NCF Nation: Marcus Mariota

Top Pac-12 players: Nos. 5-1

August, 1, 2014
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Our list of the top 25 players in the Pac-12 concludes.

No. 5: Arizona State QB Taylor Kelly

2013 stats: Completed 62.4 percent of his throws for 3,635 yards with 28 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, giving him an adjusted QBR of 74.2, which ranked 24th nationally. He also rushed 173 times for 608 yards and nine touchdowns.

Why he's ranked here: There was some disagreement at the end of last season about who was the second-team All-Pac-12 quarterback. Kelly won the official Pac-12 vote with the coaches, and that means a lot. It also helps that he is the quarterback of the defending South Division champion. Further, you have to love his story. Nothing has been given to Kelly. In the spring of 2012, he was little more than an afterthought, ranking third in the Sun Devils' quarterback competition. You have to be mentally tough to emerge from that sort of deficit. He has earned his spot by fighting like crazy to win the job, to lead his team well and, finally, to become an A-list quarterback worthy of national attention. He has a chance to play his way into a solid spot in the NFL draft too. As for this season, Kelly has a lot coming back on offense and, because of the Sun Devils' questionable defense, offensive coordinator Mike Norvell figures to set him free as a third-year starter.

No. 4: Oregon CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu

2013 stats: Ekpre-Olomu was second on the Ducks with 84 tackles. He had five tackles for a loss to go with three interceptions and nine passes defended. He also forced a fumble.

Why he's ranked here: Ekpre-Olomu might be the best cornerback in the nation. He earned All-American honors last season and is pretty much a unanimous 2014 preseason All-American. He is not expected to last too far into the first round of the 2015 NFL draft, and truth be told, it was a bit of a surprise he stuck around for another season because he likely would have been a first-round pick last spring. It will be interesting to see if he sees much action on his side of the field this season, considering he is the lone returning starter in the Ducks' secondary. His numbers might not wow you, but opposing coaches will start their Monday meetings by drawing a line down one third of the field and saying, "Ifo is here, so we're throwing over here."

No. 3: UCLA QB Brett Hundley

2013 stats: Hundley completed 67.2 percent of his throws for 3,071 yards with 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He also rushed for 748 yards and 11 scores.

Why he's ranked here: Kelly-Hundley, Hundley-Kelly -- based on last season, Kelly should nip his buddy from UCLA. But Hundley ends up at No. 3 because of projection. He is simply overbrimming with talent. He's big, strong, smart, charismatic, etc. Outside of Johnny Manziel, no one has more scramble yards in the past two seasons than Hundley (per ESPN Stats & Information). Though there are parts of his game that didn't completely arrive in 2013 -- still more feared as a runner than downfield passer and still takes too many sacks -- those were delays, not cancellations. Hundley also has a stacked supporting cast. The Bruins are the favorite in the Pac-12 South, a preseason top-10 team and a dark horse national title contender. If UCLA surges, Hundley almost certainly will become a top Heisman Trophy candidate.

No. 2: USC DT Leonard Williams

2013 stats: Williams was second on the Trojans with 74 tackles, tied with Devon Kennard for the team lead with 13.5 tackles for loss and forced two fumbles.

Why he's ranked here: Williams, a 2013 first-team ESPN.com All-American, is the consensus pick as the nation's best returning defensive lineman. He could be the top overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft, and he's almost certainly not going to last past the top 10 picks. Former USC coach Ed Orgeron called him the best defensive lineman he's ever coached, and Orgeron's defensive line résumé is deep. Williams has great length and athleticism and surprising power. He is the centerpiece of what might be the Pac-12's best defense. Last season, he was the lone sophomore semifinalist for the Chuck Bednarik Award, given to the nation's top defensive player, and he is likely to be a finalist for just about every award for which he is eligible.

No. 1: Marcus Mariota

2013 stats: Mariota completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 3,665 yards with 31 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He also rushed for 715 yards and nine touchdowns.

Why he's ranked here: Surprise! Bet you didn't see this coming, considering Mariota finished No. 1 on this list in 2012 and 2013. This was the easiest spot to fill on this list, perhaps the only easy spot by the way. Why? Mariota might be the best quarterback and player in the nation. In the 2014 Heisman Trophy race, he is option 1A besides Florida State's Jameis Winston, who won it last year but has significant character issues. Mariota opted to return and get his degree -- yes, he is taking a light class load this fall because he doesn't need any more credits -- and instantly made the Ducks (again) the Pac-12 favorite and a national title contender. The biggest question of the 2013 season was what might have happened if Mariota didn't suffer a knee injury before playing at Stanford. Pre-injury, he had 20 touchdowns and zero interceptions; post-injury, 11 touchdowns and four picks. All nine of his rushing touchdowns came before he partially tore his MCL. Despite that injury, Mariota led an offense that averaged 45.5 points per game last season -- tops in the Pac-12 and fourth in the nation -- in a very good defensive conference. While his speed and production as a runner is impossible to ignore, what separates him is his passing ability. He was No. 1 in the Pac-12 in efficiency and No. 1 in the nation in ESPN’s adjusted QBR rating. He set an Oregon single-season record with 4,380 total yards. He also set a Pac-12 record by attempting 353 consecutive passes without an interception. Though character isn't much of a factor on this list -- the Pac-12 is fortunate that it didn't see much of that weigh down the offseason -- Mariota's is difficult to ignore. St. Marcus of Eugene seems likely to be in New York in December.

Media Days takeaways: Day 1

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

Biggest football-centric takeaway?

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

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

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

Biggest nonfootball takeaway

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

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

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

Best quote of the day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which player made a good impression on you?

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

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

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

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

Considering its long history of Polynesian influence, it should come as no surprise that the Pac-12 led the way with 15 players named to the preseason watch list for the inaugural Polynesian College Football Player of the Year Award.

Headlining the list is Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, USC safety Su'a Cravens, Oregon State center Isaac Seumalo, Washington linebacker Hau'oli Kikaha and BYU linebacker Alani Fua.

The award was established by the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame, which inducted its first class of members in January. That group of seven included Kurt Gouveia (BYU), Olin Kreutz (Washington), Kevin Mawae (LSU), Junior Seau (USC), Jack Thompson (Washington State), Herman Wedemeyer (Saint Mary's College) and Ken Niumatalolo (Navy/Hawaii).

The full breakdown of players on the watch list by conference is as follows: Pac-12 (15), Mountain West (12), Independents (4), American Athletic (1), Big 12 (1) and Sun Belt (1).

Here is the complete list (34 total):
Five finalists will be announced on Nov. 20 with the winner set to be named on Dec. 9.
At Big 12 media days on Monday, Baylor Bears coach Art Briles discussed the popularity of Baylor QB Bryce Petty, going so far as to say that even someone who works at a Dairy Queen in Salem, Oregon, would know who Petty was.

 
It was a nice line. Too bad it wasn’t true.

A Portland radio station checked with the six Dairy Queen locations in the Salem area. No one knew who Petty was.

So the Pac-12 blog was wondering whether the reverse would be true. Petty might not be known in Oregon, but would Oregon Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota be known in Briles’ area? Would Mariota’s notoriety stretch to the deep ends of this great country? Would even people in Waco, Texas, know Mariota?

[+] EnlargeBryce Petty
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsBaylor QB Bryce Petty may be popular among the Big 12 media, but his popularity at Dairy Queens could use some work.
Long story short: No. Of the three Dairy Queens in Waco (pulled up on a Google search), two lucky workers -- including one who works at a Dairy Queen near campus -- picked up the phone today and were asked a very simple question: Do you know who Marcus Mariota is?

No and no.

But here’s the kicker. The followup was: Do you know who Bryce Petty is?

Same answer. No and no.

The good part for Briles is that this probably means his star quarterback isn’t frequenting the ice cream shops around town. And, depending on your own personal feelings on dairy desserts and their effects on one’s on-field play, this will either make you like Petty slightly more or slightly less.

The bad part for Briles is that he was wrong. Very wrong. Not only does someone who works at a Dairy Queen a couple thousand miles from Baylor not know who Petty is, neither do people who work within a couple miles.

Five Pac-12 players to root for

July, 11, 2014
Jul 11
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There is no shortage of players who will excite on the field in the Pac-12 this season, but it's not all about on-field performance. Whether it's for their off-field contributions or their on-field demeanor, here are five guys worth rooting for even if they don't play for your team.

Taylor Kelly, quarterback, Arizona State: Quick, who was the second-team All-Pac-12 quarterback last season -- UCLA’s Brett Hundley or Arizona State’s Kelly? Outside the Pac-12, the assumption would probably be Hundley, and that would be wrong. Kelly quietly led ASU to the best regular-season record in the Pac-12 last season and has a likely NFL future. His time in Tempe hasn’t been one big party, either. The Master’s candidate volunteers at local schools two days a week and is heavily involved in the Scholar Baller leadership and outreach program, for which he teaches high school students about leadership and character among other things. Kelly is also an accomplished drag racer, but that passion is currently on hold at the request of ASU coach Todd Graham. As a result of his vast car knowledge, Kelly has turned into the de facto mechanic for the ASU football team.

[+] EnlargeMariota
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsWhen Marcus Mariota isn't piling up big stats on the field, he can usually be found studying somewhere.
Marcus Mariota, quarterback, Oregon: After passing up a good shot at being the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft to return to school, Mariota has all the makings of a Heisman Trophy favorite. And he won’t come with much controversy. If Andrew Luck set the standard for unassuming superstar quarterbacks in the Pac-12, Mariota isn’t far behind. He’s quiet, he’s polite, he’s humble and while pursuing a degree in General Science, he has developed a reputation as one of the most studious athletes on campus. For those looking for reasons to root against him, as an individual, it will be hard to justify.

Toni Pole, defensive tackle, Washington State: When Pole intercepted a Keith Price pass in overtime and nearly returned it for a touchdown in the 2012 Apple Cup, he created a memory Washington State fans will remember for a long time. For many, that is not the only lasting impression he has produced. Pole is a frequent volunteer in the Pullman community, and his philantrophic efforts have included helping to put on “Butch’s Bash,” a holiday party for local kids. He makes trips to the local senior center where he plays games with the residents and is musically inclined. When the Cougars are on the road, he can be found playing the piano in hotel lobbies and has sang the National Anthem at women’s basketball games.

Ty Montgomery, receiver, Stanford: Stanford coach David Shaw has said Montgomery has the talent to be a No. 1 receiver in the NFL, but after big junior year with the Cardinal, Montgomery didn’t even consider a pre-graduation jump to Sunday football. He didn’t even ask for an evaluation from the NFL or for a draft-round projection, which is common for draft-eligible players. He chose Stanford largely for academic reasons and chose to stay for the same. As soft-spoken as they come, Montgomery has already been named to the Maxwell and Hornung Award watch lists and is one of the more dynamic kick returners in the country.

Stefan McClure, cornerback, Cal: After a solid true freshman season in 2011, McClure appeared on his way to a great career for Cal. It hasn’t quite worked out that way, but it’s not for a lack of talent. He sat out the 2012 season rehabbing a torn ACL, then suffered another torn ACL five games into last season. If there is anyone who could use some good vibes coming his way, it’s McClure.
The last time Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Michigan's Devin Gardner shared a field, the two quarterbacks combined for 10 touchdowns and 747 yards of offense in a wildly entertaining shootout at Michigan Stadium.

It proved to be the end of Gardner's season, as a foot injury sidelined him for the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and the first part of spring practice in March. Miller went on to suffer his first two losses under coach Urban Meyer. He injured his throwing shoulder in the Orange Bowl and underwent surgery in Feb. 21, limiting his throwing in spring practice.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesShoulder surgery limited Ohio State's Braxton Miller, but the two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year is still finding ways to improve.
Both quarterbacks have delivered record performances for their teams. Miller owns back-to-back Big Ten offensive player of the year awards and could become the league's first three-time winner this fall. Gardner has been a quarterback of extremes -- prodigiously productive in some games, bafflingly bad in others.

The final chapter for both players arrives this fall. Before that lies a pivotal summer.

Miller's first priority is to return to full strength. But some of his most important work in the coming months will be in the film room.

"In the digital age we live in, video is so easy to come by, so he can study whoever he wants," Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman told ESPN.com. "Preferably, let's study us first and figure out the ins and outs of our offense. And then when you have extra time or want to take a break from that, let's study some defenses that we'll face this season. And beyond that, the next in the pecking order is why don't you study some other offenses, study some other quarterbacks."

Two quarterbacks Herman wants Miller to study likely will compete with him for national honors in 2014: Florida State's Jameis Winston, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and national champion, and Oregon's Marcus Mariota, who might be the best pro quarterback prospect in the college ranks this season.

"What are those guys doing really well?" Herman said. "Is there anything you can glean from watching them on the field that might help your game?"

Herman had a similar plan for Miller last summer, encouraging him to watch Clemson's Tajh Boyd -- "That kid was a really good player," Herman said.

[+] EnlargeQuarterback Devin Gardner #98 of the Michigan Wolverines
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMichigan QB Devin Gardner, coming off a foot injury, struggled in the spring, but still looks on track to start the season opener.
Gardner went through most of the spring at less than 100 percent and struggled in the spring game, completing just 2 of 10 passes with an interception. He's still learning the offense under new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, and head coach Brady Hoke praised his consistency for much of the session.

But Hoke still discusses Michigan's quarterback situation by mentioning two names -- Gardner and sophomore Shane Morris. Many question whether Michigan's quarterback competition is real or imagined. Gardner has 16 starts at quarterback, while Morris has just one (the bowl game).

But unlike Miller, Gardner has to confirm himself as the top option when preseason camp begins in August.

"He has an advantage," Hoke told ESPN.com. "I wouldn't make that mistake. Because of the experience, playing a lot of snaps, being in a lot of big games. But at the same time, Shane, how he handled himself in the bowl game, how he was composed and how he approached the game, is encouraging."

Hoke wants both quarterbacks to not only retain what they learned in the spring but grow as leaders this summer.

"The message is we can't accept the players how they are right now," Hoke said.

The same applies to Miller, as good as he has been at times the past two seasons. His approach to rehab and film study will determine whether he -- and potentially Ohio State -- takes the next step in 2014.

"He's on fire right now, doing a great job with it from what I understand," Herman said. "The things that he is now able to talk to me about on the phone when I'm out on the road recruiting or when I see him in the building, you can tell he's poured himself into it, which is good."
1. The disparity of opinion regarding the linemen on the consensus All-America team and what NFL teams thought of them is large. Of the eight offensive and defensive linemen from the All-America team, five were drafted in the fourth round or later. Meanwhile, the two receivers and four defensive backs on the All-American team went in the first 41 picks. It could be that different offenses in colleges call for different skills in line play. But the ability to run and move in space, on offense and defense, is valuable in any scheme.

2. The two best quarterbacks in college football, Jameis Winston of Florida State and Marcus Mariota of Oregon, had best stay healthy. Winston’s backup, Jacob Coker, will play at Alabama. Mariota’s backup, Jake Rodrigues, announced Monday that he will transfer. Mariota got hurt last season, and Winston’s off-field problems are well-documented. And yet the one-play-away mantra of coaches that applies to every other position doesn’t apply at quarterback. What’s different? The demands of the position or the egos of the guys playing it?

3. Now that the ACC athletic directors have voted in favor of keeping the status quo of eight conference games, the circle is complete. The ACC and SEC point to each other and say, but we’re playing them! Yes, four schools are. And Notre Dame will be on five ACC schedules a year. Nine ACC games is doable. Asking fans to pay retail prices for bad opponents -– and with four non-ACC games, there are plenty –- is not right.

The Pac-12 entered spring practices with more clarity and quality at quarterback than any conference in the nation by a wide margin. It exits with even more clarity at the position.

With new USC coach Steve Sarkisian announcing that Cody Kessler retained his starting job, and Utah's Travis Wilson's apparently successful return from a career-threatening medical condition (an intracranial artery injury diagnosed in November), the Pac-12 welcomes back 10 returning starters heading into the fall, with a handful -- such as Oregon's Marcus Mariota, UCLA's Brett Hundley, Arizona State's Taylor Kelly and Oregon State's Sean Mannion -- who are candidates for All-America honors and national awards.

Further, it became clear this spring that the Pac-12 is overflowing with quality receivers, with several teams combining depth, talent and experience at the position. So things figure to be pass happy in the fall.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Williams
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsUSC junior defensive lineman Leonard Williams is one of the few Pac-12 defensive stars returning this season.
But what about defense? After all, they say, defense wins championships, and Woody Hayes told us, "Three things can happen when you throw the ball, and two of them are bad," an optimistic take that leaves out the quarterback sack.

While conference teams average 6.4 returning starters on defense, and just three -- Arizona State (3), Oregon (5) and Utah (5) -- welcome back fewer than six starters on that side of the ball, the loss of star power is notable.

Just two first-team All-Pac-12 defenders return in 2014: USC defensive tackle Leonard Williams and Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Only four from the second team return.

Washington defensive end Hau'oli Kikaha and Oregon outside linebacker Tony Washington are the only returning defenders who ranked among the conference's top 12 in sacks last season. The same is true in the secondary: Only two of the top eight interception leaders are back in 2014.

So, without marquee guys chasing them or trying to steal their passes, life seems good at quarterback heading into the offseason. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, few teams seem to be fretting their situation on the mean side of the ball.

Take Stanford, owner of the Pac-12's best defense in 2013. While the Cardinal appeared more settled on offense than defense entering spring practices, the defense mostly ruled when the ball was snapped.

"No question," Cardinal coach David Shaw said. "If you look at our defensive front, it's a bunch of fourth-year and fifth-year seniors ... we've got a lot of guys coming back who've played a lot of football for us."

While Stanford lost some big names, such as linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov, it also welcomes back a strong foundation of seven returning starters and experienced backups. Shaw noted that Aziz Shittu is only non-fourth- or fifth-year guy in the mix for playing time in the front seven. He lauded defensive end Henry Anderson, an athletic 6-foot-6, 295 pounder, this spring as a potential breakout star this season, with an NFL future.

Over at Oregon, the Ducks are not only replacing two of three defensive linemen and three starters in the secondary, they also are breaking in a new defensive coordinator, as Don Pellum moved up from linebackers coach to replace the retiring Nick Aliotti.

Yet even when matched against Mariota and a potent and experienced Ducks offense, the defense held its own.

"I think we've had a great give and take as far as who's had the upper hand," Ducks coach Mark Helfrich said. "Marcus is obviously a difference-maker and a special guy. Defensively, we're building where we need to be. It was good give and take overall."

In the South Division, UCLA and USC both look strong on defense despite losing some marquee players. Both welcome back eight starters from accomplished units. Defending champion Arizona State lost almost all of its star power, but Sun Devils coach Todd Graham was almost defiant all spring about his expectations for his defense.

Of course, he's also counting on a number of newcomers playing key roles, which often is a matter of keeping the ole fingers crossed.

“People come here to play defense, that’s what we’re known for," he said. "We’re known for defense, so I don’t expect anything less than last year.”

While there might be some defensive questions among the teams thought to be competing for division championships, the defenses that finished on the bottom in 2013 could be much improved.

Oregon State, Colorado and California, the Nos. 9, 11 and 12 scoring defenses last season, each welcome back eight starters. The Golden Bears and Beavers, in particular, could dramatically improve if injury woes from 2013 reverse themselves.

"I think our team is tougher and better conditioned and our players are in a much better place than they were last year," Cal coach Sonny Dykes said. "I think that's something players noticed. We have some experience coming back. It's the second year in the system. So, yeah, I think everybody feels like we're a lot better football team than we were a year ago."

It seems certain that Pac-12 offenses will again be high-flying and potent in 2014. But the conference teams that have earned BCS bowl berths the past decade or so also have played good defense. As we exit spring and head into the offseason, there is hope -- but not nearly as much certainty -- there.

3-point stance: Pac-12 QB talent

April, 24, 2014
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1. According to ESPN Insider and Reese’s Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage, it’s a thin year for veteran quarterbacks everywhere but the Pac-12. Listing the top pro prospects for the 2015 NFL draft, Savage, speaking with me on the ESPNU College Football Podcast on Wednesday, started with Marcus Mariota of Oregon and Brett Hundley of UCLA, then tossed in Sean Mannion of Oregon State. Not to mention the league has Kevin Hogan of Stanford, Taylor Kelly of Arizona State and Cody Kessler of USC.

2. Dabo Swinney is a good man and a stand-up guy. He is proud of his Christianity and believes it can help others as much as it has helped him. As the coach of Clemson, a public university in a religious state, he is preaching to the choir. I’d bet it never occurred to Swinney that he stepped over the line between church and state, perhaps because the line is blurrier in South Carolina than in Madison, Wis., where the Freedom From Religion Foundation is based. If the foundation’s complaint makes Swinney realize again that everyone is not Christian, then the foundation’s complaint is a success.

3. The town of State College is crowdsourcing a statue to honor the late Joe Paterno, and it’s wonderful that the planned site is not far from Old Main, the home of the Penn State administration that removed the original Paterno statue from outside of Beaver Stadium in July 2012. What are the university administrators thinking? Do they understand they never should have made the removal of the statue permanent? Do they understand how much they rushed to judgment to vilify Paterno? When will they do their part to restore Paterno’s place of honor in Penn State history? The locals are doing their part.

Video: Mariota growing as a leader

April, 1, 2014
Apr 1
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video
Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota discusses his decision to return for another season, growing as a leader and what he needs to do to take the next step in his development.
Looking back at some teams the current group of Pac-12 coaches have led during their respective head-coaching careers turns up an impressive list. All 12 have coached a team to a bowl appearance, 10 have finished a season with double-digit wins and eight have had teams appear in the AP top 10.

Taking it a step further and just looking at each individual coach's best team (in college) also made for an interesting study. Choosing which teams those are is clearly a subjective process so for the purpose of consistency, the teams listed below were chosen based on the final spot in the AP poll.

Here are some notable takeaways:

  • Eight teams ended with bowl victories, but two occurred after the coach left.
  • Seven teams started unranked, but only one finished out of the polls.
  • Half of the coaches did it at their current school, four of which occurred in 2013.
  • Six teams appeared in the top 5 at some point and nine were in the top 15.
  • Three coaches immediately parlayed the success into their current job.
  • Only three of the teams won conference titles, none of which was in the Pac-12.
  • Two teams beat No. 1-ranked squads.
  • Four teams played in BCS bowls, and three were victorious.
We're not going attempt to rank them ourselves, but here they are in reverse order based on each team's final AP ranking:

No. 12 Sonny Dykes, Louisiana Tech, 2012

Dykes' record: 9-3 (4-2, third in WAC)
Final AP rank: unranked
Highest AP rank: 19
Bowl result: no bowl
The team:
The Bulldogs finished the season as the country's highest scoring team (51.50 ppg) and top-ranked offense (577.9 ypg). They rose to No. 19 in the AP poll before losing their final two games of the season, including one against Mike MacIntyre-coached San Jose State in the season finale. Louisiana Tech was offered a spot in the Independence Bowl, but it was given away while the school unsuccessfully sought other bowl options. Dykes left for Cal after the season.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesSteve Sarkisian parlayed his successful 2013 season into the head-coaching job at USC.
No. 11 Steve Sarkisian, Washington, 2013

Sarkisian's record: 8-4 (5-4, third in Pac-12 North)
Final AP rank: 25
Highest AP rank: 15
Bowl result: Beat BYU in Fight Hunger Bowl (Sarkisian did not coach)
The team:
The season began with a win against then-No. 19 Boise State, and the season ended with Broncos coach Chris Petersen being hired by the Huskies. Sarkisian departed for USC prior to the bowl. After the win against Boise, Washington debuted in the rankings at No. 19 and rose four spots before a string of three straight losses to Stanford, Oregon and Arizona State.

No. 10 Mike MacIntyre, San Jose State, 2012

MacIntyre's record: 10-2, (5-1, second in WAC)
Final AP rank: 21
Highest AP rank: 21
Bowl result: Beat Bowling Green in Military Bowl (MacIntyre did not coach)
The team:
Two years after coaching San Jose State to a 1-11 record in his first season as head coach, MacIntyre's team became the first in program history to finish in the final AP poll -- although, the Spartans were unranked when MacIntyre accepted the job at Colorado. SJSU didn't beat any ranked teams, but lost just 20-17 to Stanford, which went on to win Pac-12 and Rose Bowl championships. The other loss came to Utah State, which finished No. 16.

No. 9 Todd Graham, Arizona State, 2013

Graham's record: 10-4 (8-1, won Pac-12 South)
Final AP rank: 21
Highest AP rank: 11
Bowl result: Lost to Texas Tech in Holiday Bowl The team: In his eighth season as an FBS head coach, Graham's most recent Arizona State team was his best. The Sun Devils began the season unranked and entered and exited the Top 25 twice before closing the regular season with a seven-game winning streak. It was ranked No. 11 when it hosted Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game, but a second loss to the Cardinal kept ASU out of the Rose Bowl.

No. 8 Mike Riley, Oregon State, 2008

Riley's record: 9-4 (7-2, tied for second in Pac-10)
Final AP rank: 18
Highest AP rank: 17
Bowl result: Beat Pittsburgh in the Sun Bowl
The team:
The Beavers started unranked and lost their first two games before winning eight of nine to peak at No. 17. After a 1-2 start, it beat No. 1 USC in Corvallis, but didn't immediately build off the big win. The next week the Beavers lost to Kyle Whittingham's undefeated Utah team (more later). Riley's highest spot in the polls came in 2012, when the Beavers reached No. 7 after a 6-0 start. He was a head coach in the NFL for three years and the Canadian Football League for four, where he won a pair of Grey Cups.

No. 7 Jim Mora, UCLA, 2013

Mora's record: 10-3 (6-3, second in Pac-12 South)
Final AP rank: 16
Highest AP rank: 9
Bowl result: Beat Virginia Tech in Sun Bowl
The team:
The Bruins spent the entire season in the polls after starting at No. 21. They began 5-0 and rose to No. 9 before road losses to No. 13 Stanford and No. 3 Oregon. Mora's best coaching job came in the NFL in 2004 when he guided the Atlanta Falcons to an NFC South title and an appearance in the NFC Championship.

No. 6 Mike Leach, Texas Tech, 2008

Leach's record: 11-2 (7-1, tied for first in Big 12 South)
Final AP rank: 12
Highest AP rank: 2
Bowl result: Lost to Ole Miss in Cotton Bowl
The team:
The Red Raiders started the year at No. 12 and moved up to No. 6 after an 8-0 start. They rose to No. 2 after Michael Crabtree's memorable touchdown catch secured a win vs. No. 1 Texas. After two weeks at No. 2, the Red Raiders lost to No. 5 Oklahoma in a game that propelled Sooners quarterback Sam Bradford to the Heisman Trophy. Leach arrived at WSU in 2012.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
AP Photo/Kevin ReeceDavid Shaw's best team at Stanford didn't win the Pac-12 title.
No. 5 Mark Helfrich, Oregon, 2013

Helfrich's record: 11-2 (7-2, tied for first in Pac-12 North)
Final AP rank: 9
Highest AP rank: 2
Bowl result: Beat Texas in Alamo Bowl The team: Of all the teams on the list, none started higher than the Ducks in Helfrich's head-coaching debut at No. 3. Oregon spent eight weeks at No. 2 before losses to Stanford and Arizona in a three-game span ended any hopes of a conference or national title. The team finished ranked No. 2 in the country in both total offense (565.0 ypg) and scoring (45.5 ppg). Quarterback Marcus Mariota dealt with some late-season injury problems, but, when healthy, he was as good as any player in college football.

No. 4 David Shaw, Stanford, 2011

Shaw's record: 11-2 (8-1, second in Pac-12 North)
Final AP rank: 7
Highest AP rank: 3
Bowl result: Lost to No. 3 Oklahoma State in Fiesta Bowl The team: In three seasons as head coach, Shaw has won a pair of Pac-12 titles. But in 2011, when Oregon won the Pac-12 title, he probably had his best team. The Rose Bowl championship team the following year also finished No. 7 and has more hardware, but it didn't have Andrew Luck. Stanford started the year at No. 7, moved up to No. 3 after winning its first nine games, but then lost 53-30 at home to No. 6 Oregon. Stanford received a second consecutive BCS at-large bid, but suffered an overtime loss to No. 3 Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl. In addition to Luck, 10 other players landed on 53-man NFL rosters from the team's departing class. Stanford's low ranking of No. 8 was the best among teams on this list.

No. 3 Rich Rodriguez, West Virginia, 2005

Rodriguez's record: 11-1, (7-0 Big East champion)
Final AP rank: 5
Highest AP rank: 5 Bowl result: Beat No. 8 Georgia in Sugar Bowl The team: Freshmen QB Pat White and RB Steve Slaton were the names of note for the current Arizona coach. West Virginia started the year unranked and its lone loss came to then-No. 3 Virginia Tech. It was the first of three consecutive double-digit win seasons for the Mountaineers, who were undefeated in Big East play and capped the season with a win over No. 8 Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. A strong case can be made that West Virginia had a better team in 2007, when Rodriguez left following the regular-season finale to become head coach at Michigan. The Mountaineers were ranked No. 2 (No. 1 in the coaches poll) going into Rodriguez's final game, but lost to a 4-7 Pittsburgh team in the 100th Backyard Brawl, which cost them a chance to play for the national title. They finished No. 6.

No. 2 Chris Petersen, Boise State, 2009

Petersen's record: 14-0 (8-0, WAC champions)
Final AP rank: 4
Highest AP rank: 4
Bowl result: Beat No. 4 TCU in the Fiesta Bowl The team: Washington's new coach has quite the résumé. Many consider Boise State's undefeated 2006 team that beat Oklahoma in that's year memorable Fiesta Bowl as the school's best, but three years later the Broncos finished 14-0 and finished a spot higher in the final AP poll. They opened the season at No. 14 and started with a win against No. 16 Oregon in Chip Kelly's first game as head coach. Boise capped the season with a win against undefeated TCU in the Fiesta Bowl. The team's offensive coordinator, Bryan Harsin, is now the head coach and its defensive coordinator, Justin Wilcox, spent last season with Sarkisian at Washington and followed him to USC in the same capacity.

No. 1 Kyle Whittingham, Utah, 2008

Whittingham's record: 13-0 (8-0, Mountain West champions)
Final AP rank: 2
Highest AP rank: 2
Bowl result: Beat No. 4 Alabama in Sugar Bowl The team: In Whittingham's fourth season as head coach, the Utes finished as the nation's lone undefeated team after starting unranked. Utah opened with a win at Michigan -- Rodriguez's first game as the Wolverines' coach -- and went on to beat four teams that finished in the final AP poll, including Alabama (6), TCU (7), Oregon State (18) and BYU (25). Quarterback Brian Johnson threw for 336 yards in a convincing 31-17 win against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

Want to swap out one team for another or switch the order? Email me at Kyle.Bonagura@espn.com.
Two years ago, the Pac-12 had an Oregon problem. The Ducks had won three consecutive conference titles and were among the favored to make it four. They didn't. Now the Ducks, and the rest of the Pac-12, have a Stanford problem, as the Cardinal have won two titles in a row.

[+] EnlargeDevon Kell, Marcus Mariota
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsA fully healthy Marcus Mariota should again be one of the Pac-12's top Heisman candidates.
Further, considering that USC won six consecutive conference crowns from 2003 to 2008, it's fair to say the Pac-12 has a diversity problem. It didn't used to be like that. From 1995 to 2002, seven teams won conference titles. The only repeat winner? Washington State.

Is 2014 the season for a new color scheme at the top? Will the South (Division) rise again? (We're eyeballing you, UCLA.) While we're at it, will the conference, which last won a national title in 2004, break through this fall, finishing atop the inaugural four-team College Football Playoff?

These are the big-picture questions that start to get answered as Pac-12 teams begin spring practice. Stanford got rolling Monday. Arizona, Washington and Colorado hit the field next week. Oregon and UCLA won't get cracking until April 1, and the Ducks and Oregon State won't finish until May 3, officially sending us into the long, hot days of the summer offseason.

As is the case most years, there's a little old and a little new in the Pac-12 this spring.

Start with the head coaches. USC and Washington will hit the field for the first time with new guys in charge, making Oregon State and Utah the only two conference teams headed by the same guy since the 2010 season. Neither coach is much of a stranger. USC hired Steve Sarkisian away from the Huskies, and Washington turned around and lured Chris Petersen away from Boise State.

The bigger area of turnover was coordinators. Just three teams didn't make any changes on the top of their offensive and defensive units: Arizona, Colorado and Washington State.

There will be more stability at quarterback. Ten teams welcome back their 2013 starters, if we can be optimistic enough to include Utah's Travis Wilson, who will practice this spring with no contact but still has not been fully cleared to continue his career due to a pre-existing medical condition.

Arizona and Washington will stage full-on competitions to replace B.J. Denker and Keith Price, respectively. Wilson's uncertain status makes the Utes' QB situation complicated, while at USC, touted redshirt freshman Max Browne is expected to provide a strong challenge to incumbent starter Cody Kessler.

Meanwhile, the returning QB talent is strong. Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley will be near the top of every preseason Heisman Trophy watch list. Arizona State's Taylor Kelly and Oregon State's Sean Mannion aren't too far behind.

The situation at running back and receiver is not as strong. The top four rushers from 2013 are gone: Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey, Washington's Bishop Sankey, Stanford's Tyler Gaffney and Arizona State's Marion Grice. The top three receivers -- as well as USC's Marqise Lee -- also are off to the NFL: Oregon State's Brandin Cooks, Colorado's Paul Richardson and Oregon's Josh Huff.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Kirby Lee/University of Southern California/Collegiate Images/Getty ImagesSteve Sarkisian has switched divisions but takes over a USC team that finished third in the Pac-12 South.
There are a lot of voids across the conference on defense as well. Just one first-team All-Pac-12 performer is back -- Ducks CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu -- and just four on the second team. The six players who led the conference in tackles for a loss are gone: Stanford's Trent Murphy, UCLA's Anthony Barr, Oregon State's Scott Crichton, Arizona State's Carl Bradford, Utah's Trevor Reilly and Arizona State's Chris Young.

While Stanford and Oregon -- it used to be Oregon and Stanford -- will remain the favorites among many, both have big questions on defense. The Ducks will be projected ahead of the Cardinal, however, because of Mariota's return and Stanford having to replace Gaffney and four starting O-linemen.

Yet this go-around, Stanford has the winning streak in the series and consecutive crowns and Oregon has the chip on its shoulder.

"It's not that we should [have a chip on our shoulder]. It's that we need to," Oregon running back Byron Marshall said. "Like you said, Stanford has kind of had our number the past couple of years. … As one of the leaders on this team, it's my job to remind everyone that [Stanford] beat us the last two years. It hasn't really been a close game. It might be close by score, but they've dominated us in both performances. We need to have a chip on our shoulder in order to get where we want to this year."

That last line pretty much applies to every Pac-12 team this spring.

The conference was as deep as it's ever been in 2013 and a record six teams ended up ranked in the final Associated Press poll, but the conference produced just one BCS bowl team and no team finished in the final top eight.

Will a Pac-12 team advance from good to elite in 2014? Spring practice provides an important step toward that possibility.
On Oct. 26, No. 2 Oregon rolled over No. 12 UCLA in raucous Autzen Stadium. It was a vintage Oregon performance. The game was tied at the half and then -- zip! wham! zooooom! -- it was 42-14 and the Bruins looked stunned.

Ducks sophomore running back Byron Marshall rushed for 133 yards on just 19 carries and three touchdowns, including two during the dominant second half. Running back had been a position of concern in the preseason. Marshall had answered that concern.

[+] EnlargeByron Marshall
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesByron Marshall's performance against UCLA was his last big game before suffering through injuries and ineffectiveness the rest of the season.
He led Pac-12 running backs with 6.8 yards per carry. He was tied for first with 12 rushing TDs. His 109.9 yards per game ranked fourth in the conference and 18th in the nation. The UCLA game was his fifth consecutive game with more than 100 yards rushing.

And Oregon was rolling toward the national title game. It was averaging 55.6 points and 331.5 yards rushing per game, both numbers ranking second in the country. The Ducks appeared unstoppable, despite that slight limp in quarterback Marcus Mariota's stride after the UCLA victory.

Then … Stanford.

"We took a shot to our confidence in that game," Marshall said. "I don't think we were the same team after that. That kind of put a downfall to everyone's performance. Stanford was a big loss and that hurt."

Yep. And the Ducks' downfall after that 26-20 defeat ran parallel to Marshall's own personal slide.

The Oregon offense would average just 29.2 points over its final five games. During that span, Marshall would rush for 159 total yards, average 4.2 yards per carry, score just two more TDs and sit out most of the Arizona loss and the narrow win over Oregon State due to injury. With Marshall hurt or in check, the Ducks averaged 180.8 yards rushing over the final five games. Good for some teams, but not for Oregon.

While the popular -- and ultimately accurate -- explanation for the Ducks' slide in 2013 was a knee injury to Mariota that pretty much eliminated him as a running threat, Marshall's waning production over those final five games is also pretty telling.

When Oregon opens spring practice on April 1, Marshall and the Ducks are going to be in both familiar and unfamiliar positions. They, again, are going to be Pac-12 favorites and national title contenders. And they are going to be grumpy.

"11-2 is never a bad season, a bad record to have, but to know you are definitely one of the most talented teams in the country and could have been in the national championship or at least a BCS game, that's kind of eating at all of us," Marshall said. "We know we were better than we played in that last month. A lot of guys were hungry to come back and start working for next season."

Of course, the Ducks did get a boost shortly after the season ended when Mariota announced he would return for his redshirt junior season instead of entering the NFL draft, where he likely would have been a first-round pick.

"It kind of seemed like he might have his eye on the first round," Marshall said. "It's really hard to see that and come back for another season. It was definitely good news. It did catch me as a bit of a surprise. Everyone was super-excited about that. Our offense will have the same, familiar pace. There's definitely that chemistry that will still be there. His leadership will be still there. I feel like we're going to pick up better than where we left off last year."

Marshall, 5-foot-10, 201 pounds, has been focused on getting stronger this offseason so he can be a more physical runner, as well as working on his lateral quickness. He knows there are no gimmes on the depth chart. Speedy Thomas Tyner, a touted 2013 recruit, rushed for 711 yards -- a school record for a true freshman -- and nine touchdowns last year, matching Marshall's 6.2 yards per carry. While they look like a dynamic backfield duo, Marshall wants to maintain his status as option 1A.

"I think both of us are capable of making big plays," Marshall said. "We just kind of have to see how the coaches are going to play that out. It's not necessarily my decision. Of course, I'd like to get the ball every play for all four quarters. Obviously, that's not going to happen."

While Mariota is the unquestioned star of the offense, the key for the Ducks getting back on track is restoring their dominant running game. Mariota is a dynamic runner, both leading the spread option and as an improvisational scrambler, but keeping him healthy is critical for the Ducks' national title hopes. Further, if Marshall and Tyner are scaring opposing defenses, that will open up the downfield passing game.

If Marshall becomes a star this season, the offense will be tough to stop. Marshall, in fact, might be the difference between a third consecutive season looking up at Stanford in the North Division standings -- another near-miss -- or the Ducks earning a berth in the inaugural four-team College Football Playoff.

While Marshall and Oregon will be all about "Win the Day" again in the fall, focusing only on the immediate game at hand, don't think for a minute the offseason musing doesn't include coveting the one thing that has eluded the program: a national title.

Said Marshall, "The last two or three years, we've kind of been right on the edge of going to the national championship game. Or winning the national championship game. It's too long. I feel like we're overdue. I know other people do too."

Pac-12 top 25 for 2013: No. 1

January, 31, 2014
Jan 31
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Our countdown of the Pac-12’s Top 25 players from the 2013 season continues.

You can review our 2013 preseason Top 25 here.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesMarcus Mariota threw 25 TD passes in 2013 before tossing his first interception, spearheading the No. 1 offense in the Pac-12.
No. 1: Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon

2013 numbers: Mariota completed 245 of 386 passes for 3,665 yards with 31 touchdowns to just four interceptions. He also rushed for 715 yards and nine touchdowns.

Preseason ranking: No. 1

Making the case for Mariota: The Heisman frontrunner for the most of the season, Mariota commanded the No. 1 offense in the Pac-12 as the Ducks averaged 45.5 points per game. He was named first-team All-Conference by the coaches and was a semifinalist for the Maxwell Award and Walter Camp player of the year, more than justifying his spot as the preseason No. 1. A hush-hush knee injury sustained against UCLA eventually slowed him down the stretch and derailed what could have been a Heisman season. Pre-injury, he had 20 touchdowns and zero interceptions; post-injury, 11 touchdowns and four picks. All nine of his rushing touchdowns came before he partially tore his MCL. Still, he set an Oregon single-season record with 4,380 total yards. He also set a Pac-12 record by attempting 353 consecutive passes without an interception. He was No. 1 in the Pac-12 in efficiency and No. 1 in the nation in ESPN’s adjusted QBR rating. While he’ll likely start the season behind defending Heisman winner Jameis Winston, expect Mariota to garner significant preseason Heisman buzz and, at the very least, earn a trip to New York when it's all said and done. He passed up an opportunity to be a first-round draft pick. And by doing so, he makes the Ducks the early favorites in the Pac-12 in 2014 and a likely preseason top 5 team.

The countdown:
No. 2: Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona
No. 3: Anthony Barr, LB, UCLA
No. 4: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
No. 5: Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington
No. 6: Trent Murphy, LB, Stanford
No. 7: Will Sutton, DT, Arizona State
No. 8: Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA
No. 9: David Yankey, OL, Stanford
No. 10: Leonard Williams, DE, USC
No. 11: Marion Grice, RB, Arizona State
No. 12: Xavier Su'a-Filo, OL, UCLA
No. 13: Tyler Gaffney, RB, Stanford
No. 14: Taylor Kelly, QB, Arizona State
No. 15: Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon
No. 16: Deone Bucannon, S, Washington State
No. 17: Paul Richardson, WR, Colorado
No. 18: Shayne Skov, LB, Stanford
No. 19: Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State
No. 20: Trevor Reilly, DE/OLB, Utah
No. 21: Sean Mannion, QB, Oregon State
No. 22: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington
No. 23: Hroniss Grasu, C, Oregon
No. 24: Josh Huff, WR, Oregon
No. 25: Myles Jack, LB/RB, UCLA

Heisman Trophy contenders in Pac-12

January, 17, 2014
Jan 17
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Despite being a top-two conference in college football, the Pac-12 was inexplicably shut out when it came to Heisman Trophy finalists. Of course, if the award took into account the entire season, both Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota and Arizona running back Ka'Deem Carey probably would have been there.

After the bowls, would anyone have voted for Jordan Lynch over Mariota or Andre Williams over Carey? Doubtful.

Here's a look at the Pac-12's top five Heisman Trophy candidates in 2014:

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Steve Conner/Icon SMIOregon signal-caller Marcus Mariota finished the 2013 season on a high note, with a blowout victory over Texas in the Valero Alamo Bowl.
1. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon

Mariota shouldn't just be considered the front-runner from the Pac-12, he should be considered the favorite to win the award, period.

Yes, Florida State's Jameis Winston will still be around, but if he were to repeat as the Heisman winner, the Multiple Heisman Club would double in size. History isn't on his side.

Statistically, Mariota has been among the country's best quarterbacks in each of the past two seasons, which bodes well for his candidacy. Plus, Oregon will begin the season as the Pac-12 favorite and a national title contender.

There's nothing to question about Mariota's talent, as his decision to stay at Oregon for another season might have prevented him from becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft. However, spurning the NFL for another year in college didn't help the Heisman chances of the past two Pac-12 quarterbacks who made a similar decision (See: Luck, Andrew and Barkley, Matt).

2. Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA

Mariota wasn't the only Pac-12 quarterback who might have turned down the opportunity to be the first quarterback drafted -- Hundley fits that description, too. And when he decided to return to UCLA, the Bruins instantly became the favorites in the Pac-12 South.

If the Bruins, who finished ranked No. 16 last season, take a step forward next season, it'll likely be because of a big year from Hundley.

The schedule sets up well for Hundley, too. The Bruins have an East Coast game (at Virginia) to open the season, play Texas in Arlington, Texas, Oregon at home and finish the regular season with back-to-back home games against USC and Stanford. That's exposure.

3. Myles Jack, LB/RB, UCLA

In just five games, Jack made quite the impression running the ball. Take his stats and extrapolate them over a 13-game season and he would have finished with 694 yards and 18 touchdowns. That touchdown total would have equaled that of Heisman finalist Andre Williams.

Those would be pretty good numbers for a running back, but for a linebacker? Defense is where Jack belongs despite being named both the conference's Offensive and Defensive Freshman of the Year.

It might seem strange on the surface, but it's unlikely Bruins coach Jim Mora wants Jack to be a serious Heisman candidate. What it'll mean is that UCLA hasn't found a better option at running back, which is ideally what it'll do between now and its season opener.

[+] EnlargeKevon Seymour, Taylor Kelly
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesArizona State QB Taylor Kelly finished the 2013 season with 28 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions.
4. Taylor Kelly, QB, Arizona State

How good was Kelly this year? Good enough for the coaches in the conference to vote him ahead of Hundley and Sean Mannion onto the All-Pac-12 second team.

He threw for 3,635 yards with 28 touchdowns and 12 interceptions while guiding one of the nation's highest-scoring offenses. The Sun Devils finished No. 11 in the country, averaging 39.7 points per game.

Like Mariota and Hundley, Kelly gets it done with his legs, too. He rushed for 608 yards and the same amount of touchdowns as Johnny Manziel (9). We know how the Heisman voters love their dual-threat quarterbacks.

5. Sean Mannion, QB, Oregon State

Mannion will enter the 2014 season as the nation's active leader in passing yards (10,436) and will be in position to shatter Barkley's career conference record (12,327).

When the Beavers sat at 6-1, Mannion was firmly in the Heisman race, but a five-game losing streak took the wind out of those sails. He still set the Pac-12 single-season passing record (4,662) and was rated high enough to earn a third-round grade from NFL scouts.

Losing Biletnikoff Award winner Brandin Cooks will be tough to compensate for -- although the same was said about losing Markus Wheaton going into last season -- and winning counts. If the Beavers improve it'll likely be due to a better running game, which could hurt Mannion statistically.

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