NCF Nation: Kendrick Payne

No team in the Pac-12 wows you at defensive tackle. No team is a sure thing. There is a lot of "maybe" at the position. And probably some maybe not.

The uncertainty of quality -- both in terms of returning stars and depth -- made this a difficult position to rank. For example, Washington has a nice foursome at tackle, led by Alameda Ta'amu, who might be the best tackle in the conference.

That's great. Good for the Huskies. But they ranked 97th in the country in run defense last year. You sort of pause over that, you know?

So a lot of this ranking is feel thing, a projection of potential. And "great shape" here is relative to the conference. Nebraska, for example, wouldn't exchange its tackles -- Jared Crick and Baker Steinkuhler -- for any Pac-12 tandem.

Some of this figures to inspire a bit of debate.

Great shape

USC: This may be in some part based on fumes from the Trojans reputation at the position. It definitely includes a vote of faith that they will get a 100 percent Christian Tupou back from the knee injury that killed his 2010 season. If so, the threesome of Tupou, George Uko and DaJohn Harris is strong. And if you toss in Armond Armstead -- who missed spring with an undisclosed medical condition that threatens his career -- you'd have a clear No. 1.

Washington: Ta'amu seemed to find himself during the second half of last year, and the 330-pounder could end up getting some All-American consideration if he consistently plays like he did against Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl. Sione Potoa'e and Semisi Tokolahi are both experienced, and Lawrence Lagafuaina a space-grabbing, 344-pound redshirt freshman.

Colorado: The Buffaloes are sneaky good here, even though they only ranked 48th in the nation in run defense in 2010. Both starters, Will Pericak and Curtis Cunningham, are back, but Conrad Obi was a revelation this spring. He looked like a future NFL draft choice, not a player who'd mostly been a bust. Nate Bonsu, who missed spring with a knee injury, also should help.

Good shape

Utah: The Utes, who ranked 11th in the nation in run defense in 2010, lost Sealver Siliga, but they believe they have a budding star in, er, Star Lotulelei, while James Aiono, LT Tuipulotu and Joape Peta are solid. Also, Dave Kruger, who played end this spring, is 280 pounds and can play inside.

Arizona: The loss of backup Willie Mobley to a knee injury hurts depth, but Justin Washington figures to take a step forward after an impressive true freshman season, Sione Tuihalamaka started four games in 2010. Depth is a question. The Wildcats ranked 33rd in the nation in run defense last fall.

Oregon: On the one hand, Oregon lost both starting defensive tackles in Brandon Bair and Zac Clark from a unit that ranked 27th in the nation in run defense. On the other, they played so many guys last fall, the new starters are experienced players. Further, Ricky Heimuli, Taylor Hart, Wade Keliikipi, Isaac Remington and Jared Ebert played well enough this spring to suggest the position will be a strength in the fall.

Arizona State: If Lawrence Guy didn't make his ill-fated decision to enter the NFL draft, the Sun Devils, who were 16th in the nation against the run last fall, would be in great shape here. As it was, Will Sutton had a great spring and looks like a potential All-Conference guy. Grinder Bo Moos is listed as the starter at the other tackle, though he could be eclipsed by Corey Adams. Toa Tuitea saw limited action last year.

UCLA: The Bruins defensive line was terrible last year, ranking 108th in the nation against the run, but the talent is there for a significant turnaround. Cassius Marsh, Nate Chandler, Justin Edison, Donovan Carter and Seali'i Epenesa should do a much better job plugging the middle.

California: Cal is actually fine here, despite the loss of NG Derrick Hill. For one, when you run a 3-4 defense, it's hard to rate your DTs, even if your DEs often operate like them. The Bears have two solid options at NG in Aaron Tipoti and Kendrick Payne, and it's also possible that touted 350-pound incoming freshman Viliami Moala will eclipse both of them.

We'll see

Oregon State: Dominic Glover moves inside from end and Kevin Frahm has experience, but this unit didn't play well last year -- 89th in run defense -- even with one of the best DTs in the nation in Stephen Paea. 340-pound Castro Masaniai could help but he missed spring after shoulder surgery and has off-field issues. There's also Mana Tuivailala and Ben Motter.

Stanford: Like Cal, Stanford runs a 3-4, so it naturally it is going to suffer a bit in DT rankings. More important: The loss of Sione Fua is significant. Terrence Stephens and Henry Anderson had solid springs but neither has much experience.

Washington State: Brandon Rankin, a returning starter, was listed No. 2 on the depth chart behind Anthony Laurenzi after spring practices, with redshirt freshman Toni Pole No. 1 at the other tackle. Justin Clayton, Steven Hoffart and Xavier Cooper provide depth. It's not unreasonable for Cougars fans to expect improvement, perhaps significant improvement. But a team that ranked 115th in the nation in run defense the previous season is automatically a "We'll see" here.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Getting deep into this week's games.

Will Arizona go small and get big?: USC's defense hasn't allowed a point in 10 quarters. It's ranked No. 1 in scoring defense and No. 2 in total defense. In other words, the Trojans have the nation's best defense. Only one team had success of any kind against them and that was Oregon State, which used a balanced attack to gain 343 total yards in a 27-21 victory. Balance is the key. Without at least a threat to run, an opposing quarterback is simply fresh meat for a fast USC defense, which can then tape its ears back in the pass rush. The Beavers, however, gashed the Trojans with diminutive true freshman Jacquizz Rodgers, who used his 5-foot-7 frame to his advantage instead of disadvantage. After the game, the Trojans defenders actually complained that they couldn't find Rodgers amid the crowd of large bodies. Just so happens that Arizona boasts two speedy, undersized backs. Freshman Keola Antolin (5-foot-7) burst onto the scene with 149 yards rushing on 21 carries with three touchdowns in the 42-27 win over California. He stepped in for Nic Grigsby (5-foot-10), who fumbled in the first quarter, but Grigsby is solid when he holds onto the football -- see 627 yards rushing and nine touchdowns this year with a 5.9 yards-per-carry average. Considering the Wildcats' offensive line is a more experienced group than the Beavers' was, the question is whether the Trojans have learned to find the little guys who are trying to slice them apart.

Ducks foresee sack time with Rudy: In Oregon's 35-23 win over Arizona State last year, the Ducks sacked Rudy Carpenter nine times, including 3.5 takedowns by end Nick Reed. To say the least, it was a long day for Carpenter. The problem for him this go-around is there are abundant reasons to believe he will be again running for his life ... or limping for his life, considering he's nursing an ankle sprain. The Sun Devils have no running game to slow down Oregon's pass rush; they rank 117th in the nation in rushing. While the inexperienced offensive line has mostly pass protected better than last year's unit that surrendered 55 sacks, it still has yielded 2.5 sacks per game. Meanwhile, Reed is back, leading the Pac-10 with eight sacks this season, and his opposite end, Will Tukuafu, is just behind with six. In fact, Oregon leads the Pac-10 with 3.57 sacks per game. So there's your game: Can Rudy get enough time to pick on the Ducks hobbled secondary? Or will he hobble off the field himself?

Washington's players can make a statement on their feelings for Tyrone Willingham by playing hard vs. Notre Dame: It's not hard to pick apart what's gone wrong with Washington during the Tyrone Willingham Era. That's been going on ad nauseum for nearly two years and it won't end until the school puts his administration out of its misery. What can be said is this: Willingham is a man of integrity who cares about his players and has never been accused of unethical behavior. So how do his players feel about him? We'll see this weekend. While Willingham played off the Notre Dame angle this week, this also is a man of considerable ego and his ego will never be more vulnerable than it will be Saturday. If the Fighting Irish blow Willingham out of Husky Stadium, it will be a humiliating repudiation of him as a coach, at least in terms of popular perception. Thing is, Notre Dame isn't that good and the Huskies aren't that bad. If Washington plays hard for four quarters and fights for its coach, this won't be a blowout.

UCLA's offensive line vs. California's defensive line is a battle of wounded animals: UCLA's offensive line was considered a significant weakness entering the season. Each time coaches shuffled the available bodies and produced a small step forward, adversity seemed to bite back. This week, after starting the same five for consecutive games, it was freshman left tackle Jeff Baca going down with a hamstring injury during practice Tuesday. If he can't go against California, Micah Kia (bad back) likely will replace him, while Mike Harris (bum ankle) would make his first start at right tackle. Meanwhile, Cal's defensive front was forced to burn the redshirt of touted freshman Trevor Guyton against Arizona. With end Rulon Davis and tackle Kendrick Payne out and end Tyson Alualu slowed by a leg infection, the Bears got pushed around up front by Arizona, which gained 404 yards on a defense that had previously given up just 291 yards per game. The advantage here might go to the Bears for a simple reason: UCLA can't win on the road. The Bruins have lost five straight away from the Rose Bowl and 12 of their past 15. The O-line is the area that suffers most in a hostile environment.

You'll know in the first quarter if USC is going to roll: USC went to Oregon State planning to take the crowd out of the game. It didn't happen when the Trojans fell behind 21-0. A fast start at Arizona is a hot topic this week. "It's imperative that we're scoring on that first drive," USC quarterback Mark Sanchez told reporters Tuesday. "That means a lot. For the offense, it gives us confidence. It pumps up the defense. Things just go." While the Wildcats received a confidence boost by whipping Cal, they are not at the point where they won't lose faith against an early show of force from the Trojans. And it's not just a fast start; Oregon got that but then faltered for a moment and USC exploded. The Wildcats will have to be at their focused best -- think that dominant third quarter vs. Cal for an entire game -- to notch the upset. In Arizona's favor: It has won six in a row at home, tied for the longest home winning streak in the conference with USC and Oregon State, and a packed house is expected. A tight score at halftime will keep fans in the stands barking at the Trojans. A big USC lead at the break will send them to University Blvd. for a cold one. Or two.

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