NCF Nation: Will Sutton

Spring preview capsules: Pac-12 South

February, 28, 2014
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On Thursday, we looked at the Pac-12 North Division. Today, we turn to the South:

ARIZONA

Spring start: March 3
Spring game: April 20

What to watch:
  • QB competition: Coach Rich Rodriguez has used first-year starters in his first two seasons at Arizona and will make it three-for-three in 2014. For the most part, things worked with both Matt Scott and more recently B.J. Denker, which should make Wildcats fans optimistic about what should be a wide-open competition.
  • Replacing Carey: As intriguing as the quarterback competition will be, the battle to replace all-time great Ka'Deem Carey at running back could be more important. None of the returning running backs had a carry last year, which led to this comment from Rodriguez: "Now it’s a mystery. That’s going to be one of the positions, like quarterback, that will be kind of open to see if we can get guys to get better."
  • Keep Austin healthy: After tearing his ACL last spring following a breakout season in which he caught 81 passes for 1,364 yards and 11 touchdowns, receiver Austin Hill has been given a clean bill of health. Said Rodriguez: "He is still wearing the knee brace but I think it is a little bit more precautionary. He is 100 percent doing everything. He’s even a bit bigger and stronger so he should have a big spring. I know he’s hungry to get out there, too."
ARIZONA STATE

Spring start: March 18
Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • OL changes: Auburn transfer Christian Westerman, a prototypical guard, could be the Sun Devils' best offensive lineman, which makes things interesting considering both starting guards -- Jamil Douglas and Vi Teofilo -- will be back next year. Douglas, a second-team All-Pac-12 selection, has worked at tackle in the past and could shift outside to replace first-team All-Pac-12 left tackle Evan Finkenberg.
  • Getting defensive: Coach Todd Graham's college roommate, Keith Patterson, has arrived as the defensive coordinator, but Graham will remain the play-caller and Chris Ball's title will still read co-defensive coordinator. Got all that? New coaching dynamics get sorted out in the spring, too.
  • Looking for replacements: On defense, ASU needs to replace seven starters, highlighted by DT Will Sutton, LB Carl Bradford and CBs Robert Nelson and Alden Darby. If ASU is to build off its impressive 2013 season, those holes need to be filled quickly. They'll benefit from a schedule that starts with Weber State, New Mexico, Colorado and a bye, but after that the Sun Devils have UCLA, USC and Stanford in a span of four weeks.
COLORADO

Spring start: March 3
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • QB development: Sefo Liufau's development will be interesting if for nothing else than because the jump from Year 1 starter to Year 2 starter is always intriguing with quarterbacks. It's tempting to assume a big statistical jump is coming, but it's not always that simple (see: Hogan, Kevin; Mannion, Sean; Hundley, Brett). Liufau will need to get on the same page with his receivers as they combine to …
  • … Replace Paul Richardson: Look for Nelson Spruce, D.D Goodson and Tyler McCulloch to lead what will be a much more balanced receiving corps following Richardson's early departure for the NFL. Spruce was the Buffs' second-leading receiver last year, but Goodson, going into his second season at receiver, figures to make the biggest jump.
  • Rising expectations: It took MacIntyre three years to turn San Jose State into a winner, but there was a four-win improvement in the second year. He won't match that with the Buffs, but a two-win improvement gets Colorado bowl eligible. Colorado has a chance to match last year's win total (4) in the first five games next year: vs. Colorado State, at Massachusetts, Arizona State, Hawaii, at Cal. In fact, it's probably the internal expectation.
UCLA

Spring start: April 1
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Manage expectations: The Bruins are in new territory this offseason with expectations through the roof. They'll likely be a preseason top-10 team, which will drum up chatter about a potential national championship run. Likely message from coach Jim Mora: "Tune out the noise."
  • The #Hundley4Heisman campaign: It's a real thing and Mora threw his weight behind it when he tweeted the hashtag on Jan. 26 with a picture of the Heisman Trophy. Get used to reading "Heisman candidate" next to "Brett Hundley" a lot between now and September. At times, it might feel unavoidable.
  • Leading rusher? They're set at quarterback and bring a lot of talent back at both receiver and on the offensive line, but the running back situation isn't as clear. Hundley was the team's leading rusher in 2013, but someone needs to step up to take pressure off him and LB/RB Myles Jack. It's an important spring for both Jordan James and Paul Perkins, who had varying degrees of success last year.
USC

Spring start: March 11
Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Under center? Cody Kessler is back, but coach Steve Sarkisian immediately made it known there would be an open competition for the quarterback job. Max Wittek is no longer around, but Kessler should get a serious challenge from redshirt freshman Max Browne. With a new offense to learn, spring will essentially serve as preparation period for the real competition during fall camp.
  • Catch your breath: The most noticeable change in USC during the first game will be how much faster it's playing offensively. Sarkisian installed a high-tempo offense at Washington last year and, pleased with the results, will continue to press the tempo with the Trojans. Goodbye, huddles.
  • Change it up: As is the case when new coaching staffs arrive, there will likely be a higher percentage of position changes than usual and a more fluid depth chart. It's hard to peg exactly where that'll occur with USC, but it'll be worth monitoring throughout the spring.
UTAH

Spring start: March 18
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Wilson's road back: Travis Wilson is expected to be the Utes' starting quarterback next season, but he'll be limited to non-contact drills during the spring. That's about the best news Wilson could have received following an early November discovery that he had an undiagnosed injury to an intracranial artery -- a condition that threatened his career. Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson will not join the team until after he graduates in May, but he'll be immediately eligible to play.
  • Revolving OC door: Dave Christensen moves in, Dennis Erickson moves over and Brian Johnson moves out. Kyle Whittingham introduced the Utes' seventh offensive coordinator is seven years in early January. Christensen believes in similar philosophies to what the Utes had under Erickson/Johnson, but the terminology will change and the tempo will increase.
  • Pressure building? Utah was used to winning big before it got to the Pac-12 in 2011. Whittingham lost just 20 games in his six full seasons as the school's head coach while a member of the Mountain West Conference. In the three years since, Utah's dropped 19 and qualified for just one bowl. No one should doubt Whittingham's ability as a coach -- he's a good one -- but the jump in competition has been difficult.

National University Holiday Bowl preview

December, 30, 2013
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Arizona State (10-3) and Texas Tech (7-5) square off Monday night in San Diego in the National University Holiday Bowl at 10:15 p.m. ET on ESPN.

Here’s a quick preview:

What to watch: There is a good chance, a very good chance actually, that this game could turn into a track meet. The Sun Devils average 41 points per game -- 10th in the country -- and Texas Tech isn’t too shabby offensively either, averaging almost 36 points per game. Which defense is going to step up and make a play? Arizona State seems the more likely option of the two. Texas Tech gives up 31.2 points per game while the Sun Devils only give up 25.8. The Sun Devils also have a plus-14 turnover margin with 21 interceptions. Opposing quarterbacks are completing just 54.7 percent of their passes against ASU.

Who to watch: The big question is who will start at quarterback for Texas Tech -- Davis Webb or Michael Brewer. This all came about after Baker Mayfield, in a strange turn of events, announced after the season that he was transferring. There's also a chance we could see both QBs. For the Sun Devils, it looks doubtful that Marion Grice will play, meaning the bulk of the running work falls on D.J. Foster. Arizona State defensive tackle Will Sutton is an All-American and the Pac-12’s two-time defensive player of the year. Texas Tech tight end Jace Amaro is also an All-American with more than 1,200 receiving yards and seven touchdowns.

Why to watch: The Holiday Bowl is traditionally one of the more exciting games of the postseason. Since its inception in 1978, 17 of the 35 games have been decided by a touchdown or less, and 20 of the games were decided in the final four minutes. This is also the last year that it will keep ties with the Big 12. Next year one of the top tier teams from the Big Ten will be paired against the Pac-12.

Prediction: Arizona State 42, Texas Tech 24.

ASU wants redemption vs. Stanford

December, 6, 2013
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Stanford whipped Arizona State all sorts of ways on Sept. 21. It blew away the Sun Devils at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. It overwhelmed them on special teams. It looked like such a finely oiled machine that it cleared its bench in the fourth quarter, which allowed for a furious Arizona State rally that made the final score deceivingly close at 42-28.

The Cardinal players know they pushed around the Sun Devils. So you'd think there would be some danger of them being at least a little overconfident when they square off in Tempe, Ariz., on Saturday in the Pac-12 championship game with a Rose Bowl berth on the line.

"Not at all," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "Our guys are smart. You put the film on, and you watch these guys run by people. You watch them dominate games. You watch them dominate teams that we struggled with. You put two game films on, you immediately have a lot of respect for these guys."

[+] EnlargeTyler Gaffney
Bob Stanton/USA TODAY SportsTyler Gaffney had 87 of Stanford's 240 rushing yards and scored two touchdowns vs. ASU in September.
That's reasonable. It's Arizona State that is riding a conference-high seven-game winning streak. It's Arizona State that earned home-field advantage with a superior conference record (8-1 to Stanford's 7-2; both are 10-2 overall). And it's Arizona State that is favored.

Further, the Sun Devils haven't forgotten what happened in Stanford Stadium. As if a first Rose Bowl since the 1996 season wasn't enough motivation, the Sun Devils players specifically want a piece of Stanford, the defending conference champs.

"It's a chance for us to redeem ourselves," defensive tackle Will Sutton said.

The Sun Devils probably can make things a lot closer just by being less sloppy. They saw a punt blocked and missed a field goal in just the first half of the teams' first meeting, when they fell hopelessly behind. Quarterback Taylor Kelly threw two interceptions. And, to make matters worse, the Pac-12's least penalized-team was flagged six times for 65 yards.

ASU coach Todd Graham said the Sun Devils are improved in every area, most particularly special teams.

But the biggest advantage Arizona State has is playing at home. It is 7-0 in Sun Devil Stadium this year with an average margin of victory of 28 points. Meanwhile, Stanford's two losses, to Utah and USC, came on the road.

"I think it's the greatest advantage we have in this game, that we're playing right here in the valley in Sun Devil Stadium," Graham said.

That said, Stanford still has the biggest -- literally -- pieces in place that led to its previous win against the Sun Devils: Physical offensive and defensive lines that dominated the smaller Sun Devils.

Arizona State rushed for only 50 yards at Stanford while yielding 240 yards on the ground to the Cardinal. Those numbers need to be closer for the Sun Devils to prevail.

As Shaw sees it -- and Arizona State hopes he's right -- the earlier meeting is mostly irrelevant, just as it was in last season's Pac-12 title game. Stanford dominated UCLA in the final 2012 regular-season game 35-17, but just six days later, the Cardinal were pushed to the brink by the Bruins before prevailing 27-24.

What matters is the present, not the past.

"That was a long time ago," Shaw said. "We're a different team. They are a different team. This is a new game. It's almost like a new season."

Yep. It's bowl season, and these two teams are hunting roses.

Pac-12 weekend rewind: Week 11

November, 11, 2013
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Taking stock of Week 10 in the Pac-12.

Team of the week: Is there any doubt? Stanford, again a substantial underdog to No. 3 and unbeaten Oregon, again controlled the line of scrimmage with its trademark physical style in a 26-20 victory on Thursday, that final score in no way reflecting the complete control the Cardinal had from bell-to-bell. It was a total team effort, featuring a great plan from the coaches that was well-executed by players who relish their underdog status when compared to flashy Oregon. Nerd Nation rules again. (But don't celebrate too long, Stanford. The season's far from over.)

[+] EnlargeKelly
AP Photo/Rick BowmerTaylor Kelly led two fourth-quarter TD drives as Arizona State rallied to beat Utah on Saturday.
Best game: Arizona State trailed at Utah for most of three quarters, and it entered the fourth quarter down 19-7. It looked like a familiar scenario: The Sun Devils blowing it on the road. But QB Taylor Kelly, stymied most of the afternoon, led two fourth-quarter TD drives and Will Sutton iced the game with, of all things, an interception with 1:01 remaining for a 20-19 victory.

Biggest play: While there were a number of big plays in the above game, no play was as "Good golly!" good as Myles Jack's 66-yard touchdown run for UCLA at Arizona. For one, he's a linebacker. Second, it was on a third-and-1 play in the fourth quarter just after an Arizona TD that reduced the Bruins' lead to five points. The Wildcats would score a TD on their next possession, so UCLA needed all the points it got. And the nation got introduced to Jack, a certain freshman All-American who is already being referred to as a first-round NFL draft pick.

Offensive standout: In the preseason, Stanford's offensive line looked like the nation's best unit. At times during the first half of the season, it didn't live up to that billing. But against Oregon it was dominant against a good defensive front. It not only paved the way from RB Tyler Gaffney's 157 yards on 45 carries, it also held the Ducks without a sack. QB Kevin Hogan was hurried just once. Stanford beat the Ducks because it made time of possession matter, with the offensive line playing the most important role in converting 14 of 21 third-down plays as well as the only fourth-down attempt. Last season's win over Oregon was about the Stanford defense. This one was about the O-line.

Defensive standout: Stanford LB Shayne Skov led the Cardinal's defense, which was pretty darn salty against the Ducks, with nine tackles (two for loss), two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. He also broke up a pass and had two QB hurries.

Special teams standout: USC's Nelson Agholor returned punts 75 and 93 yards for TDs in the Trojans' 62-28 beatdown of California.

Special teams standout II: Against Arizona State, Utah punter Tom Hackett averaged 50.6 yards on nine punts, with a long of 70. He killed three inside the Sun Devils' 20-yard line and was a big reason the Utes controlled field position most of the afternoon.

Freakish two-way standout: Jack, a true freshman, became a national sensation on Saturday -- despite the late West Coast kickoff -- when he turned in helmet-sticker worthy performances on BOTH sides of the ball. On defense, he had eight tackles, a tackle for a loss and a fumble recovery. On offense, he rushed for a team-high 120 yards on just six carries, including the aforementioned 66-yard touchdown.

Smiley face: In recent seasons, just when things started to go well for Arizona State and UCLA, it became time to bet against them, particularly on the road. Both lacked consistent mental toughness. But both might be changing their ways. Both won on the road against good foes, overcoming myriad momentum shifts when they looked like they might be in trouble. Is it possible that their game on Nov. 23 will match top-15 teams with the stakes being the South Division? Maybe.

Frowny face: As great as Stanford's win is for Stanford, the Cardinal -- for the second consecutive season -- ruined the Pac-12's chances to put a team in the national title game. The Pac-12 hasn't won a national title since USC in 2004. The conference, in fact, has played in the title game only once since then, with Oregon getting nipped by Auburn after the 2010 season. While the league isn't mathematically eliminated -- if there's only one unbeaten team at season's end, the Pac-12 has a good shot at being No. 1 among the once-beatens -- it is a bit disappointing that the conference likely won't finish 2013 with the No. 1 team, thereby ending the SEC's streak of 103 consecutive national titles. Plus or minus.

Thought of the week: Oregon fans should stop panicking or allowing the nationwide trolling to get to them. College football nation: If the Ducks have been truly unmasked and your rough-tough team would dominate them, then why not seek them out for a nonconference game? Ohio State, Baylor, Florida State, Alabama, etc? If the Ducks are just a gimmick team, sign a game contract for a home-and-home series. Out West, however, we won't hold our breaths for one reason: Those teams want no part of that. Why? Because while a very good Stanford program, which is rougher and tougher than just about anyone, has won two in a row against the Ducks in impressive fashion, Oregon remains an elite team that can slice and dice the hopes and dreams of an opponent before it can say, "I wish my team hadn't been brave because now I can't be an anonymous trash-talking troll on Twitter."

Question for the week: Is the Pac-12 still in the Heisman Trophy hunt? Sure, there's been an overreaction against Oregon QB Marcus Mariota, sprained knee and all, after the Ducks went down to Stanford and he didn't play well on a big stage. And Arizona losing to UCLA diminished Ka'Deem Carey's chances. But what happens if one or both finish strong? You could make an argument that both are the best players at their positions. Difficult to imagine at least one won't get an invitation to New York for the ceremony.

Pac-12 helmet stickers: Week 11

November, 10, 2013
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So who deserves a helmet sticker for a job well done?

Stanford: We could give a helmet sticker to RB Tyler Gaffney for his 45 carries for 157 yards. We could give it to his offensive line. We could give it to LB Shayne Skov, who led a stout defense with nine tackles, two for loss, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. Or the entire defense, which shut down the Ducks' offense. Or we could give it to David Shaw, defensive coordinator Derek Mason and the entire Stanford staff. But it's our freaking blog, so we're giving this extra large helmet sticker to the entire program.

Nelson Agholor, WR/PR, USC: Agholor caught only five passes for 35 yards, but he left little doubt about the special teams player of the week. He returned punts 75 and 93 yards for TDs in the Trojans 62-28 beatdown of California.

Will Sutton, DT, Arizona State: With the Sun Devils high-powerd offense stuck in second gear, Sutton led a stout defensive effort with nine tackles, a tackle for a loss and an interception, which clinched a 20-19 victory at Utah. The Utes had just 247 total yards.

Keith Price, QB, Washington: In a 59-7 win over Colorado, Price completed 21 of 29 passes for 312 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He also rushed for 29 yards and a score as the Huskies became the conference's eighth bowl-eligible team. Oh, and Price didn't throw a pass in the second half.

Myles Jack, LB/RB, UCLA: The Bruins true freshman had eight tackles, a tackle for a loss and a fumble recovery on defense, and he rushed for a team-high 120 yards on just six carries, including a 66-yard touchdown that gave the Bruins their final TD in a 31-26 win at Arizona.

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 5

September, 26, 2013
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A few things to keep an eye on in the Pac-12 this week.
  1. League play is upon us: Rejoice! Now the Pac-12 teams can gut each other with their nine-game conference schedule and lose all of that national credibility it built up in the first four weeks of the season. This year, perhaps more than any other in recent memory, it doesn’t look like there are any easy outs. Would anyone really be shocked if Colorado beat Oregon State based on what we’ve seen? The only one that would be truly shocking would be Cal beating Oregon -- and we might raise an eyebrow if Washington State beats Stanford in Seattle -- especially sans David Yankey for the game and Ed Reynolds for a half.
  2. [+] EnlargeAndre Williams
    Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsUSC's Morgan Breslin has recorded four sacks this season for the Trojans.
    Nonconference notes: A good tidbit from the folks at the Pac-12 offices regarding the league’s 29-4 nonconference record: Since 1934, only one season witnessed the conference capture more than 29 wins in nonleague play; 2002 (32-15), when the league played an eight-game conference schedule, allowing an additional 10 non-conference games to be played. There are three nonconference games remaining (a possible fourth pending Colorado’s situation) against Notre Dame. The Pac-12 is contracted with seven bowl games, so there could be as many as 11 more nonconference games.
  3. Battle of elites (1): Two of the league’s top running backs will be on the field in Seattle on Saturday -- though not at the same time. That would mean either a bizarre trade or either Ka’Deem Carey or Bishop Sankey playing defense. In terms of rushing yards per game, they are separated by less than a yard (149.5 for Carey, 148.67 for Sankey). Yards per carry? It’s even closer (6.97 for Sankey, 6.95 for Carey). Both have four rushing touchdowns. While it’s not truly head-to-head, this could be one of those games folks look to when awarding postseason honors.
  4. Battle of elites (2): Two of the league’s top wide receivers will be on the field in Corvallis on Saturday -- though not at the same time. That would mean a bizarre trade or either Brandin Cooks or Paul Richardson playing defense. Cooks leads the nation with 43 catches for 639 yards and seven touchdowns. In only two games, Richardson has 21 catches for 417 yards and four touchdowns. Sixty percent of the time Cooks catches the ball, Oregon State either gains a first down or scores a touchdown.
  5. Battle of elites (3): Two of the league’s top defensive players will be on the field in Tempe on Saturday -- though not at the same time. That would mean either a bizarre trade or either Morgan Breslin or Will Sutton playing offense (which would be awesome!). Breslin is tied for the conference lead in total sacks (four) with teammate George Uko and leads the league in tackles for a loss per game. Sutton, on the other hand, has nine tackles, no sacks and half a tackle for a loss. The reason? Teams are double- and triple-teaming him like crazy. Plus, ASU has faced more run-based teams in the first few weeks. This week might be a good time for him to break out.
  6. Speaking of USC: How good has the defense been? According to ESPN Stats & Information, none of the four quarterbacks USC has seen has posted a Total QBR above 30. The Trojans are also blitzing a lot more under new coordinator Clancy Pendergast. Last year they blitzed 25 percent of the time. This year it’s up to 46 percent. And when they blitz, opposing QBs are completing just 41.9 percent of their throws, throwing it away or ending up on the ground.
  7. All hands: With big quarterback numbers come big receiving numbers. Six Pac-12 receivers have hauled in 10 or more catches in a game eight times this season, led by Cooks and Richardson with two each. Also, 17 different receivers have posted 100 or more receiving yards in a game 26 times, led by Cooks and Utah’s Dres Anderson with three games each.
  8. Layoff impact: Colorado is playing for the first time since its Sept. 7 win over Central Arkansas, which seems like months ago, though it actually has been only 20 days. After their Sept. 14 game with Fresno State was called off because of the flooding, the Buffs had a bye in Week 4. This is Colorado’s first trip to Corvallis. The previous two meetings (1931, 1963) took place in Portland. This is the last Pac-12 team Colorado is yet to play since joining the league (though the Cal game in 2011 was the back end of a home and home that didn’t count in the conference standings).
  9. Tough road: This is the second-straight game against a top-five team for California, which faces No. 2 Oregon this weekend. The Bears have gotten huge numbers out of true freshman quarterback Jared Goff, who leads the FBS with 435.3 yards per game. But the defense has been hammered with injuries. Not good, considering 12 different Ducks have scored touchdowns so far.
  10. Odds and ends: Worth noting that four more Pac-12 receivers were recently added to the Biletnikoff watchlist: Cal’s Bryce Treggs, Oregon State’s Richard Mullaney and Washington State’s Gabe Marks, who are all in action this weekend. Utah's Dres Anderson is the fourth … UCLA and the Utes are off this week in anticipation of their Thursday night showdown next week in Salt Lake City.

Stanford looks to make statement

September, 19, 2013
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Arizona State coach Todd Graham has watched film of Stanford's first two games, against San Jose State and Army. He doesn't believe, however, it was terribly revealing. It seemed likely that the Cardinal have plenty of schematic inventory on both sides of the ball that they have yet to reveal.

"I think they've been very basic," Graham said. "Obviously, there's a lot more."

Of course, with Stanford, it's not really about fooling an opponent with scheme, though there's certainly some creativity within its rough-and-tumble ways. Stanford is about lining up and trying to push its opponent backwards. And the Cardinal have been pretty darn good at it for a while.

Summed up Graham, "They are going to bloody your nose, they are going to play great defense, and they are not going to beat themselves."

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
Brian Murphy/Icon SMIStanford coach David Shaw and QB Kevin Hogan haven't revealed a lot of wrinkles through two games.
Stanford has been the quietest of the nation's top-five teams. We've seen Alabama tested, Clemson make a statement, Oregon romp AQ conference foes and Ohio State grab national headlines with QB issues. The Cardinal, meanwhile, had a bye the first weekend then easily handled a San Jose State team that most folks don't realize is led by one of the nation's best quarterbacks. Last week, they were pretty lackluster in a win at Army, a game that was most notable for the collegiality among the teams and fan bases.

Stanford has yet to have a "hello world" moment, to announce itself as a Pac-12 and national title contender -- again. Therefore, a visit from No. 23 Arizona State should provide a strong initial test. This matchup certainly has more spice since the Pac-12 officials threw up on themselves last week at the end of the Sun Devils game against Wisconsin, allowing the Sun Devils to enter the game unbeaten and ranked.

It's also interesting that these teams have not seen each other since 2010, when Stanford and Andrew Luck prevailed in a 17-13 defensive struggle.

Stanford coach David Shaw, after watching the Sun Devils on film, sees a team that is different than old ASU crews. He sees a top-25 squad that plays smart football, which wasn't always the Sun Devils M.O. in the past.

"I'd wager to say maybe even a top-15 team, just as far as having the players and the scheme and the way the guys play, a quarterback who makes plays," Shaw said. "It's a big credit to what they have done there."

Shaw added, "They play as hard as anybody in our conference. I don't know if you said that about the Arizona State team in years past. You say it about these guys. They are going to fight you tooth and nail. They will get after you on both sides of the ball."

So even though you have an up-tempo spread team and a pro-style huddle-up team, the contrast in styles doesn't preclude it from being a physical, mano-a-mano matchup. It should help the Sun Devils that they got a test run of physical, line of scrimmage football last week against the Badgers and proved more than up to the task. The Cardinal, however, are far more talented on both lines than Wisconsin.

Further, Stanford is much better at quarterback. While the Cardinal offense is run first, it also has an improved downfield passing attack with quarterback Kevin Hogan, now a second-year starter.

"We're attempting more downfield, explosive passes than we have the last few years, but that doesn't take anything away from our basic identity as a power, downhill-running team," Shaw said.

While Stanford probably has been sandbagging a bit, that doesn't change the fact its first notion will be overpowering the smaller Sun Devils lines. The Cardinal are about imposing their will, and they will try to do that before they worry about being tricky.

"That's always what we strive for," running back Tyler Gaffney said. "We want people to know how we play. As Coach Shaw says, we're not a team that tries to put up 50 points. We grind. Everybody knows that. We run power for 4 yards a pop, 4 yards a pop, 4 yards a pop."

That approach might not be as fancy as Oregon's, but it undeniably has worked over the past three years while the Cardinal have won 35 games. Arizona State, however, should provide a nice test for whether it will continue to work as well in 2013.

Graham, ASU ready to kick off season

September, 5, 2013
9/05/13
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The Week 1 bye, as it turned out, was a good thing for the Arizona State Sun Devils. Position battles were solidified, dings and bruises were nurtured, and newcomers were deeply acclimated to the scheme and way of life at ASU.

[+] EnlargeTodd Graham
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriTodd Graham's Sun Devils open their season tonight at home against Sacramento State.
But now they are ready to start hitting someone in a different uniform. After spending last weekend watching games, the Sun Devils are anxious to play one of their own. They get their first shot tonight by hosting Sacramento State.

“I’ve never had the first week off,” said ASU coach Todd Graham. “I wasn’t too fired up about it, but it’s probably been an advantage for us because we have so many newcomers in the two-deep to get them ready to play. As a coach, I’ve enjoyed the more time to prepare, but our guys are really, really ready to start playing. You only get 29 opportunities to practice, but it seems like it’s been a lot longer than that. They are itching and ready to go.”

The last time the Sun Devils were on the field, they were thrashing Navy in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. Since then, ASU has experienced a significant hype bump, fueled by the return of defensive tackle Will Sutton and lofty expectations for key returners like quarterback Taylor Kelly, running backs Marion Grice and D.J. Foster and hybrid linebacker Carl Bradford, among others.

In fact, Graham had his players doing extra conditioning in practice this week to remind them that it’s game week -- and the intensity needs to rise.

“We set a standard, but that was a minimum standard,” Graham said. “Now we are taking the standard higher. That goes for our best players. Our deal is total accountability. That is what these guys want. They want to be held accountable. Every single up-down represents a mental error, critical error or a turnover. That is why we are doing that.”

Sacramento State lost its opener, 24-0, last week to San Jose State. But the Hornets are no strangers to the Pac-12. Last season, they topped Colorado and the year before, they beat Oregon State. And after what happened with the Beavers last week, Graham knows not to take anything for granted.

“Just like any team, they have got good skill players,” Graham said. “They are well-coached on offense, in the kicking game. The key for us is not turning the ball over and not beating ourselves in the kicking game.

"... I have been on that side a lot coming from mid-major programs. I know how we prepared. It is their entire season. It can make their entire season. I haven’t sat there and told our players you better get prepared or you will get beat. I tell them that the key is that they have no excuse. We can’t make any excuses. This is a game we should win.”

Last Saturday, Graham and his staff spent the day channel surfing. They watched the Sacramento State game, USC, UCLA, Washington and Wisconsin -- teams they will see in the future. Some sooner than others.

“I didn’t go fishing,” Graham joked.

The Sun Devils will be looking for an efficient performance tonight on both sides of the ball. And if things go well, perhaps they'll get the opportunity to rest some starters before kicking off one of the most brutal four-game stretches in college football. Next week they host No. 21 Wisconsin before traveling to No. 5 Stanford, home to No. 25 USC and then traveling to Dallas for a neutral-site game against No. 14 Notre Dame.

“In the next five weeks, something is going to happen,” Graham said. “We could be 5-0 or we could be 2-3, 1-4. These are all things that could happen. The most important thing if we are 2-3, we have got to make sure we are 2-0 in conference.”

Pac-12 preseason power rankings

August, 26, 2013
8/26/13
9:01
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And so it begins.

Welcome to game week. These are the preseason power rankings. You can see our post-spring power rankings here. They are different.

1. Stanford: Both Kevin and Ted went against the popular grain -- as in the Pac-12 media poll -- and picked Stanford to win the Pac-12. The biggest reason for that, other than the Cardinal winning in Eugene in 2012 and welcoming back a strong crew of starters, is the continuity in the head coaching office.

2. Oregon: The Ducks are again a preseason top-five team and national title contender, with their North Division rivalry with Stanford becoming one of college football's must-see games. There are plenty of reasons to believe that new coach Mark Helfrich, stepping up from offensive coordinator, will maintain the juggernaut Chip Kelly built, including having just about all of Kelly's assistant coaches coming back. But there is certainty only in seeing it happen on the field. The Ducks do have an advantage in terms of schedule, with Stanford playing USC, UCLA and Arizona State, and Oregon missing the Trojans and Sun Devils. And Stanford doesn't play Colorado, either.

3. Arizona State: The South Division seems to be a three-team toss-up. When Kevin and I tossed our coin, it came up with the Sun Devils. Taylor Kelly leads the offense and Will Sutton leads the defense. Pretty good start. Of course, the early schedule will reveal a lot.

4. UCLA: The Bruins have the toughest conference schedule among South Division teams, mostly because they play Oregon. ASU and USC do not. There are some questions, but QB Brett Hundley and OLB Anthony Barr are a pair of future NFL first-round picks.

5. USC: The Trojans were seventh in the spring, in large part because of residual fumes from a horribly disappointing 2012 campaign. Also, coach Lane Kiffin sits on the hottest seat in the conference. But if you look at the Trojans on paper, well, it's not too difficult to imagine this team getting on a roll, one that could lead it back into the nation's top 10.

6. Washington: The Huskies not only have 20 starters back, they also are getting back several former starters who were injured last season, most notably DE Hau'oli Kikaha -- who changed his last name from Jamora -- and OG Colin Tanigawa. Both topped the depth chart released this weekend. This team, after three consecutive seven-win seasons, sets up for a return to national relevance. The opener in newly remodeled Husky Stadium against Boise State is, well, huge.

7. Oregon State: The Beavers still haven't named a starting quarterback -- the Pac-12 blog is of the mind we'll likely see both Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz in at least the first two games. The big question, however, remains: How will things work out at defensive tackle? If that question is answered, it could be a big year in Corvallis.

8. Arizona: The Wildcats are operating under the radar because of two questions: 1) QB play; 2) defense. They are replacing the highly productive Matt Scott, and even though a lot of folks are back on defense, that unit got run over in 2012. The defense is going to be better. How much is a fair question. And how much can the guy behind center do his best Scott imitation?

9. Utah: The transition to the Pac-12 probably hasn't been as easy as most Utah folks -- coaches, players and fans -- expected. Still, if QB Travis Wilson takes a step forward under new co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson and the Utes fill some holes on defense, this team could move up at least to the middle of the conference. Needs to stay healthy, though.

10. California: When you look at the Bears' depth chart, this seems low, even with a true freshman, Jared Goff, taking over behind center with a brutal early schedule. Still, there might be some growing pains under new coach Sonny Dykes, as his schemes on both sides of the ball are very different compared with what the Bears did under Jeff Tedford.

11. Washington State: The Cougars welcome back 17 starters, and they seem certain to be improved in the second season under coach Mike Leach. The defense has sneaky-good talent, and the deep crew of receivers seems perfect for Leach's "Air Raid" scheme. Of course, dramatic improvement might mean only five victories against a rugged schedule, including the opener at Auburn.

12. Colorado: The Buffaloes should be better this season under first-year coach Mike MacIntyre, but that likely won't be enough for them to move up in this conference.

Pac-12 defenses closing the gap

August, 21, 2013
8/21/13
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Changing the perception of a league is no easy task. And for the Pac-12, bucking its offense-first image may never happen.

As long as Oregon keeps gobbling up points by the minute and yards by the mile; as long as Rich Rodriguez does what RichRod does and there are Air Raids and Bear Raids about, offense will always be associated with the Pac-12. As long as De’Anthony Thomas and Marion Grice can score from anywhere; as long as Marqise Lee keeps turning a 4-yard slant into an 80-yard touchdown; as long as Ka’Deem Carey is running wild and Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley are burning up stat sheets, Pac-12 defenses will continue to be overshadowed.

And yet …

[+] EnlargeAnthony Barr
Jonathan Moore/Getty ImagesUCLA linebacker Anthony Barr leads an impressive group of defenders in the Pac-12.
“I would love to see an all-star game with our conference’s defensive players on the same team,” said Stanford coach David Shaw. “I think it would be phenomenal, and scary. Anthony Barr is borderline unblockable. Will Sutton gets in the backfield seemingly every play, single block, double block, whatever. Morgan Breslin, Sutton and Ben Gardner on the line and Shayne Skov sideline to sideline with Barr coming off the edge.

“Maybe we’re getting to a golden era for defensive players in this conference because you’ve got good defensive units and some really elite standout players.”

Last season, five Pac-12 teams ranked in the top 15 nationally in sacks per game including Stanford (first), Arizona State (second), USC (fourth), UCLA (eighth) and Washington State (14th). That’s up from three teams in the top 20 in 2011, two teams in the top 20 in 2010 and zero teams in the top 10 in 2009.

ASU and Stanford were first and second, respectively, in tackles for a loss per game, and WSU and USC ranked in the top 11. It’s a given that a lot of points will be scored in the Pac-12. But defenses are making it tougher.

“It’s been an interesting evolution,” said Oregon State coach Mike Riley, the dean of the Pac-12 who is entering his 13th season. “What you’re seeing is a premium on speed and guys with a lot of flexibility. There are still big people that need to play on the interior. But your edges -- if you’re going to lead the league in sacks -- then having a great edge rusher is always at a premium.”

Guys like the aforementioned Barr, Sutton and Breslin, Stanford’s Trent Murphy, Oregon State’s Scott Crichton, Cal's Deandre Coleman and ASU’s Carl Bradford are in that conversation. All of them are expected to rank among the nation’s best in sacks and TFLs. That should make for a heated debate when picking the league’s defensive player of the year.

And who says it will be someone from the front seven? Four Pac-12 teams were among the top 20 in interceptions last year, and Oregon led the country. The Ducks have the nation’s best cornerback duo with Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Terrance Mitchell, while Stanford boasts the outstanding safety tandem of Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards. Oregon State’s Ryan Murphy, USC’s Dion Bailey and WSU’s Deone Bucannon are also elite safeties.

Washington might have the best young defensive player in the league in Shaq Thompson.

“You can have a high-powered offense that puts up big points, but if you can’t stop anybody, it’s anyone’s game,” said Sutton. “With a great defense, you can accomplish anything.”

Those who follow the league know there have been great defenses in the past. Washington in the early '90s and Arizona’s Bear Down defense come to mind. Behind all of USC’s Heisman quarterbacks a decade ago were outstanding defenses.

“I think what we’re starting to see is the individual players and coordinators starting to get some notoriety,” said Shaw, whose team ranked fifth nationally against the run last year -- an amazing statistic considering the running backs they faced in 2012. “When Oregon started being really good and scoring a ton of points, people didn’t realize they were keeping people from scoring too and playing great defense. To this day I still think they have the most underrated defensive coordinator [Nick Aliotti] in the country.”

One of the major challenges of being a defensive coach in the Pac-12 is the diversity of offenses. Oregon’s spread is considered run-based, yet the Ducks had the most efficient passing attack in the league. Arizona’s spread is considered pass-based, yet its running back led the nation in rushing. Stanford is considered “conventional” with its pro-style, but it’ll use personnel groups with seven offensive linemen.

“I don’t even know what pro-style means anymore,” said UCLA coach Jim Mora. “The perceptions are distorted. You can break down a spread offense or a pro-style and they’ll have the same route concepts. There are only so many. But the formations are different. The personnel is different. The motion before the snap is different. The league has so many speed athletes so one of the reasons we play a 3-4 is to get more speed athletes on the field.”

It’s time, says Bucannon, to let rest of the country know the Pac-12 can play a little defense, too.

“We have fast, up-tempo teams and marquee offensive players. At the same time, there are some great defensive players on that side of the ball,” he said. “And we refuse to be overshadowed.”
Who is this year’s Johnny Manziel in the Pac-12? In other words, which player could come out of nowhere and win the Heisman from the conference? Well, if we knew, he wouldn't be coming out of nowhere in the preseason, now, would he?

Perhaps it is better that the Pac-12’s elite players are coasting below Mr. Heisman's persnickety radar. After all, front-runner status hasn't been kind to the Pac-12 the past couple of years. Two seasons ago it was Andrew Luck -- a shoo-in from the day he announced his return to take home the Heisman. Last year, it was Matt Barkley who had the unpropitious front-runner title pegged on him.

Luck carried the title much longer in his final season. Barkley, however, quickly gave way to Geno Smith, who in turn gave way to Collin Klein, who in turn fell to Johnny Football.

[+] EnlargeMarion Grice
Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY SportsArizona State's Marion Grice averaged 6.6 yards per carry and had 11 touchdowns last season.
So how about the Pac-12?

Marcusy Football?

Marqy Football?

DATy Football?

Ka’Deemy Football?

Bretty Football?

Not exactly phonetically pleasing.

Within the Pac-12, there aren't many dark-horse candidates. There are some front-runners who immediately come to mind: Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and De’Anthony Thomas, USC’s Marqise Lee, Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey and UCLA’s Brett Hundley. But none of them are considered national front-runners with Manziel (maybe?) back to defend his title, Braxton Miller coming off a perfect season, AJ McCarron and his ridiculous 30-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio last year and Teddy Bridgewater soaking up his share of hype.

You can make a case for all five in the preseason. Mariota and Thomas will be playing for a top-five team, which always helps garner the necessary attention from the national media, and they should continue to put up video game numbers. Hundley is one of the most exciting players in the league, and with a year of maturity, many are anxious to see just how far he can lead the Bruins. Lee was last year’s Biletnikoff winner and is arguably the top skill player in the country. Carey was last year’s national leader in rushing. Solid credentials for all.

But this is about the sleepers. The guys who are so under the radar they're practically stealth. So who are they?

You have to start with ASU’s Marion Grice, who is going to continue putting up fantastic dual-threat numbers as a runner and receiver. He’s packed on more weight and ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said they've expanded the playbook now that he and quarterback Taylor Kelly are a year into the system. (Probably not a bad idea to keep an eye on Kelly, either).

Stanford’s Kevin Hogan could also be a sleeper. Like the Oregon duo, he’ll be on a high-profile team that is going to get plenty of national exposure with showdowns against Oregon, UCLA, USC and Notre Dame on the 2013 docket. He’s not as flashy as the other players and his numbers might not be as lofty, but he’s asked to do a lot more behind the scenes than a lot of other quarterbacks. That was Luck’s brilliance, as well as his Heisman curse.

The appearance of Manti Te’o in New York last year proved defensive players aren't immune to getting some attention in the spread era. So UCLA’s Anthony Barr and ASU’s Will Sutton certainly deserve to be in the conversation if we’re talking defensive players. Both should be atop the national defensive rankings in sacks and tackles for a loss. But both will have to play well enough to surpass the well-deserved hype of South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney and overcome the public perception of the Pac-12 when it comes to defense. As I’ve written previously, the Heisman is all about subjectivity and perception. (Full disclosure, I have Clowney No. 1 on my preseason Heisman ballot).

Finally, a guy who I think is really a long shot -- but should be getting more love than he is -- is Oregon State running back Storm Woods. In the Beavers’ first six games against FBS opponents in 2013, they face only one defense that ranked in the top 20 last year in total rushing yards allowed (Utah), and only one other in the top 50 (San Diego State). The opportunity will be there early in the season for Woods to make a name for himself. He’s got four of five offensive linemen coming back (including an outstanding center), an offense that wants to be more balanced, and a quarterback-to-be-named who is a veteran and knows the offense. He’s also really, really good.

It’s probably best not to put all your hopes into one of these guys winning the Heisman. For now, it’s safer to track the conference front-runners. But don’t sleep on these guys, either.

The next Stormy Football is just waiting to breakout.

Walter Camp watch list announced

July, 19, 2013
7/19/13
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The Walter Camp Award, given annually to the best player in college football, announced its 50-man watch list on Friday, and it includes nine Pac-12 players.

Price is obviously making the list based on his 2011 reputation. You could make an argument UCLA QB Brett Hundley and Arizona State QB Taylor Kelly deserve inclusion.

Here's the complete list:
Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
Antonio Andrews, RB, Western Kentucky
Dri Archer, RB, Kent State
Tajh Boyd, QB, Clemson
Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
Kolton Browning, QB, Louisiana Monroe
Anthony Barr, LB, UCLA
Ka’Deem Carey, RB, Arizona *
Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State
Rakeem Cato, QB, Marshall
Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina *
Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama
David Fluellen, RB, Toledo
Phillip Gaines, DB, Rice
Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia
John Hubert, RB, Kansas State
Jackson Jeffcoat, DE, Texas
Duke Johnson, RB, Miami Fla. #
Chuckie Keeton, QB, Utah State
Marqise Lee, WR, USC *
Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan *
Jordan Lynch, QB, Northern Illinois
Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M *
Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon
Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M #
Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt
Venric Mark, RB, Northwestern
Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska
AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama
Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State
C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama *
Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia
Louis Nix III, DE, Notre Dame
Casey Pachall, QB, TCU
Keith Price, QB, Washington
Silas Redd, RB, USC
Bradley Roby, DB, Ohio State #
Tyler Russell, QB, Mississippi State
Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington
Lache Seastrunk, RB, Baylor
Yawin Smallwood, LB, Connecticut
Will Sutton, DT, Arizona State #
Tyler Tettleton, QB, Ohio
De’Anthony Thomas, RB, Oregon
Logan Thomas, QB, Virginia Tech
Stephon Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame #
Kyle Van Noy, LB, BYU
Jason Verrett, DB, TCU #
Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama

* 2012 Walter Camp First Team All-American
# - 2012 Walter Camp Second Team All-American

Pac-12 media day primer

July, 12, 2013
7/12/13
10:05
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Two weeks and counting. Ted and I are gearing up for media day. Are you? Here's what you should know.

When: July 26

Where: Sony Studios, Los Angeles

Who will be there (all times PT):
UPDATE: Arizona State informed me Friday morning that it has decided to bring Will Sutton instead of safety Alden Darby. This is a good thing because Sutton was the league's defensive player of the year last season, and his presence helps bolster his name -- and the program -- in the eyes of the national media.

Who won’t be there: The biggest name missing is Arizona running back Ka'Deem Carey, who led the nation in rushing last season. Coaches tend to bring veterans and guys with experience. Yankey is a great spokesman for Stanford and a good candidate, but I know others wouldn't mind hearing some thoughts from Cardinal QB Kevin Hogan.

Five storylines:
  1. Hitting? Scott is expected to announce the league's health and safety initiative, which will limit how much hitting can be done in practice. This isn't a new concept, but the league jumped in front of it by being the first to make a conference-wide mandate.
  2. Bowl updates? We know the status of the Rose, Alamo, Holiday, Kraft Fight Hunger and Sun bowls. Not sure if the rest of the lineup for beyond this season will be announced at media day. But one of us will ask.
  3. New coaches: This is the meet-the-world opportunity for the new head coaches in the league: Dykes, MacIntyre and Helfrich. Expect the requisite questions on the difficulty of changing cultures and rebuilding programs.
  4. Preseason poll: Is there any fodder better than preseason polls? Oregon or Stanford? Stanford or Oregon? ASU, UCLA or USC? Your Pac-12 bloggers will be submitting their ballots this weekend after a visit to the Oracle of Delphi, a seance channeling Nostradamus and a dartboard.
  5. Quirky questions: With the access of media day comes the spectacle of media day. Granted, it's not as bad as some of the quirks at Super Bowl media day. But there's bound to be a couple of left-field questions -- and they'll probably be directed at Leach, who is great and usually has fun with them. Last year he was asked which Pac-12 coach he'd go hunting with and which Civil War generals he'd compare some of his players to.

Ted and I will be trying something new this year (we think). Instead of the on-the-stage posts, we'll be doing a live chat during the entire stage session and bringing you info real time. So take note of the times (in Pacific, to save you the math) and be ready to interact.

Take 2: B1G vs. Pac-12

July, 12, 2013
7/12/13
9:00
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Your B1G and Pac-12 bloggers have been grinding away on their respective leagues' nonconference primer series. Here's the Big Ten series, and here's the Pac-12 series. Part of the fun is learning about other teams in other conferences and what they bring to the table. The Pac-12 and Big Ten face each other five times during the regular season. The Pac-12 got the better of the matchups last year. Will this year be different? Brian Bennett and Kevin Gemmell decided to talk it over.

Brian Bennett: The first thing I look at for Big Ten-Pac-12 matchups in any given season is where the games are staged. Big Ten teams don’t seem to think the West Coast is the Best Coast; they are just 5-20 in true road games against the Pac-12 since 2000, and that includes an 0-3 mark on the road versus the Pac-12 last year. (The league also has just one win in its past 10 Rose Bowls, but not all of those games came against the Pac-12.)

[+] EnlargeGary Andersen
AP Photo/David StlukaNew coach Gary Andersen and the Badgers will have their hands full at ASU this season.
So it’s not good news for the league that I cover that three of these five matchups are located far left of the Midwest. If there’s any reason for optimism, it’s that the Big Ten teams should be substantial favorites in two of the road games -- Northwestern at Cal in the opener and Ohio State against those same Bears in Week 3. Cal is intriguing because of new coach Sonny Dykes, but Northwestern and Ohio State are both legitimate Top 20 teams with conference-title aspirations; if they can shake off the jet lag and contain the Bears’ passing attack, they should take care of business.

The two most interesting games -- and what look like virtual toss-ups -- are Wisconsin at Arizona State, and UCLA at Nebraska. The Badgers have a lot of returning talent, but a new head coach and different schemes on both sides of the ball. It’s also going to be a clash of styles, with the Badgers’ power running game going up against Arizona State’s spread offense. Will Gary Andersen’s team have its new systems figured out by then, and is Wisconsin’s defense -- particularly its inexperienced secondary -- fast enough to handle the Sun Devils?

UCLA-Nebraska is probably not getting enough attention as a must-watch game this year. Last year’s shootout in Pasadena, Calif., featured nonstop pingpong action, and both teams figure to have topflight offenses again. The Cornhuskers have a perilously young defense, but Bo Pelini’s teams usually defend much better at home than on the road. Quarterback Taylor Martinez -- who grew up a Bruins fan but was recruited by them as a defensive back -- will be highly motivated to beat UCLA his senior year. This is Nebraska’s only major test in the first seven games, and it’s one I think the Huskers have to find a way to win.

Finally, there’s Washington at Illinois. The Illini get the benefit of home turf, sort of, as the game will be played at Soldier Field in Chicago. We’ll see if Tim Beckman’s crew will inspire enough fans to show up by Week 3. While Washington has been mediocre for what seems like forever, I can’t confidently pick Illinois to beat any half-decent power conference opponent at this point.

In the end, I say the Big Ten manages a winning record this time around against the Pac-12, taking the two games in Berkeley, Calif., and the one in Lincoln, Neb. A 3-2 mark sounds about right, though if Wisconsin can pull off the win in the desert, that could be a good sign for both the Badgers and the league as a whole.

Kevin Gemmell: I'm going 3-2 also, but in favor of the Pac-12. After all, if we were in total agreement, it would make for a pretty boring Take 2. So I'll play the contrarian when it comes to UCLA-Nebraska.

[+] EnlargeJim Mora
William Mancebo/Getty ImagesCoach Jim Mora and UCLA allowed just six points in the second half of last year's win against Nebraska.
We agree on the Cal games versus Northwestern and Ohio State -- though I think Cal is going to give both of those teams a better run than they are banking on. I like what Andy Buh is doing with a defense that could be sneaky good. And the Bears have some explosive depth at wide receiver. But ultimately it's a rookie quarterback -- whomever Dykes chooses among Zach Kline, Jared Goff and Austin Hinder -- and a team that will still have some growing pains as new systems are installed on both sides of the ball. Like you with Illinois, I'm not ready to give the Bears the green light yet. However, last year's game in Columbus, a 35-28 win for Ohio State, should serve as a reminder not to take Cal lightly. No doubt, the Buckeyes will remember Brendan Bigelow and his four carries, 160 yards and two touchdowns.

Both halves of the Pac-12 blog have been saying we believe Washington is going to get over that seven-win hump this year after three straight seasons of mediocrity. The Huskies have a lot of pieces in place with a returning quarterback, a 1,400-yard rusher, good receivers, a good line and the top tight end in the country. Their defense made huge strides last season in the first year under Justin Wilcox, and we're expecting another leap forward in 2013. What scares me is Washington's inconsistent play on the road the past few seasons. During the Huskies' trio of 7-6 seasons, they are 14-5 in Seattle (last year they played at CenturyLink Field) and 6-11 on the road. The past two years they are 11-2 at home and 3-8 on the road (0-2 in their bowl games at neutral sites). If the Huskies want to have a breakout year, they are going to have to win away from home. Steve Sarkisian actually talked about this in a Q&A we did back in April. But they certainly have the talent to win this game.

The ASU-Wisconsin game is really a critical one for the Sun Devils. It kicks off a four-game stretch (with no bye weeks) that also includes Stanford, USC and Notre Dame. ASU is another team looking for some national credibility, and this is its first opportunity to get some. You're right to talk about the ASU offense, but that defense -- which ranked first nationally in tackles for a loss and second in sacks last season -- is going to be crazy good with Will Sutton and Carl Bradford leading the attack. I'm banking on a good game, but ultimately one ASU wins at home.

That brings us to UCLA-Nebraska, a game I'm also surprised more people aren't geeked up about outside of the respective fan bases. This should be a fantastic showcase for both leagues. Brett Hundley impressed in his freshman campaign, and I think this game is going to be a spotlight for two of the country's most athletic quarterbacks. I was in Pasadena for the game last season, and what actually stood out to me was UCLA's defense -- particularly in the second half. The Bruins allowed only six points, and kept Martinez to 11 yards rushing and the Huskers to 106 total yards in the final 30 minutes. They should be improved in Year 2 under Jim Mora and Lou Spanos. If the Bruins pull this one off, it's going to be because of what they can do defensively.
Another preseason list. But this one is different.

Athlon has released its preseason All-America team and 22 Pac-12 players were tapped for four teams at 23 spots, second only to the SEC's 25. However, the Pac-12 actually leads all of college football with eight players on the first-team (it probably should be nine, but Anthony Barr was relegated to the second team). The SEC is second with seven.

Here are the Pac-12 players selected:

First-Team Offense
First-Team Defense
Second-Team Offense
Second-Team Defense
Second-Team Specialists
Third-Team Offense
Third-Team Defense
Fourth-Team Offense
Fourth-Team Defense
Thoughts: As always, subjective lists are going to be debatable. For the most part, I think Athlon hit on almost all of the Pac-12 players who should be hit in the preseason. It's nice to see Su'a-Filo get some recognition because I think it's warranted and he'll prove worthy of it by year's end. Same with Sankey and Coyle. Cooks is a pleasant surprise. While I think he certainly has the potential to be on this list, we really need to see someone else step up opposite him to free him up the way Markus Wheaton did last year.

As noted above, I'd have Barr on my first team. But one glaring omission is Stanford safety Jordan Richards. I get Ed Reynolds being on the first team -- that seems to be a popular consensus among the preseason lists. But no Richards at all is a big miss. My guess is both will end up splitting AA honors at the end of the year because both are that good. I just have a hard time believing there are seven other safeties better than Richards.

I didn't mind Bailey on the list. And I think the move back to the secondary is going to be huge for him and for the Trojans. But he's taken some time off from the position and might need a readjustment period. And for that reason, I think second team is too high for him -- especially when Richards is off the board.

I think the same Reynolds/Richards argument can be made for Oregon's Terrance Mitchell (who could be on one of these teams as well) and Ekpre-Olomu, who certainly benefited from having a lockdown corner on the opposite side. As a result, his numbers ballooned. While Richards/Reynolds are the best safety duo in the league (probably the country), the Mitchell/Ekpre-Olomu tandem makes up the best cornerback duo in the league (probably the country).

Finally, I understand the rationale for not having Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota one one of the four teams. Heck, Teddy Bridgewater -- perceived to be the top quarterback in the country by many -- didn't make the list. But I think when all is said and done, Mariota will get All-America honors because his numbers will be too good to overlook. He's shown to be a true dual-threat with precision passing and pretty darn good running skills.

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