USC: Pac-12

USC Grades: Weak areas exposed by BC

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
11:09
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Tyler RouseWinslow Townson/Getty ImagesNot even Leonard Williams could slow the Boston College running attack on Saturday.


The USC Trojans entered last Saturday night as one of the Top 10 teams in the country. Although it was early in the season, it seemed as if Steve Sarkisian's first year as USC's coach was destined to reach the College Football Playoff with a schedule that had the Trojans playing just one ranked team at home before a late November date with UCLA.

Those expectations, however, changed quickly after USC's 37-31 loss to unranked Boston College. Now we are left to wonder how good the Trojans really are this season. Sure, USC beat Fresno State, 52-13, to start the season but the Bulldogs are now 0-3 and have given up over 50 points in each one of their games. USC was thrilled to beat Stanford 13-10 at “The Farm” but the Cardinal got inside USC’s 35-yard line in each one of their nine drives. If Stanford doesn’t shoot themselves in the foot in seven of those nine drives, Stanford wins that game and USC is 1-2.

USC’s deficiencies were finally on display against Boston College where they were manhandled at the line of scrimmage and dominated for much of the game in suffering their first loss of the season.

GradePassing attack

Cody Kessler's numbers were perhaps the lone bright spot in an otherwise forgettable game for USC. He was 31-for-41 for 317 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. When he was finally allowed to throw the ball down field, USC’s offense looked alive again, but by that time it was too little, too late. Running back Javorius Allen was USC’s leading receiver on the night with nine receptions for 118 yards and one touchdown.

GradeRushing attack

USC tried and tried and tried some more to establish the running game against Boston College and ended up running into a wall each time. USC finished with just 20 yards on 29 carries for a paltry 0.7 yard per rush average. It was USC’s worst rushing performance since rushing for one yard against Utah in the 2001 Las Vegas Bowl.

GradeIn the trenches

What made USC’s lack of a running game even worse was that Boston College ran at will on the Trojans. The Eagles ran for 452 yards and five touchdowns against USC. Boston College’s 452 rushing yards were the most given up by a USC team since Texas A&M gained 486 yards in the 1977 Bluebonnet Bowl. USC also gave up five sacks, each one coming on a crucial third down, and USC converted just five of 16 third downs.


GradeDefense

USC’s defense probably deserves an F for giving up over 500 yards with most of that coming on the ground but they get some credit for holding Boston College to just 54 yards passing. Chris Hawkins also intercepted a Tyler Murphy pass as USC jumped out to a 17-6 lead to start the game. USC was also able to hold Boston College to just 2-for-11 on third down conversions. That’s the extent of the positives for USC’s defense, however, as Boston College did whatever they wanted on the ground and finished the game with a back-breaking 66-yard touchdown run by Murphy in the fourth quarter when USC was mounting a late comeback.

GradeSpecial teams

Andre Heidari nailed a 52-yard field goal early in the game and Kris Albarado escaped a near blocked punt to down a kick inside the 10-yard line. Albarado had 10 punts on the night with a 37.5-yard per punt average. Nelson Agholor wasn’t able to do much with his five punt returns, totaling just 15 yards.

GradeCoaching

Sarkisian’s offense looked like a revelation in the season opener when it ran a school-reocrd 105 plays. It was understandably scaled back for the second game against Stanford but his inability to open up the passing attack when the rushing game was shut down against Boston College was puzzling. It wasn’t until USC was down 30-17 with less than seven minutes left that Sarkisian finally opened up the offense. USC’s offense, however, is probably the least of its worries after giving up over 400 yards on the ground despite having the best defensive lineman in the country in Leonard Williams. As bad as USC was against Boston College, the Trojans should be able to win when they put up 30 points and hold their opponents to just 54 yards passing.

Oregon remains at No. 2; USC drops

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
3:01
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Oregon strengthened its hold on the No. 2 spot in the fourth AP poll of the season, but the Pac-12 is without two top-10 teams for the first time this season.

The Ducks picked up an additional first-place vote and are six points closer to top-ranked Florida State (42 behind) compared to last week.

USC took the biggest fall, dropping eight spots to No. 17 following its 37-31 loss to Boston College and is now one spot behind Stanford, which the Trojans beat on the road last week.

UCLA remains at No. 12 after squeaking out a win against reeling Texas, but was jumped by both Ole Miss and Michigan State. Through three games, UCLA remains undefeated, but none of its wins have done much to impress voters.

Next up for the Bruins is No. 15 Arizona State in Tempe on Sept. 25. The Sun Devils jumped Stanford this week -- largely because USC's loss to Boston College devalued the Cardinal -- after opening conference play with a 38-24 win against Colorado.

Washington (14) and Arizona (3) also received votes.

Unlikely Boston College stuns No. 9 USC

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
2:20
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video

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. -- This is not the way the No. 9 team in the nation is supposed to lose. This is not the way the Glamour Guys from USC go down. This is not the team that should be beating the Trojans, with their Hollywood profile and grand tradition.

The USC locker room is filled with four- and five-star recruits. And then there’s the Boston College locker room, a sweatier, and -- early Sunday morning -- happier version of the Island of Misfit Toys.

Quarterback Tyler Murphy is a fifth-year refugee from Florida. Two of the running backs, Myles Willis and Tyler Rouse, haven’t made it to 5-foot-10 yet, and both of them tower over 5-6 freshman Sherman Alston, whose 54-yard misdirection touchdown run late in the first half gave the Eagles a 20-17 lead they never lost.

[+] EnlargeTyler Murphy
Winslow Townson/Getty ImagesThough he finished with just 54 yards passing, Boston College signal-caller Tyler Murphy had 191 rushing yards and a touchdown vs. USC.
“We’re probably not your ideal top college football program as far as looks,” said Murphy, who started six games at Florida before transferring after last season. “Whatever it takes to win. Whether the guys are 5-2 or 7-8, we’ll find a place for them and we’ll find what they excel at and we’ll get them the ball.”

Murphy rushed for 191 yards, including a 66-yard fourth-quarter touchdown, on only 13 carries, to lead the Eagles over the Trojans, 37-31. Boston College hadn’t beaten a ranked team in six seasons or a top-10 team in a decade.

Boston College outgained USC on the ground 452 yards to 20. The Trojans haven't given up that much on the ground since 1977. The running game worked because the Eagles' offensive line, one of only two in the nation that starts five graduate students, won the battle on the line of scrimmage. And the running game worked because Murphy’s sleight of hand on the zone-read kept a fast Trojans defense moving in the wrong direction.

If you are looking for a mental picture of how Boston College won the game after spotting USC a 17-6 lead, think of a Trojans defender, sprawled on the ground, or turning the wrong way, lurching in vain toward an Eagles ball carrier. Suffice it to say it will be a long video session this week for USC cornerback Chris Hawkins. And he’s not the only one.

The Eagles' defense sacked Cody Kessler five times and refused to afford him time to throw downfield. Kessler threw for 317 yards, but completed only one pass longer than 20 yards. Linebacker Josh Keyes made five-and-a-half of his eight tackles behind the line.

USC hoped it could come east, get ahead early and rest its starters. When you travel with 54 available scholarship players -- and that includes linebacker Hayes Pullard, who sat out the first half after a targeting penalty last week -- you look to ease the load when you can. When the Trojans flipped field position on the Eagles early in the game and started two possessions inside the BC 40-yard line, they grabbed a 10-0 lead in the first quarter.

On the other side of the ball, The Eagles went three-and-out on their first three possessions and gained a net total of minus-2 yards. By the time they moved their total yardage into the plus column, the Eagles trailed 10-0.

“We grouped up together on the sideline and we said, ‘That ends now. We’ve got to start playing up to our potential,’ I think we turned the tide then,” center Andy Gallik said.

[+] EnlargeBoston College Eagles fans
Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY SportsDespite an early 17-6 deficit, Boston College stormed back to upset USC. The Eagles' fans stormed the field after the win.
On the Eagles' next snap, a first-and-10 at the BC 22, Willis got a big hole in the left side of the line, and then used great downfield blocks to race 52 yards to the USC 26. The Eagles scored six plays later.

“I thought we played our best football early in the game,” USC coach Steve Sarkisian said. “Our execution was good. But for whatever reason, we lost it. And that’s the part I have to figure out. They hit the one long run and things started to go the other direction on us.”

All upsets are emotional for the winners, but this one left a warm feeling throughout Alumni Stadium. Before the game, the parents of Welles Crowther, a Boston College lacrosse player who died a hero in the South Tower of the World Trade Center in the Sept. 11 attacks, were introduced.

After the game, Eagle coach Steve Addazio gave them a game ball.

“We talked a lot about Welles Crowther,” Addazio said after the game. “We talked a lot about who he was and what it takes to be a BC man. Our guys really dug deep on this.”

Pete Frates, the former Boston College baseball player whose fight against ALS prompted the Ice Bucket Challenge that raised more than $100 million to fight the disease, attended the game and was shown on the video boards at halftime, to the delight of the crowd of 41,632.

Football teams don’t live on emotion. They live on execution, and if that’s fueled by emotion, all the better. This Boston College team is a motley crew. But on Saturday night, the Eagles didn’t play that way. They looked like five-star recruits, every one of them. Ask the five-star guys they beat.

USC Grades: Streaks snapped at Stanford

September, 9, 2014
Sep 9
9:30
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Steve SarkisianKirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsUSC's win at Stanford vaulted the Trojans into the top 10 and possibly the national title picture.
The Trojans had not won a game at Stanford since 2008. The Cardinal had not lost at home in 17 straight games, the longest streak among FBS teams. The Trojans, losers of four out of their past five against Stanford, hadn’t defeated the Cardinal in back-to-back seasons since 2006.

All of those streaks were snapped Saturday when the Trojans beat the Cardinal 13-10 in Palo Alto, California, and catapulted themselves back into the top 10 of the polls and into the College Football Playoff conversation.

It’s early, but if USC’s season ends with them playing for a national championship four months from now, Saturday’s win at Stanford will serve as the turning point.

GradePassing attack

Cody Kessler wasn’t spectacular, but he did what he needed to against Stanford. He completed 15 of 22 passes for 135 yards. He didn't throw for a touchdown, but he didn’t turn the ball over, either. Nelson Agholor caught a career-high nine passes and was targeted a career-high 13 times. Kessler passed on 10 of the Trojans' 14 third downs. USC converted on seven of those. Kessler is now 2-0 against Stanford as a starting quarterback, which is the only number he and the team really care about.

GradeRushing attack

Javorius Allen ran for a career-high 154 yards on 23 carries against Stanford. It was the most rushing yards the Cardinal have allowed to a player in a game since the 2012 season and second most against a David Shaw-coached Stanford team. Allen rushed for 113 of those yards inside the tackles, which is more than any player has rushed for against Stanford since the start of last season.

GradeIn the trenches

Not only did USC’s offensive line create the holes for Allen, it also gave Kessler enough time in the pocket on third down, which hasn’t always been the case for USC quarterbacks at Stanford. USC’s defensive line came up big at the end of the game when Stanford was in position for a game-tying field goal, at the very least. First, Leonard Williams sacked quarterback Kevin Hogan to push the Cardinal back. Then J.R. Tavai ended the game with sack and fumble, which was recovered by USC linebacker Scott Felix.

GradeDefense

The Trojans have had to depend on a bend-but-don't-break strategy on defense since they've been on sanctions. They usually end up breaking in the end. Against Stanford, they bent and bent and bent but never broke. Stanford drove inside USC's 35-yard line on all nine of its drives but scored only 10 points. After breaking USC's 35-yard line, Stanford averaged just 3 yards per play. Much of the blame is going to Shaw, Hogan and the Stanford offense, but some of the credit must go to USC's defense, especially after ending the game with back-to-back sacks and a fumble for the win.

GradeSpecial teams

For the second year in a row, Andre Heidari made a long, game-winning field goal to beat Stanford. On Saturday, Heidari hit the 52-yard winner, which tied the longest field goal of his career. Late in the third quarter, Heidari drilled a 25-yard field goal to tie the score. He also had four kickoffs averaging over 60 yards, including a touchback after his final FG. USC deflected Stanford kicker Jordan Williamson's first field goal and got good pressure on him later when he missed a 26-yard attempt.

GradeCoaching

Normally, beating Stanford on the road and getting USC back into the top 10 two weeks into the season should be good enough for an A. But Steve Sarkisian takes a hit for not only getting an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty but also summoning USC athletic director Pat Haden down onto the field to have him take over arguing his case with officials. The bizarre incident resulted in Sarkisian and Haden being reprimanded by the Pac-12 and Haden receiving a $25,000 fine from the conference and a self-imposed two-game ban from the sidelines. It was an unfortunate incident that took the attention away from a big win for USC.

Top nonconference games of past 10 years

September, 3, 2014
Sep 3
1:00
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With No. 7 Michigan State and No. 3 Oregon looming, the Pac-12 blog got to thinking about other games of similar magnitude over the past decade.

After taking a look back, there's only a few others that -- when they were played -- match the pedigree of Saturday's game. Dating back to the 2004 season, there have been just four other games involving a pair of teams ranked in the AP top-10.

In that same time period, there was a total of 21 games between top-25 teams. USC was involved in the most (7), followed by Oregon (3), Stanford (3), Cal (2), Oregon State (2) one each for Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA and Washington.

In chronological order, here are 10 of the most anticipated nonconference games of the past 10 years. The criteria for inclusion was simple: both teams had to be ranked and there could only be one matchup between the same teams. The second part eliminated No. 9 Cal vs. No. 23 Tennessee in 2006, No. 3 USC vs. No. 8 Ohio State in 2009 and Stanford vs. Notre Dame in 2011 and 2013 -- all of which would have been great choices, but would also have made for a less interesting look back.

Half the winners from these games finished the regular season undefeated.

(*-denotes ESPN's "College GameDay" was at the game)

2005 -- No. 5 LSU 35, No. 15 Arizona State 31: In Les Miles' first game as the coach at LSU, future No. 1 pick JaMarcus Russell helped the Tigers erase a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to win. LSU finished the year No. 6, while ASU fell out of the ranking for good in Week 6 after losing back-to-back games to No. 1 USC and No. 25 Oregon.

2005 -- No. 1 USC 34, No. 9 Notre Dame 31*: Remembered simply as the "Bush Push" game, USC quarterback Matt Leinart scored a game-winning touchdown in the final seconds thanks to a memorable shove from running back Reggie Bush. USC went undefeated the rest of the way until losing to Texas in the Rose Bowl; Notre Dame finished ranked No. 9.

2006 -- Oregon 34, No. 11 Oklahoma 33: Oregon QB Dennis Dixon scored a touchdown with 1:12 left, the Ducks recovered a controversial onside kick moments later and scored another quick touchdown take the lead. The game wasn't settled until Oregon blocked a 44-yard field-goal attempt as time expired. Oregon eventually fell from the rankings in Week 11 and Oklahoma finished the year ranked No. 11.

2007 -- No. 12 Cal 45, No. 15 Tennessee 31: A year after losing to the Vols in Knoxville, WR DeSean Jackson and RB Justin Forsett led Cal to a big win against Arian Foster and Tennessee in the season opener for both teams. Cal climbed as high as No. 2 in the rankings before finishing unranked and Tennessee finished No. 12.

2007 -- No. 1 USC 49, No. 14 Nebraska 31*: USC led 42-10 at one point and rushed for 313 yards as a team. Coincidentally, Nebraska Sam Keller was ASU's QB in the 2005 game against LSU. USC finished No. 3; Nebraska lost six of its final seven to finish 5-7.

2008 -- No. 1 USC 35, No. 5 Ohio State 3*: QB Mark Sanchez and the Trojans handed Ohio State its third-worst loss in 20 years. USC finished No. 3; Ohio State finished No. 6.

2009 -- No. 14 Boise State 19, No. 16 Oregon 8: Chip Kelly's first game as the Oregon head coach was remembered mostly for LeGarrette Blount's postgame punch, but it also doubled as the first game in an undefeated season for Chris Petersen's Broncos. Both teams actually improved their rankings by the season's end: Oregon finished No. 13 and Boise State No. 4.

2010 -- No. 6 TCU 30, No. 24 Oregon State 21: A year after narrowly missing out on a berth in the Rose Bowl, Oregon State opened the year with a tough loss to Andy Dalton and the Horned Frogs in the second Cowboys Classic. TCU finished undefeated and ranked No. 3; Oregon State went 5-7.

2011 -- No. 4 LSU 40, No. 3 Oregon 27*: One of just two meetings between top-5 teams on this list, Oregon's mistakes proved costly against LSU in the third Cowboys Classic. LSU went on to play for the national title and finished ranked No. 2 and Oregon won the Pac-12 and finished No. 4.

2012 -- No. 7 Notre Dame 20, No. 17 Stanford 13*: As previously noted, any of the Stanford-Notre Dame games over the past three years would have qualified, but this one was played with the most on the line. If Stanford had won, the Cardinal would have finished the year a solid candidate to play for the national title. Instead, Notre Dame finished undefeated before losing that title game to Alabama. Stanford went on to win the Pac-12 and finished ranked No. 7.

Cravens: Shaw, Brown on my mind

August, 30, 2014
Aug 30
11:02
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LOS ANGELES -- While most USC players tried to change the subject when the names of Josh Shaw and Anthony Brown were brought up after Saturday's 52-13 victory over Fresno State, starting safety Su'a Cravens admitted he was thinking of both seniors and how their final seasons could have been different if they had handled their situations another way.

“I know [Brown] probably regrets saying what he said,” Cravens said of the running back who quit the team Aug. 21 and later called coach Steve Sarkisian "racist" in social-media posts since deleted. “It’s unfortunate. I know Sark personally, and Sark is a great coach, and there’s no way shape or form it's true what [Brown] said. I think he was just upset with the situation. If he could rethink that whole thing, he wouldn’t have said it. It’s the frustration of being in your senior year and really not playing. A.B. is my friend, and it’s unfortunate what he said.”

“[Shaw] apologized publicly to the coaching staff and to the entire football team and administration," Cravens added. "We all know what kind of guy Josh is, and he doesn't need to apologize to us for us to know that he’s sorry for what he did.”

What exactly happened with Shaw continues to be a mystery to most outside of the team -- the cornerback has been suspended after he admitted to lying about how he suffered a pair of ankle sprains -- and as much as Cravens would like to see the one-time defensive captain return, he understands that’s out of his hands.

“We got to see what happens legally, and if Coach Sark lets him back onto the team,” Cravens said. “We don’t know what happened. I’m sure if some guys did know what happened, they wouldn’t say because they might have to be witnesses in a courtroom. I don’t know. As far as I see it, he fabricated his story, and that’s all I know.”

Top Pac-12 players: Nos. 5-1

August, 1, 2014
Aug 1
9:00
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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.

Poll: Which teams will meet in December?

July, 31, 2014
Jul 31
12:00
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Last week at Pac-12 media days, the media poll was announced and the resounding response was that the media believes the Ducks will win this year’s Pac-12 championship game.

When it came to the breakdown of where teams would finish, again it was a pretty clear agreement: most media had Oregon and Stanford as No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in the North Division and UCLA and USC as their counterparts in the South Division.

SportsNation

Which will be the matchup in the 2014 Pac-12 Championship game?

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    40%
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    23%
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    10%
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    6%
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    21%

Discuss (Total votes: 10,598)

We didn’t need a media poll to start thinking about the Pac-12 championship game, but this just gave us even more reason to explore it. Yes, these four teams seem to be a step ahead in personnel and game plan for the season, and have some favorable matchups here and there. But, it’s college football and craziness happens, so there is certainly a chance that a team not in this group jumps into the lead in the North or South and ends up playing in Levi’s Stadium at the end of the season.

So, we wanted to ask you: which matchup do you think you will be watching when it all comes down to it on Dec. 5?

Will it be:

Oregon-UCLA: This would be a rematch of an Oct. 11 game that would match up (what could be) an explosive and dynamic Oregon run game against some of the best linebackers in the country -- Myles Jack, Eric Kendrick, we’re looking at you, can you handle Marcus Mariota, Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner? It would be great to be able to see Mariota and Brett Hundley on the same field twice this season as they battle it out for NFL draft status, top quarterback in the Pac-12/nation, etc. etc.

Oregon-USC: These teams don’t play during the regular season, and if you can say that you don’t want to see USC defensive end Leonard Williams get after Mariota and the Oregon offensive line, then you are probably the kind of person who doesn’t like puppies, apple pie or happiness. This could be one of the best battles-within-a-battle to watch all season, regardless of conference. No doubt football fans all over the country would tune in to see what could be the best defensive lineman and the best quarterback battle for 60 minutes.

Stanford-UCLA: Could we see two teams play in back-to-back weekends? If Stanford wins the North and UCLA wins the South, that would be the case. They would close out the regular season on Friday, Nov. 28 in Los Angeles and then meet again a bit further north at Levi’s Stadium the following weekend. If you are not completely trusting of Oregon and its ability to close out a season, maybe this is the pick to make. Stanford has been the underdog before and has done pretty well.

Stanford-USC: This would be a great rematch. These teams play in Week 2, but can you imagine how different they would be by the championship game? The growth that happens between Sept. 6 and Dec. 5 would just be ridiculous, and it would be fun to compare these two games side-by-side and say, “Yes, this is where this team has grown the most over a season.” A Steve Sarkisian-David Shaw dual-duel is completely conceivable and would be fun to watch.

Other: Those are the front-runners in the conference, but could we see some surprises? Trap games exist for all four of those teams, and with coachs like Chris Petersen or Todd Graham, you can't completely count out their teams. Could Washington sneak into a matchup with UCLA or USC or someone else? Could Arizona State appear in the championship game for the second season in a row? It’s all possible. But is it probable? You decide.

Top Pac-12 players: Nos. 10-6

July, 31, 2014
Jul 31
9:00
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Our list of the Top 25 players in the Pac-12 continues.

10. Oregon C Hroniss Grasu

Why he's ranked here: Grasu is one of three players in the conference -- all from Oregon -- to have been named first-team All-Pac-12 the last two seasons. As a junior in 2013, he was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy, given to the nation's best center, and the undoubted leader of the Ducks' offensive line that blocked for the conference's No. 1 rushing attack. Grasu enters his final year in Eugene having started all 40 games of his career with a chance to leave his mark as one of the Ducks' all-time greats. And as good as Grasu and the line were a year ago, they should be better this year with all five starters back and some talented players behind them who could push for playing time in training camp.

9. Stanford WR Ty Montgomery

2013 stats: Caught 61 passes for 958 yards and 10 touchdowns, and ranked second nationally averaging 30.3 yards per kickoff return.

Why he's ranked here: When Montgomery is on the field for Stanford, he's the team's best player. Whether that's as a receiver or kick returner, he's the one guy who has consistently proved he can change a game on any given snap. There's minimal concern he won't be 100 percent for the start of the season due to an arm injury, but Montgomery said Wednesday he's not limited when it comes to running, catching or lifting weights. At 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, with just 4 percent body fat, Montgomery certainly didn't look injured. "When he comes back, he might be the most explosive player in college football, and he's going to touch the ball in every single way possible," Stanford coach David Shaw said at Pac-12 media days. It remains to be seen whether we should take Shaw literally and add punt return duties to Montgomery's other responsibilities, but there have been discussion about that as well. When comparing Montgomery as a receiver to the other two receivers listed below, there's really not much separation -- a solid case can be made to have each of them in front of the other.

8. Arizona State WR Jaelen Strong

2013 stats: Caught 75 passes for 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns in his first year with ASU.

Why he's ranked here: Perhaps no one in the conference made as strong an immediate impact as Strong did last year after arriving at ASU from Pierce College in Los Angeles. He eclipsed the 100-yard receiving mark in five of his first six games and finished fourth in the Pac-12 with 1,122 receiving yards. The three players who finished ahead of him -- Oregon State's Brandin Cooks, Colorado's Paul Richardson and Oregon's Josh Huff -- are all off to the NFL. Like Montgomery, Strong is physically imposing and at 6-4, 212 pounds makes a dangerous red zone target for quarterback Taylor Kelly. Of the 25 players the Pac-12 blog has deemed the conference's best, Kelly-Strong is the only quarterback-receiver tandem to be included together on the list (you'll see where Kelly lands Friday morning). They're the main reason ASU coach Todd Graham proclaimed at Pac-12 media days that "This will be the best offensive football team that I've ever coached." If Strong makes the kind of jump Cooks made from 2012 to 2013, it shouldn't surprise anyone.

7. USC WR Nelson Agholor

2013 stats: Caught 56 passes for 918 yards and six touchdowns and also returned kicks (17.5 avg) and punts (19.1 avg)

Why he's ranked here: On a team that featured 2012 Biletnikoff winner Marqise Lee, Agholor was simply the better receiver in 2013 and his value to the Trojans stretched further than that because of how he could impact games as a return man. What Montgomery was to Stanford on kickoff returns, Agholor was for the Trojans on punt returns. He returned two for touchdowns, and his 19.1 average was a new school record and ranked second nationally. With Lee off to the NFL, a second-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Agholor figures to see his receiving numbers improve -- even if that means more attention from opposing defenses. Agholor has developed a reputation for being an NFL-caliber route runner and is among the nation's most dangerous receivers after the catch. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Agholor as the No. 3 receiver on his Way-Too-Early Big Board (one spot behind Strong).

6. Oregon State QB Sean Mannion

2013 stats: Threw for a Pac-12 record 4,662 yards with 35 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.

Why he's ranked here: By the time the NFL draft rolls around, Mannion might just end up being the top quarterback on some teams' boards. He's that talented. With 10,436 career passing yards, Mannion already sits at No. 10 on the conference's all-time passing list and, assuming he stays healthy, should have no problem passing Matt Barkley's record of 12,327. Mannion admits he had a great relationship with former offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, who left to become the quarterbacks coach for the New York Giants, but he has already grown under the tutelage of Langsdorf's replacement, John Garrett. "It has been good to get another perspective, another coach to learn from," Mannion said at Pac-12 media days. "It was tough to see [Langsdorf] go, but I think it'll end up being beneficial." Mannion is also the first Oregon State player to be selected team captain three times. Kiper ranked him as the No. 2 senior NFL quarterback prospect in the country.

Check out the rest of the rankings here: Nos. 25-21, Nos. 20-16, Nos. 16-11

Top Pac-12 players: Nos. 15-11

July, 30, 2014
Jul 30
9:00
AM PT
Our list of the Top 25 players in the Pac-12 continues.

15. UCLA LB Eric Kendricks

2013 stats: 106 tackles, 4 tackles for a loss, 2 sacks, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble

Why he's ranked here: In his time at UCLA, Kendricks has gone from an outstanding defensive scout team member to being a crucial element to one of the best linebacking groups in the conference (and maybe the country). In his redshirt senior season, we are expecting big things. And we aren't the only ones. UCLA coach Jim Mora sees big things happening for Kendricks. At Pac-12 media days last week he spent quite a bit of time complimenting Kendricks. First, on his leadership, saying, "He's kind of a glue guy. Without even saying a lot, he's kind of that guy that everyone wants to orbit around." Second, Mora complimented Kendricks' personality, explaining that if his daughter married Kendricks, he would be perfectly OK with that. Third, he said Kendricks had great hair.

We can't guarantee all of that (though, if there's a Pac-12 award for best hair, he'd have to be a semifinalist, right?) but the first fact seems pretty valid. Kendricks' leadership is going to be huge for the Bruins this season, and when a player is given that kind of a role by his coaches, and looked up to by his teammates, a lot of times that results in very big numbers on the field. Will he record double-digit tackles in games? There is a good chance. In 2012, he averaged 10.6 per game and in 2013 (ailed by injuries) he averaged 8.8. But he's just the first of two Bruins linebackers in this grouping on our countdown. Running backs, take note ...

14. Washington LB/RB Shaq Thompson

2013 stats: 78 tackles, 4 tackles for a loss, 0.5 sacks, 1 interception

Why he's ranked here: Thompson was second on Washington last season in tackles, but he's going to take on a bigger role this season as he begins his journey as a two-way player (perhaps he can ask No. 13 a few questions about that role). At Pac-12 media days, coach Chris Petersen addressed this and said, "We don't want to water him down and make him less of a defensive player. So I think there is a fine balance there and we'll continue to work through that." What exactly that fine balance is, we'll see. But there are certainly reps to be had at running back as the Huskies attempt to replace the production of Bishop Sankey. And Thompson could be a guy who contributes there. With the ability to impact the game on both sides of the ball for Washington, Thompson -- who wasn't talked about too much even a year ago -- cracked the top 15 players in the conference in 2014.

13. UCLA LB Myles Jack

2013 stats: 75 tackles, 7 tackles for a loss, 1 sack, 2 interceptions; 38 carries, 267 rushing yards, 7 rushing touchdowns

Why he's ranked here: So, with Thompson taking on a larger role on both sides of the ball, Jack is scaling back a bit. He was the Pac-12 Freshman Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, but this season, look for him to be much more a defensive player. Jack has athleticism pouring out of him, and with more of a focus on defense, and the discipline that brings, he could be scary, scary good this season -- so good he is the second-highest ranked linebacker on this list (not bad for a sophomore).

Though Mora didn't have quite the flowery sentiments about Jack as he did Kendricks (no hair or dating his daughter comments), he did say that if anyone were to ask UCLA players who the hardest-working Bruin was, that they would all say Jack or quarterback Brett Hundley. That is what the fans should care about. With someone who has his talent and athleticism, the fact that he is still the hardest-working player on the team means something. And that is going to show on the field this season. Could he lead the Pac-12 in tackles? Maybe. Could he and his top-25 counterpart Kendricks be an absolute nightmare to face this season? We think definitely.

12. USC LB Hayes Pullard

2013 stats: 94 tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss, 1 interception

Why he's ranked here: For two of the past three seasons, Pullard has led the Trojans in tackles. Chances are that this could be Year 3 for him in that category. He is going to have serious competition for best linebacker in the conference (cough, cough, Nos. 15-13), but with 39 starts and 282 tackles under his belt, we're pretty sure Pullard is going to make the most of his senior year. At Pac-12 media days, USC coach Steve Sarkisian said he thought the strength of his team was in its front seven, and at the middle of that front seven for the Trojans this season is going to be Pullard. The 6-foot-1, 235-pound senior should crack 100 tackles this season, and we wouldn't be too surprised if at least 10 of those are for a loss.

11. Stanford OT Andrus Peat

Why he's ranked here: At Pac-12 media days last week, Stanford coach David Shaw told NFL.com that he thought Peat was second to just one offensive tackle he has ever been around -- 11-time NFL Pro Bowler John Odgen. That is pretty high praise. Peat is the highest offensive tackle and second-highest offensive lineman on our list. Assuming nothing goes insanely wrong, he will be an easy all-conference pick at the end of the season and possibly a semifinalist or finalist for the Outland Trophy. At 6-7, 316 pounds, he's going to be pretty tough to move. We're certainly looking forward to a few potential matchups with top defensive linemen (one, whose name will pop up later on in this list ...) as Peat looks to prove himself as the most feared tackle in the Pac-12. At this point in time, he has our vote. We'll see how the season shakes out.

Check out the rest of the rankings here: No. 25-21, No. 20-16

Preseason magazines on Pac-12

July, 1, 2014
Jul 1
5:30
PM PT
Preseason magazines don't always get it right, but they certainly whet our appetite for the college football season.

As for how they view the Pac-12's 2014 pecking order and national standing among the preseason Top 25s, there's been a high degree of consensus: Thus far, just about everyone has Oregon winning the North Division and UCLA winning the South Division.

Stassen.com is a great preseason reference source, both for this year and as a historical reference. It keeps track of what the preseason magazines prognosticate every year.

If you toss in Phil Steele, who concludes his countdown today, we have five major publications with their predictions: Lindy's, Athlon, The Sporting News and USA Today.

Each ranks defending national champion Florida State No. 1, other than The Sporting News, which ranks the Seminoles No. 3 and Oklahoma No. 1.

Oregon leads the Pac-12 in each poll save Phil Steele, who ranks UCLA No. 5 and Oregon No. 6. The Ducks ranking ranges from No. 2 (Sporting News) to No. 6 (Phil Steele, Athlon). UCLA is ranked as high as No. 5 (Phil Steele) and as low as 10th (USA Today).

As for the Pac-12 standings, all five publications predict Oregon wins the North and UCLA wins the South. All five have Stanford second in the North. Four of five have USC second in the South, with The Sporting News tapping Arizona State No. 2 and USC No. 3. All five have California last in the North and Colorado last in the South.

Is the Pac-12 really this predictable? You can be sure it won't be.

Pac-12 lunch links

June, 30, 2014
Jun 30
11:30
AM PT
Ancient Greece was the beginning of Western civilization. You see in Greece, they didn't have professional sports or Wheaties boxes, so the athletes competed for another reason. Anybody?

Preseason position reviews: Tight end

June, 30, 2014
Jun 30
9:00
AM PT
We're continuing 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.

Tight end, typically a strength, is a position in transition in the conference. It feels a bit like we are grading on a curve here because there's a lot more "We'll sees" than A-list returning players, in some part because a handful of teams employ a big wide receiver instead of a true tight end.

GREAT SHAPE

Oregon State: Connor Hamlett and Caleb Smith are the best returning tight end tandem in the conference. Hamlett had 40 catches for 364 yards last season and Smith added 25 for 343 yards. Further, Kellen Clute hauled in 19 passes for 159 yards. Of course, the Beavers use both a tight end and an H-back, so they need numbers at the position. Those were reduced when fifth-year senior Tyler Perry, a solid run blocker, retired due to injuries, as did Hayden Craig, and incoming freshman Jake Knight opted out of football in favor of track. California transfer Jacob Wark, a part-time starter as a Bear, should work his way into the rotation, and incoming freshman Ryan Nall also might get a look.

Oregon: The Ducks seem certain to get good production at the position with some combination of Pharaoh Brown, Johnny Mundt and Evan Baylis. Each has experience and has flashed potential, and the position should be more important now with questions at receiver due to Bralon Addison's knee injury. Brown started five games last year, Mundt had a 121-yard receiving game against Tennessee and Baylis started in the Civil War game against Oregon State.

GOOD SHAPE

USC: The Trojans lost Xavier Grimble early to the NFL draft, but Randall Telfer saw plenty of action -- though he caught only six passes last year -- and Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick has plenty of upside. Incoming freshman Bryce Dixon was a highly rated recruit.

Washington: John Mackey Award winner Austin Seferian-Jenkins is gone, and that's a big hit, but the Huskies have talent and experience returning at the position. Senior Michael Hartvigson, who has labored in Seferian-Jenkins' considerable shadow, and Josh Perkins are a good combo, while promising youngsters Darrell Daniels and David Ajamu are competing for playing time.

Utah: The Utes lost starter Jake Murphy and big WR Anthony Denham to the NFL, but they get the promising Westlee Tonga back after he missed all but four games in 2013 due to injury. Tonga has seven career receptions for 79 yards and a TD. Siale Fakailoatonga, a former walk-on, was Murphy's primary backup as a true freshman after Tonga went down, and he caught two passes for 18 yards in 2013. Harrison Handley redshirted last season after enrolling early last spring and is a candidate to compete for playing time, as is Evan Moeai.

Stanford: With Stanford's quality and depth at receiver, it will be interesting to see if tight end returns as a top offensive option, which it wasn't in 2013. The potential for the Cardinal to use multiple tight ends again in the passing and running games is certainly there. Official returning starter Charlie Hopkins is back, as are a trio of redshirts -- Greg Taboada, Eric Cotton and Austin Hooper. Stanford signed No. 1-ranked TE-Y Dalton Schultz, and he should compete for playing time immediately.

UCLA: The Bruins use a "Y" or "big" receiver instead of a traditional tight end, and Thomas Duarte is a heck of a big WR. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound true sophomore appeared in all 13 games last season and tied a school freshman record with three touchdown receptions.

WE'LL SEE

Arizona State: The Sun Devils lost the productive Chris Coyle as well as his primary backup, Darwin Rogers. De'Marieya Nelson is an athletic option with a diverse skill set -- he's more a big receiver than a tight end at 224 pounds -- while redshirt freshman Grant Martinez ended up No. 2 on the spring depth chart.

Colorado: Senior Kyle Slavin caught nine passes in 2013. Sean Irwin saw the field as a freshman and is the top backup candidate. Freshman Connor Center played baseball, not football, in high school, but his 6-7 frame at least makes him intriguing.

Arizona: Terrence Miller operated as a big receiver/tight end last year, catching 40 passes for 467 yards, but he's gone. Former QB Josh Kern was his backup. While the position hasn't been a focal point of Rich Rodriguez's offense, it's notable that he signed two touted tight end-type players in his 2014 recruiting class. While the Wildcats are exceptionally deep at WR, the youngsters could become options in the passing game.

Washington State: Nick Begg, a 6-5, 246-pound incoming freshman, is the only player listed as a tight end on the Cougars roster, and Mike Leach has not traditionally used a tight end. Wonder if Begg said he'd sign if Leach agreed to call him a tight end and Leach said, "Sure, whatever."

California: As previously noted this spring, there is no tight end position in Cal's offense, which was probably a factor in Richard Rodgers' early jump to the NFL and Wark's decision to transfer to Oregon State. Rodgers was switched from tight end to wide receiver last season upon coach Sonny Dykes' arrival.

OTHER POSITION REVIEWS

Quarterback

Running back

Wide receiver

Lunch links: Hawaii Bowl blues

June, 26, 2014
Jun 26
11:30
AM PT
Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.

Lunch links: Stanford's tough road

June, 25, 2014
Jun 25
2:30
PM PT
You're not a wartime consigliere, Tom.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

2014 TEAM LEADERS

PASSINGATTCOMPYDSTD
C. Kessler100718468
RUSHINGCARYDSAVGTD
J. Allen603185.31
J. Davis26602.31
RECEIVINGRECYDSAVGTD
N. Agholor232129.23
J. Smith1117015.50
TEAMRUSHPASSTOTAL
Offense151292443
TEAMPFPAMARGIN
Scoring322012