Mailbag: FSU undisciplined; Petersen flop

December, 19, 2014
Dec 19
6:15
PM PT
Happy Friday. Welcome to the mailbag. Pac-12 bowl season starts Saturday. Yay.

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To the notes!

Duckzila from Portland writes: The Oregon offense typically feasts on teams that are undisciplined on defense. My perception is Florida State is a team that relies on athleticism and freelances quite a bit on the defense side of the ball. Even when they shut down Georgia Tech in the second half of the ACC championship, they were helped out by an inaccurate quarterback missing open plays downfield. To be fair, I definitely suffer from seeing college football through green and yellow shaded glasses, and haven't watched a ton of FSU games this year. I'm curious if you see the FSU defense the same way?

Ted Miller: No, I don't see Florida State's defense that way.

What I see is a talented unit that was rebuilding after being dominant during 2013's national title campaign, one that was breaking in a new coordinator, one that was then riddled by injuries. I see a defense that is on track to be as healthy as it has been all season against Oregon.

I see a defense that is adept at making adjustments. The Seminoles gave up 174 points in the first half this season. They yielded just 125 in the second half. Oregon's underrated defense gave up 141 points in the first half and 151 in the second half. I see a defense that overcame an offense that was stunningly turnover-prone -- the Seminoles' 27 turnovers would have been the highest total in the Pac-12. Oregon had just eight turnovers this season.

Further, and this isn't a terribly original point: Defenses tend to excel after extended pre-bowl preparation. The extra time helps a defense train its eyes, accustom itself to potential misdirection and create a laser-like focus on its keys. Ducks fans saw that when two offensive juggernauts, Auburn and Oregon, played a low-scoring, 22-19 slugfest for the 2010 national championship.

If Oregon's offense wins the battle with FSU's defense, I doubt we will say it's because FSU was undisciplined. I think we'll say it's because the Oregon offense is just really freaking hard to stop.


Matt from Washington, D.C. writes: Ted-According to ESPN, Washington was tied with FSU for the most All-Americans yet won eight games, none against a high-quality team. With the shadow of Dan Hawkins looming large and so much talent leaving this year, what are the reasons for optimism for UW fans moving forward in the Petersen era?

Ted Miller: It's not unfair to say Chris Petersen's first season was underwhelming, even disappointing. He inherited talent that hinted at 10 wins in the regular season and he won eight. He didn't beat a ranked team and the Huskies struggled against overmatched foes. While he's not one to navel-gaze in front of the media, my guess is Petersen will be as self-critical about himself and his staff as any message board.

So why be optimistic? Well, Petersen went 92-12 at Boise State and won two Fiesta Bowls, a record that far surpasses Dan Hawkins or, really, any coach outside of a Power 5 conference. There's a reason folks so celebrated his hiring. The guy is smart. He's detail-oriented. He has a system. Some of the things that cost the Huskies this year -- such as giving mouthy, me-first cornerback Marcus Peters the boot -- probably will pay off in the long term as Petersen establishes his culture.

Yet Petersen might need to recalibrate some. Playing a Pac-12 schedule is different than playing one or two Power 5 foes a year and trying to earn your big-boy-football bona fides. In the Pac-12, you play a marquee game against Oregon... and then you play a marque game against Arizona State the next weekend.

As much as he's emphasizing "OKGs -- Our Kind of Guys" in recruiting, he's probably going to need a more generous gray area when evaluating prospects, particularly ones who run 4.4-second 40-yard dashes and weigh more than 300 pounds. He also might need to rethink some spots on his coaching staff.

Yes, the Huskies take some huge roster hits heading into 2015, particularly on defense and the offensive line. Eight wins next year probably would be an overachievement. But Petersen wasn't hired for immediate flash. He was hired to return Washington to long-term glory. Those are two different processes, and the latter often includes worse short-term growing pains.


Ramon from Chatsworth, California, writes: The Pac-12 South was an extremely tough division this season. The toughest, if you ask me. With the way the season ended for TCU and Baylor, which Pac-12 south team has the highest chances of being affected, positively and negatively, by their out-of-conference schedule in 2015?

Ted Miller: Arizona State, UCLA, USC and Utah will be in good shape if the College Football Playoff committee is reviewing their nonconference schedules. Arizona and Colorado will not be.

Here are the schedules.
  • Arizona: UTSA, at Nevada, Northern Arizona
  • Arizona State: Texas A&M (Houston), Cal Poly, New Mexico
  • Colorado: at Hawaii, UMass, Colorado State (Denver), Nicholls State
  • UCLA: Virginia, at UNLV, BYU
  • USC: Arkansas State, Idaho, at Notre Dame
  • Utah: Michigan, Utah State, at Fresno State

Obviously, the Buffaloes are aiming for bowl eligibility, not a berth in the CFP, and have scheduled accordingly. Arizona is another matter, as the Wildcats' nonconference schedule is Baylor-esque and would be viewed dimly by the committee.

Of course, the Wildcats didn't envision they would be in the hunt this season, at least from the past scheduling perspective of athletic director Greg Byrne. If the Wildcats again surge in 2015, their nonconference schedule will be a problem, unless they emerge from the Pac-12 unbeaten.

JuJu Smith says he'll play some defense in 2015

December, 19, 2014
Dec 19
2:10
PM PT
There wasn’t much that JuJu Smith didn’t accomplish during his freshman year at USC. He appeared in all 12 games, eventually earning a starting wide receiver spot, and ended the season ranked second on the team with 51 catches for 658 yards and five touchdowns. Smith also added six kickoff returns and a handful of carries to his first-year resume.

[+] EnlargeJuJu Smith
Russ Isabella/USA TODAY SportsJuJu Smith could join classmate Adoree' Jackson in the Trojans' secondary.
One thing he didn’t do, however, was contribute in all three phases of the game since there was no defensive time for JuJu, while his fellow freshman Adoree’ Jackson did get a chance to see time on offense, defense and special teams. Smith, who was a terrific safety in high school, has been battling Jackson in one-on-ones during bowl practices and said this week that he could end up joining Jackson as a triple-threat weapon for the Trojans next season.

“Adoree’ Jackson is a great player,” Smith said. “He was Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, which is awesome. For me to get to go against him every day is amazing and it’s real nice challenge to get me ready for game day. It will be great to go through our time at USC together, and next year I’ll be going both ways with him so it will be fun.”

Houston, we have a final 5: One of the top prospects on the USC wish list is linebacker John Houston, who released his list of five final schools on Friday and, to no surprise, the Trojans were included, along with Oregon, Arizona State, Miami and Oklahoma. Houston has already taken visits to the four other schools on his list and will trip to USC for the Trojans big recruiting weekend on Jan. 16, when several of the top remaining prospects will be on campus.

Houston has long been rumored to have the Trojans in his lead spot and, while nothing has changed that, he has legitimately enjoyed seeing the other schools, particularly Oregon. With that being said, the last visit is always critical and USC would appear to be well positioned to close this one and land the coveted target. Houston is ranked as the No. 2 inside linebacker by ESPN but with his 6-foot-3, 210 pound frame he could easily end up as a strong side backer as well. Houston will take part in the Under Armour All-American game on Jan. 2 to be shown on ESPN2.

Must-see matchup: You can be sure that plenty of NFL defensive line coaches will be paying attention to the Holiday Bowl with Leonard Williams of USC and Randy Gregory of Nebraska taking part in the game. The two juniors are both expected to declare for the draft and both were projected as top-5 selections by Todd McShay of ESPN in his mock draft that was released this week.

Williams, who was named the USC team MVP this week, is actually ranked atop McShay’s overall player rankings, in large part because of the versatility he has shown and the ability to play multiple spots at the next level. The fact Williams was also a consistent contributor despite playing with injuries also has been noted by the professional scouts. What they also will find when they take a closer look at Williams is a guy who plays the game with passion and has a strong work ethic. It speaks volumes that his selection as an All-American this year made him the first two-time AA selection at defensive end for the Trojans in 50 years.

Gregory has an impressive list of accomplishments of his own, including a unique ability to rush the passer as evidenced by 18 career sacks as a Cornhusker. Like Williams, he also battled injuries this year but played through it and ended the season with 10 tackles for loss. With a 6-foot-6, 245 pound frame it’s easy to see that Gregory has the physical dimensions to play in the NFL with the only question being the eventual position, an OLB in a 3-4 or DE in a 4-3.
Has this been the greatest season in Pac-12 history? The jury is still out on that front, as bowl games remain to be played, and Oregon is tasked with carrying the conference flag into a playoff battle with the nation's big boys. But after a captivating regular season, the conference is undoubtedly in strong position entering this final foray.

The 2014 ride -- typically unpredictable, frequently stunning, always entertaining -- has been bathed in a downright surreal aura throughout (see #Pac12AfterDark). We want to commemorate the Paction, so we've assembled a list of the top 15 moments that defined this bizarre Pac-12 campaign while making an impact on its eccentric, memorable course.

Here is the final installment, featuring our three top plays from the 2014 Pac-12 season:

3. The play of polar opposites: Kaelin Clay fumble; Joe Walker TD return

video

This has to be the ultimate "what if?" play of the Pac-12 season, and that is saying something. Yes, Oregon might have won anyway without Utah wide receiver Kaelin Clay's help in early November, but the journey to do so would have been exponentially more difficult. And a Utes' win would have drastically changed the complexion of the Pac-12 South title race and the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Early in the second quarter, Clay hauled in a deep post from Travis Wilson and sprinted toward paydirt. A jubilant Rice-Eccles Stadium shook celebrating what initially looked to be a 79-yard touchdown catch that would have positioned Utah for a 14-0 lead.

But one not-so-minor detail stood in the way of that.

As part of his scoring celebration, Clay had dropped the football -- and he accidentally did so before he had crossed the goal line. So as Utah players were celebrating what they thought to be a touchdown, Oregon defenders were scrambling to recover a fumble. Linebacker Joe Walker eventually secured the ball and ran 99 yards in the opposite direction, scoring to tie the game while creating a signature #Pac12AfterDark moment of mass confusion.

This broke the mayhem gauge: There was a point in time when Utah and Oregon were both simultaneously celebrating 100 yards apart in opposite end zones.

Only the Ducks' party lasted. Instead of trailing 14-0 in the teeth of a ferocious defense playing in front of its electric Salt Lake City crowd, Oregon was suddenly even with the Utes. Walker had sprinted 180 yards on one play -- 80 from the line of scrimmage to pick up the fumble at the goal line, and 100 more to score the other way -- but he was the energized one after the play, while Utah was deflated. The Ducks went on to win 51-27, and the rest was history.

2. The Jael Mary

Before the night of October 4, 2014, we were still oh, so naive. We thought that there was no way a successful Hail Mary could decide a game at the gun more than once per decade. We thought a nine-point lead with three minutes remaining at home against a backup quarterback was ... relatively safe?

But then October 4 happened, and nothing was the same. The practice of expecting conventional finishes in this conference died in the Los Angeles Coliseum on that night. Arizona State and USC played a game which saw Pac-12 end-of-game eccentricity go from being a rare spectacle to a regular occurrence.

Javorius Allen's 53-yard touchdown run gave USC a 34-25 lead with 3:02 remaining and Troy celebrated, unaware that ASU quarterback Mike Bercovici was about to rack up 145 yards over his next three completions. The first was a 73-yard touchdown strike to Cameron Smith. That made this a two-point game with 2:43 remaining.

But the Trojans recovered the ensuring onside kick, and ASU didn't have any timeouts left. So nothing to sweat for Steve Sarkisian, right?

Well, nothing except for the ultimate rip-your-heart-out finish. After a USC three-and-out, ASU took over at its own 28 with 23 seconds remaining. A 26-yard pass to Smith positioned the Sun Devils for a final gasp as time expired. Jaelen Strong plucked Bercovici's Hail Mary heave out of the air and hopped into the end zone, sending the Coliseum into shocked silence, leaving the hometown fans wondering why USC hadn't seemed interested in covering one of the country's best receivers?

As is the case with so many #Pac12AfterDark questions, there is no satisfying answer. There is only a legendary result, and this one is immortalized as the Jael Mary. Arizona State 38, USC 34.

1. The Hill Mary

video

The Jael Mary has an ancestor, and it also Hails (pun intended) from the state of Arizona. Two weeks before the Sun Devils snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in Los Angeles, Arizona did the same thing against California. The difference: The Wildcats put on their show at home, sending a stadium into delirium, and they did it first. Arizona's last-second heroics also were a determinant in their Pac-12 South championship and Cal's failure to make a bowl game, so they beat out their Tempe rivals on this list.

The climactic play of this game was only the final piece of an absolutely sensational Wildcats' rally. Cal led 31-13 entering the fourth quarter, and it's not as if the Golden Bears suddenly stopped scoring to blow their lead: Sonny Dykes' club actually registered two insurance touchdowns in the quarter. But this insurance policy wasn't big enough to withstand a 36-point Arizona fourth quarter.

The Wildcats scored, and they scored furiously fast. A Casey Skowron field goal. A Tra'Mayne Bondurant interception followed by an Austin Hill touchdown. A Cayleb Jones touchdown. A Terrence Jones-Grigsby touchdown. An onside kick recovery. Another Jones touchdown.

Even after that flurry, Arizona still trailed 45-43. It failed a two-point conversion that could have tied the game with 2:44 remaining. Cal regained possession with a chance to seal the game, but the Wildcats kept kicking.

With under a minute left, Dykes elected to try a 47-yard field goal, but this turned out to be an ill-fated decision. James Langford missed, and Arizona got one final chance with 52 seconds left. Facing a fourth-and-7 from his own 33, quarterback Anu Solomon found Hill for a 20-yard gain that moved the ball to the Bears' 47. He then spiked the ball with only a precious few ticks remaining, setting up our No. 1 moment of truth.

To signal in the obvious play call, Rich Rodriguez and his fellow coaches clasped their hands together in "Hail Mary" prayer fashion.

Cal only rushed three, and Solomon's 73rd and final pass of the night was also its most majestic, a soaring 50-plus yard lob that might have brought down rain had the game not been played in the cloudless desert.

"Halfway, and then three-quarters of way [into the throw's flight], I knew the ball was coming to me," Hill said. "I was just hoping no one bumped into me, or hit my elbow, or jumped on top of me so I could secure the catch."

Mission accomplished. Hill Mary immortalized. Arizona 49, Cal 45.

"Don't ever go home early," a beaming Rodriguez told a TV camera afterward.

Nope, don't do that. Not in this age of Pac-12 football.

Other impact plays

Pac-12 bowl predictions

December, 19, 2014
Dec 19
9:00
AM PT

Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl



Why Utah wins: This has tended to be a letdown game for Pac-12 teams in recent years -- the league has lost four of the past five games in the Las Vegas Bowl. But Utah won't be lacking for motivation after returning to the postseason after a two-year absence and Colorado State, despite its strong season, will be a little deflated following Jim McElwain's departure for Florida. -- Chantel Jennings

Why Colorado State wins: Yes, the Rams lost their coach to Florida, but they’re still running on the energy of a 10-2 season and a prolific offense. Receiver Rashard Higgins leads the nation with 17 touchdown catches and Utah is not playing its best ball of the season. I think that’s the difference-maker here. -- David Lombardi


Hyundai Sun Bowl



Why Arizona State wins: Good quarterback. Good running back. Outstanding wide receiver and a defense that gets after it on the blitz more than any team in the country. The “attacking-hybrid” defense will leave the other Devils feeling blue. -- Kevin Gemmell


National University Holiday Bowl



Why Nebraska wins: It would be a fitting start to Mike Riley's tenure at Nebraska, wouldn't it? Although the former Oregon State coach won't be guiding his new team from the sideline, expect the Cornhuskers to make an impression with a victory over a Pac-12 foe. -- Chantel Jennings

Why USC wins: USC is a more talented, athletic team than Nebraska and would win this game without extenuating circumstances, but the acrimonious departure of Bo Pelini figures to leave some Cornhuskers indifferently motivated. Further, the Trojans, whose biggest issue is depth, almost certainly benefited more from a few weeks of off-time to heal various bumps and bruises. -- Ted Miller


Foster Farms Bowl



Why Stanford wins: Defense didn’t win a championship for the Cardinal. But it can win a bowl game against a Maryland team that averages fewer than 30 points per game and only averages 130.4 yards per game on the ground. -- Kevin Gemmell


VIZIO Fiesta Bowl



Why Boise State wins: It’s the Fiesta Bowl. The Broncos don’t lose these games. In all seriousness, though, Boise State has ripped off eight straight wins. They’re peaking right now, and Arizona had some wind taken of their sails against Oregon. -- David Lombardi

Why Arizona wins: It's a statement game for Arizona -- and the Pac-12 -- so don't expect the Wildcats to take their opponent lightly. It's been too fine a season for Arizona to end with a blowout loss to Oregon and a defeat at the hands of Boise State. Expect to see some fireworks from the Wildcats' young playmakers on offense as well as trophy-laden linebacker Scooby Wright. -- Chantel Jennings


Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual



Why Oregon wins: Forget the Heisman versus Heisman storyline. The Ducks take care of the football, plain and simple. Florida State has danced with defeat several times, but other teams have let them off the hook. If they Ducks can force turnovers, they are one of the best teams in the country at making opponents pay. -- Kevin Gemmell

Why Florida State wins: Florida State is getting healthy during the break before this game, while Oregon lost All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu to a knee injury. That’s a big problem when a team is preparing for Seminoles wide receiver Rashad Greene and quarterback Jameis Winston. Yet it’s Oregon’s greatest strength and Florida State's seeming weakness that will be the difference. The Ducks pretty much dominated every game they won this year. Florida State pretty much didn’t dominate anyone, playing down to foes for three-plus quarters and making their fans squirm in the waning moments. That mental toughness in the fourth quarter will pay off in this one because Oregon won’t dominate the Seminoles, and a tight final frame is when Florida State thrives. -- Ted Miller


Valero Alamo Bowl



Why Kansas State wins: This one starts with motivation, and we’re betting Kansas State has more. UCLA started out in the preseason top 10 and envisioned itself winning the Pac-12 and playing in the College Football Playoff. It’s not unreasonable to suspect the surprising and dispiriting blowout loss to Stanford during the final weekend of the season, which gave Arizona the Pac-12’s South Division crown, will come with an extended hangover. While both offenses have good quarterbacks and explosive playmakers, the Wildcats have been more consistent on defense this year. That will be the difference. -- Ted Miller

Why UCLA wins: I'm taking the opposite side of the argument when it comes to motivation. Bowl games are all about motivation, yes, and the Bruins, with a chip on their shoulder, have a chance to end the season on a high note. Brett Hundley’s finger is healthy and when he’s at his best, there aren’t many teams in the country that can stop him. Plus the Bruins are underdogs. That’s a role they haven’t played much this year, but seem to relish. -- Kevin Gemmell


TicketCity Cactus Bowl



Why Washington wins: The Huskies began to develop a semblance of offensive consistency toward the end of the season, and that makes them a capable all-around team. That certainly should be enough to beat a 6-6 Oklahoma State team that is nothing spectacular this season. -- David Lombardi

Pac-12 morning links

December, 19, 2014
Dec 19
8:00
AM PT
Happy Friday!

Leading off

All week we've been bringing you the All-America honors as they rolled in.

In total, 14 Pac-12 players were named to a first-team All-America squad. Of those 14, Marcus Mariota, Scooby Wright and Hau'oli Kikaha were unanimous selections. Two other players -- Tom Hackett and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu -- were consensus selections appearing on at least three of the five recognized teams.

This is the eighth straight year the Pac-12 has had a unanimous selection and the first time since 2005 it's had three in one year (Reggie Bush, Dwayne Jarrett, Maurice Drew). The five recognized teams are the American Football Coaches Association, the Associated Press, the Football Writers Association of America, The Sporting News and the Walter Camp Football Foundation.

Here's the final tally among the big five:

Offense
  • QB, Marcus Mariota, Oregon, Jr., AFCA-AP-FWAA-SN-WC (unanimous)
  • OL, Jake Fisher, Oregon, Sr., FWAA
  • OL, Hroniss Grasu, Oregon, Sr., SN
  • OL, Andrus Peat, Stanford, Jr., SN
  • AP, Shaq Thompson, Washington, Jr., AP
Defense
  • DL, Nate Orchard, Utah, Sr., FWAA-WC
  • DL, Danny Shelton, Washington, Jr., AP-SN
  • DL, Leonard Williams, USC, Jr., AFCA
  • LB, Eric Kendricks, UCLA, Sr., SN
  • LB, Hau’oli Kikaha, Washington, Sr., AFCA-AP-FWAA-SN-WC (unanimous)
  • LB, Scooby Wright III, Arizona, So., AFCA-AP-FWAA-SN-WC (unanimous)
  • DB, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon, Sr., AFCA-AP-WC (consensus)
  • P, Tom Hackett, Utah, Jr., AFCA-AP-FWAA-WC (consensus)
  • PR, Kaelin Clay, Utah, Sr., SN
Game of the year?

Just before the start of bowl season, the folks at Athlon Sports wanted to look back at the chaos that was the 2014 Pac-12 regular season. We've been running our pivotal plays series all week, so be sure to check that out. But Athlon looked at the top 15 games of the season. Here's their top five.
  1. Oct 2: Arizona 31, Oregon 24
  2. Oct. 4: Arizona State 38, USC 34
  3. Sept. 6: Oregon 46, Michigan State 27
  4. Oct. 25: Utah 24, USC 21
  5. Oct. 4: Utah 30, UCLA 28

You'll note that three of their five are from Week 6. We noted last week in our Roadtrip Revisited post that every game that week was unbelievable. If you click the link, they actually rate 30 games. Fairly surprised the Cal-WSU game (also in Week 6) didn't make the top 10. To each their own.

News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

Really great read from our friend Max Olson on the Big 12 blog about the recruitment of linebacker Malik Jefferson. Some interesting UCLA notes in there.

USC practice notes

December, 18, 2014
Dec 18
5:27
PM PT
The injury bug hit the Trojans this week when nose tackle Antwaun Woods suffered a torn pectoral muscle in practice over the weekend and had surgery Tuesday, which will force him to miss the upcoming National University Holiday Bowl.

It’s not an ideal loss for the middle of the USC defensive line when it is getting ready to face the strong rushing attack of the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Woods offers a stout 6-foot-1, 325-pound presence that can be hard to move, and the Trojans will need to do some shuffling to fill the void. Delvon Simmons has moved over from defensive end in practice to take reps with the first unit, but USC coach Steve Sarkisian said the Trojans could also look at Leonard Williams, Claude Pelon or Cody Temple in that spot as well.

Moving Simmons is an enticing option. He’s an experienced transfer who had 43 tackles in his first season with the Trojans primarily in a back-up role. At 295 pounds he offers enough size to handle the role.

New Verbal: The Trojans added a verbal commitment on Thursday when Riverside City College wide receiver Isaac Whitney announced he would attend USC. Whitney is a member of the ESPN JC 50 and chose the Trojans over West Virginia. He joins De'Quan Hampton from Long Beach City College as a pair of 6-foot-4 targets for Sarkisian to add to his receiving corps next season, as both are expected to be utilized on bubble screens and in red-zone situations. Whitney had 49 catches for 809 yards and four touchdowns this fall for RCC.

USC now has 18 commitments for the class of 2015.

Team Awards: USC held its annual end-of-season banquet Wednesday night, with Leonard Williams walking away with team MVP honors. Williams, who was named an All-American for the second straight season, was also named the USC Defensive Lineman of the Year.

Max Tuerk was named Offensive Lineman of the Year, Cody Kessler won the Trojan Way Leadership Award, Randall Telfer was named Most Inspirational Player and Chad Wheeler won the Bob Chandler Award.
Forgive me, but I am having a hard time recognizing these Nebraska Cornhuskers, you know the team that will face the USC Trojans in a little over a week at the National University Holiday Bowl in San Diego.

First, I just can’t get comfortable that they play in the Big Ten. Whatever happened to the Big 8 and that titanic traditional rivalry with Oklahoma? When was the last time the Cornhuskers won a national title? You hate to live in the past, but these can’t be today’s Big Red, can they?

Pac-12 bowl season: Most to prove

December, 18, 2014
Dec 18
2:00
PM PT
Bowl season for Pac-12 contenders begins this Saturday with Utah's clash against Colorado State. How much does each conference team have to prove during this postseason opportunity? Here's our list.

1. Oregon

Every year, one of the big questions out West revolves around the Ducks' chances of finally grabbing that national championship. Oregon boasts Superman this year, and it's almost certainly Marcus Mariota's last campaign in Eugene. Though their defense suffered a major blow with the loss of Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, the Ducks have their man under center. They can't take this chance to win it all for granted: A playoff appearance is a golden opportunity for this powerful Oregon program to prove that it can finally bring home college football's ultimate hardware. Florida State, the defending champs, await in the Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual.

2. UCLA

This, likely Brett Hundley's final season in Westwood, was supposed to be year the Bruins surged from "good" to "elite." But they slipped too often, and the timing of their last fall -- a 31-10 finale loss at the hands of Stanford -- couldn't have been worse. Now, the narrative has shifted back to the old "they can't win the big one" theme, and that's the exact perception UCLA wanted to avoid. They have a chance to make a cleansing statement versus a good Kansas State squad, also 9-3, in the Valero Alamo Bowl.

3. Utah

The season started magically for the Utes -- aside from that 28-27 road bump at home against Washington State, of course. But after kicking 2014 off at 6-1, Utah dropped three of their last five games. They narrowly squeaked by Pac-12 bottom feeder Colorado to close the regular season, so it's fair to say that Kyle Whittingham's club stumbled to the finish line. An 8-4 record is nothing to scoff at, but the Utes could use a good stomping of Mountain West opponent Colorado State in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl. It would go a long way toward maintaining that "we've arrived as a force in the Pac-12" tone over the offseason.

4. ASU

The Sun Devils' season trajectory had some similarities with Utah's, though ASU lost one fewer game late in the season. Still, they were a one-loss team until a rough November knocked them out of the conference race. A Hyundai Sun Bowl date against fellow 9-3 competitor Duke has become ASU's consolation price, and that is quite the step down from the Rose Bowl aspirations Todd Graham's club harbored followings its November 8 win against Notre Dame. So it's important for the Sun Devils to reverse trajectory heading into the offseason, and they would also like to prove that they are better in December than last season's 37-23 Holiday Bowl loss to Texas Tech.

5. Arizona

The Wildcats were peaking at the right time ---- Oh wait, there was red-hot Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game, and there were 24 yards of total offense for Arizona in the first half. Suddenly, Rich Rodriguez's club wasn't peaking at the right time. But the Wildcats can take solace in the fact that the Ducks have the ability to make good teams look foolish. They can also comfort themselves knowing that this VIZIO Fiesta Bowl is a prime chance to deliver a positive closing statement against a 10-2 Boise State team that loves that big stadium in Glendale.

6. USC

Steve Sarkisian really needed that blowout victory over Notre Dame in the finale to dump the "seven win" moniker that online trolls gleefully tossed around following the Trojans' loss to UCLA. Sark got the powerful performance he was looking for, so he's 8-4 heading into a National University Holiday Bowl matchup against Nebraska. Sure, a postseason win would be nice for the Trojans, but they are lower on this list because there is not all that much for them left to prove this season. Regardless of whether they win or lose on December 27, we know who USC is: a very talented, somewhat flawed, and ultimately thin team that's excited about getting a clean slate in 2015.

7. Stanford

There is very little the Cardinal can prove in their Foster Farms Bowl clash with Maryland on Dec. 30. Stanford capped a disappointing 7-5 regular season with a resounding 31-10 thumping of UCLA, and that performance made it very clear the Cardinal had underperformed in their games leading up to the finale. Now, David Shaw's team is a two-touchdown favorite against the Terrapins in a game 20 minutes away from campus, so there is really no chance to prove anything more than what the Cardinal already accomplished against the Bruins -- even in the case of a lopsided victory.

8. Washington

The Huskies managed eight wins in the first year of the Chris Petersen era, and they fought through some turmoil, too. The team delivered a strong finish following the dismissal of star cornerback Marcus Peters. So, the season has served as a solid foundation for Petersen to work with as he tries to assert himself in Seattle moving forward. It's hard to see the result of the TicketCity Cactus Bowl against 6-6 Oklahoma State swinging the vibe too far in either direction.

100 days, 100 players: No. 50 Leonard Williams

December, 18, 2014
Dec 18
12:30
PM PT
In the 100 days leading up to signing day 2015, RecruitingNation will be looking back at our ESPN recruiting rankings from 2006 to the present and counting down the best player of the past 10 years at each ranking position, No. 100 to No. 1.

Leonard Williams, No. 50 in 2012 class

Williams was not a nationally talked about prospect through his junior season, but that all changed in the late spring of 2011 through his senior season. The Under Armour All-America Game alumni ended up signing with the USC, with the Trojans pulling the major upset over Florida, Florida State and Auburn for the Dayton Beach (Fla.) Mainland product. Williams was part of a Top 10 USC class that included Nelson Agholor, and offensive linemen Zach Banner, Max Tuerk, and Jordan Simmons.

Williams burst onto the scene as a freshman in Los Angeles. He not only appeared in all 13 games, but also started nine at defensive tackle. He had 64 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks. Following the season, he was named to various All-Pac 12 and Freshman All-American teams.

Williams moved to defensive end as a sophomore, and his dominance remained the same. In 13 starts, the 2013 All-Pac-12 first team selection recorded 74 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, and six sacks.

In 2014, Williams' junior and likely final season at USC, he started 12 games making 71 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and six sacks, again earning All-Pac-12 postseason honors. He was named AP All-American second team this week.

Should Williams forgo his final season of eligibility as expected, he is a near lock to be selected in the Top 10 picks of the 2015 NFL draft.

Honorable mention: LeSean McCoy, No. 50 in 2006 class. McCoy was originally headed to Miami (FL) out of high school, but the firing of Larry Coker led the explosive back to Pittsburgh to play for then head coach Dave Wannstedt after a year at prep school. He played only two years for the Panthers before heading to the NFL due to being three years removed from high school. After 3,365 all-purpose yards and 36 touchdowns in two seasons at Pittsburgh, McCoy was selected in the second round (No. 53 overall) by the Philadelphia Eagles. He has been selected to Pro Bowl’s following the 2011 and 2013 seasons. Two prospects ranked No. 50 that played at Florida -- Xavier Nixon (2009 class) and Jaylen Watkins (2010 class) -- currently play in the NFL. Ohio State sophomore safety Vonn Bell, No. 50 in 2013, is expected to be a high NFL draft choice in the next couple of years.

Pac-12 morning links

December, 18, 2014
Dec 18
8:00
AM PT
If you use more than 5 percent of your brain you don't want to be on earth.

Leading off

Another day, another round of All-America teams. Three more to catch you up on. You should know the names by now.

First up is The Sporting News:
  • First-team offense: Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon; Andrus Peat, OT, Stanford; Hroniss Grasu, C, Oregon;
  • First-team defense: Danny Shelton, DT, Washington; Scooby Wright III, LB, Arizona; Hau’oli Kikaha, LB Washington; Erick Kendricks, LB, UCLA.
  • First-team special teams: KR Kaelin Clay, Utah.
  • Second-team offense: Jaelen Strong, WR, Arizona State.
  • Second-team defense: Nate Orchard, DE, Utah; Shaq Thompson, LB, Washington; Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon;
  • Special teams: Tom Hackett, P, Utah.
Next up is the AFCA FBS All-America team:
  • First-team offense: Mariota
  • First-team defense: Leonard Williams, DL, USC; Wright; Kikaha; Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon.
  • Specialists: Hackett
And here's the Football Writers Association of America All-America team:
  • First-team offense: Mariota, Jake Fisher, OL, Oregon
  • First-team defense: Orchard, Kikaha, Wright III,
  • Specialists: Hackett
  • Second-team defense: Williams, Kendricks

The Sporting News also named Mariota its player of the year.

Ifo out

No doubt, you've heard the news that Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, whose name appears on some All-America lists above, is out for the rest of the season with a knee injury. It's not an apocalyptic blow to the Ducks. But you don't want to be facing Winston down one of your best defenders, either.

Here's some reaction: News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

A couple of ASU alums are already benefiting from the new Adidas deal. All together now ... awwwwwww

2014 Pac-12 All-Underrated team

December, 17, 2014
Dec 17
5:00
PM PT
You've surely already seen plenty of glittering All-Pac-12 teams. Here's the All-Pac-12 team from the conference coaches. And here's ESPN.com's version. Lots of star value. While there were a few tough omissions with legitimate differences of opinion -- running back? defensive front seven? -- there also was plenty of consensus, particularly if you made two teams.

Yet there also were some very good players who got just about no recognition and should have. That's why we're creating an "All-Underrated" team.

The idea was to spotlight players, mostly upperclassmen, who didn't make the first- or second-All-Pac-12 teams from the coaches or from ESPN.com.

Funny thing is, this team was also pretty darn difficult to make. There was lots of star value in the Pac-12 this season, and lots of good players who got lost in the shadows of those stars.

OFFENSE

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Harry How/Getty ImagesCody Kessler was quietly efficient for USC, throwing 36 touchdowns and only four interceptions.
QB: Cody Kessler, Jr., USC: Kessler completed 71 percent of his passes for 3,505 yards with 36 TDs and just four interceptions. He was second in the Pac-12 and sixth in the nation in Total QBR.

RB: Daniel Lasco, Jr., California: Ranked sixth in conference with 92.9 yards per game, finishing the season with 1,115 yards and 12 TDs, which ranked third among conference running backs.

RB: Byron Marshall, Jr., Oregon: After leading the Ducks in rushing last season, Marshall did most of his work as a receiver this year, but we're putting him here because this is his natural position. He led the Ducks with 61 receptions for 814 yards with five touchdowns while also rushing for 383 yards and a TD, averaging 7.7 yards per carry.

WR: Austin Hill, Sr., Arizona: Hill wasn't the super-productive guy he was in 2012 before his knee injury, but he was a clutch and critical contributor to the Wildcats high-powered offense. He ranked second on the team with 45 receptions for 605 yards with four touchdowns. He also showed versatility as a tight end and demonstrated a willingness to block.

WR: Isiah Myers, Sr., Washington State: Finished second on the Cougars with 78 catches, and his 972 receiving yards were fifth-most in the Pac-12. His 12 touchdown catches tied for the Pac-12 lead and tied for the second-most in WSU history. He posted three 100-yard games and finished his career sixth in WSU history with 164 receptions and tied for fourth with 19 career touchdowns.

WR: Jordan Payton, Jr., UCLA: He led the Bruins with 63 receptions (8th on all-time UCLA single-season list) and 896 yards (10th) with seven touchdowns. His 14.2 yards per catch tied for second in the Pac-12.

OL: Joe Dahl, Jr., Washington State: The left tackle allowed just one sack in WSU’s Pac-12 record 771 pass attempts and earned the team’s “Bone” Award (given to the team’s best offensive lineman following each game) a team-best six times. He has started all 25 games he has been at WSU, starting 12 at left guard before moving to left tackle in the New Mexico Bowl last year.

OL: Josh Mitchell, Jr., Oregon State: He stepped in for injured All-American candidate Isaac Seumalo and became the leader of the Beavers offensive line, the one constant for a unit that used six different combinations.

OL: Vi Teofilo, Jr., Arizona State: A physical blocker who got better as the season wore on, he earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors from the coaches.

OL: Hamani Stevens, Sr., Oregon: Slid over from left guard to center when All-American Hroniss Grasu went down and did a solid job. Was the only Ducks linemen to start every game this season.

OL: Daniel Munyer, Sr., Colorado: The Buffaloes best O-lineman -- the Buffs yielded the second-fewest sacks in the Pac-12 -- he graded out at 90.9 percent this season with a team-best 51 knockdowns.

DEFENSE

DL Andrew Hudson, Sr., Washington: Hudson ranked fourth in the Pac-12 with 11.5 sacks, and his 0.88 sacks per game ranked 13th in the nation. Finished fourth on the Huskies with 71 tackles, including 14.5 for a loss, with three forced fumbles.

DL David Parry, Sr., Stanford: A force in the middle of Stanford's dominant defense, he had 30 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks. He also had six QB hurries.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Hardison
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesMarcus Hardison (1) was an impact player on the Arizona State defensive line this season.
DL: Marcus Hardison, Sr., Arizona State: Ranked fifth in the conference with 10 sacks. He also had 40 tackles, including 14.0 tackles for a loss, with two forced fumbles and two memorable interceptions.

LB: Jared Norris, Jr., Utah: Led the Utes and was fourth in the conference in total tackles (108) and tackles per game (9.0). His 10.0 TFL is tied for 10th. He also had four sacks.


LB: Blake Martinez, Jr., Stanford: More than a few folks think Martinez manned the middle of the Stanford defense this fall better than Shayne Skov did the previous few seasons. He led the Cardinal with 96 tackles and had six tackles for a loss, four sacks and two forced fumbles.

LB: J.R. Tavai, Sr., USC: Despite missing two games with a knee injury, he led the Trojans with seven sacks. Also had 47 tackles, including 12 for losses, with two deflections, a fumble recovery and a team-best three forced fumbles. Won USC’s Chris Carlisle Courage Award.

LB Michael Doctor, Sr., Oregon State: Doctor returned from an ankle injury that killed his 2013 season and finished with 62 tackles (third on the team). He also tied for the team lead with three interceptions, including a pick-6 off Taylor Kelly in the Beavers' upset of Arizona State. Doctor also had two forced fumbles and a recovery.

S: Jordan Simone, Jr., Arizona State: Former walk-on finished second on the Sun Devils with 90 tackles, including 4.5 for a loss, and a sack. He also had two interceptions and a forced fumble.

S: Jared Tevis, Sr., Arizona: While he got lost amid the deserved hoopla for LB Scooby Wright III, Tevis, a former walk-on, finished second on the Wildcats with 119 tackles, including nine for loss, with four sacks and two interceptions. Most of that production came in the second half of the season.

CB: Alex Carter, Jr., Stanford: Carter didn't have a lot of numbers -- 39 tackles, one interception, one forced fumble -- but there are a lot of observers who might rate him right up with Oregon's Ifo Ekpre-Olomu as an NFL prospect.

CB: Eric Rowe, Sr., Utah: Third in the Pac-11 in passes defended per game (1.18). Tied for fourth in total passes defended (13). Looks like he could be the next NFL cornerback out of Utah.

SPECIALISTS

K: Cameron Van Winkle, So., Washington: Led the Pac-12 in field goal percentage after connecting on 20 of 23 kicks -- 87 percent -- with a long of 51.

P: Darragh O'Neill, Sr., Colorado: Had a 44.1 average, which ranked third in the conference, and had 27 punts inside the 20 -- second in the Pac-12 -- including 14 inside the 15. 66.7 percent of his punts (65) were not returned.
video

National recruiting analyst Craig Haubert talks about tight end Tyler Petite's commitment to USC. Petite is ranked No. 133 overall in the ESPN 300.
video

Todd McShay explains why Nebraska DE Randy Gregory and USC DE Leonard Williams are the players to watch in the National University Holiday Bowl.

WeAreSC chat, 2 p.m. PT

December, 17, 2014
Dec 17
8:17
AM PT
On Wednesday, WeAreSC reporter Garry Paskwietz will be chatting about USC Trojans football. Paskwietz is the publisher of WeAreSC and has been covering the Trojans since 1997. Send your questions now and join Paskwietz every Wednesday at 2 p.m. PT.

WeAreSC Roundtable: Which young players shine most from more reps?

December, 17, 2014
Dec 17
8:00
AM PT
In these bowl practice sessions Steve Sarkisian has given a lot of work so far to younger players to see where they're at in their development, give one player on offense and one on defense who you think can shine with extended practice reps.

Garry Paskwietz

Offense: I'm interested to see what Ajene Harris can do when healthy. He made quite an impression during summer workouts and fall camp in his transition from high school quarterback to college receiver, and was on his way to early playing time before nagging injuries slowed his first-year progress. Steve Sarkisian has shown that he likes to utilize the slot receiver role in a variety of ways and the versatile Harris could end up being a dependable option.

Defense: Jonathan Lockett is a guy who continues to impress when I see him on the practice field and I think he's going to start to emerge for a larger role in the cornerback rotation. Lockett is one of those guys who is always around the football and this offseason could also be important for him to add some bulk in preparation for a larger workload.

Johnny Curren

Offense: I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw out of offensive lineman Chris Brown over the course of the last two weeks. He's been hidden to a certain extent throughout much of the season on the scout team, but at 6-foot-5 and 295 pounds, he moves pretty well, and it looks like he has a little mean streak to him. He's been spending his time at guard, but with fellow freshmen Viane Talamaivao and Damien Mama already entrenched at those spots, I'd like to see what he can do at tackle.

Defense: I continue to be impressed with cornerback Jonathan Lockett. He just has a nose for the ball, and he made two interceptions this past weekend that were really impressive. I think he still needs to add just a little more bulk to his frame, but he appears to have the tools and instincts to become a real contributor down the line.

Greg Katz

Offense: I would point immediately to offensive lineman Chris Brown, the former Los Angeles Loyola stud. During summer workouts and into fall camp, there was nothing to indicate that Brown couldn't be a major player at offensive tackle with a year to mature. It would appear that it was a good move by Steve Sarkisian and offensive line coach Tim Drevno.

Defense: The thought here is cornerback Lamont Simmons from Jacksonville, Florida. Simmons has drawn recent praise from Sarkisian during bowl practices. Given the fact that Adoree' Jackson has made the expected impact that he has and the return of Kevon Seymour and the return of Josh Shaw, redshirting Simmons has been ideal in order let him mature and adjust to college life and the challenges of college football in general.

Of the USC players who missed all of the season, or most of the season, due to injury, who are you most looking forward to seeing return to the line-up in 2015?

GP: It seems like the “promise” of Kenny Bigelow has been around for so long and USC fans have yet to see him deliver that potential on the field. Bigelow has been keeping a good attitude as he rehabbed the knee injury this fall and was around the team quite bit, if he can get back to form and provide a quality option in the middle of the D-line it would be a welcome bonus for the Trojans defense.

JC: The player that I'm most looking forward to seeing return to the field is tailback Tre Madden, especially with the potential loss of Buck Allen to the draft. A tough ball carrier, Madden really was looking good in fall camp before he suffered his turf toe injury, and being the workaholic that he is, I'm confident that he's going to return to form in a hurry. He's also one of those lead-by-example players who will have a very positive influence on the Class of 2015 running backs who will be arriving on campus.

GK: There are a number of candidates like defensive lineman Kenny Bigelow, but I am really looking forward to seeing the return of outside linebacker Jabari Ruffin. I think the Trojans really missed his physicality and nastiness to his game. There is the thought here that maybe mobile quarterbacks might not have found the edge as many times in crucial situations as they did if Ruffin would have been able to go.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

2014 TEAM LEADERS

PASSINGATTCOMPYDSTD
C. Kessler413292350536
RUSHINGCARYDSAVGTD
J. Allen25013375.39
J. Davis1255504.44
RECEIVINGRECYDSAVGTD
N. Agholor97122312.611
J. Smith5165812.95
TEAMRUSHPASSTOTAL
Offense158.2294.6452.8
TEAMPFPAMARGIN
Scoring35.123.811.3