It was an atypical Championship Saturday, as chalk held serve and many of the College Football Playoff contenders won convincingly.

The College Football Playoff selection committee will reveal the four-team field for the inaugural playoff at 12:30 p.m. ET on Sunday.

Three teams -- No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Oregon and No. 4 Florida State -- seem to be locks to receive one of the four spots. The Seminoles might move up to No. 3 or they could remain at No. 4 after another close victory, 37-35, over No. 11 Georgia Tech in Saturday night’s ACC championship game in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Deciding on the fourth team figures to be a raging debate until the field is announced. Three teams -- No. 3 TCU, No. 5 Ohio State and No. 6 Baylor -- are in contention, and each of them could make a credible argument as to why it is most deserving.

It might be hard to see the Horned Frogs falling out of the top 4 after blasting overmatched Iowa State 55-3 in Saturday’s regular-season finale in the Big 12, but it wasn’t even the most impressive performance of the day.

Ohio State, which seemed to be left for dead after losing to Virginia Tech 35-21 at home in Week 2, suddenly seems very much alive in the playoff hunt after routing No. 13 Wisconsin 59-0 in Saturday night’s Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis. The Buckeyes have won 11 games in a row and keep winning despite having lost two star quarterbacks this season.

And don’t forget about Baylor, which beat the Horned Frogs 61-58 during the regular season and clinched a share of the Big 12 title (with TCU) by defeating No. 9 Kansas State 38-27 at home on Saturday night.

For now, we’ll go with the Buckeyes as the fourth team and make them the No. 4 seed, behind No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Oregon and No. 3 Florida State. Based on those seeds, the playoff bracket would look like this:

Projected bracket ESPN.com


If Baylor and TCU aren’t selected for the playoff, they’ll both undoubtedly receive invitations to one of the New Year’s Six bowl games. The same goes for Ohio State. While that might hardly seem like a consolation for not getting a chance to play for a national championship, it would be a just reward for outstanding seasons. Either the Bears or Horned Frogs figure to play in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic in Arlington, Texas, on New Year’s Day, while the other might be headed to the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl in Atlanta on New Year’s Eve.

After putting up an admirable fight against FSU in the ACC championship game, Georgia Tech is probably headed to the Capital One Orange Bowl, where the ACC’s No. 2 team is guaranteed a spot. The Yellow Jackets would probably play No. 8 Michigan State, which was the highest-ranked team from the Big Ten, SEC and Notre Dame.

No. 22 Boise State also probably locked up a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl game by defeating Fresno State 28-14 in Saturday night’s Mountain West Conference championship game. The Broncos were the highest-ranked team from the Group of 5 conferences in last week’s rankings, and it’s unlikely that will change when the committee’s final ballot is unveiled on Sunday.

No. 7 Arizona and No. 12 Ole Miss also might be in position to play in New Year’s Six bowl games, but they’ll be holding their breath until the matchups are announced on Sunday. The Wildcats didn’t put up much of a fight in a 51-13 loss to Oregon in Friday night’s Pac-12 championship game, but they still seem to be the likely No. 2 team from the Pac-12, which might be enough to earn a spot in a marquee bowl game.

Meanwhile, the Rebels might benefit from Wisconsin’s ugly shutout loss in the Big Ten title game. It was the Badgers’ worst loss since 1979 and their first shutout defeat since 1997. It’s hard to imagine Wisconsin being invited to a New Year’s Six bowl game after such a forgettable performance on such a big stage.

The Rebels figure to move up a couple of spots in the rankings, and their 31-17 victory over Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl and earlier 23-17 upset of Alabama might be enough to push them into a New Year’s Six bowl game.

Here’s what New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day could look like, based on this weekend’s results (using current selection committee rankings):

Dec. 31

12:30 p.m. ET -- Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: No. 10 Mississippi State vs. No. 3 TCU

4 p.m. ET -- VIZIO Fiesta Bowl: No. 7 Arizona vs. No. 22 Boise State

8 p.m. ET -- Capital One Orange Bowl: No. 11 Georgia Tech vs. No. 8 Michigan State

Jan. 1

12:30 p.m. ET -- Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic: No. 12 Ole Miss vs. No. 6 Baylor

5 p.m. ET -- Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual: No. 2 Oregon vs. No. 4 Florida State

8:30 p.m. ET -- Allstate Sugar Bowl: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 5 Ohio State

Pac-12 bowl projections: Week 15

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Oregon is a lock for the College Football Playoff and will find out early Sunday who it will play at the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1.

Is it Florida State and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston? TCU or Baylor? Maybe Ohio State in a traditional Big Ten vs. Pac-12 Rose Bowl? We'll see.

The bigger question for the Pac-12 is really about Arizona. Our guess is that the Wildcats' poor performance against Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game will be forgiven and they'll get a shot to stay in-state and play in the Fiesta Bowl (likely against Boise State).

If that's the case, the rest will likely play out as listed below. Foster Farms Bowl executive director Gary Cavalli has made it clear if Stanford is available for selection, the Cardinal will stay for the local game.

College Football Playoff semifinal (Rose Bowl presented by Northwestern Mutual): No. 2 Oregon
VIZIO Fiesta Bowl: No. 7 Arizona
Valero Alamo Bowl: No. 15 UCLA
National University Holiday Bowl: No. 25 USC
Foster Farms Bowl: Stanford
Hyundai Sun Bowl: No. 17 Arizona State
Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl: No. 23 Utah
Cactus Bowl: Washington
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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Oregon had a Stanford problem. And then it didn't. It had an Arizona problem. And now it doesn't after stomping the Wildcats 51-13 in the Pac-12 championship game.

The Oregon program had a Heisman Trophy problem, but that likely ends Dec. 13 when quarterback Marcus Mariota takes home the bronze statue after a brilliant season capped by his MVP performance Friday night against Arizona. His five touchdowns against the Wildcats -- two passing, three rushing -- gave him 53 for the season against just two interceptions.

The Ducks have solved problems and touched -- or will touch -- the lofty places in college football. Just about all of them. Save one: The program has never won a national title. It's finished a season ranked second -- twice. It's played for a BCS national title and fallen just short against Auburn after the 2010 season.

Now, its win over the Wildcats is certain to secure either the No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the inaugural College Football Playoff. The Ducks, ranked second in the rankings this past week, will be playing in the Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual on Jan. 1, semifinal opponent TBD on Sunday when the selection committee makes its final announcement.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsMarcus Mariota's performance against Arizona all but handed him the Heisman, which would leave Oregon with just one final frontier to conquer.
Oregon improved to 12-1 on the season and took revenge for its only blemish, a 31-24 home defeat to Arizona on Oct. 2. At the time of that defeat, more than a few folks pronounced Oregon dead and questioned the leadership of coach Mark Helfrich, who was still laboring under the shadow of former coach Chip Kelly. Helfrich and the Ducks began the process that got them to the top of the Pac-12 for the first time since 2011 by showing up on Oct. 3 ready to get back to work.

"The next day, every single guy in our program was on the practice field 25 minutes before they had to be fixing it," Helfrich said. "It wasn't, 'Hey, you screwed this up. You did this wrong.' It's, 'How do we get better?'"

Oh, Oregon got better. A lot better. Since that loss, the Ducks are 8-0 with an average winning margin of 26.0 points per game. They have scored at least 40 points in eight straight games and gained at least 500 yards in seven straight. Both are the longest active streaks in the FBS, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Mariota and the Ducks offense started slowly and didn't really get in sync until the second half, but the defense made things easy, as it dominated the Wildcats, who had just 25 total yards and two first downs at halftime. When the offense caught up, it was lights-out.

And Mariota's final numbers were Heisman-esque. He completed 25 of 38 passes for 313 yards. For the season, he has 3,783 passing yards and 669 rushing yards.

"If this guy isn't what the Heisman Trophy is about, I'm in the wrong profession," Helfrich said.

For Arizona, it was just an ugly night, one that might knock it out of a major bowl. To cut to the chase, nothing worked. The Wildcats scored their first touchdown on a 69-yard strike against broken coverage to make it 30-7 and added a second tally on the game's final play.

"They played well and we didn't," coach Rich Rodriguez said. "They outcoached us and outplayed us."

Oregon appears to be peaking at the right time. After battling injuries all year, it's got three weeks to get healthy, starting with center Hroniss Grasu.

The only place Oregon hasn't reached is No. 1. The Ducks have positioned themselves to obtain that elusive prize. The question now is: Can they finish?


SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The box score Saturday morning will show that No. 2 Oregon won the Pacific-12 Conference championship game by embarrassing No. 7 Arizona 51-13. It will tell the early-to-bed reader that Oregon gained 627 yards of total offense and that quarterback Marcus Mariota threw for two touchdowns and ran for three. If he had an ounce of showdog in him, Mariota would have struck a Heisman pose before he left the wet Levi's Stadium grass.

[+] EnlargeRoyce Freeman, Jared Tevis
AP Photo/Ben MargotOregon's Royce Freeman evaded Arizona's Jared Tevis during a first half in which the Ducks struggled to get going.
If you didn't see the game, you would surmise the Ducks dominated a top-10 team on their way to coach Mark Helfrich's first conference championship, a 12-1 record and an all-but-official invitation to the Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual semifinal of the first College Football Playoff.

All of that is true, as far as it goes. But the truth is, Oregon needed nearly the entire first half to figure out how to get out of its own way. The statistics won't show how the Ducks overcame their early offensive mistakes (10 first-half penalties!) and the rain-slick conditions.

"Offensively, we were a little bit tight," said Helfrich, the second-year coach. "A bunch of guys that were trying to make it 42-0 on two plays, and that's very difficult."

Oregon might have wanted to play well because of the stakes, or to avenge Arizona's 31-24 victory on Oct. 2.

"We had a lot of motivation going into this game," Mariota said. He added later, "I think, overall, the feelings and emotions of the game kind of got to us a little bit."

Pacific-12 Conference commissioner Larry Scott on Friday hailed the College Football Playoff as a vast improvement over the old poll-and-computer-driven system. Speaking before the conference championship game, Scott pointed out that the selection committee, unlike the voting coaches and media members, actually watches the games.

For a while there, the entire Pac-12 had to hope the selection committee switched over to the MAC championship, or "Shark Tank" or "A Very Grammy Christmas" -- anything but the exhibition staged before 45,618 on a drizzling, misting night.

"I was pounding the table up in the box," Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost said. "Honestly, we should have had a bigger lead earlier. I give a ton of credit to them. If you watch tape of them in the red zone, their defense is really good."

But once the Ducks settled down, they made quick work of the Wildcats. The Mariota who came out of the locker room at halftime, the one who completed all 10 of his third-quarter passes for 121 yards and two touchdowns, is the Heisman guy.

The Wildcats' defense hung in there for some time, but in the end, there's no sugarcoating the its performance. That's the worst any team has played in a meaningful postseason game since Nebraska trailed Miami 34-0 at halftime of the 2001 BCS championship game. Though they trailed only 23-0 at the half, the Wildcats might have outdone the Huskers.

The Arizona that gained at least 450 yards in nine of its 12 games didn't board the flight from Tucson, Arizona. These Wildcats produced 25 yards and two first downs in the first half.

"Well, they played well. We didn't," coach Rich Rodriguez said. Terse may be an understatement. "Outcoached us, outplayed us, did a nice job. We didn't execute well."

The fifth of six consecutive three-and-outs in the first half captured the ineptitude. It began when DaVonte' Neal ran forward to catch a short punt near midfield, smacked into a teammate and went down like he had been decleated. The offense followed with a sack and another sack. On third down, freshman quarterback Anu Solomon avoided a sack by being called for intentional grounding.

By halftime, the Wildcats had lost the game. By the second half, center Steven Gurrola had lost his cool, getting ejected for fighting. His backup, Carter Wood, appeared to lose his lunch at one point just as he snapped the ball, which pretty much summed up the Wildcats' performance.

Solomon, who has battled injuries over the past few weeks, didn't play well in the first half and didn't play at all in the second. His backup, Jesse Scroggins, threw a 69-yard touchdown in the third quarter when the Ducks secondary blew a coverage. Scroggins' backup, Jerrard Randall, ran for a 25-yard touchdown on the game's final play.

Arizona played so poorly that it may have jeopardized what appeared to be a shoo-in bid to the VIZIO Fiesta Bowl. That would have reverberations all the way down the Pac-12's bowl lineup. The long view will say Arizona still won 10 games for only the third time in its history. And maybe the long view will diminish focus on what was an awful night for the Wildcats.

After a slow start, it turned out to be a championship night for the Ducks.


SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Oregon became the first team to (unofficially) punch its ticket for the first College Football Playoff, and quarterback Marcus Mariota likely locked up the Heisman Trophy as the second-ranked Ducks gained revenge against No. 7 Arizona with a 51-13 win on Friday night.

How the game was won: Oregon got off to a slow start -- it scored six points on its first four drives -- but opened up a 23-0 lead by halftime. With Arizona quarterback Anu Solomon struggling with an ankle injury, coach Rich Rodriguez sat down the freshman in the second half as a glorified scrimmage broke out before an announced crowd of 45,618 at Levi’s Stadium.

Game ball goes to: Mariota. He completed 25 of 38 passes for 313 yards and two touchdowns and ran for three more scores. He’ll go to the Heisman ceremony in New York with 3,783 passing yards, 669 rushing yards, 53 total touchdowns and just two interceptions.

What it means: The Pac-12 South, which had five teams ranked in this week’s playoff rankings, moves to 0-4 in Pac-12 championship games. Oregon’s title is its first since 2011 and ends a two-year Stanford reign.

Playoff implication: With Oregon’s spot secure, No. 5 Ohio State's and No. 6 Baylor’s chances at grabbing one of the four playoff spots have diminished. Both schools would have benefited greatly from an Arizona win.

Arizona's first-half woes: The Wildcats managed just 25 yards of offense in the first half, which is the fewest they have gained in a half in at least a decade. Since Rodriguez took over, the Wildcats have now been shut out in just four halves -- three of them are against the Ducks.

What's next: Both teams will learn their bowl fates on Sunday. Even with a loss Friday, Arizona -- the only team to have defeated Oregon this season -- seemed destined for the VIZIO Fiesta Bowl, but that no longer seems likely following its disastrous showing. Oregon’s potential opponents in the Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual on Jan. 1 include TCU, Florida State, Ohio State and Baylor.
The Pac-12 Championship Game could serve as a play-in game for the inaugural College Football Playoff. Chantel Jennings and Kyle Bonagura each give three reasons why Oregon and Arizona can win.

Three reasons why No. 2 Oregon can win:

1. With a healthier offensive line, Marcus Mariota can be Marcus Mariota. The last time these two teams faced off, the Ducks were dealing with a highly depleted offensive line. A former walk-on and true freshman were Oregon's two starting tackles. Since then, the Ducks have gotten Jake Fisher and Andre Yruretagoyena back, and though they’ve lost center Hroniss Grasu since the first meeting, the line is at a better place overall. They’ll be able to protect Mariota, giving him enough time in the pocket to a) allow plays to develop and b) make something happen if nothing is happening downfield.

2. The defense is playing with a greater sense of urgency. In early October, the Wildcats were opportunistic in making big plays and getting their running backs to make huge contributions. Since then the Ducks' defense has taken major strides forward and is playing against the run better. Another big difference is that the loss to the Wildcats has inspired the Ducks to practice better. “Guys understand that we can’t just show up on Saturdays and expect to do well,” fifth-year senior linebacker Tony Washington said. “Because of that [loss] we’ve been playing better on the weekend because we’re practicing harder during the week.”

3. Playmakers have emerged and progressed for the Ducks since that first game. Freshman wide receiver Charles Nelson was still a special teams guy when the Ducks played the Wildcats the first time around. Freshman running back Royce Freeman has grown immensely since then, too. He hadn’t recorded a single 100-yard rushing game leading into the meeting with Arizona. Since then, he's had 100-yard performances in five of the Ducks’ seven games (he rushed for 98 and 99 yards, respectively, in the other two). Byron Marshall has settled into his role much better. Darren Carrington has shown flashes, catching 14 passes for 241 yards since the Arizona game. Mariota is surrounded by more mature, well-developed playmakers and will be able to count on them to make big plays on Friday.

Three reasons why No. 7 Arizona can win:

1. Recent history. Oregon's two lone defeats in the last 16 games came against the Wildcats. That's impossible to ignore. And these weren't fluky games, either. Arizona won 41-16 last season and controlled most of the game in its 31-24 win at Autzen earlier this season. Credit goes to Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, who has outcoached Mark Helfrich in both games. There wasn't some magical formula unlocked by either game -- if there was Oregon wouldn't have run off seven straight wins in the fashion it has -- but Arizona has proven it can beat the Ducks, so there shouldn't be doubt that it can win again.

2. More experience. This could be a wash (see Oregon reason No. 3), but Arizona is better off now at quarterback because of freshman Anu Solomon's development. He had great stats before the game against Oregon on Oct. 2, but that was a product of playing significantly inferior teams. Now that Solomon has gone through a full Pac-12 slate, there's every reason to believe Arizona's offense should be equipped to score enough points to give the Wildcats a good shot at winning. Solomon has 14 touchdown passes to just three interceptions since the win against Oregon -- not quite Mariota numbers but very impressive, especially for a freshman.

3. #Pac12AfterDark. This shouldn't need much explanation. Everyone that's paid attention to Pac-12 football this season knows that when the sun goes down, the unexpected occurs. And Arizona has certainly benefitted from that. The Wildcats benefitted from two Hail Marys -- if either the Jail Mary or Hill Mary falls incomplete, Arizona doesn't win the division -- and have that team-of-destiny thing going on. Having linebacker Scooby Wright III doesn't hurt, either. His rise into the best-defensive-player-in-the-country discussion has been meteoric, and his presence will give Mariota fits.

Oregon's shocking 42-16 loss at Arizona in 2013 was explained away by the usual suspects of excuses. Oregon was flat after losing to Stanford two weeks before. The planets curiously aligned and Arizona played a perfect game. All the bounces went toward the Wildcats and away from the Ducks.

In fact, that loss was widely viewed -- at least among the chattering classes -- as fuel for the Ducks against Arizona on Oct. 5 in Eugene. Then-No. 2 Oregon was playing inside the friendly confines of boisterous Autzen Stadium, and Wildcats redshirt freshman quarterback Anu Solomon was making his first road start in the Pac-12. In their previous game, the Wildcats needed a Hail Mary pass to beat California. Oregon was expected to exact revenge -- in spades.

Of course, we all know what happened. Arizona, without playing a perfect game and without a series of "lucky" breaks, won 31-24. It outrushed, outgained and outplayed the Ducks. Sure, Oregon has some injury issues. Sure, the game was horribly officiated. But egregious calls went both ways. The Wildcats just played better.

Since that loss, the Ducks are 7-0 and again ranked No. 2. Their average winning margin has been 24.3 points per game. They have scored at least 40 points in seven straight games and gained at least 500 yards in six straight. Both are the longest active streaks in the FBS, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

“They’ve been rolling right by people," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. "In all three phases, they’ve been dominant. I think our guys see that. They know they are a better team.”

Ah, but Rodriguez and defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel seem to have some secret sauce for cooking the Ducks. While Stanford was once viewed as Oregon's nemesis, now the Wildcats are that team.

Take Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, who is trying to lock up the Heisman Trophy, the Pac-12 title and a berth in the College Football Playoff with a win over No. 7 Arizona on Friday night in Levi's Stadium. Since the start of last season, Mariota has a 62.0 Total QBR in two games against Arizona, 30 points lower than against all other FBS opponents. Since the start of last season, two of Oregon’s three lowest-scoring games have come against Arizona.

Over the past two years, Mariota and the Ducks have averaged 47.9 points per game and 7.6 yards per play. Against Arizona, that total falls to 20 ppg and 6.2 ypp.

So Arizona has twice put together a plan that has thwarted the heavily favored Ducks. The question is whether they stick to the basics of the previous plans that worked before or make significant tweaks in anticipation of Oregon making adjustments?

“You don’t want to confuse your own players too much," Rodriguez said. "You don’t want to have them out there thinking. You want them to play fast, especially when you’re playing a team as fast as Oregon.”

That means Arizona plans to stick to the schemes that won it the South Division championship and earned it 10 regular season wins, including one over the Ducks. Oregon also probably wants to be itself, as in playing like the team it has been the past seven games.

Recall that the loss to Arizona was supposed to have exposed Oregon's Achilles' heel: its offensive line. It was decimated by injuries and, combined with the preceding game against Washington State, had surrendered 12 sacks in two games. The return of offensive tackle Jake Fisher and, to a lesser extent, Andre Yruretagoyena, has bolstered the Ducks' line significantly. It has yielded just 17 sacks in the Ducks other 10 games.

Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said the Ducks had to make adjustments within their schemes and with the personnel to get the line to gel. The unit has been playing significantly better, though it has to be a concern that All-America center Hroniss Grasu is still out with a knee injury.

One line of thinking is the Ducks' desire for vindication should provide extra fuel. If so, Helfrich is fine with that. Whatever increases focus.

“The thing we always talk about is channeling your energy to preparation," Helfrich said. "Whatever it is, if it’s getting beat the last two times we’ve played these guys, if that motivates you to have a great practice today, perfect. Use it.”

That said, you'd think the Pac-12 championship and a potential berth in the playoff would be motivation enough.

Oregon expected to be here when the season began. No one predicted the Wildcats would crash the party. Yet it's Arizona that comes in with the favorable head-to-head ledger. That suggests both teams should be plenty confident in their personnel and plan when they strap it on for the 2014 conference crown.
Oregon State was like most everyone else in the country; it, too, had no idea that at the end of the week it would need a new football coach.

Nebraska moved swiftly and intently to hire away Mike Riley, who spent the past dozen seasons at OSU, creating a new Power 5 opening in the process.

After Florida and Nebraska’s moves, Kansas, Michigan and Oregon State are the major openings at the moment.

Pac-12's top recruiting visits 

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The regular season might be over, but that just means the recruiting season will be heating up, and the Pac-12 will host at least two significant weekends. Also, the nation’s No. 5 overall prospect is scheduled to be on a Pac-12 campus this weekend

Colorado


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Pac-12 morning links

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Happy Friday!

Leading off

So much for it being a slow news week leading up to today's Pac-12 championship game. The big news Thursday was the shocking and sudden exodus of Oregon State coach Mike Riley to Nebraska. That means of the non-expansion schools, Stanford's David Shaw is the "dean" of the conference ... if you can believe that.

That leaves a void at Oregon State, and the Pac-12 blog can confirm that Ted Miller is not a candidate. But it's going to be an interesting search. Here's some reaction from Corvallis to Lincoln on the hire. Grading period

What's the old saying? "D" is for diploma? Apparently it was good enough for Riley. Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News published his grades for all 12 coaches in the conference Thursday morning before the news broke about Riley.

No one received an "F." But the quartet of David Shaw, Steve Sarkisian, Riley and Mike Leach were all in the "D" range. Not surprisingly, the two coaches playing in today's Pac-12 championship game had the highest grades of the 12 coaches, with Rich Rodriguez getting and "A+" and Mark Helfrich receiving an "A." Agree? Disagree? Here's Wilner's take on Riley:
Won just two conference games -- I expected four or five Ws -- and one of them was Colorado. Tough to give Riley anything lower than a D because of an injury list that stretches to eternity.
News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

It wouldn't be a Nebraska story if our favorite parody twitter account, Faux Pelini, didn't weigh in. Feel free to scroll through his timeline, which outlines some advice for Riley. His reaction:

Count the Pac-12’s all-time leading passer among those surprised by Thursday’s announcement that Mike Riley was headed to Nebraska.

Former Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion, who started for Riley for four seasons, told ESPN.com that a Corvallis, Oregon, without Riley is tough to imagine.

[+] EnlargeSean Mannion
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill"You just can't imagine [Mike Riley] not being the head coach at Oregon State. It's the only thing all of us have ever known," QB Sean Mannion said.
“Surprised. Shocked. Just like everyone else,” Mannion said Thursday morning. “The best way I could describe it is when you’re recruited there and you play there, you can’t imagine Coach Riley not being there. I know that while I was there, we were extremely blessed to not have the turnover that a lot of other schools had. You just can’t imagine him not being the head coach at Oregon State. It’s the only thing all of us have ever known.”

Mannion, no longer a part of the team, was not at the players' meeting when Riley announced he was leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten. He did reach out to a few of his former teammates, including some on the offensive line and quarterback Luke Del Rio.

“More than anything, I want to let them know it’s all going to be great,” said Mannion, who was staying in Portland but leaving Friday for San Diego to train for the NFL draft. “That’s what I’d say to Oregon State. Everything is going to work out. Things are going to be really good. Coach Riley is going to a big-time program and I think he’s going to do great things and I wish him nothing but the best. But for Oregon State, everything is going to work out fine ... I think they’ll find the perfect guy for the job."

Mannion departs the program as one of its most accomplished quarterbacks. He threw for 13,600 yards and 83 touchdowns from 2011-14 and leaves with a career completion percentage of 64.6 percent. He said he believes Riley’s knack for player development will fit in well at Nebraska.

“I’m sure it’s going to be different, not necessarily better or worse than the Pac-12,” Mannion said. “But the thing about Coach Riley is his reputation as a person proceeds him. Everyone knows what a great guy he is and how genuine he is and all of that is true. I think the thing that I would want people to know is how good of a football coach he is. He has a ton of knowledge about the game. He’s a great coach on the field, in the meeting room, putting together our scheme. I think he’s got all that going for him. And when you put that with the kind of guy he is and how genuine he is, that’s going to work anywhere.”

While a vocal minority was starting to turn on Riley for the Beavers' third losing season in the last five years, Mannion credits him for the loyalty he showed the program through the years and for being able to field competitive programs despite “not being at the top of the recruiting rankings.”

“I think he deserves tons and tons of credit for everything he did for the program, the school and the community,” Mannion said. “I think he’s going to do great because he did great things here … coaches know good players and he does a great job finding the players for what he wants to do with his program. It’s a lot about development for him. Not just on the field but off. That carries over. You look at how loyal all his assistants are and how badly they want to work for him. When you have that continuity and his personality and that staff, he’s a great incubator for developing good players into great players.”
EUGENE, Ore. -- If there’s any team that has been able to make mincemeat of the Oregon defense during the Mark Helfrich era, it's been Arizona.

In 2013 the Wildcats put up 42 points against the Ducks. It was the most any team had scored on Oregon since November 2009 (Stanford, 51 points). The Wildcats run game destroyed the Ducks, rushing for four touchdowns and 304 yards. (Ka’Deem Carey accounted for all of the touchdowns and 206 yards of the rushing total.)

On Oct. 2, it was a different route with the same result. Though Arizona only put up 31 points (the Ducks defense has given up an average of 23.2 points per game this season), the Wildcats rushed the ball 55 times for three touchdowns and 208 yards and first-year starter Anu Solomon passed for 287 yards.

[+] EnlargeNick Wilson
AP Photo/Steve DykesArizona freshman running back Nick Wilson rushed for 92 yards and two touchdowns in an Oct. 2 win at Oregon.
In both games there were major breakdowns on Oregon’s defense, which creates a troubling picture heading into Friday's rematch with No. 7 Arizona in the Pac-12 championship game.

But according to redshirt senior linebacker Tony Washington, this won’t be the same Ducks defense that the Wildcats faced earlier this year.

“I think as a whole we understand that we need to practice harder because that’ll help us play better,” Washington said. “Last time we played Arizona, we made a lot of stupid mistakes and that led to some big plays. Understanding where we need to be and what we need to do -- those are the biggest differences.”

Oregon defensive coordinator Don Pellum agreed with Washington. Following the Oregon State game, Pellum said that the two biggest improvements the Ducks defense had made over the previous month were a better understanding of the Ducks’ own scheme and a better understanding of how opposing offenses are trying to attack Oregon.

“I think we’ve made the most advancements in the area of kind of anticipating plays,” Pellum said. “So I think we’re playing faster because we’re kind of anticipating what we’re going to see.”

And the Ducks will need to play fast this weekend. The statistics Arizona put up against them in October were far higher than what the Oregon defense has allowed all season, most notably in the run game.

Though Oregon was able to keep the Wildcats’ yards per rush relatively low -- Arizona only averaged 3.7 yards per rush while the Oregon defense’s season average is 4.2 -- it was a highly effective run game. Arizona converted on 85.7 percent of third-down rushes -- the Ducks allowed first downs on 56.4 percent of the third downs this season. In total, Arizona gave up 208 rushing yards that game (including 115 to Terris Jones-Grigsby and 92 to Nick Wilson, who has gotten even better since the last time he faced Oregon).

Another area the Ducks have struggled in was giving up big plays. In the passing game, Solomon accounted for five pass plays of 20-plus yards. On the season, the Ducks have averaged 3.25 yards per game. But because of how explosive these plays were, Solomon averaged 9.3 yards per pass attempt. Sixty-five percent of his passes gained a first down or touchdown, as opposed to the Ducks' season average of 56.2 percent.

Washington, who said he has watched that game film quite a bit, rambled off all of these issues when asked about what went wrong for the Oregon defense in that game. He was unhappy with how many running back passes were open -- Jones-Grigsby led all Wildcats with 95 receiving yards while Wilson caught one pass -- as well as how many broken plays that Solomon turned into good ones.

“We have a lot of young guys playing, a lot of new guys out on the field so they didn’t -- at the time -- really understand what it took to be a great defense,” Washington said.

Since then, Washington said, the Ducks have had a stronger and more focused approach to the game. He has seen a greater sense of urgency, even in the young players, and with just two or three games left in his college career, he certainly is feeling it as well.

It’s not very often in football that rematches happen, but when they do, it’s like a good game of chess. Washington knows Arizona will have tendencies to go back to what worked for them before, just as Oregon offense will. But, he hopes that with how far the Ducks have come since early October, the result will be very different.
Mike Riley's shocking defection from Oregon State to Nebraska caught everyone -- and I mean everyone -- flat-footed Thursday, but we have some good news. While just about every coaching hire involves winners and losers, this one does not. Everyone wins. At least today. Tomorrow? We shall see.

Nebraska wins because it has hired a good coach with a good staff who should fit in with the way things are done in wholesome Lincoln. Riley can recruit Texas and California, and his ability to spot proverbial diamonds in the rough will be of great benefit to Nebraska, which has never been a recruiting superpower, even during its best years.

Riley wins because, at 61 years old, he gets a fresh start and chance to build on a strong coaching resume that's taken some hits in the past five years while Oregon State has suffered in comparison to glittering state rival Oregon. Riley will no longer be the underdog in his own state. He'll get A-list facilities, financial support and a strong tradition to recruit to that he's never had before. It will be interesting to see what he's able to make of that, coaching a team that just fired Bo Pelini because he too often won "just" nine games and finished in the bottom part of the Top 25, the equivalent of a successful season in Corvallis.

[+] EnlargeMike Riley
AP Photo/Eugene TannerOregon State seemed to stagnate under Mike Riley the past five seasons as the Beavers went 29-33.
And Oregon State? It wins because there's been a strong anti-Riley undercurrent building in the past five years as the Beavers logged losing records three times, including this season. While it's difficult to measure what percentage of Beavers fans were truly unhappy with Riley, suffice it to say it was at least a vocal minority. Beyond the struggles on the field, there were grumblings about what amounted to a lifetime contract, which included a built-in rollover every time the Beavers won at least six games.

If Oregon State had wanted to fire Riley, it would have had to pay him off through 2021, something the school probably couldn't have afforded. It also didn't want to fire Riley because he was chiefly responsible for building a longtime national laughingstock into a respectable Pac-10 and then Pac-12 contender. And Oregon State didn't want to fire Riley because he's such a good guy. Now it doesn't have to even consider that burdensome possibility.

As for timing, it's perfect. Riley isn't leaving his team in the lurch as it prepares for a bowl game. The Beavers will be losing several key players on both sides of the ball heading into 2015, including quarterback Sean Mannion, so the new coach will get a fresh start with new schemes. There's still plenty of time to save the recruiting class.

So Riley doesn't have to feel bad for leaving. Oregon State probably doesn't feel too bad for getting left. They can shake hands and wish each other well as Riley walks away. This is a breakup that smacks of both parties agreeing to just be friends. And meaning it.

Nebraska gets a hire with a proven track record of doing more with less instead of a hot coordinator who requires crossed fingers because he might not actually know what he's doing. Further, Riley will never -- ever -- embarrass the Cornhuskers with a postgame rant or infelicitous quote at a news conference.

Riley takes over a program that should be an annual Big Ten contender, particularly in the wide-open West Division. His chances to win his division, conference and reach the College Football Playoff have advanced dramatically. If there was an unsatisfied, ambitious part inside of him that wondered what he could do at an A-list program, which there undoubtedly was because he made this move, he'll get a chance to answer that in the next three to five years.

And Oregon State? Beavers fans get change, which can be exciting, particularly with no bowl game ahead. That's what many wanted and believed the program needed to take a step forward in the Pac-12's North Division. At the very least, it's something to talk about. It might prove stressful, but here's a guess that athletic director Bob De Carolis will make an interesting hire.

Interesting? What about Ed Orgeron, the ebullient former USC assistant and ace recruiter? He certainly would represent a different direction from Riley. What about a hot coordinator, such as Arizona State offensive coordinator Mike Norvell or UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone or Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Arenda? Or a second-tier head coach who's doing well, such as Memphis' Justin Fuente or Fresno State's Tim DeRuyter or Utah State's Matt Wells?

Heck, why not a guy suspected of being a Nebraska target: Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost. Or, even weirder, Bo Pelini is available!

That intrigue will give previously disgruntled Beavers fans something to debate with excitement and hope. While a significant percentage of Oregon State fans supported Riley until the end, it is fair to say that a mire of resignation to mediocrity did threaten the Beavers while many other Pac-12 programs were on the uptick.

So, today, everybody wins. Nebraska gets Riley, Riley gets a new opportunity and Oregon State gets change.

Tomorrow? Will there be enough winning on both sides of the ledger to sustain today's hope? Or either side?

We shall see.
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska has hired Mike Riley to lead its football program.

Riley, 61, comes from Oregon State, where he coached since 2003 after a three-year stint as coach of the San Diego Chargers.

"It is truly an honor to join the University of Nebraska family," Riley said in a statement released by Nebraska. "Though we love Corvallis and Oregon State, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to coach at one of the nation's most storied football programs and I can't wait to get started."

Riley will be introduced at a news conference Friday morning at Memorial Stadium. The coach will begin work immediately but will not be involved in bowl preparation.

Nebraska finished the regular season at 9-3 under Bo Pelini, who was fired this week after seven seasons, and will learn its postseason destination Sunday.

Barney Cotton, an assistant under Pelini and a former Nebraska lineman, will coach the Huskers in their final game of the season.

Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst chose Riley at the conclusion of a stealth search. Dozens of names surfaced in speculation, including former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel and Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost, but never the coach of the Beavers. Oregon State finished 5-7 this season.

"There was one coach who fit all the characteristics that I was seeking to lead our tradition-rich football program," Eichorst said. "Mike Riley has a proven record of success, a sound approach to football and teaching, an understanding of the educational mission of our university and the integrity and values that we cherish at Nebraska.

"I have no doubt that Mike will assemble a tremendous staff and lead our student-athletes to win Big Ten titles and compete for national championships in the years ahead."

Riley is 93-80 as a college coach, a native of Wallace, Idaho, and a former defensive back under Paul "Bear" Bryant at Alabama.
Marcus Mariota, Cody KesslerUSA TODAY Sports, Icon SportswireMarcus Mariota and Cody Kessler's combined statistics: 72 touchdown passes, 6 interceptions.
The regular season is over, so it's a fine time to look at some final team statistical tallies (and a few relevant individual ones) from around the Pac-12 to evaluate how teams stacked up with each other in critical categories:

  • Oregon and Stanford clearly led the Pac-12 in offense and defense, respectively. The Ducks' 45.9 points per game were more than a touchdown better than second-place offense California (38.2 points per game). The Cardinal's 16.0 points per game allowed were more than a touchdown better than second-place defense Oregon (23.2 points per game). The Ducks showed the greatest overall balance (tops in points scored, second in points allowed), so it's no surprise they're favored to win Friday's conference title game.
  • The Cardinal, meanwhile, complemented their league-best defensive numbers with the Pac-12's worst scoring offense (25.7 points per game), so it's no surprise that they finished with an unremarkable 7-5 record. Every conference team averaged 30 points per game except Stanford, Oregon State and Colorado.
  • More on the defensive end: Cal was again the Pac-12's worst team in that category, allowing 39.8 points per game. The Bears did improve from their 2013 statistics, when they allowed 45.9 points per game. Oregon State (31.6), Washington State (38.6), and Colorado (39.0) all surrendered more than 30 points per game. Arizona State (27.7) featured the worst defense among the Pac-12 teams that finished with a winning record.
  • Of course, point totals should not serve as the exclusive barometer of offensive and defensive play. The yards per play average can be a solid efficiency measurement. On the offensive end, Oregon averaged 7.4 yards per play. Second place Washington State and Cal were way behind at 6.1 yards per play. Utah's offense finished last in this metric, averaging just 5.2 yards per play.
  • Like Oregon on the offensive side, Stanford's defense finished head and shoulders above the rest of the Pac-12 by allowing only 4.2 yards per play. The second-most efficient defense in the conference was UCLA, a full yard behind at 5.2 yards per play. USC (5.3) and Washington (5.3) both closely trailed the Bruins; Colorado allowed a league-worst 6.5 yards per play.
  • The gap between the best and worst rushing offenses in the Pac-12 is the size of the Grand Canyon: Oregon ran for 33 touchdowns while pass-happy Washington State only totaled five. The Ducks (5.4) were the only team to average more than five yards per rush, while the Cougars mustered only 2.0 per carry. Arizona checks in at 4.7 yards per rush, so the Pac-12's two most efficient ground attacks are squaring off in the title game.
  • Marcus Mariota is leading Oregon and the nation with more than 10 yards per pass attempt. The second-most-efficient conference aerial attack belonged to Cody Kessler's USC unit (8.4 yards per attempt). Colorado was way behind everyone else here, mustering only 6.3 yards per attempt. By the way, only two quarterbacks nationally finished with more than 3,000 passing yards and fewer than five interceptions: Mariota (2) and Kessler (4). Both threw 36 touchdown passes during the regular season.
  • Stanford narrowly led the Pac-12 in rush defense (3.2 yards per carry allowed, just ahead of Washington at 3.3), but their lead in pass defense was massive (5.2 yards per attempt allowed was more than a full yard better than second-place USC, who checked in at 6.4 yards per attempt allowed). Washington State's pass defense performed the least efficiently, surrendering 8.3 yards per attempt.
  • The Cardinal's defense led the Pac-12 in almost all critical categories, but USC actually bested Stanford in two big ones: third-down defense and red-zone defense. The Trojans finished at the top of the heap in both, allowing their opponents to convert only 35.2 percent of third downs (better than the Cardinal's 35.6) and 72.3 percent of red-zone scoring opportunities. Interestingly, Oregon featured the Pac-12's worst third-down defense (43.6 percent), but their offense was by far the league's best (51.3 percent).
  • Cal was the Pac-12's most-penalized team (81.1 yards per game) and Utah was its least-penalized team (49.1 yards per game).
  • Washington forced the most takeaways (27), but Oregon suffered the fewest turnovers (8), so the Ducks had the best margin in the conference (plus-15). Of the seven teams that finished with a positive turnover margin, six sported winning records. Of the five teams that finished with a negative turnover margin, only two attained marks above .500.
  • UCLA featured the Pac-12's best red-zone offense, averaging 5.4 points per trip inside the 20-yard line. Stanford was the league's worst, mustering only 4.2 points per red-zone trip.
  • Utah (52) and Washington led the nation in sacks, while the Huskies' Hau'oli Kikaha (18.0) and the Utes' Nate Orchard (17.5) led the country individually in that category. It should be noted that Orchard played one fewer game than Kikaha, so his per-game average was higher (1.46 to 1.38). Meanwhile, Arizona's Scooby Wright blasted everyone in the nation when it came to tackles for loss per game. He averaged 2.25; second place Kikaha was way behind at 1.85.

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