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Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota discusses being able to enjoy some time at Disneyland before Oregon's playoff game against Florida State.
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Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston discusses his team's mindset heading into its game against Oregon and going up against fellow Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota.
EUGENE, Ore. -- Brian Kelly couldn’t answer it. Paul Johnson couldn’t answer it. Al Golden couldn’t answer it.

No one has been able to answer it. It’s a question that -- so far this season -- has stumped every coach who has been asked it: How do you stop a player whose best statistic is, simply, winning?

That’s exactly what FSU quarterback Jameis Winston is best at.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston (5) on the field before the game
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsJameis Winston is 26-0 in his collegiate career.
Winston hasn’t been a prolific passer this year. He has completed 65.4 percent while throwing 17 interceptions to 24 touchdowns. None of those numbers is as good as they were last year when he won the Heisman.

In most statistical categories Winston doesn’t even rank in the top 15 nationally.

But there’s one thing -- and really, it’s the only important thing -- that he has proven this season to be better at that any other quarterback: winning. And Oregon is hoping that by Thursday the Ducks will have the answer to the Jameis question.

“He’s a winner, no matter what anybody else says,” Oregon cornerback Troy Hill said of Winston. “He’s a winner -- that’s what I respect. I respect his ability to win and clench games and not feel that pressure.”

Five times this season, the Seminoles were tied or trailed an opponent going into the fourth quarter. Three times this season FSU has trailed by at least two touchdowns. By comparison, Oregon has trailed going into the fourth quarter only once and never has trailed by more than 10 points.

But each of the times that FSU has been down Winston has shown the ability to rally himself and his teammates from the deficit. Not only does he come up big for the Seminoles, he does it without fail.

  • Notre Dame: The Irish went up 27-24 with just under 12 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. On the ensuing drive Winston completed 5-of-6 passes for 64 yards and Karlos Williams scored from 1 yard (set up by Winston’s terrific passing).
  • Louisville: The Cardinals went up 21-7 at halftime. In the first half Winston averaged 5.1 yards per pass attempt. In the second half he completed 15-of-25 passes for 284 yards, averaging 11.4 yards per attempt -- more than twice his first-half average. The Seminoles outscored Louisville 35-10 in the second half.
  • Miami: With just over five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter Florida State trailed 26-23. On the ensuing possession Winston completed 2-of-3 passes for 31 yards, setting up a 26-yard touchdown run from Dalvin Cook. Leading up to that drive, Winston had averaged 7 yards per pass attempt, on that drive he averaged 10.3 yards per pass attempt.
  • Boston College: They were tied up at 17 leading into the fourth quarter. The Eagles got within field goal range but missed the field goal, giving FSU a chance to go up with just under five minutes remaining. On that possession Winston completed 3-of-3 passes for 33 yards. Leading up to that drive he averaged 8.6 yards per pass attempt. On the game winning drive he averaged 11 yards per attempt.

His ability to win games is unmatched this season and certainly something that gives Oregon -- which saw its fair share of ups and downs at the beginning of the year -- some pause.

It has even garnered the recognition of Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota.

“Whenever they’re down, he’s going to make that play for them to win that game,” Mariota said. “He’s that type of player.”

The Oregon defense respects Winston’s rare ability just as much as Mariota.

“It’s a different trait,” defensive lineman Arik Armstead said of Winston’s winning abilities. “A lot of players play well in the clutch and he’s one of those guys who finds a way to win.”

So what’s the key?

“Throughout the game we have to find a way to finish toward the end of the game,” Armstead said. “Even if we jump out early or it’s a fight game going back and forth, we’ve got to find a way to finish at the end of the game.”

Easier said than done. But if the Ducks can do it, they not only will earn a spot in the national title game, they will be the first to answer that question in two years.
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Cousin Sal sits down with Neil Everett to makes his picks for Week 17 in the NFL.

Does defense still win titles?

December, 27, 2014
Dec 27
12:31
AM ET
[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesAlabama coach Nick Saban notes that it's still important to be able to stop people at key times, despite the emergence of high-scoring offenses across college football.

A week into the 2014 season, one that would prove memorable on a multitude of fronts, Alabama coach Nick Saban mused that college football had changed more in these past couple of years than he could ever remember since he started coaching.

It was his way of saying the offensive revolution had taken hold of the sport like never before, which was only magnified by 55 FBS teams averaging more than 30 points per game, and hurry-up, spread offenses spitting out the kind of numbers that would make even the most rabid Xbox gamers blush.

Look around. It's an offensive world right now in college football. Even Saban's Crimson Tide spread it out some this season under first-year offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin and dared to join the "fastball" ranks, as Saban was fond of calling the hurry-up offenses in the past.

The four teams in the first-ever College Football Playoff all average more than 34 points per game. Oregon has won eight straight games and scored more than 40 points in all eight contests. Ohio State exploded for 59 points in its 59-0 destruction of Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game, and like Oregon, is in the top five nationally in scoring offense. Both are averaging more than 45 points per game.


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Happy Friday Day After Christmas. Hope you got everything you wanted and didn't drink too much egg nog.

And, no, your gift to me has not yet arrived. Sure it will be here soon.

Follow me on Twitter here.

To the notes!

Matt from Sunnyvale, Calif., writes: While eight of the Pac-12 teams are in the midst of bowl season, the other four are prepping for the holidays. In analyzing the conference's "worst" team (according to thy mighty power rankings), how would the Buffs have stacked up in any of the other Power 5 conferences this year? Besides playing in the SEC West, I think they could have an extra 2-4 wins under their belts in the ACC or Big Ten. How do the Buffs matchup to the Kansases, Purdues or Wake Forests of the Power-5 conferences? Bonus question: Clancy Pendergast has to get a look for DC at CU, no? Would be a great addition!

Ted Miller: If Colorado hired Clancy Pendergast it would instantaneously upgrade its defense, a schematic equivalent of checkers to chess, no question. Guessing he'll have some options this offseason, though.

The first part of your question is interesting, though I may extrapolate on it my own way -- as I am wont to do.

When you ask, "How would the Buffs have stacked up in any of the other Power-5 conferences this year?" my overriding thought is the Buffs would have been far better off as long as they didn't play in the SEC West. In the SEC East, ACC, Big 12 and Big Ten, the Buffs would have won more games. They lost four Pac-12 games this season by five points or less, and two of those defeats were to teams that remain nationally ranked.

In fact, we're going to crown Colorado the best worst Power-5 conference team.

In the interest of fairness, here are the candidates.
  • Wake Forest (3-9, 1-7 ACC): Ranked 127th in the nation in points per game (14.8) and rushing yards per game (39.9). Lost to Louisiana Monroe. Best win was 6-3 in double-overtime over Virginia Tech.
  • Purdue (3-9, 1-7 Big Ten): Lost to Central Michigan. Best win was at Illinois. Lost six straight to finish season.
  • Iowa State (2-10, 0-9 Big 12): Lost to North Dakota State. Gave up 38.8 points per game, which ranked 118th in nation. Best win at Iowa 20-17. Lost six straight to finish season.
  • Vanderbilt (3-9 0-8 SEC):Lost to Temple. Ranked 106th in the nation or worse in passing yards, rushing yards, points for and points against. Best win? Massachusetts?
  • Colorado (2-10, 0-9 Pac-12): Lost to Colorado State. Ranked 120th in the nation in points allowed (39.0 -- yeah, time to change coordinators). Best win? Hawaii.

Among those five, we'd rank Colorado first, Iowa State second, Purdue fourth, Wake Forest third and Vanderbilt fifth.

Bruce from Salt Lake City writes: If you could create a bowl this year -- we will call it TEDwrites Bowl -- and pit two Pac-12 teams against each other, which matchup would you like to see (again)? Also, what are the big plans for the summer?

Ted Miller: If I could replay one game this year it would be Stanford at Notre Dame. I can't help but wonder if the Cardinal's 2014 might have been much different if they didn't urp so horribly in South Bend. You could say the same about their Week 2 loss against USC, but the Trojans were a much better team than the Fighting Irish.

As far as matching Pac-12 teams, you'd of course like to see teams that didn't play each other have a go: Stanford-Arizona, Oregon-Arizona State, USC-Oregon and Utah-Washington.

It also would be fun to rematch some meaningful rivalry games: USC-UCLA and Arizona-Arizona State.

But if I were to pitch a Pac-12 matchup for a bowl game, it would be USC versus Washington: The Steve Sarkisian Bowl.

The winner gets a ninth win -- no seven-win seasons here! -- and you'd either get a dose of hush to Husky fans who ripped Sarkisian when he bolted Washington for USC or you'd get a really grumpy crew of Trojans fans dealing with lots of purple crowing.

My big plan for the summer? Other than my evil plan for world domination? Reducing my sanctimony, reading more classics of English literature and caring less about politics.

David from Calgary writes: It seems like another regular season of football has come and gone. With the postseason in front of us, do you think this could be the year where the #Pac12Fans will finally start rooting for the conference as a whole and not just their individual team?

Ted Miller: Yes and no.

No, Pac-12 fans don't seem predisposed to be as regionally united as those from the Southeast. No, you won't get too much cheering from Huskies and Beavers fans if Oregon wins the national title.

But there is some burgeoning collectivism among Pac-12 fans. You see it all over ESPN.com, when Pac-12 fans troll the SEC posts almost as gleefully as SEC fans troll the Pac-12 posts. ESPN, by the way, thanks you for your trolling compulsions.

Beyond that, if the Pac-12 goes 7-1 in bowl games and wins the national title, I'd bet Huskies fans would use that against SEC fans in an argument, as long as they didn't have to say, "And Oregon beat Alabama for the national title." They'd just say, "And a Pac-12 team beat Alabama for the national title."

The abstraction might be palatable, as opposed to the celebration of a specific rival team.

And you can bet that if Oregon wins the national title, particularly over the Crimson Tide, a "Pac-12! Pac-12!" chant will erupt in Cowboys Stadium, an acknowledgment and counter to the "SEC! SEC!" chant we've heard so much over the past decade.
EUGENE, Ore. -- Oregon knew that keeping quarterback Marcus Mariota healthy this season was a must if it wanted to make the College Football Playoff.

The Ducks needed to look no further than last season to see how a diminished (even a mildly diminished) Mariota could affect their game plan and alter how defenses attacked the Ducks.

So from that perspective, this season has been successful. Mariota has been -- for the most part -- healthy.

[+] EnlargeCayleb Jones
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesThe Ducks have been able to overcome a multitude of injuries, but losing Ifo Ekpre-Olomu presents the biggest challenge yet.
It’s just everyone else that hasn’t been able to stay healthy.

First Bralon Addison, Mariota's leading returning receiver, went down in the spring with a torn ACL. Then the injuries to the offensive line started to pile up (and they really haven’t stopped since). Running back Thomas Tyner, defensive lineman Arik Armstead and wide receivers Keanon Lowe and Dwayne Stanford have all missed game time.

And then most recently, the Ducks lost cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu for the rest of the season.

With each injury Oregon’s mantra has stayed the same, as it has with every other college football team in the country: Next man up.

And it's been the same with Ekpre-Olomu. Despite losing the three-time All-Pac-12 selection, defensive coordinator Don Pellum said that the “game plan stays the same.”

“It’s been kind of the theme of our team, I’d say, this year,” Armstead said. “Just persevering through injuries and down times in the year.”

However, despite the multitude of injuries the Ducks have suffered and how good they’ve become at overcoming this type of adversity, the injury to Ekpre-Olomu strikes at the foundation of the team.

With the offensive line suffering injuries and readjusting, the Ducks suffered their one and only loss of the season. But still, that was something that they were able to overcome. And with every offensive line injury and shift, the group became more versatile and able to adjust to a new position and lineup nearly every game.

Ekpre-Olomu’s injury strikes a secondary that had seemed to finally hit its stride. In the final four games of the regular season, Oregon allowed just 32.9 percent of completions to go for more than 10 yards, the fifth-best percentage nationally during that period.

During that same time, Oregon allowed just 44.3 percent of completions to go for 10 yards or a first down, fourth-best nationally.

Now, rather than a player who has been picking up reps throughout the season stepping into a starting spot (like has been the case for the offensive line), it’ll be an inexperienced player, redshirt freshman Chris Seisay, taking over for the Jim Thorpe Award finalist Ekpre-Olomu.

Earlier last week defensive coordinator Don Pellum was asked if Seisay, who has only accounted for 20 tackles (Ekpre-Olomu had tallied 63), was ready for this kind of a challenge in the Rose Bowl.

“I don’t think there’s any question -- we have to go play,” Pellum said. “We have one game. We have to go play, right? That’s the bottom line.”

That is the bottom line.

But the biggest question at that line is whether the Ducks can continue to withstand the onslaught of injuries. Will this be the straw that breaks the camel’s back?

Mariota has stayed healthy. Not everyone else has. Will that still be enough to beat Florida State?

Examining four playoff coordinators

December, 24, 2014
Dec 24
6:15
PM ET
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We all do it, if we're being honest.

With the passage of each decade, each time our ages have a zero on the end -- or even begin to creep closer to it -- we take stock.

Where are we? What have we done? Where are we going? Are we where we want to be?

Often, it's a simultaneously rewarding and harrowing exercise. Even in the celebration of accomplishment, there's recognition that the climb is never complete. The mountain continues to rise, and rise, in front of us.

With that in mind, the magic number for the upcoming College Football Playoff is 39.

That's the age of four of the coordinators coaching in the semifinals: Alabama's Lane Kiffin and Kirby Smart, Oregon's Scott Frost and Ohio State's Tom Herman.

Kiffin, Smart, Frost and Herman will turn the Big 4-0 in 2015, and each man finds himself in a different phase of the wild, weird coaching life.

Their varied career stages illustrate hiring trends and the fact that most coordinators, including these four, have thought often of becoming a head coach.

One has already experienced it. And failed.

Kiffin

Clearly, Kiffin has a different perspective than the others, already having been a head coach in the NFL, the SEC and at his "dream job" -- USC.

Prior to 2014, the "stock" taken was that Kiffin won 40 and lost 36 games in those three jobs. He left Tennessee after one season, chapping fans in the process. He was fired in the middle of his second season with the Oakland Raiders and the middle of his fourth season at USC.

Even at four games over .500, arrogance and failure are words often used in coaching circles to describe those Kiffin tenures.

The silver lining: The guy knows offense. Nick Saban was aware of that, telling then-coordinator Doug Nussmeier to seek other employment so that he could open up a spot for Kiffin.


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Much of the focus leading up to the Rose Bowl will be on the two most recent Heisman Trophy winners, Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston. However, those two aren't ever going to be competing head-to-head on the field at the same time.

Both No. 2 Oregon and No. 3 Florida State made it this far because of the talent littered throughout the rosters. While Mariota and Winston have both shown they have the ability to win games on their own, the Rose Bowl could be decided by a player who has been flying a bit under the radar but is poised to make a big splash on Jan. 1.

Here are a few players that haven't been discussed much that could have a big impact on the game.

Defensive players

Oregon: Chris Seisay. First and foremost, he's going to surpass expectations simply because so much more will be asked of him this game than has ever been asked of him. He'll be stepping into the spot vacated by Jim Thorpe Award finalist Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who suffered a career ending injury last week. Seisay, a redshirt freshman, has only accounted for 20 tackles this season due to the fact that he just really hasn't seen the field a ton. Because of this, Jameis Winston and the Florida State offense are certainly going to throw at him quite a bit more. The rest of the secondary is pretty solid -- Troy Hill, Erick Dargan, Reggie Daniels -- so why not take shots at the youngest, most inexperienced guy?

But that's where I think it'll get interesting. I feel like Seisay could have a huge game for the Ducks. Because he'll be targeted more, he'll have a chance to make some big plays (though, he'll also have chances to make some big mistakes), but I think he's going to pull through for the Ducks. Last week, Oregon defensive coordinator Don Pellum said that the game plan wouldn't change for the Ducks. “We lost a great leader, great player, great spiritual leader and everyone has got to -- it's like a hit -- everyone's got to pick it up a little more,” Pellum said. I think Seisay picks up a lot more.

Florida State: Nile Lawrence-Stample. He likely won't receive a ton of snaps, but any contribution from the defensive tackle could prove major for the Seminoles. Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher felt the senior lineman was poised for a big season before tearing a pectoral muscle against Clemson in September. He played through the injury during the game, but the tear was bad enough that Fisher said Lawrence-Stample would miss the remainder of the season. So it was a bit of a surprise when Fisher said last week that Lawrence-Stample was ready to practice and should play against the Ducks. Florida State has been thin at defensive tackle all season, and the loss of Lawrence-Stample was a tough blow. Fisher said Oregon's tempo wouldn't give Lawrence-Stample any trouble as he works back into game shape, but the 6-foot-1, 314-pound tackle is likely not going to be able to play a significant number of snaps. Still, even 20 snaps in a reserve role could be pivotal for a defensive line that will need fresh legs deep into the fourth quarter if the Seminoles plan to pull off the upset.

Offensive player

Oregon: Royce Freeman. Yes, I know he's already a player that so many people know. But I think he's going to exceed expectations by having his best game of the season. The Seminoles haven't faced a rushing attack quite like Oregon's. Not only do they have to worry about the rushing attack out of the tailback (Freeman), they have to worry about it out of the quarterback (Mariota) and a slot receiver (Byron Marshall, former running back). There's so much to focus on that I think Freeman might get lost in the shuffle just enough times to really crank off some huge runs.

Florida State has given up 3.9 yards per rush this season, but the Seminoles have also given up 69 rushes of 10 or more yards -- that's one in every seven or eight rushes. And they've shown out when they needed to. FSU held Miami's Duke Johnson to right around his season average in rushing yards per game, while keeping him to just one touchdown run and two rushes of 10 or more yards. But Johnson doesn't have the weapons around him like Freeman has. Freeman is playing his best football right now and has averaged 6.1 yards per rush over the past four games. With each game and practice he, along with Mariota and a constantly reshuffling offensive line, are finding better ways to collectively attack defensive fronts and I think with the extra two weeks of practice we're going to see a huge performance -- his biggest of the year -- out of Freeman. Put me down for it: 180 rushing yards, two rushing touchdowns (and one receiving touchdown) at 6.0 yards per carry.

Florida State: Travis Rudolph. The freshman receiver has been brilliant at times this season, dazzling with his footwork and speed. He's also made a few rookie mistakes that have led to Florida State turnovers. Rudolph's talent is undeniable, and the Florida State offense has often looked its best when Rudolph is having a productive game. The Seminoles could use a secondary receiving threat on the outside to complement Rashad Greene, who defensive backs target before every play. Florida State's young receivers have been inconsistent providing help for the senior Greene, who is the most productive receiver in school history. With Greene on the outside and Nick O'Leary on the inside at tight end, there will not be any shortage of opportunities for Rudolph to make a play. Winston has shown he isn't afraid to throw the ball in Rudolph's direction and is not lacking confidence in the freshman. With Oregon's top cornerback out, Rudolph isn't going to have the same caliber of defender standing opposite him either. Even a few catches for 60 or so yards would be a strong contribution from Rudolph and enough to shift some attention from Greene and O'Leary.

Tale of the tape

December, 24, 2014
Dec 24
10:12
AM ET
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As the inaugural College Football Playoff looms, it's time to start the overanalysis ... er, I mean, analysis ... of the four combatants. Time to begin the process of measuring the four would-be national champions, head-to-head-to-head-to-head.

Exactly what factors rank most important when it comes to these comparisons is up to the person who is doing the comparing. Some might want to talk straight X's and O's. Others might want to talk game control and QBR. But when our eyes glaze over during that, it might cause us to refocus elsewhere, to the nooks and crannies of each program that will eventually add up to create the true advantages to win a team's final two games of the season.

What am I talking about? I'm not entirely sure. I'm writing this with one hand on the keyboard and the other hand on a ladle of eggnog. But as with eggnog, no one is entirely sure what will add up to the correct mixture of a College Football Playoff champion.

Here's our best guess in a too-early CFP Tale of the Tape.

Offense

Anyone who paid any attention to Alabama over the last two seasons knows that its ability to move the football received a supercharge this season, as the Tide averaged 490.5 YPG, good for a 1.3-yard advantage over high-powered archrival Auburn. Ohio State averaged an even more impressive 507.6 YPG and was one of four FBS schools to average 7-plus yards per play with 7.04. By comparison, Florida State posted 434.7 YPG, ranked 40th in the nation. So ... where's Oregon? Out ahead like the Road Runner leaving Wile E. Coyote, averaging 546.2 YPG (third in FBS), 46.3 points per game (third in FBS), and scoring 80 touchdowns (first in FBS). In fairness, Ohio State ranks just behind the Ducks in those two last categories, but Oregon's complete body of offensive work is undeniable.

Advantage: Oregon


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Barring any surprises, seven Pac-12 teams will welcome back starting quarterbacks in 2015. Though the list isn't as glittering as it was last year, when 10 starters returned, including eventual Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, it's a strong crew, as good a group any other Power 5 conference will offer up.

That does mean five teams will feature new starters next fall, though that doesn't necessarily mean there will be five wide-open competitions. For example, senior Mike Bercovici is probably more locked into Arizona State's starting job than a couple of returning starters. His potential is a big reason the Sun Devils will be counted among the conference favorites next fall.

[+] EnlargeMike Bercovici
AP Photo/Gus RuelasMike Bercovici threw 12 TD passes with four interceptions this season, and flashed plenty of potential for Arizona State.
Not only is Bercovici a senior competing with four freshmen -- two redshirts -- he came off the bench this season for Taylor Kelly and played well in three starts. He knows coordinator Mike Norvell's offense and owns a big arm that should add a significant downfield passing component.

"I see [playing this season] as a big learning experience," Bercovici said. "Being here for four seasons and, in my fourth season, I finally get to see the field as a backup. I always wanted to prove to my teammates that I’ve been prepared."

He added, "Some of the success I had this year and some of the mistakes I made are all going to help me move on to the 2015 season."

Utah and Washington both welcome back returning starters in Travis Wilson and Cyler Miles, but there figures to be some intrigue this upcoming spring and fall as they try to hold onto their jobs, with Wilson most notably embroiled in a on-going, two-season competition with Kendal Thompson.

Like Bercovici, Washington State's Luke Falk gained valuable experience this season when he replaced an injured Connor Halliday, and he is a heavy favorite to win the Cougars starting job. Oregon, Oregon State and UCLA appear to have wide-open competitions, with the Bruins featuring touted incoming freshman Josh Rosen taking on an incumbent field led by Jerry Neuheisel this spring.

Bercovici was in a tight competition with Kelly heading into the 2012 season, but Kelly won the job and went on to become one of the most successful quarterbacks in program history. That could have sown the seeds of a rivalry between the two, or Bercovici could have transferred. Instead, he and Kelly became close friends.

That is why Bercovici had mixed feelings when he replaced a struggling Kelly in the Territorial Cup loss to Arizona.

"It was definitely tough to see him come off the field as a senior and for myself to come in, but we didn’t really have time to think about that during the game," he said. "Some times you have bad days when things aren’t going your way. It just sucks I couldn’t lead us to victory in that fourth quarter."

That said, he sees the Hyundai Sun Bowl against Duke on Dec. 27 as being "Taylor's game."

"This is the last time he’ll be in a Sun Devils uniform," he said. "I know he’s going to go out with a bang.”

After that, though, Bercovici will be eager to fill the ensuing vacancy behind center for a Sun Devils team expected to be in the South Division and national mix.

"This team knows this is my job moving forward," he said.

Here is how the Pac-12 sets up at quarterback for 2015, pending any unexpected NFL early entries.

2015 RETURNING STARTERS

Arizona: Anu Solomon

The skinny: Though Solomon was impressive as a redshirt freshman first-year starter, he wasn't terribly efficient, ranking 61st in the nation in Total QBR and 55th in standard passing efficiency. So there is plenty of room to get better. The good news is 1,000-yard rusher Nick Wilson will be back, as will a strong crew of receivers. The offensive line has some notable holes.

California: Jared Goff

The skinny: He threw for 331 yards per game with 35 TD passes and just seven interceptions as a true sophomore. If you are looking for a player who could breakout as a national name next fall, Goff might be your man. He has an NFL future. He also has a strong supporting cast coming back on offense -- nine returning starters -- including a deep and talented group of receivers.

Colorado: Sefo Liufau

The skinny: He passed for a school-record 28 touchdowns, but also led the Pac-12 with 15 interceptions and was briefly benched late in the season. That said, the true sophomore has talent and will likely improve as a third-year starter as the young players around him grow up. It also would help him and the Buffs if receiver Nelson Spruce returns for his senior year instead of entering the draft.

Stanford: Kevin Hogan

The skinny: Hogan ranked sixth in the Pac-12 in QBR, despite being a third-year starter with a strong group of experienced receivers. Though the Cardinal running game and offensive line was a disappointment, there were plenty of times when Hogan was inconsistent in terms of both throwing and decision-making. What Stanford wants is for Hogan to return for his senior year and play like he did against California and UCLA for an entire season. Coach David Shaw said Hogan, who was dealing with tough family situation during the season, would be the starter if he returned and wouldn't face a challenge from touted freshman Keller Chryst.

USC: Cody Kessler

The skinny: If he opts to return for his senior season, Kessler will be an All-American candidate after throwing for 36 TDs with just four interceptions and ranking sixth in the nation in QBR. If there is one criticism of Kessler, it is that he feasted on inferior foes, but didn't turn in an A-list performance against ranked teams, most notably an ineffective showing against UCLA. He should greatly benefit from the maturation of a number of young but talented players forced into action this fall, most notably on the offensive line.

Utah: Travis Wilson

The skinny: This might be the Pac-12's most interesting quarterback situation. Wilson is set to become a four-year starter, but he also might not return to the Utes for his final season. That's because coaches might want to go with Kendal Thompson, who briefly replaced Wilson in the starting lineup before getting hurt. If that's the case, Wilson can transfer with no penalty, because he is set to graduate in 2015. Utah looks like it's going to be stacked on both sides of the ball next fall -- 16 other position-player starters are set to return -- but quarterback remains the issue, as it has since Utah joined the Pac-12.

Washington: Cyler Miles

The skinny: Miles also could face a challenge for his starting spot, though the rising junior also flashed ability at times while doing a good job of protecting the football -- see just three interceptions -- and played better the second half of the season. And who might provide a legitimate challenge, as no other quarterback on the roster appears capable of unseating him. It will be interesting to see how quickly touted incoming freshman Jake Browning picks things up this spring.

2015 COMPETITIONS*

Arizona State: Mike Bercovici, Sr; Manny Wilkins, RFr; Coltin Gerhart, RFr.; Brady White, Fr.; Bryce Perkins, Fr.

The skinny: Bercovici is more certain here than a couple of the conference's returning starters. He gained valuable experience this season replacing an injured Kelly, throwing 12 TDs with four interceptions, and flashed plenty of potential, including A-list arm strength. Though the Sun Devils have stocked up on young quarterbacks, including a pair of touted incoming freshmen, Bercovici is almost a certainty here.

Oregon: Jeff Lockie, Jr.; Ty Griffin, RSo.; Taylor Alie, RSo.; Morgan Mahalak, RFr., Travis Waller, Fr

The skinny: Lockie was Mariota's backup this season and has thrown 30 passes in his career -- one TD! -- which means he will have more experience than Mariota did when he took over as a redshirt freshman. It also was a strong indicator of a pecking order when Jake Rodrigues and Damion Hobbs opted to transfer after spring practices, as they were both behind Lockie. Both Alie and Mahalak, however, have skills, and Waller is expect to be around this spring to join the fray. And perhaps there will be a wild-card transfer?

Oregon State: Luke Del Rio, So.; Brent VanderVeen, Jr., Nick Mitchell, RFr.; Marcus McMaryion, RFr., Kyle Kempt, RSo.

The skinny: This one is wide open. Not only is there no clear leader, but you also have a new coaching staff under Gary Andersen with new schemes. VanderVeen started the season as Sean Mannion's backup, but Del Rio took over that spot about three game into the season. He threw 18 passes in mop-up duty, making him the only Beavers quarterback with any game experience. Might Andersen try to lure away Austin Kafentzis, a four-star quarterack from Sandy, Utah, from his commitment to Wisconsin, where Kafentzis originally planned to enroll early to play for Andersen? And what about James Pensyl, a 6-foot-7 hurler from Land O'Lakes, Florida, who committed to Mike Riley?

UCLA: Jerry Neuheisel, Jr., Asiantii Woulard, RSo.; Mike Fafaul, RJr., Aaron Sharp, RFr., Josh Rosen, Fr.

The skinny: Neuheisel was Brett Hundley's backup this season, and came off the bench to lead the Bruins past Texas. He is a capable, charismatic guy who probably relishes the idea of being counted out by many due to the arrival of Rosen. Rosen, however, is the guy many will be watching. Perhaps the best quarterback in the 2015 recruiting class, he will participate in spring practices when he can immediately put himself into the mix.

Washington State: Luke Falk, RSo.; Peyton Bender, RFr.; Tyler Hilinski, Fr.

The skinny: Falk started fast then faded a bit after coming off the bench to replace the injured Connor Halliday, but he is the overwhelming favorite here. In four games, he threw for 1,859 yards with 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions, with six of those picks coming in his last two games. Still, he didn't look like a walk-on. He looked like an A-list redshirt freshman suddenly thrust into action who was struggling against good teams. Coach Mike Leach won't make it seem like Falk is locked in during spring practice, but it's his job to lose.

*Listed year in school is for 2015

Mariota named AP player of year

December, 23, 2014
Dec 23
12:35
PM ET

The only thing left for Marcus Mariota to win at Oregon is the national championship.

The Ducks' star quarterback is The Associated Press college football player of the year, adding yet another honor to his spectacular season.

Mariota won the AP vote in the same landslide fashion he won the Heisman Trophy. He received 49 of the 54 votes submitted by the AP Top 25 media panel. Alabama receiver Amari Cooper drew three votes. Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon and Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston had one vote each.

Mariota is the first Oregon player to win AP player of the year, which was first awarded in 1998, and the eighth quarterback to win it in the last nine years.

The junior has also won the Maxwell Award and Walter Camp player of the year, and the Davey O'Brien and Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, which go to the top quarterbacks in the country.

Oregon will face Florida State and last year's Heisman winner and AP player of the year, Winston, in the College Football Playoff semifinals on Jan. 1 at the Rose Bowl. The winner will face Alabama or Ohio State in the national championship game Jan. 12 at AT&T Stadium in North Texas.

With his combination of speed and a strong arm, Mariota is a play of the day waiting to happen.

He set a Pac-12 record by accounting for 53 touchdowns, including 38 TD passes. He is the highest rated passer in the country (186.33) and has thrown for 3,783 yards and just two interceptions.

"He's an absolute competitor, an incredible perfectionist," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said.


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FreemanSteve Dykes/Getty ImagesKwame Mitchell, seen in the background to the right of Royce Freeman, is often racing down the sideline, trying to keep pace with Oregon's offense.
EUGENE, Ore. -- There's a good chance even the most devout Oregon fans don't know about one of the most crucial elements of the Ducks' up-tempo offense.

Well, let's take that back. There's a good chance they've seen him and could recognize him on the street, but they have no idea who he is.

His name is Kwame Mitchell -- you know, the guy with the partially bleached Gumby haircut who is typically seen whipping up and down the sideline in formation with Marcus Mariota and the rest of the Oregon offense. Although Red Lightning -- Florida State's Internet-famous manager -- is the more famous ball boy in this Rose Bowl matchup, Mitchell should be known just the same.

Mitchell, a senior Environmental Science major at Oregon, stumbled upon the job. He left his hometown of San Jose, California, and assumed he'd join a fraternity once he got to Eugene. But during the first football game of his freshman year (the Ducks lost to No. 4 LSU), he realized he wanted to be involved with Oregon football, even though he had never played the sport.

[+] EnlargeKwame Mitchell
Courtesy of Kwame MitchellKwame Mitchell takes his job seriously and works out to keep up with the speed of the Ducks' offense.
He made a few phone calls and learned he could "try out" during the spring season, with the final exam the spring game.

It was more nerve-wracking than any basketball tryout he had been part of and more exhausting than most, as well, but he passed and was named to the team's group of managers. More importantly, at least to his parents, he was put on scholarship by the university.

That's when the hard work began. Mitchell learned quickly that fall camp was far less relaxed than spring ball, and when the tempo of the offense falls on the shoulders of the guy on the sideline with the ball (meaning Mitchell), he better not be anything less than perfect.

"I have to be on point because coach [Mark] Helfrich will get on me if I'm not on top of this," Mitchell said. "I need to be spotting the ball quick or getting the ball to the ref quick because if I don't, it messes with our tempo. If they don't go fast, it's on me."

Mitchell quickly learned how important this was. Although he has been nearly perfect this year (there was that time in the Pac-12 Championship game when the official didn't see Mitchell on the sideline, and he ended up a second slow in getting the ball on the field), Mitchell knows how crucial his role is to the team. Even if other people don't see it, Mitchell knows Helfrich is watching.

"He's a very calm guy," Mitchell said. "But when it comes down to game day, and we have to take care of business, it's business. ... I learned my lesson quick. I'm not going to mess up."

That's not the only thing he needed to do quickly. He quickly needed to get back into his high school playing shape. With the amount of running expected of him during games and practices, he had to watch what he ate and ramp up how often he exercised, just so he could keep up with Mariota & Co.

This season -- thanks to the number of offensive line shifts that have resulted in random offensive line penalties -- he has been running up and down the field with the line of scrimmage more than ever.

The mark of a good ball boy -- with the exception of those who've become noticed for their monstrous sprints -- is going completely unnoticed. But of late, Mitchell has found that has become increasingly difficult.

"Recently people out in Eugene have been telling me I look familiar," Mitchell said. "And I'm like, ‘What do you mean I look familiar? You've probably never seen me in your life.'"

Then most say, well, they haven't seen him so much as they've seen his hair on the sideline of Oregon games. That is true -- the flat top with an angled cut, combined with the bleach 'do make a relatively recognizable combo.

He'll be there on the sideline on New Year's Day too. He and Red Lightning will be dueling it out as two of the more recognizable ball boys for two of the top three teams in the country.

Red Lightning (real name: Frankie Grizzle-Malgrat) began growing his hair out last season and didn't cut it during the 2013 campaign because his team started winning. Mitchell is equally superstitious. Could it just be coincidence the one loss of the season came when Mitchell's hair went from bleached to dyed pink (note: it was dyed pink for the same game the Ducks wore pink during Breast Cancer Awareness Month)?

He isn't willing to risk it.

For the Rose Bowl, Mitchell's bleached Gumby cut will be on one sideline, while Red Lightning's glowing coiffure is on the other.

Although their hair is what makes them recognizable, it's their speed and ability to keep up with their teams that have made them known on their sidelines.
video

Andrea Adelson sits down with Florida State tight end and John Mackey Award winner Nick O'Leary to discuss his success this season and his thoughts on facing Oregon in the Rose Bowl game presented by Northwestern Mutual.
video

Name the Florida State quarterback who beat Clemson in overtime to keep the Seminoles undefeated and alive in the College Football Playoff.

Oh no.

You didn't forget Sean Maguire ... did you?

With Jameis Winston suspended, Maguire did the only thing Florida State needed him to do against the toughest opponent in the ACC -- he won. The inaugural College Football Playoff was shaped by more than Heisman Trophy winners Winston and Marcus Mariota, the Oregon quarterback. While the household names delivered the consistency that helped determine the selection committee's final ranking, the top contenders also had an X factor, like Maguire, who helped along the way.

Here's a look at the stars, ranked in order of impact, whose roles defined the playoff, their sidekicks, and whether or not they can do it one more time this season:

1. Ohio State

The name you know: J.T. Barrett. Once the second-string quarterback, Barrett finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting. Those three picks in the loss to Virginia Tech? Yeah, the selection committee doesn't remember those either. Barrett opened the door to the playoff for Ohio State, but his replacement knocked it down.

The X factor: Cardale Jones. It was his first career start. And Jones, the Buckeyes' third-string QB, was the MVP of the Big Ten championship game after throwing for 257 yards and three touchdowns. That win over Wisconsin put Ohio State in the playoff. Jones had one audition for the selection committee, and he nailed it.


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PAC-12 SCOREBOARD

Saturday, 12/20
Monday, 12/22
Tuesday, 12/23
Wednesday, 12/24
Friday, 12/26
Saturday, 12/27
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
Friday, 1/2
Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Monday, 1/12