UCLA: Steve Sarkisian

Preseason position reviews: Quarterback

June, 25, 2014
Jun 25
9:00
AM PT
It's time to start our preseason position reviews. Please, hold your applause until we are finished.

Here's how we do this: We provide three evaluative categories: "Great shape," "Good shape" and "We'll see."

Hint: You'd prefer your team to be in "Great shape."

"We'll see" doesn't mean you're going to stink at said position. It means just what it says -- we'll see because there's no way at present to know.

You can review last year's rankings here.

And away we go ... starting, of course, with quarterback.

GREAT SHAPE

Oregon: Junior Marcus Mariota is -- again -- a leading Heisman Trophy candidate and a two-time first-team All-Pac-12 performer. He would have been an early-round NFL draft pick this spring if he'd opted not to return. The Ducks have some questions at receiver though.

UCLA: Junior Brett Hundley is the conference's No. 2 Heisman Trophy candidate. While Arizona State's Taylor Kelly eclipsed him for second-team All-Pac-12 last fall, Hundley's tremendous upside is why he has NFL scouts eagerly awaiting his entering the draft.

Arizona State: As noted, Kelly was the Pac-12's No. 2 QB last season, which means he was one of the nation's best at the position. It also helps his cause that he's got WR Jaelen Strong, an All-American candidate. However, Kelly does need to take fewer sacks -- you could say the same for Hundley -- and throw fewer interceptions.

Oregon State: Sean Mannion ranked second in the nation with 358.6 yards passing per game in 2013 and is also an NFL prospect. Life might be just a bit harder in the passing game without Brandin Cooks.

GOOD SHAPE

Stanford: Kevin Hogan, a third-year starter, had a good but not great sophomore season while leading the Cardinal to the Pac-12 championship. He was mostly efficient and showed a good touch downfield, but he made some surprisingly bad decisions and needs work with his intermediate passing game. He's got a good crew of veteran receivers coming back, which bodes well for him.

Washington State: Connor Halliday threw for a bunch of yards (4,597) and TDs (34) last season, but he also tossed way too many interceptions (22). Part of that was an inconsistent O-line and a neglected running game. The good news is he's in his third year under Mike Leach and has a strong crew of returning receivers. Of all the Pac-12 QBs, he might make the biggest climb this season.

USC: Cody Kessler didn't put up big numbers last season and didn't beat Notre Dame or UCLA but significantly improved after Lane Kiffin was fired. Like Kelly, he's got an A-list target coming back in WR Nelson Agholor. We expect Kessler to thrive with a new, up-tempo scheme under Steve Sarkisian.

Utah: Utah received good news yesterday when 16-game starter Travis Wilson was medically cleared to play. When healthy, Wilson has been a solid performer with good upside. He'll have to fight off a challenge this preseason from Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson though.

California: Jared Goff averaged 292 yards passing per game as a true freshman. That's good. But the Cal offense struggled to do much else but throw the ball between the 20s -- hence a conference-worst 23 points per game. He had just 18 TD passes on 531 attempts. Still, he flashed potential and has a very good crew of receivers coming back.

Colorado: Sefo Liufau became the Buffaloes' starter at midseason and often played like the true freshman he was. Furthermore, he won't have Paul Richardson serving as a safety blanket and making big plays for him. Still, Liufau's baptism by Pac-12 fire provided some seasoning that was evident this spring. The Buffs feel pretty good about having a returning starter behind center.

WE'LL SEE

Washington: While Cyler Miles flashed potential last season coming of the bench for Keith Price, logging a road victory at Oregon State in his first start, he also had an off-field issue that has muddied the waters at QB for the Huskies. It remains to be seen how quickly Miles emerges from Chris Petersen's doghouse, and if he can beat out Jeff Lindquist and Troy Williams.

Arizona: The Wildcats have no clear frontrunner in their QB competition. That's the bad news. The good news is the performances this spring were generally solid. Rich Rodriguez believes he's got a couple of guys who can win games for him. He's just not sure which guy is No. 1 between Jesse Scroggins, Connor Brewer, Anu Solomon and Jerrard Randall.

Pac-12's best nonconference games

June, 10, 2014
Jun 10
1:30
PM PT
The Pac-12 typically plays a rugged nonconference schedule, but the 2014 slate is, well, only fair to middling.

There's a true marque national game -- Michigan State at Oregon -- and there are three matchups with Notre Dame. But there aren't a whole lot of ranked foes from other areas of the country on the slate.

Here's how we'd rank the Pac-12's best nonconference games in 2014.

1. Michigan State at Oregon (Sept. 6): It's a top-10 -- perhaps even top-five -- matchup that looks like a Rose Bowl. Or a College Football Playoff semifinal. The Spartans shut down Stanford in the Rose Bowl in January and are eyeballing even bigger things this fall. Like the Ducks.

2. Stanford at Notre Dame (Oct. 4): This has become a strong, national rivalry. The last time the Cardinal was in South Bend, the ending was highly controversial -- the Fighting Irish wouldn't have played for the 2012 national title without a boost from the officials. This game likely reveals if one or the other is a CFP candidate.

3. Notre Dame at USC (Nov. 29): It remains the greatest intersectional rivalry in college sports. It would be a good idea for first-year USC coach Steve Sarkisian to win this one. A good way to win over his fan base.

4. Notre Dame at Arizona State (Nov. 8): The Fighting Irish tried to get out of this game. They also beat the Sun Devils last year. Arizona State should be plenty motivated in front of what is certain to be a packed house.

5. UCLA vs. Texas (Sept. 13, Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas): Texas is breaking in new coach Charlie Strong in what is really a glorified home game. UCLA is only trying to announce itself as a national title contender. While the Longhorns are down, they won't lack talent.

6. Utah at Michigan (Sept. 20): Here's a good way for the Utes to announce their return to relevance -- a trip to the Big House. Utah certainly won't be intimidated. It won in Ann Arbor 25-23 in 2008 on its way to an undefeated season. It also lost 10-7 in 2002.

7. California at Northwestern (Aug. 30): Sonny Dykes wants to get his second season off with a bang. This is a good -- and winnable -- opportunity to do just that.

8. Rutgers vs. Washington State (Aug. 28, CenturyLink Field, Seattle): The Cougars are eyeballing a breakthrough season. It will be hard to do that with an opening loss to a Big Ten team. Yes, Rutgers is now a Big Ten team.

9. Illinois at Washington (Sept. 13): The Illini don't seem too scary, but they are a Big Ten team. They didn't make things too easy on the Huskies last year, either.

10. BYU at California (Nov. 29): We've already noted how nice it would be for Dykes to get his second season off to a fast start. What about a strong finish?

Pac-12 schedule analysis: South Division

May, 29, 2014
May 29
7:00
PM PT
College football is not only about being good. It's about scheduling.

So let's look at how the Pac-12 schedules stack up, starting with the South Division (*-denotes FCS team; toughest nonconference game bolded):

You can review the North Division here.

ARIZONA

Nonconference slate: Aug. 30 -- UNLV (7-6); Sept. 6 -- at UTSA (7-5); Sept. 13 -- Nevada (4-8)

Pac-12 misses: Oregon State, Stanford

Road games (5): at UTSA, at Oregon, at Washington State, at UCLA, at Utah

Bye weeks: Sept. 27 (before Thursday game at Oregon); Oct. 18 (before game at Washington State)

Skinny: The Wildcats are in a dead-heat with Colorado for the most favorable schedule in the Pac-12. The nonconference slate is soft, though a trip to UTSA might be tricky, as most road games are. The conference misses are favorable, as Stanford is a top-10 team and the Beavers are a likely bowl team. The Wildcats play five conference home games; USC and Arizona State play four. As for the byes, Oregon and Washington State share them so that boon is neutralized. If the Wildcats can go 3-0 in the nonconference slate and split their conference road games, they have a good shot at eight or even nine wins.

ARIZONA STATE

Nonconference slate: Aug, 28 -- Weber State (2-10)*; Sept. 28 -- at New Mexico (3-9); Nov. 8 -- Notre Dame (9-4)

Pac-12 misses: California, Oregon

Road games (6): at New Mexico, at Colorado, at USC, at Washington, at Oregon State, at Arizona

Bye weeks: Sept. 20 (before Thursday game vs. UCLA); Oct. 11 (before visit from Stanford)

Skinny: The visit from Notre Dame, which the Sun Devils had to fight to retain as the Fighting Irish tried to opt out, gives the nonconference slate some grit. You'd think ASU would be hungry for revenge after it turned in a curiously flat performance against the Irish last season in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The trip to New Mexico is a bit odd. Each of the road conference foes will be seeking revenge after getting blistered in Tempe last season. Missing Cal, at least based on last season, is the worst miss for a South team, but that is balanced by missing Oregon, probably the best miss. UCLA is also off before that critical matchup, but the Sun Devils' bye before facing Stanford could provide an advantage -- as well as extra rest and recovery after a tough game at USC. The Sun Devils played the nation's toughest schedule in 2013, and this one might be only a slight step back.

COLORADO

Nonconference slate: Aug. 30 -- Colorado State (8-6), game in Denver; Sept. 6 -- at Massachusetts (1-11); Sept. 20 -- Hawaii (1-11)

Pac-12 misses: Stanford, Washington State


Road games (5): at UMass, at California, at USC, at Arizona, at Oregon

Bye weeks: Oct. 11 (before visit to USC); Nov. 15 (before visit to Oregon)

Skinny: The question is whether Colorado can claw its way to six wins from this schedule. It's not completely unreasonable to be optimistic. The opener against a rising Colorado State program is critical, as a win there likely secures a 3-0 record in nonconference games. Missing Stanford is good, particularly for a young team trying to regain its footing. The trip to UMass can't be completely overlooked because the Buffaloes have been so awful on the road the past few years. Will byes before road trips to USC and Oregon potentially alter the outcome of those games? We're guessing no. Still, this is a favorable slate, upon which the Buffaloes should take another step forward in their rebuilding.

UCLA

Nonconference slate: Aug. 30 -- at Virginia (2-10); Sept. 6 -- Memphis (3-9); Sept. 13 -- Texas (8-5), at Arlington, Texas

Pac-12 misses: Oregon State, Washington State

Road games (6): at Virginia, at Texas, at Arizona State, at California, at Colorado, at Washington

Bye weeks: Sept. 20 (before Thursday game at Arizona State); Nov. 15 (before USC)

Skinny: UCLA is a favorite in the Pac-12 South and a national title contender, and if it gets to the College Football Playoff playing against this schedule, it will have earned its spot in spades. While Virginia has been struggling, it is an ACC team playing at home. Texas will be looking to make a statement in its home state in Charlie Strong's first season. Therefore, the nonconference schedule should be considered above average in degree of difficulty. The Pac-12 misses are not ideal. UCLA and Stanford are the only two conference teams to miss two teams that have almost no shot for a preseason ranking. The good news is, though there are six road games, only four come in Pac-12 play. The Bruins and Sun Devils both have a bye before their big matchup. The bye before facing USC is slightly countered by the Trojans playing at home against California on Thursday, Nov. 13.

USC

Nonconference slate: Aug. 30 -- Fresno State (11-2); Sept. 13 -- at Boston College (7-6); Nov. 29 -- Notre Dame (9-4)

Pac-12 misses: Washington, Oregon

Road games (6): at Stanford, at Boston College, at Arizona, at Utah, at Washington State, at UCLA

Bye weeks: Sept. 20 (before Oregon State); Nov. 8 (before Thursday game at California)

Skinny: As usual, USC has a tough schedule, but the Pac-12 rotation of misses does provide a boost. The nonconference schedule is rugged, perhaps the Pac-12's toughest, with three solid-to-good teams that played in bowl games a season ago, though the opener against Fresno State won't be as worrisome with QB Derek Carr in the NFL. Having Notre Dame in L.A. also helps. The misses are very advantageous. Oregon is a good miss because it's a top-five team, but Washington also is ideal because it would have invited the storyline of "Steve Sarkisian versus his old team," which would have been a potential distraction. Six road games, including five in the Pac-12, is a burden. At Stanford in week two is a big early matchup, and the Trojans upset the Cardinal a season ago. The bye before Oregon State comes after consecutive road games, including a trip east to Boston, so it is of some benefit. In terms of the South outlook for the top contenders, the Trojans have an easier schedule, at least from a preseason perspective, than UCLA and Arizona State.

UTAH

Nonconference slate: Aug. 28 -- Idaho State (7-6)*; Sept. 6 -- Fresno State (11-2); Sept. 20 -- at Michigan (7-6)

Pac-12 misses: California, Washington

Road games (6): at Michigan, at UCLA, at Oregon State, at Arizona State, at Stanford, at Colorado

Bye weeks: Sept. 13 (before visit to Michigan); Oct. 11 (before visit to Oregon State)

Skinny: Utah had the two best misses -- Oregon and Stanford -- its first two years in the Pac-12, but that's in the past. Of course, the Utes beat Stanford last season, so who knows. As it is, this is one of the three of four toughest slates in the conference. Fresno State is no slouch, and a trip to Michigan is never easy. Missing Washington is pretty good, but missing Cal is not. There are six total road games, including five in conference play, one more than 2013. The bye week before Michigan is ideal, but the bye week before Oregon State is matched by the Beavers. After seeing this slate, some BYU fans might be sympathetic why the Utes are taking a break from the rivalry series. The challenge is whether their are six wins here to get the Utes back to the postseason. Other than the opener with Idaho State, no week is a gimme.

Summer Pac-12 power rankings

May, 27, 2014
May 27
9:00
AM PT
While summer is considered the "offseason," we all know there is no offseason. Every Pac-12 team is either gaining -- or losing -- ground right now due to its focus and effort at getting better, both on a team and individual level.

So how do things stand in advance of teams beginning preseason camp?

Glad you asked (and you can view the final 2013 power rankings here).

1. Oregon: I know. We always rank Oregon here, underrating Stanford and its more physical but less sexy style of play. But the return of QB Marcus Mariota and a veteran offensive line is just too tantalizing. The Ducks look like the Pac-12's best bet for an entrant in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

2. UCLA: I know. We're dropping the two-time defending Pac-12 champions to No. 3, underrating Stanford and its more physical but less sexy style of play. But the Pac-12 blog keeps reviewing the Bruins' depth chart and contemplating a trip to Vegas ... 20/1 ... hmm.

3. Stanford: The quandary with Stanford: Was the defensive front seven dominant this spring because it's going to again be among the best in the nation (probably)? Or was it because four new starters on the O-line means a step back on offense (maybe)? Two other issues: 1. Replacing D-coordinator Derek Mason; 2. Can QB Kevin Hogan improve enough on short and intermediate throws to take advantage of a strong crew of receivers?

4. USC: The Trojans enter the final season under NCAA scholarship reductions with a starting 22 good enough to win the Pac-12, but depth and health are issues. There is a lot to like on both sides of the ball, though the offensive line probably rates as the most critical question mark.

5. Arizona State: The defending South champions are going to be tough to stop on offense behind QB Taylor Kelly and WR Jaelen Strong, but replacing nine starters -- and just about all its star power -- on defense is not an issue you can write off with a "Hey, we've got lots of great JC transfers coming in."

6. Washington: The return of QB Cyler Miles from suspension provides a big boost and probably means that the Huskies can be a factor in the North race. The secondary is a concern, and that's not a good concern to have in the QB-laden conference this fall. And there is some mystery as to whether there will be growing pains during the transition to Chris Petersen from Steve Sarkisian.

7. Oregon State: We expect the Beavers defense to be better this fall compared to last season, so the big question is how do the 10 guys on offense complement QB Sean Mannion? The O-line -- again -- is a question, and it's not easy to replace the nation's best receiver. Still, we expect the 2014 Beavers to be better than the 2013 version. Perhaps much better.

8. Washington State: If you are looking for a true conference dark horse, it's the Cougars. There are questions on the O-line and on defense, but the passing game should be outstanding with third-year starter Connor Halliday and a deep, talented crew of receivers. Put it this way: What does this team look like if it improves as much in Mike Leach's third year as it did in Year 2?

9. Arizona: The Wildcats are outstanding at receiver, good on the offensive line and solid at safety. There are questions just about everywhere else, and the strange thing is that quarterback might be the least worrisome. Still, to show how we view the Pac-12's depth again this fall, the Wildcats over/under for wins is seven.

10. Utah: The Utes situation seems fairly simple. If the production at quarterback is consistent, this is a bowl team. The best bet is with a healthy Travis Wilson, though it really is about just starting the same guy all 12 games.

11. Colorado: The Buffaloes should take another step forward in Year 2 under Mike MacIntyre, but the real issue is whom can they crawl over to rise in the conference pecking order? With about six or seven projected senior starters this fall, the Buffs might not make a move up until 2015.

12. California: If the bet were to pick who finishes last in the Pac-12 in 2014, Cal or the field, I'd be reluctant to tap Cal. I'd much rather go with the field because I think the Bears were awful in Year 1 under Sonny Dykes because of an epidemic of injuries and a poorly-coached defense. The latter should be solved by the hiring of coordinator Art Kaufman, and I can't foresee the injury situation being nearly as bad.

Pac-12's lunch links

May, 6, 2014
May 6
2:30
PM PT
Just remember, football is 80 percent mental and 40 percent physical.

Lunch links: Post-spring answers

May, 2, 2014
May 2
11:30
AM PT
Happy Friday!

Defensive questions abound in Pac-12

May, 2, 2014
May 2
11:30
AM PT

The Pac-12 entered spring practices with more clarity and quality at quarterback than any conference in the nation by a wide margin. It exits with even more clarity at the position.

With new USC coach Steve Sarkisian announcing that Cody Kessler retained his starting job, and Utah's Travis Wilson's apparently successful return from a career-threatening medical condition (an intracranial artery injury diagnosed in November), the Pac-12 welcomes back 10 returning starters heading into the fall, with a handful -- such as Oregon's Marcus Mariota, UCLA's Brett Hundley, Arizona State's Taylor Kelly and Oregon State's Sean Mannion -- who are candidates for All-America honors and national awards.

Further, it became clear this spring that the Pac-12 is overflowing with quality receivers, with several teams combining depth, talent and experience at the position. So things figure to be pass happy in the fall.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Williams
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsUSC junior defensive lineman Leonard Williams is one of the few Pac-12 defensive stars returning this season.
But what about defense? After all, they say, defense wins championships, and Woody Hayes told us, "Three things can happen when you throw the ball, and two of them are bad," an optimistic take that leaves out the quarterback sack.

While conference teams average 6.4 returning starters on defense, and just three -- Arizona State (3), Oregon (5) and Utah (5) -- welcome back fewer than six starters on that side of the ball, the loss of star power is notable.

Just two first-team All-Pac-12 defenders return in 2014: USC defensive tackle Leonard Williams and Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Only four from the second team return.

Washington defensive end Hau'oli Kikaha and Oregon outside linebacker Tony Washington are the only returning defenders who ranked among the conference's top 12 in sacks last season. The same is true in the secondary: Only two of the top eight interception leaders are back in 2014.

So, without marquee guys chasing them or trying to steal their passes, life seems good at quarterback heading into the offseason. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, few teams seem to be fretting their situation on the mean side of the ball.

Take Stanford, owner of the Pac-12's best defense in 2013. While the Cardinal appeared more settled on offense than defense entering spring practices, the defense mostly ruled when the ball was snapped.

"No question," Cardinal coach David Shaw said. "If you look at our defensive front, it's a bunch of fourth-year and fifth-year seniors ... we've got a lot of guys coming back who've played a lot of football for us."

While Stanford lost some big names, such as linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov, it also welcomes back a strong foundation of seven returning starters and experienced backups. Shaw noted that Aziz Shittu is only non-fourth- or fifth-year guy in the mix for playing time in the front seven. He lauded defensive end Henry Anderson, an athletic 6-foot-6, 295 pounder, this spring as a potential breakout star this season, with an NFL future.

Over at Oregon, the Ducks are not only replacing two of three defensive linemen and three starters in the secondary, they also are breaking in a new defensive coordinator, as Don Pellum moved up from linebackers coach to replace the retiring Nick Aliotti.

Yet even when matched against Mariota and a potent and experienced Ducks offense, the defense held its own.

"I think we've had a great give and take as far as who's had the upper hand," Ducks coach Mark Helfrich said. "Marcus is obviously a difference-maker and a special guy. Defensively, we're building where we need to be. It was good give and take overall."

In the South Division, UCLA and USC both look strong on defense despite losing some marquee players. Both welcome back eight starters from accomplished units. Defending champion Arizona State lost almost all of its star power, but Sun Devils coach Todd Graham was almost defiant all spring about his expectations for his defense.

Of course, he's also counting on a number of newcomers playing key roles, which often is a matter of keeping the ole fingers crossed.

“People come here to play defense, that’s what we’re known for," he said. "We’re known for defense, so I don’t expect anything less than last year.”

While there might be some defensive questions among the teams thought to be competing for division championships, the defenses that finished on the bottom in 2013 could be much improved.

Oregon State, Colorado and California, the Nos. 9, 11 and 12 scoring defenses last season, each welcome back eight starters. The Golden Bears and Beavers, in particular, could dramatically improve if injury woes from 2013 reverse themselves.

"I think our team is tougher and better conditioned and our players are in a much better place than they were last year," Cal coach Sonny Dykes said. "I think that's something players noticed. We have some experience coming back. It's the second year in the system. So, yeah, I think everybody feels like we're a lot better football team than we were a year ago."

It seems certain that Pac-12 offenses will again be high-flying and potent in 2014. But the conference teams that have earned BCS bowl berths the past decade or so also have played good defense. As we exit spring and head into the offseason, there is hope -- but not nearly as much certainty -- there.

Pac-12 notebook from conference call

May, 1, 2014
May 1
5:45
PM PT
The Pac-12 coaches chatted about spring practices with reporters Thursday afternoon. The biggest news was Stanford coach David Shaw laying into the SEC for continuing to play eight conference games instead of nine, but there were some other worthy notes.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsStanford coach David Shaw, along with Oregon State's Mike Riley, was critical of the SEC's decision to stick with the 8-game conference schedule.
Here are a few.

  • Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said it's possible he'll use a receiver, where the Wildcats are deep, as a cornerback, where they are not. He also offered no further insight on what his pecking order might be at quarterback.
  • Arizona State coach Todd Graham said S Jordan Simone, a Washington State transfer, had a great spring. "He's been a blessing for us -- tremendous passion," Graham said. "One of the things that surprised me is how fast he was." Graham said he's in the mix to be the starting "bandit" safety. There was an "Or" between him and Marcus Ball on the post-spring depth chart.
  • When asked to name a redshirt freshman that stood out this spring, California coach Sonny Dykes mentioned CB Darius Allensworth, LB Ray Davison and safety Griffin Piatt. He also lauded his redshirt freshmen offensive linemen as well as WR transfer Trevor Davis.
  • Colorado Mike MacIntyre said that defensive linemen Samson Kafovalu and Justin Solis, who missed spring due to academics, are on track to rejoin the team this summer, pending exams.
  • Oregon took a bit hit when receiver Bralon Addison suffered a knee injury, but coach Mark Helfrich noted that a pair of redshirt freshman receivers, Devon Allen and Darren Carrington, have "both shown flashes of what we thought they were in recruiting." On defense, he took note of defensive back Tyree Robinson.
  • While Oregon State coach Mike Riley is typically mild-mannered in his opinions, he does share Shaw's strong view that the SEC is gaming the system by playing one fewer conference game in the regular season. He said, "I don't think it's right. There's got to be some equity here."
  • When asked to name a redshirt freshman that stood out this spring, Stanford coach David Shaw said outside linebacker Peter Kalambayi. "He had a great spring game, great spring session completely," Shaw said. "He's shown speed and size and on top of all that has shown a great understand of what to do."
  • When asked about young standouts this spring, UCLA coach Jim Mora cited defensive lineman Eli Ankou, offensive tackles Poasi Moala and Kenny Lacy and receiver Eldridge Massington.
  • USC coach Steve Sarkisian said frosh offensive linemen Damien Mama and Viane Talamaivao will play in the interior at guard or center and not at tackle, where the Trojans are more questionable. He also lauded redshirt freshman CB Chris Hawkins.
  • It appears that Utah's moving of Marcus Sanders-Willams from running back to linebacker is permanent. Said Utes coach Kyle Whittingham, "We're only a couple of weeks into the evaluation process of it but it looks like a natural move for Marcus. He's got a lot of basic instincts."
  • Washington coach Chris Petersen said he had no update on the status of suspended QB Cyler Miles. He said the QB competition remained wide open. When asked about redshirt freshmen who performed well this spring, he cited RB Lavon Coleman, CB Jermaine Kelly, LB Keishawn Bierria and QB Troy Williams.
  • When asked to name a redshirt freshman that stood out this spring, Washington State coach Mike Leach mentioned right offensive tackle Cole Madison and a pair of defensive linemen, Daniel Ekuale and Emmitt Su'a-Kalio. He also lauded the play of CB Daquawn Brown.

Lunch links: Big commit for Cats

April, 28, 2014
Apr 28
2:30
PM PT
Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.

Mailbag: I anoint thee quarterback

April, 22, 2014
Apr 22
5:30
PM PT
Welcome to the mailbag, where no question is dumb. Except for the dumb ones.

Jaime in Los Angeles writes: Your poll was interesting about anointing a quarterback. Where do you come down?

Kevin Gemmell: If you can, you should, without question. Coaches, however, don’t always have that luxury.

This is an interesting season for Pac-12 quarterbacks because there are potentially 10 starters returning. That’s pretty rare for a conference. But it’s also a relief to 10 coaches who don’t have to deal with Ted texting them at 2 a.m. inquiring who their starting quarterback is going to be. (Now he just texts me).

To have a starting quarterback in place post-spring -- if it’s the right quarterback -- can be a blessing. He’ll lead the way in the weight room. He’ll call his receivers up to go throw for no other reason than he wants to throw. He’ll bond with his guys and they’ll start to respect him off the field.

Now for the two schools that don’t have a starter coming back -- Arizona and Washington -- there is no reason to rush things. During this time, Chris Petersen and Rich Rodriguez will be getting feedback from their strength coaches about how the quarterbacks interact with the other players. Who is stepping up and being a leader? Who do the guys respect? Who do they respond to? It’s not just about the Xs and Os.

So while I wholeheartedly endorse the idea of anointing a quarterback, I also know that if you don’t have one in place you shouldn’t force the issue.




Tim in Salt Lake City writes: Kevin, Which Pac-12 programs do you expect to benefit the most from new rules allowing coaches to work with players over the summer?

Kevin Gemmell: I could give you the “duh” answer, and that’s all of them. Because obviously it’s going to benefit every team. But if you’re looking for the impact on just this upcoming season, I think it’s a huge asset to every team with a young or new quarterback. An Arizona, California, Colorado, Washington, etc.

The rule offers an additional eight hours per week (assuming student-athletes hit certain academic benchmarks) and up to two of those hours can be spent in the film room. That means extra time studying formations, cutups, etc. It gives a Sefo Liufau and Jared Goff extra time to review what they did right and wrong in 2013. And it allows one of Arizona’s 17 quarterbacks to gain that little extra knowledge that might make the difference. It could either be catch-up for Cyler Miles or the difference between starting or sitting on the bench for Jeff Lindquist or Troy Williams.

The physical aspect of it is important, also. It’s a way to make sure guys are sticking with their regimen. And for a team like, say, Colorado, which has dramatically needed to improve its physical strength (and made strides in 2013), it’s another few hours of supervised work.

Since you’re writing from SLC, this will be especially helpful as the Utes adjust to their third offensive coordinator in three years. Even for Travis Wilson (assuming he’s the guy), it’s a similar system in terms of concepts, but with probably just enough tweaks from the previous one that a little extra film time would be beneficial.

There isn’t a coach out there who thinks more time during the summer is a bad thing. If for no other reason than just to remind them to do the right thing when they go out at night. I remember a conversation I had once with Mike Leach about players getting into to trouble in the offseason, but because of limited contact, coaches can’t always babysit. Will this new rule stop players from getting into trouble? No. But maybe it stops one from having one too many pops and creating a ruckus.

This is a good thing developmentally for all parties involved on and off the field.




Ryan in NYC writes: Kevin, saw your interview of the UCLA DC. You looked pretty sharp in that coat and tie. But seriously, aren't you guys getting a little tired of the relentless "happy, happy and more happy" spin coming from the UCLA camp? I mean, isn't it pretty clear that they've assumed this position that they won't say anything negative or even something not deemed positive about their program? I mean come on man. I can understand their energy and focus. They have a chance at a really good year. But everybody has concerns and questions, let's be fair. Finally, I think the way they ended recruiting is a reason why they need to be careful. They did a poor job of managing expectations and fell on their faces. Yes, college football fans are passionate, but we're not stupid. Be frank and candid. We know they have a shot at something special, but nothing is perfect, right? Just an observation, not a question. Peace out.

Kevin Gemmell: I found it interesting, Ryan, that you opted to chime in this week regarding the UCLA coverage. Because since I visited both LA schools last week, there was an equal amount of USC stuff -- yet you’re choosing to focus on UCLA. Fascinating.

First, thanks for the kudos. But as someone kindly mentioned in the comments section, I could stand to drop a couple of pounds. So that was appreciated.

As for the message, I got a lot of the same positive thinking at USC as I did at UCLA. Heck, Steve Sarkisian essentially said USC is historically due for a big run. That seemed pretty positive.

Except for maybe the Week 1 news conferences, you won’t find a time when players and coaches are as optimistic about their programs as they are now. Same goes for fans, who are scanning the schedules right now and checking off perceived wins. This is, of course, a dangerous exercise (see Utah-Stanford/Oregon-Arizona etc.). But it’s fun to do.

Yes, I happen to think UCLA is going to be pretty darn good in 2014. And though we haven’t filled out our preseason ballots yet, I’m strongly considering the Bruins as the No. 1 team in the South.

But you’re right. Every team has questions and concerns. The Bruins still need to figure out what’s going to happen at right tackle. They need to find a way to replace Anthony Barr’s production. They need to settle on the running back situation and see just how much the secondary has grown up from last season.

I have no problem with players and coaches putting a positive spin on their team in April. But if a team is 0-5 in October, then the happy-go-lucky chatter gets a little old.




Cougar Brian in Stumptown writes: Hey Kevin, any word on the status of Gabe Marks and DaQuawn Brown in Pullman? Mum seems to be the word, and both are touching the three pillars of Coach Leach's no-nos. Hope all is well, friend!

Kevin Gemmell: As of right now, both guys are practicing with the team. Leach hasn’t addressed it much, other than when he was asked about Brown during his pre-spring news conference and he offered up this:
We’re going to have to wait and see how everything unfolds. I mean, right now it’s appearing most of what’s come out and been spewed around has been greatly embellished so we’ll just have to see how all that comes out.

Marks was limited for the first couple of practices, but has been full go the rest of the way. Though he didn’t participate in the scrimmage on Saturday. I talked to someone in the know Monday and they said they didn’t think that was because of disciplinary reasons.

My guess is that when the legal side of everything gets worked out in the coming weeks, we’ll have a clearer picture of what punishments await. And don’t forget that Leach has already booted a few guys from the team in his two-and-a-half-year tenure.

Worth noting that, from the folks up there I’ve talked to, Connor Halliday is having a great spring, along with receivers Vince Mayle and Dominique Williams. Mayle has leaned up and is “running around and through people,” according to one person I talked to. So if Marks isn’t able to go, the corps is looking pretty good. And so is the quarterback.

Athlon ranks the Pac-12 coaches

April, 3, 2014
Apr 3
7:00
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Athlon Sports is big on lists. And we’re big on bringing you their lists because, well, it's the offseason, and it’s fun.

One annual list in particular always seems to get folks all hot and bothered, and that’s their annual ranking of the Pac-12 coaches.

Before people go all crazy on Twitter, remember, THIS IS NOT A PAC-12 BLOG LIST. We are simply sharing it because we think it’s interesting. Your thoughts are always welcomed in the mailbag.

Here’s the 2014 list that Steven Lassan put together:

  1. David Shaw, Stanford
  2. Chris Petersen, Washington
  3. Todd Graham, Arizona State
  4. Mike Riley, Oregon State
  5. Mike Leach, Washington State
  6. Rich Rodriguez, Arizona
  7. Jim Mora, UCLA
  8. Steve Sarkisian, USC
  9. Mike MacIntyre, Colorado
  10. Kyle Whittingham, Utah
  11. Mark Helfrich, Oregon
  12. Sonny Dykes, California

Some thoughts:
    [+] EnlargeRodriguez/Graham
    AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez (right) is ranked sixth on the Pac-12 coaching list by Athlon.

  • I went back to their 2013 and 2012 rankings and noticed a few interesting moves. Rich Rodriguez was No. 3 last year and is No. 6 this year. I find that interesting since he won the same amount of games last season as in 2012 (8-5), scored a signature win last season by topping No. 5 Oregon and did it without his 2012 quarterback. Granted, Arizona had a light nonconference schedule last fall, but does that warrant being dropped a quarter of the way down?
  • Two years ago, Shaw was No. 9 on their list, despite being named Pac-12 Coach of the Year in 2011. Last year, he bounced up to No. 1 and is in the top spot again. For having won back-to-back Pac-12 titles, I see no problem with him being No. 1 again.
  • My first thought was that Petersen was way too high, considering he has never coached a single game in the conference. Then I pushed that silliness out of my mind. He has coached against this conference, going 5-2 during his stint with Boise (not counting games against Utah when it was in the Mountain West or the bowl loss to Oregon State last season when he wasn’t the head coach). Plus, he’s a two-time national coach of the year. That’s a better résumé than anyone else in the league. I’ll buy him at No. 2.
  • My biggest gripe with the list is Mora at No. 7. He was No. 11 on the 2012 list and No. 8 on the 2013 list. All he has done is go 19-8, win the South title one of those two years and beat USC twice. Doesn’t that get you a statue on campus? He has bolstered the national reputation of the program and was given a nice contract extension for his work. I would slot him in either the No. 3 or No. 4 spot with Todd Graham. Both have nearly identical résumés so far. Both are 2-0 against their rival. Both have won the Pac-12 South. They have split their head-to-head games with each winning once on the road. Both have had one blowout bowl win and one bad bowl loss. The only reason I’d probably put Graham ahead is that he was named coach of the year. But Mora belongs in the upper third.
  • Sarkisian is interesting. People are quick to rip his hire at USC, but recall the coaching job he did at Washington when he first got there. He turned a winless team into a pretty good program. Petersen is coming into a much more advantageous position than when Sark first got there. How that translates to USC remains to be seen.
  • Helfrich was No. 12 in 2013. For winning 11 games in 2013, he gets that big boost all the way up to No. 11. I get the sentiment -- that the Ducks were “supposed” to go to the BCS title game last season. He can’t control an injury to his quarterback. Don’t be shocked if he’s in the top five when Athlon releases its 2015 list.
  • Whittingham has stumbled from the No. 4 spot he occupied in 2012. Like Helfrich, he can’t control the unfortunate rash of injuries that have plagued his quarterbacks since coming into the league. I know this, there aren’t many defensive-minded coaches I’d take over Whittingham.
  • Riley continues to be in the upper half of the list. Which is completely fair. He’s done more in that setting than most people could. Oregon State fans seem to clamor annually about what’s on the other side of the fence. When the day comes that Riley does step down (and I have to imagine it will be on his own terms), those complaining about change will miss him.

You get the idea. Lists are hard to put together, because everyone has a bias and an opinion. I think MacIntyre has done some great things at Colorado, and I think Washington State’s progress under Leach has been outstanding. As for Dykes, well, let’s give it another year and see what he can do with a healthy roster.

So we once again salute Athlon for making the list. Even if we don’t always agree with it.

Pac-12's lunch links

March, 11, 2014
Mar 11
11:30
AM PT
The hubris it must take to yank a soul out of non existence, into this, meat. And to force a life into this, thresher. Yeah so my daughter, she uh, she spared me the sin of being a father.
 

Take 2: Biggest Pac-12 spring issues

March, 7, 2014
Mar 7
9:00
AM PT
There are plenty of issues Pac-12 teams will be addressing this spring. Here are some that are front and center for your Pac-12 insiders.

Ted Miller: Spring practice is the official transition from taking stock of the 2013 season, including recruiting, to looking ahead to next fall. The 2013 season was all about top-to-bottom depth for the Pac-12 -- and the lack of an elite national-title contender. That might be the case again in 2014, but if the conference is going to be nationally relevant in Year 1 of the four-team College Football Playoff, I think it will be because of the depth and quality of the quarterbacks.

If Travis Wilson is cleared to play at Utah, 10 Pac-12 teams welcome back their 2013 starters, and many of these guys are All-American candidates, most notably Oregon's Marcus Mariota, UCLA's Brett Hundley, Arizona State's Taylor Kelly and Oregon State's Sean Mannion.

[+] EnlargeBrett Hundley
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsHaving Brett Hundley back makes UCLA the favorite in the Pac-12 South.
The big question for these guys is if they can be better this season than last. If that happens -- for the above four and the six other returning starters -- then it should be a high-flying season with lots of offense. And perhaps a team emerges as a candidate for the playoff.

What most interests you this spring with the Pac-12?

Kyle Bonagura: As a result of the continuity at quarterback, offenses should be in line for a collective step forward. How far could be determined by how quickly the conference's seven new defensive coordinators acclimate to -- and perform at -- their new jobs.

We won't get a great read on how that process is going during the spring, but it'll be interesting to see in what ways defenses evolve moving forward.

For Arizona State, Oregon, Stanford and UCLA, the change will be minimal. Todd Graham will remain heavily involved in how ASU plays defense, and the other three promoted staff members will use the framework and schemes already in place. USC might have a new staff, but considering coach Steve Sarkisian and defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox were in the conference last season, it should be an easy transition.

I'm more interested to see how things play out at California and Washington.

Washington is set up for success with the much-anticipated arrival of longtime Boise State coach Chris Petersen, who brought his defensive coordinator for the past four seasons, Pete Kwiatkowski. They have a talented front seven to work with and a favorable early schedule that will allow the staff to iron out any kinks: at Hawaii, Eastern Washington, Illinois, Georgia State.

Art Kaufman's job taking over the Cal defense won't be as easy. The Golden Bears should be in better shape than last season from a health and experience standpoint -- the latter partially a result of 2013's injury woes -- but there's a lot of ground to cover between where they were and being competitive.

Ted Miller: One team that had coaching continuity at both coordinator spots is Arizona, and I think the Wildcats are setting up to be a dark horse in the Pac-12 South, though I do see UCLA as a strong favorite at this point. The intrigue with Arizona, though, is at quarterback. It seems like the most wide-open competition in the conference.

If Cyler Miles gets back in Petersen's good graces, he's got a significant lead for the Washington QB vacancy. At USC, I think that Cody Kessler is likely to retain his starting job over touted redshirt freshman Max Browne. Kessler steadily improved as a difficult season went on, and he still has his 2013 offensive coordinator/position coach in Clay Helton. At Utah, a healthy Wilson starts for the Utes.

But Arizona has four guys with a legitimate shot at winning the starting QB job this fall: Redshirt freshman Anu Solomon, senior Jesse Scroggins, sophomore Connor Brewer and junior Jerrard Randall. Solomon was one of the jewels of the 2013 recruiting class, while the other three are transfers from A-list programs -- Scroggins from USC, Brewer from Texas and Randall from LSU.

The first big question will be whether Rich Rodriguez narrows the field at the end of spring practices. How much does he want to establish a clear pecking order? You'd think at least one of these guys is going to be relegated to fourth place because there are only so many practice reps to go around.

The good news is the guy who wins the job is going to have an outstanding crew of receivers. He won't have running back Ka'Deem Carey lining up as a security blanket behind him, but Rodriguez's offenses almost always run the ball well. The Wildcats will average more than 200 yards rushing again next season, I feel confident saying that.

The million-dollar question -- the difference between competing for the South title and winning eight games again -- is how efficient the guy behind center is.

Any position battles particularly intrigue you this spring?

Kyle Bonagura: Like you, I'm really intrigued to see how the quarterback competition at Arizona progresses. That's a lot of pressure for the three guys who already transferred from big-time programs. All of them clearly want to play, and it makes you wonder if one of them will end up at an FCS school before the season starts.

The most high-profile battle outside of quarterback has to be at Stanford, where four guys are competing to replace Tyler Gaffney at running back. I was out at the Cardinal's first open practice of the spring last week -- and will be out there again on Saturday -- and what stood out immediately was how balanced the reps were. If Remound Wright, Ricky Seale, Barry Sanders and Kelsey Young didn't have equal reps with the first team, it was close.

However it plays out, it's unlikely Stanford will feature one back like it has the past six years with Gaffney, Stepfan Taylor and Toby Gerhart.

Wright probably holds a slight edge in terms of the overall package -- largely because of his capabilities in pass protection -- but there are more similarities than differences in comparing each guy. A lot of people ask about Sanders because of his famous father (my favorite football player as a kid), but the reality with him is that expectations were probably too high when he arrived. His name and recruiting profile are to blame, and the coaching staff isn't going to force his development.

Young, who switched back to running back from receiver, might be the most dangerous with the ball in his hands and Seale, a fifth-year senior, might have the best grasp of the offense.

Looking at each Pac-12 coach's best team

March, 3, 2014
Mar 3
12:00
PM PT
Looking back at some teams the current group of Pac-12 coaches have led during their respective head-coaching careers turns up an impressive list. All 12 have coached a team to a bowl appearance, 10 have finished a season with double-digit wins and eight have had teams appear in the AP top 10.

Taking it a step further and just looking at each individual coach's best team (in college) also made for an interesting study. Choosing which teams those are is clearly a subjective process so for the purpose of consistency, the teams listed below were chosen based on the final spot in the AP poll.

Here are some notable takeaways:

  • Eight teams ended with bowl victories, but two occurred after the coach left.
  • Seven teams started unranked, but only one finished out of the polls.
  • Half of the coaches did it at their current school, four of which occurred in 2013.
  • Six teams appeared in the top 5 at some point and nine were in the top 15.
  • Three coaches immediately parlayed the success into their current job.
  • Only three of the teams won conference titles, none of which was in the Pac-12.
  • Two teams beat No. 1-ranked squads.
  • Four teams played in BCS bowls, and three were victorious.
We're not going attempt to rank them ourselves, but here they are in reverse order based on each team's final AP ranking:

No. 12 Sonny Dykes, Louisiana Tech, 2012

Dykes' record: 9-3 (4-2, third in WAC)
Final AP rank: unranked
Highest AP rank: 19
Bowl result: no bowl
The team:
The Bulldogs finished the season as the country's highest scoring team (51.50 ppg) and top-ranked offense (577.9 ypg). They rose to No. 19 in the AP poll before losing their final two games of the season, including one against Mike MacIntyre-coached San Jose State in the season finale. Louisiana Tech was offered a spot in the Independence Bowl, but it was given away while the school unsuccessfully sought other bowl options. Dykes left for Cal after the season.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesSteve Sarkisian parlayed his successful 2013 season into the head-coaching job at USC.
No. 11 Steve Sarkisian, Washington, 2013

Sarkisian's record: 8-4 (5-4, third in Pac-12 North)
Final AP rank: 25
Highest AP rank: 15
Bowl result: Beat BYU in Fight Hunger Bowl (Sarkisian did not coach)
The team:
The season began with a win against then-No. 19 Boise State, and the season ended with Broncos coach Chris Petersen being hired by the Huskies. Sarkisian departed for USC prior to the bowl. After the win against Boise, Washington debuted in the rankings at No. 19 and rose four spots before a string of three straight losses to Stanford, Oregon and Arizona State.

No. 10 Mike MacIntyre, San Jose State, 2012

MacIntyre's record: 10-2, (5-1, second in WAC)
Final AP rank: 21
Highest AP rank: 21
Bowl result: Beat Bowling Green in Military Bowl (MacIntyre did not coach)
The team:
Two years after coaching San Jose State to a 1-11 record in his first season as head coach, MacIntyre's team became the first in program history to finish in the final AP poll -- although, the Spartans were unranked when MacIntyre accepted the job at Colorado. SJSU didn't beat any ranked teams, but lost just 20-17 to Stanford, which went on to win Pac-12 and Rose Bowl championships. The other loss came to Utah State, which finished No. 16.

No. 9 Todd Graham, Arizona State, 2013

Graham's record: 10-4 (8-1, won Pac-12 South)
Final AP rank: 21
Highest AP rank: 11
Bowl result: Lost to Texas Tech in Holiday Bowl The team: In his eighth season as an FBS head coach, Graham's most recent Arizona State team was his best. The Sun Devils began the season unranked and entered and exited the Top 25 twice before closing the regular season with a seven-game winning streak. It was ranked No. 11 when it hosted Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game, but a second loss to the Cardinal kept ASU out of the Rose Bowl.

No. 8 Mike Riley, Oregon State, 2008

Riley's record: 9-4 (7-2, tied for second in Pac-10)
Final AP rank: 18
Highest AP rank: 17
Bowl result: Beat Pittsburgh in the Sun Bowl
The team:
The Beavers started unranked and lost their first two games before winning eight of nine to peak at No. 17. After a 1-2 start, it beat No. 1 USC in Corvallis, but didn't immediately build off the big win. The next week the Beavers lost to Kyle Whittingham's undefeated Utah team (more later). Riley's highest spot in the polls came in 2012, when the Beavers reached No. 7 after a 6-0 start. He was a head coach in the NFL for three years and the Canadian Football League for four, where he won a pair of Grey Cups.

No. 7 Jim Mora, UCLA, 2013

Mora's record: 10-3 (6-3, second in Pac-12 South)
Final AP rank: 16
Highest AP rank: 9
Bowl result: Beat Virginia Tech in Sun Bowl
The team:
The Bruins spent the entire season in the polls after starting at No. 21. They began 5-0 and rose to No. 9 before road losses to No. 13 Stanford and No. 3 Oregon. Mora's best coaching job came in the NFL in 2004 when he guided the Atlanta Falcons to an NFC South title and an appearance in the NFC Championship.

No. 6 Mike Leach, Texas Tech, 2008

Leach's record: 11-2 (7-1, tied for first in Big 12 South)
Final AP rank: 12
Highest AP rank: 2
Bowl result: Lost to Ole Miss in Cotton Bowl
The team:
The Red Raiders started the year at No. 12 and moved up to No. 6 after an 8-0 start. They rose to No. 2 after Michael Crabtree's memorable touchdown catch secured a win vs. No. 1 Texas. After two weeks at No. 2, the Red Raiders lost to No. 5 Oklahoma in a game that propelled Sooners quarterback Sam Bradford to the Heisman Trophy. Leach arrived at WSU in 2012.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
AP Photo/Kevin ReeceDavid Shaw's best team at Stanford didn't win the Pac-12 title.
No. 5 Mark Helfrich, Oregon, 2013

Helfrich's record: 11-2 (7-2, tied for first in Pac-12 North)
Final AP rank: 9
Highest AP rank: 2
Bowl result: Beat Texas in Alamo Bowl The team: Of all the teams on the list, none started higher than the Ducks in Helfrich's head-coaching debut at No. 3. Oregon spent eight weeks at No. 2 before losses to Stanford and Arizona in a three-game span ended any hopes of a conference or national title. The team finished ranked No. 2 in the country in both total offense (565.0 ypg) and scoring (45.5 ppg). Quarterback Marcus Mariota dealt with some late-season injury problems, but, when healthy, he was as good as any player in college football.

No. 4 David Shaw, Stanford, 2011

Shaw's record: 11-2 (8-1, second in Pac-12 North)
Final AP rank: 7
Highest AP rank: 3
Bowl result: Lost to No. 3 Oklahoma State in Fiesta Bowl The team: In three seasons as head coach, Shaw has won a pair of Pac-12 titles. But in 2011, when Oregon won the Pac-12 title, he probably had his best team. The Rose Bowl championship team the following year also finished No. 7 and has more hardware, but it didn't have Andrew Luck. Stanford started the year at No. 7, moved up to No. 3 after winning its first nine games, but then lost 53-30 at home to No. 6 Oregon. Stanford received a second consecutive BCS at-large bid, but suffered an overtime loss to No. 3 Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl. In addition to Luck, 10 other players landed on 53-man NFL rosters from the team's departing class. Stanford's low ranking of No. 8 was the best among teams on this list.

No. 3 Rich Rodriguez, West Virginia, 2005

Rodriguez's record: 11-1, (7-0 Big East champion)
Final AP rank: 5
Highest AP rank: 5 Bowl result: Beat No. 8 Georgia in Sugar Bowl The team: Freshmen QB Pat White and RB Steve Slaton were the names of note for the current Arizona coach. West Virginia started the year unranked and its lone loss came to then-No. 3 Virginia Tech. It was the first of three consecutive double-digit win seasons for the Mountaineers, who were undefeated in Big East play and capped the season with a win over No. 8 Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. A strong case can be made that West Virginia had a better team in 2007, when Rodriguez left following the regular-season finale to become head coach at Michigan. The Mountaineers were ranked No. 2 (No. 1 in the coaches poll) going into Rodriguez's final game, but lost to a 4-7 Pittsburgh team in the 100th Backyard Brawl, which cost them a chance to play for the national title. They finished No. 6.

No. 2 Chris Petersen, Boise State, 2009

Petersen's record: 14-0 (8-0, WAC champions)
Final AP rank: 4
Highest AP rank: 4
Bowl result: Beat No. 4 TCU in the Fiesta Bowl The team: Washington's new coach has quite the résumé. Many consider Boise State's undefeated 2006 team that beat Oklahoma in that's year memorable Fiesta Bowl as the school's best, but three years later the Broncos finished 14-0 and finished a spot higher in the final AP poll. They opened the season at No. 14 and started with a win against No. 16 Oregon in Chip Kelly's first game as head coach. Boise capped the season with a win against undefeated TCU in the Fiesta Bowl. The team's offensive coordinator, Bryan Harsin, is now the head coach and its defensive coordinator, Justin Wilcox, spent last season with Sarkisian at Washington and followed him to USC in the same capacity.

No. 1 Kyle Whittingham, Utah, 2008

Whittingham's record: 13-0 (8-0, Mountain West champions)
Final AP rank: 2
Highest AP rank: 2
Bowl result: Beat No. 4 Alabama in Sugar Bowl The team: In Whittingham's fourth season as head coach, the Utes finished as the nation's lone undefeated team after starting unranked. Utah opened with a win at Michigan -- Rodriguez's first game as the Wolverines' coach -- and went on to beat four teams that finished in the final AP poll, including Alabama (6), TCU (7), Oregon State (18) and BYU (25). Quarterback Brian Johnson threw for 336 yards in a convincing 31-17 win against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

Want to swap out one team for another or switch the order? Email me at Kyle.Bonagura@espn.com.

Pac-12 looking for breakthrough this spring

February, 27, 2014
Feb 27
9:00
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Two years ago, the Pac-12 had an Oregon problem. The Ducks had won three consecutive conference titles and were among the favored to make it four. They didn't. Now the Ducks, and the rest of the Pac-12, have a Stanford problem, as the Cardinal have won two titles in a row.

[+] EnlargeDevon Kell, Marcus Mariota
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsA fully healthy Marcus Mariota should again be one of the Pac-12's top Heisman candidates.
Further, considering that USC won six consecutive conference crowns from 2003 to 2008, it's fair to say the Pac-12 has a diversity problem. It didn't used to be like that. From 1995 to 2002, seven teams won conference titles. The only repeat winner? Washington State.

Is 2014 the season for a new color scheme at the top? Will the South (Division) rise again? (We're eyeballing you, UCLA.) While we're at it, will the conference, which last won a national title in 2004, break through this fall, finishing atop the inaugural four-team College Football Playoff?

These are the big-picture questions that start to get answered as Pac-12 teams begin spring practice. Stanford got rolling Monday. Arizona, Washington and Colorado hit the field next week. Oregon and UCLA won't get cracking until April 1, and the Ducks and Oregon State won't finish until May 3, officially sending us into the long, hot days of the summer offseason.

As is the case most years, there's a little old and a little new in the Pac-12 this spring.

Start with the head coaches. USC and Washington will hit the field for the first time with new guys in charge, making Oregon State and Utah the only two conference teams headed by the same guy since the 2010 season. Neither coach is much of a stranger. USC hired Steve Sarkisian away from the Huskies, and Washington turned around and lured Chris Petersen away from Boise State.

The bigger area of turnover was coordinators. Just three teams didn't make any changes on the top of their offensive and defensive units: Arizona, Colorado and Washington State.

There will be more stability at quarterback. Ten teams welcome back their 2013 starters, if we can be optimistic enough to include Utah's Travis Wilson, who will practice this spring with no contact but still has not been fully cleared to continue his career due to a pre-existing medical condition.

Arizona and Washington will stage full-on competitions to replace B.J. Denker and Keith Price, respectively. Wilson's uncertain status makes the Utes' QB situation complicated, while at USC, touted redshirt freshman Max Browne is expected to provide a strong challenge to incumbent starter Cody Kessler.

Meanwhile, the returning QB talent is strong. Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley will be near the top of every preseason Heisman Trophy watch list. Arizona State's Taylor Kelly and Oregon State's Sean Mannion aren't too far behind.

The situation at running back and receiver is not as strong. The top four rushers from 2013 are gone: Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey, Washington's Bishop Sankey, Stanford's Tyler Gaffney and Arizona State's Marion Grice. The top three receivers -- as well as USC's Marqise Lee -- also are off to the NFL: Oregon State's Brandin Cooks, Colorado's Paul Richardson and Oregon's Josh Huff.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Kirby Lee/University of Southern California/Collegiate Images/Getty ImagesSteve Sarkisian has switched divisions but takes over a USC team that finished third in the Pac-12 South.
There are a lot of voids across the conference on defense as well. Just one first-team All-Pac-12 performer is back -- Ducks CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu -- and just four on the second team. The six players who led the conference in tackles for a loss are gone: Stanford's Trent Murphy, UCLA's Anthony Barr, Oregon State's Scott Crichton, Arizona State's Carl Bradford, Utah's Trevor Reilly and Arizona State's Chris Young.

While Stanford and Oregon -- it used to be Oregon and Stanford -- will remain the favorites among many, both have big questions on defense. The Ducks will be projected ahead of the Cardinal, however, because of Mariota's return and Stanford having to replace Gaffney and four starting O-linemen.

Yet this go-around, Stanford has the winning streak in the series and consecutive crowns and Oregon has the chip on its shoulder.

"It's not that we should [have a chip on our shoulder]. It's that we need to," Oregon running back Byron Marshall said. "Like you said, Stanford has kind of had our number the past couple of years. … As one of the leaders on this team, it's my job to remind everyone that [Stanford] beat us the last two years. It hasn't really been a close game. It might be close by score, but they've dominated us in both performances. We need to have a chip on our shoulder in order to get where we want to this year."

That last line pretty much applies to every Pac-12 team this spring.

The conference was as deep as it's ever been in 2013 and a record six teams ended up ranked in the final Associated Press poll, but the conference produced just one BCS bowl team and no team finished in the final top eight.

Will a Pac-12 team advance from good to elite in 2014? Spring practice provides an important step toward that possibility.

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