COLUMBUS, Ohio -- If all Urban Meyer wanted was something to feel good about and reassure him progress on defense was being made, the Ohio State coach has plenty of numbers he can pull to set his mind at ease.

The Buckeyes just pitched a shutout before their bye week. They’ve already intercepted five passes. Only two teams in the nation are allowing fewer yards per game through the air.

Those things may be encouraging, and Meyer certainly isn’t complaining considering Ohio State’s horrendous pass coverage a year ago effectively cost them a Big Ten title and a shot at a national championship. But those statistics provide something of a false positive, because the reworked secondary of the No. 22 Buckeyes hasn't really been tested yet.

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AP Photo/Jay LaPrete"This is the test," Urban Meyer said of Cincinnati. "This is the one that we're all shooting for."
But Cincinnati figures to give them that test on Saturday night at Ohio Stadium.

“Here we go,” Meyer said. “This is the test. This is the one that we’re all shooting for.

“They’re really good at throwing the ball, and it will be a challenge for us. But I really can't make an evaluation yet after the first three games.”

The signs appear to be pointing in the right direction under new co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash, who was brought in to lead the overhaul of a coverage unit that finished No. 110 in the nation last season against the pass.

Ohio State was routinely torched down the stretch a year ago, barely surviving a shootout against Michigan before falling to both Michigan State in the Big Ten title game and Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl thanks largely to breakdowns in the secondary. Meyer didn’t hesitate in the aftermath of the losses that snapped a 24-game winning streak to express his frustration with a defense that wasn’t playing as aggressively as he wanted, and after Everett Withers left following the season to take over at James Madison, it was up to Ash to dial up the intensity and deliver what his new boss wanted in the secondary.

So far, he appears to be delivering that with a system that relies on simpler schemes, man coverage and players with fearless mentalities who don’t back down from the challenge of intense competition on every snap.

“We did make improvement, but again, we’ve got a long way to go in a lot of areas,” Ash said. “It’s hard to answer [how much improvement there is], because I don’t really know. I was hoping that we would be good, but I was hoping that we would be undefeated at this point and we’re not.

“Where are we at right now? We won [against Kent State], we made improvement and that’s all we can ask for.”

Kent State is a far cry offensively from Cincinnati, and the Buckeyes haven’t pretended otherwise since pitching a shutout ahead of their off date and turning the focus to one of the nation’s most dangerous quarterbacks and a talented receiving corps.

Ohio State had already snuck a peek at Gunner Kiel and the explosive Bearcats before taking on Kent State, watching the redshirt sophomore’s debut in a Friday-night game in which he carved up Toledo for six touchdowns. He was impressive again in another win last weekend against Miami (Ohio), and his hot start and the strength of the Cincinnati offense is clearly not a secret to the Buckeyes.

But with just three weeks of somewhat worthless data on hand, Ohio State is actually welcoming a measuring stick for the revamped secondary. That way Meyer might finally have something worth evaluating to put his mind at ease -- or maybe some evidence that last year’s problems haven’t yet been solved.

“We’ve got some things to work out, but we’re getting there, real close,” safety Tyvis Powell said. “I’m just excited about playing the game, and we’re ready to just display to the world that the pass defense has improved.”
Pitt running back James Conner has a little bit of Aaron Donald in him. The traits they share do not seem coincidental when you consider the attributes that turn good players into great ones.

They are both relentless, aggressive, physical, constantly churning and mostly impossible to stop -- stat-producing machines who demand constant attention.

Is it any wonder they have become poster children for the Panthers' program over the past two seasons? Not in blue-collar Pittsburgh, a town that prides itself on its hard-working, no-nonsense tough guys. Conner and Donald fit the mold more than most.

Perhaps these qualities drove Pitt assistants to recruit them both hard. Nobody else really did, a puzzling fact given how they have developed. Donald had four offers out of nearby Penn Hills High, but only two from Power 5 programs (Rutgers and Pitt). Last season, he won every major defensive player of the year award and became a first-round draft pick.

Conner garnered even less interest on the recruiting trail out of McDowell High in Erie, Pennsylvania. Toledo, Bowling Green and Eastern Michigan were the only FBS programs to show significant interest in him until Pitt came along.

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AP Photo/Gene PuskarJames Conner leads the nation in rushing through four weeks.
Right now, Conner leads the nation in rushing with 699 yards -- the most through four games in Pitt history.

"He's blessed with great size, a great competitiveness, power and strength, and he’s really started to develop and understand the position more," Pitt offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. "I'm not sure why things were a little slow early in his recruitment, but as he went through that senior year, a lot of people tried to get back in. He was adamant about wanting to be at Pitt. It’s worked out well."

The Panthers clued in late on Conner, but give them credit for tuning in when everybody else tuned out. Truth be told, he would probably be playing somewhere else if it were not for the relationship between Rudolph and Conner's high school coach, Mark Soboleski.

The two got to know each other well when Rudolph recruited McDowell quarterback A.J. Fenton to Wisconsin. After Rudolph arrived at Pitt in early 2012, Soboleski started pitching Conner, a 6-foot-3, 230-pound rising senior with the physical skill set to play both running back and defensive end.

To this day, Soboleski is not sure why Conner was virtually ignored.

"I was beating my head against the wall. I couldn't understand it. I don't know what it was," Soboleski said. "If a kid doesn't have a lot of film his junior year, sometimes those guys will wait for that senior film. James' film was really limited. He wasn't rushing for 1,500 yards or 2,000 yards as a junior, so people could say maybe we should look at this kid."

Conner was stuck behind running back Greg Garmon, who went on to Iowa. In an effort to get on the field, he voluntarily asked to play defensive end his junior year. Conner had never taken a snap on defense but ended up with 12 sacks, setting the school's single-season record.

Soboleski called Rudolph in the spring with a bold prediction.

"I said, 'Joe, you know me well enough. I'm telling you, put this kid in your program -- he's going to be the centerpiece of your freshman class,’" Soboleski recalled.

Rudolph listened.

"I trusted him," Rudolph said. "He’s a really good coach and a really good person, and he knew the type of person we’d be looking for. Those things are important. And he was right."

Rudolph invited Conner to attend a Pitt summer camp. Playing defensive end and linebacker, Conner did not lose any one-on-one reps. He was offered a scholarship on the spot.

Conner wanted his mom and four brothers to see the campus before he made his decision. In August, he committed.

"I was just one of those guys who was under the radar," Conner said. "I tried to work really hard and I thought I had pretty good numbers in high school, but I knew whatever school gave me an opportunity, I’d give my all to them."

Conner returned to running back his senior season and ran for 1,680 yards and 21 touchdowns, averaging 10.8 yards per carry. Though Pitt recruited him to play defense, the coaches could not ignore his productivity at running back.

"We were still recruiting backs at the time, but some of the guys we were on fell through or went other places," Rudolph said. "Then there were some guys we went back to look at. I sat down with other coaches here and came to same conclusion: There wasn’t anyone that we watched that was better than [Conner] at tailback."

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Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsLike Conner, Aaron Donald came out of nowhere to become Pitt's star last season.
Conner got a chance to play immediately as a true freshman in 2013 but battled injury and inconsistency. He knew with more time, he’d get there, especially with help around him.

Throughout his freshman season, Donald served as an inspiration. "I Googled his name and I looked on his Rivals profile, and I think he only had two offers, and it was like, 'Wow, all those trophies he accepted,' and he said the same thing every time: ‘Hard work pays off,’" Conner said of Donald.

Conner came on strong in the bowl game against Bowling Green, rushing for 229 yards while also playing defensive end. Donald took notice, screaming at his coaches, "He's carrying the ball for us and winning us the game. Get him off the field [on defense], I'll take care of this!"

Donald ended up making the game-winning sack.

Conner, meanwhile, tried to mimic the hard work and film study he saw Donald put in during the offseason. He has mastered the playbook, is in better condition and running with a better pad level. The offensive line has improved, too. All are big reasons Conner has gotten off to such a fast start.

If he continues his current pace, Conner would break Tony Dorsett's school record for fewest games needed to reach 1,000 yards. Dorsett needed seven games in 1976, the year he won the Heisman Trophy and led Pitt to a national championship. Conner is on pace to reach 1,000 yards in six games.

Dorsett and Conner are vastly different runners. While Dorsett relied on his speed and shiftiness, the 250-pound Conner relies on his power, reminiscent of the way Andre Williams bowled over defenders en route to a 2,000-yard season for Boston College a year ago.

While Conner still practices at defensive end, Pitt has not used him both ways in a game this season. There has been no reason to, not when he is running over people on offense.

"With me being a bigger guy, some DBs don’t really want to tackle, you put your pads down and make it happen," Conner said. "I’m blessed with the size and speed, so I take advantage of it. Running back is fun and I’ve been doing pretty good at it, so we just want to keep it rolling."

If he keeps rolling the way Donald did, Conner could end up with a full trophy case, too.
videoHistory might look back on the 2011 season and call it The Great Pac Purge. In a matter of weeks, a third of the league's coaches were out of a job.

Mike Stoops didn't even make it through Arizona's season. Rick Neuheisel didn't coach UCLA's bowl game. Dennis Erickson was fired prior to the Las Vegas Bowl, but coached the Sun Devils in a loss to Boise State. And Paul Wulff was dismissed after winning just nine games at Washington State in four years.

Then came the hires. Two big names and two “huhs?”

Rich Rodriguez and Mike Leach, cast outs from their previous jobs at Michigan and Texas Tech, respectively, were considered home run hires for Arizona and Washington State. They were offensive innovators whose unique schemes would mesh perfectly with the offensive reputation of the conference.

Todd Graham at Arizona State and Jim Mora at UCLA were met with more of a hesitant golf clap than the raucous applause of the other two. Alright, let's be honest. The Graham hire drew groans and the Mora hire was perceived as borderline baffling. One was a program hopper and the other, with almost zero college coaching experience, was supposed to recruit Los Angeles? Against USC?

But as Winston Churchill said, history is written by the victors. And from the ashes of those firings came an influx of coaching talent that upped the ante for the rest of the league. And all four programs are in better shape than they were following the 2011 season. Of course, some are in better shape than others.

Per ESPN Stats and Information, there are 21 active FBS coaches who started at their school prior to the start of the 2012 season. Six of those coaches have at least 20 wins so far. Three of them are from the Pac-12 -- Mora, Graham and Rodriguez.



Two of those coaches will square off this week in a game that has been the tipping point in the South Division race the last two seasons. Arizona State hosts UCLA Thursday night in a blossoming rivalry.

Mora and the Bruins got the better of the Sun Devils two years ago in Tempe when Brett Hundley orchestrated a game-winning field goal drive. Last year ASU jumped out to big lead at the half and then held off a late charge to lock up the South.

You could make the argument that South was wide open after 2011 with USC still feeling the impact of sanctions, Utah still adjusting to life in the Pac-12 and Colorado trying to climb out of the basement. The timing was perfect for one or two of the new coaches to establish their foothold.

In the North, Leach hasn't enjoyed as much success as the other three. But his 10 wins already surpasses the nine that Wulff had during his four-year stretch. And the Cougars went to a bowl game last season -- something they hadn't done in a decade. You need only watch the scare WSU put into No. 2 Oregon Saturday night to see what type of a team the Cougars can be under Leach.

While the 2012 coaching class infused an already good coaching corps, it's worth noting that all four had quarterbacks already recruited or ready to go. In an age where three years is the new standard by which coaches are measured, that's a colossal advantage. But that's not to say this group can't recruit, having brought in talent like Myles Jack, Jaelen Strong, Vince Mayle and Anu Solomon.

However, they aren't without criticism -- particularly when it comes to signature wins. Leach is just 1-7 against AP Top 25 teams, with WSU's landmark victory being a 10-7 win at USC last year (though most will say the 2012 Apple Cup qualifies as landmark). Rodriguez is 3-7 against Top 25 competition, though last year's Oregon beat down stands out as signature. Graham is 4-5, but more importantly, 2-0 in the Territorial Cup. Mora has the best record at 5-5 and has beaten USC twice, though he's 0-3 against Stanford and 0-1 against Oregon.

None of the four are going anywhere soon unless it's by choice. They all have spearheaded programs for new or upgraded facilities (some of which are already in place) and each coach is already on his second contract.

That Washington State fans are groaning over the slow start, wanting everything to be Leachy-keen, shows that his presence has elevated the expectation level. Graham and Mora already have a South title and Rodriguez produces some of the most exciting offensive football in the country. See the Mary, Hill.

The 2012 class of coaches raised the national perception of the league, and also the stakes. The Pac-12 is as deep as it's ever been, the roster of coaches from top to bottom is at its peak and, as Oregon learned, there are no easy outs. Their presences makes their teams, and every team in the league, that much better.
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If you tilt your head ever so slightly toward the city of Birmingham, Alabama, you might be able to hear the light, yet almost sinister, cackle of Mike Slive, his fingertips rippling toward one another as the word "excellent" slithers through his teeth.

What has the SEC commissioner so happy? Well, just take a look at the most recent top 25 and all the chaos erupting around him in college football. The SEC leads all conferences with eight representatives in the top 25. Four of those teams are ranked inside the top 10: Alabama (three), Auburn (five), Texas A&M (six) and Ole Miss (10).

So can the SEC realistically get two teams into the College Football Playoff?

For now, that answer has to be yes. While the rest of the Power 5 conferences -- ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 -- have lost steam or suffered losses to start the year, the SEC is sitting very pretty in the national rankings. It also helps that five of the SEC's eight ranked teams are unbeaten.

That's not going to last, as all five of those teams, which are in the SEC Western Division, will face each other in a bloody round-robin in the coming weeks.

Hello, strength of schedule!

Oh, what's that? The SEC faced soft nonconference opponents to start the season? Well, not so fast, my SEC-hating friend. The league has a 5-2 record against nonconference Power 5 opponents and is 3-1 vs. the top 25.

  • Alabama beat West Virginia, which held tight with No. 4 Oklahoma on Saturday.
  • LSU roared back from a 24-7 deficit to beat Wisconsin.
  • Auburn went on the road to Kansas State and won with its passing game ... and maybe some knowledge of the Wildcats' signals.
  • Georgia thumped a Clemson team that took No. 1 Florida State -- sans Jameis Winston -- to overtime, thanks to Clemsoning to the max!*
  • Arkansas is still running over and through Texas Tech after a 49-28 drubbing of the Red Raiders in Lubbock, Texas.
*Only true home win.

To put that in comparison with, oh, let's just say the Big Ten, the SEC is light years ahead. Through the first three weeks, the Big Ten went 23-13, including 1-10 against the Power 5 and 0-8 against the FPI Top 50.

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Soobum Im/USA TODAY SportsMyles Garrett (15) and the Aggies are just one of four SEC West teams in the AP Top 10.
The FPI (Football Power Index) measures team strength that is meant to be the best predictor of a team's performance going forward for the rest of the season. Its top four teams are in the SEC: Alabama, Texas A&M, Auburn and Georgia.

With the exception of the Big 12, the other Power 5 conferences really haven't done themselves any favors. Florida State has survived two games it could have easily lost, while suspected darling Virginia Tech went from beating Ohio State in Week 2 to promptly losing to ECU and Georgia Tech. USC upset Stanford on the road then lost 37-31 to -- wait for it -- Boston College.

The SEC has received plenty of help from the other conferences, and I think it's very safe to assume the SEC champion is getting into the playoff, regardless, but here are some scenarios that could put two SEC teams in the playoff:

The wild, wild West
Before we go on, check out these notes provided by ESPN Stats & Information about the SEC West:

  • The SEC West is 22-0 outside the West, winning by an average of 34 points.
  • All seven West teams rank in the top 20 of the FPI, which is more teams than the Big 12, Big Ten and ACC combined.
  • Six West teams are ranked in the top 20 of the AP Poll. Arkansas isn't, but has won its last three games by 41.7 points per game.

Strength of schedule isn't going to be a problem for the West champ. For as tough as the West is, don't rule out an undefeated run or a one-loss run. We've seen it before ...

Let's just say an undefeated Alabama beats an undefeated Texas A&M close at home on Oct. 18. Alabama runs the table and wins the SEC. A&M runs the table afterward and sits in the top 10. Chances are that if A&M has just one loss, it has won some pretty good games, so you're looking at a potential top-five finish.

Alabama is in and with the other conferences in such disarray, it'd be tough to keep an A&M team out that would have (according to current rankings) five wins over ranked opponents.

Swap these two out for any West teams and it works, even Arkansas.

The LEast
The East isn't close to what its Western counterpart is this season, but that doesn't mean that an Eastern representative can't make it in. The easiest way is for the champ to win in Atlanta.

But look at Georgia for a possible two-team appearance. Let's say that South Carolina and Georgia run the table and South Carolina loses in Atlanta. Georgia, which lost only to South Carolina and is ahead of the Gamecocks in the polls, has a good shot at making it in with the West champ.

If both of these teams win out and South Carolina wins the SEC, I dare you to keep Georgia out.

Atlanta upset
You have an undefeated West champ upset by the East champ. The East champ is in, and after everything that West team did to make it through the gantlet, how do you keep that team out? Even if the East champ has two losses, I don't see how the committee could keep the West champ out based on body of work alone.

Hey, these are all hypotheticals, but they aren't impossible. The SEC got two teams into the BCS national title game in 2011 and almost got two in 2012.

Based on past BCS standings to determine a four-team playoff, the SEC would have gotten two teams in five times since 2005.

Don't count out the SEC.
WACO, Texas -- Spencer Drango and Bryce Hager got rings like everyone else.

They celebrated like everyone else inside Floyd Casey Stadium last December, when the Bears clinched their first outright Big 12 title in more than 30 years. But it just didn’t feel the same.

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AP Photo/Tony GutierrezSpencer Drango's return to the field is good news for Baylor.
 “Watching the celebration was tougher than I thought it would be,” Drango said. “I’m so happy we won everything, but…I wasn’t suited out.”

As No. 7 Baylor gears up for its Big 12 opener at Iowa State on Saturday, two of its biggest leaders are not taking another conference title run for granted.

Drango and Hager were both lost for the 2013 season just as Baylor’s stretch run was getting good, during a 63-34 win over Texas Tech last November to improve to 9-0. Both went down with unusual ailments, leaving a void in both production and leadership. Both watched Baylor lose two of its last four -- derailing their BCS title chase -- and couldn’t do anything about it.

That unsatisfying feeling is giving Drango and Hager plenty to play for this season.

“I think there definitely is some unfinished business,” Drango said.

Drango, the left tackle with 25 career starts, hurt his back four days before Baylor’s blowout win over Texas Tech. He assumed he had a pulled muscle and played through it. In the week following that game, as Baylor prepared to face No. 11 Oklahoma State on the road, Drango met with doctors and learned that, if he kept playing, he risked permanent nerve damage.

The surgery that followed, a microscopic lumbar discectomy, lasted no longer than an hour but required roughly five months of rehab.

Drango doesn’t remember much about watching Baylor’s 49-17 loss to OSU, mostly because he was still on post-surgery pain medication. But he remembers wishing he could assist his struggling teammates.

“I was disappointed I couldn’t be there. I was texting guys at halftime, trying to say, ‘Here’s what I’m seeing,’ stuff like that,” Drango said. “I knew a lot of them don’t check their phones, so a lot of them wouldn’t get it. So I texted four of them, just to try to help.”

The first few weeks of recovery were rough. He couldn’t carry more than 10 pounds for a while. Fortunately, his mother came up to Waco during those weeks to help out.

“A gallon of milk was about the most I could carry,” Drango said, “and I had to hold it to my chest.”

Most of the rehab process required ab work, for up to 90 minutes a day. He never got a six-pack – “it’s under there somewhere,” the 310-pound lineman joked -- but he did get better.

“You can’t replace a guy like Spencer Drango,” Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty said. “Not physically, not from a leadership standpoint, not intellectually. I’m delighted to have him back.”

Hager’s recovery process was a bit more confusing. The 22-game starter at inside linebacker suffered a groin injury last October, during a win over Kansas State, but kept playing for another month. Art Briles and defensive coordinator Phil Bennett limited his practice schedule, but after four games, the inflammation finally overwhelmed Hager during the Texas Tech game.

Coaches didn’t rule out his eventual return, but Baylor doctors couldn’t diagnose what was really wrong. Like Drango, Hager missed the Bears’ final four games.

“He wasn’t getting better,” Bennett said this spring. “I could tell in his eyes.”

So they sought outside help and found the best of the best. Hager and his father flew to Philadelphia last winter to see Dr. William Meyers, an esteemed sports injury expert. He discovered an abdominal tear and an adductor tear and completed Hager’s operation the next morning.

“All of our doctors referred us to Dr. Meyers in Philadelphia,” Hager said. “I knew I was going to the best guy and felt really comfortable about that.”

Before he left, Hager visited Lincoln Financial Field, got a Cheez Whiz-topped cheesesteak from Geno’s and received some long-awaited relief after months of pain.

Hager and Drango both missed spring practice but felt better than ever by the end of the summer. They went right back to playing at a high level, too.

Drango has graded out better than 85 percent on his blocking in each of Baylor’s first three games. And Hager, the quarterback of the defense, leads the Bears with 19 tackles.

“He’s the guy,” Briles said during fall camp. “He makes the calls and he makes the plays.”

They both do. The Bears proved last season than can win the Big 12 without Drango and Hager. But the chase Baylor begins Saturday is made easier now that they’re back. And this time, they want a little more to celebrate come December.

Campaign trail: Mississippi State

September, 23, 2014
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Which teams will make the College Football Playoff? Ultimately, the selection committee will decide. Until then, there will be a lot of campaigning. Each week we'll unveil what we think one team's campaign message should be.

Mississippi State's upset of then-No. 8 LSU -- the team's first win at Death Valley since 1991 -- catapulted the Bulldogs into the rankings and College Football Playoff contention. Dan Mullen has a star on his hands in Dak Prescott -- and a week off to prepare for a visit from No. 6 Texas A&M. In other words, he has plenty to smile about.

Mississippi State bannerIllustration by Sam Ho

Early Offer: What a win for Wilson 

September, 22, 2014
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Missouri and Indiana often tangle on the recruiting trail, but now Hoosiers coach Kevin Wilson has a big victory to recruit against the Tigers with. Plus, UCLA and Notre Dame are locked in a battle for the nation's top tight end prospect.

[+] EnlargeKevin Wilson
AJ Mast/Icon SportswireKevin Wilson and Indiana hope to get a recruiting boost from Saturday's 31-27 win against Missouri.
1. Indiana's 31-27 victory against No. 18 Missouri this past Saturday is the type of win that can go a long way on the recruiting trail. Because of its location, Missouri is one of the few SEC schools that actively targets players in the Midwest, and it is quite common for the Hoosiers and Tigers to tangle over players in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and even in St. Louis. For the most part, Mizzou has had its way with IU, but now Hoosier coach Kevin Wilson has a breakthrough win to recruit with. As one Big Ten recruiter told me on Monday, "that's the type of win that can change recruits' minds."

2. On Monday RecruitingNation released the latest edition of the Recruiter Power rankings and UCLA’s Adrian Klemm came in at No. 2 on the list. A big reason why Klemm is ranked so high is because he was able to land ESPN 300 tight end Alize Jones, the No. 1 tight end in the country. However, there’s some legitimate concern in Westwood that Jones could end up at Notre Dame. A source indicated the Bruins are doing everything they can to "fight off Notre Dame's advances." Jones continues to say he’s still with the Bruins and is only looking around at the Irish as a security blanket, but insiders believe the interest is much more than just that.

3. What an interesting few days it’s been for Draper (Utah) Corner Canyon offensive tackle Branden Bowen. On Saturday, Bowen, the No. 5 player in Utah, committed to the Utes to give Kyle Whittingham a nice in-state recruiting victory. Then hours later on Sunday, he tweeted he had picked up an offer from Ohio State, a school he admitted he was hoping to receive an offer from earlier in the process. It will be interesting to see if the Utes can keep Bowen on board, or if the Buckeyes' offer is too tempting to pass up.

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Social Studies

Often players link their highlight videos on their social media accounts, but you almost never see them posting their grades or test scores. So give Alabama commit Christian Bell a whole lot of credit for posting his ACT score for everybody to see. It's the type of highlight that also should be cheered.

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AUSTIN, Texas -- After three difficult weeks of contemplation, David Ash is ready to move on from football and begin the rest of his life.

The former Texas Longhorns quarterback held a 25-minute news conference Monday and offered his first public comments since his concussion symptoms returned after an Aug. 30 win against North Texas.

He explained why, after consulting with Texas coach Charlie Strong and team doctors, he knew he needed to stop playing in the interest of his health and future.

"I'm at peace with that. God has given me a peace," Ash said. "I have a lot of hope and a lot of belief that there's still awesome days ahead for me."

Ash said he experienced headaches for seven or eight days after the 38-7 victory over North Texas, his first game since Sept. 2013. That painful week brought some needed closure.

"At the core of my heart of hearts," Ash said, "I knew I shouldn't be playing."

To read the full story, click here.

Questions and answers for Pac-12 South

September, 22, 2014
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With the Pac-12 schedule beginning in earnest Week 5, we at the Pac-12 blog identified one question that each team has answered thus far in a satisfactory way, and one that still needs to be figured out. Next up: The Pac-12 South.

Arizona

One question that has been answered: Will the offense be OK with freshman QB Anu Solomon?

The Wildcats rank No. 5 in the country in total offense (593.5 yards per game) and are averaging 42 points per game. Yeah, that’ll work.

One question that hasn’t been answered: Will early-season success translate against better teams?

At 4-0, Arizona is where it wants to be, but close games against UTSA, Nevada and Cal make it tough to gauge where the Wildcats stack up with the upper echelon of the Pac-12.

Arizona State

One question that has been answered: This is a difficult one because the question answered already has a new question posed and it relates to the offense.

The question answered was that the Sun Devils will have one of the most prolific offenses in the Pac-12 this season. Then QB Taylor Kelly got hurt and we've yet to see how his backup, Mike Bercovici, will fare. Still, we can say for sure that RB D.J. Foster is proving to be a more than adequate replacement for Marion Grice.

One question that hasn’t been answered: How good will the defense be?

We still don’t know if the Arizona State defense will be any good, at least whether it will be good enough to support an A-list offense and get the Sun Devils back to the top of the South Division. With the conference schedule ahead, starting with UCLA on Thursday, this question should get answered fairly quickly.

Colorado

One question that has been answered: Will Colorado find a viable replacement for the explosive and departed Paul Richardson?

Yes, yes, 1,000 times, yes. Nelson Spruce went from being a solid possession receiver alongside Richardson last year to a bona fide star in the Pac-12. He already has 37 receptions and seven touchdowns -- which matches the seven he had for his career coming into this season. He’s averaging 14 yards per catch and has posted 100-plus yards in three of four games this season.

One question that hasn’t been answered: Can the defense make plays in the red zone?

Heading into Saturday’s game against Hawaii, the Buffs were last in the league in red zone defense and the only Pac-12 team to not record a red zone stop. Teams are now 17 of 17 in trips to Colorado’s red zone -- and 12 times those drives have ended in touchdowns. The good news is Hawaii made three trips inside the CU 20, but came away with three field goals. Pac-12 teams won’t be as forgiving. The Buffs' D needs to find a way to make a stand.

UCLA

One question that has been answered: How will the Bruins' defense cope with the losses of coordinator Lou Spanos and linebacker Anthony Barr to the NFL?

So far so good. While the sack numbers haven’t been there post-Barr the defense has bailed out the struggling offense, though the Memphis game was pretty forgettable.

One question that hasn’t been answered: Will the offensive line improve?

If it continues to struggle as it has through three games, the Bruins won’t win the South Division. Simple as that.

USC

One question that has been answered: Is Cody Kessler the right fit for Steve Sarkisian’s offense?

You can’t argue with the results. Right now Kessler is completing 71 percent of his passes (71-of-100) for 846 yards, eight touchdowns and zero interceptions. He’s fourth in the Pac-12 with an adjusted QBR of 83.9 -- which is 14th nationally. There aren’t many coaches who wouldn’t take those numbers through three games.

One question that hasn’t been answered: Will the zone-read defense be a season-long issue?

Boston College crushed the USC defense with it to the tune of 452 rushing yards. While there are some identity issues the Trojans need to work out offensively, opposing coordinators have to be looking at what BC did and wondering how they can exploit this. They’ll see read-option from ASU, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Cal (with Luke Rubenzer) and UCLA -- plus a balanced attack from Oregon State this week and Air and Bear raids in consecutive weeks. There is a lot of offense coming up against a defense that suddenly looks unstable and leaky.

Utah

One question that has been answered: Who would be the player (or players) to step up in the pass rush in the absence of a graduated Trevor Reilly and an injured Jacoby Hale?

Reilly had accounted for 8.5 sacks and 16 tackles for a loss last season while Hale registered 6.5 sacks and 10 TFL, but the Utes have replaced them on a committee basis -- Nate Orchard 4.5 sacks, 5 TFL), Jared Norris (2 sacks, 4 TFL) and Hunter Dimick (2.5 sacks, 3 TFL).

One question that hasn’t been answered: Can the Utes sustain this nonconference momentum through Pac-12 play?

A 3-0 start, especially with such an impressive win over Michigan in Ann Arbor last weekend is nothing to short change. However, Utah has had good starts before -- 3-1 in 2013, 2-1 with a win over No. 25 BYU in 2012 -- but the wheels have always started to fall off in conference play. In 2012 the Utes finished the conference schedule with a 3-6 record and in 2013 they finished with a 2-7 Pac-12 record. The 2014 league season isn’t exactly kind but will this momentum carry over? Could they pick up three wins in conference play and find themselves bowl eligible?

No easy fix coming for Michigan offense

September, 22, 2014
Sep 22
5:30
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The problems with Michigan’s offense are clear. The solutions, for a group that needs to get itself turned around in a hurry if coach Brady Hoke is going to keep his job after the 2014 season, are not.

The easiest symptom to diagnose for the Wolverines (2-2) through four games is their turnover margin, which is the worst in the nation at minus-10. Senior quarterback Devin Gardner has played at least some role in seven of the 12 times the offense has coughed up the ball. His second interception in Saturday’s 26-10 loss to Utah cost him a chance to finish the fourth quarter. It might end up costing him his starting job. Hoke said he’ll decide Tuesday whether Gardner or sophomore Shane Morris will start this weekend.

Cutting down on turnovers won’t be as simple as changing the quarterback, though. Morris has struggled in that department, too. He has been at the root of three turnovers in limited time as a backup this season. In his three drives of relief work against the Utes, he threw one interception, fumbled once and narrowly avoided a safety on the game's final series.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsProtecting quarterback Devin Gardner has been a major issue for Michigan this season.
“I think they both know what they need to do better, and they will,” Hoke said Monday. “I think both competed and made some good decisions, also.”

Gardner isn’t the only player in jeopardy of losing playing time Saturday when Michigan opens its Big Ten schedule at home vs. Minnesota. Hoke said all 11 starters on offense will be evaluated this week during practice, and the Wolverines might rethink the personnel groups they are using in order to get the best possible combinations on the field.

Inexperience throughout the offense, and particularly on the offensive line, has led to an inconsistent attack. Against Utah, Michigan’s offense moved the ball regularly on its own half of the field but appeared to run into a brick wall as soon as it crossed the 50-yard line.

The Wolverines reached Utah territory seven times. On four of those drives, the offense went backward the play after it crossed midfield. In all, Michigan ran 24 plays on Utah’s half of the field and gained 44 yards, 25 of which came on one passing play that was immediately followed by Gardner's first interception of the day.

“It’s been a reoccurring thing,” offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said. “Consistency in performance is where we’ve got to improve. Coaches and players, we’re all in this together, and it’s all of us getting it corrected.”

Drive-killing plays -- turnovers, sacks and penalties -- kept Michigan from establishing an offensive rhythm Saturday and two weeks earlier in its 31-0 loss to Notre Dame. That doesn’t appear to be an easier fix than the turnover woes.

Hoke and Nussmeier talked about continuing to harp on technique and fundamentals. When asked what needed to change on offense, Nussmeier talked about the overall youth and needing a better look from the scout team. Hoke didn’t bend from his stance that Team 135 in Ann Arbor will be a good one. When he asked what evidence he has to support that claim, though, he could cite only hard work and faith in his players.

The team, to its credit, has battled. The offense charged forward under Morris after a two-hour, 24-minute rain delay Saturday night. Then the same old problems bit them again. Morris fumbled after scrambling for 3 yards on the drive’s first play in Utah territory -- a reminder that these aren’t issues that can be willed away with grit and determination.

Michigan center Jack Miller, the lone representative of the offense to speak to the media after Saturday’s loss, said, frankly, that he didn’t have an answer for how to fix their problems. Hoke and Nussmeier took a more circuitous route Monday afternoon, but after two days of watching film they didn’t have much to add.

Questions and answers for the Pac-12 North

September, 22, 2014
Sep 22
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With the Pac-12 schedule beginning in earnest Week 5, we at the Pac-12 blog identified one question that each team has answered thus far in a satisfactory way and one that still needs to be figured out. First up: the Pac-12 North.

Cal

One question that has been answered: Will Cal be competitive? The Bears have taken the biggest step forward in the conference and can no longer be written off as an automatic win for teams looking up and down their schedule. Saturday's loss to Arizona was a heartbreaker, but the progress is obvious.

One question that hasn’t been answered: Can the defense hold up for four quarters? In its two games against FBS teams, Cal has allowed 13 total points in the first half and 60 points in the second half. That disparity needs to be rectified.

Oregon

One question that has been answered: Will Oregon be OK without Josh Huff, Bralon Addison and De'Anthony Thomas? The answer is yes, yes, yes -- a resounding yes. And that’s nothing against those three players, because they’re all very talented. But between the Ducks’ three-headed monster at running back (Royce Freeman, Thomas Tyner and Byron Marshall) and their small army of receivers led by Devon Allen and Keanon Lowe, the Ducks are doing just fine for themselves.

One question that hasn’t been answered: Can the offensive line pull it together and protect Marcus Mariota? The Heisman hopeful was sacked seven times Saturday night in Pullman, Washington. SEVEN. TIMES. It is a little more understandable when you consider a true freshman was starting a left tackle and a former walk-on was starting at right tackle. Now, we know the mantra that every backup prepares like a starter, but it’s clear the Ducks are struggling after losing Tyler Johnstone, Andre Yruretagoyena and Jake Fisher. Mariota won’t be 100 percent by the end of the season if he’s sacked seven times a game. That falls on the offensive line.

Oregon State

One question that has been answered: How will the Beavers try to replace Brandin Cooks? “Try” is the key word here, as it’ll be nearly impossible to completely replace Cooks' 128-catch, 1,730-yard, 16-touchdown virtuoso performance of 2013. But in its attempt to pick up the slack, Oregon State is running the ball more effectively (Storm Woods and Terron Ward are averaging more than six yards per carry) and Sean Mannion has a new favorite target: Victor Bolden, who has 18 catches after only grabbing nine all of last season.

One question that hasn’t been answered: Will Oregon State’s rushing defense be better than last year’s? Mannion-to-Cooks was great in 2013, but the Beavers floundered to a .500 regular-season record when their defense didn’t hold up its end of the bargain. The unit gave up 5.1 yards per rush last season, and the results haven’t been particularly promising so far in 2014 (allowing 4.7 yards per carry against Portland State, Hawaii and San Diego State), but a veteran-heavy front seven still has a chance to post significant improvement. USC’s Buck Allen will provide a hefty challenge this week.

Stanford

One question that has been answered: Will the losses of key contributors on defense, including coordinator Derek Mason, hurt Stanford’s defense? So far, a resounding “no.” The Cardinal are proving that nasty defensive success is more about scheme and cohesion than it is about star power. A finally healthy defensive line duo of David Parry and Henry Anderson has spearheaded a suffocating unit with no glaring weakness: Stanford has already pitched two shutouts and is surrendering only 4.3 points per game. The Cardinal are also leading the nation by registering a sack on 12.5 percent of opponents’ passing attempts.

One question that hasn’t been answered: Who is Stanford’s go-to running back in the post-Tyler Gaffney era? David Shaw is still going with the four-man committee approach, and receiver Ty Montgomery has even received some carries because he’s the only one big enough to replicate the 220-plus-pound size Stanford used to enjoy at the position. The Cardinal would probably like to establish an identity soon because their lack of a go-to weapon has contributed to enormous problems in the red zone (No. 124 nationally in scoring efficiency there).

Washington

One question that has been answered: Will the Huskies be fine at quarterback in the post-Keith Price era? Cyler Miles has been solid, though the level of competition ratchets up considerably Saturday with Stanford’s vaunted defense paying a visit. Miles has completed nearly 68 percent of his passes and has yet to throw a pick. Meanwhile, the Huskies have introduced a new offensive wrinkle that’s allowed backup Jeff Lindquist to rush for a pair of touchdowns.

One question that hasn’t been answered: How will Washington’s relatively young defensive backfield hold up? Again, so far, so good -- though Georgia State racked up 233 yards of total offense while Washington slept through Saturday’s first half. But freshman Sidney Jones and the rest of this unit will be tested against the dangerous aerial threats of the Pac-12 North. It does look like veteran Marcus Peters is ready to make plays for the Huskies on the back end. He recorded two picks this past week. Washington’s nation-best 19 sacks have certainly made life easier for the team's defensive backs, too.

Washington State

One question that has been answered: Could Connor Halliday be smarter with the ball? Now, he hasn’t had a flawless season, but if Saturday’s close loss against Oregon told us anything, it’s that Halliday can really excel in this offense when he, his receivers and his offense line key in. He threw for 436 yards and four touchdowns while completing 68 percent of his passes and not throwing a single pick (just the third time that has happened since the start of the 2012 season) against the No. 2 team in the nation.

One question that hasn’t been answered: Can the Washington State team that showed up against Oregon show up for every game the rest of the season? If the team that challenged Oregon -- the one that sacked Mariota seven times, doesn’t throw interceptions, rushes the ball with enough success -- shows up every game, the Cougars will be competitive and have winnable games against Utah, Arizona, Oregon State and Washington. Could they pick up a win over Stanford, USC or Arizona State and still be bowl eligible after their 1-3 start?
Hutson MasonAP Photo/Rainier EhrhardtThe Volunteers' secondary will be a good test to see whether Hutson Mason can stretch the field.

Georgia's showdown with Tennessee on Saturday is the perfect test for the Bulldogs at this point in the season. The Vols (2-1, 0-0 SEC) pose the exact threat that Georgia needs in order to take the next step in its 2014 progression.

We know the 12th-ranked Bulldogs (2-1, 0-1) can run for days (they're second in the SEC averaging 304 rushing yards per game and lead the league with 7.7 yards per rush), but the jury is still out on whether quarterback Hutson Mason can consistently throw down field. We also need to see Georgia's secondary step up and show that it can start limiting the big plays in the passing game.

Look, the East is an absolute mess right now. There is no dominant team, but even though the Dawgs are looking up at South Carolina in the division after a head-to-head loss in Columbia, they still might have the best path to Atlanta. Having running back -- and Heisman Trophy contender -- Todd Gurley gives Georgia a chance in any game. And did I mention that the East is a total crapshoot?

But if the Dawgs are going to avoid another loss or slogging through conference play, they have to be able to throw the ball and stop the pass.

Mason knows this offense backward and forward. No one is debating that, but what we haven't seen from him is any sort of down-field threat. The longest pass Mason has completed this year is a 36-yarder to Isaiah McKenzie on the first play from scrimmage for the Dawgs against South Carolina. After that, Mason was reduced to intermediate passes against a defense that wanted Mason to try and win the game, meaning they were more concerned with Georgia's running game.

Think about this: South Carolina's defense, which had allowed 832 passing yards in its first two games allowed Mason to throw for just 191 yards.

You have to take advantage of a defense like that, and Mason didn't.

I totally get that not having Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley on the field takes away two huge big-play threats, but Chris Conley is a vertical monster and you can't sit there and tell me that no one else is able to run some deeper passing routes in that receiving corps. Whether there's a confidence issue there with the receivers or Mason, if Georgia's offense is going to take some heat off of Gurley, it needs to be able to spread the field more with its passing game, and Tennessee's secondary provides a nice challenge for Mason.

Tennessee cornerbacks Cameron Sutton and Justin Coleman and safety Brian Randolph pose the biggest threat to Georgia's passing game so far. The Vols had yet to allow 200 yards passing until Oklahoma's Trevor Knight threw for 308 two Saturdays ago, but with two weeks to prepare, you have to think that this secondary will be polished for the Dawgs. but here's something that should perk Mason's ears: Tennessee surrendered five passing plays of 20-plus yards to Oklahoma.

Saturday could prove to be a real turning point for Mason, as a passer, if he performs well against Tennessee's secondary. The Vols won't make it easy, but it's a great way to boost his confidence if he can start to get into rhythm throwing down field.

As for Georgia's secondary, the combo of quarterback Justin Worley (721 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions) and receiver Marquez North (14 catches, 173 yards and two touchdowns) is a challenge for anyone. Worely has mad some fantastic throws during the early part of the season, while North continues to show why he needs to be in the conversation with the league's top receivers.

You also can't forget about Alton "Pig" Howard or Josh Smith, who have combined for 23 catches this year. Smith is still nursing a high-ankle sprain, but he hasn't been ruled out of Saturday's game.

Need a dynamic weapon to take some pressure off of North, well, the Vols have one in freshman receiver Josh Malone, who seems to be improving each week.

Georgia's secondary looked good against Troy, but so has everyone else this year. It didn't look good against South Carolina when Dylan Thompson torch the Dawgs over the middle of the field and finish with 271 yards and three touchdowns.

There has been a lot of rotation in Georgia's defensive backfield, and defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has made it clear that he's going to challenge his secondary and put them in more man-to-man situations.

Well, this is a great game to see how far those guys have come.

Take Two: B1G's best receiving tandem

September, 22, 2014
Sep 22
3:30
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Our crew of Big Ten reporters will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. They'll have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which one is right.

Today's Take Two topic: Who has the best receiving tandem in the Big Ten?

[+] EnlargeGeno Lewis
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsPSU's Geno Lewis has the stats and intangibles to make a case for one of the Big Ten's best WRs.
Take 1: Josh Moyer

Dan, Dan, Dan -- let's not overthink this. Michigan has the Big Ten's best receiver in Devin Funchess, but there's really no No. 2 there. Stefon Diggs is an elite talent, but Deon Long hasn't made a huge impact this season. So, let's not get cute with this pick. The answer is really simple: Penn State's Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton.

Now, before the season, I wouldn't have guessed this. Lewis was inconsistent last season, and Hamilton missed his true freshman season with an injury. But you can't argue with their production this season. Only four receivers in the Big Ten are averaging at least 100 yards a game, and Lewis and Hamilton are two of them. Lewis leads the conference in receiving yards (462) and is second in receptions (25); Hamilton leads the conference in receptions (30) and is second in receiving yards (402). How's that for complementary?

But you know what, Dan? Let's forget about the stats. You want a deep threat with great focus and athleticism? Lewis has made several highlight-worthy catches, including a tipped ball he pulled down for a 41-yard gain against UCF. You want consistency and a target on more underneath routes? Hamilton caught a pass in 13 of this season's first 14 quarters. You want clutch plays? Well, on PSU's game-winning drive against Rutgers, Lewis accounted for 76 yards on the Nittany Lions' 80-yard drive. You want a guy who has the potential to grow a lot more just this season? Hamilton was called "one of the biggest sleepers in the Big Ten" in the preseason by his receivers coach and, despite an 11-catch performance in Week 1, Hamilton said he didn't feel 100 percent.

This is a young tandem -- Hamilton is a redshirt freshman, Lewis a redshirt sophomore -- but their ability is not in doubt. We'll probably see these guys a few times on "SportsCenter"'s top 10 plays, and it certainly doesn't hurt that they have Christian Hackenberg throwing to them. So the answer here is an easy one: It has to be Penn State's tandem.

Take 2: Dan Murphy

[+] EnlargeTony Lippett
Phil Ellsworth/ESPN ImagesThrough three games this season, Spartans WR Tony Lippett has 18 receptions for 345 yards and 5 TDs.
Michigan State veteran Tony Lippett played less than a half on Saturday in Sparty's blowout 73-14 win against Eastern Michigan, but he still had time to add to his league-leading total of five receiving touchdowns. Getting to the end zone was the main thing missing from Lippett's game in past years. Now he's on track to contend for the conference's best receiver and a shot at the Biletnikoff Award short list.

To make this list, though, he'll need a partner. That's where junior MacGarrett Kings Jr. comes in. The 5-foot-10 speedster has only four catches through three games this season, but he has the physical skills to complement Lippett when he reaches his potential.

Kings missed the majority of spring practice after a DUI arrest and has been playing catch up ever since. Spartans coach Mark Dantonio made Kings scrape his way back toward the top of the depth chart during fall camp. His day against Eastern Michigan was short as well, but he did flash his big-play ability with a 43-yard punt return to set up the first of many scores.

Lippett is averaging six receptions and 115 yards per outing after three games, one of which came against a talented Oregon team that boasts one of the best cornerbacks in the country in Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. He has reached the end zone in every game this season, more than doubling his career touchdowns after starting the year with only four to his name.

Penn State's Lewis owns the Big Ten passing play of the year so far with his 53-yard catch-and-run to help take down Rutgers two weeks, but we're only four weeks (and one league game) into the season. Lewis and Hamilton rank among the top three receivers in the conference in catches per game and yards per game, but small sample sizes make it hard to extrapolate in September.

Lippett and Kings should be able to pass Lewis and Hamilton as the conference's top receiving tandem once they get up to full speed.

The battle for wide receiver duo supremacy is likely to remain between these two programs this season for one main reason -- both pairs have the luxury of a quality quarterback. The league has other talented receivers such as Diggs, Funchess, and Kenny Bell and Jordan Westerkamp in Nebraska, but no one from that group has a proven consistent passer to feed them the ball.
DALLAS — One of the most asked questions by Texas A&M fans after the Aggies' 38-10 win over Rice on Sept. 13 surrounded the health of true freshman receiver Speedy Noil. When a five-star recruit who comes in with the kind of hype and expectation that Noil did gets injured, the concern is understandable.

Noil, who was carted off the sideline during the Rice game, missed the Aggies’ most recent victory -- a 58-6 rout of SMU -- because of an undisclosed injury and his status for Texas A&M’s upcoming game against Arkansas isn’t yet publicly known. But if Saturday’s game was any evidence, he can take all the time he needs.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Tabuyo
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsSophomore receiver Jeremy Tabuyo, No. 19, had a breakout game for Texas A&M last Saturday.
The Aggies have plenty of receiver depth.

Without their starting “X” receiver, the Aggies were just fine in the passing game as seven different receivers (and one running back) caught passes in the win and a few lesser-known names stepped into the spotlight. Case in point: Jeremy Tabuyo.

The true sophomore from Hawaii made the most of his opportunity, catching two passes and turning them into catch-and-run touchdowns, evading SMU tacklers to the tune of a 30-yard score and a 50-yard score. They were the first two touchdowns of his career.

“It was pretty big for me, just to get my confidence level up,” Tabuyo said Saturday. “Today was a good day for me.”

Boone Niederhofer, a walk-on receiver who won a spot in the two-deep during preseason training camp, also had a solid day against the Mustangs, catching six passes for 73 yards. Only senior Malcome Kennedy (six catches, 73 yards) had as many catches as Niederhofer last Saturday.

That’s life in the Aggie receiving corps these days. Starting quarterback Kenny Hill is not discriminatory when distributing the football and it showed from his first start of the season, when he connected with 12 different players -- eight receivers, one tight end and three running backs. A dozen receivers and tight ends have recorded at least one catch this season.

“Our receiver position is good but we play all of them,” coach Kevin Sumlin said Saturday. “They like playing. Just like running back. Our guys understand that to play the way we play, in an uptempo style and try to get as many plays as we can, those guys are running like crazy. So we have to be eight deep to play games. I think right now we're pretty close to that.”

Kennedy leads the team with 30 catches this season, but after him no other Aggie has more than 16 receptions. Six Texas A&M receivers (Kennedy, Noil, Niederhofer, Joshua Reynolds, Ricky Seals-Jones and Edward Pope) all have double-digit catches this year.

So the Aggies’ quest to going eight deep at the receiver position is closer to coming to fruition. They continue to recruit the position at a high level (the decommitment of 2015 ESPN 300 prospect Damarkus Lodge notwithstanding) and if they continue to haul in talent at the pace they have in recent recruiting classes, the Aggie quarterbacks will continue to enjoy the numerous options afforded them.

Does anybody have more wide receivers in the country to throw to than Hill? When the question was posed to him Saturday, Hill took a deep breath, allowed a sly smile to emerge and answered definitively.

“No,” Hill said. “Nobody in the country has more receivers than we do.”
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TEMPE, Ariz. -- On Jan. 6, 2012, Mike Bercovici was chilling with some friends when he got a call from then-Arizona State receiver Aaron Pflugrad. There was some big news for the Sun Devils' backup quarterback. In a surprise to many, junior Brock Osweiler, the team's starting quarterback, had decided to enter the NFL draft.

And that is how an article began in advance of ASU spring practices in March 2012. Thirty-three months later, Bercovici can still recall exactly how he felt upon hearing the news of Osweiler's departure.

“It was an opportunity I had been waiting for my entire life," he said this week.

In 2011, Bercovici had beaten out Taylor Kelly for the backup spot. That made him a slight favorite to win the job over Kelly and redshirt freshman Michael Eubank in advance of the 2012 season. When spring practices ended, Bercovici was viewed as slightly ahead of Eubank, with Kelly a fairly distant third option.

Things changed. Dramatically. Kelly won the job -- coach Todd Graham even admitted at the time that it was a surprise -- and has played his way onto Arizona State's all-time top QB list over two-plus seasons. Bercovici has had to settle for being considered one of the conference's more talented backups, not that Bercovici ever got comfortable viewing himself that way.

“My hunger to be a starting quarterback hasn’t changed since I lost that competition," he said.

Just as the vice president is a heartbeat from the Oval Office, so a backup quarterback is an unfortunate play away from taking over an offense. The backup quarterback is the irrelevant mop-up guy with a backward baseball cap on the sideline -- until he becomes a team's most important player. For Bercovici, that transition happened when Kelly hurt his foot on the Sun Devils' last possession of the third quarter Sept. 13 at Colorado.

[+] EnlargeMike Bercovici
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsMike Bercovici will make his first career start against No. 12 UCLA Thursday night.
Bercovici, who has thrown 24 career passes, will therefore make his first career start next week. As if that isn't big enough, it will be Thursday night against No. 12 UCLA.

So, yeah, big stage for a first start. Of course, the relentlessly upbeat Graham said he's completely comfortable with Bercovici starting.

“We feel like we’ve got one of the best one-two quarterback combinations in the country," Graham said.

“He’s one of the last guys I’m worried about," he added later. "If this happened to any other team -- or any other team I’ve had -- it would be devastating to you.”

There's a significant distance, however, between being theoretically good and proving it on the field. While Bercovici is well-versed with the Sun Devils' offense and has an undeniably strong arm, he remains an unknown commodity. The chief concern with him is he too often believes he can use that strong arm to fire a pass through a window in the secondary that isn't much larger than a key hole. He knows this just as well as his coaches. In fact, he recalls how it might have cost him the job during 2012 preseason camp.

“At the start of camp, something in the minds of every quarterback is not turning the ball over," he said. "That’s what we stress here at Arizona State. If you go back and look at film, I threw two interceptions. I knew, from there I was playing catch-up. Taylor didn’t throw any interceptions.”

Said offensive coordinator Mike Norvell, “That’s huge. That’s part of his development. Obviously, he has a tremendous arm. He can make every throw on the field that needs to be made. But it’s also understanding progressions and getting to when it’s time to go to that next progression and taking what the defense gives you.”

Bercovici can't try to overcome two-plus years of frustration on every pass, on every drive. Against UCLA, he needs to distribute the ball to his playmakers, of which he has plenty, and not force the action. Although he might get a few more shots downfield -- and fewer runs -- than Kelly, his first priority is to protect the football. Considering the past two games between these two teams have come down to the last possession, every miscue figures to be as critical -- if not more so -- as every big play.

It's probably a good sign, then, that Bercovici doesn't sound like a guy looking for personal vindication.

“I feel like it is my duty to have no setbacks with me at quarterback," he said. "It’s my duty to make sure we’re still undefeated when [Kelly] comes back. I owe that to him, and I owe that to the team.”

Such thinking shouldn't be too surprising, considering Bercovici's decision not to transfer already revealed him to be an unselfish guy. While many college quarterbacks quickly go looking for starting jobs after losing a competition -- Eubank is now the starting quarterback at Samford in Birmingham, Alabama -- Bercovici opted to stick it out. Yes, he thought about leaving, but those thoughts lost.

“Obviously, those thoughts race through your head, but it [would have been] a bitter taste to put on different colors," he said.

While the present is big enough for the 15th-ranked Sun Devils, there also is the future. Bercovici stuck around because he saw himself as the starter in 2015, when Kelly heads to the NFL. If anyone knows that's not a given, though, it's Bercovici. For one, there's a potential challenge from touted incoming freshman Brady White.

Playing well and winning while Kelly is out for what might be a month or more would, obviously, significantly bolster his case for next year. Bercovici knew that question was coming.

“In theory, it would," he said. "But for these seniors, these guys I’ve been around for four years, it’s their time right now. My 100 percent focus is I want to be the best quarterback I can be on Thursday night for those guys.”

In other words, the future is now for Bercovici. It's not how he envisioned things 33 months ago. But he's got too much on his plate this week to quibble with the whims of fortune.

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