Getting to know the Pac-12

Steve Sarkisian: Looking very much at home

The more you hang out with the Pac-12 coaches, the better take you get on them. That was the difference this time around in the two-day session in Hollywood.

Some final thoughts from one last look back at the Pac-12 get-together in Hollywood this past week.

While it might not be perfect, the new informal format does let you catch up with coaches and players in a much more relaxed, conversational setting that allows you glimpses you don't always get. And lets you see things you might not have.

As it did here.

So here we go, some last-look up-close observations:

* The College Football Playoffs folks may be passing out wallet cards showing how the first three years are going to go but there are a world of questions still to be addressed with the answers coming only when we see the 13-person committee actually do what they say they're going to do.

Biggest issue by far: From a Pac-12 standpoint, making strength of schedule matter. This is the cutting-edge issue for the conference -- as it should be. We'll see. It's a chance for the selection committee to have a major impact on college football going forward. Can they slap down an SEC team after an eight-game conference sked that misses many of the tough teams in its own league for a Pac-12 team that's played nine conference games, a championship game and a top out-of-conference opponent? We'll see.

Sark at large: Have to say without being able to watch Steve Sarkisian up close the last five years he was at Washington, how much he seems to have grown from his time away. He may still be a young guy in his profession, at the age of 40 he's the eighth-youngest D-1 head coach, but doesn't seem at all overwhelmed by a USC job that can do that to people.

Big difference: The new head coaching demeanor -- open, having fun, taking charge, unthreatened -- may be the big change for USC followers after four years of the opposite approach by a Trojans head coach at Pac-12 Media Days. Not all Lane Kiffin's fault maybe, thanks to the NCAA, but Sark has been a breath of fresh air.

Fun under the radar: Sure, USC fans taking the long historical view know this is -- or has been -- their league. But the plus here and now with the way the media must follow all the upwardly mobile and more recent arrivals -- Oregon, Stanford and, if in only their own fans' minds until they win something that matters, UCLA -- leaving USC to show up and have fun with it. And yet still being USC.

Just one example: We're reminded of this by one young ESPN Pac-12 blogger who was caught up by the fact that, despite it all, Sark's media throng was "three times larger" than that of Oregon's Mark Helfrich. How could this be? And wouldn't all this attention actually make it harder for USC to be under the radar, which is presumably the only way a downsized Trojan roster could pull this off? Kind of fun to watch the newbies trying to make sense of this "USC thing."

Getting it: That's what USC players Leonard Williams and Cody Kessler were able to do: Come here and have fun with it. They seem to know what they've got and what they can do and don't care if people don't exactly seem to get it as they count the numbers on the roster and the turnover at the top, not the talent or the determination.

Not that way for everybody: You could see it maybe more with UCLA than with anyone. There are serious expectations now. A sense of how it's time to step up to the hype. From Jim Mora to Brett Hundley, it's not as easy to have that underdog, under-the-radar fun just trying to claw your way back when everybody is pcking you. The questions are different now. You're no longer the challengers, but not the champions either. You've got the limelight . . . but do you deserve it? And what would the deal be if Hundley hadn't signed on with Rick Neuheisel four years ago -- or decided to hang around for this one? "It'd be a different feeling," Mora said. Indeed.

Bruins back? But as many long-term questions as there might be for a UCLA program that took advantage of USC's NCAA sanctions, scholarship limitations and unstable coaching the past couple of seasons with Mora providing just the right attitude of toughness, pride and pugnacity, how does this work long-term? No answer for that at a moment like this. This is a snapshot. And it's all a work in progress as USC returns to an equal footing footbal-numbers wise the next couple of years. How the Bruins handle that post-Hundley, post-NCAA under Mora is to be determined as Mora himself wisely said, avoiding the trap of talking about whose town LA is right now. Give him this: He's smart enough to sidestep that one. "It belongs to both of us," he said, and he has all sorts of respect for Sark. So far, so good. No overstep from Westwood.

Petersen in LA: He's a little more relaxed surrounded by the media crowd than maybe he was at Boise, but when Chris Petersen started talking about battling Seattle traffic and comparing it to what he saw in LA, it certainly seems that Washington was the right step-up for the guy from Boise. USC might have been a step too far for the tightly-wound Petersen.

Hard to figure: If there's one person in the Pac-12 who's tough to get a fix on, it could be Oregon's Helfrich. His predecessor Chip Kelly was right out there. Helfrich isn't. Quiet and careful with his words, he's almost the antithesis of everything else the Ducks' program shouts -- from the Brazilian wood flooring and Italian leather in the football facilities to the endless uniform and helmet combinations, Helfrich seems almost out of place here.

Bottom 2 looking back, looking up: The common bond you notice about the hoped-for bounce back from Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre and Cal's Sonny Dykes is their fondness for and memory of just how it worked back at San Jose State and Louisiana Tech, respectively, that got them to their Pac-12 jobs. But of course, they're no longer in either of those places. And the improving Pac-12 programs are not making it any easier on them to fight their way out of the basement.

RichRod on the money: You can tell Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez has thought about this one as a major innovator over the last decade in college football. He doesn't appreciate Nick Saban's carping about the need for a rule to slow uptempo offenses in the name of safety. “Cry me a river," RichRod told ESPN. "No one comes to games to watch defensive coaches." And to us, he said: "I call it a farce . . . if you think pace of play has anything to do with injuries, you drank the wrong poison." Hard not to like this guy.

How about these numbers: Maybe the best answer on pace of play and injuries came in the quiet comment from Sark about how in going to the uptempo offense at UW last fall, and we note running some 20 plays a game more than a slowdown USC team, his Huskies suffered just one season-ending injury to USC's 19. Sure, that's just anecdotal but it hardly makes Saban's case.

Some things never change: The first word you hear as you approach Stanford coach David Shaw is "consistency." No surprise there. That's the answer at The Farm. A consistent approach they really believe in, as they should. "Consistency of winning," Shaw clarifies. And the loss of as many top players on both sides of the ball doesn't change the Cardinal approach a bit. Which is why they're so good at what they do. They practice what they believe. And they know they're right. Which is why Sept. 6 in Palo Alto matters so much.

Networking working? Have to give a shout-out, and this despite the no-progress state of the DirecTV deal, to the on-air folks at the Pac-12. The football coverage led by RIck Neuheisel and Mike Yam has been first-class, as it was during the two Media Days. And despite some trepidation by USC fans with the addition of longtime Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti to the team as a Duck homer, it was Aliotti who ended the week talking about how much he loved the USC defense and thought that would give the Trojans a chance to have a season that could be "very special."

"Drive" this: The one challenge for Trojan fans to keep their wits about them when it comes to the Pac-12 Networks might be the selection to go all "Hard Knocks" inside the UCLA program this season. They'll chronicle "The Drive" -- as they call it -- by the Bruins not just for a Pac-12 South title, we're told, or even a conference championship, but "The Drive" for a national title. Now Mora has assured his fans that he has complete editorial control on what makes it to the air, a condition that might water down the series' impact, we'd guess. But here's the issue we see: the Bruins finish up with USC and Stanford the last two games in November. And all the editorial control in the world won't guarantee that "The Drive" finishes the way the folks in their gold and baby blue and new onyx grey uniforms hope it will.

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