Pac-12: Nate Costa

Mr. Kane was a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn't get, or something he lost. Anyway, it wouldn't have explained anything ... I don't think any word can explain a man's life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a ... piece in a jigsaw puzzle ... a missing piece.

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.

Competition on: Bennett vs. Mariota

April, 2, 2012
Bennett-MariotaGetty Images/AP PhotoOregon quarterbacks Bryan Bennett and Marcus Mariota will battle for the starting job this spring.
EUGENE, Ore. -- While Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas' decision to enter the NFL draft a year early shocked many outside the football program, it didn't surprise many of those close to him, including his fellow Ducks quarterbacks. Thomas had brought up the possibility a number of times throughout the year, so backup Bryan Bennett and talented true freshman Marcus Mariota knew he was eyeballing a potential departure.

Though the news was greeted with more than a few gasps, many Ducks fans didn't spice their surprise with disappointment. Some had felt that Bennett -- despite Thomas' record-setting numbers -- was a better quarterback, or at least that he had more upside. They had seen what he'd done in limited action in 2011, coming off the bench in a big win over Arizona State and a start at Colorado.

Inside the program, not only was it not a big surprise, it also wasn't viewed as a perfunctory passing of the torch. There was a mystery man, an X factor, with whom fans and media weren't terribly familiar because Oregon has shut down access to practices: true freshman Marcus Mariota.

Mariota, a 6-foot-4, 200-pounder out of St. Louis High School in Honolulu, had shown enough in one impressive redshirt year to be viewed by his coaches and teammates as a legitimate threat to win the job.

"When DT left, I told Brian, 'You got to work for it. Marcus Mariota is a very good quarterback,'" said center Hroniss Grasu, Bennett's roommate and good friend. "It's going to be a great competition."

What you keep hearing when you ask players and coaches about Bennett and Mariota is that they are notably similar. Both are tall and fairly thin -- Bennett is 6-3, 205 pounds. Both are athletic and comfortable running an option attack. Both are capable passers. Both have low-key personalities.

"We feel real confident as a staff in our quarterback situation," said coach Chip Kelly, whose Ducks begin spring practices Tuesday. "They just haven't played significant amounts. I'm real confident in whoever ends up out of those guys pulling the trigger that we'll have a pretty good one."

There's good reason for that. Since Kelly arrived as the Ducks' offensive coordinator in 2007, Oregon has been good to outstanding at the position. He transformed Dennis Dixon from a guy who threw more interceptions than touchdowns in 2006 to a leading Heisman Trophy candidate before he got hurt. He made Jeremiah Masoli, an unknown summer junior college transfer, into a swashbuckling, dual-threat force. And under his tutelage, Thomas ended up throwing more TD passes than any previous Ducks QB.

Kelly insists he has no preconceptions: "Our program is founded on competition," he said. Of course, many coaches throw the "competition" coaching platitude around. What actually happens on the depth chart demonstrates that most still favor seniority, particularly at QB. Coaches believe in the value of experience and they are more comfortable with players with whom they've built up years of familiarity. To win a job, a younger player must decisively demonstrate superiority.

But Kelly has shown he's not like that, and we need look no further than the last quarterback competition in Eugene between senior Nate Costa and Thomas, then a sophomore.

Costa was the feel-good story after Masoli's ugly departure. He was the one-time spread-option prodigy who'd been done in by bad knees, but heading into 2010 spring practices he was again healthy and ready to lead the Ducks with his moxie and still substantial skills. Thomas was a skinny guy from Houston with an odd throwing motion who lacked Costa's polish.

Just about everyone thought Costa would win the job, perhaps even by the end of spring practices. But a funny thing happened: Thomas was announced as the starter in late August.

Bennett was a true freshman observer of that competition, at least the fall camp portion. And, just as Thomas didn't surprise him when he opted to leave for the NFL, he also didn't surprise Bennett when he won the job.

"At first, I saw Nate as the older, senior, who kind of took control more," Bennett said. "I think it could have gone either way, but I wasn't too surprised. I thought it kind of started to lean towards Darron at the end."

Fair to say Bennett knows he can't expect his limited experience -- 369 yards passing, six touchdowns, no interceptions -- to give him a substantial advantage, at least not as baubles that will impress Kelly and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich. But that experience could become a foundation or launching point that helps Bennett develop faster, which could provide a competitive advantage. The game should be slower to him than to Mariota. He knows how it feels when the lights are on for real, and how his teammates and coaches react. He knows how to prepare as a starter. And he saw how Thomas won the job over Costa.

"Since Darron left, I have taken it on myself to present myself as a leader of this team," Bennett said. "I would like to be the starting quarterback of this team. In my mind, I'm going to continue to tell myself that I need to get better and worry about the things I can control. It could come down neck-and-neck. It could be decided in spring ball. I really don't know. It's more a competition with myself, because I can control what I do. I can't control what [Mariota] does."

When fellow Ducks talk about Mariota, they talk about how quickly he's picked up the offense. Mariota, in a revealing moment of humility that supports that very point, said it took him "a week" -- a whole week! -- to feel comfortable running the offense in fall camp his freshman year.

"I feel we are going in evenly," Mariota said. "Bryan is a very good player. He's been in this system for a while now. I'm just going to take it day by day. We both are. And whoever wins, we'll be rooting for each other."

Mariota adds: "If Bryan wins the job, I will be behind him 100 percent. This is a team thing."

This "team" thing has changed at Oregon. Three years ago, the Ducks starting QB was only of local, perhaps regional interest. After three consecutive conference titles, it's now a position of national import. The last three Ducks QBs have been in Rose Bowl and national title hunts.

The expectations aren't any lower in 2012, even with Thomas' surprising/not-so-surprising decision.

"I know whoever the quarterback is, he will do a great job," Grasu said. "Hopefully even better than last season. I know last season was a great season, but I think with the team we've got coming back everywhere else, we can be very successful."

Pac-12 top 25 for 2011: No. 3

August, 25, 2011
Our countdown of the Pac-12's top 25 players continues.

You can see the final post-2010 top 25 here. It doesn't, however, include players from Colorado or Utah.

3. Darron Thomas, QB, Oregon

2010 numbers: Thomas completed 61.5 percent of his throws for 2,881 yards with 30 touchdown passes. He also rushed for 486 yards and five scores. He ranked second in the Pac-10 and 17th in the nation in passing efficiency.

2010 ranking: No. 4

Making the case for Thomas: Thomas, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound junior, wasn't supposed to be Oregon's starter last year, and we're not just talking about incumbent QB Jeremiah Masoli getting suspended and then kicked off the team. He was supposed to get beaten out for the starting job by savvy senior Nate Costa. But Thomas won the job, led the Ducks to an unbeaten regular season and second-consecutive Pac-10 championship and turned in a gutty performance in the national title game, overcoming two early interceptions to pass for 363 yards and two touchdowns in the loss to Auburn. But Thomas isn't ranked this high just because his team did well in 2010. No, he earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors -- behind Stanford's Andrew Luck -- because he accounted for 35 total touchdowns last season, while skillfully leading the Ducks spread-option offense. He showed uncanny poise as a sophomore, playing on an increasingly big stage each weekend. And it's notable the offense became more reliant on him as running back LaMichael James showed signs of wear-and-tear. So what's the encore? The Ducks might not run as well as they did in 2010 with a rebuilt offensive line, but there also are questions at receiver. More will fall on Thomas this year. If he comes through and improves on his performance from 2010, however, he could end up an All-American and see a happy ending in the final game of the season.

4. Chris Polk, RB, Washington
5. Vontaze Burfict, LB, Arizona State
6. Matt Barkley, QB, USC
7. Nick Foles, QB, Arizona
8. Juron Criner, WR, Arizona
9. Cliff Harris, CB, Oregon
10. Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford
11. Shayne Skov, LB, Stanford
12. T.J. McDonald, S, USC
13. Alameda Ta'amu, DT, Washington
14. Matt Kalil, OT, USC
15. Delano Howell, S, Stanford
16. Mychal Kendricks, LB, California
17. Rodney Stewart, RB, Colorado
18. Jermaine Kearse, WR, Washington
Chase Thomas, LB, Stanford
20. Jeff Tuel, QB, Washington State
21. Robert Woods, WR, USC
22. Johnathan Franklin, RB, UCLA
23. David Paulson, TE, Oregon
24. David DeCastro, OG, Stanford
25. Marquess Wilson, WR, Washington State

Issues facing the veteran QBs

August, 9, 2011
It's great having a veteran quarterback, particularly a veteran quarterback who is proven.

But a veteran quarterback can have his own concerns. Here's what the returning starters at the position in the Pac-12 will be fretting about -- though they'd never own up to fretting -- during preseason camp.

Nick Foles, Arizona: Foles has a talented and deep crew of receivers but he also has five new starting offensive linemen in front of him, which not only will be an issue in pass protection but also for creating a running game that will slow down a pass rush.

Tyler Hansen, Colorado: The good news for Hansen is the job is his and he no longer has to worry about the coach's son, as he did under Dan Hawkins with Cody Hawkins. The bad news also is it's all on him, though Hansen seems like the sort who would see that as good news. A more tangible worry for Hansen is a lack of depth at receiver. Paul Richardson can ball and Toney Clemons is solid. After that, things are thin.

Darron Thomas, Oregon: Talk about a debut. Most folks thought Nate Costa was going to win the starting job over Thomas last preseason, but Thomas not only prevailed, he thrived, earning second-team All-Pac-10 honors and, oh by the way, playing in the national championship game. But now Thomas is playing behind a less-experienced offensive line and without his top-two receivers from 2010, Jeff Maehl and D.J. Davis. Further, he's the man now, the first guy his teammates will look at in the huddle, though running back LaMichael James also figures to play a significant leadership role. Thomas seems up to increasing his responsibilities, but he can't do it alone. He will need some young receivers to step up, just as he did last year.

Ryan Katz, Oregon State: Katz might have the biggest arm in the conference and he certainly had some impressive moments, most notably a tour-de-force performance at Arizona. But he sure could use the return of a healthy James Rodgers, who was a big help against the Wildcats before he suffered a terrible knee injury. But receivers are not among Katz's chief worries. His offensive line welcomes back four starters, but it underperformed in 2010, both as run- and pass-blockers. And Katz no longer has certainty at tailback, with Jacquizz Rodgers off to the NFL.

Andrew Luck, Stanford: Luck is the best quarterback in the country, but that means many will expect him to be perfect, which he can't be. For one, his dominant 2010 offensive line is replacing three starters. We don't know if the Cardinal running game will match what it did the previous two seasons. That line also protected Luck as well as any line protected its quarterback in the nation. But more pressing for Luck is a questionable crew of receivers. If speedy Chris Owusu is healthy all season, things should work out. But without him, Luck doesn't have any options who can scare a defense. No one stepped up during the spring, which makes receiver perhaps the Cardinal's most worrisome position.

Matt Barkley, USC: Barkley looks poised for a breakthrough in his third year as a starter. While Luck is super special, watching Barkley throw the ball at practice is pretty darn special, too. He's certainly an NFL talent, and he's got plenty of young talent around him at the skill positions to help him put up big numbers this season. But his offensive line was awful during spring practices. Injuries were the chief explanation, but he needs his starting five to stay healthy because there is a decided lack of depth. Offensive line is probably, in fact, USC's biggest question mark.

Jordan Wynn, Utah: First, Wynn needs to worry about himself. He's coming back from shoulder surgery, so he needs to pace himself this preseason, both in terms of not overthrowing and in terms of not seeking out any unnecessary contact. After taking care of himself, Wynn will need to develop chemistry with a receiving corps that is replacing two of its three top guys. Beyond that, Wynn will be paying attention to running back, where the Utes' top two rushers from last season need to be replaced. Utah wants to be a downhill running team, and a hard-nosed running game certainly makes things easier for a quarterback when he steps back into the pocket.

Jeff Tuel, Washington State: Tuel and his receivers are going to be fine -- more than fine if they get some help from an offensive line that struggled horribly in 2010, failing to protect Tuel or to create running lanes for an anemic running game. Tuel did an admirable job handling 51 sacks last fall. But if he gets sacked that many times again in 2011, it's hard to imagine him starting all 12 games.

Arizona QB Matt Scott to redshirt?

February, 4, 2011
It took a while for Arizona coach Mike Stoops to warm to the idea, but it appears that he's seriously considering redshirting backup quarterback Matt Scott next year, according to the Tucson Citizen, which cited a radio interview with Jody Oehler.

The idea is Nick Foles starts in 2011, stays healthy and heads to the 2012 NFL draft, while leaving behind an experienced backup in Scott who can take over the job the next fall.

Foles will be one of the nation's top senior quarterbacks this coming season, so it's unlikely that Scott, also a senior but with a redshirt year available, would beat him out. But Scott proved in 2010 that he can play at a high level when he stepped in while Foles was injured. In fact, more than a few fans wanted to see more of Scott, who can make things happen as a runner, even when Foles was healthy.

Of course, you know what they say about your best laid plans? As the Citizen article notes:
Some of the guidelines might still have to be established. If Foles were injured, how long would he have to be out for Arizona to consider activating Scott? The Wildcats’ plan is to use senior Bryson Beirne as the backup in 2011. Can he handle the job for a half? For a game? Two?

How late in the season would be the point of no return for taking Scott out of his redshirt?

Put it like this: Say Foles gets hurt in Game 5 at USC. The severity of his injury is unknown. The Wildcats lead by three heading into the fourth quarter.

If the plan in place is to redshirt Scott, that means Beirne would be getting second-team reps in practice ahead of Scott. So you'd think Beirne would be the guy to try to shepherd home a critical road victory against a South Division foe.

Or would Stoops go with Scott, a more talented, experienced player, no matter the practice work? And then what if Foles is ready to go the next week?

In other words, it's an idea that makes sense but requires crossed fingers.

Know, however, that it has worked: Oregon played quarterback Darron Thomas as a true freshman in 2008 and then redshirted him in 2009, which looks like it will turn out great for the Ducks. Of course, the situations aren't the same. The Ducks had veteran Nate Costa backing up Jeremiah Masoli in 2009, and Costa even started and won at UCLA. The Wildcats don't have the same luxury at the position, though it does help that true freshman Daxx Garman is enrolled and will participate in spring practices.

It will be a situation worth watching this spring. Certainly it would help if Beirne -- or Garman? -- steps up and shows his coaches that he can be a reliable backup.

Best-worst case redo: Oregon

January, 28, 2011
Every preseason we take a look at potential best-case and worst-case scenarios for every Pac-10 team. While these are often tongue-in-cheek, they nonetheless represent the top and bottom we see for each team.

So it might be worthwhile to revisit each.

Next up is Oregon, which finished12-1 and lost the national title game to Auburn.

Best case: 12-1 with Rose Bowl win over Boise State and split national championship with Ohio State.

What was right: The general feel here is pretty accurate. The Ducks did finish 12-1 and played well on both sides of the ball. LaMichael James was a Heisman Trophy finalist, if not the winner. The Ducks won a sloppy game at Arizona State and struggled mightily at California. The Ducks finished ranked in the top 3.

What was wrong: The biggest problem is quarterbacks Nate Costa and Darron Thomas both seeing regular action, which in hindsight was a bit of overthinking by your Pac-10 blogger. Oregon struggled but won at California and had little trouble with Oregon State, which we overrated here. Instead of winning the Rose Bowl and splitting the national title, Oregon lost the national title game and finished No. 3 in both polls.

Worse case: 8-5 with a loss to Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl.

What was right: Very little. Obviously, we correctly picked eight of the Ducks' 12 wins, but that's about it.

What was wrong: Just about everything. The most glaring problem -- and that's true of both scenarios -- is the failure to foresee Thomas' consistency at QB. Also, Ducks fans surely will enjoy gloating at the mistaken measures of Washington quarterback Jake Locker's and Oregon State running back Jacquizz Rodgers' seasons, particularly in contrast to the success of James. Finally, coach Chip Kelly signed a contract extension and Phil Knight is as obsessed and invested as ever.

Conclusion: Oregon's season fell just short of a best-case scenario that even exceeded our version. While the Ducks ultimately didn't end up splitting the title, it's hard to see a 12-1 finish and final No. 3 ranking as anything but pretty great.
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Oregon is No. 1 in the nation in scoring and No. 1 in total offense. Auburn is No. 4 in scoring and No. 7 in total offense, so the Tigers aren't so far behind.

But when you talk about the Auburn offense, it starts and finishes with this: Cam Newton.

When you talk about the Oregon offense, it starts with running back LaMichael James and then it goes on and on and on.

What's toughest about the stopping the Ducks offense?

[+] EnlargeOregon's LaMichael James
Craig Mitchelldyer/US PRESSWIREYou can point to LaMichael James and his 1,851 yards from scrimmage and 22 total touchdowns as the reason for Oregon's success. But he's not the only thing that makes the Ducks' offense go.
"Probably our tempo," center Jordan Holmes said. "We just keep going and going and going. Even when things aren't going as planned, we just keep doing our thing and eventually the defense gives way."

Agreed Auburn linebacker Craig Stevens, "It's always hard to emulate an offense going that fast." Added Tigers linebacker Josh Bynes, "Their pace is unmatched by anybody in the nation. I haven't seen a pace like that against any opponent this year."

No, it's not the tempo. The tempo is challenging, but Auburn's offense plays with fast tempo, too. So then what is the hardest thing for a defense to deal with?

"The misdirection," Oregon linebacker Spencer Paysinger said. "[QB Darron Thomas] is really good at hiding the ball with his fakes and his play-actions."

But that's not really it, either. It's the pressure the Ducks put on a defense to maintain gap discipline while dealing with a fast-tempo offense that uses a lot of misdirection.

"That's where they get people," Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. "You can see people take their eyes off them, people missing gaps, and it's a touchdown, not a 4-yard gain anymore." Agreed Stevens, "It's their ability to exploit defenses. Anytime a guy mis-fits, it seems like a guy is always able to find that hole and hit it and it turns into a big run or big pass."

Oregon is a dominant running team -- 304 yards per game -- that isn't too shabby throwing the ball -- 29 touchdown passes, No. 16 in the nation in passing efficiency. And it has star players; see James, a Heisman Trophy finalist and the nation's leading rusher.

But when you talk about the Oregon offense in terms of its most potent weapon, it's really about how everything blends together. While even the Ducks can't agree on what makes the offense most difficult to stop, the buy-in is complete under coach Chip Kelly, the mastermind behind the scheme. The players' confidence suggests they see their offensive success as, well, inevitable.

"We are in a situation right now where our guys believe 100 percent in what they are doing," coordinator Mark Helfrich said.

That starts not with James, but with quarterback Darron Thomas. James calls the sophomore, first-year starter the "point guard of the offense."

[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
AP Photo/Rick BowmerOregon coach Chip Kelly is the mastermind behind the nation's No. 1 offense.
Thomas was expected to be No. 3 this year behind starter Jeremiah Masoli and senior backup Nate Costa. But when Masoli was kicked off the team, Thomas was a surprise winner in a close quarterback competition with Costa.

Even as the starter, early in the season he was expected to play the role of caretaker and distributor. He's become much more than that. His passing numbers were significantly better than Masoli's in 2009, and he earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors.

Oregon players thought Thomas was going to be good. Just not this good.

"He's done some things this year that have definitely surprised all of us," Holmes said.

Thomas' top target is Jeff Maehl, who doesn't look the part -- his haircut inspired more than a few "Jeff Spicoli" references from reporters meeting him for the first time. He caught 12 touchdown passes this year, a number of them fairly spectacular.

But he's one of nine Ducks who've caught TD passes.

Further, the rushing attack isn't only about James. Four other Ducks rushed for more than 200 yards. Thomas and backup running back Kenjon Barner combined for more than 1,000 yards and 11 TDs on their own. Seven different Ducks scored rushing TDs.

Then there's the offensive line. Oh, those poor, poor Ducks linemen. They just aren't big enough to get the job done.

"We are probably the smallest offensive line in the Pac-10," Holmes said. "We're outweighed by 10 to 40 pounds on a weekly basis. So [the national championship game] is no new thing."

That itty-bitty line -- average weight: 296 pounds -- led one of the nation's best rushing attacks while yielding only eight sacks, fifth fewest in the nation.

It's fair to say that Auburn's defense is going to win the "eye test" with Oregon's offense. The Tigers look better getting off the bus, as reporters like to say. But Roof thinks the Ducks look pretty good on film.

"On top of being really, really talented, they have a great scheme, they're well coached and they're very disciplined," he said.

That's the Ducks' best offensive weapon: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Lunch links: Just who is Chip Kelly?

December, 27, 2010
Don't be told what you want
Don't be told what you need
There's no future, no future,
No future for you.

Opening the mailbag: Where's the hype?

December, 17, 2010
College football is back this weekend! Whee!

Follow me on Twitter.

Or else.

Chris from Honolulu writes: Does LaMichael James stay or leave? Never heard him address it before.

Ted Miller: James has not committed one way or another. I suspect the redshirt sophomore is going to seriously consider his options.

As we noted this week, ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper rates James as the No. 3 "junior" running back. James likely would be a late first-round, early second-round pick in the 2011 draft because his speed and big-play ability is enticing. Some general managers likely would dock him for his size and not being a terribly good receiver (at least, not yet).

He can't change his size but he might be able to improve his stock by showing better as a receiver in 2011. He also might want to win a national championship (a repeat?) and the Heisman Trophy. Still, a running back only has so many carries in him. While Ducks fans would love to have him back, James is surely tempted to make the leap into the NFL.

Sam from Portland writes: I have an obscure stat question for you.The Huskies won three games on make or break plays, where the success or failure dictated the win for either team. At USC they kicked a game winning field with no time left. Oregon State failed to convert a would be game winning 2 point conversion in double overtime. At Cal, they ran for a touchdown, down by three with no time left. All three of these plays would have won it for the other team had they gone the other way.When was the last time a team won three games in a season on these sort of decisive plays? What is the record for games won on decisive final plays?

Ted Miller: None come to mind. That is remarkable. And the Huskies needed all three wins to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2002.

You might remember that the 2000 Huskies under Rick Neuheisel trailed in eight of their 11 wins and pulled off five consecutive fourth-quarter comebacks in a row. But I can't recall a team winning three games on the final play.

Any of you got a better memory than me?

Andrew from Klaipeda, Lithuania writes: I noticed as soon as Costa went down, Chip Kelly got more conservative with running Thomas on the zone reads. Particularly against Cal, there were a few drives where a quarterback keeper looked far more effective then the -1 yds that James got going up the middle. Against the Beavs they got back to some more option but mostly following through on the pitch rather than the keeper. I get that Thomas isn't as durable as a Newton or a Pryor and the backup is a red-shirt so protecting Thomas is a priority. However, do you think that Kelly will go less conservative in the National Championship game and open up the playbook a bit more for Thomas. I felt like the Ducks played best when Thomas had a few long runs and defenses had to wait longer to commit to plays.

Ted Miller: Man, I love that song "I left my heart in Klaidpeda, Lithuania!"

I noticed that about Darron Thomas, too. While coach Chip Kelly -- as he is wont to do -- pooh poohs all such suggestions, insisting the Thomas is merely reacting to what the defense gives him, I think there was some caution there.

Still, in the game immediately after Nate Costa went down against Washington -- at California -- Thomas had 16 carries, his season-high. It was only after that, in the final two games, that his rushing attempts went down dramatically. He only carried the ball seven total times and just once in the Civil War.

It's likely that Thomas, who will get more than a month to rest a beaten-up body before the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game, won't be held back in the final game. As you may know, something of value is on the line.

Hoya Duck from Vienna, Va., writes: Maybe I am missing something, but is the NC being underhyped this year? If you replace Oregon's uniforms with USC and Auburn's with Alabama I think pundits would call this the championship of the century. Consider the factors: both schools put together dominating regulars seasons, only undefeated BCS schools, led the country in offense, features possibly the most dominate Heisman winner ever and nation's leading rusher. You almost could not write a better script. Yet there is a certain ho-hum to the coverage. Is it because nothing has changes since October? Or that the schools are not as well known nationally as their conference brethren?

Ted Miller: It's a little early to judge a lack of hype.

Put it this way: On New Year's Day, the national title game will still be nine days away. This is the latest date on which the game has been played. Last year it was played on Jan. 7.

So be patient. A surfeit of hype awaits!

Geoff from Santiago, Chile writes: Last night I was at my favorite watering hole enjoying a post futbol cold one (we play the other football every Monday down here), when in walks a group of about 25 Auburn masters program students. I had never met an Auburn fan before, so I took the chance to get to know the fans of Oregon's next opponent; this is what I learned:1.They are 100% convinced that Cam didn't take any money and that he chose Auburn over Miss St. like a recruit would choose Oregon over Fresno St.2.Cam isn't the problem; Dyer, Fannin, McCalebb, Adams and Zachery are what get you in trouble. Oh and Cam's pretty good too.3.The Tigers like to run you side-to-side early, to tire you out and then run it straight down the gut.4.Auburn makes the best 2nd half adjustments of any team in the nation.5.Malzahn is one of the most creative O-Coordinators in the nation and they're very happy he stayed on .6.They love their Tigers. 7.Auburn girls are pretty. Very pretty. So as you can see on points 2 - 7, there are a lot of similarities between these two teams. I'm looking forward to a great game and hopefully I can visit Auburn in the near future (see #7). Saludos,Geoff PS. Feel free to add Flannery's Irish Pub to your Pac-10 traveling blog, great place to grab a bear for those South American away games!

Ted Miller: We are very international today.

I covered Auburn for two years. Your observations are accurate.

George from Los Angeles writes: Ted,Saw your post about Bama fans becoming big Duck fans: You may want to run with this link. Found it entertaining.

Ted Miller: I've seen that video about 50 times. And laughed every time.
Auburn Tigers (13-0) vs. Oregon Ducks (12-0)

Jan. 10, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Oregon take by Pac-10 blogger Ted Miller: Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas keeps things mostly close to the vest with reporters. But when a group of them expressed skepticism when running back LaMichael James said people doubted the Ducks, Thomas piped in with one word: "Masoli."

That's fair. When quarterback Jeremiah Masoli was kicked off the team during the offseason, many thought the Ducks’ chances of contending for the national title were no longer an issue. They were still a Pac-10 front-runner, but only by a little. At that point, in fact, most thought senior Nate Costa would win the starting job, not Thomas. But Thomas not only won the job, he gave the Ducks an upgrade at the position. And that has been the key this season.

Thomas and Oregon used the Ducks’ explosive, high-tempo, spread-option offense to wear down foes. They've outscored opponents by nearly 31 points a game this year. Only one team, California, came within single digits of the Ducks.

The Ducks made their first national statement with a blowout win at Tennessee, but their overwhelming 52-31 victory over Stanford proved to be a signature victory, one that grew in stature as the year went on because it would be the Cardinal's only defeat. The Ducks trailed 21-3, but then exploded and ran away with the game.

Oregon has owned the second half this season, outscoring foes 277-77, and it's yielded just 24 fourth-quarter points. The underrated defense is ranked 14th in the nation in scoring.

Auburn take by SEC blogger Chris Low: Outside of Florida and the junior college ranks, nobody really knew who Cam Newton was when Auburn opened preseason practice back in August. Even the Tigers’ coaches weren’t completely sure what they had.

Everybody knows now.

Newton, who started his career at Florida and then detoured through Blinn College, was the driving force in leading the Tigers (13-0) to their first-ever appearance in the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game. The front-runner to win the Heisman Trophy, Newton passed for 28 touchdowns and ran for 20 touchdowns, taking turns beating teams with his arm and his legs.

He’s coming off an MVP performance in the SEC championship game where he threw four touchdown passes and ran for two more in Auburn’s 56-17 dismantling of South Carolina. In his last five games, he’s thrown 15 touchdown passes and just one interception.

Auburn has been comfortable outscoring teams all season. The Tigers are sixth nationally in scoring offense, averaging 42.7 points per game.

Their defense has been vulnerable against the pass, as evidenced by the fact that they rank 105th nationally in pass defense. But those numbers are deceiving, because the Tigers have made a living out of coming up with key stops and forcing turnovers in the second half. In their last two games against South Carolina and Alabama, they've given up a total of two field goals in the second half.

Opening the mailbag: Bowls, Bellotti & Buffaloes

November, 11, 2010
A special welcome to this week's mailbag.

Follow me on Twitter.

To the notes.

Bobak from Minneapolis writes: Wow, the New Mexico Bowl! Is that all the Pac-12 is really worth? I thought the expanded conference was going to get us something respectable.

Ted Miller: Got a lot of this reaction. And I hear you. Everyone wants the Capital One Bowl to boot the Big Ten and match the SEC No. 2 vs. the Pac-10 No. 2 in a super-awesome-kick-butt game.

That's not going to happen for a couple of reasons. Contracts are already signed. And the Capital One Bowl is pretty juiced about its present situation.

But adding New Mexico Bowl is about a seventh bowl slot for a 12-team league. It's not so bad. It's regional, for one, which is important for a low-rung bowl spot. And ever been to Santa Fe? Pretty cool, right? It's about an hour away from Albuquerque.

As far as juicing up the Pac-12 bowl schedule with a Jan. 1 game going forward, that's going to take some creativity and salesmanship from commissioner Larry Scott. But at present, he's probably aiming those qualities at signing a mega-TV deal that helps the conference keep up financially with the SEC and Big Ten.

Once that's signed and everybody is rich, then Scott can ponder how to improve the Pac-12's bowl arrangements.

Joel from Toppenish, Wash., writes: Mike Bellotti would be an ideal fit [for Colorado]. He knows the dynamics of the conference. Recruiting really took off under his watch. The surrounding communities of both universities are quite similar; small to medium size college towns with 'green' minded citizens.

Ted Miller: Former Oregon coach Mike Bellotti would be a good choice for Colorado, though I'd have to rub my eyes to see him on the visitor's sideline at Autzen Stadium.

But Colorado is also different from Oregon -- read this interesting interview with former Buffaloes coach Gary Barnett for some details.

In short, Colorado doesn't embrace the "arms race" in college football at nearly the pace Oregon has. Said Barnett, "There’s a disconnect between what it takes to compete at that level and what’s being done." For one, there are facility issues. And money issues -- Colorado isn't going to pay head and assistant coaches as much as they'd make at other top BCS programs. There are rules that limit multi-year contracts for assistants, which makes it hard to lure and retain staff members.

Now, if Bellotti just wants to coach again in a highly livable place that would be grateful to get back on the winning track, Colorado seems like a pretty cool place to land.

Sean from Sacramento writes: Let's suppose Cal notches the win over Washington at home at the end of the season. If that's the case, how do you feel Cal's season went? Most of us look at it as somewhat disappointing, but at the same time, Cal was predicted to finish seventh, and now appear as if they'll finish sixth, maybe even fifth if they can pull an upset against Stanford or Oregon. Wouldn't this be the first time in a long time that Cal actually did better than was expected of them for the season?

Ted Miller: Sean, I like the positive angle. Don't get much of that from Cal fans these days.

And if Cal finished 7-6 with a bowl win, it would be hard to call the season a failure. Perhaps lackluster and unsatisfying but not a failure.

But I think Jon Wilner made a valid point on Oct. 19 that's still relevant on Nov. 12th: It's not just the losses. It's the size of the losses that are worrisome.

Wilner pointed out that in coach Jeff Tedford's first seven seasons, the Bears lost just three games by two or more touchdowns. That's three out of 30 defeats. In other words, the Bears were almost always competitive, even when they lost.

However, since 2009 -- 22 games -- Cal has been beaten by two or more TDs seven times. That means -- with Oregon and Stanford still ahead on the schedule -- the Bears have been blown out in nearly one-third of their games over the past two seasons.

That's not good. To me, therein lies the reasonable disappointment and frustration for Bears fans. And therein lies something Tedford probably needs to solve during the 2011 season, or "hotseat" talk that felt unwarranted over the past few seasons will become valid.

David from Portland writes: Do you think that Heisman voters might be hesitant to cast their votes for Cam Newton due to the allegations that are out there now? I don't think anyone associated with Heisman voting wants another situation where the guy they voted for is stripped of the award. I know they're just allegations at this point, but even as a Duck fan, I think Newton is the best player in the country right now and should win the award if voting were held today.

Ted Miller: The short answer is yes. You'd figure guys like Oregon's LaMichael James, Boise State's Kellen Moore and Stanford's Andrew Luck will earn some votes from Newton defectors.

This is a sensitive, difficult situation, though. There's a lot of smoke here -- on a variety of issues -- but you want to give a young man and the institutions involved the benefit of the doubt.

You know. Just like SEC fans treated USC during the Reggie Bush ordeal that led to draconian sanctions from the NCAA after a four-year investigation turned up almost nothing that hadn't been reported three years before.

Greg from Portland writes: Looking ahead to next year with the Pac 10 adding 2 new teams and currently Utah ranked a top 15 team I have a 2 part question. First with the addition of Utah and Colorado how do you see the Pac 10 matching up against what some commonly think as a much better conference in the SEC? Second, how do you see Utah doing next year playing a Pac 10 schedule of teams? From what I understand Utah is a very young team and will have most of they have this year back next year.

Ted Miller: The addition of Utah and Colorado means the Pac-12 gets a new member that's played in two BCS bowl games and has been a regular member of the top-25 and even the top-10 in recent years. And, in Colorado, the conference gets a program trying to regain its mojo.

The additions make the conference stronger, particularly if you are optimistic about Colorado rebuilding fairly quickly. Will the additions make national pundits view the Pac-10 as the equal of the SEC? Probably not, particularly with USC trending down while yoked with NCAA sanctions. And is Jim Harbaugh going to stick around at Stanford?

What the Pac-10 needs to gain more national esteem is four or so programs that are regularly in or around the top 10 or 15. It's not hard to imagine that in the future, particularly if USC bounces back and Oregon keeps it up under Chip Kelly.

But, to me, the big winner in expansion might be the Big Ten. If Nebraska continues to climb, and Michigan gets back on track, which seems inevitable, the 12-team Big Ten might challenge the SEC. A seventh stadium with more than 70,000 capacity is also impressive.

Note: I am talking about perception. I think the reality is the quality of play in the Pac-10, SEC, Big Ten and Big 12 already is comparable, and debating a pecking order is a moot issue that fans love and media members enjoy cultivating.

As for Utah in 2011, based on its current depth chart, it will welcome back six starters on offense -- including QB Jordan Wynn -- and seven on defense. My guess is the Utes will be a factor in the inaugural season of the Pac-12 South.

Scott from Phoenix writes: I wonder why no one has talked about LaMichael James coming out early. He is a red-shirt sophomore which I think is eligible based on the three years out of high school rule the NFL uses (unless it is three playing years or red-shirt years don't count).It is hard to fault running backs who come out early because the NFL window for RBs closes at around age 30. I also am not sure what more James would need to prove. Sure if Oregon does not go to the NC game and/or James misses out on the Heisman those are still there but for an RB that is a heck of thing to miss out on a year of NFL salary.

Ted Miller: I think it's perfectly valid for folks to wonder if James might enter the NFL draft this spring. If he's a certain first-round draft pick, which I'm not sure he is, he should seriously consider it.

Ducks fans, any of you have thoughts on that?

Joel from Eugene writes: Hey Ted,Just saw your video mailbag about Costa and I have a couple notes (This is intended to indicate that for the most part I enjoyed your point of view). First, While the focus of the video was on the backup QB, in Costa's situation I feel like is abilities as holder on special teams was valuable as well (see the Arizona game last year) and the loss there could be felt in a clutch situation later in the season. On a much more pedantic note, Oregon fans would have Dixon's injury burned into their Amygdalae (centers for emotional memory), which are at the edge of the cortex.

Ted Miller: Wait. I think I used to date Amy G. Dalae. She was very emotional and never forgot anything I did wrong, which means she had massive brain.

Good point about Costa being the holder. I think Ducks fans should relentlessly talk about that, thereby ensuring it won't be an issue that leads to a soul-crushing moment in a big game.

Video: The value of the backup QB

November, 9, 2010

Ted Miller answers questions about Oregon's Nate Costa and the value of the backup QB.

QB Costa's career over at Oregon

November, 9, 2010
We already know that most college football players don't get a storybook ending. But each time we're reminded of that, it stings anew.

Nate Costa, Oregon's senior backup quarterback, who lost a tight race this preseason with Darron Thomas to become the Ducks starter, has suffered a knee injury that will end his season and his career.

Costa will always have his win last year at UCLA -- a gutty performance that coach Chip Kelly goes to great lengths to praise -- and his strong work coming off the bench when Thomas got hurt at Washington State.

This is not how Costa wanted it to end. This is not how anyone wanted it to end for him. But so it goes. He was hurt on a freak play when he mishandled a snap on a field goal against Washington last Saturday.

Costa's value to the Ducks is mostly unseen. A team captain, he was a leader in word and example. Thomas is surely a better quarterback today due to the tight competition with Costa. And Costa gave the Ducks a security blanket that most teams don't have.

If the Ducks had needed Costa to replace Thomas -- for whatever reason -- my feeling is confidence in the locker room wouldn't have slipped. I'm not sure that the Ducks wouldn't be where they are right now if Costa had been the starter and not Thomas.

Costa's message to his teammates today when the news broke? Don't worry. Keep winning.

"He told them not to feel sorry for him that he'll be with us," Kelly said. "He's just a classy, classy, classy kid. A real unfortunate loss for us."

Kelly also said the offense wouldn't change now that Thomas' backup is freshman Bryan Bennett, who will only play if Thomas gets hurt because the Ducks would rather redshirt him than get him some mop-up duty experience.

We'll see. It's likely that some awareness of not tempting fate with Thomas will be there for Kelly and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich. There's too much at stake.

When a team has a special season, as it appears the Ducks are doing, there are always stars out front who win awards. But the foundation of special seasons is almost always built on the consistent dedication of lunch-pail guys who don't get the spotlight. And that includes guys who aren't often among the 11 on the field during games.

If Costa had been blessed with healthy knees, he may have become a star on the field. More than a few folks would rate it a near-certainty.

But he wasn't and he didn't. Yet if you listen to what his coaches and teammates say about him, you realize that Costa became a star in the locker room.

If you really think about it -- and we're not even being sentimental, Hallmark-cardy about this -- that actually is more important.

Oregon's new backup QB is a frosh

November, 8, 2010
It appears that Oregon's new backup quarterback behind Darron Thomas is true freshman Bryan Bennett, according to a Monday practice report from Rob Moseley.

Official news is expected this afternoon on senior Nate Costa's knee, which he injured in the Ducks victory over Washington.

Costa, you might recall, is a fifth-year senior who battled back from multiple knee operations and lost a close competition to Thomas for the starting job in preseason camp.

Bennett has been impressive since he arrived, but the Ducks would prefer to redshirt him. You'd think he'd only play if Thomas gets hurt -- i.e., not in fourth-quarter mop-up duty. Redshirt freshman Daryle Hawkins, who has been working as a running back and wide receiver, is now the No. 3 QB.

Top-ranked Oregon is at California on Saturday.