Pac-12: Jordon James

It's time to start our preseason position reviews. Please, hold your applause until we are finished.

Here's how we do this. We provide three evaluative categories: "Great shape," "Good shape" and "We'll see."

Hint: You'd prefer your team to be in "Great shape."

"We'll see" doesn't mean you're going to stink at said position. It means just what it says -- we'll see because there's no way at present to know.

You can review last year's rankings here.

We continue the series with running backs.

GREAT SHAPE

Oregon: The combination of Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner should be as dangerous as ever. De'Anthony Thomas never really grew into the role as an every-down back, but Marshall carried 168 times for 1,038 yards and 14 touchdowns. Tyner slowly picked up more carries and finished with 115 for 711 yards and nine touchdowns. Folks are also excited to see what incoming freshman Royce Freeman brings to the table. This is a scary corps, even before you realize that Marcus Mariota also carried 96 times for 715 yards and nine touchdowns last year.

USC: The emergence of Buck Allen was a pleasant surprise after he spent much time in Lane Kiffin purgatory. He boasted 5.8 yards per carry to go with 785 yards and 14 touchdowns. He'll be pushed by Tre Madden, Justin Davis and D.J. Morgan, who is back after missing all of 2013 with a knee injury. This is a group that could do damage in Steve Sarkisian's up-tempo offense. Think about what Bishop Sankey did last year.

Arizona State: Marion Grice was a touchdown machine. But D.J. Foster is no slouch after rushing for 501 yards and catching 63 passes for 653 yards in a dual-threat role. The local product is explosive and has big-play speed. Deantre Lewis and Kyle Middlebrooks, back from injury, provide depth since Mike Norvell won't want to pass up the opportunity to use Foster in the slot at times. The depth has ASU teetering on the Great Shape/Good Shape fence, but Foster's experience and explosiveness give ASU a perfect replacement for Grice. So we're confident saying ASU is in great shape with him at the helm.

GOOD SHAPE

UCLA: No, we're not going to list Myles Jack as a running back. Get over it. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone told the Pac-12 blog he's been looking for Jordon James to make strides as a "one-cut" runner. He believes he has. And Paul Perkins and Steven Manfro will press for carries with the intriguing Craig Lee waiting in the wings. Keep in mind it was quarterback Brett Hundley who led the Bruins in carries (160), yards (748) and touchdowns (11). Maybe ... just maybe ... we'll see Jack also pick up a few carries. The Bruins are dedicated to the run (only Oregon has more carries over the last three seasons) and they have the depth to deliver.

Stanford: No Tyler Gaffney. Four of five starters on the line are gone. Surely this is the year Stanford's running game takes a step backward, right? Probably not. The line will feature five members of the heralded 2012 recruiting class and a committee approach with Remound Wright, Ricky Seale, Barry Sanders and Kelsey Young seems likely. Only Oregon and UCLA have attempted more rushes over the last three seasons, so the Cardinal are going to continue to be dedicated to the ground game. There is a lot of untapped potential with this group and they have a coach who loves to run the football. There are a lot of unknowns, but Stanford's recent history of success running the football warrants the benefit of the doubt to put them in the "Good Shape" column.

Utah: For now, it looks like Bubba Poole will be the primary back. But Kyle Whittingham and Co. are excited about the emergence of JC transfer Davontae Booker and the complementary role Troy McCormick might play. They aren't married to the idea of a single back. In fact, Whittingham told the Pac-12 blog he'd like to have situational flexibility. This trio provides that at Utah for the first time in a while. Spreading things out is a priority for new offensive coordinator Dave Christensen. But don't be surprised to see a balanced attack if these three see success.

Colorado: The Buffs are surprisingly deep in the running backs department, with seasoned players like Christian Powell, Michael Adkins II, Tony Jones and Donta Abron returning. Powell (562 yards, three touchdowns) provided the power while Adkins emerged as a fine complement with 5.2 yards per carry (103 carries, 535 yards and six touchdowns). Look for the coaching staff to keep using those two in unison as a thunder-and-lightning tandem.

Oregon State: The running game, or lack thereof, has been a sore spot for Mike Riley the last couple of seasons. However, with last year's combination of Sean Mannion and Brandin Cooks the personnel dictated 603 passing attempts. With Cooks gone, the staff will look to Terron Ward and Storm Woods (who combined for 240 carries, 998 yards and 11 touchdowns) to build off of last year's showing of 94.4 yards per game -- which was 11th in the conference. This tandem has the potential to be very good. It just has to go out and show it.

Washington State: That the Cougars return their top two rushers from last season, Marcus Mason and Teondray Caldwell, bodes well -- even in an offense in which the running back serves more to keep the opposition in check than to run the football. However, it might be Theron West and redshirt freshman Jamal Morrow who get the majority of the carries. The coaching staff was high on Morrow in the spring and if the Cougs can do just enough to keep the safeties guessing, it might open things up more for the Air Raid's primary objective.

WE'LL SEE

Arizona: The Wildcats have to replace Ka'Deem Carey. No easy task. And it was made worse by the recent news that Pierre Cormier's won't be returning. That leaves carries to be divided among Nick Wilson, Zach Green and Terris Jones-Grigsby. Jonathan Haden is still waiting to get cleared and Jared Baker missed the spring with an injury from last year's ASU game. Look for special packages with DaVonte' Neal as well. The Wildcats are silly with wide receivers, which could help open things up in the running game.

California: The Bears averaged just 122.2 rushing yards per game last year -- ninth in the league. Despite the reputation for being a pass-happy team, the coaches would actually prefer more balance, so they'll need better production out of oft-injured Daniel Lasco and Khalfani Muhammad. The departed Brendan Bigelow had the most carries (105) last year, but Muhammad and Lasco combined for 141 totes for 762 yards and six touchdowns. Muhammad is the burner at 175 pounds while Lasco has the bigger frame at 200 and change. Incoming freshman Tre Watson is also an intriguing prospect.

Washington: Like Arizona, the Huskies must replace a phenomenal back in Sankey. But there are options. Dwayne Washington was the No. 2 behind Sankey last year, rushing for 332 yards and four touchdowns on 47 carries. Behind him are Jesse Callier, who was the original starter in 2012 before his injury gave rise to Sankey, and Deontae Cooper. Both have a history of knee injuries. Jomon Dotson and Lavon Coleman could see time. We'll see isn't necessarily a bad thing. It just means, we'll see.

OTHER POSITION REVIEWS

Quarterback

UCLA spring wrap

May, 2, 2014
May 2
7:30
AM ET
Three things we learned this spring
  1. Raising the (next) Barr: All indications are that Kenny Orjioke probably has the inside track at outside linebacker to replace the departed Anthony Barr. Aaron Wallace (dealing with grade issues) and Deon Hollins are still very much in the mix. Several members of the staff said they were pleased with what they saw from Orjioke -- though it’s worth noting he didn’t play in the spring game for reasons not revealed.
  2. Welcome back, Owa: After missing last season with a hip injury, defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa (aka the scourge of spellcheck), returned with a very strong spring session that included a pair of sacks in the spring game. His return bolsters a pass rush that has to replace Barr and Cassius Marsh.
  3. Back depth: The staff has been very pleased with the progress of running back Jordon James. But they feel equally solid about Paul Perkins, Steven Manfro and redshirt freshman Craig Lee. Combined with the scrambling ability of quarterback Brett Hundley, the Bruins should build upon last year’s average of 196.6 yards per game.
Three questions for the fall
  1. Line-up: While the coaching staff feels pretty good about its offensive line, finding the right replacement for Xavier Su'a-Filo is still paramount. They think they might have it in graduate transfer Malcolm Bunche from Miami. But a couple of starting spots should still be up for grabs when the Bruins return for fall camp.
  2. Backup plan: A lot rests on the legs and arm of Hundley – a Heisman trophy candidate and presumptive top 10 pick in 2015. Whether it’s Jerry Neuheisel or Asiantii Woulard backing him up remains to be seen. Neither were particularly sharp in the spring game, with Neuheisel throwing two interceptions and Woulard completing just 4 of 13 passes.
  3. More D-to-O coming? We know about Myles Jack and the impact he made on offense for the Bruins last season. He didn’t get any carries in the spring, though Jim Mora said they’ll likely have some packages for him. Will we see others? Eddie Vanderdoes? Ishmael Adams? Not that they’ll give it away in the spring, but it will be fun to watch this fall to see how many defensive players see offensive time.
Way-too-early prediction: The Bruins will win the Pac-12 South for the third time in four years. With Hundley at the helm and an experienced defense, the Bruins not only have the fewest question marks among their Southern brethren, but they have plenty of talent to match on both sides of the ball. Staying healthy will be key, as will gaining some early momentum with critical conference games against ASU, Utah and Oregon in the first half of the season.

Spring games primer

April, 25, 2014
Apr 25
12:00
PM ET
Three more Pac-12 spring games are slated for Saturday. Here’s a look at what to watch in all three.

California

Where: Memorial Stadium
Kickoff: 11 a.m. PT
TV: Pac-12 Network (Replays throughout the week)

What to watch: The Bears have a new defensive coordinator … again … so watching them adjust to Art Kaufman’s 4-3 vs. Andy Buh’s 4-3 will be of note. Though a depth chart was recently released, there are still a few positions up for grabs. There are some questions about the right side of the offensive line and backup quarterbacks can usually make an impression in the spring. The depth chart lists an “or” between Austin Hinder and Kyle Boehm, so expect those two to jockey for position behind incumbent starter Jared Goff. The event is free and there will be giveaways and kids’ activities. Click here for details.

UCLA

Where: StubHub Center, Carson, Calif.
Kickoff: 5 p.m. PT
TV: Pac-12 Network (Replays throughout the week)

What to watch: As has been the case with UCLA the last couple of years, youth and injuries make for some mixing and matching on the offensive line. This spring has proven no different, so look for the right tackle spot to be highly competitive beyond Saturday’s game. The running backs are intriguing as well. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone saidJordon James has evolved into the one-cut runner that he wants him to be, but Paul Perkins, Steven Manfro and touted redshirt freshman Craig Lee will push for carries. Finding a suitable backup for Brett Hundley, be it Asiantii Woulard or Jerry Neuheisel, is also a top priority, and the spring game could create some separation. Note, tickets are $5 in advance, $10 day of (free for UCLA students and children 2 and younger). Parking is $15. Players will be available for autographs between 3 and 3:45. Click here for details.

Washington State

Where: Joe Albi Stadium, Spokane, Wash.
Kickoff: 1 p.m. PT
TV: Pac-12 Network (Replays throughout the week)

What to watch: This is the fourth year the Cougars will be holding their spring game in Spokane. All reports are that quarterback Connor Halliday has shown a strong command of the offense and wide receiver Vince Mayle has been outstanding. However, the big question mark still lies in the secondary, where definitely three -- maybe four -- positions are still up for grabs. The spring depth chart has Charleston White and Daquawn Brown at the corner spots and Isaac Dotson and Taylor Taliulu as the safeties. But those won't be set in stone for a while. There are other position groups of interest, naturally. But defensive coordinator Mike Breske told the Pac-12 blog, while he likes his front seven, the back end of the defense, without question, has been the biggest point of emphasis this spring.

Spring position breakdown: RBs

February, 25, 2014
Feb 25
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

Jordon James big loss for UCLA run game

October, 24, 2013
10/24/13
6:15
PM ET

When UCLA began the season, it was thought it would go with a "running back by committee" approach to replace the dynamic production of the departed Johnathan Franklin. Instead, Jordon James stepped in and put up big numbers, rushing for 116 yards per game with a 6.3 yards per carry average in the first four games.

A lead running back seemed better than a committee, at least until James hurt his ankle at Utah. With him out of the lineup -- and doubtful for the visit to No. 3 Oregon on Saturday -- the Bruins' running game has fallen on hard times.

UCLA scored a season-low 10 points in its loss at Stanford and also had season lows in rushes (27) and rush yards (74).

[+] EnlargeJordon James
AP Photo/Kevin ReeceWith Jordon James sidelined and injuries decimating the O-line, UCLA is struggling to run the ball.
You could say, sure, but Stanford's defense does that to folks. Yet the Bruins had just 78 yards on 13 carries the previous weekend against an injury-depleted California defense that ranks 11th in the Pac-12 against the run. Since James' injury, the four running backs that UCLA has used to replace him have averaged 3.2 yards per carry and have 174 yards in 10 quarters.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, UCLA is averaging 61.5 rush yards per game on designed runs in the last two weeks, including a season-low 59 in the loss to Stanford. The Bruins averaged 2.7 yards per carry on such runs in those two games with none gaining more than 17 yards. In UCLA’s first four games of the season, they averaged 244.5 yards and 5.8 yards per carry on designed runs.

The Bruins averaged a combined 2.6 yards per carry inside the tackles against Utah and Stanford, 3.3 fewer than what they averaged to start the season The problem for the Bruins was they did not create room to run. They gained 41 yards before contact in the last two weeks. That is 80 fewer per game than the AQ average and 135 fewer than what they averaged in their first four games. Another way to look at it is they were hit at or behind the line of scrimmage on 60 percent of their designed runs in the last two weeks, 27 percentage points higher than the AQ average.

That's not only James, of course. The Bruins offensive line is banged up, too. It lost LT Torian White for the season to an ankle injury at Utah, and his replacement, Simon Goines went down against Stanford with a knee injury and is doubtful for the Oregon game. Making matters almost comically bad, Goines redshirt freshman replacement, Conor McDermott, is out with a shoulder injury. The Bruins could start three true freshmen on the offensive line in raucous Autzen Stadium.

With James out and nobody stepping up in the running game, the two biggest issues for the Bruins offense were getting too many third-and-longs and struggles in the red zone.

The Bruins went three-and-out on a season-high 46 percent of their drives in their loss to Stanford. They had at least seven yards to go on 73 percent of their third downs, their highest percentage in a game this season. As a result, they converted on a season-low 33 percent of their third downs, including 2-of-11 attempts with 7 or more yard to go.

On third down against Stanford, Brett Hundley completed 3-of-10 passes, including two interceptions and a season-low two first downs. On average, he had to gain 9 yards to convert a first down on his third-down pass attempts.

As for the red zone, UCLA has had seven red-zone drives in its last two games that resulted in three touchdowns and four field goals. The Bruins’ touchdown percentage (43 percent) in the red zone during those two games is 19 points lower than the FBS average.

The Bruins did not gain any rushing yards in the red zone on six attempts in its last two games. They started the season averaging 3.7 yards per rush in the red zone.

Oregon yields 3.2 yards per rush, best in the Pac-12. Without James and with a banged-up line, the Bruins likely will have to throw a lot to keep up with the high-scoring Ducks. Therein lies another problem.

Hundley has been sacked 65 times over the past two seasons, 10 more than the next-closest FBS quarterback. Things have improved this year, though, with the Bruins surrendering 14 sacks in six games, which ranks seventh in the Pac-12. Oregon is good rushing the passer. It has 21 sacks, tied for 12th most in the FBS this season, and is tied with Miami for the second-most sack fumbles (five).

It would seem that James was underestimated during the preseason, and his absences has severely hurt the Bruins offense. The question at Oregon is can UCLA make key adjustments to compensate for the loss of James that eluded them at Stanford.

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 9

October, 24, 2013
10/24/13
10:15
AM ET
Ten storylines to keep an eye on this week in the Pac-12.

1. Oregon in the spotlight: Separated by just 45 miles, Oregon and Oregon State will host a pair of California teams in games that will surely have major Pac-12 implications. Heisman hopefuls Marcus Mariota of Oregon and Brett Hundley of UCLA square off as the undefeated No. 3 Ducks look to crack the top two of the BCS standings. Oregon State, winners of six in a row, host a reinvigorated Stanford squad that topped UCLA last week to get back into the top 10.

2. Get up for GameDay: ESPN’s College Football GameDay will be in Oregon for the Bruins-Ducks showdown. While the Ducks' offense gets plenty of attention -- and rightfully so -- it’s that defense, allowing fewer than 18 points per game -- that has been equally spectacular, if not underappreciated. They’ll go against a UCLA offensive line that is young and a bit banged up. The Bruins scored a season-low 10 points in the loss last week to Stanford. Part of the decline has been the loss of running back Jordon James, who is questionable this week. In their last two weeks, per ESPN Stats & Information, UCLA backs have been hit at or behind the line of scrimmage on 60 percent of their designed runs. In the first four games they had nine rushes of 20 yards or more. In the past two games, zero. On the flip side, Oregon has had no trouble running the ball (332.4 yards per game), and should be bolstered by the expected return of De’Anthony Thomas.

[+] EnlargeTyler Gaffney
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezCan Tyler Gaffney push Stanford past Oregon State?
3. Ground vs. air: In the other state of Oregon game, the high-flying passing attack of Oregon State will clash with the run-based approach of the Cardinal. Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney is coming off a career performance in the win over UCLA, rushing for 171 yards. He has broken 100 yards four times this season. Conversely, Sean Mannion and Brandin Cooks continue to put up ridiculous numbers -- 85.7 percent of Oregon State’s offense comes through the air, second in the FBS only to Washington State. Mannion came into the season with 31 career touchdowns and 31 interceptions. His FBS-leading 29 touchdown passes are already tied for the school record. He has thrown for at least 350 yards in all seven games; no other Oregon State quarterback had more than four in a season. Things will ramp up for the Beavers from here on out. Their next five opponents have a combined record of 26-9.

4. Bounce back? The Huskies -- once ranked as high as 15th in the country -- look to snap a three-game skid when California comes to town. The Bears are still looking for their first conference win and have dropped nine straight Pac-12 games dating back to last season. Complicating the matter for the Huskies is quarterback Keith Price and the injured thumb on his throwing hand. He has played through the injury for three weeks, but there is a question of whether he’ll be effective enough to play this week.

5. Honoring Coach James: Washington is also planning several tributes to legendary coach Don James, who died Sunday at age 80 of pancreatic cancer. In 18 seasons at Washington, James led the Huskies to six Pac-10 titles, a share of the 1991 national championship and a 153-58-2 record. Players and coaches will wear decals with the initials "DJ" and members of his family will serve as the honorary captains for the pregame coin toss. The band will perform a tribute to James at halftime, along with a memorial video. A public memorial service will be held Sunday afternoon at Alaska Airlines Arena.

6. Bounce back? Take 2: Utah and USC will both look to rebound from flat road performances last week. Utah is back on the road, headed down to L.A., where the Utes haven’t won since 1916. Aside from the bowl implications (see below) this is also a big recruiting trip for Utah, since 33 players on the roster hail from California. Utah’s front has been nasty, averaging 3.14 sacks per game, tops in the Pac-12. The Trojans got a boost with the return of Silas Redd (112 yards vs. Notre Dame) but marquee players from both teams, USC wide receiver Marqise Lee and Utah quarterback Travis Wilson, are battling injuries.

7. Off and running: In case anyone needs reminding, Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey rushed for a Pac-12 record 366 yards and five touchdowns in last year’s win over Colorado. The teams will meet again in Boulder, and Carey has picked up where he left off last year. He has nine straight 100-yard rushing games and leads the country with an average of 161 yards per game. The Buffs are coming of a win over Charleston Southern where Michael Adkins II rushed for 137 yards and four touchdowns. Also, from the Department of Funky Stats, Colorado is 0-6 in the pregame coin toss this year.

8. Bowl bound: Three Pac-12 teams are already bowl eligible: Oregon (7-0), Oregon State (6-1) and Stanford (6-1). For those three, it’s all about pecking order and jockeying for position to get to the best possible bowl game, which could include Roses, or maybe something bigger. All three of those teams still have to play each other starting with Stanford’s trip to Oregon State this weekend, Oregon’s trip to Stanford on Nov. 7 and OSU’s trip to Autzen on Nov. 29 for the Civil War.

9. Bowl bound? Lots of teams are on the bubble, but only one team could become bowl eligible this week. That’s UCLA (5-1). Of course, to do it, they’ll have to upset Oregon on the road. With GameDay in town, this one takes center stage across the country. Arizona State is the league’s only other five-win team, for now, and is off this weekend. Five other teams have four wins: Washington State (4-4, 2-3), Washington (4-3, 1-3), Arizona (4-2, 1-2), USC (4-3, 1-2) and Utah (4-3, 1-2).

10. Taking a breather: Two byes this week with Arizona State and Washington State resting up. The Cougars started the year with eight straight games, and head coach Mike Leach said that it’s possible some fatigue may have set in over the past couple of games -- both losses to the Oregon teams. WSU and ASU will meet next Thursday night in Pullman.

Midseason report: UCLA

October, 15, 2013
10/15/13
7:30
AM ET
The first half of the season has been anything but routine for the UCLA Bruins. Tragedy struck early with the death of wide receiver Nick Pasquale, forcing the Bruins to come together in a way football can’t replicate.

Head coach Jim Mora handled the situation with honor and class, being emotionally available for his players while letting football serve as a necessary distraction, but not a priority. As a result, the Bruins are 5-0 with a marquee road win over Nebraska.

Quarterback Brett Hundley looks more polished than he did last season, a clear indication that he has a fuller understanding of Noel Mazzone’s offense. And the questions in the running game appear to have been cleared up by Jordon James, who despite missing last week has rushed for 463 yards and five touchdowns in four games with an impressive per-carry average of 6.3 yards per handle.

The second half sets up as a tough haul for the Bruins, who have already gone through both bye weeks. They close with seven straight games -- four of them on the road -- including back-to-back road trips starting this week with No. 13 Stanford and then at No. 2 Oregon. A two-game stretch at home vs. Washington and Arizona State will go a long way toward finalizing the league pecking order before they close out the year with a trip to USC.

With a 5-0 mark and a top-10 ranking, the season couldn't have started any better for UCLA on the field. Off the field, Mora has done an admirable job of celebrating the life of a beloved player while giving his team some lessons about character that the players will carry far beyond their college days.

Offensive MVP: Brett Hundley. He looks like a much more efficient quarterback than last season. Hundley is more poised in the pocket, going through all of his progressions and is making better decisions. He’s completing 68.1 percent of his throws with 12 touchdowns to 4 interceptions, and he’s also rushed for 260 yards and three scores.

Defensive MVP: Anthony Barr. As expected, Barr has emerged as a front-runner for the Pac-12’s defensive player of the year. He’s posted 26 tackles in five games with 4 sacks and a league-high 10 tackles for a loss.

Pac-12 announces players of the week

September, 23, 2013
9/23/13
6:00
PM ET
The Pac-12 has announced its players of the week. Utah quarterback Travis Wilson got the offensive honors, Oregon State cornerback Steven Nelson was named defensive player of the week and USC punter Kris Albarado got the special teams honors.

Some more details on the winners, per the Pac-12’s release:
Wilson, a sophomore from San Clemente, Calif., completed 24 of 35 passes for 273 yards and no interceptions in leading Utah to a 20-13 victory over BYU, the fourth-straight win over their in-state rival. His 74-yard second-quarter pass to Dres Anderson was his fifth pass play of more than 50 yards this season and set up a touchdown that put Utah up 13-0 just before halftime. Clinging to a 13-6 fourth-quarter lead, Wilson engineered a 12-play, 79-yard drive that concluded with a 2-yard touchdown pass and extended the Utes’ lead to 20-6.

Nelson, a junior from Atlanta, Ga., stepped in front of a San Diego State pass and returned it 16 yards for the game-winning touchdown in the Beaver’s come-from-behind 34-30 win over the Aztecs on Saturday night. The interception came with 2:31 left in the game with Oregon State down by three after they had faced deficits of 13 and nine points earlier in the second half. Nelson co-leads the nation with four picks on the year and is the first player in team history to have four interceptions in his first four career games.

Albarado, a sophomore punter from Lake Charles, La., helped stymie the Utah State offense with his precision punting in the Trojan’s 17-14 victory on Saturday at the Coliseum. Five of his seven punts pinned the Aggies within the 20-yard line, including two inside the five, leading to an average starting field position for Utah State on their own 21-yard line. The first-year punter is averaging 40.3 yards on 23 boots, with more than half (12) of those backing opponents within their own 20. He has a pair of 50-yard punts on the season, including a best of 64 yards.

Also nominated for offensive player of the week honors were quarterbacks Sean Mannion of Oregon State and Keith Price of Washington; running back Jordon James of UCLA; and wide receivers Jaelen Strong of Arizona State, Ty Montgomery of Stanford and Gabe Marks of Washington State. Also nominated for defensive player of the week honors were defensive ends Cassius Marsh of UCLA, Leonard Williams of USC and Hau’oli Kikaha of Washington; defensive back Michael Walker of Utah; and linebacker Darryl Monroe of Washington State. Also nominated for special teams player of the week honors were punters Keith Kostol of Oregon State and Tom Hackett of Utah and UCLA kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn.

Tuesday morning mailbag

September, 17, 2013
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Three weeks in the books. Are things going as you anticipated?

Joe Bruin in Westwood writes: Hey Kev...Joe Bruin here. After our stellar win over Nebraska, do you have a different perception of us than what you had of us in the preseason?

Kevin Gemmell: Two weeks in a row for you. You are now officially prohibited from saying we never answer your questions for at least a year.

My perception remains the same. Great quarterback, great coaching, still some question marks in the secondary. Jordon James has impressed, but stiffer defensive competition is needed before declaring the Bruins in “great shape” at running back. The offense has also done a good job with its diversity. So far, 15 different Bruins have caught a pass -- which is tied for the most with Cal. And that’s only through two games.

I still believe it will come down to ASU and UCLA for the South Division, which is why I had them first and second, respectively, in my preseason poll. Much like the North, that was written with the stipulation that it’s basically a coin flip.


Ryan in New York writes: Kevin, Kevin, Kevin, as I told your partner in the "way too many crimes committed against rabid college football fans", when are you guys going to wake up and admit that Nebraska hasn't been relevant in ten years? In fact, Bo Pellini has as many conference titles as a Head Coach as Honey Boo Boo. Sure, the Bruins are pretty good, but call me when they play against a quality defense? Nebraska is ranked 105th in total defense. Nevada is 116th. Oh, and I'm sure you're excited about New Mexico State, coming in at 122. Come on guys, you can do better. Give praise where it's due, but keep some perspective too. You're killing us. RC

Brett Hundley
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsWhat UCLA and Brett Hundley did rallying to win at Nebraska was simply spectacular.
Gemmell: Uh-uh. Not going to fall into your trap this week, Ryan. While I give you snaps for working in a Honey Boo Boo reference, nothing you say is going to convince me that UCLA’s win in Lincoln was anything short of spectacular.

Even without the emotional factors the Bruins were carrying on their shoulders (and will continue to carry far beyond this football season), it was an impressive win. UCLA’s 18-point deficit was the largest comeback in Lincoln since 1996 (records for comeback wins weren’t available prior to that) so it might have actually been the biggest comeback Nebraska has ever allowed.

UCLA snapped Nebraska’s 14-game winning streak at home against nonconference opponents and the 28 third-quarter points were the most by any team against Nebraska in the history of the program.

Then, you add in the emotional factors, and it’s even more incredible. Nothing but kudos to Jim Mora and his staff for keeping that team together after a terrible tragedy that could have ripped the team apart. He’s handled this team masterfully so far.


Ken in Berkeley, Calif. writes: Kevin, Is it really fair to blame the Cal loss to Ohio St on the Cal defense? The Cal offense didn't score to answer either of Ohio State's first two touchdowns and the Cal offense had a lot of short possessions that didn't give the Cal defense a break. After it was 21-0, the Cal team, offense and defense, played Ohio St pretty even. Isn't the real problem neither offense nor defense being in the game until halftime through the first quarter? Cal now arrives for games two hours before kickoff instead of 2.5. What is standard arrival time across the country?

Gemmell: Every coach is different, and to be honest, I have no clue what the rest of the country does. But I’m guessing that 30 minutes doesn’t make a difference either way.

To your original question -- when your defense gives up 608 yards of offense at home, it’s fair to blame the defense. When your defense goes 0-for-4 on fourth down efficiency, it’s fair to blame the defense. When a backup quarterback completes 65 percent of his throws with four touchdowns and zero interceptions and a QBR rating of 85.5, it’s fair to blame the defense. By the way, the 90-yard pass from Kenny Guiton to Devin Smith was the longest play from scrimmage in Ohio State history. So, congrats.

Now, are there other factors at work? Absolutely. The Bears have been mauled by injuries (wasn’t planning on a pun there, but it works) and a little response from the offense early in the game would be nice. And we’ll tip the cap to Ohio State as well. That’s a pretty good football team.

But right now, all of the pressure is on the offense to win the ball game. And that’s a lot to put on a first-year starter with a bunch of young receivers. It only gets worse in the next three games with trips to Oregon and UCLA with a home game against Washington State sandwiched in between. Oregon is averaging 61.3 points per game and UCLA is averaging 49.5.

At some point, the defense is going to have to step up and make a play and bail the offense out. Right now the Bears are last in the league, yielding 42 points per game, and last in total defense, allowing 556.3 points per game. They are last in rushing defense allowing 262 yards per game, which is almost 100 yards more than the 11th place Cougars (169 ypg). There is a lot of blame to go around -- but your offense, on average, is getting you almost 34 points per game. The defense is going to have to help pick up the slack.


David in Calgary, Alberta writes: Hey Kevin. In this week's Power Rankings, you have UCLA listed above Washington (rightly so I might add), but in the Bowl Predictions, you have the Huskies headed to Texas for the Alamo Bowl while the Bruins stay in Cali for the Holiday Bowl. Shouldn't those be switched?

Gemmell: The power rankings reflect where we believe the teams are at this week -- not necessarily where we think they’ll end up. Ted and I usually have a conversation on Sunday to make sure we’re on the same page (sometimes we’re not, but usually we are). For example, we were both in favor of moving Oregon up to the top spot based on their performance over Tennessee.

Bowl projections -- especially in Week 3 -- are more fodder for conversation than cemented fact. Actually, Ted was dying to take the bowl projections off my hands after I did them last year. He actually promised to cut me in on 25 percent of his salary if he could do them because there’s nothing more exhilarating than doing those at 2:30 a.m. Sunday morning (come to think of it, I haven’t gotten a check yet from him).

So don’t put as much emphasis on linking the two posts. They are independent of each other.


David in Phoenix writes: Kevin, I wanted to check and see if you had one too many glasses of scotch when you decided to rank the team from Tucson 25th? Everyone has known since spring that they would start the season 3-0, because they had 3 horrible teams on their schedule to start the season. Either way, can you send me a bottle of whatever it is you're drinking, it must be good stuff. Other than that, I enjoy reading your work and look forward to the rest of the season.

Gemmell: That has to be the nicest complaint I’ve ever received. And for your kindness, a fictitious bottle of magical scotch will be in your imaginary inbox by the time you get to work.

You were a little vague in your question with “the team from Tucson.” Didn’t know if you meant this school? Or this school? I’ll go out on a limb and assume you meant the first one.

When I put my top 25 together Sunday mornings, the first thing I look at is wins/losses -- which I think we can all agree is a good starting barometer. Then I look at how the team won … and how the teams around them won. For example, I had Michigan at No. 6 last week, but moved them down to No. 7 and LSU up to six. LSU has a top 25 win and hasn’t struggled with weaker opponents. Michigan has a top 25 win, but struggled last week. They lose a spot.

I don’t buy into the mantra that if you win, you can’t lose ground.

As for Arizona at No. 25, I dropped out Wisconsin and Nebraska, meaning I had to bring in two fresh teams. Texas Tech made sense. They are 3-0 and beat a top 25 team (even if it is a slumping TCU team, it’s still a top 25 win). After that, it was a bunch of 3-0 teams who have beaten up on weak competition. Ted opted for Ole Miss, which struggled against Vanderbilt, didn’t blow out Southeast Missouri State and crushed a terrible Texas team.

I went with Arizona, because all things being equal, why not give the nod to the Pac-12 school? And I’m not completely nuts … the Wildcats are, after all, receiving AP votes. We’ll know more when they play Washington. But for now might as well give a little love to a Pac-12 school when they are basically even with a bunch of other teams.

Drink up.

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 2

September, 5, 2013
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A few storylines to keep an eye on in Week 2.

    1. Heavy favorites: The Pac-12 is favored in all eight of its nonconference games this week. In fact, the league is favored by at least 10 points in every game and by at least 20 points in six of the eight. It should be a strong week for the conference. Should being the operative word.

 

  • League play kicks off: The ninth game this week features the first conference showdown of the season with Washington State traveling to USC. The Cougs are coming off a tough loss at Auburn, where Connor Halliday completed 35 of 65 passes for 344 yards and a touchdown. Cody Kessler is expected to start for the Trojans, but Max Wittek likely will see time again. USC’s defense had four interceptions and seven sacks in its Week 1 win over Hawaii. WSU's last win at USC was in 2000.
  • Debuts: After spending last Saturday lounging around and watching football, Arizona State coach Todd Graham and Stanford coach David Shaw have to get back to work. The Sun Devils open the season on the cusp of the Top 25 and host Sacramento State on Thursday night. Stanford hosts San Jose State in the Bill Walsh Legacy Game. The Cardinal opened the season ranked No. 4 but got bumped down to No. 5 for their Week 1 laziness.
  • Off and running: The Pac-12 had seven players rush for at least 100 yards in Week 1, headlined by Washington’s Bishop Sankey. He and the Huskies are off this week prepping for their game against Illinois on Sept. 14. Three of those seven came from Oregon -- a school record with De’Anthony Thomas, Byron Marshall and Marcus Mariota all eclipsing 100 yards. The other 100-yard rushers were Jordon James (UCLA, which is off this week), Daniel Jenkins (Arizona) and Tre Madden (USC).
  • 2-oh? Colorado snapped an eight-game losing streak last week with its win over Colorado State. The Buffs host Central Arkansas on Saturday with a chance to start 2-0 for the first time since 2008.
  • Crazy eights: Stanford and San Jose State are both riding eight-game winning streaks dating back to last season. That’s the first time in all of the years the schools have played that both have enjoyed simultaneous streaks.
  • Dominating the MWC: The Pac-12 went 5-0 against the Mountain West last week with Utah (Utah State), Colorado (Colorado State), USC (Hawaii), Washington (Boise State) and UCLA (Nevada) all scoring victories. The Pac-12 has three more games against the Mountain West this week with Arizona traveling to UNLV, Hawaii visiting Oregon State and San Jose State at Stanford. It was a rough opening weekend for the West Coast’s little brother league, which went just 3-9.
  • Road warriors: No. 2 Oregon goes on the road for the first time this season and is riding the nation’s best winning streak away from home. The Ducks have won 15 straight road games. Alabama and Northern Illinois are tied for second with nine. Oregon’s last road loss was at Stanford in 2009.
  • Strong debuts: The three new coaches in the Pac-12 went 2-1 in their season openers. Mark Helfrich (Oregon) rolled over Nicholls State (no shocker there). Mike MacIntyre led Colorado to an emotional win over an in-state rival in Colorado State, and Sonny Dykes’ California team put up a gritty effort in defeat against Northwestern.
  • Suspensions lifted: After being suspended for Week 1, Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey, the nation’s leading rusher last season, will make his debut against UNLV. Daniel Jenkins filled in quite nicely, rushing for 139 yards on 12 carries, including a 91-yard touchdown run. Washington tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who was also suspended for Week 1, is expected to be on the field when the Huskies return to action next week. Cal linebacker Chris McCain had his suspension rescinded after he was ejected per the NCAA’s new targeting rule and will play against Portland State.

 

Bruins' backs solid in opening win

September, 2, 2013
9/02/13
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So this is what life without Johnathan Franklin looks like for UCLA: 345 rushing yards and five touchdowns.

“I’ll take that,” said UCLA head coach Jim Mora.

Uh, yeah.

Granted, Nevada’s rush defense wasn’t exactly the ’85 Bears. But for a UCLA team looking to replace its all-time leading rusher in Franklin, its running backs, who accounted for 288 of those yards and three of the touchdowns, performed probably as well as could be expected in their by-committee debut.

“It was a heck of a performance,” Mora said. “The first thing they’ll tell you was the blocking was outstanding.”

As a matter of fact, they did. The backs and quarterback Brett Hundley alike (seven carries, 63 yards, two touchdowns) praised the big fellas up front for helping the Bruins roll up 647 yards of total offense in their 58-20 win over Nevada on Saturday.

Jordon James had distanced himself from the committee during fall camp, and he rewarded his coaches for their confidence with a 21-carry performance for 155 yards and a touchdown.

“He is our No. 1 back,” Mora said. “He’s our starter right now, but we would like to be able to play Steven Manfro (5-32). It was great to see Malcolm [Jones, 2-14-1] in there and Rosie [Roosevelt Davis, 2-30] … but he’s our No. 1 back. But you know how we play offense. We’re going to roll those guys through. We have to. To play the tempo we play at, we’re going to have to use multiple backs. The credit has to start with offensive line and the way they blocked and I think it has to start with the receivers and the way they got down the field and blocked.”

Paul Perkins had UCLA's fifth rushing touchdown, carrying five times for 55 yards.

With the Bruins holding a 17-13 lead at the half, the game plan was keep to pounding away. And the Bruins were consistent with 172 rushing yards in the first half and 173 in the second.

“I was happy with the way they came out in the second half,” said offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. “The running backs kept believing in the game plan, which was a shocker cause they think I throw too much anyway. It was a good effort by those kids. I was proud of them.”

Obviously, there is much to watch on the film. And the Bruins will have an extra week to clean things up before making the trip to Nebraska for a showdown with the Huskers -- a team UCLA topped last year at the Rose Bowl.

And while the staff had praise for all of the backs, Mora and Mazzone both noted that they liked how James was a more confident runner.

“I thought he was really into it,” Mazzone said. “He’s worked hard to become a one-cut runner. I want him to one-cut and then get north and south for me and he did that a few times. And I have to watch the film, but it looked to me like all of them did a nice job in pass protection.”

Instant analysis: UCLA 58, Nevada 20

September, 1, 2013
9/01/13
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PASADENA, Calif. -- The UCLA defense got tested, as expected, by Nevada dual-threat quarterback Cody Fajardo. But fortunately for the Bruins, they’ve got a pretty good dual-threat guy as well in Brett Hundley. The second-year starter paced the Bruins with his arm and his legs and the Bruins erupted in the second half en route to a 58-20 victory. Here’s how it went down at the Rose Bowl.

It was over when: The Bruins, who led wire-to-wire, started to pull away in the third quarter. Leading 24-13, Kenny Orjioke blocked a Nevada punt deep in Wolf Pack territory. Phillip Ruhl recovered it on the hop and ran it in four yards for the score, extending the Bruins' lead to 31-13.

Game ball goes to: Gotta be Hundley, who picked up where he left off last season. Giving 2013 a sense of symmetry, UCLA’s first touchdown of the year came on a zone-read from Hundley, who scampered 37 yards for the touchdown. Last year, UCLA’s first touchdown of the season came on a 72-yard zone-read from Hundley. As a passer, he missed on a couple of deep balls, but hung in the pocket more than he did last season and made good decisions.

Unsung hero: Strong performance from running back Jordon James, who carried 21 times for 155 yards and a touchdown. The running back spot had been hotly debated following the departure of Johnathan Franklin, who was a finalist last year for the Doak Walker Award and the school’s all-time leading rusher. James spearheaded a rushing attack that totaled 345 yards on the ground.

Worth noting (1): The Bruins, who were the most penalized team in FBS football last year, were flagged 12 times for 93 yards.

Worth noting (2): Fajardo put some pressure on the Bruins by rushing for 79 yards and a score in the first half. But UCLA buckled down in the second half, holding him to just 27 yards on the ground and one touchdown.

What we learned about UCLA: The potential is there to be extremely explosive. Hundley looked sharp -- save a couple of deep throws -- and the running game didn't look like it missed a beat. Granted, there are tougher opponents ahead, but Nevada is no pushover, and the Bruins successfully pushed over them. This was a strong start for the Bruins and should be a good confidence boost as they prep for their next game on Sept. 14 at Nebraska.

Most to prove in the Pac-12

August, 28, 2013
8/28/13
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Across the ESPN blogosphere on Wednesday, we’re looking at players/coaches/position groups with something to prove in each conference. In the Pac-12, the answers should be fairly obvious. Here are 10 from the league in no particular order.

1. Lane Kiffin: OK, maybe this one is in particular order. USC’s head coach is on the hottest seat in America after a disastrous 2012. There were embarrassments for the program on and off the field. That has led to plenty of speculation about what he needs to do to keep his job. Win 10 games? Nine? Win nine and beat UCLA or Notre Dame? Or both? This is a storyline that will no doubt carry deep into the season.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
James Snook/US PresswireLane Kiffin isn't the only Pac-12 coach feeling growing pressure for a successful season.
2. Steve Sarkisian: His seat isn’t as hot as Kiffin’s. But the heat index has certainly risen in the wake of another seven-win season. The Huskies have a lot of returning talent – including a quarterback with potential, a healthy offensive line, an outstanding running back and receivers (including TE), and a fairly veteran defensive core. The pieces are in place for Washington to, at the very least, get over the seven-win hump. Seven wins or fewer will be met with harsh criticism and questions about whether Sarkisian is the right guy for the job.

3. Oregon’s linebackers: This appears to be the only question mark for the Ducks, at least on paper, because they have a solid front and an outstanding secondary. Losing Michael Clay, Kiko Alonso and Dion Jordan is a big hit in terms of production, talent and leadership. Boseko Lokombo is a veteran presence, and Tony Washington, Derrick Malone and Rodney Hardrick have all been in the system for a few years. If they can match the production of their predecessors, the Ducks should be fine defensively.

4. Stanford’s wide receivers: Ty Montgomery headlines this list. At the end of 2011, he showed explosive playmaking ability and his future looked sparkling. But injuries slowed him in 2012. With the Cardinal doing some overhauling after losing their top two tight ends, the receiver spot will likely take on more emphasis in 2013. Players such as Devon Cajuste, Michael Rector and Kelsey Young will need to be productive as well.

5. Paul Richardson: The Colorado receiver missed all of last season with a knee injury and had to sit and watch his team fall apart around him. The Buffaloes went 1-11 and their coach was fired. A new coach, a new offense and a new enthusiasm in Boulder is motivating Richardson to make up for lost time. He is Colorado’s most explosive player and knows he has the potential, and responsibility, to carry the offense. Now he just has to go out and prove he can do it.

6. Oregon State’s receivers: We know what we’re getting with Brandin Cooks. He proved last season that he's an outstanding player. How much of that, however, was a product of the guy across the field, Markus Wheaton? With Wheaton gone, either Richard Mullaney or Obum Gwacham will have to step up as a complementary threat to Cooks -- along with Kevin Cummings in the slot.

7. QBs, old and new: Not all the quarterback competitions are completed. But whoever wins the job at Arizona and USC will likely be looking over his shoulder for the bulk of the season. Connor Wood is back in the starting role for Colorado, true freshman Jared Goff gets the start for Cal, and Sean Mannion finally won Oregon State's job after a grueling seven-month competition with Cody Vaz. Nothing is set in stone at Washington State, so Connor Halliday will need consistent play to hold the job (we’re assuming, for now, that it’s Halliday). Expect these players to be under the microscope all season.

8. UCLA’s running backs: There are big shoes to fill with the departure of running back Johnathan Franklin, the school’s all-time leading rusher and a Doak Walker finalist last year. Jim Mora has said that he’ll likely use five backs throughout the season. Jordon James is the front-runner of the committee and has the best opportunity to distance himself. But expect Paul Perkins, Malcolm Jones, Steven Manfro and Damien Thigpen (health pending) to all fight for time and carries.

9. Utah’s secondary: It’s not necessarily young. Just inexperienced. And in a pass-happy league, that could spell trouble. Free safety Eric Rowe has the most playing time among the group. Cornerback Davion Orphey is a juco transfer and opposite him is Keith McGill, a former safety and juco transfer who appeared in five games in 2011 but suffered a season-ending injury and then missed all of 2012. There is talent there. It’s just mostly untested.

10. Arizona State: Yep, the whole team. This is what you wanted, ASU fans … for the sleeping giant to be awoken. The alarm clock just went off. Now it’s time to prove all the hype is worth it. A challenging schedule early -- including Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame in consecutive weeks -- will be a good measuring stick. Though the USC game is really the one that has South title implications. Still, the other three will go a long way toward determining how ASU is viewed nationally. Going 1-3 and beating USC wouldn’t be disastrous. Going 0-4 will draw the requisite “same old ASU” criticisms.

 
SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. -- UCLA’s running back corps is coming to terms with the fact that it is just that: a corps, a contingent, a cadre, a posse.

There’s no Doak Walker finalist to carry the ball 282 times, average 6.1 yards per carry and plow into the end zone 13 times as Johnathan Franklin did in 2012. There’s no veteran presence in the backfield to carry the load and take the pressure off of quarterback Brett Hundley. Franklin’s time has come and gone, and he left a slew of school records and steadfast leadership in his wake.

[+] EnlargeJordan James
AP Photo/Kevin ReeceJordon James might lead the pack of UCLA running backs for now, but the key is that this is a tight knit group of backs all pushing each other to get better.
“It’s trust,” said Hundley. “It all comes down to me trusting the guy I’m going to be handing the ball to. If I check down, I trust he's going to be in the right spot. If he’s got my blindside, I trust that he’s going to do his job. Just as they all trust me to do my job.”

The trust with Franklin was instant -- it had to be for the first-year starting quarterback. Hundley often points to his relationship with Franklin -- the veteran back's consistency, steadiness and reliability -- as a key reason why he was so successful starting as a redshirt freshman. And the trust with Jordon James, or Paul Perkins, or Malcolm Jones, or Steven Manfro, or Damien Thigpen (still recovering from a torn ACL last November) is coming along.

“We’re going to use five running backs,” said UCLA coach Jim Mora. "And we feel like all five can contribute.”

You’d think that at least one of those backs will take the lead -- and right now it appears to be James sitting atop the pecking order. Whether that means five carries, 10 carries or 15 carries per game remains to be seen.

“We’re a group that prides itself on competition,” James said. “We’re pushing each other every day and it’s been a lot of fun.”

And yet, ultimately, they’re trying to steal carries from one another. Right?

“It’s not like that,” Perkins said. “We all want to get better and we want to help everyone else get better too because that’s what’s going to make us a better team. That’s the only way this will work is if we have that mindset. If J.J. gets 30 carries and I get five, I better make the most out of my five and he better make the most out of his 30.”

Last year the Bruins ranked 37th in the country and fourth in the Pac-12 with an average of 190.8 yards on the ground per game. They were third in the league with 29 rushing touchdowns. And once they reached the red zone, they were the only team in the league that was perfectly balanced with 20 touchdowns on the ground and 20 in the air. It’s that kind of consistency that the coaching staff hopes to get from this group.

“So far, I’ve been pleasantly pleased,” said offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. “They are all doing what we’ve asked of them. We’ll know more when we get them into games.”

Even that might not be completely telling. The Bruins' first three games are against three of the worst rushing defenses in the country from last season: Nevada (110th), Nebraska (90th) and New Mexico State (113th) -- though give Nebraska a little more credit since that game will be in Lincoln and will be a hostile environment.

It might be a case of each back trying to find their niche within the offense. Yet outside of Jones (6-feet, 224 pounds), all of the other backs have comparable size -- between 5-8 and 5-10 and between 185-195 pounds.

“We can all play any time, it doesn't matter,” James said. “We could all be a third-down back. We could all be a goal-line back. We could all be a primary back. We have our own different styles, but we’re that good and versatile of a group.”

And if it is James -- as many predict -- who will get the first carry of the 2013 season, he’ll have a cheering section among his fellow backs.

“We’ve embraced it,” Perkins said. “We want to see each other succeed and do well. The competition has made us better players and it has molded us into better friends. As a group, we’re better for it.”

UCLA Bruins season preview

August, 12, 2013
8/12/13
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We continue our day-by-day snapshots of each Pac-12 team heading into the 2013 season in reverse alphabetical order with the UCLA Bruins.

UCLA

Coach: Jim Mora: (9-5)

2012 record: 9-5 (6-3 Pac-12 South)

Key losses: RB Johnathan Franklin, OL Jeff Baca, TE Joseph Fauria, DE Datone Jones, LB Damien Holmes.

[+] EnlargeJim Mora
James Snook/US PresswireCoach Jim Mora's Bruins have a brutal two-game stretch in late October.
Key returnees: QB Brett Hundley, OL Xavier Su'a-Filo, LB Anthony Barr, WR Shaq Evans, LB Eric Kendricks, LB Jordan Zumwalt.

Newcomer to watch: Now that the NCAA has signed off on his Irish exodus, five-star defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes might be able to jump in immediately and help restore some depth to UCLA’s defensive front, which has suffered some attrition through injury and graduation.

Biggest games in 2013: There are plenty of them, as the Bruins' schedule figures to be tougher than last season. At Nebraska (Sept. 14) highlights the nonconference slate and the back-to-back games at Stanford (Oct. 19) and at Oregon (Oct. 26) is a vicious two-week stretch. They close with ASU (Nov. 23) and at USC (Nov. 30) in a span that will likely decide the South Division.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: There are more than most fans would prefer to see -- like a youthful secondary that’s without Tevin McDonald (dismissed from team) and Dietrich Riley (medical retirement) and gaps across the defensive front. But replacing Franklin -- or at least replicating most of his production through a committee -- has to be a top priority. The Doak Walker finalist departs as the school’s all-time leading rusher and was a comforting and stabilizing presence for Hundley in his first season as a starter. Jordon James, Paul Perkins, Craig Lee, Malcolm Jones and Steven Manfro make up the crowded committee – which will get even more crowded when Damien Thigpen returns from injury sometime in October.

Forecast: Picked by the media to take the Pac-12 South for the third straight year, the Bruins aren’t going to sneak up on anybody this season. Mora had a fantastic first season as a collegiate head coach and Hundley proved to be as advertised -- if not better. But he loses his favorite red zone target in Fauria, the aforementioned Franklin, and there are still holes on the offensive line that need to be sorted out.

The defense, as noted above, also has holes, but there are some exciting young players in the secondary eager to make a name for themselves. And, of course, Anthony Barr returns as one of the nation’s premier defensive players and a probable first-round draft pick -- possibly even top 10.

The schedule ramps up significantly in 2013. The Bruins go to Stanford for a rematch of the 2012 Pac-12 title game and also face Oregon for the first time in the Mora era. Almost all of their toughest games are on the road, including Nebraska, Stanford, Oregon and USC. With some of the previously mentioned offensive stars gone, Hundley will be asked to do more with the offense than he did last year -- which includes better decision-making and command of the offense.

Yet despite all of their success in 2012, the blowout loss to Baylor in the Holiday Bowl lingers. As does the fact that the Bruins were the most-penalized team in the country last year and they gave up an unhealthy amount of sacks. Mora is making sure his players know they haven’t arrived yet.

The Bruins are a fascinating balancing act of proven playmakers and untested youth. If their youth matures quickly, it wouldn’t be shocking to see them in the title game for the third straight year.

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