Washington secondary in flux. That'll put even more pressure on Kikaha and the Huskies' pass rush, and considering that unit's ferocity in getting after the quarterback, that's not a bad thing for entertainment purposes.

Don't forget that we'll also have a chance to see Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright work against a sputtering offense. The man's also been a statistical machine, so this game is a chance to watch some of the Pac-12's defensive stars.

Desperation Bowl: Utah at Stanford

In many ways, the 2014 Utes are built like the 2012 Cardinal -- a team that fans in Palo Alto really miss right about now. I wrote about the similarities earlier today while elaborating on the importance of this game for both of these teams. Two consecutive losses (that 51-27 setback to Oregon was brutal, considering how things shook out after Kaelin Clay's infamous mistake) have sent Utah into a slump after a sensational start to the season, while previously mighty Stanford is now in a fight just to attain bowl eligibility.

It feels that both clubs need this game to avoid "total free fall" mode, so this may end up being an entertaining watch, especially if you're a fan of players who love to get after the quarterback. Utah leads the nation with 43 sacks, while Stanford still has some healthy and monstrous pass-rushing talent -- Henry Anderson and Peter Kalambayi come to mind. Expect some violent takedowns in this one.

Game with biggest College Football Playoff implications: Arizona State at Oregon State

Our Ted Miller astutely noted that the Sun Devils' 55-31 win against Notre Dame was actually a three-game series: ASU won Game 1, 34-3, dropped Game 2, 28-0, and sealed the rubber match, 21-0. By the time the desert dust had settled, Todd Graham's team had fully overcome its 62-27 September debacle against UCLA.

The Sun Devils obviously aren't perfect, but their two excellent surges against the Irish proved that there's been a whole heck of a lot of improvement going on in Tempe. At this point, the Sun Devils should strive to continue their steady build heading into the Nov. 28 Territorial Cup. Oregon State's slide has reached severe levels with last week's 39-32 home loss to Connor Halliday-less Washington State, and ASU gets those same Cougars at home after this contest in Corvallis. Of course, the Sun Devils must be wary of a letdown, but the stars seem to be aligning for that match-up against the hated Wildcats with everything on the line.

Then again, conventional wisdom doesn't apply to Pac-12 football, so make sure to watch without making any prior assumptions.

Momentum swings to ASU, Oregon

November, 10, 2014
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The math-y folks at ESPN are incredibly helpful and pleasant. It goes without saying they are smart. Certainly smarter than me. But that doesn't stop me from assuming a smug look when they assert sportswriter standbys like "momentum" and "clutch" don't exist, are figments of our simple, myth-making imaginations.

Oh, I've seen numbers and have read the prim yet well-wrought deconstructions of what are often lumped into an "intangible" category of old fashioned sports analysis. The numbers (mostly) pencil out, no matter what our guts say after lifetimes of participating in and then watching these games.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Boyd Ivey/Icon SportswireMarcus Mariota and the Ducks improved to 9-1 overall with a big win against Utah on Saturday.
And then days like Saturday happen and our guts drag the math into the schoolyard and steal its lunch money.

On Saturday, Arizona State produced three games for the price of one against Notre Dame, taking two out of three from the Fighting Irish in a contest that, yes, produced momentum swings so stunning they surely felled cactuses outside Sun Devil Stadium. Then, as the clock closed in on the witching hour on the East Coast, Utah receiver Kaelin Clay manufactured a derp of such herculean proportions against Oregon, sports cognoscenti surely will fast track it into the Derp Hall of Fame, where it can sit next to a handful of my predictions and columns.

As, of course, you've already seen and marveled over, Clay chose to celebrate a 79-yard touchdown pass that would give the Utes a 14-0 lead over the Ducks in advance of actually scoring said TD. His dropping the ball before crossing the goal line allowed Ducks linebacker Joe Walker to go 100 yards in the other direction, thereby making the score a 7-7 knot instead of a two touchdown divide, a 14-point swing of such monumental strangeness it was akin to Bigfoot walking onto the field complaining that his iPhone had locked up and he couldn't figure out if his order to Amazon had gone through and could somebody please help.

Those were the first of 24 consecutive points from the Ducks. Utah would recover its poise and make things interesting until Oregon pulled away in the fourth quarter, but the deflation of the sequence -- both for Ute fan and Ute player -- can best be described as a swing in momentum.

As for ASU, it won Game 1 with Notre Dame, 34-3. It lost Game 2, 28-0, but won the rubber match, 21-0. Whether you define those curious clumps of unidirectional points as momentum swings or explain them with coefficients, the only conclusion one can arrive at with any certainty is college football is weird and often takes circuitous routes to expected -- or unexpected -- places.

The good news -- at least for the Ducks, Sun Devils and those of us who like bright, shiny things -- is our resulting potential endgame could be a Pac-12 title game for the ages. Or at least the best Pac-12 title game in the game's four years of existence. It sure as heck will be sexier than the 2011 matchup that pitted No. 8 Oregon against a 6-6 UCLA team coming off a 50-0 loss to USC.

If both can somehow avoid losing in advance of the Dec. 5 date in fancy, new Levi's Stadium, it likely will be a matchup of top-five teams, with the winner receiving a golden ticket invitation to the inaugural College Football Playoff. Ergo, it will be a major showcase for the Pac-12, must-see TV optimistically envisioned in 2010 when Larry Scott reconfigured the staid, analogue Pac-10 into its present hip, HD version.

No other conference championship game presently appears to have such a clear-cut, winner-takes-all, play-in potential, even the SEC, as an SEC East champion winning the SEC title game seems dubious for a playoff spot unless the Big Ten and Big 12 champions end up with a second loss.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Hardison
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesWith a win against Notre Dame, the Sun Devils drove home that they're a contender in the playoff race.
Oregon, already the North Division champion, has the easier remaining path. After a bye, it plays host to Colorado then visits rival Oregon State, two of the three Pac-12 teams currently with losing records. Arizona State heads to Oregon State on Saturday, plays host to Washington State and then takes on No. 19 Arizona in Tucson, a Territorial Cup that could end up being contested for some prime territory.

Oregon vs. Arizona State certainly has plenty to recommend it. For one, it won't be a regular-season rematch. Second, they have posted the best -- top-10 -- nonconference wins in the Pac-12, the Sun Devils whipping the Irish and the Ducks taking down Michigan State. That gives them a national resonance that teams which opted for a lackluster nonconference slate -- looking at you Mississippi State and Baylor -- don't have.

Both needed that credibility, Arizona State in particular.

"I think that we knew that this was the hump we needed to get over," Sun Devils running back D.J. Foster said of beating an Irish squad it lost to a season ago. "At the end of the day, it was just another game for us. But we knew that we had to get this win to impress some people."

There's also something to be said for showing resilience and being opportunistic. Both were hit hard by the national media after poor showings in their only defeat. Both have overcome injury concerns, though Oregon's new health woes now seem more pressing than even their early-season issues.

Of course, little has been decided, other than the Ducks reserving their spot in the title game. There's still plenty of football left, football that might provide a few more plot twists. Or momentum swings.

Pac-12 morning links

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Dear God, it's me, Jonah Hill... from "Moneyball."

Leading off

Well, this is shaping up nicely for the Pac-12, isn't it? Two teams are ranked in the top 10, one from the North and one from the South -- seemingly on a collision course in the Pac-12 championship game with a spot in the College Football Playoff on the line. Oregon and ASU both overcame tremendous hurdles this past weekend, with the Sun Devils knocking off the visiting Notre Dame Irish and the Ducks coming out of #SackLakeCity with a victory.

The AP and coaches poll rankings reflect the significance of the wins. Kyle Bonagura has the breakdown here for the Pac-12.

Here are the league's ranked teams (AP poll first, followed by the coaches poll).
  • Oregon 3-4
  • Arizona State 7-8
  • UCLA 14-15
  • Arizona 17-18
  • Utah 25-N/R

You can see the complete rankings here.

As always, here's how a few folks who cover the league voted in the AP ballot. The latest College Football Playoff rankings will be released Tuesday night. The return of Orgeron?

Coach "O" might not be done with USC just yet. Ed Orgeron, who did a splendid job pinch-hitting as the Trojans' head coach post-Lane Kiffin, told Bill Plaschke of the L.A. Times that he wouldn't be against a possible return to USC as an assistant coach.
I will be a USC Trojan forever, and, I don't know what they're thinking, but the door to come back there is always open in my mind. If the right situation comes up this year and they ask me to go back, I'd be more than happy to listen.

As you may recall, Orgeron was hoping to have the interim dropped from his title and be named USC's next head coach full-time. But following a loss to UCLA, athletic director Pat Haden informed Oregeron he would not get the gig. New head coach Steve Sarkisian offered Orgeron an assistant job, but he declined.

The Trojans (6-3) were on bye last week and close the year with Cal, UCLA and Notre Dame.

News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

Did you like the ASU Desert Fuel unis? Learn a little more about them here.

Sometimes it is what it is ...

Best of the visits: Pac-12

November, 9, 2014
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Arizona State dominated the Pac-12 visitor list this weekend, as the Sun Devils hosted four ESPN 300 prospects on official visits and received unofficial visits from at least three 2016 ESPN 300 prospects. Elsewhere, Utah hosted a significant official visitor in ESPN 300 wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and both Arizona and Washington had several California prospects in town.

Sun Devil statement

Arizona State saw everything go right during its biggest recruiting weekend of the season. ESPN 300 prospects Christian Kirk, Brady White, Trent Irwin, Zach Robertson and Porter Gustin were all in attendance to see the Sun Devils put together a big win against Notre Dame.

White has been committed to the Sun Devils for months and is putting in some serious effort to recruit the other four ESPN 300 prospects -- all uncommitted. He has an especially close relationship with Irwin, his high school teammate and good friend.
Kirk is as much of a local celebrity as it gets with hometown recruits, as he has been the top recruiting target for Arizona State and Sun Devils fans alike since his sophomore year. His highly anticipated official visit took place this weekend, and surely Arizona State did everything it could to make an impression. Safety D.J. Morgan, wide receiver Dylan Crawford and outside linebacker Bryce Youngquist -- all 2016 ESPN 300 prospects -- made the trip to Tempe over the weekend and all were impressed by what they saw. The big win might have planted the seeds for a significant 2016 recruiting haul for the Sun Devils. Also in attendance was Arizona State offensive tackle commit Mason Walter. St. Brown visits Utah

While Utah came up short on the scoreboard against Oregon, the game atmosphere in Salt Lake City looked to be impressive as always. And that's a good thing, considering ESPN 300 wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown was on his official visit. While the trip to Utah was seen a while ago as somewhat superfluous, considering St. Brown appeared down to Notre Dame, Stanford and USC as his serious options, the Utes at this point shouldn't be considered out of this at all, as the coaches have done a great job recruiting the talented receiver. Utah also had several committed recruits on hand, including linebacker Cody Barton and 2016 athlete Kahi Neves. A Wildcat win

Arizona kept pace in the Pac-12 South with a home win over Colorado. And while Arizona State boasted the lion's share of impact visitors this weekend, the Wildcats had a few of their own.

Arizona tight end commit Jamie Nunley made the trip out from California, and apparently had a chance to spend some time with head coach Rich Rodriguez on the sideline. Huskies host two California juniors

Washington suffered a tough loss to UCLA, but was able to bring at least two 2016 California prospects up to Seattle for the game, in running back Sean McGrew and quarterback Kevin Davidson. While McGrew has Cal and UCLA out front in his recruitment, the trip to Washington shows he's still giving the Huskies a look. And though Davidson is still looking for his first offer, he's been in serious contact with Pac-12 programs such as Cal, Colorado and Washington.

Pac-12 helmet stickers: Week 11

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Another entertaining Saturday of college football is over, and that means that there are more helmet stickers to give out. Here's to Week 11.

DJ Foster, RB, Arizona State: The Sun Devils delivered a fine performance in all phases during their 55-31 win against Notre Dame -- even if a second-half lapse made the Tempe faithful nervous. Foster's 21 carries for 120 yards (5.7 per carry) were at the center of the effort on offense. ASU also enjoyed a solid performance from Taylor Kelly (17-for-28, 224 yards, 3 touchdowns), and Jaelen Strong registered a spectacular touchdown catch to set the tone, but Foster's explosiveness formed a backbone for Todd Graham's club throughout.

Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA: Hundley's two touchdown passes gave him 69 on his college career, thrusting him past Cade McNown for first place on the UCLA career list. He also rushed for two scores in the Bruins' 44-30 win at Washington. Hundley (29-for-36, 302 yards) is playing his best football of the season, and it seems that 8-2 UCLA is following suit.

Shaq Thompson, LB/RB, Washington: Thompson squared off against fellow two-way phenom Myles Jack on Saturday, and he registered another impressive all-around day: 16 carries, 100 rushing yards on the offensive end to go with four tackles from the linebacker position on the defensive end. It's tough to imagine where the sputtering Washington offense would be without Thompson's contributions in the backfield.

Luke Falk, QB, Washington State: Falk's final line from Washington State's 39-32 win at Oregon State looks a lot like some of the gaudy performances Connor Halliday had been posting all season long: 44-for-61, 471 yards, 5 touchdowns, no interceptions. The road environment certainly didn't faze the redshirt freshman in his first career start, as he calmly led the Cougars back from an early 10-0 deficit.

Anu Solomon, QB, Arizona: The Wildcats struggled at home against an improving Colorado squad for much of this game, but Solomon ultimately got back on track after a disappointing outing at UCLA last week. He finished 21-for-38 for 211 yards and four touchdowns. Perhaps more impressively, Solomon also tacked on 105 yards with his legs, and he needed just 13 carries to do it. Arizona beat the Buffs 38-20.

Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon: As injured teammates fell around him, Mariota stood tall and powered Oregon to a 51-27 victory with his dazzling combination of passing prowess and running ability. His 18 rushes for 114 yards routinely burned Utah's aggressive defense, while his three passing touchdowns exemplified yet another 'wow' performance from the pocket. Mariota now has too many stickers to fit onto a single helmet, but no problem: He's the Heisman frontrunner.

Joe Walker, LB, Oregon: The pivotal play in Oregon's win over Utah came early, when it appeared as if Ute wide receiver Kaelin Clay was on his way to a 79-yard touchdown reception. But Clay dropped the ball short of the goal line, and the expected 14-0 Utah lead never materialized. Erick Dargan initially grabbed the ball for Oregon before he, too, fumbled it. That's when Walker had the awareness to snatch the treasure and race 100 yards the opposite direction, completing a 179-yard, 14-point swing that completely changed the complexion of the game. One might argue that Walker was simply in the right place at the right time, but his play was critical in this Ducks' victory, so it calls for a sticker.
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TEMPE, Ariz. -- No. 9 Arizona State jumped all over No. 10 Notre Dame early and held on to win 55-31 after a furious second-half rally from the Irish.

How the game was won: Notre Dame went up 3-0, but then the Sun Devils rolled off 34 unanswered points amid a flurry of Fighting Irish -- mostly QB Everett Golson -- mistakes. Then, Golson and the Irish rediscovered their mojo in the second half, cutting the ASU advantage to 34-31 with 6:37 remaining. Would they complete a monumental comeback? Would the Sun Devils provide a monumental collapse? Nope. Arizona State drove for a touchdown and then Lloyd Carrington's 58-yard pick-six ended the intrigue.

Game ball goes to: Carrington, a redshirt sophomore cornerback, finished with eight tackles, that decisive pick-six, a sack and a forced fumble.

Best play: Jaelen Strong's one-handed touchdown catch breaks a 3-3 tie in the first quarter.

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What it means: For the playoff implications, see below. But beyond that, the Sun Devils' win gives them significant national credibility, though some East Coast-biased naysayers will ignore what the Fighting Irish did at Florida State and note they haven't yet posted a quality win. The preseason expectations for Arizona State predicted a slight downturn after they won the Pac-12's South Division last year, and that feeling was supported by the 62-27 home loss to UCLA. That game now looks like an anomaly. The Sun Devils are in good position to repeat as South champions.

For Notre Dame, the result likely will bring a steep drop in the national polls. It also probably catapults them out of contention for a major bowl game, as spots are now appointed by the CFP selection committee, which isn't going to just pick an undeserving team to sell tickets and spark TV ratings.

Playoff implications: It means Notre Dame is out of the College Football Playoff chase, and the Sun Devils are in the thick of it. If ASU wins out, including a Pac-12 title game victory, it is a near certainty to earn an invitation.

What's next: The Sun Devils will try to win their sixth in a row when they play at Oregon State. Notre Dame will try to get back on track against Northwestern back in South Bend.

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