Heisman contenders, breakout freshmen, conference winners -- it will all be covered as part of Insider’s Ultimate Season Preview.
Today’s questions: Will the new coaching staff’s familiarity give USC a fighting chance in the Pac-12 race? And how much better is QB Cody Kessler than he was a year ago?
UCLA is the favorite in the Pac-12 South, and USC’s players and first-year coach acknowledged this week that it’s only logical since the Bruins have won two in a row in the series.
But is there a false perception that the lingering scholarship handicaps could prevent USC from competing in 2014 for the division and maybe even the conference?
Those issues are a hindrance, sure, but they aren’t wholly preventative because of the program’s top-level talent -- and because of the newfound coaching stability.
HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby pursed his lips at college football on Monday and announced that "cheating pays." He warned his quaking audience of reporters that NCAA "enforcement is broken." His conference made a mistake by not including ominous organ music to punctuate his remarks.
A week before, SEC commissioner Mike Slive, after quoting Muhammad Ali, Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela, among others, sternly informed the media that the NCAA better provide the Big Five conferences autonomy so they can do what they want.
ACC commish John Swofford went with snark. Hey, NCAA, he said, "The good ship Status Quo has sailed." If embattled NCAA president Mark Emmert were on stage, Swofford, the likely winner if the Big Five commissioners competed in a cage fight, would have given him a wedgie.
Ah, but out here on the lovely West Coast, we are more sunny. In contrast to his Grinch-like colleagues, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott was positively ebullient as he addressed his gathered media throng. The Pac-12, he told us, is ... awesome. Pac-12 football? It's awesome, too. College football in general? While there are important challenges and changes ahead, it's, well, awesome!
"While I understand the concerns of my colleagues that have been expressed -- we've heard some doomsday and some threats over the last week," Scott said. "I am very confident and optimistic about where college sports is going and some of the recent reforms that we are seeing."
Curiously, the Big Five commissioners are pretty much on the same page and are almost certain to get what they want when the NCAA votes on granting them more autonomy in August. There is a general agreement among the Big Five on goals and how things will move forward. This contrast, then, was more about style and presentation. While other commissioners glowered, Scott and the Pac-12 went with the, to borrow a phrase from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," "let's not bicker and argue about who killed who ... this should be a happy occasion," approach.
Of course, Scott has reasons to be cheerful as he lauded his conference in Hollywood, "the entertainment capital of the world," and celebrated its new neutral site conference championship game at sparkly Levi's Stadium in Silicon Valley, "the innovation capital of the world."
His conference welcomes back 10 starting quarterbacks and an average of 15 starters per team. Several teams are worthy of a preseason rankings, including national-title contenders Oregon and UCLA. Further, there is an impressive handful of Heisman Trophy contenders, led by Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota.
"We had a record nine teams qualify for bowl games last season, the most in our history," Scott said. "Put simply, our conference has never been stronger or deeper than it is today, and that's why I'm filled with so much optimism as we look forward to the upcoming season."
Scott's address, which featured 4,400 words according to the official transcription, didn't mention the Pac-12 Network's inability to strike a deal with DirectTV. Scott was all about the positive. That included celebrating 10 new national titles -- though none in revenue-producing sports -- and lauding the conference's academics and programs for student-athlete welfare, noting the conference would invest $3.5 million in research aimed at improving the health and safety of athletes.
Scott's jauntiness was not without motive, which was notable as he gently chided the media to "resist the temptation to oversimplify these issues" brought to the public eye by the Ed O'Bannon versus the NCAA trial. He and the other commissioners, after all, are trying to pacify an athletic revolt, a storming of the NCAA's Bastille, if you will. While excited about potential reforms to college sports, Scott also again expressed concern about "radically changing the collegiate model into a professional model."
"From my vantage point, college athletics is working exceedingly well," said Scott, who is the highest paid conference commissioner, hauling in over $3 million in 2011-12, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Did Scott mention that the Pac-12 won 31 nonconference games, most in conference history, and went 6-3 in bowl games? But of course he did.
Scott was followed to the podium by Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, who immediately made the typically grumpy media feel right at home again.
Said Rodriguez, "I could be like every other coach in America and tell you how excited I am to be here, but that would be lying. Truth is, I'd rather still be on vacation or meeting with my coaches."
Rodriguez apparently didn't get the memo that everything, including Pac-12 media days, is awesome.
LOS ANGELES -- Pete Carroll had envisioned Steve Sarkisian eventually taking over for him at USC whenever he decided to step down.
On a staff littered with future college head coaches, Carroll had targeted Sarkisian as his successor and even went so far as to try to get the administration to guarantee Sarkisian would be USC's next coach when Carroll left.
What had been a fairly well-known story inside Heritage Hall for years was confirmed by Carroll when he returned to USC in February to speak after winning the Super Bowl with the Seattle Seahawks. As much as he liked Lane Kiffin, Sarkisian was the coach he thought was best suited to lead the Trojans after his departure.
Four years later, and in the aftermath of the sanctions that rocked the program Carroll had built, Sarkisian will look to build it back up, but don't look for him to dust off the same old blueprint Carroll used when he first arrived at USC.
"When I left for the University of Washington six years ago, my final meeting with Pete was actually at the Rose Bowl," Sarkisian said at Pac-12 media day on Wednesday. "We just got done playing Penn State. His final words to me walking out there were, 'Go be you. Because when adversity strikes, the real you is going to come out anyway.'
"I've always held on to that. I really feel like I have. Pete and I are different people. We're very different people. Do I hold on to some of the philosophies I learned from him? Sure I do. But we are definitely different people and that won't change here. You have to be yourself. I think I can be and by doing it the right way, I think we'll be successful."
It's easy to look at the Sarkisian hire as another attempt by USC to re-create the glory days of the Carroll era at USC. There's no doubt Carroll continues to cast a large shadow over the program he returned to national prominence a decade ago.
Biggest football-centric takeaway?
Chantel Jennings: I knew there was a high interest in USC this year, but I guess I didn’t realize how high. The reporter crowd around Steve Sarkisian was about three times as large as for any other coach who attended today (including Mark Helfrich, whose team is the favorite for the Pac-12 title). Obviously, it’s USC and by nature, people will care. But with the program being back on track, a new coach, some exciting players and a new offensive scheme, the Trojans are going to be in a complete pressure cooker. Quarterback Cody Kessler talked about how last year -- and the amount of change and adversity they faced -- will help them this season. Yes, certainly the whole “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” argument is valid. But how much stronger is USC? And are the Trojans strong enough to put up a fight in the South? Are they strong enough to handle the growing pains under a first-year coach? Are they strong enough to handle the increasingly high expectations of the public?
Kyle Bonagura: When it comes to quarterback play, believe the hype. And while, by nature, these types of events exist almost primarily to generate hype, everyone seemed to be in agreement that the quarterbacks have a chance to be considered one of the best conference groups in college football history. That’s not hyperbole, either. There have been comparable years if you take a look at the top five or six, maybe, but to have 10 returning quarterbacks — and so many decorated players among that group — might be unmatched.
Biggest nonfootball takeaway
Gemmell: Oregon and Washington fans might not like this, but the chances their bitter rivalry will grow frostier are slim. When asked about his relationship with new Washington coach Chris Petersen, Oregon coach Mark Helfrich offered this: “My relationship with Pete will be great forever. I’m going to hate him on certain days and some days he’ll hate me, whether it’s recruiting or on game day. But the guy is a lifelong friend of mine and that won’t change. I know that’s going to make both of our fan bases very unhappy.” But it’s oh-so bromantic.
Jennings: The event today had a few different activities set up for the players, including a game of corn hole (for you non-Midwesterners, you’ll know this as "the game with the angled boards with holes in them that you try to get bean bags in"). I, myself, am a connoisseur of the sport and will challenge anyone. However, I wasn’t too impressed with some of the guys and coaches playing today. Especially some of the QBs. You can throw a football 60 yards, but you can't toss a bean bag 20 feet? C’mon.
Bonagura: The conference’s new buzzword is “innovation.” Commissioner Larry Scott used it nine times in his lengthy opening remarks to begin the day and seems focused on using the conference’s home near Silicon Valley to help aid the use of technology in as many ways as possible. He specifically referred to a partnership with AT&T, Sporting Innovations and Stanford that includes the development of an app that will supposedly make more information — videos, stats, etc. — more accessible to fans while in attendance. I’ll take a wait-and-see approach on how innovative this innovation ends up being, but long term it’s not a bad thing.
Best quote of the day
Gemmell: Had a nice little chat with WSU linebacker Darryl Monroe about the fallout from the bowl game and what he thinks when he hears someone use the expression, "Coug’d it": “For me, Coug’d should mean you just went out there and dominated. I don’t understand where this impression of 'Coug’d it' means you did something in a negative light. Maybe the Urban Dictionary should think about rewriting that definition to 'Coug’d it means completely dominated your opponent.'”
Jennings: Can we just insert Mike Leach’s news conference transcript here? (Follow up: Can we just give Mike Leach a reality TV show?) But really, to give you the full experience … I walked up to the media scrum midway through Leach’s news conference. This is the exact moment I walked in. Enjoy.
“The gnats rarely got too hot, I guess. And then finally this one high school coach, as I'm recruiting there, he says, 'Try this.' Now I have big, old fat lips, so it didn't work very good. But he could fire up a little pucker, kind of blow the gnats off, then they had Skin So Soft [lotion], which is big. And I don't know what that is, but evidently gnats don't like it. They rub that all over [their faces]. But it looked kind of oily, you know? What I think is the gnats don't care about it, but it probably puts a little sheet of oil on there so it's harder to bite you. You don't feel the bite. That's just one guy's theory. I'm sure I'm wrong.”
Bonagura: “We've got a brand-new facility that's great, but everybody's got new stuff. Oregon changes it out like Porta-Potties. Like every four or five years like we need a new this, and they go do it.” -- Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez on the facilities arms race in the conference
A couple of things to address here: (1) He’s right. As a whole, the conference has done a great job upgrading its facilities across the board. It’s nearly impossible to get a sense of how each construction project has helped each individual school — mainly from a recruiting standpoint — because it’s about keeping up with the Joneses as much as anything. (2) Who knew RichRod had a working knowledge of Porta-Potty lifespans?
Jennings: Marcus Mariota said he hasn’t made his mind up on whether or not he’d leave for the NFL after this season. Now, I will say that this is a hard case because it’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. If he came in and said, “Yep, no matter what happens, I’m out,” then he’d be criticized. So I’m not necessarily criticizing him for this -- he’s saying what he needed to say and that’s the right thing to do. But the moment it came out of his mouth, all the reporters silently went, “Riiiiiiiiiiiight.”
Bonagura: Agree wholeheartedly with Jennings. When asked if this will be his final year at Oregon, Mariota simply replied: “I’m not sure.” He sounded sincere, too, but it’s tough to envision a scenario in which he’s not beginning training camp with an NFL team at this time next year. Seeing one of the best talents in college football pass up potentially becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft back-to-back seasons doesn’t happen.
Gemmell: Have to agree with my colleagues. It was nice for Mariota to say there is a chance he could come back for another season. And everyone in emerald land just got all giddy at the prospect of maybe seeing Mariota rocking the "O" beyond 2014. But I think we all know it ain't going to happen. He took out an insurance policy for a reason. Enjoy him while you can for now, Oregon fans. Because he's as good as gone.
Which player made a good impression on you?
Gemmell: I’ve long been a fan of Connor Halliday’s play. Is he reckless sometimes? Sure. Does he throw too many interceptions? Yeah. But I also like a guy who will throw a pick and then on the next drive make the exact same throw for a 60-yard touchdown. I like the moxie. And I thought that confidence came through during his podium session. He fielded all of the questions about turnovers and bowl games and still had time to crack wise about his head coach. You need poise to play for Mike Leach. And Halliday showed me a little of that today.
Jennings: Utah WR Dres Anderson isn’t a guy who has had a ton of media training or been in too many situations in which he’s crowded by the media. But even so, he handled it very gracefully. He was energetic, funny and engaging without seeming disingenuous (which some players do when they’re so over-the-top). He told anecdotes without needed to be asked, “OK, do you have any examples of that?” by reporters. He was a player who it seemed was really just having a bunch of good conversations with strangers.
Bonagura: Cal quarterback Jared Goff was in a tough spot last year getting thrown into the fire as a true freshman on a historically bad team, but you wouldn’t have known that based on his demeanor today. Goff was polished, personable and said all the things you’d want your team’s starting quarterback to say. If there were any doubts about how well he’d evolve into a leadership role, there shouldn’t be. With 10 returning starters at the position, Goff might fly under the radar in the conference, but he’s as talented a young quarterback as there is in the country and has a chance to compete statistically with the nation’s best.
And of course, no recap would be right without a series of Leach tweets:
Swing your snow cone. pic.twitter.com/yDxek7JqH4— Kevin Gemmell (@Kevin_Gemmell) July 23, 2014
Mike Leach playing corn hole? Mike Leach playing corn hole. pic.twitter.com/mQAOdu7XBT— JB Long (@JB_Long) July 23, 2014
My heart is so full pic.twitter.com/5E82c8hSXi— Sarah Kezele (@SarahKezele) July 23, 2014
“I really like this football team,” said Sarkisian, whose Trojans were the media’s preseason pick for second in the Pac-12’s South Division behind favorite UCLA.
Some of Sarkisian’s excitement stems from the fact that his predecessor and good friend, current Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, didn’t exactly leave the cupboard empty when he was unceremoniously fired by USC athletic director Pat Haden after last season’s Arizona State debacle.
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Here is the schedule of events for today (all times PT):
- 9 a.m. - Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott
- 9:30 a.m. - ARIZONA - Coach Rich Rodriguez, WR Austin Hill, S Jared Tevis
- 10:10 a.m. - CALIFORNIA - Coach Sonny Dykes, QB Jared Goff, CB Stefan McClure
- 10:50 a.m. - USC - Coach Steve Sarkisian, QB Cody Kessler, DE Leonard Williams
- 11:30 a.m. - OREGON - Coach Mark Helfrich, QB Marcus Mariota, LB Derrick Malone
- 12:10 p.m. - WASHINGTON STATE - Coach Mike Leach, QB Connor Halliday, LB Darryl Monroe
- 12:50 p.m. - UTAH - Coach Kyle Whittingham, WR Dres Anderson, DE Nate Orchard
- 9 a.m. - Pac-12 Networks president Lydia Murphy-Stephans
- 9:30 a.m. - ARIZONA STATE - Coach Todd Graham, QB Taylor Kelly, OL Jamil Douglas
- 10:10 a.m. - OREGON STATE - Coach Mike Riley, QB Sean Mannion, LB Michael Doctor
- 10:50 a.m. - UCLA - Coach Jim Mora, QB Brett Hundley, LB Eric Kendricks
- 11:30 a.m. - WASHINGTON - Coach Chris Petersen, OT Ben Riva, OLB Hau'oli Kikaha
- 12:10 p.m. - STANFORD - Coach David Shaw, QB Kevin Hogan, DB Jordan Richards
- 12:50 p.m. - COLORADO - Coach Mike MacIntyre, WR Nelson Spruce, DT Juda Parker
Salem, Oregon, was in the news after Baylor coach Art Briles made a suggestion that people at Dairy Queens in Salem have now heard of quarterback Bryce Petty, whom Briles is peddling for the Heisman. Jake Trotter broke it down, along with an Instagram video from Petty, who boasted that Baylor has the most explosive offense in the country.
He’s right, by the way. The Bears scored 52.4 points per game last season, and Oregon was fourth nationally with 45.5.
Our own Chantel Jennings took a swing at calling Dairy Queens in Waco to see if they knew who Marcus Mariota was. She went oh-fer.
Perhaps it is the wrong venue. Besides Mariota, the Pac-12 has another Heisman hopeful quarterback in UCLA's Brett Hundley. And we most closely associate Southern California with In-N-Out. So the Pac-12 blog called the In-N-Out in Waco to see if anyone had heard of Hundley. Oh wait, there isn’t one. SoCal 1, Waco 0. (But one is coming soon to Killeen!)
No doubt Mariota and Hundley will be asked about the Heisman, and wacky media days questions are the norm. We are just wondering if Mariota or Hundley will send an Instagram or tweet back to Waco. Your move, fellas.
Speaking of the Heisman, Athlon released its list of 10 Pac-12 players who should get consideration. Five on their list (Mariota, Hundley, Taylor Kelly, Sean Mannion and Connor Halliday) will be in attendance at media days.
Washington linebacker Shaq Thompson is the lone defensive player on the list, but the story also includes five defensive players who should be in the mix but won’t be. One of them is UCLA’s Myles Jack. Don't get us wrong. We love Jack. But as the Pac-12 blog has already noted, we know who the real leader of the UCLA defense is.
Rock the vote
One of the big storylines today will be the release of the preseason prediction. Pac-12 media members are invited to cast their vote on what they think will happen at the end of the season. You can see how the #4Pac voted. (Yeah, that is what we're calling ourselves now. Thoughts?)
A few more ballots from other media members:
- Jon Wilner, San Jose Mercury News
- Ryan Kartje, Orange County Register
- Doug Haller, The Arizona Republic
- Jack Wang, InsideSoCal.com
- Christian Caple, The News Tribune
A lot of folks are thinking we’re going to see Oregon-UCLA in the Pac-12 championship game. The Pac-12 blog agrees.
Anyone want to take a guess at the over/under for times Todd Graham is asked about his defense at media days? Probably the same number of times Rich Rodriguez will be asked about quarterbacks.
But just because the Sun Devils lose nine starters on that side of the ball doesn’t mean Graham isn’t confident, as he tells Doug Haller.
The Sun Devils ranked seventh in the conference last season in scoring defense, yielding 26.6 points per game.
Finally, Tim Sullivan of the (Louisville) Courier-Journal offered some thoughts on the impact of paying college athletes, in light of Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby’s comments Monday. Looking forward to what Larry Scott has to say on the subject.
So which schools scored with recruits for the best food, top facilities, greatest campus atmosphere and coolest uniforms?
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Never gonna give it up, No-Oh
Just don't wake me now
(Ooh, Ooh-Ooh, Ooh)
This is gonna be the best day of my life.
- Catching up with former Arizona and NFL great Michael Bates.
- Arizona State coach Todd Graham is confident with his defense, despite a couple of incoming JC academic casualties.
- California fans can submit their media days questions here.
- Colorado CB Greg Henderson is going to be a rare four-year starter.
- An Oregon recruiting update.
- Oregon State gets a commitment from a Florida offensive lineman.
- Some of Stanford's best plays from 2013.
- UCLA gets a commitment from a defensive tackle.
- USC's summer workouts are voluntary, but not really (just like every other team's "voluntary" summer workouts).
- Here's a best-case scenario for Utah.
- Some thoughts on whether this will be a breakout season for Washington.
- Pick your all-time Washington State defense.
- Jon Wilner has published his Pac-12 media poll ballot.
One player who stood out (offense/defense)
Garry Paskwietz: Running back Buck Allen on offense. The first thing you notice about Allen is how much he has bulked up in the upper body over the offseason. Then you notice the leadership, the once quiet kid from Tallahassee has become a vocal team leader, and he has the kind of respect that comes when other players know you have a unique talent. Leonard Williams on defense. The All-American is at the peak of his game right now and the defense feeds off his energy, which always seems to be positive.
Johnny Curren: On offense, Nelson Agholor picked right up where he left off after an outstanding spring and shined throughout the summer. Leading the wide receivers through their drills each day, he was remarkably consistent, and he certainly appears poised to take his place as the next great USC pass-catcher. On defense, Williams looks better than ever after post-season shoulder surgery. With incredible physical tools to go along with outstanding technique, he was flat-out dominant at times during the 11-on-11 periods.
Most Improved (offense/defense)
GP: Max Browne on offense. Don’t get me wrong, this is still Cody Kessler’s football team, but Browne continues to make the kind of progress that you want to see from a talented backup. There is a lot of talk about the possibility USC is looking at more of a dual-threat quarterback for the future, but at some point you still need to throw the ball and Browne does that extremely well. On defense, I’ll go with Leon McQuay. There was plenty of focus on Su'a Cravens last season as a star freshman safety -- deservedly so -- and the Trojans could be looking at their next big-time pair of safeties with the way McQuay looked this summer. He is filling out on his long frame, yet he is so fluid with the way he moves, we really saw him emerge as a guy making plays on a lot of balls.
JC: Building off an excellent spring, Zach Banner continued to develop throughout the summer and I’m impressed with where he is these days. He is more flexible and noticeably quicker out of his stance, and he also emerged as a real leader. Defensively, I thought Claude Pelon really showed he is ready to take on a big role in the fall.
GK: Given his youth and inexperience, the offensive player that seemed to really make improvements was true freshman offensive tackle Chris Brown. Although he is young and inexperienced, he was very coachable and seemed to improve each time I saw him. The least heralded of the new offensive linemen, he really showed me something. It certainly wouldn’t be considered an insult to an experienced player to be called most improved, but I liked what I saw from senior J.R. Tavai on defense. In voluntary workouts, he seemed to know exactly where he should be, did what he was supposed to do, and looked extremely quick and agile. I was impressed with his overall improvement.
GP: How good Adoree' Jackson looked on offense. If you would have asked me a month ago, I would have said his main position would be in the cornerback rotation while getting spot duty on offense if possible. After seeing him in workouts, however, I think his role is going to be bigger on offense this season. The starting receivers will be Nelson Agholor and Darreus Rogers, but if you’re judging by what we saw on the field this summer, I would put Adoree' next on the list of receiver options, because he is just so dynamic with the ball in his hands.
JC: He wasn’t one of the highly publicized prizes of the Trojans’ most recent recruiting haul, but arguably no incoming freshman was more consistent throughout the summer than Ajene Harris. A high school quarterback and defensive back, he looked remarkably at home at wide receiver. Showcasing sure hands and a high level of athleticism, he provided reason to believe that he just might be able to earn some playing time right off the bat.
GK: The player that was the biggest surprise to me was true freshman Ajene Harris. A former quarterback at L.A. Crenshaw, his transition to wide receiver caught my eye immediately. His potential is very intriguing, and it would appear he has a very bright future. He could be the most overlooked freshman of this incoming class.
Keep an eye on ...
GP: The offensive guard spots. There was anticipation coming into the summer to gauge the health of Aundrey Walker (ankle) and Jordan Simmons (knee). Though both saw limited action in workouts, it wasn’t enough to know for sure what their status is going to be for fall camp. The other options might be inexperienced, but there is talent to choose from with Khaliel Rodgers, Toa Lobendahn, Viane Talamaivao and Damien Mama. At some point, however, those 18 starts under Walker’s belt would be welcome for a young line, particularly with an opponent like Stanford waiting in Week 2.
JC: The USC tailback corps. With Allen, Tre Madden and Justin Davis all in the fold, the Trojans have a uniquely talented group. So long as they stay healthy, all three members have shown they are ready to put up some big numbers, especially with USC head coach Steve Sarkisian having expressed a desire to pound the ball. Allen, in particular, looks to be in phenomenal shape.
GK: This question could be best answered by the offensive line, namely its young group of very talented true freshmen. In Lobendahn, Talamaivao, Brown, and Mama, it was surprising to see how well they were able to hold their own against an experienced group of returning defensive linemen. The freshmen offensive linemen might be inexperienced, but they didn’t back down one bit to their older teammates.
7:30 PM ET Idaho State Utah 10:00 PM ET Rutgers Washington State 10:30 PM ET Weber State Arizona State
9:00 PM ET Colorado State Colorado 10:30 PM ET UNLV Arizona
12:00 PM ET UCLA Virginia 3:30 PM ET California Northwestern 4:00 PM ET Portland State Oregon State 4:00 PM ET UC Davis Stanford 7:30 PM ET Fresno State USC 10:30 PM ET Washington Hawaii 10:30 PM ET South Dakota Oregon