NCF Nation: Jaelen Strong

The question for Arizona State coach Todd Graham focused on his defense. This was not a new topic. The Sun Devils are pretty much completely rebuilding their defense after losing nine starters from the 2013 Pac-12 South Division champions, and it obviously had experienced some ups and downs against second-rate competition through two games.

"We’ve just got to eliminate the mental errors and the breakdowns," Graham said. "These guys are fast and we’re gaining depth on the inside on the defensive line. We have seven or eight guys we feel good about playing. Five corners we feel good about playing. We’re getting there."

Then, after a pause, Graham added his own footnote, one that probably anticipated what his listeners were thinking while he talked about his questionable defense.

[+] EnlargeTodd Graham
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesTodd Graham and ASU's explosive offense will face a Colorado defense that yielded an average of 34.5 points and 5.7 yards per play against Colorado State and UMass.
"Our offense has helped a lot, too," he said. "That helps a lot. Our offense is going to score a bunch of points."

The best defense, in ASU's case, at least in the early going, is going to be a good offense.

If you're looking for a reason why the No. 16 Sun Devils probably feel pretty comfortable about their trip to Colorado on Saturday, it's their offense. Though averaging 51.5 points per game against Weber State and New Mexico isn't exactly going to make the front page of the New York Times, it seems notable when that offense is facing a Buffaloes defense that yielded an average of 34.5 points and 5.7 yards per play against Colorado State and UMass. Against that weak schedule, those two numbers still rank last in the Pac-12.

The Buffs are young on defense and it has showed thus far, so there is no question where ASU holds a decided edge. Though second-year coach Mike MacIntyre said nice things about the Sun Devils' defense -- "I see a lot of athletes. I see a lot of players who can make plays," he said -- it's pretty obvious what is keeping him up at night this week. Asked about which player most concerns him on the Sun Devils' offense, he didn't feel a need to be specific.

"Shoot, all 11," MacIntyre said. "Their line is good, their running backs are good, their quarterback is excellent. Their receivers are big and their tight ends are good. Their offense is one of the most talented in the Pac-12, no doubt about it."

That is the issue for the Buffs as they struggle to find a way up in the South Division pecking order. They have struggled on both sides of the ball so far, and they probably need the Sun Devils' offense to devolve into a flurry of turnovers and miscues to have any chance Saturday. With running back D.J. Foster running well and receiver Jaelen Strong surrounded by a better supporting cast than last season and a physical, athletic offensive line, veteran quarterback Taylor Kelly probably feels like a lottery winner strutting down Rodeo Drive.

The Buffs are starting freshmen at both defensive ends, which is probably intriguing for Foster. That also probably means they will have to blitz to pressure Kelly, and that is dangerous because Kelly's back-shoulder fade to Strong versus man coverage is one of the most difficult plays to defend in the conference.

Still, this should be the stoutest test for the Sun Devils thus far. It is, after all, the conference opener for both. If they pass, then they can earnestly eyeball the critical Sept. 25 visit from UCLA. Both teams have a bye with which to give their preparations extra mustard.


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

Previewing the 2014 season for the Arizona State Sun Devils.

2013 record: 10-4-4, 8-1 Pac-12; lost to Texas Tech in the National University Holiday Bowl, 37-23.

Final grade for 2013: B+. Following the regular season, the Sun Devils were in line for an A, but lopsided losses to Stanford in the conference title game and to Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl knocked them down a peg.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Kelly
David Madison/Getty ImagesTaylor Kelly and the Sun Devils will look to build on their winning 2013 season.
Key returnees: QB Taylor Kelly, WR Jaelen Strong, RB D.J. Foster

Key losses: DT Will Sutton, RB Marion Grice, TE Chris Coyle, LT Evan Finkenberg, DB Alden Darby, DB Robert Nelson, LB Carl Bradford

Instant impact newcomers: OL Christian Westerman, CB Kweishi Brown

Projected winning percentage (ESPN.com Stats & Information): .671

Chances to win the conference (ESPN.com Stats & Information): 6.5 percent

Most important game: versus UCLA, Sept. 25

Biggest question mark: After losing nine defensive starters, there are holes to fill on that side of the ball.

Best-case scenario: 12-2

Worst-case scenario: 4-8

Over/under win total (Bovada): 7.5

Upset special: UCLA starts the season as the Pac-12 South favorite, but the defending division champs have a chance to change that on Sept. 25.

They said it: "Our program's about winning championships, period. Our motto this year is unfinished business. You see it on my wristband." -- coach Todd Graham.

Top Pac-12 players: Nos. 10-6

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Our list of the Top 25 players in the Pac-12 continues.

10. Oregon C Hroniss Grasu

Why he's ranked here: Grasu is one of three players in the conference -- all from Oregon -- to have been named first-team All-Pac-12 the last two seasons. As a junior in 2013, he was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy, given to the nation's best center, and the undoubted leader of the Ducks' offensive line that blocked for the conference's No. 1 rushing attack. Grasu enters his final year in Eugene having started all 40 games of his career with a chance to leave his mark as one of the Ducks' all-time greats. And as good as Grasu and the line were a year ago, they should be better this year with all five starters back and some talented players behind them who could push for playing time in training camp.

9. Stanford WR Ty Montgomery

2013 stats: Caught 61 passes for 958 yards and 10 touchdowns, and ranked second nationally averaging 30.3 yards per kickoff return.

Why he's ranked here: When Montgomery is on the field for Stanford, he's the team's best player. Whether that's as a receiver or kick returner, he's the one guy who has consistently proved he can change a game on any given snap. There's minimal concern he won't be 100 percent for the start of the season due to an arm injury, but Montgomery said Wednesday he's not limited when it comes to running, catching or lifting weights. At 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, with just 4 percent body fat, Montgomery certainly didn't look injured. "When he comes back, he might be the most explosive player in college football, and he's going to touch the ball in every single way possible," Stanford coach David Shaw said at Pac-12 media days. It remains to be seen whether we should take Shaw literally and add punt return duties to Montgomery's other responsibilities, but there have been discussion about that as well. When comparing Montgomery as a receiver to the other two receivers listed below, there's really not much separation -- a solid case can be made to have each of them in front of the other.

8. Arizona State WR Jaelen Strong

2013 stats: Caught 75 passes for 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns in his first year with ASU.

Why he's ranked here: Perhaps no one in the conference made as strong an immediate impact as Strong did last year after arriving at ASU from Pierce College in Los Angeles. He eclipsed the 100-yard receiving mark in five of his first six games and finished fourth in the Pac-12 with 1,122 receiving yards. The three players who finished ahead of him -- Oregon State's Brandin Cooks, Colorado's Paul Richardson and Oregon's Josh Huff -- are all off to the NFL. Like Montgomery, Strong is physically imposing and at 6-4, 212 pounds makes a dangerous red zone target for quarterback Taylor Kelly. Of the 25 players the Pac-12 blog has deemed the conference's best, Kelly-Strong is the only quarterback-receiver tandem to be included together on the list (you'll see where Kelly lands Friday morning). They're the main reason ASU coach Todd Graham proclaimed at Pac-12 media days that "This will be the best offensive football team that I've ever coached." If Strong makes the kind of jump Cooks made from 2012 to 2013, it shouldn't surprise anyone.

7. USC WR Nelson Agholor

2013 stats: Caught 56 passes for 918 yards and six touchdowns and also returned kicks (17.5 avg) and punts (19.1 avg)

Why he's ranked here: On a team that featured 2012 Biletnikoff winner Marqise Lee, Agholor was simply the better receiver in 2013 and his value to the Trojans stretched further than that because of how he could impact games as a return man. What Montgomery was to Stanford on kickoff returns, Agholor was for the Trojans on punt returns. He returned two for touchdowns, and his 19.1 average was a new school record and ranked second nationally. With Lee off to the NFL, a second-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Agholor figures to see his receiving numbers improve -- even if that means more attention from opposing defenses. Agholor has developed a reputation for being an NFL-caliber route runner and is among the nation's most dangerous receivers after the catch. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Agholor as the No. 3 receiver on his Way-Too-Early Big Board (one spot behind Strong).

6. Oregon State QB Sean Mannion

2013 stats: Threw for a Pac-12 record 4,662 yards with 35 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.

Why he's ranked here: By the time the NFL draft rolls around, Mannion might just end up being the top quarterback on some teams' boards. He's that talented. With 10,436 career passing yards, Mannion already sits at No. 10 on the conference's all-time passing list and, assuming he stays healthy, should have no problem passing Matt Barkley's record of 12,327. Mannion admits he had a great relationship with former offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, who left to become the quarterbacks coach for the New York Giants, but he has already grown under the tutelage of Langsdorf's replacement, John Garrett. "It has been good to get another perspective, another coach to learn from," Mannion said at Pac-12 media days. "It was tough to see [Langsdorf] go, but I think it'll end up being beneficial." Mannion is also the first Oregon State player to be selected team captain three times. Kiper ranked him as the No. 2 senior NFL quarterback prospect in the country.

Check out the rest of the rankings here: Nos. 25-21, Nos. 20-16, Nos. 16-11
TEMPE, Ariz. -- What you already know about the 2014 Arizona State offense is impressive. Seven returning starters are led by third-year starting QB Taylor Kelly, owner of 57 career touchdown passes. There's imposing receiver Jaelen Strong, an All-American candidate. There's versatile veteran running back D.J. Foster and a physically impressive offensive line that could be the Sun Devils' best in recent memory.

But what you see at spring practices is often unfamiliar or new. Or a name that opens up the "Whatever happened to him?" file.

As in: Hey, that was a great catch by Strong.

[+] EnlargeDe'Marieya Nelson
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsDe'Marieya Nelson, a 6-foot-3, 230-pound tight end, will be an added weapon to Arizona State's offense next season.
No, that was redshirt freshman Ellis Jefferson. It's easy to mistake the two because both are 6-foot-4 and solidly built.

Or: Boy, Foster sure is elusive.

No, that was Kyle Middlebrooks or Deantre Lewis, players whose careers had been waylaid by injuries.

The loss of play-making tight end Chris Coyle doesn't seem to worry anyone because of the emergence of De'Marieya Nelson, who inspired coach Todd Graham to observe, "We can't cover him."

Returning starting guard Vi Teofilo is battling Auburn transfer Christian Westerman to hold onto his job. Or maybe both will start. There has been plenty of shuffling on the line in order to figure out where talented players like Jamil Douglas, second-team All-Pac-12 last year, and Evan Goodman should end up.

While most of the questions for the Sun Devils in 2014 center on their rebuilding defense, there's also intrigue on offense. Most of it dealing with how good the unit can be, not whether it will be good enough to defend the Pac-12's South Division crown.

Graham has, well, high expectations.

"Our offense should score every time they have the ball," he said.

Graham likes to be demanding, and he's excited about his offense, so setting a goal for offensive perfection probably makes sense to him. Yet Kelly, not a demonstrative sort who casually wields hyperbole, also gushes about what the offense is doing this spring and has the potential to do in the fall.

"We're deadly," Kelly said. "Our offensive line is doing a tremendous job up front. We're running the football better than we ever have before."

Of course, one shouldn't put too much stock into the vagaries of spring practices. A day after Kelly and Graham tossed bouquets to their offense, the rebuilding defense controlled the action during a weekend scrimmage.

Still, the potential for something special is obviously there. Further, the Sun Devils have a luxury that few teams in the nation or Pac-12 can boast: An A-list veteran backup quarterback. Junior Mike Bercovici doesn't look like a backup during practices. After deciding not to transfer when Kelly beat him out two years ago, he's almost certain to be the starter next year, and his live arm might make him a better NFL prospect than Kelly.

"The best thing about it is how they push each other in practice," offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said. "Bercovici is creating his future based off every rep he gets today even though he's not the first-team guy. When he gets an opportunity, I'm 100 percent confident he's going to be successful because of the way he's prepared every day the last two years. He's not wasting days. He's ready to lead this team."

That also means Norvell doesn't have to use kid gloves with Kelly, who is a good and aggressive runner, who had 608 yards and nine TDs last year. That's a security blanket that UCLA and Oregon do not have with their dual-threat QBs.

It's pretty safe to say that Arizona State, barring major injury woes, is going to have one of the best offenses in the Pac-12 and nation next year. But there's still plenty of intrigue on the depth chart, which is a good thing -- depth! competition! -- for Graham, Kelly and company.

Will Arizona State take a step back?

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It flew a little under the radar on Monday that Arizona State linebacker Carl Bradford entered the NFL draft because a pair of Pac-12 All-Americans -- Arizona RB Ka'Deem Carey and Stanford OG David Yankey -- also announced they'd be going pro.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Kelly
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsWith the loss of key defensive starters, Arizona State may have to rely on QB Taylor Kelly and its offense to carry the load in 2014.
But Bradford's departure, though far from unexpected, is a big deal for the defending South Division champions, who now must replace nine starters and three key backups from its strong 2013 defense.

In fact, the Sun Devils will have only two of their top 11 tacklers, safety Damarious Randall and linebacker Salamo Fiso, back in 2014. The other returning starter is nose tackle Jaxon Hood.

Further, when we say "nine starters" we pretty much mean the 2013 defense's nine best players: Bradford, DT Will Sutton, S Alden Darby, LB Chris Young, CB Robert Nelson, DE Gannon Conway, CB Osahon Irabor, DE Davon Coleman and LB Anthony Jones.

Tackles, sacks, interceptions -- just about all the production from Todd Graham's aggressive, blitz-happy defense will be gone next fall.

While we are relentlessly raining on Arizona State's parade -- hey, want to talk about the Holiday Bowl? -- we'll also point out that the offense won't go unscathed, as it loses five starters, including two offensive linemen, tight end Chris Coyle and RB Marion Grice.

Here's the part, however, where we type "… and yet."

While the defense almost certainly will take a step back, and might require some scheme tweaks to fit the inexperienced personnel, the Sun Devils should have the firepower on offense to pile up points in high-scoring offensive slugfests, starting with QB Taylor Kelly and WR Jaelen Strong probably being the top returning pass-catch combination in the Pac-12.

Versatile RB D.J. Foster is a more than adequate replacement for Grice, while the offensive line should be solid, led by Jamil Douglas, who seems ready for his star turn.

As for the defense, it will be time for several promising young players to step up, such as linebackers Chans Cox, Carlos Mendoza and Viliami Latu and defensive lineman Corey Smith, cornerback Lloyd Carrington and safety Viliami Moeakiola.

Further, the development of defensive end Marcus Hardison could be critical. Graham expected the touted JC transfer to have a big impact this past fall but as often happens when touted JC players arrive, he wasn't ready for the demands of Pac-12 football -- in practice or games. That said, he showed improved gumption over the latter part of the season and certainly has the physical skills to be an impact player on the line.

UCLA, which also loses some key guys from its defense but has a lot of playmakers coming back on both sides of the ball, is the clear favorite in the Pac-12 South heading into 2014. USC will be a bit of a mystery in Year 1 under Steve Sarkisian. It lost some key players but has plenty of talent, though little depth, coming back. Arizona is looking for a new quarterback and running back, but it also could be in the mix.

Where do the defending champions fit in? Hard to say. Next fall will be a good test of the recruiting for which Graham has been generally receiving good reviews. The good money is on the Sun Devils finding a way to thrust themselves into the mix, even with a completely rebuilt defense. It helps that the schedule starts out gently -- Weber State, New Mexico and Colorado -- before a a brutal four-game gauntlet -- UCLA, USC, Stanford and Washington -- that likely will determine the ultimate trajectory of the season.

Don't count the Sun Devils out, only you probably should expect a few more high-scoring shootouts in Tempe next fall.

Conference wrap: Pac-12

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It’s tough to put a grade on the 2013 edition of Pac-12 football. When we look back 20 years from now, all that will probably stand out is that the Pac-12 had just one BCS bowl team in the final year of the Bowl Championship Series. So with Stanford carrying the flag for the league, its performance against Michigan State in the 100th Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio takes on a greater importance.

But this year, perhaps more than any other, the Pac-12 showed why it is one of the toughest, if not the deepest, conference in all of college football. It passed the nonconference test, going 31-6 against non-league competition -- with wins over teams from the SEC, Big Ten and ACC. It crushed the Mountain West, going 10-0 against the West Coast’s little brother conference. And three more meetings in the postseason could extend it to 13-0.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
AP Photo/Matt YorkDavid Shaw has Stanford atop a very deep conference.
Speaking of bowls, a record nine Pac-12 teams are in the postseason, 75 percent of the league. Washington State is bowling for the first time since 2003. Colorado is making headway. Utah appears right on the cusp of breaking through.

There were thrilling upsets. (Utah, Washington State and USC all get thumbs up.) There was the Week 1 Oregon State debacle. There were All-Americans, national award winners and a style of football that is uniquely Pac-12.

The influx of big-name coaches has raised the ante over the past few seasons, and that trend continued this year, with Steve Sarkisian’s move to USC and Chris Petersen’s ingress to Washington.

The South was nasty, and will be again next year. Arizona State has staked its claim. But UCLA is right on the Sun Devils’ heels, as are USC and an Arizona squad that has the potential to be very, very scary in 2014.

The North belongs to Stanford until proven otherwise. The Cardinal's recipe for beating Oregon has yielded fruit for two years. But with Marcus Mariota back for another season, you certainly have to expect the Ducks to be a top-10 team. And Petersen’s arrival makes Washington an instant player for the division.

The best thing the Pac-12 can go is finish strong in the postseason, win its BCS bowl game and head into the playoff era with plenty of momentum.


Offensive MVP: Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey
was arguably the most consistent skill player in college football this season, posting at least 100 yards in every game he played and finishing with 1,716 yards and 17 touchdowns on 322 carries (5.3 average). He also caught 26 passes and a touchdown.

Defensive MVP: With 14 sacks, Stanford linebacker Trent Murphy was the Pac-12 and the national leader in getting at the quarterback. He also ranked third nationally with 21.5 tackles for loss. Murphy posted 58 total tackles, blocked a kick, forced a fumble and returned an interception for a touchdown.

Newcomer of the year: Plenty of fantastic options, including ASU receiver Jaelen Strong and Colorado linebacker Addison Gillam. But it was UCLA linebacker/running back Myles Jack who made the biggest splash. The Bruins' true freshman posted 70 tackles with five for a loss, an interception and two forced fumbles. He also blocked a kick. As a running back he carried 37 times for 269 yards with seven touchdowns.

Biggest surprise: Washington State athletic director Bill Moos said he thought the Cougars would start being a consistent winner by 2014. Coach Mike Leach had his own timetable. In just his second season in Pullman, Leach has the Cougars in a bowl game for the first time since 2003 -- and they recorded a marquee win on the road at USC in Week 2 that ultimately helped them become bowl-eligible.

Biggest disappointment: There was no great redemption story for Lane Kiffin. In fact, the Trojans looked like a significantly improved team after he was removed from his coaching duties. Hopes were high that Kiffin would be able to turn the Trojans around after an abysmal 2012. But a 62-41 loss at ASU in Week 5 was the straw that broke the back of his fairly underwhelming tenure with the Trojans.

Best game: At the quarter pole, we went with Oregon State at Utah. At the midway post, we went with Oregon State at Utah. And now in the season wrap, we’re sticking with that. That game, now more than ever, spells out the importance of every single week. Oregon State would be home for the holidays without that dramatic 51-48 overtime victory. And because of said dramatic overtime defeat, the five-win Utes are out of the postseason again. From a pure tension and excitement level, that game was tough to beat.
PASADENA, Calif. -- There was a good chance history was going to repeat itself. You give UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley 3 minutes and 21 seconds -- at home -- to move his team 65 yards and negate a five-point deficit and more often than not you’d probably take those odds.

Faced with a similar situation last year, the ASU defense played on its heels and watched Hundley march the Bruins 60 yards in the final 1:33 to set upKa'imi Fairbairn’s game winner as time expired, giving UCLA a 45-43 victory in Tempe.

But that’s the thing about history. That’s all it is. This time around, the Sun Devils were determined not to make the same mistakes. So when Hundley got the ball with 3:21 left and his team trailing 38-33, ASU coach Todd Graham made a declaration to his defense: We’re going to bring it.

“We had some regrets last year down the stretch in that last minute of that game,” Graham said. “We talked about it as a team. I talked to the seniors ... we had some regrets last year that we defended instead of attacked. We sent it every play that last drive. Even on the last play, because we came to win.”

The end result was two sacks on Hundley, who could move his team only 11 yards on eight plays after penalties and the losses stalled the come-from-behind effort. The 38-33 margin held, and the Sun Devils celebrated as the Pac-12 South Division champs.

[+] EnlargeRichard Smith
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsArizona State built a large first-half lead and then hung on to win the Pac-12 South.
“Everything felt different this time around,” ASU safety Alden Darby said. “We’re a different team. The mindset was different. We know we have a championship defense. There was a different vibe this year on the sideline and on the field.”

Those two sacks on the final drive were part of a nine-sack effort from the Sun Devils, who pressured Hundley and UCLA’s young offensive line. Hundley rushed for 66 yards, but when you factor in the sacks, he netted only 5.

“The main concern was tackling Hundley,” ASU defensive line coach Jackie Shipp said. “He’s very good with the ball. He reminds me of Vince Young from when I was in the Big 12. The main thing was getting him down. We knew they were hurting on the offensive line. I knew we could get there. We just had to make sure we got him on the ground.”

Through the first 30 minutes, a game-winning drive seemed like a long shot for the Bruins. Behind an efficient and calculated performance from ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly, the Sun Devils built a 35-13 halftime lead. Kelly was elusive on the ground, rushing for 99 yards and a touchdown, and accurate through the air, completing 20 of 27 passes for 225 yards and a touchdown. Rushing scores from D.J. Foster and Michael Eubank, along with a 19-yard touchdown from Kelly to Jaelen Strong and a pick-six from Carl Bradford gave the Sun Devils a 22-point advantage at the break.

But as UCLA tends to do, it exploded in the second half, outscoring the Sun Devils 20-3 behind a pair of touchdown runs from Myles Jack and Paul Perkins and a 27-yard touchdown strike from Hundley to Shaq Evans. That set the stage for some last-minute drama that ultimately ended with the Sun Devils' defense making the plays it failed to make last season.

“We got ourselves into a hole in the first half and were not able to recover,” UCLA coach Jim Mora said. “They fought tooth and nail for that thing, and it was just a little too much to overcome. The loss is bitterly disappointing.”

What Mora laments most was his team’s inability to control Kelly on the ground. ASU’s quarterback rushed for 84 yards in the first half alone.

“He kept plays alive, he frustrated us, we couldn’t find the ball,” Mora said. “We got caught out of position on some things. That’s what was frustrating me -- not being able to handle the quarterback defensively.”

ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said getting Kelly involved in the running game was by design. They wanted to force the Bruins into making decisions on zone reads. From there, Kelly was making all the right calls.

“We were able to present some different looks to make sure he’d get a good pull-read and he made some great reads,” Norvell said. “... When you’ve got the defending Pac-12 South champs the last two years, you’re coming into their place, you knew it was going to be a battle. I was really proud of our guys and the way they played. That really showed the character of our team.”

The Sun Devils will represent the South Division in the Pac-12 championship game against Stanford, which claimed the North by virtue of Arizona’s win over Oregon. The only question is whether it’s in Tempe or Palo Alto. If Arizona State tops rival Arizona next week, it will host the Cardinal. If the Wildcats win, the title game will be at Stanford for the second straight year.

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 7

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Here are a few storylines to keep an eye on this week in the Pac-12.

  1. Welcome, Coach O: The USC Trojans will make their debut with Ed Orgeron running the show. Considered a fiery alternative to his predecessor, the former Ole Miss coach says he’s been putting an emphasis on bringing fun back to football. The Trojans, who face the Arizona Wildcats tonight, are 0-2 in conference play for the first time since 2001, when they started 0-3. The last USC coach to lose his debut was John Robinson in his second stint in 1993. Not sayin' … just sayin'.
  2. Speaking of that game: The past six matchups between Arizona and USC has been decided by a touchdown or less. Of the 35 meetings, 15 have been within a touchdown. The Trojans and Wildcats have split their past four meetings, with each team winning one at home and one on the road.
  3. Get up for "GameDay"! ESPN’s "College GameDay" is making its first appearance in Seattle for Saturday’s showdown between the Oregon Ducks and Washington Huskies. Just a reminder, the Ducks have won nine straight in the series -- all by at least 17 points and with a 26-point average margin of victory. This is the second time in as many weeks the Huskies will face a top-5 opponent after falling 31-28 last week to No. 5 Stanford.
  4. [+] EnlargeConnor Halliday
    Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesWashington State quarterback Connor Halliday won a shootout against Cal.
  5. Conference of quarterbacks: Some quarterback numbers from our friends at the Pac-12 office: “Pac-12 quarterbacks continue to put up impressive numbers each weekend. Washington State’s Connor Halliday [521 yards] and California’s Jared Goff [504 yards] combined for 1,025 passing yards in WSU’s 44-22 win at Cal. It was the most passing yards by two opposing players in a Conference game. Four Pac-12 quarterbacks ranked among the top eight in the FBS in passing yards per game -- No. 1 Oregon State’s Sean Mannion (403.6 YPG), No. 3 California’s Goff (364.2 YPG), No. 5 Arizona State’s Taylor Kelly (346.4 YPG) and No. 8 Washington State’s Halliday (332.2 YPG).”
  6. North vs. South: Just an update on how things are going in the unofficial rivalry. The North division is 6-0 against teams from the South division. There’s a good chance the Bruins -- the only South team yet to play a team from the North -- break up the no-hitter with a visit from California, which has dropped nine straight games to FBS opponents. That is one of two interdivision games this weekend. Stanford’s trip to Utah is the other. The Bruins are 4-0 for the first time since 2005 and are coming off a six-interception performance against Utah.
  7. Everyone in action: Did you know there are only three weeks out of the entire season in which every Pac-12 team is playing against another Pac-12 team? This is the first one. Every team played in Week 3, but mostly against nonconference foes. The next time this happens will be in Week 12, then again in Week 13.
  8. 55 for six? Last week, we asked if the Ducks could break 50 points for the fifth straight game. They did, becoming the first team since 1885 to start the season with five straight wins with 55 points or more. Now they’ll look to become the first team to do it six times in a row since Oklahoma in 2008.
  9. Must-see TV: Better yet, see it live. Stanford makes its first trip to Utah since the Utes joined the conference. The teams haven’t played since 1996. It’s been hard luck for the Utes so far in conference play, having dropped an overtime game to Oregon State and then falling by a touchdown last week to UCLA. Coach Kyle Whittingham talked this week about the need to be stronger on first and second down to give his team a more manageable third down. Utah is just 3-of-27 on third downs in its past two games. On the flip side, Stanford will look to rebound from a shaky offensive performance in the win over Washington. Quarterback Kevin Hogan has thrown an interception in four straight games.
  10. Elite receivers: Two of the league’s top receivers square off when Colorado travels to Arizona State. The Buffs' Paul Richardson has four plays of 50 yards or more and has three 100-yard receiving games this season. Also with three 100-yard games is ASU’s Jaelen Strong, the junior college transfer who has made an immediate impact for the Sun Devils. OSU’s Brandin Cooks still leads the league with 10.4 receptions per game, but Strong and Richardson are right behind, tied for second with 7.8 per game.
  11. Bowl implications: Oregon State heads to Washington State with four wins. The Cougs likewise have four wins -- making this a critical game for postseason hopes. Both teams have a challenging second half of the schedule, so this one feels like one of those must-win games to keep bowl hopes alive and well. Don’t expect a ton of play on the ground. As noted above, Cooks leads the league in receptions and Oregon State has the No. 1 passing offense with 21 touchdowns and 420.6 yards per game with Mannion at the helm. Washington State is third in passing offense (359.7 yards per game) and tied for second in the league with 15 passing touchdowns. The Beavers and Cougars rank 11th and 12th, respectively, in the league in rushing offense. Speaking of bowls, more of a formality, but Stanford and Oregon can become bowl eligible with a win.

Pac-12 predictions: Week 7

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Ted went 5-0 last week. Kevin went 4-1, missing on his Notre Dame-Arizona State pick.

For the season, Kevin is 42-4 while Ted is 41-5.

Things get much tougher from here on, though.

Thursday

ARIZONA at USC

Kevin Gemmell: I have no clue what to make of USC right now. Is this a situation where all of that potential energy is going to erupt? I know getting Silas Redd back is going to be a huge boost to an already outstanding running game. The teams have split the last four meetings and the last six games have been decided by a touchdown or less. When things are that close, go with the home team. USC 38, Arizona 31.

Ted Miller: Arizona State ripped USC's previously dominant defense apart in a 62-41 win, but that was due to QB Taylor Kelly passing for 351 yards and three touchdowns. As in: Kelly's potent passing opened up the Sun Devils running game. Arizona doesn't have that element. The Trojans will be able to gang up against Ka'Deem Carey. Plus, I suspect we'll see an inspired effort from the Trojans under interim coach Ed Orgeron. USC 28, Arizona 24.

Saturday

COLORADO at ARIZONA STATE

Gemmell: The Sun Devils better not take the foot off the gas now that their tough four-game stretch is through. The Buffs have talent and they haven’t lost confidence. I'm excited to see Paul Richardson and Jaelen Strong square off in a battle of elite receivers. ASU ultimately has more consistent firepower and should win easily. But Colorado isn’t going to roll over. Arizona State 42, Colorado 27.

Miller: Arizona State should be mad about its lackluster performance against Notre Dame. It also plays much better at home. Richardson will be a good test for the Sun Devils secondary, which made Tommy Rees look like Tom Brady. Arizona State 38, Colorado 24.

CALIFORNIA at UCLA

Gemmell: The list of defensive injuries continues to grow for the Bears. The fact that Jordon James might not play is a blow, but not a huge one, since the Bruins were expecting a by-committee backfield anyway. Its secondary should feel pretty good about nabbing six interceptions last week. The Bears, however, have dropped nine straight against FBS opponents. This should make it an even 10. UCLA 42, California 27.

Miller: The Bruins are going to be hungry because of the embarrassing way they played in Berkeley last year, particularly QB Brett Hundley. How beat up is the Bears defense? Just one starter from the spring depth chart will start Saturday. The only question is how the potent Cal passing game matches up with the Bruins secondary, which grabbed six interceptions at Utah last week. UCLA 50, California 31.

STANFORD at UTAH

Gemmell: Utah is getting closer, but hasn’t quite gotten over the hump yet. Stanford’s offense will be looking to bounce back -- as will Utah’s. Last week felt like a good wakeup call for the Cardinal, who own the nation’s second-longest winning streak. I'm expecting physical line play from both teams, but ultimately a Cardinal win. Stanford 31, Utah 21.

Miller: I like both quarterbacks to bounce back from poor performances last week, but Stanford's Kevin Hogan has a better supporting cast than Utah's Travis Wilson, and Wilson will be facing the Pac-12's best front seven. There should be plenty of good contact at the line of scrimmage. Stanford 35, Utah 20.

OREGON at WASHINGTON

Gemmell: I'm curious to see how Washington responds after its first loss of the year. Oregon has been so completely dominant, and would love nothing more than to score 55 or more points for a sixth straight game this season, especially at the expense of the Huskies. I like the progression of Washington, but I like Oregon better in this game. Oregon 42, Washington 31.

Miller: Husky Stadium will be rocking, and Washington is perfectly capable of pushing the Ducks. Keith Price could make himself a true UW legend by leading a winning effort, but we suspect it will be Ducks QB Marcus Mariota getting the ultimate star -- Heisman? -- turn. It's going to be 10 in a row for the Ducks, but it won't be by at least 17 points. Oregon 35, Washington 24.

OREGON STATE at WASHINGTON STATE

Gemmell: Call me crazy, but I like the Cougs in this one. The secondary is physical enough to hang with OSU’s receivers (as well as anyone can hang with Brandin Cooks) and the front seven has done a good job creating pressure. That leads to turnovers. Washington State seems ready to take a step forward in the North Division pecking order. This game would qualify as a step forward. Plus, two of my four misses this year have come by way of Oregon State. I clearly have no clue how to predict the Beavs. Washington State 45, Oregon State 42.

Miller: Oregon State, Oregon State, Oregon State. ... I ... am ... really ... sorry ... but I just got to do it. There really isn't a jinx ... is there? On the other side of the ledger, you are welcome in Pullman. Cold beverages on Kevin at The Coug. Oregon State 40, Washington State 38.

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 6

October, 3, 2013
10/03/13
10:15
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A few storylines to keep an eye on in Week 6 in the Pac-12. (Really? Week 6 already?)

    [+] EnlargeBrett Hundley
    AP Photo/Nati HarnikUCLA signal-caller Brett Hundley will lead the Bruins into Utah on Thursday night.
  • 50 for five? Oregon set a school record last week by scoring at least 50 points in four consecutive games. This week it faces a Colorado team that appears to be stronger than last year's but still has some holes on both sides of the ball. Sans De'Anthony Thomas, the Ducks had little trouble negotiating Cal -- and mother nature -- en route to a 55-16 win. Is a fifth straight 50-plus-point game in the cards?

  • Kicking it: Great stat from our friends at the Pac-12 offices: "Entering last weekend's play, Pac-12 teams were 186-of-188 on PATs (.989). However, weather conditions in the Pacific Northwest last weekend wreaked havoc on the kickers as high winds and rain contributed to a combined six missed extra-point attempts in games in Corvallis, Eugene and Seattle. While kickers struggled with extra points last weekend, combining for 38-of 45 (.844), they did have considerable success from further out as they connected on 8-of-9 field-goal attempts (.889)." What's the takeaway? Don't try to understand kickers.
  • Nine in a row: UCLA has both of its bye weeks in the rearview mirror and will play nine consecutive games to close out the season, starting tonight with a trip to Utah. Quarterbacks (and their offensive coordinators) take center stage in this matchup. UCLA's Brett Hundley and Utah's Travis Wilson are both off to fantastic starts. And UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone was the OC for Dennis Erickson at Arizona State. Erickson is of course now the OC at Utah.
  • Quick starts? There are lots of intriguing storylines in the Washington-Stanford matchup. For starters, it's a pair of top-15 teams, which is always exciting. But the Huskies have outscored opponents 38-0 in the first quarter and are yet to trail in a game this season. Stanford is outscoring teams 37-12 in the first frame. This kicks off the first of three straight games for the Huskies against ranked opponents, who are home to No. 2 Oregon next week and at No. 22 ASU on Oct. 19.
  • Irish x 3: The Sun Devils travel to Arlington, Texas, to take on Notre Dame -- the first of three games between the Irish and Pac-12 teams. Notre Dame will host USC under the lights on Oct. 19 and then close out the season at Stanford on Nov. 30. The Sun Devils are trying to become the first team to beat USC and Notre Dame in consecutive weeks. It has happened only 13 times that a team has played USC and Notre Dame in back-to-back weeks.
  • Raids a'plenty: Washington State travels to Cal in a showdown of the Air Raid vs. the Bear Raid. Cal coach Sonny Dykes, of course, learned his offensive philosophies from working under Washington State coach Mike Leach at Texas Tech and was his GA at Kentucky.
  • Quarterback change? Cal, which has gone with true freshman Jared Goff as its signal-caller this season, released its depth chart this week with an "or" between Goff and redshirt freshman Zach Kline. Dykes said he felt Kline deserved to get some reps, and both quarterbacks took reps with the first team offense this week. Does it mean Goff is out? Not necessarily. Goff said he's fine with the competition -- despite averaging 329.2 yards per game. Goff was 3 of 6 for 11 yards and lost a pair of fumbles in unfavorable weather at Oregon. Kline stepped in, making his collegiate debut, and was 18 of 37 for 165 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
  • Arms race: Half of the Pac-12 quarterbacks rank in the top 25 of Total QBR heading into the week: Marcus Mariota (2), Kevin Hogan (5), Brett Hundley (11), Travis Wilson (16) and Keith Price (21) are all in action this week. Sean Mannion (22) is on bye. Four of those QBs are going head to head with Wilson and Hundley tonight and Hogan and Price on Saturday.
  • Catching on: Per the hard-working folks of Arizona State's media relations office, ASU's Jaelen Strong is off to one of the best starts of any ASU wide receiver in school history. Through his first four games, he has more catches and yards than any other receiver. So far he has 31 catches for 433 yards and two touchdowns. Lenzie Jackson and Jon Mistler had four touchdowns through their first four games, but Strong is way out in front in catches and yards. He faces a Notre Dame defense that gives up 364 yards per game.
  • Taking a breather: Arizona, Oregon State and USC are on a bye this week. The Trojans return to action for the first time without Lane Kiffin when they host Arizona next Thursday. Oregon State travels to Pullman to take on Washington State on Oct. 12.

 

Pac-12 spring preview: South Division

February, 22, 2013
2/22/13
9:00
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Here are some keys and storylines to watch this spring in the South Division. Yesterday Ted looked at the North Division.

ARIZONA WILDCATS

Start date: March 3

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:
  1. New battery: The Wildcats are looking to replace a top-notch quarterback-center combo in Matt Scott and Kyle Quinn. The rock-solid duo helped produce one of the top offenses in the league. Jesse Scroggins and B.J. Denker are among those in the mix to run the offense and several returning offensive linemen are versatile enough to move around. Chris Putton and redshirt freshman Beau Boyster could be in the mix at center.
  2. Many happy return(er)s: Arizona returns a big chunk of its offensive production -- including running back Ka'Deem Carey and receiver Austin Hill. Both should be on all sorts of preseason teams and awards watch lists. But behind the big names, there's also David Richards, Johnny Jackson, Tyler Slavin and Garic Wharton back in the mix.
  3. No learning curve: Last spring, the talk was about Rich Rodriguez calling out his team for its lack of physical conditioning. The fact that the majority of the team understands what is expected -- and they don't need to spend the whole spring learning new systems, should be a huge help. Consider that the Wildcats return their entire defense from a group that was, at times, shaky, but will certainly benefit from another full season of playing in the 3-3-5 scheme.
ARIZONA STATE SUN DEVILS

Start date: March 19

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:
  1. Plugging the middle: One of the few losses to ASU's roster is middle linebacker Brandon Magee -- a leader on and off the field and an all-around heck of a player. Carlos Mendoza looks to be a good fit -- though he's likely to miss spring while continuing to recover from a shoulder injury suffered against Illinois. Folks might remember his two interceptions before going down for the year.
  2. Catching on: Unlike last spring, the Sun Devils have their quarterback. And he's a good one. Now, they need to find folks he can throw to. JC transfers De'Marieya Nelson (H-back, 6-3, 230) and Jaelen Strong (WR, 6-4, 205) are both big bodies who could step in and contribute immediately.
  3. Wait and see: The kicker here is a lot of these players who are expected to compete won't arrive until the fall. So in the meantime, a lot of the younger players and redshirts will get a ton of reps in the system. And speaking of kicker, don't underestimate how much of an impact Josh Hubner made at punter. Iowan Matt Haack, who arrives in the fall, is a rugby-style kicker who can kick with either foot. That's just cool.
COLORADO BUFFALOES

Start date: March 7

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:
  1. Meet your QB: Whomever it will be. There are five on the roster and a sixth coming in. Safe to say, quarterback play was extremely inconsistent last season for the Buffs. With an entirely new coaching staff coming in and installing the pistol, this could be one of the more interesting and wide-open position battles in the league.
  2. Curious defense: One needs only to review Colorado's national rankings last year to realize they struggled. As one Buffs insider mentioned to me, they were ranked No. 1 in a lot of categories. Unfortunately, that "1" was followed by two more numbers. Only three defensive ends have playing experience. However a secondary that lacked experience in 2012 has a lot more looking into 2013.
  3. Receiver options: The Buffs welcome back Paul Richardson, who missed all of last season with a knee injury. Colorado's premier offensive playmaker will be a nice veteran presence to whomever wins the quarterback job. Grayshirt Jeff Thomas also is back. An improved passing attack should help give the quarterback some confidence and open up the running game.
UCLA BRUINS

Start date: April 2

Spring game: April 27

What to watch:
  1. Life after Franklin: The Bruins say goodbye to the best statistical back in school history -- leaving a huge void in the backfield. Johnathan Franklin was a great presence for young quarterback Brett Hundley, but now someone has to step up to fill that role, either solo or along with a committee. Look for Jordon James, Steven Manfro and Damien Thigpen to all get looks.
  2. New No. 1: The Y-receiver, aka hybrid tight end, was filled wonderfully by Joseph Fauria -- Hundley's favorite red zone target. Darius Bell and Ian Taubler both had looks last year, but Fauria too will be tough to replace. Shaq Evans, Devin Fuller, Jordan Payton and Devin Lucien round out a pretty good receiving corps.
  3. Secondary solutions: The Bruins must replace two corners and a safety -- Sheldon Price, Aaron Hester, Andrew Abbott -- and there isn't a ton of starting experience. Randall Goforth has five starts, but veterans such as Brandon Sermons and Anthony Jefferson have more special-teams experience than actual secondary play. Keep an eye on the secondary too when the Bruins start fall camp to see if any freshmen jump into the mix immediately.
USC TROJANS

Start date: TBD

Spring game: April 13
  1. New defensive scheme: The Trojans will move to a 5-2 defensive scheme under Clancy Pendergast, and the spring drills will be the first opportunity to see the defense in action. The Trojans will have an experienced front seven, but four new starters are expected in the secondary.
  2. Replacing Barkley: Max Wittek got the first extended audition in the battle to take over for Matt Barkley, but he didn’t do enough in two late-season starts to claim the job. Cody Kessler and freshman spring enrollee Max Browne also will be looking to take the reins at one of the glamour positions in college football.
  3. Lane Kiffin on the hot seat: The Trojans are coming off a disappointing season, and the fans are howling in protest, but so far his boss Pat Haden has maintained full support for his coach. Now is the time for Kiffin to show why that support is warranted. -- Garry Paskwietz, WeAreSC
UTAH UTES

Start date: March 19

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:
  1. Erickson impact: The biggest question was what sort of role Dennis Erickson would play in the offense once he arrived. We'll know sooner than later. He already has talked about putting an identity on the Utah offense. That starts in spring when routines are established and expectations are set. And with Erickson on board to give the offense a push, the expectations will be much higher.
  2. Wilson maturing: That leads us to the presumptive starting quarterback -- Travis Wilson -- who jumped in midseason after Jordan Wynn got hurt and Jon Hays struggled to produce. Wilson went from OK to pretty good in just a few weeks. A nice jump considering his experience level. With an entire offseason knowing he'll be the starter -- and with Erickson and Brian Johnson molding him -- it will be interesting to see what progress he makes this spring.
  3. D-line makeover: The Utes lose some talent on the defensive line -- specifically All-American defensive tackle Star Lotulelei. Look for DE/LB Trevor Reilly to spend more time with his hand down. Tenny Palepoi, LT Tuipulotu and JC transfer Sese Ianu could all see time in the mix at defensive tackle.

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