Pac-12 viewer's guide: Week 12

November, 14, 2014
Nov 14
Four teams have bye weeks and California-USC was on Thursday, so it's a lighter Saturday for the conference. Here's a rundown of the action.

12:30 p.m. PT

Washington at Arizona, FOX

[+] EnlargeShaq Thompson
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsCan converted linebacker Shaq Thompson produce enough firepower to help Washington upset No. 14 Arizona?
The Huskies' offense has finally found a pulse with Shaq Thompson at running back. The problem is that the team's once-vaunted defense seems to be running out of steam. The dismissal of cornerback Marcus Peters decimated the secondary, and now injury problems in the front seven (Hau'oli Kikaha exited early last week) have compounded issues. Washington seems vulnerable entering Tucson, and the Wildcats still have plenty to play for: If they can win out in conjunction with one more USC loss, they'll win the Pac-12 South. Those scenarios are still a bit down the road, though, so enjoy the matchup of the nation's two leaders in tackles for loss: Kikaha has 22.5, while Arizona's Scooby Wright III is right behind him at 20.5.

3:00 p.m. PT

Utah at Stanford, Pac-12 Network

The over-under number here stands at 42.5, and that's interesting because this is a matchup of the Pac-12's two most efficient defenses. Statistically, the Cardinal's body of work this year is head and shoulders above the rest of the conference (16.1 points per game, 4.1 yards per play), but Utah is second in the latter category, surrendering only 5.1 yards per play. Earlier this week, I wrote about the intriguing similarities between this 2014 Utah team and the 2012 Stanford squad that won the Rose Bowl. The Cardinal have changed since then, but like the Utes, they've seen up-and-down play from the quarterback position. Will Kevin Hogan or Travis Wilson have a better game here? The team that puts its signal-caller in better position to succeed will likely win Saturday.

7:45 p.m. PT

Arizona State at Oregon State, ESPN

The Sun Devils are riding high, and now the goal is to avoid a letdown in a spot that has some history of being conducive to them. Four top 10 teams have gone down at Reser Stadium since 2000. Oregon State is facing a world of difficulty, though: The Beavers have hit the roughest stretch of Mike Riley's tenure. They're 1-10 in their last 11 Pac-12 games, and that lone win came against Colorado, a team that's winless in conference play. While this is certainly an opportunity for Oregon State to play spoiler and bring some good vibes to a sliding season, ASU clearly has more firepower going in. The Sun Devils flashed greatness in stretches on both sides of the ball last week against Notre Dame, and they now have a chance to solidify their spot atop the Pac-12 South. Watch as Taylor Kelly continues to ease back into his comfort zone following injury.
LOS ANGELES -- Forget everything about USC's roller-coaster season so far.

Erase USC's road wins over Stanford and Arizona. Delete Arizona State’s Hail Mary and Utah’s comeback win over the Trojans.
And as hard as it may be, try to expunge the whole Josh Shaw soap opera that refuses to die.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriDespite some tumultuous turns, Steve Sarkisian's first season with USC will be a success if the Trojans can beat UCLA and Notre Dame.
Forget it all. None if it matters. All that really matters now is the next two games for USC.

The careers of coaches and legacies of players have depended upon the results of USC's games against UCLA and Notre Dame.

USC has lost to UCLA and Notre Dame in consecutive seasons for the first time in two decades and that has had more than a little to do with USC’s last two head coaches -- Lane Kiffin and Ed Orgeron -- being shown the door quicker than usual. Had Kiffin not been swept by USC's rivals in back-to-back games in 2012, he would have gotten more than five games the following season to pull USC out of a 3-2 start and if Orgeron hadn’t been swept by both teams again in 2013, he would probably be coaching USC today instead of cooking gumbo in Louisiana.

Sarkisian will not be let go if the streak extends to three years under his watch but his first season as USC’s coach will be defined by the results of the next two weeks and will also go a long way in beginning to shape his legacy at USC. If the Trojans win both games, this season would have to be considered a success even with everything else that has happened. Another sweep, however, would officially put Sarkisian on the hot seat, as crazy as that may sound, after just one season at Troy and give new life to the "Seven-Win Sark" nickname he earned after three consecutive 7-6 seasons at Washington.

Heading into USC’s final two games of the regular season against UCLA and Notre Dame, Sarkisian is thinking more about November than simply the last two games of the month.

“We’re 2-0 in November,” Sarkisian said after USC’s 38-30 win over Cal on Thursday. “We’ve stated all along the goal is to be 4-0 in November and see what happens and so far we’re on track.”

It was a clean slate type of mentality Sarkisian took on and presented to the team after USC lost to Utah on Oct. 25 and was sitting at 5-3. Despite still dealing with sanctions there was a sense within the program coming into this season that they could be a dark-horse playoff contender and when you look at the Trojans’ losses this season that wasn’t as crazy as it may now sound.

They led Arizona State 34-25 with 2:45 left at the Coliseum before giving up two touchdowns, including a game-winning Hail Mary with no time left. They led Utah 21-17 with less than 10 seconds left before Utah scored a game-winning touchdown. It was a game they could have sealed had Nelson Agholor not stepped out of bounds one yard short of the first down marker on fourth down with about two minutes left in the game. And even the Boston College game, which is roundly chalked up as their one resounding defeat of the season, is one in which they led 17-6 in the first half and were within a touchdown of winning in the final minutes.

Then again, these are the kinds of games contending teams find a way to win and the kinds of games the average to good teams simply look back and wonder what could have been.

Despite three losses, USC still has a chance of winning the Pac-12 South and playing Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game. They’re going to need some help but first they have to help themselves and beat UCLA.

“When we got to this stretch and we were looking at November and looking at our schedule, the goal is to go 4-0,” Sarkisian said. “We’ve got to 2-0 with two really good wins and UCLA is the next game on the schedule. We can’t get to 4-0 until we get to 3-0. We are fortunate that we have extra time to prepare, get fresh and put together a really good game plan in all three phases and go play a really good football team and see what happens.”

With UCLA having a bye this week and USC playing on Thursday, both teams will have ample time to get ready for rivalry week. USC fans even got a head start, defacing UCLA’s Bruin bear statue on campus Thursday, spray painting, “SC Runs LA” on the side. But if UCLA wins for the third year in a row, nothing would be further from the truth.

“I have been part of this game so many times,” Sarkisian said. “I love this rivalry. I think it’s a uniquely special one in college football. It divides households. I have two older sisters who graduated from UCLA, so I have to keep one eye on them all week too. This is what college football is about. You get to late November, you are playing rivalry games and this is a game that matters in our conference standings. This is bigger than just playing UCLA, this is a factor in first place in our conference potentially.”

If USC beats UCLA, not only will it snap UCLA’s two-game winning streak in the rivalry, it will give the Trojans a fighting chance of playing in their first Pac-12 championship game. If the Trojans win they would also need Arizona to beat Washington, Utah and Arizona State to punch their ticket to the title game.

“We don’t control our own destiny now but we control what we can control,” QB Cody Kessler said. “We need a couple games to go our way but if we don’t handle our business none if it even matters so our main focus is handling UCLA.”

Like Sarkisian, most of the players at USC realize their legacies at the school will be defined by what they do against UCLA and Notre Dame and that starts next week at the Rose Bowl.

“It’s a big game, you never want to lose to your rival even if it’s just one year in a row,” Kessler said. “It’s something we’re going to take personal. It’s a personal game.”
The College Football Playoff committee has delivered one message loud and clear through the first three weeks of its rankings: Strength of schedule matters. Teams like Baylor are not being rewarded for racking up big wins against a weak nonconference slate. Will that affect how Pac-12 teams schedule in the future? With that in mind, let's take a look at how the 2015 nonconference schedules are looking for teams that figure to be contenders for a playoff spot next year:

Arizona Wildcats
2015 nonconference opponents: vs. UTSA, at Nevada, vs. Northern Arizona

It's the same schedule the Wildcats played this season, except Northern Arizona replaces UNLV and the locations are flipped for the other two. There's not much ambition here and you won't find a Power 5 nonconference opponent on any of Arizona's current future schedules until Mississippi State in 2022.

Arizona State Sun Devils
2015 nonconference opponents: vs. Texas A&M (NRG Stadium, Houston), vs. Cal Poly, vs. New Mexico

Arizona State should be praised for making a point to schedule at least one high-profile nonconference game a season. Its game against Texas A&M should be one of the more anticipated games in all of college football next season because of the rarity of Pac-12 vs. SEC games.

Oregon Ducks
2015 nonconference opponents: vs. Eastern Washington, at Michigan State, vs. Georgia State

The Ducks will almost certainly be adjusting to life without Marcus Mariota. The opener against Eastern Washington can't be described as a traditional cupcake -- the high-powered Eagles pushed Washington to brink this season. But that's certainly a game the Ducks should win ahead of a very challenging trip to East Lansing.

Stanford Cardinal
2015 nonconference opponents: at Northwestern, vs. UCF, vs. Notre Dame

The Cardinal look to have one of the most difficult nonconference slates in the country next season. Northwestern isn't having a good 2014, but UCF and Notre Dame both have winning records this season. Stanford gets the latter two at home -- the Fighting Irish visit at the end of the season.

UCLA Bruins
2015 nonconference opponents: vs. Virginia, at UNLV, vs. BYU

Nothing here really moves the needle, but it's always refreshing to see a Power 5 team schedule all FBS opponents. The Bruins begin life without Brett Hundley at home against Virginia, which gave them trouble this season.

USC Trojans
2015 nonconference opponents: vs. Arkansas State, vs. Idaho, at Notre Dame

As far as USC schedules go, this is about as boring as it gets. The Trojans' yearly game with the Irish locks them in with at least one solid nonconference game, but we'll have to wait until 2016 -- when Alabama is on the schedule -- to get really excited.

Utah Utes
2015 nonconference opponents: vs. Michigan, vs. Utah State, at Fresno State

Well done, Utah. Well done. A traditional power (Michigan), an in-state rivalry (Utah State) and a road game against a program that is usually one of the best Group of 5 teams in the country (Fresno State). Scheduling like this is how a team gets taken seriously.

Washington Huskies
2015 nonconference opponents: at Boise State, vs. Sacramento State, vs. Utah State

Heading to the blue turf is never easy, but hosting FCS opponent Sacramento State almost always is. The Huskies will then host a respectable Utah State program at home. Washington sputtered in nonconference play this season but ultimately eked out wins. They hope for a more auspicious 2015 start.

Pac-12's top recruiting visits 

November, 14, 2014
Nov 14
With only three Pac-12 games on Saturday, this could be the lightest visitor weekend between now and signing day. In fact, it could be a weekend without a single official visitor hitting a Pac-12 campus. But that doesn’t mean Pac-12 fans won’t have anything to keep an eye on this weekend. A number of conference targets are headed out on trips and we take a look at a few names to watch.

[+] EnlargeJohn Houston Jr.
Tom Hauck for Student SportsJohn Houston Jr., who visits Miami this weekend, has already visited Oregon and heads to USC for a visit soon.
LB John Houston and DT Rasheem Green -- The ESPN 300 teammates are taking official visit to Miami this weekend, which might be the only program capable of luring either standout defender away from the Pac-12. Both visited Oregon earlier in this season and Houston will take his official visit to Arizona State next weekend. Green remains a high priority for Stanford, UCLA and USC as well, and said he will use official visits to both Los Angeles programs. Houston said UCLA hasn’t been in contact recently, but he will take an official visit to USC for its game against Notre Dame.

ATH Ykili Ross -- The nation’s No. 281 prospect will take his first official visit -- to Notre Dame -- this weekend. Ross recently unveiled his top 12 programs and the Pac-12 is heavily represented, with Arizona, Arizona State, Cal, Oregon, Oregon State, USC, Utah and Washington all making the cut. While Ross appears to be leaning toward USC, a great official visit to Notre Dame has changed things in a hurry for Southern California athletes before. Ross has also said he will take an official visit to USC after his season is over.

QB Devon Modster -- Arizona missed out on quarterbacks in the 2015 class and lost an early commitment from 2016 ESPN 300 signal-caller Shea Patterson, but the Wildcats threw their hat back in the ring by extending Modster his first offer two months ago. It’s likely only a matter of time before more schools jump into the mix, but Modster will be in Arizona this weekend, checking out both the Wildcats and Sun Devils.
From hero to liar to forgotten man: that's Josh Shaw's life from August until now.

The USC cornerback and team captain only has himself to blame for his predicament. He was the one who made up a feel-good story to explain his injured ankles. He was the one who initially hid it from his parents. He was the one who lied to Steve Sarkisian's face when the USC coach asked if he was telling the truth.

Shaw paid the price, suffering physical pain but much more mental anguish as he watched USC play its first 10 games, including Thursday night's home win against Cal. Three months later, it's fair to ask: Does he deserve a second chance? More on that in a bit.

The forgotten man is finally speaking about what happened, telling the Los Angeles Times' Bill Plaschke that he "hit the bottom" after details of The Lie came to light. Shaw explained that after an altercation with his longtime girlfriend, Angela Chilton, which he insists never became physical, he panicked when he saw police pull up to his building, thinking that she had called them.
"If she did say anything, I'm a black man with dreadlocks, and with everything going on in the country at the time, all that stuff in St. Louis [Ferguson, Mo.] … in my mind, I'm going to leap from the balcony so authorities did not see me."

That's how Shaw hurt himself (though not as bad as he initially thought). But he needed to come up with a better explanation for the injuries than the truth. So he made up the story about rescuing his 7-year-old nephew from drowning.

Shaw tells Plaschke that he thought the lie would hold up and, more important, could live only inside Heritage Hall. When USC's sports information department decided, understandably, to put out a news item explaining the reason for Shaw's injury, it once again gave Shaw the chance to recant. He didn't.

You know the rest: story went viral, Shaw lied to Sarkisian, questions remained from school officials and, eventually, Shaw came clean.
"It gets harder and harder to keep up with lie after lie after lie … the timeline wasn't right ... everything was off ... but I was still lying," Shaw said. "I thought I was in way too deep."

Shaw has stayed away from team activities ever since, even though Sarkisian said in September that he would be welcomed back to the team (Shaw appeared on Thursday's game program, which was printed before the season). He is medically cleared but remains sidelined as school and police investigate the situation. After a police report is filed, USC will conduct its own investigation.

USC has three games left, including the regular-season finale against Notre Dame at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Time is running out, but should Shaw be allowed to suit up one more time for the Trojans?

Yes. But only if what he said about The Lie -- namely that he never became violent with Chilton -- is proven true. The two "adamantly deny" that the argument became physical still live together in the apartment where the incident occurred.

Shaw sounds like a good guy who did a bad, stupid thing by repeatedly lying, and has suffered for it. But he had a strong track record before the incident. He appears remorseful in Plaschke's piece.

There are far worse characters in college football than Josh Shaw, ones who continue to play every Saturday. Second chances are rewarded to athletes who commit more egregious offenses.

So if things check out with the investigations, Shaw should return to the field before the season is done.

Florida State the new Quarterback U?

Whatever you think of Jameis Winston, the Florida State quarterback will leave a production void when he leaves Tallahassee, likely after this season. But the Seminoles are well prepared for life after Jameis. They received a verbal commitment Thursday from quarterback recruit Malik Henry, the top prospect in the 2016 class. Florida State already has commitments from two ESPN 300 quarterbacks in the 2015 class, Deondre Francois and De'Andre Johnson. Like Winston, Henry also intends to play baseball at Florida State and said he's fine with the inevitable comparisons to Winston.

Florida State has a storied tradition at several position groups, but the Seminoles are building quite the pipeline under center through recruiting.

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Pac-12 morning links

November, 14, 2014
Nov 14
Happy Friday!

Leading off

#Pac12AfterDark almost made an appearance last night ... almost. While the California Golden Bears were able to mount a late semi-comeback against the Trojans, it wasn't enough as USC prevailed 38-30 behind a big night from quarterback Cody Kessler and wide receiver Nelson Agholor.

Kessler tossed four touchdowns and an interception on 31-of-42 passing for 370 yards. Agholor hauled in 16 balls for 214 yards and two touchdowns, becoming the first USC player to ever record back-to-back 200-yard receiving games.

Cal made a late charge with a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns. Quarterback Jared Goff was 29-of-46 for 279 yards with three scores. A failed onside kick attempt after Cal cut it to one possession turned out to be the difference.

You might have noticed more than a few flags on the field during the course of the game. USC coach Steve Sarkisian addressed that ... sort of ...

Here are a few recaps from the game: Getting picky

The Pac-12 blog is off to a good start with its picks this week. All five of us picked the Trojans to win at home. In fact, the only game we differ on is the Stanford-Utah game, with unanimous picks across the board for the other games. As we do every Friday, here are some picks from national writers and folks who cover the conference: News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

If you were at the game last night and wondering why Josh Shaw was on the cover of the gameday guide, here's why.

If you're in LA on Sunday and looking to kill time, hang out with Brett Hundley for a good cause.
The USC Trojans led the California Golden Bears wire to wire in a 38-30 win, building a 31-9 halftime lead and never looking back. But it was, after all, #Pac12AfterDark, and the Bears made a game of it, coming up short on a late onside kick. Here’s how things went down at the Coliseum.

How the game was won: USC wide receiver Nelson Agholor woke up this morning and remembered he was playing Cal. You might remember him returning a pair of punts for touchdowns against the Bears in 2013. He had another huge game Thursday night, but ultimately, it came down to USC recovering an onside kick and running out the clock after Cal made it a one-possession game with 1:36 to play.

Game ball goes to: The aforementioned Agholor. He caught eight balls for 120 yards and a touchdown. Oh, that was just the first quarter! He finished with 16 catches for 216 yards and a pair of touchdowns while becoming the first USC receiver to ever record back-to-back 200-yard receiving games. Of course, you can’t mention a big receiving night without tipping your cap to the QB. Cody Kessler threw four touchdowns and an interception on 31-of-42 passing for 371 yards.

What it means: The Trojans keep pace with Arizona State, UCLA and Arizona in the Pac-12 title race -- though the Trojans need a little help. Click here to see all of the South Division scenarios. Cal, which has lost four of its last five, needs to find a win against either Stanford or BYU if it wants to get the postseason.

Best play: While the night belonged to Agholor from a receiving perspective, here's a pretty good pitch and catch from Kessler to George Farmer on a 32-yard strike to put USC ahead 14-0.

video What's next: Rivalry games for both. The Trojans will be at the Rose Bowl to face UCLA on Nov. 22 in an elimination game in the Pac-12 South. The winner still has a shot at the division; the loser is out. For the Bears, they host Stanford in the Big Game with the winner possibly locking up bowl eligibility (pending the outcome of Stanford-Utah this weekend). It's been a few years since that game has had that much significance.

ASU WR Jaelen Strong's NFL potential

November, 13, 2014
Nov 13

Todd McShay looks at Jaelen Strong's draft stock and says the Arizona State wide receiver is starting to remind him of a former South Carolina receiver.

A 6-Pac of questions: Week 12

November, 13, 2014
Nov 13
Every Thursday two of our writers sit down and toss around a 6-Pac of questions surrounding Pac-12 football. Today, Kevin Gemmell and Kyle Bonagura take aim at six pressing questions:

If you were building a team from scratch, which Pac-12 player (non-QB) would you start with?

Kevin Gemmell /@Kevin_Gemmell: I've always believed you build your team by 1) protecting your quarterback and 2) getting to the other guy's quarterback. So with that in mind, and an unwavering belief that defense wins championships, Washington's Hau'oli Kikaha would be my choice.

Kyle Bonagura/@BonaguraESPN: I'm right there with you, but I'll go the opposite side of the ball. Stanford left tackle Andrus Peat has the potential to be a top-10 pick in the upcoming NFL draft and figures to be protecting the blind side for a lucky NFL team for years to come. Stanford's offensive line hasn't played up to its own standard this year, but Peat is not the reason.

[+] EnlargeJaelen Strong
Ric Tapia/Icon SportswireYou can always count on something crazy to happen in a game involving USC. Arizona State's Jaelen Strong provided the last-second excitement this season, to the Trojans' misfortune.
Over/under for points in Cal vs. USC?

Gemmell: Vegas has it in the low 70s. I like this to be a fairly high-scoring game, so I'm going to lean toward the over. Cal has the most productive offense the Trojans have seen all year (the Bears average 41.9 points per game), but with that said, the Trojans also lead the conference with 11 interceptions and are second in pass defense efficiency. If the Bears can continue to balance between the run and the pass, there are points to be had. USC, which averages just shy of 35 points per game, should be able to find the end zone repeatedly against a Cal defense that allows nearly 40 points per game.

Bonagura: If we're to believe USC coach Steve Sarkisian, the line could be higher than the 72 it's hovering around right now. No, Sark hasn't been commenting directly on the over/under, but according to the Los Angeles Times, he said, "We are going to play a team that, if we don't score 35, you are not in the game.” I agree. Could see as many as 90 points being scored.

Over/under for Stanford vs. Utah?

Gemmell: Vegas has this one in the mid 40s. I think -- think -- there are going to be a few field goals and unfinished drives, so I'll take the under. Both defenses are really, really good. And with all of the backfield pressure we're likely to see, a lot of drives are going to go down in flames from sacks and TFLs. Maybe there's one or two big plays. If it does go over, it won't be by much.

Bonagura: If there was ever a first-team-to-score-wins game, this would be it. Seriously though, I'd be surprised if they cracked 30. A 17-10 game feels about right.

Which is the bigger trap game for Arizona State: At Oregon State or home to Washington State?

Gemmell: WSU has one of the best wide receiving corps in the conference. And since Luke Falk has shown to be a capable quarterback, that can be dangerous. Corvallis has historically been a black hole for teams heading into the postseason, but the Cougs have the potential to put up lots of points and ASU hasn't broken the 40-point barrier against a conference opponent this year. I see the Sun Devils winning both. But the Cougs could make things slippery.

Bonagura: This whole agreeing thing doesn't make for a lively debate, but, yeah, it has to be Wazzu based on what we saw last week when the Cougars won at Oregon State, 39-32. When the WSU offense is clicking -- and it was with new QB Luke Falk -- it makes the Cougars a team capable of beating just about anyone. There's no reason not to expect ASU to win, but between WSU and Oregon State, the Cougars are more dangerous.

What do you make of all the Pac-12 love from the Playoff Selection Committee?

Gemmell: I think it's warranted. The Ducks are 3-0 against ranked opponents this year and the one team they lost to is now ranked in the top 15. The Sun Devils are 4-1 against ranked teams and their only loss came to the Bruins -- who are currently ranked 11th. No shame in either of those losses and much respect for the wins. The natural fear is that the Pac-12 will vomit on itself in the final three weeks. We've seen it before. But based on the resumes, both teams deserve to be where they are ranked for now.

Bonagura: I have to admit, I was shocked that Oregon jumped Florida State. Not because I think Florida State would win on a neutral field -- I don't -- but because it goes against everything we've come to expect with how college football teams are ranked. That said, everything else looked about right. The five Pac-12 teams that are ranked went a combined 15-0 in noncoference play. While some of those wins didn't do much for the eye test, there isn't much tangible data that says the Pac-12 love isn't justified.

What's the best game you've seen in person this year?

Gemmell: The Jael Mary. I rooked it and started writing halfway through the fourth quarter -- knowing full well that once I did that, something crazy would happen. Sure enough, ASU cut it to 27-25. After USC went up 34-25 with three minutes left, I started writing again. Silly Kevin. Because ASU cut it to 34-32. That's when I hit Ctrl-A, delete, and just enjoyed one of the best finishes in college football this season (apologies if the Instant Analysis was a few minutes late). That one ranks as one of the best games I've ever covered live. Interestingly enough, the Trojans were part of a couple more on my "All-Exciting” list -- the USC-Texas national Championship game and the USC-Stanford triple-overtime in 2011. So the moral of the story is USC probably should just stop credentialing me all together.

Bonagura: Mine doesn't stack up with that, but UCLA's 36-34 win at Cal -- its first win in Berkeley since 1998 -- scored well on the entertainment-value meter. There were four lead changes in the final 18 minutes, the last being UCLA kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn's 26-yard field goal with 3:40 left to provide the winning margin. Cal had a chance to move into field-goal range to retake the lead, but QB Jared Goff was intercepted by Marcus Rios at the UCLA 2-yard line with less than a minute left. Will that play cost Cal a bowl?
2011-2012: The days of Northern rule

In the first three seasons after the conference's expansion to 12 teams, the Pac-12 North ruled the league. Oregon's annual November matchup with Stanford went further toward determining the league champion than the official Pac-12 championship game held a week later.

This was most apparent in 2011, the first year of the two-division, title-game format. USC, still on postseason probation that season, had the firepower to give the Cardinal and Ducks all they could handle (they took Stanford to triple overtime and beat Oregon at Autzen Stadium). But the Trojans' postseason absence took any true bite out of the South: The rest of the division was puny, and its top qualifying option for the title game was 6-6 UCLA -- a team that had already fired its head coach in Rick Neuheisel.

When the Bruins visited Eugene for all the marbles in December that season, the game was mocked as more of a ritual sacrifice on the path to Oregon Rose Bowl glory than a legitimate championship game.

In 2012, the Pac-12 South hadn't gained much tangible ground. USC was back from its probation, but the Trojans were a significantly worse team than they were the year prior. No team from the South finished the season in the AP's Top 25 rankings (three clubs from the North did), and UCLA again packed its bags for the conference title game. This time, it came against Stanford and was more competitive (27-24) than a year prior, but the closeness may have been attributed to the fact the two teams had played just six days prior (the Cardinal drubbed the Bruins 35-17 in that one).

Simply put, very little indicated the Pac-12 South was catching up to its Northern brethren. The North owned a 17-9 record in head-to-head matchups with the South in 2011 and a 16-9 mark in 2012. Four teams from the North finished with better records than the South's title-game representative in 2011, and that number only decreased to three -- still indicative of a staggering amount of imbalance -- in 2012. The heavyweights commanded this conference, and they resided in Eugene and Palo Alto.

2013: Subtle indications of a shift

The first signs of a power tilt came last season, and that initial shift has turned into a full Pac-12 South surge here in 2014. For the first time in the Pac-12's short history, the South finished the season with as many ranked teams as the North in 2013. The rise of Arizona State, the continued improvement of UCLA, and the post-Lane Kiffin resurgence of USC gave the South three 10-win teams last year, beating the North's final tally of two (Oregon and Stanford, the usual suspects).

In terms of overall record, the North's once-wide head-to-head edge was cut to just one game, 13-12. The stage was set for a Pac-12 South statement in the Pac-12 championship game, but Stanford put those thoughts on hold when they waltzed into Sun Devil Stadium and whipped Arizona State, 38-14.

The Pac-12 North was still king, but not for long.

2014: The cataclysmic change

[+] EnlargeAnu Solomon
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriArizona freshman QB Anu Solomon should help the Pac-12 South keep trending up in future seasons.
Oregon may well successfully wave the North's flag again this year -- in fact, they're favored to again win the Pac-12 title -- but, outside of Marcus Mariota's empire in Eugene, there isn't much to write home about in the division. The South, meanwhile, has seen surges from Arizona and Utah this season to enjoy unprecedented parity. Five teams have been legitimate contenders in that division this season, all while the North has completely melted away outside of Oregon.

The Ducks have clinched the Pac-12 North with two games -- more than 20 percent of the schedule -- still remaining. Stanford, suffering through its worst season this decade, is in a fight just to become bowl eligible. Washington, which won nine games last year, has struggled to replace the firepower Keith Price and Bishop Sankey brought to the offense. Oregon State, a formidable nine-win component just two years ago, is 1-10 in its last 11 conference games. Washington State has regressed to 3-7 following a year of bowl eligibility, while California has lifted itself out of the doldrums but is still hindered by the Pac-12's worst defense.

It's all added up to this: For the first time since the conference's expansion, the Pac-12 South has a winning record over the North. It stands at 11-6 right now. Stanford, the North's second-place team, has a 5-4 overall record that would be good for sixth-best in the South, better than only bottom feeder Colorado -- and it should be noted that the Buffs are showing progress, too.

This nugget is perhaps the most staggering of all: No Pac-12 North team except for Oregon has beaten a ranked opponent in 2014.

2015 and beyond: Projecting the future

Of course, numerous variables will determine the balance moving forward. But the South looks like it'll remain strong. USC's recruiting remains excellent, and the last remnants of NCAA sanctions will soon wear off. Graham has shown to be a reliable winner at ASU (the Sun Devils have won 13 of their past 15 conference games), while in-state rival Arizona is succeeding with freshmen Anu Solomon and Nick Wilson at key positions. Utah seems to have finally rediscovered its rugged identity after a rough transition to the Pac-12, and UCLA has the talent and recruiting punch to remain formidable.

Oregon will have to successfully absorb Mariota's loss, or else the Pac-12 North will be in big trouble. Stanford's prospects are a big question mark at this point, and it's unclear if Chris Petersen will have the firepower necessary to immediately improve Washington. Cal's rise is promising, but the struggles of Oregon State and Washington State are both disconcerting for the division that once ruled the Pac-12.

Only time will tell what ultimately happens, but the South has the definite overall upper hand now.
(For link to scenarios updated on Nov. 16, click here.) With three weeks left in the regular season, it’s time to take a look at some of the possible scenarios in what is still a very-much jumbled Pac-12 South.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: if Arizona State (5-1 Pac-12) wins out, it will play Oregon on Dec. 5 in the Pac-12 championship at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. The Ducks clinched the North on Saturday, and the Sun Devils are the only remaining one-loss team in the South. That potential meeting would likely amount to a quarterfinal game in the College Football Playoff.

However, if ASU slips up along the way, Arizona, UCLA and USC all have plausible ways to win the division, and even Utah isn’t mathematically eliminated.

In the case of a two-team tie, the tiebreaker is head-to-head. That part is probably understood, but where things get hazy is when there are three or more teams tied. For that we turn things over the official rulebook:
Multiple-Team Ties.

In the event of a tie for a division championship between more than two teams, the following procedure shall be used to eliminate all but two tied teams, at which point the two-team tie-breaking procedure shall be used.

A. Head-to-head (best record in games among the tied teams).
B. Record within the division
C. Record against the next highest placed team in the division (based on record in all games played within the Conference), proceeding through the division.
D. Record in common Conference games.
E. Highest ranking in the College Football Playoff poll entering the final weekend of regular-season games.

Here's where the contenders stand entering this week:

No. 6 Arizona State
Pac-12 record: 5-1
Pac-12 South record: 3-1
Wins: Colorado, USC, Stanford, Washington, Utah
Loss: UCLA
Remaining games: at Oregon State, Washington State, at No. 14 Arizona

No. 11 UCLA
Pac-12 record: 5-2
Pac-12 South record: 3-1
Wins: No. 6 Arizona State, Cal, Colorado, No. 14 Arizona, Washington
Losses: No. 23 Utah, No. 2 Oregon
Remaining games: USC, Stanford

Pac-12 record: 5-2
Pac-12 South record: 2-2
Wins: Stanford, Oregon State, No. 14 Arizona, Colorado, Washington State
Losses: No. 6 Arizona State, No. 23 Utah
Remaining games: Cal, at No. 11 UCLA

No. 14 Arizona
Pac-12 record: 4-2
Pac-12 South record: 1-2
Wins: Cal, No. 2 Oregon, Washington State, Colorado
Losses: USC, No. 11 UCLA
Remaining games: Washington, at No. 23 Utah, No. 6 Arizona State

No. 23 Utah
Pac-12 record: 3-3
Pac-12 South record: 2-1
Wins: No. 11 UCLA, Oregon State, USC
Losses: Washington State, Arizona State, Oregon
Remaining games: at Stanford, Arizona, at Colorado


Strictly as an exercise in seeing how the tiebreakers would work in the cases of a multi-team ties, here are a few a hypothetical situations:

Hypothetical No. 1
  • ASU beats Oregon State and Washington State, but loses to Arizona to finish 7-2.
  • UCLA beats both USC and Stanford to finish 7-2.
  • Arizona beats Washington, Utah and Arizona State to finish 7-2.

Tiebreaker steps:
  1. Because UCLA was 2-0 against the group, it would win on the first tiebreaker.
Hypothetical No. 2
  • ASU beats Oregon State and Washington State, but loses to Arizona to finish 7-2.
  • USC beats both UCLA and Cal to finish 7-2.
  • Arizona beats Washington, Utah and Arizona State to finish 7-2.

Tiebreaker steps:
  1. In this case, all three would be 1-1 against each other.
  2. They would also all be 3-2 in the Pac-12 South.
  3. Record vs. the fourth-place team is next -- we'll say it is UCLA (6-3). The Bruins beat both Arizona and ASU, but lost to USC in this situation, which would make the Trojans the division champion.
Hypothetical No. 3 (four-team tie)
  • ASU splits vs. Oregon State/WSU and loses Arizona to finish 6-3.
  • UCLA beats Stanford, but loses to USC to finish 6-3.
  • USC beats UCLA, but loses to Cal to finish 6-3.
  • Arizona beats ASU and Utah, but loses to Washington to finish 6-3

Tiebreaker steps:
  1. ASU would be 1-2; UCLA would be 2-1; USC would be 2-1; Arizona would be 1-2. Arizona and ASU would be eliminated leaving UCLA and USC. USC wins the division based on the head-to-head victory.
Hypothetical No. 4 (five-team tie)
  • ASU splits vs. Oregon State/WSU and loses Arizona to finish 6-3.
  • UCLA beats Stanford, but loses to USC to finish 6-3.
  • USC beats UCLA, but loses to Cal to finish 6-3.
  • Arizona beats Washington and ASU, but loses to Utah to finish 6-3
  • Utah beats Stanford, Arizona and Colorado to finish 6-3.

Tiebreaker steps:
  1. ASU would be 2-2; UCLA would be 2-2; USC would be 2-2; Utah would be 3-1; Arizona would be 1-3. The Utes would be the division champion.

Again, those examples are to show how the tiebreaker process works, not predictions.

For Arizona State to win: Win out and there is nothing to worry about, but if the Sun Devils do drop a game, it's better for it to be against WSU or Oregon State, because those are outside the division. ASU fans should be rooting against UCLA to protect against a potential tie with the Bruins, who hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.

For UCLA to win: If the Bruins win out and Arizona State loses at least once, the Bruins will win the division.

For USC to win: Hypothetical No. 2 looks like USC's best route to the division title, and since USC lost to ASU (on a Hail Mary), the Trojans need to avoid a situation where that game would be the deciding factor.

For Arizona to win: If the Wildcats win out, they would need both USC and UCLA both to lose at least once to create, at worst, a two-team tie with ASU.

For Utah to win: See Hypothetical No. 4, which is the Utes' best chance.

Questions? Hit me up on Twitter.
Oregon leapfrogged Florida State in the rankings on Tuesday, which left us wondering: If these two teams were to meet on a neutral field right now, which team would come out with the win?

ACC writer Jared Shanker says it’d be FSU. Pac-12 writer Chantel Jennings thinks it’d be the Ducks. Debate…

Jennings: OK, let’s break this down.

[+] EnlargeRoyce Freeman
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesRunning back Royce Freeman has helped Oregon average over 5 yards per carry this season.
Oregon’s offense versus FSU’s defense: I’d take the Ducks by a landslide. We’ll start up front. The Seminoles are giving up 3.5 yards per rush and that’s against teams that aren’t even in the same realm as the Ducks. FSU has faced just one top-60 rushing team (NC State). Oregon, on the other hand, has the nation’s 22nd-best rushing attack, averaging 5.4 yards per rush. Against the Florida State defense -- with Royce Freeman, Thomas Tyner and Marcus Mariota taking off when need be -- it’d be chaos. FSU would have to bring guys up to try and contain the run, which would leave gaps open downfield and guys like Devon Allen and Byron Marshall are going to make those plays for the Ducks.

Oregon defense versus FSU’s offense: This is where it gets tricky. The Ducks' defense has struggled a bit and the Seminoles have a pretty talented QB of their own. Up front, I think Oregon would be OK as FSU has only averaged 4.0 yards per rushing attempt this season (and again, that’s against a weaker schedule). The secondary might struggle a bit more. The Seminoles average 8.5 yards per pass attempt and the Ducks have only played one team (Michigan State) that is currently averaging more.

Special teams: OK, so the Seminoles might have the best kicker in the country. But guess what, he scores three points at a time and Oregon is accustomed to scoring seven points at a time. In the return game, my money is on freshman Charles Nelson. He has been so impressive, averaging 17.6 yards per punt return, including two punts returned for touchdowns. Nelson hasn’t done as well in kick returns (just 19.2 yards per return), but I’ll give the Ducks the benefit of the doubt that he’d be returning more punts than kickoffs…

At the end of the day, I think FSU would be able to score against Oregon, but not as much as the Ducks would score on the ‘Noles. It wouldn’t be a blowout by any means, but a 7-10 point win would be what I’d put my money on.

Shanker: Everyone loves to quote the adage “defense wins championships” but nobody ever wants to apply it -- at least when it comes to the Ducks, with their turf acrobatics and kooky uniform combinations. Once again we’re blinded by the Oregon offense -- or maybe it’s the helmets.

[+] EnlargeMario Edwards Jr.
AP Photo/Steve CannonMario Edwards Jr. and the Florida State defense have shined in the second half of games this season.
But what happens to Oregon in low-scoring games, which championship games tend to be (the past six title games have averaged a total of 46.5 points)? The last time Oregon won a game in which it didn’t score 30 points was 2010. Since then, the Ducks have lost all six games in which they didn’t reach the 30-point plateau.

I’ll get to that Winston guy in a second, but I want to talk about the Florida State defense first. Yes, the FSU defense that ranks 50th in total defense.

The Florida State defense is not what it was a season ago. Nobody would argue that. However, it has the type of talent along the defensive front that has historically caused Oregon problems.

Mario Edwards Jr. was dominant against the spread last January. Few defensive tackles are playing better than Eddie Goldman. Those two defensive stalwarts are built to frustrate spread attacks.

Oregon is ranked 106th in total defense. Worse, the Ducks are ranked 125th in allowing passing plays that gain 10-plus yards, and Florida State has Jameis Winston, who has keyed FSU’s season. The Seminoles average 12 pass plays of at least 10 yards per game, good for ninth nationally.

And when this game is close in the fourth quarter, the smart money is on Winston. He’s been the best crunch-time quarterback, and there’s anecdotal and statistical evidence to support that. His QBR is 90.3 when trailing in the second half.

Faced with stopping the Arizona offense in the second half of a close game, Oregon allowed three touchdown drives of at least 80 yards.

Take away Oklahoma State’s 21-point second half in the opener, and Florida State is allowing just 9.3 points in the second half against FBS teams this season.

Those are the marks of a team that is resilient, which is synonymous with unimpressive, at least when talking about Florida State. The adjective is normally applied to only Oregon, which has rebounded so strongly from the adversity of losing … and winners of low-scoring SEC games (this fulfills the requisite SEC jab).

So, if these two ever met on a neutral field, give me the Seminoles.

Cody Kessler quietly becomes star QB

November, 13, 2014
Nov 13
LOS ANGELES -- Since the turn of the millennium, there has been no more celebrated spot in college football than quarterback at USC. It's produced two Heisman Trophy winners and household names pretty much every year, even after the NCAA kicked its jackboot through the front door of Heritage Hall. If you are a college football fan of just about any stripe, you know who the USC quarterback is.

So... who is the USC quarterback?

Most Pac-12 fans, after perhaps a short pause, went, "I know this... Kessler... Oh, Cody Kessler!" Just about everyone else drew a blank.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillUSC quarterback Cody Kessler has been able to celebrate 25 touchdown passes this season.
And yet Kessler is turning in a season that pretty much matches -- at least statistically -- the best of the USC QBs, and his name is replacing many of them in the Trojans record book.

Kessler has completed 69.7 percent of his throws while averaging 283 yards per game, with 25 TDs and just two interceptions. He is fourth nationally in both completion percentage and passing efficiency (168.2), and that efficiency number is on pace to break Mark Sanchez's season record of 164.6 set in 2008. Kessler ranks ninth in the nation in ESPN's Total QBR.

Against Power 5 opponents, his passing efficiency (164.7) is second best in the nation, his completion percentage (70.0 percent) is third and his passing TDs (21) are fourth. No quarterback in the nation has thrown as many passes as Kessler and had only two interceptions, and only one besides Kessler has thrown at least 25 TDs with just two interceptions.

Of course, ahead of Kessler in most measures and casting a long shadow is Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, a frontrunner for the Heisman. That isn't surprising. But it is surprising that in the Pac-12, owner the nation's deepest and most talented class of quarterbacks, it is Kessler who leads the race for second-team All-Pac-12 and not, say, UCLA's Brett Hundley or Arizona State's Taylor Kelly.

Kessler's season has not gone unnoticed, as he is one of five finalists for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, presented to the nation's top senior or fourth-year junior quarterback, along with Mariota and Hundley.

It also should be noted his numbers shouldn't be surprising as he quietly finished the 2013 season on a notable uptick, particularly after Lane Kiffin was fired. After throwing two interceptions at Arizona State last Sept. 28 -- Kiffin was fired at LAX the same night -- Kessler threw 14 touchdown passes and just three interceptions in the final nine games, and just one pick in the final five.

"If you look at the second half of last season, I think Cody really came on with his game," first-year USC coach Steve Sarkisian said. "It just continued to build on that momentum. No. 1 is his confidence, his belief in himself and the guys around him. No. 2, we were implementing a new scheme that fits his skill set. He's been making really good decisions with the football."

This season, Kessler threw a school-record seven touchdown passes against Colorado last month and followed up earlier this month with five against Washington State while reaching 400 yards for the first time in his career.

"He doesn't take any chances, that's the biggest thing," Washington State coach Mike Leach said. "They do a lot of things to make sure he's successful out there."

Leach has seen two Kesslers. In 2013, Kessler went 8 of 13 for 41 yards with an interception in a Cougars upset at USC, a notable nail in Kiffin's coffin. It has been noted frequently that Kiffin seemed to prefer big-armed Max Wittek in USC's 2013 QB competition, even though Kessler had decisively outplayed him as Matt Barkley's backup and during their spring and preseason battle. Nonetheless, Kessler has refused to take shots at Kiffin, who seemed reluctant to let Kessler throw the ball downfield, despite a talented crew of receivers.

“We had a good relationship that last year. He obviously gave me the job after a while," Kessler said of Kiffin. “[But], at times, I felt like I could do more and I wasn’t allowed to do more.”

Kessler was freed up when Clay Helton took over play-calling last season and has thrived with Sarkisian calling the Trojans' new up-tempo offense, with Helton remaining as QB coach.

Said Kessler, “I’ve really, really taken the next step with Coach Helton and Coach Sark, studying a lot more film throughout the week, knowing my opponent, knowing what look we’re going to get when we line up in what formation, knowing where I’m going with the ball each and every play.”

While Kessler's numbers have been outstanding, the ultimate measure of all USC quarterbacks is winning championships. At the very least, they need to beat UCLA and Notre Dame.

The junior almost certainly will have to wait until next year to make a run at the Pac-12 title. After a date with California on Thursday, he faces the Bruins and Fighting Irish over the next two weekends.

Here's a guess that if he beats both of them, his Q rating will go up considerably in Los Angeles and across the country.

Kickoff Show: Week 12 (1 ET)

November, 13, 2014
Nov 13
Join reporters Edward Aschoff, Heather Dinich, Adam Rittenberg and host Chantel Jennings as they meet up to talk about the shake-up in the College Football Playoff selection committee's latest rankings and the huge contests set for Week 12. They'll also take your questions.

Pac-12 Week 12 predictions

November, 13, 2014
Nov 13

Why Stanford will win: The strength of this Cardinal team is its defense, and with a one-dimensional offense like Utah coming in, Stanford will be able to take care of business. Now, don't expect some high-scoring affair, but the home team will have more points than the away team, which in the #Pac12AfterDark is pretty darn surprising. -- Chantel Jennings

Why Utah will win: Lesser defenses have stopped the Cardinal this season, and Utah doesn’t have a lesser defense. Logic says this will be a tight, low-scoring game. Utah is first nationally in sacks and second in tackles for a loss. Both defenses are great. Neither offense is outstanding. If it’s a three-point game in either direction, I don’t think anyone will be surprised. But the Utes have done a better job turning drives into points. That’s why I’m hesitantly leaning toward Utah. -- Kevin Gemmell

Unanimous picks

Arizona State over Oregon State: The Sun Devils are the better team. Yes, Oregon State has done its fair share of title-run ruining in recent memory, but it's not going to happen this season. The Beavers have too many injuries, and ASU is too strong. -- Chantel Jennings

USC over Cal: Both teams have something to play for -- USC the division title and Cal bowl eligibility -- but the Trojans are the more complete team. Factor in Cal's prolonged lack of success against the Trojans and it's hard to see the Bears pulling off an upset on the road. -- Kyle Bonagura

Arizona over Washington: Thanks primarily to the running backbone that Shaq Thompson has supplied, Washington showed some improvement offensively last week. But that unit still doesn’t pack enough punch to inspire great confidence, especially when the Huskies’ defense is now limping and unable to provide suffocating support. Anu Solomon, Scooby Wright and the gang simply have more firepower, and the Wildcats will back that advantage up in a critical game for them at home. -- David Lombardi



Friday, 11/28
Saturday, 11/29