NCF Nation: Oregon State Beavers

Pac-12 viewer's guide: Week 3

September, 13, 2014
Sep 13
8:00
AM ET
Wyoming at No. 2 Oregon
Time: 2 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks

Heisman contender Marcus Mariota will look to get his team off to a quick start over Wyoming. A week after defeating MSU in convincing fashion, the Ducks will attempt to make another big statement as they prepare for conference play. The Cowboys are led by first-year coach Craig Bohl, who gained notoriety by leading North Dakota State to national relevance in his 10 years at the helm of that program.

Illinois at Washington
Time: 4 p.m. ET
TV: Fox

Washington will attempt to pick up its third win of the season but considering how lackluster the first two were, this game will need to be a bit of a statement for the Huskies. Quarterback Cyler Miles will look to improve the Washington passing game so the Huskies won't be pigeonholed into being one-dimensional this season. Meanwhile, the Huskies defense will look to bend and not break as cornerback Marcus Peters will be sitting out for his one-game suspension due to his sideline behavior against Eastern Washington.

Army at No. 15 Stanford
Time: 5 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks

Stanford hasn't lost consecutive games since the 2009 season and the Cardinal will look to extend that streak when Army visits The Farm this weekend. Stanford needs to limit turnovers and penalties -- two issues that plagued the team in its loss to USC -- while quarterback Kevin Hogan will attempt to keep the offense moving and finishing. Against USC, the Cardinal came away with just 10 points on nine trips inside the Trojans' 35-yard line.

Portland State at Washington State
Time: 8 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks

The Cougars will be playing in their home stadium for the first time in 2014 when they welcome PSU to Pullman. Washington State needs a win badly; its 0-2 start is far from what was expected in Year 3 of the Mike Leach regime.

No. 9 USC at Boston College
Time: 8 p.m. ET
TV: ESPN/WatchESPN
Hashtag: #USCvsBC

USC will make a cross-country trip after its huge win over Stanford last weekend. The Trojans will be without linebacker Hayes Pullard for the first half due to a targeting penalty during the Stanford game. Leonard Williams and the rest of the USC defense will face dual-threat QB and Florida transfer Tyler Murphy.

Side note: Boston College will be wearing special red bandana tribute uniforms Saturday. It's a cool gesture and one that I suggest you learn more about. Take some time to check out the story of former BC lacrosse player Welles Crowther -- "The Man in the Red Bandana" -- before the game. Watch the feature and read more here.

No. 12 UCLA vs. Texas
Time: 8:15 p.m. ET
TV: Fox

The Bruins are trying to piece together their first complete performance in their trip to Arlington, Texas, this weekend. Brett Hundley presents quite the challenge for Texas, who has struggled with dual threat quarterbacks this year, already giving up 181 passing yards and 99 rushing yards to BYU quarterback Taysom Hill. Defensively, UCLA won't be facing Texas' best -- starting QB David Ash is out with concussion symptoms and Texas coach Charlie Strong has suspended both starting offensive tackles (among others).

No. 16 Arizona State at Colorado
Time: 10 p.m. ET
TV: ESPNU/WatchESPN
Hashtag: #ASUvsCOLO

The Sun Devils and Buffs open their Pac-12 slates with one another this weekend. Taylor Kelly, D.J. Foster and the rest of the ASU offense will attempt to put up big offensive numbers against Colorado, which has given up 34.5 points per game this season. But at home, Colorado will attempt to break the streak -- the Buffs haven't beaten a ranked opponent in their last 14 attempts.

Nevada at Arizona
Time: 11 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks

Quarterback Anu Solomon will look to get the Wildcats off to a 3-0 start as Arizona welcomes Nevada to Arizona Stadium. "We're not good enough to play poorly and still win," coach Rich Rodriguez said earlier this week. It's a pretty obvious lesson, one that he watched play out as Nevada took down Washington State last weekend. "We know there are some games where we can make mistakes and it will really cost you. In some games you can make a few more and still be in it. That's not where we are at yet."

Byes: California, Oregon State, Utah
(Pause for laughter)

(Pause again, for laughter)

(Pause, again, still for more laughter)

UCLA head coach Jim Mora had just been asked a purely-for-fun, purely-hypothetical question: What if UCLA and USC had to play in Week 1?

“I don’t think it would be a good deal,” Mora said. “You want the drama to build. I don’t know what it would be like. I never thought of that. [Pause for laughter, again]. It would make for an interesting off season. You’d have a whole lot of time to talk about it rather than just a week. Heck, I don’t know.”

[+] EnlargeMike MacIntyre
AP Photo/David Zalubowski Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre relishes the opportunity to play a rivalry game in Week 1. But most Pac-12 coaches would rather wait until the end of the season.
 The roots of this comical concept stem from the fact that while most of the Pac-12 will be dining on desserts in Week 1, the Colorado Buffaloes have to play a rivalry game with Colorado State right out of the chute.

And make no mistake -- this is a rivalry game. This will be the 86th game in the series (the Buffs lead 62-21-2), which has been played off and on since 1893 and annually since 1995 (the longest gap was between ’58 to ’83).

It doesn’t matter that Colorado is in the Pac-12 and Colorado State is in the Mountain West. This game is as heated as it gets.

“We think of this as a traditional rivalry, no doubt about it,” said Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre. “You hear about it every day. Everybody is up and down Interstate 25, and CU fans and CSU fans run into each other. The kids know each other. The coaches know each other because we speak at different clinics and run into each other all of the time.”

Colorado State got win No. 1 for coach Jim McElwain in 2012 with a 22-17 victory. A year later, the MacIntyre era kicked off with a 41-27 victory.

“The pros of it are it’s a big, heightened game,” MacIntyre said. “It keeps your kids on their toes. They hear about it all the time. It makes it a little more special. All opening games are special. But this puts an extra flavor to it, so to speak.”

That got the Pac-12 blog to thinking … simply for extra flavor … what if every rivalry game in the league was played in Week 1. What would the storylines be?

  • Territorial Cup: New Arizona QB faces new ASU D as RichRod looks for first win in rivalry.
  • The Big Game: Bear Raid looks to get off the mat against two-time conference champs.
  • The Civil War: Potential first-round picks Marcus Mariota and Sean Mannion duel in opener.
  • UCLA-USC: Oh jeez … can you imagine USC and UCLA squaring off Saturday after the week the Trojans have had? This one writes itself.
  • The Apple Cup: Chris Petersen’s Washington debut against the Cougs.

Look, we know this isn’t ever going to happen. But it’s fun to think about the possibilities. Right?

“Oh, we wouldn’t like that. I wouldn’t like that at all,” said Arizona State coach Todd Graham, [OK, guess not]. “I’m a fan. I don’t want to start the season off with a rivalry game. We love that being at the end of the season for our fans.”

The consensus was that if the rivalry game was in Week 1, so be it, the coaches would prepare per usual. But it just wouldn’t feel the same.

“One year we played Hawaii after [we played Oregon] at the end of the year and that felt funny,” said Oregon State coach Mike Riley. “It would definitely make for an interesting start to the season.”

Because the CSU-CU game is an out-of-conference showdown, the thought is that this game is best played before league play cranks up. And that makes sense.

“Late in the conference, you’re worried about conference games and getting to the conference championship game,” MacIntyre said.” I think playing it early in the year is a good thing for both of us.”

So, no. Pac-12 rivalries should not be played in Week 1. But the tradition works for the Colorado folks so don’t mess with it. It will make for a fun debut Friday night and add some sizzle to a Week 1 slate that doesn’t have a ton of gusto.

And we can all get on board with Graham: “That game is the game for us. You can win 11 games and lose that one and have an unsuccessful season. You could lose 11 and win that one and have a successful season. That’s how big that game is for us. I kind of like it where it’s at.”
CORVALLIS, Ore. -- What feels better -- scoring a touchdown or sacking a quarterback?

Saturday, when the Beavers take on Portland State, Oregon State defensive end Obum Gwacham -- who’s currently listed as the back up right end behind Dylan Wynn -- has the opportunity to answer that question.

Typically the people who find the end zone and the ones who take quarterbacks to the ground are not the same people. For the past three seasons, Gwacham has been a slot receiver for the Beavers. But he wasn’t heavily used due to other players stepping up and a few nagging injuries. He appeared in 38 games and only caught 11 passes for 165 yards and one touchdown, which triggered the move to the defensive line.

And with the move, and his one touchdown catch in hand, he could move into a select group who knows which is better -- TD or sack? There are actually quite a few guys who could help Gwacham find the answer.

Since 2000, there have been 96 players who’ve both recorded a touchdown reception and tallied a sack during their college careers (starting with the 2000 season) according to ESPN Stats & Information. In the Pac-12, over that same time span, there have been 12 players to accomplish both. And at Oregon State? There has only been one other -- Gabe Miller.

Like Miller, several of those players who were able to accomplish both were tight ends. The transition from tight end to defensive end seems a bit more manageable and one that makes a certain amount of sense. But to go from slot to pass-rusher? That’s a bit more difficult.

Oregon State defensive line coach Joe Seumalo first brought up the idea last season and knew that if Gwacham committed to changing his diet and exercise routines, that he’d be able to successfully make the transition to the other side of the ball -- and into the trenches -- by the fall.

This meant that Gwacham needed to spend more time with strength and conditioning coach Bryan Miller, who stressed one principle: Don’t panic.

“If they’re a good athlete, if they have good genetics, if they take care of going through the steps in a logical manner, it should happen,” Miller said. “When people hit the panic button … a lot of times it backfires.”

Lucky for Miller, Gwacham had the athletic ability, genetics and level head to take the process step-by-step.

[+] EnlargeOregon State's Obam Gwacham
Courtesy of Oregon State athleticsObum Gwacham before
The next step was getting Gwacham to focus on his nutrition, and a big part of that was getting Gwacham to eat at the right times of the day. It's harder than it sounds considering Gwacham was balancing football, classes and a personal life.

Breakfast, Miller explained, was the most critical because it’s so easy for most people -- especially tired, college athletes -- to skip breakfast. Then, Gwacham needed to make sure he was eating immediately after the workout and then another solid meal 45 minutes after the workouts. Those foods don’t even account for big, nutritious lunches and dinner, plus a high-caloric snack before bed.

“The whole process of gaining weight,” Miller said, “is you being uncomfortably full at every meal. A lot of people go to dinner and eat a big dinner and think, ‘Oh my, I’m so full,’ but you look at the rest of the meals through the day and it was nothing. They have to do that at every meal.”

On top of that, he needed to do fewer speed workouts and more lifting.

After focusing on those elements through the winter, the spring season wasn’t as bad as he thought it would be, Gwacham said. He was able to hold his ground for the most part even though he was lined up against offensive linemen who were pushing 300 pounds. Meanwhile, Gwacham’s body -- still moving up the scale -- was south of those numbers, sometimes by nearly 75 pounds.

[+] EnlargeOregon State's Obum Gwachum
Courtesy of Oregon State athleticsObum Gwacham after
But he pushed that aside and tried to focus on making himself as comfortable as possible as fast as possible in the spring so everything would come as second-nature in the summer and fall.

“I kind of thought of it as: as a receiver, I was always going up against a DB -- you’ve got to give them a move and try to get by them,” Gwacham said. “It’s almost similar with playing D-end. The guy you’re going up against is a little bigger, he could be a little quicker but I feel like I’m more athletic and I think I’m faster than them so I have to use what I have to work to go against them.”

Last March, Gwacham weighed in at 220 pounds with 7.1 percent body fat. In July, he finished at 240 pounds and just 7.9 percent body fat, meaning he gained 19.4 pounds of muscle.

Miller said he has seen players gain more weight than Gwacham was asked to gain, but the fact that he retained his speed and explosiveness through the whole process is incredibly impressive.

Whether the payoff is worth it or not will show itself this season. As a wide receiver, he only scored one touchdown. But on Saturday, he’ll line up in the trenches for the first time. And maybe after he faces Portland State quarterback Kieran McDonagh, he’ll be able to really know whether it’s more satisfying to score a touchdown or take down a signal caller.

“It’s hard to rank them,” Gwacham said. “After that first sack, I guess we’ll see.”

Pac-12 rivalry heat meter

August, 11, 2014
Aug 11
6:00
PM ET
A college football rivalry never exactly cools off, at least among the emotionally involved. But rivalries do go through upticks and downticks of relevance, both regionally and nationally.

So which Pac-12 rivalries are heating up, stagnating or cooling as we head into the 2014 season?

USC Trojans-UCLA Bruins

The facts: USC leads the series 46-30-7 and has won 12 of the last 15 games, but the Bruins have won two in a row under Jim Mora, including a 35-14 domination last year.

The meter: Sizzling and rising.

The animosity between the fan bases is always strong, but what makes a rivalry truly heat up is relevance. And substantial stakes. This rivalry is gaining in both areas. USC is one of the preeminent football programs in the nation, even though UCLA fans hate to read that. UCLA is the rising western power under Mora, even though USC fans mock the idea. USC has a new coach in Steve Sarkisian and is moving past NCAA sanctions. UCLA is a top-10 team eyeballing the College Football Playoff. Know what I say? Release the hounds!

Arizona Wildcats-Arizona State Sun Devils

The facts: Arizona leads the series 47-39-1, but Todd Graham has won the last two against Rich Rodriguez, including a 58-21 blowout last year in Tempe. Before that, the visiting team has won eight of the last 13 matchups, including the last four -- games that were decided by a total of 15 points.

The meter: Blistering and heating up.

While Oregon-Washington fans provide the most blowback to the Pac-12 blog -- Yakety Yak! Oh, yeah! Yakety Yak -- Arizona and Arizona State fans are a strong No. 2. It used to be the fans hated each other and whined a lot -- "You cover them more... waaaaaa!" -- because both teams were fairly mediocre. But the Sun Devils won the South Division last year and are now 2-0 under Todd Graham against the Wildcats and Rich Rodriguez. With both programs trending up in an overall sense, the rivalry is gaining relevance. It also helps that Graham and Rodriguez don't particularly care for each other.

Oregon Ducks-Washington Huskies

The facts: Washington leads the series 58-43-5, but the Ducks have won 10 straight in the series by at least 17 points, including a 45-24 win in Seattle last year.

The meter: Hot but stagnating.

This has long been the most bitter Pac-10/12 rivalry but it has experienced a dramatic power shift to the Ducks. Sorry Huskies, you know it's true. It seems like Oregon fans these days are more worried about winning that darn absent national title than fretting about that team from up North. Now, if Washington and new coach Chris Petersen go into Autzen Stadium and steal one this year... well, that can't happen. Can it? Maybe that possibility needs to be debated.

USC-Notre Dame Fighting Irish

The facts: USC has won nine of the last 12 meetings, but the Fighting Irish has won three of the last four, including a 14-10 win last year. Since 1967, USC has gone 24-20-3 in the series.

The meter: Simmering with many hoping for a boil (particularly TV executives)

As far as national rivalries go, this one is without peer. It's an annual classic that matches two of college football's top powers. Lately, both teams have been nationally relevant, albeit not on an annual basis, and that's the issue. This rivalry is more about national relevance than bitterness. What it needs to heat up is for both teams to be national contenders with the winner in line for the College Football Playoff.

Washington-Washington State Cougars

The facts: Washington leads the series 68-32-6, including a 27-17 victory last year. The Cougars have lost 11 of the last 16 Apple Cups, but are 1-1 under Mike Leach.

The meter: Simmering with lots of potential spice

Have you stopped and pondered just how fun this one might get if Petersen and Mike Leach get their programs' performances to match their respective coaching reputations? For one, in terms of the media, it could be a Don James-Jim Walden deal where Petersen is a "2,000-word underdog" to the loquacious Leach. As it is at present, the Cougars really, really hate the entitled Huskies but the Huskies reserve their most bitter distain for Oregon.

Oregon-Oregon State

The facts: Oregon leads the series 61-46-10 and has won the last six meetings, including a 36-35 thriller in Autzen Stadium last year.

The meter: Warm but in need of another log on the fire

Know what bothers Oregon State fans? When some Ducks fans say they root for the Beavers when the two aren't playing. It probably isn't a statement of emotional fact, but Oregon fans recognize it as the ultimate patronizing gesture. See above with Washington: The Beavers really, really hate the entitled Ducks but the Ducks reserve their most bitter distain for Washington. Now, if the Ducks start to slide a bit and the Beavers push past them in the North Division -- or at least become Oregon's equal again -- this one will immediately boil over, potentially returning to the back-and-forth turf battle it was from 1998-2008, when it was one of the conference's most interesting and meaningful rivalries.

USC-Stanford Cardinal

The facts: In a series that dates back to 1905, USC holds a 59-29-3 lead, but Stanford has won four of the last five meetings. Still, a year after Stanford upset the then-No. 2 Trojans, USC returned the favor by knocking off No. 4 Stanford 20-17 last fall.

The meter: Most rivalries are more about the fans than the players. This one might be more about the players than the fans. These two teams go at each other -- hard. Things really picked up steam with former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh mouthing off about Pete Carroll, then backing it up with two wins, including the classic "What's your deal?" game in 2009. Stanford started USC's and Lane Kiffin's downward spiral in 2012, while the Trojans ended the Cardinal's national title hopes in 2013. And I personally enjoy watching the Stanford band drive the Coliseum crowd crazy -- "And now a tribute to a great USC graduate... Joe Francis!"

California Golden Bears-Stanford

The facts: Stanford leads the Big Game rivalry 54-44-10 and has won four in a row, including a 63-13 blowout last year.

The meter: Luke warm until Cal rights itself

The Big Game is a great rivalry with a great history. The problem is getting the two teams to be good at the same time. Cal dominated the rivalry under Jeff Tedford until 2009. Now the Cardinal is fully in control. Second-years Bears coach Sonny Dykes probably could win over the Old Blues by pulling the upset this fall, but that will mean winning as a double-digit underdog.

BYU Cougars-Utah Utes

The facts: Utah leads the series 57-34-4. Utah has won four straight and nine of the last 12 games with the Cougars, including a 20-13 victory last year in Provo.

The meter: Always hot but chilling for two years

Utah has dominated this bitter series of late, most notably since joining the Pac-12, but there will be a two-year hiatus until the Holy War is renewed in 2016. That is unfortunate, as the series hasn't been interrupted since BYU didn't field teams during World War II (1943-45). Further, BYU is presently outside looking in, as it is not a Power Five conference member. It will be interesting to see how things go in the future.

Utah-Colorado Buffaloes

The facts: Colorado leads the series 31-26-3, and this is both teams’ longest series against any Pac-12 team. They played annually from 1903-62 with four exceptions, but then the rivalry went dormant for 49 years before it resumed in 2011 as Pac-12 members. As Pac-12 members, Utah leads 2-1 having won two in a row.

The meter: Tepid while awaiting some seasoning

Sure, this is a bit of an artificial rivalry. They are paired as rivals because they joined the conference together. But as both start to develop their Pac-12 legs, you can count on this rivalry heating up. They will be compared for a long time. Neither wants to be the one not measuring up. And don't forget the "Red Bike Incident."

Oregon State Beavers season preview

August, 11, 2014
Aug 11
10:30
AM ET

» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC.


Previewing the 2014 season for the Oregon State Beavers:

2013 record: 7-6, 4-5 in Pac-12; beat Boise State 38-23 in Sheraton Hawaii Bowl

Final grade for 2013: C-minus. The Beavers had a dynamic pass-catch combination in Sean Mannion and Brandin Cooks but little else. The back-loaded schedule probably made the season feel worse than it was, but a 7-6 finish was a win or two below realistic preseason expectations.

Key returnees: QB Mannion, OL Isaac Seumalo, TE Connor Hamlett, S Ryan Murphy, CB Steven Nelson, DE Dylan Wynn, LB Michael Doctor

Key losses: WR Cooks, DE Scott Crichton, CB Rashaad Reynolds

Instant impact newcomers: DT Jalen Grimble, OT Bobby Keenan

[+] EnlargeSean Mannion
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsOregon State senior Sean Mannion threw for 4,662 yards last season, but he doesn't have Brandin Cooks as his go-to receiver this time around.
Projected winning percentage (ESPN.com Stats & Information): .590

Chances to win the conference (ESPN.com Stats & Information): 0.9 percent

Best-case scenario: 9-3

Worst-case scenario: 6-6

Over-under win total (Bovada): 7

Biggest question mark: How does the offense -- read: Mannion -- adjust to life after Cooks, who was the best receiver in the nation in 2013? Who steps up at receiver, and does the running game get going?

Most important game: Nov. 22 at Washington. The Huskies embarrassed the Beavers in Corvallis last year, and this game might determine the No. 3 spot in the Pac-12 North.

Upset special: Oct. 25 at Stanford. The Cardinal might be looking ahead to their Nov. 1 date at Oregon, and the Beavers played Stanford tough in 2013.

They said it: "There's no doubt about it. I think I actually became a little bit of a victim of it myself early because we were so good throwing the ball for six games." -- Oregon State coach Mike Riley, on whether he passed too much in 2013
The business of music at a football practice is tricky. At times, it needs to inspire. Other times, it needs to pester and frustrate. And still, at others, it just needs to sink into the background, a low hum amidst tackles and touchdowns.

Sometimes, coaches use it to imitate opposing stadiums, turning players’ own practice fields against them for a few days so that when they actually walk into enemy territory, they’re more prepared.

[+] EnlargeBruce Springsteen
Larry Busacca/WireImageIf Arizona State coach Todd Graham had his way, the music of Bruce Springsteen -- or "The Boss" -- would be blasting out of the loudspeakers at practice.
And sometimes, it’s just bad. Like very bad. Like “What Does the Fox Say?” bad (Yes, Washington Huskies, we’re looking at you).

But it’s always diverse. Like the players and coaches and schemes, practice music across the Pac-12 is a smorgasbord of genres and styles. You’ve got your ‘80s rock, your top 40 hits, your crying babies. It’s like listening to the radio, if there were no confines on what could or could not be played. Ever.

At USC, recruiting coordinator Alex Rios (whose Twitter bio reads: “Office: USC Football Recruiting Analyst, Field: Dancing DJ”) uses Spotify -- an online music library -- to create playlists for practice.

“I try to tailor that day’s songs to the theme of practice,” Rios said. “For example, if we are focusing on up-tempo in practice, I build a playlist of up-tempo songs, or if we are going to play at a stadium that has loud fans, I try to play songs that stadium uses to pump up its fans.”

The approach at Stanford is similar. Ryan Devlin, assistant director of football operations and recruiting, has taken over the reigns as the Cardinal practice DJ. He has over 2,000 songs in his Spotify library and during any given practice he only employs 35-45 of those.

“I'd say 60 percent of the songs I use came directly from me -- songs that I know fit the tempo we're looking for,” Devlin said. “The rest come from searching other playlists on Spotify and YouTube, hearing a new song on the radio, or a suggestion from a coach or player. I always say I take suggestions, not requests. I have to make sure it's appropriate and will fit the tempo of practice.”

Since Stanford has an outdoor practice field, the music flows out onto campus, meaning students, professors and visitors can hear what’s being played. That adds another level to Devlin’s job, as it’s not just the players he needs to keep happy, but the community as well.

That same problem hasn’t stopped Washington State though. Though practice music is only played on Thursdays in Pullman, they’ve still found a way to annoy some students and faculty. Quarterback Connor Halliday said that a few fellow students have mentioned to him that the raucous crowd noise that's blasted on Thursdays during the season isn’t always welcomed by non-football-playing students as they amble from class to class.

But be grateful, Pullman students. At least you’re not in Tucson.

Andrew Warsaw, Arizona’s Operation's Coordinator, is in charge of the Wildcats’ music. After the series of promotional videos Arizona has released, it should come as no surprise that the practice music is also a little bit off-the-wall sometimes.

“Depending on what coach [Rich Rodriguez] wants, we will play whatever,” Warsaw said. “If he wants to us to play something annoying during a certain period of practice we will play a baby crying for five-straight minutes, or songs like Barbie Girl or The Macarena.”

Arizona also takes player requests (which tend to stay closer to top-40 radio hits). Arizona State only plays music during warm-ups and seniors are asked to request which songs they’d like to hear during that time. California and Oregon State rely heavily on player requests -- though Oregon State players have been known to request Miley Cyrus music, which makes avoiding any parties in the USA awfully difficult.

Though if it were up to only coaches to choose the music, practices would probably sound quite different.

Arizona State coach Todd Graham would probably pick mostly country music or Bruce Springsteen, while Utah coach Kyle Whittingham would stick to only classic rock. In the perfect world, he wants to hear nothing post-1980 played at his practices. Though, he knows that no matter what is played “one-third of the team will love it, one-third of the team will hate it, and one-third of the team won’t care.” Little does he know, Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” now haunts the dreams of wide receiver Dres Anderson and defensive end Nate Orchard. “Starships” by Nicki Minaj has had a similar effect on Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, but he should consider himself lucky. When asked to name the worst practices songs they'd heard, Washington players at Pac-12 media days had no shortage to chose from. Offensive lineman Ben Riva stole the competition (if this is a competition) for the worst song when he said that he had heard “The Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats.

Yes, the Canadian band that has had enough members over its years to field an entire first string on offense and defense in American football has resounded through Chris Petersen’s practices.

But, maybe Petersen is onto something. Maybe that song, followed by Cyrus and some Ylvis is just a way to better prepare his team for what they could face in the Pac-12 this season. Maybe these songs are fueling what could be a breakout year for the Huskies in a very deep conference.

Or maybe it’s just a lot of really, really terrible music.

[+] EnlargeBob Marley
Getty ImagesA little "Buffalo Soldier" by Bob Marley could be what Colorado needs to get back to a bowl game.
But, fear not, the Pac-12 blog is here to help (we'd never leave folks in a pickle). If the DJs need any guidance with song recommendations, here’s our top pick for each school based on its personality.

Can’t promise they’re incredible. Can promise they’re better than "Barbie Girl."

  • Arizona: "Title Sequence," BT -- Reasoning: They're into speed this year and this is The Fast & The Furious theme song
  • Arizona State: "Runnin' with the Devil," Van Halen -- Reasoning: ASU's run game has improved under Graham. They're the Sun Devils. A + B = Van Halen.
  • California: "Pachanelly’s Canon," Gentleman’s Rule -- Reasoning: Because Cal winning four times as many games as it did last season sounds as crazy taking Nelly and adding Pachelbel’s Canon. But, it works. Cal will too.
  • Colorado: "Buffalo Soldier," Bob Marley -- Reasoning: 1. Buffaloes. 2. Bob Marley would love Colorado for many reasons. Well, mostly for one reason.
  • Oregon: "We Will Rock/Quack You," D2: The Mighty Ducks version -- Reasoning: It could only be more obvious if the offense were to run a Flying V formation this season.
  • Oregon State: "Happy," Pharrell -- Reasoning: Mike Riley is happy.
  • Stanford: Anything by Weezer -- Reasoning: Best nerd band. Stanford: best nerd football team.
  • UCLA: "Show 'Em What You're Made Of," Backstreet Boys -- Reasoning: 1. Like Backstreet Boys, UCLA is back ("All right!") 2. They're favored in the South, now they just need to show everyone what they're made of
  • USC: "Let It Go," Frozen -- Reasoning: The sanctions are gone. Let it go.
  • Utah: "Ring Of Fire," Lennon and Maisy cover -- Reasoning: Maybe the players can't like Cash's version. They'll have to like these two singing sisters covering it. Maybe? Guys, just give it a chance.
  • Washington: "Who'll Stop The Rain," CCR -- Reasoning: Can't promise Chris Petersen will get rid of the rain in Seattle, but the future is looking bright.
  • Washington State: "Hoist the Colors," Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End -- Reasoning: There’s a flag, there are pirates. No more explanation needed. You're welcome, Mike Leach.
Last week at Pac-12 media days, the media poll was announced and the resounding response was that the media believes the Ducks will win this year’s Pac-12 championship game.

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

SportsNation

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

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    40%
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    23%
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    10%
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    6%
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    21%

Discuss (Total votes: 10,598)

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

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

Will it be:

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

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

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

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

Other: Those are the front-runners in the conference, but could we see some surprises? Trap games exist for all four of those teams, and with coachs like Chris Petersen or Todd Graham, you can't completely count out their teams. Could Washington sneak into a matchup with UCLA or USC or someone else? Could Arizona State appear in the championship game for the second season in a row? It’s all possible. But is it probable? You decide.
Our list of the top 25 players in the Pac-12 continues.

No. 20: Washington DT Danny Shelton

2013 stats: Started all 13 games, made a career-high 59 tackles, recorded a pair of sacks and blocked two kicks.

Why he's ranked here: The first of four Washington defensive players who will appear during the countdown, Shelton -- who is listed at 6-foot-2, 339 pounds -- is as imposing a defensive lineman as can be found in the country. An All-Pac-12 honorable mention selection a year ago, he enters his senior year with 115 career tackles and is an elite defender against the run.

Shelton has started the past 28 games for the Huskies, including a stretch last year in which he played through a left shoulder injury that required offseason surgery. If Washington takes the next step under new coach Chris Petersen, Shelton will likely be a main reason. Looking down the road, he has the potential to be one of the first defensive tackles selected in the 2015 NFL draft and has also twice been named first-team Academic All-Pac-12.

No. 19: Oregon State OL Isaac Seumalo

2013 stats: Integral part of the offensive line that blocked for QB Sean Mannion as he set the Pac-12 single-season record with 4,662 yards passing.

Why he's ranked here: From the day Seumalo stepped foot onto the Corvallis, Oregon, campus, he has been one of the Beavers’ best players. He didn’t redshirt in 2012, has started all 25 games he’s played in and was a second-team All-Pac-12 selection a year ago playing predominately at center. He’s already been named to the preseason watch lists for the Rimington Trophy, Outland Trophy and Rotary Lombardi Award. Where Seumalo winds up on the line this year -- he started a pair of games at right tackle last year -- is still to be determined and will likely have as much to do with the development around him as anything else.

At Pac-12 media days last week, Oregon State coach Mike Riley said he’s thinking of pairing Seumalo with Sean Harlow at the two guard positions. “I'd like that picture physically inside against all the interior guys that we see in there,” Riley said. It could take some time before that situation gets ironed out because Seumalo is still recovering from a foot injury he suffered during the Hawaii Bowl that kept him out of spring practice. Riley doesn’t anticipate the injury will keep him out during the regular season, but didn’t rule out the possibility he could sit the first week against Portland State.

18. Washington CB Marcus Peters

2013 stats: Recorded 55 tackles, 5 interceptions, defended 14 passes and recovered 2 fumbles.

Why he's ranked here: Along with USC defensive end Leonard Williams (first team), Peters (second) was one of two defensive players to receive first- or second-team All-Pac-12 honors as a sophomore last season. His five interceptions (tied for fifth) and 14 passes defended (tied for first) were among the best numbers in the conference. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call Peters the Huskies’ most important player on defense this season as the lone returning starter in the secondary. For new defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski, Peters will ideally serve as a measure of consistency while the rest of the secondary takes shape early in the season.

Peters has the attention of NFL scouts, too. Among underclassmen, ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Peters as the No. 2 corner in the country Insider and currently has him as the No. 19 player on the Way-Too-Early 2015 Big Board Insider. Peters has two seasons of eligibility remaining.

17. Washington DE Hau'oli Kikaha

2013 stats: Among the conference leaders with 13 sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss.

Why he's ranked here: What Shelton means to the Huskies on the interior, Kikaha means to the pass rush. In 13 games a year ago, Kikaha recorded 13 sacks to rank second in the Pac-12 behind Stanford's Trent Murphy, who led the nation with 15. Not only did his sack total rank second in the conference last year, but it fell just 1.5 sacks shy of Jason Chorak’s single-season school record from 1996.

Kikaha finished last season on a high note when he was named defensive MVP of the Fight Hunger Bowl after he registered three sacks, nine tackles and a forced fumble in Washington’s win against BYU. With an inexperienced secondary playing behind him, Kikaha’s role as a pass-rusher will be even more important this year, especially considering the level of quarterback play expected across the conference.

16. Stanford S Jordan Richards

2013 stats: Recorded 69 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 3 interceptions and defended 3 passes.

Why he's ranked here: The top-ranked safety in the conference (at this point Richards is still a more proven commodity than USC's Su'a Cravens), Richards will be an All-American candidate playing in what has the potential to be one of Stanford’s best secondaries in years. Even playing next to Ed Reynolds last season, who left early for the NFL and was drafted by Philadelphia in the fifth round, Richards proved to be the most consistent player in the Cardinal’s secondary. He’s fast enough to stay with players in coverage and strong enough to step into the box and help against the run.

Richards is currently on the watch lists for the Lott IMPACT Trophy, Bednarik Award and Nagurski Award and was an All-Pac-12 honorable mention selection the past two seasons. With Reynolds gone, Richards will see extended playing time next to a different safety for the first time in his Stanford career. As things sit, Kyle Olugbode, Zach Hoffpauir and Kodi Whitfield figure to be the top three candidates for that role and none of them has much experience -- or in Whitfield’s case, no experience as a safety in college football.

The countdown

25-21: 25. Stanford DE Henry Anderson; 24. Utah WR Dres Anderson; 23. USC S Su'a Cravens; 22. Oregon RB Byron Marshall; 21. Arizona WR Austin Hill
Over the past few weeks, ESPN writers and analysts sat down to rank the top 100 football players in the country based on their own predictions of the kind of contribution -- both quantitatively and qualitatively -- they’d make to their team in this upcoming season.

We perused about 460 different players who hailed from each position group and conference across the country and ranked those players on a scale of 0-10. If we thought a player would be a “stellar contributor,” we ranked him somewhere in the 8-10 range.

A “solid contributor” earned a 4-7 ranking and a “contributor” (meaning, he’ll certainly contribute but not to the level of the others who were listed on the voting sheet) was given a 0-3. Their averages were found and then ranked and we were left with the top 100 players.

Twenty players from the Pac-12 made their way on to the list, including two players in the top 10 (both of which are from the same team -- can you guess whom?). This week, we’ll be counting down those 100 players. Keep your eyes here as we begin our march toward the 2014 season.
For his career, Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion has officially carried 84 times for minus-498 yards. That's an average of minus-5.9 yards per carry, for those scrambling for a calculator. He has one career rushing touchdown. It came in 2011 and was, naturally, a 1-yard score. Of course, those numbers are deflated by the 61 times he's been sacked. But you get the idea.

Sean Mannion isn't a runner.

And in a conference silly with running quarterbacks and Heisman hopefuls and unprecedented depth at the position, Mannion is the old-school prototypical pocket passer. Big (6-foot-5). Sturdy (220 pounds). And productive to the tune of 10,436 career passing yards and 68 touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeSean Mannion
Steve Conner/Icon SMISean Mannion's skilled pocket game will probably make him the Pac-12's all-time leading passer by Halloween.
By the time you're buying your Halloween costume, Mannion will probably be the Pac-12's all-time leading passer. And yet that almost seems blasť with excess of quarterback talent in the league this year. He's not a Heisman frontrunner, or, as we've already established, any kind of runner for that matter. That hype belongs to Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley.

He wasn't first- or second-team all-conference, despite 4,662 passing yards and 37 touchdowns in 2013. Those honors went to Mariota and ASU's Taylor Kelly. Heck, even Stanford's Kevin Hogan, who operates a pro-style scheme, broke through because the coaching staff designed a special read-and-run option package for him. And with "raid" quarterbacks Jared Goff and Connor Halliday, Mannion isn't even the only pocket guy.

No question, Mannion has NFL talent. He was given a third-round grade by the NFL Draft Advisory Board. And with another strong year, he might develop into a first-round talent, given his frame, his understanding of the pro-style offense and his skill set. But in the Pac-12 pecking order, where exactly does he fit in?

"I don't really know. And to be honest, it's not something I spend a lot of time thinking about," Mannion said. "I don't think about pecking order. I feel like when I'm playing well and at my best, I'm as good as or better than anyone. But all I'm worrying about is being the best Sean Mannion I can be. But I also know I'm as good as anyone when I'm at my best."

It's been a whirlwind couple of weeks for Mannion, who won skills competitions at both the Elite 11 camp and the Manning Passing Academy. To claim the crown at the Manning Camp, he had to connect with moving golf carts moving at distances of 10 and 20 yards and a "deep ball" cart. Not surprising, Mannion went 4-for-4 on the deep ball. He did, after all, spend all of last year throwing to Biletnikoff winner Brandin Cooks. And Cooks is faster than a golf cart.

"Yes, he certainly is," Mannion said. "But it was more about getting the ball out of your hand fast and getting your grip and getting rid of it."

This time last year, Mannion didn't even know if he'd be Oregon State's starting quarterback, let alone go on to have a record-setting season. A 2012 quarterback competition with Cody Vaz spilled into the 2013 summer, leaving many to wonder if Mannion would ever develop into an upper-echelon quarterback. He proved more than capable last year, re-writing school and conference records along the way.

"Right now, I feel like I'm as prepared as I've ever been," Mannion said. "Even last year with the whole controversy or competition or whatever, at that time, I felt like I was as prepared as I could possibly be. It was a little tough because you weren't really sure what was going to happen Week 1. But now I'm able to take a deep breath and not worry about that and just keep preparing."

And that means improving on those skills that make him an intriguing NFL prospect. Like getting the ball out quicker -- a skill he shored up at the Manning Academy. It also means playing to his strengths. And Mannion knows what his are ... and aren't. So while other notable Pac-12 quarterbacks will be getting it done in the air and on the ground, Mannion will stick to what he does best.

"College football has transitioned so much more into the spread and the shotgun and running quarterbacks," he said. "I'm not a big runner. So I think I landed in the right spot. There are still a lot of good pro-style systems out there. And this has been, for me, the perfect fit."

Five Pac-12 players to root for

July, 11, 2014
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There is no shortage of players who will excite on the field in the Pac-12 this season, but it's not all about on-field performance. Whether it's for their off-field contributions or their on-field demeanor, here are five guys worth rooting for even if they don't play for your team.

Taylor Kelly, quarterback, Arizona State: Quick, who was the second-team All-Pac-12 quarterback last season -- UCLA’s Brett Hundley or Arizona State’s Kelly? Outside the Pac-12, the assumption would probably be Hundley, and that would be wrong. Kelly quietly led ASU to the best regular-season record in the Pac-12 last season and has a likely NFL future. His time in Tempe hasn’t been one big party, either. The Master’s candidate volunteers at local schools two days a week and is heavily involved in the Scholar Baller leadership and outreach program, for which he teaches high school students about leadership and character among other things. Kelly is also an accomplished drag racer, but that passion is currently on hold at the request of ASU coach Todd Graham. As a result of his vast car knowledge, Kelly has turned into the de facto mechanic for the ASU football team.

[+] EnlargeMariota
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsWhen Marcus Mariota isn't piling up big stats on the field, he can usually be found studying somewhere.
Marcus Mariota, quarterback, Oregon: After passing up a good shot at being the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft to return to school, Mariota has all the makings of a Heisman Trophy favorite. And he won’t come with much controversy. If Andrew Luck set the standard for unassuming superstar quarterbacks in the Pac-12, Mariota isn’t far behind. He’s quiet, he’s polite, he’s humble and while pursuing a degree in General Science, he has developed a reputation as one of the most studious athletes on campus. For those looking for reasons to root against him, as an individual, it will be hard to justify.

Toni Pole, defensive tackle, Washington State: When Pole intercepted a Keith Price pass in overtime and nearly returned it for a touchdown in the 2012 Apple Cup, he created a memory Washington State fans will remember for a long time. For many, that is not the only lasting impression he has produced. Pole is a frequent volunteer in the Pullman community, and his philantrophic efforts have included helping to put on “Butch’s Bash,” a holiday party for local kids. He makes trips to the local senior center where he plays games with the residents and is musically inclined. When the Cougars are on the road, he can be found playing the piano in hotel lobbies and has sang the National Anthem at women’s basketball games.

Ty Montgomery, receiver, Stanford: Stanford coach David Shaw has said Montgomery has the talent to be a No. 1 receiver in the NFL, but after big junior year with the Cardinal, Montgomery didn’t even consider a pre-graduation jump to Sunday football. He didn’t even ask for an evaluation from the NFL or for a draft-round projection, which is common for draft-eligible players. He chose Stanford largely for academic reasons and chose to stay for the same. As soft-spoken as they come, Montgomery has already been named to the Maxwell and Hornung Award watch lists and is one of the more dynamic kick returners in the country.

Stefan McClure, cornerback, Cal: After a solid true freshman season in 2011, McClure appeared on his way to a great career for Cal. It hasn’t quite worked out that way, but it’s not for a lack of talent. He sat out the 2012 season rehabbing a torn ACL, then suffered another torn ACL five games into last season. If there is anyone who could use some good vibes coming his way, it’s McClure.

PHOENIX -- Pac-12 coaches on Tuesday finished up the first day of the spring meetings with the morning session filled with mostly housekeeping items: scheduling, the College Football Playoff, bowl affiliations, summer practices and player stipends.

The largest news item to come out of the day was the discussion to move the Pac-12 championship game to Levi’s Stadium, the future home of the San Francisco 49ers, in Santa Clara, California. No coaches gave specifics on a timeline of when this would be put into effect, but it could happen as early as 2014.

Since the Pac-12 conference expanded to 12 teams in 2011, the game has been held at the stadium of the division champion with the better record. Levi’s Stadium, which will be completed and opened by August, will hold 68,500 fans.

Stanford coach David Shaw, who has been in the Pac-12 championship game two years in a row (with one as the home team and one as the visiting team), said he’s split on the idea of the neutral site game and that both options offer exciting opportunities for schools and fans.

Washington State coach Mike Leach said he’s excited about the idea of the game being played at Levi’s Stadium, though he said not every coach was as on board with the idea as he was.

Washington athletic director Scott Woodward said the neutral game site idea is “a total guess … but potentially a really great market,” noting the large Pac-12 alumni base in the Bay Area.

“I trust the league and what they want to do,” he said. “I have no problem one way or the other.”

The three-hour afternoon session was focused on officiating, according to Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
AP Photo/Kevin ReeceCoach David Shaw and Stanford have played in the last two Pac-12 title games.
He said one of the biggest talking points was in regard to the NCAA’s 10-second rule proposal, which would have allowed defenses to substitute within the first 10 seconds of the 40-second play clock. Under this proposal, offenses wouldn’t be allowed to snap the ball until the 29-second mark of the play clock, which would’ve severely affected up-tempo teams. The NCAA Football Rules Committee tabled the proposal in March.

Shaw said the 10-second rule was “ridiculous” and doesn’t believe the rule will ever be brought up again.

“It caught everybody by surprise,” Rodriguez said. “We wondered, ‘How did that happen?’ … That was a scary part. We have to make sure in the future that we as coaches do our job to stay involved in anything that may affect the game itself or the people playing the game.”

Coaches also discussed the new rule that will be enforced on quarterback hits, which states that no rushing player is allowed to hit a quarterback at or below the knee when the QB is in a passing posture.

Shaw said the difficulty with that rule is how the officials will decide whether a defensive player is being blocked into a QB or hitting the player on his own.

“That’s the biggest distinction,” he said. “But I think it’s great. We all want to protect the quarterbacks as much as anybody. But we also like hitting quarterbacks. But it’s great for us to know when we can hit them and when we can’t.”

The spring meetings continue Wednesday morning with the coaches and athletic directors from each respective school (though Oregon State athletic director Bob De Carolis won’t be in attendance) meeting from 10 a.m. to noon, and then the athletic directors continuing their meetings until 6:30 p.m.

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.
In typical Mike Riley fashion, when asked to name his biggest concern heading into spring ball, the dean of the conference coaches countered with a quip: “Do I have to just name one?”

[+] EnlargeStorm Woods
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsStorm Woods may be one of the keys to a more balanced attack this season.
Well, at least he doesn’t have to worry about a quarterback competition this spring. But there are several to-do’s on his checklist. Among them: Rework the offensive line, solidify the defensive line, shore up the secondary and pick a backup quarterback.

Oh, yeah: “Find a way to replace 128 catches,” he said, referring to Biletnikoff Award winner Brandin Cooks, who left school early for the NFL draft.

It’s actually the success of Cooks and quarterback Sean Mannion that led to one of Riley’s biggest pet peeves last season: the inability to successfully, consistently, run the football.

Several times last year, Riley stated that he wanted the Beavers to be more balanced. Then again, when you have a strong-armed quarterback such as Mannion and a phenomenal receiver such as Cooks, the temptation is there to air it out as much as possible.

But with Cooks gone, Riley said he’s looking to make a return to a more balanced rushing attack. In 2011, the Beavers averaged just 86 yards per game on the ground -- last in the conference. Then, in 2012, they brought that number up to a respectable 124 yards per game. But they slipped again in 2013 with just 94 yards per game on the ground.

“I think ... what caused the most problems for us in the season offensively was when we got to the real good defenses,” Riley said. “We played the top three defenses in the league three weeks in a row -- Stanford, Arizona State and USC -- and not running the ball is really a detriment to winning those games. We didn’t. We’ve got to be more balanced.”

The Beavers rushed for more than 100 yards in five of 13 games last season. In six games, they gained 74 yards or fewer, including a season-low 10 against San Diego State and 17 against Stanford. However, the final two games offered a glimpse of what Riley wants his offense to look like. The Beavers rushed for a season-high 231 yards in a Civil War loss to Oregon and 195 yards in the Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl victory over Boise State.

“Those were two good-looking football games offensively,” Riley said. “That is a way better picture of our ideal look. Good balance, good play-action passes. I think it really helps the offensive line. It helps the quarterback. It helps in protection if you can run the ball.”

Storm Woods and Terron Ward are already separated by an “or” on the depth chart and the status of the offensive line further complicates things. The Beavers have to replace three starters on the offensive line: left tackle Michael Philipp, left guard Josh Andrews and right guard Grant Enger. Though standout center Isaac Seumalo returns, he’ll miss spring ball with a foot injury and Josh Mitchell will miss the session with a shoulder injury. Both are expected back for fall camp. Returning tackle Sean Harlow is tentatively slated at left guard, but he’s versatile enough to move around the line and will get some snaps at center.

“You’d love to start developing the chemistry with the starting five as soon as you can,” Riley said. “Because of competition reasons and injuries, we’re not even going to be close to that in spring ball. We just have to develop players and then find out who fits into that top five.”

As for the guy who is handing the ball off, there’s no debate this spring. Mannion is back after a record-setting 2013 season. The battle to be the backup, however, is up for grabs between Brent VanderVeen and Kyle Kempt.

“It is an open competition,” Riley said. “Even though Brent is a year ahead, I think we need to let that thing evolve and let those guys compete to see who is going to be the backup.”

Spring preview capsules: Pac-12 North

February, 27, 2014
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A glimpse at what's going on in the Pac-12 North:

CALIFORNIA

Spring start: March 31
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Kaufman effect: New defensive coordinator Art Kaufman has his work cut out for him after inheriting a Cal defense that allowed 45.9 points per game during coach Sonny Dykes' first season. This isn't a case of needing few tweaks back to respectability; it could take a complete overhaul to get things turned in the right direction.
  • Developing Goff:Jared Goff jumped right into the starting job as a true freshman, and his considerable talent was evident from the beginning. With a year under his belt, Goff will take on more of a leadership role as he begins his first spring as the unquestioned starter.
  • Get healthy: Cal's 2013 season was met with a rash of injuries that made one of the nation's toughest schedules even tougher to navigate. The Golden Bears will show extreme caution during the spring as to remain as healthy as possible for fall camp.
OREGON

Spring start: April 1
Spring game: May 3

What to watch:
  • Life after Mariota? Much like Andrew Luck's 2011 season at Stanford, it's clear Marcus Mariota is headed into his final season as the Ducks quarterback despite having two years of eligibility left. It really began last season, but Jeff Lockie and Jake Rodrigues, who served as dual backups last year, will continue to compete for the soon-to-be-vacated starting job.
  • Pellum takes over: Don Pellum replaces longtime defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, who held the job for the previous 17 seasons. It'll take some adjusting without Aliotti around, but Pellum, who has spent 23 years coaching at Oregon, figures to make it close to a seamless transition.
  • Building receiver depth: Bralon Addison is back, but the Ducks will need to find players to replace Josh Huff, Daryle Hawkins and De'Anthony Thomas in the passing game. Keanon Lowe will likely jump into the No. 2 role, but after that the pecking order is unclear.
OREGON STATE

Spring start: March 31
Spring game: May 3

What to watch:
  • Garrett steps in: There won't be any major philosophical overhauls under new offensive coordinator John Garrett, but new twists are inevitable. He and fifth-year senior quarterback Sean Mannion will spend the spring getting on the same page.
  • Revitalized running game? Running backs Terron Ward and Storm Woods will have to be more involved as the Beavers pursue greater offensive balance. Chris Brown's development will be important to add depth at the position after he saw scarce playing time as a redshirt freshman.
  • Replacing Crichton: Receiver Brandin Cooks isn't the only big-name player leaving Corvallis; finding a replacement for defensive end Scott Crichton will be just as important. Lavonte Barnett and Jaswha James are two players to keep in mind at the spot opposite Dylan Wynn, while defensive tackle Jalen Grimble should immediately contribute on the line as well.
STANFORD

Spring start: Feb. 24
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • RB by committee? After Stanford's first spring practice, coach David Shaw touched on how it might become a running-back-by-committee in the Stanford backfield. He said it last year too, but without an experienced ball carrier on the roster, it rings truer this time.
  • Reloading on defense: The Cardinal had four defensive players at the NFL combine and also will replace first-team All-Pac-12 defensive end Ben Gardner. OLB Kevin Anderson, S Kodi Whitfield, DE Luke Kaumatule and ILB Blake Martinez are four players fighting for a chance at more playing time.
  • Staff changes: The program faces the most staff turnover in Shaw's tenure, with defensive coordinator Derek Mason (head coach, Vanderbilt), quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford (offensive coordinator, Boise State) and inside linebackers coach David Kotulski (defensive coordinator, Vanderbilt) all taking promotions elsewhere. Spring will be an important time to bring new coaches Lance Taylor and Pete Hansen -- and a third yet to be hired -- up to speed.
WASHINGTON

Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Petersen era begins: Chris Petersen's arrival to a major conference will be a national story line heading into the 2014 season. After posting a 92-12 record at Boise State in eight seasons, expectations are high in Seattle, where he'll replace Steve Sarkisian.
  • Status of Miles/Stringfellow: Quarterback Cyler Miles, who was expected to take over as the starting quarterback, and receiver Damore'ea Stringfellow were suspended indefinitely on Feb. 6, leaving questions about their status with the team. With Miles away, Jeff Lindquist and Troy Williams will get more opportunities.
  • Replacing Sankey: Jesse Callier, Deontae Cooper and Dwayne Washington will all compete for carries with Bishop Sankey off to the NFL. That much is clear. How the offense will use the trio isn't, thanks to the arrival of Petersen.
WASHINGTON STATE

Spring start: March 27
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:

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