NCF Nation: #4Pac

#4pac: Biggest surprise so far in 2014?

September, 11, 2014
Sep 11
videoYour humble #4Pac welcomes you to another installment of what will be a regular feature on the Pac-12 blog. Here's how it works: We take one question or one topic, or maybe it's some other really cool format that we haven't even thought of yet, and all contribute our thoughts.

Have a suggestion for something we should address in a future #4Pac roundtable? Go ahead and send it to our mailbag.

Today, we're identifying the biggest surprise through the first two weeks of the season.

Ted Miller/@TedMillerRK: UCLA is 2-0 so nothing it has thus far done qualifies as shocking. If the Bruins, popular alternative choice to Oregon as the Pac-12's lead candidate for the College Football Playoff, had lost to either Virginia or Memphis, then we would be shocked. Then we would be talking about massive disappointment and the dreaded "overrated" label. Yet the Bruins have been so unimpressive the first two weeks of the season, which has seen them drop from No. 7 to No. 12 in the AP poll without losing, that it almost rates as alarming. Almost.

[+] EnlargeJim Mora
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesThe Bruins haven't looked pretty thus far but if they get to 4-0 with wins over Texas and ASU, they'll be back in the playoff hunt.
In Week 1 at Virginia, the offense was awful, particularly the offensive line. In Week 2 at home against Memphis, the offense found its rhythm but the defense yielded 35 points -- 28 actually, as Brett Hundley threw a pick-six -- and 469 yards. Neither of these opponents would rate as a middling Pac-12 team, and both pushed UCLA to the limit.

The glass-half-full side is UCLA is unbeaten, and, really, all it needs to do is bring together the defense from Game 1 and the offense from Game 2. That combination would resemble the Bruins we expected to see this fall. Perhaps we get that on Saturday against Texas in Cowboys Stadium. Or maybe the Bruins wait to unveil that complete effort at Arizona State on Sept. 25.

Or maybe we don't ever get the team we expected to see this fall.

Despite all the hand-wringing, the Bruins are still in good position. If they get to 4-0, it won't really matter how they looked getting there. They'll be firmly back in the top 10 and in the CFP hunt.

Kyle Bonagura/@BonaguraESPN: It’s been a strange two weeks in the state of Washington. If before the season started anyone would have predicted Washington State would start 0-2 or Washington would play tight games with both Hawaii and Eastern Washington, it would have been met with laughs and/or anger. From fans of each team, probably mostly anger.

The degree of the Huskies’ struggles is a little bit easier to explain. They have a new coach, they traveled to Hawaii without their starting quarterback, they played a very good team in Eastern Washington and can still take solace in a 2-0 record. But still. After watching both games, it’s hard -- at this point -- to see Washington taking that next step in the Pac-12 North like many people, myself included, thought was possible this year. Obviously, that can change, but a believe-it-when-we-see-it approach is more appropriate right now.

Across the state, finding the silver lining in an 0-2 start is much more difficult. At times, quarterback Connor Halliday has looked like an All-American and the AirRaid has functioned like a machine, but teamwide inconsistency qualifies as shocking. The assumption going into the season was that in Year 3 under Mike Leach, consistency was one area that would be less of a concern. Outside of the most devout fans, previously realistic bowl expectations have vanished.

Kevin Gemmell/@Kevin_Gemmell: Count me among the folks who didn’t think USC would be 2-0 at this point in the season. I’ll take my crow sautéed with a pinot noir reduction. And, the tiramisu for dessert.

[+] EnlargeSoma Vainuku
Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY SportsDespite the drama around the program, the Trojans are 2-0 with a signature win over Stanford.
On the field, the Trojans looked phenomenal one week and good enough to get it done the next week. Off the field, it’s been a bizarre soap opera.

Asked on this week’s Pac-12 coach’s teleconference what he would do to have a drama-free week, coach Steve Sarkisian replied: “I don’t think that exists around here.”

And yet despite all of that, the Trojans are 2-0 with a signature win over Stanford and ranked No. 9 in the country. Cody Kessler is playing very efficiently, completing 67.8 percent of his passes and Buck Allen is getting Heisman buzz with 287 yards through two games and 6.4 yards per carry. The freshmen are as advertised and Leonard Williams is a beast.

I was impressed to see how the Trojans handled things in Week 1. But I was surprised to see them out-discipline Stanford in Week 2.

I guess I shouldn’t be. If there is any team in the Pac-12 equipped to handle so much drama, it’s the Trojans. Most of these guys have lived through four head coaches in the past 12 months and enough storylines to give their beat writers carpal tunnel syndrome.

USC draws eyeballs and flashbulbs regardless. And so far Sarkisian & Co. have handled it wonderfully.

Chantel Jennings/@ChantelJennings: I’ve been pretty surprised with how well so many questions have been answered regarding who would step up in the absence of lost talent.

Everyone wondered: Who would replace Brandin Cooks? Who would replace Oregon’s receivers and De'Anthony Thomas? Who would replace Marion Grice? Who would replace Marqise Lee?

And guess what? Most of those questions have been answered. I assumed eventually guys would step up for each of those players, but I thought there might be more of a learning curve. But it’s Week 3 and these names have emerged. Not too shabby, Pac-12.

Oregon State wide receiver Victor Bolden has stepped up in Cooks’ absence and the Beavers are actually putting together a good run game to pick up some of the lost yardage too. And speaking of yardage on the ground, D.J. Foster has already rushed for 363 yards and four scores in two games. Yes, Weber State and New Mexico aren’t exactly run-stopping machines, but still, that has to make ASU fans feel pretty confident. Nelson Agholor and JuJu Smith are becoming solid targets for USC quarterback Cody Kessler and through two games their production has been enough to keep the Trojans undefeated.

And De'Anthony who? With the running backs the Ducks have, it’s pretty crazy to feel like they’re missing anything. Byron Marshall has becoming a main receiving threat out of the back field while Thomas Tyner and Royce Freeman are the bruisers. And Marcus Mariota doesn’t seem to be having any issues establishing chemistry with young receivers like Devon Allen and Darren Carrington -- they’ve accounted for 249 yards and two touchdowns through two games.

#4Pac: Most surprising player in 2014?

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
Your humble #4Pac welcomes you to another installment of what'll be a regular feature on the Pac-12 blog. Here's how it works: We take one question, one topic or maybe it's some other really cool format that we haven't even thought of yet and all contribute our thoughts.

Sometimes, like today, we'll be playing devil's advocate for a specific team, player or idea.

Have a suggestion for something we should address in a future #4Pac roundtable? Go ahead and send it to our mailbag.

Today, we're looking for a player who may surprise the league by becoming a household name. They're already established contributors on their own teams, but they may be poised to join the upper echelon in the league with strong showings in 2014.

Utah QB Travis Wilson

Ted Miller/@TedMillerRK: The best news is Travis Wilson is still playing football. It wasn't so long ago that it appeared his career was threatened by an injury to an intracranial artery. The good news, at least for Utah fans, is that he successfully fought off a legitimate challenge this preseason from Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson.

It's not just good news that the Utes will have a 16-game starter behind center. It's that Wilson wasn't handed the job as a sentimental gesture. He competed and won. And he's won over new offensive coordinator Dave Christensen. That means Utah, a team that has struggled with quarterback play since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, has an experienced player behind center who has flashed real ability, both as a passer and a runner.

If you're looking for an under-the-radar guy who might surprise you, who might lead a team back toward its accustomed winning ways, it's Wilson.

Recall that Utah, though coming off consecutive losing seasons, was 4-2 after an upset win over Stanford in mid-October of last year. Those two losses came in overtime to Oregon State and by seven points to UCLA, despite a dreadful six interceptions from Wilson. Even with those picks, however, Wilson's efficiency rating at the time was just four points lower than Arizona State's Taylor Kelly, who ended up second-team All-Pac-12.

Wilson has something to prove, but he also has the means to prove it. The Utes are going to surround him with good offensive talent, starting with perhaps the Pac-12's most underrated crew of receivers -- underrated in large part because so many other teams are good at the position. He has weapons to help him and a solid offensive line to protect him. Don't be surprised if you're looking at the sparkling Pac-12 QB numbers and see his name ranking in the top half.

Stanford LB James Vaughters

Kyle Bonagura/@BonaguraESPN: Vaughters' arrival at Stanford in 2011 signaled a significant change in the way Stanford was able to recruit. The Cardinal went into Georgia and pried away one of the most coveted recruits in the country.

Vaughters had offers from Alabama, Georgia and just about every big-name school in the country -- so listing him here is not so much a surprise as it is a breakthrough. He bounced around from defensive end to inside linebacker to finally outside linebacker last season when he played opposite All-American Trent Murphy. The results were good -- 36 tackles in 14 starts with four sacks -- but he’s still never quite reached the heights his recruiting profile suggested.

This year, that changes. A.J. Tarpley is going to lead the team in tackles, but Vaughters will be the most physically imposing player on the Cardinal defense and the player most capable of delivering a highlight-caliber hit. At 6-foot-2 and 258 pounds, I fully expect him to push double digits in sacks and turn himself into a legitimate NFL prospect.

Stanford needs that out of him, too. Murphy meant so much to the defense a year ago and with him gone, Vaughters’ role will be key.

USC RB Buck Allen

Kevin Gemmell/@Kevin_Gemmell: All this guy does is take advantage of his opportunities. You tell him he’s under the radar and he runs over the radar on his way to the end zone.

It’s likely we’ll see him shuffle carries with Tre Madden (when he gets healthy) and Justin Davis. But when you look at what Allen accomplished last season, it’s pretty impressive.

After spending the first portion of his career on Lane Kiffin’s do-not-play list (six carries for 32 yards in 2012), he exploded in the second half of last year and turned into one of the most productive backs in the league, earning all-conference honorable mention along the way. He had four 100-yard rushing performances in the final six games and finished the season with 135 carries for 785 yards (5.8 average) and 14 touchdowns.

When you look at what Steve Sarkisian’s up-tempo twist did for Bishop Sankey last season in Washington (1,870 yards and 20 touchdowns, in case you forgot) it’s hard not to get giddy about the prospect of a productive back like Allen getting a full season’s worth of carries. Whether he emerges as a solo act or part of a committee, he’s shown to be a back you have to scheme for.

Washington State WR Vince Mayle

Chantel Jennings/@ChantelJennings: Last season, Vince Mayle had 42 catches (539 yards, seven touchdowns) for the Cougars. But this year, I think he might be making a big jump. He became quarterback Connor Halliday’s go-to guy in the spring and based off the bit I saw in fall camp, the chemistry between the two is pretty darn good.

Mike Leach likes to spread the ball around to his receivers and get as many guys involved as possible, but if Mayle is Halliday’s safety net then the quarterback's going to go back to him time and time again.

Mayle has really only played wide receiver for a few seasons (he was a running back in high school and junior college), but with his learning curve, I think this could be a huge year for him. A 1,000-yard season seems a bit of a stretch considering how many wide receivers the Cougars have, but there's no reason he couldn't lead Washington State in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns by year's end.