Pac-12 power resides in Bay Area

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Pac-12 power resides in Bay Area

With nearly a month of the non-conference season behind us, it's very possible that the top-two teams in the Pac-12 make their home in the Bay Area. Cal, a preseason favorite by many pundits, is expected, but Stanford is the leagues surprise team to date.

If the Cardinal and Bears do end up at the top of the leagues standings, it may not seem all that newsworthy. Yet looking back the last two decades, it quickly becomes clear how rare it is for the Pac-12 basketball power to reside up north.

Stanford and Cal have never finished 1-2 in the conference basketball standings, and the eras of where both programs have even been "good" at the same time are few and far between.

Only four times in the last 20 years have both programs made the NCAA Tournament in the same year (three of those years coming back-to-back-to back in 2000-2003).

This year appears to be different, partly due to the respective strength of both teams and even moreso by the relative softness of many other programs in the league. Early returns show that Cal and Stanford need only to beat out Arizona and Washington at the top of the league standings, and even those teams have their share of weaknesses. (Not buying into Oregon States early 6-1 record yet).

The Bears are not a complete team, the way many Pac-12 title contenders from most years are, but that might not be needed this year. What the Bears lack in experienced frontcourt depth and overall team athleticism, they make up for with a triangle of effective, balanced scorers in senior guard Jorge Guttierez, sophomore wing Allen Crabbe and senior forward Harper Kamp. Transfer guard Justin Cobbs is quickly emerging as another scoring option for the Bears, and is helping Mike Montgomery's team through the stretch without suspended post player Richard Solomon.

Without Solomon, the Bears went small on the road against a nationally ranked SDSU team, starting four guards. Cal jumped out to a 6-0 lead and stood toe to toe for the duration with the Aztecs on the road, before losing a close contest in a hostile environment. Freshman David Kravish is getting valuable experience for the Bears in this stretch up front. All in all, Cal likely comes out of their non-conference schedule 10-3, and a favorite to win the league.

Down on the Farm, the Cardinal have quietly put together the most impressive non-conference resume to date in the league, doing so with a very balanced scoring attack (five players averaging between seven and 12 ppg). Stanford is deep both on the perimeter and up front, they are quick, and they are much better defensively than they have been the last few years.

At 8-1 with wins over Big 12 member Oklahoma State and ACC member NC State, and their only loss a close defeat in the Garden against Syracuse in a game they led until the final minutes, the Cardinal are in great position. They will likely head into Pac 12 play 11-1, with the best record in the league.

Circle Jan. 29 (at Haas Pavilion) and March 4 (at Maples) on your calendars. These games, conveniently the last game on both rounds of conference play, might have bigger meaning this year than ever before.

BAY AREA TEAM OF THE WEEK: Stanford. The Cardinal (8-1) are rolling heading into their two week-long break for finals. A blowout road win at Seattle last Thursday was nice, but the 12 point second half comeback against NC State Sunday was their best win of the year. Stanford has the best record in the Pac 12, three winnable home games before league play begins, and are in prime position for their first Tournament berth since 2007-2008.

BAY AREA TEAM OF THE WEAK: UC Davis. First year coach Jim Les knew he had his hands full this year, but their home game against Idaho Saturday was their best chance for a Division I win heading into Big West play. They lost by 20. It now gets ugly Davis with four road games to end non-conference play, meaning they will likely be 0-11 in Division I games heading into the New Year.
BAY AREA PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Santa Claras junior guard Kevin Foster wins his first weekly award, with a 20 point, 7 rebound, 6 assist performance in Santa Claras 71-58 win over CSUN. Foster was 4-9 from 3-pt land, bringing his overall career made 3s total to a whopping 272, the most ever for a Bay Area college player (ex-SCU great Steve Nash had the previous high at 263). The win moved the Broncos to 5-2 overall, with some nice wins under their belt, and a winnable game at Washington State Sunday up next.

GAME OF THE WEEK (that was): Cals 64-63 loss to San Diego State was a hard fought contest between two quality teams. The Bears were down two late but failed to get a rebound on a miss from the Aztecs and were forced to foul, so never had a last possession to tie or win the game. No team led by more than five points in the second half, and fellow sophomores Allen Crabbe (23 points) and Justin Cobbs (17 points), had 40 of Cals 63 points.

GAME (s) OF THE WEEK (ahead): Light slate this week with many Bay Area teams being in final exams, so Santa Clara at Washington State Sunday gets the nod as the game of the week. The Broncos will try for their third straight win (and five out of six), and with it give the WCC a fifth win over the Pac 12. Cal plays tonight at home against SJSU, trying for their 19th straight win without a loss versus the Spartans, in Berkeley.

NOTABLE: USF won another close game last week at Montana, 65-62. That is 11 wins by three points or less (or overtime) this year or last, against only two losses. Thats four more wins than anyone in the nation has in the same stretch.

QUOTABLE: USF head coach Rex Walters after his teams 65-62 win at Montana last week: "This is a tough place to win. It's a tough flight coming into here. There was a lot of adversity. We had to fight for everything tonight. The guys were on edge and wanted to come here and get a win."

BY THE NUMBERS: The Mountain West certainly has had the best resume of any conference in the west thus far. Their overall league record is 52-14, and they are 4 in early conference power ratings. Every team in the league is over .500.

Dan Shell has been an assistantcoach at the Division I level at three different institutions includingSaint Mary's College. He currently works for IMG College, whichprovides sports marketing services for Division I universities andconferences. Have questions or comments? Emailhim here.

Jackson, Watson headline five 2016 Heisman finalists

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USATSI/AP

Jackson, Watson headline five 2016 Heisman finalists

NEW YORK -- Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson is a Heisman Trophy finalist for the second consecutive season, joining Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, Michigan linebacker Jabrill Peppers and Oklahoma teammates Baker Mayfield and Dede Westbrook.

The finalists were announced Monday on ESPN and the award will be presented Saturday in New York.

Watson finished third in last year's voting, won by Alabama running back Derrick Henry. Just like last year, he heads to New York not as the favorite but as the contender coming on strong at the end. Mayfield finished fourth last season, but did not get an invite to Heisman presentation in New York.

Peppers is the first defensive player to be a Heisman finalists since Notre Dame linebacker Manti Teo was a distant runner-up to Johnny Manziel in 2012.

Westbrook and Mayfield are the first teammates to be finalists since Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart from Southern California finished first and third, respectively in 2005.

Finalists are determined by the margins between vote-getters. The ballots of more than 900 voters, which included former Heisman winners, were due Monday.

Watson entered as the preseason favorite in what looked like a strong field of contenders, but Jackson quickly swept past them all to be front-runner. He was brilliant for the first two months of the season and Louisville was looking like a College Football Playoff contender.

It seemed as if Jackson would be a runaway Heisman winner, but the 15th-ranked Cardinals lost their final two games of the season. He was sacked 11 times in a lopsided loss at Houston and he committed four turnovers in a last-second loss against Kentucky.

Watson, meanwhile, has surged since Clemson's only loss to Pitt in mid-November. He also had the benefit of playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game last Saturday and took full advantage of the spotlight. Watson threw three touchdown passes and ran for two scores in a 42-35 victory against Virginia Tech to seal a spot in the College Football Playoff.

The raw numbers still favor Jackson, who is second in the nation in total yards per game (410.7) and has accounted for 51 touchdowns (21 rushing TDs and 30 TD passes) with 13 turnovers (nine INTs and four lost fumbles) in 12 games. Watson averages 341.8 yards per game and has 43 touchdowns (six rushing and 37 passing) with 15 turnovers (all interceptions) in 13 games.

When the two met on Oct. 1 at Clemson in what was one of the season's most entertaining games, Watson threw for 306 yards and five touchdowns, ran for 91 and was picked off three times. Jackson had 295 yards passing, 162 rushing and accounted for three touchdowns with one interception. Clemson won 42-36.

Mayfield and Westbrook have been a dynamic combination, and late in the season No. 7 Oklahoma started a dual campaign to promote both for the Heisman. Mayfield is on pace to break the NCAA record for passer efficiency rating in a season (197.75). Westbrook has 74 catches for 1,465 yards and 16 touchdowns and has more receptions covering at least 20 yards (26) than any receiver in the country.

Peppers played defense, offense and special teams for Michigan, lining up all over the field.

College football roundup: The case for an eight-team playoff

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USATSI

College football roundup: The case for an eight-team playoff

Would eight be better than four?

That was the obvious question after Sunday’s announcement of the final College Football Playoff rankings, which determined the four teams that will compete for the national championship.

The semi-finals will match No. 1 Alabama, the SEC champion, vs. No. 4 Washington, the Pac-12 champ, in the Peach Bowl, and No. 2 Clemson, the ACC champ, vs. No. 3 Ohio State, the Big Ten East Division runner-up, in the Fiesta Bowl.

On the outside looking in are the Big Ten champion, No. 5 Penn State, and the Big 12 champion, No. 7 Oklahoma, as well as No. 6 Michigan, which beat Penn State by 39 points and lost to Ohio State in double overtime, and No. 8 Wisconsin, the Big Ten West champ. 

As a bowl director, I originally was opposed to the playoff, fearing that it would diminish the bowls (which it did) and the regular season (which it didn’t). The playoff has proven to be a huge success, and a boon to the sport. 

But if we’re going to do it, let’s do it right. Four teams is better than the old two-team BCS model, but when you have five “power” conferences, one or more champions will be left out of the playoff every year—two were left out this year—and one or more deserving teams won’t get to compete for the title. If you go to an eight-team tourney, each year’s field would feature the five league champs plus the next three highest rated teams. More elite teams would have a chance to grab the brass ring, and there would be less quibbling over who was left out.

Imagine these quarter-final pairings in an eight-team playoff this season:

No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 8 Wisconsin
No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 7 Oklahoma
No. 3 Ohio State vs. No. 6 Michigan
No. 4 Washington vs. No. 5 Penn State

We’re in the third year of a 12-year playoff agreement between the conferences and ESPN. However, the playoff could easily be expanded to include eight teams before the original contract expires. Why? Because the structure is already in place. At present, two semi-final games rotate through six different bowls (the “New Year’s Six"). These same six bowls could host an eight-team playoff—four for the quarter-finals and two for the semis, with the championship game awarded by bid, as it is now. Is it possible the commissioners had expansion in mind when they set up the original six-bowl format? 

Our feeling is that the eight-team playoff will become a reality in 2020, after the first six years of the 12-year deal are concluded. 

Blowout epidemic: Washington’s blowout win over Colorado in the Pac-12 championship game is the latest example of a disturbing trend. Consider the scores of the Pac-12 title game since its inception:  2011–Oregon 49, UCLA 31; 2012–Stanford 27, UCLA 24; 2013–Stanford 38, Arizona State 14; 2014–Oregon 51, Arizona 13; 2015– Stanford 41, USC 22; 2016—Washington 41, Colorado 10. Only one close game in the bunch, and an average victory margin of 22 points. CBS’s Jon Solomon did an analysis that showed the Power Five championship games had an average margin of victory of 17.4 points, and that was before last weekend’s games, which averaged 20.75.

Understandably, with the advent of the playoff, championship games have lost much of their luster. Many fans see these games as a stepping-stone to the playoff and stay home rather than having to travel to two—or possibly three—postseason games to follow their team. The blowouts don’t help. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby recently suggested that if the playoff expands, conference championship games might be one of the casualties.

Neutral sites: Friday night’s Washington-Colorado game also marked the end of the Pac-12’s three-year agreement to play the championship game at neutral-site Levi’s Stadium. Our feeling is that these games should be played on campus, on the home field of the highest ranked team. The first three Pac-12 games followed that format. The 2011 game at Autzen Stadium in Eugene was a sellout (59,376) and the 2013 game at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe fell just short (69,535). (The 2012 game at Stanford didn’t do well because it was held in a driving rain and the two participants had played each other the week before).

By contrast, the three games at Levi’s have drawn crowds of 45,618, 58,476 and 47,118 in a venue that seats 68,500. The conference likes the certainty of knowing in advance where the game will be played, and that reasoning may work in the football-crazy SEC, but not on the West Coast. Instead of 47,118 in Santa Clara, imagine last Friday’s game being played in an on-campus environment before 70,000 in Seattle. 

Blame Game: Michigan might well be one of the best four teams in the country, and Jim Harbaugh is a great coach, but Harbaugh’s attempt to blame the officiating for his team’s double overtime loss to Ohio State deserved a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct. The officials didn’t throw a pick-six or mishandle a snap from center on the one-yard line—the two plays that cost Michigan the game. Yet after Harbaugh’s rant, the officials received numerous death threats from rabid Michigan fans. There’s no excuse for that type of behavior, or for Harbaugh’s sideline antics and post-game diatribe. 

Dr. Pepper: What’s happened to the “Dr. Pepper Tuition Giveaway” at the various conference championship games? Contestants used to throw the football toward the target like a quarterback attempting a forward pass. Now they all use a chest pass, as in basketball. While this technique might be more accurate from short distances, it makes a mockery of a competition at a football game.

Foster Farms Bowl: The Bay Area’s bowl, now in its 15th year, will be played at Levi’s Stadium on Dec. 28 and match Utah from the Pac-12 against Indiana from the Big Ten. This will be the Hoosiers first appearance in the game. The Utes played in the bowl in 2005 at AT&T Park, when it was known as the Emerald Bowl, and upset Georgia Tech 38-10. 

Stanford to the Sun: Despite the presence of one of the most exciting players in college football, Christian McCaffrey, a higher ranking and a superior record (9-3), No. 18 Stanford was bypassed by both the Holiday Bowl (which selected unranked, 8-4 Washington State) and the hometown Foster Farms Bowl (which took No. 19, 8-4 Utah), and fell to the Sun Bowl in El Paso. The Holiday apparently felt that WSU would bring more fans to San Diego. The folks in Santa Clara went with Utah because Stanford has played in Levi’s Stadium in each of the past two seasons, beating Maryland in the Foster Farms Bowl in ’14 and USC for the Pac-12 championship last year. That’s understandable for the bowls, but disappointing for Stanford and its fans, who might choose the family room couch over a vacation in beautiful El Paso.

Rose Bowl criteria: There was some confusion as to why USC was picked over Colorado to be the Pac-12’s representative. If the league champ (in this case Washington) goes to the playoff, then the Rose Bowl takes "the next best team" in the conference. That could be interpreted to mean the next best team in the standings, which would be Colorado, winner of the South Division with one regular-season loss in league play. Or it could mean the highest rated team by the CFP Selection Committee. The Rose Bowl used the later criteria and took USC, rated 9th to Colorado’s 10th. 

Heisman Watch: Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, the favorite for most of the season, stumbled a bit in his last two games. But Jackson still had the best season of any player in college football, passing for 3,390 yards and 30 touchdowns, and rushing for 1,538 yards and another 21 scores. No other player came close. Washington quarterback Jake Browning had an outside chance to overtake Jackson with a stellar performance in the Pac-12 championship, but Browning had a subpar outing in a game dominated by the Huskies’ running backs and secondary. In all likelihood, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, who had a brilliant game in the ACC championship, but was plagued by turnovers early in the season, will be the runner up.