NCF Nation: Virginia Cavaliers

The 2014 preseason top 10 is laden with the usual suspects: Florida State, Alabama, Oregon, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Auburn, Michigan State, South Carolina and Baylor. While a couple of those teams aren't certifiable perennial powers, they all finished the 2013 season ranked among the top 13.

There is, however, a lone outlier: UCLA. It's ranked seventh in both the AP and coaches' polls, up nine spots from its final No. 16 ranking in 2013.

Lone outlier? That was UCLA's first end-of-season ranking since 2005, when it finished 16th in the AP poll and 13th with the coaches.

Lone outlier? The Bruins haven't been ranked in the preseason top 10 since 1998.

No team in the country is generating more buzz as a nouveau contender than UCLA. ESPN "College GameDay" pundits Lee Corso and Desmond Howard both predicted the Bruins would win the national championship in the first year of the College Football Playoff. Nine of 23 ESPN college football pundits picked the Bruins to at least make the playoff semifinals. Twelve picked them to win the Pac-12.

[+] EnlargeJim Mora
Icon SMI"I think we are a mature team, a focused team," coach Jim Mora said. "When you are a mature team and a focused team that practices hard, you get confidence from that."
Of course, college football history is full of teams that went rear end over tea kettle after being handed high preseason rankings. Florida was ranked 10th last year in the preseason and finished 4-8. USC was No. 1 in 2012 and finished 7-6. Sports Illustrated ranked Oregon State its 2001 preseason No. 1 but the Beavers tumbled to 5-6. Arizona started at No. 4 in 1999 but floundered to 6-6.

Bottom line: If you take a high preseason ranking and $1 to the bank for change, you'll still only get four quarters for your trouble.

Make no mistake, though, there's a good reason for these lofty estimations. A perusal of the Bruins' depth chart -- even if third-year coach Jim Mora insists he doesn't have one -- reveals a team with a lot of talent and few questions. It's not just Brett Hundley behind center. It's size, athleticism and experience just about everywhere. The Bruins are loaded with skill players and are physical at the line of scrimmage.

In fact, the most obvious preseason issue for UCLA isn't about personnel. It's about handling all the hype. While a high preseason ranking means Mora and his players have been doing something right, all the headlines, backslaps and gushing media accounts could become distractions. Players could become complacent, believing a high ranking means entitlement. As the klieg lights roll into Westwood, and the velvet ropes part at the hottest L.A. clubs, there's always a chance the team could lose its way.

No one is more aware of this than Mora. There's a sign posted in the locker room that Bruins players have alluded to throughout the offseason: "Don't listen to the noise." In other words, forget buzz. Remember the work."

"We focus on the day we are living in. We try to be great today and then we come back and try to be better tomorrow," Mora said. "If you don't concentrate and focus on the daily grind and being the best you can be that very day then you are going to lose track of who you are and where you are going."

While Mora is aware of the dangers of distraction, it's also pretty clear he's not obsessed with it like many coaches. While many elite programs shut down media access, UCLA is fairly open with reporters and has even allowed the Pac-12 Network to film a behind-the-scenes account of the Bruins' season, a weekly show called "The Drive," which focused on Arizona State and California last year.

Obviously, that accounted for decidedly mixed results on the field. The Sun Devils won the South Division, beating out UCLA, and Cal's season was a tale of woe.

"It won't be a distraction, not one single bit," Mora said.

Why does he believe that? Because of the culture that he believes has been established in his locker room. It's the foundation of his team's confidence, which comes from within, not without.

"It's probably maturity," he said. "I think we are a mature team, a focused team. When you are a mature team and a focused team that practices hard, you get confidence from that. I don't think you gain confidence from other people telling you you're good. Or other people putting expectations on you, labeling you as something. That confidence is internal. It comes from working hard every day."

Mora is a pretty bottom-line sort of guy. He knows that the hype -- and "The Drive" -- won't win the Bruins any games this year. Nor, for that matter, will it lose any. Whatever is going on around UCLA or the words used to describe the team, it's still all about talent, focus, preparation and executing on game day.

As in: The usual suspects.

Who cares if Pac-12 opens quietly?

August, 25, 2014
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A week from now, there's certain to be at least some fretful handwringing, but for at least three more days, every Pac-12 team remains undefeated, flushed with hope and imaging an entitled grabbing all of its 2014 goals.

While the FBS season officially kicks off on Wednesday with Abilene Christian at Georgia State, things truly get rolling on Thursday. The A-list national game is Texas A&M's visit to South Carolina -- the Post Johnny Football Era begins with a whipping from Coach Spurrier -- and the Pac-12 features three matchups, though only one of notable quality with Rutgers playing Washington State in Seattle at CenturyLink Field.

In less scintillating action -- but action, nonetheless -- Idaho State visits Utah and Arizona State plays host to Weber State.

[+] EnlargeBrett Hundley
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillHeisman Trophy candidate Brett Hundley and UCLA travel to Virginia -- 2-10 last season -- on college football's opening weekend, and other Pac-12 matchups aren't nearly as interesting.
And so it begins, the 2014 season, our first with a new four-team College Football Playoff, a highly-promising campaign for the Pac-12, at least based on preseason expectations. The conference features six teams ranked in the preseason polls, including three teams in the top 11, which makes Oregon, UCLA and Stanford playoff contenders. Ducks QB Marcus Mariota and Bruins QB Brett Hundley are both top Heisman Trophy contenders.

In three consecutive evenings of college football -- yes, there are even two games on Friday night -- every Pac-12 team plays. No lame first-week byes here. The marquee matchup? Well, hmm... if it's not the aforementioned showcase of Mike Leach's Cougs and Rutgers, a newly minted Big Ten team, then perhaps its No. 7 UCLA's visit to Virginia or California's redemption tour beginning at Northwestern.

Don't form too many overriding judgments about those two seeming mismatches. Virginia, though coming off a 2-10 season, is not devoid of talent and experience, see 17 returning starters. The Bruins will be making a long trip and are laden with considerable preseason hype, both as a team and with Sports Illustrated cover boy Hundley. It's possible they might press a bit, at least early, before settling down.

As for the Bears, don't write them off. Though Cal lost to the Wildcats 44-30 last year in Berkeley, the game was tied in fourth quarter, with Northwestern benefiting from two pick-sixes off deflected passes. Further, it's been a fairly tumultuous offseason for Northwestern.

Suffice it to say the Pac-12 is not afraid of the road. With Washington visiting Hawaii, that makes five conference teams opening away from their home stadium, as Colorado plays Colorado State on Friday in Denver.

The Huskies visit to Hawaii is interesting because it will be the debut of coach Chris Petersen, who has jumped from the mid-majors at Boise State and the Mountain West to arguably the nation's toughest conference. Another level of intrigue in that game is QB Jeff Lindquist. He was named the Huskies starter last week, but it remains to be seen if that is only because Cyler Miles is yoked with a one-game suspension. Is Miles actually the guy? And what if Lindquist is lights-out against the Warriors? The broader issue for the Huskies is who starts at home on Sept. 6 against Eastern Washington.

Wait. Did someone mention Sept. 6? Ah, yes, well that is the day when the Pac-12 slate really heats up. It features: 1. The Pac-12's nonconference game of the year (Michigan State at Oregon); 2. A big-time conference matchup between USC and homestanding Stanford.

Yet, we can't get ahead of ourselves, so we apologize for whetting your appetite with those two gourmet football entrées. As you well know, we play one game at a time in the Pac-12 blog. Each game is a Super Bowl unto itself.

Heck, first new USC coach Steve Sarkisian needs to make his own debut after moving south from Seattle, a homecoming of sorts for a guy who ran Pete Caroll's offense during the Trojans recent dynastic run. USC plays host Saturday to Fresno State, the very team the Trojans whipped in the Las Vegas Bowl, only now without QB Derek Carr and WR Davante Adams.

Finally, Arizona will be featuring a new starting QB against UNLV on Friday night. Rich Rodriguez, as of this typing, hasn't named who that will be, and it's possible that the opener against the Rebels will showcase more than one guy and a permanent arrangement might be a few weeks coming. We shall see.

It's not the best slate of opening week games from a Pac-12 perspective. It only will be slightly revealing. At least, that's the hope, as more than one defeat could feel deflating. Cal is the only underdog.

But it's college football. It's what we've been waiting for since Florida State slipped Auburn on Jan. 6.

And I've got a feeling it's going to be a special season for your team.

Position U: Tight ends

June, 17, 2014
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Who really deserves to claim the title of “Tight End U” for the 2000s?

1. Miami (84 points): While it has been relatively quiet since its positional heyday early in the 2000s, Miami still easily tops this list. With seven tight ends drafted, including first-round picks Jeremy Shockey, Kellen Winslow and Greg Olsen, the Hurricanes far surpassed the next closest programs at the position. They don’t get extra points for this, but they also produced arguably the top tight end in the NFL today in 2010 third-round pick Jimmy Graham, who's now starring for the New Orleans Saints.

Award winners: Kellen Winslow, Mackey (2003).
Consensus All-Americans: Kellen Winslow (2003).
First-team all-conference: Jeremy Shockey (2000, 2001), Kellen Winslow (2002, 2003), Greg Olsen (2006).
NFL first-round draft picks: Jeremy Shockey (2002), Kellen Winslow (2004), Greg Olsen (2007).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Kevin Everett (Round 3, 2005), Jimmy Graham (Round 3, 2010).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Dedrick Epps (Round 7, 2010), Richard Gordon (Round 6, 2011).

2. Iowa (66 points): Dallas Clark leads the way thanks to a 2002 season after which he won the John Mackey Award and was a consensus All-American. But Iowa had a consistent run of tight ends in the 2000s, with first-round pick Clark and five others getting drafted -- most recently third-round pick C.J. Fiedorowicz, who was the fifth tight end selected this year.

Award winners: Dallas Clark, Mackey (2002).
Consensus All-Americans: Dallas Clark (2002).
First-team all-conference: Dallas Clark (2002), Brandon Myers (2008), Tony Moeaki (2009), C.J. Fiedorowicz (2013).
NFL first-round draft picks: Dallas Clark (2003).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Scott Chandler (Round 4, 2007), Tony Moeaki (Round 3, 2010), C.J. Fiedorowicz (Round 3, 2014).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Erik Jensen (Round 7, 2004), Brandon Myers (Round 6, 2009).

3. Missouri (64 points): Missouri hasn’t had as much success placing tight ends in the pros as some of the other top programs on this list, but the Tigers have an award winner (Chase Coffman won the 2008 Mackey Award) and three consensus All-American tight ends (Coffman, Martin Rucker and Michael Egnew) since 2000. Not too shabby.

Award winners: Chase Coffman, Mackey (2008).
Consensus All-Americans: Martin Rucker (2007), Chase Coffman (2008), Michael Egnew (2010).
First-team all-conference: Martin Rucker (2006), Michael Egnew (2010, 2011).
NFL first-round draft picks: None.
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Martin Rucker (Round 4, 2008), Chase Coffman (Round 3, 2009), Michael Egnew (Round 3, 2012).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: None.


4. Wisconsin (64 points): One All-American (Lance Kendricks in 2010, when he led the team in catches, receiving yards and touchdown catches), six first-team All-Big Ten picks (Kendricks, Garrett Graham twice, Mark Anelli, Travis Beckum and Jacob Pedersen) and six drafted players helped Wisconsin nearly earn the runner-up spot in the tight end rankings.

Award winners: None.
Consensus All-Americans: Lance Kendricks (2010).
First-team all-conference: Mark Anelli (2001), Travis Beckum (2007), Garrett Graham (2008, 2009), Lance Kendricks (2010), Jacob Pedersen (2012).
NFL first-round draft picks: None.
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Owen Daniels (Round 4, 2006), Travis Beckum (Round 3, 2009), Garrett Graham (Round 4, 2010), Lance Kendricks (Round 2, 2011).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Mark Anelli (Round 6, 2002), Jason Pociask (Round 5, 2006).

5. Georgia (62 points): It doesn’t have the national awards to show for it, but Georgia seems to boast an outstanding tight end nearly every season. The best example of that is how the Bulldogs keep placing tight ends in the pros – starting with Randy McMichael, Ben Watson and Leonard Pope and leading all the way up to Arthur Lynch, who just went to the Miami Dolphins in the most recent draft. The Bulldogs have built an impressive legacy at the position that looks to continue.

Award winners: None.
Consensus All-Americans: None.
First-team all-conference: Randy McMichael (2001), Leonard Pope (2004, 2005), Martrez Milner (2006), Orson Charles (2011), Arthur Lynch (2013).
NFL first-round draft picks: Ben Watson (2004).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Randy McMichael (Round 4, 2002), Leonard Pope (Round 3, 2006), Martrez Milner (Round 4, 2007), Orson Charles (Round 4, 2012).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Arthur Lynch (Round 5, 2014).

6. BYU (56 points): Independents Notre Dame and BYU are hurt in these position rankings by not being members of a conference -- thus they couldn’t earn points for all-conference selections, although BYU did as a member of the Mountain West up through 2010. In fact, the Cougars earned 36 of their 56 points by having six tight ends named to the All-MWC team between 2001 and 2009. Notre Dame certainly belongs higher on the list, considering that it has had nine tight ends drafted, including first-round pick and 2012 Mackey Award winner Tyler Eifert.

Award winners: None.
Consensus All-Americans: Dennis Pitta (2009).
First-team all-conference: Doug Jolley (2001), Jonny Harline (2005, 2006), Dennis Pitta (2007, 2008, 2009).
NFL first-round draft picks: None.
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Doug Jolley (Round 2, 2002), Dennis Pitta (Round 4, 2010).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Tevita Ofahengaue (Round 7, 2001), Spencer Nead (Round 7, 2003).

7. Virginia (54 points): Heath Miller is a one-man wrecking crew here, single-handedly accounting for 38 of Virginia’s 54 points thanks to a Mackey Award-winning season in 2004 when he was a consensus All-American and went on to become a first-round draft pick. Miller also won All-ACC honors in 2003.

Award winners: Heath Miller, Mackey (2004).
Consensus All-Americans: Heath Miller (2004).
First-team all-conference: Heath Miller (2003, 2004), John Phillips (2008).
NFL first-round draft picks: Heath Miller (2005).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Chris Luzar (Round 4, 2002).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Billy Baber (Round 5, 2001), Tom Santi (Round 6, 2008), John Phillips (Round 6, 2009).

8. Stanford (48 points): Stanford is arguably the top program for tight ends right now, but that’s a fairly recent development. Of the six Cardinal tight ends drafted since 2001, four have been since 2010, led by second-round picks Coby Fleener and 2012 All-American Zach Ertz. Stanford posted a rare double in 2013 when Ertz and Levine Toilolo were both picked in the draft’s first four rounds.

Award winners: None.
Consensus All-Americans: Zach Ertz (2012).
First-team all-conference: Alex Smith (2004), Coby Fleener (2011), Zach Ertz (2012).
NFL first-round draft picks: None.
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Teyo Johnson (Round 2, 2003), Alex Smith (Round 3, 2005), Coby Fleener (Round 2, 2012), Zach Ertz (Round 2, 2013), Levine Toilolo (Round 4, 2013).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Jim Dray (Round 7, 2010),

9. Colorado (46 points): Colorado hasn’t had much to brag about on the football field over the last several years, but the Buffaloes are still hanging on in the tight end rankings. Daniel Graham’s outstanding 2001 season (including a Mackey Award and a consensus All-America designation prior to becoming a first-round draft pick) is a big reason why Colorado makes the top 10.

Award winners: Daniel Graham, Mackey (2001).
Consensus All-Americans: Daniel Graham (2001).
First-team all-conference: Daniel Graham (2001), Joe Klopfenstein (2005).
NFL first-round draft picks: Daniel Graham (2002).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Joe Klopfenstein (Round 2, 2006).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Quinn Sypniewski (Round 5, 2006), Nick Kasa, Round 6, 2013).

10. UCLA (46 points): As with its fellow No. 9 on the list, Colorado, UCLA can thank a single player for its spot in the top 10. Marcedes Lewis accumulated 32 of the Bruins’ 46 points with a 2005 season when he won the Mackey Award, was a consensus All-American and first-team All-Pac-10 pick and then went on to become a 2006 first-round draft selection.

Award winners: Marcedes Lewis, Mackey (2005).
Consensus All-Americans: Marcedes Lewis (2005).
First-team all-conference: Mike Seidman (2002), Marcedes Lewis (2005).
NFL first-round draft picks: Marcedes Lewis (2006).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Mike Seidman (Round 3, 2003).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Jeff Grau (Round 7, 2002), Bryan Fletcher (Round 6, 2002).

REST OF “TIGHT END U” RANKINGS
44 – Notre Dame; 40 – Clemson; 38 – Arizona State, Florida, Louisville; 34 – Oregon, USC; 32 – Minnesota, North Carolina, Purdue, Rutgers; 28 – Tennessee; 26 – Oklahoma; 24 – N.C. State; 22 – Kentucky, Washington; 20 – Arkansas, Maryland; 18 – Penn State, Pittsburgh, Texas Tech; 16 – Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Texas; 14 – Arizona, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State; 12 – South Carolina; 10 – California, LSU, Michigan State, Oregon State; 8 – Boston College, Northwestern; 6 – TCU, Utah, Duke, Syracuse; 4 – Alabama, Kansas, Texas A&M, Virginia Tech; 2 – Illinois, Indiana, Iowa State, Mississippi State; 0 – Auburn, Baylor, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, Washington State, West Virginia

ACC Power Rankings: Week 2

September, 9, 2013
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It's time for a fresh set of power rankings with another week in the books. The top four teams remain the same from last week, but there was some shuffling the rest of the way down.

1. Clemson (2-0, 0-0 ACC; last week: 1): The Tigers did what we all expected in a 52-13 win over South Carolina State. They also ended up moving up one spot in the AP poll to No. 3. Their big win over Georgia in Week 1 remains the crown jewel in the ACC crown after two weeks.

2. Florida State (1-0, 1-0 ACC; last week: 2): The Seminoles were off this past week after beating Pittsburgh in the opener. Let's see what Game 2 has in store for Jameis Winston this weekend against Nevada.

3. Miami (2-0, 0-0 ACC; last week: 3): The Hurricanes had the most impressive win in Week 2, over No. 12 Florida, which vaults them to No. 15 in the latest AP poll. But that win does nothing to change their standing in the ACC. There remains a clear gap between Clemson, Florida State and the rest of the league. Miami looks like it is starting to close the gap, but the Canes still have a long way to go -- especially after their offense struggled for most of the day against the Gators.

4. Georgia Tech (1-0 0-0 ACC; last week: 4): The Jackets were also off in Week 2, so all we have to judge them on is a blowout win over FCS Elon. The next five weeks will tell us what we need to know about this team, as the Jackets prepare to play at Duke, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, at Miami and at BYU. That is one of the most brutal stretches any ACC team has to play this season.

5. North Carolina (1-1, 0-0 ACC; last week: 7): The truth is, you could flip flop the Tar Heels and Virginia Tech at this point. Despite their victories over the weekend, both have problems that must be addressed. For starters, North Carolina has to get the coin toss figured out. The defense was once again up and down. They need a more consistent, better effort out of that group.

6. Virginia Tech (1-1, 0-0 ACC; last week: 5): North Carolina gets the nod ahead of Virginia Tech for this week based on the quality of opponent it just played. The Tar Heels beat an FBS team, Virginia Tech an FCS team. I think we can all agree the Hokies have a formidable defense -- better than North Carolina's -- but the offense still has a ways to go to be respectable. Logan Thomas now has one touchdown pass and three interceptions on the season.

7. Virginia (1-1, 0-0 ACC; last week: 6): No. 2 Oregon boatraced the Hoos on Saturday, but the truth is, nobody really expected them to win the game. They stay in the top half of the rankings this week based on their win over BYU in the opener. That win looks a lot better today after BYU clobbered No. 15 Texas. Virginia enters a five-game stretch now with winnable games. If the Hoos can take advantage, they will be looking good for a bowl spot.

8. Maryland (2-0, 0-0 ACC; last week: 8): The Terps have beaten their first two opponents by a combined 90-20 and have not faced much of a test. The opponents' strength has been really weak, hence their spot here. Still, this is a team that has showed off its talent on offense in the first two weeks. C.J. Brown, in his return from a knee injury, ranks No. 3 in the nation in total QBR to lead all ACC quarterbacks. Chew on that one for a while.

9. Duke (2-0, 0-0 ACC; last week: 10): Give the Blue Devils credit for pulling out a road win in Memphis with backup quarterback Brandon Connette this past Saturday. You can write the win off by saying it was "only Memphis," but the Tigers are a rapidly improving team and Duke was on the ropes. Any road win is a good win for a team that won only once away from home last season.

10. NC State (2-0, 0-0 ACC; last week: 9): The Wolfpack get downgraded slightly for struggling to beat Richmond. While it is true the Spiders have caused FBS opponents fits, the Wolfpack nearly handed the game away with their own miscues. NC State had four turnovers, including three inside Richmond territory. Quarterback Pete Thomas struggled, throwing two interceptions. While he did lead the team into field goal range for the game winner, he has some work to do to improve.

11. Boston College (2-0, 1-0 ACC; last week: 14): The Eagles climb out of the cellar for the first time in a long time after their 24-10 win over Wake Forest. You can already see the difference new coach Steve Addazio has made in the program. His team is playing a lot more physically and with a lot more energy. That is best illustrated in Andre Williams, who is now averaging 5.5 yards per carry -- one full yard better than last season. The BC run game has gone from awful to respectable in a matter of weeks. The Eagles have now matched their win total from 2012.

12. Pittsburgh (0-1, 0-1 ACC; last week: 12): The Panthers were off last week, so they stay put here. The good news is they will not have to play a team as strong as Florida State the rest of the way in the ACC. They get New Mexico this week.

13. Wake Forest (1-1, 0-1 ACC; last week: 11): The Deacs were supposed to be better this season with so many veterans returning, but they looked completely lost against BC. The defense got gashed on the ground. The offense could not run, nor could it execute the option effectively. Not sure why coaches insisted on sticking with it when it was not working. Their inability to run the ball was a bugaboo last season, and it looks to be the same this season.

14. Syracuse (0-2, 0-0 ACC; last week: 13): The Orange have been the biggest disappointment in the ACC so far based on the first two games. No doubt they played a tough schedule to start against two Big Ten teams, but they were not even competitive in a loss to Northwestern this past weekend in which Drew Allen got benched after throwing four interceptions and the defense gave up 581 yards of total offense. Scott Shafer has some serious questions to answer before the season gets away from him.

Virginia trip a step up for Oregon

September, 4, 2013
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Mark Helfrich had a simple goal in his first game as Oregon's head coach: self-preservation.

Said the longtime offensive coordinator, "I hadn't been on the sideline for a game since 1996, so that in and of itself was a new experience, trying to not get killed when someone was running on the sidelines."

Of course, against woeful Nicholls State, Helfrich might have won the one-on-one battle. Oregon piled up 772 yards of offense -- 500 rushing -- without really trying that hard in a 66-3 victory.

The contest operated pretty much as a preseason game for Helfrich and his staff, eight of whom remained behind when Chip Kelly bolted for the Philadelphia Eagles. There were some minor logistical issues to get used to -- "Mark, do we want to accept or decline this penalty?" -- but otherwise it was business as usual, Helfrich said.

Expect the intensity to ratchet up a bit for the Ducks' visit to Virginia. For one, Charlottesvile is 2,400 miles and three times zones away. That type of cross-country travel is never easy on a team. Second, Virginia is a solid ACC squad, one that opened with a defensive-minded win over BYU.

The Ducks are a three-touchdown-plus favorite, but the Cavaliers have the size and athleticism to -- at least -- keep things interesting.

"They're very good," Helfrich said. "It's a completely different test."

Virginia is an interesting team. While Mike London's seat isn't necessarily hot after going 16-21 his first three seasons -- his 2014 recruiting class currently ranks 21st in the nation -- he did massively overhaul his 2012 staff, adding a ton of college coaching experience. He hired former NC State coach Tom O'Brien as associate head coach, former Colorado State coach Steve Fairchild as offensive coordinator and former Georgia Tech and Notre Dame defensive coordinator John Tenuta to lead his defense.

That's a lot of experience going against a first-time head coach. Of course, Helfrich has other things going for him, such as three offensive players who rushed for more than 100 yards last week in QB Marcus Mariota, RB De'Anthony Thomas and RB Byron Marshall, and perhaps the best secondary in college football.

Further, the Pac-12 does pretty well when going east, and Oregon leads the way. Since 2000, the Pac-12 is 26-23 when playing in the Eastern time zone. The Ducks are 3-0 during that span, beating Michigan (2007), Purdue (2008) and Tennessee (2010).

As the Ducks' former offensive coordinator, Helfrich is not like most new head coaches. He knows his school's travel routines. The Ducks will do everything in preparation for this road trip just as they did under Kelly. And, for that matter, under Mike Bellotti.

Still, there are some concerns. The Ducks' opener against Nicholls State didn't produce only bouquets and rainbows during film study. For one, the team's most questionable position -- linebacker -- flashed some ability as well as vulnerability. Helfrich noted too many missed tackles, which means the starting spots are presently written in pencil.

"We're still going to have a competitive situation there," Helfrich said.

Although the Ducks are big favorites, a trip to Virginia will offer a far more substantial test for Helfrich's team than last weekend's walkover. Don't expect Oregon to average 11.1 yards per carry this weekend.

It's so far, so good for Helfrich, but there is so much more up ahead. Or as he volunteered, "I think we'll be tested a little bit differently in future games, but I think we're off to a good start."
1. Football players are notorious for not donating money to their alma maters. Supposedly, they believe that they gave enough of themselves in blood and sweat when they played, forgetting that they received an education and a step up the ladder in return. So kudos to Oklahoma, who announced recently that former Sooner All-Americans Adrian Peterson and Sam Bradford donated $500,000 apiece to the new $75 million Headington Hall. The donations say a lot about them -- and about their experience at OU.

2. As usual, Duke head coach and quarterback guru David Cutcliffe taught me something, but it wasn’t what I expected to hear. The rise of young quarterbacks in today’s game, Cutcliffe told me on the ESPNU College Football Podcast, is in part because the up-tempo spread offense is less taxing intellectually than traditional pro sets. The emphasis is on speed of decision, not complexity. It’s hand off or keep, hand off or throw, and do it now.

3. The only thing consistent about Virginia quarterbacks Michael Rocco and Phillip Sims last year was the tension that hovered around the offense all season. It showed. The Cavaliers scored 17 points or fewer in six games, won one of them, and finished 4-8. Rocco (graduation) and Sims (academics) are gone. Head coach Mike London told me on the podcast Monday that whoever wins the job -- sophomore David Watford and redshirt freshman Grayson Lambert are the favorites -- will be The Guy. Job-sharing is over.
The first Saturday of April kicks off spring football scrimmages around the country.

Baylor will unveil its new quarterback, while Georgia and Nebraska might need name tags on defense with so many new starters.

Most spring games are nothing more than glorified controlled scrimmages, and Florida's figures to be even less exciting because of injuries.

Here's a closer look at a few of Saturday's spring games:

Baylor Bears: Baylor fans will get their first chance to see if the Bears' transition to a new quarterback will go as smoothly as the last one.

Junior Bryce Petty is the heir apparent to replace Nick Florence, who threw for 4,309 yards with 33 touchdowns last season after replacing Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III.

Petty, who was headed to Tennessee until coach Phillip Fulmer was fired, completed seven of 10 passes for 97 yards with one touchdown in six games last season.

The Bears also bring back eight defensive starters, after allowing 37.2 points per game last season.

Florida Gators: Because of myriad injuries along the offensive line, the Gators won't have a traditional spring game on Saturday at The Swamp. Florida coach Will Muschamp said the Gators will still have some team scrimmage work, but they'll also compete in individual coverage, pass rush and blocking drills.

"I can't ask these guys to line up and go 80 straight plays," Muschamp said. "Actually, it's going to be more beneficial for us to get the individual work, instead of just putting the ball down and scrimmaging."

Because of injuries, Florida is down to only six scholarship offensive linemen available for the spring. Four returning linemen are hurt and one is suspended; five more freshmen linemen will join the team this summer.

Among the walking wounded: starting guard Jon Halapio (shoulder), right tackle Chaz Green (ankle), guard Ian Silberman (shoulder), and guard Max Garcia (back). Guard Jessamen Dunker has been suspended since Jan. 16 after he was arrested for stealing a motor scooter.

Georgia Bulldogs: Quarterback Aaron Murray and tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall are back, but much of the focus in Saturday's G-Day spring game at Sanford Stadium will be on UGA's defense.

The Bulldogs have to replace star linebackers Jarvis Jones and Alex Ogletree, as well as nose tackle John Jenkins and free safety Bacarri Rambo. In all, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has to identify seven new starters on defense.

Freshman Tray Matthews, a mid-year enrollee, has raised a lot of eyebrows during spring practice and might emerge as a starting free safety this fall. Sophomore Josh Harvey-Clemons, another big hitter, appears set as the starting strong safety. Senior end Garrison Smith and sophomore linebacker Jordan Jenkins have emerged as two of the most consistent pass-rushers.

UGA fans won't see receiver Malcolm Mitchell, who will miss the spring game because of torn cartilage in his knee. He's expected to be ready for the start of preseason camp.

Nebraska Cornhuskers: Like Georgia, the Cornhuskers are undergoing a complete facelift on defense, after ranking 58th nationally in scoring defense (27.5 points per game) and 90th in run defense (192.5 yards per game). Nebraska lost end Cameron Meredith, tackle Baker Steinkuhler, linebacker Will Compton, along with five other starters on defense. The Cornhuskers will unveil their new-look defense in Saturday's spring game at Memorial Stadium.

A lot of eyes will be on freshman tackle Vincent Valentine, who might be the Cornhuskers' most physically imposing lineman since Ndamukong Suh. At 6 feet 3, 325 pounds, the Cornhuskers really need Valentine to contribute this coming season. Fans are also excited to see end Greg McMullen, and JUCO end Randy Gregory is expected to help when he gets on campus this summer.

Thomas Brown, Michael Rose and Jared Afalava are freshmen to watch at linebacker.

Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini is expected to play it safe with quarterback Taylor Martinez, who will probably only see a couple of series. I-back Ameer Abdullah, linebacker David Santos and cornerback Daniel Davie have already been ruled out.

Virginia Cavaliers: Virginia fans will get an up-close look at the Cavaliers' revamped coaching staff in Saturday's Orange-Blue spring game. After the Cavaliers went 4-8 for the second time in coach Mike London's three-year tenure, he hired four new assistants.

Longtime defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta spent the spring installing an aggressive, blitz-heavy scheme, and former Colorado State coach Steve Fairchild was hired to take over the offense. Former NC State coach Tom O'Brien was hired to coach tight ends and serve as associate head coach for offense, and former Idaho State coach Larry Lewis is the new special teams coordinator/running backs coach.

On the field, sophomore David Watford is battling Greyson Lambert and Phillip Sims for the starting quarterback job. Sims, an Alabama transfer who started four games for the Cavaliers last season, went into the spring at No. 3 on the depth chart.
1. The great fun of games scheduled at the last minute is pulling the thread to see who else is affected. Oregon found a home on Virginia's 2013 schedule because Virginia suspected probation-saddled Penn State may want out of the Cavaliers' visit to State College. Oregon had an opening because Nevada, with a new coach, wanted to play someone else, which will be BYU. Penn State is close to a deal with Central Florida. And Virginia will play eight home games for the first time ever.

2. The truth about the future of football probably lies closer to the doubts that President Obama expressed than the dire forecast of the Ravens' Bernard Pollard, who said this week the NFL won't be around in 30 years. The NFL is too popular to fail. So is college football. And even if the game is changed drastically to curtail head injuries, the game will survive. The passion it stirs in so many hearts is too valuable an entity to the businessmen and networks who make billions off of it.

3. Common sense breaks out across the land. The Big 12 athletic directors want the benefits of expansion without adding members. The Big East, commissioner Mike Aresco affirmed, won't go west of Texas and will work to divorce the seven Catholic basketball schools in one year. I hope the league decides to give the Catholic schools the Big East name. It belongs to them. Its value in football isn't near the historical value it carries in hoops. Football should find a new name. That, too, is common sense.

3-point stance: Job-change etiquette

December, 19, 2012
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1. Florida coach Will Muschamp, on the topic of how a coach stays in touch with players at the job he just left: “A lot of times, initially, when you first leave you don’t want to get in anyone’s way,” Muschamp said. “Even when you leave Texas as a coordinator you don’t want to call the kids. That’s not necessarily professional in my opinion. In time, you can certainly throw a guy a text or something, saying ‘Good luck this week,’ or ‘Saw you played well the other night.’ ... I just kind of move on and time heals all wounds.”

2. The Big 12 is sending nine of its 10 members to bowl games, and new commissioner Bob Bowlsby will be attending a lot of them. But on New Year’s Day, when Oklahoma State plays Purdue in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, 20 minutes from Bowlby’s home, the commissioner will beg the Cowboys’ forgiveness and travel to the Rose Bowl to see his former team, No. 6 Stanford, play Wisconsin. Family and old friends, he said, wouldn’t take no for an answer.

3. It has been nine years since Virginia Tech failed to win 10 games, and there’s nothing the Hokies (6-6) can do in the Russell Athletic Bowl about that. But it has been 20 years since the Hokies failed to finish with a winning record. A victory Dec. 28 over Rutgers won’t change the fact that this has been an unsettling season in Blacksburg. But with Mike London revving up cross-state rival Virginia, and Frank Beamer 66 years old, Virginia Tech could do without the symbolism of a losing record.
Duke is a contender in the Coastal Division.

In fact, the Blue Devils just might be favored to beat Virginia Tech next weekend -- in Blacksburg.

Welcome to Bizarro world in the ACC, but before you start in on just how out of whack the Coastal Division is, pause for a second to give Duke some credit.

The Blue Devils have been banged up on defense. They were without their injured starting quarterback, Sean Renfree. And yet Duke left no doubt in Saturday's 42-17 win over Virginia that it was the better team and is a team to be taken seriously in this year's Coastal Division race.

On a day in which the rest of the ACC forgot how to play defense, Duke shut out Virginia for the entire second half. Duke is not only playing defense this year, it's playing hard-hitting, attitude defense. Virginia had two turnovers. Duke had none. This is a well-coached, disciplined team that is off to a 5-1 start. It's 2-0 in the ACC. It's undefeated at home. And it's ONE WIN away from going bowling for the first time since 1994.

Virginia, on the other hand, has now lost four straight.

The balance of power has shifted in the Coastal Division, and for the first time in a long time, Duke has it. More importantly, it deserves it.

Instant Analysis: Auburn 43, Virginia 24

December, 31, 2011
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After falling behind early, Auburn emptied out its playbook on offense and dominated the kicking game to charge past Virginia 43-24 on Saturday night in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Here’s an instant analysis from the game:

How the game was won: Auburn was truly special in special teams, and Virginia was utterly awful. The Tigers blocked two punts -- one leading to a touchdown and another resulting in a safety. They perfectly executed an onside kick to lead to another touchdown, snuffed out a Virginia fake field goal and also returned a free kick 62 yards to set up a field goal. The Tigers, who led 28-17 at the half, also played much better defensively in the second half and held the Cavaliers to 140 total yards after the break.

Turning point: Cody Parkey’s onside kick came right after Auburn had tied the game at 14-14 early in the second quarter. On the second offensive play, Barrett Trotter hit Emory Blake on a 50-yard pass. Three plays later, Kiehl Frazier scored on a 1-yard touchdown plunge to give Auburn the lead for good.

Player of the game: Auburn’s Onterio McCalebb said prior to the game that he wanted to prove to everybody that he could be the go-to running back with Michael Dyer indefinitely suspended. McCalebb delivered for the Tigers with 109 rushing yards on 10 carries and two catches for 53 yards. He ran for a touchdown and also caught a touchdown pass.

Unsung hero: After Auburn starting quarterback Clint Moseley went down with an injury in the second quarter, Trotter came off the bench to throw the ball as well as has all season. He finished 11-of-18 for 175 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions. He also scrambled for 32 yards and kept several plays alive.

Stat of the game: Auburn’s 43 points were a season high.

Stat of the game II: Auburn coach Gene Chizik ran his bowl record to 9-0. He’s now 6-0 as an assistant coach in bowl games and 3-0 as a head coach.

Stat of the game III: Auburn (8-5) avoided the dubious distinction of becoming the first defending national champion since Ohio State in 1943 to lose six games.

Best call: Just about everything Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn dialed up. The Tigers ran statue-of-liberty plays, reverses, throwback screens, wrap-around handoffs and halfback passes. Malzahn, who will move on to be the head coach at Arkansas State, went out in style.

Second guessing: In one of several special teams blunders by the Cavaliers, coach Mike London called for a fake field goal in the second quarter with Auburn leading 21-14. The Tigers had all the momentum at the time, and the Cavaliers needed some points. But their fake from the 15-yard line was snuffed out by Auburn’s Chris Davis, and the Tigers answered with a touchdown drive of their own to take a 28-14 lead.

What it means: Auburn heads into the offseason with some momentum, not to mention its third straight season of at least eight wins under Chizik. The finish to the 2011 regular season for the Tigers was anything but memorable, as they were blown out by LSU, Georgia and Alabama. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof left for the same job at UCF. Malzahn took the head coaching job at Arkansas State, and Dyer was indefinitely suspended. But the Tigers overcame the distractions to play one of their most complete games of the season and win their fifth straight bowl game. The Cavaliers (8-5) are still looking for their first bowl win since the 2007 season and will go into the offseason with a sour taste in their mouths. Counting the 38-0 loss to Virginia Tech to end the regular season, they lost their last two by a combined 81-24 margin.

Chick-fil-A Bowl

December, 4, 2011
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Virginia Cavaliers (8-4) vs. Auburn Tigers (7-5)


Dec. 31, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Virginia take from ACC blogger Heather Dinich: Just getting to a bowl game was an accomplishment for Virginia, which hasn’t been to one since 2007, but to be chosen as high as the top pick behind the Discover Orange Bowl exceeded expectations once again in Mike London’s second season.

The Hoos got some help from rival Virginia Tech, whose bid in the Sugar Bowl bumped everyone up a notch in the selection process. It’s a legitimate place for Virginia, though, which beat Florida State on the road during the regular season, and was in contention for the Coastal Division title through the final game, when it lost to Virginia Tech.

The Cavaliers had won four straight heading into the regular-season finale, before losing 38-0 to the Hokies. Despite the loss, London was named the ACC Coach of the Year, as his team had been picked by the media to finish fifth in the division this year.

The Cavaliers’ strengths are their front seven on defense, which is a veteran group, and an offensive line that has had the same lineup all season. The Hoos have been able to run the ball well for most of the season. It will be Virginia’s fourth appearance in the bowl, but the program hasn’t been there since 1998 -- also the last time UVa faced Auburn, a 19-0 win for the Hoos at Jordan-Hare Stadium.


Auburn take from SEC blogger Edward Aschoff: Along with replacing the nation’s best player in Cam Newton, the Tigers had to find players to fill in for just about everyone who was a part of the 2010 championship team.

Coach Gene Chizik and his team never let youth be an excuse for a team that had freshmen making up almost half of the entire roster. Auburn began 4-1, and while the Tigers were sloppy at times, when the game was on the line late, Auburn found ways to win. That included beating preseason East favorite South Carolina 16-13 on the road.

However, as the season continued, the team's youth began to show. The physicality that Auburn showed in close games started to die down and as the struggles continued, the Tigers found themselves dealing with a quarterback shuffle.

Junior Barrett Trotter began as the starter, but saw highly touted true freshman Kiehl Frazier take more and more snaps. But everything changed in Auburn’s 17-6 win over Florida, when sophomore Clint Moseley took the starting job after a solid second-half performance against the Gators.

Moseley remained the starter, but Auburn never really looked like the same team that opened the year. Outside of solid play from running back Michael Dyer, the Tigers’ offense struggled along, ranking 10th in the SEC (328.2 yards per game), while the defense stayed near the bottom of the league, giving up 405.8 yards and 29.3 points per game.

Looking at bowl projections

November, 14, 2011
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Before Notre Dame's win Saturday night over Maryland, representatives from the Champs Sports Bowl passed out pins to media members in the FedEx Field press box.

Telling? Likely.

Another week, another round of bowl projections with Notre Dame pegged for Orlando, Fla., as our experts Brad Edwards and Mark Schlabach think Insider the Irish are destined for Disney World, against Florida State. ACC blogger Heather Dinich currently has the Seminoles in the Champs Sports Bowl as well.

The opponent could vary, given the muddied middle of the ACC. Virginia and Georgia Tech could be potential Champs Sports Bowl teams with strong finishes. But with the Big East having no teams in the latest BCS standings, the conference's second-most attractive team -- behind the conference champion -- will probably be a longshot when pitted against the Irish, who have more talent and a larger traveling fan base than any school in the Big East.

The Champs Sports Bowl can replace its pick of the next-available Big East team for Notre Dame once in a four-year cycle, and it would be tough to pass the Irish up this season, given the current climate of the Big East.

Big East blogger Andrea Adelson has the Irish headed to the Champs Sports Bowl as well.

3-point stance: Surprises in the ACC

November, 8, 2011
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1. Penn State coach Joe Paterno does not want to address at his weekly Tuesday news conference the scandal that has engulfed his beloved university, not to protect himself, but because it will shift the spotlight even farther away from his overlooked No. 12 Nittany Lions. Roll your eyes until they fall out of your head, but that is how he thinks. Surely he knows that the assembled media will ask him anyway. The guess here is that the adjectives “cantankerous” and “crusty” will apply.

2. Bored with the status quo? Here’s why: the top seven in this week’s BCS standings all started out in the top nine in the AP preseason poll. The only ones to disappear from that first poll are No. 6 Florida State (6-3) and No. 8 Texas A&M (5-4). If you’re looking for the happiest surprises of the season, look to the ACC, where Wake Forest (5-4, 4-2) and Virginia (6-3, 4-2) control whether they will win the Atlantic and Coastal divisions, respectively.

3. When Houston Nutt leapt from Arkansas to Ole Miss four years ago, I thought of a rebound romance. His tenure with the Razorbacks ended in acrimony and Nutt may have been served by sitting out a year to refresh and recharge. When he led the Rebels to consecutive Cotton Bowls in his first two seasons, I put the thought out of my mind. It turns out my first instinct was right. Now Nutt and athletic director Pete Boone, who ran off Nutt’s predecessor, the estimable David Cutcliffe, are both out of a job.

Final: Virginia 21, Idaho 20 (OT)

October, 1, 2011
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Seven penalties, three turnovers, three scoreless quarters, and 5-of-16 third-down conversions.

And somehow, Virginia won.

Idaho's two-point conversion attempt in overtime failed, and Virginia escaped with a win. Just barely. But it still counts, and the Hoos desperately needed it, especially after back-to-back losses. No. 21-ranked and undefeated Georgia Tech is coming to town next. It could get ugly, especially if Virginia continues to turn the ball over and rack up penalties.

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