NCF Nation: Utah Utes

In a move that has been assumed for a long time, Utah officially named junior quarterback Travis Wilson as the team's starting quarterback. Wilson beat out Oklahoma-transfer Kendal Thompson for the job.

Wilson
Over the past two seasons, Wilson started 16 games for the Utes including nine last season before a concussion ended his season prematurely. During the diagnosis for the concussion, the team's medical staff discovered a pre-existing head trauma condition that, at the time, was considered career-threatening.

In February, Wilson announced he would return for the 2014 season, but was limited to non-contact activities during spring practice while doctors continued to monitor his condition. In June, he received full medical clearance and resumed all football-related activities.

Throughout fall camp, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has been adamant it was an open competition between Wilson and Thompson, although few actually believed Thompson would win the job. Thompson, who was immediately eligible after graduating from Oklahoma in the spring, made the decision to transfer while Wilson's status was still in limbo.

In two seasons with the Utes, Wilson has passed for 3,138 yards and 23 touchdowns. He led the team to a 4-2 start last season, including a win against then undefeated and No. 5-ranked Stanford.

Utah also announced there are three starting jobs on defense that are still up for grabs: defensive end (Jason Fanaika and Hunter Dimick), nose tackle (Sese Ianu, Clint Shepard and Lowell Lotulelei) and linebacker (Uaea Masina and Pita Taumoepenu).
The only thing the Pac-12 has to fear in the new era of the College Football Playoff is itself. Oh, and other conferences gaming the infant system.

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."

[+] EnlargeRich Rodriguez
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsThe Pac-12's $3 billion broadcasting deal with ESPN and Fox has been followed by an influx of big-name coaches like Arizona's Rich Rodriguez.
It wasn't just ESPN. Jeff Sagarin ranked the Pac-12 No. 2 in 2013. Phil Steel ranked the Pac-12 the No. 2 conference in 2012 and 2013, and also projected it as No. 2 in 2014. Athlon Sports did the same. In fact, if there is a conference rating system that ranked the Pac-12 anything different in 2013 and projects a lower rating this fall, we haven't seen it.

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.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
AP Photo/Eric GayOregon's Marcus Mariota is part of an impressive group of returning QBs in the Pac-12 this season.
"The thing that has been very apparent with the Pac-12 in 2011 when we entered, is the Pac-12 now is far superior from top to bottom," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "The progress this conference has made in the last few years is phenomenal."

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.

Top 10 Pac-12 seasons

August, 7, 2014
Aug 7
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ESPN.com has been looking at the greatest seasons in college football history this week -- overall and by team.

Today, we look at the 10 greatest seasons in Pac-12 history. And, yes, we made the overall success of a player's team part of our evaluation.

Feel free to disagree.

(Note: It was a management decision to exclude great Utah and Colorado seasons that occurred outside of the conference. So no Rashaan Salaam nor Alex Smith).

1. Marcus Allen, USC (1981): He was the first player in NCAA history to rush for more than 2,000 yards, piling up 2,342 yards in 12 games. Finished with 2,683 yards of total offense and 23 TDs. He won the Heisman Trophy, Maxwell Award and Walter Camp Player of the Year Award.

2. Matt Leinart, USC (2004): The Heisman Trophy winner as a junior, he became just the third QB in three decades to lead his team to back-to-back national titles. He completed 65 percent of his passes for 3,322 yards with 33 TDs and six interceptions.

3. Jim Plunkett, Stanford (1970): Stanford's only Heisman winner, he piled up 3,189 yards of total offense and was responsible for 22 touchdowns. He led the Cardinal to the Pac-8 title and an unset of No. 2 Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.

4. Charles White, USC (1979): White led the Trojans to a Rose Bowl victory and No. 2 final ranking on his way to the Heisman Trophy. He led the nation with an average of 194.1 yards per game, finishing with 2,050 yards and 19 TDs.

5. Terry Baker, Oregon State (1962): He won the Heisman Trophy and Maxwell Award, passing for 1,738 yards and 15 touchdowns, and producing 2,261 yards of total offense. His 24 total TDs led the nation. The Beavers won their final seven games, finished 9-2 and won the Liberty Bowl.

6. Reggie Bush, USC (2005): While his name is shrouded in controversy and his 2005 Heisman Trophy was officially taken away, you can't take away what he did on the field, which included nearly leading USC to a third consecutive national title. He led the nation with 222.3 all-purpose yards per game and ranked fourth in the nation with 133.85 yards rushing per game, which included a stunning 8.7 yards per carry.

7. Gary Beban, UCLA (1967): UCLA's only Heisman winner, he piled up 1,586 yards of total offense and 19 touchdowns. The only downside is he went 1-2-1, including losing to USC, in his final four games.

8. Ryan Leaf, Washington State (1997): Forget for a moment his NFL flop and post-football shenanigans, he was brilliant in 1997, leading the Cougars to their first Rose Bowl in 67 years. He passed for 3,968 yards and was responsible for a whopping 40 TDs. Finished third in Heisman voting.

9. Steve Emtman, Washington (1991): He was the centerpiece of one of the greatest Pac-10/12 teams of all time, a Huskies crew that dominated foes on its way to a 12-0 record and a split national title with Miami. He won the Lombardi Award and Outland Trophy and was the Pac-10 defensive POY. The consensus All-American finished fourth in the voting for the Heisman, leading a defense that yielded 9.58 points per game.

10. Terrell Suggs, Arizona State (2002): Suggs set an NCAA record with 24 sacks on his way to becoming a unanimous All-American, Bronko Nagurski Award winner, Lombardi Award winner and Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year. He also had 31 1/2 tackles for a loss and six forced fumbles. The downside is the Sun Devils went 8-6 and weren't terribly good on defense as a whole.

Media Days are here: Day 2

July, 24, 2014
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We're halfway through Pac-12 media days, which continue Thursday at the Studios at Paramount in Hollywood. Here's a look at who is on tap for Day 2:

Thursday's schedule: Leading off


The big "news" of the day was that Oregon was picked to win the Pac-12 conference in 2014. Predictions aren't always solid -- unless they come from the Pac-12 blog.

Still, it's noteworthy that 24 of 39 writers (including the #pac) all picked the Ducks to win -- especially since Stanford is the two-time defending champ. The Cardinal will be up Thursday, so no doubt coach David Shaw will be asked for a reaction.

More Levi's games?

During the Stanford nonconference primer, the Pac-12 blog lamented the fact the Cardinal and San Jose State put the Bill Walsh Legacy game on hold. Now it looks like talks have started again.

According to Jimmy Durkin of the San Jose Mercury News, initial conversations have started to reboot the game. Here's what San Jose State coach Ron Caragher had to say:

"There's some fringe talk about it," Caragher said. "Has anything been finalized? Not necessarily. But I think it'd be great."

The Pac-12 and Mountain West are already heavy scheduling partners. But for Bay Area fans, this game holds some special significance. Would be nice to see it up and running again.

Healthy and happy birthday

Cal safety Stefan McClure, oft injured in his career with the Bears, tells Sportswatch.com he's 100 percent healthy and ready to make his move from cornerback to safety. (He also plugs his birthday).

Cal obviously suffered through a bumpy 2013. A lot of that had to do with injuries on defense. So a healthy McClure is welcome news for the Bears.

Oregon storylines

Aaron Fentress of Comcast Sportsnet broke down his big three major storylines of media days. His thoughts:
  1. Oregon picked first
  2. Marcus Mariota in high demand
  3. Derrick Malone making improvements
Strike a pose

Just because the Cardinal weren't on the podium Wednesday, doesn't mean they (and the other five teams) didn't have media days responsibilities. You can see Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan doing his best Blue Steel here:

 
Landing spot for Bruggman

Former Washington State quarterback Tyler Bruggman is going to land at Louisville, according to InsidetheVille.com.

In case you missed it a week ago, Ted Miller broke down what that means for the Cougs.

Enjoy Day 2! We'll be tweeting again all day.

Media Days takeaways: Day 1

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

Biggest football-centric takeaway?

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

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

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

Biggest nonfootball takeaway

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

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

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

Best quote of the day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which player made a good impression on you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the complete list (34 total):
Five finalists will be announced on Nov. 20 with the winner set to be named on Dec. 9.

Media days are here: Day 1

July, 23, 2014
Jul 23
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Welcome to Day 1 of Pac-12 media days! The Pac-12 blog will be updating you throughout the day on all of the fun happenings, tidbits and tweet-worthy sound bites -- and probably a few that aren’t tweet-worthy, but we will tweet them anyway.

Here is the schedule of events for today (all times PT):
Thursday's schedule: Who are those guys?

Salem, Oregon, was in the news after Baylor coach Art Briles made a suggestion that people at Dairy Queens in Salem have now heard of quarterback Bryce Petty, whom Briles is peddling for the Heisman. Jake Trotter broke it down, along with an Instagram video from Petty, who boasted that Baylor has the most explosive offense in the country.

He’s right, by the way. The Bears scored 52.4 points per game last season, and Oregon was fourth nationally with 45.5.

Our own Chantel Jennings took a swing at calling Dairy Queens in Waco to see if they knew who Marcus Mariota was. She went oh-fer.

Perhaps it is the wrong venue. Besides Mariota, the Pac-12 has another Heisman hopeful quarterback in UCLA's Brett Hundley. And we most closely associate Southern California with In-N-Out. So the Pac-12 blog called the In-N-Out in Waco to see if anyone had heard of Hundley. Oh wait, there isn’t one. SoCal 1, Waco 0. (But one is coming soon to Killeen!)

No doubt Mariota and Hundley will be asked about the Heisman, and wacky media days questions are the norm. We are just wondering if Mariota or Hundley will send an Instagram or tweet back to Waco. Your move, fellas.

Stiff-arm predictions

Speaking of the Heisman, Athlon released its list of 10 Pac-12 players who should get consideration. Five on their list (Mariota, Hundley, Taylor Kelly, Sean Mannion and Connor Halliday) will be in attendance at media days.

Washington linebacker Shaq Thompson is the lone defensive player on the list, but the story also includes five defensive players who should be in the mix but won’t be. One of them is UCLA’s Myles Jack. Don't get us wrong. We love Jack. But as the Pac-12 blog has already noted, we know who the real leader of the UCLA defense is.

Rock the vote

One of the big storylines today will be the release of the preseason prediction. Pac-12 media members are invited to cast their vote on what they think will happen at the end of the season. You can see how the #4Pac voted. (Yeah, that is what we're calling ourselves now. Thoughts?)

A few more ballots from other media members:
A lot of folks are thinking we’re going to see Oregon-UCLA in the Pac-12 championship game. The Pac-12 blog agrees.

Graham confident

Anyone want to take a guess at the over/under for times Todd Graham is asked about his defense at media days? Probably the same number of times Rich Rodriguez will be asked about quarterbacks.

But just because the Sun Devils lose nine starters on that side of the ball doesn’t mean Graham isn’t confident, as he tells Doug Haller.

The Sun Devils ranked seventh in the conference last season in scoring defense, yielding 26.6 points per game.

National view

Finally, Tim Sullivan of the (Louisville) Courier-Journal offered some thoughts on the impact of paying college athletes, in light of Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby’s comments Monday. Looking forward to what Larry Scott has to say on the subject.
The Pac-12 didn't win a national championship in any of the marquee sports this year -- football, men's or women's basketball or baseball -- but it still won more national championships than any other conference.

The conference claimed 10 national titles, six for the men and four for the women, the most for any conference for either gender. It is the 13th time in the last 14 years the conference has led or tied all leagues in NCAA championships won. It also is the most men’s titles for the Pac-12 since winning seven in 1997-98. It marked the seventh time the conference has totaled double digits in NCAA titles, a feat no other conference has achieved.

The SEC came in second with six NCAA titles (including a shared crown in women’s gymnastics). The Big Ten tallied five national titles this season, the ACC claimed four and the Big 12 two (including a shared title in women’s gymnastics).

In addition to the 10 titles, Pac-12 teams recorded six runner-up finishes and at least one team placed in the top four in 22 championships. In eight championships, there were at least two teams among the final four, including in women’s water polo where all four were Pac-12 teams.

From the news release:
This year’s championships add to an impressive tradition for the Pac-12. With 469 total titles, Conference teams have, by far, claimed the most national championships in the country all-time, over 200 more than the next closest league (Big Ten - 266). Only three institutions across all divisions have won at least 100 NCAA titles all-time and all three are Pac-12 members. UCLA leads the way at 110, followed by Stanford with 104. With USC’s men’s tennis win, the Trojans became the third school to reach the century mark.

The moniker “Conference of Champions” has been earned by the number of titles, but also the depth of success. Pac-12 teams have won championships in 28 of the 36 Division I sports the NCAA sponsors and has reached double digit titles in 19 of those sports. Overall, the Pac-12 has claimed more NCAA titles in 49 of the last 54 years and finished second five times. It has also claimed at least six titles every year but one since 1981-82.

And here is the national title tally:
OREGON (3): Men’s Outdoor Track & Field; Women’s Indoor Track & Field; Men’s Indoor Track & Field

UCLA (2): Women’s Soccer; Women’s Tennis

USC (2): Men’s Water Polo; Men’s Tennis

CALIFORNIA (1): Men’s Swimming & Diving

COLORADO (1): Men’s Cross Country

STANFORD (1): Women’s Water Polo
There was a general feeling of cautious optimism when Utah quarterback Travis Wilson was cleared for non-contact participation this past spring. Pretty obvious reason for that. Just a few months before, the general feeling was his career was over because of a pre-existing medical condition that was discovered only after he suffered a concussion against Arizona State.

That pre-existing condition diagnosed in November was termed an injury to an intracranial artery. While the Pac-12 blog isn't a doctor, I think we can all agree that just sounds bad. When team physician David Petron felt he needed to tell Utes fans at the time, "We do not believe it is life-threatening," well, it was fairly obvious the issue was different than a torn something or other.

[+] EnlargeTravis Wilson
AP Photo/Rick BowmerTravis Wilson helped lead the Utes to an upset win against Stanford last season.
So it rates as more than just your run of the mill positive team news that Wilson has been fully cleared by doctors to rejoin the Utes. Whether you root for Utah or not, you have to feel good that a young man will get to resume playing a game he loves. Not too far in the background is the revelation that said intracranial artery has remained stable, which has to be reassuring for Wilson and his family, whatever happened with football.

Yet after we raise our glass to what is important in the grand scheme, we then can get reductive again: Football. What does this mean for the Utes?

For one, it means the Utah offense gets a two-year starter back, a guy who at his best looks like a legitimate Pac-12 quarterback. Recall that last season, after a dreadful game against UCLA, Wilson helped lead the Utes to an upset win against Stanford. At that point in mid-October, Utah was 4-2, those two losses coming in overtime to Oregon State and, despite six interceptions, by seven points to the Bruins, the eventual South Division champion. Though six interceptions put a dent in Wilson's overall numbers, it is notable that his efficiency rating at the time was just four points lower than Arizona State's Taylor Kelly, who ended up second-team All-Pac-12.

When healthy, Wilson has looked like a guy who can make the Utes a legitimate threat in the South Division.

Of course, our using the word "healthy" to describe a Utah quarterback has sent Utes fans scrambling to knock on wood, rub their rabbit's feet or burn incense in front of their Jobu shrine. The last time a Utah quarterback made it through a season without injury was in 2008.

So ... what happened in 2008? Anyone recall? Utah fans might want to remind dismissive Pac-12 fans about that.

Our feeling is that if Wilson is healthy for 12 regular-season games, Utah will return to the postseason this fall.

Wilson's return, however, is not without intrigue. Just a few paragraphs down in the news release from the school announcing Wilson's clean bill of health, it said, Wilson "will enter fall camp No. 1 on the depth chart, although he must beat out five other scholarship QBs to regain his starting job."

Hmm.

It is also curious that those five quarterbacks were listed in a news release about Wilson's medical clearance:
Battling Wilson for the starting job when fall camp opens on Aug. 4 will be Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson, redshirt freshman Conner Manning and junior Adam Schulz, along with redshirt freshman Brandon Cox and true freshman Donovan Isom.

Here is a guess that Thompson is the chief reason Utah is conspicuously writing Wilson's name in pencil as the No. 1 quarterback. Though Thompson is mostly an idea -- he did very little for the Sooners -- new offensive coordinator Dave Christensen clearly thinks Thompson has a shot to unseat Wilson. The institutional position -- via news release, no less -- is that this is an earnest competition, and Wilson's present lead is mostly about seniority. With pressure increasing on coach Kyle Whittingham to get Utah back to its winning ways, seniority only means you get the first piece of pizza on Day 1 of preseason camp. Little else.

If Thompson comes in and is decisively better than Wilson, then fine, that is how competitive sports work. You compete and sometimes you lose a competition and get relegated to second string. If Thompson beats out Wilson, then Utes fans should assume before the opener that he is pretty good. In that scenario, they also should feel pretty good about finally having a backup quarterback -- Wilson -- who inspires confidence.

But if the competition is close, things could be testy. There is the whole New Guy vs. Veteran deal, for one. More than a few players probably will feel loyal to Wilson. That could divide the locker room. And what if Thompson wins the job but struggles early in the season? How long before Christensen and Whittingham give him the hook, creating a quarterback controversy?

The same, by the way, could be written about Wilson starting slowly.

I know: We are negatively speculating on a day when the news is supposed to be good. Yes, we are Debbie Downers. But Utah's news release brought this up first, not the pure-as-the-driven-snow Pac-12 blog.

This, of course, is ultimately not a day for Utah hand-wringing. It is a day of good news for the quarterback position, and those have hardly been plentiful since the Utes joined the Pac-12.

The love of competition, after all, is probably why Wilson started playing football. Being medically cleared means he can resume that bit of grittiness that makes sports rewarding.

Pac-12 Media Days lineup

June, 18, 2014
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Media Days (yes, it's two days this year!) are a little more than a month away, and schools have announced who will be the face of their programs at the event, also known as Kevin and Ted’s super-fun happy place.

The festivities kick off on Wednesday, July 23 at the Paramount Theatre in Hollywood. Here’s the lineup for each school:
First thought, lots of quarterbacks. And that’s to be expected given the talent coming back in the league this year at that position. The Pac-12 blog has speculated that this might be the greatest assembly of signal-callers in league history.

I also think it’s interesting that Arizona State is the only program bringing two offensive players. With only two regular starters returning from last year’s defense, that figures to be a point of concern for the Sun Devils as they try to repeat as South Division champs. The league doesn't have any specific policies about what combination of players a school can bring.

We’ll have more posts and details as the event draws closer. Start getting your hopes up. Football is just around the corner.
This week, Michigan State and Arizona State announced a home-and-home series for the 2018 and 2019 seasons, which got the Pac-12 blog thinking about what other dream nonconference matchups we’d like to see in the next few years.

Obviously, Oregon-Alabama is one that has been talked about for years and one that we never saw during the BCS era. Perhaps those teams will have the opportunity to see each other sometime soon, but until then, if schedules weren’t an issue and the Pac-12 blog were off scheduling everyone’s games, there would be a few interesting home-and-home matchups in the near future.

Jennings picks Washington-Oklahoma

As much as we want to see some Pac-12-SEC matchups, I’m going to throw a Pac-12-Big 12 matchup into the mix.

First of all, there’s some history there between Washington coach Chris Petersen and Oklahoma. Sooners fans surely haven’t forgotten the 2007 Fiesta Bowl when Petersen’s Boise State upset Oklahoma, 43-42. I think every Oklahoma fan would love to see their team get a crack at taking down Petersen again, even if it’s at another school. And for Washington, it’s an opportunity for a program that has become nationally relevant to take the field against a perennially storied program.

These two teams met in 2008 and the Sooners absolutely stomped the Huskies. It was Bob Stoops’ 100th win and it happened in Seattle, so Huskies fans probably remember vividly what it felt like to be shut out in the first half before stumbling to a 55-14 loss. It was the Huskies’ biggest loss at home since 1929, so I’m positive fans from both Norman, Okla., and Seattle would pack in to see this rematch.

On top of that, the storylines leading into this home-and-home would be really intriguing. It’d be one of those David-Goliath matchups that I think would actually be pretty evenly matched once the two teams hit the field. Yes, Oklahoma has seven national titles. Washington only has two. Oklahoma has five Heisman winners. Washington has never had a Heisman winner. Oklahoma has 44 conference titles. Washington has 15. But, with Petersen building Washington into a program that I think will be able to compete at a very high level in the next few seasons and Stoops keeping his program where it is, this is a matchup I would absolutely love to see.

Bonagura presents the Pac-12 vs. Big Ten challenge

No doubt a Washington-Oklahoma game would be full of intrigue. I like that pick, count me in.

When I was messing around with several options, I decided to go a different route. Instead of one game, here’s my proposal for a Pac-12 vs. Big Ten challenge. For the sake of making this more fun (and relevant), this hypothetical challenge would take place this year.

They're not all perfect -- some far from it -- but there are several intriguing matchups worth talking about in May. Plus, there were about 15 other combinations that were tough not to include.

Listed in alphabetical order by Pac-12 school:

Arizona vs. Michigan: Who isn’t watching Rich Rodriguez vs. Michigan? Anyone? Also, this game must be at the Big House.

Arizona State vs. Minnesota: Two programs that have had a steady rise over the past few years.

Cal vs. Purdue: Neither beat an FBS opponent last year. Problem solved.

Colorado vs. Nebraska: For tradition’s sake. Conference realignment ended this rivalry that dated back to 1898.

Oregon vs. Ohio State: Braxton Miller and Marcus Mariota on the same field? Yes, please.

Oregon State vs. Northwestern: Over the last two years, Oregon State is 15-10 and Northwestern is 16-10.

Stanford vs. Iowa: A throwback game in terms of style, Stanford (No. 11) and Iowa (No. 18) were both featured in Mark Schlabach’s Post-Spring Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25.

UCLA vs. Michigan State: Both schools have national title aspirations in 2014.

USC vs. Wisconsin: A pair of programs that know what it's like to spend New Year's Day in Pasadena.

Utah vs. Indiana: Both fell a win shy of bowl eligibility last year.

Washington vs. Penn State: Like Chantel's UW vs. Oklahoma game, there's a lot of tradition here. Although, it's almost a waste because if these teams are playing each other, one of the nation's best venues would be empty for The Challenge.

Washington State vs. Illinois: Want scoring? Mike Leach's Texas Tech teams scored 49 and 56 points against Tim Beckman-coordinated Oklahoma State defenses in 2007 and 2008.

PHOENIX -- The overriding message coming out of Pac-12 meetings is that major changes in college football governance are now inevitable, even if the details and long-term consequences of those changes remain unclear.

The Big Five conferences will meet in August and almost certainly obtain a new autonomy level within the NCAA structure. At that point, major rules changes, including those that significantly bolster the support and benefits provided to athletes, will start to be formulated. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott intimated that things could move fairly quickly thereafter, so his message to conference coaches and athletic directors was basically to buckle up.

"Quickly is a relative concept, but deadlines are good," Scott said. "I think if we get the autonomy that we've asked for, the commissioners will be setting out a very aggressive timetable to put proposals out ... I expect we'll have a very intensive process over the next four months -- September through December -- where practitioners from our campuses are working on different agendas, including those with a deadline of January, specific proposals that can be voted upon by the 65 schools [in the Big Five]."

So "quickly" might mean?

"The goal is to implement whatever changes we're going to implement for the 2015-16 year," Scott said.

Chief among those would be cost of attendance scholarships, which could vary significantly by team and conference. Scott, however, noted that doesn't create a massive change of direction and complication because the pure value of tuition scholarships also vary by team and conference.

What does need to be implemented to prevent any fudging is a clear formula that all 65 schools apply to calculate the new value of their cost of attendance scholarships.

"I don't think it will that big of a deal, but there will be issues to work through in terms of a common method of determining the full cost," Scott said.

There is a significant degree of consensus within the Big Five conferences for adopting the cost of attendance scholarships, and it appears there is unanimity within the Pac-12.

"These are a lot of things that are going to be costly for us but I think are necessary and in line with what I believe we should be doing for our student-athletes," said Washington State athletic director Bill Moos, echoing other conference ADs.

While Scott was unwilling to admit that the Northwestern football union challenge and Ed O'Bannon lawsuit against the NCAA were driving the oncoming changes, he did concede the legal challenges to the NCAA governance structure and the publicity surrounding them weren't too far from administrators' minds.

"Is it some of these external challenges driving it? I would say no. There's been a recognition for some time [about these issues]," Scott said. "But I'd say external pressures bring a helpful focus and helpful push to get these things done."

[+] EnlargeLevi's Stadium
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezLevi's Stadium, the new home of the San Francisco 49ers, could be the new home of the Pac-12 championship game as well.
As for the other major item on the Pac-12 agenda, it was more based on the West Coast: The location of the 2014 Pac-12 championship game. There were earnest discussions over the two days about changing it from a game hosted by the conference's top team to a neutral site, specifically the San Francisco 49ers' new home, Levi's Stadium, in Santa Clara, California.

While the potential move was an intriguing idea, it also isn't a done deal.

"I think there was a lot of positive feeling about it," Scott said. "Some objected. There are some pros and cons."

Said Moos: "Personally, I think [Levi's Stadium] is the way to go."

Said USC athletic director Pat Haden: "I think the current model has actually worked pretty well, the home host. I know the CEOs are debating that and discussing that. I don't think any decision has been made. Quite honestly, at USC, we don't mind the home-host model because we think we've got a chance of hosting."

Shrugged Washington's Scott Woodward: "I'm ambivalent. I trust the league and what they want to do. I have no problem one way or the other."

If the title game is going to be played in the new 49ers stadium on Dec. 5, a decision almost certainly would be announced in June, when the Pac-12 presidents meet.

"If we are going to make the move, it wouldn't be later than that," Scott said.

So it appears that the summer, once a quiet time for college football news, will be anything but that this year.

Pac-12 leads leagues in QB starts

April, 23, 2014
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Keeping with our theme of Pac-12 quarterbacks -- and numbers donated to the Pac-12 blog by the Arizona State sports information department -- Jeremy Hawkes and Jordan Parry compiled a list of returning starts behind center by conference. Not surprisingly the Pac-12, with 10 returning starting QBs, is tied with the Big Ten for the most returning starters, and the Pac-12 leads the nation in total starts.

[+] EnlargeSean Mannion
Russ Isabella/USA TODAY SportsOregon State quarterback Sean Mannion is one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the country.
Hawkes wrote: "The logic we used was based around the quarterback who would be considered the 'primary' quarterback by season's end last season. Quarterbacks who were injured early in the season when they were considered the primary quarterback and return this year are also counted on the list (like David Ash at Texas)."

The Pac-12 not only welcomes back 10 starting QBs, it welcomes back 198 total starts, topped by 31 from Oregon State's Sean Mannion. Seven of the returning Pac-12 QBs have more than one season's worth of starting experience, too.

The Big Ten features 10 returning QBs and a cumulative 139 starts. The 14-team SEC only welcomes back five starting QBs with a combined 68 starts. Ohio State's Braxton Miller has the most career starts among returning quarterbacks with 32.

Further, notes Hawkes, "Also notable is that aside from Rutgers' Gary Nova (28 starts), Mannion (31), Taylor Kelly (27), Brett Hundley (27) and Marcus Mariota (26) are the four most seasoned QBs among all BCS teams (along with Bo Wallace at 26 starts at Ole Miss)."

Here's the list.

Pac-12 (10)
Sean Mannion, Oregon State: 31
Taylor Kelly, Arizona State: 27
Brett Hundley, UCLA: 27
Marcus Mariota, Oregon: 26
Kevin Hogan, Stanford: 19
Connor Halliday, Washington State: 19
Travis Wilson, Utah: 16
Cody Kessler, USC: 14
Jared Goff, Cal: 12
Sefo Liufau, Colorado: 7
Total: 198 starts

Big Ten (10)
Braxton Miller, Ohio State: 32
Gary Nova, Rutgers: 28
Devin Gardner, Michigan: 21
Joel Stave, Wisconsin: 19
Connor Cook, Michigan State: 13
Jake Rudock, Iowa: 13
Christian Hackenberg, Penn State: 12
Nate Sudfeld, Indiana: 8
Danny Etling, Purdue: 8
Mitch Leidner, Minnesota: 4
Total: 139 starts

Big 12 (8)
David Ash, Texas: 21
Bryce Petty, Baylor: 13
Jake Waters, Kansas State: 13
Jake Heaps, Kansas: 9
Sam Richardson, Iowa State: 8
Clint Trickett, West Virginia: 7
Davis Webb, Texas Tech: 6
Trevor Knight, Oklahoma: 5
Total: 82 starts

American Athletic (5)
Paxton Lynch, Memphis: 12
John O'Korn, Houston: 11
P.J. Walker, Temple: 7
Mike White, South Florida: 5
Casey Cochran, Connecticut: 4
Total: 39 starts

ACC (5)
Anthony Boone, Duke: 15
Jameis Winston, Florida State: 14
David Watford, Virginia: 12
Terrel Hunt, Syracuse: 10
Total: 54 starts

SEC (5)
Bo Wallace, Ole Miss: 26
Nick Marshall, Auburn: 14
Brandon Allen, Arkansas: 12
Justin Worley, Tennessee: 10
Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: 6
Total: 68 starts
Looking back at some teams the current group of Pac-12 coaches have led during their respective head-coaching careers turns up an impressive list. All 12 have coached a team to a bowl appearance, 10 have finished a season with double-digit wins and eight have had teams appear in the AP top 10.

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

Here are some notable takeaways:

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

No. 12 Sonny Dykes, Louisiana Tech, 2012

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

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

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

No. 10 Mike MacIntyre, San Jose State, 2012

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

No. 9 Todd Graham, Arizona State, 2013

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

No. 8 Mike Riley, Oregon State, 2008

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

No. 7 Jim Mora, UCLA, 2013

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

No. 6 Mike Leach, Texas Tech, 2008

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

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

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

No. 4 David Shaw, Stanford, 2011

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

No. 3 Rich Rodriguez, West Virginia, 2005

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

No. 2 Chris Petersen, Boise State, 2009

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

No. 1 Kyle Whittingham, Utah, 2008

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

Want to swap out one team for another or switch the order? Email me at Kyle.Bonagura@espn.com.

Top five Pac-12 student sections

February, 17, 2014
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We're ranking the top five Pac-12 student sections. Before doing so, a couple of caveats.

I have never sat in a Pac-12 student section. Further, the quality of a student section varies, often due to a recent pattern of winning or losing set by its team.

And some of our first-hand knowledge is dated. For example, the last time I covered a game at Colorado, it was Gary Barnett vs. Rick Neuheisel.

If it were 2003, Washington State would have made this list. Same could be said for USC if it were 2008. Or California in 2006. If I were going to note a most underrated student section -- including perhaps here -- it would be Oregon State. Our most improved student section would be UCLA.

But really, our methodology here is unquestionably sound and scientific.

1. Arizona: The ZonaZoo is 10,000 strong and committed. I actually give it an uptick for prematurely rushing the field during a 2009 game against Oregon -- I was trapped in the unfortunate onslaught, in fact -- one that the Wildcats eventually lost. Further, a number of players, including former USC quarterback Mark Sanchez, have said Arizona is the toughest place to play in the Pac-12 other than Oregon's Autzen Stadium.

[+] EnlargeAutzen Stadium
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesIf you're looking for the noisiest homefield in the Pac-12, Autzen Stadium is tough to top.
2. Utah: The MUSS -- "Mighty Utah Student Section" -- numbers just 6,000, but it's well-coordinated and really, really cares. It shows up and bellows even when things aren't going well. Just ask BYU fans how great the MUSS is.

3. Oregon: Many folks outside the Pac-12 probably immediately thought the Ducks would rule here, and Autzen is the toughest venue in terms of crowd noise in the Pac-12 at present without question. But Oregon students know exactly the problem here: The student section is capped at less than 5,500 for home games. Why? Students don't pay as much for tickets, and Oregon tickets have become hot commodities as the program has surged in the national rankings. Yet while smaller in numbers, the Ducks do get after you.

4. Washington: Husky Stadium used to be the toughest place to play in the Pac-12, and if the program continues its upward trajectory under Chris Petersen, I suspect it will again challenge for that designation. I know things were old-school loud at the two games I attended in 2013: Boise State and Oregon.

5. Arizona State: The Sun Devils' student section numbers about 9,000, and it easily could be bigger. The recent uptick of the program under Todd Graham also has fueled this often colorful group. You might have heard that ASU is a pretty big party school. The student section at Sun Devil Stadium does nothing to dispel that notion.

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