NCF Nation: Taylor Mays

Timing right for USC, Sark marriage

August, 21, 2014
8/21/14
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USC safety Taylor Mays didn't exactly grin from ear to ear at the question back in 2008, but his face did acknowledge that the reporter had offered him an underhanded pitch that he could belt out of the L.A. Coliseum in any direction he wished.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsIn his second stint as a college football head coach, Steve Sarkisian faces the pressure of guiding a national powerhouse program in USC.
Mays and the top-ranked USC Trojans had just made No. 5 Ohio State look like a high school team in a 35-3 whipping that wasn't nearly as close as the final score suggested. The question was whether the Buckeyes had been shocked by just how much better the Trojans were. Mays paused, seeming to savor the question as he coolly assessed the contents of his locker, before delivering a response.

"Many teams wonder what this SC thing is about -- why have we been so successful these past years," he said. "We came out there and showed them. They're Ohio State and that means something. But we prepare so well that we just do what we do."

There was a time under Pete Carroll when USC pretty much won games when they got off the bus. They simply looked a whole lot better -- bigger, faster, more confident -- than anyone else in college football. Reporters and fans would encircle the Trojans' open scrimmages, particularly during Competition Tuesdays, and marvel at the talent level and intensity.

New USC coach Steve Sarkisian was Carroll's top offensive assistant for much of that run from 2002 to '08 before heading off to Washington. He missed the 2004 BCS national title season while spending an unhappy year with the Oakland Raiders, as well as the start of the program's decline in 2009, a 9-4 finish after the Trojans had lost just nine games in the previous seven seasons. Then Carroll bolted for the Seattle Seahawks.

So Sarkisian knows what things were like during the Trojans' most recent dynastic run. He was there for its creation. A Southern California native, he knows the area, the program's traditions and how quickly expectations can become stratospheric. He knows what he is taking over. And getting himself into.

He knows USC is one of the most powerful brands in college sports, one whose name and logo have impact in South Florida, Ohio and Texas, as well as in its home territory.

"When you have that SC interlock on your chest and you walk into a school [to recruit], whether it's in Southern California or anywhere else, this talks about 11 national championships, six Heisman Trophies, more NFL draft picks, more All-Americans, more All-Pros, more Hall of Famers than any other school," Sarkisian said. "So it's a powerful brand."

Sarkisian also knows timing. He knows it's better not to be the "man after the man," as his friend Lane Kiffin was with Carroll. Sarkisian was Carroll's personal preference to replace him, and then-athletic director Mike Garrett made a play for Sarkisian before offering the job to Kiffin. Sarkisian was then heading into his second season at Washington and felt it wouldn't be the right time to bail out on the Huskies.

Oh, and he also knew NCAA sanctions were on the horizon, though there was little indication at the time that they would be as severe as they ended up being.

Good timing? As of June, USC is no longer yoked with those sanctions that included the loss of 30 scholarships over three years. After signing a highly rated class in February, despite limits, Sarkisian could have the Trojans at around 80 scholarship players next fall, according to ESPN.com's Garry Paskwietz, not far below the limit of 85, and substantially better than the numbers that have made depth the team's most worrisome issue since 2010. The Trojans presently rank 14th in the nation and first in the Pac-12 in the ESPN.com recruiting rankings.

Timing? Even during Carroll's run, USC's facilities were second-rate. No longer. After putting $120 million toward new and renovated buildings, including the 110,000-square foot John McKay Center, USC matches up with the most elite teams.

Timing? Sarkisian inherits 18 returning starters from a team that won 10 games in 2013. The Trojans should be contenders in the South Division this fall, emerging from so-called crippling sanctions in pretty good shape after averaging "only" 8.8 wins per season from 2009 through last year.

Of course, his timing isn't that perfect. He's got a UCLA problem that Carroll didn't have to contend with. The Bruins are surging under Jim Mora and are hardly quaking at the prospect of USC again being whole. It's notable that Sarkisian and Mora have long had a cordial relationship, though that might be difficult to sustain going forward.

"I think [hiring Sarkisian] has given them a shot of energy that I wish they didn't get," Mora quipped at Pac-12 media days. "I have great respect for Sark, and I like him as a person and as a coach. I just know he's going to make my job harder."

While USC again signed a full recruiting class of 25, which should make the going tougher for all 11 other Pac-12 teams, there's also some undercurrent of smugness within the conference from coaches and fans that Sarkisian hasn't truly earned a job like USC and that he isn't much different from Kiffin. His critics dubbed him "Seven-Win Steve" after he led Washington to three consecutive 7-6 seasons, a rut that had some Huskies fans putting him on the hot seat heading into the 2013 season.

The Huskies improved to 9-4 last season, finishing with a Top 25 ranking for the first time since 2001. Some also seemed to forget that Sarkisian inherited a team that went 0-12 in 2008. While there's been an odd effort to rewrite the history of how down the program was back then, it was outscored 463-159 that season and hadn't posted a winning record since 2002. Washington went 1-10 in 2004 and 2-9 in 2005. Further, majestic Husky Stadium was falling apart.

Chris Petersen has inherited a team from Sarkisian that's played in four consecutive bowl games, is ranked in the preseason, and is playing in a beautifully renovated stadium.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY SportsUSC Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian was optimistic at Pac-12 media days, saying: "I think we have a chance to do something special this year."
This is not to say Sarkisian did a perfect job at Washington. He made mistakes like most first-time head coaches, including sticking with overmatched defensive coordinator Nick Holt for too long. Yet the feeling among USC insiders is that the Trojans are getting Sark 2.0, and he's surrounded himself with a staff that is touted for its X's and O's acumen (most notably defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox) as well as its recruiting savvy. Sarkisian retained receivers coach Tee Martin, one of the most quietly important coups of the transition.

Sarkisian isn't necessarily bringing back Carroll's "Win Forever" rhetoric and culture. For one, he runs an up-tempo offense, not Carroll's pro style, and a 3-4 hybrid defense, not Carroll's 4-3. That could be seen as part of Sarkisian's maturation, of finding his own way. When Sarkisian took the Washington job after the 2009 Rose Bowl, Carroll actually told him that he needed to be his own man, not mimic Carroll.

"His final words to me walking out was, 'Go be you, because when adversity strikes, the real you is going to come out anyway,'" Sarkisian said.

For USC fans, adversity has already struck and stuck hard. Sarkisian's charge is to make sure those adverse days are done. Adversity going forward is losing more than two Pac-12 games.

Or is that losing more than one game, period?
When a football coaching staff signs one of the top few recruits at any position, it's cause for celebration. Therefore, grabbing two of the top three prospects at that position might warrant an Animal House-style party.

Between 2006, when ESPN began assembling recruit rankings, and 2013, individual programs managed to sign at least two of the top three players at a position 16 times. In many cases, one -- and sometimes both -- of those players became instant stars as true freshmen. Think Taylor Mays and Joe McKnight at USC, De'Anthony Thomas at Oregon, Laremy Tunsil at Ole Miss and Sean Spence at Miami.

This was a relatively unique occurrence up until 2014, when it happened five times -- with four of the five instances occurring in the SEC: twice at Alabama, which signed the top two players at both center (No. 1 Josh Casher and No. 2 J.C. Hassenauer) and outside linebacker (No. 1 Christian Miller and No. 2 Rashaan Evans), plus at LSU (with No. 1 and 3 wide receivers Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn) and Florida (with No. 2 and 3 defensive tackles Gerald Willis and Thomas Holley).

Clemson was the other school to accomplish the feat in 2014, signing No. 2 and 3 receiving tight ends Milan Richard and Cannon Smith.

In some of these cases -- particularly at LSU, which lost the vast majority of its receiving production from 2013 -- expectations are high that the star signees can immediately become valuable contributors as true freshmen. The Tigers have multiple alternatives at receiver, including Travin Dural and John Diarse, but Dupre and Quinn might rank among the leading contenders for playing time.

Judging by the long list of Freshman All-America and freshman all-conference honors won by those who previously signed as part of such a dynamic duo, perhaps it's not such a long shot that at least one of the newcomers will make a similar instant impact.

2006

Safety | USC
No. 2 Taylor Mays, No. 3 Antwine Perez

Mays appeared in all 13 games -- starting the last 12 at free safety after Josh Pinkard suffered a season-ending injury in the opener -- in 2006 and led the Trojans with three interceptions. Mays was fifth on the team with 62 tackles and tied for second with six passes defended, ending the season as Pac-10 Co-Freshman of the Year and as a member of multiple Freshman All-America teams. Perez played in seven games and recorded three tackles.

2007

Center | Auburn
No. 1 Ryan Pugh, No. 3 Chaz Ramsey

Pugh started six of Auburn's final nine games at left tackle and appeared in eight games overall. He also backed up Jason Bosley at center and earned Coaches' All-SEC Freshman team honors after the season. Like Pugh, Ramsey appeared for the first time in Week 4 and went on to start nine of the Tigers' last 10 games at right guard. He also made the Coaches' All-SEC Freshman team.

Running back | USC
No. 1 Joe McKnight, No. 2 Marc Tyler

McKnight played in all 13 games in 2007, ranked third on the team with 540 rushing yards and scored three touchdowns. He also caught 23 passes for 203 yards and a touchdown and served as the Trojans' primary punt returner, with his 8.4 yards per return helping him earn a All-Pac-10 honorable mention nod. Tyler redshirted in 2007 while recuperating from a high school leg injury.

2008

Inside linebacker | Ohio State
No. 1 Etienne Sabino, No. 2 Andrew Sweat

Sabino played in all 13 games and notched six tackles. He notched the only touchdown in the Buckeyes' 16-3 win against Purdue by returning a blocked punt 20 yards for a score. Sweat appeared in the last nine games and recorded five tackles, also contributing mostly on special teams.

Outside linebacker | Miami
No. 1 Arthur Brown, No. 2 Sean Spence, No. 3 Ramon Buchanan

Not only did Miami sign ESPN's top three outside linebacker prospects in 2008, it also signed No. 5 Jordan Futch. That's an outstanding haul for one year. At any rate, Spence emerged as the key member of this group from the get-go, ranking third on the team with 65 tackles and leading the Hurricanes with 9.5 tackles for a loss in 2008. He was ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year and made multiple Freshman All-America teams. Brown (who later transferred to Kansas State) played in 11 games as a freshman, notching four tackles and shifting from outside to inside linebacker. Buchanan had six tackles in nine games, playing mostly on special teams and also contributing at safety and linebacker.

Offensive tackle | Ohio State
No. 2 Michael Brewster, No. 3 J.B. Shugarts

Brewster played in 12 of the Buckeyes' 13 games in 2008 and started the last 10 at center, earning Freshman All-America honors in the process. Shugarts appeared in seven games at offensive tackle and missed six other games with a shoulder surgery that required offseason surgery.

Safety | Florida
No. 1 Will Hill, No. 2 Dee Finley

Hill played in 13 games and ranked sixth on the team with 48 tackles. He also picked off two passes and notched 1.5 sacks. He made the SEC All-Freshman team and led the Gators with 22 tackles on special teams. Finley did not qualify academically and spent the 2008 season at Milford Academy prep school. He eventually enrolled at Florida and shifted from safety to linebacker, but transferred away from Gainesville in 2011.

2009

Safety | South Carolina
No. 2 Stephon Gilmore, No. 3 DeVonte Holloman

Early enrollee Gilmore started all 13 games at cornerback, ranking fifth on the team with 56 tackles. He tied for the team lead with nine passes defended and ranked second with eight pass breakups, adding six tackles for a loss, three sacks, two fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles and an interception. The Freshman All-SEC and Freshman All-America honoree also averaged 10.1 yards per return as a punt return man. Another early enrollee, Hollomon also played in every game, notching 30 tackles, an interception (which he returned 54 yards against rival Clemson) and a tackle for a loss.

2010

Athlete | Florida
No. 1 Ronald Powell, No. 2 Matt Elam

Powell played in 13 games at strongside linebacker and recorded 25 tackles, three tackles for a loss and a sack en route to winning Freshman All-SEC honors. Elam also played in all 13 games, mostly on special teams and at defensive back, and notched 22 tackles, two tackles for a loss and a sack.

Defensive tackle | Florida
No. 1 Dominique Easley, No. 3 Sharrif Floyd

Easley recorded four tackles in six games. Floyd played in all 13 games, earning Coaches' Freshman All-SEC honors by making 23 tackles and 6.5 tackles for a loss.

Wide receiver | Texas
No. 2 Mike Davis, No. 3 Darius White

Davis ranked second on the team with 478 receiving yards and 47 receptions (a record for a Texas freshman). He became one of only three receivers in Longhorns history to post multiple 100-yard games as a freshman. White appeared in 10 games in 2010, but caught just one pass for 5 yards and eventually transferred to Missouri after two seasons, citing a need for a fresh start.

2011

Athlete | Oregon
No. 1 De'Anthony Thomas, No. 2 Devon Blackmon

The speedy Thomas earned Pac-12 Co-Offensive Freshman of the Year honors and was named an All-Pac-12 kick returner and a Freshman All-American. He was the only player in the nation to post at least 400 yards rushing, receiving and kick returning in 2011, ranking as the Ducks' second-leading receiver (595 yards on 46 catches) and third-leading rusher (608 yards and seven touchdowns). His 983 kickoff return yards ranked second in school history. Blackmon redshirted in 2011 and appeared in two games in 2012 before announcing his plan to transfer. He played at Riverside City College before signing with BYU as a juco transfer in 2014.

2012

Defensive end | Florida State
No. 1 Mario Edwards, No. 3 Chris Casher

Edwards became the only freshman to start all season for a loaded FSU defense when he replaced the injured Tank Carradine in the ACC Championship Game. He also started in the Orange Bowl win over Northern Illinois. In all, Edwards finished the season with 17 tackles, 2.5 tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks. Casher played in two early games before suffering a season-ending injury and taking a redshirt in 2012.

2013

Offensive guard | Michigan
No. 2 David Dawson, No. 3 Patrick Kugler

Dawson and Kugler both redshirted in 2013. Dawson practiced during the spring at left guard and left tackle, while Kugler is among the candidates to start at center this fall.

Offensive tackle | Ole Miss
No. 1 Laremy Tunsil, No. 3 Austin Golson

Tunsil immediately became one of the better offensive tackles in the SEC, earning second-team All-SEC and Freshman All-America honors in 2013. He played in 12 games and started nine at left tackle, making him one of only two true full-time freshman starters at the position in the FBS. Tunsil allowed just one sack all season. Golson played in 12 games, mostly at guard, before missing the Rebels' bowl game because of shoulder surgery. He transferred to Auburn this summer, citing a family illness as the reason he wanted to move closer to his Alabama home.

Safety | USC
No. 1 Su'a Cravens, No. 3 Leon McQuay III

A 2013 early enrollee, Cravens started 13 games at strong safety, ranked eighth on the team with 52 tackles and tied for second with four interceptions. He made multiple Freshman All-America teams and earned an All-Pac-12 honorable mention nod after the season. McQuay played in all 14 games, picked off one pass and recorded 19 tackles.

Pac-12 all-BCS-era team

January, 13, 2014
1/13/14
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We're looking back at the BCS era, which lasted from 1998 to 2013, so it made sense to make an all-Pac-12 BCS-era team.

Here's our shot at it. You surely will be outraged over the player from your team who got left out.

With our evaluation, NFL careers came into play with only the offensive linemen because they are so difficult to compare.

Offense

[+] EnlargeMatt Leinart
Jeff Lewis/USA TODAY SportsFormer USC QB Matt Leinart, the 2004 Heisman Trophy winner, threw 99 career TD passes.
QB Matt Leinart, USC: Nearly won three national titles. Won 2004 Heisman Trophy and placed third in 2005. Threw 99 career TD passes.

RB Reggie Bush, USC: The 2005 Heisman Trophy winner was one of the most dynamic players in college football history. (Bush returned the Heisman in 2012.)

RB LaMichael James, Oregon: Two-time first-team All-Pac-12, 2010 Doak Walker Award winner and unanimous All-American finished his career ranked second in Pac-12 history in rushing yards (5,082) and TDs (53). Nips other stellar RBs such as Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey, Stanford's Toby Gerhart and USC's LenDale White.

WR Mike Hass, Oregon State: Two-time first-team All-Pac-12 and 2005 Biletnikoff Award winner was the first Pac-12 player to record three consecutive seasons over 1,000 yards receiving. His 3,924 receiving yards ranks third all time in the conference. This, of course, could have been fellow Beaver Brandin Cooks or USC's Marqise Lee, who both also won the Biletnikoff Award.

WR Dwayne Jarrett, USC: A two-time consensus All-American, he set the Pac-12 standard with 41 touchdown receptions.

TE Marcedes Lewis, UCLA: A 2005 consensus All-American and John Mackey Award winner as the nation's best tight end. Caught 21 career TD passes.

OL David Yankey, Stanford: A unanimous All-American in 2013, he was a consensus All-American and Morris Trophy winner as the Pac-12's best offensive lineman in 2012.

OL Sam Baker, USC: A 2006 consensus All-American and three-time first-team All-Pac-12 performer.

OL Ryan Kalil, USC: Won the 2006 Morris Trophy. Two-time first-team All-Pac-12.

OL David DeCastro, Stanford: A unanimous All-American in 2011 and two-time first-team All-Pac-12 performer.

OL Alex Mack, California: A two-time winner of the Morris Trophy as the Pac-12's best offensive lineman (2007 & 2008).

K Kai Forbath, UCLA: Consensus All-American and Lou Groza Award winner in 2009. Made 84.16 percent of his field goals, which is nearly 5 percent better than any other kicker in conference history.

Defense

LB Rey Maualuga, USC: Was a consensus All-American and won the Bednarik Award as the nation's top defensive player in 2008. Three-time first-team All-Pac-12.

LB Trent Murphy, Stanford: 2013 consensus All-American and two-time first-team All-Pac-12 performer.

LB Anthony Barr, UCLA: Consensus All-American 2013 and two-time first-team All-Pac-12.

DL Will Sutton, Arizona State: Two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and Morris Trophy winner in 2012 and 2013. Consensus All-American in 2012.

DL Haloti Ngata, Oregon: A consensus All-American and Morris Trophy winner in 2005.

DL Rien Long, Washington State: Won the Outland Trophy and was a consensus All-American in 2002.

DL Terrell Suggs, Arizona State: A unanimous All-American in 2002 after setting NCAA single-season record with 24 sacks. Won the Lombardi Trophy. Two-time first-team All-Pac-12.

CB Chris McAlister, Arizona: Unanimous All-American in 1998. Three-time first-team All-Pac-12.

CB Antoine Cason, Arizona: Won the Thorpe Award as the nation's best defensive back in 2007. Two-time first-team All-Pac-12.

S Troy Polamalu, USC: Two-time All-Pac-10 and consensus All-American in 2002.

S Taylor Mays, USC: A three-time All-American, he was a consensus All-American in 2008. Two-time first-team All-Pac-12.

P Bryan Anger, California: A three-time first-team All-Pac-12 selection and two-time Ray Guy semifinalist.

Press Coverage: Oregon vs. Auburn

November, 10, 2010
11/10/10
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It's time for a blogger debate! And it doesn't get much better than when we match the SEC and Pac-10.

Our topic: No. 1 Oregon and No. 2 Auburn. Who's better and why?

Both are unbeaten, and if the season ended today, they'd play for the national title.

We've got lots of football left, and probably many more plot twists in the hunt for the national title, but there's no reason we can't engage in a hypothetical, is there?

So the Pac-10 blog -- Ted Miller -- and the SEC blog -- Chris Low -- have decided to meet for some civilized debate on Auburn versus Oregon.

Ted Miller: Chris, since things are so quiet in the sleepy SEC, I think we should spice things up with a Pac-10-SEC blogger debate! It seems like a long time since we last had a debate between our two conferences. How’d that one go? Let’s see I championed Taylor Mays and you celebrated Eric Berry. Wait. Why did I bring that up?

Anyway, our topic is Oregon and Auburn: Who’s better and why.

[+] EnlargeGene Chizik
John Reed/US PresswireGene Chizik has silenced those critical of his hiring last year but getting Auburn off to a 10-0 start this season.
This is a potential national title game between the No. 1 Ducks and No. 2 Tigers, who are both unbeaten and feature Heisman Trophy candidates leading high-powered offenses.

You get first blood. Tell me about Auburn. It seems like it wasn’t too long ago that Jay Jacobs was getting hounded for hiring Gene Chizik. Guessing that’s died down a wee-bit.

Chris Low: No doubt, Ted. I wonder where that obnoxious guy is now, the one yelling at Jacobs as he was leaving the airport after finalizing the deal with Chizik? Maybe Jacobs knew what he was doing after all. The guy with the 5-19 record at Iowa State has done all right by himself on the Plains. He has a Heisman Trophy-caliber quarterback and the SEC's leading rusher in Cam Newton, a 6-foot-6, 250-pound freak of nature who runs like Bo Jackson and also has an NFL arm. Keep your eyes, too, on freshman running back Mike Dyer, who they haven't had to lean on much this season, but is oozing with talent and has fresh legs for this stretch run. The Tigers' defensive numbers are nothing to write home about, but they do have the kind of dominant interior defensive lineman, Nick Fairley, who can take over games. Georgia coach Mark Richt said Fairley's the closest thing he's seen to Warren Sapp. Auburn's calling card defensively has been making plays at key times in the fourth quarter. The Tigers have been a serviceable defense through three quarters this season, but they've been a championship-caliber defense in the fourth quarter -- which is why they're 10-0.

So tell me about Oregon?

[+] EnlargeDarron Thomas
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireSophomore Darron Thomas was thrust into the starting quarterback job and has performed admirably.
Ted Miller: Speaking of coaches: How about Oregon’s Chip Kelly? How could he possibly expect to top winning the Pac-10 and playing in the Rose Bowl his first season? How about contending for a national title in his second? The Ducks, however, expected to be here when the 2009 season ended because just about everybody was coming back from the Pac-10 champions. That is until a guy you are now familiar with -- quarterback Jeremiah Masoli -- got caught up in some off-field issues and eventual got himself booted from the team. That seemingly left a void behind center, but sophomore Darron Thomas has not only filled Masoli’s shoes, he’s gone up a few sizes: He’s 15th in the nation in passing efficiency and 21st in the nation in total yardage. Meanwhile, speedy running back LaMichael James is the top Heisman alternative to your guy, Newton. As for the defense, it’s like the offense: Extremely fast. It ranks 13th in the nation in scoring defense and it has forced 28 turnovers, second-most in the nation. Folks often underestimate the Ducks' defense because it gives up some yards -- it ranks 29th in the nation in total defense -- but that’s because the offense scores so quickly: The nation’s No. 1 offense ranks 115th in the nation in time of possession. But the Ducks only give up 4.45 yards per play. Our factoid of the day is that number would rank No. 1 in ... wait for it ... the SEC!

Obviously, we're talking about two very good teams that have done impressive things on their way to remaining unbeaten. I know we both have Oregon ahead of Auburn in our power rankings, but give me the case for Auburn.

Chris Low: Ted, I think what separates Auburn is Newton. Nobody has been able to stop him. If you commit to taking away the run, he's proved he can beat people throwing the ball. And if you come after him and/or don't have enough people in the box, he's been magic running the ball. Keep in mind, too, that we're not talking about a 220-pound guy running the ball. We're talking about a 250-pound guy who's physical, tough and doesn't run out of bounds. In the red zone, he's the great equalizer, because he gains 3 yards when he falls forward and has the size and the strength to push the pile. On top of it all, he's always a threat to throw the ball. Similar to Oregon, Auburn doesn't flinch if somebody puts 30-plus points on the board, because the Tigers' mentality is that they're going to score 50. Their offensive coordinator, Gus Malzahn, will make you defend everything -- reverses, throwback passes, passes to the backs, even passes to Newton. He caught a touchdown pass two weeks ago against Ole Miss. The Tigers also play at a tempo on offense that has opposing defenses gasping for air in the fourth quarter. But when they have to, they can put teams away and finish games by running the ball. They're fourth nationally (one spot ahead of Oregon) this week in rushing offense with an average of 307.2 yards per game. Auburn's top four rushers -- Newton, Dyer, Onterio McCalebb and Mario Fannin -- are all averaging at least 6.4 yards per carry. Do the Ducks have any answers for that running game?

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Paul Abell/US PresswireAuburn's Cam Newton is just as dangerous with his arm as he is on his feet.
Ted Miller: That’s what’s so interesting about this as a potential national title game match -- there’s an odd familiarity that both teams will have with each other despite never crossing paths. My guess is Malzahn and Kelly already have studied each other, just in terms of mutual admiration. And both defenses will be familiar with up-tempo, no-huddle, spread-option offenses that can power you and finesse you and throw downfield. Further, the Ducks have played against a number of big, fast, capable quarterbacks with NFL futures: Washington’s Jake Locker, Ohio State’s Terrelle Pryor and Stanford’s Andrew Luck. The results have been mixed. Last year, Luck and Pryor got them. Luck beat the Ducks with uncanny downfield accuracy, which is why he’ll go No. 1 in this spring’s NFL draft. Pryor shocked them with the best passing game of his career in the Rose Bowl. Locker missed this year’s game, but he’s never had much luck against Oregon. In general, Oregon has a good run defense: Opponents are averaging 3.38 yards per rush. But the Ducks are undersized. A physical Stanford team had some success, rushing for 177 yards. But one thing about Oregon on both sides of the ball: It is masterful with halftime adjustments. They shutout Stanford, owners of the nation’s No. 5 scoring offense, in the second half, and have given up just 48 points in the second half this year -- just seven in the fourth quarter!

Obviously, two very good teams that have done impressive things on their way to remaining unbeaten. I know we both have Oregon ahead of Auburn in our power rankings, but give me the case for Auburn if it played Oregon in the national title game. How do you see it going?

Chris Low: Well, if that happens, the first thing we all better make sure we have is a calculator. That and make sure there's no danger of a power surge to the scoreboard. You're right about Oregon. Nobody in the country has been better in the second half. The Ducks' ability to score points in bunches is amazing, but the Tigers are equally adept at going on head-spinning scoring sprees. Just ask Arkansas, which saw Auburn roll up 28 points in the fourth quarter in Xbox-like fashion. I have no doubt that an Auburn-Oregon matchup would be played in the 40s. I think the difference, though, would be Auburn's ability to put the breaks on the track meet and run the football in the fourth quarter, especially with Newton being so good at converting on third down. So I'm going Auburn 45, Oregon 41 in a game that rates up there with the Texas-USC classic to decide the 2005 national title.

Ted Miller: That's clearly something we can all agree on: This likely would be a highly entertaining, offensively driven national title game if these two teams manage to get themselves there. Further, I think, after never getting a USC-SEC title game, folks on both coasts would enjoy an SEC-Pac-10 matchup. No trash-talking there, right? And I do see a clear advantage for Auburn: It has been tested. It's played five games decided by eight points or fewer, and three decided by a field goal. The Ducks closest game? An 11-point win at Arizona State. But that's also why I'd pick Oregon in this one. Oregon beat the No. 6 team in the nation, Stanford, by 21 points. It shut Andrew Luck out in the second half. And I look at all of Auburn's close games: Mississippi State, Clemson, South Carolina, Kentucky and LSU, and think: None of them would be within 10 points of the Ducks. Maybe LSU, because any game Les Miles touches is surprising. And I think Vegas would agree with me. So if we ended up with an Oregon-Auburn national title game, my guess is the Tigers would go TD for TD with the Ducks in the first half, then the Ducks would pour it on late for a 50-35 win. But I reserve the right to change my mind, particularly because I think the Tigers' toughest test -- Alabama -- is ahead.

Moreover, both teams should be advised: You probably should get to the Jan. 10 date in Glendale before you start trash-talking each other. At least before you use your best stuff.
The NFL draft teaches hard lessons. Two USC players are learning that now: Taylor Mays and Everson Griffen.

Mays would have been a first-round pick last year. I know folks believe his perceived weaknesses would have revealed themselves on film Insider then just as they did this season. But the 2008 USC pass defense was simply extraordinary in large part because of Mays playing an intimidating and impenetrable center field.

So Mays blew it by coming back for his senior season. And he now knows this.

As for you, San Francisco 49ers fans: Didn't you guys do fairly well a few years back with another hard-hitting former USC safety? I got a $5 bill right here that says Mays is going to become an outstanding NFL safety.

Griffen is another story: First-round talent with questions about his attitude and work ethic. (Keep this in mind about Mays: his work ethic couldn't be any better).

Who would have thought that Washington's Daniel Te'o-Nesheim would go before Griffen? Te'o-Nesheim is superior to Griffen in only one way but its a critical one: motor. Griffen's is questionable, Te'o-Nesheim's is not.

The lesson here is that being good isn't enough. The NFL cares about the entire package. And NFL teams don't want players who aren't self-starters, who don't motivate themselves.

Take note incoming five-star recruits.

Here are the Pac-10 picks to this point (11:15 a.m. ET ).

First round
DE Tyson Alualu, California, Jacksonville (10)
RB Jahvid Best, California, Detroit (30)

Second round
DT Brian Price, UCLA, Tampa (35)
S T.J. Ward, Oregon, Cleveland (38)
TE Rob Gronkowski, Arizona, New England (42)
S Taylor Mays, USC, San Francisco (49)
RB Toby Gerhart, Stanford, Minnesota (51)
OT Charles Brown, USC, New Orleans (64)

Third round
TE Ed Dickson, Oregon, Baltimore (70)
WR Damian Williams, USC, Tennessee (77)
LB Donald Butler, Washington, San Diego (79)
DT Earl Mitchell, Arizona, Houston (81)
DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, Washington, Philadelphia (86)
OG Shawn Lauvao, Arizona State, Cleveland (92)
CB Kevin Thomas, USC, Indianapolis (94)

Fourth round
DE Everson Griffin, USC, Minnesota (100)
CB Alterraun Verner, UCLA, Tennessee (104)
CB Walter Thurmond, Oregon, Seattle (111)
RB Joe McKnight, USC, New York Jets (112)
Here's a prediction: California defensive end Tyson Alualu is going to surprise some folks and end up a top-10 NFL draft pick.

Little late on that one, eh?

Alualu was the first Pac-10 player drafted Thursday night -- which was projected by no one -- going 10th overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars, while Bears teammate Jahvid Best was the only other conference player selected on Day 1. Best went to the Detroit Lions with the 30th pick.

Round 2 begins today at 6 p.m. ET. Expect the second round to include a number of Pac-10 players, including those who slipped during recent weeks, such as USC safety Taylor Mays and UCLA defensive tackle Brian Price.

Alualu is the highest Cal selection since Andre Carter was taken seventh overall by San Francisco in 2001. He is the Bears’ ninth top-10 pick in the draft’s history. And his selection was rated the "biggest reach" of the first day by Todd McShay.

Wrote McShay, "Jacksonville used the 10th overall pick to take California DT Tyson Alualu, who we feel is a good player but is only the No. 35 overall on our board. Top-10 money is pretty rich for a player like Alualu, especially when pass-rushers like Derrick Morgan and Jason Pierre-Paul would have offered much more value at that point."

Another notable pick is the Seattle Seahawks' selection of safety Earl Thomas at No. 14. That means former USC coach Pete Carroll wanted a safety but didn't want Mays.

Ouch.

Got to admit: I thought at least one team would jump on Mays just because of his athleticism, much like it took only one team to make Tim Tebow a No. 1 pick (Denver).

Another observation: Former Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford going No. 1 overall is a good thing for college football. It shows players who want to come back for their senior season that even a major injury won't automatically ruin your draft prospects.

Of course, Mays right now is probably questioning his decision to return, considering he likely would have been a top-15 pick in 2009.
Lots of goings on at the NFL combine with Pac-10 guys. Here are some updates.

From Scouts Inc. reports on ESPN.com:

  • Everyone expected USC S Taylor Mays to shine in this setting and Mays did not disappoint. At 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, Mays posted an official time of 4.43 seconds in the 40-yard dash. While we are still concerned about his inconsistencies on film, Mays clearly has early-first-round natural ability, and teams are sure to fall in love with his upside if they haven't already.
  • Arizona State's Dexter Davis, TCU's Jerry Hughes, Michigan's Brandon Graham and Utah's Koa Misi all played defensive end in college but are expected to move to 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL. Base 3-4 teams looking for help at outside linebacker were interested to see how they ran in the 40-yard dash, and none of them disappointed. Davis (4.56 seconds), Hughes (4.59), Graham (4.69) and Misi (4.69) all are fast enough to play linebacker in the NFL. Those times are unofficial, of course, but it's worth pointing out that the average 40 time for outside linebackers at the 2009 combine was 4.78.
  • It should come as no surprise that Campbell, USC's Charles Brown and West Virginia's Selvish Capers stood out during one-on-one mirror drills. All three looked fluid and quick, but Iowa's Bryan Bulaga showed the best poise of the group. Bulaga didn't overreact to head fakes or quick changes in direction and stayed with his man throughout.
  • USC G/C Jeff Byers had a hard time sinking his hips and keeping his shoulders back before starting his one-on-one mirror drill, and Byers' technique deteriorated once Idaho OT/G Mike Iupati forced him to change directions. Byers had a particularly difficult time staying low and that's a real concern because hip and back injuries forced Byers to miss two seasons early in his collegiate career and he looks stiff.

From other sources:

What to watch in the Pac-10 this spring

February, 19, 2010
2/19/10
11:47
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Taking a look at what to watch for as teams head into spring practices, officially ringing the bell on preparations for the 2010 season.

Arizona
Spring practice starts: March 5
Spring game: April 10

What to watch:

The new coordinators: The Wildcats lost two outstanding coordinators -- Sonny Dykes on offense and Mark Stoops on defense -- and decided to replace them with four guys. Tim Kish, promoted from linebackers coach, and Greg Brown, hired away from Colorado, will run the defense, while Bill Bedenbaugh and Seth Littrell, both promoted from within, will run the offense, with an assist from new quarterbacks coach Frank Scelfo. These guys will need to develop a coaching rhythm this spring that will ensure things go smoothly in the fall.

The JC linebackers: The Wildcats must replace three starting linebackers, and JC transfers Derek Earls and Paul Vassallo weren't brought in to watch. If they step into starting spots, then guys like sophomore Jake Fischer, redshirt freshman Trevor Erno and redshirt freshman Cordarius Golston can fight over the third spot and add depth.

Foles 2.0: Quarterback Nick Foles was dynamic when he was on last year, but the shutout loss in the Holiday Bowl served as a reminder that he's not there yet. He's going to be surrounded by a lot of weapons at the skill positions, so he should be able to take another step forward this spring, even with the loss of Dykes.

Arizona State
Spring practice starts: March 30
Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

The QB battle: It's a wide-open battle between Michigan transfer Steven Threet and Brock Osweiler, though the new guy -- Threet -- is perhaps the most intriguing. Samson Szakacsy was supposed to join the battle, but his elbow problem is acting up again, coach Dennis Erickson said Thursday. The competition will be overseen by new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, who's been handed an offense that has sputtered the past two seasons.

O-line issues (take 3): The Sun Devils' offensive line has struggled three years running, and it won't matter who starts at QB if the unit continues to get pushed around. First off is health. Will Matt Hustad, Zach Schlink, Garth Gerhart, Mike Marcisz and Adam Tello be ready to battle the entire spring? If so, there should be good competition here, particularly with a couple of JC transfers looking to break through.

The secondary: The Sun Devils were very good against the pass last year, but three starters in the secondary need to be replaced. Both starting corners are gone -- though if Omar Bolden successfully returns from a knee injury he should step in on one side -- as well as strong safety Ryan McFoy. The good news is a number of guys saw action here last fall, so the rebuilt unit won't be completely green.

California
Spring practice starts: March 6
Spring game: N/A

What to watch:

Embattled Riley: When things go well, the quarterback often gets too much credit. When things go badly... well, you know. Senior Kevin Riley has started 22 games and has played well at times. But there's a reason he's in a quarterback competition for a third consecutive season. Will he be able to hold off a rising Beau Sweeney this spring?

Rebuilding the D: The Bears had questions on defense even before coordinator Bob Gregory unexpectedly bolted for Boise State. Five starters need to be replaced, including mainstays like end Tyson Alualu and cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson, both first-team All-Pac-10 performers. And with Gregory gone, a new, likely more aggressive scheme now must be incorporated.

RB depth: Shane Vereen is the obvious starter after the departure of Jahvid Best, but Cal has, during the Tedford years, always used two backs. So who's the No. 2? Sophomore Covaughn DeBoskie was third on the team with 211 yards rushing last year, while promising freshman Dasarte Yarnway redshirted. One or the other will look to create separation.

Oregon
Spring practice starts: March 30
Spring game: May 1

What to watch:

The D-line: The Ducks lost perennially underrated end Will Tukuafu, tackle Blake Ferras and backup Simi Toeaina up front. Considering the plan is to run an eight-deep rotation, there will be plenty of opportunities for players like ends Terrell Turner and Taylor Hart and tackles Anthony Anderson, Zac Clark, Wade Keliikipi as well as 6-foot-7 JC transfer Isaac Remington to work their way into the rotation.

The passing game: The Ducks' passing game was inconsistent last year, though by season's end receiver Jeff Maehl was playing at a high level. Refining that part of the offense with quarterback Jeremiah Masoli would make the spread-option even more dangerous. The receiving corps is looking for playmakers, which means youngsters, such as redshirt freshman Diante Jackson, might break through.

Who steps in for Ed Dickson? Oregon only loses one starter on offense, but tight end Ed Dickson is a big one. David Paulson was a capable backup last year, and mercurial Malachi Lewis may be ready to step up. Expect JC transfer Brandon Williams to work his way into the mix.

Oregon State
Spring practice starts: March 29
Spring game: May 1

What to watch:

Katz steps in: Sean Canfield is off to the NFL, so the Beavers' biggest question this spring is crowning a new starting quarterback. Most observers feel the job is Ryan Katz's to lose, and the sophomore looks good throwing the rock around. Still, being a quarterback is about more than a good arm. If he falters, Virginia transfer Peter Lalich might offer an alternative.

Better defensive pressure: The Beavers run a high-pressure defensive scheme, so when the stat sheet says they only recorded 17 sacks in 2009, which ranked ninth in the conference and was 22 fewer than in 2008, you know something is wrong. The entire defensive line is back, so the hope is a year of seasoning, particularly for ends Gabe Miller, Matt LaGrone and Kevin Frahm will mean better production this fall.

The O-line grows up: The Beavers' offensive line returns four starters from a unit that got better as the year went on. Still, it yielded 29 sacks and the run game struggled at times -- Jacquizz Rodgers often had to make yards on his own. Talented left tackle Michael Philipp, who did a solid job as a true freshman starter, should be much improved. A second year playing together with underrated senior center Alex Linnenkohl also should help.

Stanford
Spring practice starts: March 1
Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

Replacing Toby: How do you replace Toby Gerhart and his 1,871 yards and 28 touchdowns? You do not. But the hope is sophomores Tyler Gaffney and Stepfan Taylor and senior Jeremy Stewart will provide a solid answer that keeps the Cardinal's power-running game churning. It helps to have four starters back from a good offensive line.

Rebuilding the D: If you toss in linebacker Clinton Snyder and end Erik Lorig, Stanford must replace six defensive starters from a unit that ranked near the bottom of the conference in 2009. The secondary is a particular concern after giving up 23 touchdown passes and a 63 percent completion rate. The hope is good recruiting from coach Jim Harbaugh will provide better athleticism in the back-half. Another issue: There was huge coaching turnover, particularly on defense during the offseason, so new coordinator Vic Fangio & Co. will be implementing new schemes and learning about what sort of talent they have to work with.

Luck steps up: This was Gerhart's team in 2009. Now it's Luck's. He might be the most talented QB in the conference. Heck, he might become a Heisman Trophy candidate before he's done. But life won't be as easy without defenses crowding the line of scrimmage because they are fretting about Gerhart. Luck will need to step up his game -- and leadership -- to meet the challenge.

UCLA
Spring practice starts: April 1
Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

Prince becomes king? The fact that offensive coordinator Norm Chow has been such an advocate for sophomore quarterback Kevin Prince should tell you something: He's got the ability. Prince flashed some skills during an injury-plagued 2009 season, and it's important to remember he was a redshirt freshman playing with a questionable supporting cast, particularly the O-line. Prince needs to improve his decision-making, and the passing game needs to develop a big-play capability that stretches defenses.

Front seven rebuilding: UCLA not only must replace six starters on defense, it must replace six guys everyone in the Pac-10 has heard of. And five of the lost starters come from the front seven, and the guys who were listed as backups on the 2009 depth chart won't necessarily inspire confidence. In other words, the Bruins will try to take a step forward in the conference with what figures to be an extremely green defense, particularly up front.

The running game? Know what would help Prince and a young defense? A better running game. The Bruins were significantly better in 2009 than in 2008, but that merely means one of the worst rushing attacks in the nation moved up to ninth in the conference. There's a logjam of options at running back -- with a couple of dynamic runners in the incoming recruiting class -- and the offensive line welcomes back a wealth of experience. It would mean a lot if the Bruins could boost their rushing total to around 150 yards per game (from 114.6 in 2009).

USC
Spring practice starts: TBA
Spring game: TBA

What to watch:

Welcome, Lane Kiffin: The Pete Carroll era is over. Enter Lane Kiffin & Co. In terms of scheme, things will be fairly consistent, seeing that Kiffin was formerly Carroll's offensive coordinator and Monte Kiffin was Carroll's defensive mentor. But there will be a period of adjustment. The guess is the hyper-intense Ed Orgeron might provide a bit of a shock to the D-linemen.

Matt Barkley Year 2: Barkley won't have the president of his fan club -- Carroll -- around anymore. He's a true talent. Everyone knows that, even without Carroll's daily sonnets about his ability. But the numbers show he threw 14 interceptions in 12 games vs. 15 TD passes last year, so he's obviously not arrived. Kiffin runs the offense, so you can expect these two to work closely together. Barkley will have plenty of help on offense, but the talent won't be as good as it was in 2009, with six starters needing to be replaced, including his top two targets (receiver Damian Williams and tight end Anthony McCoy).

Secondary questions: All four starters from the defensive backfield are gone, including center fielder Taylor Mays. It helps that cornerback Shareece Wright, an academic casualty in 2009, will be back. He was a projected starter last fall. There's plenty of talent on hand, but last year's team proved that the Trojans don't always just plug-and-play.

Washington
Spring practice starts: March 30
Spring game: April 30

What to watch:

Unleashing Locker: The return of quarterback Jake Locker was the best news any Pac-10 team received this offseason. Locker's passing improved dramatically in just one year under coach Steve Sarkisian, so it's not unreasonable to expect him to be even better in 2010, particularly with nine starters back on offense and just about every skill player on the depth chart.

Replacing Te'o-Nesheim: Daniel Te'o-Nesheim was a four-year starter who blossomed into an All-Pac-10 performer despite almost no supporting cast. He led the Huskies with 11 sacks in 2009, which was 8.5 more than any other player. Also, opposite end Darrion Jones is gone, and the cast at the position is extremely young. Who's the next pass-rushing threat?

The Butler did it: Linebacker Donald Butler blossomed last year, earning second-team All-Pac-10 honors and leading the Huskies in tackles and tackles for loss (15.5). Toss in E.J. Savannah's failure to earn a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA, and the Huskies have some questions at linebacker. Mason Foster is a sure thing at one outside position, and Cort Dennison likely will fill a second gap, but there's an opportunity for a young player to fill void No. 3.

Washington State
Spring practice starts: March 25
Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

Tuel time: Coach Paul Wulff decided that freshman Jeff Tuel was the Cougars' quarterback of the future last year, so he opted to start him instead of going with a redshirt season. Tuel showed promise in six games, completing 59 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and five picks. Most of his supporting cast is back on offense, so the expectation is the Cougars' offense could take a significant step forward this fall.

O-line intrigue: Some of the Cougars starting on the offensive line last fall didn't look like Pac-10 players. Injuries and youth made the line a glaring area of weakness, even with veteran Kenny Alfred at center. Alfred is gone, but the expectations are that last year's youth will be saltier after taking their knocks. Plus, a couple of juco additions should be in the mix for starting jobs.

Growing up: There is hope in that 19 starters are back from a team that played a lot of underclassmen in 2009. That youth should mature in 2010. And solid recruiting classes the past two seasons should offer an infusion of young promise.

Pac-10 All-Decade team

January, 21, 2010
1/21/10
6:49
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We've already ranked our top-10 Pac-10 players of the decade, but what follows is our All-Decade team.

As usual, feel free to disagree.

Offense

QB Matt Leinart, USC

RB Toby Gerhart, Stanford

RB Reggie Bush, USC

WR DeWayne Jarrett, USC

WR Mike Hass, Oregon State

TE Marcedes Lewis, UCLA

C Ryan Kalil, USC

OT Levi Jones, Arizona State

OT Sam Baker, USC

OG Adam Snyder, Oregon

OG Max Unger, Oregon

K Kai Forbath, UCLA

Defense

DE Terrell Suggs, Arizona State

DT Haloti Ngata, Oregon

DT Sedrick Ellis, USC

DE Kenechi Udeze, USC

LB Lance Briggs, Arizona

LB Rey Maualuga, USC

LB Keith Rivers, USC

CB Antoine Cason, Arizona

CB Marcus Trufant, Washington State

S Troy Polamalu, USC

S Taylor Mays, USC

P Tom Malone, USC

Pac-10 all-bowl team

January, 12, 2010
1/12/10
11:45
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The Pac-10 bowl season didn't go well, but that doesn't mean you don't make an all-bowl team.

You may notice a lot of USC and UCLA players. You might remember that the LA schools posted the conference's only two wins.

OFFENSE

QB Matt Barkley, USC: Barkley completed 27 of 37 throws for 350 yards with two touchdowns against Boston College in the Emerald Bowl. He also had two interceptions.

RB Toby Gerhart, Stanford: Against an Oklahoma defense ganging up on him, he rushed for 133 yards and two touchdowns on 32 carries in a Sun Bowl loss.

RB Stanley Havili, USC: He only rushed for 2 yards, but he also he caught six passes for 83 yards with two touchdowns.

WR Damian Williams, USC: He caught 12 passes for a season-high 189 yards.

WR Damola Adeniji, Oregon State: He caught seven passes for 102 yards and a touchdown in the Beavers' Las Vegas Bowl loss to BYU.

TE Anthony Miller, California: He led Cal with five receptions for 55 yards in the Poinsettia Bowl loss to Utah.

OL Chris Marinelli, Stanford: The offense was without its starting quarterback, but Gerhart gained 133 yards and the Sooners only had one sack.

OL Mike Tepper, California: Cal's pass protection wasn't great against Utah, but running back Shane Vereen finished with 122 yards rushing and two touchdowns.

OL Charles Brown, USC: The Trojans didn't run terribly well vs. Boston College, but they only yielded one sack and gave Barkley plenty of time to throw.

OL Jake Dean, UCLA: He was thrust into the starting lineup after starting center after Kai Maiava was ruled academically ineligible, and the Bruins yielded only one sack vs. Temple.

OL Chase Beeler, Stanford: See Marinelli.

K Kai Forbath, UCLA: He kicked field goals of 40 and 42 yards.

DEFENSE

DE Kenny Rowe, Oregon: He set a Rose Bowl and Oregon bowl record with three sacks in a losing effort against Ohio State.

DT Jurrell Casey, USC: Casey had five tackles, a sack and a 22-yard return of a fumble.

DT Brian Price, UCLA: Price started slowly vs. Temple but he dominated the second half and finished with five tackles, with one coming for a loss.

DE Tyson Alualu, California: Alualu had five tackles, with 1.5 coming for a loss.

LB Akeem Ayers, UCLA: Ayers led the Bruins with nine tackles, two for a loss, and his leaping interception at the Temple 2-yard line, which he returned for a TD, was the play of the Pac-10 bowl season.

LB Kyle Bosworth, UCLA: He finished with seven tackles and 1.5 sacks.

LB Eddie Young, California: Young had seven tackles and returned an interception 31 yards for a TD.

CB Shareece Wright, USC: In his first game back after academic ineligibility, Wright grabbed a key interception.

CB Alterraun Verner, UCLA: Verner had seven tackles, two for a loss, and a pass breakup.

S Rahim Moore, UCLA: Moore had four tackles and an interception.

S Taylor Mays, USC: Mays had five tackles for a Trojans defense that shut down Boston College in the second half.

P David Green, Stanford: He averaged 44 yards on six punts, three of which were downed inside the Sooners' 20-yard line.

Departure of UT's Thomas isn't a shock

January, 9, 2010
1/09/10
11:01
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It’s not really a surprise that Texas sophomore safety Earl Thomas declared Friday night for the NFL draft.

[+] EnlargeEarl Thomas
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiTexas' Earl Thomas set a team record with eight interceptions this season.
Thomas is coming off one of the best seasons for a Texas defensive back in school history in 2009. The redshirt sophomore had eight interceptions, which broke Noble Doss’ mark of seven interceptions that was set in 1940. Thomas ran two of them back for touchdowns to set another record.

If there’s such a thing as “The Natural” among defensive backs, it's Thomas. He isn’t overly big or physical (5-foot-10, 197 pounds) but he has the uncanny instincts to stick with any receiver. His skills definitely will translate well to the next level.

Thomas isn't as physically gifted as either Eric Berry of Tennessee or USC’s Taylor Mays. Both figure to be picked ahead of Thomas unless he has an off-the-charts workout for NFL scouts later this spring.

Thomas was a finalist for the Thorpe Award in 2009 and would have been the favorite for the award if he had remained for his junior season in 2010.

If he had stayed for another season and had another productive year, it’s not out of the question that Thomas could have developed into the greatest defensive back in Texas football history.

As it is, he’ll be in the conversation with players like Tarell Brown, Cedric and Michael Griffin, Michael Huff, Quentin Jammer, Aaron Ross and Nathan Vasher. All left Texas for a career as a starting defensive back in the NFL. Huff and Ross left with Thorpe awards in back-to-back seasons in 2005 and 2006.

With Thomas leaving, sophomore Nolan Brewster could move into the starting job when spring practice begins for the Longhorns late next month.

A more likely scenario might be to move Blake Gideon to the tight safety position to make room for game-breaking defensive back Christian Scott at Gideon’s current position at free safety.

Scott was giving Gideon a serious challenge in fall camp this year before he was academically suspended. His ferocious hits would provide an intimidating presence to the secondary that was missing this year.

But whoever takes over Thomas' spot will be attempting to fill a sizable void that makes Texas’ rebuilding job a little more daunting.

2009 All-Pac-10 team

December, 8, 2009
12/08/09
3:07
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We copped out at running back, but it just didn't seem fair to recognize only two.

First-team offense
QB Sean Canfield, Sr., Oregon State
RB Toby Gerhart, Sr., Stanford
RB Jacquizz Rodgers, So., Oregon State
RB LaMichael James, RFr., Oregon
WR James Rodgers, Jr., Oregon State
WR Damian Williams, Jr., USC
TE Ed Dickson, Sr., Oregon
OG Jeff Byers, Sr., USC
OG Gregg Peat, Sr., Oregon State
OT Charles Brown, Sr., USC
OT Chris Marinelli, Sr., Stanford
C Kenny Alfred, Sr., Washington State
K Kai Forbath, Jr., UCLA

First-team defense
DT Brian Price, Jr., UCLA
DT Stephen Paea, Jr., Oregon State
DE Tyson Alualu, Sr., California
DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, Washington
LB Keaton Kristick, Sr., Oregon State
LB Mike Mohamed, Jr., California
LB Donald Butler, Sr., Washington
S Rahim Moore, So., UCLA
S Taylor Mays, Sr., USC
CB Trevin Wade, So., Arizona
CB Alterraun Verner, Sr., UCLA
P Trevor Hankins, Jr., Arizona State

USC needs to adjust to improved Pac-10

November, 17, 2009
11/17/09
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After watching the film of his team's 55-21 defeat to Stanford, USC coach Pete Carroll came to a fairly simple conclusion.

Stanford imposed its will upon the Trojans.

"We allowed Stanford to run the plays they wanted to run and we didn't knock them out of those," he said. "Normally, we try to keep people out of doing their favorite stuff. That didn't get done. We had to adjust more than we thought we would. We underestimated them. We thought we could get it done and it didn't happen."
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireUSC coach Pete Carroll is seeing the divide between the Trojans and the rest of the Pac-10 close.
Basically: The Trojans thought their guys could win one-on-one battles, so they didn't overcompensate to meet Stanford's power running game. They were wrong.

Carroll's take fit in with a theme during the Pac-10 teleconference. Each of the other nine coaches were asked if the perceived talent gap between USC and the rest of the conference had closed and, to a man, each said, "Yes."

"I think people have had to rise up," Oregon State coach Mike Riley said before concluding. "But I think it's real."

It is. USC ranks in the middle of the Pac-10 in most statistical categories.

In four of its last five games, its once dominant defense has surrendered 27, 36, 47 and 55 points. The offense ranks seventh in the conference in passing and has been out of sync the past three games, when it's averaged just 17.7 points per game.

And, by the way, special teams haven't been terribly special, either.

Injuries have been a big issue. Thirteen starters have missed at least one game, and that doesn't include the season-ending injury to Stafon Johnson.

Still, at this point it's fair to say USC has moved back and the conference pack has moved up.

The question now is how do the Trojans react to the unexplored territory of not ranking among the Pac-10's nor the nation's elite?

"National championship? Rose Bowl? No? OK. What's next for us to fight for?" safety Taylor Mays said. "If we don't fight back from this, and we keep going downhill, that's when you really get upset."

If USC wins its next two games -- UCLA and Arizona, both at home -- it still could end up in the Holiday Bowl. Even if the Trojans ended up tied with Stanford, the odds are the Holiday Bowl would pick them to boost television ratings.

And if the Trojans prevailed, a 10-3 finish would ease some of the sting of a disappointing season. It might even be enough to push them back into the top-10.

A strong finish and some offseason momentum also would increase the odds they'd again be the preseason conference favorite in 2010.

And yet.

Based on what's transpired since the fourth quarter of the game at Notre Dame, it certainly seems reasonable to doubt whether the Trojans will win their final three games and generate that positive momentum.

"The first thing is you have to get to the truth of what happened and everybody is clear about that," Carroll said.

That starts with coaching. Perhaps Oregon and Stanford have comparable talent to USC, but does anyone really believe they are a combined 102-41 better than the Trojans?

Quarterback Matt Barkley was a better quarterback five weeks ago. The linebacker play also has regressed. A talented secondary has just six interceptions. The offensive line may produce a heap of NFL draft choices, but it's hardly been dominant. The offense can't convert on third down. The defense doesn't force turnovers. The Trojans commit a lot of penalties.

More than a few USC insiders acted like the departures of offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian and defensive coordinator Nick Holt for Washington might offer a chance for a schematic upgrade. Who'd assert that now? Seem to recall the same being said -- nudge, nudge -- when Norm Chow "chose" to leave.

Carroll may need to take a serious and objective look at his staff. Is everyone getting the most out of his players? And Carroll may need to do some self-evaluation.

Or: Maybe this is just a blip. Maybe what's extraordinary is that it's taken this long for USC to be ordinary.

Would you be shocked if, a year from now, this space is filled with calibrations of various scenarios for USC to play for the national title? Of course you wouldn't.

"We'll bounce back in a positive direction," Carroll said.

We'll see.

But this column from SEC country recalls an interesting parallel that also occurred to me: In 2001, when Florida State's run of 14 consecutive 10-win seasons ended with an 8-4 finish, no one -- no one -- thought the Seminoles would disappear from the national title discussion.

They did.

So there's really one position to have here, Trojans fans.

There no reason to overreact to the sudden downturn. But it's also foolish to act like nothing is amiss.

USC finds itself out of the conversation

November, 14, 2009
11/14/09
9:43
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LOS ANGELES -- Taylor Mays sat before the media in full pads. USC's All-American safety answered questions in a measured tone and didn't react to the cheering and banging on the opposite wall that grew progressively louder. He didn't raise his voice so he could be heard over the Stanford celebration.

Stanford, a week after scoring 51 in a win over No. 8 Oregon, had just handed Mays' ninth-ranked Trojans a 55-21 whipping.
[+] EnlargeMatt Barkley
AP Photo/Matt Sayles Stanford's Matt Masifilo, right, and Will Powers sack Matt Barkley and USC's Pac-10 title hopes.

The Cardinal remain in the hunt for the Pac-10 title. And, for the first time since 2001, USC does not.

The cinder block wall didn't prevent Mays from hearing how happy that made Stanford, which probably raised a few eyebrows when it attempted a 2-point conversion when it led 48-21 with 6:47 left.

"They deserve that," Mays said of the celebration. "They deserve to have that feeling. They beat us. To get beat like that is disappointing."

The Trojans have never in their storied football history given up as many as 55 points. The 111 points over their last three games is the worst three-game stretch in school history, eclipsing the 110 they had surrendered in the three games before playing Stanford.

"I'm not sure I have the right words to describe being humbled like this," Trojans coach Pete Carroll said. "I don't really know where to put it. We got our butt kicked on defense and they out-executed us. There were no surprises. It was a humbling day."

Stanford rushed for 325 yards. While not as much as the 391 Oregon piled up against the Trojans, it was gained without misdirection or artifice. The Cardinal didn't seem to care much if USC knew what was coming. They just lined up and ran over them.

"They blocked us, time after time," said Carroll, who suffered his first loss in 29 November games as the Trojans coach.

Let's quantify how much Stanford's offensive line blocked the Trojans.

Four Trojans finished with double-digit tackles. Three of them were defensive backs. Stanford only needed to pass 22 times, so those weren't tackles after passes.

Stanford was 8 of 11 on third-down and 1 for 1 on fourth down. USC didn't record a sack.

"It's almost sickening," Mays said. "To be a senior and leave a legacy like this, it's sickening."

It's one thing to watch USC look bad at Oregon. That 47-20 defeat was shocking. But not as shocking as watching the Trojans getting buried in the Coliseum, where they had previously won 47 of 48 game. And to get manhandled like that by Stanford, the most academically elite BCS conference university, which can't possibly match the athletes USC has collected through the years of collecting top-ranked recruiting classes, right?

"It sure looked like they had better athletes today," Carroll said.

It took 10 games to figure it out, but it's clear now: Yes, USC does sometimes need to rebuild. And, no, it just can't insert eight new defensive starters and a true freshman quarterback and expect to seamlessly become another juggernaut, particularly with a handful of starters regularly sitting out with injuries.

The Trojans now enters a bye week with in an unusual position: Out of the conversation. At 7-3 overall and 4-3 in the Pac-10, their potential bowl destination could be a variety of places -- Holiday, Sun, Las Vegas. But it won't include a BCS bowl. And the season won't end with USC ranked in the nation's top-four.

So an an era has ended. Mays shook his head over the possibilities.

"It's crazy," Mays said. "If you would have told me that before the season, I would have looked at you like you were crazy. We still get to play football. Some teams don't go to bowl games. I know that not our standard, but we'll get up for anything."

Mays also rejected the notion that the USC dynasty is over. The program will bounce back, he said.

"It's hard to bring it all the time. It's hard to be that successful, year-in and year-out. That's why so few programs do it," he said. "But, no, I don't think [the run is over]. We're still going to get recruits. We've still got Coach Carroll and that's all that matters."

For the first time in eight years, it might be reasonable to ask: Is it?

Will USC get off the carpet?

November, 2, 2009
11/02/09
1:40
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Now what for USC?

 
  Steve Dykes/Getty Images
  Pete Caroll’s Trojans need to rebound strongly if they still want to be in the BCS bowl race.
Well, Trojans fans first need to recognize -- and stomach with equanimity -- that other Pac-10 fans and, really, the entire nation want to sing-and-dance for a week. The appropriate image, one that might be some consolation, is the Munchkins singing "Ding Dong the witch is dead!" in the Wizard of Oz.

Yes, the little people are thrilled.

Every other team in the country has suffered many, many, many double-digit defeats since 2001. Seems like it's about time the Trojans suffered their second.

Of course, there will be blustering about the Trojans being overrated despite the fact they have accomplished more this season than just about any other team in the nation, posting three wins over teams ranked in the current BCS standings, all of them on the road.

Oregon is better than USC. No question. That doesn't mean the Trojans aren't a top-10 team.

And if USC wins the rest of its games and finishes 10-2 -- and Oregon takes care of business and wins the Pac-10 title -- the odds are good that the Trojans still will earn the conference a second BCS bowl berth.

So despair not USC fans!

Or maybe you should.

That defense that gave up (clear throat) 613 yards on Saturday is banged up. Linebacker Malcolm Smith suffered a shoulder injury and won't play this weekend at Arizona State and could be out for weeks. Middle linebacker Chris Galippo and backup strong side linebacker Jarvis Jones suffered neck sprains against the Ducks, which could be issues for a while even if they can play Saturday. Defensive lineman Armond Armstead fractured his wrist. Defensive end Everson Griffen is experiencing turf toe, another injury that could linger for weeks.

And more than a few folks are wondering if if All-American safety Taylor Mays' is hurting. Mays, who missed the Washington loss with a sprained knee, didn't look like himself against the Ducks.

Meanwhile, on offense, fullback Stanley Havili (shoulder) and tight end Anthony McCoy (ankle) should be considered questionable for the trip to Tempe. Both veterans were missed at Oregon.

The performance at Oregon made this manifest: It's possible that there actually are limits to USC's talent and depth. That losing eight A-list defensive starters and a quarterback who was the fifth-overall NFL draft pick can, in fact, be an issue, just as starting a true freshman quarterback has a downside no matter how poised, talented and intelligent that quarterback is.

And don't forget the coaching turnover the Trojans have gone through over the past season: two new coordinators, a new quarterbacks coach and offensive play-caller and a new defensive line coach. Sometimes new voices complicate a team's culture and dynamic.

The defensive implosion still feels shocking, though, particularly because five games into the season it looked like the Trojans had merely reloaded.

Entering the Notre Dame game on Oct. 17, the Trojans ranked sixth in the nation in total defense (238.6 yards per game), fourth in scoring defense (8.6 ppg), fifth in run defense (64.8 ypg) and hadn't allowed a touchdown pass.

Three games later, the Trojans rank 36th in the nation in total defense (331.88), 27th in scoring (19.13), 44th in run defense (118.75) and have given up six TD passes.

If those numbers hold steady, this will be Pete Carroll's worst defense since 2005 -- the worst in his nine-year tenure -- which is surprising considering how good that team was.

The breakdowns against Notre Dame and Oregon State mostly happened after the Trojans grabbed big leads, so a letdown was a possible explanation, though a repeated loss of focus doesn't speak well of the Trojans players and coaches.

But the way Oregon dominated the second half suggested the Trojans might not be in great physical shape. The Ducks players said they wore down USC and who could argue? After three consecutive poor fourth quarters, maybe the Trojans need to do some more cardio.

Some might point to a lack of heart. Oregon punched the Trojans in the mouth, and the Trojans didn't respond.

That, however, will be measured going forward, starting at Arizona State.

USC should be plenty motivated by its now-myriad doubters. Folks have taken shots at USC for years while not believing their own words. Everybody -- deep down -- knew what USC was: The team that always would be favored over everyone else on a neutral field.

Now there are actually legitimate grounds to question how good USC is. An unprecedented string of seven consecutive Pac-10 titles is in serious peril.

Therein lies another potential consolation prize for USC. Remember: You Trojans are tired of bludgeoning Big Ten teams in the Rose Bowl.

So what if USC gets off the floor, towels off its bloody face and whips the remaining teams on its schedule?

Then it will go to another BCS bowl and earn an opportunity to make a simple statement: We're still USC.

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