Pac-12: South Carolina Gamecocks

Flip Week: South Carolina

December, 24, 2013
12/24/13
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Editor's note: During Week 12, 10 ESPN.com reporters changed conferences to experience college football in unfamiliar territory. Here is what they learned.

Recall last month that the ESPN reporters flipped out for a few days and ventured to parts of the country unknown to them.

This Southern California boy was transported to a different South. Not going to lie -- most of what I knew about the South I learned from catching snippets of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour on TV. I could already see the "you might be a redneck" texts coming from my buddies. My cable guy neither looks nor talks like Larry.

[+] EnlargeChris Fulmer
Kevin GemmellSouth Carolina fans welcomed a West Coast native to their tailgate before the Florida game Nov. 16.
But that wasn't what I got. Instead, I was welcomed with open arms by warm people who love their food, love their friends and love their football. I spent a great deal of time with a group called "The Ultimate Tailgaters" who wouldn't let me leave with an empty stomach or empty arms. There were hugs all around.

I saw Florida fans and South Carolina fans mingling -- and talking a little bit of trash. I saw cocktails toasted, toured a Cockaboose and learned a great deal about a region of the country I knew little about.

Excited but admittedly a bit apprehensive about what I'd encounter, I'm happy to say I left richer for the experience.

Best meal: A good burger in Southern California is a good burger in Columbia, S.C. So checking out Pawley's Front Porch in Five Points with a few of my new USC friends was all well and good. But honestly, the best food I had was wandering from tailgate to tailgate trying out the local fare. From boiled peanuts and fried gator tail to the briskets, ribs and sausages, the tailgating grub was outstanding. And I do find it humorous that I can get better pulled pork in the Columbia, S.C., airport than I can in San Diego.

Must-see sight in Columbia: I loved the history of the region (which I'll get into in the next section). But aside from seeing good football and some great historical sites, one absolutely must take a stroll through The Horseshoe -- the old part of campus. It's obvious why "College GameDay" picks this venue to set up at when it visits Columbia. The leaves were turning and it was simply beautiful. I could picture myself 20 years ago as a student, parked under a tree with a cup of coffee furiously trying to make sense of Immanuel Kant.

Biggest surprise: As noted, I found the history of the area fascinating. I'm no Civil War buff, but it always interested me. In Pac-12 country, when we talk about the Civil War, it refers to Oregon's recent dominance over Oregon State. But hearing how most of the college was spared during the Civil War because it was converted into a hospital, and seeing the George Washington statue in front of the state house (allegedly once used as target practice for Confederate soldiers) was engrossing. So the biggest surprise to me was how much the Civil War is still such a part of the daily culture and community, for better or worse. It's something we simply don't think about on the West Coast.

Biggest difference from the Pac-12: The football wasn't all that different. The SEC has speed. The Pac-12 has speed. In fact, there was a play when Shon Carson broke off a 58-yard run and got caught from behind by two defenders in the open field. I remember thinking to myself, no way Ka'Deem Carey or Bishop Sankey or De'Anthony Thomas gets caught from behind (SEC fans, no doubt, will attribute that to the league's superior defensive speed).

I have been to many Pac-12 games hours in advance where the lots are only half-full. But eight hours before kickoff in Columbia, the traffic on Bluff Road rivaled the 405 at 5 p.m. on a weekday. SEC folks come out early and make it a full day. There are some Pac-12 fans who do as well, but a lot more in the South.

They said it: My outstanding tour guide for one of the days was Cory Burkarth, a member of USC's sports information department. I asked him how folks from South Carolina refer to Californians like myself. To which he replied: "You're not from the South. You're not a Yankee. If you're from the West Coast, you're a hippie." I laughed and bought him a burger.

If I could go back: I'd sit in the student section and jump up and down during the players' entrance to "2001: A Space Odyssey" and wave my towel every time "Sandstorm" is played before a kickoff. I was on the field for it, several times, but the vibe and energy coming from the stands was intense. And, next time around, I'll be sure to refer to our USC as Southern California. Lesson learned, Columbia, and thanks for the hospitality.

Mailbag: Heisman chatter

August, 16, 2013
8/16/13
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Make sure you send Ted a great big thank you in his mailbag for doing the Best/Worst for another year. I've enjoyed them as much as you all have.

As always, follow the Pac-12 blog on Twitter.

To the notes!


Jon in Tumalo, Ore., writes: Kevin where is (Taylor) Lewan in your Heisman Poll? Clowney had one highlight play against Michigan. Lewan was dinged up and still more than held his own in this game. Clowney's sack total vs. the SEC comp is not all that. In fact, Will Sutton put up equally impressive numbers. We'll see this season, but Clowney simply takes too many plays off IMO to win the Heisman. But never underestimate the SEC hype machine. All the best.

Kevin Gemmell: That’s a fair question, and, unfortunately, Lewan wasn’t in my preseason top five. Not because I don’t think he’s an outstanding lineman (and I know that Michigan coaching staff really well and spent a lot of time with O-line coach Darrell Funk when he was at San Diego State), but because the metrics –- unfairly -- aren’t available to compare Lewan to other players in Heisman consideration. For example, last year, Michigan ranked 28th in the country in sacks allowed, giving up 1.38 per game. Lewan might not have given up any, but he’s part of a unit that did. It’s really tough to compare what impact an offensive lineman makes because with them it's more about what you don't see.

And that’s also one of my biggest gripes with the award, that offensive linemen are overlooked. I would love it if the Outland Trophy were held in the same regard as the Heisman. But that's not the case. And I fall prey to it sometimes as a writer -– using the phrase “skill position,” for example, to describe quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers. I usually catch myself, knowing, as we all do, that it takes just as much skill to play on the line. Maybe I’ll re-think my top five after Week 1 and go against the grain.

I would, however, argue your point that Clowney's sack total against SEC competition “is not all that.” Actually, I think it’s more impressive because they simply don’t pass as much in the SEC, so there are fewer opportunities for sacks. The SEC’s 14 teams averaged 386 passing attempts last year. The Pac-12’s 12 averaged 447. More opportunities for Sutton or Anthony Barr, but the same sack total. And I know, Sutton missed time last year so we can get down to the nitty gritty if you want. I get all that. That’s why we get to wipe the slate clean and start fresh.

Sutton and Barr are very much on my Heisman radar and I’m looking forward to what should be an outstanding defensive season for the Pac-12.


Tim in Salt Lake City writes: I'm not sure I buy your logic for ranking De'Anthony Thomas so low. I understand that he's tough to classify, but that should only matter when trying to compare him to running backs, receivers, or return specialists, but this is a list of top players overall. He's easily a top-10 candidate and probably a Heisman contender. No homerism here (I'm a Utah man!) but I have to give credit where credit is due. I don't know what else he needs to prove.

[+] EnlargeDe'Anthony Thomas
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesDe'Anthony Thomas is ranked No. 14 in the preseason Pac-12 player rankings, but has the potential to be No. 1.
Kevin Gemmell: I hear ya, which is why I stipulated that he could end up No. 1 on the postseason list. What we tried to do is really focus on the returning players and rank them based on their credentials from last season and not as much projection. I’m guessing the postseason list will look a lot different because players such as Shaq Thompson, Dion Bailey, Isaac Seumalo, Jordan Richards, Eric Kendricks, maybe even a Connor Halliday, etc. will garner some postseason honors.

In coming up with this list, we first looked at returning All-Americans and then returning all-conference players. Hard to believe that DAT was only an honorable mention last year – but it’s true. Yet he’s ranked on this list ahead of several players who got first- or second-team all-league honors last year such as Hroniss Grasu, Ben Gardner, Xavier Su’a-Filo and Morgan Breslin.

No one is disputing his big-play ability and explosiveness. I think most folks are just waiting to see what his role is going to be in 2013. And if he continues the same production with increased touches, we’re going to see him ranked much higher in January.


Brett in Portland, Ore., writes: Is it just me or is the Stanford hype this year a little premature. It seems like the trendy pick is to pick the Cardinal over the Ducks for the North title, but looking at the results from last year, eight of Stanford's 12 wins were by a touchdown or less, compared to 0 for Oregon. In fact, outside of the loss to Stanford, the only game Oregon played that was in doubt in the fourth quarter was against USC. Teams like Oregon State, Washington, Arizona, and Washington State were close to Stanford -- a few different bounces and the Cardinal are an eight-win team. These teams were simply not overmatched against Oregon. Even looking at the bowl games, Oregon notched a much more impressive win, blowing out No. 6 Kansas State while Stanford only beat unranked Wisconsin by 6. Are these preseason predictions based on uncertainty over Oregon's coaching situation, or is there something else I'm missing?

Kevin Gemmell: Actually, the Pac-12 blog is going against the grain in picking the Cardinal to win the conference. The rest of the media that covers the Pac-12 picked Oregon to win the division and the Ducks are ranked ahead of Stanford in the ESPN.com power rankings and the coaches poll.

This wasn’t an easy selection – at least on my end – for some of the reasons that you mentioned. But anytime there is a coaching change, there is some hesitation. And it’s actually some of those reasons that you mentioned about Stanford winning close games that gave them a 51-49 edge when I filled out my ballot.

If the Cardinal had graduated a ton of players from last year’s team, it would be a completely different story. But the fact that they have so many of those veterans back who are used to playing in tight games should actually be more reassuring. It’s unlikely Stanford will be in a situation they haven’t seen before. When you look at Oregon, however, the only time they got into a tight game in the fourth quarter, they lost. That’s not to say it will happen again -– some of Oregon’s pups from last season are more mature and hopefully learned from that. The fact that Oregon hadn’t really been in a tight game before the Stanford showdown worked against them. Even the USC game -– which was 34-31 with 10 minutes left in the third –- never really felt like a close game.

The bottom line is these two teams play very different styles of football. Once again, Stanford probably won’t be the sort of team that wins by 28 points every week, which is fine. They aren’t built that way. A win is a win. Both should be really, really good this year and both should be fun to watch. Can’t wait until Nov. 7.

I put a lot of time and thought into my power rankings and predictions. But I also know, just as fans, coaches and players do, that the only rankings that matter are at the end of the season.


Jim in Chicago writes: Is there an appreciable aftereffect from playing an especially physical team? The reason I ask is because two of the tougher games on Oregon's schedule (since they don't play USC or ASU, or a nonconference opponent with a pulse) are UCLA and Washington, who conveniently enough are playing Stanford the week before the Ducks.

Kevin Gemmell: Depends on what your definition is appreciable aftereffect is. Are players more likely to be sore after a physical game? Of course. Is there a greater chance for injury –- maybe? Though I don’t think so. Every team hits hard. And sometimes it’s the hits that don’t look as hard on the outside that ring the most on the inside.

The idea of “physical” football, I think, is more applicable to within the game. A physical team wears down opponents over the course of the game. Five-yard runs in the first-half turn into 2-yard runs in the second half because of a physical defense. Likewise, 2-yard runs in the first half turn into 7-yard runs in the second half with a physical offense. A quarterback who takes a number of hits in the first half will start to feel it more in the second half. QB hits is a very important, yet underrated stat. As for week-long impact, I wouldn’t read too much into it. These are young men who are in phenomenal shape. They tend to bounce back pretty quickly from soreness and other ailments that would keep most of us on the couch for two weeks.


Jon in Salt Lake City writes: Why is everyone just penciling a win for OSU against Utah. Utah steamrolled OSU in 2011 and held them to their lowest total yards (263) and yards per play (3.51). Utah was ultimately undone by four turnovers. This just isn't a good matchup for the Beavs; expect a close one.

Kevin Gemmell: I think “pencil” is the operative word here. I’m certainly not putting it in ink. But I think it’d be fair to say that the Beavers will at least be road favorites.

I mentioned in the Oregon State season preview that I thought they had a good chance to start 7-0 or 6-1. I’d say if there was going to be a loss, Utah would probably be the team to do it. It’s a home game for Utah, which helps, and we’ve all been looking forward to some improvement in the Utes offense this year.

However, I still think, as of today, Oregon State is still favored. They’re going to pass it quite a bit and there are a lot of question marks in the Utah secondary right now. I’m certainly not saying it’s a 100 percent win for the Beavers. But it’s hard not to look at Utah as an underdog in that game given some of the question marks surrounding the defense.


Larry in Los Angeles writes: You made a funny with your all-scrabble team reference. I liked that. Who else is on your all-scrabble team?

Kevin Gemmell: Ted and I have been known to make the occasional funny. During that media day chat, however, I think the best line went to Ted with this gem:
Ted Miller: BREAKING: Graham just said that Arizona State would attempt to play 2 games at a time this year.

Ted Miller: CORRECTION: He said one game. My bad.

But back to the original question. I quickly eye-balled all of the rosters – but I didn’t go through and do the math on every player. After all, we’re not in the business of goofing off on the Pac-12 blog.

After a quick scan, I’ve decided that the MVP of my all-scrabble team is Oregon State’s Tyrequek Zimmerman. By my count, 43 points without double or triple scores. It’s money when you can get a “Q” a “Z” and a “K” all put together. I’m sure there is a higher-scoring name out there. I’d encourage you all this weekend to go over every name on every roster and report back to me on Monday. Go forth and get your scrabble on.
Who is this year’s Johnny Manziel in the Pac-12? In other words, which player could come out of nowhere and win the Heisman from the conference? Well, if we knew, he wouldn't be coming out of nowhere in the preseason, now, would he?

Perhaps it is better that the Pac-12’s elite players are coasting below Mr. Heisman's persnickety radar. After all, front-runner status hasn't been kind to the Pac-12 the past couple of years. Two seasons ago it was Andrew Luck -- a shoo-in from the day he announced his return to take home the Heisman. Last year, it was Matt Barkley who had the unpropitious front-runner title pegged on him.

Luck carried the title much longer in his final season. Barkley, however, quickly gave way to Geno Smith, who in turn gave way to Collin Klein, who in turn fell to Johnny Football.

[+] EnlargeMarion Grice
Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY SportsArizona State's Marion Grice averaged 6.6 yards per carry and had 11 touchdowns last season.
So how about the Pac-12?

Marcusy Football?

Marqy Football?

DATy Football?

Ka’Deemy Football?

Bretty Football?

Not exactly phonetically pleasing.

Within the Pac-12, there aren't many dark-horse candidates. There are some front-runners who immediately come to mind: Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and De’Anthony Thomas, USC’s Marqise Lee, Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey and UCLA’s Brett Hundley. But none of them are considered national front-runners with Manziel (maybe?) back to defend his title, Braxton Miller coming off a perfect season, AJ McCarron and his ridiculous 30-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio last year and Teddy Bridgewater soaking up his share of hype.

You can make a case for all five in the preseason. Mariota and Thomas will be playing for a top-five team, which always helps garner the necessary attention from the national media, and they should continue to put up video game numbers. Hundley is one of the most exciting players in the league, and with a year of maturity, many are anxious to see just how far he can lead the Bruins. Lee was last year’s Biletnikoff winner and is arguably the top skill player in the country. Carey was last year’s national leader in rushing. Solid credentials for all.

But this is about the sleepers. The guys who are so under the radar they're practically stealth. So who are they?

You have to start with ASU’s Marion Grice, who is going to continue putting up fantastic dual-threat numbers as a runner and receiver. He’s packed on more weight and ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said they've expanded the playbook now that he and quarterback Taylor Kelly are a year into the system. (Probably not a bad idea to keep an eye on Kelly, either).

Stanford’s Kevin Hogan could also be a sleeper. Like the Oregon duo, he’ll be on a high-profile team that is going to get plenty of national exposure with showdowns against Oregon, UCLA, USC and Notre Dame on the 2013 docket. He’s not as flashy as the other players and his numbers might not be as lofty, but he’s asked to do a lot more behind the scenes than a lot of other quarterbacks. That was Luck’s brilliance, as well as his Heisman curse.

The appearance of Manti Te’o in New York last year proved defensive players aren't immune to getting some attention in the spread era. So UCLA’s Anthony Barr and ASU’s Will Sutton certainly deserve to be in the conversation if we’re talking defensive players. Both should be atop the national defensive rankings in sacks and tackles for a loss. But both will have to play well enough to surpass the well-deserved hype of South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney and overcome the public perception of the Pac-12 when it comes to defense. As I’ve written previously, the Heisman is all about subjectivity and perception. (Full disclosure, I have Clowney No. 1 on my preseason Heisman ballot).

Finally, a guy who I think is really a long shot -- but should be getting more love than he is -- is Oregon State running back Storm Woods. In the Beavers’ first six games against FBS opponents in 2013, they face only one defense that ranked in the top 20 last year in total rushing yards allowed (Utah), and only one other in the top 50 (San Diego State). The opportunity will be there early in the season for Woods to make a name for himself. He’s got four of five offensive linemen coming back (including an outstanding center), an offense that wants to be more balanced, and a quarterback-to-be-named who is a veteran and knows the offense. He’s also really, really good.

It’s probably best not to put all your hopes into one of these guys winning the Heisman. For now, it’s safer to track the conference front-runners. But don’t sleep on these guys, either.

The next Stormy Football is just waiting to breakout.
Are two Pac-12 teams the closest programs in the nation to winning their first national title?

That's what Athlon Sports asserted after it noted that "The last time a team won a national championship for the first time in program history was 1996 when Florida defeated Florida State in the Sugar Bowl."

Those two teams? Not too hard to guess: Oregon is No. 1 and Stanford is No. 2 on the list.

This is its take on Oregon:
A dormant program before Rich Brooks took Oregon to the Rose Bowl in 1994, Oregon has been knocking on the door for its first national title, losing 22-19 to Auburn in the BCS Championship Game in 2010. Auburn’s fortunate call on a run by Michael Dyer in the fourth quarter wasn’t the only time luck went against the Ducks. Oregon was ranked second in the AP and coaches’ polls after the 2001 regular season, but the BCS' computer average and strength of schedule components put No. 2 Nebraska into the Rose Bowl for the title against Miami. The 2007 team was ranked as high No. 2 in the BCS standings until quarterback Dennis Dixon suffered a torn ACL. Each coach since Brooks has kept Oregon in the national title conversation. That bodes well first year-coach Mark Helfrich, who has a title contender in 2013. Especially with minimal sanctions from the NCAA in the Willie Lyles case, the infrastructure is strong for Oregon to win its first title.

And Stanford:
The thought of Stanford competing for a national championship would have been far-fetched before 2010. Even Ty Willingham’s Rose Bowl team in 1999 finished the regular season 8-3. Few programs have changed their spot in the college football world as dramatically as Stanford in the last five years. David Shaw signed a top-10 recruiting class in 2012 and followed that with a quality-not-quantity 12-man class in 2013. Jim Harbaugh and Shaw proved Stanford can compete for titles despite stringent academic standards.

Athlon had South Carolina No. 3, and it mentions California as a team of note (keep in mind these have to be teams that have never won a national title).

If you were projecting a likely 2013 national title game, it probably would be Alabama-Ohio State. Both are good teams that play favorable schedules that are conducive to going undefeated.

If you were to offer a next guess, it would be the winner of the Oregon-Stanford game on Nov. 7.
The 2013 NFL draft was terrible for the Pac-12. It was worse than any draft since 2000.

Well, other than 2012, when the draft looked a lot like the one last weekend, with 28 players also picked. The conference had 28 players picked in 2010, but that was a 10-team conference.

In short, the last two years haven't been good for the conference in terms of NFL love, and that matters in terms of national perception of how good the conference really is. Perception matters, both within our subjective systems for measuring college football teams against each other and for how recruits perceive conferences and teams.

Meanwhile, there's the SEC, which over the weekend probably posted the greatest numbers for a college conference in NFL draft history, with 63 selections, including 32 in the first three rounds. Even when you break it down by per team numbers, the SEC's 4.5 picks per team far outstrips the Pac-12's 2.33 players per team.

This is not old news, folks. The SEC hasn't long dominated the NFL draft, as some might try to convince you. The Pac-10, in fact, had decisively better per team numbers in 2008 (3.4 vs. 2.92) and was also better in 2009 (3.2 vs. 3.1).

Even last year, the SEC wasn't that far ahead of the rest of the FBS conferences. Remember the woeful Big Ten, much maligned for its terrible 2013 draft numbers? It had 41 players drafted in 2012, just one fewer than the SEC.

The SEC did have a huge 2010 draft with 49 players selected (4.1 per team), so the present momentum isn't entirely new. It's just the "Wow" factor this go-around seems more substantial as a pattern. And meaningful.

Yet this long lead-in, which might have glazed over some eyeballs, isn't about looking back. It's about looking ahead, with both hope and concern for the Pac-12 and, really, the rest of college football.

You might have heard this: The SEC has won seven consecutive BCS national titles. That makes it reasonable to view the conference as a favorite to make it eight in a row before we jump into a four-team playoff in 2014. And many believe the SEC will then dominate that playoff.

I feel I'm being optimistic for the other AQ conferences when I respond, "Maybe."

So I asked myself a question while being agog over the SEC draft numbers: That should come with a noticeable talent drain, correct? I know SEC recruiting also rates highly, but losing 4.5 NFL draftable players per team, with much of that coming from the perennial powers, has to have an impact.

Right?

Well, in terms of 2013 returning starters, the Pac-12 stacks up well with the SEC. While returning starters numbers are a bit fluid (and often overrated), my review has the SEC averaging 14.6 returning starters compared to 16.3 for the Pac-12.

But that's not the Pac-12's entry point.

It's this:
  • The SEC's top-six teams (Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Texas A&M, Florida and South Carolina) average 12.3 returning starters.
  • The Pac-12's top-six teams (Stanford, Oregon, UCLA, Oregon State, USC, Arizona State and Washington) average 16.5 returning starters.

So the Pac-12, generally regarded as the No. 2 AQ conference during the rise of the SEC, stacks up nicely.

Further, the Pac-12 looks like it will do far better in the 2014 NFL draft, though schools aren't eager to consider the potential early departures of players such as Oregon QB Marcus Mariota or Washington TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins.

While SEC commissioner Mike Slive and SEC fans surely wouldn't agree, it would be good for college football for another conference to win the national title in 2013. It would send us into the College Football Playoff not fretting that the sport was becoming a handful of minor leagues surrounding the SEC.

At least not as much.

But just imagine if the SEC wins another title and then produces another draft of 60-plus players, a decidedly better total than everyone else. Yikes.

A few years ago, there were cracks in the "SEC rules!" argument. There were grounds for debate and ready-made ripostes. Now? Not so much.

As already noted more than a few times, the Pac-12 stacks up nicely for 2013. While "now or never" sounds a bit dramatic, it's not unreasonable to fear that if it's not now, it could feel closer to never -- or at least exceedingly rare -- as we begin the College Football Playoff.

Pac-12 coaches not among the elite?

April, 10, 2013
4/10/13
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Everybody loves rankings lists, and college football fans -- by necessity -- seem to like lists even more than average folk.

So we have Athlon making another list. First it ranked Pac-12 coaches. Now it ranks all 125 coaches for FBS programs.

Obviously, any ranking like this is highly subjective, as Kevin noted with his notes on the Pac-12 coach rankings.

I really like Athlon's top three. That would be mine. If Chip Kelly were still at Oregon, I'd rank him third, but he is not.

After that? Well, there were some head-scratchers.

LSU's Les Miles way down at No. 24? New Arkansas and former Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema buried at No. 25? Vanderbilt's second-year coach James Franklin way up at 17? Three words: No, No, No.

There is no conceivable way to rank Franklin ahead of Miles, WHO HAS WON A NATIONAL TITLE!, nor is it reasonable to rate Franklin over Stanford's David Shaw, WHO HAS WON A ROSE BOWL, nor Bielema who owns THREE BIG TEN TITLES and won 68 games in seven years at Wisconsin.

Franklin? He's done some nice things at Vandy, making a terrible program respectable, but please identify for me a signature win from 2012? Or 2011. I'll wait here.

Yep. Nada.

Just last season, Shaw, who is No. 1 in the Pac-12 but only 20th in the nation, beat Oregon, which finished ranked No. 2, and WON THE ROSE BOWL. He's a muffed field goal away from winning consecutive BCS bowl games.

Vanderbilt, winners of the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl over the doughty NC State a year after losing to Cincinnati in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, took advantage of a weakened SEC East, and it's notable that the one adventurous nonconference tilt ended up a double-digit loss at Northwestern. You know: The so-called slow Big Ten.

And I think Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is a bit high at No. 12, too.

(Deep breath) OK ... I'm OK.

Anyway: Here's how Athlon ranked the Pac-12 coaches in the nation (national rank).
  1. David Shaw, Stanford (20)
  2. Mike Riley, Oregon State (21)
  3. Rich Rodriguez, Arizona (22)
  4. Todd Graham, Arizona State (29)
  5. Mike Leach, Washington State (31)
  6. Mike MacIntyre, Colorado (44)
  7. Steve Sarkisian, Washington (45)
  8. Jim Mora, UCLA (54)
  9. Kyle Whittingham, Utah (55)
  10. Sonny Dykes, California (56)
  11. Lane Kiffin, USC (57)
  12. Mark Helfrich, Oregon (73)
Is Notre Dame for real? (Skip.) Is Notre Dame for real? (Skip.) Is Notre Dame for real? (Skip.)

Yes, the college football punditry and peanut gallery can sound like a broken record. The Fighting Irish are 5-0 and ranked seventh, and almost every sign suggests legitimacy, but, well, we've been down this road before. And not only with Notre Dame. It wasn't too long ago that everyone was blowing kisses at Florida State -- the Seminoles are finally back -- before it became a national punch line or cautionary tale, however you wish to view a loss at NC State.

Notre Dame plays host to No. 17 Stanford on Saturday. The Cardinal might present the Irish their toughest test yet. Stanford, after all, beat USC. Whipped the once-No. 2 Trojans at the line of scrimmage, no less.

Of course, Stanford also wilted against Washington, making a Huskies defense that would get decimated by Oregon look stout.

[+] EnlargeStepfan Taylor
George Nkitin/AP PhotoStepfan Taylor and Stanford can perhaps clear the national title picture a bit by toppling undefeated Notre Dame.
The gist here is there is still a lot of fog over the college football season. We all say stuff, perhaps even with a feigned certainty -- Alabama is unbeatable! -- but we don't really know. The season remains rife with variables and plot twists, even with the first BCS standings being released Sunday.

There are 14 undefeated teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision (Ohio State isn't eligible for the postseason due to NCAA sanctions). Some teams mostly feel -- fairly or unfairly -- like curiosities: three in the Big East (Cincinnati, Louisville and Rutgers), Ohio, Louisiana Tech, Oregon State and Mississippi State. Others own undeniable heft: Alabama, Oregon, South Carolina, Florida, West Virginia, Kansas State and, yes, Notre Dame.

Odd that this weekend's Red River Rivalry feels so far off the radar, although both Texas and Oklahoma could play roles in winnowing the contenders and pretenders. The Sooners still have dates with Notre Dame and West Virginia, while the Longhorns conclude the season against Kansas State.

The "what ifs" are rampant. Such as: What if Alabama, Notre Dame and Oregon all finish undefeated; who then plays for the title? Or switch out Oregon with West Virginia or Kansas State. There are the multiple unbeaten quandaries, and then there are all the best of the once-beaten comparisons, such as: Can USC get back into the national title hunt?

Again, so many variables in our penultimate season yoked by the lovely BCS system. It's difficult to predict how pollsters will react. And don't even start with the computers. With strength of schedule, it's not just what your team has accomplished, but what all its foes did. And all its foes' foes. Etc., etc.

What's also interesting is that the march toward clarity isn't always linear. At any moment, a couple of upsets can put a boot print in our consensus expectations. For example, what might have happened last season if LSU had been nipped in the SEC title game?

The good news is a page will turn next week. If Kansas State and West Virginia both survive tricky road games this weekend -- the Wildcats are at Iowa State, and the Mountaineers are at Texas Tech -- they meet in Morgantown on Oct. 20, so one of the Big 12's two unbeatens will fall.

Same goes for the SEC East. If No. 3 South Carolina manages to win at No. 9 LSU on Saturday, a visit to No. 4 Florida on Oct. 20 seems like the Rubicon for the division. Only one unbeaten will remain in the division, just as only one unbeaten -- Alabama or Mississippi State -- can emerge from the West.

And, if everyone then holds serve, we could have an epic No. 1 versus No. 2 matchup in the SEC title game.

But, alas, that's getting ahead of ourselves.

We started with the notion that Stanford will provide a nice test for Notre Dame's legitimacy. The Cardinal, after all, are riding a three-game winning streak in the series.

But we know past success doesn't guarantee future results. Just look at your 401K. Or the Fighting Irish's storied history.

Is Notre Dame for real? Heck, is anyone for real?

It's probably best to turn to one of history's great college football pundits at times like this. As Socrates once noted when his preseason picks imploded, "I know one thing, that I know nothing."

Or, more charitably, at least very little.
No one can accuse the Pac-12 of taking it easy when it comes to scheduling. So when Bruce Feldman broke down what he considers the 10 toughest schedules of 2012, it's no surprise that three Pac-12 teams landed in that top 10 -- including two in the top three.

Here's Feldman's list:
  1. Notre Dame
  2. Washington
  3. Oregon State
  4. Michigan
  5. Kansas
  6. Ole Miss
  7. Auburn
  8. Iowa State
  9. Cal
  10. South Carolina
Feldman on Washington: The Huskies start with San Diego State (which has won 17 games the past two seasons), then venture off to Baton Rouge to face a loaded LSU squad. After the encounter with the Tigers, they get FCS Portland State before the Huskies get into the teeth of their schedule: a three-game stretch against Stanford, the most physical team in the Pac-12, at Oregon and then home against USC to wrap things up against the league's three most talented teams.

On Oregon State: In the second half of the season, when coach Mike Riley very likely will be battling to keep his job, his team has to deal with Utah, Washington, ASU, Stanford, Cal and Oregon, which translates to probably five of the six best teams in the league.

On Cal: The Bears get seven home games, which is nice but they also have back-to-back road trips to Ohio State and USC in the opening month of the season. There is also a four-game stretch of Stanford, at Utah, Washington and Oregon and that comes right after a trip to Wazzu, which is going to be a handful for teams to prepare for this fall.

And just to throw a fourth team into the mix, I think you can easily make an argument for USC to be on this list as well. The four-game swing at Stanford, home to Cal, at Utah and at Washington is sure to take its toll -- considering those are three of the top defensive fronts in the conference. Then there is the much-anticipated showdown with Oregon at home on Nov. 3 before closing out the year at home against Notre Dame.
The Heisman Pundit has released its official 2012 Heisman Trophy Watch List, and as you’d expect, it’s the usual suspects from the Pac-12 on the list.

Though in alphabetical order, it’s widely assumed that USC quarterback Matt Barkley is the front-runner with all others playing catch-up before the first snap has been taken. Here’s the list.
The Pac-12 blog entertained which player from the conference we thought would emerge as the Heisman winner in a Take 2 back in March. Watch lists are always subject to change, and until we actually see some games, it’s only fun speculation at this point.

No question that Barkley is the early leader in the minds of many. Given his statistics last season, the receivers he has around him and the lofty preseason ranking the Trojans are expected to enjoy, he’s looking down on the pack – at least for now.

Thomas is going to have big play after big play this season, which makes him a very strong Heisman candidate. His exploits can be packaged into an explosive highlight reel that is easily digestible for East Coast voters. No one ever gets tired of seeing 85-yard touchdown runs (unless you're safeties chasing Thomas).

Price lacks the national brand at this point, but that could all change in Week 2 in Baton Rouge. A strong showing against LSU is certain to boost his exposure and could catapult him from dark horse contender to major candidate. And then he's got Stanford, Oregon and USC all in the first six games. He could be the leader at the turn ... or slip out of the running all together.

Opening the mailbag: Why did SEC rise?

October, 7, 2011
10/07/11
5:41
PM ET
Happy Friday.

Lead me on Twitter!

To the notes!

John from Los Angeles writes: What, in your opinion, do you think, has made the SEC the preeminent conference in the country? I remember the good old days when Washington, Colorado, UCLA, and USC were in the top 5 and top 10, with some National Championships along the way (Personally, I thought it had a lot to do with recruiting the Los Angeles area). But with the rise of the SEC do you think it has more to do with the changing of the game? More specifically, the move to more spread offenses and the need for speedier athletes, which the SEC currently has? Or do you think it has a lot to do with the defensive lineman in the SEC, who seem to be so much better than West Coast d-lineman? A lot of people say conference strength is cyclical, but is the current change in the game really cyclical or has it just evolved? Maybe it is demographics, as more and more people move to the Sunbelt and the talent pool has gotten bigger? Sorry, a lot to digest here from a concerned West Coast football fan.

Ted Miller: This could be a 15,000-word essay. Or a 400-page book. But here's a CliffsNotes version.
  • Money: The SEC's rise parallels the rise of the BCS and the game growing from a pretty big business to a multi-billion dollar business. The SEC always had huge stadiums packed to overflow, but over the past 15 or so years, the conference has been able to monetize its popularity. What does money do? It hires elite coaches like Nick Saban, Urban Meyer and Steve Spurrier and it pays top assistant coaches what head coaches make in other conferences.
  • Recruiting: Demographics have concentrated more talent in the Southeast than anywhere else. You've got big guys and fast guys and fast big guys. (I mean Anthony Johnson: Are you kidding me?). The population may be greater in California, which still produces the premium quarterbacks, but a walk across a football field on a Friday night in the Southeast will have you asking if these are truly high school teams.
  • Culture: College football is king in the South (not the NFL, as it is everywhere else). Almost all the best athletes play football, and dream of playing in college, even though playing the most physically and mentally taxing sport in the Southeast humidity is worse than anywhere else. Want to know where all the West Coast linemen are? Playing basketball. Go to a big high school hoops tournament this winter. See all those 6-foot-5 guys? They will never sniff a Division I basketball court but they could have become NFL tight ends or offensive tackles. 100s of young men on the West Coast miss out every year on Pac-12 scholarships because they choose -- or are steered to -- basketball.
  • Self-fulfilling prophecy: Those who have been reading the Pac-12 blog since 2008, know I've taken on the topic of the SEC's dominance multiple times. Three years ago, I was more resistant to it. Not because I was a "Pac-10 homer," but because I didn't completely buy the "SEC rules" argument. That was three SEC national titles ago, including one lost by a Pac-10 team -- Oregon -- that I thought was going to stomp the team it lost to (Auburn). My feeling is all that "SEC rules!" talk, which has been around since Bear Bryant was the toast to of Tuscaloosa, was repeated so often, it became a recognized truth before it actually was true. And that perception helped the conference grow stronger and stronger until it became true. How? It also became a potent recruiting selling point. Consider the words of former top-rated recruit Ronald Powell of Moreno Valley, Calif. Yeah, not easy to hear for Pac-12 defensive coaches.

By the way, I know some of you might be tired of this topic. It seems like we take it on a few times a year. The reason I do that, though, is because it appears in the mailbag at least a handful of times every week. It seems like a topic that continues to be of genuine interest.


Brian from Beaverton, Ore., writes: While you can't argue with the overall effectiveness of James at running back this year, have you noticed that even though they are running the spread offense, the majority of these running plays do not appear to be as read heavy between [QB Darron] Thomas and [RB LaMichael] James as they were last year? With Thomas being such an effective duel threat quarterback they are effectively removing an offensive weapon when he isn't taking the read option as much. This is allowing the defense to load up the tackle box and focus on the running back. Last year the defense had to be more honest because Thomas was more effective at holding onto the option and rushing himself. Do you see this as a fundamental change within the system or am I reading too much into it?

Ted Miller: Chip Kelly has said repeatedly that Thomas is just doing his proper reads and has not been steered away from running the ball.

Of course, sometimes Chip just says "high" because a reporter said "low." I know that an opposing coach who was talking to me about the 3-4 looks Oregon sometimes uses on defense laughed in my face when I told him that Kelly said they didn't use a 3-4 defense. His response, which employed several colorful terms, was Kelly is full of malarkey and that reporters are stupid.

Thomas rushed for 486 yards in 13 games last year. He's rushed for 100 yards through five games. That does seem like a statistical trend suggesting he's running less. Is that just him reading what the defense gives him? I doubt it.

That said, Thomas rushed 10 times for 52 yards and scored both his rushing TDs against Arizona. So the threat is still there.

And, if I were going to crawl inside Chip Kelly's head and look around, I'd say that's exactly what he wants.

Because the Ducks run a spread-option, an opposing defense has to spend time accounting for the QB run. That takes up precious time. And if a defense coordinator takes note that Thomas rushed only five times in the first three games and decides to de-emphasize that possibility, he could get burned -- see Arizona.

Coaches spend a lot of time thinking about tendencies and what their opposition might be thinking. I think Kelly -- quite reasonably -- likes the idea of Thomas running less because it puts him at less risk for injury. But he also likes burning your butt when you start to think Thomas won't run.


Mark from La Quinta, Calif., writes: Do you agree with your colleague Jesse Palmer when he stated that Cal had the two best wide outs in the conference? Or was he hyping the game as a lot of announcers tend to do on games they are broadcasting?

Ted Miller: There are so many good receiver combos in the Pac-12 it's hard to choose, but Palmer's position is defensible: Entering the weekend, Keenan Allen ranked third and Marvin Jones sixth in the Pac-12 in receiving yards per game. No other tandem matched that. And that's notable because QB Zach Maynard only ranked fifth in passing yards per game (268.2).

Allen will be in the mix with USC's Robert Woods, Washington State's Marquess Wilson and Arizona's Juron Criner for first-team All-Pac-10. He's a big-time player. I suspect Jones will get drafted this spring.

So these guys are both good, experienced, A-list players.

So do I share Palmer's take? I might not have in the preseason, and I might not at season's end, but at this point, yes, they are the best 1-2 punch in the conference.


Jacob from Fort Hood, Texas, writes: I feel as though Foles is getting the shaft because he is on a losing record team, but can you tell me why he isn't even being considered for the Heisman award even though he has more passing yardage than nearly every qb in the country? It doesn't make sense to me. Maybe you can shed some light on how the voting works and who is deserving in reality of the Heisman trophy. Is it more of a beauty pageant than an award for shear talent? Also, if Foles continues down the path that he is heading what round of the draft do you think that he will be picked up in?

Ted Miller: The Heisman Trophy goes to a player for one of two reasons (and sometimes both). 1. Outrageous numbers; 2. Best player on best team. Often, those two are blended.

To start, Foles wasn't billed as a top candidate entering the season. Further, he is hurt because his team is 1-4.

To overcome those two issues, Foles would have to have outrageous numbers. He's got very good numbers, but not outrageous ones. He presently ranks 22nd in the nation in passing efficiency. And though he's piled up a lot of yards, 10 other QBs match or beat Foles' 14 TD passes.

As for the NFL draft, it's hard to say. I would be more surprised if he lasted past the third round than if he was selected in the first round. If you've ever chatted with him, he's a lot like Andrew Luck in terms of makeup. Smart, humble, eager to give credit to his teammates. And clearly very competitive.


Evan from Charlottesville, Va., writes: You've written a couple times on the puzzling exclusion of LaMichael James from the current Heisman discussion. What is particularly confusing to me, however, is the fact that you yourself left him off of your ESPN Heisman Watch ballot this week. Assuming you vote Andrew Luck at number one, who filled out the rest of your ballot in spots two through five? And if you rated any other running backs ahead of James, what was your reasoning?

Ted Miller: We do a top-five for ESPN.com each week. Here's mine from last week.

1. Andrew Luck. 2. Kellen Moore; 3. Trent Richardson; 4. Robert Griffin; 5. Marcus Lattimore

(In retrospect, I should have dropped Lattimore after two straight underwhelming games).

My reasoning for leaving James off the ballot was twofold: 1. He didn't play well on a big stage against LSU (which he admitted); 2. His competition since then has been weak. His performance this week against a solid Cal defense will likely push him into my top five. Of course, now he's hurt and likely to miss at least a couple of weeks.

And if he doesn't, that would certainly add to his aura of being Heisman-worthy.


Spencer from Baton Rouge, La., writes: Because I live a couple thousand miles away from the West Coast, Thursday's game against Oregon was the first time I have watched Cal play this season. Having listened to the other games via online radio streams, I knew Maynard struggled with accuracy. But I was shocked to see how poor his throwing mechanics are. How does a QB guru such as Jeff Tedford let such play fly? Granted, Maynard has not yet thrown the interceptions that Riley and Mansion did (which I attribute to poor decision making), but it is extremely surprising that Tedford would feel comfortable with the way Maynard throws the ball.

Ted Miller: Without asking Tedford, my guess is that he chose not to mess with Maynard's natural throwing motion too much. Maynard is 22-years-old. Making drastic changes wouldn't be easy, especially with Maynard arriving at Cal as a junior, not a true freshman.

Sure, Maynard did have to sit out last year after transferring from Buffalo, meaning he could have refined his technique to a degree. I suspect Tedford has worked with him on his technique. But it might have been pretty late in the game for wholesale changes.

And I'm guessing that Maynard will get lots of work with Tedford based on how he threw at Oregon.


Rotfogel from Oakland writes: You have Cal only scoring 17? Oregon's porous defense is going to hold the Pac 12's best WR tandem and offensive to 17? Maybe, highly unlikely but as you've said, Oregon is a tough place to play. I'm kinda happy you made that the score though, Cal's defense is far and away the Pac 12s best, hopefully they show it tonight.

Ted Miller: I predicted 44-17. Oregon won 43-15.

I know: Gloating is unseemly. So sorry about that.

And is it just me or does it seem like the mailbag fills up more when I'm wrong than when I'm right?


Pete from Los Angeles writes: Not sure if you saw this, but the Times of London's prestigious international rankings of the top 400 universities was released this week, and the Pac 12 has 4 schools in the top 25...in the world! No other AQ conference comes close. Once again shows that the Pac 12 is dominant in at least one category!

Ted Miller: We are so smart.

Will I pick up any second-hand smart from hanging around with you guys?

Football Writers release national poll

August, 22, 2011
8/22/11
6:00
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The Football Writers Association (FWAA) 16-team preseason Grantland Rice Poll slots Oregon No. 3 and Stanford No. 7, just like the Associated Press.

Oklahoma is No. 1 and Alabama is No. 2, also just like the AP.

You can view the entire poll here.

The Sooners garnered seven first-place votes to Alabama’s five. LSU, Stanford and South Carolina each received one first-place vote.

The Grantland Rice Trophy, given to college football's national champion since 1954, is named in memory of the legendary sportswriter. It was the first national championship awarded presented after college football's postseason.

While the FWAA will not conduct a weekly poll this season, it will present the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl National Team of the Week each Monday, as selected by a panel of select FWAA members.

Who's an All-American?

June, 1, 2011
6/01/11
4:27
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There will be a steady flow of various All-American teams over the coming weeks, and this week it's Phil Steele.

You can see his four All-American teams here.

Steele's list includes 17 Pac-12 players, which ranks third behind the SEC (26) and ACC (18).

Alabama, Oklahoma and Oregon each have three first-team selections, while Alabama had more players total (7) than any other school, followed by Florida St (6) and Stanford (5). Oklahoma, South Carolina, Miami, Georgia, and Notre Dame each have four players.

You might notice that Stanford's Andrew Luck is the second-team quarterback. You might have the same reaction to that as I did.

Kellye and Kevin Jones of Artesia, N.M, would pick Luck ahead of Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones for their team, and they're Jones' parents.

Jones did put up some eye-popping numbers last season -- and his team is a national title contender in 2011 -- but he was far less efficient than Luck.

Here are the Pac-12 players on the team.

First-team
Offense
RB LaMichael James, Oregon
OG Ryan Miller, Colorado

Defense
LB Vontaze Burfict, Arizona State
CB Cliff Harris, Oregon

Special teams
PR Cliff Harris, Oregon

Second-team
Offense
QB Andrew Luck, Stanford
WR Juron Criner, Arizona
OG David DeCastro, Stanford
OT Jonathan Martin, Stanford

Defense
S Delano Howell, Stanford

Third-team
Offense
WR Robert Woods, USC

Defense
T.J. McDonald, USC

Special teams
P Bryan Anger, California

Fourth-team
Offense
RB Chris Polk, Washington
WR Jermaine Kearse, Washington

Defense
LB Shayne Skov, Stanford

Special teams
P Jeff Locke, UCLA
It's not often that NC State has something to offer the Pac-12, but more than a few of you apparently think the Wolfpack and coach Tom O'Brien have a gift for the Conference of Quarterbacks: Russell Wilson.

Some of you say, "Who?" Others exclaim, "Go west Russell! Go west!"

Wilson, as ESPN.com's Ryan McGee points out Insider, is presently the second baseman for the Class A Asheville Tourists of the South Atlantic League. But in a previous incarnation he was a dual-threat quarterback for the Wolfpack, one who led the ACC in total offense (3,563 yards passing, 435 rushing).

[+] EnlargeNC State's Russell Wilson
Scott A. Miller/US PRESSWIRERussell Wilson is free to join other football programs, but he is under contract with the Colorado Rockies.
And O'Brien has released him from his scholarship, which means he can play anywhere free-and-clear next fall (other than another ACC team or NC State nonconference foe).

Hey, California and UCLA: Is that something you might be interested in?

Sure, it might make sense for Wilson to remain in the region, which means the SEC. And South Carolina and Auburn are two schools that might be interested in Wilson. But what about a sense of adventure? Los Angeles or the Bay Area would broaden your horizons, Russell.

There is a catch: baseball. Wilson is under contract with the Colorado Rockies and, as McGee points out, they don't seem terribly flexible about allowing Wilson to skip off this summer for a preseason camp, on the East or West Coast.
[Rockies senior director of player development Marc] Gustafson said he had read the stories and the comments made by Wilson. Asked if he expected Wilson to play for the Tourists until the season ends Sept. 5, he said, "Absolutely."

Sept. 5, obviously, means that Wilson wouldn't be available for the opening of the season on Sept. 3. Would any team be willing to bring him to town, despite missing fall camp and the first game? Well, stranger things have happened but it's not a great formula for locker room chemistry.

Of course, desperate times at quarterback call for desperate measures. And there are always loopholes and politicking that could get Wilson aboard sooner. If Wilson really wants to play football, he will.

The odds, though, seem remote, particularly of him ending up in the Pac-12. But in January 2010, who would have thought that Jeremiah Masoli would end up the starting quarterback at Ole Miss and not Oregon?

Preseason top 25 features three from Pac-12

April, 25, 2011
4/25/11
11:41
AM ET
"College Football Live" has completed its preseason top 25, which was completed by a 38-person panel consisting of our analysts, studio hosts, play-by-play announcers, bloggers, researchers and production team members.

It includes three Pac-12 teams: No. 3 Oregon, No. 7 Stanford and No. 25 Arizona State.

Here's the complete poll.

1. Oklahoma
2. Alabama
3. Oregon
4. LSU
5. Boise State
6. Florida State
7. Stanford
8. South Carolina
9. Oklahoma State
10. Ohio State
11. Texas A&M
12. Arkansas
13. Nebraska
14. Wisconsin
15. TCU
16. Michigan State
17. Notre Dame
18. Florida
19. Virginia Tech
20. Texas
21. Mississippi State
22. Auburn
23. Missouri
24. West Virginia
25. Arizona State

Obviously, this poll makes clear how big the Oregon-LSU game is on Sept. 3 in Cowboys Stadium. Odds are the winner will rise to No. 1, which would then essentially guarantee it a berth in the national title game if it finishes undefeated.

And how times change: Oregon and Stanford ranked in the preseason top-10 and USC nowhere to be found. Not very 2004, eh?

I would have ranked Arizona State higher.

As for the nine unranked members of the Pac-12: Who do you think should have been the fourth ranked team?

Notes: Clowney to Oregon? Top JC back to Utah?

February, 7, 2011
2/07/11
5:01
PM ET
Couple of good notes that might answer your questions. First, lots of folks have emailed asking if Zeus swaggered down from Olympus -- lightning bolts in hand! -- and visited Oregon last weekend. And by "Zeus" of course you know we mean defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the No. 1 recruit in all the land.

The long answer is no. Per Jamie Newberg:
There were rumors that he was making an official visit to Oregon over the weekend, but the fact he was at both of his basketball games Friday and Saturday ended that talk. But expect more talk and speculation about Clowney's future right up until he steps up to the microphone and makes his announcement.

Clowney is picking between Clemson, South Carolina and Alabama on Feb. 14, his 18th birthday.
Keeping with a recruiting focus, ESPN.com's Bruce Feldman asks himself which junior college imports could have the biggest impact on the 2011 season? You might recall that a couple of JC transfers helped Auburn a bit this past season. Feldman ranks eight, and Utah fans concerned about losing Matt Asiata and Eddie Wide will be glad to know John White ranked eighth on his list. Writes Feldman:

The Utes lost two very good runners, but the 5-foot-9, 190-pound back should be a good complement to highly regarded power runner Harvey Langi. "He is an SEC-type talent," says one coach who tried to recruit White.

Sure all of you will love that "SEC-type" talent quip.

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