Pac-12: Darron Thomas

Before a relatively unknown kid from Hawaii committed to Oregon, and even after he enrolled, Darron Thomas and Bryan Bennett represented the present and future for the Ducks at quarterback. And after Thomas, then a sophomore in his first year as the starter, led Oregon to the BCS championship game in the 2010 season -- a game in which Bennett served as the backup -- there was no need to look past them to find reasons for optimism.

Four years later, as both continue to pursue professional football after departing Oregon with eligibility remaining, there’s no way for either to escape their association with Marcus Mariota.

[+] EnlargeDarron Thomas
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillDarron Thomas left Oregon with a year of eligibility remaining after the Ducks won the 2012 Rose Bowl.
In two years as the starter, Thomas put up big numbers and led Oregon to a 23-3 record (he missed one game with an injury), but inexplicably went against the advice of just about everyone and chose to make himself available for the 2012 NFL draft. Despite throwing a school-record 66 touchdown passes, he was not viewed as a good NFL prospect.

“I took my own advice. I always thought that the best players in college football get drafted and, at the time, I thought I was one of the top players in college football,” Thomas said. “I didn’t really care about where I was going to get drafted. All I knew was that I was a quarterback that went 23-3.”

The decision was so perplexing that many came to a seemingly logical conclusion that Thomas had simply been told by the coaching staff that his starting job was not guaranteed -- or even gone -- with Mariota set to come off his redshirt. After all, they’d seen Mariota practice all season and knew what they had. However, Thomas remains adamant job security didn’t factor into his decision.

“I was just upset that the [Oregon] coaches didn’t come back and say that wasn’t the case because a lot of people in the NFL asked me if that was the case, too,” he said. “That’s kind of why I disconnected myself from Oregon because that was surely not the case, at all.”

Bennett’s aware of the speculation regarding Mariota’s perceived impact on Thomas’ departure, but doesn’t buy it, either.

“I don’t think that Darron had that in his head,” Bennett said. “We knew Marcus was a good player, for sure, but we were all competitors. That doesn’t seem like Darron to me.”

Thomas went undrafted and unsigned and has yet to try out for an NFL team. Last year, he signed with the Portland Thunder of the Arena Football League and after experiencing minimal success while adjusting to the game -- he lost the starting job early in the season -- is preparing for a second year, while holding onto his fading NFL dream.

"All I'm looking for is a tryout," he said. "Hopefully I’ll get one soon."

It’s a dream shared by Bennett, who spent the last two seasons at FCS Southeastern Louisiana, where he transferred after serving as Mariota’s backup in 2012. The Lions went 20-7 in Bennett’s two years as the starter and he was named the Southland Conference Player of the Year in 2013 and Offensive Player of the Year in 2014.

“It was a great opportunity to get the best of both worlds,” he said. “Got to experience everything at Oregon and then play every week and compete [at SLU]. At end of the day, the only thing you can ask for is a chance to compete. It was a good experience and I grew as a football player and person.”

Unlike Thomas, Bennett’s association with Mariota has somewhat of a buoying effect -- at least for perception’s sake. By most accounts, including Bennett’s, his competition with Mariota for the starting job was truly that. He was given a fair shot but ultimately lost out to a generational talent.

“It was very competitive in the spring and through fall camp,” Bennett said. “Every day was a job interview. We both made plays, we both made mistakes, we both got better. It was awesome with a guy like Marcus, who is a great player, great kid, great friend.

“There was never any hard feelings. We were both trying to get better.”

Any stigma attached to playing FCS ball doesn't apply with Bennett. When he transferred, it was necessary and expected. And when he left, Bennett kept close tabs on the Ducks.

“I’ve stayed in touch with the guys. I couldn’t watch all the games because of my own games, but I definitely sat down and watched them when I could,” he said. “I’m very happy for them to get the opportunity to play for the national championship.”

Before the Rose Bowl, Bennett, who lives in Southern California, stopped by the team hotel and visited with former teammates and coaches -- many for the first time since he left.

As the Ducks prepare for the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T, Bennett will be in Carlsbad, California, just outside of San Diego, preparing for the NFL draft at the EXOS facility with several other draft hopefuls, including Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion. Best-case scenario, the wildly-talented Bennett could be a Day 3 draft pick, but said he’s just looking for an opportunity to be in a NFL camp with a chance to compete.

Again, he stressed, "that's all you can ask for."
Happy Friday.

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To the notes!

Nick from Washington, D.C., writes: Okay So Marcus Mariota is obviously the man in college football. Heisman front-runner, keys to the Oregon offensive castle, clearly an A-list athlete. As an Oregon fan, I have loved the progression from Harrington, Clemens, Masoli, Thomas, and now Mariota. However, as awesome as watching Oregon's continuous progression has been ... I am terrified of the future. With no heralded spread option QBs committing to Oregon, and no real news of Oregon hunting them down, have we become Running Back U of the Pac-12 and no longer the destination of choice for hardcore quasi-under-the-radar quarterbacks? Is Jake Rodrigues really the next in line? If so, should we be worried?

Ted Miller: You are terrified of the future? You should be. Two words: Giant Asteroids.

Run … run! Save yourselves!

Well, Nick -- mind if I call you Chicken Little? -- I would say that, no, you shouldn't be worried.

I recall the panic of 2008: Nate Costa injured! Justin Roper … injured! Who the heck is Jeremiah Masoli?

And then there was the panic of 2010: Masoli gets the boot? Who the heck is Darron Thomas?

And, of course, few saw Mariota coming when he beat out Bryan Bennett, who some fans had been clamoring to replace Thomas.

It does appear that Jake Rodrigues is the favorite to be Mariota's backup this year, and that projects him as the starter in 2015 as a junior. He was a pretty touted recruit, by the way.

As for present recruiting worries, I would only point to what everyone was saying in February 2011: "Who the heck is Marcus Mariota, a two-star recruit and the nation's 123rd best QB?"

Now, stop reading and get out of the way of that GIANT ASTEROID!

John from Dublin, Calif., writes: Regarding scheduling: Ted, you do know the fix is simple, don't you? Just pass a rule that to be included in the playoffs (or any major bowl) you cannot play an FCS team that season, and one-third or more of your nonconference games must be played in the opponents home stadium. Schedules will equalize overnight, or at least within a year or two.

Ted Miller: I hear you. I think the folks promoting the laissez-faire attitude that each conference has a right to schedule as it sees fit are either compromised or naive.

I actually don't care if teams play an FCS team any given year. What I do think is reasonable is to demand teams aspire toward comparable schedules across the Big Five conferences: nine conference games plus an A, B, C plan in nonconference scheduling.

That means play the same number of conference games as everyone else, one other team from a Big Five conference and one other team with a discernible pulse. Then, fine, write yourself in a win over a patsy. A lot of FCS teams need those payout games to survive.

You'd think the home-road differences would even out with Big Five conference teams signing home-and-home series, but that probably isn't likely because teams with 100,000-seat stadiums can offer an alluring payout to teams with smaller stadiums for a single-game series. I suspect we're going to see going forward SEC teams offering big checks to teams like Virginia, Purdue and Kansas to come visit, thereby satisfying the demands -- if not the spirit -- of a plan to upgrade nonconference scheduling.

The present system -- schedule however you want! -- is both illogical and unfair, and the SEC is 100 percent gaming the system for one reason: because it believes it can.

It will be interesting to see how things stack up with the selection committee. If the SEC gets penalized -- as it should -- for its clear effort to make its path to the College Football Playoff easier, then you can expect a quick adjustment.

Tim from Salt Lake City writes: I like the idea of having the Pac-12 championship game in Levi's Stadium but it's not really a neutral site game is it? It's pretty much in Stanford's backyard (yeah, sure, Cal's too, but I don't see them as much of a threat to come out of the North). Is this going to be a permanent thing or is the league looking to rotate this around the region through a bid process?

Ted Miller: My understanding is that the Pac-12 championship game would be based in Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara -- it's notable the Pac-12 offices are in the Bay Area -- but nothing is ever set in stone with the conference, considering it's exploring a move from the home-hosted model after just three years.

There are pluses and minuses for keeping a neutral site game in one place. On the plus side, it could establish a new tradition (see the SEC title game in Atlanta) and thereby become logistically easier to operate. One the negative side, it's not a neutral site. Yet Atlanta isn't truly a neutral site, either (Georgia).

My guess is the Pac-12 wouldn't become too fixated on playing the game long term in one stadium if, say, Los Angeles or Phoenix decided to ante up a pile of cash to host the game.

As in most things in college football, this is about revenue -- both present and future. The Pac-12 will follow the money.

Matt from Bellevue, Wash., writes: Teddy ball game. Quick! WSU is killing it right now in recruiting, just got another four-star recruit. This is uncharted territory for the Cougs. I know its early. so give them a little shine before anyone decommits!!!

Ted Miller: Mike Leach and the Cougs are surging, no doubt, with two of five commitments ranked in the ESPN 300. That's a function of folks buying into the future under Leach, as well as shiny new facilities on campus.

The challenge, of course, is getting the letters of intent on signing day. Some of you Cougs might recall that a guy name Bishop Sankey was once a longtime commitment to Washington State.

And, yes, I feel bad for even mentioning that.

Scott from Mound, Minn, writes: You know Ted just when I think you turned a corner you say something ignorant like "any clear-thinking person sees the SEC as the best conference." Maybe it is more of any clear-thinking person realizes that there is no way to really see what conference is the "best." But you work for ESecPN and the SEC is the cash cow so I get why you talking heads would say that. As you so often say Ted, if you repeat a line over and over and shout down other opinions eventually it becomes accepted as truth. Thanks again Ted for demonstrating how biased ESecPN is in their coverage and news reporting. Go back to the South where you belong.

Ted Miller: This is for the Pac-12 blog's SEC friends. See: Pac-12 fans don't like me either.

Scott, I'm not going to even mention the SEC winning seven of the past eight national titles. Or recruiting rankings.

I will only note that the SEC on Thursday led all conferences with 11 first-round picks in the NFL draft, more than twice as many as any other conference.

Of course, that is somewhat disappointing because the SEC had 12 first-round picks last year, when it ended up with 63 draft picks, more than double that of any other conference.

I know the SEC has 14 teams, but the SEC East had more draft picks in 2013 -- 32 -- than any other conference.

Would you describe the NFL business model as being biased toward the SEC?

While the Pac-12 blog often speaks up for Pac-12 causes, it also believes in credibility. This is not a PR instrument. We are not going to be disingenuous or be free and easy with "facts" in order to support a cause.
The Pac-12 blog is that way because it wants folks to know that when it takes a position, it does so because it actually believes said position to be true.

So, Scott, it is simply credible to assert that clear-thinking people out there believe the SEC, in general, is the best college football conference.

Chris from Seattle writes: Ted, as a member of the Husky Faithful, I'm a devout reader of the blog. In my day job, I spend my time helping others visualize and understand their data. ESPN recently released the college athletic revenue/expense data, and I found it hard to make sense of. Given the nature of the debate around money in college athletics, I think it's more important than ever to make sure people really understand the data. In an attempt to fix that, I've created an interactive visualization that allows you to pick your conference and teams and see where the money comes from and where it goes. I also added in Director's Cup performance data, so people can see what the outcome of all this money is.

Ted Miller: That is pretty cool. I'm sure many readers will be fascinated.

Pac-12's lunch links

February, 26, 2014
Yeah, but when was the last time 80,000 people showed up to watch a kid do a damn chemistry experiment?

Pac-12 lunch links: Cooks is top WR

December, 13, 2013
Happy Friday.
Sean Mannion, Cody VazGetty Images, Icon SMINeither Sean Mannion, left, nor Cody Vaz has separated himself in their QB competition this spring.
The clear reason to watch Oregon State's spring game on Friday (10 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network) is to figure out who will be the starting quarterback for an intriguing Beavers team that will be ranked in the preseason top 25.

After all, spring games are always incredibly revealing of the inner workings of a program.

I jest. Hardy har har.

Spring practices are going to end for the Beavers with what coach Mike Riley called a "very difficult separation job for us" between quarterbacks Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz, both of whom Riley said played "pretty well" over the past month or so.

Odds are if there is any separation, we won't be told about it.

See how much Riley enjoys the oft-repeated quarterback competition questions in this video. That might be a legitimate frump from the nicest guy in coaching when he replies to a query about "clarity" with, "That it's a tough competition. That's the clarity."

It will be a mistake to read too much into what will be a glorified practice Friday, just one of 15 at that.

Yet if Mannion or Vaz plays decidedly better than the other, then message boards and some professional opiners will light up with, "But, of course, it's got to be Vaz/Mannion. He just played so much better when the pressure was on!"

That reaction won't mean much, but it also won't be completely illegitimate. A rough parallel perhaps could be drawn to Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota's "I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. Kelly" moment in the Ducks' spring game a year ago, when he decisively outplayed Bryan Bennett, who began the spring as the favorite to replace Darron Thomas.

While at the time it seemed smart not to read too much into a single afternoon, there also was plenty of "he's legit" buzz about Mariota. That proved entirely founded when the 2012 season rolled around. That's why Bennett migrated away from Eugene.

This is a different sort of competition, though. Both Mariota and Bennett were unknown quantities at the time. We'd seen little of Bennett and nothing or Mariota, a redshirt freshman. Further, unlike Oregon State, Oregon had closed practices, so we had little idea what transpired in the other 14 practices.

So we extrapolated with the little we had and that purely theoretical exercise ended up validated.

But we know Vaz, a senior, and Mannion, a junior. Both have starting experience. Both have played well. And poorly. We know their strengths and weaknesses. Reporters have watched them the entire spring. And neither has earned front-runner status.

This from Gary Horowitz probably sums up the thinking of many observers, if they were to take a position: "My hunch is that Vaz would need to have a clear edge in fall camp to win the starting job because Mannion has two years of eligibility remaining, and college programs are always building toward the future."


What are Vaz and Mannion saying? Not much. I've not read a revealing quote from either yet, nor have their teammates intimated that one or the other is rising.

Here's a video of Pac-12 Networks’ Ashley Adamson chatting with Vaz. Did that help you figure things out?

Pac-12 spring practices began with five wide-open quarterback competitions. It feels like we know more now about the candidates at Arizona, California, Colorado and USC. There is more clarity with those four. Guys have been weeded out. You could hazard an educated guess -- B.J. Denker, Zach Kline, Connor Wood and Cody Kessler -- for each.

Yet Mannion/Vaz doesn't feel that way, unless you assume the tag will go to the younger guy if things are close to equal.

It probably would help Riley out if one or the other started an implacable surge on Friday, one that might provide credence to a budding hunch, inside and outside the locker room. As Riley said of the rest of his team, "We have a pretty good idea of who quite a few of the starters will be."

Still, whatever the post-spring game momentum, it can be reversed. For every Mariota, there's a Taylor Kelly, who got off the canvas after a poor spring a year ago for Arizona State and rose from No. 3 to No. 1 on the depth chat.
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- There is a school of thought, now apparently subscribed to by a handful of desperate NFL teams, that if that uber-suave, hirsute gentleman from those wildly entertaining Dos Equis beer commercials revealed his true identity, he would rip off a bearded mask and reveal Chip Kelly.

Is Kelly the most interesting man in the world?

Pause for a moment before chortling over our potential hyperbole, for Kelly has packed a lot into his 52-game tenure at Oregon, including 45 victories.

[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
AP Photo/Don RyanChip Kelly doesn't often discuss his life with writers, but when he does, his answers are revealing.
He has run with the bulls in Pamplona. He has led the Ducks to three Pac-12 titles and four BCS bowl games. He has done humanitarian work in Africa. He has produced Oregon's first Rose Bowl victory in 95 years. He has visited U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Kelly, 49 and single, is also fiercely private. He has never cooperated with any truly in-depth "This is your life, Chip Kelly!" story, which is exceedingly rare for a high-profile coach. Nearly all his close friends are back in New Hampshire, where he's from and where he went to college.

Kelly doesn't like glad-handing boosters, something often viewed as a prerequisite for being a college coach. He particularly dislikes talking to reporters, and he goes to great lengths to make sure they understand.

The Dos Equis guy says, "Stay thirsty, my friends." Kelly would say, "Stay away, annoying hangers-on."

Yet the vast majority of Ducks fans not only love all the winning, they love Kelly for his wiseacre, smirking self. They chant "Big Balls Chip!" inside rocking Autzen Stadium to celebrate Kelly's penchant for going for it on fourth down, going for 2 and launching onside kicks at surprising times.

He tells fans, "Shut up!" for cheering behind him during an ESPN postgame interview, and they love him more. A Twitter page, Chipisms, celebrates not only Kelly's amusing or insightful wisdom -- “I saw the ‘Feel Sorry for Yourself’ train leaving the parking lot & none of our players were on it, so that was a good sign” -- but also for his snark.

Inquiries that Kelly doesn't like might get one-word answers, clichéd responses or snappy rejoinders that belittle his inquisitors. Questions that engage him, however, receive full and thoughtful treatment. Consider this response from an ESPN story on Kelly's trip to Africa, when he worked with adolescent girls who had no idea who he was.

"The real heroes are the little girls in Africa who are trying to better themselves so they can help their families," he said. "When I hear a coach say, 'We're grinding.' I'm like: You're sitting in a room with air conditioning watching videotape. That's not grinding."

There seem to be three facets to Kelly. His standoffish public face, the detail-obsessed coach and the Renaissance man determined to drink life to the lees away from the game. Even the hard-driving, "win the day" side of Kelly can loosen up behind closed doors; those who work with him frequently cite his sense of humor.

"He [jokes around] all the time," said offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, a leading candidate to replace Kelly should he bolt for an NFL job. "It's not: 'Aha, he smiled! Isn't that amazing?' It's daily. We have a lot of fun."

Further, while Kelly's offense almost always runs like a finely tuned machine, plenty of, er, interesting things have been interspersed with winning during Kelly's tenure. Drama has not been lacking over the past four seasons.

His first game as Oregon's head coach remains his worst: A 19-8 loss at Boise State. Not only did the Ducks gain an embarrassing 152 total yards, but Kelly's star running back LeGarrette Blount punched a Broncos player afterward, bringing the hot light of controversy to his team's feckless performance.

Some thought Kelly was in over his head. He answered that by becoming the first Pac-10 coach to lead a team to an outright conference championship his first season.

Oh, and in a sign of interesting things to come, when a season-ticket holder wrote Kelly demanding a refund for his expenses incurred after attending that disastrous trip to Boise, Kelly quickly fired off a note with a personal check for $439.

Heading into 2010, starting quarterback Jeremiah Masoli was suspended after he was involved in the burglary of an Oregon fraternity house. Losing a star quarterback typically would damage a team's chances, but all Kelly's team did was finish undefeated and play for the national championship, losing 22-19 when Auburn kicked a last-second field goal.

The NCAA came calling during the 2011 offseason, wanting to know details of Kelly's and the program's dealings with street agent Willie Lyles. A distraction? Nope. Oregon won the conference a third consecutive year and the Rose Bowl against Wisconsin.

Kelly then nearly left for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. His quarterback, two-year starter Darron Thomas, had already opted to leave the program, which again threw into question the Ducks' prospects. But Kelly returned and so did the winning, with redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors while leading the Ducks to a No. 4 ranking and a Fiesta Bowl berth opposite Kansas State.

Yet he arrives at the Fiesta Bowl amid swirling rumors that he's about to leave for his pick of available NFL jobs. Asked about his NFL ambitions this week, he gave a 235-word answer that essentially said "no comment."

"My heart is to win the day, and that’s it," he concluded. "I know everybody wants to hear a different answer, and I know at times when I don’t give you guys the answer you guys want, then I’m being evasive. I’m not being evasive. My job is to coach the University of Oregon football team, and I love doing it. And that’s what I’m going to do.”

So the question will linger for a coach who at the very least is currently the most interesting man in college football: Will the Fiesta Bowl be his last day to win for Oregon?

You've just been Mariota-ed

November, 14, 2012
California had done it again, just like in 2010. It mostly had solved Oregon's running game. The Bears trailed only 24-17 early in the third quarter Saturday. They had a chance, because that's what happens when you slow the Ducks' potent running game.

Or at least it used to be. Coach Jeff Tedford didn't know it at the time, but his team was about to get Mariota-ed.

That would be Ducks precocious redshirt freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota doing his thing. With the Ducks only rushing for 180 yards, Mariota became Chip Kelly's personal surgical strike team, completing 27 of 34 passes for 377 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions in a 59-17 victory, the worst defeat of Tedford's 11 years in Berkeley.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesMarcus Mariota has been impressive running and throwing the ball this season.
That's a staggering 230.79 passing efficiency rating. And, really, it was just mind-blowingly good QB play.

"I think he is as composed and has as full a package as any quarterback I've seen, especially a redshirt freshman," Tedford said. "He's quick with decision-making. He doesn't force balls, doesn't turn it over. He's big. He's very fast. He makes good decisions. Very accurate throwing the ball. ... We did a pretty decent job against the run game the other night but he killed us."

Tedford is not alone. Mariota's rise might be the biggest story in the Pac-12 this season. He's No. 1 in the nation in passing efficiency. He completes nearly 72 percent of his passes and has thrown for 28 touchdowns. He has five interceptions, but none in the past four games. In fact, he's tossed 17 TD passes and just one pick in the past five games. Oh, by the way, he has rushed for 516 yards and three TDs, averaging 6.6 yards per carry.

Heck, he's even caught a TD pass.

In early August, the Ducks' biggest question was at quarterback. Now the biggest question is whether Mariota will beat a host of talented conference QBs, including USC senior Matt Barkley, and win first-team All-Pac-12 honors.

Or if he perhaps should get some Heisman Trophy consideration.

Mariota already has answered one big question: What if Kelly got a quarterback who was equally adept at passing and running, one who had an NFL future?

Answer: College football's best offensive coach would have his best offense. The Ducks are averaging a TD and 32 yards more per game than they did in 2010, when they played for the national title. They are rushing for 39 more yards and are far more efficient passing the ball.

Of course, Mariota and the Ducks face a big challenge Saturday. No. 13 Stanford brings to Autzen Stadium the best defense Oregon has faced this season.

Kelly's repeated praise for Mariota is "he doesn't make the same mistake twice." Now it seems he's run out of mistakes not to repeat.

Tedford and other coaches praise Mariota's poise, timing, quick release and speed. But if you've watched Mariota throughout the season, it's his efficient throwing motion and accuracy that most impress. Former Ducks QB Darron Thomas threw a school-record 66 touchdown passes in two seasons, but Mariota probably already has thrown more certifiably beautiful, did-you-see-that passes.

"It's amazing how he hits guys running in stride, running through zones," Tedford said.

It's always dangerous to extrapolate steady improvement for players -- if he's this good after 10 games, just imagine where he'll be after 20 ... or 30! One year's freshman sensation becomes next season's sophomore slumper.

But criticism of any aspect of Mariota's game are few, and there are even fewer red flags over character or makeup.

Expect a lot of defensive coordinators in the next two or three seasons to look at the schedule, see Oregon coming up and sigh with resignation: "We're about to get Mariota-ed."
There was so much anticipation for Nov. 3, which was circled in red as soon as the 2012 schedules came out: Oregon at USC. "That," everyone said, "is going to be big."

It's two days after. While Ducks coach Chip Kelly won't pause and reflect, we can. And here's where we are: It feels like Oregon has its best team ... ever.

While the defense didn't walk away from a 62-51 win over USC feeling great about itself, the Ducks' offense reached a new level of ludicrous speed that was simply extraordinary against the Trojans' quality defense. Don't gloss over this: A USC defense had never given up so many points. Never. Nor had it ever given up 730 yards. Never! Heck, that was 107 yards more than a legendary Notre Dame squad piled up in 1946 while setting the mark that lasted 66 years.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Charles Baus/Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesQuarterback Marcus Mariota has helped Oregon average over 54 points per game in 2012.
This Oregon offense, with a redshirt freshman quarterback, has significantly better numbers than the 2010 squad that played for the national title.

The Ducks rushed for 286.2 yards per game in 2010. They are rushing for 341.2 this season. They averaged 530.65 yards in 2010. They average 561.2 yards this season. They averaged 47 points per game in 2010. They average 54.33 this season. Their passing efficiency number in 2010 was 151.72. It's 159.94 this season.

This squad is younger on the offensive line than the 2010 crew, but it's far more physically gifted. And QB Marcus Mariota is a better passer and runner than Darron Thomas, notably more consistent and accurate. Thomas completed 61.5 percent of his passes in 2010. Mariota is completing 70.5 percent of his throws.

In fact, Mariota now ranks No. 1 in the Pac-12 and No. 7 in the nation in passing efficiency. The Pac-12 blog is officially retiring the word "test" from further stories on Mariota.

Receiver is the one area where the 2010 Ducks look superior, but one of the overlooked revelations from the USC game is how well the receivers played. Josh Huff turned in perhaps his best game, catching six passes for 125 yards and two touchdowns. Seven different players caught passes.

Of course, it's slightly bogus to compare the 2010 and 2012 numbers at this point. There's a lot of football left. In fact, there might be the toughest football ahead, particularly the next three -- or four -- opposing defenses.

Oregon visits California on Saturday. You might recall that the only team to shut the Ducks' offense down in 2010 was the Golden Bears at home. Further, Stanford and Oregon State are ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in both scoring and rushing defense in the Pac-12. In fact, Stanford is No. 1 and Oregon State No. 5 in the nation in run defense, and both are ranked in the nation's top 20 in scoring defense.

The odds are against the Ducks rolling up 730 yards against either. But, of course, we would have typed the same about the Trojans.

And then there could be a Pac-12 title game. At this moment, the favorite to win the South Division figures to be the winner of the USC-UCLA game on Nov. 17, but predicting how the South might go feels like a week-to-week thing.

It's easy to begin salivating over the idea of this Chip Kelly Oregon offense facing a Nick Saban Alabama defense for the national title. I will admit that among a gaggle of sportswriters in L.A. for the game, it came up more than once.

Still, Nov. 3 didn't set up like most expected. The Trojans failed to live up to their preseason projections. Nov. 3 was a measuring stick, a significant one, but not one that provides a decisive verdict.

What the Pac-12 became this year was deep, not top-heavy, as expected. Seven different teams have been ranked this season, and five are ranked in the latest BCS standings. No one saw the Beavers' rise coming, nor were Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA expected to be such tough outs.

So these Ducks can be evaluated only on the totality of the season, which is as it should be. Their ultimate achievement won't be owning Nov. 3. It will be running the table in a deep Pac-12.

Best Oregon team ever? That's my impression. But let's wait and answer that on Nov. 30.

Or on Jan. 7.

Oregon poised to remove USC as top power

October, 29, 2012
Getty ImagesA win this weekend for Oregon and quarterback Marcus Mariota over USC and QB Matt Barkley could represent a power shift in the Pac-12.

Is Oregon-USC about a passing of the guard?

The one absolute history teaches us is there will be change. Nothing lasts forever. Empires fall. In ancient times, no one could conceive a world without Roman domination. Look at Italy now.

USC has 11 national championships. Oregon has none. And it wasn't too long ago that USC under Pete Carroll made a dynastic run that terrorized college football. From 2002 to 2008, USC was college football's pre-eminent power, the lone program that made the SEC quake in fear.

But there is a distinct sense that Chip Kelly and the Oregon Ducks are headed to the Coliseum on Saturday to grab the Pac-12 sword from Tommy Trojan and take it back to Eugene.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. In the preseason, the overwhelming consensus was USC was ready to reclaim its place atop college football. The Trojans, emerging from a two-year postseason ban courtesy of the NCAA, welcomed back 19 starters from a team that went 10-2 and won at Oregon. They looked like a potentially all-time great team on offense, with a talented defense playing a strong supporting role.

Meanwhile, Oregon was replacing six offensive starters, including a two-year starter at quarterback in Darron Thomas and its all-time leading rusher, LaMichael James. The defense looked stout, but there were plenty of questions. It seemed premature, despite three consecutive Pac-12 titles, to call the Ducks a "reload, not rebuild" outfit.

Au contraire.

Oregon has been a well-oiled machine. It has rolled over everyone like an army of steamrollers and sat its starters for large portions of the second half. Sure, the schedule hasn't featured any A-list foes. But Arizona, Arizona State and Washington are a combined 14-10 with wins over Oklahoma State, Stanford, Oregon State and USC, and the Ducks beat them by a combined count of 144-42.

USC has flashed brilliance at times on both sides of the ball this season, but that only serves to provide a stark contrast for the moments of inexplicable mediocrity and sloppiness. The Trojans are 120th -- last! -- in the nation in penalties and penalty yards per game. And last by a fairly wide margin.

Quarterback Matt Barkley has thrown eight interceptions. He threw seven all of last year.

And to cut to the chase, USC already has two losses, to Stanford and Arizona, that have thrown a blanket of "Neh" over what was supposed to be not only the Pac-12 game of the year, but also perhaps the national game of the year.

So it's fair to ask what it might mean -- big picture -- if Oregon prevails and then goes on to win a fourth consecutive Pac-12 title: Are the Ducks poised to displace USC atop the conference for the long term?

USC fans would rightly counter, "Well, how about the Ducks win a national title first?" That's fair.

Oregon fans probably would admit there's a reasonable -- and nagging -- qualifier here also: "As long as coach Chip Kelly stays in Eugene."

While Oregon probably wouldn't tumble into mediocrity if Kelly bolted for the NFL -- the program is too rich and too Nike'd -- this run of dominance feels like its foundation is built on Kelly's cult of "Win the Day" personality.

But the Pac-12 blog, just like Kelly quashing an interesting question, won't deal in hypotheticals.

So then, if the Ducks roll over the Trojans on Saturday by multiple touchdowns -- an unthinkable idea in the preseason -- and go on to win a fourth consecutive Pac-12 title, that feels like it could be a resonating statement.

Further, USC has two more years of scholarship sanctions. It can sign no more than 15 players for the next two recruiting classes (though there's some backwards-looking wiggle room coach Lane Kiffin has skillfully exploited) and can't exceed more than 75 players on scholarship, instead of the standard 85. All along, the point has been repeatedly made that USC will be most taxed by sanctions over the next two to three years.

Meanwhile, a glance at Oregon's roster, led by redshirt freshman QB Marcus Mariota, and sophomore fancypants De'Anthony Thomas, suggests the Ducks aren't going anywhere. This is almost certainly a preseason top-five team in 2013.

It seems like a potential old-school to new-school transition is at hand. From a program with iconic uniforms and pageantry that is immediately recognizable to college football fans across the country, to a program that changes uniforms every week and isn't afraid to wear lime-green socks.

Of course, the reality is USC won't go easily into the night. It has too much tradition. And let's not forget this: Location, location, location. USC's presence in Southern California's recruiting hotbed means the potential for program greatness is built-in.

And maybe USC pulls the shocker on Saturday and gets to smirk back at all the doubters.

Yet if Oregon takes care of business as most now expect, something might very well change. When someone asks, "Tell me about the Pac-12?" The new response will be, "Well, of course, there's Oregon first. You know about them, right?"

Mailbag: Rethinking Arizona State

October, 12, 2012
Greetings. Welcome to the mailbag.

You can follow the Pac-12 blog on Twitter here.

To the notes!

Kevin from San Antonio writes: With the first half of the season in the books, Arizona State sits at 5-1, 3-0 in the Pac-12. What is your updated prediction on how they'll finish and where they'll end up during bowl season?

Ted Miller: Can we wait until next Friday?

The reaction of Arizona State fans has been interesting. My mailbag is full of excited fans. And some oddly angry and profane trolling. But it's clear the fanbase is raising a hopeful eyebrow at the Sun Devils.

First off, welcome back.

Second, you might want to put a "cautiously" in front of your optimistic. Just to be safe.

Arizona State has looked great so far, other than the loss at Missouri. A 5-1 start has been impressive, and it might get the Sun Devils into the top-25 this week.

But there needs to be some qualification here.
  • The Sun Devils have not only not beaten an FBS opponent with a winning record, they haven't played one. Missouri, which didn't have its starting quarterback against ASU, is 3-3, 0-3 in the SEC and coming off a loss to Vanderbilt.
  • The combined record of the five teams the Sun Devils have beaten: 10-19.
  • The second-half schedule is far more taxing. It features four teams with a winning record -- three that are presently ranked in the top-11 -- as well as 3-3 Arizona.
  • The combined record of the six teams the Sun Devils have yet to play: 23-10.

Further, the Sun Devils were 5-1 last season against a far more difficult first-half schedule -- recall wins against USC and Missouri. They finished 6-6 and Dennis Erickson got fired.

So the eggs are there. Just don't call them chickens yet. If for no other reason than karma. The football gods hate overconfidence and premature celebrations.

All that said ... how can you not be impressed? So far this has been a disciplined, efficient unit that is playing well on both sides of the ball. Moreover, the future looks bright when many of your best players aren't seniors.

As for the schedule, other than the poor outing at Missouri, the Sun Devils have taken care of business by treating inferior foes with ruthlessness. I view the blowout against Utah and 10-point road win at California as quality victories, no matter the Utes and Bears present records.

So where do I think the Sun Devils end up? I'd say 8-4 or 9-3. I'd say that probably gets the Holiday or Sun Bowls. And, obviously, if Arizona State upsets No. 2 Oregon on Thursday, that projection would change in an upward direction.

It's fair to say that new coach Todd Graham is well-ahead of schedule with his reclamation project.

Now, changing gears a bit, I know it is typically hopeless to try to answer the gadfly element of the Pac-12 blog. But I will try on one issue.

The idea that at any point Kevin or I trashed Todd Graham, as some have noted in the comment section, is not just wrong, it's absurd. The opposite is actually true. The Pac-12 blog has been the biggest apologist for Graham since the day he left Pittsburgh after a single season amid national recrimination.

Here's some reading. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven.

Nicholas from Pullman, Wash., writes: do you think that Mike Leach and Washington state can turn the season in the right direction. If so how?

Ted Miller: To be honest, no, I don't see Leach and the Cougars turning the season around. The schedule isn't getting any easier, and this team has issues on both sides of the ball.

Many of us -- yeah, me -- thought Leach's offense would be a great fit for the returning personnel. But it hasn't been for whatever reason, see an offense that ranks 11th in the Pac-12 in scoring and ninth in yards per game.

In some ways, Leach's first year stands in stark contrast to Graham. Whereas Graham's culture change seemingly has been embraced in the locker room, Leach's apparently has been resisted. Whereas Graham's schemes have seemed good fits for the Sun Devils' returning -- and new -- talent, that hasn't been the case for Leach in Pullman.

Leach, it appears, is going to need some time to recruit his sorts of players to fit his schemes. That surely is disappointing to hear for Washington State fans. But Leach's strong track record should be some consolation. He's going to get things going. It just might take three seasons to see a big step up in the Pac-12.

Jason from Portland writes: I have to take issue with how great BYU's rushing defense is being presented. I get that they may be solid, but when you take a look at the competition they have faced and the running games of those teams, it's a little hard to justify being overly awed of the Cougars. They are 4-2, with losses to Utah and Boise State, and wins over Wazzu, Hawaii, Utah State and Weber State. Weber is a FCS school. Utah State is 64th in the nation in rushing. Boise? 78th. Utah? 112th. Hawaii? 114th. Wazzu? 118th. Hardly a pack of rushing powerhouses, yes? On top of that, Weber is 0-6 on the season with two losses to FBS schools and four more to FCS schools. Scoring points of any kind is not their forte. This doesn't mean BYU doesn't have a good rush D? It just provides a little perspective that they haven't been remotely close to challenged by a running game of any kind. This isn't to say they won't shut down OSU's running game (ranked 106), but they also haven't been tested by quality runners of any kind. Just saying.

Ted Miller: Fair enough. I still think the BYU defense is pretty salty.

James from Portland writes: For a long time I was deeply mystified as to why Darron Thomas would make such a risky move as to declare for the draft. That was before Mariota took the field. Given what we know about Chip Kelly and how Mariota's season has been so far, do you think that DT took his chances in the draft because he didn't think he could win the starting QB job back?

Ted Miller: I know where you're coming from, but I don't think so. If Darron Thomas had returned, I'm pretty certain he would have been the starting quarterback this fall.

Thomas led the Ducks to an unbeaten regular season and the national title game as a first-year starter in 2010. He won the Rose Bowl the following year. While he certainly was a flawed quarterback, the Ducks' offense thrived with him behind center. My impression is that Chip Kelly liked his moxie.

Might Kelly have created packages for Marcus Mariota (or Bryan Bennett, for that matter)? Possibly. That's the sort of thing he does. But it's hard for me to believe Thomas would have been beaten out.

Chris from Illinois writes: Bro, you are usually so good about not only giving me optimism but keeping me grounded with my Oregon State Beavers... But I am so disappointed with you.. You, being the unbiased, well rounded writer you are, failed to even mention an Oregon State defender on you Pac-12 DPY watch list. And well, it's a shame, because arguably the two best defenders in the conference play for the orange and black and you didn't even give them a mention. Scott Crichton has 6 sacks this season, and has essentially dominated in every game. Jordan Poyer... I could probably stop there, but for the sake of my argument 4 INTs, 1 sack, maybe best cover corner in the nation, and certaintly worth consideration in the Pac-12 DPY. Ted... My man, what happened?

Ted Miller: You are probably right and I am probably wrong.

While I'm trying to keep the number of players on the list down, both Crichton and Poyer should have been included. And Washington cornerback Desmond Trufant, too.

And Oregon linebackers Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso.

See. Hard to keep the number of names down.

Player of the Week: Pac-12

September, 3, 2012
Lots of great choices this week, but one stood out in the mind of the Pac-12 blog: Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota.

What makes Mariota's debut so impressive wasn't the three touchdown passes or the 200 yards on 18 of 22 passing. Or even the fact that his Ducks dropped 50 in the first half on Arkansas State.

Most impressive was the way he handled his business; cool, patient and collected. There was almost no indication that it was his first collegiate start. He was poised and dangerously efficient with no interceptions and a sparkling 81.8 completion percentage.

As we all know, Mariota was involved in a very private, very intense quarterback competition with Bryan Bennett -- last year's backup and a lot of people's pick as the presumptive starter following the departure of Darron Thomas.

But Mariota won the job and showed why he's Chip Kelly's guy Saturday night, carving up Arkansas State (with a little help from his friends) and calling it a night before the halftime festivities. For anyone who might have been on the fence following Kelly's decision, it's time to get off. Mariota's performance left little room for second guessing.

Meet your quarterback: Oregon

August, 29, 2012
There were six quarterback competitions in the Pac-12 this year. Some came about by the departure of some outstanding quarterbacks. Others just needed new life infused into the offense.

Today we're going to take a look at each of the quarterbacks who won their job.

We continue the series with Oregon. The winner of the job takes over one of the most explosive offenses in America. And that person will be Marcus Mariota. The redshirt freshman won the job that many assumed, following Darron Thomas' ill-advised departure for professional football, would go to last year's backup Bryan Bennett. You know what they say about assumptions...

Marcus Mariota, Oregon
  • 2011 stats: N/A
  • Career stats: N/A
  • Pros: From Dennis Dixon to Jeremiah Masoli to Thomas, every quarterback Chip Kelly has touched has worked out near flawlessly. Has he given us any reason in the past to question his decisions? History says this is the right call and Mariota is the perfect fit for what Oregon does on offense. He's a true, dual-threat guy who has a ton of offensive weapons and a good offensive line surrounding him. The schedule also plays to Mariota's favor, as he'll have four straight games at home to get up to speed.
  • Cons: Of course, anytime you start a redshirt freshman, there is going to be the experience factor, or the lack there of in Mariota's case. No matter how much you practice or scrimmage, you never really know what you are going to get until you've seen the player in an actual game and how well he responds to a negative play. Right now, the biggest concern is the unknown. Plus, similar to the situation in Washington State, there are a lot who felt it should be Bennett's job, so you have to wonder how much over-the-shoulder looking Mariota will be doing the first half of the season.
  • How he won the job: It started with his eye-opening performance at the spring game, when he went 18-of-26 for 202 yards with a passing touchdown and five rushes for 99 yards and two scores. Those quarterback numbers are awfully Oregonian. But Kelly said the decision was very "analytical and detailed" and it was decided over the course of 37 practices (15 spring, 22 fall) and there was no one day or "ah ha" moment. But rather a culmination of everything.
  • Coach speak: "He hasn't played in a game, there is nothing we can do to manufacture that," Kelly said. "We do a lot of things in practice and we bring officials in and try to simulate game situations. But his first real-live snap is going to be Saturday night and I'm looking forward to it."
  • Backup plan: You have to imagine Kelly and Co. feel pretty good about having Bennett as a No. 2 option. He appeared in seven games last year, throwing six touchdowns with no interceptions on 24-of-45 passing and averaged 8.7 yards on his 23 carries.

Marcus Mariota wins Oregon QB job

August, 24, 2012

It turns out Marcus Mariota's strong spring game performance for Oregon was, in fact, indicative of where his quarterback competition stood with Bryan Bennett.

While Mariota made plays with his arm and legs and looked poised, Bennett struggled. At the time, it seemed unreasonable to extrapolate too much from one performance, considering every other Oregon practice has been closed. But the result -- Mariota was named the Ducks' starting quarterback on Friday, as first reported by The Oregonian -- is that Mariota eclipsed Bennett, despite Bennett having an edge in game experience.

Mariota will make his first appearance on Sept. 1 against Arkansas State in Autzen Stadium.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
AP Photo/Don RyanMarcus Mariota won Oregon's QB competition with an impressive spring game, completing 18 of 26 passes, and rushing for 99 yards.
Is this an upset? Yes. A mild one. And not unlike coach Chip Kelly's decision to go with Darron Thomas over Nate Costa in 2010.

That one worked out OK. Thomas led the Ducks to the national title game and a Rose Bowl victory before opting to leave early for the NFL draft. No matter how bad Thomas' decision to leave early was -- and it was truly bad -- he's still perhaps the most accomplished quarterback in team history.

So, will Mariota, a 6-foot-4, 196-pound redshirt freshman from Honolulu with no game experience, match or even eclipse Thomas? Maybe. Folks have been raving about him since his first preseason camp. His "hello world" moment -- his only public performance as the Ducks' quarterback -- was the spring game, when he completed 18 of 26 passes for 202 yards and a touchdown. He also ran for 99 yards and two scores, including an 82-yard scamper for a touchdown.

He's the quintessential quarterback for the Ducks' offense, a true dual threat with outstanding athletic ability and a quality arm.

It's reasonable to imagine Bennett, a redshirt sophomore, isn't thrilled. Who can blame him? The scuttlebutt on him has always been positive, at least until the spring game. In fact, more than a few Ducks fans previously wondered if he was going to legitimately challenge Thomas for the starting job -- and we're not only referring to if Thomas came back this fall.

Bennett played in eight games in 2011, going 25 of 46 for 369 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions. Bennett also carried the ball 23 times for 200 yards. He played well coming off the bench when Thomas was hurt against Arizona State, then won his only start at Colorado.

The good news for Mariota is he gets to ease into the starting job. The Ducks' first three games -- Arkansas State, Fresno State and Tennessee Tech -- function almost as a preseason, as the Ducks will be multiple touchdown favorites in each. He won't go on the road until Week 5 at Washington State.

And the Ducks will be heavy favorites until the visit to USC on Nov. 3, in a game with major Pac-12 and national title implications.

That game, when Mariota will be matched against Matt Barkley, will likely define Oregon's season, though there could be a rematch in the Pac-12 title game on Nov. 30.

Of course, there are no guarantees. If Mariota struggles early, it will be interesting to see if Bennett gets an opportunity to show what he can do. And will Kelly want to get Bennett quality playing time early in the season in any event? He didn't feel the need to do that with Costa after Thomas won the job, but every situation is different.

What Ducks fans are surely excited about is Mariota probably had to look pretty good to beat out Bennett, who showed every sign he could be a quality starter. That certainly bodes well, not only for this season, but the future.

Mailbag: USC in the polls and Oregon QBs

August, 10, 2012
Happy Friday.

Here's where you go to answer this important question: "If I follow the Pac-12 blog on Twitter, how will the gods reward me with riches and glory?"

And, no, I don't think the Honey Badger, Tyrann Mathieu, will transfer to any Pac-12 school.

To the notes!

Smudge from Irvine, Calif., writes: How important are the preseason rankings for USC's national title hopes (and which preseason rankings really matter)? Will there be further preseason rankings released before the season starts? If so, I suspect USC could leapfrog LSU now that the Honey Badger is gone.

Ted Miller: The coaches poll, as much as it pains me to type this, is the only preseason poll that "matters." It and the Harris Interactive College Football Poll make up two thirds of the BCS formula -- the six computer polls make up the other third. The Harris Poll doesn't have a preseason poll and first gets published the second week of October. The idea there is that it allowed pollsters to see teams play before they rank them, an idea that more than a few folks have hailed through the years. But the Harris Poll has mostly resembled the AP and Coaches poll since it started.

Preseason rankings are important because they provide an immediate stagger among teams. If you start off No. 1 and win all your games, you are fairly certain to remain there, even if the teams that started 8th and 14th also are undefeated. And, if you start off No. 1 and lose, you likely won't fall as far as a team ranked 14th that loses. That means you can climb back into the picture more easily.

USC's preseason ranking of No. 3 is a pretty solid position, starting with the fact that No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama play each other.

LSU is a worse team without Mathieu. He's a game-changer. Just ask Oregon. But LSU is loaded on defense and in the secondary. The drop-off won't be catastrophic. In fact, I suspect USC losing DE Devon Kennard to injury might prove to be a bigger hit because the Trojans are thin on the D-line and LSU is not in the secondary.

For example, the Trojans defense probably would find it easier to adjust to the loss of T.J. McDonald, perhaps the best safety in the nation, because they are deep at the position, rather than Kennard. I think LSU would have suffered much worse losing, say, QB Zach Mettenberger, who's never thrown a pass for the Tigers, than Mathieu because the void behind Mettenberger is pretty vast.

Chip Kelly from Hot Tub, My office writes: Ted, Who should be Oregon's starting QB?

Ted Miller: OK. You guys win. You wore me down. I will tell you -- and you Hot Tub Chillin' Chip -- who Oregon's 2012 QB should and will be.

Bryan Mariota.

You see how I did that? I used Bryan Bennett's first name and Marcus Mariota's last name and zaniness ensued. That's why I'm the No. 1 ranked blogger inside this Starbucks right now. (Unless Debra the Knitting Blogger comes back for another Frappuccino. Girl can turn a righteous phrase about stitching).

The honest answer -- and, yes, it pains me to type this -- is I have no idea. No one outside of the closed walls of the football program does, and I tend to believe the battle truly is ongoing for both Chip Kelly and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich. I've seen no more of either than you have. I saw Bennett play well when he replaced Darron Thomas last year against Arizona State and then started at Colorado. I also saw Mariota dramatically outplay Bennett in the spring game. That, our sabermetric-savvy friends would tell you, is too small a sample size to form any conclusions.

My impression, more so than with any other QB competition in the conference, is both are ready to go, ready to play well from the start. Before spring practices, I favored Bennett by a significant margin based on what I'd seen from -- and heard about -- him. After spring practices, I've tended to favor Mariota by a slight margin, based almost entirely on how he rose to the occasion and Bennett seemed to take a step back. That said, I think it's been underrepresented just how much better Mariota's supporting cast was in the spring game.

But, again, these are just superficial impressions. As I've noted before, I thought Nate Costa was going to beat out Darron Thomas before the 2010 season. So if I made a prediction, Chip would read it and do the opposite, just to make sure the Pac-12 blog was forced to again wallow in wrongness.

Gekko Mojo from Memphis writes: Nothing from you on Deontae Cooper's tragic third ACL tear? Really? You cover the medical retirement of a walk-on receiver at Oregon, but not this? Odd.

Ted Miller: I feel terrible about Cooper. Young man can't catch a break.

We had a news story here. We linked local reports here. And Mason Kelly wrote about it here.

It would have been difficult to write much about Cooper from our remove. The sophomore has never played a down for the Huskies and I've never spoken to him.

As for Oregon receiver Justin Hoffman, he was a senior who started six games last year. Here's the short post we did on him.

Further, timing also matters in these matters. Hoffman's retirement was announced on July 20. You could fairly call that a slow news time in college football. Cooper re-injured his knee at the beginning of preseason camp, when there's a lot going on.

Thomas from Charlottesville, Va., writes: Regarding Colorado and Utah, everyone keeps saying they now have a year in the league, so things will be easier for them. But in truth, aren't both teams going to be traveling to venues they have not played in before for every road game? In other words, how much do you think it impacts CU and Utah to still be the new guys since they are going to be in new stadiums for every road game in conference play this season?

Ted Miller: That's a fair point. For a second year, Colorado and Utah's conference road venues will be unfamiliar. That could register more as a negative than as a positive.

That said, I suspect a road game is a road game to most college players. Think of it like this: Most college players are around only four or five years. And most only see action for two or so years, plus or minus. With rotating home-and-home schedules, not to mention three conference misses, the most a vast majority of college player will experience playing in a conference road venue is two times.

For example, Oregon safety John Boyett will be a four-year starter this year. And when the Ducks go to the Coliseum on Nov. 3, it will be only his second time playing there.

There could be something said for support staff, those who organize trips, being unfamiliar with new hotels and new road venues. Or coaches not being familiar with stadiums or visiting locker rooms. But I don't think it's a major issue.

Matthew from Corvegas, Ore., writes: Ted,Am I the ONLY one that realizes the Ducks are not a top 5 (or 10, even) team? I mean, they don't have a QB or a RB. Barner won't be healthy the whole season, that DaT likes to fumble.

Ted Miller: Yep. You are the only one.

Chris from Penticton, British Columbia: I had the pleasure of getting to know the late Bud Riley as he lived his last years in our beautiful area.A fanatical Utah fan, I found a friend in a man who revered the game of college football as much as I did.His story, from a kid in Alabama to high school football coach in the small mining town of Wallace, Idaho....on to University of Idaho, Oregon State and the CFL...was wonderful to listen to. Through my connection to Bud, Mike got me tickets to a 2008 game in Corvallis where #1 USC came to of my most memorable NCAA experiences. Sitting in the section were numerous Oregon State alumni players who asked me to be sure to give their good wishes to Bud when I got home. Rest in peace, Coach. Ted, I am sure you would have loved this guy...with his deep southern accent and matter-of-factness, Coach Riley was a gem. I will truly miss him.

Ted Miller: A nice tribute. I hope Mike has a moment during preseason preparations to check out your kind words.

JP from Salt Lake City writes: Just bought and will read Delillo's Underworld on your recommendation. Would you consider posting your top ten must read books?

Ted Miller: Congrats. Be forewarned: It's a dense, at times difficult book. Here's a really interesting, sports-centric Q&A with DeLillo about "Underworld," particularly the first part, which is a scintillating account of Bobby Thomson's Shot Heard 'Round the World.

It's darn near impossible for me to make a top-10 list. I think it would change daily. And I actually answered a question like this a year ago. Here's what I wrote:
If I were making a reading list, here's a start: White Noise, by Don DeLillo, Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy, The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger, The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway, Light in August, by William Faulkner, The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon, The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen, The Bushwhacked Piano, by Thomas McGuane, The French Lieutenant's Woman, by John Fowles, The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis, House Made of Dawn, by N. Scott Momaday, On the Road, by Jack Kerouac, Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon, The Sot-Weed Factor, by John Barth, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams, Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, by John le Carre, A Fan's Notes, by Frederick Exley, Still Life With Woodpecker, by Tom Robbins and To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.

See... I included DeLillo's "White Noise," which is far more accessible than "Underworld." I'd also now sub Franzen's "Freedom" for "The Corrections."

That's a lot more than 10, but you guys know I tend to be long-winded.
Bennett-MariotaGetty Images/AP PhotoBryan Bennett and Marcus Mariota will battle for Oregon's starting QB job throughout August.
Oregon coach Chip Kelly has no use for depth charts before preseason camp is over. He sees 22 practice before earnest game preparation begins for the Sept. 1 opener against Arkansas State. A lot can happen in 22 practices.

"Everything is open," he said.

Sure, there's a little bit of coach-speak there. With 14 starters back from the 2011 Pac-12 champions, as well as plenty of key backups, it's actually not terribly difficult to project most of the Ducks' starting positions. There are plenty of the usual suspects, from Kenjon Barner, to Dion Jordan, to John Boyett, to Michael Clay to De'Anthony Thomas to Jackson Rice.

But Kelly isn't one to obsess about crowning starters on a depth chart even when games begin. To him, a strong two-deep is the thing to remain the Pac-12 king.

"I think we've really developed depth here the last couple of years," he said. "Everybody understands that. It's not about being the No. 1 guy. It's about being in the rotation."

Ah, but there is one special spot that will keep Ducks fans agog and, really, is one of the major preseason questions in all of college football: Who's going to replace Darron Thomas at quarterback? Marcus Mariota, who had the standout spring game? Or Bryan Bennett, who stepped in admirably for an injured Thomas a year ago?

“I’ve got a lot of faith -- after seeing Bryan for a couple years now, and Marcus for a full year now -- in both those guys’ abilities to play,” Kelly said.

A top-five preseason ranking in just about every poll, including the recently released coaches poll, suggests many share Kelly's faith that QB won't be a big issue. But faith isn't certainty. Competing for the starting job is one thing. Leading a top-five team is another. Just because Dennis Dixon blossomed and Jeremiah Masoli and Thomas had success as first-year starters under Kelly doesn't mean that will always be the case, and Kelly admitted as much.

"Their first snap is going to be really our first look at how they handle it," he said. "I anticipate them being very successful, but we’ll see. That’s obviously a big question for all of us.”

Kelly also said he's not opposed to playing two guys, though he said his experience in such competitions is there's typically a clear winner.

As far as what Kelly is looking for out of his starter, it's a mixture of measurable performance -- efficiency, protecting the football, running the plays correctly -- and less tangible things -- leadership, instincts, moxie, etc.

"I can't give you a concrete thing -- A 'Hey, I need to see this,'" he said.

Of course, fans and media won't see much of anything as practices and scrimmages are closed. While scuttlebutt will certainly get out, it will be difficult to know how reliable it is. Here's a guess there will be conflicting reports from players who enjoy toying with media, students and other fans trying to pry out tidbits of information. It's unlikely anything will be official before Aug. 24, and Kelly may even wait until the Monday before the season-opener.

Everyone in the know, however, knows it's going to be Mariota. No, Bennett. No, Mariota. Bennett!

Let the speculation begin.