UCLA: Taylor Kelly

Neuheisel, Bruins find a way to slip Texas

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
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video

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Without quarterback Brett Hundley, UCLA could not win. It didn't matter that Texas was beaten up and beaten down. It didn't matter that Hundley was just one guy. He was The Guy, the face of the Bruins, the biggest reason some touted them in the preseason as national title contenders. Moreover, to put it gently, the depth chart behind him was unpromising.

Backup Jerry Neuheisel? Son of Rick Neuheisel, the guy who was fired before Jim Mora built the Bruins into contenders? The guy who some suspected got a scholarship only because his dad was the head coach? No way.

So when Hundley was surrounded by trainers after going down with an apparent elbow injury in the first quarter against the Longhorns, you could sense impending doom. You could sense the Bruins, who had struggled to beat Virginia and Memphis with Hundley, joining teams such as Ohio State, Clemson, South Carolina, Georgia and Michigan State on the slag heap of exposed contenders.

[+] EnlargeJerry Neuheisel
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsBackup quarterback Jerry Neuheisel got a hero's exit after leading No. 12 UCLA to a come-from-behind 20-17 victory over Texas.
Texas thought the same thing.

"[Neuheisel and Hundley] are two different quarterbacks," Texas cornerback Quandre Diggs said. "One guy is up for the Heisman and the other guy is someone we've never heard of."

Yet there was Neuheisel eyeballing Diggs' cornerbacking counterpart, Duke Thomas, in man coverage against receiver Jordan Payton with three minutes left in the game, sensing his moment had arrived.

"As soon as I saw [Thomas'] eyes, I thought, 'Oh, my God, this might just work,'" Neuheisel said.

The Bruins were down four on Texas' 33-yard line and pretty much hadn't allowed Neuhiesel to throw downfield since he came off the bench, but offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone expected man coverage and decided Payton might get free with a double move.

In fact, Thomas appeared to bite on Neuheisel's pump fake, and the ball arrived soft and sweet into Payton's hands. Touchdown. After the defense forced a four-and-done, the Bruins hoisted Neuheisel onto their shoulders. They'd won 20-17 without Hundley to improve to 3-0.

"I felt like it was going to be a little bit of a defining moment for us," UCLA coach Jim Mora said of when Hundley went down.

While it might seem to some like an ugly 3-0 for the nation's No. 12 team, it was a dream come true for Neuheisel. Literally. He told his teammates that at halftime. He grew up dreaming of following in his dad's footsteps as the UCLA quarterback, imagining throwing winning touchdowns in his backyard. The general expectation from fans and media, however, was the redshirt sophomore would remain on the bench behind Hundley, holding for field goals and then backing up whoever won the job next year when Hundley was off to the NFL.

Yet a point of emphasis from Mora and the Bruins after their victory was never doubting Neuheisel.

"We all expected it," Payton said.

Said Mora, "His team fricken' loves him. There was never any doubt."

Well, there was and is some doubt. What's next, for one, is a big issue. Hundley's status is questionable, to say the least. Mora would only say Hundley would be evaluated by UCLA team doctors back in Los Angeles. While beating a struggling Texas team with a backup QB is one thing, the Bruins visit Arizona State on Sept. 25 after a bye week. That's an entirely different deal, a critical South Division showdown. Of course, in an unfortunate twist of fate, both teams could be without their starting quarterbacks, as Taylor Kelly suffered a foot injury against Colorado on Saturday.

Neuheisel, who completed 23 of 30 passes for 178 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions, could square off with Sun Devils backup Mike Bercovici in a game with major Pac-12, and even national, implications. The Bruins, however, were still operating inside the 24-hour rule Saturday, which means their primary concern is enjoying the present, not refocusing on the next foe.

Neuheisel is his father's son. He looks and sounds like Rick Neuheisel, and he's quick with a quip like his dad. When he walked into the postgame interview room, he noted, "Holders don't get this kind of publicity." After the elder Neuheisel led the Bruins to an upset of Illinois in the 1984 Rose Bowl, he cracked wise during a postgame interview about the Fighting Illini band blasting music behind him.

"I just talked to my dad," Jerry Neuheisel said. "He said, 'You did it. It's kind of a Neuheisel thing.'"

On a day when UCLA's crosstown rival, USC, wilted at Boston College, the Bruins found a way to dig deep, overcome adversity and win. UCLA might not be a beautiful 3-0, but it is 3-0 and that's what matters.

"They never flinched," Mora said. "They never blinked. That's kind of what we are trying to become. And we're getting closer and closer every day."

Top Pac-12 players: Nos. 5-1

August, 1, 2014
Aug 1
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Our list of the top 25 players in the Pac-12 concludes.

No. 5: Arizona State QB Taylor Kelly

2013 stats: Completed 62.4 percent of his throws for 3,635 yards with 28 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, giving him an adjusted QBR of 74.2, which ranked 24th nationally. He also rushed 173 times for 608 yards and nine touchdowns.

Why he's ranked here: There was some disagreement at the end of last season about who was the second-team All-Pac-12 quarterback. Kelly won the official Pac-12 vote with the coaches, and that means a lot. It also helps that he is the quarterback of the defending South Division champion. Further, you have to love his story. Nothing has been given to Kelly. In the spring of 2012, he was little more than an afterthought, ranking third in the Sun Devils' quarterback competition. You have to be mentally tough to emerge from that sort of deficit. He has earned his spot by fighting like crazy to win the job, to lead his team well and, finally, to become an A-list quarterback worthy of national attention. He has a chance to play his way into a solid spot in the NFL draft too. As for this season, Kelly has a lot coming back on offense and, because of the Sun Devils' questionable defense, offensive coordinator Mike Norvell figures to set him free as a third-year starter.

No. 4: Oregon CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu

2013 stats: Ekpre-Olomu was second on the Ducks with 84 tackles. He had five tackles for a loss to go with three interceptions and nine passes defended. He also forced a fumble.

Why he's ranked here: Ekpre-Olomu might be the best cornerback in the nation. He earned All-American honors last season and is pretty much a unanimous 2014 preseason All-American. He is not expected to last too far into the first round of the 2015 NFL draft, and truth be told, it was a bit of a surprise he stuck around for another season because he likely would have been a first-round pick last spring. It will be interesting to see if he sees much action on his side of the field this season, considering he is the lone returning starter in the Ducks' secondary. His numbers might not wow you, but opposing coaches will start their Monday meetings by drawing a line down one third of the field and saying, "Ifo is here, so we're throwing over here."

No. 3: UCLA QB Brett Hundley

2013 stats: Hundley completed 67.2 percent of his throws for 3,071 yards with 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He also rushed for 748 yards and 11 scores.

Why he's ranked here: Kelly-Hundley, Hundley-Kelly -- based on last season, Kelly should nip his buddy from UCLA. But Hundley ends up at No. 3 because of projection. He is simply overbrimming with talent. He's big, strong, smart, charismatic, etc. Outside of Johnny Manziel, no one has more scramble yards in the past two seasons than Hundley (per ESPN Stats & Information). Though there are parts of his game that didn't completely arrive in 2013 -- still more feared as a runner than downfield passer and still takes too many sacks -- those were delays, not cancellations. Hundley also has a stacked supporting cast. The Bruins are the favorite in the Pac-12 South, a preseason top-10 team and a dark horse national title contender. If UCLA surges, Hundley almost certainly will become a top Heisman Trophy candidate.

No. 2: USC DT Leonard Williams

2013 stats: Williams was second on the Trojans with 74 tackles, tied with Devon Kennard for the team lead with 13.5 tackles for loss and forced two fumbles.

Why he's ranked here: Williams, a 2013 first-team ESPN.com All-American, is the consensus pick as the nation's best returning defensive lineman. He could be the top overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft, and he's almost certainly not going to last past the top 10 picks. Former USC coach Ed Orgeron called him the best defensive lineman he's ever coached, and Orgeron's defensive line résumé is deep. Williams has great length and athleticism and surprising power. He is the centerpiece of what might be the Pac-12's best defense. Last season, he was the lone sophomore semifinalist for the Chuck Bednarik Award, given to the nation's top defensive player, and he is likely to be a finalist for just about every award for which he is eligible.

No. 1: Marcus Mariota

2013 stats: Mariota completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 3,665 yards with 31 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He also rushed for 715 yards and nine touchdowns.

Why he's ranked here: Surprise! Bet you didn't see this coming, considering Mariota finished No. 1 on this list in 2012 and 2013. This was the easiest spot to fill on this list, perhaps the only easy spot by the way. Why? Mariota might be the best quarterback and player in the nation. In the 2014 Heisman Trophy race, he is option 1A besides Florida State's Jameis Winston, who won it last year but has significant character issues. Mariota opted to return and get his degree -- yes, he is taking a light class load this fall because he doesn't need any more credits -- and instantly made the Ducks (again) the Pac-12 favorite and a national title contender. The biggest question of the 2013 season was what might have happened if Mariota didn't suffer a knee injury before playing at Stanford. Pre-injury, he had 20 touchdowns and zero interceptions; post-injury, 11 touchdowns and four picks. All nine of his rushing touchdowns came before he partially tore his MCL. Despite that injury, Mariota led an offense that averaged 45.5 points per game last season -- tops in the Pac-12 and fourth in the nation -- in a very good defensive conference. While his speed and production as a runner is impossible to ignore, what separates him is his passing ability. He was No. 1 in the Pac-12 in efficiency and No. 1 in the nation in ESPN’s adjusted QBR rating. He set an Oregon single-season record with 4,380 total yards. He also set a Pac-12 record by attempting 353 consecutive passes without an interception. Though character isn't much of a factor on this list -- the Pac-12 is fortunate that it didn't see much of that weigh down the offseason -- Mariota's is difficult to ignore. St. Marcus of Eugene seems likely to be in New York in December.

Preseason position reviews: Quarterback

June, 25, 2014
Jun 25
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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.

Summer Pac-12 power rankings

May, 27, 2014
May 27
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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, 23, 2014
May 23
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Happy Friday!
 

Defensive questions abound in Pac-12

May, 2, 2014
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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.

Meaningful early Pac-12 odds

April, 24, 2014
Apr 24
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So what is the early verdict on the 2014 college football season from those who take more than a casual interest in such things -- as in the Vegas sorts? Glad you asked.

We checked out some early "odds" and ends from a Pac-12 perspective.

First week betting lines (obviously not all games are included).

UNLV at Arizona (-25.5)

Colorado State (pick 'em) at Colorado (in Denver)

Washington (-21.5) at Hawaii

Odds to win 2014-2015 BCS National Championship (from 5 Dimes, unless otherwise noted)

Arizona 100-1
Arizona State 75-1
California 500-1 (Bovada)
Colorado NA
Oregon 49-4
Oregon State 300-1
Stanford 41-1
UCLA 26-1
USC 50-1
Utah 500-1
Washington 75-1
Washington State 300-1

Odds to win the Heisman Trophy from Bovada (23 total players were listed)

Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon: 5-1 (No. 2 overall behind 2013 winner Jameis Winston: 5-2)
Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA: 14-1
Sean Mannion, QB, Oregon State: 28-1
Taylor Kelly, QB, Arizona State: 28-1
Myles Jack, LB-RB, UCLA: 33-1

Offense 3-headed monsters: Pac-12 South

March, 24, 2014
Mar 24
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You remember the three-headed monster, right? It's about returning production that will scare -- terrify! --opponents. Or not.

On offense, it's elite combinations at quarterback, running back and receiver.

On defense, it's elite combinations of a leading tackler, a leader in sacks and leader in interceptions.

[+] EnlargeKevon Seymour, Taylor Kelly
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesTaylor Kelly could have Arizona State's offense off and running this fall.
This year, we're breaking things down by division.

First up: South Division offense three-headed monsters.

There are two "pure" offensive three-headed monsters in the South: USC and Utah. Both welcome back their leading passer, rusher and receiver, though some fans might be surprised to know that Marqise Lee didn't lead the Trojans in receiving last season.

The biggest mystery team? Arizona, which is replacing its leading passer and rusher and has several wild cards who might challenge to be the first pass-catching option. Typically we'd project a starter, but the Wildcats seem to be completely wide open at QB and RB. So they get a "?" at both positions.

Otherwise, the projections of new starters aren't terribly unpredictable.

1. Arizona State

QB Taylor Kelly, RB D.J. Foster, WR Jaelen Strong

The skinny: If you were ranking three-headed monsters nationally, this might be a top-10 troika. You have a three-year starter at quarterback who passed for 3,635 yards and 28 TDs last year, a receiver who caught 75 passes for 1,122 yards and versatile running back who's dangerous as a runner or receiver.

2. UCLA

QB Brett Hundley, RB Jordan James, WR Devin Fuller

The skinny: Hundley starts the season as a top Heisman Trophy candidate. James started off great last year -- 116 yards rushing per game with a 6.3 yards per carry average in the first four games -- before getting hurt. While WR Shaq Evans is off to the NFL, Fuller leads a strong crew of returning receivers.

3. USC

QB Cody Kessler, RB Javorius Allen, WR Nelson Agholor

The skinny: This is a strong threesome, though some see Kessler being threatened by redshirt freshman Max Browne this spring. Allen surged in the second half of the 2013 season, when he rushed for most of his 785 yards (5.8 yards per carry), but the Trojans have a lot of depth at the position. Agholor is a frontrunner for first-team All-Pac-12 honors after catching 56 passes for 918 yards last year.

4. Utah

QB Travis Wilson, RB Bubba Poole, WR Dres Anderson

The skinny: If Wilson is cleared medically and is 100 percent full-go, he's got a chance to be a good QB, building on what he did while healthy in 2013. Poole is the Utes' leading returning rusher, though he could face a challenge from a handful of other backs, including redshirt freshman Troy McCormick and juco transfer Devontae Booker. Anderson will be joined by Kenneth Scott, who suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the 2013 opener.

5. Colorado

QB Sefo Liufau, RB Michael Adkins, WR Nelson Spruce

The skinny: Liufau was solid as a true freshman starter last year. He should be much better this fall. Adkins combined with Christian Powell to essentially split 1,000 yards rushing in 2013, with Powell offering the power option. Spruce was a solid No. 2 behind Paul Richardson last year, but it remains to be seen how he will perform as option No. 1.

6. Arizona

QB ?, RB ?, WR Austin Hill

The skinny: We honestly have no idea who will start at QB and RB next year, and the Pac-12 Blog believes that's probably not far from what Rich Rodriguez is thinking today. If we were going to go with complete conjecture at QB, we'd bet on a showdown between Texas transfer Connor Brewer and redshirt freshman Anu Solomon. Same thing at running back, where it seems likely a true or redshirt freshman replaces Ka'Deem Carey. Even Hill is a projection here based on his outstanding 2012 numbers, as he sat out last season with a knee injury. Sophomore Nate Phillips is the Wildcats' leading returning receiver.

Spring position breakdown: Punters

March, 11, 2014
Mar 11
12:00
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Our look at position groups in the Pac-12 concludes with punters.

Arizona: Drew Riggleman is back after handling all of the punting responsibilities last season. He averaged 40.1 yards per kick, pinned 18 inside the 20 and had 12 kicks of 50-plus yards. He ranked eighth in the conference -- though the difference between first (Utah’s Tom Hackett) and Riggleman was an average of 3.4 yards.

Arizona State: Punting was one of ASU’s biggest issues last season. Matt Haack started to come on strong at the end of the season and will likely challenge Alex Garoutte, who averaged 38.8 yards per kick last season. Should Haack win the job, Garoutte is always an option with his rollout style. Quarterback Taylor Kelly has also been known to offer the occasional boot. He punted six times last season, once for 50-plus, and had three downed inside the 20.

California: Cole Leininger is back after a very solid season for the Golden Bears, where he was tied for second in the conference with an average of 42.9 yards per kick. Cal has four punters on the roster in addition to Leininger. And while he’s mostly unchallenged, there are plenty of backup options.

Colorado: Third-team all-conference punter Darragh O'Neill returns and was a midseason Ray Guy candidate last season. He averaged 40.5 yards per punt last year and pinned 22 inside the 20.

Oregon: Alejandro Maldonado handled the punting duties last season and made a couple of appearances as a kicker before the job went to Matt Wogan. Expect Wogan to handle all kicking responsibilities, though some walk-ons will also get looks.

Oregon State: Keith Kostol is back as a third-year starter. He finished last season tied for fifth in the conference with an average of 40.5 yards per punt. He also put 23 kicks inside the 20.

Stanford: Ben Rhyne returns to handle the punting duties for the Cardinal. He was one of the best in the conference last season with an average of 42.9 yards per kick -- just half a yard behind Hackett. He had 12 kicks of 50-plus yards and put 15 inside the 20.

UCLA: Sean Covington is back after having a very solid season, where he posted an average of 42.6 yards per punt. Do-it-all quarterback Brett Hundley punted once last season, but it’s safe to assume that Convington’s job is secure.

USC: Kris Albarado didn’t post an impressive yards-per-punt average (37.1), but he was very good at pinning opponents, with 27 kicks inside the 20. And of his 64 kicks, almost half were fair-caught.

Utah: Hackett was last season's first-team all-conference punter, so expect some preseason All-American hype for him. As noted earlier, he led the conference with an average of 43.4 yards per punt and buried 27 kicks inside the 20.

Washington: Travis Coons pulled double-duty last season. In addition to nailing 15 of 16 field goal attempts, he also averaged 40.4 yards per punt and had eight kicks of 50-plus yards to go with 23 inside the 20. Korey Durkee did some punting in 2012 before Coons won the job, so he’ll get the first look in 2014. Newcomer Tristan Vizcaino could also get looks at kicker and/or punter.

Washington State: Wes Concepcion was the starter in the final two games as punter last season. With Mike Bowlin gone, he should be the favorite to handle punting duties full time. Concepcion punted 12 times last season for an average of 36.2 yards. Eight of those 12 were fair catches and three were inside the 20.

Previous positions

Kicker
Safety
Cornerback
Linebacker
Defensive end
Tight end
Quarterback
Running back
Receiver
Offensive line
Defensive tackle

Take 2: Biggest Pac-12 spring issues

March, 7, 2014
Mar 7
9:00
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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.

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.

Spring position breakdown: QBs

February, 24, 2014
Feb 24
4:00
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Spring has sprung in the Pac-12, with Stanford starting spring practices this week and several schools following suit next week.

Ergo, we break down where teams stand with each position group, starting with quarterbacks.

Arizona: The Wildcats probably have the most wide-open QB competition, with four guys having a legitimate chance to replace the departed B.J. Denker. Three are transfers from big-time programs: senior Jesse Scroggins (USC), sophomore Connor Brewer (Texas) and junior Jerrard Randall (LSU). The fourth, redshirt freshman Anu Solomon, was one of the biggest stars in the 2013 recruiting class. Don't expect much to be settled by the end of spring, though coach Rich Rodriguez might at least allude to some sort of pecking order. Or a top three.

Arizona State: The Sun Devils are strong at QB with senior Taylor Kelly, a third-year starter who has put up big numbers the past two seasons, and junior Mike Bercovici, a big-armed backup -- perhaps, in fact, the best backup in the Pac-12. That's why Michael Eubank opted to transfer to Samford in Birmingham, Ala. It will be interesting to see which of the youngsters on the roster emerge as a No.3, a guy who might challenge Bercovici in 2015.

California: It seems unlikely that sophomore Jared Goff will be unseated, particularly after Zach Kline opted to transfer. Goff was uneven last season -- his entire team was -- but flashed plenty of potential. He and a talented crew of receivers should get better this spring. The big question might be whether anyone challenges senior Austin Hinder for the backup job.

Colorado: Sophomore Sefo Liufau is solid as the returning starter. He took some lumps last season but also flashed plenty of promise -- as both a player and leader. After him, there's junior college transfer Jordan Gehrke, a redshirt sophomore, the likely backup. Depth is a problem, at least this spring. As the Boulder Daily Camera noted, "Five quarterbacks have left the CU program either to transfer to other schools or give up the sport entirely since the start of spring football last year. A sixth completed his eligibility last season." That's why the Buffs added walk-on Trent Sessions to the roster. He worked with the equipment staff last year.

Oregon: The Ducks probably feel pretty good about their third-year starter, junior Marcus Mariota, a leading 2014 Heisman Trophy candidate who would have been a first-round pick if he'd entered the 2014 NFL draft. The competition for the backup spot, however, will be interesting because Mariota is almost certain to enter the NFL draft after the season. Sophomores Jeff Lockie and Jake Rodrigues are 2A and 2B, with Lockie first off the bench as the backup in 2013, but Rodrigues the more physically talented player as a runner and passer.

Oregon State: Like their friends to the north, Oregon State is fortunate its 2013 starter, Sean Mannion, decided to return instead of entering the NFL draft. Mannion's chief focus will be finding some receivers to replace the production of the departed Brandin Cooks. The battle for the backup job also will be interesting between sophomore Brent VanderVeen and redshirt freshman Kyle Kempt. Of course, their battle might not resolve things much for 2015, with incoming Alabama transfer Luke Del Rio joining the fray after sitting out a season.

Stanford: It seems unlikely that two-year starter Kevin Hogan will be challenged for the starting job this spring, even though he had some ups and downs in 2013, but there is no lack of talent battling for the backup job. Junior Evan Crower was the backup in 2013, but redshirt freshman Ryan Burns is a big-time talent. As is incoming freshman Keller Chryst, who officially will arrive in the fall but, as a Palo Alto resident, figures to hang around spring practices.

UCLA: Heading into his third season running the offense, Brett Hundley gives the Bruins one of the best starting quarterbacks in the nation. He's a proven dual threat and leader who will be refining his game this spring and building chemistry with his receivers. After him, however, things are a bit iffy, in large part because of the 2013 preseason transfer of T.J. Millweard to Kansas. The chief competitors for the backup job are Jerry Neuheisel, the 2013 backup, and redshirt freshman Asiantii Woulard, with Woulard being the guy with the most future upside. Of course, there is another QB out there some UCLA fans might be thinking about.

USC: The returning starter facing the most formidable challenge to his starting job this spring is probably Cody Kessler, even though Kessler played well in the second half of the 2013 season. With the transfer of Max Wittek, touted redshirt freshman Max Browne, at the very least, sets up to be a high-quality backup next season. But plenty of folks think Browne has a legitimate shot to unseat Kessler, particularly with new coach Steve Sarkisian taking over.

Utah: There's still no final word on the long-term health issue that might end QB Travis Wilson's career, though you'd think something would be announced before the Utes begin spring practices on March 18. If Wilson gets cleared, the good bet is on him returning to the starting job. If not, a spring competition will begin between Adam Schulz, who stepped in when Wilson went down, and redshirt freshmen Conner Manning and Brandon Cox. In the fall, dual-threat QB Donovan Isom arrives.

Washington: Keith Price, a three-year starter, is gone, but the Huskies seemed fairly set at QB with sophomore backup Cyler Miles appearing plenty capable of stepping into the cockpit this spring. In limited action last season, Miles completed 61 percent of his throws for 418 yards with four TDs and two picks, and he also showed good mobility, rushing for 200 yards. The pecking order at least seemed set, that is, until Miles got into some off-field trouble that threatens his status for spring practice and perhaps beyond. If Miles is still suspended, that means opportunity comes knocking for sophomore Jeff Lindquist or redshirt freshman Troy Williams to make an impression.

Washington State: Connor Halliday will be a senior, three-year starter and the Cougars' top leader in the third season running Mike Leach's "Air Raid" offense. He figures to put up huge numbers this fall with a strong crew of receivers. His 2013 backup, sophomore Austin Apodaca, opted to transfer, perhaps believing that redshirt freshman Tyler Bruggman had the inside track to the starting job in 2015. Depth is a bit of a question, with the No. 3 this fall likely being true freshman Peyton Bender.

Mailbag: Defending grades, rankings

January, 21, 2014
Jan 21
2:30
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Tired of searching for Richard Sherman memes? Me, neither. But take a break anyway and enjoy the mailbag.

Jack in Boulder, Colo. writes: Pretty harsh with some of your grades, weren’t you?

Kevin Gemmell: I don’t think so. Did anyone in the league deserve an A? No national champions. No BCS bowl game victories. I didn’t do the Stanford review, that one was all Ted. But I thought a B-plus was fair, considering how the season ended and the fact that the Cardinal did lose to an unranked team that didn’t make the postseason along the way. I did do the Oregon review and thought a B was also a fair grade -- considering what the expectations were for the Ducks in 2013 compared to how they finished.

[+] EnlargeStanford
David Madison/Getty ImagesStanford won the Pac-12 and went to the Rose Bowl, but didn't deserve an A.
Arizona State gets the same grade as Stanford because it won its division and had the best overall record in the Pac-12. No small accomplishment.

Outside of that, who deserves a better grade than they received? Some people thought Arizona’s B was a little too generous, given the schedule they played (see the question below, by the way). But they knocked off Oregon, won their bowl game and made huge strides defensively.

Others have said Cal’s F grade was too harsh. But I’m of the opinion that if you don’t beat an FBS team, that’s a fail.

Oregon State’s C-minus feels right, considering what the expectations were.

UCLA’s B-plus was fair from Ted and my B-minus for USC was pretty reflective of the ups and downs of the season.

I thought Ted’s C-minus for Utah was probably generous, but upsetting Stanford warrants something in the average range.

The Washington schools both got Bs because the Cougs exceeded expectations and the Huskies got over the seven-win hump and won their bowl game.

As always, happy to hear arguments in favor for or against changing grades.


Pac-12 Fan in Reno writes: C'mon, Kevin. Arizona at No. 25 in your final poll? It is now becoming apparent that you have some repressed "feelings" for [RichRod] and Arizona. How can you put AU at No. 25 after the way they were so thoroughly humiliated at the hands of relatively pedestrian ASU (No. 20)? AU beat Oregon and ... whom exactly? Their wins came over the likes of UNLV and UTSA. Wow. Impressive. AU will win 8-9 games again next year because they play a bunch of [weak teams]. You really need to admit your bias/obsession and try to move past it. You are better than this.

Kevin Gemmell: Consider the alternative. Who would you put at No. 25? Washington is there in the AP poll at No. 25, but I had the Huskies higher because I thought they finished strong and deserved a higher ranking.

So let’s look at the options, including all of the teams that finished in the final AP rankings or received votes.

Vanderbilt? The Commodores beat an injury-depleted No. 15 Georgia, but the rest of their schedule sets up much like Arizona with sub-.500 competition.

Nebraska? Its signature win was also over No. 22 Georgia. (And yes, Ryan in New York, I know you are going to chime in about UCLA’s win over Nebraska, but you still won’t convince me that wasn’t an amazing win for the Bruins given all that had happened).

Fresno State? Played one ranked team all year (USC) and got blasted by them in the bowl game.

Northern Illinois? Zero ranked teams on the schedule.

North Dakota State? I’ll actually listen to that argument.

Texas Tech? Never beat a top-10 team.

Georgia? See above.

Iowa? Never beat a ranked team.

Ole Miss? It beat LSU, but won just three games in conference. Thank goodness for the eight-game conference schedule. (I can already feel a retort coming on from Chris Low.)

Kansas State? The Wildcats beat a reeling No. 25 Texas Tech team, but had no other victories over ranked opponents.

That brings us to Arizona. It only beat one ranked team all season. But of all the teams listed above, it was the highest-ranked team in No. 5 Oregon.

There are no repressed feelings. But all things being equal -- and I think you can make a case that all of these teams I’ve just listed pretty much being equal -- I’m going to go with the one that showed the greatest improvement on defense from 2012 to 2013 and has one of the country’s most dynamic playmakers. And Arizona beat a team from a BCS conference in its bowl game.

The Wildcats played in “arguably” the toughest, deepest league in college football, had a comparable record and had the best win of all those teams listed above. On a neutral field, I’ll put the Arizona team that played against Boston College against any one of those teams.


Henry in San Juan Capistrano writes: Your colleague Chris Low stated today that the three "marquee" QB's in the P-12 are Hundley, Marcus and Mannion when we all know that it's Kelly, not Mannion, that rounds out that group. Can you set him straight, Kev? You would be doing all P-12 fans a huge favor.

Kevin Gemmell: Can’t it be both? Mannion had the superior passing numbers, a better completion percentage with 1,000 more passing yards and nine more passing touchdowns. He also finished with a higher raw QBR.

Kelly had fewer interceptions and a higher adjusted QBR. He also rushed for 608 yards and had nine rushing touchdowns while Mannion had minus-223 yards rushing and zero rushing touchdowns.

So when push comes to shove, they had an equal amount of total touchdowns accounted for. Mannion had more turnovers (including seven fumbles).

Both quarterbacks are asked to do very different things. Mannion is a pure drop-back passer. That’s not to say that Kelly can’t chuck it. He was fifth in the league 3,635 passing yards and third in passing touchdowns. But he has more zone-read responsibilities than Mannion does.

When Mannion isn’t going through one of his interception spells, he can be one of the top pure passers in college football, but he has his moments of inefficiency. And Kelly, too, has the occasional bad game, when things aren’t clicking. But both are very good at what they are asked to do.


Ryan in New York writes: Kevin, Excellent article on the Pac-12 defenses. But how could you forget perhaps the nation's best interior defensive lineman next year -- Lenny Williams -- when discussing the best defenders in the Pac?

Kevin Gemmell: *Slaps head with palm and shouts “D’oh!”* Yep, Williams is up there as well. Was thinking of younger guys, but he absolutely should be a preseason All-American.

The point of the column wasn’t to say that there are no good defensive players coming back. There are. USC has some. UCLA has some. Stanford and Oregon have some. Pretty much every school has a player or two who is going to get some looks on a preseason all-conference squad.

But given the amount of talented defensive players across the conference that are leaving, combined with coordinators from the top five defensive schools in the conference in 2013, I felt it warranted a column. UCLA fans got after me on Twitter, reminding me of all the young talent the Bruins have coming back. And I agree with all of it. I expect UCLA to be strong defensively. But stronger without Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt? We’ll have to see.

But from a league-wide perspective, the Pac-12 loses a bunch of veteran defenders. When you combine that with the offensive firepower coming back, it makes for an intriguing 2014.


Bob in Menlo Park writes: Kevin, I read your Todd Graham question. I thought I read on the Pac-12 Blog that [athletic director Steve] Patterson signed an agreement with Arizona State not to poach personnel when he went to Texas. Enjoyed your writing and the blog.

Kevin Gemmell: As a matter of fact, you did read that on the blog. Here’s the link.

It’s obviously moot with Charlie Strong landing the job at Texas. If Patterson really wanted Todd Graham, I’m sure there would have been a way to make it work. As Ted points in his piece from November, there isn’t much that can’t be fixed with motivation and money. Contracts can be torn up in lieu of checks.

Obviously, that didn’t happen. But if Graham continues at this current pace -- winning division championships and posting outstanding conference records, he’s going to start getting phone calls. What’s an acceptable time frame for a coach to move on? Three years? Five? Seven?

This is going to be an interesting year for Graham. He’s losing a ton of defensive stars and he spends the majority of his time on that side of the football. It’s not unreasonable to think the Sun Devils might take a step back defensively in 2014, but if they can come close to matching some of their 2013 defensive production after that kind of a talent drain, we’ll know just how good of a coach Graham really is.


Bryce in San Franciso writes: I'm happy to see Kyle Bonagura getting on board with the lunch link quotes. I don't see an inbox for him, so hoping you can pass this note along.

Kevin Gemmell: I’ll let him know. He started strong with a quote from “The Sandlot.” When it comes to the lunch links quotes, we try to have fun with them … but sometimes they can be a bit obscure. Last year, on the anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death, I posted a stanza from “The Mighty K.C.” a one-hit wonder song by For Squirrels from 1995. Didn’t think anyone would get the reference, and they didn’t. On the day Ray Bradbury died, Ted quoted “Fahrenheit 451.” Sometimes, it’s just a movie or song or book that’s stuck in my head. They aren’t always gems, but we try to make it fun.

Talent drain leaves Pac-12 defenses in flux

January, 20, 2014
Jan 20
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The Pac-12 has seen a flurry of defensive coordinator movement over the last couple of weeks -- starting with the power struggle for former Washington defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox to the recent exoduses of Stanford’s Derek Mason to Vanderbilt as head coach and UCLA’s Lou Spanos to the Tennessee Titans as linebackers coach. Oregon’s promotion of Don Pellum to defensive coordinator to replace Nick Aliotti will also shine a spotlight on the Ducks’ defense in 2014 and beyond.

And then there is, of course, former USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who mysteriously continues to be out of work.

[+] EnlargeKevin Hogan, Scott Crichton
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesOregon State defensive end Scott Crichton is among the Pac-12 defensive stars entering the NFL in 2014.
Look at the top five scoring defenses in the Pac-12 in 2013: Stanford, Oregon, USC, Washington and UCLA, respectively. All five have had defensive coordinators in flux in the young offseason.

That makes for an interesting transition period for the Pac-12. Defenses had closed the gap in recent years with several teams ranking in the top 25 nationally in scoring defense. That in itself is an achievement considering the level of offensive skill players and the diversity of offenses in the conference.

But when you look ahead to 2014, there are a lot of quarterbacks coming back to man the league’s high-powered offenses -- Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley, Taylor Kelly, Sean Mannion, Connor Halliday, etc. You combine that with a massive talent drain of defensive players graduating or declaring for the NFL, plus all of the shifting within the defensive coaching ranks, and you have to wonder if 2014 is going to be the Year of Offense in the Pac-12.

Consider a few of the defensive standouts leaving: Anthony Barr (UCLA), Will Sutton (ASU), Shayne Skov (Stanford), Dion Bailey (USC), Terrance Mitchell (Oregon), Scott Crichton (Oregon State), Trent Murphy (Stanford), Carl Bradford (ASU), Deone Bucannon (Washington State), Trevor Reilly (Utah). There are a couple dozen others who aren’t mentioned who were high-impact guys like Stanford’s Ben Gardner and Ed Reynolds, Eric Kendricks, Jordan Zumwalt and Cassius Marsh from UCLA and Alden Darby, Osahon Irabor and Robert Nelson from ASU.

In total, 19 of the 25 all-conference defensive players from 2013 will be gone next year -- including 10 of 12 from the first team. Plus about a dozen more that were honorable mention are leaving or graduating. That is a major hit to the defensive talent in the league.

The Pac-12 is rarely appreciated nationally for its defensive prowess, either from a player or coaching perspective. And now three of the best coordinators in the conference are gone, one has moved from Washington to USC and another is looking for a gig.

Pac-12 offenses are going to be loaded in 2014 while the defenses have huge question marks. There is plenty of young talent. Guys like Myles Jack (UCLA), Addison Gillam (Colorado) and Su’a Cravens (USC) have all made names for themselves early in their careers. There are also some very notable returners like Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (Oregon), Henry Anderson (Stanford), Shaq Thompson (Washington) and Hayes Pullard (USC).

But a lot more is gone than is coming back.

That opens the door for all sorts of comparison storylines. Wilcox did an outstanding job re-tooling the defense at Washington. And now Pete Kwiatkowski will be measured against what Wilcox was able to accomplish. Likewise, Pendergast probably should have been USC’s MVP for what he did with the Trojans in one season. Now Wilcox has to take over an outfit that is losing a lot of playmakers to the NFL. No doubt, he’ll be compared to his predecessor. Just as Pellum will be compared to Aliotti, and whoever fills the seats at Stanford and UCLA will be compared to what Mason and Spanos were able to accomplish.

The guard is changing, as it does every year in college football. This year it might be the Pac-12 defenses that take a step back.

Heisman Trophy contenders in Pac-12

January, 17, 2014
Jan 17
10:00
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Despite being a top-two conference in college football, the Pac-12 was inexplicably shut out when it came to Heisman Trophy finalists. Of course, if the award took into account the entire season, both Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota and Arizona running back Ka'Deem Carey probably would have been there.

After the bowls, would anyone have voted for Jordan Lynch over Mariota or Andre Williams over Carey? Doubtful.

Here's a look at the Pac-12's top five Heisman Trophy candidates in 2014:

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Steve Conner/Icon SMIOregon signal-caller Marcus Mariota finished the 2013 season on a high note, with a blowout victory over Texas in the Valero Alamo Bowl.
1. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon

Mariota shouldn't just be considered the front-runner from the Pac-12, he should be considered the favorite to win the award, period.

Yes, Florida State's Jameis Winston will still be around, but if he were to repeat as the Heisman winner, the Multiple Heisman Club would double in size. History isn't on his side.

Statistically, Mariota has been among the country's best quarterbacks in each of the past two seasons, which bodes well for his candidacy. Plus, Oregon will begin the season as the Pac-12 favorite and a national title contender.

There's nothing to question about Mariota's talent, as his decision to stay at Oregon for another season might have prevented him from becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft. However, spurning the NFL for another year in college didn't help the Heisman chances of the past two Pac-12 quarterbacks who made a similar decision (See: Luck, Andrew and Barkley, Matt).

2. Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA

Mariota wasn't the only Pac-12 quarterback who might have turned down the opportunity to be the first quarterback drafted -- Hundley fits that description, too. And when he decided to return to UCLA, the Bruins instantly became the favorites in the Pac-12 South.

If the Bruins, who finished ranked No. 16 last season, take a step forward next season, it'll likely be because of a big year from Hundley.

The schedule sets up well for Hundley, too. The Bruins have an East Coast game (at Virginia) to open the season, play Texas in Arlington, Texas, Oregon at home and finish the regular season with back-to-back home games against USC and Stanford. That's exposure.

3. Myles Jack, LB/RB, UCLA

In just five games, Jack made quite the impression running the ball. Take his stats and extrapolate them over a 13-game season and he would have finished with 694 yards and 18 touchdowns. That touchdown total would have equaled that of Heisman finalist Andre Williams.

Those would be pretty good numbers for a running back, but for a linebacker? Defense is where Jack belongs despite being named both the conference's Offensive and Defensive Freshman of the Year.

It might seem strange on the surface, but it's unlikely Bruins coach Jim Mora wants Jack to be a serious Heisman candidate. What it'll mean is that UCLA hasn't found a better option at running back, which is ideally what it'll do between now and its season opener.

[+] EnlargeKevon Seymour, Taylor Kelly
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesArizona State QB Taylor Kelly finished the 2013 season with 28 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions.
4. Taylor Kelly, QB, Arizona State

How good was Kelly this year? Good enough for the coaches in the conference to vote him ahead of Hundley and Sean Mannion onto the All-Pac-12 second team.

He threw for 3,635 yards with 28 touchdowns and 12 interceptions while guiding one of the nation's highest-scoring offenses. The Sun Devils finished No. 11 in the country, averaging 39.7 points per game.

Like Mariota and Hundley, Kelly gets it done with his legs, too. He rushed for 608 yards and the same amount of touchdowns as Johnny Manziel (9). We know how the Heisman voters love their dual-threat quarterbacks.

5. Sean Mannion, QB, Oregon State

Mannion will enter the 2014 season as the nation's active leader in passing yards (10,436) and will be in position to shatter Barkley's career conference record (12,327).

When the Beavers sat at 6-1, Mannion was firmly in the Heisman race, but a five-game losing streak took the wind out of those sails. He still set the Pac-12 single-season passing record (4,662) and was rated high enough to earn a third-round grade from NFL scouts.

Losing Biletnikoff Award winner Brandin Cooks will be tough to compensate for -- although the same was said about losing Markus Wheaton going into last season -- and winning counts. If the Beavers improve it'll likely be due to a better running game, which could hurt Mannion statistically.

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2014 TEAM LEADERS

PASSINGATTCOMPYDSTD
B. Hundley368259301921
RUSHINGCARYDSAVGTD
P. Perkins23013786.07
B. Hundley1485483.78
RECEIVINGRECYDSAVGTD
J. Payton6389614.27
D. Fuller574287.51
TEAMRUSHPASSTOTAL
Offense199.4268.5467.9
TEAMPFPAMARGIN
Scoring32.927.55.4