Pac-12: Neyland Stadium

Pac-10 rewind and look ahead

September, 13, 2010
9/13/10
2:21
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An undefeated weekend. Unless you're UCLA.

Team of the week: Oregon actually in some ways looks better because it came back from a 13-3 deficit at Tennessee with a 45-zip run. If the Ducks had rolled from the get-go, it would have been a case of "that's what we expected." But by bouncing back from adversity -- nothing went right in the first quarter on either side of the ball -- Oregon showed notable resilience and grace under pressure. And, let's face it, it was kind of fun that the early going spawned some SEC trash talk -- "We play defense in the SEC!" -- that was notably muted by game's end.

Best game: So Washington State nearly went down to Montana State? Think Virginia Tech, Kansas and Minnesota would prefer a "nearly" for themselves? The Cougars showed some heart by rallying from 15 points down in the fourth quarter to win 23-22.

[+] EnlargeLaMichael James
AP Photo/Wade PayneStopping LaMichael James in space is one of Stanford's biggest challenges.
Biggest play: LaMichael James' all-on-his-own 72-yard TD run was a thing of beauty. Just spectacular. And when he made the Tennessee defense look silly -- there was a palpable wince in Neyland Stadium -- you could sort of sense that the Ducks were about to deliver a beatdown. And they did.

Offensive standout: Washington receiver Jermaine Kearse bounced back from an inconsistent performance at BYU to dominate Syracuse's secondary. He hauled in nine receptions for 179 yards with three TDs. Kearse ranks third in the nation with 143.5 receiving yards per game.

Defensive standout (s): Two strong performances from Bay Area teams. California linebacker Mohamed led the Bears defensive effort against Colorado with 14 tackles and an interception for a TD, while Stanford safety Michael Thomas had five tackles -- one for a loss -- and forced two fumbles in the shutout win against UCLA. The second forced fumble he returned 21 yards for a TD.

Special teams standout: Kenjon Barner returned a punt 80 yards for a TD, giving the Ducks three punt returns for scores in two games after Cliff Harris had two against New Mexico in the opener.

Smiley face: The Stanford defense, which recorded its first road shutout since 1974, a 35-zip blanking of UCLA. Also, the Pac-10, a week after going 6-4 in nonconference games, went 7-0 against nonconference foes, including wins against the Big 12 (Colorado), the SEC (Tennessee), the Big East (Syracuse) and the ACC (Virginia).

Frowny face: UCLA. The Bruins rank 115th in the nation in scoring, 115th in passing and 111th in total offense. The defense? It ranks 116th vs. the run and 102nd in scoring. And Arizona State's rushing offense, which only produced 56 yards on 29 carries against Northern Arizona. That's 1.9 yards per rush vs. an FCS team.

Sloppy: Look at the bottom of this list. Arizona State and USC rank 118th and 119th in penalty yards per game (112 and 120, respectively). Both have committed 24 penalties in their first two games. Yeech.

Quote of the week: "That's the most miserable 2-0 locker room I've ever been in," USC coach Lane Kiffin said after his Trojans beat Virginia.

Quote of the week II: "Tonight was an offensive disaster," UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said after his Bruins were blanked.

Thought of the week: Here's are the top games (Oregon vs. Portland State is not included).

Iowa at Arizona
Arizona State at Wisconsin
Nebraska at Washington
Cal at Nevada (Friday)
Wake Forest at Stanford
Houston at UCLA
USC at Minnesota
Washington State at SMU
Louisville at Oregon State

The win-loss record on Saturday night will play a huge role in how the Pac-10 is perceived this season. And, Oregon fans, if you are starting to entertain national-title dreams, you should root hard for the conference to do well. And, yes, that includes the Huskies and Beavers. Saturday's results will resonate in both the national and computer polls -- and later the BCS standings.

What we learned in the Pac-10: Week 2

September, 12, 2010
9/12/10
10:00
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What did we learn this week?

1. Oregon is this close to looking like a national title contender: Steve Spurrier relished pounding Tennessee in the 1990s, but he never scored 48 points in Neyland Stadium like Oregon did on Saturday. In fact, the Ducks 48 points -- 45 of which went unanswered -- is the most allowed in Neyland since Washington State scored 52 in 1988 (Notice a common theme there?). But forget all the fancypants offense. While the final stats say Tennessee gained 333 yards, only 89 of that came in the second half. That's a great number against any team in any venue, but against an SEC team in its own house, well, that demands respect. And expect the Ducks to get even more respect in the national polls.

2. Stanford is more than the Andrew Luck show: Stanford dominated UCLA 35-0 with Andrew Luck making more plays with his feet than with his golden arm. That bodes well for the Cardinal. There were times in 2009 that it seemed folks saw the Cardinal as the Stanford Toby Gerharts. The big question heading into the season was defense, and Stanford just pitched a shutout on the road without two of its best players (LB Shayne Skov and WR Chris Owusu). Stanford has made an early stake as the top potential foil for Oregon in the conference race.

3. Rumors of California's irrelevancy may have been exaggerated: Colorado may not be very good, but watching California dismantle the Buffaloes 52-7 suggests that the Bears might be. The Bears dominated on both sides of the ball in the blowout. The new attacking defense dominated the line of scrimmage and was all over QB Tyler Hansen. The offense was balanced and efficient.

4. The jury remains out on USC, Arizona State and Washington, but probably not on Washington State and UCLA: USC nipped Virginia 17-14 and coach Lane Kiffin was unhappy. Arizona State allowed Northern Arizona, its second consecutive FCS opponent, to hang around. Washington looked bad at BYU but came home and outclassed Syracuse. It doesn't seem like we have a good measure of any of these three. As for Washington State, which needed a big comeback to nip Montana State, and UCLA, which got bricked at home vs. Stanford, it seems like we know where things stand: Both are going to finish in the bottom third of the conference.

5. There's momentum heading into Measuring Stick Saturday: The Pac-10 went undefeated Saturday (other than UCLA vs. Stanford), including a 4-0 mark vs. four different BCS conferences. That's good after a relatively bad opening week. But Saturday is big for the conference. Consider this list: Iowa at Arizona, Arizona State at Wisconsin, Nebraska at Washington, Cal at Nevada, Wake Forest at Stanford, Houston at UCLA, USC at Minnesota, Washington State at SMU and Louisville at Oregon State. Winning six or so next weekend would do wonders for the Pac-10's national image.

Opening the mailbag: Does Tennessee have inside information?

September, 9, 2010
9/09/10
7:20
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Welcome to the Thursday mailbag!

Decided to move it back a day because many of you have begun your, er, game preparations by the time we'd post it Friday afternoon.

Follow me on Twitter. Please.

To the notes!

Dave from Portland writes: I keep hearing about a zipper conference schedule. Just what is a zipper?

Ted Miller: It's the idea of splitting the Pac-12 up by rivalry pairs instead of geography (North-South).

So Arizona and Arizona State, Oregon and Oregon State, USC and UCLA, etc., are in opposite divisions but guaranteed a game each year, though perhaps not on the dates their fan bases are accustomed to. So a team would play five games each year in its division, one guaranteed game with its rival in the other division and then a rotating schedule of three games with the other five teams. There also could be further designated games if, say, Cal and UCLA wanted a guaranteed game or Oregon and Washington, though that could complicate things (or could be solved within the divisions).

The advantage is it ensures the Northwest schools are paired with one team from Southern and Northern California and, at worst, will make a visit to each region every other year. Northwest schools want trips to California for recruiting purposes. The zipper plan also maintains traditional rivalries.

The California schools are resisting the plan because they want to be guaranteed games with each other on an annual basis. There are other downsides. For one, not going regional means increased travel costs. Also, if rivalry games are preserved for the final week of the season, it's possible you'd have have a rematch a week later in the new Pac-10 championship game (imagine, say, Oregon-Oregon State on back-to-back weekends). Further, when you don't break up divisions by geography, it's difficult for casual fans to know which team is in which division. As in: Name all the ACC teams in the Coastal Division.

While the idea isn't new, the first time I can recall reading the term "zipper" was from Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News.

Dan from Olympia, Wash., writes: One of the things that I've noticed that the Big10, Big12, and SEC do well is schedule and market their rivalry games. Which brings me to these two questions: 1) Would the Pac10 be better served if they spread out the in-state rivalry games over three to four weeks instead of the two we have now? That way, people would get a chance to see all of the games and would give the conference to showcase each game without them overlapping? 2) Is the Pac10 missing a trick here and should promote other rivalry games inside the conference that do not have a name or title sponsors? For example, the Washington-Oregon game could be marketed in the same way the Red River Shootout is. The intensity between the fan bases are surely there.I can see nothing but good coming from this? Your thoughts?

Ted Miller: Some good points. When it comes to marketing and promotions, the new Pac-12 under Larry Scott strikes me as cutting edge, so I'm sure what you're saying here is also being said in the Pac-10 offices at present. Repackaging the rivalry games and relentlessly hyping them could become a prime directive for, say, a Pac-12 network.

There is a major reason why most rivalry games fall at the end of the season, other than just tradition: The potential for maximum impact. Consider the Civil War last year: The stakes were not only state pride, they were the Rose Bowl. Ergo: The biggest Civil War ever. You could say the same for the Ohio State-Michigan game: It's monumental when the stakes are the Rose Bowl or even the national title game, and you'll note the Big Ten opted to protect the game's date at the end of the season when it decided how to break into divisions.

Just imagine if Oregon and Oregon State had met in, say, week eight. Big game. Big rivalry. But little national interest, unless one or both are in the top-10 and contending for a national title.

As for finding ways to market other rivalries, I agree, particularly with Oregon-Washington. To me, that is the most underrated rivalry in the nation, though it lost some luster when the Huskies went into the toilet from 2004-2008. But all you have to do to get a sense for the bitterness is to read the comments section from the Pac-10 blog, where a story about Stanford's special teams can degenerate into barb trading between Ducks and Huskies.

The Columbia River Calamity? Feel free to provide your own ideas.

What you should take away from my answer here: Going forward, the Pac-12, once the patrician conference that resisted change and aggressive marketing, is now willing to at least entertain just about any idea within reason that promotes the conference and leads to increased revenue.

Torsten from Orlando writes: How concerned should us Duck fans be about Tennessee's new defensive coordinator, Justin Wilcox. As Duck fans know he was the former coordinator at Boise State, the only team to beat Oregon the past two years, and because of that probably has an edge about how to stop our system. Not to mention their new Grad Assistant was a Duck Grad Assistant first. Is this something that we should start sweating and worrying about or am I just sweating the small stuff?

Ted Miller: Oregon should beat Tennessee on Saturday because it's got better, more experienced players.

Now, if you are looking for reasons the Ducks might lose, Wilcox would be No. 2 on my list behind QB Darron Thomas struggling in his first road start in front of 105,000 at Neyland Stadium. In fact, those two pair together nicely as 1A and 1B.

Wilcox, a former Duck, is one of the bright, young coordinators in the nation, which is why Derek Dooley lured him away from Boise State. His game plans last fall against Oregon and then against TCU in the Fiesta Bowl were outstanding. And it should help him that his graduate assistant, former Duck Peter Sirmon, was a GA at Oregon last year.

These two will be familiar with Oregon's spread-option offense and the skills of individual players -- their strengths and weaknesses. Sirmon, for example, might have specific ideas on what might make Thomas uncomfortable.

So, yes, concern is legitimate.

That said: Sometimes there's information overload and overthinking. Oregon's Chip Kelly also knows what Wilcox did against the Ducks the past two seasons, and he probably knows what Sirmon might add to the equation in Knoxville. Count on Kelly having some counterpunches for the "inside" information that Wilcox and Sirmon might have.

Seth from Santa Barbara, Calif., writes: Here's a question for you: If you were suddenly transported to a mysterious and exotic world in which you were the only sports writer and no other media coverage or ranking systems existed (or had ever existed before). Based on your observations of week one on the field performance who would your top 10 be? Feel free to rank the PAC-10 the same way if you are so inclined.

Ted Miller: OK. So you want a ranking that leans overwhelmingly on what a team accomplished in week one instead of my subjective take on who's the best?

My national top 10: 1. Boise State; 2. Utah; 3. TCU; 4. Fresno State; 5. Jacksonville State; 6. Michigan; 7. South Carolina; 8. Arizona; 9. Kansas State; 10. Oregon.

As for the Pac-10, based entirely on what was accomplished in week one: 1. Arizona (won impressively on the road against a respectable team); 2. Oregon (looked unstoppable against a bad team); 3. USC (won on the road against a respectable team); 4. Oregon State (lost a competitive game on the road against an elite team); 5. Arizona State (created reasons for optimism on offense); 6. California (may have found a playmaker at receiver); 7. Stanford (beat an FCS team about like it should have); 8. Washington (lost to a good team on the road, but one it was expected to beat); 9. UCLA (lost to a middling team on the road, but one it was expected to beat); 10. Washington State (got beat up worse than expected by a middling team on the road).

Max from Sacramento writes: Your stock report reminds me of the NASPAQ.

Ted Miller: Thanks for the link. Worth taking a look.

Mr. Dude from Portland writes: Yup, there sure is a nickname for Barner and James. Last year people started calling them Blaze N' Taze. Blaze for James' ridiculous speed, and Taze for the hybrid tazer position (slot + running back) Kelly implemented last year. Both adjectives are sure to leave many defensive players laying on the ground in a charred, mangled and helpless mess. Also it was a play off the previous years speed power combo (Johnson and Blount) smash and dash.

Ted Miller: OK then.

Sure you don't like "Accelerating Anatidaes" better?

And when someone says, "Dude?" to you, do you go, "Hey, that's Mr. Dude!"

Cam from Albany, Ore., writes: You asked on your blog if there was a nickname for Oregon's backfield and I have it. Traditionally you see "Thunder and Lightning." With James and Barner you have Lightning and Lightning. I humbly submit the title of "Blitzkrieg" for your consideration.

Ted Miller: Cam, you and Mr. Dude need to talk this one out. I know better than to get between wide-eyed Ducks fans.

Steven from Guntersville, Ala., writes: Normally I am content with people being ignorant if it doesn't concern me, but this is rediculous. I am in no way affiliated with Bama, other than being a fan. Do you even watch football? What are your rankings based on? Ill go out on a limb and give you Boise, because they have played in the best game, so far. But to have Bama behind the suckeyes and the horny toads, is borderline insane. For heaven's sake, TCU beat WHO? Maybe Boise and BAMA will go undefeated, and you can see who plays real football in Glendale. You can sit with the boise fans, after the crowd that showed up Monday Night, im sure there will be plenty of empty seats. Lets start voting with our head and not how Lame kiffin taught you to!

Ted Miller: Apologies. I've found myself being rediculous all week.

My bad.

What to watch in the Pac-10: Week 2

September, 9, 2010
9/09/10
10:15
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Ten issues to consider heading into the second week of games.

1. UCLA's run defense needs to bounce back: UCLA surrendered 313 yards rushing at Kansas State, including 234 yards on 28 carries to Daniel Thomas. Thomas is a quality back, but that's pretty freaking porous. While Stanford visits the Rose Bowl on Saturday without Toby Gerhart, the Cardinal offensive line is more talented than the Kansas State crew. If the Bruins front seven doesn't buck up, Stanford will use a its new backfield-by-committee to run over them. While Andrew Luck is the star, Jim Harbaugh would be perfectly content to run it 40 times. And, of course, if the Bruins can't stop the run, their obsession with it will provide plenty of big downfield opportunities for Luck.

2. Jake Locker and the Washington offense need to play better at home: Washington scored just 17 points and got shut out in the second half at BYU. Twice in the second half, drives deep in Cougars territory ended after failed fourth-down conversion attempts. Locker's numbers weren't bad, but no player shoulders more responsibility for his team's success as he does. The fifth-year senior who spent much of the summer being touted as a Heisman Trophy candidate when pundits weren't talking about his NFL prospects. Syracuse won't be a push-over on defense -- 10 starters are back from 2009. But Washington plays better in Husky Stadium, and the guess here is Locker and his supporting cast on offense will be far sharper.

[+] EnlargeJake Locker
AP Photo/George FreyExpect Jake Locker and the Washington offense to be more sharp against Syracuse than it was against BYU.
3. Does Oregon QB Darron Thomas start fast or get rattled? Thomas' first career road start will be in Tennessee's Neyland Stadium, which means there will be 105,000 or so orange-clad fans riding his case. There's no way to know how a young man will react to that. He might come out smooth and poised and lead a dominant offensive effort by distributing the ball to all of his weapons. Or he might make an early mistake or two and get rattled and down on himself. Just as Autzen Stadium gives the Ducks a big advantage, so does Neyland do the same for the Volunteers.

4. Did USC's defense just have a bad day at Hawaii? It's possible that USC just had a bad night at Hawaii, that the poor tackling and flat effort weren't indicative of the capabilities of a seemingly talented crew. It's possible that Monte Kiffin and Ed Orgeron will correct mental and physical mistakes, make a few personnel decisions, and USC will show Virginia that it's back to its stingy ways. But there's also enough available evidence now -- see terrible performances vs. Oregon and Stanford in 2009 -- to support the notion that the Trojans' defense has lost its swagger and isn't actually as talented as its recruiting rankings suggest. Virginia shouldn't be able to keep up with USC on Saturday. But if the same defense from Hawaii shows up, the Cavaliers will do just that.

5. Cal's Kevin Riley completes 60 percent of his passes: Riley owns a career 54 percent completion rate. Accuracy has long been his bugaboo. Of course, he also hasn't benefited from great receivers during his tenure. Last weekend, he completed 70 percent -- 14 of 20 -- of his throws, though it's worth noting that UC Davis is an FCS team. What was most notable, however, were the impressive performances by his receivers, particularly true freshman Keenan Allen. There was a reasonable theory in the preseason that Riley would breakthrough as a senior, because that's when the light goes on for many QBs. It will be a lot easier with a dangerous group of playmakers at receiver, guys who can go and get the ball -- even when it's not perfectly thrown -- and boost a completion percentage. Colorado is strong at cornerback, so it will offer a good test as to whether Riley and his receivers are truly in sync and ready for Pac-10 play.

6. Washington State buries Montana State from the get-go: It's fairly simple. Washington State needs to go out and whip Montana State. It needs to start quickly, establish dominance and allow its fans to feel good about the program. The Bobcats are a quality FCS team, but the Cougars should have restocked their talent enough in year three with coach Paul Wulff to take them to the woodshed. Jumping to a big lead will boost the confidence in the locker room. Struggling and playing a tight game into the fourth quarter won't. Losing? Let's not even go there.

7. Arizona's rebuilt defense posts another dominant performance: The Wildcats defense was surprisingly stout at Toledo, a team that piled up big numbers on offense in 2009. Things should be even easier on Saturday against The Citadel in front of the home crowd. Still, another game of experience is another game of experience, no matter the quality of the opponent, and smoothing out any wrinkles will be valuable leading into the Sept. 18 visit from Iowa. Arizona needs to jump on The Citadel hard and then get its starters to the bench early in the third quarter.

8. Arizona State QB Steven Threet is cool, efficient vs. Northern Arizona: Threet played well in the opener vs. Portland State, and the Sun Devils offense as a whole looks substantially more skilled than the anemic unit from 2009. Threet and his mates need to duplicate that performance in another "preseason" game vs. an FCS program. The idea is to be as confident as possible before heading to Wisconsin on Sept. 18. It also would be nice to get all the starters on the bench as soon as possible so they will be rested and healthy.

9. Andrew Luck vs. Rahim Moore: If UCLA's run defense proves stout, that means Stanford will have to throw. And that means a showdown between these two All-American talents. Luck has uncanny downfield accuracy. That's one of the big reasons NFL scouts love him. Moore led the nation with 10 interceptions a year ago, so his ball skills qualify as uncanny, too. Will Luck be able to beat Moore and the Bruins over the top? Or will Moore bait Luck into an ill-advised throw that could be a game-changer?

10. Will Tennessee be able to run against Oregon? If the Vols can't run vs. Oregon, the Ducks are going to deliver a butt-kicking. No way Matt Sims, a junior JC transfer, will be able to pass them to victory. But Tennessee rolled up 332 yards rushing in its opener -- albeit vs. Tennessee-Martin -- and its got a strong stable of running backs, topped by Tauren Poole, and a big, talented, if inexperienced, offensive line. The Ducks defense is as fast as they come, but it also is undersized. If the Vols power-running game is consistently effective, then Oregon will be in for a highly competitive test.

Pac-10 predictions: Week 2

September, 9, 2010
9/09/10
9:00
AM ET
Went an extremely unsatisfying 7-3 last week. The seven games I picked correctly were basically sure-things, and my read on how the Washington State-Oklahoma State game would go was completely wrong, even if the pick was correct.

As a great man once said: "D'oh."

Must have forgotten to take my vitamins. Or maybe my screwy gloating about my 2009 record infused my karma with stupid.

Well, here goes nothing.

Arizona 45, The Citadel 10: The key for the Wildcats: Assert yourself, get the starters to the bench. Start thinking about Iowa.

Arizona State 38, Northern Arizona 9: The key for the Sun Devils: Assert yourself, get the starters to the bench. Start thinking about Wisconsin.

California 30, Colorado 21: Colorado looks like a much improved team from 2009, but the Bears should be able to prevail at home. Wonder how Act II of Cal wide receiver Keenan Allen's freshman year will go?

Oregon 35, Tennessee 20: The Volunteers won't make things easy. The crowd at Neyland Stadium will be juiced. But the Ducks myriad offensive weapons will break through with difference-making big plays. Interested to see how quarterback Darron Thomas looks in the early going.

Stanford 33, UCLA 24: Andrew Luck will make a couple of plays downfield, and then the Cardinal offensive line will take over. The big questions are Bruins quarterback Kevin Prince and Stanford's new 3-4 defense. Which looks good?

USC 45, Virginia 17: Here's a guess that Matt Barkley and the offense again rolls, but the defense also will join the fun in front of a home Coliseum crowd hungry to talk about football and, if for just three hours, forget about a horrible offseason.

Washington 31, Syracuse 22: Jake Locker and the Huskies offense will be much better at home after a poor-to-middling outing at BYU. The Orange won't be a pushover, though.

Washington State 35, Montana State 21: An absolute must-win for coach Paul Wulff and the Cougars. If they lose to an FCS foe and start 0-2, it's not hard to imagine a winless season. On the other hand, if they play well, a bit of confidence might seep into the locker room.

Oregon shouldn't take Tennessee lightly

September, 8, 2010
9/08/10
11:00
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Oregon is nearly a two-touchdown favorite for its visit to Tennessee on Saturday. That seems a bit odd, doesn't it, if you watched much of the Volunteers when they won 152 games and a national title from 1993-2008 under former coach Phillip Fulmer?

But Tennessee has experienced as much upheaval as any program in the country over the past two years. First, Fulmer was pushed out the door and replaced with Lane Kiffin. Some of you may have read this: Kiffin then bolted after a single season for USC, inspiring near-riots in Knoxville. Next, after being rebuffed by a number of higher-profile candidates, Tennessee hired Derek Dooley away from Louisiana Tech. He's the son of SEC coaching legend Vince Dooley, who won a national title at Georgia, and he's in charge of returning the Vols to past glory.

But that ain't happening this year. The roster Dooley inherited doesn't much look like the NFL factory once quarterbacked by the likes of Peyton Manning.

"Everything is new," said Oregon coach Chip Kelly, speaking specifically about the Tennessee coaching staff, which has brought in new offensive, defensive and special teams schemes, the nuances of which certainly weren't revealed in a 50-0 beatdown of Tennessee-Martin.

Still, making a cross-country trip to play in the Southeastern humidity in front of more than 100,000 fans isn't an easy task even when the Vols are down. Just ask California. In 2006, a talented Bears team wilted in Tennessee in a 35-18 route that wasn't nearly as close as the final score suggested. More than a few Bears later admitted they got wide-eyed taking in the Neyland Stadium frenzy.

Neyland is no joke. It's going to be loud and rowdy and orange. Lots of orange. And Oregon's sophomore quarterback Darron Thomas will be making it the venue for his first road start.

No matter how cavalier Oregon fans want to be on that -- well, UCLA's Kevin Prince did just fine last year! -- it's an issue until Thomas makes his mark.

"It's still an unknown -- he hasn't played in this environment," Kelly said. "There aren't many stadiums in college football that have 100,000 [fans]. We've got a lot of young guys it's going to be new for."

One of the most interesting statistics coming out of the Ducks blitzkrieg versus New Mexico was zero rushing yards from Thomas. Oregon quarterbacks ALWAYS have rushing yards. By design? No, said Kelly. But it was hard not to wonder if Kelly -- a certifiably tricky guy -- has something up his sleeve.

If Oregon handles the atmosphere in a businesslike way, the Ducks roll. They're just too fast, too experienced and too talented on both sides of the ball for the Volunteers. But the Vols also have enough talent that if the Ducks make mistakes or get distracted by 105,000 screaming Volunteers fans, then things could get interesting.

Oregon didn't punt vs. New Mexico. Kelly said Tuesday that's he's sure that won't be the case in Knoxville. This one, whatever the word coming out of Vegas is, won't be easy.

"We're going to be tested," he said.

¡Olé! Say Pac-10 defenses

September, 6, 2010
9/06/10
5:44
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Just imagine if we could answer definitively: Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Well, we've got great news. We will get to answer college football's version on Saturday: Are SEC defenses really good or is it just that SEC offenses stink?

Oregon's visit to Tennessee on Saturday will provide a final answer. If the Ducks roll up 400-plus yards and 35-plus points, we will know that Pac-10 fans were always right: SEC defenses only look good because they don't face Pac-10 offenses. And if the Volunteers hold the Ducks to 22 points and 337 yards, as they did versus SEC offenses last season, we'll know that SEC defenses really are that good.

The debate will be over. Done. Forever.

We throw up this rhetorical smokescreen with the hopes that our friends from the SEC won't read past "Forever" before their heads explode. Because this column is about Pac-10 defenses, and we want to keep it in the family.

For goodness sake, folks, what the heck happened last week? Can someone get off a block? Or make a tackle?

Oregon and Arizona State fans can probably go back to their Labor Day barbecues. Arizona and California: You looked good on defense in Week 1, so you might be OK. Washington? Your defense wasn't the problem at BYU. Stanford? Jury's out.

But looking at the statistical rankings after Week 1 and seeing USC at 106th in the nation in total defense after giving up 588 yards -- 588 yards! -- against a WAC team is jarring.

And it's not just that ugly number: Did you see the game? It wasn't about a couple of long plays. It was about bad tackling. It was about getting blocked. It was about looking tired, uninterested and perhaps even loafing.

But, obviously, it wasn't just the Trojans.

Just about every defense starts with this concept: First, we stop the run. It's the fundamental football play. A guy with the ball runs one way and the other guys try to stop him. Run defense, more than anything else, is a test of manhood. It's hand-to-hand combat in the trenches. We can talk about speed and finesse and misdirection in many running games, but it's still mostly about blocking and tackling.

So the fact that three Pac-10 teams find themselves among lightweight squads such as Western Kentucky, Arkansas State and New Mexico at the bottom of the statistical rankings for run defense is, well, sort of embarrassing, don't you think?

Oregon State gave up 278 yards on the ground to TCU and ranks 96th. Washington State yielded 291 yards and ranks 103rd. And UCLA is 106th after surrendering an eye-popping 313 yards on the ground to Kansas State.

Sure, TCU is one of the best teams in the nation. And, sure, Oklahoma State running back Kendall Hunter and Kansas State's Daniel Thomas, are A-list runners.

Still: There's a guy getting his 100 yards and then there's a guy leaving a footprint our your collective forehead.

USC and these other three teams won't accomplish much this season if they don't step up on defense, particularly their beleaguered front-sevens that weren't widely viewed as weaknesses during the preseason.

The Pac-10 is loaded at quarterback and running back. There's a lot of experience on many offensive lines. And there appears to be plenty of star-quality and depth at receiver.

But the reason Oregon is now a stronger conference favorite than it was just a couple of weeks ago is defense. The Ducks look like they have the fastest, deepest unit in the conference. And it seems based on these albeit very early returns that some of the Ducks top competition -- USC and Oregon State, in particular -- won't be able to stop them.

Of course, saying that, the Ducks defense needs to prove itself by shutting down a Tennessee offense that rushed for 332 yards against Tennessee-Martin. The Ducks don't want to join the ¡Ole! defensive trend.

If they don't shut down the Vols, and it becomes a high-scoring, bar-burner in Neyland Stadium, then no one will know what to think. And that's no good.

Pac-10 lunch links: Stanford is banged up

September, 6, 2010
9/06/10
2:30
PM ET
Don't hang on, nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky
It slips away, all your money won't another minute buy
Dust in the wind, All we are is dust in the wind.
  • If you're going to nitpick, Arizona's running game wasn't great at Toledo.
  • A look back at Arizona State's easy win against Portland State. The only downer is some more health issues at defensive tackle.
  • What grade does California's win against UC Davis get?
  • Tennessee's best chance vs. Oregon is the Ducks doing a Cal, 2006, at Neyland Stadium. Folks, do not underestimate the road atmosphere challenges here. And the dominance vs. New Mexico doesn't mean much.
  • Oregon State just couldn't get TCU's offense off the field.
  • Some observations from Stanford's opening win. Does Stanford have injury issues? Tight end Levine Toilolo, running back Jeremy Stewart, receiver Chris Owusu and linebacker Shayne Skov are banged up, but it's hard to say for sure because Jim Harbaugh has gone all super-secret with injury info.
  • UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel remains hopeful despite the bad performance at Kansas State.
  • USC isn't ready to make major changes on defense. Yet.
  • Washington doesn't want the poor performance at BYU to define its season.
  • Washington State needs to get better in many ways. And quick.

Pac-10 fearless predictions

August, 30, 2010
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Here are 10 "fearless" predictions in advance of the 2010 season.

1. No team will go undefeated in conference play: You may have heard this: The Pac-10 is deep with good teams but appears to lack a dominant team. It would be a fairly substantial surprise if the Pac-10 champion goes 9-0 in conference play. It's more likely the champ will win a tiebreaker with a couple of other two-loss teams.

[+] EnlargeLocker
Jesse Beals/Icon SMIJake Locker could be one of several Pac-10 players with a shot at the Heisman Trophy.
2. A Pac-10 player will go to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony: No conference boasts as many obvious Heisman Trophy candidates: Oregon State RB Jacquizz Rodgers, Washington QB Jake Locker, Stanford QB Andrew Luck, Oregon RB LaMichael James, etc. One of them will emerge from the "pac" and get invited to New York for the ceremony. Who? What are we: Nostradamus?

3. The Pac-10 will go 23-8 in nonconference games: UCLA is not going to beat Texas. Arizona State's chances at Wisconsin aren't good. Arizona and Washington will be underdogs at home vs. Iowa and Nebraska, respectively. Oregon should handle Tennessee. Oregon State is going to beat either TCU or Boise State. I feel pretty good about California's chances against UC Davis. USC won't lose a nonconference game because no team outside of the Pac-10 can beat USC (it hasn't happened in the regular season since 2002). I'm not going to write a phrase about 31 games, but you can feel free to do so below.

4. Chip Kelly will provide a brief answer to many, many questions: Chip, are you worried about your QB making his second career start in front of 105,000 at Neyland Stadium? "No." Coach, tell us about your recruiting philosophy? "Speed." What are your feelings on LaMichael James' 229 yards rushing? "Good." Coach, I bet my sister I could get you to say two words. "Lose." Coach, you just won Pac-10 coach of the year for the second time in two years as Oregon's coach? "Thanks."

5. Arizona DEs Ricky Elmore and Brooks Reed will combine for 18 sacks: The qualifier is both staying healthy all season, but this is the best pair of defensive ends in the Pac-10. When you scan the offensive lines in the conference, there aren't a whole lot of teams that will match them with equally capable tackles.

6. Lane Kiffin will order a turkey sandwich; controversy will ensue: Who does he think he is ordering a turkey sandwich in this economy? Turkey? He's not qualified to eat turkey! The Pilgrims ate turkey for golly-gosh sakes, and Kiffin is no Pilgrim. Isn't ordering a turkey sandwich a secondary NCAA rules violation? He hasn't earned that turkey sandwich! He didn't order a turkey sandwich: He called the counter guy a turkey and starting ordering him around. What actually happened: He got a recruiting hostess to order the turkey sandwich for him, which sounds corrupt even if it isn't. Oh, sure, Lane: That's your dream turkey sandwich, right! We have just as good turkey back here in Knoxville, I'll have you know. Did you hear: He falsely accused the turkey of being ham!

7. Arizona State's offense will be better -- and its defense worse -- than most folks think: The Sun Devils have better talent at the skill positions than many think and the offensive line -- if it can stay healthy and jell -- will be at least adequate, as will QB Steven Threet. This unit could average 25-26 or so points a game. Meanwhile, the defensive line depth has taken a couple of hits of late and, despite talent at all three levels, the fact remains that seven starters from last year's strong crew are gone.

8. Five teams will end up ranked in the final AP poll: Or at least they will deserve to be. The question will be will a 9-4 team in the Pac-10 get the respect it will deserve? As for who those teams will be, here's one: Oregon. Got to move on to No. 9 now.

9. No coach will be fired at season's end: Many pundits have dumped Arizona State's Dennis Erickson and Washington State's Paul Wulff onto the hot seat. I think both return for the 2011 season for a couple of reasons. 1. Their teams will improve enough that boosters and administrators will sense an upward trajectory; 2. In this economy, buying out a contract, even if it's not huge, is not advisable, unless your athletic department is awash in cash. Neither ASU nor WSU are.

10. The Pac-10 blog will be wrong about something: No, really. At some point this season, I will type a prediction and it will wrong. Of course, I'm being serious. Look it's happened before. Four times.

Columnist: For Ducks QB, tie goes to Costa

August, 26, 2010
8/26/10
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Oregon is holding a double-super-secret scrimmage Thursday afternoon that should go a long way toward revealing who will be the Ducks' starting quarterback, either senior Nate Costa or sophomore Darron Thomas.

Nate Costa
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesNate Costa starting the season opener seems the wisest course for Oregon.
It should go a long way toward a definitive answer mostly because it will get us closer to Saturday, when coach Chip Kelly will bang his gavel and announce a verdict.

It's rare that reporters covering open practices don't reach a consensus on who's going to be the guy. This is one of those rare instances.

Yet here's a reasonable vote that Costa will take the first snaps against New Mexico on Sept. 4. George Schroeder, who's been covering college football for a few years, mostly sums up my own position on this, writing:

If coaches are thinking along the same lines — with Kelly, we should never be sure — a tie goes to the veteran leader.

To beat out Costa, Thomas has to be clearly better. And to this point, though you can make a very nice argument based on the sophomore’s performance during the preseason, any edge isn’t significant.


The Ducks are going to pound New Mexico, whoever plays quarterback, and even without suspended running back LaMichael James.

The next week, however, they visit Tennessee. This isn't your father's Volunteers. The Ducks should be able to take care of business. But the Vols will have enough talent that a three or four-turnover afternoon from the Ducks could be a problem.

And Neyland Stadium is an intense place. It's going to be humid, hostile and loud -- 105,000 fans can do that.

Thomas has never started a game, much less a game on the road. It's entirely possible that the player he's been in practices since the spring won't be the player who would walk behind center in Knoxville.

Why do I type that? Because you see youngsters struggle in those situations so often. How many young quarterbacks have face-planted in Autzen Stadium, for example?

Costa started last season at UCLA. Not the same intensity, but at least he knows how things go.

Some have used that lackluster start against Costa, though it was a 24-10 victory. They shouldn't, in large part because Kelly doesn't. He's told me so.

"We were a little conservative when we played UCLA," Kelly said. "That was because we didn't have anyone else."

Kelly noted that if Costa got hurt, Oregon would have had to burn Thomas' redshirt season or used true freshman Daryle Hawkins. And Kelly is quick to point out that Costa rushed for 1,709 yards his senior year of high school and was set to be the Ducks starter in 2008 before he injured his knee.

"People might never have heard of Jeremiah [Masoli] if Nate was there," he said.

First of all: Who is Jeremiah Masoli?

Second: Costa starting game one, which seems the wisest course, doesn't mean we won't see Thomas this season. Sure, Kelly has repeatedly said he doesn't want to play two quarterbacks, but that's only because he wants the guy he chooses to play well in 12 games and then the Rose Bowl.

If Costa is ragged in the first two games, there's no reason to believe Kelly wouldn't want to see what Thomas could do against Portland State and then make a call with the Pac-10 schedule ahead. Moreover, quarterbacks get hurt. Seven Pac-10 teams started multiple players at quarterback last season and, you know, Costa has suffered through three knee surgeries.

The gist is this: It makes sense that Costa would get the nod on Saturday.

But it's also not unreasonable to believe there will be other plot twists at the position for the Ducks this season.

Mailbag: Is Tedford's job secure?

August, 6, 2010
8/06/10
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You can feel the season getting closer, can't you. Wheee!

You can follow me on Twitter. Doing so will dramatically increase the odds of your team going to the Rose Bowl.

To the notes.

Danny from Los Angeles writes: How warm is Jeff Tedford's seat in Berkeley? If this Cal team comes in 7th place, as many seem to predict, is his job still secure? As a Cal alumnus, I am forever grateful for Tedford's tenure, but like many other fans, I can't help but think, "Has Tedford peaked with this program?"

Ted Miller: Déjà vu.

Here's a note from a July 2008 mailbag.
Eric from Turlock writes: Gotta question for you. I am a young Cal fan, but even I can remember the 1-10 days of football mediocrity. Obviously I am very happy with Cal's rebirth under Jeff Tedford. However, I have heard many Cal fans saying that perhaps Tedford isn't the man to take Cal to the next level (i.e. Rose Bowl, BCS). While I disagree, I see that there are some valid points to be made. Do you think that Tedford will be able to take Cal to the "promised land"?

I wrote this:
Eric, go buy a case of yellow post-its. Every time you hear a Cal fan say, "You know, I'm not sure Tedford is the man to take us to the next level," take out a post-it and write this on it: "In Tedford I trust."

You can read the rest here.

As you Cal fans know, the Bears bounced back from a 7-6 2007 to go 9-4 2008. Perhaps the grumbling over last fall's underachievement will fuel another surge.

But if Cal, indeed, does finish seventh in the conference this year -- and that includes, say, six losses -- it probably would then be fair to say Tedford enters the 2011 season with some pressure to do better.

I wouldn't say "hot seat" yet, but at that point, I'd say that Bears fans had a right to be frustrated and to expect more. Tedford is paid a lot of money to win -- his $2.8 million salary ranks second in the Pac-10 behind USC's Lane Kiffin, who reportedly makes about $4 million annually (mailbag item for next week: Kiffin makes $4 million!)

That said: Let me again point something out.

Tedford hasn't posted a losing season. His worst season featured seven wins.

From 1978-2001 -- 24 seasons before Tedford -- Cal won seven or more games four times. That included 10 games once and nine games once. Tedford has won 10 games twice and nine games once in eight years.

And during those 24 pre-Tedford years, Cal won three or fewer games nine times.

Cal fans certainly should be eager for the Bears to "take the next step" under Tedford. But if I were a Cal fan, I'd be suspicious of those nagging "grass-could-be-greener" feelings.

And I think Cal's recruiting will get a positive bump after the renovation of Memorial Stadium, which might not have happened without Tedford's success.


Michael from Phoenix writes: I know that USC cannot go to the Rose Bowl this year or any bowl game for that matter but if the Trojans have the best conference record at the end of the season will they still be named the conference champions?

Ted Miller: No official record will acknowledge USC as the Pac-10 champion, even if the Trojans finish atop the standings. That's part of the sanctions.

But my guess is Trojans fans -- and players and coaches -- would be able to get plenty of mileage out of being the "uncrowned, true champions." Kiffin would probably ante up for rings and T-shirts.


Bryan from Tigard, Ore., writes: I am curious why the Coaches Poll is used as a component in the BCS standings. Whenever I have looked at the voting results from the Coaches Poll they seem very biased. East coast coaches seem to vote east coast schools higher because they know much more about them than west coast programs. The same goes for west coast coaches. Therefore, shouldn't that poll be looked at as an unreliable source for determining BCS standings? I know that any human poll will have its own biases but I see there being the potential for a lot of politics within the coaches poll (for example voting to make your conference look stronger or voting another program down intentionally).

Ted Miller: The AP withdrew its poll from the BCS standings after the 2004 season. The BCS standings now use the Coaches Poll and the Harris Poll, which is made up of media members, former players, coaches and administrators.

And your point about the Coaches poll has been made many times. Another issue is that the poll is often consider the "Sports Information Director's" poll because coaches don't have time to study other teams before they vote.

But the poll has been around a long time and it's unlikely it's going anywhere.


Baal from Parts Unknown writes: TED where do get #1 RT-?? Zach [Schlink]. He didn't participate in spring drills--and had 4 surgical procedures in the last 2.5 years. Nobody expected him to contribute. It was more of a hope. This is like your worst reporting ever.

Ted Miller: First of all, I reported him as No. 1 at right guard.

Second, I reported that because that's where he was listed on the depth chart in the media guide.

So, really, your gripe is with Dennis Erickson's and the Arizona State sports information department's reporting on the Sun Devils.


Papa Mitch from Kensington, Calif., writes: You are such a bad influence. I got my plane and game tickets for my son and I to head to Knoxville to see the Ducks crush the Vols because of what you said in the past regarding Neyland Stadium. I figure we need a landmark roadtrip before he gets too grownup. Please give us your best tips for bars and restaurants to hit the night before and the day of the game.

Ted Miller: The place I always recommend is Ye Ole Steak House. It's an institution.

I fired an email to SEC blogger Chris Low, who lives in Knoxville. He added Calhoun's on the River and the Butcher Shop. Sure you can get some good bar recommendations at any of those places (I haven't been there in more than a decade).

Just make sure you get there soon enough to enjoy the tailgate. It's one of the best places in the country to see a game.

You might not want to bring up Lane Kiffin, though.


Michael from Portland writes: With regard to your House of Pain entry for UO, I think the 2000 Civil War loss was the most painful by a mile. To lose to your arch-rival (OSU) to send your most hated enemy (UW) to the Rose Bowl and set the Beavers up with a sweet Fiesta Bowl trip over a not-great Notre Dame team was PAINFUL. And the way UO lost was even worse--I think Joey Harrington turned the ball over 5 times and the Ducks still only lost by 10. I still get verklempt when I just write about it.

Ted Miller: I mostly published Michael's note because I have a new favorite word: verklempt!

But good point. Five picks from Harrington and a lost fumble (the Beavers had just one turnover) didn't help in that 23-13 defeat.

Pain meter: 1. Lose to your state rival, miss out on Rose Bowl; 2. Thereby send your other hated rival to Rose Bowl; 3. Watch both rivals win BCS bowl games while you play in the Holiday Bowl.

Rates pretty high. Of course, that was the best season in NW football history: Three teams finished ranked in the top-7 in the nation.


Robert from Superior, Colo., writes: Hi Ted, looking forward to reading your blog on a regular basis once CU joins the PAC 12. BTW, someone needs to tell Lane Kiffin that CU will not always be bad and that we will remember this. Pretty much assumed by CU fans that this is just pettiness on his part.

Ted Miller: Based on that story, holding up wide receiver Travon Patterson's transfer is pretty petty. I agree.


Brian from Pullman, Wash., writes: Hey Ted, what's on the poster behind you in your videos?

Ted Miller: That's Captain Seattle and his loyal mate Raindrop! Together they "fight for the rights of people no matter how weird they are"! Captain Seattle wields a nasty umbrella, by the way.

My now-wife and I bought the poster at Pike Place Market in 1999 when I was in the process of relocating from Mobile, Ala.


Zen from Portland writes: Ted, pardon my last rant, I was tired, and angry. I just feel like you don't give Oregon State enough credit. You project them 3rd in the Pac-10, which I guess I can see. But when you put them at 3rd you say reasons for concern are first year starter Ryan Katz, what about Oregon? You rank them first, and they are going through the same thing as Oregon State, you then rank 'SC second when they can't even go to a bowl. It's frustrating because you do this every year with Oregon State, I'm not saying they prove you wrong, but playing for a Rose Bowl two years in a row I think you would get the picture by now. This team is really good.

Ted Miller: No worries.

Both Oregon and Oregon State welcome back a lot of starters -- the Ducks 17 position players, the Beavers 15. Both are replacing quarterbacks.

As for quarterback, I think sophomore Ryan Katz has a chance to be very good. But he's never played a meaningful down of college football. Nate Costa is a fifth-year senior who's started a game. Darron Thomas is a redshirt sophomore who played impressively in the fourth quarter against Boise State in 2008. I'd give the Ducks a slight edge there.

Oregon has all five starters back on its offensive line. That unit led the No. 1 rushing attack in the conference and only gave up 13 sacks, which was second fewest in the conference. Oregon State has four of five starters back. That unit led the No. 6 rushing attack in the conference and gave up 29 sacks, which ranked seventh in the conference. Edge Oregon.

On defense, the Ducks are replacing three starters from a unit that ranked fourth in scoring and total defense in the conference. The Beavers are replacing four starters from a crew that ranked sixth in scoring and total defense. Edge Oregon.

When you toss in the fact that the Ducks won the conference by two games last year, it seems fair to rate the Ducks ahead of the Beavers in the preseason. (And the value of preseason rankings in December? Not squat).

As for USC: I ranked the Trojans first (though I'm wavering on that one). I know they can't go to a bowl, but their games still count and they will appear in the standings. They were second in the official Pac-10 media poll behind Oregon and ahead of No. 3 Oregon State.

In fact, just about everyone has the Beavers third. So my take wasn't exactly contrarian.

But I appreciate your not giving up on the Pac-10 blog.


Todd from Anaheim, Calif., writes: I was reading your Mailbag: Does anyone care about USC or Jeremiah Masoli? and when I read Zen from Portland's post, I was taken back a little. That guy seems to genuinely hate you. Do you get a lot of readers that send comments like that?

Ted Miller: Yes.

And the Pac-10 blog appreciates all its readers -- even the angry ones -- who make us a part of their day.

How can Tennessee beat Oregon?

June, 25, 2010
6/25/10
4:54
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Just posted this on the SEC blog. Sorry for acting as a double-agent.

This is annoying: The SEC and Pac-10 only play one game in 2010 and, on paper, it doesn't look like much of a game.

Oregon, which figures to be ranked in or near the preseason top 10, visits a Tennessee team on Sept. 11 that is on its third coach in three years and is clearly rebuilding.

(Volunteers fans: Release your Lane Kiffin curses ... now!)

And yet.

While Ducks fans over on the Pac-10 blog seem to believe this is going to be a butt kicking, I'm not so sure. Maybe it's because I was covering Auburn during the Phillip Fulmer glory days and can't imagine the Vols ever being anyone's patsy (in fact, I was covering preps and recruiting for the Mobile Register when a guy from Williamson High School by the name of Tamaurice Martin -- some called him "Tee" -- picked the Volunteers over Auburn).

Or maybe it's because the last time a highly ranked Pac-10 team thought it was going to deliver a whipping in Neyland Stadium, California face planted in 2006.

My hunch is this will be a competitive game. So, with that said, here are three keys for Tennessee to score the upset over the Ducks.
  1. Tauren Poole & Luke Stocker: The Volunteers are completely -- completely as in all five 2009 starters are gone -- rebuilding their offensive line. Oh, and their QB, whoever that ends up being between junior college transfer Matt Simms and true freshman Tyler Bray, will be seeing his first college action the previous weekend vs. UT-Martin. That's not good. But Poole at running back and Stocker at tight end are good. Perhaps even very good. The Ducks' defense is a veteran unit and extremely fast. They also run a lot of stunts, which can confuse a young O-line. But they aren't very big. So keep it simple on offense and get the ball to your money guys. Word on the street is Poole can make plays even when the blocking isn't perfect. And when the Ducks start obsessing about Poole, that would be the perfect time to dump it to the 6-foot-6, 253-pound Stocker and see what he can do in the secondary. A big target like Stocker could help a young QB gain some confidence, at which point he can start looking for his wideouts.
  2. Boise State & Ohio State: QB Jeremiah Masoli running coach Chip Kelly's spread-option offense was often a thing of beauty. But, you may have heard, Masoli won't be a problem in Knoxville. Further, it seems like defenses that have more than just one week to prepare have more success against the Ducks' spread-option -- see a pair of early-season losses to Boise State and the Rose Bowl defeat to Ohio State. The Vols will have the entire summer to familiarize themselves with Oregon's misdirection, as well as to get accustomed to the Ducks' extraordinary pace (their no-huddle is as fast-paced an offense as you will see). Ohio State often won one-on-one matchups up front. The Vols have some solid talent, experience and depth with their front seven, though it won't match the Buckeyes. Boise State often out-flanked the Ducks with an outstanding game plan. Wait a second! Where did that new, hotshot defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox come from? Boise State! Wilcox has faced the Ducks each of the past two seasons. He knows their scheme and their personnel. That's a huge advantage.
  3. Atmosphere: Before Cal's 2006 visit, the Bears downplayed the experience of playing in front of 100,000-plus fans. Southern humidity? Who cares! And then the Bears wilted, mentally and physically. One Cal player told me later that Neyland was such a "freak show" -- his term -- that it was a significant distraction. My guess is Vols fans thought their trip to Berkeley, where student protesters were living in trees, was a bit of a "freak show," too. But the Ducks won't be used to the atmosphere -- both the stadium size as well as the weather (summers in Eugene often demand a sweater at night). Aggravating matters, they will be sending out a mostly green QB to handle the pressure on the road. Senior Nate Costa has started only one game: at UCLA in 2009. Sophomore Darron Thomas came off the bench as a true freshman vs. Boise State in 2008 and led a stunning comeback, but he redshirted last year. In other words, instead of a two-year starter leading the Ducks' complicated offense in a hostile environment, they will be relying on an unproven guy. A couple of early mistakes, and that atmosphere could prove a significant factor.

Opportunity arrives for Costa or Thomas

April, 14, 2010
4/14/10
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EUGENE, Ore. -- Opportunity doesn't always arrive on a golden chariot. Often it appears amid the smoldering debris of a train wreck.

[+] EnlargeCosta
Dustin Snipes/Icon SMIAs a backup last season, Nate Costa completed 20 of 33 passes with one touchdown and one INT.
Such is the Oregon quarterback situation.

Heisman Trophy candidate Jeremiah Masoli gets suspended for the season after a burglary conviction? That means either senior Nate Costa or sophomore Darron Thomas will inherit an offense loaded with skill and possibility. If they play well, the Ducks figure to become a top-10 team and the Pac-10 favorite. If not, who knows how things go?

Both Costa and Thomas understand that a cloud hangs over their competition. Thomas calls Masoli his "best friend on the team." They room together before games. But neither is apologizing for embracing the unexpected opportunity.

"Obviously, the circumstances that started this competition are not ideal," Costa said. "Just having the opportunity my senior year is huge, though. It means a lot to me."

Many fans are intrigued by Thomas. His long, lean, 6-foot-3, 205-pound frame suggests Dennis Dixon. Only Thomas is hardly skinny, considering he's pound-for-pound one of the strongest players on the team. He's got a good arm and runs well.

And, of course, he's already produced 15 tantalizing minutes of fame.

In 2008, with the four quarterbacks who began the season ahead of him on the depth chart hurt, Thomas came off the bench as a true freshman against Boise State and nearly led the Ducks back from a 24-point deficit. He passed for 210 yards and three touchdowns and left everyone pondering his tremendous upside.

"You can see him getting better every day," coach Chip Kelly said. "Things are starting to slow down for him a little bit. He's a really, really smart kid."

Thomas was able to redshirt last year, but the Boise State experience whet his appetite. He doesn't seem overwhelmed by the sudden turn of events that could have him leading the Ducks in front of 100,000-plus fans at Tennessee's Neyland Stadium on Sept. 11.

"This whole time, I've been ready to play," he said. "I haven't been slacking because I'm not on the field."

While Kelly won't say who's ahead, more than a few observers who've watched spring practices tap Costa.

Recall that before the 2008 season, Costa was widely viewed as the prototypical leader of Kelly's spread-option attack. He could run and throw -- Kelly's a big fan of his compact motion -- and his ball work on the option plays was said to be nearly as artful as Dixon's.

Then he blew out his knee during the preseason and underwent surgery for a third time. Most wrote him off and just thought it was admirable he fought to come back as a reserve. When he started last year at UCLA, filling in for an injured Masoli, he acted mostly as a caretaker for the offense, completing just 9 of 17 passes for 82 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He looked tentative as a runner.

But Kelly has seen a more confident, athletic Costa this spring.

"Nate's smart. Nate's heady. He moves better than people give him credit for," Kelly said. "He's got a great command of our offense. He's a great leader. He's really throwing the ball well. He's really starting to pick it up."

Then the most important part: "He's kind of like that kid two years ago."

Kelly said he's not going to keep his final decision a secret until the week of the season opener against New Mexico. He'll make a call when a winner emerges. He said he's willing to play two guys but that's not his preference.

And he grows animated when asked if things are close in the competition, the tie goes to the younger player who will be around another three years.

"The future for us is right now," he said. "We are the defending Pac-10 champs and we are going to be good again next year. How good really depends on how well our quarterback plays. We're not building for, 'Let's play the younger guy because two years down the road we're going to be good.'"

That's the rub. If the Ducks get quality play at quarterback, this squad could be headed back to the Rose Bowl.

The train wreck that led to this opportunity for a backup quarterback, however, doesn't seem to be obsessing the Ducks as much as their fans. They seem confident that whoever takes the snaps will do fine, as will the 21 other starters.

"A lot people thought there would be a lot of turmoil -- angst -- over the quarterback position, but guys on our team know that Nate Costa has command [of] our offense as well as DT," linebacker Spencer Paysinger said. "We have two able quarterbacks. There wasn't really a cause for concern. We took a blow. Now we just need to recover."

Judgment day for Oregon?

March, 12, 2010
3/12/10
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Oregon running back LaMichael James' will face sentencing this morning after making a plea deal on domestic violence charges, and Duck quarterback Jeremiah Masoli will face a burglary charge in court later this afternoon.

Masoli
Masoli
James
James
And coach Chip Kelly is expected to announce discipline decisions on these two second-team All-Pac-10 performers who were big reasons the Ducks were likely going to be a preseason top-10 team and the Pac-10 favorites heading into 2010.

It's a big day for Ducks football.

So, in purely football terms, the worst case is Kelly either kicks both off the team or suspends them for the entire season. That's highly unlikely, particularly with James, but let's entertain the notion.

First, the Ducks won't tumble into the slag heap, though picking a Pac-10 favorite will become much more difficult.

The Ducks spread-option offense will take a step back if Masoli isn't running the show. He's a two-year starter who's masterful at disguising where the ball is on option runs. He's also a physical runner with a nose for the end zone who's a solid, if at times inconsistent, passer.

Senior backup Nate Costa has seen only limited action in games, starting once last year when Masoli was hurt, leading the Ducks to a win over UCLA. He completed 20 of 33 passes for 197 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

Recall that knee injuries derailed a promising future for Costa. He was Dennis Dixon's heir apparent in 2008, and Kelly was very high on his prospects. The biggest question with him is whether he can stay healthy.

The future, however, is Darron Thomas, who took a redshirt in 2009, his second season with the program. Thomas, at 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, is best remembered for his poised performance as a true freshman coming off the bench against Boise State in 2008, when he nearly led the Ducks back from a huge deficit. He threw for 215 yards and three touchdowns.

Thomas is a good athlete with tremendous upside as a passer. Would starting his second game in front of 100,000-plus at Tennessee be a shock to his system? Probably. But UCLA won there last year with redshirt freshman Kevin Prince, so success in Neyland Stadium with a green QB is hardly unprecedented.

At running back, Kenjon Barner, a 5-11, 190-pound sophomore, is James' capable backup. The former cornerback rushed for 366 yards last year and averaged 7.5 yards per carry. He had seven carries for 64 yards in the Rose Bowl.

The Ducks also have senior Remene Alston, who rushed for 136 yards and two touchdowns, but Barner's top backups might be one or two of the touted freshmen in the 2010 recruiting class: Lache Seastrunk, rated the nation's No. 6 running back by Scouts. Inc., Dontae Williams and Josh Huff.

Is potentially losing Masoli and James ideal? Absolutely not. Is it catastrophic for the 2010 season? Probably not.

Now some links:

  • John Canzano on Judgment Day -- separating rumor from truth, and Kelly turning to a surprising rival for advice (it actually doesn't surprise me at all).
  • It comes down to felonies vs. misdemeanors, athletic director Mike Bellotti told The Oregonian. In other words, Masoli needs his second-degree burglary charge -- a felony -- to be reduced to remain with the team. "A felony conviction would result in dismissal from the team and loss of scholarship," Bellotti told the newspaper.
  • Ducks headed to the NFL think the team needs better player leadership.
  • A legal expert thinks Masoli will get probation, not jail time, and may get his charges reduced to a misdemeanor.
  • Some fans are venting about the Ducks troubles -- and some are getting creative.
  • And beyond Kelly's discipline, what about school policy?

UCLA plans to enjoy itself in Neyland Stadium

September, 11, 2009
9/11/09
12:53
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Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller


Redundant questions are part of the game, and a veteran coach like Rick Neuheisel knew entering the week that he was going to field a bevy of inquiries about how his young UCLA Bruins would handle the intensity of 100,000 fans at Tennessee's Neyland Stadium.

Neuheisel's responses included two two points: 1. It's going to be fun; 2. It's not that big of a deal.

"A lot is made of it. It's going to be no secret to our players that it's going to be loud," Neuheisel said. "I don't think making this seem like this is a mountain we have to climb is the right way. We address it. We deal with the practical things in terms of snap counts and trying to make checks as an offense."

Eyebrows arched at these responses.

In 2006, a very good California squad wilted inside Neyland, losing 35-18, a final score that doesn't do justice to how badly things went that day for the Bears.

It's pointed out that the Bruins feature a redshirt freshman quarterback and two offensive linemen -- one a true freshman, the other a JC transfer -- making their first road start. Is Neuheisel really confident that these youngsters won't be wide-eyed?

"Do I have a choice? Ready or not, here we come," Neuheisel said. "We have to go and play and I don't want them to be nervous about it. I want them to go and enjoy the dang experience and I think we're going to do that."

UCLA enjoyed last year's game, a 27-24 overtime victory in the Rose Bowl over the then-18th-ranked Volunteers, who would fire coach Phil Fulmer at season's end and hire former USC assistant Lane Kiffin to restore the once proud program to national prominence.

Which is sort of why UCLA hired Neuheisel last year.

Both Neuheisel and Kiffin energized their fans with highly rated recruiting classes, and both teams will feature plenty of freshmen in the rotation. UCLA played eight, Tennessee 11, in their respective season openers.

UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince, a redshirt freshman, had mixed results in his first start against San Diego State. He completed 18 of 29 passes for 176 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. He also fumbled and was sacked three times.

"In the second half, I made some silly mistakes and poor reads, little things I could have easily avoided," Prince said. "I thought it was a good learning experience."

Neuheisel said he thought Prince "relaxed" in the second half.

"I saw a lot of good things," he said. "He was better than he'd been in our scrimmages, so he handled the pressure of game day. He was very sharp for most of the evening. But there were some mental lapses, some things that I know he's scratching his head as to how he let that happen."

There will be no relaxing against the Vols, particularly with ball-hawking safety Eric Berry prowling the secondary.

Nonetheless, the Bruins seem to be down-playing Berry's threat -- he had an interception in last year's game -- just like they are the hostile atmosphere.

"You can't focus too much on one player -- you can't be afraid," Prince said. "You've just got to look at the schemes they are running and try to attack the schemes and not worry about a single player."

Both defenses are solid, though the Bruins took a big hit to their secondary when Aaron Hester went down with a fractured right fibula. Hester's replacement, 5-foot-8 Courtney Viney, will be a tempting target for Vols quarterback Jonathan Crompton, who threw for 233 yards and five touchdowns in the 63-7 win over Western Kentucky.

The game almost certainly will turn on how well Prince and his rebuilt offensive line handles the pressure of the crowd and the moment, not to mention a fairly good Tennessee defense.

Twenty-three Bruins saw their first college action in the win over San Diego State. This one will feel different.

Neuheisel, again, just wants his guys to enjoy themselves.

"I don't want them to avoid the excitement that comes from playing in that kind of venue," he said. "You'd be missing out on something that could be a memory for a long time."

Then he concluded, "How positive that memory is going to be is up to how well we play."

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