Pac-12: UCLA Bruins

Hundley/MariotaUSA TODAY SportsBrett Hundley and Marcus Mariota are the Pac-12's best contenders for the 2014 Heisman Trophy.
Not only does late August bring a crush of previews, predictions and all-angles analysis of games that have yet to be played, it also means it's time for the requisite "Pac-12 player-to-be-named is the Heisman frontrunner" column.

Bring it on, Matt Barkley. All in for Andrew Luck. Ain't no one stopping Toby Gerhart. Yeah, we've tapped this dance before. But the last few years the end result has been a lonely solo.

Pac-12 Heisman contenders usually enter the season with considerable hype. And that makes sense given the offensive prowess of the conference. After all, you can eliminate half of the college football population since it's essentially an offensive award. And it stands to reason that the conference known for its innovative offenses and playmakers also produces frontrunners. But lately those frontrunners have been afterthoughts by Black Friday.

No doubt about it, the Pac-12 is in a Heisman drought. The pursuit of a stiff-arm-player has been met by, well, stiff-armed-voters.

The current slump isn't as bad as the 28-year drought from when the award was first given out in 1935 to the time Oregon State's Terry Baker won in 1962. And it's not as long as the 21-year gap between Marcus Allen in '81 and Carson Palmer in 2002 (sorry Pac-12, you don't get to claim Rashaan Salaam in '94).

The last "official" Pac-10/12 player to win the Heisman Trophy was USC quarterback Matt Leinart in 2004, so we're coming up on a decade. There was, of course, the vacated winner of 2005 – Reggie Bush – whose exploits have been wiped from existence.

And so have the trophies.

Bush and USC have returned their cast-bronze mementoes to the Heisman Trust. And a Heisman spokesman was extremely tight-lipped when asked about their location, saying only that they were "locked away in a secure area." No doubt they're being watched over by Tupac and the Knights Templar, along with the location of Atlantis and the alternate ending to The Sopranos that we all really want to believe exists. Don't stop believin'.

According to one report, it's in a storage unit in New York. I imagine it looking something like this ... where it's being examined by ... top men.

If the previous few years fell under the category of "good chance" for the Pac-12 to win a Heisman, then 2014 certainly has to be considered a "great chance." With 10 returning starting quarterbacks bringing national attention to the league, it's two who are taking center stage -- the Oregon Ducks' Marcus Mariota and UCLA Bruins' Brett Hundley.

Both are exciting, dual-threat athletes who are going to put up those monster offensive numbers that Heisman voters gravitate toward. And while the specter of Bush's Heisman season is just that, the national media seems to have come around to the idea the Pac-12 is in the conversation for top conference in college football because of its schedule, its depth and -- above all -- its quarterbacks.

Just as the Pac-12 is a quarterback-driven league, the Heisman has turned into a quarterback-driven award. Every winner since 2000 has been a quarterback except for Mark Ingram in 2009. The spread offense opened up all sorts of possibilities for voters because offensive totals once thought unimaginable are now standard operating production for elite dual-threat quarterbacks. The idea of a player throwing for 3,000 yards and 25 touchdowns and rushing for 700-plus yards and 10 touchdowns once boggled voters' imaginations. Now it's expected of a Heisman winner --widening the gap even further between quarterbacks and all other position groups.

Fortunately for the Pac-12, they have a pair of guys who match the profile. Last season, Mariota passed for 3,665 yards and threw 31 touchdowns to four interceptions. Hundley threw for 3,071 yards and 24 touchdowns to nine interceptions. Mariota rushed for 715 yards and nine scores. Hundley added 748 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground.

It helps too that both players lead teams ranked in the preseason top 10. And both players have high-profile nonconference games early in the season that will draw the eyes of voters East of Lake Tahoe.

Nor does it hurt that both Hundley and Mariota have squeaky clean records, as far as we know. Consider three of the past four winners -- Jameis Winston, Johnny Manziel and Cam Newton -- all had off-field question marks, be it legal or otherwise. Perhaps character will play into Decision 2014? After all, the word "integrity" appears twice in the Heisman Trust mission statement. From what we've seen from Mariota and Hundley so far, they fit the bill.

Both players have said numerous times over the past eight months that they are prepared for the onslaught of attention that comes with a Heisman contending candidacy. Both passed up being first-round NFL draft selections in 2014 to finish their time at school and end their careers -- both hope -- with a trip to the first College Football Playoff.

And in doing so, one of them might also end the Pac-12's Heisman drought.
Welcome to the last football-less Friday mailbag of the year.

Oh. The anticipation.

You can follow me on Twitter here.

To the notes.

Elliot from Oregon writes: Give me your boldest prediction for anything PAC12 related. Don't be shy, Ted.

Ted Miller: Oh, I don't know Elliot. You want me to have an opinion on something and announce it publicly? That sounds pretty scary. What if someone disagrees with me? Or what if you guys start arguing the relative merits of my point and someone gets cross? What if it gets out on Twitter and someone trolls me or writes the dreaded, "Your an idiot" [sic].

Funny you should ask, because we will have Bold Predictions from your entire ESPN.com Pac-12 family -- the #4pac! -- on Tuesday. But I will venture forth with one -- OK three! -- before I blush, effervesce with giggles and canter shyly away.

1. The Pac-12 will go 3-0 against Notre Dame (Arizona State, Stanford and USC).

2. No Pac-12 coach will be fired during or after the season.

3. Ted Miller will be wrong.

OK, I realize the third one is pretty out there, but I've got a feeling it finally happens this year. Maybe.




Brett from Portland writes: Team X is playing in the national championship and you get to choose one Pac 12 coach to coach that team. Who do you choose?

Ted Miller: I can't choose Chip Kelly, right?

I had an immediate response: Stanford's David Shaw. He's been there, see three consecutive BCS bowl games, and he's 14-4 against top-25 teams, best winning percentage in the conference.

Then I rifled through the other options, and the Pac-12 has a lot of good ones. Chris Petersen also has BCS bowl game experience. As does Rich Rodriguez, a guy who really knows how to game plan the heck out of teams with better talent. Not unlike Petersen.

Then I thought about Jim Mora, who I'm not sure won't be the first Pac-12 coach to win the College Football Playoff.

Then I thought about coaching staffs as a whole. Does Shaw get a knock because Derek Mason is head coach at Vanderbilt and no longer coordinating the Cardinal defense? I really like Rich Rod and Mora's staffs. And then I went, wait, what about Todd Graham at Arizona State? Has anyone done a better job over the past two seasons than Graham and his staff?

Then I thought Brett and the rest of you might fall asleep while I dithered on this.

So I'm going with Shaw. Track record. Big football brain. Unwavering core beliefs. And, as a very minor consideration, he gets a boost here for being so accommodating and insightful during interviews.




Patrick from Seattle writes: With a senior-led d-line, experienced and talented linebackers, and a lockdown corner in Peters, how good can the Huskies D be?

Ted Miller: You remember the 1985 Chicago Bears? Well, imagine that unit if it also had Lawrence Taylor.

Go run into a brick wall 10 times.

Done? That's what it's going to be like playing against the Huskies this fall.

It's hard not to like the UW front seven. It's got size with 330-pound defensive tackle Danny Shelton and production with end Hau'oli Kikaha, the best returning pass-rusher in the conference. At linebacker, there is experience and high-end athleticism, led by potential first-round draft pick Shaq Thompson.

While the depth is a little questionable, I'd rate that starting crew the best in the Pac-12. Yes, better than Stanford, USC and UCLA.

The secondary is the question. Peters is an A-list cornerback, an All-American candidate, but the other three spots are going to be young and unproven. Not necessarily untalented, mind you -- see youngsters like true freshman Budda Baker and redshirt freshman Jermaine Kelly -- but you don't know about a unit until, well, you know.

Of course, an outstanding front-seven is a great thing to have when you are young in the back half. Leaving youngsters exposed for more than four seconds can be catastrophic in a league as deep at quarterback as the Pac-12. Not sure this crew up front for the Huskies will do that very often, which will make life much easier for the defensive backs.

As big a question as the secondary is new coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski, who Petersen brought over from Boise State. He's replacing Justin Wilcox, one of the best in the business, a guy who transformed a poor-to-middling unit into one of the best in the Pac-12. Kwiatkowski has lots of new toys to play with, but has never coached against the talent -- player and coaching -- that he will now square off with on a week-to-week basis.

So how good? At the very least, Huskies fans should expect to better last season's strong numbers -- 22.8 points per game; 5.0 yards per play -- which ranked fourth and tied for third in the conference. If that happens, you would have to think the Huskies will be a factor in the North Division race.




Troy from Tacoma writes: Ted, as we sit here a week out from the kickoff of the college football season, and since there are a few Pac-12 games next Thursday, it is safe to say that there won't be a Best Case-Worst Case section for each team. Honestly, reading those was my favorite part of this blog, and really got the blood flowing that the season was near. Just wanted to voice my disappointment with whoever made the decision to discontinue that part of the blog. That's all, have a good final game-less week.

Ted Miller: I truly appreciate all the notes on this, even though it seems a lot of you are angry I -- yes it was my call -- opted to end the series.

As noted before, this was simply a case of a series running its course after four years.

If you are nostalgic, just re-read last year's efforts, and those also include links to previous years.
The Pac-12 blog has spent the week highlighting the league's incredible depth at the quarterback position. The future looks pretty bright, too.

The West region is stocked with quarterback talent in the 2015 class. Ten ESPN 300 quarterbacks reside there, in addition to four other four-star quarterbacks. That's enough talent to stock the Pac-12 for years to come. How is the league faring at that position in the 2015 class?

Final analysis

Biggest gets: Darnold, Rosen, Town, Browning, Waller, White
Biggest misses: Zach Gentry, Barnett, Jones, Lewerke

Holding onto six of the 10 ESPN 300 quarterbacks is a significant number, especially when it’s taken into account that the four schools that earned commitments from the other ESPN 300 prospects -- Alabama, Florida, Michigan State and Texas -- aren't exactly recruiting lightweights. While there are undoubtedly some Pac-12 programs still looking to take advantage of the fact that recruiting can be fluid all the way until signing day, the majority of teams are likely content with the way things have played out thus far.

Ultimately, the conference has done well, given the level of local talent at such an important position.

Pac-12's perfect passing storm

August, 22, 2014
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Athletes often refuse to play along with media storylines, or they simply are oblivious to them. That's not the case with the Pac-12's stellar 2014 crop of quarterbacks. They get it. They know they are good and you are interested. They are perfectly aware that 10 of them are returning starters, and a handful of them are expected to be early NFL draft picks this spring.

For the most part, they know each other. Many crossed paths in recruiting. Others sought each other out after games. Seven of them bonded at the Manning Passing Academy in Tbibodaux, Louisiana, this summer. There's a reasonable degree of believability when they insist they all like each other.

“It’s kind of a brother deal," said Washington State's Connor Halliday, one of seven Pac-12 quarterbacks who threw at least 20 touchdown passes a year ago. "We’re all representing the conference.”

That collegial connectedness means Halliday is perfectly willing to map out the NFL prospects of the crew, even if he opts to leave himself out -- Oregon State's Sean Mannion, he says, is the most NFL-ready, while Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley have the most upside. That chumminess means -- cover your eyes, USC and UCLA fans -- Hundley and Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler feel free to talk about how cool the other is.

The preseason scuttlebutt is the Pac-12 will follow up perhaps its best season in terms of top-to-bottom quality depth with a 2014 encore that should be even better. There's legitimacy to the belief that the Pac-12 might eclipse the SEC this fall as the nation's best conference, and that seeming apostasy begins behind center, where the SEC doesn't have a bona fide proven passer.

The Pac-12? Five returning QBs passed for more than 3,500 yards in 2013. If you give Kessler 32 more yards and Stanford's Kevin Hogan 370, then you have eight who passed for 3,000. Mariota, Hundley and Mannion are potential first-round NFL draft picks. Hogan is a three-year starter who's started in two Rose Bowls. Arizona State's Taylor Kelly, some forget, was second-team All-Pac-12 in 2013 and led his team past Hundley and UCLA in the South Division. Halliday had 34 touchdown passes in 2013, while California's Jared Goff and Colorado's Sefo Liufau were true freshman starters. Before he got hurt, Utah's Travis Wilson was good enough to lead an upset of Stanford.

Seems pretty odd to mention the USC quarterback last, but there you have it: Kessler surged late in the season and should thrive under new coach Steve Sarkisian's up-tempo scheme.

The sum is quarterback depth that has everyone gushing, including Pac-12 coaches.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Charles Baus/CSMUSC's Cody Kessler threw for 2,968 yards in 2013, a robust total that only ranked seventh in a stacked league for quarterbacks, the Pac-12.
"Oh, I don't think there is a conference that is even close in terms of the quality of quarterbacks," UCLA coach Jim Mora said.

Said Washington's Chris Petersen, who, like Arizona's Rich Rodriguez, doesn't have a returning starter at quarterback: “There’s not a crop like this coming back in the country. It’s scary when you don’t have one of those returning guys. Every week, you’re going to have to face one of them.”

The question bouncing around before the season is whether it's the best quarterback class, well, ever, and not just for the Pac-12. Maybe, maybe not.

The Pac-10 was pretty impressive in 2004: USC's Matt Leinart, California's Aaron Rodgers, Arizona State's Andrew Walter, UCLA's Drew Olson, Oregon's Kellen Clemens, Oregon State's Derek Anderson, Washington State's Alex Brink and Stanford's Trent Edwards. If you wanted, you also could throw in Utah's Alex Smith, though he was still in the Mountain West Conference at the time. A handful of those guys are still in the NFL, with Rodgers in the discussion as the best quarterback in the league.

Outside of the Pac-12, there's the Big 12 in 2008: Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, Texas' Colt McCoy, Baylor's Robert Griffin III, Missouri's Chase Daniel, Texas Tech's Graham Harrell, Kansas' Todd Reesing and Kansas State's Josh Freeman.

Ultimately, a judgment will be best delivered at season's end, and things rarely go as projected in the preseason. Injuries are, unfortunately, often an issue, and the pecking order could change. Don't be shocked, for example, if the estimations of Hogan, Kessler, Halliday and Goff go way up this fall.

The obvious leader is Mariota, probably the Heisman Trophy co-favorite with Florida State's Jameis Winston, the 2013 winner. While Mariota's return for his redshirt junior season was a bit of a surprise, how he's conducted himself during the preseason is not. He's not going to get in trouble off the field and he's not a look-at-me guy on it.

“He cares more about practice rep 13 in period 12 in 7-on-7 than anyone I’ve ever been around," coach Mark Helfrich said. "That carries over to every single guy in our program.”

But Mariota doesn't top everyone's list. Washington State linebacker Darryl Monroe favors Mannion, who won the Elite 11 Counselor's Challenge this summer after leading the conference with 4,662 yards and 37 TD passes last year.

“He’s a true NFL quarterback," Monroe said. “He has one of the best arms I’ve played against. Or seen in person.”

[+] EnlargeChris Petersen
AP PhotoAside from a Nov. 15 date against Arizona, Washington coach Chris Petersen will likely face a returning starter at quarterback in every one of the Huskies' Pac-12 games.
Monroe, the boisterous contrarian, ranked Kelly No. 2.

“He ran that offense like a point guard," Monroe said.

Obviously, the expectation is that these 10 returning starters will combine talent and experience and put up huge numbers. As important as the position is, however, a good quarterback can't do it alone. He's got to have some places to deliver the ball. The good news for these guys is most have a strong supporting cast. While Mariota and Mannion have questions at receiver, that position is strong and deep throughout the conference.

Nine teams have at least three starting offensive linemen back, and five have four or more. Oregon is the only team without at least one of its top two receivers back. It's also notable that more than a few teams have questions in the secondary.

It could be a year when preseason hype meets big passing numbers. But stats are not what football is all about, either.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to winning games," Kessler said. “I don’t look at the stat box. I look at who won. Most of the time, if you look at who won, I can tell you how the quarterback played.”

That's the truth: Winning is the ultimate measure of a quarterback. More than a few Pac-12 quarterbacks through the years have put up big numbers but haven't led their teams to championships, conference or national. It's likely that the first-team All-Pac-12 quarterback this fall, a guy who should be in line for a variety of national awards and All-America honors, will be sitting atop the final standings.

As for the celebration of Pac-12 quarterbacks in 2014, some ambivalence does follow the fawning. While there is a sense of genial community when discussing the depth at the position, most coaches would rather have their guy be talented and experienced and everyone else to be searching for answers behind center.

Said Stanford coach David Shaw, “I can’t wait for some of these guys to get out of our conference, which I thought a couple of them would last year.”

Pac-12 morning links

August, 22, 2014
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Happy Friday!

Leading off

We kicked off Thursday’s links column talking about Pac-12 head coaches and how they’ve done against AP Top 25 competition.

Today we’ll take a look at the job security of those coaches, courtesy of CBS’s Dennis Dodd, who released his annual “hot seat” rankings for every coach.

Things are relatively air-conditioned in the Pac-12. But they are heating up for a couple of coaches. Using a 0-5 rating – five essentially being nuclear and zero being a getaway on Hoth – Dodd writes that Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and Cal coach Sonny Dykes have the hottest seats in the Pac-12. First, here’s the rating for all 12 coaches and their rating from the 2013 season (listed second).
[+] Enlarge Kyle Whittingham
George Frey/Getty ImagesKyle Whittingham seems to have the Utes close to a breakthrough after two tough, 5-7 seasons.

  • Rich Rodriguez: 1-1
  • Todd Graham: 1-0
  • Sonny Dykes : 3-0.5
  • Mike MacIntyre: 1.5-1.0
  • Mark Helfrich: 2.0-1.5
  • Mike Riley: 1-1
  • David Shaw: 0-0
  • Jim Mora: 0.5-0.5
  • Steve Sarkisian: 2.5-N/A
  • Kyle Whittingham: 3.5-3.0
  • Chris Petersen: 0.5-N/A
  • Mike Leach: 0.5-1

I don’t disagree with the sentiment on either coach. That said, I don’t think a change will be made with either, either. And here’s why:

Kyle Whittingham has something few coaches can boast: An undefeated season, a No. 2 final ranking and a BCS bowl victory (technically, two). That sort of success not only buys you goodwill, it buys you career longevity.

As noted by Whittingham’s rating, he’s “starting to feel the pressure.” That’s fair. A team like Utah isn’t used to missing bowl games in back-to-back years. But when you look at last season, the Utes are close. They beat Stanford – arguably the greatest regular-season victory in school history – lost to Arizona State by a point, took Oregon State to overtime and lost by a touchdown to UCLA. This is a team that’s close.

That being said, the road schedule is brutal. I think if the Utes start 2-0 (and they should), then the Michigan game will be high noon. Win that one and there’s a good chance the Utes go bowling. Having a quarterback make it through the season without injury couldn't hurt, either.

As for Dykes, let’s not forget he was the one of the most sought-after coaches in the country before the 2013 season. He just happened to run into one of the worst rashes of injuries I’ve seen in my 17 years covering all levels of football, and he had a true freshman quarterback.

Dykes has a proven system. Give it time (and health) to develop.

Who’s No. 1?

The SEC can certainly claim dominance over the BCS era. Not even the most argumentative, devil’s-advocate-loving, stubborn columnist I know – Ted Miller – could argue otherwise. The proof is in the hardware.

But that era has passed. What have you won for me lately? It’s now the College Football Playoff era. And according to Yahoo Sports’ Pat Forde, it’s the Pac-12 that will be at the vanguard of the next installment of college football’s highest honor.

Forde rationalizes his thought process with three determining factors:

  1. The Pac-12 has a deep roster of coaches.
  2. The Pac-12 has the best quarterbacks.
  3. The Pac-12 plays a tough schedule.

Check, check and check. No arguments here. Every year, it seems like a Pac-12 coach will make the comment that the league is as good as it’s ever been. And each year it keeps adding quality coaches. If you’ve been following along with our “Better Know a Pac-12 Quarterback” series, then you know how good the league is when it comes to the QBs. And the last couple of days we’ve been linking plenty of lists of must-see Pac-12 games. All of them feature Top 25 matchups, be it in conference or nonleague.

However, I don’t think we’ll ever see a time where Stanford fans are chanting "P-A-C, P-A-C" if the Ducks win a title, or vice versa. Not our style out West.

News/notes/practice reports
Just for fun

The football team isn't the only squad going through fall camp. Fight on.

The Pac-12 is blessed with an abundance of returning starting quarterbacks in 2014. With 10 starters coming back, many are wondering if the league is on pace for its best quarterback year ever. This week the Pac-12 blog will give you a snapshot of all 10.

Name: Brett Hundley

School: UCLA

Grade: Junior

[+] EnlargeBrett Hundley
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesKnown for his running ability, Brett Hundley has the passing chops to make him a Heisman candidate and a future first-round draft pick.
2013 passing stats: Completed 248 of 369 passes (67.2 percent) to go with 3,071 passing yards and 24 touchdowns to nine interceptions. Posted a raw QBR of 75.3 and adjusted QBR of 82.3.

Career passing stats: Completed 567 of 848 passes (66.9 percent) to go with 6,816 yards and 52 touchdowns to 20 interceptions. Has a raw QBR of 67.0 and an adjusted QBR of 74.4.

2013 rushing stats: Rushed 160 times for 748 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Career rushing stats: Rushed 320 times for 1,103 yards and 20 touchdowns.

Hundley on Twitter

What you need to know about Hundley: Former UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel hasn’t been shy about talking up what kind of talent Hundley had when he recruited him. Nor is he shy about his decision to redshirt Hundley in what turned out to be his final season as head coach. As a result, incoming coach Jim Mora benefited greatly and watched Hundley easily separate himself from Kevin Prince, Richard Brehaut and Jerry Neuheisel. Hundley has since gone on to start 27 straight games, is an early Heisman candidate and widely regarded as one of the most athletic and explosive players in college football.

Career high point: Should we go with USC in 2012? Or USC in 2013? In either case, Hundley was sensational in both. He has five combined touchdowns (one passing, four rushing) in two games against the Trojans and has completed 70 percent of his throws against the cross-town rivals. And while he’s struggled against Stanford and Oregon (games he and the Bruins need to win to prove they are worthy of their top-10 ranking) he’s brought his A-game both times around against USC.

Career low point: Hundley wasn’t terrible in last season's loss to Arizona State. He threw a couple of touchdowns and completed 60 percent of his passes. But a furious ASU front sacked Hundley nine times and corralled him to a season-low five yards rushing. On top of it, the loss gave the South Division title (which the Bruins had held the previous two seasons) to the Sun Devils.

When he was a recruit: Hundley was the No. 6 overall quarterback in 2011 and the gem of UCLA's recruiting class. The No. 107 prospect in the country, Hundley held offers from programs such as Michigan, Oregon, Stanford, Texas A&M and Washington, among others. He eventually selected the Bruins over the Huskies. There were very few questions as to whether Hundley would become a star at the next level and when his redshirt freshman season coincided with the arrival of head coach Jim Mora and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, Hundley’s career predictably took off. "He is a spread offense signal-caller that is a huge part of this offense both with his legs and his arm," his ESPN Recruiting Nation profile reads. "Overall, Hundley is a physically imposing athlete that can do it all. He has great upside to become more crisp and fluid in his mechanics, as he is just entering into his second year as a full-time starter. He will become a hot commodity quite quickly."

Opposing head coach’s take: “Similar to Mannion when you look at him. He’s a prototypical NFL quarterback, but with that mobility; with that ability to move in the pocket and out of the pocket. He’s going to be a high-round draft pick because of his size and his athletic ability. He’s a smart kid. He’s an accurate passer. The sky is the limit for him.”

Scouts' take: Even-keeled and mature individual. Dedicated student who is currently pursuing a double major. Loves football and is passionate about it. Strong work ethic and willing to make the sacrifices necessary. First guy in and last guy out of the building. ... Highly competitive. Adequate-to-above-average decision-maker. Still will make some questionable reads at times and force throws into coverage he shouldn’t attempt but in general is not careless with ball security. ... On one hand he is a deceiving athlete with very good size and strength to escape pressure and buy time. Not overly quick and gradually builds to top-end speed as runner. He has better mobility than anticipated on tape and poses enough of a threat to pick up chunk yards if not accounted for as a runner. On the flip side, he still has a lot of room for improvement working the pocket, which is the biggest concern from an evaluation standpoint heading into the 2014 season. Will get finicky when feeling pressure and must show better patience within the pocket. Often vacates pocket too early instead of sliding to open area and getting through progressions. Also has a bad habit of dropping his eyes and looking at the rush when evading pressure and will miss reads as a result.

What to expect in 2014: At this point, it’s about the little details. Hundley spent a couple of weeks during the offseason working out with current and former NFL quarterbacks for the sole purpose of learning what it’s like to play in the league. The hope is that the knowledge gained will transfer to his college game. He’s one of the most dynamic and exciting players in the country. Yet all too often he gets labeled as a running quarterback when he threw for more than 3,000 yards and led all quarterbacks in the Pac-12 in completion percentage. That’s right, Mr. Scramble was the most accurate passer in the league last season. We expect his already stellar touchdown-to-interception ratio to improve while still maintaining his outstanding rushing numbers. The belief is that with some health and experience on the offensive line, Hundley’s sack numbers will also go down (no Pac-12 quarterback has been sacked more than Hundley's 87 times in the past two seasons). Look for Hundley to be in the running for all sorts of postseason awards -- Heisman included -- before hearing his name called in the first round of the 2015 draft.

Erik McKinney and Kevin Weidl contributed to this report.

Timing right for USC, Sark marriage

August, 21, 2014
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USC safety Taylor Mays didn't exactly grin from ear to ear at the question back in 2008, but his face did acknowledge that the reporter had offered him an underhanded pitch that he could belt out of the L.A. Coliseum in any direction he wished.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsIn his second stint as a college football head coach, Steve Sarkisian faces the pressure of guiding a national powerhouse program in USC.
Mays and the top-ranked USC Trojans had just made No. 5 Ohio State look like a high school team in a 35-3 whipping that wasn't nearly as close as the final score suggested. The question was whether the Buckeyes had been shocked by just how much better the Trojans were. Mays paused, seeming to savor the question as he coolly assessed the contents of his locker, before delivering a response.

"Many teams wonder what this SC thing is about -- why have we been so successful these past years," he said. "We came out there and showed them. They're Ohio State and that means something. But we prepare so well that we just do what we do."

There was a time under Pete Carroll when USC pretty much won games when they got off the bus. They simply looked a whole lot better -- bigger, faster, more confident -- than anyone else in college football. Reporters and fans would encircle the Trojans' open scrimmages, particularly during Competition Tuesdays, and marvel at the talent level and intensity.

New USC coach Steve Sarkisian was Carroll's top offensive assistant for much of that run from 2002 to '08 before heading off to Washington. He missed the 2004 BCS national title season while spending an unhappy year with the Oakland Raiders, as well as the start of the program's decline in 2009, a 9-4 finish after the Trojans had lost just nine games in the previous seven seasons. Then Carroll bolted for the Seattle Seahawks.

So Sarkisian knows what things were like during the Trojans' most recent dynastic run. He was there for its creation. A Southern California native, he knows the area, the program's traditions and how quickly expectations can become stratospheric. He knows what he is taking over. And getting himself into.

He knows USC is one of the most powerful brands in college sports, one whose name and logo have impact in South Florida, Ohio and Texas, as well as in its home territory.

"When you have that SC interlock on your chest and you walk into a school [to recruit], whether it's in Southern California or anywhere else, this talks about 11 national championships, six Heisman Trophies, more NFL draft picks, more All-Americans, more All-Pros, more Hall of Famers than any other school," Sarkisian said. "So it's a powerful brand."

Sarkisian also knows timing. He knows it's better not to be the "man after the man," as his friend Lane Kiffin was with Carroll. Sarkisian was Carroll's personal preference to replace him, and then-athletic director Mike Garrett made a play for Sarkisian before offering the job to Kiffin. Sarkisian was then heading into his second season at Washington and felt it wouldn't be the right time to bail out on the Huskies.

Oh, and he also knew NCAA sanctions were on the horizon, though there was little indication at the time that they would be as severe as they ended up being.

Good timing? As of June, USC is no longer yoked with those sanctions that included the loss of 30 scholarships over three years. After signing a highly rated class in February, despite limits, Sarkisian could have the Trojans at around 80 scholarship players next fall, according to ESPN.com's Garry Paskwietz, not far below the limit of 85, and substantially better than the numbers that have made depth the team's most worrisome issue since 2010. The Trojans presently rank 14th in the nation and first in the Pac-12 in the ESPN.com recruiting rankings.

Timing? Even during Carroll's run, USC's facilities were second-rate. No longer. After putting $120 million toward new and renovated buildings, including the 110,000-square foot John McKay Center, USC matches up with the most elite teams.

Timing? Sarkisian inherits 18 returning starters from a team that won 10 games in 2013. The Trojans should be contenders in the South Division this fall, emerging from so-called crippling sanctions in pretty good shape after averaging "only" 8.8 wins per season from 2009 through last year.

Of course, his timing isn't that perfect. He's got a UCLA problem that Carroll didn't have to contend with. The Bruins are surging under Jim Mora and are hardly quaking at the prospect of USC again being whole. It's notable that Sarkisian and Mora have long had a cordial relationship, though that might be difficult to sustain going forward.

"I think [hiring Sarkisian] has given them a shot of energy that I wish they didn't get," Mora quipped at Pac-12 media days. "I have great respect for Sark, and I like him as a person and as a coach. I just know he's going to make my job harder."

While USC can again sign a full recruiting class of 25, which should make the going tougher for all 11 other Pac-12 teams, there's also some undercurrent of smugness within the conference from coaches and fans that Sarkisian hasn't truly earned a job like USC and that he isn't much different from Kiffin. His critics dubbed him "Seven-Win Steve" after he led Washington to three consecutive 7-6 seasons, a rut that had some Huskies fans putting him on the hot seat heading into the 2013 season.

The Huskies improved to 9-4 last season, finishing with a Top 25 ranking for the first time since 2001. Some also seemed to forget that Sarkisian inherited a team that went 0-12 in 2008. While there's been an odd effort to rewrite the history of how down the program was back then, it was outscored 463-159 that season and hadn't posted a winning record since 2002. Washington went 1-10 in 2004 and 2-9 in 2005. Further, majestic Husky Stadium was falling apart.

Chris Petersen has inherited a team from Sarkisian that's played in four consecutive bowl games, is ranked in the preseason, and is playing in a beautifully renovated stadium.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY SportsUSC Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian was optimistic at Pac-12 media days, saying: "I think we have a chance to do something special this year."
This is not to say Sarkisian did a perfect job at Washington. He made mistakes like most first-time head coaches, including sticking with overmatched defensive coordinator Nick Holt for too long. Yet the feeling among USC insiders is that the Trojans are getting Sark 2.0, and he's surrounded himself with a staff that is touted for its X's and O's acumen (most notably defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox) as well as its recruiting savvy. Sarkisian retained receivers coach Tee Martin, one of the most quietly important coups of the transition.

Sarkisian isn't necessarily bringing back Carroll's "Win Forever" rhetoric and culture. For one, he runs an up-tempo offense, not Carroll's pro style, and a 3-4 hybrid defense, not Carroll's 4-3. That could be seen as part of Sarkisian's maturation, of finding his own way. When Sarkisian took the Washington job after the 2009 Rose Bowl, Carroll actually told him that he needed to be his own man, not mimic Carroll.

"His final words to me walking out was, 'Go be you, because when adversity strikes, the real you is going to come out anyway,'" Sarkisian said.

For USC fans, adversity has already struck and stuck hard. Sarkisian's charge is to make sure those adverse days are done. Adversity going forward is losing more than two Pac-12 games.

Or is that losing more than one game, period?

Pac-12 morning links

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
8:00
AM ET
Cogito ergo sum.

Leading off

As we hit the one-week countdown for the start of the Pac-12 season, it never hurts to go back and see where things stand with your head coach.

As the Pac-12 blog wrote a few months back, it’s possible that we might make it through 2014 without a coaching change. Maybe. Since 10 of the 12 teams have changed coaches since the start of the 2011 season, nothing is for certain.

A key determining factor is always how coaches stack up against top competition. And the Wall Street Journal Online released an interesting chart of every coach in the Power 5 (plus Notre Dame) and their record against AP Top 25 teams.



They also had some flattering things to say about Stanford coach David Shaw:
The best winning percentage (.778). Granted, it is a relatively small sample size—Shaw has been a head coach for only three seasons, and he took over a strong program — but 18 ranked opponents in three years is a ton. Urban Meyer has faced seven in two years at Ohio State. (Also, two of Shaw's four losses were in overtime.)

Here’s how the Pac-12 coaches shake out (career/at current school), plus I tossed in what I think was the biggest win. Feel free to tell me where I’m wrong:
  • Rich Rodriguez 16-26 and 3-7 (beating No. 5 Oregon in 2013)
  • Todd Graham 6-12 and 3-5 (beating No. 14 UCLA in 2013)
  • Sonny Dykes 0-9 and 0-5 (N/A)
  • Mike MacIntyre 0-10 and 0-3 (N/A)
  • Mark Helfrich 2-1 and 2-1 (Beating No. 16 Washington in 2013)
  • Mike Riley 13-39 and 13-39 (Beating USC in 2006)
  • David Shaw 14-4 and 14-4 (Beating Oregon in 2012)
  • Jim Mora 5-5 and 5-5 (Beating USC in 2012)
  • Steve Sarkisian 8-18 and 0-0 (Beating USC in 2009)
  • Kyle Whittingham 9-13 and 9-13 (Beating No. 4 Alabama in the 2008 season/2009 Sugar Bowl).
  • Chris Petersen 8-4 and 0-0 (Beating No. 11 Oklahoma in the 2006 season/2007 Fiesta Bowl).
  • Mike Leach 13-38 and 1-7 (Beating No. 1 Texas in 2008).

In digging up some of these old games, I had to go back through and watch some highlights of the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. So, so awesome.

All-Americans

ESPN.com will be releasing its preseason All-America team later today. CBS Sports released its Wednesday. I’m not going to give out any spoilers on ours, but we have more Pac-12 players. And thus, ours is superior, said the Pac-12 writer.

Oregon center Hroniss Grasu is the only Pac-12 player on offense, while the defense has a trio of Pac-12 players in USC defensive end Leonard Williams, UCLA linebacker Myles Jack and Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Stanford’s Ty Montgomery is the selection at kick return.

Keep an eye out

The Senior Bowl Watch list is out, and of the 350 players, 40 are from the Pac-12. All of the names you’d expect are on it. You can see the complete list (sortable by school, conference and position) here.

More must-see TV (Take 2)

On Wednesday, we brought you a couple of links with must-see games in the league. Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News also popped up his can’t-miss games in the league this year. They are what you’d expect. Stanford, Oregon, Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, a dash of USC. However, Wilner opted to list his chronologically, rather than ranking them. Shrewd, Mr. Wilner. Very shrewd indeed.

News/notes/practice reports
Just for fun

A fun little story from Chris Foster of the LA Times on a trio of teams experiencing Rose Bowl droughts. The premise is that UCLA has a good shot at the Rose Bowl this year. But they haven’t been there since ’99. But that’s not as long as Cal, Oregon State or Arizona State. Any post that can weave in Frankie Avalon, The Beatles and Bill Clinton is worth five minutes of your time.

Always cool to see walk-on players getting signing their scholarships. Five Sun Devils got theirs yesterday.

And finally, the Bruins had a guest speaker at practice yesterday ... Den-freaking-zel. King Kong ain’t got (horse pucky) on him.

Pac-12 morning links

August, 20, 2014
Aug 20
8:00
AM ET
And I have one of those very loud, stupid laughs. I mean if I ever sat behind myself in a movie or something, I'd probably lean over and tell myself to please shut up.

Leading off

Previews, previews, previews. Lots of them hit the web yesterday. Fox, SI and Athlon all had major Pac-12 pieces.

Perhaps the biggest surprise came from Fox Sports’ Stewart Mandel, who picked the Washington Huskies to win the North Division and Oregon to finish third.

Here’s Mandel’s take on the Ducks:
The string of 11- and 12-win seasons can’t go on forever, and despite the return of star quarterback Marcus Mariota, the Ducks’ once-unstoppable offense showed cracks last year following Chip Kelly’s departure. Oregon’s defense may miss retired coordinator Nick Aliotti.

There’s a couple of ways to interpret this. First, Mandel -- a good friend who knows college football as well as anyone in the country -- is brilliant. And when the Huskies are walking away with the North title, he’s going to have a satisfied grin on his face for the entire offseason. Or, he could be wrong. Nothing wrong with putting yourself out there.

The country seems high on the No. 25 Huskies. For the national voters to place them in the Top 25 after losing their starting quarterback, a Doak Walker finalist running back and a Mackey Award winning tight end speaks to how highly Chris Petersen is regarded as a head coach. And maybe, just maybe those East of the Rockies are starting to pay the Pac-12 a little more national respect.

But as the Pac-12 blog is fond of saying (and so is every single coach in America), the final rankings are the only ones that matter. So a tip of the cap to Mandel for by far the boldest prediction of this preseason.

Some other previews:

SI’s Lindsey Schnell has Oregon and UCLA playing in the Pac-12 title game -- a common pick among most media, including the Pac-12 blog -- UCLA’s Myles Jack as the league’s defensive MVP. That’s another fairly bold prediction considering the quality of players like Leonard Williams, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Shaq Thompson, Hau'oli Kikaha and Jack’s teammate, Eric Kendricks. That’s going to be a fun award to keep an eye on throughout the season.

NFL.com’s college football blog pays homage to the quarterback depth in the Pac-12, and Bryan Fischer taps Kevin Hogan as the league’s breakout player in 2014.

Schedule accordingly

A couple different posts have come out over the last two days about must-see games. Let’s put it this way – if you plan on watching Oregon, Stanford or UCLA, you’re covered.

First up, Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports has his annual list of the 25 most intriguing games of the 2014 season and five of the 25 involve Pac-12 teams. From his list:
  • No. 2 Michigan State at Oregon (Sept. 6)
  • No. 4 UCLA at Texas (Sept. 13)
  • No. 7 Stanford at Oregon (Nov. 1)
  • No. 14 Oregon at UCLA (Oct. 11)
  • No. 17 USC at Stanford (Sept. 6)

Next up is Athlon Sports, which posted 25 must-see games specific to the Pac-12. Here’s their top 5:
  • No. 1 Stanford at Oregon
  • No. 2 Oregon at UCLA
  • No. 3 Michigan State at Oregon
  • No. 4 USC at UCLA
  • No. 5. Stanford at UCLA

You can see some interesting opinions in terms of placement. But for the most part all of the major games are covered.

Rank’em

Athlon also came out with its rankings of the top 37 players in the Pac-12.

Here’s what their top 10 looks like:
  1. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon
  2. Leonard Williams, DE, USC
  3. Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA
  4. Ifo-Ekpre Olomu, CB, Oregon
  5. Andrus Peat, OT, Stanford
  6. Myles Jack, LB, UCLA
  7. Taylor Kelly, QB, ASU
  8. Sean Mannion, QB, Oregon State
  9. Hroniss Grasu, C, Oregon
  10. Jaelen Strong, WR, ASU

The top four are identical to what the Pac-12 blog had for its Top 25 players. Though we lumped a trio of receivers in our 5-10 and gave the nod to Agholor over Strong for his special teams contributions.

Also, Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News released his all-conference projections for 2014. Not a lot of surprises, though it’s interesting to see UCLA’s Jordon James get the nod over Oregon’s Byron Marshall.

News/notes/practice reports
Just for fun

One member of the Stanford coaching staff told me he believes center Graham Shuler could be better than both of the guys who preceded him.

 

And speaking of reunions, these guys are back together. This could get interesting.

 

Pac-12 morning links

August, 19, 2014
Aug 19
8:00
AM ET
I ain't got a dime but what I got is mine. I ain't rich, but Lord I'm free.

Leading off

For most of the offseason (pretty much since Utah’s Travis Wilson was cleared for action), we’ve been working under the assumption that the Pac-12 would have 10 returning starting quarterbacks. Those assumptions were confirmed Monday when Utah coach Kyle Whittingham announced that Wilson held off a late charge from Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson.

At the very least, this means Utah has some depth at the quarterback spot – something that has haunted the Utes since joining the conference. And Whittingham told reporters after practice that Thompson has “earned the right to play,” meaning we’ll probably see him at some point and in assorted situations. Interpret that how you will.

Here are a few links on Wilson:
We’ll also be taking a closer look at Wilson later today in our returning starting quarterback series (and I would have gone into scramble mode had Thompson been named the starter).

Getting drafty?

Surely it’s too soon for a 2015 mock draft, right? After all, the college football season hasn’t started. But if CBS’s Dane Brugler is anywhere near accurate (he himself admits a lot of these are shots in the dark), then the Pac-12 is in for a big season.

His projection has 10 Pac-12 players going in the first round, including five in the top 11. Here’s his list:
That would be outstanding for the conference. Here’s a chart I’ve maintained for a few years (just for you, because you’re special), and as you can see, 10 players would be a considerable upgrade from what the league has seen over the last 14 years (though 2003 was a pretty good year). Out of the playoff?

Speaking of early projections, it doesn’t look good for the Pac-12 as far as reaching the college football playoff this year, according to CBS Bracketologist Jerry Palm, who writes:
In this projection, the Pac-12, which is arguably the second best conference, is excluded. That is based on the thought that the league will beat each other up enough that its champion may be too damaged to get a spot. Obviously, that remains to be seen.

Of course, this story was posted prior to the news that Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller might miss the season. This certainly isn’t a time for to celebrate injuries -- even if you are a Michigan fan -- because injuries stink. But we can’t ignore the fact either that the Pac-12 benefits from a weakened Ohio State team. It’s an unfortunate fact. But a fact nonetheless.

Team notes/practice reports
Getting social with media

As far as alternate uniforms go, we’ve seen worse. And the more I look at ASU’s, the more I like them.



The San Francisco Chronicle’s new Cal beat writer, Mike Vernon, takes us inside the life of a running back for six seconds.

Pac-12 morning links

August, 18, 2014
Aug 18
8:00
AM ET
Good morning. You might have noticed a little change in the way we’ve been doing links the last couple of weeks. Ted gave you a quick heads up in his mailbag last week that things would be changing. From here on out, they’ll be right there waiting for you when you wake up in the morning.

But on the Pac-12 blog, we’re going to add a twist. Moving forward, I’ll be manning the links in a column format, tossing in some opinion and analysis of stories the Pac-12 community will be talking about. This is a work in progress, so tweet at me with what you’d like to see: quote of the day, tweet of the day, etc. Do you want me to keep the literary and pop culture quotes? Let me know your thoughts.

Without further ado, to the links:

Leading off

The big news over the weekend was obviously the release of the preseason AP Top 25. Half of the teams in the league are ranked: Oregon (3), UCLA (7), Stanford (11), USC (15), ASU (19) and Washington (25).

The exact same six ended last season ranked: Oregon (9), Stanford (11), UCLA (16), USC (19), ASU (21) and Washington (25).

We all expected Oregon and UCLA to be in the top 10. And with the considerable hype Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley have received, the Pac-12 blog wouldn’t have been shocked if both were top five.

Washington should be pleased to be ranked, considering it lost its starting quarterback, running back and Mackey Award-winning tight end. That ranking is a clear reflection of Chris Petersen’s presence, because a Pac-12 team losing that much offensive firepower usually doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt with voters.

ASU should feel pretty good about being in the top 20 -- especially after the way it closed out last season and the departure of nine starters on defense.

Doug Haller offers an interesting perspective on the Sun Devils:
This marks the first time since 2008 that the Sun Devils have made the preseason poll.

Certainly, nothing stinks about that except ... This isn't always a good thing for the Sun Devils. The last six times they made the AP preseason poll -- a stretch dating to 1998 -- they didn't finish in the final AP Top 25 poll.

The Trojans should also feel pretty good about their spot at No. 15. Voters don’t appear to be taking a wait-and-see approach to the Steve Sarkisian era. Sounds like a lot of folks are buying in.

And as for the Cardinal, this is just more fodder for head coach David Shaw to play up the nobody-believes-in-us card, which his team often embraces.

Practice reports
  • Christian Caple offers some thoughts on Washington’s scrimmage.
  • Jeff Faraudo reports Sonny Dykes is feeling pretty good after Cal’s closed scrimmage. Some good player notes included as well.
  • Lindsey Thiry quotes USC’s Josh Shaw, who says the Trojans aren’t ready “for a game quite yet.” No need to panic. The Trojans don’t have to play tomorrow. But after they dispatch Fresno State (yeah, we're going out on a limb), they better be ready for Stanford in Week 2. Love that two ranked Pac-12 teams are squaring off that early in the season. And by the way, Shaw looks yoked in the video.
  • Tough news for the Buffs, who confirmed over the weekend that safety Jered Bell is done for the year.
  • We've been talking about 10 starting quarterbacks coming back. But there seems to be some controversy in Salt Lake City.
Nice/interesting reads
A little fun

The Beavers closed out their scrimmage over the weekend with a little slip-and-slide action. Don’t see Mike Riley on the tarp. I’m guessing if there was a double-double at the other end, he’d be sliding.

And finally, for everyone who has been to San Bernardino or covered a UCLA camp, we can all relate to Ryan Kartje.

 
Six Pac-12 teams, led by Oregon at No. 3, were ranked in the preseason AP poll released Sunday.

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.

UCLA Bruins season preview

August, 13, 2014
Aug 13
10:30
AM ET
video 

» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC 

Previewing the 2014 season for the UCLA Bruins.

2013 record: 10-3, 6-3 in Pac-12; Beat Virginia Tech 42-12 in Hyundai Sun Bowl.

Final grade for 2013: B-plus. UCLA finished ranked No. 16 in the country and won five of its last six games, including a second-straight win against USC to build momentum into this year.

[+] EnlargeBrett Hundley
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesBrett Hundley passed for 3,071 yards and rushed for another 748 with 35 combined TDs last season.
Key returnees: QB Brett Hundley, LB/RB Myles Jack, LB Eric Kendricks, OL Jake Brendel, WR Devin Fuller, DL Ellis McCarthy, DB Fabian Moreau, OL Alex Redmond, DL Eddie Vanderdoes, DB Randall Goforth.

Key losses: OG Xavier Su'a-Fila, LB Anthony Barr, LB Jordan Zumwalt, DL Cassius Marsh, WR Shaq Evans.

Instant impact newcomer: LB Kenny Young, RB Adarius Pickett.

Projected winning percentage (ESPN Stats & Information): .734

Chances to win the conference (ESPN Stats & Information): 20.2 percent

Best-case scenario: 15-0

Worst-case scenario: 8-5

Over-under win total (Bovada): 9.5

Biggest question mark: Running back. It was a patchwork effort to replace Jonathan Franklin last season with Jack, Paul Perkins and Jordon James all mixing in. This year, UCLA will aim for more certainty at the position.

Most important game: Oct. 11 versus Oregon. The Bruins get the Ducks at home in what could be a preview of the Pac-12 title game later in the year at Levi's Stadium.

Upset special: ASU fans might not call it an upset if the Sun Devils beat the Bruins in Tempe on Sept. 25, but everyone else would. If there's a chance UCLA could trip up before Oregon, that's the best bet.

They said it: "I never was going to leave UCLA. [Athletic director] Dan Guerrero went out on a limb when he hired me. Let's not kid anybody. I wasn't the most popular hire in the history of college sports, I can promise you that." -- UCLA coach Jim Mora
The only thing the Pac-12 has to fear in the new era of the College Football Playoff is itself. Oh, and other conferences gaming the infant system.

Whatever negative perceptions formerly were held about the Pac-12 -- finesse, pass-first, defense-optional league with half-full stadiums -- are mostly dead. Though there always will be trolling mouth-breathers with tired insults, Pac-12 folks now can show up to the verbal brawl with facts and numbers and game scores and commence to deliver a dose of frenzied verbal MMA that leaves said trolls whimpering for mercy.

OK, perhaps that's going overboard. But the Pac-12 deserves credit for two things: (1) Its rating as the nation's No. 2 conference (2) Making things tougher on itself than any other conference.

The overwhelming national consensus is the Pac-12 ranks second to the SEC. As ESPN Stats & Information noted in January, "Overall, the Pac-12 finished with six teams ranked in the AP Top 25 and five teams ranked in the top 10 of ESPN's Football Power Index. As a result of its strength in the computers, the Pac-12 was the clear No. 2 conference in the Power Rankings."

[+] EnlargeRich Rodriguez
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsThe Pac-12's $3 billion broadcasting deal with ESPN and Fox has been followed by an influx of big-name coaches like Arizona's Rich Rodriguez.
It wasn't just ESPN. Jeff Sagarin ranked the Pac-12 No. 2 in 2013. Phil Steele ranked the Pac-12 the No. 2 conference in 2012 and 2013, and also projected it as No. 2 in 2014. Athlon Sports did the same. In fact, if there is a conference rating system that ranked the Pac-12 anything different in 2013 and projects a lower rating this fall, we haven't seen it.

Another vote in the Pac-12's favor comes from an unquestionably unbiased -- cough, cough -- constituency: Pac-12 coaches.

"[The SEC] should claim themselves as the best league in the country because they've earned it," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. "But to go through the Pac-12 and win a national championship may be the most difficult thing to do because of our schedule."

Ah, that's the worrisome rub. No other conference rides the scheduling tricycle like the Pac-12: 1. Challenging nonconference slate; 2. Nine-game conference schedule; 3. Conference championship game.

While some conferences have improved their nonconference scheduling, they don't play nine conference games. The Big 12 does play nine conference games, but it doesn't play a championship game. Pac-12 coaches aren't shy about noting that a conference team, in almost all cases, will have to play at least 11 quality games -- one tough nonconference foe, nine conference games and the Pac-12 title game -- to earn a spot in the CFP. No other conference can claim that.

There is a big reason the other conferences can't: They don't want to.

"Fair or unfair, whatever the words you want to use, we play a nine-game schedule and a conference championship game and other conferences don't on purpose," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. "There is obviously a reason for that."

That's the big issue for the Pac-12 heading into the season. There is no longer a worry about respect or the perception of the Pac-12. Rather, it's about how unscathed a conference champ can hope to be against such a demanding schedule, and whether the committee will stick to its stated insistence that strength of schedule will be paramount. When a conference plays eight of the nation's 13 toughest schedules, as the Pac-12 did in 2013, the challenge to go unbeaten or even to lose just one game is far greater.

Of course, this issue won't be solved today, or even in the next couple months. The ultimate answers will be delivered in January when four semifinalists are picked and seeded.

So then, how did the Pac-12 gain ground in the perception battle -- one that has the conference starting with six teams ranked in the preseason USA Today coaches poll, including three in the top 11 with two others receiving votes?

The easy answer: money. The $3 billion broadcasting deal with ESPN and Fox was a game-changer. That money has flowed into facilities improvements and more aggressive investments in coaching -- head coaches and assistants. A concomitant influx of A-list coaches, most notably Mike Leach, Rich Rodriguez, Todd Graham, Jim Mora and Chris Petersen, has boosted the conference's Q-rating. Those coaches also have been able to hire and -- critically -- retain key assistants with competitive salaries, such as Arizona State offensive coordinator Mike Norvell ($700,000), UCLA offensive line coach Adrian Klemm ($650,000), Washington State defensive line coach Joe Salave'a ($275,000) and USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox (north of the $800,000 he made at Washington), among others.

No team has had a better, and perhaps more unfortunate, seat while watching the Pac-12 improve than Utah. The Utes joined the conference in 2011 as a program that had posted two unbeaten seasons and won two BCS bowl games as a member of the respected Mountain West Conference. Though they went a solid 4-5 in conference play in 2011, they slipped to 3-6 in 2012 and 2-7 in 2013, with lineups that might have been better than the 2011 squad.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
AP Photo/Eric GayOregon's Marcus Mariota is part of an impressive group of returning QBs in the Pac-12 this season.
"The thing that has been very apparent with the Pac-12 in 2011 when we entered, is the Pac-12 now is far superior from top to bottom," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "The progress this conference has made in the last few years is phenomenal."

What separates the Pac-12 this season -- and could make it a legitimate threat for the No. 1 conference -- is behind center. Not only does the conference welcome back 10 starting quarterbacks, a majority of those are NFL prospects.

"I've never seen anything like this," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "You have multiple guys that you could say could be the No. 1 pick overall in the draft. You have multiple guys in the conference that could be All-Americans and lead the nation in quarterback rating or lead the nation in passing."

The most notable quarterbacks are Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley, Heisman Trophy candidates blinking brightly on NFL radars who lead teams favored to win their respective divisions. Hundley will get an early showcase game against Texas, and Mariota and the Ducks play host to Michigan State, the Big Ten favorite, in Week 2. And the Ducks and Bruins could meet each other twice this season.

But they also must contend with Arizona State's Taylor Kelly, Oregon State's Sean Mannion, USC's Cody Kessler, Stanford's Kevin Hogan, Washington State's Connor Halliday, Utah's Travis Wilson, California's Jared Goff and Colorado's Sefo Liufau, each capable of posting a spectacular individual performance that could spawn an upset.

The Pac-12 is plenty hyped heading into the 2014 season. There is no perception problem. There might, however, end up being a reality problem. If the Pac-12 champion ends up with two losses, and the selection committee has a handful of Power Five conference teams with one or fewer defeats, the Pac-12 could get a respectful tip of the cap but end up out of luck in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Pac-12 morning links

August, 13, 2014
Aug 13
8:00
AM ET
Answer. That you are here -- that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?

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