Dallas Colleges: Oregon Ducks

3-point stance: Trying not to be pro

April, 3, 2014
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1. Texas athletic director Steve Patterson made a compelling case Tuesday for the value of participating in college athletics, echoing Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany. They both said, in so many words, if you want to go pro, go pro; let college athletics be college athletics. I hope the difference is maintained, too. There is room to provide more benefits to college athletes without professionalizing them. But once an employer-employee relationship is established, the rules will change. Whether they can change without rendering college athletics unrecognizable, ay, there’s the rub.

2. Oregon has won 60 consecutive games when leading at the half, the longest streak in the FBS. Oklahoma is second at 42. Both are perennial national contenders with explosive offenses that can quickly make a game one-sided. But here’s the surprise: Kansas State is third on the list at 39 games. In the five seasons since Bill Snyder returned to the sideline, Kansas State (42-22, .656) has been good, but not dominant. Without dominance, I’d guess the streak has a lot to do with Snyder, mental toughness and a lack of mistakes.

3. Speaking of Oklahoma, did you see the Sooners’ April Fool’s tweet that Blake Bell had returned to quarterback? The surprise is that Bell actually finished last season with a higher efficiency rating (132.20) than the player replacing him, freshman Trevor Knight (125.00). What that tells you is how much Knight improved over the course of the year. He shredded Alabama for 348 yards and four touchdowns in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. In the last three games, Knight went 49-of-71 for 547 yards with 2 interceptions and 5 touchdowns for an efficiency of 151.34. That’s why Bell is a tight end.

Texas Relays recruiting notebook 

March, 30, 2014
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AUSTIN, Texas -- The state of Texas’ top track athletes descended on Austin this weekend to compete in the annual Clyde Littlefield Texas Relays on the campus of the University of Texas, and the field of competitors included several touted 2015 and 2016 recruits. Here’s an update on where a few of them stand in their recruitment.

RB Jones wants to travel

The battle for Ronald Jones II, one of the state’s top running back recruits out of McKinney North, rages on as he should be hitting the road in the next few months.


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Instant Analysis: Oregon 30, Texas 7

December, 30, 2013
12/30/13
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SAN ANTONIO -- No. 10 Oregon beats Texas 30-7 in the Valero Alamo Bowl. A few thoughts on the game:

It was over when: Oregon safety Derrick Malone picked off a Case McCoy pass over the middle midway through the fourth quarter, then went 39 yards for the score. The Ducks went up 30-7 on McCoy’s second pick-six of the night.

Game ball goes to: Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, who was masterful both on the ground and through the air, throwing for 253 yards and a touchdown and rushing for 133. A month off to heal a nagging knee injury did him plenty of good.

Stat of the game: McCoy finished with 48 passing yards and no touchdowns. The two passes he completed to Oregon defenders were returned for a total of 75 yards and two touchdowns.

Unsung hero: Oregon safety Avery Patterson, who gave the Ducks a 7-0 lead just 68 seconds into the game when he picked off a McCoy pass and scored on a 37-yard return. The senior added nine tackles in his final game.

Best call: The Ducks’ first score on offense came when Mariota, with Jackson Jeffcoat fast approaching, flipped to Josh Huff on a shovel pass and he found the end zone from 16 yards out. Huff finished with 104 receiving yards and a school-record 1,140 in 2013.

What Oregon learned: If Mariota makes good on his promise to return in 2014, Oregon should once again have a preseason top-10 team and plenty of firepower to make a run at a college football playoff bid.

What Texas learned: Nothing it didn’t already know, really. Its Case McCoy-led offense can pound the rock but couldn’t keep up with elite teams and capitalize on opportunities. The Longhorns couldn’t give Mack Brown a satisfying sendoff. Now it’s time to find his successor.

To watch the trophy presentation of the Valero Alamo Bowl, click here.

Valero Alamo Bowl roundtable

December, 30, 2013
12/30/13
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Pac-12 reporter Kevin Gemmell and Texas reporter Max Olson break down the biggest storylines in Monday’s Valero Alamo Bowl matchup featuring Texas and No. 10 Oregon:

How do you think Mack Brown's resignation affects this game?

Max Olson: Throughout the past few weeks, Brown has stuck to the same message publicly: Texas players should win this game for themselves, not for their coach. They’ve had a brutal season, overcome plenty and have a chance to cap it with a ninth win and a few good memories. Brown keeps saying he wants this to be about the kids, not him.

What we’ll get out of kids, though, I just don’t know. They’ve been big underdogs before. They came out firing against Oklahoma and built real momentum. They held Baylor to 3 points in the first half but ran out of gas. Which Texas team shows up Monday? They’ll need plenty of motivation and good fortune.

Kevin Gemmell: My first thought was that this was going to be a huge motivation advantage for Texas -- and I’m a big believer that the bowl season is all about which team is motivated to be there. But I think the recent news that Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti is also retiring balances things out in the Oregon locker room. While he’s not as big of a name nationally as Brown, he’s as much an Oregon institution as Brown is to Texas.

Both pregame speeches will be rousing. Heartstrings will be tugged. But ultimately it comes down to what happens on the field. If Oregon is able to set aside its disappointment of not being in a BCS game, then who is coaching on which sideline shouldn't matter because on paper Oregon is the stronger team.

What should be expected of a 100-percent healthy Marcus Mariota?

Gemmell: For starters, an extra element to the Oregon offense that makes them that much tougher to stop. Consider Mariota in the first seven games of the season before his knee injury. He averaged 70.4 rushing yards per game and scored nine touchdowns -- including at least one rushing touchdown in all seven games. Since hurting the knee against UCLA, he’s averaged just 17.8 rushing yards with zero rushing touchdowns.

He also threw four interceptions in the final two games after going pick-free for the first 10, so aside from his rushing abilities -- which are substantial -- his throwing mechanics should be much stronger. I’m of the belief that when he’s 100 percent healthy, Mariota is the best football player in the country. And if Texas gets a 100 percent Mariota, he’s going to be very, very difficult to stop.

Olson: Mariota is one of the many reasons why this is just not a good matchup for Texas, especially considering its defense has had legitimate issues defending the option against mobile quarterbacks. Of quarterbacks who started the last two seasons, nobody in the country has a better Total QBR than Mariota at 89.0. He’s the real deal. I fully expect him to put up big numbers in the Alamodome, and it’ll be interesting to see how Texas defends him, probably with Jackson Jeffcoat reprising his freestyle “spinner” role.

Who will be the key player in this game?

Olson: If you’ve been following this Texas team, you know the key isn’t getting a huge performance from Case McCoy. Yes, he needs to play relatively mistake-free and hit on the big passes when they’re there. But Texas doesn’t stand a chance in this one without a big night from Malcolm Brown.

The San Antonio native had rushed for 421 yards in the four games since Texas lost Johnathan Gray, including 118 in the first half against Baylor. He did a terrific job of hitting cutback lanes against the Bears, and run defense hasn’t been a strength for Oregon. Brown needs to get rolling or Texas could fall behind quickly.

Gemmell: Take your pick from any number of superstars on both sides of the ball for Oregon. Be it Mariota, Josh Huff or Byron Marshall. Defensively, cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is as lockdown as they come. But the guy who always seems to show up in the postseason is De’Anthony Thomas.

Last season against Kansas State in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, he returned the opening kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown, caught four balls for 60 yards and a score and rushed twice for 15 yards. In the 2011 Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio, he carried twice for 155 yards and two touchdowns in the win over Wisconsin. He also caught four balls for 34 yards and returned five kicks for 125 yards. Thomas is a big-game player with blazing speed and scary elusiveness. When he’s hitting on all cylinders, he’s a difference maker.

Valero Alamo Bowl preview

December, 30, 2013
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No. 10 Oregon and Texas face off Monday (6:45 p.m. ET, ESPN) in the Valero Alamo Bowl in San Antonio. A few key players and matchups to watch:

Who to watch: Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota says he’s 100 percent healthy, and that’s very good news for the Ducks. A knee injury suffered against UCLA in October limited his ability to run in Oregon’s final five games, two of which were losses. Now that he has had time off to recover, expect the Ducks’ high-tempo option attack to be back to full speed. Mariota is coming back for 2014 and has a chance to end his sophomore campaign with a big game against a Texas defense that has proven vulnerable to running quarterbacks.

What to watch: What can Texas do up front to grab control of this game from the Ducks? These Longhorns are capable of big upsets when their offensive line owns the line of scrimmage, and they’re reshuffling to put All-Big 12 left guard Trey Hopkins at right tackle. On defense, defensive ends Jackson Jeffcoat and Cedric Reed must be disruptive, and you could see Jeffcoat play all over the field in a hybrid role. Texas can’t win this game without being the more physical team.

Why to watch: Mack Brown’s last hurrah after 16 seasons as head coach of the Longhorns. Texas has won seven of its past eight bowl games dating back to 2004, and its players want to send Brown off with one final victory, the 245th of his career. When everybody counted them out, Brown’s players rallied and knocked off No. 12 Oklahoma 38-20 in the Red River Rivalry this season. Can the Longhorns pull off another stunner?

Prediction: Oregon 38, Texas 17. Oregon simply has too much firepower for Texas, whose four losses have come by an average margin of 21 points. Retiring Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti gets the celebratory final Gatorade bath.

Stats that matter: Valero Alamo Bowl

December, 24, 2013
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Each week, we team up with the ESPN Stats & Info crew to dig into the numbers that matter most and find three statistics that could make a big difference. Here are the numbers to remember going into Texas’ season finale against No. 10 Oregon in the Valero Alamo Bowl on Jan. 30 (5:45 p.m. CT, ESPN).

1. 75.4

There’s no better way to prepare for Oregon than playing Texas Tech and Baylor, right?

Texas Tech (88.4) and Baylor (82.4) actually ran more plays per game this season than Oregon, whose average of 75.4 is about on par with what the Ducks did during Chip Kelly’s tenure.

They’d prefer to run more, of course, but when you’re No. 2 in the nation in yards per play at 7.6, you tend to move down the field too quickly to need 80 or more. Still, the Ducks’ famed tempo makes it difficult for defensive substitutions and its wide assortment of option looks should challenge Texas greatly.

The Longhorns can take comfort in knowing they held Baylor’s No. 1 scoring offense to 30 points and just 3 in the first half. Oregon, by the way, is outscoring foes by a margin of plus-147 points in the first half this season. If the Ducks get this high-speed offense rolling from the start and avoid turnovers, they can be awfully hard to stop.

2. 62-10

Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota has been masterful in his first two seasons as the Ducks’ starter. His Total QBR since the start of the 2012 season is 89.0, second-best in FBS behind only Jameis Winston (who didn’t play last season), and his career TD-to-INT ratio is a whopping 62-10.

Of course, what makes him especially dangerous against Texas is his rushing ability. Mariota has averaged more than 53 rushing yards per game in his career and has gained 10-plus yards on 53 of his runs. A knee injury slowed him to 71 total rushing yards in Oregon’s final four games, but he’s expected to be 100 percent healthy for the Alamo Bowl.

Two things worth noting there: Mariota has fumbled on nearly 10 percent of his rushing attempts in his career, and Texas’ defense is currently in the top 12 nationally in sacks with 37 on the year. With how Oregon runs the zone read, Jackson Jeffcoat and Cedric Reed have to play smart while also applying plenty of pressure.

[+] EnlargeMalcolm Brown
AP Photo/LM OteroTexas tailback Malcolm Brown, who has rushed for 774 yards this season, will see the bulk of the carries vs. Oregon.
3. 675

Texas can’t win this game without an overpowering rushing attack and an ability to down the Ducks at the point of attack. A few running backs have had serious success against Oregon in 2013.

Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey rushed for 206 yards and four touchdowns in a blowout win over Oregon. Washington back Bishop Sankey, a fellow Doak Walker Award finalist, ran for 167 and UW trailed by just one score entering the fourth in a 45-24 loss.

In Oregon’s other loss, Stanford’s Tyler Gaffney pounded out 157 yards on 45 attempts. And Oregon State running back Terron Ward gained 145 in a one-point loss in the Civil War Game.

Add it all up and that’s 675 yards by four backs. Malcolm Brown punished Baylor early, to the tune of 118 first-half yards, but Texas doesn’t have any other backs besides Brown and Joe Bergeron available for this one. If they can’t get going against a fairly porous Duck run D, that’s just more pressure on Case McCoy.

Three more to remember

244: Career wins for Mack Brown. With one more, he’ll move into the top 25 all-time among all college football coaches.

71: The number of missed tackles Texas’ defense accounted for in the regular season. The Longhorns missed 112 last season.

Seven: Texas has won seven bowl games since the 2004 season, tied for most in FBS in that span.

Texas gets scariest matchup yet: Oregon

December, 9, 2013
12/09/13
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AUSTIN, Texas -- The great unknown of Texas’ future remains unsolved two days after Texas’ loss to Baylor. But the imminent future was at least settled Sunday: Texas is returning to the Valero Alamo Bowl, this time to take on No. 10 Oregon.

And that proposition looks about as scary as anything Mack Brown and his loyalists might see in the next few weeks.

We don’t know what’s next for Brown. He traveled to New York on Sunday with UT president Bill Powers and athletic director Steve Patterson for the College Football Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. He’s supposed to hit the road this week for in-home visits with recruits.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesTexas has troubles defending the option. Marcus Mariota and Oregon run it perhaps better than anybody.
Whatever is in the works in the meantime remains unknown. Texas’ grand plan is far from clear. But this much is certain: When the dust settles, the Longhorns have plenty of work to do and 15 practices to do so. At some point, preparations to face Oregon will begin.

The response from fans and pundits on Sunday night was relatively consistent: Texas (8-4) is going to get smoked by Oregon (10-2). It won’t be pretty.

Oddsmakers have made the Ducks a two-touchdown favorite, which is familiar territory for the Longhorns by now. This team liked playing the underdog role in 2013, so perhaps there’s no better way to end the year than with Texas’ most difficult matchup yet.

Oregon has a two-time All-Pac-12 quarterback in Marcus Mariota. He ranked No. 2 in the nation in QBR this season behind Florida State's Jameis Winston. If not for an MCL sprain that limited his game late in the season, Mariota would likely be New York-bound as well this week. The way this Heisman field fell apart, he still might.

The Ducks' famously fast tempo won’t be what causes this Texas defense trouble. The Longhorns have seen faster this season, and Oregon’s plays-per-game-average of 75 is down from a year ago.

The problem will be the option. Among spread offenses, nobody does that better in college football than the Ducks. It’s a big reason they’re 56-9 since 2009, the year former coach Chip Kelly took over.

Mariota rushed for 695 yards excluding sacks this season, his second as the starter. He says the knee injury that prevented him from running effectively should be 100 percent healed by the Dec. 30 bowl game.

And he’s surrounded by options: Three running backs surpassed 500 yards this season, led by second-year back Byron Marshall’s 995 yards. He has an ankle injury, but also plenty of time to recover.

And don’t forget De’Anthony Thomas, as explosive a player as there is in college football. He’s healthy again after missing four games with an ankle injury. Miss him once in space and he’ll hit the home run. And when you sell out to stop the run, Josh Huff (1,036 receiving yards, 11 TDs) can sneak behind the defense and make you pay.

“These guys are like Baylor," Brown said. "They can score fast and they do a tremendous job."

Read option, speed option, triple option, veer, packaged plays – the Ducks do it all. No other bowl team has more 20-yard runs this season than Oregon.

And few bowl teams struggled more to stop the option and the quarterback run than Texas. For all the progress Greg Robinson and the defensive staff made in the past 10 games, this remains the team's Achilles’ heel.

The Longhorns gave up the ninth-most rushing yards to quarterbacks in the bowl subdivision. As Brown joked midway through the season: If Texas’ opponents don’t run the option, they’ll put it in the playbook.

It was just too easy, even against a defense with a pair of All-Big 12-caliber ends. Injuries have rendered this unit thin at linebacker and defensive tackle. Robinson, his coaches and his defenders will need these 15 bowl practices to find answers.

Oregon’s defense is far from flawless, but it did hold foes to 19 points per game in its wins. It’s a top-three scoring defense in the Pac-12 and No. 4 in total defense. At the moment, though, the attention of Texas’ offense will be on fixing itself.

Case McCoy is coming off the worst start of his career. The Longhorns gained 59 yards in the second half Saturday at Baylor. Their only touchdown drive began at Baylor’s 11-yard line, and they still needed seven plays to score.

They’ll need every practice and film session afforded to them this month. Stanford beat Oregon with pure power. Arizona blew out the Ducks with an elite running back. What’s it going to take for Texas to pull this one off?

The Longhorns have their own problems to solve first, and plenty of preparation ahead. If you think the next three weeks will be rough and messy off the field, it can get a lot worse if Texas doesn’t stay focused on its toughest test yet.

Valero Alamo Bowl

December, 8, 2013
12/08/13
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Oregon Ducks (10-2) vs. Texas Longhorns (8-4)

Dec. 30, 6:45 p.m. ET, San Antonio (ESPN)


OREGON DUCKS BREAKDOWN
During an 8-0 start, Oregon fans had only one thought in coach Mark Helfrich's first season: We want Bama. During a 2-2 finish, they started missing Chip Kelly.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesMarcus Mariota should be at full strength and ready to run in the postseason.
That 8-0 start was a thing of beauty, as the Ducks climbed to No. 2 in the nation, dominating on both sides of the ball. They hung 59 points on both Virginia and Tennessee. They turned a precarious seven-point fourth-quarter lead into a 45-24 stomping of hated rival Washington, a 10th consecutive victory in the series by at least 17 points. They showed some grit in the second half against UCLA, swamping the Bruins 42-14.

Not only were the Ducks again in the thick of the national title hunt, but QB Marcus Mariota was also the nation's leading Heisman Trophy candidate.

But in that win over the Bruins, Mariota sprained his knee. While the injury didn't force him to miss a game, it severely limited his ability to run either on designed plays or scrambles. That put a major part of the Ducks’ offense on ice.

Stanford dominated the Ducks on both sides of the ball in a 26-20 win on Nov. 7, the Pac-12's marquee date of the year. Mariota struggled mightily, but the real issue was the line of scrimmage. The Cardinal owned it.

The low point, however, was a 42-16 defeat at Arizona that proved the death knell of the Ducks' BCS bowl hopes. It was Oregon's first loss to an unranked team since 2009. The 26-point margin of defeat was their biggest since losing 44-10 to USC in 2008.

The Ducks bounced back with a victory in the Civil War, but that 36-35 nail-biter at home over a reeling Beavers team was hardly suggestive of the team that dominated foes through the first eight games. It will be interesting to see how the Ducks respond in the postseason. It should help that Mariota should be close to full health. -- Ted Miller

vs.

TEXAS LONGHORNS BREAKDOWN
The Longhorns had everything on the line against Baylor, including a Big 12 title and a trip to the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. They couldn’t get the job done. The bowl matchup that the 30-10 loss leads to is immaterial to Texas fans now. All they want to know is whether the Mack Brown era is over.

[+] EnlargeCase McCoy
John Albright/Icon SMITexas will lean on its run game but will need Case McCoy to make a few plays to close out the season with a win.
If that ends up being the case, we’ll know before Texas takes the field for its bowl game later this month. These Longhorns could have plenty to play for in their finale, even if at 8-4 they’ve ended up in the same Valero Alamo Bowl they played in last year.

Despite losing five starters to season-ending injuries, the Longhorns turned around a rough start with a 7-2 record in Big 12 play. They made that run with a potent power run game, now led by Malcolm Brown (774 yards, nine touchdowns). Whether or not Mack Brown is done, this is the final game for nine senior starters and an opportunity for Case McCoy to end his up-and-down career on a high note.

Texas’ defense underwent a revival in 10 games under Greg Robinson and did hold Baylor’s top-ranked scoring offense to three points in the first half. Jackson Jeffcoat finished with a Big 12-leading 12 sacks in his senior season and anchors a unit that has plenty of experience defending high-tempo spread offenses. -- Max Olson

Pick your QB: Manziel or Mariota

October, 15, 2013
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Manziel/MariotaUS PresswireBoth Johnny Manziel and Marcus Mariota have made some electric plays this season.

We've hit the midway point of the 2013 college football season and we're looking at midseason All-Americans.

There are plenty of worthy options at QB, but we all know it comes down to two names: Johnny Manziel and Marcus Mariota.

They are the two most exciting players at their position, and both are on teams that could be playing in the BCS title game. But which one truly is No. 1? Well, Pac-12 reporter Ted Miller and SEC reporter Edward Aschoff decided to take this argument to the streets!

We made our cases for both, but you guys decide the winner:

Edward Aschoff: Well, this one really is an easy one for me.

Remember when we all buried Manziel for his off-field shenanigans? We wondered if he'd be focused enough to duplicate his record-setting, Heisman Trophy-winning first year. Well, through six games, Manziel has totaled 2,273 yards of offense and 19 touchdowns. He's averaging 378.8 yards and 3.2 touchdowns per game and has completed 73.2 percent of his passes. He's a little behind last year’s production, but he also has less receiving weapons this year and his line isn't as strong.

Watching Manziel is like watching poetry in motion. He's standing in the pocket longer, scanning the field, making reads and thinking about running second. And when he does run, watch out. He's easily the slipperiest player in the country. He jukes guys out of their shoes and can make NFL throws on the run or in the pocket. Nothing gets to this kid, and you'd be crazy not to have him No. 1 on any awards list.

Ted Miller: Over at the Pac-12, we respect good quarterback play, so we are excited the SEC is finally getting to see what good QB play can do. Further, we love watching that little spark plug Johnny Football play. He's a neat little guy. So please accept a pat on the head from us.

Why is Mariota the midseason first-team QB? It's because, well, he's so completely freaking better than anyone else.

We’ll start with QBR first.

Our boy Mariota is No. 1. Manziel is No. 6.

Mariota has 17 touchdown passes. Manziel has 14. Mariota has zero interceptions (no turnovers, in fact). Manziel has five.

Manziel is slippery. He slipped his way to 438 rushing yards, which beats Mariota by 12. Of course, Mariota averages 10.4 yards per carry compared to 6.5 for Manziel. And Mariota has eight touchdown runs compared to five for Manziel.

Heck, if we just went bottom line with points accounted for, Mariota has 150 compared to 114 for Manziel.

Oh, and Mariota is 6-foot-4 and a sure NFL first-round draft pick. Manziel is 6-1 if you measuring him while he stands on his tippy toes.

EA: What Mariota has done this year has been very impressive, but he's just not Manziel. He can't change games like Manziel does.

You never see Manziel hesitate in the pocket or on runs. He stands tall, even though he really does look like a kicker out there with his size, and isn't afraid to take a hit or two. Manziel just has a magical way of extending plays and turning trash into treasure. A switch goes on when he walks into a stadium and he immediately becomes the best athlete on the field.

Look at what he did against Alabama and Ole Miss. The Crimson Tide built a 35-14 lead early in the third quarter and Manziel did everything he could to break that lead down bit by bit. He threw for a school-record 464 yards and five TDs and ran for another 98 yards in the Aggies' 49-42 loss. What if Manziel got the ball back on that onside kick with 15 seconds remaining?

Remember his Eli Manning-David Tyree moment against Alabama? I mean, Manziel only slipped out of Jeoffrey Pagan's attempted wrap-up and heaved an errant pass off his back foot into traffic on third-and-8, only for it to fall right into the hands of wide receiver Edward Pope for a 12-yard gain.

By the way, that Alabama defense now ranks No. 8 nationally.

Against Ole Miss, Manziel had a scary left knee injury in the first quarter, missed a play and then proceeded to play better. He made PlayStation-like plays with his legs, delivered some beautiful throws and sliced his way through Ole Miss' defense to deliver a come-from-behind, game-winning drive. He accounted for 346 passing yards, 124 rushing yards and two touchdowns, with 177 of those yards and a score coming in the fourth quarter.

He's easily the most exciting player to watch and the toughest player to stop. He'll burn you with his feet and carve you up with his arm. There just isn't another gamer like Manziel.

TM: I do love watching Manziel play. There's not only something magical about his devil-may-care playmaking, it's also cool that he doesn't look like he was constructed in a lab.

Further, when taking a measure of both, it doesn't help that they haven't played through the meat of their schedules yet. The only good team Manziel has faced is Alabama. The only good team Mariota has faced is Washington. Heck, the big deal from the win over the Huskies was that Mariota threw his first pass of the year in the fourth quarter because it was the first time he was needed in the fourth. And, yes, No. 1 Alabama is a far greater test, even at home, than a visit to No. 20 Washington.

So what did Mariota do when the Ducks only led by seven entering their first meaningful fourth quarter? He was 5-of-6 for 75 yards with a 3-yard touchdown pass and a 5-yard touchdown run. Like Manziel, Mariota took over the game. He completed 24-of-31 passes for 366 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He also rushed 13 times for 88 yards and a score. Those numbers came against a defense that was playing at home and ranked 10th in the nation in total defense, 11th in scoring defense and third in pass efficiency defense.

It wasn't a Nick Saban defense. But if you ask around, a Justin Wilcox defense isn't too shabby either.

In the end, I see Mariota with significantly better numbers at midseason leading an undefeated, No. 2-ranked team.

Of course, we have two very good QBs who still have half a season to play. No one ever remembers the midseason MVP. It's all about where things stand in January.

Johnny Manziel’s autograph problems didn’t stop Associated Press poll voters from signing their name next to Texas A&M.

The Aggies came in at No. 7 in the preseason AP Poll released Saturday, just one spot below their place in the preseason coaches' poll, which came out days before ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” reported that the NCAA is investigating whether Manziel was paid for autographing photos and memorabilia in January. Despite Manziel’s troubles and Texas A&M losing several key players from last year’s 11-2 squad, the voters still believe in Kevin Sumlin’s crew.

There was decidedly little drama in the initial AP rankings aside from A&M. The voting mirrored that of the coaches' poll, as the same 25 teams appeared, 19 in the same place. The AP Top 5 -- Alabama, Ohio State, Oregon, Stanford and Georgia -- is the same as the coaches.

Alabama not surprisingly was the overwhelming choice at No. 1, receiving 58 of 60 first-place votes, tying the 2009 Florida team for the highest percentage of first-place votes in the preseason rankings. That two voters drifted from the Tide -- one to Ohio State, one to Georgia -- might be the real surprise. Sure, every year is different, but it’s hard to make a case for any other team at the top after watching Nick Saban’s crew dominate the college football landscape in recent years.

Both Oregon and Stanford won BCS bowls last season but come in behind Ohio State, the only Football Bowl Subdivision team to go undefeated last season. The Buckeyes hardly were dominant, nearly stumbling against Purdue, Wisconsin and Michigan State. The voters clearly think bigger things are ahead for the Buckeyes in Year 2 under Urban Meyer, who won a national championship in his second season at Florida, thumping the team he now leads.

Notre Dame’s rough offseason affected the AP voters more than the coaches, as the Irish came in at No. 14, three spots below their coaches' poll ranking. Brian Kelly’s team will have chances to prove itself as it plays four ranked squads, culminating with the regular-season finale at Stanford.

Could this be the year the Big Ten finally puts itself back on the national stage? The much-maligned league has five teams in the poll, tied with the Pac-12 for the second most of any conference. The problem for the Big Ten: Only Ohio State cracked the top 15, while the SEC, Pac-12, Big 12 and ACC all have multiple teams. It’s still very much an SEC world as five squads made the top 10.

The Pac-12 might be the best bet to unseat the SEC as both Oregon and Stanford have been branded as preseason title contenders. The Big 12 enters the season with zero top-10 teams but a potentially appetizing race between Oklahoma State, Texas and Oklahoma.

The poll features just two teams -- No. 9 Louisville and No. 19 Boise State -- from outside the “big five” conferences. Neither squad will play any teams in the preseason poll, so a path to Pasadena for the BCS National Championship, even with an undefeated record, seems difficult.

The near consensus between the AP and coaches' polls creates a clear landscape entering the season. Someone needs to catch Alabama. We’ll see if Manziel gets a chance when the Aggies welcome the Tide to College Station on Sept. 14.

Big 12's bowl performance: Underwhelming

January, 9, 2013
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The Big 12 sent nine teams to bowl games, which for a 10-team league is no small accomplishment. As has been well-documented on this blog, it was the highest percentage for any league in the history of college football.

The Big 12 was the best league in college football from top to bottom (or, perhaps more accurately, bottom to top), but qualifying for those bowl games also means you've got to play them. The lesson the Big 12 learned was clear: Its strength was in the middle of the league, with mostly just OK teams at the top and good-but-questionable teams at the bottom.

[+] EnlargeBaylor's Lache Seastrunk
Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsPerformances like those of Lache Seastrunk and Baylor allowed the Big 12's middle to pull away from the rest of the country.
Oklahoma and Kansas State made it clear: The Big 12 lacked a team that deserved to be in the national title hunt this season. Both finished outside the top 10 in both polls after suffering embarrassing losses in marquee bowl games to teams that looked the part of top five teams. They were outscored by a combined 40-7 in the second half of their games against Texas A&M and Oregon.

Like in 2010, the Big 12 was weak at the top. The same was true at the bottom, where overachieving Iowa State played its worst game of the year against a 10-win Tulsa team that cracked the Top 25 and dominated the line of scrimmage while the Cyclones offense sputtered. West Virginia's fall from grace (and the top five ... and Big 12 respectability) finished in predictably ugly fashion. When you began writing the story of WVU's season, you couldn't have written a more gruesome finish than a 24-point loss to a Big East team (the same Big East, though, that went 4-1 against the SEC this year) in a snowstorm.

Where the Big 12 shined, though, was predictable. The middle of the league was perhaps its biggest strength relative to the rest of college football, and we saw that play out on the field. Oklahoma State drew one of the easiest matchups of the bowl season and made a mediocre Big Ten team in Purdue look like an FCS team, delivering the worst beating of anyone the Boilermakers faced all season.

The Big 12's biggest wins, though, came in two of its toughest matchups against the league that was its toughest competition for the nation's No. 2 league: the Pac-12.

Texas and Baylor both faced top 20 opponents from the Pac-12 and did so as underdogs. Baylor won in spectacular fashion in the Big 12's bowl opener, earning respect for the league and a clear edge in the Big 12 vs. Pac-12 debate. Oregon's beatdown of Kansas State leveled the playing field between the two leagues, but ultimately, those two games likely gave the Big 12 an edge in the debate between the two conferences. Despite the losses everywhere else, that's saying a little something.

The Big 12's lackluster performances on its biggest stages means it will fall short when it comes to national respect. It leaves the league without a single top 10 finisher and critics deservedly questioning the credentials of the league's co-champions. However, the strong performance against the Pac-12 gives it the edge as college football's No. 2 league.

For the Big 12 , there was no big movement or exodus into the Top 25, no grand statement. Just a 4-5 record and a feeling of being underwhelmed with college football's postseason complete.

Pregame: Tostitos Fiesta Bowl

January, 3, 2013
1/03/13
11:16
AM CT
Oregon (11-1, 8-1 Pac-12) vs. Kansas State (11-1, 8-1 Big 12)

Who to watch: The Fiesta Bowl features two of the nation's best quarterbacks, Kansas State's Heisman Trophy finalist Collin Klein and Oregon's Marcus Mariota, who was first-team All-Pac-12 as a redshirt freshman. They are the QBs for high-powered, though very different, offenses. Klein carries far more of the load for the Wildcats than Mariota does for the Ducks, but if one of them turns in an uncharacteristically mediocre or sloppy game, it probably will cost his team the win. And that's not too far out of the realm of possibility. While both teams protect the ball well, both also rank among the nation's leaders in forcing turnovers. It will be interesting to see what happens if things are still in doubt in the fourth quarter, as most expect. Mariota played only one close game this season, and the Ducks lost that one to Stanford.

What to watch: Tackling. Klein is the Wildcats' best runner, and he thrives at getting yards after contact, especially when he smells the end zone. He has 40 rushing touchdowns over the past two seasons and is one of four Football Bowl Subdivision players with more than 200 rushing yards in the red zone this season. He gained 35.7 percent of his red zone yards after contact. Running back John Hubert isn't big but runs hard, so the Ducks need to make their first hit count. Oregon is all about speed. If Mariota, Kenjon Barner, Josh Huff or De'Anthony Thomas make the first defender miss, the odds are good they'll go yard, or at least gain a big chunk of yards. Tackling will be interesting to watch early and late. Early because both teams are dealing with a long layoff (just over a month), and late because that's when fatigue -- and pressure -- sets in.

Why watch: This is the only bowl game that matches top-five teams other than the national title game between Alabama and Notre Dame. It features well-coached teams with plenty of star power and sets up to be highly competitive. It's a nice Pac-12 versus Big 12 showdown, a conference pairing the Big 12 has dominated this bowl season. And it could be Chip Kelly's final game as the Ducks coach before he takes an NFL job.

Predictions: Ted Miller says Oregon 33, Kansas State 24. Kevin Gemmell says Oregon 49, Kansas State 38. David Ubben says Oregon 38, Kansas State 31. For full predictions from the Pac-12's Miller and Gemmell, click here. For Ubben's full prediction on the Big 12 blog, click here.

Hot Button: Manziel or Mariota?

November, 15, 2012
11/15/12
12:55
PM CT

So if you were given the chance to start a football team around either Johnny Manziel or Marcus Mariota, who would you take?

Both are redshirt freshmen and both are tearing it up on their respective playing fields.

Would you take the winged QB in Eugene, Ore., who is as calm as they come in the pocket? Or would you live a little more dangerously with the ad-libbing ankle-breaker down in College Station, Texas?

Honestly, both have been outstanding this year, but Pac-12 blogger Kevin Gemmell and I had a little Hot Button debate on the subject and took two different stances on both quarterbacks. I went with Johnny Football, while he went with Mariota.

Here's a little big of what I had to say:
For a player who never took a college snap until the second weekend of the 2012 season, Manziel has taken on a superhero persona, while playing the ultimate villain for defenses. If you leave him with room to run, he'll gut your defense with his speed and agility. Give him too much time to throw and he'll kill your spirits through the air.

Manziel might not have the prettiest form and his ad-libs can drive his coaches crazy, but with the way he has grown and with the way he stood tall inside the home of the nation's No. 1 team and stole more than just the show, it's hard to not want Manziel running your team.

Check out the video above, as well. Kevin and I weigh some pros and cons about the two there. And, yes, that is a stuffed Reptar doll on my bookshelf. Jealous?

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