NCF Nation: Rich Rodriguez
The Wildcats handed Oregon its first defeat to an unranked team since 2009. The 26-point margin was the program's biggest since losing 44-10 to USC in 2008. The defeat ended a run of four consecutive BCS bowl berths, and included an added dose of negative publicity when receivers De'Anthony Thomas and Josh Huff turned up their noses during the preceding week at the prospect of playing in another Rose Bowl.
Helfrich, clearly aware of this, didn't bob-and-weave with the media after the game. He didn't snarl either. Or pass the buck.
"Very sluggish in every phase. That's 100 percent my fault," he said. "I have to figure out exactly which levers to pull and buttons to push."
While Kelly repeated his "forward looking" mantra ad infinitum, Helfrich admitted at the time the Ducks were due some "inward looking." Ten months later, No. 2 Oregon prepares for the Wildcats to visit Autzen Stadium on Thursday night. While Helfrich completely embraces the Ducks "Win the day" philosophy -- he helped establish it as Kelly's offensive coordinator -- including only looking forward to playing "nameless, faceless opponents," he said this week that he doesn't write off the idea that some of his players might find some additional motivation from the events of Nov. 23, 2013 in Tucson.
“Anytime you don’t give somebody your best shot, that should leave a bad taste in your mouth," Helfrich said. "There were some guys that felt that way. It certainly looked that way on film. Hopefully that contributes to fuel the engine of your process.”
It was a strange game. Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota threw his first two interceptions of the season, ending a Pac-12 record streak of 353 passes without a pick. It was the first of three Oregon turnovers. The Ducks also turned the ball over on downs twice and were flagged eight times for 66 yards.
Mariota looked as stunned as Oregon fans after the game. "I have never been blown out like this before in my life," he said at the time.
Yet, as bad as the Ducks looked, Arizona deserves plenty of credit. It played a near flawless game in all three phases. The Wildcats had no turnovers, just two penalties, converted 11 of 16 third downs and were 6-for-6 with six touchdowns in the red zone. Critically, the Wildcats tackled well in space. They yielded some big plays but not any huge plays, as the Ducks had six plays of more than 20 yards but none longer than 30 and none reached the end zone.
That's pretty much the formula for beating anyone, but tackling in space is particularly noteworthy against the Ducks.
“That’s what’s going to be the key again," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said.
The biggest new variable in this year's game is Wildcats quarterback Anu Solomon making his first road start in Pac-12 play. While Solomon made his first career road start in the Alamodome against UTSA, Autzen Stadium is a far more challenging venue. Further, Solomon had his worst game of the season against the Roadrunners in terms of traditional pass efficiency rating and Total QBR.
“He’s kept his poise pretty well," Rodriguez said of Solomon. "This will be a test for him. He’s shown a lot of maturity. I’m sure there will be a few mistakes but I think he’s got the kind of mentality that if he does make a mistake or two to shake it off and keep playing.”
Helfrich was asked this week if he'd figured out "which levers to pull and buttons to push" to avoid another lackluster performance. Not surprisingly, he didn't divulge a eureka moment. That's because there's no magic. A team like Oregon, a national title contender over the past five seasons, has no margin for error. Every bad weekend is judged harshly and endlessly analyzed. There's no, "Oh, well," any more for Oregon. Wins are expected and any loss is a cause for panic.
Helfrich has posted a historically good start to his career, but coaching the Ducks after Kelly has left him with a fan base that owns a "national title or bust" mentality. Ultimately, the loss at Arizona a year ago only serves as an Exhibit A for an unsurprising truism for all teams aspiring to be champions.
Said Helfrich, “It doesn’t just happen. Winning is really hard. You have to earn every single bit of it.”
Sure, the last game comes to mind. And the fact that Arizona scored 36 points in the fourth quarter and needed a 47-yard Hail Mary as the clock expired to beat Cal certainly qualifies as dramatic.
But it wasn’t just that game. After a blowout win in their opener against UNLV, the last three for the Wildcats have been nip-and-tuck. Coach Rich Rodriguez said he’s not sure if there’s a common denominator between this team and being able to win close games. But he’s glad they do.
“I hope it’s the fact that our guys don’t worry or don’t get too concerned about the scoreboard and just play 60 minutes,” Rodriguez said. “Every coach talks about it. We talk about it quite a bit. In fact we talk about it before every game. No matter what happens, we’re going to play for 60 minutes and then we’ll look up and see what the score is.”
As the Wildcats prep for a huge showdown with No. 2 Oregon Thursday night, it’s worth taking a look at the fourth quarter of Arizona’s past three games to see just how tight things got.
Fourth-quarter analysis: Things got dicey halfway through the final frame. Though Arizona’s probability of winning never dropped below 50 percent, it did dip down to 59.8 when UTSA took over at their own 20 trailing 26-23 with 5:09 left to play.
Tipping point: With the score still at 26-23, UTSA picked up a first down at its own 31. But on second down, Tucker Carter was intercepted by Jared Tevis. UTSA’s win probability dropped to 3 percent.
Fourth-quarter analysis: Of the three games we’re examining here, this was the easiest fourth quarter for the Wildcats. Even after Nevada pulled to within a touchdown with 6:01 to play, its odds of winning never reached above 16.9 percent.
Tipping point: After Anu Solomon connected with Cayleb Jones on a 24-yard touchdown strike five seconds into the fourth quarter, Arizona’s win probability shot up from 63 percent to 94.4. But as the next graphic will show us, every second counts.
Fourth quarter analysis: Even as the Wildcats began their march toward erasing a 31-16 deficit, their win probability rarely spiked. The closest they got was a 41.6 probability when Solomon and Jones hooked up for 15 yards with 2:44 left to play, cutting Cal’s lead to 45-43. That dropped almost seven percentage points after the failed two-point conversion.
Tipping point: Just before the "Hill Mary," Cal’s chances of winning were 87.9 percent. One play changed it all. Solomon and Austin Hill wrote themselves into Arizona lore with an iconic play that will fill highlight videos for years to come.
Mike Stoops didn't even make it through Arizona's season. Rick Neuheisel didn't coach UCLA's bowl game. Dennis Erickson was fired prior to the Las Vegas Bowl, but coached the Sun Devils in a loss to Boise State. And Paul Wulff was dismissed after winning just nine games at Washington State in four years.
Then came the hires. Two big names and two “huhs?”
Rich Rodriguez and Mike Leach, cast outs from their previous jobs at Michigan and Texas Tech, respectively, were considered home run hires for Arizona and Washington State. They were offensive innovators whose unique schemes would mesh perfectly with the offensive reputation of the conference.
Todd Graham at Arizona State and Jim Mora at UCLA were met with more of a hesitant golf clap than the raucous applause of the other two. Alright, let's be honest. The Graham hire drew groans and the Mora hire was perceived as borderline baffling. One was a program hopper and the other, with almost zero college coaching experience, was supposed to recruit Los Angeles? Against USC?
But as Winston Churchill said, history is written by the victors. And from the ashes of those firings came an influx of coaching talent that upped the ante for the rest of the league. And all four programs are in better shape than they were following the 2011 season. Of course, some are in better shape than others.
Per ESPN Stats and Information, there are 21 active FBS coaches who started at their school prior to the start of the 2012 season. Six of those coaches have at least 20 wins so far. Three of them are from the Pac-12 -- Mora, Graham and Rodriguez.
Two of those coaches will square off this week in a game that has been the tipping point in the South Division race the last two seasons. Arizona State hosts UCLA Thursday night in a blossoming rivalry.
Mora and the Bruins got the better of the Sun Devils two years ago in Tempe when Brett Hundley orchestrated a game-winning field goal drive. Last year ASU jumped out to big lead at the half and then held off a late charge to lock up the South.
You could make the argument that South was wide open after 2011 with USC still feeling the impact of sanctions, Utah still adjusting to life in the Pac-12 and Colorado trying to climb out of the basement. The timing was perfect for one or two of the new coaches to establish their foothold.
In the North, Leach hasn't enjoyed as much success as the other three. But his 10 wins already surpasses the nine that Wulff had during his four-year stretch. And the Cougars went to a bowl game last season -- something they hadn't done in a decade. You need only watch the scare WSU put into No. 2 Oregon Saturday night to see what type of a team the Cougars can be under Leach.
While the 2012 coaching class infused an already good coaching corps, it's worth noting that all four had quarterbacks already recruited or ready to go. In an age where three years is the new standard by which coaches are measured, that's a colossal advantage. But that's not to say this group can't recruit, having brought in talent like Myles Jack, Jaelen Strong, Vince Mayle and Anu Solomon.
However, they aren't without criticism -- particularly when it comes to signature wins. Leach is just 1-7 against AP Top 25 teams, with WSU's landmark victory being a 10-7 win at USC last year (though most will say the 2012 Apple Cup qualifies as landmark). Rodriguez is 3-7 against Top 25 competition, though last year's Oregon beat down stands out as signature. Graham is 4-5, but more importantly, 2-0 in the Territorial Cup. Mora has the best record at 5-5 and has beaten USC twice, though he's 0-3 against Stanford and 0-1 against Oregon.
None of the four are going anywhere soon unless it's by choice. They all have spearheaded programs for new or upgraded facilities (some of which are already in place) and each coach is already on his second contract.
That Washington State fans are groaning over the slow start, wanting everything to be Leachy-keen, shows that his presence has elevated the expectation level. Graham and Mora already have a South title and Rodriguez produces some of the most exciting offensive football in the country. See the Mary, Hill.
The 2012 class of coaches raised the national perception of the league, and also the stakes. The Pac-12 is as deep as it's ever been, the roster of coaches from top to bottom is at its peak and, as Oregon learned, there are no easy outs. Their presences makes their teams, and every team in the league, that much better.
Last week, it was upstart UTSA on the road -- a team laden with seniors and a head coach who has won a national championship. A 26-23 victory (with a quarterback making just his second start) was hard-earned.
This week the Wildcats host Nevada, a Mountain West team that beat Washington State last week and has given the Pac-12 fits the last few years -- including Arizona in the 2012 New Mexico Bowl.
"We're not good enough to play poorly and still win," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. "We don't go into games talking about should or shouldn't win. We're going to prepare like we're trying to win every game. We know there are some games where we can make mistakes and it will really cost you. In some games you can make a few more and still be in it.
"That's not where we are at yet."
The Pac-12 is off to a decent start in nonconference play. Through two weeks, conference teams are 19-3 against out-of-league foes. But two of those losses have come against the West Coast's little brother conference, the Mountain West.
Last season the Pac-12 manhandled the Mountain West with a 10-0 record during the regular season. When you factor in the bowl games, Pac-12 teams went 12-1 against the MWC (the only loss was Washington State's loss to Colorado State in the New Mexico Bowl).
This year, the Mountain West has already doubled its win total from last season. Nevada's win over WSU and Colorado State's victory over the Buffs in Week 1 has the current record at 6-2 with four games still to be played. And Hawaii put a pretty good scare into a couple of Pac-12 North teams.
"There are a lot of good players and a lot of good coaches in that league," Rodriguez said. "They have the same amount of scholarships as us and they have a history of some really good football. I think Pac-12 coaches, us included, have a lot of respect for the Mountain West."
The Wildcats should, especially if they think back to a budding Nevada quarterback named Cody Fajardo. Against the Wildcats in 2012, he threw for 256 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for 140 and a score.
A little older and wiser, Fajardo threw for 110 yards and ran for 100 in Nevada's 24-13 win over Washington State last week.
"I wish he wasn't still there," Rodriguez said. "He had about 1,000 yards on us. I think he's still running up and down the field. The only chance to stop him is if he cramps up after a half mile. Our guys have a lot of respect for Cody. He's obviously had a great career, especially what he did against us."
It took two late touchdowns in the final 46 seconds for the Wildcats to pull off the unlikely 49-48 come-from-behind victory in the New Mexico Bowl. After the Wolf Pack kicked a field goal with 1:48 left in the game to take a seemingly-insurmountable 48-35 lead, Matt Scott drove the Wildcats 75 yards in six plays and 1:06, connecting with Austin Hill on a 2-yard score to cut the lead to 48-41. An onside kick recovery and a touchdown pass from Scott to Tyler Slavin later and the Wildcats were up 49-48. Marquis Flowers closed out the win by intercepting Fajardo in the closing seconds.
"I don't know if it was exciting until the last minute and a half for me," Rodriguez said. "It was miserable. It wasn't very much fun. It was as improbable as a late comeback that I've ever been a part of because everything had to line up for us ... It all came together quickly in that last minute and a half for us."
With four games still remaining between the Pac-12 and Mountain West, the best the league can hope for is 10-2 -- which wouldn't be terrible. But knowing Nevada's personnel and watching film from last week, Rodriguez knows "should win" doesn't always equate to "will win."
"Whatever the outside perception is on a game, it doesn't change how we prepare," he said. "All we can control is our own approach and mindset. But the fact that they beat Washington State shows our guys they have a pretty good football team and they are playing with a lot of confidence."
Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez named redshirt freshman Anu Solomon his starting quarterback for Friday night's season-opener against UNLV, temporarily putting to rest all the questions about who would replace B.J. Denker.
Rodriquez's announcement, however, came with a caveat.
Take that for what it's worth. Last season there was also chatter that multiple Arizona quarterbacks would see time early in the season. Yet Denker ended up attempting 381 of Arizona's 383 passes 2013.
Which led Rodriguez to this: "I'm confident that Anu will play well, and he will be the starter as long as he plays well and we win."
Solomon bested a trio of transfers -- USC transfer Jesse Scroggins, LSU transfer Jerrard Randall and Texas transfer Connor Brewer -- for the starting gig. This represents the first time that a Rodriguez high school recruit has been the starting quarterback. Matt Scott was a holdover from the Mike Stoops era and Denker was a JC transfer.
The Wildcats open 2014 with three of their first four at home -- all against unranked teams. Which means Solomon, who becomes the first Arizona freshman to start since 2005, will benefit from not having to face A-list teams early on. But he doesn't have much time to get comfortable, because Arizona's next four feature a trip to Oregon, a home date with USC and then back-to-back road games at Washington State and UCLA.
"The coaches, and myself particularly, felt that he was playing the best out of all four quarterbacks," Rodriguez said. "I think he's got a good feel for the game and I want to make it clear it's not like he did this thing and these other guys didn't. I just think he did more things better on a consistent basis for him to start."
That might not sound like a ringing endorsement, but for Rodriguez, it's good enough. Keep in mind that while the Wildcats have to replace All-America running back Ka'Deem Carey, they also have one of the deepest wide receiving groups in the country. Headlined by 2012 Biletnikoff semifinalist Austin Hill (who missed all of 2013 with a knee injury), the rotation of pass-catchers is impressive. He also has one of the more experienced offensive lines in the conference protecting him.
And through Rodriguez' system and coaching, Denker threw for 2,516 yards (61 percent) and rushed for 949 and 13 touchdowns.
By picking youth, Rodriguez might finally be able to shape and groom a quarterback for this season and beyond. Something he hasn't been able to do yet in Tucson. The hope is that through experience and seasoning, Solomon could be pretty darn good. But all the Wildcats really need is for him to be good enough for now.
While the FBS season officially kicks off on Wednesday with Abilene Christian at Georgia State, things truly get rolling on Thursday. The A-list national game is Texas A&M's visit to South Carolina -- the Post Johnny Football Era begins with a whipping from Coach Spurrier -- and the Pac-12 features three matchups, though only one of notable quality with Rutgers playing Washington State in Seattle at CenturyLink Field.
In less scintillating action -- but action, nonetheless -- Idaho State visits Utah and Arizona State plays host to Weber State.
In three consecutive evenings of college football -- yes, there are even two games on Friday night -- every Pac-12 team plays. No lame first-week byes here. The marquee matchup? Well, hmm... if it's not the aforementioned showcase of Mike Leach's Cougs and Rutgers, a newly minted Big Ten team, then perhaps its No. 7 UCLA's visit to Virginia or California's redemption tour beginning at Northwestern.
Don't form too many overriding judgments about those two seeming mismatches. Virginia, though coming off a 2-10 season, is not devoid of talent and experience, see 17 returning starters. The Bruins will be making a long trip and are laden with considerable preseason hype, both as a team and with Sports Illustrated cover boy Hundley. It's possible they might press a bit, at least early, before settling down.
As for the Bears, don't write them off. Though Cal lost to the Wildcats 44-30 last year in Berkeley, the game was tied in fourth quarter, with Northwestern benefiting from two pick-sixes off deflected passes. Further, it's been a fairly tumultuous offseason for Northwestern.
Suffice it to say the Pac-12 is not afraid of the road. With Washington visiting Hawaii, that makes five conference teams opening away from their home stadium, as Colorado plays Colorado State on Friday in Denver.
The Huskies visit to Hawaii is interesting because it will be the debut of coach Chris Petersen, who has jumped from the mid-majors at Boise State and the Mountain West to arguably the nation's toughest conference. Another level of intrigue in that game is QB Jeff Lindquist. He was named the Huskies starter last week, but it remains to be seen if that is only because Cyler Miles is yoked with a one-game suspension. Is Miles actually the guy? And what if Lindquist is lights-out against the Warriors? The broader issue for the Huskies is who starts at home on Sept. 6 against Eastern Washington.
Wait. Did someone mention Sept. 6? Ah, yes, well that is the day when the Pac-12 slate really heats up. It features: 1. The Pac-12's nonconference game of the year (Michigan State at Oregon); 2. A big-time conference matchup between USC and homestanding Stanford.
Yet, we can't get ahead of ourselves, so we apologize for whetting your appetite with those two gourmet football entrées. As you well know, we play one game at a time in the Pac-12 blog. Each game is a Super Bowl unto itself.
Heck, first new USC coach Steve Sarkisian needs to make his own debut after moving south from Seattle, a homecoming of sorts for a guy who ran Pete Caroll's offense during the Trojans recent dynastic run. USC plays host Saturday to Fresno State, the very team the Trojans whipped in the Las Vegas Bowl, only now without QB Derek Carr and WR Davante Adams.
Finally, Arizona will be featuring a new starting QB against UNLV on Friday night. Rich Rodriguez, as of this typing, hasn't named who that will be, and it's possible that the opener against the Rebels will showcase more than one guy and a permanent arrangement might be a few weeks coming. We shall see.
It's not the best slate of opening week games from a Pac-12 perspective. It only will be slightly revealing. At least, that's the hope, as more than one defeat could feel deflating. Cal is the only underdog.
But it's college football. It's what we've been waiting for since Florida State slipped Auburn on Jan. 6.
And I've got a feeling it's going to be a special season for your team.
For the most part, they know each other. Many crossed paths in recruiting. Others sought each other out after games. Seven of them bonded at the Manning Passing Academy in Tbibodaux, Louisiana, this summer. There's a reasonable degree of believability when they insist they all like each other.
“It’s kind of a brother deal," said Washington State's Connor Halliday, one of seven Pac-12 quarterbacks who threw at least 20 touchdown passes a year ago. "We’re all representing the conference.”
That collegial connectedness means Halliday is perfectly willing to map out the NFL prospects of the crew, even if he opts to leave himself out -- Oregon State's Sean Mannion, he says, is the most NFL-ready, while Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley have the most upside. That chumminess means -- cover your eyes, USC and UCLA fans -- Hundley and Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler feel free to talk about how cool the other is.
The preseason scuttlebutt is the Pac-12 will follow up perhaps its best season in terms of top-to-bottom quality depth with a 2014 encore that should be even better. There's legitimacy to the belief that the Pac-12 might eclipse the SEC this fall as the nation's best conference, and that seeming apostasy begins behind center, where the SEC doesn't have a bona fide proven passer.
The Pac-12? Five returning QBs passed for more than 3,500 yards in 2013. If you give Kessler 32 more yards and Stanford's Kevin Hogan 370, then you have eight who passed for 3,000. Mariota, Hundley and Mannion are potential first-round NFL draft picks. Hogan is a three-year starter who's started in two Rose Bowls. Arizona State's Taylor Kelly, some forget, was second-team All-Pac-12 in 2013 and led his team past Hundley and UCLA in the South Division. Halliday had 34 touchdown passes in 2013, while California's Jared Goff and Colorado's Sefo Liufau were true freshman starters. Before he got hurt, Utah's Travis Wilson was good enough to lead an upset of Stanford.
Seems pretty odd to mention the USC quarterback last, but there you have it: Kessler surged late in the season and should thrive under new coach Steve Sarkisian's up-tempo scheme.
The sum is quarterback depth that has everyone gushing, including Pac-12 coaches.
Said Washington's Chris Petersen, who, like Arizona's Rich Rodriguez, doesn't have a returning starter at quarterback: “There’s not a crop like this coming back in the country. It’s scary when you don’t have one of those returning guys. Every week, you’re going to have to face one of them.”
The question bouncing around before the season is whether it's the best quarterback class, well, ever, and not just for the Pac-12. Maybe, maybe not.
The Pac-10 was pretty impressive in 2004: USC's Matt Leinart, California's Aaron Rodgers, Arizona State's Andrew Walter, UCLA's Drew Olson, Oregon's Kellen Clemens, Oregon State's Derek Anderson, Washington State's Alex Brink and Stanford's Trent Edwards. If you wanted, you also could throw in Utah's Alex Smith, though he was still in the Mountain West Conference at the time. A handful of those guys are still in the NFL, with Rodgers in the discussion as the best quarterback in the league.
Outside of the Pac-12, there's the Big 12 in 2008: Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, Texas' Colt McCoy, Baylor's Robert Griffin III, Missouri's Chase Daniel, Texas Tech's Graham Harrell, Kansas' Todd Reesing and Kansas State's Josh Freeman.
Ultimately, a judgment will be best delivered at season's end, and things rarely go as projected in the preseason. Injuries are, unfortunately, often an issue, and the pecking order could change. Don't be shocked, for example, if the estimations of Hogan, Kessler, Halliday and Goff go way up this fall.
The obvious leader is Mariota, probably the Heisman Trophy co-favorite with Florida State's Jameis Winston, the 2013 winner. While Mariota's return for his redshirt junior season was a bit of a surprise, how he's conducted himself during the preseason is not. He's not going to get in trouble off the field and he's not a look-at-me guy on it.
“He cares more about practice rep 13 in period 12 in 7-on-7 than anyone I’ve ever been around," coach Mark Helfrich said. "That carries over to every single guy in our program.”
But Mariota doesn't top everyone's list. Washington State linebacker Darryl Monroe favors Mannion, who won the Elite 11 Counselor's Challenge this summer after leading the conference with 4,662 yards and 37 TD passes last year.
“He’s a true NFL quarterback," Monroe said. “He has one of the best arms I’ve played against. Or seen in person.”
“He ran that offense like a point guard," Monroe said.
Obviously, the expectation is that these 10 returning starters will combine talent and experience and put up huge numbers. As important as the position is, however, a good quarterback can't do it alone. He's got to have some places to deliver the ball. The good news for these guys is most have a strong supporting cast. While Mariota and Mannion have questions at receiver, that position is strong and deep throughout the conference.
Nine teams have at least three starting offensive linemen back, and five have four or more. Oregon is the only team without at least one of its top two receivers back. It's also notable that more than a few teams have questions in the secondary.
It could be a year when preseason hype meets big passing numbers. But stats are not what football is all about, either.
“At the end of the day, it comes down to winning games," Kessler said. “I don’t look at the stat box. I look at who won. Most of the time, if you look at who won, I can tell you how the quarterback played.”
That's the truth: Winning is the ultimate measure of a quarterback. More than a few Pac-12 quarterbacks through the years have put up big numbers but haven't led their teams to championships, conference or national. It's likely that the first-team All-Pac-12 quarterback this fall, a guy who should be in line for a variety of national awards and All-America honors, will be sitting atop the final standings.
As for the celebration of Pac-12 quarterbacks in 2014, some ambivalence does follow the fawning. While there is a sense of genial community when discussing the depth at the position, most coaches would rather have their guy be talented and experienced and everyone else to be searching for answers behind center.
Said Stanford coach David Shaw, “I can’t wait for some of these guys to get out of our conference, which I thought a couple of them would last year.”
There would be no affable exchange of pleasantries about his quarterback competition or any breezy banter on sundry topics that typically are covered during a post-practice media session. While many coaches' calculated fits of pique during practices are pure motivational theater -- and there was some comic element to Rodriguez's stomping around like vintage Earl Weaver hounding an umpire -- there is no question his cataclysmic frustration is genuine. He expects more from his players than they are giving him and he can't stand it that they are not responding to his challenge.
"I'm allowed to be mad," he harrumphed to reporters. "It's my right."
"I ain't seen enough growth anywhere. Nowhere," he groused.
So, yeah, don't expect much of a revelation about the Wildcats' quarterback competition, which officially remains a wide-open race between four guys, though most observers see redshirt freshman Anu Solomon as the leader at present. That conclusion is based on Solomon getting the most reps with the first-team offense. Senior Jesse Scroggins, the consensus leader after spring practices, missed a lot of offseason work because of injuries suffered after a automobile accident. Jerrard Randall, the most physically talented of the four, continues to struggle with the mental side of the Wildcats' scheme, while Connor Brewer is steady but brings the least to the table athletically.
Rodriguez is on edge because the winnowing is coming. Must come. With a scrimmage Saturday, he and offensive coordinator Rod Smith both said they want to narrow the field heading into next week. That means tightening the screws in practice, and that process often means delivering an earful and seeing how the recipient of said verbal projectiles reacts. As Rich Rod often says: He wants his guys to become comfortable being uncomfortable.
"I've never been one to treat [a quarterback] with kid gloves," he said a few hours before said practice. "I don't worry about their confidence. Hell, I'm worried about my confidence."
Rodriguez has an interesting team, one that has some holes but also has enough returning talent to become a factor in the Pac-12's South Division -- if it gets solid play behind center. With a deep and talented crew of receivers and one of the nation's most experienced offensive lines, the guy who ends up winning the job will have a lot to work with.
Rodriguez knows why reporters are obsessed with his quarterback competition. For one, the Pac-12 has 10 returning starters at quarterback and Cyler Miles is the front-runner at Washington, so Rodriguez's situation is the most wide-open and intriguing. He also doesn't resist the notion that fans and media should be obsessed because he readily admits you can't compete in the Pac-12 without a good QB.
"You have no chance to win unless you get good quarterback play. You can't win a championship," he said. "I don't think you can have a winning season unless your quarterback play is pretty good."
Solomon's apparent rise, though not yet decisive, comes with a notable advantage over Scroggins: It would mean that for the first time in Tucson, Rodriguez and Smith would have a returning starter for the following season (when Solomon becomes a redshirt sophomore). That's not a present concern, Smith said, but he acknowledges the future benefit.
Rodriguez's and Smith's track record with first-year starters at Arizona so far has been outstanding. Matt Scott, the 2012 starter, earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors and is playing for the Cincinnati Bengals. B.J. Denker might have been the conference's most improved player from Week 1 to the end of the 2013 season, transforming from a liability to a QB who outplayed Oregon's Marcus Mariota in the Wildcats' upset victory over the Ducks.
Solomon was a touted recruit after a spectacular career at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas. His team went 57-3 and won four state titles with Solomon as a four-year starter. He passed for 10,112 yards and 138 touchdowns with just 17 interceptions. Yet he seemed overwhelmed as a true freshman, and his naturally mellow demeanor sometimes didn't mesh with the high-strung Rodriguez, who wants his QB to be a take-charge sort. Solomon also had a tendency to mix a few forehead-slapping plays into practices.
"He's not making as many of those ‘oh no' moments. He's been more steady," Smith said. "He's made some progress. He's starting to get comfortable with what we are doing. He's more in control now. He's trying to be more vocal -- that's what he wasn't doing in the spring. He's got some talent. He can make some plays. He can do some things with his mind and arm."
While Solomon was made available to the media for the first time this week, that was the exception for the QBs. It's also clear that Wildcats players have been well-schooled on keeping their evaluations of the QB competition to themselves.
Rodriguez rated the odds as pretty good that he'll play more than one guy early in the season, though he won't pull a starter who's playing well. It also wouldn't be surprising if Randall, an LSU transfer who has two years of eligibility remaining, gets a package of plays because his talent has intrigued coaches.
If Rodriguez's mood doesn't improve, it's also possible we won't know his mind until just before UNLV visits on Aug. 29. Such a thought actually make him grin, though. He recalls how his hiring was announced by athletic director Greg Byrne.
"I might pull a Greg Byrne and tweet it two hours before kickoff," he said.
Whatever negative perceptions formerly were held about the Pac-12 -- finesse, pass-first, defense-optional league with half-full stadiums -- are mostly dead. Though there always will be trolling mouth-breathers with tired insults, Pac-12 folks now can show up to the verbal brawl with facts and numbers and game scores and commence to deliver a dose of frenzied verbal MMA that leaves said trolls whimpering for mercy.
OK, perhaps that's going overboard. But the Pac-12 deserves credit for two things: (1) Its rating as the nation's No. 2 conference (2) Making things tougher on itself than any other conference.
The overwhelming national consensus is the Pac-12 ranks second to the SEC. As ESPN Stats & Information noted in January, "Overall, the Pac-12 finished with six teams ranked in the AP Top 25 and five teams ranked in the top 10 of ESPN's Football Power Index. As a result of its strength in the computers, the Pac-12 was the clear No. 2 conference in the Power Rankings."
Another vote in the Pac-12's favor comes from an unquestionably unbiased -- cough, cough -- constituency: Pac-12 coaches.
"[The SEC] should claim themselves as the best league in the country because they've earned it," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. "But to go through the Pac-12 and win a national championship may be the most difficult thing to do because of our schedule."
Ah, that's the worrisome rub. No other conference rides the scheduling tricycle like the Pac-12: 1. Challenging nonconference slate; 2. Nine-game conference schedule; 3. Conference championship game.
While some conferences have improved their nonconference scheduling, they don't play nine conference games. The Big 12 does play nine conference games, but it doesn't play a championship game. Pac-12 coaches aren't shy about noting that a conference team, in almost all cases, will have to play at least 11 quality games -- one tough nonconference foe, nine conference games and the Pac-12 title game -- to earn a spot in the CFP. No other conference can claim that.
There is a big reason the other conferences can't: They don't want to.
"Fair or unfair, whatever the words you want to use, we play a nine-game schedule and a conference championship game and other conferences don't on purpose," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. "There is obviously a reason for that."
That's the big issue for the Pac-12 heading into the season. There is no longer a worry about respect or the perception of the Pac-12. Rather, it's about how unscathed a conference champ can hope to be against such a demanding schedule, and whether the committee will stick to its stated insistence that strength of schedule will be paramount. When a conference plays eight of the nation's 13 toughest schedules, as the Pac-12 did in 2013, the challenge to go unbeaten or even to lose just one game is far greater.
Of course, this issue won't be solved today, or even in the next couple months. The ultimate answers will be delivered in January when four semifinalists are picked and seeded.
So then, how did the Pac-12 gain ground in the perception battle -- one that has the conference starting with six teams ranked in the preseason USA Today coaches poll, including three in the top 11 with two others receiving votes?
The easy answer: money. The $3 billion broadcasting deal with ESPN and Fox was a game-changer. That money has flowed into facilities improvements and more aggressive investments in coaching -- head coaches and assistants. A concomitant influx of A-list coaches, most notably Mike Leach, Rich Rodriguez, Todd Graham, Jim Mora and Chris Petersen, has boosted the conference's Q-rating. Those coaches also have been able to hire and -- critically -- retain key assistants with competitive salaries, such as Arizona State offensive coordinator Mike Norvell ($700,000), UCLA offensive line coach Adrian Klemm ($650,000), Washington State defensive line coach Joe Salave'a ($275,000) and USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox (north of the $800,000 he made at Washington), among others.
No team has had a better, and perhaps more unfortunate, seat while watching the Pac-12 improve than Utah. The Utes joined the conference in 2011 as a program that had posted two unbeaten seasons and won two BCS bowl games as a member of the respected Mountain West Conference. Though they went a solid 4-5 in conference play in 2011, they slipped to 3-6 in 2012 and 2-7 in 2013, with lineups that might have been better than the 2011 squad.
What separates the Pac-12 this season -- and could make it a legitimate threat for the No. 1 conference -- is behind center. Not only does the conference welcome back 10 starting quarterbacks, a majority of those are NFL prospects.
"I've never seen anything like this," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "You have multiple guys that you could say could be the No. 1 pick overall in the draft. You have multiple guys in the conference that could be All-Americans and lead the nation in quarterback rating or lead the nation in passing."
The most notable quarterbacks are Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley, Heisman Trophy candidates blinking brightly on NFL radars who lead teams favored to win their respective divisions. Hundley will get an early showcase game against Texas, and Mariota and the Ducks play host to Michigan State, the Big Ten favorite, in Week 2. And the Ducks and Bruins could meet each other twice this season.
But they also must contend with Arizona State's Taylor Kelly, Oregon State's Sean Mannion, USC's Cody Kessler, Stanford's Kevin Hogan, Washington State's Connor Halliday, Utah's Travis Wilson, California's Jared Goff and Colorado's Sefo Liufau, each capable of posting a spectacular individual performance that could spawn an upset.
The Pac-12 is plenty hyped heading into the 2014 season. There is no perception problem. There might, however, end up being a reality problem. If the Pac-12 champion ends up with two losses, and the selection committee has a handful of Power Five conference teams with one or fewer defeats, the Pac-12 could get a respectful tip of the cap but end up out of luck in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
So which Pac-12 rivalries are heating up, stagnating or cooling as we head into the 2014 season?
USC Trojans-UCLA Bruins
The facts: USC leads the series 46-30-7 and has won 12 of the last 15 games, but the Bruins have won two in a row under Jim Mora, including a 35-14 domination last year.
The meter: Sizzling and rising.
The animosity between the fan bases is always strong, but what makes a rivalry truly heat up is relevance. And substantial stakes. This rivalry is gaining in both areas. USC is one of the preeminent football programs in the nation, even though UCLA fans hate to read that. UCLA is the rising western power under Mora, even though USC fans mock the idea. USC has a new coach in Steve Sarkisian and is moving past NCAA sanctions. UCLA is a top-10 team eyeballing the College Football Playoff. Know what I say? Release the hounds!
Arizona Wildcats-Arizona State Sun Devils
The facts: Arizona leads the series 47-39-1, but Todd Graham has won the last two against Rich Rodriguez, including a 58-21 blowout last year in Tempe. Before that, the visiting team has won eight of the last 13 matchups, including the last four -- games that were decided by a total of 15 points.
The meter: Blistering and heating up.
While Oregon-Washington fans provide the most blowback to the Pac-12 blog -- Yakety Yak! Oh, yeah! Yakety Yak -- Arizona and Arizona State fans are a strong No. 2. It used to be the fans hated each other and whined a lot -- "You cover them more... waaaaaa!" -- because both teams were fairly mediocre. But the Sun Devils won the South Division last year and are now 2-0 under Todd Graham against the Wildcats and Rich Rodriguez. With both programs trending up in an overall sense, the rivalry is gaining relevance. It also helps that Graham and Rodriguez don't particularly care for each other.
Oregon Ducks-Washington Huskies
The facts: Washington leads the series 58-43-5, but the Ducks have won 10 straight in the series by at least 17 points, including a 45-24 win in Seattle last year.
The meter: Hot but stagnating.
This has long been the most bitter Pac-10/12 rivalry but it has experienced a dramatic power shift to the Ducks. Sorry Huskies, you know it's true. It seems like Oregon fans these days are more worried about winning that darn absent national title than fretting about that team from up North. Now, if Washington and new coach Chris Petersen go into Autzen Stadium and steal one this year... well, that can't happen. Can it? Maybe that possibility needs to be debated.
USC-Notre Dame Fighting Irish
The facts: USC has won nine of the last 12 meetings, but the Fighting Irish has won three of the last four, including a 14-10 win last year. Since 1967, USC has gone 24-20-3 in the series.
The meter: Simmering with many hoping for a boil (particularly TV executives)
As far as national rivalries go, this one is without peer. It's an annual classic that matches two of college football's top powers. Lately, both teams have been nationally relevant, albeit not on an annual basis, and that's the issue. This rivalry is more about national relevance than bitterness. What it needs to heat up is for both teams to be national contenders with the winner in line for the College Football Playoff.
Washington-Washington State Cougars
The facts: Washington leads the series 68-32-6, including a 27-17 victory last year. The Cougars have lost 11 of the last 16 Apple Cups, but are 1-1 under Mike Leach.
The meter: Simmering with lots of potential spice
Have you stopped and pondered just how fun this one might get if Petersen and Mike Leach get their programs' performances to match their respective coaching reputations? For one, in terms of the media, it could be a Don James-Jim Walden deal where Petersen is a "2,000-word underdog" to the loquacious Leach. As it is at present, the Cougars really, really hate the entitled Huskies but the Huskies reserve their most bitter distain for Oregon.
The facts: Oregon leads the series 61-46-10 and has won the last six meetings, including a 36-35 thriller in Autzen Stadium last year.
The meter: Warm but in need of another log on the fire
Know what bothers Oregon State fans? When some Ducks fans say they root for the Beavers when the two aren't playing. It probably isn't a statement of emotional fact, but Oregon fans recognize it as the ultimate patronizing gesture. See above with Washington: The Beavers really, really hate the entitled Ducks but the Ducks reserve their most bitter distain for Washington. Now, if the Ducks start to slide a bit and the Beavers push past them in the North Division -- or at least become Oregon's equal again -- this one will immediately boil over, potentially returning to the back-and-forth turf battle it was from 1998-2008, when it was one of the conference's most interesting and meaningful rivalries.
The facts: In a series that dates back to 1905, USC holds a 59-29-3 lead, but Stanford has won four of the last five meetings. Still, a year after Stanford upset the then-No. 2 Trojans, USC returned the favor by knocking off No. 4 Stanford 20-17 last fall.
The meter: Most rivalries are more about the fans than the players. This one might be more about the players than the fans. These two teams go at each other -- hard. Things really picked up steam with former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh mouthing off about Pete Carroll, then backing it up with two wins, including the classic "What's your deal?" game in 2009. Stanford started USC's and Lane Kiffin's downward spiral in 2012, while the Trojans ended the Cardinal's national title hopes in 2013. And I personally enjoy watching the Stanford band drive the Coliseum crowd crazy -- "And now a tribute to a great USC graduate... Joe Francis!"
California Golden Bears-Stanford
The facts: Stanford leads the Big Game rivalry 54-44-10 and has won four in a row, including a 63-13 blowout last year.
The meter: Luke warm until Cal rights itself
The Big Game is a great rivalry with a great history. The problem is getting the two teams to be good at the same time. Cal dominated the rivalry under Jeff Tedford until 2009. Now the Cardinal is fully in control. Second-years Bears coach Sonny Dykes probably could win over the Old Blues by pulling the upset this fall, but that will mean winning as a double-digit underdog.
BYU Cougars-Utah Utes
The facts: Utah leads the series 57-34-4. Utah has won four straight and nine of the last 12 games with the Cougars, including a 20-13 victory last year in Provo.
The meter: Always hot but chilling for two years
Utah has dominated this bitter series of late, most notably since joining the Pac-12, but there will be a two-year hiatus until the Holy War is renewed in 2016. That is unfortunate, as the series hasn't been interrupted since BYU didn't field teams during World War II (1943-45). Further, BYU is presently outside looking in, as it is not a Power Five conference member. It will be interesting to see how things go in the future.
The facts: Colorado leads the series 31-26-3, and this is both teams’ longest series against any Pac-12 team. They played annually from 1903-62 with four exceptions, but then the rivalry went dormant for 49 years before it resumed in 2011 as Pac-12 members. As Pac-12 members, Utah leads 2-1 having won two in a row.
The meter: Tepid while awaiting some seasoning
Sure, this is a bit of an artificial rivalry. They are paired as rivals because they joined the conference together. But as both start to develop their Pac-12 legs, you can count on this rivalry heating up. They will be compared for a long time. Neither wants to be the one not measuring up. And don't forget the "Red Bike Incident."
Previewing the 2014 season for the Arizona Wildcats:
2013 record: 8-5, 4-5 in Pac-12; beat Boston College 42-19 in AdvoCare V100 Bowl
Key returnees: WR Austin Hill, OT Mickey Baucus, OT Fabbians Ebbele, LB Scooby Wright, S Jared Tevis
Key losses: RB Ka'Deem Carey, LB Jake Fischer, LB Marquis Flowers
Instant impact newcomers: WR DaVonte Neal, WR Cayleb Jones, RB Nick Wilson, LB Jamardre Cobb
Projected winning percentage (ESPN.com Stats & Information): .548
Chances to win the conference (ESPN.com Stats & Information): 1.1 percent
Most important game: vs. Arizona State, Nov. 28
Biggest question mark: The Wildcats are the Pac-12's most uncertain team at quarterback.
Best-case scenario: 10-3
Worst-case scenario: 5-7
Over/under win total (Bovada): 6½
Upset special: USC visits Oct. 11. That could be a separation game for both in the South.
They said it: "Everybody is going to ask about the quarterbacks. I could be coy and tell you I don't know but I really do know. The truth is I really don't know. We'll figure that out." -- coach Rich Rodriguez
Arizona State gave Todd Graham a one-year extension and a $300,000 raise, his $2.7 million salary now ranking in the top half of the Pac-12. The contract will run through June 30, 2019.
Meanwhile, Arizona is giving Rich Rodriguez less but is being more creative. Rodriguez's base salary will get a boost of $220,000 to $2 million annually, but the university also is considering a significant retention bonus based on a $17.68 million stock offering from a booster.
From the Arizona Daily Star:
The proposal, which will be voted on by the Arizona Board of Regents next week, offers [athletic director Greg] Byrne 20 percent share of the stock, while [basketball coach Sean] Miller and Rodriguez will get 35 percent each if they meet the retention criteria: Each needs to stay at UA at least four years and cannot leave voluntarily before eight years in order to receive it.
Under the stock’s current value, Byrne would receive a bonus of $3.536 million while Miller and Rodriguez would each earn $6.2 million if they met the retention criteria. At the end of eight years, the three could keep the stock or sell it.
But let's not get bogged down in the numbers, other than to at least note that Graham and Rodriguez should pick up the tab the next time they take you to dinner.
Graham is 18-9 after two seasons. He led the Sun Devils to the South Division title last fall and a final national ranking. He's recruiting well. But it's just as notable that a program long known for lacking focus and discipline -- both on and off the field -- has become among the best at both within the conference. Academics and citizenship are up. Penalty flags and arrests are down.
Graham has his critics. He's probably not ever going to win everyone over. But he's doing it right in Tempe.
Rodriguez, with a lot less talent, has nearly matched Graham, going 16-10 with a pair of bowl victories. He, however, is 0-2 head-to-head in the rivalry, something that makes Wildcats fans a bit grumpy.
Rodriguez is widely considered within the business to be one among a small handful of true offensive innovators. While some dwell on his failed tenure at Michigan -- a hopeless mismatch that was aggravated by a dysfunctional athletic department and a sabotaging Lloyd Carr -- Rodriguez's track record speaks for itself. He's one of the 10 or 15 best coaches in the nation.
Both schools have good coaches who fit, and administrators and boosters know it. They want them to stick around. Both programs seem headed for consistent spots in the Top 25. While the South Division is rugged, particularly with a rising UCLA and USC emerging from NCAA sanctions, both should be in the thick of the divisional race most seasons.
When both teams are good, a rivalry is better. That appears to be where these two are headed. That means more national relevance and, therefore, more national attention. That is good for both schools, at least as long as one or the other doesn't establish a strong pattern of dominance.
Finally, this Pac-12 blogger truly enjoys that every time he's in Tucson or Tempe he's rapturously surfeited with snipes and gripes about the other program. We expect this joy only to increase as this pair moves up in the national pecking order, thereby marinating traditional bitterness with meaningful stakes to wrestle away from each other.
TUCSON, Ariz. -- It became clear this spring that senior Jesse Scroggins, a transfer from USC, is going to be Arizona's starting quarterback this fall.
Check that. Scroggins is still too inconsistent, see a bad interception in the spring game on Saturday. True Wildcats insiders know that coach Rich Rodriguez wants a guy who's smart and takes care of the football. That's clearly Texas transfer Connor Brewer, who makes up for a lack of arm strength with passing accuracy and good instincts.
Yawn. We've been talking to people who know people. It's impossible to ignore Jerrard Randall's upside. The LSU transfer has the biggest arm, despite a quirky throwing motion, and the quickness to run the spread-option.
OK, folks. We weren't going to say anything but we hate when misinformation gets out there on some message board. The real scuttlebutt concerns not merely an evaluation of the Wildcats' 15 spring practices but also a savvy projecting forward. The light has started to flicker for redshirt freshman Anu Solomon, and when it goes completely on, he's the guy who will be under center on Aug. 29 against UNLV.
While it's a good bet that Rodriguez and his QB coach/co-offensive coordinator Rod Smith have developed some idea of a pecking order this spring, you also get the feeling that even their takes have some fluidity.
“I’m not being coy," Rodriguez said after the spring game, seeming just a bit coy. "But I wanna see what they do in August and throughout the whole summer.”
What makes this competition so intriguing is whoever ends up winning the job is probably going to end up putting up A-list numbers, perhaps even breaking into the All-Pac-12 conversation with established stars such as Oregon's Marcus Mariota, UCLA's Brett Hundley, Arizona State's Taylor Kelly and Oregon State's Sean Mannion.
Ridiculous? Not when you consider what Rodriguez and Smith have done with their past two first-year starters in Matt Scott and B.J. Denker, both of whom put up notable dual-threat numbers. And not when you consider the offensive supporting cast, particularly what might be the deepest crew of receivers in the country.
How deep? The Wildcats go at least eight-deep at the position, with their second four being comparable to many teams' starting four. How deep? One observer wondered whether Nate Phillips would fall into the top four. Phillips was only a freshman All-American last season, leading the team in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. How deep? It's likely a number of the receivers will see time at running back and even get looks in the secondary, an area where the Wildcats are far less capable.
"We have a good problem to have a wideout right now," Smith said. "We'd like to roll four out there, run them, run them, run them. And then roll four more out there and not miss a beat. That's kind of where they are at right now."
“Not only are six of the top seven receivers back from last season, but the Wildcats also welcome the return of Austin Hill, who put up huge numbers and earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2012 before missing last season with a knee injury. Further, two transfers, DaVonte' Neal (Notre Dame) and Cayleb Jones (Texas) are big-time talents -- the Nos. 8- and 147-rated players in the nation in the 2012 recruiting class, according to ESPN.com -- who are likely to earn starting spots. Both scored impressive touchdowns in the spring game.
I'm not being coy. But I wanna see what they do in August and throughout the whole summer.” -- Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, on his QB competition
While the Wildcats are replacing All-American running back Ka'Deem Carey, and that competition also continues to be wide open, there doesn't seem to be nearly as much intrigue there. Arizona's veteran offensive line is almost certain to make at least one of the backs a 1,000-yard rusher, though it appears there will be a far more committee approach than with Carey.
In terms of analyzing the general tenor of spring practices, there are some hints at what the coaches are thinking at QB. Scroggins, Solomon and Brewer -- coming out in that order in the spring game -- each worked with the first-team offense, while Randall saw action with the 2s.
Scroggins, as a senior, had the most to lose this spring. Therefore, his generally encouraging performance -- far more focused and efficient than he was last year while not putting up much of a challenge to Denker -- means he probably made up the most ground.
"He's gotten better," Rodriguez said. "We were really concerned whether Jesse could execute what we want from a mental and physical standpoint. That's the bottom line for all the guys. We had doubts coming into the spring. He erased some of them. Not all of them. But because he's gotten more comfortable with our plays and what it requires to execute them he's put himself in the mix."
Both Smith and Rodriguez also said it won't count against Scroggins that he's the only senior, though his winning the job would mean a fourth consecutive season with a first-year starter in 2015.
"Connor is a smart guy," Rodriguez said. "He's got a little bit of experience. He understands football. He's a competitive guy. But he's going to have -- I don't want to say be perfect -- but he has to execute because he's not going to be able to outrun or out-throw someone. But he does have some skills. He's helped himself this spring."
With Solomon, a redshirt freshman, there are undeniable flashes, but it's also clear Rodriguez and Smith are challenging his intensity, focus and dedication. They believe he coasted during his redshirt season, and both talk about him needing to reach "another level."
"Sometimes he fools us," Rodriguez said. "He knows more than we think he knows with the system, but he hasn't taken the next step."
Randall is the wild card. The other three QBs were in Tucson last fall. He's the only complete newbie to the offense. He's also pretty raw. But when he does something like, oh, casually flick the ball 70-plus yards, it's difficult to not raise an eyebrow.
"He's got an unbelievable arm, sometimes too strong," Rodriguez said. "He's got great quickness and can run. He's really done a good job. We've kind of forced-fed him. His head has probably been spinning in every practice. But the development he's made in 15 practices has been really good. Even though he's behind the other guys mentally, I think physically he makes up for it. He's going to be in the mix."
None of the quarterbacks were made available to the media after the spring game, and it's pretty clear the coaches and Arizona's sports information staff have done a thorough job of schooling players on not revealing a personal preference or hinting at a perceived pecking order. The furthest any would go was Hill admitting that he wished he knew the pecking order so he could prioritize whom he threw with over the summer.
So no clarity behind center. The Wildcats' deep and talented crew of receivers heads into the offseason, not unlike an orchestra awaiting a conductor.
But for Arizona receiver Austin Hill, spring practice feels like he's standing in front of a spectacular buffet dinner. And he's really, really hungry.
Hill was a second-team All-Pac-12 selection following the 2012 season after ranking second in the conference in receiving yards. The sophomore looked like a potential All-American in 2013 after catching 81 passes for 1,364 yards -- 16.8 yards per reception -- with 11 touchdowns.
But his 2013 season ended before it began on April 10 after he tore his ACL during the second-to-last session of spring practice.
Poof -- just like that, football was taken away, replaced by uncertainty and the daily burden -- and boredom -- of rehabilitation. That's why even a no-pads practice to start spring drills this week was invigorating.
Hill practiced with the Wildcats in a limited fashion during the final weeks of the 2013 season, but he's still not 100 percent healthy. While he's officially full-speed this spring, he's still wearing a knee brace and his explosiveness and speed are not fully back.
"That's basically the last step of ACL recovery," he said. "I'm still in those processes."
Neal and Jones both sat out last season, so Hill knows they share his hunger, while the returning starters and contributors don't want to yield repetitions. While it's a collegial atmosphere among the receivers at practice, it's also a competition for touches and position in the pecking order.
"Everyone is helping each other out on the field," Hill said. "It's fun to see athletes compete. It's always fun."
Of course, the competition at receiver figures to yield certainty -- an outstanding and deep crew of four or five guys in a regular rotation with one or two leading the way. The bigger issue is who is going to deliver the ball.
Hill laughs at the inevitable quarterback competition question, for an answer behind center probably won't be delivered until fall camp. Perhaps even late in fall camp, as it was last year.
Hill, for one, admits he'd prefer to get some clarity much sooner.
"Right now ... who knows? I just hope it doesn't end up like it was last year, where even in the first couple of games we really didn't know who the quarterback was," he said. "I want it to be a QB we know is going to start. That's the most important thing for your passing game, that receiver-QB sync. It's hard to get that sync when you don't know who your quarterback is and it's getting switched up every day."
“Of course, that's up to the QBs -- senior Jesse Scroggins, sophomore Connor Brewer, junior Jerrard Randall and redshirt freshman Anu Solomon -- and coach Rich Rodriguez, who has said repeatedly about QB competitions that he would prefer that one guy quickly and decisively wins the job.
I just hope it doesn't end up like it was last year, where even in the first couple of games we really didn't know who the quarterback was. I want it to be a QB we know is going to start. That's the most important thing for your passing game, that receiver-QB sync. It's hard to get that sync when you don't know who your quarterback is and it's getting switched up every day.” Arizona receiver Austin Hill on the Wildcats' quarterback competition.
Just don't expect it to happen this spring.
As for Hill's take, he often doesn't even know who's delivering the ball.
"The quarterbacks are getting switched around so much, sometimes it's even hard to tell which quarterback even went with my group when I went," he said. "We move so fast, I don't get to pay attention to what quarterback is throwing me the ball."
While the QBs work through their competition, Hill will be a veteran leader for the offense, back in action after a year of observing the team from the outside. When he looks around at practice at the improved personnel on both sides of the ball, he senses that the Wildcats are going to surprise some folks this season.
"I'm ready to help this team to a BCS bowl," he said. "I feel like that's where we're headed."
As Hill missed last season and is still not 100 percent, he, of course, can be forgiven for forgetting 2013 was the last season of the BCS era. His point is clear. He believes Arizona is going to be a threat in the Pac-12's South Division in 2014.
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.
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.
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.
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.