USC vs. Cal: Pac-12, NFL draft stakes are high for QBs

If the first-team and second-team All-Pac-12 quarterbacks were named today, it's likely the debate would center on Stanford's Kevin Hogan and Washington State's Luke Falk, the most efficient and productive quarterbacks -- in that order -- in the conference.

Neither would have entered the discussion in August, and their statuses were further diminished after disastrous season openers. In the preseason and early season, just about everyone pegged those spots for USC's Cody Kessler and California's Jared Goff.

Those two are three-year starters who are expected to be early NFL draft picks, with Goff expected to be the first QB selected in the first round. They also are good buddies. They meet Saturday for the final time in college as USC visits Cal, and the loser's team will almost certainly be eliminated from the Pac-12 race as it will suffer a third conference defeat.

With what figures to be a full house of NFL scouts on hand, the stakes are high, both in the present and future.

Both have had their ups and downs, this season and in their careers.

Goff has led an improving program that went 1-11 in 2013 with him as a true freshman starter, but this season earned a national ranking after a 5-0 start. Now California is riding a two-game losing streak. He threw five interceptions in a six-point loss at Utah, a one-score game that relentlessly tickles the "what-if" bone among Bears fans. Cal is still in the North Division hunt, but it must beat the Trojans for the first time since 2003 to remain so.

Same for USC in the South. USC started the season highly esteemed, but then it lost three of four. Of course, there's been a lot going on with the Trojans off the field, including the firing of coach Steve Sarkisian this month over alleged problem drinking. It's the second midseason firing during Kessler's career, and in both instances the offensive-minded head coach played a significant role in his tutelage.

“This is not how I planned for my senior year to go, last chance to have a good season here," Kessler said. "It’s kind of a lost opportunity to leave my mark on this school.”

Yet there are plenty of opportunities available to both quarterbacks in this game. This will be a side-by-side comparison, with the stakes of staying in or falling out of the Pac-12 race.

One thing that won't happen is one of these guys rooting hard for the other to fail miserably.

Said Kessler, "[Goff] texted me Sunday, said, ‘Great game yesterday [42-24 win over Utah], man. You guys looked awesome. See you this week.’ Or something like that. I said, 'Yeah, man, I’ll look forward to it. Let’s have fun out there.'"

A day later, Kessler noted, “It’s going to be very competitive obviously in terms of that [NFL scouts watching and Pac-12 stakes], but at the end of the day, I’ve known Jared for a while now. We’re good friends. We’re going to be buddies no matter what happens.”

Friends, however, do keep score in competition.

"He's gotten me twice now," Goff said. "I'd like to get him back this time."

At present, Kessler ranks second in the Pac-12 behind Hogan and 12th in the nation in total QBR, ESPN.com's metric for measuring quarterbacks. Goff is third in the conference and 21st in the nation. In conventional passing efficiency, Kessler is second in the Pac-12 -- again behind Hogan -- and ninth in the nation. Goff is fourth in the Pac-12 -- Falk is No. 3 -- and 25th in the nation.

Those are solid numbers, but numbers that don't impress when the team isn't winning.

Cal coach Sonny Dykes isn't putting the Bears' recent struggles on his QB. For one, they've lost on the road to two good teams, Utah and UCLA. Even against the Utes, when Goff was clearly off his game, at least two of the interceptions weren't his fault. Dykes doesn't think Goff has been pressing, either.

“At times maybe, but that’s certainly not his personality," Dykes said. "I think that’s what’s made him a good quarterback. He has confidence in our guys and their ability to make plays, so he just allows them to do that.”

Goff needs more support. He's been victimized by a suddenly anemic running game, dropped balls and inconsistent protection. He does have a fan, though, in USC interim coach Clay Helton.

“Unbelievable anticipatory thrower, in my opinion," Helton said of Goff. "You can tell he’s been around that receiving corps for a while. They’re on the same page. He throws guys open. He has no fear. He is able to fit balls into tight windows.

“There’s two NFL quarterbacks on that field Saturday. It should be fun.”

It will be fun for the winning QB and team, no doubt. It will be interesting tape for the NFL scouts to review. But the losing QB is unlikely to go trick-or-treating with a smile on his face.