In Mark Schlabach’s Way Too Early Top 25 for the 2015-16 season, he had Oregon listed as the No. 5 team.

Six Pac-12 teams were listed in the Top 25 which got our writers talking. Was it too high? Too low? Just right? Turns out Ted Miller thought it was just right and Chantel Jennings thought it was too high.

So, let the Goldilocks debate begin…

Miller: Before we look at what Oregon has coming back in 2015, let’s look at who the Ducks are in the big picture: Oregon has become one of THOSE programs.

Oregon has won at least 10 games and finished ranked in the top-11 for seven consecutive years. It has finished ranked in the top five in four of the past five years. When we write that Oregon is one of THOSE programs, we mean that you put the Ducks in the preseason top 10 without much in-depth analysis just because the odds overwhelmingly favor you ending up being correct. And we all want to end up being correct.

Unless I am picking Oregon football games, but that is another matter entirely.

Now I know Oregon must replace the greatest player in program history, quarterback Marcus Mariota, at the most important position. That won’t be easy. But the Ducks played for a national title in 2010 without Mariota and won 44 games over the four seasons before Mariota lined up behind center. The Ducks became one of THOSE programs before Mariota. They will remain that way when he jumps to the NFL.

Yet the Ducks even merit a top-10 ranking if you don’t grant them special privileges as one of THOSE programs. The offense welcomes back the nation’s best set of skill players at running back, receiver and tight end. The offensive line loses three starters, but it welcomes back seven guys with starting experience. The defense takes hits at all three levels, but there is young talent that might actually give the Ducks an upgrade athletically, particularly in the secondary.

When I look at the likely 2015 depth charts of potential top-10 teams, I see Ohio State and TCU looking pretty darn salty. After that, most teams have at least a couple of big questions, just like Oregon.

But the Ducks merit a high preseason ranking based on what is coming back as well as for their earned status as being one of THOSE programs.

We all want to end up correct, right?

Jennings: I’ll agree with you on one thing, Ted: After Ohio State and TCU the other eight teams are kind of a toss up. But even with that, I’m not sure Oregon should really be in the top 10.

I like how you glossed over the whole “No Marcus Mariota” issue in a quaint 24 words but I think it merits more than that. No matter what way you toss -- redshirt freshman, redshirt junior, transfer player -- the Ducks’ signal caller next year is going to be inexperienced in Oregon’s system. I haven’t been sold on Jeff Lockie yet. Yes, the third-string QB thing worked for Ohio State last season but that’s the exception, not the rule. I don’t think Oregon has a QB on its roster that is as talented as the Buckeyes’ third-string guy (whomever that might be now).

Just look at last year’s Way Too Early Top 25. Of those 10 teams, six finished in the final AP poll of the 2014 season, meaning four did not. When looking at a QB comparison of those two groups, it’s pretty stark.

The average adjusted QBR of teams that didn’t finish in the top 10 was 68.4 while the average adjusted QBR of teams that did finish in the top 10 was 81.3. So yes, Oregon loses its best player ever at the most important position and it’s a position that has proven to be one that keeps teams in or drops them out of the top 10. Show me a QB on Oregon’s roster that can keep it in a game or the top 10 and maybe I’ll take back this point. But I haven’t seen it yet.

Past that, I’m not sold on the other offensive playmakers either. Yes, the Ducks are stocked at running back but at wide receiver? Not as much. I was impressed with Charles Nelson during the latter part of the season but we’ll see how he does once opponents really start to game plan against him. Can he be as effective?

And we’ll see if or how much Devon Allen's injury hampers him. Darren Carrington is a question mark. Bralon Addison missed an entire season which is either going to make him really hungry or really rusty.

Then defensively, Oregon loses its two best players in the secondary, a huge part of its linebacker group and its most athletic pass-rusher. This is not a plug-and-play defense and it’ll be another mismatched group of veterans and youth next year. We saw what that provided this season -- lots of miscommunications with lots of big plays given up.

This year, the Ducks had Mariota to make up for that. Next year, they won’t.
Oregon has firmly entrenched itself in the upper echelon of college football. It is no longer just a team out West that competes with the Alabamas and the Florida States of the world. Other teams compete with the Oregons of the world.

And though a national title still eludes the Ducks, they’ve secured themselves a spot with the elite of the elite heading into the 2015 season. It's a place that carries with it the expectation that a program does not simply rebuild after each season it reloads with talented players waiting in the wings and highly ranked recruiting classes.

Oregon has proven it can sustain its talent level from season to season, but there's an added pressure facing the Ducks this offseason as they begin life without Marcus Mariota.

[+] EnlargeJeff Lockie
AP Photo/Eric GayJeff Lockie is one possible replacement for Marcus Mariota, though a transfer could come in to compete for the job.
Is there any way to classify the challenge this offseason as anything other than a rebuilding effort after losing a player like that?

It's glaringly evident what Oregon is losing and what it needs to replace.

On the offensive side of the ball, Oregon loses five starters from its national title lineup, most significant of which is Mariota, who, to be fair, probably counts as anywhere from four to six starters.

While the Ducks have a plethora of skill players returning, it will be a rebuilding effort to find the next Oregon quarterback. And whoever steps into that spot -- whether it’s a transfer or Mariota’s 2014 backup Jeff Lockie -- is going to be under a magnifying glass. There’s no way that anyone will fill Mariota’s shoes but the difference between Oregon thriving, surviving or hemorrhaging in 2015 rests largely on whomever is going to be Mariota’s “replacement.”

The saving grace for the Ducks is that there will be playmakers around him -- though, exactly how many and when they will all be available to practice is unclear.

If wide receiver Darren Carrington’s suspension for the national title game was in fact drug-related, he could face further suspension. It's unclear when wide receiver Devon Allen will be able to return from a leg injury suffered in the Ducks' win over Florida State. Wide receiver Chance Allen has chosen to transfer, though at best he would’ve been a backup to Charles Nelson next year.

Offensive coordinator Scott Frost has proven playmakers such as Nelson, Royce Freeman, Byron Marshall, Thomas Tyner and Dwayne Stanford at his disposal, but who will be getting the ball in their hands remains the biggest question mark.

Plus, all five of those guys would need to stay healthy, which the Ducks couldn’t manage to do this year.

If there is a silver lining to be found in Oregon’s injury woes it is the experience several young players along the offensive line received in 2014, when they were called upon as part of Oregon's “next man up” mantra.

The Ducks’ O-line personnel shuffles were almost unbelievable. What was the team's most experience unit heading into the season was decimated by injuries, though the Ducks managed to spread that experience around by featuring a different starting lineup in nearly every single game. Only one player started every single game this season. It was Hamani Stevens and, to be fair, it was at two different positions.

As a result of the constant reshuffling in 2014, Oregon’s projected spring depth chart in 2015 features five players who started games. That means something.

“The guys who have played quite a bit should have a level of understanding, a level of confidence,” Helfrich said of the offensive line. “At the same time, they better compete, because there's some guys both on campus and some guys that will be in the mix that will compete their tails off for that playing time.”

On the defensive side of the ball, Oregon loses five starters. Three of the four starting linebackers return, which helps defensive coordinator Don Pellum -- who also coaches the linebackers -- in helping the defense progress faster.

But the Ducks lose one of their best pass rushers in Arik Armstead, who despite only tallying 5.5 tackles for a loss and 2.5 sacks in 2014, has been pegged as a potential first-round pick on athleticism alone. Though there was frustration from the fans with Oregon’s “rush three, drop eight” system at times, it proved to be effective enough as the Ducks gave up 6.8 yards per pass attempt.

Tony Washington, the one linebacker Pellum will need to replace, was second on the team in tackles for loss, but that’ll likely be more of a reshuffling and reloading effort.

However the secondary will be a true test. Three of the four starters this season were seniors: Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Erick Dargan and Troy Hill. Between them, Oregon loses 229 total tackles, 8.5 tackles for a loss, 10 interceptions, 33 pass breakups and 43 passes defended.

That is no small task for secondary coach John Neal and it’s going to require a total overhaul in personnel, leaving freshmen and sophomores to fill in quickly. Oregon gave up 49 pass plays of 20 or more yards this season (there were only 14 teams in the country that gave up more) and if that trend continues, it’ll be disastrous as the Ducks won’t have an offense that can make up for it like they did in 2014.

The offseason is crucial for Oregon and how its program is judged. How much of Oregon's success was due to a spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime player? Being part of the nation's elite means being able to withstand such losses.

Oregon is in that group, but the only thing harder than getting there is staying there. We're about to find out whether the Ducks can protect against a drop-off.
Oregon returned to the top of the Pac-12 after a two-year hiatus and qualified for the inaugural College Football Playoff in 2014. The Ducks humiliated Florida State in the Rose Bowl but eventually dropped the national championship to Ohio State, setting up an intriguing reloading challenge entering 2015.

Position to improve: There's a plethora of possibilities here -- receiver drops hurt Oregon badly against the Buckeyes, and the Ducks' defense wasn't a juggernaut by any stretch of the imagination -- but a massive departure means that focus zeros in on the marquee position: quarterback.

Why it was a problem: Well, it wasn't a visible problem in 2014 -- Marcus Mariota delivered the best season in program history and won the Heisman Trophy while he was at it. But the depth behind No. 8 was a huge question mark, one waiting to strike whenever Mariota would no longer be available. It's rearing its head now that life after Marcus has begun.

How it can be fixed: Speculation that Ohio State's Braxton Miller or Eastern Washington's Vernon Adams Jr. could transfer to Eugene has darted through Twitter, but nothing substantive has backed up that gossip as of right now. Assuming an incoming transfer doesn't answer Oregon's quarterback question mark in one swift blow, an interesting competition awaits.

Jeff Lockie, Mariota's backup this past season, is just one of the names involved. Morgan Mahalak and Ty Griffin are two other current roster possibilities, while touted dual threat commit Travis Waller will be joining the program soon. Oregon hasn't struggled to attract talent to its sparkling facilities. Addressing the gaping quarterback question mark and avoiding the dreaded post-Mariota vacuum is about properly identifying and successfully grooming the great one's successor.

Early 2015 outlook: When evaluating and predicting Oregon's quarterback situation, remember just how much supporting talent the Ducks return offensively: Royce Freeman, Thomas Tyner, Byron Marshall, Devon Allen, Darren Carrington, Charles Nelson, Dwayne Stanford, and Evan Baylis are all expected to contribute in 2015. The cupboard most definitely is not bare; coach Mark Helfrich just needs an effective point guard to distribute the ball to all of that explosive talent.

It must be noted that the Ducks' offense has been the strong point of this program for a long time now. Though Mariota was unquestionably excellent, Oregon was explosive before his tenure, too. Perhaps its ability to reload at left tackle (the departing Jake Fisher proved extremely valuable there this season, but Tyler Johnstone will be back to man that spot in 2015) and cornerback (starters Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Troy Hill are both gone from a unit that surrendered some damage) also should generate some concern.

Weekend recruiting wrap: Pac-12 

January, 27, 2015
Jan 27
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It was a busy weekend in the conference, as 14 prospects made commitments between Friday and Monday night and several others backed out of Pac-12 recruiting classes. It looks as though this could be a sign of things to come, as the conference recruiting race is heating up with little more than a week until signing day.

Pac-12 morning links

January, 27, 2015
Jan 27
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Booked a ticket for tomorrow in Tempe
3 a.m., doing cartwheels down the hallway

Leading off:

Jack Follman over at Pacific Takes broke down the rosters of this weekend's Super Bowl teams to find out where the Seahawks and Patriots are finding their talent. His findings are very College Football Playoff-y. Here's the breakdown, by Power Five conference: 1. Big Ten, 26; 2. Pac-12, 25; 3. SEC, 22; 4. ACC, 13; 5. Big 12, 9. In all, 11 Pac-12 teams were represented, with Washington State being the lone exception. The full list of players, broken down by team, can be found at the link.

Here are a few other Super Bowl-related items as they relate to the Pac-12: News/notes/team reports:
Just for fun:

Two groups of alums from USC's School of Cinematic Arts are finalists in Doritos’ “Crash the Super Bowl” contest, which has been pared down to 10 finalists. The winner, chosen by an Internet vote, will have their 30-second commercial shown during the Super Bowl and earn a $1 million prize. You can vote here.

Here are the commercials from USC's two groups:

Middle Seat

Lemonade Stand

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It's tough to imagine a more exhausting and stressful conclusion to a recruiting process than the one Iman Marshall orchestrated. Over the past 10 days, Marshall has taken official visits to Florida State, LSU and Michigan, as well as hosted several coaches at his home and school. But just like on the football field, the nation's No. 4 overall prospect doesn't appear to be fazed at all by what's being thrown at him.

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CFP Firm On Dates

January, 26, 2015
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Brett McMurphy discusses the resistance from College Football Playoff officials to alter the dates of future matchups.

Pac-12 recruiting class breakdowns

January, 26, 2015
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Here's a look at how programs in the Pac-12 are faring on the recruiting trail heading into national signing day on Feb. 4.

Arizona

Commitments: 28

ESPN 300 commitments: 1

Who they have: The Wildcats hit it big with their top two commitments in ESPN 300 offensive tackle Keenan Walker and ESPN JC 50 defensive tackle Anthony Fotu. Arizona also will add four-star tackle Cody Creason, three-star tackle Harper Sherman and three-star guards Alex Kosinski and Nathan Eldrige to the offensive line. There are a number of skill players on both sides of the ball, including running backs Orlando Bradford and Darick Holmes Jr., cornerbacks Shun Brown, Anthony Mariscal, Samuel Morrison and Dane Cruikshank, wide receiver Cedric Peterson and athletes Antonio Parks and Brion Anduze.

Who they want: There aren't many spots left in this class for the Wildcats, but there are a few important names left on the board. The wide receiver spot could see another addition with Jaylinn Hawkins, though rival Arizona State will put up a fight there. Arizona also will look to continue its run of success in Louisiana, as teammates Arthur McGinnis and Darrell Clark (New Orleans/Warren Easton) are two of the top prospects left for the Wildcats, as well as teammates of Arizona commit Kendal Franklin.



To read the rest of our Pac-12 recruiting class breakdowns, click here Insider.

More breakout players to watch in 2015 

January, 26, 2015
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On Friday, we rolled out the top 10 breakout players to watch in 2015. But we have 15 more, including two more Big 12 quarterbacks (for a total of four), the next great defender at Michigan State and, like our No. 1 breakout choice, USC’s Adoree Jackson, a return game ace.

Check out the first 10 players, then read about the next 15:

11. Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma QB
Trevor Knight was a buzzy Heisman candidate last spring, yet rival coaches were talking about whether Mayfield, if he were eligible in 2014, would overtake him. It was made moot because the Texas Tech transfer didn’t get his waiver to play, but Knight’s up-and-down season has certainly opened the door for competition.

With an Air Raid-based offensive coordinator in Lincoln Riley coming in, Mayfield is perfectly suited to take over -- and flourish -- as QB1 in Norman.


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Pac-12 morning links

January, 26, 2015
Jan 26
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And in the morning, I'm making' waffles.

Leading off:

The 2015 Senior Bowl has come and gone, and there were plenty of great showings from Pac-12 players. Here's a brief compilation of some of the content you can find regarding the event:
  • CBSSports' Senior Bowl stock report of 10 players who looked good -- one Beaver shows up on this list and it's not the one you're thinking of ...
  • FOX Sports made a list of guys who helped their NFL draft stock the most. On this listing you've got a Husky and a Ute (these are probably the ones you're thinking of).
  • Sports Illustrated had some similar praise to that of FOX Sports. SI's Chris Burke writes that "[Danny] Shelton's showing for the North team solidified his status as a likely first-round pick."
  • The Atlanta Journal Constitution put together a photo gallery of the weekend.
  • Former Wazzu receiver Vince Mayle does a video interview for the Senior Bowl.
  • Former UCLA defensive lineman Owamagbe Odighizuwa also did a video interview at the Senior Bowl.
  • Catching up with Sean Mannion following the Senior Bowl.
  • Henry Anderson wrote six "diary" entries from AL.com during Senior Bowl week. You can check all of them out right here.
  • Nate Orchard picked up some MOP honors at the Senior Bowl.
News/notes/team reports:
Just for fun:

There was some #Pac12Trolling happening Sunday as former Arizona State defensive lineman Will Sutton decided to comment on Taylor Kelly and Jaelen Strong's autograph session. Always nice to see a few (fun) shots taken between teammates when it comes to this kind of stuff.

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Also, if anyone has a chance, check out Sutton's photo at the top of his Twitter page. It's pretty fantastic. Especially if you're a fan of The Lion King ...

Huskers' Ameer Abdullah leads North

January, 24, 2015
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[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
AP Photo/Brynn AndersonAlabama native Ameer Abdullah rushed for 73 yards and added 40 receiving in the North's win in the Senior Bowl.

MOBILE, Ala. -- Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah wanted to leave an impression on more than just the NFL watchers at the Senior Bowl.

Abdullah rushed for 73 yards and added 40 receiving while leading the North to a 34-13 victory over the South on Saturday in the Senior Bowl, punctuating his college career in his home state.

"Being down here was much more than putting on a good performance for me," said Abdullah, a Homewood, Alabama, native who had a large group of family and friends on hand. "Leaving this state was something that was hard for me to do. You could write a movie about it, really, just coming back and playing on Alabama soil for my last time as a collegiate athlete. I couldn't paint a better picture.

"It was emotional for me. I grew up watching this game. This was a monumental day for me."

The Cornhuskers' No. 2 career rusher won MVP honors in a game that showcases senior NFL prospects.

Abdullah made the most of his 11 touches, including four catches. He said being ready for quarterbacks to check down to the backs was emphasized.

"Obviously I'm a running back so I'm going to run the football but I wanted just to show that I had more than one dynamic to my game," Abdullah said.

Minnesota running back David Cobb gained 69 yards on 11 carries, including a 4-yard touchdown late in the third quarter.


(Read full post)


Happy Friday. Welcome to the mailbag.

Follow me on Twitter.

To the notes!

Andrew from Phoenix writes: Can this post-season please put to bed this obsession with "ranking" conferences? Here we are, a week after the season is ended, and we're debating whether the Pac-12 or SEC is the best conference in college football. For what it's worth they are 1 and 2, yet, the representatives of those conferences went 1-5 in the big games. So, then what is it really worth? The Big XII took an absolute nosedive as a whole, yet TCU had the second best postseason of all teams, and will be ranked in the Top 5 to start the season. Florida St got ragged all season for being in the "weak" ACC, whose #2 and #3 teams put an absolute shellacking on comparable teams from "stronger" conferences. The Big 10 is allegedly "back" after going 5-5 in the bowl season, but they only have 3 teams in the whole conference (Ohio St, Michigan St, and Wisconsin) with a prayer of finishing above 5th in the Pac South. Didn't seem to hurt Ohio St much against Oregon, did it? So, please try to convince me why it matters that Wisconsin beat Auburn, Stanford smoked Maryland, and Clemson crushed Oklahoma.

Ted Miller: To your first question, the answer is no. No, we can not put to bed this "obsession with 'ranking" conferences."

For one, it's necessary in college football, because we have to make subjective distinctions between teams that don't play each other. Whether it's the traditional national polls, the BCS system, or our new College Football Playoff, we have to rank teams, and how the conferences perform is one of the best ways -- the best way? -- we can do that.

Is it an exact science? No. Is it a way of conducting business that is laden with potential for bias and agenda? Absolutely.

Some, by the way, might argue that very subjectivity, an inescapable historical fact of college football, is one of the reasons the sport is so popular with its fans. Without an objective system -- such as large-scale playoffs used in pro sports -- a cherished U.S. institution therefore flourishes in college football: Endless, blathering debate, fueled by paranoia and manufactured offenses and cherry-picked "facts!"

It's a beautiful thing.

Another cherished institution is part of this: Regionalism. Due to the serendipity of a fan's or, often, a media member's birth location, that region becomes the source of all that is good and accomplished, and every other region is inferior, no matter how informed said fan or media member is on said other region. We all know from our present political reality that actually knowing stuff no longer matters and, in fact, can be a burden when debating with a louder and more pithy interlocutor.

But, hey, I'm not a scientist!

So the SEC fan thinks the Pac-12 is soft, and the Pac-12 fan thinks the Big Ten is slow, and the Big Ten fan things the Big 12 is finesse, and the Big 12 fan thinks the ACC is a basketball league, and the ACC fan thinks the SEC is overrated, etc., etc.

It. Will. Never. End.

And for that I am thankful.


Robert from New York writes: I've seen a lot of hype around USC for next season, and I'm not really sold on why. USC had a losing record against the Pac-12 South in 2014, including a blowout loss to UCLA. They're losing key players on both sides of the ball, and have a coach who has never won more than eight regular season games. Are sportswriters getting excited because they want a brand-name school to be elite, or am I missing something?

Ted Miller: Robert, you sound like some of my Pac-12 blogmates, so you are not alone in voicing some skepticism with the Trojans.

My case leads with this: Among its 16 returning position-player starters, USC welcomes back the most experienced, accomplished quarterback in the conference, Cody Kessler, and he will be playing behind an offensive line that will be the best in the Pac-12 (And USC fans should take heart for that 2016 opener against Alabama, because that should be an epic battle at the line of scrimmage between the Trojans and Crimson Tide). That offensive line welcomes back all five starters, led by senior, first-team-All-Pac-12 center Max Tuerk, as well has a good crew of backups.

Sure, there are some big hits, particularly with early departures, such as defensive end Leonard Williams, receiver Nelson Agholor, and runing back Javorius Allen. USC is going to need some young guys to step up. But finding ready-to-play youngsters is rarely a problem for USC, and, oh by the way, Steve Sarkisian is well on his way to signing what could end up a top-five class.

It will also help that Trojans should be well into the 70s in terms of scholarship players next fall. Though they won't get close to the maximum 85 scholarship players permitted by NCAA rules in their first post-sanctions season, they will be far above the 60 or so they played with in 2014. This will be a much deeper team in Sarkisian's second season.

As for doubting Sark, that's not unreasonable. No, he hasn't won a national title or a conference title, or even 10 games in a season. Yes, there were some times during his first season in which the Trojans seemed poorly prepared, poorly motivated, and poorly coached. You, by the way, could also say the same about Oregon. And Ohio State and Alabama, which went 7-6 and lost to UL Monroe in Nick Saban's first year in Tuscaloosa.

But, from today's vantage point, USC looks like the team with the fewest big questions in the Pac-12, though UCLA and Oregon could quickly counter with impressive clarity at quarterback.

I wouldn't be surprised if the Trojans are in the CFP discussion late into the 2015 season.

Does the USC "brand" play a role in that perception? Probably. But brand names have been pretty good bets over the long haul in college football.


Michael from Corvallis, Ore., writes: With Gary Andersen's staff poaching several assistants and recruits from Utah, not to mention two consecutive games going into OT, is there a chance Utah-Oregon State becomes an actual rivalry?

Ted Miller: Maybe, but it won't be because of any ill-will between the coaching staffs. Andersen and Utah coach Kyle Whittingham are extremely close -- both have said that to me within the past calendar year, Whittingham just a few weeks ago.

Whittingham also doesn't begrudge defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake jumping to Oregon State, because he knows it was a wise move professionally in the short and long term, particularly if Sitaki wants to be a head coach, which he does. Sitake needs to spread his wings outside of what had become a comfort zone in Salt Lake.

Further, being in different divisions, the Utes and Beavers will have a two-year hiatus coming up as the schedule rotates in 2017-2018.

Utah's chief rival remains BYU. Hard to believe that will change anytime soon, and it will be good to see the renewal of the Holy War in 2016. The Utes will develop Pac-12 rivalries, particularly in the South Division. But it will take time for ill-will and turf-wars to develop.

But Michael, if Utah/Oregon State is particularly annoying you, have at those dastardly Utes/Beavers (don't want to assume your preference just because you live in Corvallis).


Wayne from Mesa, Ariz., writes: With the 2014-15 Bowl Season all wrapped up, I was wondering what your thoughts were and what feedback you may have heard with regard to the new bowl lineup for the PAC-12. Granted, it was more of a tweak over the previous 4 years, but still featured new venues (Santa Clara and Tempe), new opponents (2 Big Ten teams), a slight change in the pecking order (Sun Bowl moved down, Foster Farms up), and of course, altered timing to allow for the New Year's Six. I attended the Sun Bowl, cheering on the Sun Devils. The local fan turnout and community support for that game in El Paso was very impressive! I am a bit concerned about the on-going PAC-12 fan support and enthusiasm for the Cactus Bowl. One wonders if this looks like just a late season PAC-12 road game. Local Phoenix news featured mostly Oklahoma State stories, and thank goodness the Big 12 team once again brought a big group of fans and much excitement to Tempe.

Ted Miller: The Pac-12 bowl lineup is about as good as it can be. Pretty nice mix of games against the ACC, Big Ten, and Big 12. Certainly the Pac-12 bowls have upgraded under commissioner Larry Scott.

I know some grumble about the bowl lineup. They want a matchup with an SEC team or a bowl game in Florida, but the SEC has a great bowl lineup, and Florida doesn't have much interest in bringing a Pac-12 team across the country. It's a choice of the marketplace, not due to managerial incompetence with the Pac-12 or some conspiracy of forces to keep the Pac-12 down.

Of course, if there's a business person on the West Coast who wants to offer up a $5 million per-team payout to lure a top SEC team across the country for a new bowl game against a Pac-12 team, I'm sure the SEC and Pac-12 would listen.
Today is the day we finish our countdown of the top 25 players in the Pac-12 from 2014. Obviously, this list is subjective, and though we spent a lot of time putting it together, there was a fair amount of debate in its creation.

To check out the rest of the list, click here.

No. 1: Oregon QB Marcus Mariota
Statistics: 304-445, 4,454 passing yards, 42 passing touchdowns, 4 interceptions

It should come as no surprise that the Heisman Trophy winner (Maxwell Award winner, Davey O'Brien Award winner, Walter Camp Award winner, etc.) is the No. 1 player in the Pac-12 this season. He led the nation with an adjusted QBR of 90.8 (and was the only signal-caller to have better than an 86). His TD:INT ratio of 21:2 also was an FBS-best this season, as was his passer efficiency rating of 181.7. Behind a depleted and constantly adjusting offensive line, he was cool and collected and made use of a group of playmakers that really didn't have a ton of experience. On the ground, he added 135 carries for 770 yards and 15 rushing touchdowns.

No. 2: Arizona LB Scooby Wright
Statistics: 163 total tackles, 29 TFL, 14 sacks, 6 forced fumbles

Wright -- the Bronko Nagurski Award winner and the Lombardi Award winner -- led the conference with 163 total tackles (99 solo, 64 assisted) while averaging a sack per game. He also forced a Pac-12-best six fumbles. Wright is the only member of this season's top five who will return in 2015, making him the early front-runner for the No. 1 spot after the 2015 season.

No. 3: Utah DE Nate Orchard
Statistics: 84 tackles, 21 TFL, 18.5 sacks, 2 QBH

There might not be another player in the Pac-12 who made as big of a jump on defense as Orchard did. As a junior he registered 50 total tackles, including nine tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks. His tackles for loss and sack numbers more than doubled over the past season as he faced even stiffer competition. The Utah defense became one of the biggest storylines of the season, thanks in large part to Orchard and his pass-rushing ability. With the Utes offense struggling and becoming more one-dimensional (due to injury) as the season went on, the defense became even more important and Orchard continued to step up. His presence will be sorely missed by Kyle Whittingham, but his mark on the Utah program is one that will last a very long time.

No. 4: USC DE Leonard Williams
Statistics: 80 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 7 sacks, 1 interception, 1 QBH

Williams, one of the nation's top NFL draft prospects, had a terrific junior season at USC. He missed some time due to injury but was still one of the most feared defensive players in a league stocked full of quarterback talent. He has the talent to play anywhere on the defensive line, which will make his pro career an interesting one, but his college career was one that won't be forgotten soon. Williams tallied 218 tackles, including 36.5 for loss, with 21 sacks.

No. 5: Washington LB Shaq Thompson
Statistics: 61 carries, 456 rushing yards, 2 rushing touchdowns | 81 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 interception

This winter, Thompson won the Paul Hornung Award, given to the nation's most versatile player, and rightfully so. He was a playmaker on both the offensive and the defensive side of the ball for the Huskies. He scored six touchdowns -- two rushing, one interception return and three fumble returns. Thompson finished the year as a first-team All-American, as well as becoming the first player to become a double honoree as a first-team All-Pac-12 player on both defense and special teams. Filling Thompson's shoes is going to be one tough task for Chris Petersen. It's pretty rare that one player can fill so many needs, but Petersen will now have to look for someone (or, to be realistic, two to three someones) to do the work that Thompson did alone.

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Pac-12 Weekend Wrap: Jan. 27
Recruiting reporter Erik McKinney discusses top recruiting news from the Pac-12.
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