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Highlighted by the top ten matchup between Oregon and Michigan State in week two, Chris Low and Cary Chow look at the best of the best games to start the college football season.
The USC Trojans held a full live scrimmage on Monday night at the Coliseum and came away with the kind of positive impressions you want from the final scrimmage of fall camp.

The opening part of the session featured the first-team offense against the second-team defense and the first-team defense against the second-team offense. The first-team offense scored touchdowns on its first two possessions, one each by Tre Madden and Buck Allen, who had help from a long Randall Telfer run after a catch on a pass from Cody Kessler. Allen added a second touchdown on a pass reception from Kessler and Jalen Greene also ran for a score.

Anthony Sarao talks Trojans' camp 

August, 18, 2014
Aug 18
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LOS ANGELES -- If USC Trojans junior inside linebacker Anthony Sarao looks a little East Coast angry, it's because the New Jersey native and the rest of his teammates are trying to get through what head coach Steve Sarkisian affectionately calls the "dog days of camp.”

"We've got through the first week of two-a-days, and once you get past the first two-a-days, everybody starts getting grumpy,” Sarao said. "We hit the same people, but even if you're hitting the same people, you still have to keep a smile on your face.”

[+] EnlargeAnthony Sarao
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsUSC linebacker Anthony Sarao started the final seven games of 2013 and recorded 44 tackles for the season.
Sarao says the Trojans coaching staff understands the challenges of the "dog days” of camp, and has warned the Men of Troy that they won't get much compassion from any upcoming and potential opponents.

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Frank Beamer says it has never crossed his mind. Al Golden wasn’t sure if it was already happening at the high school level.

They’re not the only two college coaches who didn’t know what to think when asked about prep quarterbacks who -- before stepping on campus -- were already equipping themselves to use the graduate transfer rule in a worst-case scenario.

"You know, I've never thought of that,” Beamer said. “I'm not saying that that's not possible.”

This offseason, Beamer and Golden have taken advantage of the graduate transfer rule. It's a rule that -- for the most part -- allows players who have graduated early from college but have not exhausted their eligibility to transfer to another school without sitting out a year. Virginia Tech brought in Michael Brewer (Texas Tech), and Golden signed Jake Heaps (Kansas). Boston College coach Steve Addazio also brought in a graduate quarterback in Tyler Murphy, and even Alabama, which grabbed Jacob Coker from Florida State, made use of the rule made famous by Russell Wilson when he left NC State for Wisconsin in 2011.

[+] EnlargeBlake Barnett
Tom Hauck for Student SportsAlabama 2015 QB commitment Blake Barnett plans to graduate in three years, giving him the option of transferring without penalty as early as possible if things don't work out with the Crimson Tide.
A large contingency of coaches either haven’t put much thought into the idea of high school quarterbacks preparing for Plan B or don’t believe college football has reached that point -- “I think it's looking too far down the road,” Addazio said -- but the truth is the latest cycle of prep stars are acutely aware of all their options. It’s manifested itself after an offseason in which nine FBS quarterbacks, according to a list compiled by CBSSports.com’s Jeremy Fowler, are eligible to play immediately at their new schools, thanks to their use of the graduate transfer rule.

Blake Barnett is a five-star Alabama commitment. The No. 2 quarterback nationally in the ESPN 300 is possibly in line to be one of the sport’s upcoming superstars. His father, Lance, said his son is prepared to compete for the Crimson Tide’s starting job in 2015 as a freshman and is not intimidated by the Tide’s collection of elite high school signal-callers.

But the Barnetts also understand only one quarterback per team is on the field at a time, so graduating in three years is the plan for Barnett.

“The faster he can get his degree, the better off he is,” Lance said. “God forbid you have to transfer, or you can go to the NFL, or he can work on his master’s. ... You always have to prepare for situations that come your way down the road. Hopefully, [transferring] is a situation he doesn’t see himself in. ... Get your degree as soon as possible, and worry after that. You’re not penalized then.”

Ricky Town is one of two 2015 quarterback commits to USC. His father, Rick, said his son “loves USC, and you couldn’t pry him away,” but he is keeping an eye out for his son’s best interests long-term. The Towns envision Ricky graduating from USC in three years, which gives him the same three options: NFL, master’s degree or transfer.

Rick said he first became aware of the graduate transfer rule within the past year when he read reports that Coker was looking to transfer using the graduate rule. Coincidentally, Coker announced he was transferring to Alabama days before Town flipped from the Tide to the Trojans.

“You always plan ahead and explore more exit strategies, and the more avenues you have the better,” the elder Town said. “You don’t think you’ll transfer in three years -- you set up for it, but it’s not a goal. It’s a bailout strategy if, for whatever reason, things don’t go according to plan. It’s a business. That’s the bottom line.”

Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher had two quarterbacks transfer over a nine-month period, Coker among them. The national championship-winning coach was in favor of both players transferring and said it was in their best interest with Jameis Winston entrenched as the Seminoles’ starter.

Fisher said he is not for or against the graduate transfer rule -- it depends on each player’s circumstance. He did say, however, he wishes more quarterbacks allowed the carousel to do a full revolution before they opt off the ride.

“I think it’s better to have patience -- I really do,” he said. “We’re quick to jump.”

But coaches are, in a way, opening their programs to graduate transfers at quarterback with how the position has been recruited recently. Of the top five quarterbacks in the ESPN 300, each could be January enrollees. Rick Town said his family began preparations for early enrollment after the second game of Ricky’s sophomore season. Blake Barnett didn’t begin thinking about enrolling early until Division I attention starting pouring in, but he’s made up for lost time and will take two classes at Alabama during the spring semester.

Most players take classes during the summer as well, and the NCAA passed legislation in October that allows coaches to implement eight weeks of mandatory summer workouts. Between early enrollment and the summer credits, quarterbacks are often on track for graduation after three years.

“Then you still have those two full years of eligibility,” Rick Town said.
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Nearly 90 recruits -- including 10 ESPN 300 prospects -- made commitments to the Pac-12 since the start of June, as the conference recruiting race heated up alongside the weather this summer. Not surpisingly, even with the boon over the past two and a half months, the Pac-12 still lags behind other conferences when it comes to sheer commitment numbers. Many Pac-12 programs have become content to wait until the season, or after the season, to put an emphasis on official visits and commitments. At this point, 35 programs hold commitments from 16 or more recruits, and only one of those -- Arizona -- resides in the Pac-12.


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Georgia has high playoff upside

August, 18, 2014
Aug 18
6:10
AM PT

As I wrote on Sunday, recent history tells us that at least half of the playoff teams are likely to come from outside the preseason AP top 10.

So which teams ranked Nos. 11-25 are most likely to finish in the selection committee's top four? Let's use ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI) to identify the strongest candidates.


No. 12 Georgia Bulldogs

There's nothing surprising about this pick. The highest-ranked SEC team outside of the top 10 is an obvious place to start.


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Pac-12 morning links

August, 18, 2014
Aug 18
8:00
AM PT
Good morning. You might have noticed a little change in the way we’ve been doing links the last couple of weeks. Ted gave you a quick heads up in his mailbag last week that things would be changing. From here on out, they’ll be right there waiting for you when you wake up in the morning.

But on the Pac-12 blog, we’re going to add a twist. Moving forward, I’ll be manning the links in a column format, tossing in some opinion and analysis of stories the Pac-12 community will be talking about. This is a work in progress, so tweet at me with what you’d like to see: quote of the day, tweet of the day, etc. Do you want me to keep the literary and pop culture quotes? Let me know your thoughts.

Without further ado, to the links:

Leading off

The big news over the weekend was obviously the release of the preseason AP Top 25. Half of the teams in the league are ranked: Oregon (3), UCLA (7), Stanford (11), USC (15), ASU (19) and Washington (25).

The exact same six ended last season ranked: Oregon (9), Stanford (11), UCLA (16), USC (19), ASU (21) and Washington (25).

We all expected Oregon and UCLA to be in the top 10. And with the considerable hype Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley have received, the Pac-12 blog wouldn’t have been shocked if both were top five.

Washington should be pleased to be ranked, considering it lost its starting quarterback, running back and Mackey Award-winning tight end. That ranking is a clear reflection of Chris Petersen’s presence, because a Pac-12 team losing that much offensive firepower usually doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt with voters.

ASU should feel pretty good about being in the top 20 -- especially after the way it closed out last season and the departure of nine starters on defense.

Doug Haller offers an interesting perspective on the Sun Devils:
This marks the first time since 2008 that the Sun Devils have made the preseason poll.

Certainly, nothing stinks about that except ... This isn't always a good thing for the Sun Devils. The last six times they made the AP preseason poll -- a stretch dating to 1998 -- they didn't finish in the final AP Top 25 poll.

The Trojans should also feel pretty good about their spot at No. 15. Voters don’t appear to be taking a wait-and-see approach to the Steve Sarkisian era. Sounds like a lot of folks are buying in.

And as for the Cardinal, this is just more fodder for head coach David Shaw to play up the nobody-believes-in-us card, which his team often embraces.

Practice reports
  • Christian Caple offers some thoughts on Washington’s scrimmage.
  • Jeff Faraudo reports Sonny Dykes is feeling pretty good after Cal’s closed scrimmage. Some good player notes included as well.
  • Lindsey Thiry quotes USC’s Josh Shaw, who says the Trojans aren’t ready “for a game quite yet.” No need to panic. The Trojans don’t have to play tomorrow. But after they dispatch Fresno State (yeah, we're going out on a limb), they better be ready for Stanford in Week 2. Love that two ranked Pac-12 teams are squaring off that early in the season. And by the way, Shaw looks yoked in the video.
  • Tough news for the Buffs, who confirmed over the weekend that safety Jered Bell is done for the year.
  • We've been talking about 10 starting quarterbacks coming back. But there seems to be some controversy in Salt Lake City.
Nice/interesting reads
A little fun

The Beavers closed out their scrimmage over the weekend with a little slip-and-slide action. Don’t see Mike Riley on the tarp. I’m guessing if there was a double-double at the other end, he’d be sliding.

And finally, for everyone who has been to San Bernardino or covered a UCLA camp, we can all relate to Ryan Kartje.

 
It was quite the scene at USC practice on Sunday night when kicker Andre Heidari hit a 30-yard field goal to set off a wild celebration that brought an early end to practice.

Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian had told the players that if Heidari made the kick he would cut short practice, which would spare the players a 20-minute team drill in the hot August sun. With teammates lining both sides of the ball and shouting encouragement it was probably the most pressure Heidari has faced since his game-winner against Stanford last year.

"Obviously you saw the excitement from the players to get a little bit of an extra break," Sarkisian said with a smile.

It brought an end to one of the best practices of camp for the Trojans, which Sarkisian noted is not always easy to do when the players know they have a scrimmage coming up the next day.

"It can be really easy to just kind of survive a practice at this point in camp," Sarkisian said. "They know they have double-days tomorrow and a scrimmage at night in the Coliseum but I thought they came out today with great energy and competed from the moment they walked on the field. I was really proud of that.

"I think it shows we have a pretty good sense of who we are right now. We're focused on the details. Today we worked on some goal-line stuff, tomorrow will be 4-minute offense, we've done 2-minute scenarios, we've done special teams with our punt team backed up or practicing returns after safeties. It's not about implementing schemes or any of that stuff anymore, it's about the little things."

Freshmen making an impression

Sarkisian took the time to address the fact that his freshman class has been doing some good things on the practice field so far in camp, and it's not just a few guys either. One of the more notable things about this group is just how many of them are showing well in their first real opportunities as Trojans, something that certainly bodes well for the future.

"I thought we had signed a really good class but you never really know," Sarkisian said. "But there are a lot of guys doing quality work. I look up front and I see Toa, Damien and Viane, that's really impressive what they are doing. Bryce Dixon, Ajene Harris, JuJu Smith and Adoree' when he was on offense, we're just getting some great work out of them. Uchenna and Olajuwon have really improved and we've got some great young defensive backs like Lockett and Plattenburg.

"I've been very impressed by their work ethic as a group, the way they listen to the leaders, they've left a good impression on their teammates, their coaches and you guys (media), I know you've noticed."
Injury update

  • The first big news of the day was that Damien Mama and J.R. Tavai -- who both suffered ankle injuries on Saturday -- came out on Sunday in full pads and went through the entirety of practice. Justin Davis, who also rolled his ankle one day earlier, was dressed out as well, but he made it through just the warm-up period before heading to the sideline for the day.
  • Also in full pads were a couple of key performers on the defensive line -- Leonard Williams (shoulder) and Antwaun Woods (elbow). Both players looked to be moving well through the early drills, and they even came out and ran with the No. 1 defense during the first 11-on-11 period of the day. Sarkisian opted to hold them both out of a late, more physical goal-line session.

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Six Pac-12 teams, led by Oregon at No. 3, were ranked in the preseason AP poll released Sunday.

The Ducks received one first-place vote and were followed by No. 7 UCLA, No. 11 Stanford, No. 15 USC, No. 19 Arizona State and No. 25 Washington.

This is the fourth year in a row year the Ducks have been ranked in the preseason top five and seventh straight year they've appeared in the preseason AP poll.

The same six teams were also ranked in the USA Today Coaches Poll, in nearly the same places. The only differences being Oregon is one spot higher in the AP poll and Arizona State is one spot lower.

The College Football Playoff committee, responsible for selecting the four teams to play in this year's inaugural playoff, will release its first top-25 rankings Oct. 28 on ESPN.
In two weeks the USC Trojans will be playing the Fresno State Bulldogs and Steve Sarkisian asked his team after a Saturday practice in the Coliseum if they were ready.

"When I gathered the team together I asked them two questions," Sarkisian said. "I told them to look in the mirror and ask themselves, 'Am I ready to play a game in two weeks?,' and, if not, what are the issues preventing you from being ready?"

If the Saturday session is any indication there is still plenty of work to be done, it was one of those grind-it-out days following a physical practice Friday night and the mood wasn't helped after three USC players left the practice due to ankle injuries.

"It was a challenging day," Sarkisian said. "It's just the sheer fact of being in the second week of camp, guys are mentally and physically sore and beat up. They are fatigued. But I liked the way our leaders responded today and as coaches we didn't need to back off to make it a light practice. It was a warm one today and guys fought through it, which is good because we don't have the luxury of holding guys out."

Sarkisian did say that he thinks his team is "really close but not there yet" and he referenced a good performance Friday night by the offense as an example of how things are coming together in a positive way. Cody Kessler had one of his best performances of camp by hitting long touchdown passes to George Farmer and JuJu Smith, and those weren't the only highlights of the night.

"We saw a lot of weapons last night," Sarkisian said. "It's not just putting multiple personnel groupings on the field, it's guys who can be real weapons. We've got guys who can establish the run game, which opens up one-on-one opportunities outside and if we execute there it softens up the defense for the run again. We've accomplished a lot in two weeks but there is more work to do, that's why camp is four weeks instead of two."

Su'a at SAM

One of the big questions in the offseason for the Trojans involved Su'a Cravens and the possibility of him moving to outside linebacker in a role similar to the one played by Shaq Thompson at Washington. With similar size and athletic ability the comparison between the two players seemed natural.

With the season-ending injury to Jabari Ruffin last week those questions came up again and Saturday was the first time that Cravens took reps at the strongside (SAM) linebacker spot. Up until this point Sarkisian had said the coaches planned to keep Cravens at safety while moving closer to the line in nickel situations, but now they might look at switching him from different positions depending on the opponent.

"Against teams that play four-wides, Su'a could be at SAM in our nickel and dime packages," Sarkisian said. "Against more traditional offensive teams like Stanford where we are playing man-to-man and blitzing, he could play back at safety. He likes to make plays and be around the ball and we're trying to find ways to do that."

Injury update
  • Three important players for the Trojans went down with ankle injuries during the team's helmets and shoulder pads practice Saturday -- tailback Justin Davis, offensive lineman Damien Mama and rush end J.R. Tavai. Davis suffered his injury during a kick-return drill, but Sarkisian noted that it is not a reoccurrence of the ankle injury that he suffered midway through last season. Mama, who has been taking reps with the No. 1 unit at right guard, went down during an 11-on-11 period. Tavai, who is in a battle with Scott Felix for the starting rush end job, hurt his ankle during a one-on-one session.

    And while Davis and Mama appeared to spend the majority of the day in the trainers' tent with ice on their ankles, Sarkisian said that, at least initially, it doesn't look like any of the players will be out for too long.

    "We had three guys roll ankles -- the first reports are none of which are serious, but we'll obviously re-evaluate just to make sure," Sarkisian said. "But we think that these guys will be back with us in no time."

  • The list of those who sat out practice included Antwaun Woods (elbow), Cody Temple (concussion), Lamar Dawson (knee), Ryan Dillard, Jordan Simmons (knee) and Anthony Brown (elbow).

  • Leonard Williams suited up for the first time in almost a week after injuring his shoulder, and while he only participated in early non-contact drills and warm-ups, Sarkisian believes he's on the verge of making a complete return.

    "We saw a lot of Leonard today compared to what he's been doing," Sarkisian said. "I think we'll see a lot more in the next two days."

  • Another player who has missed extensive time recently, Adoree' Jackson, was able to participate in the entirety of practice. Having lined up at both wide receiver and cornerback early on in camp, the talented freshman lined up solely on the defensive side of the ball Saturday as a precautionary measure.

    "He was a little rusty out there, but all in all his athleticism was great," Sarkisian said. "We saw him on a couple kickoff returns. He's exactly what we saw early on, but technique-wise, when you don't practice that long you can be a little rusty, so we've got to get him back going again."

  • Aundrey Walker (knee) also appeared to go through the whole practice session, although he still wore a yellow jersey. With Mama out, he saw time with the No. 2 unit at right guard. Chris Brown also took reps with the second unit at the same position.

Helton talks USC offense

August, 15, 2014
Aug 15
2:56
PM PT


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WeAreSC's Garry Paskwietz caught up with USC offensive coordinator Clay Helton following the Trojans' Friday morning practice.
The Trojans held a light practice on Friday morning that focused on specific end-of-game scenarios, and they will return to the field tonight for a more physical session.

“When it comes to double-day practices, we like to split things up,” coach Steve Sarkisian said. “We want to have one practice be physical and one mental. Originally we were going to go hard this morning, but we switched it up. We wanted to work a lot on special situations where the offense is behind at the end of a game, or if the defense is ahead. Those kinds of drills on specific situations are so important right now. You will see that in our scrimmages from here on out, we won’t just be calling plays, everything will be done with a specific scenario in mind.”

 The day ended on a high note when kicker Andre Heidari hit a 49-yard field goal on the final play to “win” the day for the offense.

Following a scrimmage Wednesday night at the Coliseum, he team had Thursday off and spent part of the time going bowling and playing arcade games.

“The players are so appreciative of a day off, and I like to do a team activity to keep spirits up,” Sarkisian said. “At first the players were dragging a little from the scrimmage the night before, but once the bowling and pop-a-shot started, you started to see them battle. We’ve got some real competitors on our team and that’s the kind of kid we look for in recruiting.”

O-line update
The offensive line was one of the key areas to watch coming into fall camp with so many moving pieces and injuries to deal with in terms of finding a starting five. The situation has yet to resolve itself through this point in camp. But there have been signs of improvement.

“We’re not quite there yet on the line,” Sarkisian said. “I like the leadership of guys like Max Tuerk and Chad Wheeler, they have been awesome, and I like the way some of the young players continue to improve. We would like to have everyone healthy, but that hasn’t been the case all the time with Aundrey Walker, Jordan Simmons or Nico Falah. The good news is that we’ve been running the ball better, and I think coach [Tim] Drevno has done a great job of communicating with the guys. We’re not perfect, but we’re better now than we were at the start of camp.”

Special players on special teams
Sarkisian was asked whether it's a risk to have special teams drills featuring starters such as Buck Allen, Hayes Pullard and key reserves such as Tre Madden. The roster is limited in scholarships so there is concern about key players getting injured on special teams.

“We’re trying to find balance in that area,” Sarkisian said. “You don’t want to wear your best players out but, at the same time, they are your best players so it stands to reason that they would be the best on special teams as well. If you look at Buck last year, he was really good on special teams so we want to take a look at that. Hayes isn’t a guy who traditionally had been on special teams before but we are doing it now. It’s something we will continue to evaluate.”

Pac-12 morning links

August, 15, 2014
Aug 15
8:00
AM PT
Because, she's your lobster. ... You can actually see old lobster couples walkin' around their tank, you know, holding claws.
  • Rich Rodriguez says that the NCAA's rule regarding walk-on scholarships is ridiculous. Rodriguez, who began his college football career as a walk on, doesn't like how scholarships for first- and second-year walk ons count against those individual classes' numbers while third- or fourth-year walk ons only count against the 85 scholarship total.
  • NFL.com is ranking the top 20 players in college football. UCLA QB Brett Hundley landed at lucky No. 13. Two other Pac-12 players have also made the list -- UCLA linebacker Myles Jack (at No. 16) and Stanford offensive lineman Andrus Peat (at No. 15).
  • Sports Illustrated put USC at No. 17 in its preseason poll. Check out their season preview here.
  • Blood work + football performance results? Can that really tell you anything? At Colorado they think there's a link.
  • Kevin Hogan is the quarterback that most Stanford fans are best acquainted with, but it's never too early to start thinking about who might come next. Here's a nice feature on freshman QB Keller Chryst who has athletic roots all over the country -- from Wyoming to Wisconsin to Pennsylvania.
  • Oregon State will be opening its 2018 season against Ohio State. The Beavers play at Michigan in Week 2 of 2015, so as a Big Ten graduate, I approve this message. As far as the 2018 game, that means that any freshman on this year's team that redshirts and plays for four years of eligibility will be on the team when the Beavers travel to The Horseshoe.
  • Some Vegas odds on several teams and games for all you who have some jangle in your pockets.
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Not even West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck knows what the ideal nonconference schedule should look like in the new era of the College Football Playoff -- and he's on the selection committee.

Here's a good start: Alabama versus USC. LSU versus Wisconsin. Michigan versus Oklahoma. Notre Dame at Texas. Clemson at Auburn.

A plethora of blockbuster matchups have been scheduled for coming seasons, and while it would be faulty to assume they are all a product of the playoff, there's no question programs across the country are strategically beefing up their lineups with the intent of impressing the selection committee. "Strength of schedule" is a phrase fans are going to hear ad nauseum in the College Football Playoff era, as it will be one of the factors the 13-member selection committee considers when choosing the top four teams in the country.

Just how heavily it will be weighed, though, remains to be seen.

"I don't know if I want to give it a percentage," Luck said. "Everybody, they may view it a little bit differently on the committee, but I certainly believe it's important. ... I do think it's something that matters. There are years you may not face the conference heavyweight, or conference powerhouses. In those cases, it will be important to look at what a team has done with its nonconference scheduling."

Virginia Tech, for example, does not play defending national champ Florida State this fall -- and will see the Seminoles only twice through 2024 -- but the Hokies will travel to Ohio State for a nationally televised game in Week 2, and they've scheduled games against Wisconsin (2019-20), Michigan (2020-21), West Virginia (2021-22), Penn State (2022-23) and Purdue (2023). Tennessee, though, has Alabama as its permanent crossover partner, and the SEC has implemented a rule requiring all schools to schedule at least one opponent from another Power Five school in their nonconference schedule.


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