We're back again this week with picking the brain of another reporter who covers the Pac-12 with CBSSports.com's Jonathan Gold. Gold focuses on the South Division for CBS and has also covered UCLA for the Los Angeles Daily News.
Do you think anyone in the conference can beat Oregon this year? And if so, who?
My heart says yes, but then again, I also always root for the little guy. Thing is, Oregon used to be the little guy - the gutsy, quick, scheme-oriented, tempo-dictating, neck-bending little guy. They were all style, no substance. Even many of the stars now -- running back Kenjon Barner, quarterback Marcus Mariota, linebacker Kiko Alonso, defensive back Avery Patterson -- were rated no higher than three stars by most recruiting services.
But recent recruiting efforts, which includes three straight classes ranked in the top-15 nationally, are paying quick dividends, and no longer are the Ducks simply relying on experienced, savvy talent. Now, they're just better. Just...better. My head says, don't pick against Chip Kelly, who now has the talent to match the scheme. Road dates at Arizona State, USC and Oregon State will be a difficult task, but maybe not for the not-so-little-guys anymore.
Which program in the South Division, other than USC, do you think has the best chance at prolonged success?
Before last Saturday, I probably would've said UCLA. Until then, the coaching staff seemed to have ridded the Bruins of most of their demons -- lack of focus, drive, execution. Then they got walloped by Cal, and the same team-destroying behavior seemed to pop up, and I'm not as bullish as I once was. Now, I'm intrigued by Arizona State. They've had good-but-not-great talent but played mediocre-but-not-good football. Now they have a coach who means business, a talented offense led by impressive youngster Taylor Kelly, and the Sun Devils have a solid recruiting foundation in place to make some noise.
Which player do you think is the biggest difference maker in the conference?
De'Anthony Thomas is the best at anything ever, but Sean Mannion is the pick here. His quick ascension to the top-tier of Pac-12 quarterbacks is a primary reason for Oregon State's surprising start. Will the Beavers be the same team with Cody Vaz behind center? We'll find out soon.
If you could pick one quarterback in the conference to start a team with, other than Matt Barkley, who would it be?
This is a tough question because of the sheer number of quality young quarterbacks in the conference, but probably Oregon's Marcus Mariota. He's playing with the best mix of talent, athleticism, decision-making, running ability and leadership. Arizona State's Kelly is up there, as is UCLA's Brett Hundley, OSU's Mannion and, because of the scheme, Arizona's Matt Scott, but Mariota shows less of the fatal flaws that each other quarterback displays.
Do you think more parity is good, or bad for the Pac-12?
Good, but there needs to be a clear tier-system to maximize national exposure. The conference would be better served with an undefeated team, a one-loss team, a two-loss team and a few three/four loss teams, rather than a jumbled mess at the top. USC losing to Stanford helps no one, except, perhaps, Stanford. USC losing to Stanford, then beating Oregon helps no one, except, perhaps, nope, no one. A one-loss USC team will not get the benefit of the doubt that a one-loss, say, LSU gets. (More on this in question 7)
Which Pac-12 coach do you think will be the next to leave, whether he is fired, resigns or leaves for another job?
Jon Embree, we hardly knew ye. Colorado is too proud, with too good an alumni base and history for pure decrepitude. Mediocrity is one thing. If the Buffaloes seemed to be on the outskirts of success, perhaps they -- and Embree -- would get the benefit of the doubt. They're not. They're simply, plainly awful, and Embree is the likeliest to suffer for it.
Do you think USC's loss to Stanford is being overstated, or do you think USC was overrated going into the season?
The Trojans were absolutely overrated going into the season. As was Alabama and LSU and Oklahoma and Oregon and every other team in the top-25. The idea of a preseason poll is a complete farce in the first place, as it overinflates a fan base to a level of insanity. Does anyone have any clue how hard it is to go undefeated in major college football? Sometimes the difference between perfection and misery is a shoelace tackle, or a bum ankle. To "expect" a perfect season out of any team is just nuts to me, just as nuts as running a preseason poll.
That being said, of more importance was not that USC lost, but how it lost. The Trojans almost completely abandoned the run, finishing with just 26 rushing yards, and Lane Kiffin was outcoached by David Shaw. Worse, Matt Barkley looked like the Matt Barkley of his freshman year, and that's not good. USC's schedule down the stretch is not too good either, and with only two more games against currently ranked teams -- albeit two top-10 teams in Oregon and Notre Dame -- the Trojans might not have enough just to get back into the national title picture.