He let out a quick laugh before answering, “There would be a lot of people around here really upset with me if we didn’t.”
For the Cardinal, there is no turning back now. As a team that huddles, with a quarterback primarily working under center, winding down the play clock and running through — not around — its opposition, Stanford has an identity it stands by with pride. While other teams spread things out and speed up, the Cardinal are perfectly content countering that by going the opposite direction.
On their way to a second straight Pac-12 title last season, the Cardinal averaged the fewest plays per game in the Pac-12 (63.9) and lined up with at least one extra offensive lineman — and many times two — more than 40 percent of the time. It’s a philosophy the coaching staff believes pays dividends on Saturdays, and when recruiting elite high school linemen.
“I’d say, yes, it helped, and we're going to try to keep selling the fact that we are a pretty good offensive line and we can put people in the NFL,” said offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren, who also coaches the O-line. “The other thing that we sell, is that we play six, seven, eight, nine [offensive linemen] at the same time. Not in one game, on the same play, and nobody else in the nation can say that.”
“It does put a lot of pressure on defensive teams, defensive coordinators because you're going to have to prepare for a variety of different things as the season goes on,” Oregon State coach Mike Riley said. “So that is kind of the world that we're living in right now. The spread offense you'll see from Coach [Mike] Leach at Washington State is different from the spread they're running down at Arizona State and, of course, what they're doing at Oregon. Everybody's got their own little deal that is different.”
That begs the question: As more teams go the spread/tempo route, will it become easier to stop?
History says yes -- football is cyclical in nature -- but to what degree? Only time will tell.
As defensive schemes have started to adapt to what's going on offensively, so have recruiting priorities. The defensive personnel needed against Oregon, Arizona and now USC under Steve Sarkisian, for example, is different than when playing against Stanford. Because of that, and the sheer amount of teams in college football operating with the newer offensive principles, fewer teams, in theory, will be as equipped to play teams such as Stanford or Alabama.
That's not why the Cardinal have chosen this course, but it's certainly a byproduct the team is happy to accept.
“I could relate it to back in the day when I coached defense in the Canadian Football League, and there were only nine teams in the league,” Riley said. “But we were the only team in the league that ran the 3-4 defense. So we were the odd preparation for everybody else in the league when we played them, and I love that about that.”
It's not all positive, though. For Stanford's offensive coaches, film study has become somewhat an exercise in futility. There's only so much they can learn about an opposing defense while watching it against offenses that in no way resemble their own -- and with Lane Kiffin's departure, it will become even tougher. The past few years, USC has been the team that most closely resembled Stanford. They weren't clones by any means, but there were enough shared formations and philosophies that Stanford coaches felt that by watching defenses playing against USC, they could gain some insight into what they might do against the Cardinal.
With a deep group of receivers and a third-year starting quarterback in Kevin Hogan, Stanford will likely rely more on the pass this season than the last two seasons -- those types of changes are only natural -- but Stanford has its blueprint, for the past and future.
The chances are slim, but there’s a foreseeable scenario in which the conference could feature two Heisman Trophy finalists (Brett Hundley and Marcus Mariota), the nation’s leader in touchdown passes (Sean Mannion), the nation’s passing yardage leader (Connor Halliday) and send two others to the NFL next season (Taylor Kelly and Kevin Hogan).
That’s before factoring in USC’s Cody Kessler, whom Bovada installed at 75-to-1 to win the Heisman, and Utah’s Travis Wilson, who has a chance to become one of the best comeback stories in recent memory.
With all that talent, Cal’s Jared Goff and Colorado’s Sefo Liufau are, for the most part, flying comfortably below the radar. However, if things progress the way the pair of sophomores -- both of whom started as true freshmen -- are expecting, that will soon change.
"Fall camp was a little overwhelming," Liufau said. "It was hard to grasp the whole offense and decipher what defenses were doing, call out the protections, run the correct play, use all the signals. Things were going too fast for me to comprehend."
"Night and day," he said. "Everything has slowed down."
For Goff, the difference is equally palpable.
"Last year, I was more focused on bigger things, the basics," he said, "and now I can go into more detailed stuff and make more intricate reads."
Getting thrown into the fire as a true freshman quarterback ranks up there with the more difficult tasks in college football, but because they were also playing for first-year coaches in systems that were foreign to their teammates, the learning curve was even tougher. Goff didn’t have the luxury of a soft opening, either, facing four ranked teams in his first six starts.
All things considered, Goff’s freshman season — from an individual standpoint — went about as well as one could have hoped. He completed 320 of 531 passes (60.3 percent) for 3,508 yards and 18 touchdowns. Of the 16 quarterbacks at the FBS level that attempted at least 430 passes, only five had fewer interceptions than Goff’s 10.
After a summer in which he spent at least three days a week running 7-on-7 drills with the Golden Bears' impressive collection of receivers, Goff's development has been obvious during Cal practices.
"His ability to be on the same page with the receivers has really improved," coach Sonny Dykes said. "He's a lot more poised, a lot more confident. He's stronger. The ball is coming out quicker and he's a lot more decisive."
Unlike Goff, Liufau was eased into the job last season. He sat for the first four games and came off the bench against Arizona State in the fifth before taking the reins against Charleston Southern and keeping them the rest of the year. He completed 149 of 251 passes (59.4 percent) for 1,779 yards with 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
The numbers won't blow anyone away, but it was enough of a foundation for Colorado fans to be confident they had a guy with a bright future.
However, that was with talented receiver Paul Richardson. The Seattle Seahawks' second-round pick averaged 6.9 catches for nearly 98 yards with Liufau entrenched as the starter and was as reliable a security blanket as there was in college football.
Without him, there's reasons for skepticism, but Liufau doesn't seem worried.
"I see big strides from numerous players and the team overall," he said. "I think we can win every game. It sounds crazy to people, but if we execute the way we have in fall camp, it’s definitely possible."
In February, Wilson announced he would return for the 2014 season, but was limited to non-contact activities during spring practice while doctors continued to monitor his condition. In June, he received full medical clearance and resumed all football-related activities.
Throughout fall camp, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has been adamant it was an open competition between Wilson and Thompson, although few actually believed Thompson would win the job. Thompson, who was immediately eligible after graduating from Oklahoma in the spring, made the decision to transfer while Wilson's status was still in limbo.
In two seasons with the Utes, Wilson has passed for 3,138 yards and 23 touchdowns. He led the team to a 4-2 start last season, including a win against then undefeated and No. 5-ranked Stanford.
Utah also announced there are three starting jobs on defense that are still up for grabs: defensive end (Jason Fanaika and Hunter Dimick), nose tackle (Sese Ianu, Clint Shepard and Lowell Lotulelei) and linebacker (Uaea Masina and Pita Taumoepenu).
The Ducks received one first-place vote and were followed by No. 7 UCLA, No. 11 Stanford, No. 15 USC, No. 19 Arizona State and No. 25 Washington.
This is the fourth year in a row year the Ducks have been ranked in the preseason top five and seventh straight year they've appeared in the preseason AP poll.
The same six teams were also ranked in the USA Today Coaches Poll, in nearly the same places. The only differences being Oregon is one spot higher in the AP poll and Arizona State is one spot lower.
The College Football Playoff committee, responsible for selecting the four teams to play in this year's inaugural playoff, will release its first top-25 rankings Oct. 28 on ESPN.
- There are 338 players from Pac-12 teams in NFL training camps, which represents about 11.6 percent of the players currently on NFL rosters.
- Of those 338 players, 78 are rookies.
- Total number of players in NFL training camps, by school: USC 55, Oregon 41, California 37, Stanford 36, Utah 30, Arizona State 28, UCLA 27, Oregon State 22, Arizona 20, Washington 18, Colorado 14, Washington State 10
- Total number of rookies in NFL training camps, by school: Arizona State 11, Stanford 11, USC 10, Oregon 7, Utah 7, UCLA 7, Oregon State 6, Cal 5, Washington 5, Arizona 4, Washington State 3, Colorado 2
- Players with three years experience or less: Stanford 26, USC 26, Oregon 24, ASU 22, Cal 20, UCLA 20, Utah 17, Washington 12, Arizona 11, Oregon State 11, Colorado 7, WSU 6
- Offensive players 175; defensive players 149; specialists (K/P/LS): 14
- Chip Kelly might be gone, but he has not forgotten his conference roots. The former Oregon coach's roster in Philadelphia includes 21 former Pac-12 players -- easily the most of any NFL team. Of those 21, eight are from Oregon.
- Former USC coach Pete Carroll has 16 Pac-12 players in camp, but just four are from USC (LB Mike Morgan, LB Malcolm Smith, TE Anthony McCoy, S Dion Bailey). The Super Bowl champions also currently have three Pac-12 rookies (Colorado WR Paul Richardson, Washington WR Kevin Smith, UCLA DL Cassius Marsh).
- The 49ers, coached by former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, have 12 Pac-12 players, but Harbaugh does not have final say on the team's roster. Among those 12 are former Stanford stars, LB Shayne Skov, LB Chase Thomas and OT Jonathan Martin. In addition to Skov, the 49ers have three other Pac-12 rookies in camp: USC TE Kevin Greene, USC C Marcus Martin and Oregon State OL Michael Philipp
- Teams with least amount of Pac-12 players: Rams 3, Jets 6, Chiefs 6, Ravens 6, Bills 7, Cowboys 7, Falcons 7, Lions 7
- Teams with most Pac-12 Pac-12 players: Eagles 21, Chargers 16, Seahawks 16, Dolphins 15, Panthers 14, Raiders 14
- Three NFL head coaches attended Pac-12 schools: Carolina's Ron Rivera (Cal); San Diego's Mike McCoy (Utah) and St. Louis' Jeff Fisher (USC)
We'll revamp this post once NFL rosters are set in early September.
By the Numbers
Offensive players: 9
Defensive players: 10
Rookies: 4 -- RB Ka'Deem Carey (Bears); LB Marquis Flowers (Bengals); TE Terrence Miller (Patriots); DB Shaquille Richardson (Steelers)
Offensive players: 16
Defensive players: 12
Rookies: 11 -- DL Will Sutton (Bears); DB Robert Nelson (Browns); WR Kevin Ozier (Cardinals); RB Marion Grice (Chargers); DB Alden Darby (Chargers); DL Gannon Conway (Colts); DL Davon Coleman (Cowboys); OL Evan Finkenberg (Dolphins); LB Carl Bradford (Packers); WR Rashad Ross (Redskins); LB Chris Young (Texans)
Offensive players: 18
Defensive players: 15
Rookies: 5 -- DB Kameron Jackson (Colts); LB Chris McCain (Dolphins); DL Deandre Coleman (Jaguars); TE Richard Rodgers (Packers); LB Khairi Fortt (Saints)
Offensive players: 7
Defensive players: 5
Rookies: 2 -- Chidera Uzo-Diribe (Saints); WR Paul Richardson (Seahawks)
Offensive players: 24
Defensive players: 17
Rookies: 7 -- RB De'Anthony Thomas (Chiefs); DB Terrance Mitchell (Cowboys); DL Taylor Hart (Eagles); DL Wade Keliikipi (Eagles); WR Josh Huff (Eagles); DL Ricky Havili-Heimuli (Jaguars); TE Colt Lyerla (Packers)
Offensive players: 11
Defensive players: 10
Rookies: 6 -- WR Brandin Cooks (Saints); WR Micah Hatfield (Chargers); DL Scott Crichton (Vikings); OL Michael Philipp (49ers); OL Josh Andrews (Eagles); DB Rashaad Reynolds (Jaguars);
Offensive players: 23
Defensive players: 13
Rookies: 11 -- LB Shayne Skov (49ers); FB Ryan Hewitt (Bengals); OL Khalil Wilkes (Chargers); DL Ben Gardner (Cowboys); DB Ed Reynolds (Eagles); OL Cameron Fleming (Patriots); RB Tyler Gaffney (Patriots); LB Trent Murphy (Redskins); DL Josh Mauro (Steelers); OL Kevin Danser (Titans); OL David Yankey (Vikings)
Offensive players: 13
Defensive players: 10
Rookies: 7 -- DB Brandon Sermons (Cardinals); RB Damien Thigpen (Cardinals); WR Shaq Evans (Jets); DL Cassius Marsh (Seahawks); LB Jordan Zumwalt (Steelers); Xavier Su'a-Filo (Texans); LB Anthony Barr (Vikings)
Offensive players: 27
Defensive players: 28
Rookies: 10 -- OL Marcus Martin (49ers); TE Kevin Greene (49ers); DB Demetrius Wright (Dolphins); OL Kevin Graf (Eagles); LB Devon Kennard (Giants); TE Xavier Grimble (Giants); WR Marqise Lee (Jaguars); RB Silas Redd (Redskins); DL George Uko (Saints); DB Dion Bailey (Seahawks)
Offensive players: 13
Defensive players: 17
Rookies: 7 -- DL Tenny Palepoi (Chargers); LB Trevor Reilly (Jets); L.T. Tuipulotu (Patriots); DB Keith McGill (Raiders); FB Karl Williams (Raiders); TE Jake Murphy (Raiders); TE Anthony Denham (Texans)
Offensive players: 9
Defensive players: 8
Rookies: 5 -- TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins (Buccaneers); DB Greg Ducre (Chargers); WR Kevin Smith (Seahawks); K Travis Coons (Titans); RB Bishop Sankey (Titans)
Offensive players: 5
Defensive players: 4
Rookies: 3 -- DB Deone Bucannon (Cardinals); K Andrew Furney (Jets); OL John Fullington (Packers)
*Roster information taken from each NFL team's official online roster on Aug. 12. This includes those suspended, on injured-reserve and the PUP/NFI lists. Does not include players who retired during training camp or have been waived.
Send any corrections to Kyle.Bonagura@ESPN.com (it's a lot of data to sift through)
"We're all great friends. We love each other," Sanders said. "We're all hard on each other to hold each other accountable. It's fun to come out and compete against your best friends."
But, yes, it is a competition.
"Just by [human nature] you want to be that guy that is headlining everything, so that pushes you to focus and work even harder so that you can potentially be that role," Young said. "That mindset really helps."
Realistically, as much as they all may want to be the guy, the Cardinal seems destined to employ a running-back-by-committee this year. Yes, that was storyline a year ago at this time, but none of the four guys involved now have the physical stature of Gaffney or Stepfan Taylor and Toby Gerhart before him. All four stand around 5-foot-9 and hover near 200 pounds.
"It just makes you cautious of even thinking you can put 350, 375 carries on a 195-pound running back," coach David Shaw said. "Tyler Gaffney was of the size [6-foot, 220 pounds] that he could handle the pounding every week and come back ready the next. It's hard to say you ask a guy without the same size to go through that."
According to offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren, Young enters camp as the de facto starter based on his production in the spring, but there's not much separation. Young's role has changed significantly from a year ago when he also played receiver and was used primarily on jet sweeps. On 28 carries over the past two seasons, he's rushed for 270 yards (9.6 ypc) and three touchdowns.
The biggest obstacle to a bulk of playing time for Young, probably the fastest among the group, is developing as a pass protector -- a key skill in Stanford's scheme. He said he's spent a lot of time watching film of Gaffney and Gerhart to help with that and was noticeably more defined physically on Stanford's first day of camp this week.
"The gauntlet is out there because whoever is our best pass-blocker is going to get more playing time," Shaw said.
After the first session of spring practice, that guy was Wright, but he was suspended for the second session for an undisclosed disciplinary reason and that punishment has carried into fall camp. Shaw said he expects Wright to re-join the team in a little over a week10774202
and seemingly implied he had a lot of ground to make up after being away.
Sanders showed glimpses of the type of player he can be in minimal opportunities last year, but -- along with Young -- seems destined for a much more significant role. As a prep star at Heritage Hall in Oklahoma, he was the No. 9-ranked high school running back in the country and has waited patiently for an opportunity for playing time he likely would have received immediately at other places in the country.
"You come in and basically see what's going on a respond accordingly," Sanders said. "[Taylor] had that phonomenal year my freshman year and then Gaff came back [from playing minor league baseball] and that changed some things."
Seale is the only senior of the group, and based on how he's been used compared to the other three in the past -- he has just 30 carries over the past three years -- it's hard to see him surpassing any of the others. They'll likely have plays or packages in which Seale is featured more prominently, but because there's little incentive to develop him for the future he'll have to really breakout in camp or early in the year.
“We are delighted that after years of debate, a consensus has emerged that the time has come for a modern approach to governance that recognizes the need to give more flexibility to those conferences prepared to do more for student-athletes and, at the same time, preserves the collegiate model which works so well for the vast majority of Pac-12 student-athletes,” Scott said in a statement. “This is a great day for the 7,000 current student-athletes in the Pac-12 and for generations of future student-athletes who will benefit from the educational opportunities and life lessons made possible by college athletics.”
According to Scott, the Pac-12, ACC, SEC, Big Ten and Big 12 will work together on proposals that will be submitted to the NCAA this fall. Much of what they'll work toward was outlined in a 10-point plan outlined in a letter from Pac-12 university presidents to their counterparts in the other four conferences in May.
A statement from the Pac-12 says, "Those goals range from financial concerns of scholarship to injury prevention and health care, while insisting upon the preservation of the primacy of the universities’ educational mission." They will also consider providing scholarships that cover the total cost of attendance.
"This new model will allow our conference, which has always coupled academic and athletic excellence, to continue to maintain those high standards while adapting to the changing needs and expectations of our student-athletes and our universities," Washington State president Dr. Elson S. Floyd said in a statement. "We plan to address needs across the full range of sports, for both men and women, and reinforce something all of our university leaders emphasized earlier this year: education must come first.”
Here is the full release from the Pac-12.
- Arizona safety Jared Tevis sat out practice with a tweaked hamstring, QB Anu Solomon spent the majority of the day with the first team and other notes.
- Who is the best coach for the money in the Pac-12? Forbes says it is ASU's Todd Graham.
- Another day, another novel from Cal practice.
- Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre chats with Every Day Should Be Saturday. Godzilla as a football player is discussed.
- Oregon coach Mark Helfrich is miked up. "Here we go Justin Bieber. We have to change his name."
- Here are some observations from Oregon State practice on Wednesday.
- A dispatch from Stanford's first day in shoulder pads.
- This might be the most entertaining thing you read all day: Jim Mora vs. Sonny Dykes in a battle for a juco punter.
- USC has added a kicker to compete with senior Andre Heidari.
- Important: Utah's new uniforms have mountains on them.
- Someone thinks Illinois will beat Washington by double digits.
- One-time walk-on QB Luke Falk is now on scholarship at Wazzu.
- And last, but not least, Pac-12 coaches speaking anonymously about other Pac-12 programs.
It's worth heading over there to take in the full experience, but here are some of the more entertaining topics discussed.
On the campaign by some Texas Tech fans trying to get Leach's former employer to pay him his salary from the 2009 season:
"I've always been flattered and appreciative of the support I had at Texas Tech. We had a great 10 years and I had the opportunity to spend time with a lot of great people there, so I really appreciate it. I saw the letter in the paper and it is pretty accurate. Texas Tech has not paid me for the last season that I worked in 2009, which is hard to imagine."
"The marijuana rule has not been a problem for us. It is illegal on our team and if we find anyone using marijuana, we will dismiss them from the team. With all do respect to those who enjoy marijuana, I believe that it is very counterproductive to having the best focused and most productive football team that I can have. Any of our players or coaches interested in it will have to do it after they finish their time here!"
On if he think ESPN's "College GameDay" will head to Pullman this year:
"The game I am always looking forward to is the next one because they are all exciting and you only get so many opportunities. Yes I think ESPN GameDay will come here. With the direction our program is headed and the new facilities we have built here, it will obviously be a big draw. You can check out our facilities on our Twitter page @wsucougfb. When we were at Texas Tech, we were the only team in history to have ESPN GameDay to come to our place twice and be a part of it three times in one season."
From his book, about Geronimo:
"One story in the book not to be missed would be how the Apaches would hunt ducks. Check it out!"
Favorite pizza topping:
"Canadian bacon, black olives and mushrooms."
On Taco Bell's much-anticipated arrival in Pullman:
"Over the years, I have eaten at a number of Taco Bell's and they are all very similar yet I am excited to eat the new one here in Pullman!
Believe it or not, my order always includes the original bean burrito and the original taco, and then I will venture out on another item or two. I do, however, miss Mongolian Fire, which is the restaurant that used to be there."
That'll soon be reality for those flying out of Salt Lake City on Alaska Airlines thanks to a partnership between the airline and school that will give priority boarding to any Utah fans wearing a Ute jersey or shirt between Aug. 23 and Dec. 1.
It's been a good week for creative marketing concepts coming out of the Pac-12 following word Oregon would use scratch-and-sniff tickets that smell like Carl's Jr. hamburgers.
And as much joy smelling a fast-food burger on a piece of paper might bring, Utah is the clear winner offering something of actual value that, as a bonus, will surely infuriate fans of BYU and Utah State.
Well played, Utah. Well played.
"We are excited about our recent expansion in SLC and recognize the important role the University of Utah plays in the community. We are proud to support this great institution and their fans, students, faculty and alumni," Alaska Airlines announced in a statement.
In addition to the priority boarding, the airline will also offer cheaper fares for road games and for out-of-state fans traveling to Utah home games.
For other Pac-12 fans, there is, apparently, some consolation.
@GuntherKFAN If you wear a Pac12 shirt, we will give you a high five. ;) -John— Alaska Airlines (@AlaskaAir) August 1, 2014
Rutgers at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, Thursday, Aug. 28
- Coach: Kyle Flood (15-11), third season
- 2013 record: 6-7, 3-5 AAC
- Returning starters: nine on offense, seven on defense
- Offensive headliner: running back Paul James. A first-team All-AAC pick after leading the conference with 97.9 rushing yards per game. He rushed for 881 yards in nine games with nine touchdowns, but was held out of four games due to a broke bone in his right leg and was limited during the spring.
- Defensive headliner: Linebacker Steve Longa. Longa received numerous freshman All-American accolades after leading the Scarlet Knights with 123 tackles, starting all 13 games at middle linebacker. He was the team's co-defensive MVP with Marcus Thompson.
- The skinny: Like WSU, Rutgers finished 6-6 in the regular season a year ago, only to drop below .500 with a loss in their bowl game (to Notre Dame). But unlike WSU, the Scarlet Knight had exactly zero impressive wins. None of the teams they beat finished with a winning record as they combined to go 17-54 -- with only 11 of those wins against FBS teams. With as many returners as it has, Rutgers should be better, but that doesn't mean it'll be anymore competitive now that it's moved to the Big Ten.
- Coach: Brian Polian (4-8), second season
- 2013 record: 4-8, 3-5 Mountain West
- Returning starters: seven on offense, nine on defense
- Offensive headliner: Quarterback Cody Fajardo. Fajardo is among the school's all-time leaders in total offense (third), rushing yards (10th), rushing touchdowns (eighth), passing yards (eighth) and passing touchdowns (11th). He's on the watch lists for both the Maxwell Award, given to the nation's best player, and Davey O'Brien Award, given to the nation's best quarterback.
- Defensive headliner: defensive end Brock Hekking. Hekking was a first-team All-Mountain West selection as a junior in 2013 after recoding nine sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss. He's on the Lombardi Award watch list and is a Pac-12 blog candidate for the best hair in college football.
- The skinny: Polian is a bright coach with a good future in front of him, but the Wolf Pack took a big step back in his first year in Reno, finishing with a losing record for the first time since 2007. Mike Leach coached Texas Tech to a 35-19 win at Nevada in 2008 and WSU visited in 2005, a 55-21 win for the Cougs. The last time a Pac-12 team made the trip to Nevada, Colin Kaepernick led the Wolf Pack to a 52-31 win against Cal in 2010.
- Coach: Nigel Burton (18-27), fifth year
- 2013 record: 6-6, 3-5 Big Sky
- Returning starters: seven on offense, four on defense
- Offensive headliner: Receiver Kasey Closs. A one-time walk-on, Closs caught 63 passes for 1,167 yards and eight touchdowns last season to rank fourth in the Big Sky in receiving yards per game. Against Cal, Closs caught five passes for 160 yards.
- Defensive headliner: Linebacker Corey Crowder. The Vikings lose their top three tacklers from a year go, which leaves Crowder as the leading returning tackler after he made 59 stops in 2013.
- The skinny: Portland State's trip to Pullman will be the first game of the year at Martin Stadium, which is looking good these days. It'll also be the second Pac-12 game for the Vikings after they open the season at Oregon State. Neither of these games figure to be anything like the close encounter they had in Berkeley against hapless Cal last year, especially considering the the Vikings lose talented running back D.J. Adams and have just four returning starters on defense.
10. Oregon C Hroniss Grasu
Why he's ranked here: Grasu is one of three players in the conference -- all from Oregon -- to have been named first-team All-Pac-12 the last two seasons. As a junior in 2013, he was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy, given to the nation's best center, and the undoubted leader of the Ducks' offensive line that blocked for the conference's No. 1 rushing attack. Grasu enters his final year in Eugene having started all 40 games of his career with a chance to leave his mark as one of the Ducks' all-time greats. And as good as Grasu and the line were a year ago, they should be better this year with all five starters back and some talented players behind them who could push for playing time in training camp.
9. Stanford WR Ty Montgomery
2013 stats: Caught 61 passes for 958 yards and 10 touchdowns, and ranked second nationally averaging 30.3 yards per kickoff return.
Why he's ranked here: When Montgomery is on the field for Stanford, he's the team's best player. Whether that's as a receiver or kick returner, he's the one guy who has consistently proved he can change a game on any given snap. There's minimal concern he won't be 100 percent for the start of the season due to an arm injury, but Montgomery said Wednesday he's not limited when it comes to running, catching or lifting weights. At 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, with just 4 percent body fat, Montgomery certainly didn't look injured. "When he comes back, he might be the most explosive player in college football, and he's going to touch the ball in every single way possible," Stanford coach David Shaw said at Pac-12 media days. It remains to be seen whether we should take Shaw literally and add punt return duties to Montgomery's other responsibilities, but there have been discussion about that as well. When comparing Montgomery as a receiver to the other two receivers listed below, there's really not much separation -- a solid case can be made to have each of them in front of the other.
8. Arizona State WR Jaelen Strong
2013 stats: Caught 75 passes for 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns in his first year with ASU.
Why he's ranked here: Perhaps no one in the conference made as strong an immediate impact as Strong did last year after arriving at ASU from Pierce College in Los Angeles. He eclipsed the 100-yard receiving mark in five of his first six games and finished fourth in the Pac-12 with 1,122 receiving yards. The three players who finished ahead of him -- Oregon State's Brandin Cooks, Colorado's Paul Richardson and Oregon's Josh Huff -- are all off to the NFL. Like Montgomery, Strong is physically imposing and at 6-4, 212 pounds makes a dangerous red zone target for quarterback Taylor Kelly. Of the 25 players the Pac-12 blog has deemed the conference's best, Kelly-Strong is the only quarterback-receiver tandem to be included together on the list (you'll see where Kelly lands Friday morning). They're the main reason ASU coach Todd Graham proclaimed at Pac-12 media days that "This will be the best offensive football team that I've ever coached." If Strong makes the kind of jump Cooks made from 2012 to 2013, it shouldn't surprise anyone.
7. USC WR Nelson Agholor
2013 stats: Caught 56 passes for 918 yards and six touchdowns and also returned kicks (17.5 avg) and punts (19.1 avg)
Why he's ranked here: On a team that featured 2012 Biletnikoff winner Marqise Lee, Agholor was simply the better receiver in 2013 and his value to the Trojans stretched further than that because of how he could impact games as a return man. What Montgomery was to Stanford on kickoff returns, Agholor was for the Trojans on punt returns. He returned two for touchdowns, and his 19.1 average was a new school record and ranked second nationally. With Lee off to the NFL, a second-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Agholor figures to see his receiving numbers improve -- even if that means more attention from opposing defenses. Agholor has developed a reputation for being an NFL-caliber route runner and is among the nation's most dangerous receivers after the catch. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Agholor as the No. 3 receiver on his Way-Too-Early Big Board (one spot behind Strong).
6. Oregon State QB Sean Mannion
2013 stats: Threw for a Pac-12 record 4,662 yards with 35 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.
Why he's ranked here: By the time the NFL draft rolls around, Mannion might just end up being the top quarterback on some teams' boards. He's that talented. With 10,436 career passing yards, Mannion already sits at No. 10 on the conference's all-time passing list and, assuming he stays healthy, should have no problem passing Matt Barkley's record of 12,327. Mannion admits he had a great relationship with former offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, who left to become the quarterbacks coach for the New York Giants, but he has already grown under the tutelage of Langsdorf's replacement, John Garrett. "It has been good to get another perspective, another coach to learn from," Mannion said at Pac-12 media days. "It was tough to see [Langsdorf] go, but I think it'll end up being beneficial." Mannion is also the first Oregon State player to be selected team captain three times. Kiper ranked him as the No. 2 senior NFL quarterback prospect in the country.
Check out the rest of the rankings here: Nos. 25-21, Nos. 20-16, Nos. 16-11
at Hawaii, Saturday, Aug. 30
- Coach: Norm Chow (4-20), third season
- 2013 record: 1-11, 0-8 Mountain West
- Returning starters: 7 on offense, 6 on defense
- Offensive headliner: running back Joey Iosefa is featured here, so wide receiver Scott Harding is the next pick. If he played somewhere in the continental United States (or maybe for a better team) Harding would be a much more well-known name. Not only is he a dangerous slot receiver (56 catches for 631 yards last season), but he serves as the Warriors’ punter and punt returner.
- Defensive headliner: defensive lineman Beau Yap. Yap was Hawaii’s lone second-team All-Mountain West selection last season after he made 37 tackles, include 12 for loss. His 5.5 sacks (for a loss of 51 yards) were the most on the team.
- The skinny: Washington’s projected starting quarterback, Cyler Miles, will sit out this game as punishment for his role in a fight following the Super Bowl, but his absence shouldn’t make much of a difference. The Warriors are 0-3 against Pac-12 teams under Chow and started 0-11 last season before winning their season finale against Army. This is the first of three games the Warriors will play against Pac-12 teams with Oregon State and Colorado also lined up.
- Coach: Beau Baldwin (56-22), seventh season
- 2013 record: 12-3, 8-0 Big Sky
- Returning starters: 6 on offense, 5 on defense
- Offensive headliner: quarterback Vernon Adams. The frontrunner for the Walter Payton Award, given to the FCS player of the year, Adams led FCS in passing efficiency as a sophomore last season and is 20-4 as a starter. Against Oregon State in Corvallis last season, Adams completed 23-of-30 passes for 411 yards, four touchdowns and no picks as EWU shocked the Beavers, 49-46.
- Defensive headliner: linebacker Ronnie Hamlin. Hamlin was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA because a knee injury wiped out two seasons earlier in his career. With Hamlin back, the Eagles have a potential FCS All-American and the leader of their defense.
- The skinny: Eastern Washington isn’t just some run-of-the-mill FCS team. The Eagles are widely expected to compete for a national title and proved last year against Oregon State -- which entered that game ranked No. 25 -- they can get up to play a big-time opponent. It’d be easy to make a case for this game, and not Illinois, being the most likely trip-up game for the Huskies. And while we’re still anticipating a Washington win (and probably by two-plus scores), the game actually carries some intrigue.
Illinois, Saturday, Sept. 13
- Coach: Tim Beckman (6-18), third season
- 2013 record: 4-8, 1-7 Big Ten
- Returning starters: 7 on offense, 8 on defense
- Offensive headliner: quarterback Wes Lunt. Lunt sat out last season after transferring from Oklahoma State, where he opened the 2012 season as the Cowboys’ starter as a true freshman. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound Illinois native twice led his high school team to state titles and now is charged with leading a Fighting Illini turnaround.
- Defensive headliner: linebacker Mason Monheim. A fixture at middle linebacker the past two seasons, Monheim is the Illini’s leading returning tackler after registering 97 tackles with 6.5 for loss in 2013.
- The skinny: Illinois doubled its win total over Beckman’s debut season last year, but still dropped seven of its final eight games -- and the win came by four points against Purdue, which didn’t beat a FBS opponent. Keith Price threw for 342 yards and Bishop Sankey ran for what was then a career-best 208 yards in the Huskies’ win over Illinois in Chicago last season, and the Huskies will be heavy favorites when the Illini make the return trip to Seattle.
Georgia State, Saturday, Sept. 20
- Coach: Trent Miles (0-12), second season
- 2013 record: 0-12, 0-7 Sun Belt
- Returning starters: 5 on offense, 5 on defense
- Offensive headliner: quarterback Ronnie Bell. Bell threw for 2,573 yards last season with 15 touchdowns and three rushing scores. He threw for a season-high 291 yards against Samford.
- Defensive headliner: linebacker Joseph Peterson. An All-Sun Belt honorable mention selection as a sophomore last year, Peterson has been the Panthers’ leading tackler the past two seasons. He finished 2013 with 103 stops, a school record.
- The skinny: Georgia State’s foray into FBS football featured a winless season in the worst conference to lay claim as the worst team in the country. It would have been hard to expect anything different considering the Panthers first fielded a football team in 2010. Miles spent the 2005-07 seasons coaching running backs at UW, which is allowed to schedule four nonconference games because of the trip to Hawaii.
Idaho State, Thursday, Aug. 28
- Coach: Mike Kramer (6-28), fourth season
- 2013 record: 3-9, 1-7 Big Sky
- Returning starters: nine offense, seven defense
- Offensive headliner: quarterback Justin Arias. The ISU coaching staff named Arias the team’s offensive player of the year last year after he threw for 3,547 yards with 24 touchdown passes.
- Defensive headliner: defensive lineman Austin Graves. Graves ranked fourth on the team with 64 tackles, but registered an impressive 14.5 tackles for loss and five sacks. He was named the team’s defensive player of the year by his teammates and was an honorable mention all-conference pick.
- The skinny: There is the occasional FCS opponent that can generate some genuine intrigue when pitted against a Pac-12 team (see: Eastern Washington). Idaho State isn’t one of them. Kramer is a well-respected coach in the Big Sky and has done a great job with the Bengals’ academic pursuits and has built a respectable offense, but that hasn’t translated to results in the win column. Against FBS opponents over the last four years (Washington, Nebraska, Air Force, Washington State, Utah State, Georgia and BYU twice), the Bengals are 0-8 and have been outscored 450-89.
- Coach: Tim DeRuyter (20-6), third season
- 2013 record: 11-2, 7-1 MWC
- Returning starters: five offense, eight defense
- Offensive headliner: receiver Josh Harper. How’s this for a stat: In 2013, Harper combined with Davante Adams and Isaiah Burse to become just the fifth trio in FBS history to all have 1,000-plus receiving yards on the same team. With Adams and Burse off to the NFL, Harper takes center stage and was named to the Biletnikoff Award watch list. He was tied for eighth in the nation with 13 touchdown receptions last season.
- Defensive headliner: free safety Derron Smith was featured here, so linebacker Karl Mickelsen is next up. He led the Bulldogs in tackles last season (97) and was an All-Mountain West honorable mention pick. Against Boise State, Mickelsen made 16 tackles — Fresno State’s highest single-game total in five years.
- The skinny: The schedule lines up well for the Utes as they get a tune-up in the opener against Idaho State, which should allow new offensive coordinator Dave Christensen to get his feet wet before a visit from Fresno State. On the other hand, the Bulldogs won’t have that same luxury with a game at USC preceding their trip to Salt Lake City. Without record-setting quarterback Derek Carr, Adams and Burse, it will be interesting to see what the natural evolution process looks like for the Bulldogs' offense.
- Coach: Brady Hoke (26-13), fourth season
- 2013 record: 7-6, 3-5 Big Ten
- Returning starters: seven offense, nine defense
- Offensive headliner: quarterback Devin Gardner. Gardner enters his second full season as the Wolverines’ starter after briefly converting to receiver in 2012. Results were mixed last year as he threw for 2,960 yards with 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
- Defensive headliner: cornerback Blake Countess. Countess was selected first-team All-Big Ten by the media and second team by the coaches after he tied for the Big Ten lead with six interceptions. He made 46 tackles and returned a pick for a touchdown.
- The skinny: Utah’s season-opening win in 2008 against Rich Rodriguez-coached Michigan at the Big House will long be remembered as one of the program’s best moments. It set the stage for the Utes' undefeated season and, perhaps, played a role in the home-and-home series that returns to Salt Lake City next year. Both schools saw their 2013 seasons get off to relatively good starts before things became unhinged late. A Utah win would be a good coup for the Pac-12 as it tries to measure up favorably against other conferences.
So, which position group is it? And can you single out a certain team?
Chantel Jennings: As a whole, I think the linebackers are going to be very strong this season. With depleted defensive lines across several teams, coaches are going to rely on this group more and more for pressure up front. Just go through the teams in the conference and many return at least three starting linebackers. The cupboard is full for Pac-12 linebackers, which is awesome because there are also a lot of good (as well as up and coming) running backs, so this will be a fun area of the field to watch this season.
Kyle Bonagura: I have to admit I wasn't expecting the Pac-12 to lead the nation in players on the Bronko Nagurski watch list when it came out on Thursday. And what stands out when looking at the list of 18 guys, is how spread out the talent is -- five defensive linemen, six linebackers and seven defensive backs. Using that as a rough baseline, it's fair to say the defensive groups are fairly balanced in the conference. I'd also probably go linebacker because of the overall depth, but the amount of star power in the secondary is impressive.
You can easily make a case for position groups at several schools to get top billing and I'm hesitant to pick one (too wishy-washy?), but UCLA's secondary is clearly one on the rise. The Bruins' depth is as impressive you'll find anywhere in the conference. Randall Goforth, Anthony Jefferson and Fabian Moreau were given Pac-12 honorable mention honors last year, while Ishmael Adams and Tahaan Goodman are also intriguing talents. And that's before introducing Tyler Foreman to the equation, a big-time safety recruit that redshirted last year or some of the Bruins' recent signees like Adarius Picket or Jaleel Wadood.