Pac-12: Austin Hill
Seeing that Oregon, the eventual Pac-12 champion, won the North Division by three games, no single play greatly changed the Ducks' conference trajectory. The same can't be said for South champion Arizona, a team whose impressive late-season run could have been waylaid in September in its conference opener against California.
Everyone remembers the stunning play, which set a season-long tone for late-game dramatics in the Pac-12. The Wildcats beat Cal 49-45 on a 47-yard Hail Mary pass from redshirt freshman quarterback Anu Solomon to senior receiver Austin Hill on the final play of the game. The ball traveled about 63 yards in the air, and Hill caught it in the back corner of the end zone, amid a crowd that included four Bears defenders.
If that unlikely completion isn't made and everything else held true to form, UCLA would have won the South, emerging from a four-team tie with Arizona, Arizona State and USC. Each would have finished with a 6-3 conference record, but the Bruins would have prevailed with a 3-0 record among those tied teams.
Would UCLA have had a better chance against Oregon in the Pac-12 title game? Maybe. You never know.
Further, it's reasonable to wonder if Arizona's season might have suffered some season-long consequences from losing to Cal, which failed to win a conference game in 2013. The Wildcats were coming off close wins against UTSA and Nevada, showing little evidence they would become a conference contender. Twelve days after needing a miracle to beat the Bears, the Wildcats won at Oregon, a red-letter and transformative victory for Rich Rodriguez's team.
Funny thing about Arizona's Hail Mary against Cal: It was mostly par for the course in the fourth quarter. The play capped a stunning 36-point run in the final frame after the Wildcats trailed 28-6 at halftime. Solomon had four of his five touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, the Hail Mary being his 73rd pass of the game. Heck, Cal scored 14 points in the fourth quarter, which typically would bode well after leading by 22 at the break.
Sure, the last game comes to mind. And the fact that Arizona scored 36 points in the fourth quarter and needed a 47-yard Hail Mary as the clock expired to beat Cal certainly qualifies as dramatic.
But it wasn’t just that game. After a blowout win in their opener against UNLV, the last three for the Wildcats have been nip-and-tuck. Coach Rich Rodriguez said he’s not sure if there’s a common denominator between this team and being able to win close games. But he’s glad they do.
“I hope it’s the fact that our guys don’t worry or don’t get too concerned about the scoreboard and just play 60 minutes,” Rodriguez said. “Every coach talks about it. We talk about it quite a bit. In fact we talk about it before every game. No matter what happens, we’re going to play for 60 minutes and then we’ll look up and see what the score is.”
As the Wildcats prep for a huge showdown with No. 2 Oregon Thursday night, it’s worth taking a look at the fourth quarter of Arizona’s past three games to see just how tight things got.
Fourth-quarter analysis: Things got dicey halfway through the final frame. Though Arizona’s probability of winning never dropped below 50 percent, it did dip down to 59.8 when UTSA took over at their own 20 trailing 26-23 with 5:09 left to play.
Tipping point: With the score still at 26-23, UTSA picked up a first down at its own 31. But on second down, Tucker Carter was intercepted by Jared Tevis. UTSA’s win probability dropped to 3 percent.
Fourth-quarter analysis: Of the three games we’re examining here, this was the easiest fourth quarter for the Wildcats. Even after Nevada pulled to within a touchdown with 6:01 to play, its odds of winning never reached above 16.9 percent.
Tipping point: After Anu Solomon connected with Cayleb Jones on a 24-yard touchdown strike five seconds into the fourth quarter, Arizona’s win probability shot up from 63 percent to 94.4. But as the next graphic will show us, every second counts.
Fourth quarter analysis: Even as the Wildcats began their march toward erasing a 31-16 deficit, their win probability rarely spiked. The closest they got was a 41.6 probability when Solomon and Jones hooked up for 15 yards with 2:44 left to play, cutting Cal’s lead to 45-43. That dropped almost seven percentage points after the failed two-point conversion.
Tipping point: Just before the "Hill Mary," Cal’s chances of winning were 87.9 percent. One play changed it all. Solomon and Austin Hill wrote themselves into Arizona lore with an iconic play that will fill highlight videos for years to come.
Young baseball players frequently dream of a situation in which they come up to bat in the bottom of the ninth inning with the bases loaded and their team trailing by three.
The football equivalent here might be a Hail Mary attempt that comes with time expiring and a club trailing by less than a touchdown.
Austin Hill faced that scenario on Saturday, though he didn't exactly daydream about it as a child.
"I never envisioned it," he laughed. "I always like to win comfortably."
Well, Saturday night's furious finish was anything but comfortable. Arizona trailed Cal 45-43 with four seconds left. From the Bears' 47-yard line, a field goal would have been a 64-yard try (exactly the NFL record), so that was out of question. The Wildcats were left with only one option, so coach Rich Rodriguez turned to divine intervention.
Well, not really -- but it turns out that the Arizona coaching staff's hand signal for "Hail Mary" happened to involve clasping the hands together in prayer fashion.
"That was the signal for this particular game," Hill said. "But they could have made up any signal, and I would have known what to run."
That would be a sprint straight to the back right corner of the end zone.
At the snap, Cal only rushed three linemen, leaving Arizona quarterback Anu Solomon with plenty of time to wait for his receivers to set up shop in the promised land.
Solomon's 73rd and final pass of the night was also its most majestic, a soaring 50-plus yard lob that might have brought down rain had the game not been played in the cloudless desert.
Hill made it to the ball's landing spot.
"Halfway, and then three-quarters of way [into the throw's flight], I knew the ball was coming to me," Hill said. "I was just hoping no one bumped into me, or hit my elbow, or jumped on top of me so I could secure the catch."
Though bodies jumped, pads crashed, and players fell in one chaotic end zone instant, none of the above happened. Hill secured the ball. Arizona Stadium entered a state of delirium. A 36-point fourth quarter had fueled a sensational comeback victory.
"Don't ever go home early," a beaming Rodriguez told a TV camera afterward.
Hill's grand finale is our Pac-12 play of the week poll winner. It won in a landslide.
On Monday, the "Hill Mary" still had Arizona buzzing as Hill went to class in Tucson. Fellow students offered their congratulations. Campus was energized by a moment the Wildcats won't soon forget.
And Hill may or may not still be holding that game-winning football, which he continued to clutch as he jogged off in Saturday night’s mayhem.
this certificate of achievement after they print it out and fill in their name.
If you see something you think deserves to be nominated in the future, tweet it at the Pac-12 blog with the hashtag #PlayOfTheWeek.
Later in the week, we'll visit the results of this poll with some insight from your Pac-12 bloggers.
This week, I'm going to go out on a limb and say we have a pretty obvious winner. But that shouldn't take away from the other performances. Here are your nominees this week:
1. The Spruce is Loose
With the Buffs trailing 3-0 late in the first quarter, Sefo Liufau looked to his favorite target, Nelson Spruce, to make something happen. Seeing Spruce with one-on-one coverage on the outside, Liufau let it fly. Spruce took a little stutter step and then cruised in for a 71-yard score.
2. The Talented Mr. Clay
Kaelin Clay talked to the Pac-12 blog about his 66-yard punt return for a touchdown and subsequent Heisman pose: “In pregame we saw [they were] kind of out-kicking his coverage so I knew we'd have a chance to return the ball and we set up great blocks. The rest is history … [Striking the Heisman pose] was one of those things that just happened. I didn't plan it or anything. It was the right time. I didn't want it to make it seem like it was a one-person show. It just happened. Take nothing away from my punt return team because without them that wouldn't have happened.”
3. Hill Mary, Full of Grace
So, that was awesome. Feel free to watch it a couple of fifty times. Trailing 28-6 at the half, the Wildcats slowly clawed their way back into the game before finally erupting for 36 points in the fourth quarter. A lot has to go into this kind of a comeback. But when it all culminates with a 47-yard Hail Mary from Anu Solomon to Austin Hill, it simply becomes immortal.
4. Look What I Found!
Things weren't going so well for Washington early on. And then, in the second half, the Huskies could do no wrong. Already leading 35-14 in the fourth quarter, linebacker John Timu played the tip-drill game to perfection and returned an interception 35 yards for a touchdown to put UW ahead 42-14.
The Biletnikoff Award annually recognizes the outstanding receiver in college football. Any player, regardless of position (wide receiver, tight end, slot back and running back) who catches a pass is eligible for the award.
Here are the Pac-12 players on the list.
- The wide receivers are good: How good? Well, that probably depends on the quarterback situation (see below). But Austin Hill is back from injury after being a Biletnikoff Award semifinalist in 2012 and transfer Cayleb Jones is an awards candidate. Davonte' Neal also adds an intriguing element that could make Arizona’s corps one of the best in the country.
- Secondary leadership: Key players, such as Jared Tevis, Jonathan McKnight and Jourdon Grandon impressed the coaching staff this spring. However the Wildcats have lost a few defensive backs here and there. So look for a safety -- or even a wide receiver or two -- to get some work at corner in the fall while that trio holds the group together.
- Solid line: Mickey Baucus and Fabbians Ebbele bring a lot of experience to a group that will have to make holes for a new running back and protect a new quarterback. The addition of Jim Michalczik as offensive line coach last season was a boost to the unit, which showed steady improvement throughout last season and is blossoming into one of the better lines in the league.
- QB of the O: Arizona has one of the most intriguing quarterback competitions in the country. The winner will likely have strong numbers running Rich Rodriguez’s offense. And with a group of wide receivers that stacks up with just about any other in the country, whoever runs the show will not be lacking in talented targets. As for settling on one guy…
- QB of the D: The departure of linebacker Jake Fischer leaves a defensive void as well as one in the locker room. Fisher was quietly one of the top linebackers in the league the last few years. Scooby Wright has the talent and will have to grow into a leadership role despite being a sophomore. Hank Hobson has dealt with injuries, but is capable.
- Something special: The Wildcats ranked in the bottom half of the league last year in kick and punt returns, though significant progress could be on the way with T.J. Johnson and Neal in the return game. Last year the Wildcats were ninth in kick returns (20.5 average) and seventh in punt returns (7.2 average).
Following the Pac-12 blog on Twitter is the equivalent of eating a perfectly cooked bone-in ribeye, only with the caloric burn of a P90X workout.
To the notes.
Bellingham Duck from Bellingham, Wash., writes: I remember as kid sitting on my back porch listening to my Ducks get blown out by perennial powerhouse Oklahoma 62-7. I dreamed of what it what it would be like to ever be that good. Too ashamed to ask God to intervene, I accepted what seemed to be our fate. What Pac-12 program that is currently down is most unlikely but still destined to reach the top and stay a while?
Ted Miller: This question interested me because of my initial reaction: I see reasons for optimism for EVERY SINGLE PAC-12 TEAM.
That reaction made me grumpy. That much optimism doesn't sit well with me. The Pac-12 blog is not "Oprah." We aren't about uplifting folks. We aren't about fairy tales and happy endings. We are about being realistic. Objective. We want to tell it like it is. We're like Marlo Stanfield in "The Wire" whispering with understated but ineluctable menace, "You want it to be one way… but it's the other way."
And we are not embarrassed to admit we enjoy a bit of snark.
Yet here's what I see with the Pac-12 heading into the 2014 season: Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Arizona State and Washington look like potential top-25 teams to me. Oregon State, Arizona, Washington State and Utah look like teams that could be dark horses if a couple of things fall into place and they stay healthy. And California and Colorado look like they will be much better in 2014 than they were last season.
The biggest potential backward step? Arizona State, because it's rebuilding its defense. But I see the Sun Devils as a team that could win nine games, so we're not talking about a tumble.
But none of this answers your question.
Part of that nonanswer is only Utah, Colorado and California could qualify as "down" after the 2013 season. Everyone else seemed to be maintaining a solid status or trending up.
So if you are asking me which program among those three should most decisively reverse course in the next five years, I'd go with Cal, mostly because of its recently -- and dramatically -- upgraded facilities and recruiting base.
If you're asking me which Pac-12 team is on the midst of making a major leap as a program, I'd go with UCLA in the South Division -- as long the Bruins retain Jim Mora -- and Washington in the North.
I also think the Arizona-Arizona State rivalry is going to get very interesting if both retain their present coaching staffs.
Ted Miller: This gets a yes and no.
Yes, Washington State was better running the ball than its paltry 53.4 yards per game suggests. Each of its top four running backs averaged 4.5 yards per carry or better. The poor rushing stats were mostly due to a lack of attempts and, as you note, losing 244 yards on 32 sacks. Further, as coach Mike Leach often points out, his short passing game using running backs isn't much different than handing off.
Yet, just as you've gone inside the numbers, you also can go a bit deeper.
Two stats stand out: Third-down conversions and red-zone offense. Both tend to be better for teams with reliable running games.
The Cougars ranked seventh in the Pac-12 in third-down conversions and 10th in red-zone offense. They were eighth in red-zone TD percentage (though it's a curiosity that said TD percentage was better than both Arizona State and Stanford, two good running teams).
Most notable: The Cougars turned the ball over in the red zone a conference-worst seven times. Hard to believe part of that isn't about the challenge of throwing the ball in a compressed space when defenses aren't worried about the run.
All this said, it's really about results. The Cougars ranked eighth in the Pac-12 in scoring last year -- ninth in conference games -- and finished 6-7. If they finished in the top three in scoring and won eight or more games, nobody would care about the rushing statistics.
Ted Miller: Considering the receiving depth in the Pac-12 next year, if I listed all the potential challengers to lead the Pac-12 in receiving yards, there would be 20 names.
There are two reasons I left out Hill. First, he's coming back from a knee injury that killed his 2013 season and he wasn't 100 percent himself this spring. I want to see how he reacts when the lights come on and the games are for real. I do suspect we're going to see a guy who is even better than he was in 2012.
But the biggest reason is this: Arizona is as deep as any team in the country at receiver. It's much deeper than it was in 2012, when Hill put up huge numbers, and 2013, when Hill was out. I could see multiple 1,000-yard receivers for Arizona -- or four guys with over 800 yards -- but not one guy with, say, 1,500 yards.
Also, based on how Texas transfer Cayleb Jones looked this spring, he might actually be the favorite to lead the Wildcats in receiving yards.
Ted Miller: Maybe for some, but plenty of coaches subscribe to the notion that they want to prolong the competition as long as possible.
For example, it was pretty obvious that B.J. Denker was going to be Arizona's starting quarterback early in fall camp last year, but Rich Rodriguez opted not to announce it until the week of the first game. Why? He didn't want Denker to become comfortable. He told me specifically that he wanted to cultivate as much mental toughness as possible in Denker because he knew Denker's lackluster arm would not be widely celebrated among the Wildcats' fan base and there would be growing pains. As there were -- see his game at Washington.
Chip Kelly also wasn't a big fan of showing his cards early. Think about what we know about Marcus Mariota now. But he wasn't revealed as the Ducks starter as a freshman until after 22 fall camp practices, one week before the opener.
Again, some coaches like to anoint a QB as soon as possible in order to allow him to take up a defined leadership role. Others like to wait as long as possible, believing a lengthy, stressful competition creates mental toughness.
Ted Miller: The Nobel committee has been alerted.
Now, Matt, please go read a book.
Where: Arizona Stadium
Kickoff: 1 p.m. MST
TV: Pac-12 Network (replays throughout the week)
What to watch: The Wildcats are in the hunt for a new quarterback to replace B.J. Denker and a new running back to replace Ka'Deem Carey. Rich Rodriguez hasn’t said much on the quarterback front, with Anu Solomon, Connor Brewer, Jesse Scroggins, Jerrard Randall and Nick Isham. Per Rodriguez, “one through five is pretty much bunched up.” You read that right --- one through five! How those reps all get divided will be very telling if Rodriguez is leaning one way. Or you could just crush some tea leaves and check the planetary alignment. Because right now, those make as much sense as any guesswork. One note about returning wide receiver Austin Hill, a 2012 Biletnikoff Award semifinalist who missed all of last season with a knee injury: “He won’t play a whole lot,” Rodriguez said. “He played a lot in spring. We will give him a couple series. He is a proven veteran and we know what we have in him. He’s slowly getting his confidence back. He’s 100 percent, but there’s a transition period in getting your confidence back.” … There will also be a celebrity/alumni flag football game kicking off at 11:15 a.m.
Where: Folsom Field
Kickoff: Noon MST
TV: Pac-12 Network (replays throughout the week)
What to watch: Obviously, there is going to be a lot of attention at wide receiver to see who steps in for the departed Paul Richardson. The Buffs are eyeballing a rotation/committee of D.D. Goodson, Devin Ross, Bryce Bobo and Elijah Dunston. There is no Richardson out there. So, as Colorado wide receivers coach Troy Walters recently said: “We’re going to have to do it collectively … if we get two or three guys to do with P-Rich did, then we’ll be in good shape.” Richardson caught 83 passes for 1,343 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. On the other side of the ball, guarding those receivers has been an interesting power struggle. The Buffs look set at their two starting cornerback spots with Greg Henderson and Kenneth Crawley. But developing depth has sparked a pretty good competition with Chidobe Awuzie and juco transfer Ahkello Witherspoon. (Colorado is quickly making a push to contend for the Pac-12 blog’s all-scrabble team.) … After the game, Colorado will host a Healthy Kids Day. Children can go through fitness stations with athletes from all of Colorado’s sports programs and get a free T-shirt.
Where: Stanford Stadium
Kickoff: 1 p.m. PST (fan activities begin at 12:15)
TV: Pac-12 Network (replays throughout the week)
What to watch: How will the running back carries be divided? With Remound Wright suspended for the second half of spring practice, that opens the door for Kelsey Young, Barry Sanders and Ricky Seale to get some extra work. The Cardinal are trying to replace Tyler Gaffney, who carried 330 times for 1,709 yards and 21 touchdowns last season. Recall a year earlier, they were trying to replace Stepfan Taylor and his 322 carries, 1,530 yards and 13 touchdowns. The Cardinal have used bell cows the last couple of seasons, though head coach David Shaw told the Pac-12 blog he’d prefer to have multiple guys working in a committee – similar to the stable of the 2011 group. Keep an eye on the offensive line as well. All five projected starters are from the much-heralded 2012 recruiting class. … All players will be available after the game to sign autographs.
On offense, it's elite combinations at quarterback, running back and receiver.
On defense, it's elite combinations of a leading tackler, a leader in sacks and leader in interceptions.
First up: South Division offense three-headed monsters.
There are two "pure" offensive three-headed monsters in the South: USC and Utah. Both welcome back their leading passer, rusher and receiver, though some fans might be surprised to know that Marqise Lee didn't lead the Trojans in receiving last season.
The biggest mystery team? Arizona, which is replacing its leading passer and rusher and has several wild cards who might challenge to be the first pass-catching option. Typically we'd project a starter, but the Wildcats seem to be completely wide open at QB and RB. So they get a "?" at both positions.
Otherwise, the projections of new starters aren't terribly unpredictable.
1. Arizona State
QB Taylor Kelly, RB D.J. Foster, WR Jaelen Strong
The skinny: If you were ranking three-headed monsters nationally, this might be a top-10 troika. You have a three-year starter at quarterback who passed for 3,635 yards and 28 TDs last year, a receiver who caught 75 passes for 1,122 yards and versatile running back who's dangerous as a runner or receiver.
QB Brett Hundley, RB Jordan James, WR Devin Fuller
The skinny: Hundley starts the season as a top Heisman Trophy candidate. James started off great last year -- 116 yards rushing per game with a 6.3 yards per carry average in the first four games -- before getting hurt. While WR Shaq Evans is off to the NFL, Fuller leads a strong crew of returning receivers.
QB Cody Kessler, RB Javorius Allen, WR Nelson Agholor
The skinny: This is a strong threesome, though some see Kessler being threatened by redshirt freshman Max Browne this spring. Allen surged in the second half of the 2013 season, when he rushed for most of his 785 yards (5.8 yards per carry), but the Trojans have a lot of depth at the position. Agholor is a frontrunner for first-team All-Pac-12 honors after catching 56 passes for 918 yards last year.
QB Travis Wilson, RB Bubba Poole, WR Dres Anderson
The skinny: If Wilson is cleared medically and is 100 percent full-go, he's got a chance to be a good QB, building on what he did while healthy in 2013. Poole is the Utes' leading returning rusher, though he could face a challenge from a handful of other backs, including redshirt freshman Troy McCormick and juco transfer Devontae Booker. Anderson will be joined by Kenneth Scott, who suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the 2013 opener.
QB Sefo Liufau, RB Michael Adkins, WR Nelson Spruce
The skinny: Liufau was solid as a true freshman starter last year. He should be much better this fall. Adkins combined with Christian Powell to essentially split 1,000 yards rushing in 2013, with Powell offering the power option. Spruce was a solid No. 2 behind Paul Richardson last year, but it remains to be seen how he will perform as option No. 1.
QB ?, RB ?, WR Austin Hill
The skinny: We honestly have no idea who will start at QB and RB next year, and the Pac-12 Blog believes that's probably not far from what Rich Rodriguez is thinking today. If we were going to go with complete conjecture at QB, we'd bet on a showdown between Texas transfer Connor Brewer and redshirt freshman Anu Solomon. Same thing at running back, where it seems likely a true or redshirt freshman replaces Ka'Deem Carey. Even Hill is a projection here based on his outstanding 2012 numbers, as he sat out last season with a knee injury. Sophomore Nate Phillips is the Wildcats' leading returning receiver.
But for Arizona receiver Austin Hill, spring practice feels like he's standing in front of a spectacular buffet dinner. And he's really, really hungry.
Hill was a second-team All-Pac-12 selection following the 2012 season after ranking second in the conference in receiving yards. The sophomore looked like a potential All-American in 2013 after catching 81 passes for 1,364 yards -- 16.8 yards per reception -- with 11 touchdowns.
But his 2013 season ended before it began on April 10 after he tore his ACL during the second-to-last session of spring practice.
Poof -- just like that, football was taken away, replaced by uncertainty and the daily burden -- and boredom -- of rehabilitation. That's why even a no-pads practice to start spring drills this week was invigorating.
Hill practiced with the Wildcats in a limited fashion during the final weeks of the 2013 season, but he's still not 100 percent healthy. While he's officially full-speed this spring, he's still wearing a knee brace and his explosiveness and speed are not fully back.
"That's basically the last step of ACL recovery," he said. "I'm still in those processes."
Neal and Jones both sat out last season, so Hill knows they share his hunger, while the returning starters and contributors don't want to yield repetitions. While it's a collegial atmosphere among the receivers at practice, it's also a competition for touches and position in the pecking order.
"Everyone is helping each other out on the field," Hill said. "It's fun to see athletes compete. It's always fun."
Of course, the competition at receiver figures to yield certainty -- an outstanding and deep crew of four or five guys in a regular rotation with one or two leading the way. The bigger issue is who is going to deliver the ball.
Hill laughs at the inevitable quarterback competition question, for an answer behind center probably won't be delivered until fall camp. Perhaps even late in fall camp, as it was last year.
Hill, for one, admits he'd prefer to get some clarity much sooner.
"Right now ... who knows? I just hope it doesn't end up like it was last year, where even in the first couple of games we really didn't know who the quarterback was," he said. "I want it to be a QB we know is going to start. That's the most important thing for your passing game, that receiver-QB sync. It's hard to get that sync when you don't know who your quarterback is and it's getting switched up every day."
“Of course, that's up to the QBs -- senior Jesse Scroggins, sophomore Connor Brewer, junior Jerrard Randall and redshirt freshman Anu Solomon -- and coach Rich Rodriguez, who has said repeatedly about QB competitions that he would prefer that one guy quickly and decisively wins the job.
I just hope it doesn't end up like it was last year, where even in the first couple of games we really didn't know who the quarterback was. I want it to be a QB we know is going to start. That's the most important thing for your passing game, that receiver-QB sync. It's hard to get that sync when you don't know who your quarterback is and it's getting switched up every day.” Arizona receiver Austin Hill on the Wildcats' quarterback competition.
Just don't expect it to happen this spring.
As for Hill's take, he often doesn't even know who's delivering the ball.
"The quarterbacks are getting switched around so much, sometimes it's even hard to tell which quarterback even went with my group when I went," he said. "We move so fast, I don't get to pay attention to what quarterback is throwing me the ball."
While the QBs work through their competition, Hill will be a veteran leader for the offense, back in action after a year of observing the team from the outside. When he looks around at practice at the improved personnel on both sides of the ball, he senses that the Wildcats are going to surprise some folks this season.
"I'm ready to help this team to a BCS bowl," he said. "I feel like that's where we're headed."
As Hill missed last season and is still not 100 percent, he, of course, can be forgiven for forgetting 2013 was the last season of the BCS era. His point is clear. He believes Arizona is going to be a threat in the Pac-12's South Division in 2014.
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."
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.
Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12
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.
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.
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.
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.
Spotlight: Arizona WR Cayleb Jones, 6-3, 210, R-So.
The skinny: You surely have heard about Arizona's depth at receiver. Not only are six of the top seven WRs from 2013 coming back, the unit also will be bolstered by the return of Austin Hill, the Pac-12's second-leading receiver in 2012. Toss in Notre Dame transfer Davonte' Neal and you have quite a crowd. But guess what? There are more than a few folks who say Jones might turn out to be 1B to Hill's 1A. Jones is big and fast and played as a true freshman at Texas. He opted to transfer after running into some off-field trouble -- felony aggravated assault charges, which were later dismissed and reduced to a misdemeanor -- and followed former Texas QB Connor Brewer to Arizona, turning down a host of suitors. Jones was an Under Armour All-American and ESPN 150 recruit coming out of Austin, Texas, and Jones and Brewer were considered two of the leaders of Texas' No. 3 ranked 2012 recruiting class. The big question for Arizona is who will throw the ball to Hill, Jones and company. The good news is whoever wins the QB job, he will have plenty of targets capable of making him look good.
Offense: The Wildcats were a little funny this year, offensively. While they excelled at running the football, averaging 264.9 yards per game, the passing attack was last in the conference at 193.5 yards per game. This is a far cry from the Matt Scott-led attack of 2012, which averaged nearly 300 yards per game and produced 30 touchdowns in the air. But, as is always the case, it all comes down to points. And the Wildcats were sixth in the league with an average of 33.5 points per game -- that’s down from last year’s total of 38.2 ppg. As you’d expect, it was the Ka'Deem Carey show. The Doak Walker finalist and Pac-12 offensive player of the year rushed for at least 100 yards in every game he played in and was second nationally with 157.1 yards per game. The reason for the step back was the transition to B.J. Denker at quarterback. He never replicated Scott’s production, but after a rocky start he went seven straight games with a completion percentage of at least 60 percent, including a 17-of-24 performance for 275 yards with two touchdowns in the bowl win over Boston College. He also posted a 90.8 QBR in the win over Oregon. Down a few receivers because of injury and attrition, Nate Phillips stepped up to lead the team with seven touchdown receptions. With Austin Hill expected to return from injury and several key transfers making the jump from the scout team, Arizona’s offense is expected to take a big step forward next season. But in 2013, Carey’s presence alone made the Wildcats formidable. Grade: B-
Defense: A lot of what we’ve based these grades on in this series is improvements from last year to this year. And Arizona’s defense certainly qualifies as having improved. With almost the entire starting 11 back from last year, the Wildcats made huge strides in scoring defense, rush defense and they upped their sacks and tackles for loss per game. In 2012, the Wildcats allowed 35.3 points per game and ranked 102nd nationally. This year they cut that number by 11 points per game to 24.2. You can chalk it up to another year in the 3-3-5 and understanding roles better. Coaching has a lot to do with that, as well. They weren’t a great turnover team, posting a minus-1 turnover ratio. Though they were one of the better teams at recovering fumbles. Jake Fischer was his steady self with 99 stops, and Marquis Flowers posted a team high 11 tackles for a loss. Tra'Mayne Bondurant had an exceptional year in the secondary with a pair of pick sixes. Though they weren’t tops in the league, there was still marked improvement from last year to this year. Grade: B
Special teams: Jake Smith was streaky, converting 12 of 19 field goals, including a long of 53. But he also struggled from the 30-39 range, converting just 2 of 5. From a punt and kick standpoint, the Wildcats didn’t return either for a score. But they didn’t give up any, either. Nor did they have any field goals blocked. They were middle of the road in punting average and middle of the road in kick coverage. Not spectacular, but not bad, either. Grade: C+
Overall: After dropping their second Territorial Cup of the Rich Rodriguez era, they rebounded to knock of a BCS conference team and win their bowl game. They’ve posted back-to-back eight win seasons and scored a signature 42-16 win at home over No. 5 Oregon. If you’re a Wildcat fan, you have to feel pretty good about the direction of the program under Rodriguez. Though being 0-2 against the Todd Graham led Sun Devils stings a bit. New facilities are in place, a solid recruiting class is on the way, and the team received votes in the final AP poll. Quarterback is a question for next year. But given the talent coming in, combined with the talent coming back and coming off of injury/the scout team, it’s not unreasonable for fans to get their hopes up for next season and the possibility of their team contending for a division title. Grade: B
1:00 PM ET Illinois Louisiana Tech 4:30 PM ET Rutgers North Carolina 8:00 PM ET North Carolina State UCF
Final Nevada 3 Louisiana-Lafayette 16 Final Utah State 21 UTEP 6 Final 22 Utah 45 Colorado State 10 Final Western Michigan 24 Air Force 38 Final South Alabama 28 Bowling Green 33
Final Marshall 52 Northern Illinois 23 Final Navy 17 San Diego State 16
Final Central Michigan 48 Western Kentucky 49 Final Fresno State 6 Rice 30
1:00 PM ET Cincinnati Virginia Tech 2:00 PM ET 15 Arizona State Duke 3:30 PM ET Miami (FL) South Carolina 4:30 PM ET Boston College Penn State 8:00 PM ET Nebraska 24 USC
2:00 PM ET Texas A&M West Virginia 5:30 PM ET Oklahoma 17 Clemson 9:00 PM ET Arkansas Texas
3:00 PM ET Notre Dame 23 LSU 6:30 PM ET 13 Georgia 21 Louisville 10:00 PM ET Maryland Stanford
12:30 PM ET 9 Ole Miss 6 TCU 4:00 PM ET 20 Boise State 10 Arizona 8:00 PM ET 7 Mississippi State 12 Georgia Tech
12:00 PM ET 19 Auburn 18 Wisconsin 12:30 PM ET 8 Michigan State 5 Baylor 1:00 PM ET 16 Missouri 25 Minnesota 5:00 PM ET 2 Oregon 3 Florida State 8:30 PM ET 1 Alabama 4 Ohio State
12:00 PM ET Houston Pittsburgh 3:20 PM ET Iowa Tennessee 6:45 PM ET 11 Kansas State 14 UCLA 10:15 PM ET Washington Oklahoma State