USC: Steve Sarkisian

USC Grades: Defense stifles Mannion

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28
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Claude PelonJohn Cordes/Icon SportswireClaude Pelon and the USC defense harrassed Sean Mannion throughout the Trojans' blowout win.

The USC Trojans had to wait two weeks to get back onto the field after their embarrassing upset loss to Boston College. They also had to wait a month to return to the Coliseum after opening up the season four weeks ago against Fresno State.

It’s still too early in the season to know exactly what kind of team USC has. Are they the team that blew out Fresno State and shocked Stanford in Palo Alto, California, to open up the season or the team that was unable to run or stop the run against Boston College? It’s hard to say, but USC’s 35-10 win over Oregon State momentarily put USC back on track and made the Boston College fiasco look like an early-season aberration.

GradePassing attack

Cody Kessler was once again efficient for the Trojans. He completed 24 of 32 passes for 261 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. In fact, Kessler has not thrown an interception this season. Kessler has thrown at least one touchdown in 15 of his past 18 games. He is already 10th on USC’s career completions list with 333. Kessler is also completing 76.5 percent of his passes from inside the pocket this season, tied for fourth best by any Power Five quarterback with a minimum of 50 attempts.

GradeRushing attack

USC ran for 200 yards against Oregon State, bouncing back from their 20-yard performance against Boston College. Javorius Allen rushed for 115 yards and a touchdown, and Justin Davis rushed for 82 yards and a touchdown. Allen also had a team-high five receptions for 23 yards, and Davis had three catches for 30 yards and a touchdown.

GradeIn the trenches

Not only did USC rush for 200 yards, but they held Oregon State to 58 yards rushing and recorded two sacks. Kessler was given enough time, more often than not, as USC controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and dictated time of possession.

GradeDefense

After a nightmarish game against Boston College, USC’s defense responded with its best performance of the season. Oregon State had only 181 total yards, the fewest by a USC opponent since San Jose State's 121 in 2009. Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion finished 15-for-32 for 123 yards, which was his lowest career output. Su'a Cravens had a first-quarter interception return for a touchdown, the first of his career, and Leon McQuay had an interception in the end zone. USC’s secondary has not allowed a touchdown pass this season; no other secondary in college football can say that after the first four weeks of the season.

GradeSpecial teams

Andre Heidari’s lone field goal attempt from 36 yards was missed, but punter Kris Albarado had his best game, averaging over 40 yards per punt, including a 57-yard kick. USC didn’t get much from the return game outside of a JuJu Smith 35-yard return. The Trojans allowed Ryan Murphy to return a first-quarter kick for a 97-yard touchdown to tie the game and gave up 170 yards on four kick returns.

GradeCoaching

Steve Sarkisian opened up the offense some after a lackluster first quarter, as USC scored 35 points, their most since the season opener against Fresno State. The offense tallied 461 yards and USC won the turnover battle 2-0 after entering the game eighth in the nation with a plus-1.7 turnover margin. USC’s defense also shored up its problems from the Boston College game and shut down the Beavers, stifling Mannion, who passed for the fewest yards in his career.

Cravens: Shaw, Brown on my mind

August, 30, 2014
Aug 30
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video

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.”

Preseason position reviews: Quarterback

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

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

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

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

You can review last year's rankings here.

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

GREAT SHAPE

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

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

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

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

GOOD SHAPE

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

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

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

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

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

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

WE'LL SEE

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

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

Four-year promise good PR move for USC

June, 23, 2014
Jun 23
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Lawyers get busted on plenty. Rightfully so. They often make a living out of complicating the simple. The best lawyers elevate disingenuousness to an art form.

Yet litigation and opportunistic lawyers are forcing the NCAA -- read: college football and men's basketball -- to grow up. In the presently pitched courtroom battle of the disingenuous known as the O'Bannon v. NCAA antitrust class action lawsuit, the NCAA's already tattered credibility is hemorrhaging, and that is good news for young athletes and folks who appreciate gestures aimed at advancing toward equity and fairness in games that have long graduated from amateur to big business.

[+] EnlargePat Haden
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsUSC AD Pat Haden says moving to four-year scholarships for football and basketball will help 'refocus on student-athlete welfare.'
Take USC, which on Monday announced that it will now offer "four-year athletic scholarships to all scholarship student-athletes in the revenue sports of football and men's and women's basketball in lieu of the current practice of offering one-year renewable scholarships."

"In taking this action, USC hopes to help lead the effort to refocus on student-athlete welfare on and off the field," athletic director Pat Haden said in a statement.

First of all, we should not get carried away with this decision, which will be effective July 1. While this is unquestionably a positive move and a benefit for revenue sports athletes at USC, it's also mostly about being proactive and getting some good publicity, not institutional sacrifice.

For one, most schools, including USC, haven't been ruthlessly Machiavellian about the one-year deals. If an athlete signs, stays out of trouble and is positive in the locker room, it's rare for a school to cut him or her loose just because he or she falls short of athletic expectations.

Sure, some coaches get creative with practices that amount to cutting players. More than a few of those "injury retirements" are mutual separations between athlete and team that allow said athlete to remain on full scholarship as a student. Sure, a coach is more likely to dismiss a 20-year-old sophomore bench warmer after a citation as a minor in possession of a beer than he is a star who gets hauled off to jail for a more serious offense. And, sure, a new coach sometimes makes a few statement cuts after his first spring practices to send a message about there being a new sheriff in town.

But, really, those one-year scholarships have been typically treated as four-year agreements.

Moreover, a four-year scholarship doesn't exempt an athlete from academic and behavioral standards. Know that star players will continue to be favored with more protection than marginal contributors, whatever the scholarship papers say.

Still, this is a savvy move by Haden and USC. The Trojans' athletic department will get a headline that celebrates it for fighting the good fight, for making the life of a student-athlete at USC just a little bit better, a little more secure. When you cut to the chase, that really has been what all this ominous talk -- in some quarters -- about unionizing and pay-for-play has been about: Giving athletes a better deal.

Haden, a former star QB at USC as well as a Rhodes Scholar who made big bucks in the private sector, has long been an advocate of giving athletes a better deal, though he also is adamant that it can be done without athletes unionizing and receiving salaries. As the Big Five conferences -- Pac-12, SEC, ACC, Big Ten and Big 12 -- take irrevocable steps toward more autonomy, expect to see more individual institutions look to set their own rules. These new rules, by the way, will be about finding a competitive edge as much as nobility of purpose.

For example, while USC doesn't recruit many athletes who worry about being cut or the length of their scholarship term, it is one more selling point Steve Sarkisian can bring into an athlete's living room. It's fair to assume that more than a few mommies and daddies will like the idea of a four-year promise over a one-year one.

USC isn't alone. Northwestern administrators quickly responded on Twitter on Monday that the Wildcats have been doing four-year deals since 2012 for all sports. Kudos.

The question now is whether four-year scholarships become a rule or, at least, a popular standard, or if you see a diversity of approaches among institutions in the Big Five conferences.

Pac-12's best nonconference games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poll: Offense most likely to rebound

June, 6, 2014
Jun 6
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This week, we've looked at the worst offenses and defenses in the Pac-12 in 2013 and speculated on which is most likely to take a step forward this fall.

We broke things down. Now it's your turn to pick which team you think is headed for better things in 2014. We polled defense Thursday, and now it's time for offense.

Here's the North Division offensive breakdown. And here's the South.

Here's the North Division graphic.


And here's the South.


There is one problem.

Our poll tool only allows for five choices, so obviously one team must be eliminated. So goodbye to Stanford, which played pretty good offense last fall and is replacing four O-line starters as well as running back Tyler Gaffney. Our expectation -- and we're forcing it down your throats! -- is the Cardinal might score a few more points per game in 2014 because of an improved passing attack, but Stanford isn't a team that obsesses about scoring more than, say, 35 because it pretty much plays to its defense in the fourth quarter.

SportsNation

Which struggling Pac-12 offense is most likely to improve in 2014?

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    14%
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    17%
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    44%
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    18%
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    7%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,612)

So who might improved the most?

California welcomes back pretty much its entire unit, and it should benefit from true sophomore QB Jared Goff and company having a full year in Sonny Dykes' system.

Washington State scored 31 points per game last season, and with a bevy of talent back to run Mike Leach's Air Raid offense, this could be the Cougars' breakthrough year. After his first season at Texas Tech, Leach's offenses averaged more than 35 points per game in eight of the next nine seasons, three times eclipsing the 40-point threshold.

While USC is adopting a new, up-tempo attack under new coach Steve Sarkisian, the Trojans have plenty of talent and could pile up points. The only question is the O-line.

Just like USC, Utah and Colorado welcome back their starting quarterbacks -- assuming that Utes QB Travis Wilson gets a clean bill of health. The Buffaloes have to figure out how to replace wide receiver Paul Richardson's production, while the Utes should greatly benefit from the return of wide receiver Kenneth Scott, who missed the 2013 season with a knee injury.

So, which team do you think shows the most improvement on offense in 2014?

Key stretch: USC

June, 4, 2014
Jun 4
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Without a doubt, every game matters.

With few exceptions, a single game doesn't define a season. A great victory can be deflated by an upset the next weekend, while a crushing defeat can be redeemed by an inspired effort later in the season.

While the Pac-12's national title contenders -- we won't name names -- need to win every game (or just about), before each season you can point to a stretch of games on the schedule that appears defining for every team. In terms of a team's goals, that stretch is most critical.

We've defined a "key stretch" as three games, though we will allow for those three games to come among four.

USC

Key stretch: Nov. 13 California, Nov. 22 at UCLA, Nov. 29 Notre Dame

Why it's critical: We could have included the visit to Washington State on Nov. 1 that precedes this troika. The Cougars, after all, upset the Trojans last season, so USC should be plenty motivated to get revenge for an embarrassing loss in front of booing fans in the Coliseum who were chanting for Lane Kiffin's head on a platter last September. And November dates in Pullman can be pretty iffy weather-wise. But really, this is about the last two games against archrivals. Cal is included because it would be pretty humiliating for new coach Steve Sarkisian to lose at home to the rebuilding Golden Bears, thereby inviting media to proclaim that the Trojans were "looking ahead."

There simply is no way for Sarkisian to have a successful first season if he loses to both UCLA and Notre Dame. And beating both would make up for just about everything bad that could happen in advance of these two games.

A third consecutive loss to UCLA, the South Division favorite, would give USC a true losing streak in the series. It would recall the dark period from 1991 to 1998 for Trojans fans, when the Bruins won eight in a row in the series.

Beating UCLA is more important than beating Notre Dame, but at least the Trojans figure to be underdogs in the Rose Bowl.

Ending Sarkisian's first year with a loss at home to the Fighting Irish wouldn't exactly go over well either, but it would be a particularly sour pill if it means the regular season concludes with consecutive painful losses. Suffice it to say, Sark's honeymoon would end quickly.

Other key stretches:

South Division offenses set to rebound?

June, 4, 2014
Jun 4
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In 2012, Washington's offense averaged 24 points per game, and QB Keith Price had a horribly disappointing season. In 2013, the Huskies averaged 37.9 points per game, and Price redeemed himself.

The Huskies' friends to the east, the Washington State Cougars, averaged 20.4 points in coach Mike Leach's first season, his Air Raid offense pretty much grounded. In 2013, the Cougars averaged 31 points per game. Much better.

Every season, offenses and defenses improve or regress. Oregon and Arizona both scored fewer points in 2013 compared to 2012.

In 2011, UCLA ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in scoring offense with a measly 23.1 points per game. Oregon State was even worse, ranking 11th with just 21.8 ppg. In 2012, both made huge improvements on offense and continued to trend up in 2013.

So who is poised to make a big jump this fall? We're breaking it down by division, starting with the South.

None of these three was truly lousy on offense last year. USC ranked 60th in the nation in scoring; Colorado, 86th. So we're talking about mediocre and worse.

The good news is all three schools welcome back experienced, promising quarterbacks -- we're going to assume Utah's Travis Wilson shortly gets a clean bill of health -- and a solid collection of returning starters, both on the line and the skill positions.

That supports the notion that all three should improve in 2014, particularly with the Pac-12 losing considerable talent on the defensive side of the ball.

So who makes the biggest jump?

We're going with USC under new coach Steve Sarkisian, who was responsible for resurrecting the Huskies' offense in 2013 with a new up-tempo format. We think that offense will be a productive fit for the Trojans.

The key for USC is the offensive line, which lacks depth and might end up starting one or two true freshmen. It must grow up quickly and stay healthy. If it does, QB Cody Kessler should make a significant leap forward -- see how he mostly played over the second half of the season after Lane Kiffin's termination -- and that could push the Trojans scoring into the high 30s.

And, considering USC also should be stout on defense, scoring in the high-30s should put the Trojans squarely in the South Division race.

Pac-12 schedule analysis: South Division

May, 29, 2014
May 29
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College football is not only about being good. It's about scheduling.

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

You can review the North Division here.

ARIZONA

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

Pac-12 misses: Oregon State, Stanford

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

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

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

ARIZONA STATE

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

Pac-12 misses: California, Oregon

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

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

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

COLORADO

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

Pac-12 misses: Stanford, Washington State


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

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

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

UCLA

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

Pac-12 misses: Oregon State, Washington State

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

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

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

USC

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

Pac-12 misses: Washington, Oregon

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

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

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

UTAH

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

Pac-12 misses: California, Washington

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

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

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

Summer Pac-12 power rankings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ACC's Ultimate Road Trip: Week 3

May, 21, 2014
May 21
2:00
PM PT
Our first weekend with nothing but Saturday games ...

Week 3 schedule

Saturday, Sept. 13
  • NC State at USF
  • Georgia Southern at Georgia Tech
  • USC at Boston College, ABC/ESPN/ESPN2, 8 p.m.
  • Kansas at Duke
  • Louisville at Virginia, ACC Network, 12:30 p.m.
  • East Carolina at Virginia Tech, ABC/ESPN/ESPN2, noon
  • Syracuse at Central Michigan
  • Pitt at Florida International
  • Arkansas State at Miami, ESPNU, 3:30 p.m.
  • Wake Forest at Utah State
Our pick: USC at Boston College

Why you should come along: It's not often we can get to see a Pac-12 program travel this far East, so we should take advantage of the opportunity when it arises. USC will be entering its third game under new coach Steve Sarkisian, and it will be coming off what promises to be a tough road trip a week earlier at conference rival Stanford. Boston College, meanwhile, will be into the second year of the Steve Addazio regime after a promising inaugural campaign in 2013 -- one whose first loss came at the hand of these Trojans, 35-7, nearly one year to the day of this rematch.

Can the Eagles pull off the big upset and give the ACC a signature nonconference win early on? Don't underestimate this bunch, as it gave Florida State all it could handle last season during the Seminoles' national title campaign. And a night-game atmosphere should only contribute to the frenzy. Any time we can pit L.A. against Boston in any sport, we should sit back and enjoy what's in front of us. So hop on a flight to Boston, enjoy all that the city has to offer (I recommend Grill 23 for dinner Friday night) and take in what promises to be the best atmosphere of the Addazio era for the Eagles.

Road trips

Video: USC coach Steve Sarkisian

May, 7, 2014
May 7
6:00
AM PT


USC coach Steve Sarkisian talks about the Pac-12 meetings and spring football.

Pac-12's lunch links

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

Lunch links: Post-spring answers

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

Defensive questions abound in Pac-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SPONSORED HEADLINES

2014 TEAM LEADERS

PASSINGATTCOMPYDSTD
C. Kessler452315382639
RUSHINGCARYDSAVGTD
J. Allen27614895.411
J. Davis1295954.64
RECEIVINGRECYDSAVGTD
N. Agholor104131312.612
J. Smith5472413.45
TEAMRUSHPASSTOTAL
Offense158.2294.6452.8
TEAMPFPAMARGIN
Scoring35.123.811.3