NCF Nation: Cody Kessler

Some things to watch between USC and Nebraska in the National University Holiday Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego (8 p.m. ET, ESPN, Saturday).
  1. Nebraska must stop the rush: When Nebraska loses, it’s usually because it is having trouble stopping the run. In the Cornhuskers’ three losses this year, they’ve allowed an average of 350 yards on the ground. Giving up 408 yards to Melvin Gordon didn’t exactly help that average, either. But when they allow their opponent to average more than 4 yards per carry, they are 0-3. USC’s Buck Allen was third in the Pac-12 with 111.4 yards per game.
  2. Let Kessler be Kessler: USC quarterback Cody Kessler has a plus-32 touchdown-to-interception ratio this season (36-4). That's the third highest in FBS this season. And when he looks to Nelson Agholor, Kessler finds him better than three of every four tries (76.4 percent). That's the best completion percentage for a QB/WR duo among Power 5 schools. When he looks to Agholor beyond 15 yards, Kessler is 18-of-25 with five touchdowns and no interceptions.
  3. Ameer versus the world: When Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah faces seven or fewer defenders in the box, he’s averaging 7.2 yards per rush. However, when teams stack the box with eight or more defenders, that number drops drastically to 3.4 yards per carry. This presents the game-within-the-game chess match, because Abdullah has 791 yards rushing between the tackles and 731 yards when he hits the edge. USC had one of the top rush defenses in the Pac-12, allowing 3.9 yards per carry and 132.5 yards per game. The Trojans did, however, yield 18 touchdowns on the ground, which ranked in the bottom half of the conference.
  4. Who is motivated? Always a popular topic in bowl season. Despite the surprise hire of Mike Riley, Bo Pelini continued to leave chaos in his wake. Plus, interim coach Barney Cotton might already have one foot out the door on his way to joining Tony Sanchez at UNLV. USC, by all accounts, had an up-and-down season with a couple of "what if?" moments. Are they happy to be in a bowl under first-year coach Steve Sarkisian, or are key players already eyeballing the NFL combine?
LINCOLN, Neb. -- There are two distinctly different ways to look at the mindset of Nebraska’s players as they get ready for the National University Holiday Bowl on Saturday against USC.

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Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsAmeer Abdullah and the Huskers look to end their season with a win over USC.
The Huskers, who leave Tuesday for San Diego, have endured a tumultuous month -- from the firing of coach Bo Pelini on Nov. 30, two days after their overtime win at Iowa, to the deconstruction of his old staff as new coach Mike Riley hired his own assistants.

There was also the public reveal last week, presumably initiated by someone among them, of a volatile audiotape from Pelini’s final meeting with the players Dec. 2.

How, after all of that, can the Huskers be ready to play a football game? It’s a question for which they offer few answers. The past is behind them, quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. said.

“I’m focused on our staff,” he said. “These players and getting ready for USC.”

From the alternate perspective, the events of the past three weeks might have galvanized the Huskers.

As Armstrong suggests, they are driven to play well for interim coach Barney Cotton and the other eight assistant coaches, seven of whom likely will not remain at Nebraska after this week.

Riley plans to keep only secondary coach Charlton Warren.

Essentially, this is the last chance for the Huskers to work with the coaches who recruited them. It’s a motivating factor.

So is the desire to show well in front of Riley. The former Oregon State coach has watched from afar as Nebraska practiced this month and figures to use the Holiday Bowl as another chance to start evaluating his 2015 roster.

Mainly, though, they want to end this season well for one another.

“The things we’ve faced over the month, we’ve put them behind us,” safety Nate Gerry said. “We’ve kind of realized Saturday is the last time we’ve got together, and we’re just going to use our energy to go out there and play well for each other -- not really worry about anything.

“Play for the guys who brought you to Nebraska. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to give it all I’ve got, like I know they’re going to do for me.”

If you get past the forest of subplots, an interesting matchup awaits.

Nebraska, 9-3 and winless in four games against the Trojans (most recently a 49-31 home loss in 2007) has a chance to finish with its best record since 2003 -- the season after which coach Frank Solich and his first-year defensive coordinator, Pelini, were fired.

Parts of this game, to be telecast at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN, look especially appetizing.

The Huskers the lead the nation in opponent completion rate at 47.5 percent; USC is No. 1 in completion percentage at 70.1. Nebraska ranks 10th in yards per opponent pass play and ninth in third-down conversion rate allowed; the Trojans rank 18th and fourth in the respective offensive categories.

It's safe to say, though, Nebraska has not faced a foe such as USC. Michigan State, the most productive passing offense among the Huskers’ 12 opponents, ranks 38th nationally.

“It will be interesting to see what happens,” defensive end Greg McMullen told reporters last week. “That could probably benefit us by them throwing a whole lot.”

McMullen said he thinks the Nebraska defensive line can pressure USC quarterback Cody Kessler.

Likely, it depends somewhat on the effectiveness of fellow end Randy Gregory. The junior, an elite NFL prospect, missed the season finale. He battled injuries most of the season and returned to practice Friday in Lincoln.

Nebraska also faces injuries on the offensive line. At center, Mark Pelini and top backup Ryne Reeves are out, as is Zach Sterup at right tackle.

“We’ve got to make sure we win our one-on-ones,” Armstrong said. “They play a lot of man -- make you beat them on the outside. And they’ve got a great, physical defensive line.”

No matter the individual battles, for Nebraska, the Holiday Bowl will boil down to a question: Can the Huskers find the right mindset?

“It’s not about how I want to end,” said senior I-back Ameer Abdullah, allowed extra time to heal from a knee injury that slowed him in November. “It’s about how we should end things.”
There is no such thing as a perfect All-Anything team, but the Pac-12 blog likes to believe its All-Pac-12 team came close.

Or at least inched closer than the official All-Pac-12 team, selected by the coaches, that listed UCLA's Butkus Award-winning linebacker Eric Kendricks on the second team. We agreed with most of their selections, but made a change in format and selected 12 offensive and defensive players (to account for varying schemes).

It still didn't feel like enough spots for the amount of deserving players.

So with that in mind, here are some more players that deserved consideration. It's not a second-team and doesn't mean these players were more deserving than others not listed, just a sampling of players to show how competitive these things are.

QB Brett Hundley, UCLA: Without taking expectations into account, Hundley had a great season: 3,019 yards passing, 21 touchdowns, five interceptions. It might not have been what he or UCLA fans were hoping for, but still a season worth remembering.

QB Cody Kessler, USC: All Kessler did was throw for 3,505 yards and 36 touchdown passes to just four interceptions as the Trojans scored 35.1 points per game. Put him in any other conference and he’s a candidate for Offensive Player of the Year.

RBs Buck Allen (USC), Royce Freeman (Oregon), Nick Wilson (Arizona), D.J. Foster (ASU): There wasn't a clear divide between the conference's six best running backs and there are convincing arguments for why each of these guys might actually be the best back in the Pac-12.

WR Nelson Spruce, Colorado: Flip a coin between Spruce and WSU’s Vince Mayle -- they finished tied for third nationally with 106 catches. Both players were equally deserving for a spot alongside Jaelen Strong and Nelson Agholor.

Hunter Dimick (Utah), Andrew Hudson (Washington), Marcus Hardison (ASU): This trio is for the crowd that likes to measure a defensive lineman's worth by their sack numbers -- all three had at least 10.

LB Jared Norris, Utah: It was easy to leave him off because of the depth at the position, but Norris’ 108 tackles, which ranked fourth in the Pac-12, is worth noting.

LB/S Su'a Cravens, sophomore, USC: Cravens might have been the toughest player to leave off the team, but it wasn’t because he wasn’t deserving. If he remained at safety, there probably would have been a place for him, but since he played most of the season at outside linebacker listing him at safety wouldn’t have felt right.

CB Alex Carter Stanford: Outside of Oregon’s Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Carter might be the best NFL corner prospect in the conference. His lack of interceptions (1) and tackles (29) reflect opposing quarterbacks’ reluctancy to throw in his direction.
Brett Hundley, Cody KesslerAP PhotosBrett Hundley and Cody Kessler will be fighting for individual awards and the Pac-12 South title.
It's safe to assume that when the postseason awards are handed out, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota will once again be holding top honors as the league's first-team all-conference quarterback.

Second team, however is still up for grabs. And this weekend's rivalry game between USC and UCLA might move the debate. There are only two quarterbacks in the conference who are completing more than 70 percent of their throws -- UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley (72.1) and USC quarterback Cody Kessler (70.2).

And while there are plenty of dynamic players on both sidelines, it's the quarterbacks who typically take center stage in this rivalry.

"I think a big part of deciding that stuff will be in this game," Kessler said. "Brett has played really well this year. He's one of my good friends and he's done a great job. I'm happy for him. This game will probably help define that. Not just the all-conference stuff. But some of the other awards and the Battle of L.A. thing. This game has a lot of emphasis on the quarterbacks and it's going to be a fun competition."

The league's two most accurate passers took different routes to get to where they are heading into Saturday. Hundley had a "competition" in the spring of 2012, but easily emerged as the starter before the season began and hasn't looked back since. Kessler's road has been more serpentine, as he had to win over two different coaching staffs (and multiple head coaches) along the way.

No one is going to confuse the two. They play very different styles, run different schemes and bring unique skill sets to their teams. But coaches who have seen both this season agree on the same thing: Both are very good at what they do.

"Very different style, but equally effective," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who was on the winning end of both games against the L.A. schools this season. "Both of them are tremendous talents. I believe both will play a long time in this sport beyond college. Kessler is more of a traditional, pocket, NFL-type guy. Hundley is very dynamic and can run the football as well as throw it. They are both great leaders and do a great job in their respective systems. Should be a great matchup."

Even the way they handle pressure is a contrast in styles. Per ESPN Stats & Information, Kessler is completing 57.4 percent of his throws when he's under duress, which is tops among Power 5 quarterbacks. Conversely, Hundley ranks second among Power 5 quarterbacks with 391 scramble yards. One sticks in the pocket, the other uses his legs to make plays downfield.

"I think that Kessler is really doing a nice job executing that offense and taking care of the ball and not making mistakes," said Cal coach Sonny Dykes, who dropped both games to USC and UCLA. "Hundley can make a lot of plays with his feet. In some ways, he's probably at his best when he can freelance a little bit. But he's certainly capable of being a pocket guy and he does that well. I think his talent really comes out more when he's forced to make some plays with his feet and sustain some plays. They are very different that way, but they are both playing at a high level with two different styles. But both are good at what they do."

It's also worth noting that both have very strong run games supporting them. USC's Javorius "Buck" Allen leads the conference with 1,184 rushing yards. UCLA's Paul Perkins is right on his heels with 1,169 yards.

And yet for as much credit as Kessler gets for staying in the pocket and Hundley for leaving it, both aren't too bad when the roles are reversed. Kessler will never be a tuck-and-run guy, but he can improvise if needed.

"He has that in his arsenal," USC coach Steve Sarkisian said. "… He probably doesn't get enough credit for being as good of an athlete as he is. But I think we'd all prefer for him to stay within the system and utilize his reads and throws."

And Hundley -- who leads all FBS quarterbacks in completion percentage -- has to be a good pocket passer for those kinds of numbers. And when the Bruins throw on first down, he's completing nearly three out of every four passes (74.8 percent).

Of course, these two aren't alone in the quest for all-conference honors. Cal's Jared Goff and Arizona's Anu Solomon will get strong consideration. Even injured Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday still leads the league with 32 touchdown passes and 3,873 yards.

But neither is all that concerned with that right now. Both teams are still fighting for the Pac-12 South title and a date with Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game.

"There is always going to be a lot riding on this game," Hundley said. "It's the end of the season and typically both teams are doing well. This is usually the game where the South is decided and this year it's no different. We respect them as a team. They've put together a good season. We've done the same. It's two well-respected teams and we're going to go out there and put on a show."

Cody Kessler quietly becomes star QB

November, 13, 2014
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LOS ANGELES -- Since the turn of the millennium, there has been no more celebrated spot in college football than quarterback at USC. It's produced two Heisman Trophy winners and household names pretty much every year, even after the NCAA kicked its jackboot through the front door of Heritage Hall. If you are a college football fan of just about any stripe, you know who the USC quarterback is.

So... who is the USC quarterback?

Most Pac-12 fans, after perhaps a short pause, went, "I know this... Kessler... Oh, Cody Kessler!" Just about everyone else drew a blank.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillUSC quarterback Cody Kessler has been able to celebrate 25 touchdown passes this season.
And yet Kessler is turning in a season that pretty much matches -- at least statistically -- the best of the USC QBs, and his name is replacing many of them in the Trojans record book.

Kessler has completed 69.7 percent of his throws while averaging 283 yards per game, with 25 TDs and just two interceptions. He is fourth nationally in both completion percentage and passing efficiency (168.2), and that efficiency number is on pace to break Mark Sanchez's season record of 164.6 set in 2008. Kessler ranks ninth in the nation in ESPN's Total QBR.

Against Power 5 opponents, his passing efficiency (164.7) is second best in the nation, his completion percentage (70.0 percent) is third and his passing TDs (21) are fourth. No quarterback in the nation has thrown as many passes as Kessler and had only two interceptions, and only one besides Kessler has thrown at least 25 TDs with just two interceptions.

Of course, ahead of Kessler in most measures and casting a long shadow is Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, a frontrunner for the Heisman. That isn't surprising. But it is surprising that in the Pac-12, owner the nation's deepest and most talented class of quarterbacks, it is Kessler who leads the race for second-team All-Pac-12 and not, say, UCLA's Brett Hundley or Arizona State's Taylor Kelly.

Kessler's season has not gone unnoticed, as he is one of five finalists for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, presented to the nation's top senior or fourth-year junior quarterback, along with Mariota and Hundley.

It also should be noted his numbers shouldn't be surprising as he quietly finished the 2013 season on a notable uptick, particularly after Lane Kiffin was fired. After throwing two interceptions at Arizona State last Sept. 28 -- Kiffin was fired at LAX the same night -- Kessler threw 14 touchdown passes and just three interceptions in the final nine games, and just one pick in the final five.

"If you look at the second half of last season, I think Cody really came on with his game," first-year USC coach Steve Sarkisian said. "It just continued to build on that momentum. No. 1 is his confidence, his belief in himself and the guys around him. No. 2, we were implementing a new scheme that fits his skill set. He's been making really good decisions with the football."

This season, Kessler threw a school-record seven touchdown passes against Colorado last month and followed up earlier this month with five against Washington State while reaching 400 yards for the first time in his career.

"He doesn't take any chances, that's the biggest thing," Washington State coach Mike Leach said. "They do a lot of things to make sure he's successful out there."

Leach has seen two Kesslers. In 2013, Kessler went 8 of 13 for 41 yards with an interception in a Cougars upset at USC, a notable nail in Kiffin's coffin. It has been noted frequently that Kiffin seemed to prefer big-armed Max Wittek in USC's 2013 QB competition, even though Kessler had decisively outplayed him as Matt Barkley's backup and during their spring and preseason battle. Nonetheless, Kessler has refused to take shots at Kiffin, who seemed reluctant to let Kessler throw the ball downfield, despite a talented crew of receivers.

“We had a good relationship that last year. He obviously gave me the job after a while," Kessler said of Kiffin. “[But], at times, I felt like I could do more and I wasn’t allowed to do more.”

Kessler was freed up when Clay Helton took over play-calling last season and has thrived with Sarkisian calling the Trojans' new up-tempo offense, with Helton remaining as QB coach.

Said Kessler, “I’ve really, really taken the next step with Coach Helton and Coach Sark, studying a lot more film throughout the week, knowing my opponent, knowing what look we’re going to get when we line up in what formation, knowing where I’m going with the ball each and every play.”

While Kessler's numbers have been outstanding, the ultimate measure of all USC quarterbacks is winning championships. At the very least, they need to beat UCLA and Notre Dame.

The junior almost certainly will have to wait until next year to make a run at the Pac-12 title. After a date with California on Thursday, he faces the Bruins and Fighting Irish over the next two weekends.

Here's a guess that if he beats both of them, his Q rating will go up considerably in Los Angeles and across the country.

Unlikely Boston College stuns No. 9 USC

September, 14, 2014
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CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. -- This is not the way the No. 9 team in the nation is supposed to lose. This is not the way the Glamour Guys from USC go down. This is not the team that should be beating the Trojans, with their Hollywood profile and grand tradition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Football teams don’t live on emotion. They live on execution, and if that’s fueled by emotion, all the better. This Boston College team is a motley crew. But on Saturday night, the Eagles didn’t play that way. They looked like five-star recruits, every one of them. Ask the five-star guys they beat.
On a chalkboard, the base offenses of Stanford and USC probably look very similar. Both derive from pro-style philosophies and principles. But if games were played only on a chalkboard, you’d have no idea just how different they really are in application.

When the No. 14 Trojans head to No. 13 Stanford on Saturday for the Pac-12 opener for both teams, the game will feature USC’s up-tempo attack versus Stanford’s methodical ground-and-pound approach.

Think of it as pro-style versus pronto-style.

Last Saturday in Steve Sarkisian’s debut as USC's head coach, the Trojans ran a conference-record 105 plays in a 52-13 pasting of the Fresno State Bulldogs. Leading the charge for the Trojans was quarterback Cody Kessler, who completed 25 of 37 passes for 394 yards and four touchdowns. He also ran for a fifth score as the Trojans amassed 701 yards of offense -- their most in a game since 2005.

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Juan Lainez/Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesCody Kessler will try to keep the USC offense humming at Stanford.
“They were what you want to start the season with,” said Stanford coach David Shaw. “They were efficient and explosive. Sometimes you get one without the other, but they were both. Cody played well. It’s obvious he’s got some weapons. Like us, they turned the ball over too many times and had some first game issues. But when you watch them play, they can go up-tempo, they have great personnel, they’re big on the offensive line. They are tough to crack and get after the quarterback like we like to because they are big up front. It was an impressive thing to watch.”

Impressive indeed. But duplicating that kind of success will be a chore against the Cardinal. Known for its stout defense and ability to keep offenses sidelined (it held Oregon to just 58 plays last season), Stanford will try to play the ball-control game. Shaw & Co. have their own idea of tempo. And it’s speeding up the game by slowing it down.

“They are a lot more multiple than people give them credit for,” Sarkisian said of Stanford’s offense. “Everyone wants to focus on when they go to their big package and bring in the [extra] offensive linemen. But they do stuff out of the traditional pro-style. They do stuff out of two-tight-end sets. They do stuff out of three-wide-receiver sets. They give you a lot of different looks, and they execute their stuff really well.”

It's also worth noting that Washington integrated this scheme USC deploys last year, when Sarkisian was the coach there. And the Huskies totaled 489 yards of offense in a 31-28 loss to the Cardinal in Palo Alto.

"Tempo" is a word you’re probably going to hear a lot on the telecast and read a lot following the game. Because whoever establishes tempo is, in essence, dictating the flow of the game. And for as much credit as USC’s offense deserves in the first week, Shaw said it’s the USC defense that deserves as much of the praise.

“If you don’t stay on the field on offense, they are going to run a ton of plays,” Shaw said. “For me, that’s not a function of tempo, that’s a function of playing good defense and getting Fresno State off the field very quickly with a bunch of three-and-outs. Small time of possession, very few plays, and that gives their offense more opportunities with the ball. [USC defensive coordinator] Justin Wilcox is as vital to how many plays they get on offense and how many points they get on offense as what they do on offense. USC is a very good defense. One of the best in the country. And they are going to give that offense a lot of opportunities.”

Last Saturday, the Trojans forced Fresno State into three three-and-out drives and six punts. Stanford forced UC Davis into nine three-and-outs. Offensively, Kessler was the model of efficiency on third down, completing 9 of 10 passes for 111 yards and a pair of touchdowns on third down. Davis was just 1-of-13 on third-down conversions against the Cardinal and didn’t cross midfield until the final play of the game.

And when you throw in the fact that Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan is 10-1 in his career against ranked teams and that the Cardinal are riding a 17-game home win streak (including nine straight against ranked teams) and that the series has been a thrill ride of late, you have all the trappings for another fantastic showdown.

“It’s been really, really good football,” Shaw said of recent games with USC. “When both teams have been ranked or one team has been ranked, it doesn’t matter.”

Pac-12 helmet stickers: Week 1

August, 31, 2014
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Football is back. That means helmet stickers are back! Here’s who gets one of college football's most coveted honors for Week 1.

Kaelin Clay, KR, Utah: The Pac-12 blog is always hesitant to dole out too much praise for victories in FCS games. But Clay went above and beyond in Utah’s 56-14 win over Idaho State. He returned a punt 46 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter and a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown.

Anu Solomon, QB, Arizona: Not a bad night for the new guy. He threw for 425 yards and four touchdowns in his first career start (also adding 50 yards on the ground) as the Wildcats totaled a school record 787 total yards in their 58-13 win over UNLV.

Connor Halliday, QB, Washington State: This is getting to be a troubling trend. Halliday has a monster game, but the Cougs lose in the fourth quarter. Sort of how we ended last year. Still, he threw for 532 yards and five touchdowns against a Big Ten team, a 41-38 loss to Rutgers. That has to count for something.

UCLA’s defense: While the offense significantly underwhelmed, the defense kept the Bruins alive with three defensive touchdowns in the second quarter, which was ultimately the difference in their 28-20 win at Virginia. Interception returns by Ishmael Adams and Eric Kendricks, with a Randall Goforth fumble return in between, gave the Bruins a big enough lead.

Jalen Jefferson, LB, Cal: Been a while since we tapped a Cal defensive player for a helmet sticker. Feels weird. Feels good. Jefferson led all players with 16 tackles, including 1.5 for a loss and a critical 11-yard sack on Northwestern’s penultimate offensive play of the game. On the final play, it was Jefferson who snagged an interception, sealing a 31-24 win. He was Eh-vre-where.

Cody Kessler, QB, USC: I know, I know. We could do three or four quarterbacks every week. And just an FYI, we probably will, because they’re that good this year. Kessler picked up where he left off against Fresno State last year and posted a career high 394 yards on 25-of-37 passing with four touchdowns and no interceptions in the 52-13 win over the Bulldogs.

Pac-12's perfect passing storm

August, 22, 2014
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Athletes often refuse to play along with media storylines, or they simply are oblivious to them. That's not the case with the Pac-12's stellar 2014 crop of quarterbacks. They get it. They know they are good and you are interested. They are perfectly aware that 10 of them are returning starters, and a handful of them are expected to be early NFL draft picks this spring.

For the most part, they know each other. Many crossed paths in recruiting. Others sought each other out after games. Seven of them bonded at the Manning Passing Academy in Tbibodaux, Louisiana, this summer. There's a reasonable degree of believability when they insist they all like each other.

“It’s kind of a brother deal," said Washington State's Connor Halliday, one of seven Pac-12 quarterbacks who threw at least 20 touchdown passes a year ago. "We’re all representing the conference.”

That collegial connectedness means Halliday is perfectly willing to map out the NFL prospects of the crew, even if he opts to leave himself out -- Oregon State's Sean Mannion, he says, is the most NFL-ready, while Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley have the most upside. That chumminess means -- cover your eyes, USC and UCLA fans -- Hundley and Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler feel free to talk about how cool the other is.

The preseason scuttlebutt is the Pac-12 will follow up perhaps its best season in terms of top-to-bottom quality depth with a 2014 encore that should be even better. There's legitimacy to the belief that the Pac-12 might eclipse the SEC this fall as the nation's best conference, and that seeming apostasy begins behind center, where the SEC doesn't have a bona fide proven passer.

The Pac-12? Five returning QBs passed for more than 3,500 yards in 2013. If you give Kessler 32 more yards and Stanford's Kevin Hogan 370, then you have eight who passed for 3,000. Mariota, Hundley and Mannion are potential first-round NFL draft picks. Hogan is a three-year starter who's started in two Rose Bowls. Arizona State's Taylor Kelly, some forget, was second-team All-Pac-12 in 2013 and led his team past Hundley and UCLA in the South Division. Halliday had 34 touchdown passes in 2013, while California's Jared Goff and Colorado's Sefo Liufau were true freshman starters. Before he got hurt, Utah's Travis Wilson was good enough to lead an upset of Stanford.

Seems pretty odd to mention the USC quarterback last, but there you have it: Kessler surged late in the season and should thrive under new coach Steve Sarkisian's up-tempo scheme.

The sum is quarterback depth that has everyone gushing, including Pac-12 coaches.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Charles Baus/CSMUSC's Cody Kessler threw for 2,968 yards in 2013, a robust total that only ranked seventh in a stacked league for quarterbacks, the Pac-12.
"Oh, I don't think there is a conference that is even close in terms of the quality of quarterbacks," UCLA coach Jim Mora said.

Said Washington's Chris Petersen, who, like Arizona's Rich Rodriguez, doesn't have a returning starter at quarterback: “There’s not a crop like this coming back in the country. It’s scary when you don’t have one of those returning guys. Every week, you’re going to have to face one of them.”

The question bouncing around before the season is whether it's the best quarterback class, well, ever, and not just for the Pac-12. Maybe, maybe not.

The Pac-10 was pretty impressive in 2004: USC's Matt Leinart, California's Aaron Rodgers, Arizona State's Andrew Walter, UCLA's Drew Olson, Oregon's Kellen Clemens, Oregon State's Derek Anderson, Washington State's Alex Brink and Stanford's Trent Edwards. If you wanted, you also could throw in Utah's Alex Smith, though he was still in the Mountain West Conference at the time. A handful of those guys are still in the NFL, with Rodgers in the discussion as the best quarterback in the league.

Outside of the Pac-12, there's the Big 12 in 2008: Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, Texas' Colt McCoy, Baylor's Robert Griffin III, Missouri's Chase Daniel, Texas Tech's Graham Harrell, Kansas' Todd Reesing and Kansas State's Josh Freeman.

Ultimately, a judgment will be best delivered at season's end, and things rarely go as projected in the preseason. Injuries are, unfortunately, often an issue, and the pecking order could change. Don't be shocked, for example, if the estimations of Hogan, Kessler, Halliday and Goff go way up this fall.

The obvious leader is Mariota, probably the Heisman Trophy co-favorite with Florida State's Jameis Winston, the 2013 winner. While Mariota's return for his redshirt junior season was a bit of a surprise, how he's conducted himself during the preseason is not. He's not going to get in trouble off the field and he's not a look-at-me guy on it.

“He cares more about practice rep 13 in period 12 in 7-on-7 than anyone I’ve ever been around," coach Mark Helfrich said. "That carries over to every single guy in our program.”

But Mariota doesn't top everyone's list. Washington State linebacker Darryl Monroe favors Mannion, who won the Elite 11 Counselor's Challenge this summer after leading the conference with 4,662 yards and 37 TD passes last year.

“He’s a true NFL quarterback," Monroe said. “He has one of the best arms I’ve played against. Or seen in person.”

[+] EnlargeChris Petersen
AP PhotoAside from a Nov. 15 date against Arizona, Washington coach Chris Petersen will likely face a returning starter at quarterback in every one of the Huskies' Pac-12 games.
Monroe, the boisterous contrarian, ranked Kelly No. 2.

“He ran that offense like a point guard," Monroe said.

Obviously, the expectation is that these 10 returning starters will combine talent and experience and put up huge numbers. As important as the position is, however, a good quarterback can't do it alone. He's got to have some places to deliver the ball. The good news for these guys is most have a strong supporting cast. While Mariota and Mannion have questions at receiver, that position is strong and deep throughout the conference.

Nine teams have at least three starting offensive linemen back, and five have four or more. Oregon is the only team without at least one of its top two receivers back. It's also notable that more than a few teams have questions in the secondary.

It could be a year when preseason hype meets big passing numbers. But stats are not what football is all about, either.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to winning games," Kessler said. “I don’t look at the stat box. I look at who won. Most of the time, if you look at who won, I can tell you how the quarterback played.”

That's the truth: Winning is the ultimate measure of a quarterback. More than a few Pac-12 quarterbacks through the years have put up big numbers but haven't led their teams to championships, conference or national. It's likely that the first-team All-Pac-12 quarterback this fall, a guy who should be in line for a variety of national awards and All-America honors, will be sitting atop the final standings.

As for the celebration of Pac-12 quarterbacks in 2014, some ambivalence does follow the fawning. While there is a sense of genial community when discussing the depth at the position, most coaches would rather have their guy be talented and experienced and everyone else to be searching for answers behind center.

Said Stanford coach David Shaw, “I can’t wait for some of these guys to get out of our conference, which I thought a couple of them would last year.”

USC Trojans season preview

August, 14, 2014
Aug 14
10:30
AM ET
» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the USC Trojans:

2013 record: 10-4, 6-3 Pac-12; beat Fresno State 45-20 in the Las Vegas Bowl.

Final grade for 2013:: B-minus. That might seem high for a season in which the Trojans lost to Notre Dame and UCLA and fired their head coach, but the Trojans showed mental toughness instead of imploding, winning 10 games, a bowl game and achieving a final top-25 ranking.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Williams
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesCan Leonard Williams and the Trojans' defense beat ASU and Arizona in back-to-back weeks in 2014?
Key returnees: WR Nelson Agholor, QB Cody Kessler, RB Javorius Allen, DT Leonard Williams, LB Hayes Pullard, CB Josh Shaw.

Key losses: WR Marqise Lee, C Marcus Martin, OLB Devon Kennard.

Projected win percentage (ESPN.com Stats & Information): 0.711

Chances to win the conference (ESPN.com Stats & Information):: 10.8 percent

Instant impact newcomers: OG Toa Lobendahn, WR/DB Adoree Jackson, WR JuJu Smith, DT Delvon Simmons.

Most important game: Nov. 22 at UCLA. The Bruins have won two in a row in the series. New coach Steve Sarkisian could endear himself to fans by ending that streak.

Biggest question mark: Depth. If the Trojans trot out their best 22, they can play with anyone. But they are still working with substantial depth issues due to the residual effects of NCAA sanctions. Two major injuries on defense, season-enders for OLB Jabari Ruffin and talented DT Kenny Bigelow, already have put a damper on preseason camp.

Best-case scenario for 2014: 11-1

Worst-case scenario for 2014: 7-5

Over-under win total (Bovada): 9

Upset special: Oct. 11 at Arizona. The Trojans are going to want a piece of Arizona State on Oct. 4, as the Sun Devils humiliated them in Tempe a year ago. That might leave them emotionally spent before a tough trip to Tucson.

They said it: "I don't look at the stat box. I look at who won. Most of the time, if you look at who won, I can tell you how the quarterback played." -- USC QB Cody Kessler on whether he compares his numbers with the other Pac-12 QBs.
The only thing the Pac-12 has to fear in the new era of the College Football Playoff is itself. Oh, and other conferences gaming the infant system.

Whatever negative perceptions formerly were held about the Pac-12 -- finesse, pass-first, defense-optional league with half-full stadiums -- are mostly dead. Though there always will be trolling mouth-breathers with tired insults, Pac-12 folks now can show up to the verbal brawl with facts and numbers and game scores and commence to deliver a dose of frenzied verbal MMA that leaves said trolls whimpering for mercy.

OK, perhaps that's going overboard. But the Pac-12 deserves credit for two things: (1) Its rating as the nation's No. 2 conference (2) Making things tougher on itself than any other conference.

The overwhelming national consensus is the Pac-12 ranks second to the SEC. As ESPN Stats & Information noted in January, "Overall, the Pac-12 finished with six teams ranked in the AP Top 25 and five teams ranked in the top 10 of ESPN's Football Power Index. As a result of its strength in the computers, the Pac-12 was the clear No. 2 conference in the Power Rankings."

[+] EnlargeRich Rodriguez
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsThe Pac-12's $3 billion broadcasting deal with ESPN and Fox has been followed by an influx of big-name coaches like Arizona's Rich Rodriguez.
It wasn't just ESPN. Jeff Sagarin ranked the Pac-12 No. 2 in 2013. Phil Steel ranked the Pac-12 the No. 2 conference in 2012 and 2013, and also projected it as No. 2 in 2014. Athlon Sports did the same. In fact, if there is a conference rating system that ranked the Pac-12 anything different in 2013 and projects a lower rating this fall, we haven't seen it.

Another vote in the Pac-12's favor comes from an unquestionably unbiased -- cough, cough -- constituency: Pac-12 coaches.

"[The SEC] should claim themselves as the best league in the country because they've earned it," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. "But to go through the Pac-12 and win a national championship may be the most difficult thing to do because of our schedule."

Ah, that's the worrisome rub. No other conference rides the scheduling tricycle like the Pac-12: 1. Challenging nonconference slate; 2. Nine-game conference schedule; 3. Conference championship game.

While some conferences have improved their nonconference scheduling, they don't play nine conference games. The Big 12 does play nine conference games, but it doesn't play a championship game. Pac-12 coaches aren't shy about noting that a conference team, in almost all cases, will have to play at least 11 quality games -- one tough nonconference foe, nine conference games and the Pac-12 title game -- to earn a spot in the CFP. No other conference can claim that.

There is a big reason the other conferences can't: They don't want to.

"Fair or unfair, whatever the words you want to use, we play a nine-game schedule and a conference championship game and other conferences don't on purpose," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. "There is obviously a reason for that."

That's the big issue for the Pac-12 heading into the season. There is no longer a worry about respect or the perception of the Pac-12. Rather, it's about how unscathed a conference champ can hope to be against such a demanding schedule, and whether the committee will stick to its stated insistence that strength of schedule will be paramount. When a conference plays eight of the nation's 13 toughest schedules, as the Pac-12 did in 2013, the challenge to go unbeaten or even to lose just one game is far greater.

Of course, this issue won't be solved today, or even in the next couple months. The ultimate answers will be delivered in January when four semifinalists are picked and seeded.

So then, how did the Pac-12 gain ground in the perception battle -- one that has the conference starting with six teams ranked in the preseason USA Today coaches poll, including three in the top 11 with two others receiving votes?

The easy answer: money. The $3 billion broadcasting deal with ESPN and Fox was a game-changer. That money has flowed into facilities improvements and more aggressive investments in coaching -- head coaches and assistants. A concomitant influx of A-list coaches, most notably Mike Leach, Rich Rodriguez, Todd Graham, Jim Mora and Chris Petersen, has boosted the conference's Q-rating. Those coaches also have been able to hire and -- critically -- retain key assistants with competitive salaries, such as Arizona State offensive coordinator Mike Norvell ($700,000), UCLA offensive line coach Adrian Klemm ($650,000), Washington State defensive line coach Joe Salave'a ($275,000) and USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox (north of the $800,000 he made at Washington), among others.

No team has had a better, and perhaps more unfortunate, seat while watching the Pac-12 improve than Utah. The Utes joined the conference in 2011 as a program that had posted two unbeaten seasons and won two BCS bowl games as a member of the respected Mountain West Conference. Though they went a solid 4-5 in conference play in 2011, they slipped to 3-6 in 2012 and 2-7 in 2013, with lineups that might have been better than the 2011 squad.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
AP Photo/Eric GayOregon's Marcus Mariota is part of an impressive group of returning QBs in the Pac-12 this season.
"The thing that has been very apparent with the Pac-12 in 2011 when we entered, is the Pac-12 now is far superior from top to bottom," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "The progress this conference has made in the last few years is phenomenal."

What separates the Pac-12 this season -- and could make it a legitimate threat for the No. 1 conference -- is behind center. Not only does the conference welcome back 10 starting quarterbacks, a majority of those are NFL prospects.

"I've never seen anything like this," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "You have multiple guys that you could say could be the No. 1 pick overall in the draft. You have multiple guys in the conference that could be All-Americans and lead the nation in quarterback rating or lead the nation in passing."

The most notable quarterbacks are Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley, Heisman Trophy candidates blinking brightly on NFL radars who lead teams favored to win their respective divisions. Hundley will get an early showcase game against Texas, and Mariota and the Ducks play host to Michigan State, the Big Ten favorite, in Week 2. And the Ducks and Bruins could meet each other twice this season.

But they also must contend with Arizona State's Taylor Kelly, Oregon State's Sean Mannion, USC's Cody Kessler, Stanford's Kevin Hogan, Washington State's Connor Halliday, Utah's Travis Wilson, California's Jared Goff and Colorado's Sefo Liufau, each capable of posting a spectacular individual performance that could spawn an upset.

The Pac-12 is plenty hyped heading into the 2014 season. There is no perception problem. There might, however, end up being a reality problem. If the Pac-12 champion ends up with two losses, and the selection committee has a handful of Power Five conference teams with one or fewer defeats, the Pac-12 could get a respectful tip of the cap but end up out of luck in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Media Days takeaways: Day 1

July, 23, 2014
Jul 23
8:57
PM ET
Some thoughts, observations and musings about Day 1 of Pac-12 media days from the Pac-12 blog's Kevin Gemmell, Kyle Bonagura and Chantel Jennings.

Biggest football-centric takeaway?

[+] EnlargeRich Rodriguez
Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY SportsRich Rodriguez said on Wednesday that he hasn't determined who will start at QB for Arizona this fall.
Kevin Gemmell: Arizona still doesn’t have a quarterback. Not that that’s shocking. We knew it was going to take awhile for Rich Rodriguez to find the right guy to run things in 2014. But with a really talented stable of wide receivers ready to break out and get all freaky on secondaries, you’d think he’d be at least a little bit closer to whittling down his pecking order. You’d be wrong: “Even if I knew who the starter was, I wouldn’t tell you all. Why would I tell you and tell our opponents? I really don’t know who not just No. 1 is, but I don’t know who No. 1, 2 or 3 is.” Maybe it’s a lot of coachspeak and he knows exactly what the offense will look like. Maybe he really doesn’t know. Feel like we’ve been here before …

Chantel Jennings: I knew there was a high interest in USC this year, but I guess I didn’t realize how high. The reporter crowd around Steve Sarkisian was about three times as large as for any other coach who attended today (including Mark Helfrich, whose team is the favorite for the Pac-12 title). Obviously, it’s USC and by nature, people will care. But with the program being back on track, a new coach, some exciting players and a new offensive scheme, the Trojans are going to be in a complete pressure cooker. Quarterback Cody Kessler talked about how last year -- and the amount of change and adversity they faced -- will help them this season. Yes, certainly the whole “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” argument is valid. But how much stronger is USC? And are the Trojans strong enough to put up a fight in the South? Are they strong enough to handle the growing pains under a first-year coach? Are they strong enough to handle the increasingly high expectations of the public?

Kyle Bonagura: When it comes to quarterback play, believe the hype. And while, by nature, these types of events exist almost primarily to generate hype, everyone seemed to be in agreement that the quarterbacks have a chance to be considered one of the best conference groups in college football history. That’s not hyperbole, either. There have been comparable years if you take a look at the top five or six, maybe, but to have 10 returning quarterbacks — and so many decorated players among that group — might be unmatched.

Biggest nonfootball takeaway

Gemmell: Oregon and Washington fans might not like this, but the chances their bitter rivalry will grow frostier are slim. When asked about his relationship with new Washington coach Chris Petersen, Oregon coach Mark Helfrich offered this: “My relationship with Pete will be great forever. I’m going to hate him on certain days and some days he’ll hate me, whether it’s recruiting or on game day. But the guy is a lifelong friend of mine and that won’t change. I know that’s going to make both of our fan bases very unhappy.” But it’s oh-so bromantic.

Jennings: The event today had a few different activities set up for the players, including a game of corn hole (for you non-Midwesterners, you’ll know this as "the game with the angled boards with holes in them that you try to get bean bags in"). I, myself, am a connoisseur of the sport and will challenge anyone. However, I wasn’t too impressed with some of the guys and coaches playing today. Especially some of the QBs. You can throw a football 60 yards, but you can't toss a bean bag 20 feet? C’mon.

Bonagura: The conference’s new buzzword is “innovation.” Commissioner Larry Scott used it nine times in his lengthy opening remarks to begin the day and seems focused on using the conference’s home near Silicon Valley to help aid the use of technology in as many ways as possible. He specifically referred to a partnership with AT&T, Sporting Innovations and Stanford that includes the development of an app that will supposedly make more information — videos, stats, etc. — more accessible to fans while in attendance. I’ll take a wait-and-see approach on how innovative this innovation ends up being, but long term it’s not a bad thing.

Best quote of the day

Gemmell: Had a nice little chat with WSU linebacker Darryl Monroe about the fallout from the bowl game and what he thinks when he hears someone use the expression, "Coug’d it": “For me, Coug’d should mean you just went out there and dominated. I don’t understand where this impression of 'Coug’d it' means you did something in a negative light. Maybe the Urban Dictionary should think about rewriting that definition to 'Coug’d it means completely dominated your opponent.'”

Jennings: Can we just insert Mike Leach’s news conference transcript here? (Follow up: Can we just give Mike Leach a reality TV show?) But really, to give you the full experience … I walked up to the media scrum midway through Leach’s news conference. This is the exact moment I walked in. Enjoy.

“The gnats rarely got too hot, I guess. And then finally this one high school coach, as I'm recruiting there, he says, 'Try this.' Now I have big, old fat lips, so it didn't work very good. But he could fire up a little pucker, kind of blow the gnats off, then they had Skin So Soft [lotion], which is big. And I don't know what that is, but evidently gnats don't like it. They rub that all over [their faces]. But it looked kind of oily, you know? What I think is the gnats don't care about it, but it probably puts a little sheet of oil on there so it's harder to bite you. You don't feel the bite. That's just one guy's theory. I'm sure I'm wrong.”

Bonagura: “We've got a brand-new facility that's great, but everybody's got new stuff. Oregon changes it out like Porta-Potties. Like every four or five years like we need a new this, and they go do it.” -- Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez on the facilities arms race in the conference

A couple of things to address here: (1) He’s right. As a whole, the conference has done a great job upgrading its facilities across the board. It’s nearly impossible to get a sense of how each construction project has helped each individual school — mainly from a recruiting standpoint — because it’s about keeping up with the Joneses as much as anything. (2) Who knew RichRod had a working knowledge of Porta-Potty lifespans?

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY SportsMarcus Mariota, a topflight NFL prospect, said he isn't sure if he will turn pro after this season.
Best lie of the day

Jennings: Marcus Mariota said he hasn’t made his mind up on whether or not he’d leave for the NFL after this season. Now, I will say that this is a hard case because it’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. If he came in and said, “Yep, no matter what happens, I’m out,” then he’d be criticized. So I’m not necessarily criticizing him for this -- he’s saying what he needed to say and that’s the right thing to do. But the moment it came out of his mouth, all the reporters silently went, “Riiiiiiiiiiiight.”

Bonagura: Agree wholeheartedly with Jennings. When asked if this will be his final year at Oregon, Mariota simply replied: “I’m not sure.” He sounded sincere, too, but it’s tough to envision a scenario in which he’s not beginning training camp with an NFL team at this time next year. Seeing one of the best talents in college football pass up potentially becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft back-to-back seasons doesn’t happen.

Gemmell: Have to agree with my colleagues. It was nice for Mariota to say there is a chance he could come back for another season. And everyone in emerald land just got all giddy at the prospect of maybe seeing Mariota rocking the "O" beyond 2014. But I think we all know it ain't going to happen. He took out an insurance policy for a reason. Enjoy him while you can for now, Oregon fans. Because he's as good as gone.

Which player made a good impression on you?

Gemmell: I’ve long been a fan of Connor Halliday’s play. Is he reckless sometimes? Sure. Does he throw too many interceptions? Yeah. But I also like a guy who will throw a pick and then on the next drive make the exact same throw for a 60-yard touchdown. I like the moxie. And I thought that confidence came through during his podium session. He fielded all of the questions about turnovers and bowl games and still had time to crack wise about his head coach. You need poise to play for Mike Leach. And Halliday showed me a little of that today.

Jennings: Utah WR Dres Anderson isn’t a guy who has had a ton of media training or been in too many situations in which he’s crowded by the media. But even so, he handled it very gracefully. He was energetic, funny and engaging without seeming disingenuous (which some players do when they’re so over-the-top). He told anecdotes without needed to be asked, “OK, do you have any examples of that?” by reporters. He was a player who it seemed was really just having a bunch of good conversations with strangers.

Bonagura: Cal quarterback Jared Goff was in a tough spot last year getting thrown into the fire as a true freshman on a historically bad team, but you wouldn’t have known that based on his demeanor today. Goff was polished, personable and said all the things you’d want your team’s starting quarterback to say. If there were any doubts about how well he’d evolve into a leadership role, there shouldn’t be. With 10 returning starters at the position, Goff might fly under the radar in the conference, but he’s as talented a young quarterback as there is in the country and has a chance to compete statistically with the nation’s best.

And of course, no recap would be right without a series of Leach tweets:


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.
1. When USC finished practice Tuesday, center Max Tuerk and quarterback Cody Kessler stayed behind to work on snaps. Tuerk, a junior, has started 14 games at guard and six at tackle. But the Trojans need a center, so he’s learning the position this spring. He learned to tape his fingers -- two rings of tape on two fingers, one ring of tape on the other two -- and to carry a towel, all to keep sweat off the ball. He has learned to stay lower and, as he put it, get his feet in the ground faster. “The more reps you take, you don’t have to think about the snap as much,” Tuerk said. “You can think about the blocks.”

2. UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley is working more under center this spring. “It’s different,” the redshirt junior said. “Being under center and being in the shotgun are two different views. When you are under center, you are right there. ... You have to take your seven-step drop, push up in the pocket while keeping your shoulders (level).” If Hundley has a peccadillo, it is maintaining the balance of his shoulders. UCLA coach Jim Mora said he wants to work Hundley under center to expand the offense. If it helps Hundley in the 2015 NFL draft, even better.

3. Stanford wide receiver Jordan Pratt will be 29 years old when the football season begins. He enrolled after spending eight seasons pitching in the Dodgers’ minor-league system. “I’ll make a comment, ‘Yeah, I remember, Sept. 11, 2001, I got called out of my high school class,’” Pratt said. His teammates respond, “‘High school? I don’t even remember that. I was in preschool.’ There is this time gap. Sometimes I relate better to the TAs in my class than I do the other students. It’s a lot easier for me to talk to the professors. It’s a little easier for them to relate, too.”

When Steve Sarkisian left USC to become the head coach at Washington in 2008, he did so facing an uphill climb. Without any head-coaching experience and at an unfamiliar place, he was tasked with turning around a once-proud program that had gone 0-12 the season before.

Moderate improvement was the realistic goal and an accepted expectation -- at least early in his tenure. Five years and four bowl games later, the Huskies are in a better place and Sarkisian is back home, ready to do it all over again at USC.

This time, however, there won't be mixed opinions about how a seven- or eight-win season should be viewed. At USC, that's failure, and Sarkisian knows it.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian, USC Trojans
AP Photo/Jae C. HongNew USC coach Steve Sarkisian isn't in a rush to name a starting quarterback.
“We will not shy away from the expectations that USC football embodies, we will embrace them," he said. "I came here to win championships and so did all of our players.”

The Trojans return eight starters apiece on offense and defense from a team that went 10-4 and finished ranked No. 19, but they'll be without five players who left early for the NFL. Those departures will keep USC below 70 scholarship players as it enters the last of a three-year period in which the NCAA capped its scholarship total at 75.

“We’re not worried about who we don’t have on the roster or what our numbers are,” said Sarkisian. “What we do know is we have a roster of very talented football players who are hungry to do well.”

Having taken over a new program once before, Sarkisian is undoubtedly more prepared to begin his reign at Troy.

"You just have a better understanding of what's coming your way," he said. "There's so much going on. Turning on that fire hose and spraying water ... you can get overwhelmed.

"Whatever we're doing, we'll focus on doing that well and then it'll be on to the next thing. You can't try to do it all at once. Focus is much better the second time around; we feel good where we're at."

The Trojans begin spring practice Tuesday with Sarkisian set to place a heavy emphasis on walkthroughs and meetings. That's partially because the new staff needs to implement its schemes, but also because nearly 20 players will be either sidelined or limited throughout the spring due to injury.

With so many players unable to practice, Sarkisian admitted the staff won't get a full gauge of the roster. Regardless, he and his staff are set to begin evaluating on Day 1.

"We're going in with an open mind and a clear slate for every player," he said. "I don't want to go out there with preconceived notions ... rather them show me who they are. That's the mindset."

The biggest question facing the Trojans before their opener against Fresno State on Aug. 30 is at quarterback, where returning starter Cody Kessler will see competition from highly touted redshirt freshman Max Browne and early enrollee Jalen Greene. Sarkisian said the timetable for when a starter is named will depend on what plays out on the field.

"There's no deadline," he said. "When you make a deadline you tend to wait. We don't want to do that. When it feels right, we'll [name the starter]. If it's one, two, three days or into fall ... I don't think it'll be something that'll linger."

The Trojans will have three practices this week, all of which are open to the public. USC will then take a week off for spring break and practice three times a week until the spring game on April 19 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

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