Pac-12: Arizona State Sun Devils

Spring has sprung, which means every team can show you hope in a handful of grass -- real or artificial.

Some Pac-12 teams have already started, such as Colorado and Stanford, and others begin this week, such as Arizona, Oregon State and USC. Others start later.

But it feels like the right time to take a look at 10 burning issues in the conference. Please keep your hands clear of this post, as it is sizzling hot.

1. Life after Marcus Mariota at Oregon: You might recall Oregon's quarterback over the past three years was a pretty fair player. But Mariota is off to the NFL, where he's sure to get blinged up, buy four Bentleys and start giving everyone alternating left-right cheek air kisses. That leaves the Ducks with a vacancy behind center. While many -- including a few of my esteemed Pac-12 blog associates -- believe Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams is almost certain to take over when he arrives in the fall, you all know I am an inveterate party pooper, so I'm skeptical the transition to an FCS QB, albeit a very good one, will be all rainbows and puppy dogs. So what happens this spring, pre-Adams, should have a high degree of relevance for the ensuing fall competition. That means Jeff Lockie and Morgan Mahalak or someone else has an opportunity to throw down the gauntlet and stake a strong claim to the job.

[+] EnlargeGary Andersen
Susan Ragan/USA TODAY SportsOregon State's Gary Andersen is the only new head coach in the Pac-12.
2. Gary Andersen takes over at Oregon State: Mike Riley started the 2014 season as the dean of Pac-12 coaches. Stanford coach David Shaw went so far as to call him the Godfather, which showed Shaw was once a reader of the Pac-12 blog's "Best case-worst case" stories. Riley, however, will begin the 2015 season at Nebraska, a stunning development that is, well, still a bit stunning. Enter Andersen, who's hiring away from Big Ten power Wisconsin was almost as much of a stunner. That means the Beavers, the only Pac-12 team to change head coaches, will be installing new systems on both sides of the ball, as well as getting to know a new coaching staff. Andersen certainly will want to get past the "Hello, my name is..." phase as quickly as possible.

3. USC returns returns to national relevance? The first issue here is whether this deserved a question mark or a period, because the Trojans are fairly certain to begin the 2015 season ranked in the top 10. That means they start the season nationally relevant, period. The question mark, though, concerns whether they can sustain that elevation as they move beyond crippling NCAA sanctions with an impressive roster and improving depth. One might recall it wasn't too long ago when the program's "Unfinished Business" campaign flopped. Second-year coach Steve Sarkisian will be under not inconsiderable pressure to make sure he doesn't suffer through a Lane Kiffin redo.

4. UCLA replaces Brett Hundley: UCLA has 18 starters and a number of other contributors coming back from a team that won 10 games last season and finished ranked 10th. That makes you wonder if perhaps the wrong L.A. team is getting hyped. Ah, but the Bruins are replacing Hundley, a three-year starter who is on the short list of best QBs in program history. While it seems like more than a few folks -- NFL sorts, mostly -- are picking apart Hundley's game of late, what should stand out is how often he delivered for the Bruins, including a troika of wins over That Team From Downtown. Further, this is an interesting battle between a scrappy veteran with a familiar last name in junior Jerry Neuheisel, and a brash, touted true freshman in Josh Rosen, who entered school early with the anticipation of taking over for Hundley. It will be interesting to see if any pecking order develops this spring or if coaches drop an "or" between them on the depth chart. Oh, wait. UCLA is the only Pac-12 that doesn't publish a depth chart. Never mind.

5. Oregon State replaces Sean Mannion: Mannion and the Beavers didn't have a great 2014, but you don't say goodbye to a four-year starter with 83 career touchdown passes lightly and without some sense of transition, particularly when there's also a new coaching staff on hand. Things appear to be wide open between Luke Del Rio -- Mannion's backup -- Brent VanderVeen, Kyle Kempt, Marcus McMaryion, Nick Mitchell, etc. (There are seven QBs on the roster.) It seems reasonable to believe Andersen will want to winnow that list down to around three guys by the end of spring.

6. Washington's no-name defense{ The Huskies say goodbye to six defensive starters, including three -- linebackers Shaq Thompson and Hau'oli Kikaha and defensive tackle Danny Shelton -- who were first-team All-Pac-12 and earned All-American honors. All three are expected to be early picks in the NFL draft, so the talent drain is legitimate, not just a system thing. The only returning defender who earned any type of postseason recognition is true sophomore safety Budda Baker, who was honorable mention All-Pac-12 and has huge upside. That's a good start, but it's unlikely the Huskies will be able to replace these mainstays' production with typical depth-chart promotions. If the Huskies' defense is going to equal or, perhaps, exceed its 2014 numbers, it's going to have to play better as a team, which will be a key test of the second-year coaching staff led by coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski.

7. Getting coordinated: Oregon State had the only coaching change at the top, which included new coordinators on both sides of the ball, but four other teams have changed defensive coordinators and Utah replaced both coordinators, who both bolted for other jobs. Utes coach Kyle Whittingham went the familiar face route, promoting Aaron Roderick from within on offense to replace Dave Christensen, now at Texas A&M, and bringing John Pease out of retirement to replace longtime defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake, who joined Andersen at Oregon State. Colorado pushed aside defensive coordinator Kent Baer, who left for UNLV, and hired former South Florida head coach Jim Leavitt, a major coup for the Buffs. UCLA replaced Jeff Ulbrich, who departed for a job with the Atlanta Falcons, with former Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, who was at West Virginia in 2014. Washington State fired Mike Breske and replaced him with Alex Grinch, a defensive backs coach at Missouri last year. That's a pretty significant amount of turnover on one side of the ball, which will make life more interesting for the conference's offensive minds, particularly early in the season.

8. Stanford rebuilds defense: Speaking of defense, the conference's best unit over the past five years is replacing seven starters, including all of its D-linemen and three of four starters in the secondary. Further, a number of injuries, most notably to D-lineman Aziz Shittu and cornerback Ronnie Harris, will muddy the waters this spring. While it seems unlikely the bottom will fall out for the Cardinal -- there's plenty of promising youngsters on hand -- it's difficult to believe this won't be a transitional season on the mean side of the ball.

9. California dreaming? Cal has 17 starters back, second most in the conference and among the most in the nation, from a team that seemed to turn a corner in 2014 in Year 2 under Sonny Dykes. That crew includes quarterback Jared Goff, an NFL prospect who could make a star turn this fall if the Bears start to win. The offense, which averaged 38 points per game last season, should be good. The question is defense. That unit improved its points surrendered total by nearly a TD from 2013 to 2014, but that still ended up ranked last in the Pac-12 at 39.8 points per game. The Bears might be good enough to become bowl eligible with a defense that is only slightly better. But if they want to take a decisive step forward in the North Division, they need to at least find a way to be mediocre on defense.

10. Next-step QBs: Last season, the Pac-12 featured a glittering group of returning starting quarterbacks led by Mariota, Hundley, Mannion and Arizona State's Taylor Kelly. This year, seven teams welcome back established QBs, but the list is far less scintillating, while a couple other teams have decided front-runners at the position, most notably Mike Bercovici at Arizona State. USC's Cody Kessler leads the bunch, but he has to show he can win big games. Goff is a candidate for all-conference honors, and Stanford's Kevin Hogan finished strong last season after muddling through the first three-fourths of the season. Arizona's Anu Solomon and Colorado's Sefo Liufau are trying to take the proverbial next step, while Utah's Travis Wilson wants to show he should be a four-year starter this spring with Kendal Thompson out with an injury. Washington's returning starter, Cyler Miles, figures to face a tough challenge this spring to retain his job, while Washington State's Luke Falk wants to build on the mostly solid job he did after replacing Connor Halliday.
Happy Friday. Welcome to the mailbag.

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To the notes!

Caruso from Stamford, Connecticut, writes: With three of the Power 5 leagues at 14 teams, I propose we bring back to the table the expansion debate! The traditionalist in me wants to bring on Utah State and Colorado State to match up with their in-state rivals already in the Pac. This has an added bonus in that they've both been pretty good the past few years. Any chance this would ever have legs? I'm guessing in addition to the financial negotiations, there are some academic benchmarks and such that have to be met before schools can join the Pac, but just imagine all the joy brought to us Pac fans with mild OCD! Thoughts?

Ted Miller: What fans often miss about conference expansion discussions -- expansion that has happened or could happen -- is that it's not about "fan" things, such as picking up natural rivals or up-and-coming programs or even a program's tradition of success. It's about TV markets and revenue bottom lines.

When the discussion turns to expansion, the name of the school doesn't matter that much. It's the demographics and what those mean for the current members of the conference that's considering adding members. If Larry Scott had an expansion idea for the Pac-12 to become the Pac-14, the school presidents wouldn't particularly care about the name of the school or how it could upgrade the quality on the field. It's almost entirely about money.

[+] EnlargeScott
Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY SportsIt's very unlikely that Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott is pursuing expansion these days.
I say almost entirely because academics do matter in the Pac-12, as do values. Any potential new member must be like-minded when it comes to institutional policies.

What would get the Pac-12 to raise an eyebrow anew to expanding is market share: Would adding Teams A and B add significant eyeballs in front of TVs, thereby making the conference significantly more valuable when the next TV contract comes up? And by "significantly," we mean that a share of revenue split 14 ways would significantly exceed that revenue split 12 ways.

That wouldn't happen with the addition of Utah State and Colorado State, nor would it happen with Fresno State, San Diego State nor Boise State.

It would with Texas. That was the big prize back during the expansion feeding-frenzy five years ago and it continues to be, but that flirtation seems at an end, at least in the near term.

In fact, without Texas, I don't see any Pac-12 expansion on the horizon, at least in our current conference/postseason model. While you never say never, there seems to be zero momentum behind the idea from Pac-12 decision-makers.

Scott from La Jolla, California, writes: I am wondering about your take on the ranking of the coaching jobs from worst to best? I thought it was a very interesting piece, and by and large very well done. A few quibbles, which likely reflect a (long) lifetime of being an interested watcher of West Coast football (at an increasingly late hour of the day, unfortunately): 1. I notice the "panel" of experts who had input have no direct experience out West; 2. Utah behind Kentucky, Texas Tech, Maryland, Pittsburgh and (less so) Iowa? How many BCS, etc., games have those schools been to in the last 20 years? 3. Arizona behind North Carolina? 4. Oregon tied with Texas A&M, and not even in the top 10. I read where Oregon is the winningest program in the country over the last 20 years. In that same time frame, they have six outright conference titles and one shared (with Washington and Oregon State). How many consecutive decades do you have to be good to have "tradition?"

Ted Miller: Obviously, these rankings are subjective and would vary year-to-year -- and widely so every five years.

Further, if you asked me to make a top-25 on Jan. 10 and then asked me to do one today -- and I couldn't look at my Jan. 10 list for reference -- the one I did today would be different. They subjectively would even strike at the pollsters on mercurial whims that have little to do with developments with the programs.

With Utah, it was ranked a high of 39 and a low of 58 among the five pollsters and finished 47th. I understand your quibble with that. Below Kentucky? Really?

Only Kentucky will pay Mark Stoops $3.25 million this season, and, despite his success, Kyle Whittingham "only" will get $2.6 million. Not to be mercenary, but...

Keep in mind this isn't a ranking of the programs. It's a ranking of the coaching jobs.

Further, of all those teams you note, only Pittsburgh played in front of fewer fans last year than Utah, while Kentucky, Texas Tech, Maryland and Pittsburgh certainly are in more fertile recruiting territory.

My rankings would have had Utah higher, and I believe Utah would have been higher if the Utes didn't have that bit of soap opera after the season between Whittingham and athletic director Chris Hill, which included a loss a both coordinators.

Yet I also think these rankings were pretty darn well done.

Ryan from Salt Lake City writes: How big of an impact do you see Kylie Fitts having for the Utes next season? He was a big recruit for UCLA a couple years ago and adds to an already dominant D-line for Utah.

Ted Miller: How big? I have no idea. We haven't seen enough of Fitts -- he had one tackle as a true freshman at UCLA in 2013 -- to know what he can do against Pac-12 competition.

We know he was a fairly highly rated recruit, good enough to be offered by both USC and UCLA, though his recruiting story was a bit tangled, as he flipped from the Trojans to the Bruins when USC belatedly told him they didn't have enough space for him to enroll early. We also know that he said -- tweeted -- that he left UCLA for personal and not football reasons.

My guess is he's going to have an impact next year, though he's got a fight on his hands to earn a starting slot. As you noted, the Utes look pretty strong -- as usual -- on the defensive line.

My general thought on first-year players -- freshmen and transfers -- is to take the Missouri approach: You've got to show me.

Gavin from Portland writes: Has there ever been an offseason when the Pac-10 blog has not named [Washington] a rising program, on the cusp of a breakout season, contender to challenge for North title?

Ted Miller: Yes.

And it's the Pac-12 blog.

Ranking the Pac-12 coaching jobs

February, 25, 2015
Feb 25
Our task today is a subjective one: Rank the head-coaching jobs in the Pac-12. Note: jobs, not individual coaches.

For me, this is like ranking my children. I love them all equally, however different they might be.

Let's take a gander at it.

1. USC: USC is arguably the nation's preeminent football program in terms of national and conference titles, award winners, All-Americans and NFL Hall of Famers. It's a big-stadium team, and its new football building is pretty freaking cool. Moreover, while there are great national programs with comparable -- or perhaps even superior -- traditions such as Alabama or Notre Dame, USC is in Los Angeles, which is infinitely cooler than Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and South Bend, Indiana.

2. Oregon: The Ducks rank No. 2 based on their steady rise to national prominence, as well as a seven-year run that ranks the program among the super-elite. Oh, and their facilities are sparkly.

3. UCLA: Nos. 1 and 2 are pretty obvious here. After that, things get pretty bunched up, but UCLA emerges in the coveted No. 3 spot because of its recent success under coach Jim Mora, which includes three consecutive wins over the Trojans. While the Rose Bowl is off campus, it's still the Rose Bowl, and its recent renovation gave it a considerable upgrade. It also appears that the school is finally investing in the program -- see a new football building on the way -- so it can debunk the notion it's a basketball school (the basketball team also is contributing to that cause). Further, Southern California's A-list prep talent means the Bruins can sustain success under the right coach -- read: Mora.

4. Arizona State: Todd Graham appears to have awoken a program that has long been termed a "sleeping giant." The school is in the process of upgrading Sun Devil Stadium, which is long overdue. There is also potential to continue to upgrade recruiting with a nice combination of location, weather and admission standards.

5. Washington: Obviously, we feel the Washington job has room to move up, as the program has just about everything, other than a recent run of success, to help it. There was a temptation to put Washington higher just because of the magisterial renovation of Husky Stadium.

6. Stanford: Ah, the subjectivity of this list. The Cardinal sit here in the middle of the pack in large part because of academic standards that most coaches would feel are highly unfavorable. David Shaw, a Stanford graduate, doesn't feel that way and has found ways to make it a recruiting benefit instead of a bane. Still, when a program can't even consider most of the ESPN 300 due to academics, that's a challenge for a coach.

7. California: While Berkeley is arguably the nation's best state university, it has been able to get "special admits" to the football program through the years, which was particularly a boon to former coach Jeff Tedford. It appears things are a bit tougher for third-year coach Sonny Dykes. Still, there's good talent available in Northern California and the facilities are A-list. No reason the Golden Bears can't regain the traction they once had under Tedford.

8. Arizona: Arizona has upgraded its facilities and is on an uptick under Rich Rodriguez. Still, most view Arizona as a basketball-first school, and the historical success of both programs supports that perception. Of course, if Rodriguez gets the Wildcats to the Rose Bowl for the first time and eclipses rival Arizona State on the field on a consistent basis, Arizona would move up.

9. Utah: The teams from here and down on this list find themselves hit for at least one of two reasons: (1) stadium size/attendance; (2) winning. Utah is on the uptick on the latter, which is why it ranks ahead of the others. It has also experienced the most recent national relevance, though not as a member of the Pac-12.

10. Oregon State: The Beavers typically found a way to win under Mike Riley, but the program -- other than a charmed 2000 season under Dennis Erickson -- has not been able to take substantial and consistent steps toward national relevance. We do take note that when Riley bolted for Nebraska, the Beavers were able to impressively lure Gary Andersen away from Wisconsin. If Andersen makes Oregon State a nine- or 10-win team, the Beavers will move up.

11. Colorado: Though its time in the Pac-12 has been miserable, Colorado has solid tradition -- highlighted by a split national championship in 1990 -- and Boulder, Colorado, is among the nation's very best college towns. That said, the facilities and administrative commitment have lagged behind other programs in college football's arms race. The losing is an issue as well.

12. Washington State: The Cougars have played in two Rose Bowls since 1997 -- how many other programs can say that? So it's a fact that the right coach can win at Washington State. Still, when the wins aren't coming, it becomes relevant to note the size of Martin Stadium and the isolation of Pullman, Washington. As noted by alumnus Kyle Bonagura, Washington State is the Pac-12's most challenging job.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Most media events with college football coaches are like droning tennis matches -- back and forth, back and forth. With Arizona State coach Todd Graham, however, it's more like downhill skiing, perhaps the giant slalom. The media sit down and Graham explodes out of the gate, weaving between myriad topics without any need for reporters to participate, much less ask questions.

The good news is it's informative and pretty amusing. Graham, as is his wont, will undoubtedly overflow with optimism, never betraying any concerns over his depth chart, except retroactively. As in: Yes, he was "scared to death" about replacing nine defensive starters in 2014, an admission that inspired a smug celebration inside the head of at least one reporter, "Yesss! I knew it!"

[+] EnlargeTodd Graham
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsSun Devils coach Todd Graham has raised expectations, and he won't shy away form them.
What's obvious is Graham is comfortable and enjoying himself as he holds court in his spacious office, tall windows providing a nice view of construction workers banging away at the $256 million renovation of Sun Devil Stadium. The 2013 Pac-12 Coach of the Year has led the Sun Devils to consecutive 10-win seasons for the first time in 39 years, as well as three consecutive bowl appearances. He took over a team that had posted just one winning conference record in the previous seven seasons and has gone three for three.

Twenty-eight FBS schools hired coaches prior to the 2012 season, 17 of whom remain at those schools. Of those 17, Graham, at 28-12, has posted the fourth-best overall record, behind only Ohio State's Urban Meyer (38-3), UCLA's Jim Mora (29-11) and Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin (28-11), whom he will meet to open the 2015 season in one of the nation's marquee nonconference matchups.

All this is said to support the notion that it's not just Everything-is-Awesome! coachspeak when Graham opens his pre-spring practice news conference talking about Pac-12 and national championships. Even a skeptic sees plenty of maybe on his 2015 depth chart.

"No doubt in my mind we're going to have a lot better football team next year," he said of a squad that finished 10-3 last year with a final No. 15 ranking.

Though he welcomes back two solid specialists, he said his chief concern is special teams, which has become a bit of a thwarted obsession for him. He's successfully imposed his will on just about every aspect of the program, from improved discipline and academics to aggressive, Devils-may-care styles on both sides of the ball, but most Arizona State defeats the previous two years included forehead slapping moments on special teams.

He also has to replace both starting offensive tackles, including first-team All-Pac-12 performer Jamil Douglas, as well as first-team WR Jaelen Strong, a potential first-round NFL draft pick who hauled in 10 TD passes last year. Further, his run defense was mediocre to poor and most of the unit's 39 sacks came from high-risk, high-reward blitzes rather than one of four men winning a one-on-one battle.

What Graham doesn't seem concerned about is his new starting QB Mike Bercovici. While departed starter Taylor Kelly was a smart player, good runner and great leader, Bercovici might own the best arm in the Pac-12 this fall. His three starts last year for an injured Kelly and extended playing time in important situations also mean the fifth-year senior arrives with plenty of seasoning.

Said Graham, "We've got a guy who has a lightning release. I mean, this guy can throw the football. We're obviously adapting everything to that."

In terms of playmakers, Graham is excited enough about his depth at running back to move versatile D.J. Foster -- a 1,000-yard rusher for goodness sake -- to slot receiver. Graham also gushed about running back/return man De'Chavon "Gump" Hayes and redshirt freshman receiver Jalen Harvey.

As for his defense, it reverses course from last year in that nine starters are back, and Graham raved about his depth at all three levels. He believes touted JC transfer Davon Durant will provide an instant boost to the pass rush at the devil-backer spot, where Carl Bradford was so productive in 2013.

The sum total is an intriguing team, one of five from the Pac-12's rugged South Division that figures to be ranked in the preseason. But national rankings and 10-win seasons are now been-there, done-that for the program.

"I think people know we are serious about it now," Graham said. "We want to win a national championship. We want to win a Pac-12 championship. Anything less than that ... that is the expectation."

Graham then raced ahead, slaloming through to other topics -- the value of national polls, his team briefly entering the College Football Playoff race in 2014, special teams, being pleasantly surprised by his defense last fall, etc. -- but his opening point stood out.

Graham expects Arizona State to continue to climb in 2015, and that's meaningful because there's not much space above that separates the Sun Devils from the national title hunt.

Mailbag: 'Mercenary' South coaches?

February, 20, 2015
Feb 20
Happy Friday. If you live on the East Coast, well, don't look at this.

Or this. (The Miller Family is eating al fresco this evening!)

Follow me on Twitter and you might get some pictures.

To the notes!

Tom from Lancaster, California, writes: Rival fans and trolls everywhere were convinced that Jim Mora, Todd Graham, and Rich Rodriguez would bolt to greener pastures if they attained any success at their respective schools. All three have a perception to outsiders of being a bit of "mercenaries." Barring anything off-the-field, each is going to complete their fourth season in 2015. Are they at the point of being able to be forgiven by fans if they can land an A+ job?

Ted Miller: Those three certainly have contributed significantly to the Pac-12's South Division becoming the toughest division in college football, apologies to the SEC West, which was exposed as overrated during the bowl season.

Oh, it's just a small troll. Relax.

If all three stay put, those programs will consistently remain in the top 25 and gain even more national traction -- perhaps as College Football Playoff contenders. I also get a kick out of the divergent personalities of all three, though they each share an obsessive competitiveness that might make them seem nutty to the average Joe. Next time I'm among this troika, I'm going to toss a penny into the air and go, "Oh, no, the magic recruiting penny is loose!" and then watch them lose all decorum and go wide-eyed loony as they dive and brawl to recover the slightest potential advantage against the others.

The South should continue to be great fun.

I do, however, pause at the term "mercenary." That word gets thrown around a lot about coaches, typically when one party feels wounded because a coach bolted for a better-status and better-paying job. "What about loyalty!" the abandoned whine, thinking only about themselves.

If Mora, Rodriguez or Graham get offered a job they want more than their present jobs -- whether due to money, opportunity, prestige or location -- they should take it. That, my friends, is America.

When the Florida job opened this past season I was worried, most specifically, about Rodriguez. I actually pulled out the big rhetorical guns when I told Rodriguez that if he left for Gainesville he likely wouldn't get to see me that much anymore. That clearly had an impact. And, fortunately, the folks at Florida weren't smart enough to pursue him.

Funny thing is that there's more evidence that they aren't particularly mercenary -- at least not more than any sane person.

Rodriguez turned down Alabama and Arkansas -- among others -- while at West Virginia. His eventual departure to Michigan was as much about his battles with West Virginia administrators than any mercenary tendencies. He bolted for many reasons, including the allure of coaching Michigan, but my impression is money didn't top the list -- especially when you consider the buyout at West Virginia that he left behind.

While Graham has a reputation as a climber, the mostly maudlin and often disingenuous reactions to his leaving Pittsburgh for Arizona State almost always left out that he didn't get a notable raise. He got a better job with a better program in a better conference in a better area to live.

The "mercenary" term actually was hauled out to bite Graham because he'd used it a few weeks before he uprooted to describe some of his assistants who left Pittsburgh to join Rodriguez at Arizona. Graham has insisted his words were taken out of context.

As for Mora, he rebuffed Texas. While there are lots of Texas writers who say this didn't happen, their sources on this are a bunch of Texas boosters and administrators who don't want folks to write about Mora rebuffing Texas. What I've gathered is that if Mora really wanted to leave UCLA for Texas, he could have.

Does this mean this threesome is set for life or even a decade hence in their present jobs? Heck no. In fact, I'd be surprised if all three last more than three or four more seasons. Stability in coaching is extremely rare -- just 14 FBS coaches have been in their current job for 10 or more years.

Does this mean they should be forgiven if they do decide to pack their bags for another job?

Heck no.

Jon from Tumalo, Oregon, writes: Ted, will you please explain the difference between a player signing a National Letter of Intent (NLI) and a player receiving a Grant In Aid (GIA) without signing an NLI?

Ted Miller: A national letter of intent, at present, a binding contract between player and team for one year. Signing Grant In Aid scholarship papers is a promise from the school to the player but is non-binding for the player. In fact, he could sign scholarship papers with several schools and then make his ultimate decision by showing up to preseason camp at one school or another.

If I were advising an elite recruit, I'd tell him not to sign a NLI, just on principle. It's not required. The only downside of not signing a NLI is you'd still be recruitable, which could be potentially annoying for the athlete.

We previously linked this Mitch Sherman article. Andy Staples picked up the topic here.

The only way a player can get out of a NLI is if the NCAA or the school grants a release, which is a bureaucratic nightmare. Meanwhile, the school can revoke the scholarship because of academic or behavioral issues.

All this said, the game is changing. Power 5 conferences are shortly going to make scholarships cover full cost of attendance, and many schools and conferences are now guaranteeing multi-year scholarships, instead of the one-year renewables that worked against the players' interests.

Simply put, if a player signs scholarship papers and shows up to preseason camp, that qualifies him for a guaranteed scholarship.

Kevin from San Jose writes: Ted, You conveniently left out some context in your mailbag answer about the EWU / Vernon Adams issue. EWU PLAYS OREGON NEXT SEASON! I certainly would't let Adams train at the school facilities with former teammates ... prepping for the game. Heck, he already knows the playbook. But, Baldwin is behaving poorly?

Ted Miller: If I can recall, my focus was exclusively on the transfer itself and the quotes suggesting sour grapes from Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin and Montana State coach Rob Ash about FCS to FBS transfers.

Not only does it make perfect sense for Baldwin to give Vernon Adams Jr. a full-on divorce from the Eagles after Adams announced he was headed to Oregon, it would have be insane if he didn't for the very reason you mention.

To be clear: You do not let a player from your season-opening opponent hang out with your team and use your facilities.

So, no, I don't believe that represented poor behavior.

Jared Goff from Buzzerkely writes: What will it take for me to be 1) a Heisman candidate? 2) The Heisman winner?

Ted Miller: If Jared Goff puts up numbers that match what he did last year and California starts 3-0 after a win at Texas, Goff will start to make Heisman Watch lists.

The Golden Bears then start the Pac-12 schedule at Washington and against Washington State. Those games are far from gimmes -- no conference game is -- but the Bears have the potential for a 5-0 start and the national ranking that comes with that.

If Cal is 5-0 and Goff has big passing numbers, he would be an official Heisman candidate.

As for winning it? Well, he'd have to: 1. Be spectacular and 2. Cal would at least need to be ranked in the top 15 or so, which means winning nine or 10 regular-season games.

I see Goff as a future NFL QB, and that future might begin with the 2016 NFL draft. While some might view this question as presumptuous -- or just plain nutty -- Goff has the talent to become an elite QB. If Cal improves significantly on defense in 2015, the Bears could be a dark-horse contender in the North Division.

So what I'm saying is there is a chance.
Colorado gets an early -- and chilly? -- start to spring practices Monday, leading the Pac-12 out of the gate.

Not to be caught off guard, here are five major issues confronting the North Division as spring practices begin.

Here's what we had to say about the South.

1. Oregon post-Mariota: The Ducks are not only replacing their quarterback, they are replacing the best player in program history. Heck, Marcus Mariota, the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner, is one of the greatest players in Pac-12 history. Oregon was good before Mariota and will be good after him. Still, he's been behind center for three years, so this is a significant transition. Further, with many suspecting the starting job is Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams' to lose, and he won't arrive until the summer, that means the establishment of a post-spring pecking order won't even approach an endgame. The guy with the most at stake is junior Jeff Lockie, Mariota's backup the past two years. He needs to make a strong statement with his play and leadership. If he does, it could give him a meaningful advantage when Adams arrives.

2. QB questions: The Ducks aren't the only North team uncertain at QB. In fact, only California with Jared Goff and Stanford with Kevin Hogan are set 100 percent behind center. Oregon State is replacing Sean Mannion in what figures to be a wide-open competition, one made more wide open by the departure of Mike Riley and arrival of Gary Andersen. While Washington has a returning starter in Cyler Miles, he was inconsistent in 2014 and could face a challenge from K.J. Carta-Samuels and touted true freshman early arrival Jake Browning. At Washington State, Luke Falk did a good job stepping in for an injured Connor Halliday -- he's certainly the front-runner to win the job -- but Mike Leach isn't going to hand him the starting spot by any means.

3. A new sheriff in Corvallis: Riley shocked just about everyone when he bolted for Nebraska after 14 seasons -- including the last 12 -- leading the Beavers. It wasn't an overwhelmingly sad departure, though, as more than a few Beavers fans had grown frustrated with the recent state of the program, particularly when compared to rival Oregon. The hiring of Andersen away from Wisconsin also seemed like a bold move, one that generated plenty of enthusiasm among the boosters. But Andersen will be adopting new schemes on both sides of the ball with a roster full of uncertainty. With a getting-to-know-you phase, spring will be much different in Corvallis this year.

4. Getting defensive: The biggest difference between the Pac-12 North and South divisions heading into spring is defensive turnover and/or questions. The South welcomes back a lot of defensive starters, while the North doesn't. Oregon State has just two defensive starters coming back and Stanford has just four. While Washington has six, it also loses three first-team All-Pac-12 performers in LB Shaq Thompson, OLB/DE Hau'oli Kikaha and DT Danny Shelton. Oregon has seven coming back, but it's rebuilding its secondary and replacing end Arik Armstead. Washington State has nine starters returning but it has a new coordinator in Alex Grinch after Mike Breske was fired. Cal has eight starters coming back, but it played lousy defense in 2014, ranking last in the conference with 39.8 points per game. North defenses figure to get a lot of attention this spring.

5. Year 2 for Chris Petersen: Perhaps the Pac-12's biggest story last spring was the arrival of Petersen, who was lured away from a celebrated run at Boise State to replace Steve Sarkisian, who bolted for USC. Petersen inherited a team that looked talented enough to make a run at the North title, or at least make a legitimate challenge to the Oregon-Stanford domination. It didn't come to pass. The Huskies were inconsistent on both sides of the ball, particularly on offense, and finished a lackluster 8-6 after a rotten performance in the TicketCity Cactus Bowl against Oklahoma State. The 2015 Huskies have just 12 position-player starters returning, so they will have many depth-chart questions to address this spring. On the plus side, there should be a good deal of familiarity between players and coaches, both in terms of scheme and approach. This looks like a year of transition for the program, but Huskies fans will be looking for signs of growth under Petersen that would suggest good things happening in the future.
Colorado gets an early -- and chilly? -- start to spring practices Monday, leading the Pac-12 out of the gate.

Not to be caught off guard, here are five major issues confronting the South Division as spring practices begin.

1. Quarterback questions: UCLA has a wide-open quarterback competition to replace Brett Hundley, though many seem to think it's touted true freshman Josh Rosen's job to lose. While that's the only truly wide-open spring competition in the South, other teams have QB issues. With Kendal Thompson missing Utah's spring session due to injury, Travis Wilson, owner of a curious trajectory as a budding four-year starter, gets a chance to make another statement to the realigned offensive coaches. At Arizona State and Colorado, there's little doubt who the No. 1 QBs are, but Mike Bercovici and Sefo Liufau could greatly benefit from asserting themselves as unquestioned leaders. At USC and Arizona, Cody Kessler wants to look like a true Heisman Trophy candidate and Anu Solomon wants to take a positive step toward becoming an All-Conference guy, one that moves away from how he played late in the 2014 season.

2. Getting coordinated: Colorado and UCLA have -- or will have in the Bruins' case -- new defensive coordinators. The Buffaloes under Jim Leavitt will be trying to develop from terrible to decent. The Bruins, under TBD, and with perhaps the best returning talent in the conference will be trying to make the move from solid to good. Utah promoted from within on offense and brought John Pease out of retirement on defense. That means no scheme changes so the adjustment should be minimal, though re-establishing a practice rhythm will be critical for a team that is good enough to win the South but had a tumultuous athletic director-head coach soap opera after the season ended.

3. USC hype: Yes, we in the media are again buzzing about the Trojans' prospects in advance of the season. We see 15 returning starters from a 9-4 team, including Kessler behind center, as well as a recruiting class that some ranked No. 1 in the nation, and we imagine Steve Sarkisian's second year being something big. Ergo, expect a top-5 or, at worst, top-10 preseason ranking. Of course, we all remember what happened the last time USC was hyped in the preseason: The Trojans started No. 1 in 2012 -- "Unfinished business!" said Matt Barkley -- and completely flopped, finishing 7-6 after getting blown out in the Sun Bowl by Georgia Tech. As much as anything, Sarkisian's job this spring and in the preseason is to cultivate the hunger and lock down the players' focus. It was pretty clear the 2012 crew was a ghastly brew of entitled and overrated. Sarkisian's job is to make sure this crew contains neither insidious ingredient.

4. Big holes: Spring is, chiefly, about filling holes in the depth chart through competition, and there are some pretty big ones in the South. USC needs to replace RB Javorius Allen, WR Nelson Agholor and DE Leonard Williams, a troika of first-team All-Pac-12 performers. Arizona State is replacing its best offensive player, WR Jaelen Strong, best lineman, Jamil Douglas, and best defensive player, safety Damarious Randall. Arizona needs two new offensive tackles and has big questions in its secondary and D-line. Utah must replace highly productive defensive end Nate Orchard. Colorado simply needs to get better everywhere. And, of course, UCLA appears to have just about everything potentially answered other than QB, which always rates a big hole in the Pac-12.

5. Staying healthy: Want to know if your team had at least a moderately successful spring session? If it gets through it with no major injuries. Particularly in the South, where five teams could be ranked in the preseason, any small advantage -- or disadvantage -- could change the pecking order. So while coaches want to implement their schemes and take a measure of their players, both young and veteran, they most want to see all scholarship players get through 15 spring practices without any special attention in the training room.

Mailbag: Adams transfer controversy?

February, 13, 2015
Feb 13
Happy Friday. This is the mailbag. Or is it?

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To the notes!

Caruso from Stamford, Conn., writes: I'm dumbfounded by the FCS coaches response to Vernon Adams transferring. The immediate "we don't want to be a farm league for the FBS" statements, are completely unwarranted.

Ted Miller: This is a controversy that isn't even a controversy. Actually, FCS folks acting like it's controversial are the ones behaving poorly.

Rob Ash of Montana State grouses FCS programs "cannot be perceived as a farm system or Triple-A ball club." Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin whines, "It's not what the rule is intended for."

[+] EnlargeVernon Adams
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesVernon Adams is seeking brighter opportunities after obtaining his undergraduate degree from Eastern Washington? The nerve!
Yeah it is. It's EXACTLY what the rule was intended for. It's about giving student-athletes -- WHO HAVE ALREADY OBTAINED AN UNDERGRADUATE DEGREE -- a chance to pursue better opportunities.

Instead of playing it safe as a fifth-year senior at Eastern Washington, Vernon Adams is taking a chance -- betting on himself, in fact -- that he can play with the big boys. He's chasing his dream, making a high-risk, high-reward move that might just propel him into the NFL.

Dude ... can I get a cheer for 'Merica! 'Cause, this is what it's all about. The freedom to bet on yourself.

Know what Ash and Baldwin are concerned about? Their self-interest. They are, counterproductively I think, saying their FCS program should be protected from a player having the freedom -- AFTER HE HAS GRADUATED -- to make a choice for himself. They want their players to face more restrictions and regulations. Why? Because restrictions on players makes their lives easier.

Baldwin and Eastern Washington officials blew it by playing the sour grapes card. Just imagine if Baldwin had gone this route:
Reporter: Coach, what do you think about Vernon Adams transferring to Oregon?

Baldwin: How could I not be anything but happy for this young man who has done so much for this program? I'll be rooting for him like crazy. I take a lot of pride in the fact that a guy who was overlooked by the Pac-12 is now coveted by he Pac-12's best team. I think that speaks well not only of Adams but of our program, our a ability to find and develop talent. Not only that, we also helped him earn his college degree. Know what? When I go out recruiting this spring, Adams will be Exhibit A for what we've built here at Eastern Washington.

Adams is practically an advertisement for Eastern Washington football, folks.

The idea this resembles free agency is silly. FCS teams becoming minor leagues? How many FCS players: 1. Are good enough to be offered an FBS scholarship for one year of service; 2. AND have earned an undergraduate degree with a year of eligibility remaining?

And, if FCS programs start producing those sorts of players on a regular basis, then they are fulfilling their mission as a university, creating true student-athletes who go off into the world to seek out better opportunities.

Nate from Salt Lake City writes: Utah is coming off of what was by far their best season since joining the Pac-12, with key playmakers such as Booker, Wilson, Thompson, Scott, and Dimick coming back. Should fans expect a step forward, a step back, or a fifth place finish in the South Division for a fourth straight season?

Ted Miller: When you look at what Utah has coming back -- 16 starters and the nation's best combo of specialists -- from a team that went 9-4 and was in the thick of the South Division race in 2014, it's not difficult to project a step forward, no matter that the South should again be brutally deep.

Yet the behind-the-scenes soap opera with coach Kyle Whittingham and AD Chris Hill is troubling, as it seemed to be a contributing factor to considerable staff turnover -- the loss of defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake being a particularly tough blow -- which was addressed mostly by internal promotions that seemed like temporary moves.

[+] EnlargeKyle Whittingham
Ralph Freso/Getty ImagesBehind-the-scenes drama between Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and athletic director Chris Hill could undermine a promising returning lineup.
The Utes could be headed for fifth place in the South again, particularly if they don't -- broken record alert -- get better production at QB. Of course, fifth place could again mean nine wins and a final national ranking. They also could win the division. Or slip a bit if the coach-AD conflict and/or coaching turnover prove a distraction.

The good news? Utah is probably going to be an interesting team, no matter how things go.

Bryce from San Francisco writes: I know you guys will agree with me on this, but can you please attempt to explain why every NFL team is apparently terrified to pick a talented, accurate QB with character and leadership like Marcus Mariota? Instead, they want to go with the guy with accuracy issues and character issues, because ...? I mean, I kind of understand their thought process since last season the character guy with accuracy in college (Bridgewater) got outplayed by players with less accuracy and more controversy (Bortles & Manziel), so NFL scouts clearly know what they're doing. I'm obviously cool with Mariota going to the Eagles, but the teams ahead of them in the draft have to be insane to let that happen, right?!

Ted Miller: Thing with the NFL draft is you really don't know what everyone is thinking, and the folks who are talking are often ill-informed or interested in misdirection. Keep in mind there is little benefit for a scout or GM to show his cards to the media or otherwise. So when you here "whispers" about Mariota being a system QB, it may just be a predictable regurgitating of an obvious potential criticism.

[+] EnlargeMariota
AP Photo/Brandon WadeIf Marcus Mariota takes care of business at his pro day, the "whispers" from so-called experts about him being a system quarterback will die down.
Know what? If Mariota turns in an impeccable pro day, making all the throws, showcase a strong and accurate arm, some of this "system" talk will simmer down.

Now, to be honest, if a fortune teller could promise me that Florida State's Jameis Winston will never again get into any type of off-field trouble, I'm not sure I wouldn't pick him over Mariota. Winston is a great talent, a guy who's repeatedly demonstrated grace under pressure (in a game), and seems to have no holes in his resume on the football talent side of things.

But I don't have that fortune teller, so I'd take Mariota.

My guess is more than a few GMs agree with me.

Raj from Bear Territory writes: What are your thoughts on Ulbrich leaving UCLA, (especially the timing)? Seems pretty shady to wait until LOI's are faxed in to depart. If anything, this just points out another flaw in how few restrictions are put on coaches going between programs while players have a multitude of restrictions. Feels only fair that players should be released from LOI/can transfer if coaches leave.

Robert from New York writes: With the Roquan Smith/Jeff Ulbrich situation, I'm curious to hear your take on the ethics of recruits signing binding NLIs, and coaches recruiting players and then taking other jobs. I can't blame Ulbrich for taking another job. He never seemed comfortable as a DC and probably wanted to get back to the NFL. Also, recruits shouldn't be so naive as to think that coaching changes couldn't happen. What's the balance that needs to be found, and do you think anyone did anything wrong here?

Ted Miller: What we really need are more rules. And outrage! Yes, I am outraged! The deception! The horror!

My thoughts, to begin, are good for Jeff Ulbrich. If he thinks his new job is better than his old job then how can you begrudge him?

As has been said many times before, a young man should commit to a school, not a position coach. He needs to be a big boy and understand this is a business and everyone is climbing. Or trying to.

Was UCLA trying to hide Ulbrich's imminent departure? Did Smith feel deceived? Maybe to the first and apparently to the second. None of that bothers me because I've covered college football a long time and I'd go insane if I took too much issue with every case of conniving and angle-working that goes on. That is how it goes. If Georgia fans -- or other Pac-12 fans for that matter -- are seeking some high ethical ground here ... well ... come on. Your coach would trip his mother from behind to score a top recruit.

Not saying it's right. But on the list of recruiting stories that make me want to take a long, hot shower, a simple hand wash will do here.

And, just as I'm not fan of acting like big-time recruits are a bunch of wan, innocent of the wide-world, Oliver Twist types being manipulated by dastardly coaches, I also think Smith's ultimate decision to sign scholarship papers instead of a letter of intent is smart.

If you are a big-time prospect, that's the way to go. It leaves your options open and doesn't tie you down -- read Mitch Sherman here for more. That option isn't available for a more middle-of-the-road guy who's thrilled when he gets his first Pac-12 or SEC or whatever offer. The NLI protects that sort of young man, just as it makes life easier for the football program.

Top performances: Brett Hundley

February, 12, 2015
Feb 12
We continue our series looking at some of the top individual performances in the Pac-12 in 2014. If you feel a little nostalgic, you can check out the top performances from 2013.

Up next: Hundley bedevils Arizona State

[+] EnlargeBrett Hundley
Matt Kartozian/USA TODAY SportsBrett Hundley riddled Arizona State for 427 yards and five touchdowns.
Who and against whom: In a critical early season matchup with defending Pac-12 South Division champions Arizona State, Hundley stepped up in a big way in a 62-27 victory.

The numbers: Hundley accounted for five touchdowns, throwing for four and running for another. He completed 18 of 23 passes for 355 yards and rushed for 72 yards on eight carries.

A closer look: This was a matchup of unbeaten, ranked teams, yet both had plenty of early season questions. UCLA, in particular, had arrived at 3-0 in unimpressive fashion. But Hundley dominated the Sun Devils with big plays, hurling not one but two 80-yard touchdown passes, one to Eldridge Massington and another to Jordan Payton. Those TDs made him the first UCLA player to complete two passes of at least 80 yards in one game. Hundley’s 427 yards of total offense were the fifth most in school history and extended his own school record to 13 games with 300 yards of total offense. He also became the first UCLA player to have three career games with 400 yards total offense, moving past Cade McNown. While neither team would go on to win the South Division, in this game Hundley stepped up for the Bruins and made a national statement.
Way back in mid-November we proclaimed 2014 the "Year of Close" in the Pac-12. At that point -- two weeks remaining in the regular season -- 34 games had been decided by eight or fewer points, which was already more than the 28 from the year before.

The final tally? Forty-three games were decided by eight or fewer points, which is a lot. There were a lot of close games in 2012, and the final number then was 36.

While there's certainly debate among statistically minded analysts about what close wins and losses mean, most poop on the party and call it happenstance that will even out over the years. If your team won a lot of close games last year, it figures to see a drop in that number the next fall as it regresses to the mean. And vice versa.

College football observer and magazine publisher Phil Steele is a big believer that teams that lose a lot of close games one year are headed for a turnaround the next. And vice versa.

So, yeah, it seems like reviewing the "Year of Close" might be worthwhile.

We're defining "close" as a win or loss by eight or fewer points (a one-possession game). We looked at the South Division on Tuesday. Now it's the North.


Record in close games: 3-4

Interpretation: Close games take many forms. The Bears led Northwestern 31-7 before nearly blowing it. They led Arizona 31-13 and did blow it, via a 47-yard Hail Mary that capped a stunning 36-point fourth quarter from the Wildcats. They also snatched victory from the jaws of defeat against Colorado and Washington State, couldn't close the deal in an upset bid against UCLA, couldn't complete a huge comeback against USC and got outlasted by BYU in the season finale that cost them a bowl berth. It was a crazy year, indicative of a program that was dramatically improving after an awful 1-11 2013 season. While the Pac-12 blog believes Cal, with 16 position player starters back, could continue a strong upward trend in 2015 -- a notion supported by the information here -- the "Ted Miller" portion of the blog realizes he's not allowed to say nice things about Cal because that only spells doom for the Bears.


Record in close games: 1-1

Interpretation: Oregon doesn't really play close games. Or, at least, when the Ducks win, they tend to blow teams out, even good teams -- see Michigan State, UCLA, Stanford, Utah, Arizona (take 2) and Florida State this past season. Oregon played two close games in 2014, the same number it played in 2013 and 2011 and one more than it did in 2012. It got pretty lucky against Washington State, as a few -- cough, cough -- things went the Ducks way late in the game (any feelings there, Cougs?). The 31-24 loss to Arizona wasn't decided until deep into the fourth quarter. It will be interesting to see if things are any different, post-Marcus Mariota, but the dearth of close Oregon games preceded him. The Ducks are 4-5 in close games since 2010, by the way.

Oregon State

Record in close games: 3-2

Interpretation: The Beavers won close games they should have won by more against Hawaii and Colorado. They lost close games to Utah and Washington State that could have transformed the season. They notched one shocking upset -- 35-27 over then-No. 6 Arizona State -- with an inspired second-half comeback that seemed to come from nowhere. The Beavers lost in double OT to Utah because they couldn't stop RB Devontae Booker. They lost to Washington State because they got sliced and diced by redshirt freshman QB Luke Falk, who was making his first career start. There were plenty of "what ifs?" in both those games, but no more than those from Colorado and Arizona State.


Record in close games: 1-3

Interpretation: Our top candidate for transformative "What if?" games might be Stanford. The Cardinal dominated USC but lost 13-10. It simply blew it at Notre Dame, losing 17-14 on a 23-yard game-winning TD pass on fourth-and-11 in the final minute. It lost a double-overtime slugfest to Utah. And its one close win, 20-13 over Washington, was truly an in-complete-control statistical performance ruined by sloppy play. If you look at how Stanford played over the season's final three games after the loss at Utah, you see a team that came together in an impressive way, most notably in a 31-10 crunching of No. 8 UCLA, which kicked the Bruins out of the Pac-12 title game. There's a pretty good chance you might see the Cardinal reverse that close game record in 2015, which could again put them in North contention.


Record in close games: 2-3

Interpretation: The above number is actually worse than it appears, at least if you think the Huskies shouldn't be playing close games with Hawaii and Eastern Washington, an FCS team. Those are the two close victories. The 20-13 loss to Stanford wasn't actually that close, as the Cardinal dominated but played a sloppy game, though the Huskies failed fake punt in the fourth quarter was the game's most memorable moment. The 30-22 loss to Oklahoma State in the bowl game also wasn't much of a nail biter, as the Huskies rallied after trailing 24-0 in the first half. The 27-26 loss to Arizona, however, was a certifiable heartbreaker. The Huskies had the game won but a late fumble when Chris Petersen opted to hand the ball off instead of taking a knee set up the Wildcats game-winning, 47-yard field goal on the game's last play.

Washington State

Record in close games: 2-3

Interpretation: The Cougars blew fourth-quarter leads against Rutgers in the season opener, which set the tone for a mostly dreary season. The 38-31 defeat to Oregon was laden with "What ifs?" and a few questionable calls, but the Cougars got the same good fortune in the 28-27 win at Utah. Those two games sort of cancel each other out, particularly when you consider how good the Utes turned out to be. The most crushing -- and meaningful -- loss was to California, a game in which QB Connor Halliday broke the NCAA passing record. The Cougars went down 60-59 when kicker Quentin Breshears missed a 19-yard field goal wide right with 19 seconds. If the Cougs had won, they would have won consecutive quality games and improved to 3-3. Instead, it became the first of four consecutive losses. The lone bright spot of the season's second half was redshirt freshman QB Falk playing brilliantly in his first career start, a 39-32 win at Oregon State.
Way back in mid-November we proclaimed 2014 the "Year of Close" in the Pac-12. At that point -- two weeks remaining in the regular season -- 34 games had been decided by eight or fewer points, which was already more than the 28 from the year before.

The final tally? Forty-three games were decided by eight or fewer points, which is a lot. There were a lot of close games in 2012, and the final number then was 36.

While there's certainly debate among statistically-minded analysts about what close wins and losses mean, most poop on the party and call it happenstance that will even out over the years. If your team won a lot of close games last year, it figures to see a drop in that number the next fall as it regresses to the mean. And vice versa.

College football observer and magazine publisher Phil Steele is a big believer that teams that lose a lot of close games one year are headed for a turnaround the next. And vice versa.

So, yeah, it seems like reviewing the "Year of Close" might be worthwhile.

We're defining "close" as a win or loss by eight or fewer points (a one-possession game). And we're starting with the South Division.


Record in close games: 6-2

Interpretation: Not all close games are created equal. The Wildcats beat California and Washington on the final play of the game, and lost to USC on what amounted to the final play. There's no question that the Wildcats had a charmed season, though, and Steele in the preseason noted Arizona as a team that had a net two close losses in 2013, so it was due for a bump in the positive direction in 2014. On the negative side of that, Steele's research also found that 81 percent of teams that have a net four close wins are weaker or the same the next season. Of course, Steele had the Wildcats' good friends in Tempe, Arizona State, due for a tumble in 2014 after being net two with close wins in 2013, and that didn't happen. It's also possible that having QB Anu Solomon with a year of experience after his redshirt freshman season will yield a more consistent four-quarter performance. While stat-minded folks smirk at things like poise and experience, there is something to be said for the Wildcats' 13 returning starters who will understand what big fourth-quarter moments feel like.

Arizona State

Record in close games: 3-2

Interpretation: The Sun Devils beat USC on a "Hail Mary" -- or perhaps a "Jael Mary" to WR Jaelen Strong -- and benefitted from Utah's first-team All-Pac-12 kicker missing a field goal in overtime. Their offense faltered and cost them potential rallies against Oregon State and Arizona, but they held tough in a bowl win over Duke. Those fourth-quarter offensive failures are most notable because they came over the final three weeks of the regular season and cost the Sun Devils the South Division. You, by the way, will begin to notice a common theme among every South team. Things very easily could have spun in myriad other directions, if just a play here or a play there had been different. Heck, if Arizona State had found a way to come back at Oregon State, it would have entered the College Football Playoff discussion.


Record in close games: 1-4

Interpretation: As previously noted, teams that lose a lot of close games one year tend to become less fortune's fool the next season. So Colorado, which lost a pair of double-overtime games this fall, is due. More than due. I mean, Colorado is really, really due for some good fortune. Take the UCLA game. The Bruins squandered a 17-point fourth-quarter lead as the Buffs surged, showing resolve. Wonder how things might have felt in Westwood if the Bruins had gone down in Boulder? Such an upset could have been transformative for Colorado. Take the double-OT loss to Cal, which didn't have much meaning in the conference race. The Buffaloes nearly took that one on the road, with both teams throwing seven touchdown passes, but all of the sudden imploded on the goal line. According to Steele, teams that suffered a net three close losses have a 79.6 chance of being better or the same the next year. While the South again will be a brutal slog, particularly for a team just trying to become competitive again, that is reasonably substantial grounds for hope.


Record in close games: 6-1

Interpretation: Talk about a team that found ways to win in 2014. It's also interesting that the Bruins' best wins weren't that close: Arizona State (62-27), Arizona (17-7), Washington (44-30) and USC (38-20), and you could make a case that the bowl win over Kansas State was only kind of fluky close. Of course, two of their three defeats weren't close, either: Oregon (42-30, and not even that close) and Stanford (31-10). It would be reasonable to wonder if the Bruins often played down to the competition and then scrapped and clawed through tough fourth quarters to win. Guessing that's something Jim Mora and his staff are pondering this offseason. As for this fall, statistical analysis supports a potential regression -- 81 percent chance -- and that number might seem more worrisome because clutch QB Brett Hundley is off to the NFL.


Record in close games: 4-3

Interpretation: When USC lost a close one, it didn't mess around, a big reason so many fans weren't happy with coach Steve Sarkisian's first season -- at least until national signing day. There was the uninspired effort and abortive comeback at Boston College. There was the Hail Mary loss to Arizona State, in which the Trojans yakked up a nine-point lead in the final three minutes via a pair of long passes. There was the Trojans yielding a game-winning TD pass to Utah with eight seconds remaining. Still, they did win some close ones against quality foes (Stanford, Arizona and Nebraska). Many are projecting USC as a 2015 national title contender. While there was no statistical outlying in 2014, particularly based on how things went in the Pac-12 in 2014, it's likely the Trojans will have to learn to win close games -- or get some good fortune -- to win the South and become a national contender.


Record in close games: 5-2

Interpretation: The Utes suffered a stinging defeat in their first Pac-12 game, blowing a 17-point halftime lead and dropping what would have been a game-winning TD pass in a 28-27 loss to Washington State, but they ended up smiling after close games more often than not. After going down to the Cougars, they gutted out a 30-28 win at then-No. 8 UCLA, the first of three consecutive victories by six or fewer points. They got some of their own medicine via unexpected kicking woes at Arizona State, 19-16 -- suffering a heartbreaking loss to the Sun Devils for a second consecutive year -- then beat Stanford, 20-17, in double overtime. They then struggled mightily before prevailing, 38-34, at, er, arch-rival Colorado. Utah playing close games shouldn't be much of a surprise because it leaned on its running game and defense and was inconsistent at best passing the ball. Steele's previously noted analysis points to a potential slip in 2015, but the Utes probably feel good about welcoming back 16 starting position players as well as their first-team All-Pac-12 kicker and punter.
Arizona State Sun Devils

Players come and go.

In a perfect world, the teams only have to reload, not rebuild. But following this season, there are a lot of shoes that need to be filled due to early departures and expected graduations.

That leaves the question: Will these spots be reloading or rebuilding? Your humble Pac-12 Blog takes a look at some of the biggest shoes that need to be filled entering the 2015 season.


Biggest shoes: WR Jaelen Strong

It took just two seasons in Tempe for Strong to move up to eighth on the Sun Devils' all-time receiving yards list (2,184) and establish himself as one of the best receivers in the country. At 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, he possesses a rare blend of size and speed and presented matchup problems that won't be easily replicated. His decision to leave early made sense considering he's widely regarded as a potential first-round pick -- ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. projected him at No. 29 overall in his initial mock draft. Not since 1988, when Aaron Cox was drafted No. 20 overall, has an ASU receiver gone in the first round.

Stepping in: TBD

Strong was responsible for 29.2 percent of ASU's receptions last season -- the third-highest rate in the Pac-12 -- and the only other true wide receiver with more than 11 catches was Cameron Smith (41). Point being, there's still a lot to learn about ASU's stable of receivers. Running back D.J. Foster had 62 catches last season and is a proven commodity, but even though he figures to play more receiver next year that won't account for Strong's absence. At 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, Ellis Jefferson has comparable size to Strong and after serving as his primary backup last year will be one of the main candidates to step into a similar role. Eric Lauderdale (6-2, 190) remains an intriguing prospect after redshirting last year, too. The junior college transfer received a four-star grade and was the No. 3 receiver in the country coming out of Saddleback College following the 2013 season.
We continue our series looking at some of the top individual performances in the Pac-12 in 2014. If you feel a little nostalgic, you can check out the top performances from 2013.

Up next: D.J. & the Doctor heal the Beavers

Who and against whom: Oregon State senior linebackers Michael Doctor and D.J. Alexander make huge fourth quarter plays to finish off No. 6 Arizona State 35-27 in one of the Pac-12's biggest upsets of the season.

The numbers: Doctor picked off Sun Devils QB Taylor Kelly and went 35 yards for a touchdown that gave the Beavers a 35-27 lead with 1:38 remaining. Alexander then sealed the deal with a sack of Kelly on fourth-and-2 with 1:10 left.

A closer look: Oregon State didn't have a good season, finishing 5-7, their fourth season in five years with at least six defeats. Then, with grumpiness growing over the state of the program, particularly in comparison to rival Oregon, coach Mike Riley bolted for Nebraska. This victory over the Sun Devils, in fact, was their only quality win. It pretty much came from nowhere, as the Sun Devils, who had played their way into longshot contention for the College Football Playoff, led 24-14 at halftime and seemed to be coasting toward an expected win. Yet the Beavers, losers of four in a row, got off the canvas and rallied for the victory, mostly behind a defense that shut down ASU in the second half, allowing just three points. Alexander finished with seven tackles, including two for a loss, and Doctor added five. The pair combined for 70 starts in their careers, and in 2011 they seemed like one of the conference's bright young linebacking tandems. Neither career came together as hoped for in Corvallis, with injuries being an issue, but this was one shining moment for them and their team in 2014.
Happy Friday After Signing Day.

Hope you feel signed, sealed and delivered and certain your position coach isn't headed out of town.

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To the notes!

Matt from Sunnyvale, California, writes: I'm sure most questions this week will be recruiting-focused, but how about some of the recent DC hires by Wazzu, Utah and Colorado? I must say the Wazzu and Utah hires may fly under the radar as more of an unknown. But the Buffs actually investing in a "name" coach for DC was a nice surprise. There's always more to a name, but a big-time hire can only help excite the fan base. What do you expect Jim Leavitt to bring to the Buffs?

Ted Miller: Colorado, without question, made the most inspired hire, tapping Jim Leavitt to run its defense.

Leavitt had a successful head-coaching tenure building South Florida from the ground up, so he's experienced first-hand taking a program from Point A to Point Win. Yes, things ended badly, but that smirch is probably why Mike MacIntyre was able to land an A-list coach.

Leavitt was Bill Snyder's defensive coordinator at Kansas State from 1990-95, so there's even more significant experience taking a program from Point A to Point Win. And Snyder, a Hall of Famer, is a heck of a guy to learn from. Leavitt's four years with the San Francisco 49ers working for Jim Harbaugh also seems like valuable experience.

This appears to be a huge upgrade from Kent Baer, who was encouraged to break camp in Boulder and head to UNLV. I got a $1 that says the Buffs will be substantially better on defense next fall. Maybe not certifiably good, but better.

As for Utah's and Washington State's, they went in much different directions, from Colorado and from each other.

Washington State coach Mike Leach tapped Alex Grinch to coordinate his defense. Leach went young and promising, as Grinch is 34, and he's never coordinated a defense before. But his work with the secondary at Missouri was impressive. He takes over a defense that was bad last year and has a lot of questions heading into 2015.

We shall see.

As for Utah, it went, well, old and known. Coach Kyle Whittingham promoted 67-year-old Dennis Erickson to assistant head coach and handed over co-offensive coordinator duties to Aaron Roderick and Jim Harding, who were already on staff. Roderick was the Utes co-offensive coordinator in 2010, weathered a demotion and now has a second chance.

As for the defense, Whittingham lured John Pease, 71, out of retirement -- for a second time! -- to run the Utes defense.

Those are all good, proven coaches, but there is little question this is a stop-gap solution after things got a little fractious with coaching attrition and behind-the-scenes politics at Utah this winter. Got another $1 that says the Utes coaching lineup is different in 2016, though this is a great opportunity for Roderick and Harding to distinguish themselves and stop the eight-year flip-flopping on offense.

What's interesting about Utah -- as opposed to Colorado and Washington State -- is it appears talented enough to make a run in the South Division next fall. There's good talent returning on both sides of the ball, though competing for the division title almost certainly will require clarity at QB.

Peter from Tempe writes: We've been seeing some hype around Mike Bercovici and, by all accounts, he has the starting position locked down for next year. I wouldn't say I'm questioning the decision, but as a skeptic on most matters, how optimistic can the Sun Devils be with Bercovici behind center? He definitely played well as a starter this season, but that was three games. Is that enough to be confident? Where do you place him in your way-too-early QB rankings?

Ted Miller: I'd rate Arizona State and Mike Bercovici fifth in my Way-Too-Early QB rankings, behind USC, Cal, Stanford and Arizona, though he'd fall into the "Experienced but Questions Remain" bunch that includes Colorado's Sefo Liufau, Utah's Travis Wilson, Washington's Cyler Miles and Washington State's Luke Falk.

Bercovici has an A-list arm that will open up the Sun Devils down-field passing options, which in some ways compensates for his lackluster running ability. As a fifth-year senior who started key games last year, he brings plenty of experience and knowledge to the offense.

Is he perfect? No. He sometimes thinks his arm can overcome a well-positioned DB. It can't. He's going to need to learn some patience. Good thing his offensive coordinator/QBs coach Mike Norvell is among the best in the business.

Let's just say this: Sun Devils fans should worry more about their young defense maturing than what's coming back behind center, and neither of those issues should keep you up at night.

Kevin from San Jose writes: I'm sorry, I'm not getting enough USC, UCLA, Oregon and ASU blog articles. Thanks for rarely posting anything on the team that I am interested in gives me another reason to phase this site out. Yes, I'm being sarcastic. Go Dawgs!

Ted Miller: So the issue is we are writing too much about the Pac-12 frontrunners heading into 2015 who also landed the Pac-12's best recruiting classes on national signing day?

Assuming you are grousing about Washington -- the "Go Dawgs!" being a small clue -- what major news item did you want to read about? Coach Chris Petersen calling signing day "anticlimactic"? Or the Seattle Times calling signing day "drama free."

The reason you saw a lot of signing day coverage of USC, UCLA and Arizona State is all three scored major commitments on ... wait for it... signing day. USC might have signed the nation's best class, which is sort of a big deal around these parts.

Oregon? It didn't have any huge signing day news, but the Ducks keep getting themselves ranked in the nation's top 5 and playing for national titles and all that stuff that tends to attract some news coverage, even when nothing of note happens.

Funny thing: UCLA and Arizona State fans used to send in notes like this. Wonder why they don't any more?

We grade each Pac-12 recruiting class here. Washington got a "B":
Chris Petersen's first full class at Washington came together nicely, led by ESPN 300 quarterback Jake Browning and running back Austin Joyner. Offensive line was a key position in 2015 and the Huskies added a pair of four-star tackles in Trey Adams and Henry Roberts. At receiver, Isaiah Renfro and Andre Baccellia are future targets. On defense, linebacker was also a must-fill position, and three-stars D.J. Beavers and Ben Burr-Kirven, along with Kyler Manu, were key grabs.

Sounds pretty positive.

But if Washington fans want their team to get as much coverage nationally as the Pac-12's leading teams, the Huskies need to do something they once did on an annual basis: Be a Pac-12 leader.
USC is back at or near the top of the recruiting rankings, depending on which service you favor, signing a top-five class for the first time since 2011. UCLA wasn't too far behind Wednesday, its 11th-rated class being its highest in the RecruitingNation rankings since it finished 10th in 2011. The Bruins also can wink at their friends from Heritage Hall while holding up three fingers, though we have no idea what that could possibly mean.

Oregon? The Ducks, winners of four of the last six Pac-12/10 crowns, finished 15th, their highest ranking by since they were 14th in 2011, their only other top-15 ranking from the last 10 years.

Those were the consensus top-three recruiting classes in the conference, and those programs are likely to be projected as the top three teams in the Pac-12 in 2015, though that assertion might make Stanford and three other South Division squads a bit grumpy.

Bottom line of recruiting rankings: While they are far from a science, they are meaningful and reflect the competitive reality of FBS football. The last four national champions had a four-year average recruiting ranking in the top six. Each of the last nine national champions signed a top-10 class the year before winning.

[+] EnlargeJohn Houston
Chris Williams/Icon SportswireLinebacker John Houston was one of USC's prized recruits signing on Wednesday, helping USC to No. 3 in the ESPN RecruitingNation class rankings.
Oregon could have broken those rules by winning its final game in 2010 or 2014. But it didn't.

The day after signing day always feels like a moment of existential reflection. What does it all mean? Does it, in fact, mean much of anything? Where do things really stand? Is it decidedly different today than it was a week or two months ago?

For those in a hurry, the most honest answers we can give you to those four questions are: 1. Heck if we know; 2. Probably; 3. See No. 1; 4. Maybe, but not terribly so.

The most obvious takeaway is that USC, no longer yoked with NCAA-mandated scholarship reductions, is on the cusp of returning to its super-elite recruiting perch. Since the turn of the millennium, the Trojans have been the Pac-12's only true threat for a top-five recruiting class, at least with any regularity. It's unusual, in fact, for any other conference program to have a class among the top 10.

That immediately feeds into the next USC question: Can second-year coach Steve Sarkisian capitalize on elite recruiting the way Pete Carroll did from 2001-09? Lots of folks, -- USC fans and rivals -- are doubting him, which stands in stark contrast to the 100-percent embrace of Carroll's hiring and his 6-6 first season that was capped with a Las Vegas Bowl loss to a non-AQ team whose name escapes me.

Wait. We may be screwing up our history. Anyway...

Conventional wisdom with USC apparently rising would be that other top Pac-12 teams will fall. After all, the Trojans are going forward with a full slate of 25 scholarships, instead of the 15 of the previous three classes. That alters the recruiting dynamic -- a leak of 30 scholarships mostly distributed throughout the conference the previous three seasons has been filled. Was it a coincidence that the conference developed unprecedented depth with the Trojans in NCAA purgatory?

Yet there were UCLA and Oregon and much of the rest of the Pac-12 showing well on signing day, with seven teams finishing in the top 40 of the recruiting rankings, the best recruiting haul for the conference since 2012. A USC surge was not accompanied by a notable retreat, starting with the Bruins and Ducks.

While Arizona and Arizona State fans are at this moment noting they won the last two South Division crowns -- a rare moment of the Sun Devils and Wildcats being in accord! -- that's really not the core issue here. Anything USC does is immediately brought into comparison with its L.A. rival, and Jim Mora and his Bruins held tough in recruiting while owning a decided recent upper hand on the field. Though UCLA again figures to be looking up at the Trojans in the 2015 preseason rankings, a reasonable case could be made that shouldn't happen based on the football side of football.

In fact, I get this case stated to me every single time I chat with Pac-12 blog bud Kevin Gemmell. As in, "Kevin, what are you going to order to eat?" "Oh, I'd like an order of UCLA ranked ahead of USC with a side of why is everyone so high on Cody Kessler when he hasn't played well in big games?"

Still, USC will be the most physically talented team in the Pac-12 next fall. That, at least in our model of projection, makes the Trojans the conference's most immediate threat to insinuate themselves into the national picture, which means they threaten the Ducks' status as the Pac-12's top team. While Stanford won consecutive conference titles in 2012 and 2013, the Ducks are the only conference team to play for a national title since 2005, when one might recall a certain other Pac-12 program falling just short of all-time dynastic brilliance.

Ultimately, the big picture is what demands the most eyeballs and ensuing cogitation, at least from the national perspective of our College Football Playoff: Which Pac-12 team is most likely to secure one of four CFP spots in 2015? And which team is most likely to keep doing it going forward?

Again, the most obvious takeaway from national signing day is that USC, no longer yoked with NCAA-mandated scholarship reductions, is on the cusp of returning to its super-elite perch.

But takeaways from signing day are pure speculation. There's a lot of urp-less coaching Sarkisian must do in order to concretize USC's return to national relevance.

Know what isn't pure speculation? USC playing Oregon and UCLA on back-to-back Saturdays -- Nov. 21 and 28 -- in 2015. That's a scheduling fact.

Wonder what the stakes might be?