Can the Pac-12 catch the SEC?

August, 23, 2014
Aug 23
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Adam Schulz, Leonard WilliamsLouis Lopez/Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesUSC's Leonard Williams is a southeast native. The Pac-12 needs more like him.

LEAVES TO RAKE. Shorter days. SEC supremacy. Ahh, the joys of autumn. Year ... after year ... after year. You know the refrains. The SEC gets the best recruits! (Since 2010, it has signed 37 percent of the ESPN 150 and 300.) The SEC sends guys to the NFL! (It had 49 drafted in 2014, the most of any conference.) The SEC wins championships! (It won seven BCS titles in a row before losing to the ACC's Florida State last season.) But here's a new riff: Signs point to the Pac-12 rivaling the SEC as the best conference top to bottom. As bad luck would have it, the two leagues are the only ones in the Power Five that don't square off during the regular season. So unable to wait until January, we turned to ESPN Insider Brock Huard and ESPN recruiting coordinator Tom Luginbill to tell us how these conferences stack up.


(Read full post)


Welcome to the last football-less Friday mailbag of the year.

Oh. The anticipation.

You can follow me on Twitter here.

To the notes.

Elliot from Oregon writes: Give me your boldest prediction for anything PAC12 related. Don't be shy, Ted.

Ted Miller: Oh, I don't know Elliot. You want me to have an opinion on something and announce it publicly? That sounds pretty scary. What if someone disagrees with me? Or what if you guys start arguing the relative merits of my point and someone gets cross? What if it gets out on Twitter and someone trolls me or writes the dreaded, "Your an idiot" [sic].

Funny you should ask, because we will have Bold Predictions from your entire ESPN.com Pac-12 family -- the #4pac! -- on Tuesday. But I will venture forth with one -- OK three! -- before I blush, effervesce with giggles and canter shyly away.

1. The Pac-12 will go 3-0 against Notre Dame (Arizona State, Stanford and USC).

2. No Pac-12 coach will be fired during or after the season.

3. Ted Miller will be wrong.

OK, I realize the third one is pretty out there, but I've got a feeling it finally happens this year. Maybe.




Brett from Portland writes: Team X is playing in the national championship and you get to choose one Pac 12 coach to coach that team. Who do you choose?

Ted Miller: I can't choose Chip Kelly, right?

I had an immediate response: Stanford's David Shaw. He's been there, see three consecutive BCS bowl games, and he's 14-4 against top-25 teams, best winning percentage in the conference.

Then I rifled through the other options, and the Pac-12 has a lot of good ones. Chris Petersen also has BCS bowl game experience. As does Rich Rodriguez, a guy who really knows how to game plan the heck out of teams with better talent. Not unlike Petersen.

Then I thought about Jim Mora, who I'm not sure won't be the first Pac-12 coach to win the College Football Playoff.

Then I thought about coaching staffs as a whole. Does Shaw get a knock because Derek Mason is head coach at Vanderbilt and no longer coordinating the Cardinal defense? I really like Rich Rod and Mora's staffs. And then I went, wait, what about Todd Graham at Arizona State? Has anyone done a better job over the past two seasons than Graham and his staff?

Then I thought Brett and the rest of you might fall asleep while I dithered on this.

So I'm going with Shaw. Track record. Big football brain. Unwavering core beliefs. And, as a very minor consideration, he gets a boost here for being so accommodating and insightful during interviews.




Patrick from Seattle writes: With a senior-led d-line, experienced and talented linebackers, and a lockdown corner in Peters, how good can the Huskies D be?

Ted Miller: You remember the 1985 Chicago Bears? Well, imagine that unit if it also had Lawrence Taylor.

Go run into a brick wall 10 times.

Done? That's what it's going to be like playing against the Huskies this fall.

It's hard not to like the UW front seven. It's got size with 330-pound defensive tackle Danny Shelton and production with end Hau'oli Kikaha, the best returning pass-rusher in the conference. At linebacker, there is experience and high-end athleticism, led by potential first-round draft pick Shaq Thompson.

While the depth is a little questionable, I'd rate that starting crew the best in the Pac-12. Yes, better than Stanford, USC and UCLA.

The secondary is the question. Peters is an A-list cornerback, an All-American candidate, but the other three spots are going to be young and unproven. Not necessarily untalented, mind you -- see youngsters like true freshman Budda Baker and redshirt freshman Jermaine Kelly -- but you don't know about a unit until, well, you know.

Of course, an outstanding front-seven is a great thing to have when you are young in the back half. Leaving youngsters exposed for more than four seconds can be catastrophic in a league as deep at quarterback as the Pac-12. Not sure this crew up front for the Huskies will do that very often, which will make life much easier for the defensive backs.

As big a question as the secondary is new coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski, who Petersen brought over from Boise State. He's replacing Justin Wilcox, one of the best in the business, a guy who transformed a poor-to-middling unit into one of the best in the Pac-12. Kwiatkowski has lots of new toys to play with, but has never coached against the talent -- player and coaching -- that he will now square off with on a week-to-week basis.

So how good? At the very least, Huskies fans should expect to better last season's strong numbers -- 22.8 points per game; 5.0 yards per play -- which ranked fourth and tied for third in the conference. If that happens, you would have to think the Huskies will be a factor in the North Division race.




Troy from Tacoma writes: Ted, as we sit here a week out from the kickoff of the college football season, and since there are a few Pac-12 games next Thursday, it is safe to say that there won't be a Best Case-Worst Case section for each team. Honestly, reading those was my favorite part of this blog, and really got the blood flowing that the season was near. Just wanted to voice my disappointment with whoever made the decision to discontinue that part of the blog. That's all, have a good final game-less week.

Ted Miller: I truly appreciate all the notes on this, even though it seems a lot of you are angry I -- yes it was my call -- opted to end the series.

As noted before, this was simply a case of a series running its course after four years.

If you are nostalgic, just re-read last year's efforts, and those also include links to previous years.
The USC Trojans came out in helmets and shorts on Friday and took part in a practice session that head coach Steve Sarkisian said mirrored what the team's Thursday workouts will look like during the season.

An extremely light practice that was around an hour-and-a-half long, Sarkisian said that with the opener coming up in just over a week, the primary focus was on working out the kinks and making sure everyone was on the same page.

Pac-12's perfect passing storm

August, 22, 2014
Aug 22
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Athletes often refuse to play along with media storylines, or they simply are oblivious to them. That's not the case with the Pac-12's stellar 2014 crop of quarterbacks. They get it. They know they are good and you are interested. They are perfectly aware that 10 of them are returning starters, and a handful of them are expected to be early NFL draft picks this spring.

For the most part, they know each other. Many crossed paths in recruiting. Others sought each other out after games. Seven of them bonded at the Manning Passing Academy in Tbibodaux, Louisiana, this summer. There's a reasonable degree of believability when they insist they all like each other.

“It’s kind of a brother deal," said Washington State's Connor Halliday, one of seven Pac-12 quarterbacks who threw at least 20 touchdown passes a year ago. "We’re all representing the conference.”

That collegial connectedness means Halliday is perfectly willing to map out the NFL prospects of the crew, even if he opts to leave himself out -- Oregon State's Sean Mannion, he says, is the most NFL-ready, while Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley have the most upside. That chumminess means -- cover your eyes, USC and UCLA fans -- Hundley and Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler feel free to talk about how cool the other is.

The preseason scuttlebutt is the Pac-12 will follow up perhaps its best season in terms of top-to-bottom quality depth with a 2014 encore that should be even better. There's legitimacy to the belief that the Pac-12 might eclipse the SEC this fall as the nation's best conference, and that seeming apostasy begins behind center, where the SEC doesn't have a bona fide proven passer.

The Pac-12? Five returning QBs passed for more than 3,500 yards in 2013. If you give Kessler 32 more yards and Stanford's Kevin Hogan 370, then you have eight who passed for 3,000. Mariota, Hundley and Mannion are potential first-round NFL draft picks. Hogan is a three-year starter who's started in two Rose Bowls. Arizona State's Taylor Kelly, some forget, was second-team All-Pac-12 in 2013 and led his team past Hundley and UCLA in the South Division. Halliday had 34 touchdown passes in 2013, while California's Jared Goff and Colorado's Sefo Liufau were true freshman starters. Before he got hurt, Utah's Travis Wilson was good enough to lead an upset of Stanford.

Seems pretty odd to mention the USC quarterback last, but there you have it: Kessler surged late in the season and should thrive under new coach Steve Sarkisian's up-tempo scheme.

The sum is quarterback depth that has everyone gushing, including Pac-12 coaches.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Charles Baus/CSMUSC's Cody Kessler threw for 2,968 yards in 2013, a robust total that only ranked seventh in a stacked league for quarterbacks, the Pac-12.
"Oh, I don't think there is a conference that is even close in terms of the quality of quarterbacks," UCLA coach Jim Mora said.

Said Washington's Chris Petersen, who, like Arizona's Rich Rodriguez, doesn't have a returning starter at quarterback: “There’s not a crop like this coming back in the country. It’s scary when you don’t have one of those returning guys. Every week, you’re going to have to face one of them.”

The question bouncing around before the season is whether it's the best quarterback class, well, ever, and not just for the Pac-12. Maybe, maybe not.

The Pac-10 was pretty impressive in 2004: USC's Matt Leinart, California's Aaron Rodgers, Arizona State's Andrew Walter, UCLA's Drew Olson, Oregon's Kellen Clemens, Oregon State's Derek Anderson, Washington State's Alex Brink and Stanford's Trent Edwards. If you wanted, you also could throw in Utah's Alex Smith, though he was still in the Mountain West Conference at the time. A handful of those guys are still in the NFL, with Rodgers in the discussion as the best quarterback in the league.

Outside of the Pac-12, there's the Big 12 in 2008: Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, Texas' Colt McCoy, Baylor's Robert Griffin III, Missouri's Chase Daniel, Texas Tech's Graham Harrell, Kansas' Todd Reesing and Kansas State's Josh Freeman.

Ultimately, a judgment will be best delivered at season's end, and things rarely go as projected in the preseason. Injuries are, unfortunately, often an issue, and the pecking order could change. Don't be shocked, for example, if the estimations of Hogan, Kessler, Halliday and Goff go way up this fall.

The obvious leader is Mariota, probably the Heisman Trophy co-favorite with Florida State's Jameis Winston, the 2013 winner. While Mariota's return for his redshirt junior season was a bit of a surprise, how he's conducted himself during the preseason is not. He's not going to get in trouble off the field and he's not a look-at-me guy on it.

“He cares more about practice rep 13 in period 12 in 7-on-7 than anyone I’ve ever been around," coach Mark Helfrich said. "That carries over to every single guy in our program.”

But Mariota doesn't top everyone's list. Washington State linebacker Darryl Monroe favors Mannion, who won the Elite 11 Counselor's Challenge this summer after leading the conference with 4,662 yards and 37 TD passes last year.

“He’s a true NFL quarterback," Monroe said. “He has one of the best arms I’ve played against. Or seen in person.”

[+] EnlargeChris Petersen
AP PhotoAside from a Nov. 15 date against Arizona, Washington coach Chris Petersen will likely face a returning starter at quarterback in every one of the Huskies' Pac-12 games.
Monroe, the boisterous contrarian, ranked Kelly No. 2.

“He ran that offense like a point guard," Monroe said.

Obviously, the expectation is that these 10 returning starters will combine talent and experience and put up huge numbers. As important as the position is, however, a good quarterback can't do it alone. He's got to have some places to deliver the ball. The good news for these guys is most have a strong supporting cast. While Mariota and Mannion have questions at receiver, that position is strong and deep throughout the conference.

Nine teams have at least three starting offensive linemen back, and five have four or more. Oregon is the only team without at least one of its top two receivers back. It's also notable that more than a few teams have questions in the secondary.

It could be a year when preseason hype meets big passing numbers. But stats are not what football is all about, either.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to winning games," Kessler said. “I don’t look at the stat box. I look at who won. Most of the time, if you look at who won, I can tell you how the quarterback played.”

That's the truth: Winning is the ultimate measure of a quarterback. More than a few Pac-12 quarterbacks through the years have put up big numbers but haven't led their teams to championships, conference or national. It's likely that the first-team All-Pac-12 quarterback this fall, a guy who should be in line for a variety of national awards and All-America honors, will be sitting atop the final standings.

As for the celebration of Pac-12 quarterbacks in 2014, some ambivalence does follow the fawning. While there is a sense of genial community when discussing the depth at the position, most coaches would rather have their guy be talented and experienced and everyone else to be searching for answers behind center.

Said Stanford coach David Shaw, “I can’t wait for some of these guys to get out of our conference, which I thought a couple of them would last year.”

Pac-12 morning links

August, 22, 2014
Aug 22
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Happy Friday!

Leading off

We kicked off Thursday’s links column talking about Pac-12 head coaches and how they’ve done against AP Top 25 competition.

Today we’ll take a look at the job security of those coaches, courtesy of CBS’s Dennis Dodd, who released his annual “hot seat” rankings for every coach.

Things are relatively air-conditioned in the Pac-12. But they are heating up for a couple of coaches. Using a 0-5 rating – five essentially being nuclear and zero being a getaway on Hoth – Dodd writes that Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and Cal coach Sonny Dykes have the hottest seats in the Pac-12. First, here’s the rating for all 12 coaches and their rating from the 2013 season (listed second).
[+] Enlarge Kyle Whittingham
George Frey/Getty ImagesKyle Whittingham seems to have the Utes close to a breakthrough after two tough, 5-7 seasons.

  • Rich Rodriguez: 1-1
  • Todd Graham: 1-0
  • Sonny Dykes : 3-0.5
  • Mike MacIntyre: 1.5-1.0
  • Mark Helfrich: 2.0-1.5
  • Mike Riley: 1-1
  • David Shaw: 0-0
  • Jim Mora: 0.5-0.5
  • Steve Sarkisian: 2.5-N/A
  • Kyle Whittingham: 3.5-3.0
  • Chris Petersen: 0.5-N/A
  • Mike Leach: 0.5-1

I don’t disagree with the sentiment on either coach. That said, I don’t think a change will be made with either, either. And here’s why:

Kyle Whittingham has something few coaches can boast: An undefeated season, a No. 2 final ranking and a BCS bowl victory (technically, two). That sort of success not only buys you goodwill, it buys you career longevity.

As noted by Whittingham’s rating, he’s “starting to feel the pressure.” That’s fair. A team like Utah isn’t used to missing bowl games in back-to-back years. But when you look at last season, the Utes are close. They beat Stanford – arguably the greatest regular-season victory in school history – lost to Arizona State by a point, took Oregon State to overtime and lost by a touchdown to UCLA. This is a team that’s close.

That being said, the road schedule is brutal. I think if the Utes start 2-0 (and they should), then the Michigan game will be high noon. Win that one and there’s a good chance the Utes go bowling. Having a quarterback make it through the season without injury couldn't hurt, either.

As for Dykes, let’s not forget he was the one of the most sought-after coaches in the country before the 2013 season. He just happened to run into one of the worst rashes of injuries I’ve seen in my 17 years covering all levels of football, and he had a true freshman quarterback.

Dykes has a proven system. Give it time (and health) to develop.

Who’s No. 1?

The SEC can certainly claim dominance over the BCS era. Not even the most argumentative, devil’s-advocate-loving, stubborn columnist I know – Ted Miller – could argue otherwise. The proof is in the hardware.

But that era has passed. What have you won for me lately? It’s now the College Football Playoff era. And according to Yahoo Sports’ Pat Forde, it’s the Pac-12 that will be at the vanguard of the next installment of college football’s highest honor.

Forde rationalizes his thought process with three determining factors:

  1. The Pac-12 has a deep roster of coaches.
  2. The Pac-12 has the best quarterbacks.
  3. The Pac-12 plays a tough schedule.

Check, check and check. No arguments here. Every year, it seems like a Pac-12 coach will make the comment that the league is as good as it’s ever been. And each year it keeps adding quality coaches. If you’ve been following along with our “Better Know a Pac-12 Quarterback” series, then you know how good the league is when it comes to the QBs. And the last couple of days we’ve been linking plenty of lists of must-see Pac-12 games. All of them feature Top 25 matchups, be it in conference or nonleague.

However, I don’t think we’ll ever see a time where Stanford fans are chanting "P-A-C, P-A-C" if the Ducks win a title, or vice versa. Not our style out West.

News/notes/practice reports
Just for fun

The football team isn't the only squad going through fall camp. Fight on.

LOS ANGELES -- The football was in the air on Thursday for the USC practice as the Trojans worked a lot on getting downfield in the passing game.

As would be expected, Cody Kessler led the way for the offense and looked to be in sharp command with the season little more than a week away. There were long completions to Victor Blackwell, Adoree’ Jackson, JuJu Smith and Bryce Dixon as Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian continues to spread the touches around to various players.


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The Pac-12 is blessed with an abundance of returning starting quarterbacks in 2014. With 10 starters coming back, many are wondering if the league is on pace for its best quarterback year ever. This week the Pac-12 blog will give you a snapshot of all 10.

Name: Cody Kessler

School: USC

Grade: Junior

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsCody Kessler finished with 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions last fall.
2013 passing stats: Completed 236 of 361 passes (65.4 percent) for 2,968 yards with 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Posted a raw QBR of 59 with an adjusted QBR of 66.1.

Career passing stats: Completed 238 of 363 passes (65.6 percent) for 2,977 yards with 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Posted a raw QBR of 59 with an adjusted QBR of 66.1.

2013 rushing stats: Rushed 42 times for minus-124 yards with one rushing touchdown.

Career rushing stats: Same as above.

Kessler on Twitter

What you need to know about Kessler: Kessler was locked in a quarterback competition with Max Wittek following the 2012 season and Matt Barkley's departure. That competition went from the winter into the spring and continued to spill over into the fall while then-coach Lane Kiffin flip-flopped the first few games. Kessler eventually won the job and -- under offensive coordinator Clay Helton’s direction and play-calling -- steadily improved during the Ed Orgeron era. When Steve Sarkisian was hired, Kessler proved himself all over again, beating out Max Browne in the spring to retain his spot. He has a firm grasp of the pro-style scheme and showed his smarts to Sarkisian and Co. by quickly picking up the up-tempo elements. So much so that Sarkisian named Kessler the starter in the 12th practice of the spring.

Career high point: From a team standpoint, without a question, it was the victory against Stanford last season. Kessler was an efficient 25 of 37 for 288 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. From a personal, statistical standpoint, he was outstanding in USC’s 45-20 win against Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl. He connected on 22 of 30 passes for a career high 345 yards and four touchdowns and was named the game’s MVP.

Career low point: Kessler had one multi-interception game last season, and it was in a 62-41 blowout loss to ASU. Not only was that a low point for him, but it was one of the darkest days in program history (or brightest, depending how you felt about Kiffin). That loss led to Kiffin’s infamous airport firing, but also united the Trojans under Orgeron and they went on to win seven of their final nine games. Still, that had to be a bad flight from Tempe to Los Angeles.

When he was a recruit: The No. 29 overall quarterback in the 2011 class, Kessler was 26 slots lower than Max Wittek, who also signed with USC that year and eventually transferred when Kessler earned the starting position. Despite lacking prototypical height for the position, Kessler earned offers from Alabama, Arizona State, Nebraska, Pittsburgh, UCLA and Washington, among others. Fortuitous timing led to his commitment to USC. As Kessler was in his coach’s office, ready to make a phone call and commit to the Washington Huskies and then-head coach Steve Sarkisian, the phone rang. It was the USC coaches calling to offer a scholarship, which completely changed the trajectory of Kessler’s recruitment. Kessler jumped on board, even though the Trojans already held a commitment from Wittek. Kessler went on to grind his way to the top of the depth chart, which sounds fairly familiar. "Kessler is an impressive prospect that grows on you the more you watch him. He has a salty demeanor and swagger about him that makes you want to watch more of him," his ESPN Recruiting Nation profile read.

Opposing head coach's take: "Cody battled some early things. He didn’t play great early in the season. But we really saw him come on. Much like a Kevin Hogan, it’s not always the highlight plays. But you see a guy make a tough play to win a football games -- taking a hit in the pocket and standing in there to make a play down the field, pushing up in the pocket and escaping for a first down. You see him do all the things that good football players do."

What to expect in 2014: Kessler is accurate and he takes care of the football. Those are two extremely important keys to success, regardless of who your coach is or what kind of a scheme you run. Of the returning starters, only Marcus Mariota had fewer interceptions than Kessler. And it’s worth noting that after Kiffin was fired and Helton took over the play-calling, Kessler had just three interceptions over the final nine games. No other quarterback in the league can claim that type of ball security over that stretch. Sarkisian wisely retained Helton as his offensive coordinator, which Kessler has said several times was a big relief because those two work so well together. So you factor all of that, combined with the experience gained last season and an up-tempo twist (which certainly benefited Keith Price's efficiency last season when Sarkisian was at Washington), and you have the potential for a very efficient and dangerous quarterback. Oh yeah, it also helps to have Nelson Agholor and a healthy George Farmer at receiver.

Erik McKinney contributed reporting.
Pick a word, any word.

That’s what I asked the 65 coaches from the Power Five conferences and Notre Dame to do. Describe their team in one word.

Some coaches were one-word wonders, but a few insisted they needed two words. That’s fine because the descriptions shed some insight into how coaches view their team and/or what they want the public perception of their team to be.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
AP Photo/Damian DovarganesStanford's David Shaw describes his team as 'underappreciated.'
Of the 65 coaches, “hungry” was the most common description. Nine coaches went with it, making a “hungry” team the modern-day equivalent of the “taking it one game at a time” cliché. Four coaches used “unproven,” another four “experienced” and three said “young.” Two coaches each used “redemption,” “committed,” “improved” or “youthful."

In all, the 65 coaches used 44 different descriptions.

Well, here’s to taking it one “word” at a time. My word: Enjoy.

Pac-12

Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez: Hungry
Arizona State’s Todd Graham: Character
Cal’s Sonny Dykes: Hungry
Colorado’s Mike MacIntryre: More confident
Oregon’s Mark Helfrich: Redemption
Oregon State’s Mike Riley: Leadership
Stanford’s David Shaw: Underappreciated
UCLA’s Jim Mora: Determined
USC’s Steve Sarkisian: Tough
Utah’s Kyle Whittingham: Warriors
Washington’s Chris Petersen: Unknown
Washington State’s Mike Leach: Improving

Florida connection boosting USC football 

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
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LOS ANGELES -- When the USC Trojans host the Fresno State Bulldogs in their season opener Aug. 30 at the Coliseum, there will likely be five athletes from the talent-rich state of Florida in the Trojans starting lineup -- all of whom could make their mark for any of the elite teams in the SEC region.

Check it out, Dixieland.

In All-America defensive tackle Leonard Williams (Daytona Beach), preseason All-America wide receiver Nelson Agholor (Tampa), and running back Javorius Allen (Tallahassee) -- the 2013 team MVP -- the Men of Troy have three acknowledged all-star Sunshine State starters in the junior class.


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Timing right for USC, Sark marriage

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
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USC safety Taylor Mays didn't exactly grin from ear to ear at the question back in 2008, but his face did acknowledge that the reporter had offered him an underhanded pitch that he could belt out of the L.A. Coliseum in any direction he wished.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsIn his second stint as a college football head coach, Steve Sarkisian faces the pressure of guiding a national powerhouse program in USC.
Mays and the top-ranked USC Trojans had just made No. 5 Ohio State look like a high school team in a 35-3 whipping that wasn't nearly as close as the final score suggested. The question was whether the Buckeyes had been shocked by just how much better the Trojans were. Mays paused, seeming to savor the question as he coolly assessed the contents of his locker, before delivering a response.

"Many teams wonder what this SC thing is about -- why have we been so successful these past years," he said. "We came out there and showed them. They're Ohio State and that means something. But we prepare so well that we just do what we do."

There was a time under Pete Carroll when USC pretty much won games when they got off the bus. They simply looked a whole lot better -- bigger, faster, more confident -- than anyone else in college football. Reporters and fans would encircle the Trojans' open scrimmages, particularly during Competition Tuesdays, and marvel at the talent level and intensity.

New USC coach Steve Sarkisian was Carroll's top offensive assistant for much of that run from 2002 to '08 before heading off to Washington. He missed the 2004 BCS national title season while spending an unhappy year with the Oakland Raiders, as well as the start of the program's decline in 2009, a 9-4 finish after the Trojans had lost just nine games in the previous seven seasons. Then Carroll bolted for the Seattle Seahawks.

So Sarkisian knows what things were like during the Trojans' most recent dynastic run. He was there for its creation. A Southern California native, he knows the area, the program's traditions and how quickly expectations can become stratospheric. He knows what he is taking over. And getting himself into.

He knows USC is one of the most powerful brands in college sports, one whose name and logo have impact in South Florida, Ohio and Texas, as well as in its home territory.

"When you have that SC interlock on your chest and you walk into a school [to recruit], whether it's in Southern California or anywhere else, this talks about 11 national championships, six Heisman Trophies, more NFL draft picks, more All-Americans, more All-Pros, more Hall of Famers than any other school," Sarkisian said. "So it's a powerful brand."

Sarkisian also knows timing. He knows it's better not to be the "man after the man," as his friend Lane Kiffin was with Carroll. Sarkisian was Carroll's personal preference to replace him, and then-athletic director Mike Garrett made a play for Sarkisian before offering the job to Kiffin. Sarkisian was then heading into his second season at Washington and felt it wouldn't be the right time to bail out on the Huskies.

Oh, and he also knew NCAA sanctions were on the horizon, though there was little indication at the time that they would be as severe as they ended up being.

Good timing? As of June, USC is no longer yoked with those sanctions that included the loss of 30 scholarships over three years. After signing a highly rated class in February, despite limits, Sarkisian could have the Trojans at around 80 scholarship players next fall, according to ESPN.com's Garry Paskwietz, not far below the limit of 85, and substantially better than the numbers that have made depth the team's most worrisome issue since 2010. The Trojans presently rank 14th in the nation and first in the Pac-12 in the ESPN.com recruiting rankings.

Timing? Even during Carroll's run, USC's facilities were second-rate. No longer. After putting $120 million toward new and renovated buildings, including the 110,000-square foot John McKay Center, USC matches up with the most elite teams.

Timing? Sarkisian inherits 18 returning starters from a team that won 10 games in 2013. The Trojans should be contenders in the South Division this fall, emerging from so-called crippling sanctions in pretty good shape after averaging "only" 8.8 wins per season from 2009 through last year.

Of course, his timing isn't that perfect. He's got a UCLA problem that Carroll didn't have to contend with. The Bruins are surging under Jim Mora and are hardly quaking at the prospect of USC again being whole. It's notable that Sarkisian and Mora have long had a cordial relationship, though that might be difficult to sustain going forward.

"I think [hiring Sarkisian] has given them a shot of energy that I wish they didn't get," Mora quipped at Pac-12 media days. "I have great respect for Sark, and I like him as a person and as a coach. I just know he's going to make my job harder."

While USC can again sign a full recruiting class of 25, which should make the going tougher for all 11 other Pac-12 teams, there's also some undercurrent of smugness within the conference from coaches and fans that Sarkisian hasn't truly earned a job like USC and that he isn't much different from Kiffin. His critics dubbed him "Seven-Win Steve" after he led Washington to three consecutive 7-6 seasons, a rut that had some Huskies fans putting him on the hot seat heading into the 2013 season.

The Huskies improved to 9-4 last season, finishing with a Top 25 ranking for the first time since 2001. Some also seemed to forget that Sarkisian inherited a team that went 0-12 in 2008. While there's been an odd effort to rewrite the history of how down the program was back then, it was outscored 463-159 that season and hadn't posted a winning record since 2002. Washington went 1-10 in 2004 and 2-9 in 2005. Further, majestic Husky Stadium was falling apart.

Chris Petersen has inherited a team from Sarkisian that's played in four consecutive bowl games, is ranked in the preseason, and is playing in a beautifully renovated stadium.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY SportsUSC Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian was optimistic at Pac-12 media days, saying: "I think we have a chance to do something special this year."
This is not to say Sarkisian did a perfect job at Washington. He made mistakes like most first-time head coaches, including sticking with overmatched defensive coordinator Nick Holt for too long. Yet the feeling among USC insiders is that the Trojans are getting Sark 2.0, and he's surrounded himself with a staff that is touted for its X's and O's acumen (most notably defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox) as well as its recruiting savvy. Sarkisian retained receivers coach Tee Martin, one of the most quietly important coups of the transition.

Sarkisian isn't necessarily bringing back Carroll's "Win Forever" rhetoric and culture. For one, he runs an up-tempo offense, not Carroll's pro style, and a 3-4 hybrid defense, not Carroll's 4-3. That could be seen as part of Sarkisian's maturation, of finding his own way. When Sarkisian took the Washington job after the 2009 Rose Bowl, Carroll actually told him that he needed to be his own man, not mimic Carroll.

"His final words to me walking out was, 'Go be you, because when adversity strikes, the real you is going to come out anyway,'" Sarkisian said.

For USC fans, adversity has already struck and stuck hard. Sarkisian's charge is to make sure those adverse days are done. Adversity going forward is losing more than two Pac-12 games.

Or is that losing more than one game, period?
Iman Marshall hasn't said much when it comes to recruiting, constantly maintaining that he is wide open to the process and without any favorites. On Thursday, the No. 8 overall prospect and No.1 player in the West region took a significant step toward shedding some light on his recruiting situation, tweeting out the schools he will officially visit before making his decision. Of course, as always with recruiting, Marshall still provided for some grey area.

After announcing that he'd be listing his five official visits, Marshall tweeted six schools, as Florida State, LSU, Michigan, Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Texas all made the list. The five-star prospect offered a little clarity, saying he is town between Oklahoma and Texas, then asked the fan bases of those two schools to help him decide which to see for his fifth visit.
video

Cary Chow and Chris Low look at the preseason All-American receivers and point out a couple of wide outs that aren't on the list now, but might be by the of the season.

Preseason All-Pac-12 team

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
9:00
AM PT
The kickoff to the 2014 season is fast approaching, so it's time to unveil the Pac-12 blog's preseason all-conference team. We're doing it a bit differently. In order to account for varying schemes in the conference, we've selected three wide receivers and one tight end on offense and four defensive lineman and four linebackers on defense (so each unit has 12 preseason selections). And we have opted to choose the five best offensive linemen in the conference, in our estimation, rather than select by position.

Here it is:

Offense

QB: Marcus Mariota, Oregon: A leading Heisman Trophy candidate and two-time first-team All-Pac-12 quarterback, he accounted for 40 touchdowns last season, rushing for 715 yards and passing for 3,665. The Ducks' offense led the Pac-12 with 45.5 points per game.

RB: Byron Marshall, Oregon: Marshall is the conference’s only returning 1,000-yard back after rushing for 1,038 yards last season. However, he will face stiff competition in his own backfield from Thomas Tyner and freshman Royce Freeman.

RB: D.J. Foster, Arizona State: After working in tandem with Marion Grice last season, Foster is now the headliner. That doesn’t mean he won’t still catch passes. The coaching staff loves to split him out in the slot.

WR: Nelson Agholor, USC: He caught 56 passes for 918 yards and six touchdowns last season and also returned kicks (17.5 average) and punts (19.1 average). With Marqise Lee off to the NFL, Agholor will be the Trojans’ top offensive target.

WR: Jaelen Strong, Arizona State: In his first season with the Sun Devils, Strong burst onto the scene with 75 receptions for 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns, establishing himself as one of the conference’s best and a future pro.

WR: Ty Montgomery, Stanford: Montgomery’s totals (61 catches, 958 yards, 10 touchdowns) don’t adequately compare him to the country’s other elite receivers. In a run-heavy offense, he was responsible for 32.1 percent of the Cardinal’s receptions, which was second-most in the Pac-12 behind Colorado’s Paul Richardson (35.3).

TE: Connor Hamlett, Oregon State: After catching 40 balls for 364 yards and five touchdowns, he is widely regarded as the top tight end in a league that has produced some great ones of late. Look for him to be a popular target as QB Sean Mannion and the Beavers adjust to life without star receiver Brandin Cooks.

OL: Alex Redmond, UCLA: A freshman All-American last season, he helped an injury-riddled Bruins offensive line maintain elite offensive numbers, including nearly 40 points per game. Expect a big step forward as a sophomore with a year of seasoning.

OL: Hroniss Grasu, Oregon: A rare four-year starter with 40 starts to his credit, he is a two-time first-team All-Pac-12 selection. A favorite for the Rimington Trophy, he was the centerpiece of the Pac-12’s No. 1 rushing offense.

OL: Andrus Peat, Stanford: When your head coach is comparing you to Jonathan Ogden, you must be doing something right. If Peat comes out, the junior will be in the running to be the first offensive lineman taken in next year’s NFL draft.

OL: Jamil Douglas, Arizona State: A second-team All-Pac-12 selection last year, Douglas has started every game over the past two seasons and appeared in every game during the 2011 season.

OL: Isaac Seumalo, Oregon State: Though he has excelled at center the previous two years, the coaching staff might move him around this season to fill some holes on the line. A foot injury might limit his playing time early in the season.

Defense

DL: Leonard Williams, USC: An All-American and Bednarik semifinalist last season, Williams returns after leading the Trojans with 13.5 tackles for loss. He projects to be a top-5 pick in the 2015 NFL draft and is regarded as the top defensive lineman in the country.

DL: Danny Shelton, Washington: Shelton’s frame (6-foot-2, 339 pounds) and his athleticism make him a potential first-round NFL pick next spring. He had 59 tackles, two sacks and two blocked kicks last season while often facing more than one blocker.

DL: Henry Anderson, Stanford: An All-Pac-12 honorable mention selection last year despite battling injuries, Anderson is expected to fill the void left by the departures of Ben Gardner and Josh Mauro.

DL: Hau'oli Kikaha, Washington: He was second in the conference last season with 13 sacks (second-most in school history) and seventh with 15.5 tackles for loss. Also on the Bednarik watch list, he was second-team all-conference last year after missing all of 2012 with a knee injury.

LB: Myles Jack, UCLA: One of the biggest names in college football, Jack was the conference’s Defensive (and Offensive) Freshman of the Year last season. He recovered two fumbles, had two interceptions and recorded 75 tackles, seven for loss.

LB: Hayes Pullard, USC: He has led the Trojans in tackles for two of the past three seasons, including 94 last season with 5.5 tackles for loss. A second-team All-Conference performer in 2013, he is a veteran of 39 starts and a mainstay on what might be the conference’s best defense.

LB: Shaq Thompson, Washington: Like Jack, Thompson has the potential to be among the most versatile players in college football, as new coach Chris Petersen also plans to use Thompson on offense. He was an All-Pac-12 honorable mention selection last year and is on the watch list for the Bednarik Award.

LB: Eric Kendricks, UCLA: No one has more tackles in the Pac-12 over the past three seasons. He doesn’t get the premium tackles-for-loss stats or sack stats that some of the lauded outside linebackers in the conference get. But he is as good a run-stopper as there is in the country.

CB: Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon: Perhaps the best cornerback in the country, Ekpre-Olomu has twice been named first-team All-Pac-12. He led the Ducks with 53 unassisted tackles last season, recorded three interceptions and broke up six passes.

CB: Marcus Peters, Washington: A second-team all-conference performer, he tied for third in the league last season in passes defended (14) and had five interceptions and two fumble recoveries. He projects to be a high draft pick in 2015.

S: Jordan Richards, Stanford: One of the more unique athletes in the conference, Richards is effective against the run and in coverage. He has started every game the past two years and recorded 168 tackles and six interceptions the past three.

S: Su'a Cravens, USC: He earned freshman All-America honors after an outstanding rookie campaign that included 52 stops and four interceptions. Has All-America potential as a sophomore.

Special teams

K: Andy Phillips, Utah: Phillips was a Lou Groza semifinalist last year when he connected on 17 of 20 field goal attempts. Not bad for a former competitive alpine skier who had never kicked before walking on in 2012.

P: Tom Hackett, Utah: The All-Pac-12 first-team punter last season, Hackett averaged 43.4 yards per punt and downed 27 of 76 punts inside the 20-yard line.

Pac-12 morning links

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
8:00
AM PT
Cogito ergo sum.

Leading off

As we hit the one-week countdown for the start of the Pac-12 season, it never hurts to go back and see where things stand with your head coach.

As the Pac-12 blog wrote a few months back, it’s possible that we might make it through 2014 without a coaching change. Maybe. Since 10 of the 12 teams have changed coaches since the start of the 2011 season, nothing is for certain.

A key determining factor is always how coaches stack up against top competition. And the Wall Street Journal Online released an interesting chart of every coach in the Power 5 (plus Notre Dame) and their record against AP Top 25 teams.



They also had some flattering things to say about Stanford coach David Shaw:
The best winning percentage (.778). Granted, it is a relatively small sample size—Shaw has been a head coach for only three seasons, and he took over a strong program — but 18 ranked opponents in three years is a ton. Urban Meyer has faced seven in two years at Ohio State. (Also, two of Shaw's four losses were in overtime.)

Here’s how the Pac-12 coaches shake out (career/at current school), plus I tossed in what I think was the biggest win. Feel free to tell me where I’m wrong:
  • Rich Rodriguez 16-26 and 3-7 (beating No. 5 Oregon in 2013)
  • Todd Graham 6-12 and 3-5 (beating No. 14 UCLA in 2013)
  • Sonny Dykes 0-9 and 0-5 (N/A)
  • Mike MacIntyre 0-10 and 0-3 (N/A)
  • Mark Helfrich 2-1 and 2-1 (Beating No. 16 Washington in 2013)
  • Mike Riley 13-39 and 13-39 (Beating USC in 2006)
  • David Shaw 14-4 and 14-4 (Beating Oregon in 2012)
  • Jim Mora 5-5 and 5-5 (Beating USC in 2012)
  • Steve Sarkisian 8-18 and 0-0 (Beating USC in 2009)
  • Kyle Whittingham 9-13 and 9-13 (Beating No. 4 Alabama in the 2008 season/2009 Sugar Bowl).
  • Chris Petersen 8-4 and 0-0 (Beating No. 11 Oklahoma in the 2006 season/2007 Fiesta Bowl).
  • Mike Leach 13-38 and 1-7 (Beating No. 1 Texas in 2008).

In digging up some of these old games, I had to go back through and watch some highlights of the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. So, so awesome.

All-Americans

ESPN.com will be releasing its preseason All-America team later today. CBS Sports released its Wednesday. I’m not going to give out any spoilers on ours, but we have more Pac-12 players. And thus, ours is superior, said the Pac-12 writer.

Oregon center Hroniss Grasu is the only Pac-12 player on offense, while the defense has a trio of Pac-12 players in USC defensive end Leonard Williams, UCLA linebacker Myles Jack and Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Stanford’s Ty Montgomery is the selection at kick return.

Keep an eye out

The Senior Bowl Watch list is out, and of the 350 players, 40 are from the Pac-12. All of the names you’d expect are on it. You can see the complete list (sortable by school, conference and position) here.

More must-see TV (Take 2)

On Wednesday, we brought you a couple of links with must-see games in the league. Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News also popped up his can’t-miss games in the league this year. They are what you’d expect. Stanford, Oregon, Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, a dash of USC. However, Wilner opted to list his chronologically, rather than ranking them. Shrewd, Mr. Wilner. Very shrewd indeed.

News/notes/practice reports
Just for fun

A fun little story from Chris Foster of the LA Times on a trio of teams experiencing Rose Bowl droughts. The premise is that UCLA has a good shot at the Rose Bowl this year. But they haven’t been there since ’99. But that’s not as long as Cal, Oregon State or Arizona State. Any post that can weave in Frankie Avalon, The Beatles and Bill Clinton is worth five minutes of your time.

Always cool to see walk-on players getting signing their scholarships. Five Sun Devils got theirs yesterday.

And finally, the Bruins had a guest speaker at practice yesterday ... Den-freaking-zel. King Kong ain’t got (horse pucky) on him.

Your humble #4Pac welcomes you to the first installment of what'll be a regular feature here on the Pac-12 blog. Here's how it works: We take one question, one topic or maybe it's some other really cool format that we haven't even thought of yet and all contribute our thoughts.

Sometimes, like today, we'll be playing Devil's advocate for a specific team, player or idea.

Have a suggestion for something we should address in a future #4Pac roundtable? Go ahead and send it to our mailbag.

Our first topic is centered on wide receiver depth. Specifically, which team in the conference has the most? As a group, we selected the four schools below -- something that was not clear cut -- and then divvied them up between the four of us.

Arizona

Ted Miller/@TedMillerRK: Arizona would rate near the top of the Pac-12 just on what it's got coming back from 2013, starting with leading receiver Nate Phillips, who earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors as a true freshman. Toss in the water-bug quick Samajie Grant and 6-foot-4 David Richards, who combined for 29 receptions last season, as well as the surging Trey Griffey -- son of Kenny Griffey Jr. -- who hauled in two TD passes in the bowl game, and you have a talented, experienced unit.

Yet, the receivers that didn't play in 2013 have the Wildcats among the nation's best at receiver this fall.

First, there's Austin Hill, a 6-foot-3, 212-pounder who was second-team All-Pac-12 in 2012 with 81 receptions for 1,364 yards. He would have been a Biletnikoff contender in 2013 if he didn't miss the season with a blown-out knee. Then there are a pair of marquee transfers, Cayleb Jones (Texas) and Davonte' Neal (Notre Dame) who had to sit last season due to NCAA rules. Jones is another big, athletic target, while Neal is a dangerous runner with the ball in his hands out of the slot.

The list of intriguing athletes doesn't end there, but that is enough to establish Arizona as the Pac-12's deepest receiving unit. It will be interesting to see who ends up leading the unit in receptions, as Hill, Phillips and Jones are legit possibilities. The only issue? Who the heck is going to deliver the ball?

California

Kyle Bonagura/@BonaguraESPN: With apologies to Stanford, which was tough to leave off this list, Cal is the Bay Area team with the most receiver depth this season. If we’re talking top 3, maybe things are different, but considering Cal uses four receivers on just about every play and doesn’t even list a tight end, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

By returning Chris Harper (70 catches, 853 yards) and Bryce Treggs (77 catches, 751 yards), Cal is the only school in the conference that has a pair of 700-yard receivers from last season. Treggs played primarily on the inside, but the coaching staff plans to take advantage of his varied skill set by using him on the outside this season.

Interestingly, Harper wasn’t even listed with the starters on Cal’s preseason depth chart. He was behind Hawaii transfer Trevor Davis, who sat out last season after catching 45 passes for 601 and five touchdowns in two seasons with the Warriors. That shouldn’t matter too much because Cal will rotate receivers heavily, but still worth noting.

Along with Treggs and Davis, Cal listed Kenny Lawler (37 catches, 347 yards) and Stephen Anderson (14 catches, 125 yards) as the other two starting receivers. There's plenty of depth behind them too with Darius Powe (25 catches, 231 yards), Maurice Harris and Bryce McGovern.

USC

Kevin Gemmell/@Kevin_Gemmell: I’m not going to spew out a couple hundred words and pretend that the Trojans have the deepest wide receiver corps in the conference. Because they don’t -- at least not at first glance. The other schools on this list -- Arizona, Cal and Washington State -- are heavy at receiver because they run spread offenses contingent on a deep wide receiving corps.

But what the Trojans do have is Nelson Agholor, who is widely regarded as the best receiver in the conference and one of the top five in the country. And that has to count for something. I know what the counter argument is -- what if USC loses Agholor? Well, then it's in trouble. You could say that for any team’s No. 1 receiver. But there is also some talented potential behind Agholor that could be getting overlooked.

Remember George Farmer? He’s finally healthy and appears on track to start opposite Agholor after rave reviews this fall. Sports Illustrated even tapped him as one of its top players set to have a bounce-back year. Darreus Rogers (22 catches last season), Steven Mitchell, Victor Blackwell and five-star recruit JuJu Smith are also waiting in the wings. Another five-star recruit, Adoree' Jackson, could see work at receiver.

Agholor’s presence automatically makes USC relevant to this conversation. And with explosive potential behind him, it would be unwise to disregard USC’s receiving corps.

Washington State

Chantel Jennings/@ChantelJennings: I don’t know how anyone is going to make an argument for any team other than Washington State. The Cougars throw the ball more than any other team in the conference, thus they need more receivers than any other team in the conference.

They return their top seven receivers from last season. Each of those players caught at least 35 passes, and the top five receivers averaged at least 40 yards per game. What other team can say that? Yes, other teams might have a player who averages 100 or 120 receiving yards per game but the Cougars have weapons everywhere on the field. Though they might contribute in smaller amounts, the end total is greater.

Senior Vince Mayle had a huge spring for the Cougars and is continuing to impress in the fall, becoming Connor Halliday's go-to guy. Look for him and junior Gabe Marks to lead the pack. But, there’s a pretty deep group behind those two headliners.

Warning: here comes a long (very long) list of names ... but that’s what you get with the deepest receiver group in the Pac-12.

There are the guys who most will remember from last season -- senior Kristoff Williams, sophomore River Cracraft, junior Dom Williams, senior Rickey Galvin and senior Isiah Myers. And that’s just the guys who played last year. Two freshmen could contribute this season -- redshirt freshman Robert Lewis and true freshman Calvin Green.

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