Take 2: Who's stuck at No. 26?

August, 10, 2012
8/10/12
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Many of you have been following along with our preseason Top 25. The comments have been great, as have some of your predictions. Some are close -- if not dead on. Others, well, we'll call them a wee bit homerish. But hey, you're allowed. That's what makes the Pac-12 readers the best darn readers in the ESPN blogosphere.

When No. 1 is revealed, there is invariably going to be blow-back for those left out. Which is understandable. Bubble teams in the NCAA tournament always feel disrespected. As do bubble players and their fans. So for this week's Take 2, we offer you the player we feel is No. 26 -- that bubble guy that just missed the top 25.

[+] EnlargeScott Crichton
Jim Z. Rider/US PresswireOregon State's Scott Crichton led all Pac-12 defensive ends with 74 tackles as a redshirt freshman in 2011.
Ted Miller: There's a fairly long list of guys Kevin and I left out of our top 25. Painfully left out. My guess, in fact, is many of you will be able to name most of that left-off list when the top 25 is finished. I reviewed nine guys before making my call for elusive No. 26, the equivalent of fourth place on the Olympic medal stand (but surely more prestigious).

My pick for No. 26 is Oregon State defensive end Scott Crichton. How the heck did one of the Pac-12's most productive defensive players get left off this list?

As a redshirt freshman, Crichton ranked second in the Pac-12 with 14.5 tackles for a loss, which was tops in the nation among freshmen. But that doesn't tell the whole story. He piled up those plays in 12 games -- most players on the list played in 13 games -- and 14 of his TFL were solo stops, most in the conference. He also led the Beavers with six sacks.

Further, he led all conference defensive ends with 74 total tackles, ranking 19th overall in the conference with 6.0 tackles per game. Two words for an end that makes that many tackles: High motor.

But that's not even the best part about Crichton, who was named Freshman All-America first team by CBSSports.com, Yahoo! Sports, Phil Steele, College Football News and The Sporting News.

Crichton, who was All-Pac-12 honorable mention in 2011, forced a conference-high six fumbles. That's 0.5 take-aways per game. Ask the defensive coordinator in your neighborhood how meaningful that is.

Crichton, 6-foot-3, 263 pounds, also played some of his best football late in the season, even though it was a horrible one for the Beavers. Against Washington in week 11, he had seven tackles -- two coming for a loss -- a sack, two forced fumbles and one pass breakup, earning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week honors. Wonder if the Tacoma native was motivated by playing against a hometown team that didn't recruit him? Then, in the Civil War against Oregon, he had a season-high 12 tackles. His teammates went on to vote him the Beavers' Most Improved Player on defense.

Now the top 25 is a combination of looking back -- what has a player accomplished -- and looking forward, a player's upside. Crichton obviously did well last year, but his posting such impressive numbers as a redshirt freshman is tough to ignore. You'd think Crichton has plenty of room to get better. In fact, coach Mike Riley lauded Crichton and fellow DE Dylan Wynn for their offseason work. Said Riley, "The thing I like about Crichton and Dylan Wynn is they both improved their [weight room] numbers substantially."

So, after all this waving of the Crichton flag -- "Gooooo Scott! Yeah!" -- why was he left off? It's a fair question, and I bet Crichton knows the answer himself. Of course, it starts with the Beavers being pretty terrible on defense last year. It's hard to get credit with a unit that did a lot of bending and breaking, yielding a conference-worst 196.8 yards rushing per game. And, with Crichton, he was a bit feast or famine. He either made a nice play or got blocked. If an offensive tackle got his hands on him, it was usually a win for the tackle. It shouldn't be surprising that a redshirt freshman would struggle physically at times. Crichton needs to keep making plays -- forcing turnovers, pressuring QBs -- but he also needs to hold his ground consistently against the run and not just rely on quickness.

And if he does that, he'll make the postseason top 25, which is more important anyway.

[+] EnlargeMichael Clay
AP Photo/Don RyanOregon LB Michael Clay finished second in the Pac-12 last season with 9.3 tackles per game.
Kevin Gemmell: Make no mistake, we are leaving some really, really good players off this list. Between the two of us, we probably started with an initial number of 45-50 players and painfully whittled from there. And looking at our top 25, it's amazing how many good players aren't on there -- simply because there are so many great players at other positions that can't be left off. Clearly, tough choices had to be made, but it also speaks to the depth of talent in this conference.

Like Ted, I went through the process of re-breaking down the players we left off the top 25, from Crichton's teammate Markus Wheaton to Oregon running back Kenjon Barner. I told Ted we could just package him and De'Anthony Thomas together. But he said he tried that once and it didn't work out so well.

I kid. Save the hate mail. Barner is on there.

My No. 26, however, is from Oregon. And it's linebacker Michael Clay. I might be projecting a bit, because he wasn't on the postseason top 25, nor was he on the first- or second-team All-Pac-12 last year. He wasn't even honorable mention. And yet all this guy does is make plays. He was one of only five players to break the century mark in tackles last year with 102 -- and he did it in 11 games -- making him second in the conference last year in tackles per game at 9.3. He also had 8.5 tackles for a loss, forced a pair of fumbles, recovered two fumbles (including the clincher in the Rose Bowl) and he picked off two passes -- one he returned for a touchdown against Colorado.

He shows up in big games. Since we're talking Rose Bowl, he posted a career-high 13 tackles in one of the biggest wins in school history, two of those going for a loss. He also had 12 tackles against USC and 11 (eight solo) in the victory at Stanford -- the biggest game in the Pac-12 at the time.

And since Ted brought up "high motors," you have to be a high-motor guy to play defense for Oregon, which was last in the Pac-12 in time of possession. Heck, they were last in the NCAA -- which means no defense spends more time on the field than Oregon's. Did that inflate his numbers? Maybe. But Oregon still allowed only 24.6 points per game and he still had to make the plays. Not too shabby considering the defense is on the field, on average, more than 35 minutes per game.

There are some very good defensive players left off this list -- his teammate, Kiko Alonso for one, Stanford defensive end Ben Gardner -- a second-team all-conference pick is another. WSU's Travis Long was also a second-teamer who isn't on the list. So you can start to see just how grueling narrowing this down can be.

But Clay was the most productive -- statistically speaking -- of them all. And if this truly is the best defense of the Chip Kelly era, Clay is going to be a big reason why it all comes together for the Ducks.

So why was he left off? Well, as previously noted, he didn't have the postseason accolades that many others did -- including some who didn't make the top-25 cut. Clay is a very, very good linebacker who is on the verge of becoming a great linebacker. When that happens, the postseason honors will come -- including a spot on the postseason top 25.

Being No. 26 stings. But not as badly as meeting Clay head-on between the tackles.

Ted Miller | email

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