Pac-12: Cam Newton

USC might be No. 1 in the College Football Live spring Top 25 rankings. But it's No. 4 Oregon that has the best chance to knock the SEC off its six-ringed mountain. So says ESPN college football analyst Brock Huard, who laid out three reasons (all extremely sound and logical) why Oregon is actually the team to beat Insider in the Pac-12 this season.

Here's a minor re-hash of his three points.
Regarding the quarterback situation: Cam Newton and AJ McCarron won BCS titles the past two seasons as first-year starters under center. McCarron filled the role of game manager, while the Heisman Trophy-winning Newton was the ultimate game-breaker. For Oregon in 2012, either redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota or sophomore Bryan Bennett will be under center as a first-year starter, a point that isn't lost on coach Chip Kelly, but also one that doesn't scare him, either.
The Ducks have an SEC-worthy defensive front: "Yeah, our group thinks they could be [on that level]," Kelly said. "We have some size with Wade Keliikipi [6-foot-3, 300 pounds] and Ricky Heimuli [6-4, 321] that will match some of those guys. Football starts up front. We've learned that in our battles with LSU and Auburn. I really think our defensive line will be the strength of this football team."

Throw in returning first-team all-conference defensive end Dion Jordan (6-7, 245), lengthy and productive redshirt junior Taylor Hart (6-6, 289) and four-star recruit Arik Armstead (6-8, 297) and it becomes clear as to why the normally reserved Kelly gets so excited about his team's prospects up front.
The schedule favors the Ducks: The only road trip in the first six weeks is to face the Washington State Cougars, and not even in Pullman, but rather at Century Link Field in Seattle where the Green and Gold could very well equal the Crimson and Grey in the stands. The easy early slate will provide a soft landing for Oregon's first-year QB.

This will obviously be a major point of contention for both USC and Oregon fans, assuming both teams do as expected, until Nov. 3 rolls around. [Utah fans, feel free to jump in on this until Oct. 4 -- and beyond if your team can top the Trojans at home]. Still, it doesn't mean we can't stoke the fires a little early.
The Pac-12 is the conference of quarterbacks. The SEC is all about defense.

Oh, and winning national championships.

But as good as the defenses are in the SEC, what role does poor-to-middling offense play in that perception? As in, what would happen if those defenses played against a series of future NFL quarterbacks, as Pac-12 (and Big 12) defenses do?

The question before us is this: How would USC quarterback Matt Barkley do against those rough-tough SEC defenses?

Ted Miller: It’s sort of a chicken and the egg question. Are SEC defenses so good because they rarely play against A-list quarterbacks? Or do Pac-12 quarterbacks pile up eye-popping numbers because they don’t play against SEC defenses?

[+] EnlargeMatt Barkley
Harry How/Getty ImagesWould Matt Barkley be as successful if he played against SEC defenses all season?
Is it more notable that four of the top 11 quarterbacks in the nation in terms of passing efficiency in 2011 were from the Pac-12, compared to none in the top 20 from the SEC? Or is it more important that six SEC defenses ranked in the top 17 in pass efficiency defense compared to zero for the Pac-12?

It’s hard to say. It’s likely a person’s home -- Los Angeles or Baton Rouge -- has a large influence on his or her opinion.

Pac-12 fans would be prone to point out: In 2005, LSU ranked No. 3 in the nation in passing efficiency defense. But in the Tigers' trip to Tempe that season, Arizona State’s Sam Keller completed 35 of 56 passes for 461 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions in a 35-31 defeat.

Or this: LSU’s defense did a nice job against Oregon’s offense in the 2011 season opener. Of course, the Ducks scored more points on LSU than ANY OF THE OTHER 13 TEAMS LSU PLAYED.

Apologies for the caps lock. Reckless typing.

While we can all acknowledge the SEC -- at least the elite teams -- play better defense than the rest of the nation, it is also worth noting that when future first-round NFL draft picks played quarterback in the SEC, they put up good numbers, whether we’re talking about the Manning brothers, Matt Stafford or Cam Newton. And I’m sure, one day in the future --perhaps this decade! -- we’ll be able to add a name to that list.

There are some nice quartebacks in the SEC: Tyler Wilson, AJ McCarron and Aaron Murray. All three seem like they’d have a good chance of winning the backup job at USC. Maybe.

Chris Low: No way am I going to argue that Barkley wouldn't have success in the SEC.

He's a future pro and probably the front-runner to win the Heisman Trophy in 2012.

The question is: How much success would he have, and would he hit the proverbial wall going against SEC defenses on a weekly basis?

My feeling is that all quarterbacks hit that wall. Any coach will tell you (ask your buddy Lane Kiffin) that what separates SEC defenses is the speed in the front seven, particularly in the defensive line. There are fast players all over the country in college football, but the SEC has cornered the market on fast, explosive defensive linemen and pass-rushers who also have the size and strength to overpower people.

That's the difference, and that's where Barkley would notice the greatest difference.

It wasn't a banner year for quarterbacks in the SEC last season. And, yes, I realize that's an understatement. But it was a banner year for premier defensive players. That's why the first round of the NFL draft next month is going to look like an SEC who's who. As many as 10 SEC defensive players could go in the first round.

Don't sleep on the SEC's quarterback class this coming season, either. Wilson may be a future first-rounder. Murray has thrown nearly 60 touchdown passes in his first two seasons, and we all saw what McCarron did in the BCS title game against an LSU defense that was outstanding.

Barkley's a big-time talent, no question. But it's a different game when you're trying to throw from your back.

And in this league, ALL QUARTERBACKS (sorry, my caps tend to lock up, too) encounter that problem.

Ted Miller: Truth is, Wilson, Murray and McCarron are good quarterbacks who look like guys with NFL futures. Loved how McCarron handled the pressure of the title game, and Murray has Pac-12-type talent.

[+] EnlargeCrimson Tide defense and Jordan Jefferson
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesAlabama's defense smothered Jordan Jefferson and the LSU Tigers in the BCS championship game.
We're trash talking here, but if you can't acknowledge what is real, well, then it's just noise.

And the reality of this debate is this: Barkley would be more challenged on a weekly basis by SEC defenses than by Pac-12 defenses -- which I believe are underrated but still a step behind the SEC for the reasons the Inimitable Low mentioned above. If Barkley played at Vanderbilt, Mississippi State or Kentucky, he'd just be the best quarterback in the history of those programs while leading those teams to "historic" seasons. Like a third-place finish in their divisions.

Yet what makes Barkley, Barkley is not just Barkley. It's USC. It's his supporting cast. It's receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, who will both have NFL careers. And two tight ends who will also. And a good offensive line, and a 1,000-yard rusher who averaged 6.9 yards per carry in 2011 (Curtis McNeal).

By the way, if you wonder where USC's true potential Achilles heel is this year, it's the defensive line. The Trojans have three A-listers -- guys who would be touted in the SEC -- but are thin thereafter. That's a problem for a team that views itself as a national title contender.

That's ultimately the rub here, too. If all goes according to plan, Barkley and USC should be in position to play for the national title. It's hard to imagine that wouldn't be against another SEC team.

Now, Chris, wouldn't it be fun if it were USC and LSU? Recall that in 2003, LSU won 1/16 of the national title when no one in the entire world thought LSU was better than USC, other than computers obviously loaded with all sorts of viruses.

Or USC-Alabama? Great history, and Saban versus Barkley & Co. would certainly attract plenty of eyeballs.

Chris Low: One of the most compelling things that could happen to college football next season would be for USC and Barkley to take their shot at an SEC defense in the money game.

Then, we could quit debating and let it play out on the field. As much as I knew that Alabama and LSU were the two best teams in the country last season, there was a part of me that wanted to see Oklahoma State against either the Alabama or LSU defense in the BCS title game.

It's the matchup we all want to see: A high-powered offense versus a suffocating defense.

Maybe that's what we'll be treated to this fall.

Of course, I go back to the 2010 national title game, and Oregon had been short-circuiting scoreboards all season long. The Ducks go up against an Auburn defense that had been opportunistic, but wasn't one of the best in the SEC that season statistically. But in that game, Auburn put the clamps on Oregon and won 22-19.

The Tigers won because the Ducks couldn't block Nick Fairley.

And that's what the Trojans would run into if they find themselves up against an SEC team next January in Miami.

It won't come down to Barkley. Sure, he'll make a few plays. He's legit. But what it will come down to is the group of guys blocking for Barkley, and that's where it always gets ugly against SEC defenses.

In the meantime, just make sure the Trojans get there. They've been known to stumble along the way, and what we're left with is a bunch of hollow chatter about what they would have done (or could have done) had they made it to the party.

We'll check the guest list in December and chat again then.

Pac-12 winners and losers at NFL combine

February, 27, 2012
Some former Pac-12 players impressed. Others didn't. Here are some notes from the NFL combine.

Let's start at quarterback. And let's start at the top. While former Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III put up stunning numbers at the combine, Andrew Luck wasn't too far behind.
Griffin's rare speed dominated the headlines Sunday, but Luck was no slouch, either. At 6-4 and 234 pounds, Luck ran the fourth-fastest time of the quarterbacks with an official 4.67. He also had the top broad jump (10-4), tied for the fourth-best vertical jump (36 inches), ran the fifth-fastest short shuttle (4.28), and had the third-best time in the three-cone drill (6.80).

Those results are even more impressive when you consider that Luck is one of the biggest quarterbacks to participate in drills. They also match up with what we see on tape, confirming his deceptive agility in the pocket (shuttles), underrated running ability (40-yard dash), and explosive lower-body strength (jumps) to throw with defenders hanging from his legs.

There has been a lot of discussion about the similarities between Luck's results and those of Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton from a year ago. Newton -- who was an inch taller and 14 pounds heavier -- clearly has the edge, but Luck's results are closer than anticipated.

Luck: 6-4, 234; 4.67 in the 40, 10-4 broad, 36 vertical

Newton: 6-5, 248; 4.59, 10-6, 35.

It doesn't appear the combine went well for former Arizona quarterback Nick Foles. Wrote ESPN's John Clayton: "Based on the way things went Sunday, it looks as though Tannehill, Osweiler and Cousins are competing for the Nos. 3, 4 and 5 spots among quarterbacks. Osweiler's the wild card. He's a 6-foot-6 quarterback with mobility and a decent arm. You get the feeling that Tannehill is the one quarterback of the three who could go in the first round, but more will be determined in school workouts and how the offseason goes for quarterback acquisitions."

Some observations from's Steve Muench:
  • Arizona quarterback Nick Foles -- who is fighting for position on the board with the likes of Brandon Weeden (Oklahoma State) and Brock Osweiler (Arizona State) -- failed to stand out this morning. Unfamiliarity and a lack of timing with the receivers likely played a role, but he didn't show great foot speed in his drops and took too long to get the ball out on deeper throws.
  • Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas looked overwhelmed, especially early on. His first pass was badly underthrown and his accuracy was inconsistent throughout.
  • Arizona State wide receiver Gerell Robinson didn't perform as well as expected. He didn't make crisp breaks and he fought the ball, dropping at least two passes. Robinson also appeared to pull back on a ball that he could have gotten his hands on.
  • UCLA TE Cory Harkey didn't put up great numbers, recording a 26.5-inch vertical jump and 9-foot-1 broad jump, in addition to an unofficial 5.09-second 40-yard dash. However, Harkey projects as a situational blocking tight end, so expectations weren't high. And while he didn't always field the ball cleanly, he helped himself by catching everything thrown at him.
  • Stanford G David DeCastro and Baylor C Phillip Blake didn't shine in the edge-rush drill, but that's somewhat expected from players who line up on the interior. However, Utah OTs Tony Bergstrom and John Cullen both need to show a quicker kick step and slide more fluidly if they hope to make their living on the edge.
  • The weigh-in did not go nearly as well for Washington RB Chris Polk, who has shed nine pounds since looking sluggish at the Senior Bowl and is now 5-101D2 and 215 pounds. However, Polk doesn't look the part physically and needs a lot of work in the weight room. His body is unimpressive. Not good for a player looking to hold on to a spot on Day 2.

The Pac-12 is likely to produce the first offensive tackle and offensive guard off the board. From Todd McShay: "OT Matt Kalil (USC) and G David DeCastro used impressive workouts to cement their status as the top prospects at their respective positions."
Kalil had the second-fastest 40-yard dash (4.99 seconds), 10-yard split (1.69) and 3-cone drill of all offensive linemen, and he showed great quickness and balance in his pass sets. He was quick out of his stance, ran tight loops on pulls and showed good snap on his short punch against the bags during drills.

As for DeCastro, he was by far the most impressive interior offensive lineman during drills. He was smooth and quick, posting the best 3-cone time (7.3) since 2008, as well as the third-best short shuttle (4.56) and fifth-best broad jump (8-foot-2) among 2012 linemen. His 291D2-inch vertical jump was also well above the average for guards (261D2) over the past four combines.

Some notes:
  • Luck will have his pro day at Stanford on March 22. Foles is scheduled for March 19. And former Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler for March 16. Osweiler didn't work out at the combine because of a foot injury.
  • Former Stanford TE Coby Fleener, the top TE in the draft, didn't work out because of an ankle injury. He'll perform with Luck on March 22.
  • Former Oregon RB LaMichael James ran a 4.45 40-yard dash. That will help him. Former USC RB Marc Tyler ran a 4.76 40. That won't help him.
  • Former Arizona wide receiver Juron Criner and Oregon State wide receiver James Rodgers ran two of the slower 40s among the receivers -- 4.68 and 4.67. That will hurt the 5-foot-7 Rodgers much more than the 6-foot-2 Criner.
  • Former Stanford wide receiver Chris Owusu, riddled by injuries, particularly concussions, during his career, was a workout warrior, running a blazing 4.36 40 with a 4o.5-inch vertical leap.
  •'s combine tracker is pretty cool.

Luck's athleticism on display at combine

February, 26, 2012
Andrew Luck is constantly praised for his accuracy, football intelligence and leadership intangibles, but on Sunday at the NFL combine he proved that his athleticism rivals the top quarterbacks in the league.

Of the 14 quarterbacks who participated in the 40-yard dash, vertical jump and broad jump at the 2012 combine, only Luck and Robert Griffin III placed in the top four in all three events. Notably, Luck posted the top broad jump of all quarterbacks, and put up comparable numbers to Cam Newton’s combine in 2011.

Unlike Newton, Luck played in a pro-style offense in college that did not ask him to run consistently. But anyone who watched Stanford throughout Luck’s career could see that he has the athleticism and mobility to succeed at the next level.

Luck was one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the nation when throwing on the run. The average quarterback completes less than 50 percent of his passes when forced to scramble outside of the pocket, but last season Luck completed 63.6 percent of these passes. He was even better when passing outside of the pocket on designed roll-outs, completing 71.8 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and just one interception on such passes.

Inside of the pocket, Luck’s mobility helped him elude pass rushers and get the ball out quickly. Luck was sacked only 23 times in his career at Stanford, about once in every 50 drop-backs. Of quarterbacks that started at least 20 games since 2009, only Kellen Moore and Brandon Weeden were sacked at lower rates.

Luck chose to remain in the pocket on the majority of the time, but when forced to scramble he averaged 5.9 yards per attempt. Overall, Luck ran for 957 yards and seven touchdowns in his career. Additionally, he caught two passes for 24 yards, including one of the most athletic plays of the season -- a one-handed, sprawling catch down the right sideline against UCLA.

So while Griffin may have stolen the spotlight by running a 4.41 40-yard dash on Sunday, Luck proved that he is one of the top athletes at the quarterback position -- a fact that may be surprising to some, but not those that have watched him closely for years.

Video: Will Luck be better than Cam?

February, 16, 2012

Israel Gutierrez, Bomani Jones and Michael Smith discuss how good Andrew Luck will be in the NFL compared to Cam Newton.
LOS ANGELES -- If reporters weren't going to ask Nick Aliotti interesting questions this week, well, maybe he'd ask them a few.

[+] EnlargeNick Aliotti
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireWhile Oregon's offense gets all the hype, Nick Aliotti's defense has also shined this season.
"I always find it interesting, not to be religious or anything like that, because I don't want to go there," Oregon's defensive coordinator said. "But it's always kind of like, we're praying for a win and they're praying for a win. So who's going to answer who?"

Pause for deep thought. Breathe in, breathe out.

Leave it to Aliotti to take a redundant question about Oregon needing to prove it can win a "big one" and turning it into a grounds for philosophical speculation.

What Aliotti was praying for likely was something engaging and different to talk about. There was clockwork predictability to the questions about his defense as it prepares for the Rose Bowl against Wisconsin. Here's a guess you could name them yourself.

1. How will Oregon's smaller defense handle Wisconsin's superior size? 2. How does Oregon hope to contain the Badgers' balanced attack with running back Montee Ball and quarterback Russell Wilson? 3. Does it bother him that his defense is overshadowed by the Ducks' flashy offense?

"All I know is last year, all we heard was how Auburn and Oregon were going to go up and down the field," he said of the national championship game last January. "That didn't quite happen."

The Ducks lost, of course, 22-19 on a last-second field goal, but that was the Tigers' second-lowest point total of the season.

There is some resignation to Aliotti -- "I'm trying to answer your question here," he repeatedly said to reporters -- because he'd like for his defense to get more credit, but he also knows that Oregon's national perception is gaudy uniforms and gaudy offensive statistics. That obscures how solid the Ducks' defense has been and is again this season.

No, Oregon is not as good as Alabama or LSU on defense. No, it won't send eight or nine guys to the NFL. But the Ducks did hold LSU to 273 yards, which is comparable to the 239 the Tigers had against the Crimson Tide. And Oregon did hold Auburn to fewer points than the Crimson Tide did in 2010 (28).

Aliotti wants to explain things, but he knows -- "I'm not trying to pat myself on the back; I'm giving you a long-winded answer" -- that a nuanced explanation often doesn't get much traction with an audience in search of simple -- simplistic? -- black and white numbers.

So what most see is this: Oregon’s defense ranks 59th in the nation in total yards, while Wisconsin's ranks eighth. Decisive advantage Badgers, correct? Well, Aliotti would note if he were typing this (and do you really know he's not?) that the Ducks and Badgers yield similar numbers on yards per play: Oregon 4.93, Wisconsin 4.85. And the Ducks are slightly better on third down.

You've heard this before, right? Because the Ducks' offense works so quickly, it ranks last in the nation in time of possession while also ranking third in scoring with 46.2 ppg. That meant more possessions for opposing offenses, which is why Oregon faced more plays than any team in the nation -- 1,005 -- other than Oklahoma State, which saw 1,008. Wisconsin's defense, with the benefit of an an offense that ranks 22nd in time of possession, only saw 786.

"So it's simple math," Aliotti said. "You play 80 plays, 4 yards a play is 320 yards. You play 60 plays, 5 yards a play is 300."

Speaking of math, Wisconsin's offensive line averages 6-foot-5, 320 pounds. The Ducks average 275 pounds among their eight regularly rotating defensive linemen. It's one thing to give up 25 pounds to a line that averages 300 pounds, like Stanford, but giving up 45 pounds is something else entirely.

Isn't it?

"It doesn't mean anything," defensive end Terrell Turner said. "The way our defensive line coach trains us, we can play against guys who are 7-foot-8, 390 pounds."

So there.

As for Ball and Wilson, Aliotti believes first down will be key. The Badgers convert 54 percent of their third-down plays, which ranks No. 1 in the nation, largely because they rarely face third-and-long.

"If they are in second-and-5 or less a lot of the game, then it will be hard to get them out of their rhythm," Aliotti said.

And second-and-5 is a great time for play-action, Wilson's forte. With senior Anthony Gildon highly questionable, the Ducks will be extremely young at cornerback, with redshirt freshmen Terrance Mitchell and Troy Hill as well as true freshman Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. While the Badgers are a power-running team, they are extremely efficient passing the ball, with Wilson throwing 31 TD passes and two receivers who caught at least 50 balls for more than 800 yards.

Of course, no one thought Oregon would hold Auburn and Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Cam Newton to 22 points last year.

It's clear that Aliotti and the Ducks respect the Wisconsin offense. And they are accustomed to being overlooked and dismissed. But there were a few times this week when Ducks defenders looked like cats purring with canaries in their mouths.

Said Aliotti, "We can't divulge any of the weaknesses because we'd have to kill 'ya."
Ball/JamesUS Presswire

Montee Ball and LaMichael James will highlight a showdown of high-powered offenses.

After a year's hiatus, the Rose Bowl is back to its traditional self: A Pac-12-Big Ten matchup.

And it looks like a good matchup of good teams with contrasting styles.

Sounds like a good time for a blog debate!

Ted Miller: Well, Brian, we’re back to a traditional Pac-12-Big Ten Granddaddy and it looks like a good one: Midwest power versus West Coast flash. I’m a little surprised that Oregon is favored against Montee Ball, Russell Wilson and that mammoth group of biscuit and gravy eaters you call an offensive line. Give me an idea of what the Ducks are up against with the Badgers' offense. Is it all power football, or is it more sophisticated than that?

Brian Bennett: You'd better believe the Badgers have the baddest bunch of big uglies in college football, with an offensive line that outweighs many NFL units. Add in a couple of good tight ends, a senior fullback and Wisconsin's dedication to the ground game and you can see why the program has been one of the best running teams in the country for several years now. But it's not just all brute. The thing that makes these linemen stand out is that they are nimble and can really move, and I think many defenses are shocked by that combination of strength and athleticism early in games. Wilson has also given this team an entirely new dimension with his ability to make plays on the move and his outstanding accuracy. Opponents have no choice but to respect the run when playing Wisconsin, and that makes this offense the most dangerous play-action team in America. You'll see receivers getting huge cushions in the passing game, and Ball can break tackles even when the box is loaded.

That's why the Badgers average 44.6 points per game, just a tick below Oregon's 46.2 average. My question for you is, can the Ducks' defense handle this kind of offensive power, especially in a 3-4 scheme?

[+] EnlargeBall
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireMontee Ball's 1,759 yards and 32 rushing touchdowns on the season have helped the Badgers score an average of 44.6 points per game.
Ted Miller: Oooooo. I’m telling Chip Kelly that you said the Ducks run a 3-4! He hates that. No idea why. Coordinator Nick Aliotti will tell you that the Ducks throw a lot of stunts and looks -- 3-4, 4-3, 2-5, etc -- and crazy stuff at you. They are fast, underrated and bigger than many think. Their top four defensive tackles, who are in a regular rotation, weigh 321, 300, 283 and 286 pounds.

Oregon has faced big, powerful teams before. Stanford and USC the past two years, in conference, and Auburn and LSU out of conference. Forgotten in the talk about how Auburn and LSU slowed down the Ducks' offense is how the Ducks' defense slowed down both sets of Tigers. Oregon outgained LSU 372-273 but was done in by four horrible turnovers. The Ducks held Auburn and Cam Newton to 22 points, its second-lowest total of the season.

Sure, Oregon’s defense ranks 59th in the nation in total yards while Wisconsin ranks eighth. But they yield similar numbers on yards per play: Oregon 4.93, Wisconsin 4.85. And the Ducks are slightly better on third down. Oregon’s defense’s biggest problem is its offense, which scores a lot of points despite ranking LAST in the nation in time of possession. The Badgers' defense, with an offense that ranks 22nd in time of possession, only faced 786 plays this year. Oregon faced 1,005. That skews numbers.

Wait. Did I get all stats-y there? Sorry. My answer to the size question is what Oregon will say leading up to the Rose Bowl. It’s nothing new for them. They play their game, run their stunts, use their speed and see what happens. Stanford, which has two first-round NFL draft choices on its O-line, would be the most natural comparison with the Badgers. And for two years in a row, no team has played good enough defense to beat the Cardinal and Andrew Luck other than Oregon.

While Badgers fans expect Whisky to run over the Ducks with size -- Big Ten thinking! -- Ducks fans believe they can exploit the Badgers' defense with speed and misdirection -- Pac-12 thinking! What about some Brian Bennett thinking: Do the Badgers have the speed on defense to keep up with the Ducks? Is Bret Bielema going to use past blueprints to thwart Kelly?

(Read full post)

Mailbag: Ohio State fan holiday wishes

December, 23, 2011
Other than USC fans celebrating the return of Matt Barkley, there was a lot of sourness in the pre-Christmas mailbag.

You can follow me on Twitter here.

To the notes!

Mark Twinbridges, Mont., writes: Have you read the full NCAA report on the two schools [USC and Ohio State]? I cannot believe you would write such an inane piece if you had read the reports. Comparing the OSU situation to the USC violations is like comparing a dog to a rabid wolf. USC used impermissible benefits to recruit, that strikes at the very heart of NCAA rules. Then the university hindered the investigation at every turn.

Ted Miller: Yes, I have read both reports.

You wrote: "USC used impermissible benefits to recruit." Wrong.

You wrote: "Then the university hindered the investigation at every turn." Wrong.

You made two points. Both were wrong. And if you had read the USC report, or really any news stories about USC's NCAA violations, you would know that.

But I am sorry that you found my story "inane."

Interlude... (insert sigh).

Yes, the mailbag was inundated with angry rants from Ohio State fans this week. It was frustrating. Not because I was repeatedly called names. I've grown to enjoy that part of this job for some perhaps masochistic reason. No, it was because the amount of factually incorrect assertions was mind-numbing. Sure, a lot of it was Buckeyes fans who are of the "my school, wrong or right, I don't care about the truth, I just attack, attack, attack anyone who doesn't subscribe to my worldview" sort of fans. Every team has those, and they are part of the wonderful tapestry of college football.

But what bothered me was the number of seemingly intelligent folks who just don't know what they are talking about. Many of you may recall that some weeks ago, I wrote I was done dealing with the amount of ignorance surrounding USC's case with the NCAA. It was time to move on. I am so sick of writing about USC's NCAA case. I really, really wanted to move on. But, alas, I can not.

Jay from San Diego writes: At first I thought your article was meant in a joking manner. Then I realized you were actually being serious. I'm sure some of the people who follow you will eat your "piece" up but it appears blatantly misinformed & devoid of intelligence. The above link regards your article.

Ted Miller: First off, I like Eleven Warriors. Probably one of the best fan blogs out there. I even appreciate a mostly gentle touch while they ripped apart my article.

But here's the problem: The very first line of critique is factually incorrect. "A player getting over $X00,000 in impermissible benefits." No USC player got that. Reggie Bush's parents lived for free in a fancypants house in San Diego provided by would-be agents, but it's a matter of record that extra benefits provided to Bush didn't approach $100,000. A minor distinction? Well, the distinction between player and parent certainly worked out for Auburn and Cam Newton in 2010.

It is correct that I often used "patronizing closed door language." That is because the door is closed. When I wrote "everybody in college sports knows" USC was treated unfairly, it was an overstatement to make a clear point that just about everybody knows this. I've talked to many, many people who have a professional awareness of USC's case. I've talked to people who sat in the room with the NCAA's Committee on Infractions hearing with USC. Everybody thinks USC got screwed, not just USC folks. And, when I've talked to folks who might say differently, I've always been able to easily win the ensuing argument by stating the facts.

I don't intend that to sound arrogant. It's not brilliant rhetorical ability. It's the facts. Let me show you an example of facts.

Eleven Warriors includes this link, which is a comparison done by another Ohio State fan site of Ohio State's case with USC's and others before the NCAA.

Eleven Warriors writes this: "And 'impossible not to conclude Ohio State case was far more severe.'? USC's took four years to complete, largely in part because USC stifled the investigation. Ohio State's was done in under a year."

The link provided by Eleven Warriors, however, includes this: "While the mainstream media has been trying hard to push the 'USC fought the NCAA' meme, it's absolutely not true. USC’s former student athletes, and the agents and representatives therein, may not have worked with the NCAA, but the University absolutely did. That is even expressed (apparently) in the Notice of Allegations, where the NCAA thanked USC for their help and support. In fact, pages 56 and 57 of the NCAA Public Infractions Report."

So ... facts, you know?

How did the "USC didn't cooperate" storyline begin? Well, it likely emerged from a perception of USC's self-defense. USC administrators found it difficult to stomach the idea that they were supposed to know what was going on in San Diego with a player's parents and men who were: 1) unaffiliated with the school; 2) not even actual agents who might be known in the industry.

Yes, USC was not obsequious. Yes, USC, in fact, aggressively defended itself. Yes, USC, in fact, probably hurt it self by actually WINNING THE ARGUMENT.

From the link and written by an Ohio State fan: "For the most part, USC makes a fantastic case regarding the issues that it denied wrong doing..." and, "It is easy to believe that USC got hammered beyond what they deserved."

I'm not going to spend 1,500 words debating the particulars of the Ohio State case. After coach Jim Tressel was sacked, it seemed the sanctions the Buckeyes received were not unreasonable. My point was merely they made the ruling against USC even more unreasonable. And, yes, I think the Ohio State case was worse than USC's, and if you cleared a room of Buckeyes and Trojans fans and asked folks to make a ruling, I suspect they'd agree.

Let me share a story that will annoy USC fans but many will find interesting. During a flight delay last year, I was cornered at an airport by an administrator from a major program outside the Pac-12. He made fun of me as a "USC fanboy" because of my rants against the NCAA ruling against the Trojans. But we started talking. Turned out he agreed with just about all my points. (He just didn't like USC.)

He told me, after some small talk and off-the-record, that "everybody" thought USC got screwed. He said that he thought the NCAA was trying to scare everyone with the ruling, but subsequent major violations cases put it in a pickle.

Then he told me that USC was punished for its "USC-ness," that while many teams had closed down access -- to media, to fans, etc. -- USC under Pete Carroll was completely open, and that was widely resented. There was a widespread belief the national media fawned on USC because of this. Further, more than a few schools thought that the presence of big-time celebrities, such as Snoop Dogg and Will Ferrell, at practices and at games constituted an unfair recruiting advantage for the Trojans.

It wasn't against the rules, but everyone hated it. This, as he assessed his own smell test, was a subtext of the so-called atmosphere of noncompliance that the NCAA referred to -- an atmosphere that oddly yielded very few instances of noncompliance around the football program even after a four-year NCAA investigation.

But you'll note that Snoop and Will are no longer hanging around USC, which now has strict access guidelines.

Another point people keeping making to me: USC's case involved three sports and involved a lack of institutional control. That is not an invalid point, but this is the Pac-12 football blog. It doesn't cover basketball or tennis. And the violations connected to the basketball recruitment of O.J. Mayo shouldn't have, say, cost USC an extra 15 football scholarships. That's not how the process works, based on NCAA policy.

Anyway. The pointlessness of debating moot points was supposed to be the gist of my original column. What's done is done; all this is academic. Some Ohio State fans will read this and go, "Oh, interesting." But many others will simply go, "Idiot." And that's fine.

But, Buckeyes fans, would it help if I just wished you a Merry Christmas?

Josh from Fairbury, Neb., writes: Hey Ted, big news for USC with Matt Barkley returning for his senior season. It's a little early, but how do you see the Heisman award situation panning out next year in the Pac-12? I've personally always considered Barkley to as good (if not better) than Andrew Luck. Who else from the Pac-12 conference might be a Heisman hopeful for 2012?

Ted Miller: Barkley is No. 1. If I were to crown a No. 2, it would be Oregon's do-everything offensive weapon De'Anthony Thomas.

It's entirely possible the player who wins the Trojans-Ducks matchup next fall will be headed to New York as a result.

Brian from Kent, Wash., writes: I am trying to find the Pac-12 record book for all passing stats and seeing how close Matt Barkley is to shattering all of them, can you help me out?

Ted Miller: Barkley set the Pac-12 single-season record for TD passes this year with 39, breaking Matt Leinart's mark of 38 set for USC in 2003.

Barkley has 80 career TD passes. He needs 20 in 2012 to break Leinart's conference record of 99 -- which is 14 more than anyone else before him.

Barkley has 9,054 career passing yards. He needs to throw for 2,765 yards to eclipse Carson Palmer's conference record of 11,818.

In other words, unless Barkley gets hurt, he's going to own just about every major career conference passing record by season's end.

Darryl from Oakland writes: I understand the "rah rah" aspect of the SEC, but in reality, shouldn't the USC Trojans be considered the #1 team in the country in the preseason polls for 2012?

Ted Miller: USC likely will get some No. 1 votes but my guess is LSU will be the preseason No. 1. The Tigers' defense has a chance to be even better in 2012 than this year.

And, yes, though it's preposterously early to project, an LSU-USC matchup would be great fun on many levels, including the "rivalry" that was based on LSU finishing No. 2 behind USC in 2003.

Ha! I know at least one head just exploded in Baton Rouge. Some might say that was a split national title.

Garen from Los Angeles writes: Dear Mr. Miller, For the last several years I have dealt with very difficult times in both my professional and personal life. Its hard to find the words to describe how much your blog has meant to me during these times, but it has become much more than just news and entertainment. Day after day, year after year, your blog has provided me with a constant source of escape and relief, and I cant begin to thank you enough for that. I look forward to reading your blog on a daily basis. Than you again for the wonderful job that you do. Happy Holidays and Go Bears!

Ted Miller: Thanks, Garen. You made my day.

The mailbag often highlights people who call the Pac-12 blog names, notes that typically are countered with snarky replies.

But with Christmas coming up this weekend, why not have a nice note to wind things up?

My Heisman Trophy ballot has changed every week for the last couple of months.

I'm not surprised there are more than three players going to the trophy presentation.

Five players were invited to New York for Saturday night's Heisman Trophy presentation -- quarterbacks Andrew Luck of Stanford and Robert Griffin III of Baylor, tailbacks Montee Ball of Wisconsin and Trent Richardson of Alabama and cornerback Tyrann Mathieu of LSU.

It's a shame the Heisman Trust didn't have room for three more quarterbacks because Houston's Case Keenum, USC's Matt Barkley and Boise State's Kellen Moore were just as deserving.

With five finalists going to New York, it figures to be one of the closer votes in recent Heisman Trophy history.

The closest vote in Heisman Trophy history came just two years ago, when Alabama tailback Mark Ingram edged Stanford's Toby Gerhart by only 28 points. Ingram received 227 first-place votes, Gerhart got 222 and Texas quarterback Colt McCoy, the second runner-up, received 203.

Given the number of finalists and their geographical regions, we could have another really close finish on Saturday night.

Luck, the runner-up to Auburn's Cam Newton last season, entered the 2011 season as the Heisman Trophy favorite. His performance didn't slip much this season, as he completed 70 percent of his passes for 3,170 yards with 35 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

I still feel Luck might be the most valuable player on any team in the country. Without him, there's no way the Cardinal is ranked No. 4 in the country and playing No. 3 Oklahoma State in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. Luck has done more with less, as Stanford lacks the game-changing playmakers that other teams have.

But Luck might still be the second-best quarterback in New York. Griffin, who is widely known as RG3, completed 72.4 percent of his passes for 3,998 yards with 36 touchdowns and six interceptions. He also ran for 644 yards with nine touchdowns.

Without him, the Bears wouldn't have beaten TCU, Oklahoma and Texas. Griffin's one drawback: He had a late interception that sealed the Bears' fate in a 36-35 loss at Kansas State on Oct. 1 and threw two picks in a 59-24 loss at Oklahoma State on Oct. 29. But with everything else RG3 has done this season, it's easy to give him a mulligan for the miscues.

LSU defense
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesRunning back Trent Richardson has been at his best in Alabama's biggest games.
I still believe Richardson is the best player in the country. He looked like the best player on the field in No. 2 Alabama's 9-6 loss in overtime to No. 1 LSU on Nov. 5. He had 89 rushing yards and 80 receiving yards in a game where every yard mattered. He finished the season with 1,583 yards with 20 touchdown runs and three touchdown catches. He's also Mr. Dependable, not losing a fumble in his past 520 touches and only once in 614 career touches.

Ball has been a scoring machine for the No. 10 Badgers this season, running for 1,759 yards with 32 touchdown runs and six touchdown receptions. His 38 total touchdowns are one shy of matching former Oklahoma State running back Barry Sanders' NCAA single-season record of 39 set in 11 games in 1988. Ball's production helped lead the Badgers to a Jan. 2 date against Oregon in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO.

Mathieu fell off my ballot after he was suspended from playing in the Tigers' 45-10 victory over Auburn on Oct. 22 for smoking synthetic marijuana. But his big plays helped the Tigers overcome deficits in each of their last two victories, over Arkansas and Georgia in the SEC championship game.

Mathieu -- aka the "Honey Badger" -- is the best player on the top-ranked team. He leads the Tigers with 70 tackles and has forced six fumbles and recovered five. He also is the most dynamic punt returner I've seen since Florida State's Deion Sanders. Mathieu has scored four touchdowns -- two on fumble returns and two on punt returns.

To penalize Mathieu for one foolish mistake wouldn't have been right. After all, Newton was briefly ruled ineligible at Auburn last season and 2010 Heisman Trophy finalist LaMichael James of Oregon was suspended from playing in last season's opener.

Opening the mailbag: Doubts about Luck?

October, 28, 2011
Happy Friday.

Sorry I'm late. Stuff happens.

Follow me on Twitter.

To the notes.

Tracy from Memphis writes: On your answer to Burke from Boise on the chat, don't be so dogmatic on this Andrew Luck thing. Sometimes the best pro prospect isn't the best college player. A great example of that was about 15 years ago when Peyton Manning was at Tennessee and Tommie Frazier was at Nebraska. Making the case that Manning was a better college player than Frazier when he wasn't even the best QB in the SEC East (Danny Wuerffel was) is ridiculous. So, it isn't just stats with Clemson's Tajh Boyd (who by the way was run off from Tennessee by LANE KIFFIN). Clemson is 8-0 (when they were 6-7 last year), Boyd is playing through a bad hip with underclassmen at WR, TE and RB and is carrying a sieve of a defense. Ditto Robert Griffin III, who has an incredible 205.7 passer rating (22 TDs, 2 INTs, 78% completions) without anywhere near the talent around him that Andrew Luck has. Luck is pretty mobile, but no way he has 2250 total yards and 24 TDs behind Baylor's offensive line. And not having to play TCU, Kansas State, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Texas like RGIII does really helps Luck's cause too. Yes, Luck will be drafted much higher than Boyd, Griffin, Kellen Moore etc. but Tommie Frazier wasn't drafted at all. This is COLLEGE so it helps to have a more open mind.

Paul from Eugene, Ore., writes: Ted, the Heisman is not supposed to be "for the best player in college football" as you said in your chat today. It is the equivalent of the MVP award in any pro sport. Being the best player means nothing if you don't put up great numbers. You can go to the Heisman trophy official website if you still don't understand. Are you really going to tell me that people thought Troy Smith was the best player in college football? By your logic people should vote for the Heisman winner based on who they think will be drafted highest.

Ted Miller: Here's the exchange in question:

Burke (Boise): if "Luck plays for a team that runs more than it throws," how is he the Heisman front-runner?! He will be a great pro, he's a great college player, but in terms of THIS season (disregarding last season as you must do) Moore, Boyd, RG3 and Wilson are having as good or better seasons. That doesn't even take into account Richardson. Oh, and Stanford has played NO ONE.

Ted Miller (3:35 PM): The Heisman Trophy is supposed to be for the best player in college football. If you held a COLLEGE FOOTBALL draft, every coach in the nation would pick Luck first. For me, the fact that Luck calls running plays at the LOS instead of passing plays because he sees things like a coach instead of a player who wants fancy stats is another reason to give him the Heisman. The award shouldn't just be about numbers. Though I personally like your boy Kellen Moore because I think he deserves a "career achievement" honor.

First, Tracy, you've thrown a lot of stuff at the wall, some of which sticks and some doesn't. And, Paul, yes, lots of folks, including me, voted for Troy Smith for Heisman because we thought he was the best player in college football. (I gave up my vote after joining

Again what I typed in the chat: "If you held a COLLEGE FOOTBALL draft, every coach in the nation would pick Luck first." I even did ALL CAPS to emphasize I wasn't talking about his NFL prospects.

The Heisman Trophy vote is different things to different people. For one, it's for all practical purposes an Offensive Player of the Year Award. If it wasn't, Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh would have won in 2009.

It also often becomes a "Best Player on the Best Team Award." The thing that makes Peyton Manning a bad comparison is his "Florida problem." A huge chink in a Heisman candidate's armor is losing important games.

And so it is with Luck. I don't think Luck wins the Heisman Trophy if the Cardinal doesn't at least win the Pac-12. And I think he's a certainty if the Cardinal finishes 13-0.

There are a lot of Heisman voters and a lot of different ideas about criteria. Statistics? Absolutely. Winning? Crucial. How "good" a guy REALLY is? Can't ignore it. Intangibles/character? For me, that's a part of it, but others feel differently.

If I were debating someone who finds Luck's passing numbers -- outstanding, efficient but not spectacular -- lacking compared to someone else, I'd merely point out that Stanford has won 15 games in a row, the last 10 by 25 or more points, which hasn't happened in the modern era of college football. Luck is supported by one of the nation's best defenses, so he's not desperate to pile up points and passing yards. Further, he calls his own plays at the line of scrimmage, more often than not checking down to a running play that gains 10 yards instead of a passing play against two deep safeties who are quaking in their boots.

I love Tajh Boyd and Robert Griffin and Trent Richardson, and I was a major part of the "character rebellion" that inspired the FWAA to selected Kellen Moore as the first-team All-American QB in 2010 over other candidates with troubling off-field questions.

But, folks, Luck is special in so many ways -- numbers, talent, character, brains, humility, a righteous off-season beard -- that if Stanford wins out there should be exactly zero question who gets the stiff-arm trophy in December.

Justin from Portland, Ore., writes: Thanks Ted! You picked OSU to lose, again, which means we'll win. No Jordan Wynn = a LONG day for Utah, especially with OSU's D coming on. (Sean) Mannion will probably have some mistakes in this game against a good D, but not enough to cost the game as Utah struggles to do anything on O. Payback for the game we gave away to Utah in 2008. Utah isn't going to rally... They are a complete dumpster fire at QB without Jordan Wynn. I totally respect Utah's program (unlike the national media) and what they've done over the past years. Just glad its this team and not the 2008 team that's opening up their first year in the Pac-12, because that 08 team would have made some noise.

Ted Miller: Justin gets respect because he tells me I'm wrong BEFORE the game is played.

Lots of notes gloat about my wrongness after the game, which is sort of silly.

Justin, you have full trash-talking rights if the Beavers win, which they always do when I don't pick them.

Cats from New York writes: What is the likelihood Arizona hires Chris Petersen and or another big-time coach like Gus Malzahn - someone that can get rid of the spread and run a pro-style game?

Ted Miller: That seems like two pretty extreme examples on the "big-name" list.

Petersen is an absolute home run. Huge long shot. But his consistent success, which has included a substantial upgrade in the talent at Boise State, to me makes him a much different candidate than Dan Hawkins was back in the day. I think Petersen is just one of those coaches, to quote Bum Phillips, "He can take his'n and beat your'n and take your'n and beat his'n."

Gus Malzahn? Not the same thing. You might want to study the post-Cam Newton Auburn numbers here. If you're going to go the coordinator route, I'm on record as a big fan of Wisconsin's Paul Chryst.

But the likelihood of a big name coming to Tucson is directly related to the likelihood that Arizona will pay someone more than $2 million a year, as well as promise at least that much to pay a nine-man staff.

David from Sacramento writes: There's no question that CAL hasn't been the same since the 2007 Oregon St. Kevin Riley scramble. Anywho, This is the way i look at cal. They haven't gone to the Rose Bowl since the 50's and obviously haven't been much of a factor in the conference in the last 50 years. Are they cursed like the Red Sox were? I mean, was Kevin Rileys scramble in 2007 the Bill Buckner of 1986 ????? And is watching SC win titles and Rose Bowls like watching the Yankees as a Red Sox fan? What is it? "The Curse of the great Pappy Waldorf" or how bout "The curse of the great Nate Longshore getting hurt so Kevin Riley scrambled" or maybe "The curse of the Great Mack Brown" Please come up with something witty to describe this torture of being California Golden Bear supporter.

Jerris from Queens, NY, writes: The Bears should roll over UCLA, which is awful on defense? After reading that as an Old Blue, I completely expect Cal to be shut out by a shockingly adept and inspired UCLA defense. That's just how it works.

Ted Miller: I have no biases among Pac-12 teams. But I do love Cal fans.

They send me notes like these. Per capita, they send the fewest, "You're a &%$ idiot" notes and the most 2,000-word essays. I love the earnestness. And humor. If the ultimate Cal fan were played in a movie, Adam Goldberg would get the part: Smart, hopeful, neurotic but in the end mostly centered. (And before Cal fans take offense he dated Christina Ricci. 'Nuff said, eh?).

David, give me some time to think about it. Cal fans deserve the effort.

Jack from Washington, D.C., writes: Why all the love for Woods in the PAC-12 Superlative tracker and Heisman watch and no mention of Allen. Woods is a top-shelf talent, no doubt, but Allen has equal yardage and ypg on fewer receptions and doesn't have the benefit of Barkley throwing to him. His one-handed grab last week alone should get him at least an honorable mention.

Ted Miller: Keenan Allen is a great player. He and (Robert) Woods look like the first-team All-Pac-12 receivers.

But! Woods team is 6-1 and Allen's is 4-3. And Woods has eight touchdowns to five for Allen.

Let the season play out. If Allen leads the conference in receiving yards, and the Bears win seven or eight games, he'll get plenty of notice.

Peter from Tempe, Ariz., writes: Please make my birthday wish come true and answer this question: Looking at ASU's remaining schedule, it looks like they'll win out (at least on paper). Who do you think poses the biggest threat to a 10-2 regular season record? I'm going to defer to the rivalry aspect and pick UofA but I'm curious as to your thoughts. Thanks!

Ted Miller: The obvious answer is either Arizona or California, which look like the two toughest games.

But good teams often blow it on the road against teams they overlook (see USC through the years). That's why you should fret road games at UCLA and Washington State the first two weekends of November. Those strike me as worrisome.

And happy birthday.

Don Hallstrom from Denver writes: I wanted to see if you could give me some information about Cal Football recruiting? I recently saw a listing of top 50 projected classes and Cal wasn't even in the list. How is their recruiting going?Do you think the new facilities will ultimately help with the recruiting?

Ted Miller: Here's Cal's list of eight commitments, which looks fairly solid to me.

It's too early to panic about a recruiting class. From what I can tell -- recruiting is not really my bailiwick -- the Bears are in on a number of top players. Coach Jeff Tedford has signed consecutive strong classes, so there's no reason to expect a decline for the 2012 class, particularly with USC only allowed to sign 15 players, per NCAA sanctions.

And, yes, I think shiny new facilities will further boost the Bears' efforts.

Jay from Encinitas, Calif., writes: You may want to check again about the all-time record between UCLA and Cal. The Bruins lead the series 49-31-1, including winning 18 straight during the 70's and 80's. The Bruins are 10-4 versus Cal at the Rose Bowl, winning 4 of the last 5 games played there.

Ted Miller: Correct. Got a lot of notes on this, including a number from some potty mouths.

I could whine that the info was wrong on the OFFICIAL PAC-12 RELEASE, but if I had paused and thought, "Hmm, does Cal REALLY lead its series with UCLA 50-29-1?" I would have then double-checked.

So my bad.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- The weeks of hype -- and controversy -- are almost over. In 90 minutes, No. 3 Oregon and No. 4 LSU will start butting heads and we'll get some football answers instead of speculation.

Oregon's high-tempo, spread option offense will get another shot at a big-fast-mean "SEC defense." The Ducks will get an opportunity to end a pattern of struggling to move the ball against A-list defenses that get extra time to prepare.

What tweaks might have Chip Kelly come up with during his extra time to prepare? Are the Ducks going to be pass-first, as they were forced to be against Auburn. Or will the running game get going with LaMichael James, Kenyon Barner and true freshman De'Anthony Thomas?

Suspensions anyone? We'll see what LSU looks like without starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson and Russell Shepard, its best receiver. We'll see what the Oregon defense looks like without CB Cliff Harris, and -- most likely -- MLB Kiko Alonso.

Is LSU going to be conservative and rely on its defense and 223-pound running back Spencer Ware? Or will it let Jarrett Lee throw the ball around, thinking a Harris-less secondary isn't as worrisome?

What nutty things do the coaches have planned?

Just like Kelly isn't afraid to go for it on any fourth down or do an on-side kick to open a second half, Les Miles has never been one to shy away from trickeration. Miles, who's 23-0 in regular-season nonconference games, even succeeds when he makes major gaffes.

Miles, however, won't eat the grass at Cowboys Stadium. It's artificial. That would be gross.

While the superficial position is to compare the LSU and Auburn defenses, but that's not really accurate. LSU's is better and more talented at all three levels. Only it has two new starting DTs, not Nick Fairley disrupting things in the middle.

Still, the Tigers secondary is vastly superior to Auburn's. If the Ducks have no running game, it will be tougher going throwing it. And much more risky.

Further, the Ducks are breaking in two new offensive linemen, one of whom -- OG Ramsen Golpashin -- is a 275-pound former walk-on.

Oregon also is breaking in five new starters on its front-7 on defense, though the new guys have plenty of experience. The Ducks defense held up well versus its offense this spring and preseason. Most in green believe the defense will do fine.

After all, no SEC defense did a better job against Cam Newton and Auburn last year.

The stakes are simple: The winner immediately becomes a national title contender. The winner, in fact, might -- should -- move up to No. 1 in the major polls, which means it will have poll position in the title chase.

Things are quiet here at present. But that won't last 80,000 fans are going to pack this place -- a significant majority of them in LSU purple -- and the talk will end and the best season-opener in decades will start to provide some answers.

Pac-12 links: Thomas ready to lead Ducks

September, 1, 2011
You've got to look at the guy next to you, look into his eyes. Now I think you're going to see a guy who will go that inch with you. You're gonna see a guy who will sacrifice himself for this team, because he knows when it comes down to it you're gonna do the same for him. That's a team, gentlemen, and either, we heal, now, as a team, or we will die as individuals. That's football guys, that's all it is. Now, what are you gonna do?

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 1

September, 1, 2011
Ten issues to consider heading into the third week of games.

1. Oregon's biggest issue might not be LSU's D-front: In Phil Steele's unit rankings, he rated LSU's D-line 10th in the nation and its LBs 15th. There's no individual player as disruptive as Auburn's Nick Fairley, but LSU's Tigers are better across the entire front-7 than those Tigers. The Ducks could again struggle to run the ball. But the big problem is the LSU secondary, which Steele rates the nation's No. 4 unit. Auburn's secondary was weak all through 2010, and Ducks QB Darron Thomas picked it apart for 363 yards. But even though LSU lost first-round draft pick CB Patrick Peterson, their defensive backfield is deep and talented. Thomas won't find throwing into it as easy in any event, but particularly without his top-two receivers from a year ago.

[+] EnlargeKelly
Ric Tapia/Icon SMIOregon coach Chip Kelly will need to scheme around a tough LSU run defense and an even tougher pass defense.
2. Will UCLA catch a Case of Keenum? UCLA was dominating Houston last year when it knocked QB Case Keenum out of the game in the second quarter, but Keenum remains a guy who is good enough to win a game on his own. Still, the Bruins should be able to win the battle on both lines of scrimmage, and that should make things easier for QBs Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut, who both will play. Prince will be on the field to start the game. But will he be on the field to finish?

3. A Gray day for the USC defense: USC shouldn't have too many problems with Minnesota, but the biggest question is will the Trojans again show flashes of playing good defense. Golden Gophers QB MarQueis Gray is a bit of a mystery. He's being billed as a dual threat -- the sort who has given USC trouble in the past -- but he seems more like a 6-foot-4, 240-pound athlete who can run some option and scramble. His passing is decidedly questionable. The Trojans figure to crowd the line and dare Gray to throw. That means a secondary in man-coverage. Recall that the secondary got beaten a bunch in 2010.

4. Maynard debut: You look at California's depth chart and you think, "If these guys are any good at QB, they might be pretty tough." That's the pressure on Zach Maynard in his debut against a solid Fresno State team. If Maynard puts up good numbers, the Bears no longer will be so easy to write off in the Pac-12 North.

5. Buffs, hit Moniz: Hawaii QB Bryant Moniz put up huge numbers in 2010: 5,040 yards passing with 39 touchdowns. The Buffs secondary is suspect. Not a great combination. But a good way to protect a suspect secondary is with a good pass rush. While Moniz is a good athlete who can run, the best way for Colorado to end its 18-game road losing streak is to pound on Moniz and not give him time to throw. The good news on that: The Warriors have just three starters back on offense, one of whom is an offensive lineman.

6. The Price of confidence: Washington QB Keith Price makes his debut as Jake Locker's replacement against Eastern Washington, which is hardly a patsy. Sure, the Eagles are an FCS team. But they also are the defending FCS national champions and they are the preseason No. 1 team in FCS football. Warning! Warning! The key thing here is for the Huskies to show up focused and take care of business. For Price, he wants to play within himself, get comfortable and build his confidence because the competition will ramp up quickly.

7. Cougars grinning: Washington State is going to beat Idaho State. Not a big deal. What's a big deal is being 1-0 for the first time since 2005. What is a big deal is a team getting some early momentum, which it hasn't had in in coach Paul Wulff's first three seasons. The Cougs need to go out and pound on Idaho State. They need to walk away feeling good about themselves.

8. Luck and Shaw: Stanford is going to pound San Jose State. But the key thing for Cardinal interests is getting Luck some numbers and then sitting him, and letting Shaw get comfortable with his new job fronting the program.

9. Utah, Arizona State and Oregon State -- just win: The Utes, Sun Devils and Beavers each face weak, FCS foes. Each is going to win. And each faces a far more formidable foe the next week. The key is taking care of business, staying healthy and getting refocused. Starters eating orange slices in the third quarter is good, too.

10. Defense wins championships: OK, so what if LSU's defense thwarts Oregon's offense? The Tigers offense, particularly with Jarrett Lee at QB, is hardly scary. One of the often forgotten elements of the 2010 national title game against Auburn is the Ducks did about as good a job as anyone of slowing down QB Cam Newton. Lee is no Cam Newton. There is no law saying Oregon can't win a game 17-13. The LSU defense might stop the Ducks offense, but what if the Ducks defense is even more in control against perhaps the worst offense they will face all season?

Pac-12 Heisman Trophy candidates

August, 10, 2011
No conference starts out the 2011 season as well-positioned to produce a Heisman Trophy finalist as the Pac-12, considering the conference produced two in 2010.

Here's a look at the candidates, from front-runners to dark horses.

The front-runners

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PresswireStanford's Andrew Luck passed for 3,338 yards and 32 touchdowns last season.
Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford: The 2010 runner-up to Auburn's Cam Newton -- Wow, talk about a contrast in character studies -- Luck is the decided front-runner heading into the season. He ranked third in the nation in passing efficiency last fall, passing for 3,338 yards with 32 touchdowns and eight interceptions, completing 70.7 percent of his passes. He also rushed for 453 yards and three scores. Stanford finished with a 12-1 record and a dominant Orange Bowl win against Virginia Tech, in which Luck threw four touchdown passes and earned MVP honors. He would have been the No. 1 overall NFL draft choice in the spring. He will be the No. 1 overall NFL draft choice next spring. The biggest cautionary tale to his Heisman campaign: Peyton Manning.

LaMichael James, RB, Oregon: James, a Heisman finalist last season, led the nation with 1,731 yards rushing-- 144.25 yards per game -- and ranked second with 21 rushing touchdowns. He averaged 5.9 yards per carry. He also caught 17 passes for 208 yards and three touchdowns. He was Oregon’s first unanimous All-American and he won the Doak Walker Award as the nation's best running back. He's set Ducks freshman and sophomore records for rushing.

Not to get caught up in that "college" part of college football or anything but James was first-team All-Pac-10 and Luck was second-team -- All-Academic.

The contenders

Chris Polk, RB, Washington: Polk ranked second in the Pac-10 with 1,415 yards rushing -- his 108.9 yards per game ranked 13th in the nation -- and he scored nine touchdowns. He also caught 22 passes for 180 yards. He also closed the season strong during the Huskies' four-game winning streak to end the season, rushing for 138 yards against UCLA, 86 yards at California -- including the winning fourth-and-1 plunge on the game's final play -- and 284 yards at Washington State, the second-best rushing total in school history. Then, in the Holiday Bowl against a good Nebraska defense, he rushed for 177 yards on a career-high 34 carries and was named the offensive MVP. The rising junior's second-consecutive 1,000-yard season pushed him to No. 6 on the Huskies all-time rushing list with 2,561 yards. And with quarterback Jake Locker gone, Polk won't have to share the spotlight.

Darron Thomas, QB, Oregon: What if Oregon, with a rebuilt offensive line, ends up passing more in 2011? Thomas, a sophomore, first-year starter, completed 61.5 percent of his throws for 2,881 yards with 30 touchdowns. He also rushed for 486 yards and five scores. He ranked second in the Pac-10 and 17th in the nation in passing efficiency. He threw for 363 yards and two touchdowns in the national championship game.

Matt Barkley, QB, USC: Barkley is a big-time talent playing on a high-profile team that has done well in the past when it comes to the Heisman. He ranked 31st in the nation and third in the Pac-10 in passing efficiency in 2010. He completed 62.6 percent of his passes for 2,791 yards, with 26 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He's got an outstanding crew of young receivers who might help him put up big numbers.

The dark horses

Nick Foles, QB, Arizona: Foles led the Pac-10 with 290 yards passing per game. He ranked fourth in passing efficiency -- 34th in the nation -- completing 67 percent of his passes with with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. With one of the best crews of receivers in the nation, he figures to be throwing a lot in 2011. If the Wildcats win early -- see a rugged early schedule against ranked teams -- he could start to generate some buzz.

Robert Woods, WR, USC: Heisman winners often come from surprising places. But not too surprising. As a true freshman, Woods caught a team-high 65 passes for 792 yards with six touchdowns. He also averaged 25.6 yards on 38 kick returns, with a 97-yard touchdown. What if he -- instead of Barkley -- becomes the captivating star of a resurgent USC team?

Locker surprise pick at No. 8 for Titans

April, 28, 2011
Jake Locker's draft slide didn't really end up going that far from 2010 to 2011.

The former Washington quarterback was projected by many as the No. 1 overall pick if he entered the NFL draft last spring, but a disappointing senior season didn't destroy his draft status after the Tennessee Titans picked him with the eighth overall pick in the draft Thursday.

Auburn quarterback Cam Newton went No. 1 overall to the Carolina Panthers. So Locker ended up the second QB drafted.

So let the debate begin: Did the Titans reach? Or is Locker just too good a talent to pass up?