Kickoff Show: Week 13 (1 p.m. ET)

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20
10:04
AM ET
Join ESPN.com reporters Heather Dinich, Ted Miller, Adam Rittenberg and host Chantel Jennings as they discuss the current race for the four College Football Playoff spots, the Heisman race and the biggest games of the weekend.
With four entries, the Pac-12 dominates the list of five finalists for the Polynesian College Football Player of the Year Award.

The five finalists are Hawaii punter/wide receiver/punt returner Scott Harding, Washington linebacker Hau'oli Kikaha, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, Utah defensive end Nate Orchard and Arizona quarterback Anu Solomon.

The Polynesian College Football Player of the Year is given, according to a news release, to "the most outstanding Polynesian college football player that epitomizes great ability and integrity."

The finalists were chosen by the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee, which is composed of past college football head coaches Dick Tomey (Chairman), LaVell Edwards and Ron McBride, ESPN SportsCenter anchor Neil Everett, NFL player personnel expert Gil Brandt, past NFLPA president and Inaugural Inductee Kevin Mawae and Hawai'i sportscaster Robert Kekaula. The committee will meet again in the coming weeks to select the winner.

The winner will be announced on December 9. The formal presentation of the award will be held at the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame Celebration Dinner during the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame Enshrinement Weekend on January 23, 2015.

The Pac-12 had 15 players on the initial watch list released in July.

Pac-12 Week 13 predictions

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20
9:00
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Why Stanford will win: Stanford winning the Big Game would be a sure-thing if I had predicted Cal to win -- as Bears fans know, my pick is like getting handed a condemning black spot from a pirate, a la "Treasure Island." But there is something to be said for the physicality of Stanford's defense being able to contain Cal's offense, as Washington's front seven did. I also suspect Stanford will get Good Kevin Hogan in this game, which should be enough to get the Cardinal bowl eligible in an otherwise disappointing season. -- Ted Miller

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

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

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

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

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

Unanimous picks

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

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

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

National links: Expand the playoff? 

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20
8:30
AM ET
The first four teams to ever make the College Football Playoff have yet to be determined. But the backlash against the committee has been so intense, people already are suggesting ways to fix the system.

ACC commissioner John Swofford spoke Wednesday at a weekly Durham (N.C.) Sports Club meeting and said eight teams would be "ideal" in a playoff format.

Pac-12 morning links

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

Leading off

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

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

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

Player of the Year

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

News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

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

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

Recovery

A video posted by Kiko Alonso (@elbravo_50) on


Some more Big Game motivation.

Can USC reclaim its perch atop the Pac-12?

November, 19, 2014
Nov 19
11:00
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LOS ANGELES -- Fifth-year senior tight end Randall Telfer signed with USC in 2010. It had long been his dream to be a Trojan. His favorite player? Reggie Bush.

True freshman Adoree' Jackson signed with USC in 2014. The native of Belleville, Illinois, grew up with no attachment to USC -- until he saw video of Reggie Bush, who became his favorite player.

Telfer knew USC faced NCAA sanctions when he signed, but he didn't know how severe. That understanding only hit him after a 50-0 victory over UCLA and 10-2 record in 2011 was followed by ... nothing. No bowl. Little national relevance. Jackson knew of USC's NCAA sanctions when he signed, but he also was aware the scholarship penalties expired with his recruiting class. As a first-year player, he knows no difference between USC having 85 guys on scholarship and 65, at least not yet, and he's got enough on his mind playing both ways as a true freshman.

These two, veteran and new Trojans, connect as starters for a 7-3 team trying to backdoor its way back into the Pac-12's South division race and mutually eyeballing archival UCLA on Saturday. They connect as the before and after of sanctions brought on by Bush's misdeeds. They connect on their extensive playing time with little depth surrounding them due to scholarship reductions. They connect on a hopeful yet uncertain future for the program. They connect on their continued esteem for Bush, who was formally disassociated from the program as part of the NCAA sanctions.

To read the rest of Ted Miller's story, click here.

#4Pac: Most intriguing rivalry game?

November, 19, 2014
Nov 19
10:00
PM ET

Your humble #4Pac welcomes you to another installment of what will be a regular feature on the Pac-12 blog. Here's how it works: We take one question or one topic, or maybe it's some other really cool format that we haven't even thought of yet, and all contribute our thoughts.

Have a suggestion for something we should address in a future #4Pac roundtable? Go ahead and send it to our mailbag.

Today, we're asking which rivalry game each reporter is most excited to see?

David Lombardi/@LombardiESPN: Cal vs. Stanford

Here's a recipe for entertaining theater: Take two rival programs on opposite trajectories and have them collide. Stanford is diving fast coming off the pinnacle (a Rose Bowl season), while Cal is picking up steam coming from the nadir (1-11 misery). It’s fitting, then, that both teams are 5-5 at this point of intersection. Technically, they're in the same spot when it comes to record, but aside from that, their situations couldn’t be any more different.

The Cardinal brings the Pac-12’s worst offense into this game, while the Bears own the conference’s worst defense. Something has to budge in that matchup of extremes, right? This game should be significantly more competitive than last year, and the Bears should enter angry, too: Stanford put up a Big Game record 63 points in 2013 and posted the largest-ever margin of victory in the rivalry’s century-plus long history.

Cal’s on the upswing now, and Stanford is clearly vulnerable, so this features everything a legendary rivalry should: a chance at vengeance, pride, and a boatload of history. Oh, and a victory clinches a postseason berth for the winner. It’s been a while since Big Game meant so much to both programs.

Chantel Jennings/@ChantelJennings: Oregon vs. Oregon State

I'm most excited to watch the Civil War. For me, I think it'll feel a lot like my Michigan-Michigan State rivalry roots -- two great programs about 40 minutes from one another. Throughout the state of Michigan you split allegiances and I think that's true in Oregon as well. I would say the same of USC-UCLA, but there's so much else competing for people's attention in Los Angeles. Having been a part of the Michigan-MSU rivalry, I'm excited to see how this Oregon-Oregon State one stacks up. Plus, there's always the chance the Beavers pull off another upset and dash the Ducks' playoff hopes.

Kevin Gemmell/@Kevin_Gemmell: Cal vs. Stanford

I grew up watching the Big Game, so that one will always be near and dear to me. I never had a favorite team, I just enjoyed the pageantry of the rivalry and the history of loathing between the schools.

A former colleague of mine at the San Diego Union-Tribune, Mark Zeigler, was one of the key instigators in producing the fake Cal newspaper. I love the history of the Immortal 21 and the Phoenix Five.

This year’s offers an extra dose of drama because the teams meet right in the middle of differing trajectories. The Bears, building off their winless-against-FBS-teams season, boast the No. 2 offense in the conference. But they can’t stop anybody. The Cardinal have the worst offense in the league. But their defense is fantastic.

Though Sonny Dykes won’t be named the Pac-12 coach of the year (I don’t think), he deserves some recognition for what he’s been able to do in turning the program around so quickly.

I was asked in a recent radio interview if the Cardinal might come out flat because they’ve had such a down season. The answer is, obviously, no. This is not a game teams come out flat for. Both teams are fighting for postseason berths and given the different styles they play, the stage could be set for one of the more dramatic Big Games in recent history.

Kyle Bonagura/@BonaguraESPN: USC vs. UCLA

Each rivalry has its own unique aspects that make it appealing, but this year the answer is clear: USC at UCLA. With the Bruins needing two more wins to clinch the Pac-12 South and USC also in contention, there won’t be a Pac-12 rivalry game with higher stakes this year. And after UCLA came in at No. 9 in the College Football Playoff rankings on Tuesday, there’s still a plausible route for the Bruins to be one of the four teams left standing. That ends the discussion.

There’s always going to be something about the UCLA-USC game that other rivalries don’t have as a result of the schools’ locations. The campuses are about 13 miles apart and both fall within the Los Angeles city limits, making it without question the best crosstown rivalry in the country. That doesn’t necessarily make it better than, say, the Apple Cup -- Washington and Washington State are nearly 300 miles apart -- but it does give it an added dynamic that other games don’t have.

As for the actual game, the quarterbacks -- UCLA’s Brett Hundley and USC’s Cody Kessler -- would have made it interesting regardless of the stakes.

Mailbag: Oregon vs. ???

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

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

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

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

SportsNation

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

  •  
    16%
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    18%
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    15%
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    34%
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    17%

Discuss (Total votes: 6,496)

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

He's still a pup and learning the speed of the game. But I'd look for him to play a big role in the final two regular-season games and potentially a bowl game if the Beavers can get there.

Rivalry tale of the tape: USC covers up statues to prevent UCLA vandals

November, 19, 2014
Nov 19
5:33
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video

UCLA and USC are separated by 13 miles and plenty of disdain -- and that rivalry hatred generally manifests itself in public fashion the week of the annual Bruins-Trojans football game. As the Los Angeles Times put it recently:
UCLA and USC students have been pulling pranks on each other for what seems like forever. UCLA dumped manure from a helicopter on the USC campus more than a half-century ago, and USC fans set 20,000 crickets free in a UCLA library. But for the last 30 years, the primary targets of the rivalry-week high jinks have been the two symbolic statues at the center of each campus: the Bruin Bear and Tommy Trojan.

Well, this year it started early, and it caught UCLA officials off guard. Normally the school constructs a plywood box around its Bruin Bear statue during game week, but this time vandals got there early, sneaking on to campus in the middle of the night and spray-painting "SC Runs LA" on the statue last week.


UCLA was none too pleased and the box was erected shortly thereafter. According to the Times, the school's John Wooden statue also was boxed up after the bear was vandalized, and the campus fountains were switched off. (The water, after all, has been known to turn red in the past.)

Poor #BruinBear...

A photo posted by Arthur Wang (@wangarthurrr) on


The University of Southern California doesn't mess around when it comes to keeping guard. In 1941, UCLA students covered the Tommy Trojan statue in blue and gold paint, but for several decades now the campus has faithfully protected its iconic statue. Not only does a group called the "Trojan Knights" stand guard 24/7 as the rivalry game approaches, but USC also completely duct tapes Tommy, along with several other statues around campus.

Tale of the tape: Stanford vs. Cal 

November, 19, 2014
Nov 19
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Heading into the season, the Pac-12 rivalry game likely to be separated by the most distance in the standings was the Big Game. With Stanford looking to challenge for a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff and Cal looking to escape the conference cellar, the fact that these two teams are playing for bowl eligibility this weekend is somewhat surreal. It's a similar story on the recruiting trail as well, as these two programs have the fewest number of verbal commitments in the conference, as Cal holds 12 commitments and Stanford just 10 -- though Stanford holds the edge in ESPN 300 prospects at three to one.

The recruiting rivalry between these two programs is interesting in that they aren't separated by much distance, but don't overlap in their chase for the same prospect as often as you might expect. Stanford -- arguably the most national recruiting program in the country -- has commitments from players from 10 states, while eight of Cal's dozen commits hail from its home state and there might not be a true recruiting battle between these two for any prospect in this class.

Instant impact recruit

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The near upsets that TCU and Florida State went through in Week 12 show that no matter how strong College Football Playoff title contenders are, they always have to be on the lookout for spoiler teams that could end their championship dreams.

The bad news for the top two teams in the College Football Playoff rankings -- Alabama and Oregon -- is that both have a potential spoiler matchup that just might be an unfavorable one. Here's a look at games that could prevent both teams from making the playoff. (Note: Unless otherwise specified, all of the statistical totals below are in Power 5 games.)

Alabama Crimson Tide

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video

The top five remains steady, but Ohio State has moved a step closer to potentially breaking into that group. The Buckeyes, whose class is led by three five-star prospects, added a commitment from an eighth ESPN 300 player in offensive lineman Matt Burrell Jr. The top-10 OG is a big, tough and competitive player. He needs to continue to better blend technique with his aggressive nature, but with some work he can be a physical and productive presence in the trenches for Ohio State.

It has been a challenging season for North Carolina, but the Tar Heels, who have won three of their past four games, were able to score a big victory on the recruiting trail. With a commitment from ESPN 300 DE Jalen Dalton, North Carolina was able to keep the state's No. 3-ranked prospect at home. A lengthy and athletic defender with good upside, Dalton is a promising player who could grow into a potential playmaker for a team that needs major help on defense. Despite some of the struggles this season UNC has still managed to put together a strong class that now sits at No. 21 and features five ESPN 300 prospects.

Inside the rankings

The biggest challenge for Urban Meyer and his staff since he arrived in Columbus has been luring top-flight defensive front personnel and overall skill from the Midwest that is comparable to what he had at Florida. It has been a down period in Ohio for the 2014 and 2015 classes in terms of sheer numbers and caliber of players, which led to the Buckeyes going after guys like Joey Bosa (Florida), Raekwon McMillan (Georgia), Vonn Bell (Georgia) and many others to help supplement the roster. That trend is continuing with the commitment of 2015 athlete Torrance Gibson.

The good news for the Buckeyes is that the upcoming in-state 2016 class is much stronger and deeper, which hopefully will allow for them to not have to venture too far south this time around to supplement the roster. The Buckeyes already have four players committed in 2016 and all are from Ohio.



To read the full class rankings, click here.
video

Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre is trying to resurrect a program in the midst of what is arguably college football's most treacherous minefield. He knows the dangers of the Pac-12 South firsthand; his Buffaloes are camped out in the cellar of it.

"I think [the Pac-12 South] is the toughest division in college football, period," he proclaimed on Tuesday's conference call.

Uh oh. Those will almost certainly be considered fighting words by many in the Southeast, home of the rugged SEC West.

But MacIntyre's comments bring up a fun chance of examination: What is the toughest division in the country? This season, the argument inevitably boils down to the Pac-12 South -- which is fresh off surpassing its Northern brethren -- and the SEC West, which has maintained the upper hand in that area of the country for several years running now.

Of course, coaches advocate for the division in which they play -- MacIntyre's club is laboring through conference play with an 0-7 record, so we know what camp he's in.

"The [Pac-12 South] is very comparable to the SEC West, and I think people can argue that both ways," he said. "I think we have better quarterbacks. That always makes for a better team, when you have a better quarterback."

We asked for a little help in clarifying the argument from our friends in ESPN Stats and Information and the Football Power Index (FPI).

Although the Pac-12 South has more teams (5) ranked in the AP Top 25 than the SEC West (4), every single team from the SEC West -- including 1-5 Arkansas -- received votes in the most recent AP poll. When accounting for the total amount of poll votes as well as a teams' FPI, the SEC West sum is 97.3, greater than the Pac-12's 90.3.

When it comes to FPI, the SEC West has the advantage with an average rank 10.4, compared to the Pac-12 South, which has an average rank of 30.8. Although there are five teams with .700 or better overall winning percentages in the Pac-12 South, FPI predicts that on a neutral field, every team in the West would have a greater than 50 percent chance to beat two-thirds of the South: Arizona, Utah, Arizona State, and Colorado. According to FPI, UCLA and USC are the only two Pac-12 South teams that would have a better than 50 percent chance of holding their ground against a handful of SEC West teams.

Salt these projections however you like. Perhaps the most important factor in this argument is that Oregon, the Pac-12's top-rated team, resides in the North (Alabama, the SEC's biggest gun, is part of the West, so that gives the division a firepower advantage).

If college football history has taught us anything, this type of debate will rage on unresolved well beyond this season. But MacIntyre, who might know better than most, has cast his vote for the Pac-12 South.
UCLA was the hot new team in the preseason, the hip new accessory all the pundits were adding to their bantering repertoire. Quarterback Brett Hundley, cool, charismatic, immensely talented, led a depth chart with no obvious holes. Head coach Jim Mora, fresh from turning away pursuit from Texas, and his Bruins were climbers, vogue picks to break through into the inaugural College Football Playoff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will this year be different?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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