Pac-12: Dwayne Washington

Both Washington and Oklahoma State underwent tumultuous runs during the middle of their 2014 seasons. After getting off to a 5-1 start, the Huskies lost four of five to fall out of the Pac-12 title picture. Likewise, the Cowboys got off to a 5-1 start, before dropping five in a row.

Yet despite the midseason struggles, both squads bounced back to finish strong. Washington hammered Oregon State, then Washington State in the Apple Cup. The Cowboys too knocked off their rival, stunning Oklahoma with a comeback overtime win in Norman.

Which team will keep the surge going in TicketCity Cactus Bowl?

Pac-12 reporter David Lombardi and Big 12 reporter Jake Trotter break down the matchup below:

[+] EnlargeCyler Miles
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonCyler Miles has stepped up for Washington late in the season.
How Washington can control the game: The Huskies' pass rush can dictate the tempo. When it comes to sacks, Washington has been ranked in the top three nationally all season. They're loaded with talent that loves to get after the quarterback up front, and this is particularly bad news for Oklahoma State. The Cowboys have given up 37 sacks this season, making them the 112th-ranked team nationally in that category. Needless to say, that's not good, and it represents an opening for big Danny Shelton and Hau'oli Kikaha, the national leader in sacks during the regular season. If Washington can deliver a cohesively aggressive performance up front, it's easy to see them disrupting Oklahoma State freshman quarterback Mason Rudolph, who doesn't have a whole lot of college experience. – Lombardi

How Oklahoma State can pull off the upset: The Cowboys have to keep balance offensively to negate the mismatch up front. Oklahoma State blocked better late in the year, but the Cowboys offensive line doesn't stack up well against a Washington front seven that is among the best in the country. If the Cowboys can get Desmond Roland and the inside running game going, that will prevent Washington from launching an all-out assault on Rudolph. The true freshman has shown plenty of poise in his two starts. But he won't stand much of a chance if Oklahoma State can't keep the Washington defense off-balance. – Trotter

Washington's X-factor: The offense. The Huskies struggled offensively at the start of the season, but quarterback Cyler Miles has supplied them with a notably steady presence as of late. Much credit can probably be given to the stabilization of Washington's running back position -- Dwayne Washington has rushed for at least 100 yards and seven yards per carry in each of the Huskies' past three games -- but Miles certainly deserves credit for overseeing a unit that has demonstrated increasing cohesiveness as this season has gone along. The sophomore has thrown only three interceptions this season, and if he holds onto the football against Oklahoma State, Washington should have the offensive talent necessary to support their explosive defense. – Lombardi

[+] EnlargeDesmond Roland
Brody Schmidt/AP PhotoOklahoma State will need running back Desmond Roland to take pressure off freshman quarterback Mason Rudolph.
Oklahoma State's X-factor: The Cowboys suffered a massive blow after the win over Oklahoma when All-Big 12 all-purpose back Tyreek Hill was dismissed from the team. Hill was Oklahoma State's best player all year, and his absence from the offense and return teams leaves a huge void. Who could help fill it? Slot extraordinaire David Glidden is one possibility. Glidden has been Oklahoma State's most consistent pass-catcher this season; he's also expected to replace Hill on punt returns. Glidden doesn't possess Hill's speed or explosiveness. But with a reception of at least 17 yards in all but two games this season, Glidden has the knack for producing big plays. Without Hill, the Cowboys could really use a few from him against the Huskies. – Trotter

What a win would mean for the Huskies: A Washington win would mean positivity and stability coming out of Chris Petersen's first season at the helm of the program. Many were uneasy about this Huskies' team early in the year, when both sides of the football suffered from decidedly lackluster performances. Washington seemed to lack the necessary punch to make a true statement in the Pac-12, but they clearly improved over the course of 2014 as Petersen settled in and the team's personnel fell into the appropriate positions. The Huskies obviously still have plenty of work to do -- they'll be graduating a bevy of excellent talent -- but a victory here would wrap up a nine-win season, something that would ultimately carry necessary positive vibes into a critical offseason. – Lombardi

What a win would mean for the Cowboys: While fielding the youngest squad of any Power 5 conference program, the Cowboys suffered through arguably the worst stretch of the Mike Gundy era, losing five in a row, all by at least three touchdowns. But after pulling Rudolph out of redshirt, light appeared from the end of the tunnel, as Oklahoma State toppled the Sooners on the road in the regular-season finale. With Texas and Oklahoma getting destroyed in their bowl games, the budding Cowboys have a golden chance to emerge as the third team alongside TCU and Baylor in the Big 12 next year. A win over Washington would infuse Rudolph and the Pokes with plenty of optimism about the possibilities for 2015 headed into the offseason. – Trotter
You remember the three-headed monster, right? It's about returning production that will scare -- terrify! --opponents. Or not.

On offense, it's elite combinations at quarterback, running back and receiver.

On defense, it's elite combinations of a leading tackler, a leader in sacks and leader in interceptions.

This year, we're breaking things down by division.

We looked at the South Division offensive three-headed monsters on Monday. On Tuesday, we’ll take a look at the North Division offense.

Only Cal and Washington State return their three-headed leaders from last season. The other four teams have all had a change of some kind. And there are some big question marks surrounding a couple of schools -- especially the one in Seattle.

Let’s take a look:

1. Oregon

QB Marcus Mariota, RB Byron Marshall, WR, Bralon Addison

The skinny: Heisman candidate + rising star + explosive playmaker = nasty. Though losing Josh Huff and De’Anthony Thomas, the Oregon offense should be explosive once again. Mariota led the nation in adjusted QBR last season to go with 31 passing touchdowns to just four interceptions. Marshall is a returning 1,000-yard rusher with 14 touchdowns last season, and Addison hauled in nine scores.

2. Stanford

QB Kevin Hogan, RB ?, WR Ty Montgomery

The skinny: The Cardinal get the No. 2 spot here based on experience at quarterback and the fact Montgomery is returning after a second-team all-league year. And whoever the “regular” running back is, be it Kelsey Young (the leading returner in yards), Ricky Seale, Barry Sanders or Remound Wright, he will be running behind a stellar offensive line. Worth noting that Hogan and Montgomery had more rushing yards last year than any of the listed running backs. But Stanford's success running the football leads the Pac-12 blog to give it the benefit of the doubt.

3. Oregon State

QB Sean Mannion, RB Terron Ward, WR Richard Mullaney

The skinny: Though the Beavers lose Brandin Cooks, Mannion has the potential to be one of the top quarterbacks in the country after throwing 37 touchdowns last year. Storm Woods had more carries and touchdowns, but Ward had more yards, so they’ll likely work in unison, again. Mullaney had 52 catches last season.

4. Washington State

QB Connor Halliday, RB Marcus Mason, WR Gabe Marks

The skinny: WSU gets the edge in the rankings over Washington (for now) because there are still a lot of question marks around the Huskies. Halliday tossed 34 touchdowns last year and threw for nearly 4,600 yards. Marks has blossomed into a bona fide playmaker and should be in the mix for all-conference honors. The Cougars don’t do much in the way of running the football. But when they did last year, Mason totaled 429 yards on 87 carries.

5. Washington

QB?, RB Jesse Callier, WR, Jaydon Mickens

The skinny: Washington is one of those programs that could end up in one of the top two spots by the end of the season. But for now, there is too much unknown. The status of QB Cyler Miles is still up in the air. Callier has the most returning attempts (one more than Dwayne Washington and five more than Deontae Cooper) and the Huskies expect Kasen Williams back by the fall at receiver. Mickens caught 65 balls and five touchdowns last year and the aforementioned RB trio combined for 10 touchdowns.

6. California

QB Jared Goff, RB Khalfani Muhammad, WR Bryce Treggs

The skinny: There is a lot of potential in this group. The Bears just need that potential to translate into points on the field. Goff threw for 3,508 yards in his debut season, and Treggs caught 77 of his passes. Though just one for a touchdown (Chris Harper and Kenny Lawler each caught five). Though the departed Brendan Bigelow had more carries, Muhammad outperformed him with more yards and touchdowns.

Spring position breakdown: RBs

February, 25, 2014
2/25/14
7:15
PM ET
Our look at position groups in the Pac-12 continues.

Arizona: With Ka'Deem Carey off to the NFL, figuring out Arizona's running back situation requires a bit of guesswork. Backups Daniel Jenkins and Kylan Butler are out of eligibility and rising junior Jared Baker tore his ACL in the regular-season finale. That leaves no running backs who had a carry last season. Those competing for carries will be redshirt freshmen Pierre Cormier and Zach Green, and true freshmen Jonathan Haden, an early enrollee, and Nick Wilson.

[+] EnlargeOregon/Texas
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesByron Marshall will be the Pac-12's leading returning rusher in 2014.
Arizona State: The torch was passed from Marion Grice to D.J. Foster toward the end of last season, and Foster will have a full offseason to prepare to be the No. 1 guy. He showed impressive flashes in spot playing time in the past two seasons, and ran for 318 yards (6.2 yards per carry) in three starts after Grice was lost to injury.

California: Much was made about Brendan Bigelow's talent during his career in Berkeley, but it never materialized the way many expected it would. He was beaten out by true freshman Khalfani Muhammad a year ago, then opted out of his final year of eligibility for a shot at the NFL -- and subsequently was not invited to the combine. Getting a feel for how coach Sonny Dykes would like to use his running backs is tough considering the lopsided nature of most of the games last year, but Muhammad showed all the signs that he would develop into a good Pac-12 running back.

Colorado: Christian Powell and Michael Adkins II will both be back after combining for 1,097 yards rushing in 2013. With receiver Paul Richardson off to the NFL, there's the need for added production on offense, and while coach Mike MacIntyre showed at San Jose State he'd prefer that to come through the air, it could add up to more opportunities for Powell and Adkins.

Oregon: Does it even matter who the Ducks hand the ball to? Sometimes it doesn't seem like it, but, regardless, Oregon remains loaded with speed and talent at running back. Byron Marshall (1,038 yards rushing) and Thomas Tyner (711 yards) will both see plenty of carries when quarterback Marcus Mariota (715 yards) isn't running on his own. The team does lose De'Anthony Thomas, who opted to leave early for the NFL, but Thomas turned into a relative afterthought last season anyway.

Oregon State: It shouldn't be hard to improve the Beavers' running game after they ranked 115th in the country in rushing yards per game last season. Their top two backs -- Terron Ward and Storm Woods -- return and figure to see more use under new offensive coordinator John Garrett. There was a glimpse of what could be against Boise State in the Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl as the Beavers unleashed a more balanced approach. Woods ran for 107 yards on 16 carries and Ward added 54 yards on nine carries in a comfortable 38-23 victory.

Stanford:The Cardinal's running back situation is outlined here in more detail, but it should be noted that the competition between Remound Wright, Barry J. Sanders and Ricky Seale -- competing to replace Tyler Gaffney -- will also include Kelsey Young. Young was recruited to Stanford to play running back, but was switched to receiver and is now back at running back. Sanders has the name recognition, but all signs point to Wright getting the first crack at being the primary back. However it plays out, it would be a complete shock if one back was used as much as Gaffney was in 2013 and Stepfan Taylor the two seasons before that.

UCLA: If things play out the way UCLA coach Jim Mora hopes they will, linebacker Myles Jack will be just that … a linebacker. After winning Pac-12 Offensive and Defensive Freshman of the Year, the Bruins would ideally keep him on defense. For that to happen, someone needs to step up. That conversation still includes Jordon James and Paul Perkins, while Craig Lee, a four-star recruit who redshirted last year, also factors into the equation.

[+] EnlargeJavorius Allen
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiBuck Allen will likely head up USC's running back committee next season.
USC: After watching Bishop Sankey turn into one of the nation's premier backs under the tutelage of new coach Steve Sarkisian, USC's deep stable of running backs has to be intrigued. The Trojans will return four of their top five leading rushers from a year ago -- Javorius "Buck" Allen, Tre Madden, Justin Davis, Ty Isaac -- when they were predominantly a run-first team. Allen, who was named the team MVP in 2013, figures to get the first crack at being the starter, but that could be just in name only as a running-back-by-committee scenario seems likely.

Utah: Another season, another new offensive coordinator for the Utes. This time it's Dave Christensen's job to invoke life in the Utah offense, which will return leading rusher Bubba Poole (607 yards) and Lucky Radley (284 yards). The Utes averaged just 4.1 yards a carry as a team last year, which is partially to blame for the change from Dennis Erickson to Christensen after just one year.

Washington: The NFL combine taught us that Bishop Sankey might have been the most physically gifted running back in the country last year. It's not as simple as plugging in another guy to replace him, but the Huskies are still in good shape. Senior Jesse Callier (48 carries, 213 yards in 2013), who was slated to be the starter before an ACL tear in the season opener in 2012, is intriguing and will compete with fellow senior Deontae Cooper (43 carries, 270 yards) and sophomore Dwayne Washington (27 carries, 332 yards).

Washington State: Considering quarterback Connor Halliday had three single-game passing totals that were more than leading rusher Marcus Mason ran for in entire season (429), any discussion about the Cougars' running game is tough to take seriously. Yes, there will still be running backs on the roster. No, they probably won't combine to run for 1,000 yards as a team.

Previous positions

Quarterback

Earlier this morning, we took a look at who might replace the guys who jumped to the NFL in the South Division. Here’s a look at the North.

Leaving: Brendan Bigelow, RB, Cal

The replacement: Khalfani Muhammad and Daniel Lasco are both coming back, so there is at least some experience at the position. Jeffrey Coprich and Darren Ervin could also see some time. Incoming freshman Devante Downs is built more like a fullback but could also see some carries in the running game.

Leaving: Richard Rodgers, WR, Cal

The replacement: Stephen Anderson is a possibility to emerge at inside receiver. Darius Powe is going to see action regardless of whether it’s inside or outside and Raymond Hudson, Jacob Wark, and Drake Whitehurst are all possibilities.

Leaving: Khairi Fortt, LB, Cal

The replacement: Nathan Broussard is coming off an injury and Raymond Davison and Jason Gibson are moving back to linebacker from safety. Juco transfers Sam Atoe and Jonathon Johnson could help. Also, Downs (see the Bigelow section) comes in as an athlete, and putting him on the defensive side of the ball is a possibility.

Leaving: Kameron Jackson, CB, Cal

The replacement: Darius Allensworth and Trey Cheek will get the most looks. Cedric Dozier saw some starting time last season. He’s not a lock but has some experience. Isaac Lapite, Adrian Lee and Joel Willis are also possibilities. Stefan McClure should also be back from his 2013 injury, and Cameron Walker, who was playing out of position at safety, might move back to corner.

Leaving: Viliami Moala, DT, Cal

The replacement: Jacobi Hunter should be the main guy, but transfers Trevor Kelly and Marcus Manley should help out across the line. Austin Clark is still waiting to hear about his sixth year of eligibility, but if he gets it, he and Mustafa Jalil could shuffle up and down the line as they look to replace the graduated Deandre Coleman as well.

Leaving: Chris McCain, DE, Cal (Previously dismissed from team)

The replacement: Kyle Kragen and Puka Lopa were the top two guys to replace McCain after he left. Brennan Scarlett is also expected back and Johnson could be in the mix. The coaching staff seems to be really high on him.

[+] EnlargeDe'Anthony Thomas
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesDe'Anthony Thomas' unique set of skills will be hard for Oregon to replicate.
Leaving: De'Anthony Thomas, RB, Oregon

The replacement: Unless Oregon is hiding another multitalented back who can run like DAT, there is no "real" replacement. Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner should continue to get the work as the primary 1-2 punch, but it will be interesting to see if the Ducks use either in a more dynamic way like they did Thomas.

Leaving: Colt Lyerla, TE, Oregon (Left the team earlier in the season).

The replacement: Pharaoh Brown, Evan Baylis and John Mundt will all continue to get work, probably in that order. They all pitched in in some capacity after Lyerla left the team, so the Ducks should be in good shape at the position.

Leaving: Terrance Mitchell, CB, Oregon

The replacement: That Ifo Ekpre-Olomu opted to return bodes well for the Ducks. Troy Hill would have been the obvious selection, but he remains suspended indefinitely, and his future with the program is in question. Dior Mathis has experience and the coaching staff is high on redshirt freshman Chris Seisay. Juco transfer Dominique Harrison enrolled early and will participate in spring ball, so there are options.

Leaving: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State

The replacement: Much like USC’s dilemma with Marqise Lee, The Beavers' task of replacing a Biletnikoff winner is no easy one. Victor Bolden is the logical choice. He returned kicks, ran a few fly sweeps and was Cooks’ immediate backup. But a big wide receiver class last year that included Bolden, Hunter Jarmon and Walter Jones could make things more interesting in the spring.

Leaving: Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State

The replacement: Lavonte Barnett was the backup all season but didn’t have much production. Jaswha James has bounced around a bit -- mostly at linebacker -- but has finally settled at DE and had a nice bowl performance. Titus Failauga is also a possibility as Mike Riley went out of his way to specifically mention him during a recent teleconference. There are also rumblings that Obum Gwacham -- a talented athlete who hasn’t worked out at wide receiver -- could move to defensive end.

Leaving: David Yankey, OL, Stanford

[+] EnlargeDavid Yankey
AP Photo/Ben LiebenbergStanford has a lot of offensive linemen with experience, but replacing an All-American such as David Yankey is never easy.
The replacement: A member of Stanford’s lauded offensive line recruiting class of 2012, Joshua Garnett has already seen his share of playing time. That’s one of the big advantages of being an offensive lineman at Stanford. With their multiple offensive-linemen sets, there is plenty of rotation. Then again, Yankey was a two-time All-American -- it's tough to replace that.

Leaving: Cameron Fleming, OL, Stanford

The replacement: Like Garnett, Kyle Murphy was part of the ’12 class and has also seen his share of action on the offensive line. The Cardinal are replacing four offensive linemen, but most of those replacements -- such as Garnett and Murphy -- already have some playing experience.

Leaving: Ed Reynolds, FS, Stanford

The replacement: Good question. All of Stanford’s free safeties are gone, while returning strong safeties include Jordan Richards and Zach Hoffpauir. Someone could make a switch, or it’s possible that former quarterback Dallas Lloyd, who is now making the transition to safety, could play here.

Leaving: Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington

The replacement: Jesse Callier started the 2012 season, but a season-ending injury gave rise to Sankey. Dwayne Washington seems like he could be an every down-type back, while Callier excels in third-down situations or as a changeup back. Deontae Cooper will also see carries.

Leaving: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington

The replacement: Joshua Perkins was the No. 2 all season, so there’s little reason to think he won’t graduate to No. 1. He’s more receiver than blocker, but he’s got talent and shouldn’t have a problem assuming the role of the outgoing Mackey winner.

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