NCF Nation: Johnathan Franklin

Most to prove in the Pac-12

August, 28, 2013
8/28/13
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Across the ESPN blogosphere on Wednesday, we’re looking at players/coaches/position groups with something to prove in each conference. In the Pac-12, the answers should be fairly obvious. Here are 10 from the league in no particular order.

1. Lane Kiffin: OK, maybe this one is in particular order. USC’s head coach is on the hottest seat in America after a disastrous 2012. There were embarrassments for the program on and off the field. That has led to plenty of speculation about what he needs to do to keep his job. Win 10 games? Nine? Win nine and beat UCLA or Notre Dame? Or both? This is a storyline that will no doubt carry deep into the season.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
James Snook/US PresswireLane Kiffin isn't the only Pac-12 coach feeling growing pressure for a successful season.
2. Steve Sarkisian: His seat isn’t as hot as Kiffin’s. But the heat index has certainly risen in the wake of another seven-win season. The Huskies have a lot of returning talent – including a quarterback with potential, a healthy offensive line, an outstanding running back and receivers (including TE), and a fairly veteran defensive core. The pieces are in place for Washington to, at the very least, get over the seven-win hump. Seven wins or fewer will be met with harsh criticism and questions about whether Sarkisian is the right guy for the job.

3. Oregon’s linebackers: This appears to be the only question mark for the Ducks, at least on paper, because they have a solid front and an outstanding secondary. Losing Michael Clay, Kiko Alonso and Dion Jordan is a big hit in terms of production, talent and leadership. Boseko Lokombo is a veteran presence, and Tony Washington, Derrick Malone and Rodney Hardrick have all been in the system for a few years. If they can match the production of their predecessors, the Ducks should be fine defensively.

4. Stanford’s wide receivers: Ty Montgomery headlines this list. At the end of 2011, he showed explosive playmaking ability and his future looked sparkling. But injuries slowed him in 2012. With the Cardinal doing some overhauling after losing their top two tight ends, the receiver spot will likely take on more emphasis in 2013. Players such as Devon Cajuste, Michael Rector and Kelsey Young will need to be productive as well.

5. Paul Richardson: The Colorado receiver missed all of last season with a knee injury and had to sit and watch his team fall apart around him. The Buffaloes went 1-11 and their coach was fired. A new coach, a new offense and a new enthusiasm in Boulder is motivating Richardson to make up for lost time. He is Colorado’s most explosive player and knows he has the potential, and responsibility, to carry the offense. Now he just has to go out and prove he can do it.

6. Oregon State’s receivers: We know what we’re getting with Brandin Cooks. He proved last season that he's an outstanding player. How much of that, however, was a product of the guy across the field, Markus Wheaton? With Wheaton gone, either Richard Mullaney or Obum Gwacham will have to step up as a complementary threat to Cooks -- along with Kevin Cummings in the slot.

7. QBs, old and new: Not all the quarterback competitions are completed. But whoever wins the job at Arizona and USC will likely be looking over his shoulder for the bulk of the season. Connor Wood is back in the starting role for Colorado, true freshman Jared Goff gets the start for Cal, and Sean Mannion finally won Oregon State's job after a grueling seven-month competition with Cody Vaz. Nothing is set in stone at Washington State, so Connor Halliday will need consistent play to hold the job (we’re assuming, for now, that it’s Halliday). Expect these players to be under the microscope all season.

8. UCLA’s running backs: There are big shoes to fill with the departure of running back Johnathan Franklin, the school’s all-time leading rusher and a Doak Walker finalist last year. Jim Mora has said that he’ll likely use five backs throughout the season. Jordon James is the front-runner of the committee and has the best opportunity to distance himself. But expect Paul Perkins, Malcolm Jones, Steven Manfro and Damien Thigpen (health pending) to all fight for time and carries.

9. Utah’s secondary: It’s not necessarily young. Just inexperienced. And in a pass-happy league, that could spell trouble. Free safety Eric Rowe has the most playing time among the group. Cornerback Davion Orphey is a juco transfer and opposite him is Keith McGill, a former safety and juco transfer who appeared in five games in 2011 but suffered a season-ending injury and then missed all of 2012. There is talent there. It’s just mostly untested.

10. Arizona State: Yep, the whole team. This is what you wanted, ASU fans … for the sleeping giant to be awoken. The alarm clock just went off. Now it’s time to prove all the hype is worth it. A challenging schedule early -- including Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame in consecutive weeks -- will be a good measuring stick. Though the USC game is really the one that has South title implications. Still, the other three will go a long way toward determining how ASU is viewed nationally. Going 1-3 and beating USC wouldn’t be disastrous. Going 0-4 will draw the requisite “same old ASU” criticisms.

 
UCLA receiver Shaquelle Evans and a couple of teammates enjoyed watching his fellow Bruins win the NCAA baseball national title over Mississippi State this week.

"It's always good seeing your school do something great," he said. "We watched them dominate. They basically made Mississippi State submit. That's how we teach football -- to make our opponents submit."

The Pac-12 blog will submit that life is pretty darn good these days in sunny Westwood. Not only did the school win its 109th national title -- first in baseball -- it also is cuddling up every night with the Victory Bell after beating arch-rival USC 38-28 last fall, ending a five-game losing streak in the series.

[+] EnlargeShaquelle Evans and Josh Evans
Richard Mackson/US PresswireAfter running past USC last season, Shaq Evans and the Bruins are looking to maintain their momentum.
The Bruins, who went on to win the Pac-12's South Division, are again relevant in football. Toss in a pair of strong recruiting classes under second-year coach Jim Mora, not to mention an epically disappointing season across town at Heritage Hall, and it's not difficult to see why there's plenty of optimism around the program.

That starts with the win over USC, particularly when you consider where the programs stood at the end of 2011. USC beat the Bruins 50-0 and finished 10-2. Just about everyone projected the Trojans as 2012 national title contenders. Meanwhile, the Bruins were mocked for playing in a bowl game with a losing record and a fired coach. The hiring of Mora was not immediately embraced by a skeptical fan base who were dreaming of Kevin Sumlin.

Beating the Trojans -- the telling image being linebacker Anthony Barr's monstrous fourth-quarter sack of Matt Barkley -- transformed an enduring dynamic, with the Trojans strutting and the Bruins simmering with jealousy.

"It means the world," Evans said. "After 50-0, man, I didn't know if I wanted to be here any more. But after beating them, it was a great feeling. We knew if we beat them, the floodgates open for this program. You could tell with recruiting, people leaving them to come to us. It changes our program around. And it's going to keep going forward."

Still, the Bruins have flashed potential before, only to stumble back into an inconsistent pattern.

Former coach Rick Neuheisel notched a 27-24 upset over Tennessee in 2008, his first game as the Bruins coach. They lost their next game 59-zip at BYU. A 3-0 start in 2009 yielded to a five-game losing streak. The Bruins posted a physically dominant blowout win at Texas in 2010 but lost two weeks later 35-7 to a California team that would finish 5-7, the first of three consecutive losses.

Up and down. Up and down. Which always ends up, at season's end, feeling mostly down because it invites, "What could have been?" navel gazing.

Evans, a fifth-year senior, is well-aware of this. Even last year, there were some bafflingly disappointing performances -- a 43-17 loss at Cal and the faceplant against Baylor in the Holiday Bowl.

"The buzz around campus is good but we are not satisfied with what we did last year," he said. "9-5 is obviously an upgrade from 6-8, but we felt like we should have gone 12-2. This year, we're trying to go 14-0."

Evans will be a key piece if the Bruins are going to approach such high aspirations. He quietly posted a strong season last year, catching 60 passes for 877 yards with a stout 14.6 yards per catch. But in a conference laden with so much talent at receiver, that only ranked 11th (62.6 yards per game).

Further, Evans knows exactly where he fell short statistically, "Touchdowns!" he said before the question was finished.

Evans caught just three, in large part because tight end Joseph Fauria was the go-to guy in the red zone.

"I understood last year that if you've got a guy who is 6-foot-8 and you're in the red zone, he's going to be your primary target," Evans said.

Evans knows this is the year -- his final year before the NFL draft -- in which he needs to show his stuff. And with the departure of Fauria and running back Johnathan Franklin, as well as the expected maturation of quarterback Brett Hundley, Evans should be in position to become a 1,000-yard receiver.

And that likely would include more opportunities to peacock in the end zone (within the parameters of NCAA no-fun rules, of course).

For both Hundley and Evans, that's about refining their respective games. Evans mentions blocking and route running for himself, and accuracy, decision-making and command of the offense for Hundley.

After all, it's an obsessive focus and daily attention to details that will prevent the program from being inconsistent.

"I really believe we are past that," Evans said.

The test of that will be who ends up atop the South Division at season's end. And who owns the Victory Bell.

Pac-12's 1,000-yard receivers

May, 30, 2013
5/30/13
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Gabe Marks, Marcus PetersWilliam Mancebo/Getty ImagesIn Mike Leach's offense, WSU's Gabe Marks, left, looks like a good bet to have a 1,000-yard season.
We've looked at the Pac-12's 2,500-yard passers and its 1,000-yard rushers. Now we turn to the third wheel of the skill position tricycle: 1,000-yard receivers.

The conference featured four 1,000-yard receivers last year. One is off to the NFL: Oregon State's Markus Wheaton. One is out for the season -- or at least a significant part of it -- with a knee injury: Arizona's Austin Hill. Two others are back:
That's a good start. Lee was a unanimous All-American and Cooks could push for such recognition this fall.

There's plenty of talent after them. This is hardly a down position in the conference. In fact, several teams feel pretty good about their chances to produce a 1,000-yard pass-catcher.

Arizona: The Wildcats not only lost Hill, they also are replacing quarterback Matt Scott. Moreover, their No. 2 receiver in 2012, Dan Buckner, is gone, and the No. 3 guy was running back Ka'Deem Carey. There's solid experience returning at the position, but no one player looks like the go-to guy. The Wildcats are more likely to have three guys with over 600 yards receiving than to have one with 1,000.

Arizona State: Receiver is the Sun Devils' most questionable position. At this point, the most likely guy to go over 1,000 yards is tight end Chris Coyle. But if you were to imagine who will be the Sun Devils' top wideout in 2013, a good bet is touted juco transfer Jaelen Strong.

California: Keenan Allen is gone, but the Bears have plenty of young talent at receiver, a list topped by Chris Harper and Bryce Treggs. With new coach Sonny Dykes' new high-flying spread passing offense, it's difficult to imagine the Bears don't produce a 1,000-yard receiver.

Colorado: The Buffaloes' only legitimate A-list player is receiver Paul Richardson. He'd start for just about any Pac-12 team. And, considering how much new coach Mike MacIntyre likes to throw, Richardson seems likely to hit the 1,000-yard mark if he stays healthy.

Oregon: The Ducks are expected to throw more this season for a number of reasons -- new coach, questions at running back, etc. -- but the chief reason is because quarterback Marcus Mariota is a highly capable passer. Last year, we saw flashes of what he could do. We'll see plenty more in 2013. With De'Anthony Thomas slated to be primarily a running back, expect Josh Huff to become Mariota's favorite target.

Stanford: Stanford isn't the sort of team that produces a 1,000-yard receiver, and its most likely candidates in recent years were tight ends. But if things fell a certain way, Ty Montgomery might make a run at it.

UCLA: If you were to make a list of most likely new members of the 1,000-yard club in 2013, Bruins wide receiver Shaquelle Evans would be on it. He caught 60 passes for 877 yards last year in quarterback Brett Hundley's first year as a starter. With no Johnathan Franklin at running back, the Bruins should be throwing plenty.

Utah: The Utes should be much better throwing the ball this season. For one, quarterback Travis Wilson can only be more mature after starting as a true freshman. Second, new co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson likes to spread defenses out and throw the ball. Dres Anderson and Kenneth Scott are a good tandem, and one or the other could make a run at 1,000 yards.

Washington: The Huskies have two legit candidates -- wide receiver Kasen Williams and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. But Jenkins is working through a DUI arrest that has him presently suspended. Williams, who caught 77 passes for 878 yards a year ago, is a strong bet to be Keith Price's go-to guy.

Washington State: That list with likely new 1,000-yard receivers? Colorado's Richardson, UCLA's Evans and Washington's Williams would be on it. But atop the list would be Washington State's Gabe Marks. If he stays healthy, he's almost a sure thing, considering how much coach Mike Leach likes to throw the ball.
Five Pac-12 players were selected in the first round of the NFL draft on Thursday.

Here's the chart:


So... what's our take?

Thanks for asking.

Kevin Gemmell: I must say, very, very interesting first round. And one that I think most Pac-12 fans can be relatively pleased with. The five players drafted Thursday night are the most since the league sent six in 2008. So that's progress.

Two things really stood out as surprising to me. First, it's not that Dion Jordan went third overall to the Miami Dolphins. It's that he went to a 4-3 defense. Perhaps Jeff Ireland is a huge fan of the Pac-12 blog and was reading our Take 2 from a few weeks ago. And if that's the case, you're welcome, Jeff.

[+] EnlargeDion Jordan
Al Bello/Getty ImagesThe Dolphins traded up from No. 12 to No. 3 in the first round to select Oregon's Dion Jordan.
Jordan is pretty good at stopping the run -- but it's not the strength of his game. As every draftnik in the world noted before and after the selection, he's a beast at speed rushing off the edge, but has some work to do in other aspects of his game. They also made the apt comparison to former Dolphin defensive end Jason Taylor. Fitting since both players have similar frames and skill sets. He had an OK career, so maybe it all works out.

The second thing that surprised me was that Star Lotulelei was not the first defensive tackle taken. We figured he could go pretty much anywhere in the top 15 -- most mocks had him where he landed at No 14 to the Carolina Panthers. One pick earlier, Missouri's Sheldon Richardson went at No. 13 to the New York Jets. I admit I don't know a ton about Richardson. I just know that Lotulelei graded out higher, had a comparable 40 time (though it was inconsistent because it was at a pro day, not the NFL scouting combine) and he had eight more reps on the bench. Maybe it's just personal preference, but I was pretty surprised he wasn't the first defensive tackle off the board.

Liked the pick of Oregon's Kyle Long by the Bears. They are getting a versatile player who could really fit in at any position across the line after he gets a little seasoning. We've seen him slowly creep up in mock drafts -- starting several months ago in the third-round range -- and that buzz was legitimized with his pick at No. 20.

And I liked that Atlanta had Desmond Trufant targeted and they traded up to get him. It was a need position and they jumped at the chance to get an NFL-ready starter. Good pick.

Datone Jones is a guy Ted and I have been talking about for a couple of years now -- how we just kept waiting for him to breakout. And then UCLA switches to the 3-4 and he blows up. He could be a real solid player for years in Green Bay's 3-4 front.

Overall, I'd call it a fair-to-good first day for the Pac-12.

Ted Miller: Of course, the big question many will ask is how did the Pac-12 compare to the other conferences.

Here are the first-round numbers. Yes, there will be SEC crowing, with some justification.

  • SEC – 12
  • ACC – 6
  • Pac-12 – 5
  • Big 12 – 3
  • Independent – 2
  • MAC – 1
  • C-USA – 1
  • Big East - 1
  • Big Ten - 1

The SEC's 12 picks ties the record set by the ACC in 2006. Don't forget the SEC now has 14 teams. Or, for that matter, the Big 12 has 10.

My first-round takeaways? Well, the above numbers are meaningful.

The SEC? Well. I'll let you guys try to explain those away. (Good luck with that.) I tweeted this story the other day, and I think it well relates how SEC dominance, once a chimerical creation from a region that often doesn't fret the truth getting in the way of a good story, has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The bottom, however, is almost as telling -- see the Pac-12's Rose Bowl partner, the Big Ten with just one selection. That certainly validates the perception that conference has slipped, something we've seen on the field in recent years.

As for the five Pac-12 picks, I had a nice conversation with Jordan at the Fiesta Bowl about how his fortunes had turned. He seemed genuinely awed by it. And grateful. After the game, I was standing there when his mother worked here way through the crowd to give him a hug. Apparently it was raining inside University of Phoenix Stadium.

One of the things I always think about on draft day is how through-the-looking-glass strange it's got to feel for guys, at least the reflective ones. Sure, most top picks get fronted money by their agents, so they've been living the life for a few months. But when it becomes official, a guy in his early 20s suddenly become certifiably rich.

The third pick last year, Cleveland's Trent Richardson, got four years at $20.4 million. Just imagine yourself at 23 having a conversation about $20 million. And how it's a bit low.

[+] EnlargeMatt Barkley
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsMatt Barkley could be the next Pac-12 alum off the board.
As for the rest, the Panthers got a steal with Star Lotulelei at No. 14. The Panthers just put a checkmark in the box for the middle of their defensive line. And I think Jets fans will remember in a very Jets fans way that the Jets took Missouri DT Sheldon Richardson a pick before the Panthers.

Oregon O-lineman Kyle Long at No. 20 was a mild surprise, but the Bears probably swooned over his obvious upside. You can't beat his bloodlines either.

The Trufant pick clearly validates the Pac-12 blog at the expense of Washington fans. See... we told you he was good.

Wait. I may not be recalling that accurately. Two words: Kevin's fault.

And Jones, whom we've been touting pretty much since he arrived at UCLA, obviously found his rhythm over the past year.

As Kevin noted, there are a lot of good Pac-12 players left on the board, including a substantial handful who figure to get selected in the next two rounds. Things should continue to be interesting, starting with who steps up and picks USC quarterback Matt Barkley.
It didn’t take long for there to be some drama in the 2013 NFL draft. And former Oregon Duck Dion Jordan was right in the middle of it.

Jordan, the hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker, was selected by the Miami Dolphins with the No. 3 pick ... much to the surprise of the ESPN draft coverage crew. And Jordan.

After offensive tackles went first and second, Jordan was the first defensive player taken in the draft when the Oakland Raiders traded the pick to the Dolphins.

Jordan’s selection was met with mostly positive, yet still mixed responses. Mel Kiper Jr., Jon Gruden and Chris Berman praised Jordan’s athleticism and ability to rush off the edge. But they also questioned whether that’s worth the No. 3 overall pick. Obviously, the Dolphins thought it was.

Many believed that former Oregon coach Chip Kelly, now the head coach with the Philadelphia Eagles, was going to take Jordan with the fourth pick. Instead, the Dolphins moved one spot ahead, leaving Kelly to take Oklahoma offensive tackle Lane Johnson.

“I was surprised ... I wasn’t expecting that,” Jordan told ESPN’s Suzy Kolber. “I’m very blessed. I’m going to bring tremendous athletic ability … I’m ready to get in there and work with the guys.”

Jordan, Oregon’s highest drafted player since Joey Harrington went No. 3 overall in the 2002 draft, was the first of what turned out to be five first-round picks for the Pac-12 on Thursday night. It was the most first-round picks since the league had six in 2008.

After the Jordan selection, things quieted down for the league until the 14th pick, when the Carolina Panthers selected Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei. He was the second defensive tackle taken in the draft after Missouri’s Sheldon Richardson went at No. 13 to the New York Jets.

“He is a space-eater,” said Kiper after the selection. “He’s a stay-at-home type defensive tackle. He won’t give you a lot of pass rush. But he’s strong. He’s quick. He’s a tough kid. I thought a very good player, but the pass rush wasn’t there.”

ESPN's Pat Yasinskas has a good breakdown of what this means for the Panthers.

The second “surprise” pick of the draft also involved a Duck – when the Chicago Bears drafted Oregon offensive guard Kyle Long.

Said Kiper: “He has the kind of skill set you want. [But] he needs a lot of coaching ... he’s a developmental prospect … [His] versatility and mean streak intrigued a lot of people.”

Just two picks later, the Atlanta Falcons traded up to get Washington cornerback Desmond Trufant at No. 22. After posting a 4.38 at the NFL scouting combine -- third fastest among the defensive backs -- his stock jumped from early second round to first-round selection.

Said Kiper: “He’s an instinctive ball hawk. A guy I think really got better as his career moved along … this is a need area and [Atlanta] went up aggressively to get him.”

UCLA defensive end Datone Jones became the league’s fifth selection when the Green Bay Packers took him at No. 26. ESPN's Jon Gruden was a fan of the pick.

“If you’re into combine workouts, you’re into Datone Jones. Because he dominated the combine,” Gruden said. “The arrow is going up on this kid. He’s my sleeper of the first round. He has NFL movement skills ... he can play on a tight end. He can play inside. And the Packers need a dominant inside defender. Good pick.”

There is still plenty of intrigue looking ahead with names like Zach Ertz, Robert Woods, Matt Barkley, Keenan Allen, Matt Scott, Brian Schwenke, Steve Williams, Markus Wheaton, Jordan Poyer, David Bakhtiari, Chase Thomas, Kenjon Barner, Johnathan Franklin and about a dozen more from the league still on the board.

Settle in for a draft-filled weekend.
There are 11 conferences in FBS football. Bishop Sankey would have been the leading rusher in five of them last year -- including the ACC, Big 12, Big East and SEC. (Plus the independents, for those keeping track at home).

But the Washington running back plays in the Pac-12, where 1,439 yards, 16 touchdowns and 110.7 yards per game gets you a fist bump and an honorable mention.

With two of the three 2012 Doak Walker finalists in the league -- Kenjon Barner and Johnathan Franklin -- along with the nation's leading rusher, Ka'Deem Carey -- it was easy for Sankey's impressive exploits to be overshadowed.

"That's why I wanted to come to the Pac-12. I feel like it's the best conference in the nation," Sankey said." You have tons of talented athletes out here on the West Coast. That's motivation for me to keep working hard and to keep improving."

[+] EnlargeBishop Sankey
Steven Bisig/US PresswireWashington's Bishop Sankey said he's focusing this spring on becoming a more complete running back.
Anyone who saw Sankey shred the Boise State defense for 205 yards in the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas knows how special of a player Sankey can be. He also caught six balls for 74 yards and was named the game's MVP in a losing effort. It was the first time in the 21-year history of the bowl a player from the losing team had won the MVP. He was that good. And people noticed.

Finally.

Anyone who watched him average 154.6 yards and score seven touchdowns over the last five games of 2012 knows how vital he is to Washington and its offense. Anyone who doesn't think Sankey is one of the premier running backs in the Pac-12 -- arguably the country -- just doesn't know football.

Boise State better have noticed. The Broncos are coming to Washington on Aug. 31 in a rematch of the bowl game.

"I feel like [the bowl game] is in the back of some of our minds as motivation," Sankey said. "But at the same time, we've also taken steps to move forward from last season and create a new identity for who we want to be for the upcoming season."

Sankey's rise came about under unfortunate circumstances. When Jesse Callier was lost for the year with a knee injury in the season opener against San Diego State, Sankey went from by-committee complement to every-down back.

At the time, Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said, "We're going to find out more about Bishop Sankey in a hurry." What he found was a powerful, yet speedy back who could not only shoulder the load -- but emerge as one of the most durable backs in the league. Sankey's responsibilities increased throughout the season and by the second half he was averaging more than 25 carries per game. Only Carey and Stanford's Stepfan Taylor had more rushing attempts in 2012. And when the last down had been played, Sankey had gone for more than 100 yards in seven games and scored at least one touchdown in 10 of them.

He points to last year's victory over No. 8 Stanford as the "ah-ha" moment of his career. The Cardinal -- who finished fifth in the nation against the run -- only allowed three players to go for more than 100 yards against them last season. Franklin had 194 in the Pac-12 championship game, Sankey had 144 in the win and Carey went for 132. Sankey's 61-yard touchdown run against the Cardinal, coming on fourth-and-1, brought the Huskies back to life and swung the momentum back their way.

This year, he's looking to improve on, as he says, everything. His performance in the bowl game showed he can also be an effective receiver out of the backfield. But he wants to get better at pass- blocking, reading defenses and being even more explosive.

This spring he's also adjusted to the fact that there isn't a running back competition to replace Chris Polk. Sankey is the unquestioned starter. Though he's not taking that for granted.

"We have a very competitive running back group and I know everyone is capable of doing this job," he said. "I'm just trying to get better at everything and improve my game and help out the young guys.

"We have great athletes here. We have a great scheme and we have the potential to be very explosive. I can't wait for that first game. It's pretty exciting."

You might have noticed a theme this week. We kicked off the "Biggest Shoes" series and had two polls (North and South) on replacing departed players. So that means it's now time for your Pac-12 bloggers to weigh in on which two players we believe leave the biggest holes. Given our penchant for quarterbacks, you might find our two choices surprising. Read on.

Ted Miller: I do not know what size 6-foot-3, 320-pound Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei's shoes are, but I'd bet they are among the biggest in the Pac-12 -- in more ways than one.

The thing about replacing a dominant interior defensive lineman is that it's difficult to measure what you're losing. An All-America receiver or running back or even cornerback leaves, and you feel fairly comfortable quantifying what is lost and must be replaced. Lotulelei, however, was more than the sum of his stats -- 42 tackles, 10 tackles for a loss, five sacks, four fumble recoveries, three forced fumbles and a very important blocked kick.

Lotulelei changed what an offense could do. He changed blocking schemes. He demanded specific attention from an offensive coordinator and a line coach. He made sure the interior of the opposing offensive line -- even if the offense was winning the overall battle -- wanted to ask for its check.

He was a unique presence. An anomaly. A college center could start 48 games in his career and face a guy like him just once. That's why Lotulelei will be a first-round NFL draft pick, even with a heart condition. He could get picked in the top five if a team deems him healthy.

But his shoes are even bigger because Utah, after a disappointing defensive campaign in 2012, is replacing three of four defensive linemen. Moreover, the Utes were unhappy with their linebacker play last fall, even with all the protection Lotulelei provided. Opposing offensive lines, unencumbered by the need to double-team Lotulelei every play, will get a lot more hats on those linebackers in 2013. Not what coach Kyle Whittingham wants.

[+] EnlargeSam Schwartzstein
Charles Baus/CSMCenter Sam Schwartzstein was a huge piece of Stanford's recent offensive success.
The cupboard isn't empty. The Utes are high on Tenny Palepoi, a 305-pound senior who played well as the backup to defensive tackle Dave Kruger last season. And there are other big bodies: LT Tuipulotu, Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, a 320-pound redshirt freshman, and Viliseni Fauonuku will be in the mix.

Yet the Utes defensive coaches won't even pretend one of those guys will fill Lotulelei's shoes. They are just too big.

Kevin Gemmell: This is a tough one. I've been going through a bunch of players all week long trying to come to a conclusion on which one I wanted to write about (and Lotulelei was already taken). All of them are important -- Matt Barkley, Khaled Holmes, Robert Woods, Jordan Poyer, Travis Long, Markus Wheaton, Brandon Magee, Desmond Trufant, Stepfan Taylor, Johnathan Franklin, Zach Ertz, Dion Jordan and … (insert name I unintentionally omitted and now you feel wildly offended).

There really is no wrong answer here. Each player is a major contributor to his team in his own way. But the one name that kept coming back to me is Stanford center Sam Schwartzstein. I know, not as exciting as Kenjon Barner or glamorous as Matt Scott. But in terms of sheer contributions to the team that will be tough to replace, Schwartzstein has to be in the conversation.

In 2011, he was regarded as having the second-best football mind on the team -- behind only Andrew Luck. And he didn't lose any of that in 2012.

After the quarterback, there is no more important position on Stanford's offense than the center. He makes all of the scheme and protection calls at the line of scrimmage. He even calls plays in the huddle when the Cardinal go into the Wildcat.

Schwartzstein started every game since taking over for All-American Chase Beeler, and twice he blocked for a 1,000-yard rusher in Taylor. The Cardinal played 14 games in 2012 and allowed just 20 sacks. In the 12-game regular season, they had allowed a conference-best 17. The year before that? Just 11 in 13 games. I know for a fact that there were zero quarterback-center exchange fumbles in 2011. And none comes to mind in 2012.

Khalil Wilkes, who started almost every game last year at left guard (one start at left tackle) moves over to compete with Conor McFadden for the gig. Maybe the transition from Schwartzstein to one of those guys will go as smoothly as the handoff from Beeler to Schwartzstein. After all, the new center will have one bona-fide All-American at his side and potentially a couple more on the line.

But they won't be the ones making the calls. That falls on the center -- and Schwartzstein was outstanding at it. He was second-team all-conference and honored with the school's leadership award. Not Taylor, not Ertz. Not Shayne Skov nor Ryan Hewitt nor the aforementioned All-American David Yankey. The center … the most crucial position in Stanford's offense that you never hear about.

Tough shoes to fill, indeed.
Jim MoraKirby Lee/Image of Sport/USA TODAY SportsDespite a disappointing end to his first season at UCLA, Jim Mora is optimistic about Year 2.
Jim Mora has made a career -- and a pretty darn good one at that -- capitalizing on teachable moments.

On Dec. 27 of last year, the Baylor Bears provided his UCLA squad -- a group still in its infancy when learning to deal with success -- with a slew of teachable moments. There were 49 to be exact, if you're keeping track at home.

Mora's UCLA team -- which climbed as high as 16 in the BCS standings in his first year at the helm -- was throttled by the Bears 49-26 in the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl in San Diego. After a 9-2 start, the Bruins closed out the year with back-to-back losses to Stanford and then the Holiday Bowl defeat. As always, Mora didn't pass on the opportunity to teach.

And to learn.

"It taught me that we need to get bigger, faster and stronger," Mora said. "They were a bigger and faster and more physical team than us on that night. Their players looked a little bit different than our players. Though we've done good things and come a long way, we're not where we need to be. Baylor was the best team we played all year. They were the biggest, most physical, athletically gifted team that we played all year and they took it to us pretty good. It was good for us. It was not fun. We would have liked to have a different outcome. But it showed us where we are as a team ...

"That put things right back in perspective for us. It was very humbling. We all realize we have a long way to go. We feel like we are headed in the right direction. But for all the good things we did, we're nowhere close to where we want to be or where we will be."

With the three-game skid, it's easy to overlook what Mora accomplished in Year 1. Like the fact that he and his staff took a first-year starter at quarterback and molded him into one of the most exciting players in the country. Like the fact that they took a running back/fullback at the bottom of the depth chart and turned him into one of the preeminent defenders in the nation. Like the fact that they beat USC, won the Pac-12 South Division sans the asterisk and grabbed a major chunk of the Los Angeles recruiting market.

He'll look to continue that success when the Bruins open spring camp on April 2. He doesn't expect any hangover from the way the season ended. In fact, he noted that his players are already "bigger, stronger, faster and more flexible" than they were heading into spring camp last year. A full year in the system should work wonders in Year 2.

Of great interest will be the continued maturation of quarterback Brett Hundley -- the aforementioned exciting player -- and linebacker Anthony Barr -- the aforementioned preeminent defensive player. Mora said he expects big things from both in 2013.

Barr's move to linebacker was the single most significant position switch in the conference last season. With only about a month to learn the position, Barr tallied a league-high 13.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for a loss. A leading candidate for defensive player of the year, Barr opted to bypass the NFL until 2014 so he could gain more seasoning at the position.

"I think if he continues to progress, he'll be a top 5 pick," Mora said. "Talk about an impact player, and he's still so new at the position. He didn't go through spring at outside linebacker so he's been an linebacker for less than a year. The education of Anthony Barr as an outside linebacker started in August in San Bernardino. If he can come anywhere close to duplicating the acceleration of the position -- learning the position like he did last year and the improvements he made -- he's going to be scary."

And then there is Hundley, the wildly athletic quarterback who will be asked to do more with the offense now that the school's all-time leading rusher -- Johnathan Franklin -- is gone. So is his favorite red zone target, hybrid tight end Joe Fauria. Hundley was very solid in his first year, completing 66.5 percent of his throws for 3,740 yards and 29 touchdowns. But he was also sacked 52 times. Part of that was a young offensive line. Part of that was Hundley. As his understanding of the offense increases, Mora said he expects better decision-making from Hundley.

"He's so gifted and sometimes he needs to know when to trust himself and trust [offensive coordinator] Noel [Mazzone] and sometimes he just needs to let it fly," Mora said. "Everything he was seeing last year, he was essentially seeing for the first time. The first time he picks up the ball at our first spring practice, without having taken a snap from center in a competitive situation between the bowl game and now he will be a much, much better football player because he's been able to absorb all of the lessons from last year."

Pac-12 scouting combine notebook

February, 25, 2013
2/25/13
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Some tough news coming out of the scouting combine this weekend for Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei. ESPN's Chris Mortensen first reported that Lotulelei -- a projected top-five pick -- would not be allowed to work out today with the rest of the defensive lineman after an echocardiogram revealed a heart condition that requires additional testing.

From Mortensen's story:
Lotulelei was discovered to have an abnormally low Ejection Fraction, detecting that the left ventricle of his heart was pumping at only 44 percent efficiency, sources said. The normal range is between 55-70 percent efficiency.

The 6-foot-2, 311-pound Lotulelei will undergo further testing in Salt Lake City in an effort to seek more clarity with the condition, a source said. If it's a confirmed chronic condition, medical experts consider it an indication of possible heart damage.

The All-American posted 42 tackles in 2012, including 10 tackles for a loss and five sacks. He's expected to visit a specialist this week and plans to participate in Utah's Pro Day on March 20.

Scouts Inc. ranks Lotulelei as the No. 1 overall player in the draft.

Schwenke rising

Former Cal offensive lineman Brian Schwenke, longtime friend of the Pac-12 blog, had a strong combine performance. He was among the top performers in the 3-cone drill and 40-yard dash (see results below). Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com said Schwenke's stock is trending up.

Writes Jeremiah:
I really liked Schwenke on tape and he continued to impress with an excellent week at the Senior Bowl. On Saturday, his draft stock received another boost. Schwenke posted a great 40 time (4.99) and enjoyed a fine field workout. I could see his name being called in the early portion of the third round.
Zach Ertz versus Tyler Eifert

One was a unanimous All-American. The other won the Mackey Award for the nations' best tight end. The battle for the top tight end taken in the draft might be too close to call at this point.

Per ESPN's Todd McShay, Insider Ertz had a good day, but Eifert may have closed the gap.
Depending on who you ask, there are varying opinions on which of the two is the best tight end. If you took a poll, it would probably come out even at this point. So, of the two who are jockeying for position as the top TE in this class, Eifert won the day. It doesn't mean he'll be the first TE drafted, and if he is, it doesn't mean he's going to be the better NFL player. But for what it's worth, he had the better Saturday. At 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, he's slightly bigger and longer. He ran an unofficial 4.6 in the 40 and had an impressive 35-inch vertical leap.
Here's John Clayton's take:
Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert and Stanford's Zach Ertz were considered the top two tight ends in the draft, and it's starting to look like it will be a good battle for the top spot. Eifert may have challenged for the lead after running a 4.68 compared to Ertz's 4.76.
40 times/bench

For complete workout results, you can check out the NFL.com combine page. Here's some of the top results for the fleet-footed and pectorally gifted (per NFL.com).

Running backs
Johnathan Franklin, UCLA: 4.49/18 reps
Kenjon Barner, Oregon: 4.52/20 reps
C.J. Anderson, Cal: 4.60/17 reps
Stepfan Taylor, Stanford: 4.76/17 reps

Wide receivers
Markus Wheaton, Oregon State: 4.45/20 reps
Marquess Wilson, formerly of Washington State: 4.51/7 reps
Robert Woods, USC: 4.51/14 reps

Quarterbacks
Matt Scott, Arizona: 4.69/Did not lift

Offensive line
Kyle Long, Oregon: 4.94/Did not lift
Brian Schwenke, Cal: 4.99/31 reps
Jeff Baca, UCLA: 5.03/ Did not lift
David Bakhtiari, Coloraod: 5.09/28 reps
Khaled Holmes, USC: Did not run/13 reps

Tight end
Nick Kasa, Colorado: 4.71/22 reps
Zach Ertz, Stanford: 4.76/24 reps
Levine Toilolo, Stanford: 4.86/17 reps

Pac-12 spring preview: South Division

February, 22, 2013
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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.

Pac-12 sees 38 invited to NFL combine

February, 8, 2013
2/08/13
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The official list of college players invited to the NFL combine is out and 38 from the Pac-12 made the cut. At least one player from every team in the conference was invited. A total of 333 players were invited and workouts begin Feb. 23. You can see the complete list here.

Pac-12 recruiting wrap: South Divison

February, 7, 2013
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We're reviewing hits and misses in Pac-12 recruiting, starting with the South Divison.

ARIZONA

Needs filled: The Wildcats have two incoming quarterbacks -- USC transfer Jesse Scroggins, who's already in school, and Anu Solomon -- who will be in competition to replace the departing Matt Scott. The class includes five linebackers, a need position. Don't be surprised if running back Pierre Cormier gets touches behind Ka'Deem Carey. It seems that coach Rich Rodriguez stocked up on athletes -- receivers and defensive backs.

Holes remaining: The Wildcats' biggest weakness in 2012 was the defensive line -- they ranked last in the Pac-12 in sacks and gave up more than 200 yards rushing per game -- and this class of 23 includes just two defensive linemen. Who's going to rush the passer in 2013?

ARIZONA STATE

Needs filled: The Sun Devils needed receivers and defensive backs. They signed five receivers and and five defensive backs -- and one athlete, who could play either. Defensive tackle Marcus Hardison, the nation's No. 5 junior college player, should help bolster a poor run defense.

Holes remaining: The Sun Devils lost QB Joshua Dobbs to Tennessee on signing day, which means they haven't signed a quarterback in two consecutive classes. Nine JC transfers means the Sun Devils are counting on immediate impact rather than long-term development. That approach can be a gamble, though four of the juco recruits have three years of eligibility instead of two.

COLORADO

Needs filled: The Buffs have a lot of needs, as they were last in the Pac-12 in scoring offense and scoring defense in 2012. The class includes six offensive linemen, and quarterback Sefo Liufau, 6-foot-4, 215-pound product of Bellarmine Prep in Tacoma, Wash., is a guy Buffs fans should be excited about. Considering the poor production at the position last season and the fact that there's a new scheme, he might get into the mix this fall.

Holes remaining: This is a fairly balanced class but there isn't a single interior defensive lineman. The Buffs gave up 226 yards rushing per game last season. The Buffs did, however, sign nine defensive linemen last year. While Liufau is the star of the class, this crew is lacking pizzazz and will rank last in the Pac-12, which is not surprising for a 1-11 team that fired its coach.

UCLA

Needs filled: Jim Mora said his top needs were offensive line, defensive back and linebacker. He signed seven offensive linemen, four defensive backs -- highly rated safety Priest Willis is still pending -- and three linebackers. As for the offensive line, two are ESPN 300 prospects and a third is a four-star lineman. Including Willis, who is expected to sign with the Bruins, two defensive backs are ESPN 150 players, a third is an ESPN 300 recruit and the fourth is rated with four stars. As for linebacker, two are ESPN 150 players.

Holes remaining: The Bruins signed the Pac-12's top-rated class and had a great final week. There is little not to celebrate, other than defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes picking Notre Dame. The most obvious hole is running back, where there's no obvious replacement for Johnathan Franklin. Craig Lee had committed to the Bruins but hasn't signed, so there's no true RB in this class.

USC

Needs filled: USC lost three of four starters from a secondary that underperformed last year, so signing two of the top three safeties in the nation -- Su’a Cravens and Leon McQuay -- as well as the No. 11 cornerback in Chris Hawkins is a pretty nice haul. The Trojans also added a pair of elite running backs in Ty Isaac and Justin Davis, the nation's No. 3 DT in Kenny Bigelow and the No. 2 quarterback in Max Browne. All three spots were need areas.

Holes remaining: The story of this class, as good as it is, is the handful of decommitments. In November, this was the No. 1 class but fell out of the top 10. Bigelow is the only defensive lineman; there are only two offensive linemen. In November, the question was how was USC going to finagle its way to just 75 scholarships, per NCAA sanctions. That's no longer an issue.

UTAH

Needs filled: With the graduation of RB John White and three voids on the defensive line, those were two need spots addressed by this class of 23. The Utes signed five defensive linemen, including three defensive tackles. They also signed four running backs, including JC transfer Devontae Booker.

Holes remaining: One bit of bad news for the defensive line is that DT Lowell Lotulelei, younger brother of Star and the Utes' highest-rated player, didn't sign because he's going on a Mormon mission right out of high school. This is a balanced class but it includes just two offensive linemen. The Utes also didn't get great linebacker play last season and this class only includes one, Uaea Masina.

Poll: Best postseason game of 2012

January, 24, 2013
1/24/13
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On Tuesday we polled you on the best regular-season game of the 2012 season. With more than 6,700 votes, Stanford's win over Oregon remains slightly ahead of the USC-Oregon game.

But there were nine other games after the regular season ended -- the Pac-12 championship game and eight bowl games.

Since the Pac-12 lost four of those games, those losses probably wouldn't qualify in a "best of" poll (stop your snickering, Oregon fans).

So for today's poll question, we're asking what the was the Pac-12's best postseason game.

Your options:

SportsNation

What was the best Pac-12 postseason game in the 2012 season?

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    10%
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    19%
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    7%
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    17%
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    47%

Discuss (Total votes: 5,862)

Pac-12 title game: It was the long-awaited rematch -- a full six days in the making. After the Cardinal thumped the Bruins at the Rose Bowl in the regular season finale, 35-17, they met six days later at Stanford. This time around, it was a much tighter contest. UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin exploded for 194 yards on 19 carries and two touchdowns. Three times the Bruins held the lead, including a 24-17 edge heading into the fourth quarter. But Kevin Hogan's legs and arm -- coupled with a pair of Jordan Williamson field goals -- were enough to lock up the 27-24 win for the Cardinal.

New Mexico Bowl: The first bowl game of the 2012 postseason may very well have been the most thrilling. Arizona mounted a furious comeback in the final two minutes, erasing a 48-35 deficit, to pull off a shocking 49-48 victory over Nevada. Arizona scored 14 points in the final minute (after recovering an onside kick), including a 2-yard go-ahead touchdown pass from Matt Scott to Tyler Slavin with 19 seconds left in the game.

Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl: The other Arizona team didn't need any last second miracles as Arizona State throttled Navy 62-28. But what made this game compelling was running back Marion Grice -- playing with a heavy heart following his brother's murder -- erupted for 159 yards and two touchdowns to earn offensive MVP honors.

The Rose Bowl: In vintage 2012 Stanford fashion, the Cardinal gutted out a 20-14 victory over Wisconsin. They jumped out to a 14-0 lead on rushing touchdowns from Kelsey Young and Stepfan Taylor and let the defense and Williamson do the rest of the work. It was Stanford's eighth victory of the season coming by a touchdown or less.

The Fiesta Bowl: If the Rose Bowl was vintage Stanford, the Fiesta was vintage Oregon -- which used its speed to overwhelm Kansas State. De'Anthony Thomas set the tone by returning the opening kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown, Kenjon Barner rushed for 143 yards and the defense kept Heisman Trophy finalist Collin Klein and the Wildcats to just 283 yards of total offense.

Pac-12's best moments in 2012

January, 14, 2013
1/14/13
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Here's a collection of great moments/storylines from the 2012 Pac-12 season in no particular order:

  • Clutch catches: A couple from Arizona wide receivers come to mind. There was Austin Hill laying out in the season opener against Toledo for a 30-yard touchdown -- quite possibly the best catch in the Pac-12 this season -- and Tyler Slavin's snag in the New Mexico Bowl. Zach Ertz's haul-in against Oregon was as clutch as it gets.
  • [+] EnlargeReggie Dunn
    Russ Isabella/US PresswireUtah's Reggie Dunn was a threat to go the distance every time he touched the ball.
    Dunn and done: It was a record-setting year for Utah's All-American kick returner Reggie Dunn. He set the NCAA single-season record with four 100-yard kickoff returns for touchdowns. He set the NCAA mark for career 100-yard kickoff returns with five, the single-game 100-yard kickoff return record with two and the kick return average in a game at 74.0. He also tied the NCAA record for kick return touchdowns in a game from any distance with two. His performance prompted one of the best quotes of the year from Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "I can't believe they kicked to him," Whittingham said after the Colorado game.
  • Having their moment: Colorado is going to get mentioned a lot in this post -- mostly because of what others did to it. But in a season loaded with disappointments, it was a gritty fourth-quarter performance that stands out as a highlight for the Buffs. Trailing 31-14 in the final frame, Colorado outscored the Washington State Cougars 21-3 in the final 7:06 for their only win of the season, a 35-34 victory in Pullman, Wash.
  • The other side of Colorado: Feeling good after reading that, Buffs fans? Here comes the rub. Pac-12 teams exploded against Colorado this year with several record-setting performances. We've already mentioned Dunn getting one of his kickoff return TDs against the Buffs. But before that, Matt Barkley and Robert Woods had record-setting days against Colorado. Barkley threw six touchdowns and completed 95 percent of his passes (19 of 20), giving him the Pac-12 career touchdown record. Woods caught eight balls to set the USC career receptions record and he became the first USC player to have four touchdown catches in one game. A couple of weeks later, Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey ran for a league-record 366 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 14.6 yards per carry. In conference games, Colorado was outscored, on average, 49-17.
  • Clutch kicks: In what was a very off year for Pac-12 kickers, a few key moments stand out: Ka'imi Fairbairn's 33-yard game winner lifted the Bruins to a 45-43 win at Arizona State; Jordan Williamson's 37-yarder in overtime downed Oregon and changed the entire landscape of college football; and WSU's Andrew Furney was oh-so-money in the Apple Cup, drilling a 45-yarder to tie the game in the closing minutes and then hitting a 27-yarder in overtime.
  • UW shockers: For as shocking as the Apple Cup demise was for the Huskies, they also provided a couple of big shockers of their own, knocking off a pair of top-10 teams. A week after Stanford stunned USC (not as stunning as it was at the time), Washington held the No. 8 Cardinal without an offensive touchdown in a 17-13 home win. A month later -- to the day -- it snapped No. 7 Oregon State's six-game winning streak, also at the Clink.
  • SoCal slugfest: Before the season, we all looked to the Oregon-USC game as the first of two that would determine the conference championship. As it turned out, neither team even reached the title game. But the game itself didn't disappoint. It was a 62-51 thrill ride in which Kenjon Barner rushed for 321 yards and four touchdowns, Barkley threw for 484 yards and five scores and the two schools gained 1,345 yards of total offense between them.
  • Quarterback controversies: Midseason switches and turnover at the position seemed like a constant throughout the Pac-12. Only four schools -- Arizona State, Oregon, UCLA and Washington -- started the same quarterback in every game this season. Injury caused changes at Arizona, Cal, Oregon State, USC and Utah, while competitions/switches happened at Washington State, Stanford, Oregon State and Colorado. In the end, it was a good move for Stanford -- which went on to win the Pac-12 title. At Oregon State, the competition is certainly wide open after the Alamo Bowl collapse. Colorado has some things to figure out with a new coaching staff and we'll see if Connor Halliday can hold on to the job next year.
  • Heisman shutout: The Pac-12 didn't have a finalist for the first time since 2008 -- despite strong seasons from Marqise Lee, Barner, Carey, Johnathan Franklin, etc. Barkley was the preseason favorite, but fizzled as USC imploded. Despite having the nation's top wide receiver and three of the four consensus All-American running backs, the Pac-12 was snubbed out of a trip to New York.
  • Stanford's staying power: Surely, 2012 was the year Stanford would come back to earth. No Andrew Luck, no Coby Fleener, no Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro. But behind a fierce defense, the Cardinal won the league title, Kevin Hogan is 5-0 as a starter at quarterback and the Cardinal won the Rose Bowl. Not bad for a rebuilding year.
  • Coaches are better than ever: Jim Mora, Todd Graham and Rich Rodriguez all took their teams to bowl games in their first seasons. Mike Riley has his team back in the Top 25. David Shaw has won the coach of the year honor twice in two seasons. Chip Kelly is back. Sonny Dykes has an exciting offense. Mike MacIntyre has a history of rebuilding. The Pac-12 might have the hottest crop of coaches in the country. That's a very good thing.
  • 2-0: There are many ways to judge the talent of a conference. BCS bowl games are the biggest litmus test. The Pac-12 went 4-4 in the bowl season, but won both of its BCS games: Stanford beating Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl and Oregon thrashing Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl. History judges the best of the best. And there was no doubt those two teams earned everything they got this year.

What we learned in the Pac-12 bowls

January, 9, 2013
1/09/13
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1. The Pac-12 is top-heavy: Well, duh. The top two teams in the conference, Stanford and Oregon, both won their games -- BCS bowl games at that -- doing exactly what they did to get there in the first place. Stanford won the Rose Bowl with physical play and Oregon, not exactly lacking in physicality either, ran circles around Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl. The middle of the conference, however, didn't fare as well. Oregon State and South champ UCLA both tanked in their games against Big 12 opponents.

2. North-South split: While the consensus is that the North Division is the stronger of the league's two divisions, the results in the postseason have it as a draw. The North went 2-2 and the South went 2-2. North representatives Stanford and Oregon won, while Oregon State and Washington lost. From the South, the Arizona schools both pulled off wins, while the Los Angeles schools face-planted. The fact that the North schools won BCS games certainly carries more weight.

[+] EnlargeWashington's Bishop Sankey
Josh Holmberg/USA TODAY SportsWashington's Bishop Sankey ran past Boise State for 205 yards -- one of several impressive bowl performances from Pac-12 running backs.
3. Pac-12 running backs are awesome: The conference's ground game was on full display in the postseason. In five of the eight games, a Pac-12 running back went for at least 100 yards and three backs gained more than 150 yards -- Arizona State's Marion Grice (159), Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey (172) and Washington's Bishop Sankey (205). Even the backs who didn't gain 100 yards -- Stepfan Taylor and Silas Redd -- had respectable games. The only real back to have a down day was UCLA's Johnathan Franklin, who had just 34 yards on 14 carries in the Holiday Bowl. When you're facing a run blitz almost every play, that can be tough. As a group, the backs averaged 24.8 carries for 143.8 yards per game with nine total touchdowns -- three from Carey, two from Grice and Oregon State's Storm Woods and one apiece from Taylor and Sankey.

4. There's a one-point safety? Full disclosure: I had no idea this rule existed. In my 17 years in this business, I have never come across this. But apparently when a blocked PAT is recovered, taken into the end zone and then the player is tackled in the end zone, the result is a one-point safety for the kicking team. Thanks to that Oregon-Kansas State game, aren't we all a little smarter now? The rule is as obscure as it is enlightening.

5. Coaches are committed: Chip Kelly is sticking around -- at least for another year. David Shaw is sticking around -- for an undisclosed amount of time. Jim Mora is sticking around -- as far as we know. All three coaches took a ride on the to-the-NFL rumor roller coaster -- Kelly reaching the highest velocity -- but all three are back. Kelly picked up the phone, and then hung up. Shaw signed an undisclosed contract extension and Mora apparently hasn't entertained any offers to return to the league despite rumored interest from at least one NFL team -- San Diego. High-profile coaches are a good thing for the league. And when they stick around, that's even better.

6. Kerplunk: USC's bowl season ended much the way the regular season did -- historically horrific. USC became the first preseason No. 1 in history to lose six games and the first since 1964 to finish unranked. Remember when we were talking about how devastating it would be if they lost two? Well, the Trojans lost five of their final six, including an embarrassing performance against Georgia Tech in the Hyundai Sun Bowl. History will look at USC in 2012 as one of the worst -- if not the worst -- wastes of talent college football has ever seen, while the rest of the country will look upon them with a schadenfreudeian smile. It was, in a word, unacceptable.

7. Pac-12 isn't No. 1: The SEC finished the bowl season 6-3 and Alabama won the national championship. Yes, it is the best conference in college football. The question of who is No. 2 can rage between the Big 12 and the Pac-12. Texas and Baylor beat Oregon State and UCLA, respectively, in non-BCS games. Oregon beat Kansas State in a BCS game. The Pac-12 is heavier at the top; the Big 12 probably has more depth. The Pac-12 went 4-4 and the Big 12 went 4-5. You can argue the ACC belongs in the Nos. 2, 3, 4 conversation as well. Its teams went 4-2, won a BCS bowl game, Clemson knocked off a top 10 team and the ACC won its only head-to-head game against the Pac-12 (see the aforementioned kerplunk). You can't make an argument for the Pac-12 being No. 1. But you can make a case for it falling anywhere between 2 through 4.

8. How 'bout them kickers: For as much guff as Pac-12 kickers took during the regular season -- and there was guff a'plenty to go around -- they actually showed up in the postseason. Pac-12 kickers completed 10 of 12 field goal attempts (83 percent). Stanford's Jordan Williamson exorcised his Fiesta Bowl demons and clutched up with a 47-yarder and a 2-for-2 performance for the Cardinal (who won by six points). And the accuracy level was much higher than the league's 67 percent (148-of 218) in the regular season. The eight schools playing in bowl games were 104-of-154 on the season (67 percent), so this was a much better showing all around.

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