Stanford Football: Marcus Mariota

The eyes of the nation have finally turned west, where the cream of the crop in signal callers has risen to the top. The quarterback depth in the Pac-12 is second to none, and everyone is talking about it.

Here's UCLA coach Jim Mora's take: "I have great respect for the quarterbacks in this conference. Many of them will go on to have great [NFL] careers, but to me, I don't think it's even close -- I don't think there is another conference that has near the quality of quarterbacks."

[+] EnlargeTaylor Kelly
Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsArizona State's Taylor Kelly likes being under the radar in a Pac-12 rich with quarterback talent.
Stanford's David Shaw also weighed in: "[I've] never seen anything like this where you have multiple guys in our conference 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 could lead the nation in quarterback rating or lead the nation in yards and yards per attempt in touchdown passes, and that could be any of five or six guys that could do this that this year."

There's only one problem: Players such as Shaw's own Kevin Hogan and Arizona State's Taylor Kelly -- two very good quarterbacks -- get lost in the shuffle.

The league has its headliner in Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. And if he's the main show, then UCLA's Brett Hundley is the opening act. He is, after all, the only other Pac-12 QB who's seriously considered a possible Heisman finalist at this point.

After those two, the conversation tends to tighten up, usually turning to the quarterbacks who are a bit different or doing one thing better than anyone else.

So people bring up Oregon State's Sean Mannion, who will likely take Matt Barkley's spot from the top of the Pac-12 career passing board ... midway through the season. They bring up Washington State's Connor Halliday. He's at the center of the Air Raid show and people want to know what it possibly looks like to average 55 pass attempts per game (about 20 more than the league average). Even USC quarterback Cody Kessler gets a little bit of love because of the Steve Sarkisian effect. Trojans fans want to watch that offense and see how it's going to change, and Kessler is at the middle of that moving puzzle.

[+] EnlargeKevin Hogan
Tommy LaPorte/Icon SportswireStanford's Kevin Hogan, who has an impressive mark against ranked teams, would be among the leaders in passing efficiency in most any conference.
Suddenly, Kelly and Hogan -- statistically, the third- and fourth-best QB's in the Pac-12 in 2013 (based on an adjusted QBR) -- are back to No. 6 and No. 7 in the conversation. And how many actually get that far in the conversation? Few.

As the nation turns to the Pac-12, football fans want to know who's best, who's next best and who's different. So Hogan and Kelly -- outside of their own respective fan bases -- are often forgotten.

If Hogan or Kelly were to be dropped into nearly any other conference, they'd be in that "next-best" conversation -- in the Big Ten behind Ohio State's Braxton Miller, in the ACC behind Heisman winner Jameis Winston of Florida State or in the Big 12 behind Baylor's Bryce Petty (though they'd be in quite the debate against Texas Tech's Davis Webb).

In fact, Kelly would've led the Big Ten in passing yards and passing touchdowns in 2013. In that same conference, Hogan would've been the most efficient passer. Kelly would've been tied for second in the SEC for touchdown passes while Hogan would've been tied for second in the Big 12 in the same category.

Still, on the East Coast or down South, there are no discussions about the fact that Hogan is 10-1 against top-25 opponents, or that he has led his team to two league championships. People don't discuss that Kelly led his team to the Pac-12 South championship last year, or that he'll likely finish his Arizona State career with more passing yards than Jake Plummer.

They don't discuss those things because they're too far down the ladder when it comes to the conversation -- and that's not their own fault.

At Pac-12 media days, Kelly told the Pac-12 Networks that he was OK with the fact that he maybe doesn't get as much credit nationally as he deserves.

"I'm comfortable with it," Kelly said. "I like being under the radar. It makes me work harder. I have a chip on my shoulders to outwork all those great quarterbacks in the country."

Like many of those great quarterbacks across the country, Kelly and Hogan will probably have the chance to play on Sundays. But the question that remains is whether their play on Saturdays this year will finally get people to start talking about these two talented quarterbacks.
It's time to start our preseason position reviews. Please, hold your applause until we are finished.

Here's how we do this: We provide three evaluative categories: "Great shape," "Good shape" and "We'll see."

Hint: You'd prefer your team to be in "Great shape."

"We'll see" doesn't mean you're going to stink at said position. It means just what it says -- we'll see because there's no way at present to know.

You can review last year's rankings here.

And away we go ... starting, of course, with quarterback.

GREAT SHAPE

Oregon: Junior Marcus Mariota is -- again -- a leading Heisman Trophy candidate and a two-time first-team All-Pac-12 performer. He would have been an early-round NFL draft pick this spring if he'd opted not to return. The Ducks have some questions at receiver though.

UCLA: Junior Brett Hundley is the conference's No. 2 Heisman Trophy candidate. While Arizona State's Taylor Kelly eclipsed him for second-team All-Pac-12 last fall, Hundley's tremendous upside is why he has NFL scouts eagerly awaiting his entering the draft.

Arizona State: As noted, Kelly was the Pac-12's No. 2 QB last season, which means he was one of the nation's best at the position. It also helps his cause that he's got WR Jaelen Strong, an All-American candidate. However, Kelly does need to take fewer sacks -- you could say the same for Hundley -- and throw fewer interceptions.

Oregon State: Sean Mannion ranked second in the nation with 358.6 yards passing per game in 2013 and is also an NFL prospect. Life might be just a bit harder in the passing game without Brandin Cooks.

GOOD SHAPE

Stanford: Kevin Hogan, a third-year starter, had a good but not great sophomore season while leading the Cardinal to the Pac-12 championship. He was mostly efficient and showed a good touch downfield, but he made some surprisingly bad decisions and needs work with his intermediate passing game. He's got a good crew of veteran receivers coming back, which bodes well for him.

Washington State: Connor Halliday threw for a bunch of yards (4,597) and TDs (34) last season, but he also tossed way too many interceptions (22). Part of that was an inconsistent O-line and a neglected running game. The good news is he's in his third year under Mike Leach and has a strong crew of returning receivers. Of all the Pac-12 QBs, he might make the biggest climb this season.

USC: Cody Kessler didn't put up big numbers last season and didn't beat Notre Dame or UCLA but significantly improved after Lane Kiffin was fired. Like Kelly, he's got an A-list target coming back in WR Nelson Agholor. We expect Kessler to thrive with a new, up-tempo scheme under Steve Sarkisian.

Utah: Utah received good news yesterday when 16-game starter Travis Wilson was medically cleared to play. When healthy, Wilson has been a solid performer with good upside. He'll have to fight off a challenge this preseason from Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson though.

California: Jared Goff averaged 292 yards passing per game as a true freshman. That's good. But the Cal offense struggled to do much else but throw the ball between the 20s -- hence a conference-worst 23 points per game. He had just 18 TD passes on 531 attempts. Still, he flashed potential and has a very good crew of receivers coming back.

Colorado: Sefo Liufau became the Buffaloes' starter at midseason and often played like the true freshman he was. Furthermore, he won't have Paul Richardson serving as a safety blanket and making big plays for him. Still, Liufau's baptism by Pac-12 fire provided some seasoning that was evident this spring. The Buffs feel pretty good about having a returning starter behind center.

WE'LL SEE

Washington: While Cyler Miles flashed potential last season coming of the bench for Keith Price, logging a road victory at Oregon State in his first start, he also had an off-field issue that has muddied the waters at QB for the Huskies. It remains to be seen how quickly Miles emerges from Chris Petersen's doghouse, and if he can beat out Jeff Lindquist and Troy Williams.

Arizona: The Wildcats have no clear frontrunner in their QB competition. That's the bad news. The good news is the performances this spring were generally solid. Rich Rodriguez believes he's got a couple of guys who can win games for him. He's just not sure which guy is No. 1 between Jesse Scroggins, Connor Brewer, Anu Solomon and Jerrard Randall.
Eight Pac-12 players were named first-team preseason All-Americans by Athlon's on Monday, while 11 others were named to the other three teams.

Oregon, Stanford and USC each had a pair of first-team selections. The Ducks were represented by center Hroniss Grasu and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Stanford's pair was OT Andrus Peat and kick returner Ty Montgomery, while USC was represented by WR Nelson Agholor and DT Leonard Williams.

The other two first-team selections were UCLA LB Myles Jack and Washington LB Shaq Thompson.

Oregon QB Marcus Mariota, the Pac-12's top Heisman Trophy candidate was second-team behind FSU's Jameis Winston, who won the trophy last year.

On the third team were three defenders: UCLA LB Eric Kendricks, USC LB Hayes Pullard and Washington DT Danny Shelton. Agholor also was named a punt returner, so he got two spots.

On the fourth team: Arizona State WR Jaelen Strong, Oregon State C Isaac Seumalo and USC O-lineman Max Tuerk, who was listed as a guard even though he plays center. Stanford safety Jordan Richards was fourth team with the defense, while Utah kicker Andy Phillips was a fourth-team specialist.
Life is full of great joys. A child's smile. A roasting whole pig. A sunset at the beach. A sunset at the beach with a child's smile and a roasting whole pig. And a drink with an umbrella in it. Hitting a point at a Vegas craps table covered in chips.

Yet for some of you, there is no greater joy than the Pac-12 blog face planting. We imperiously prognosticate -- some might call it "doing our job" but let's not get bogged down in nuance -- and we often end up going rear-end-over-tea-kettle. Pointing that out in colorful ways is not unlike a second Christmas morning for some of you.

In 2012, the Pac-12 blog was practically the Walmart of bad predictions. You might recall our doe-eyed affection for Matt Barkley-led USC. We were exposed early and often.

So, as we start to formulate many of our preseason predictions for 2014, it seems worthwhile to look back the 2013 preseason in an effort to establish how often we were stupid and how often your favorite blind squirrels actually found nuts.

We'll start with our preseason list of the Pac-12's top-25 players. And here's our postseason list.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesHey, turns out we were right about Oregon's Marcus Mariota being the Pac-12's top player.
The postseason top 10:
No. 1: Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon
No. 2: Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona
No. 3: Anthony Barr, LB, UCLA
No. 4: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
No. 5:Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington
No. 6: Trent Murphy, LB, Stanford
No. 7: Will Sutton, DT, Arizona State
No. 8: Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA
No. 9: David Yankey, OL, Stanford
No. 10: Leonard Williams, DE, USC

The preseason top 10:
No. 1: Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon
No. 2. Will Sutton, DT, Arizona State
No. 3. Marqise Lee, WR, USC
No. 4. Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
No. 5. Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA
No. 6. Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona
No. 7. Trent Murphy, OLB, Stanford
No. 8. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon
No. 9. David Yankey, OG, Stanford
No. 10. Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State

As noted here, there were plenty of changes between the two.
Who made the preseason list and missed the postseason list?
3. Marqise Lee, WR, USC
11. Ed Reynolds, S, Stanford
14. De'Anthony Thomas, RB, Oregon
17. Kevin Hogan, QB, Stanford
19. Morgan Breslin, OLB, USC
20. Colt Lyerla, TE, Oregon
21. Carl Bradford, LB, Arizona State
25. Ben Gardner, DE, Stanford

Notes: Injuries or getting the boot (Lyerla) was the biggest reason these guys fell off the postseason list. Reynolds' numbers fell off, and the Cardinal's pass defense slipped to the middle of the conference, but I'm sure David Shaw would tell us we blew it. Hogan had a good season but maybe didn't take as big a step forward as some of us thought he would. Bradford, as previously noted, had a good, but not great, season and was eclipsed by other players.

Still, there wasn't much to be embarrassed about with either list.

Here's how Kevin and I voted in the Pac-12 preseason media poll:
Kevin Gemmell's ballot

North
  1. Stanford
  2. Oregon
  3. Washington
  4. Oregon State
  5. Washington State
  6. California
South
  1. Arizona State
  2. UCLA
  3. USC
  4. Arizona
  5. Utah
  6. Colorado
Pac-12 title game champion: Stanford

Ted Miller's ballot

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsAnd yes, we nailed the Stanford-Arizona State title game matchup with Stanford heading to the Rose Bowl.
North
  1. Stanford
  2. Oregon
  3. Washington
  4. Oregon State
  5. California
  6. Washington State
South
  1. Arizona State
  2. USC
  3. UCLA
  4. Arizona
  5. Utah
  6. Colorado
Pac-12 title game champion: Stanford

Hmm. It appears that we both picked the divisional winners and Pac-12 champion correctly. We, clearly, rock.

Did you notice anything about Kevin's ballot. It looks exactly like the final Pac-12 standings. He, by the way, never, ever mentions that.

How about the preseason power rankings versus the final version?

The top-six in both matches up precisely. Betting that's the first time that has happened since the Pac-12 blog began in 2008.

The bottom six is far less precise, though no team is more than two spots different in the final ranking than in the preseason version.

Then there were our self-proclaimed "Bold Predictions."

As more than a few of you have pointed out, these often are not so bold, but that doesn't stop them from being wrong. Further, because they were made in January of 2013, some of them actually ran counter to our late-summer predictions, such as picking Stanford as the Pac-12 leader. The switch from Oregon came after Chip Kelly left for the Philadelphia Eagles.

We made 19 predictions. Seven were correct or mostly so:
  • The Pac-12 will finish 2013 with six teams in the Top 25: That will be six of this seven: Oregon, Stanford, Washington, Arizona State, UCLA, USC and Oregon State.
  • The Washington renaissance will arrive: The Huskies will finish 9-3 in 2013, opening the new Husky Stadium in style.
  • Colorado will win four games in Year 1 under Mike MacIntyre: And Buffs fans will be reasonably encouraged.
  • The sledding will be rough in Sonny Dykes' first season at California: The Bears don't have great talent coming back, but the schedule is the biggest problem. By my guess, Dykes will play eight ranked teams in his first season, including a strong Big Ten duo at home the first and third weekends of the season (Northwestern and Ohio State).
  • Arizona's offensive numbers will make everyone realize how good Matt Scott was: Arizona averaged 37 points and 522 yards per game last year because of QB Matt Scott, who ranked seventh in the nation in total offense with 338.5 per game. He was a perfect fit for Rich Rodriguez's K offense. We expect the Wildcats' offense to take a step back in 2013, whether B.J. Denker or JC transfer Jesse Scroggins wins the QB job. As good as national rushing champion Ka'Deem Carey is, he will find the holes a bit smaller without Scott, even with a solid offensive line coming back.
  • Defenses will continue to rise: Arizona State defensive tackle Will Sutton and UCLA outside linebacker Anthony Barr will be first-team preseason All-Americans, and Stanford will again have one of the nation's top 10 defenses. But we also expect across-the-board improvement on defense.
  • But it will still be the Conference of QBs: Mariota will win the Heisman and again earn the first-team All-Pac-12 nod, but the battle for second-team will be hot between Arizona State's Taylor Kelly, Stanford's Kevin Hogan, UCLA's Brett Hundleyand Washington's Keith Price, who will be the conference's Comeback Player of the Year.
  • Breakout player: Junior Oregon State receiver Brandin Cooks will earn first-team All-Pac-12 honors with Marqise Lee.

The last one was mostly about Cooks breaking out, as he did as the Biletnikof Award winner. The Huskies went 9-4, but it's certainly fair to term the season a "renaissance." Arizona's offensive numbers went down, but B.J. Denker, while limited, turned in a better season than most expected.

Some were way off. Such as:
[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesBut about that Lane Kiffin will quiet his critics thing ... um, did we mention that we did say USC would win 10 games and they did?
Lane Kiffin and USC will post a bounce-back season: We expect the Trojans to win 10 games -- that's with a highly favorable 13-game schedule, by the way -- and return to the national rankings. Although the Trojans won't return to dominance, they will play better all-around football in 2013, and it will be enough to quiet Kiffin's critics -- at least enough for him to return in 2014. We don't, however, expect USC to win the South Division.

He was fired before midseason, though the Trojans did win 10 games, including their bowl victory.

And, of course, our Oregon enthusiasm -- national champs! Marcus Mariota wins Heisman! -- didn't come to pass.

Then there were our week one bowl projections:

VIZIO BCS National Championship: Stanford vs. BCS
Rose Bowl Game Presented by VIZIO: Oregon vs. Big Ten
Valero Alamo: Washington vs. Big 12
Holiday: Arizona State vs. Big 12
Hyundai Sun: UCLA vs. ACC
Las Vegas: USC vs. MWC
Fight Hunger: Arizona vs. BYU
Gildan New Mexico: Washington State vs. MWC

Four of those were correct -- the Holiday, Sun, Las Vegas and New Mexico.

Finally, there were our "Best case-worst case" flights of fancy. There is a strong possibility this series will be retired. It feels as if it might have jumped the proverbial shark.

(We typed the exact same thing last year, but this year we, unfortunately, mean it).

Summer Pac-12 power rankings

May, 27, 2014
5/27/14
9:00
AM ET
While summer is considered the "offseason," we all know there is no offseason. Every Pac-12 team is either gaining -- or losing -- ground right now due to its focus and effort at getting better, both on a team and individual level.

So how do things stand in advance of teams beginning preseason camp?

Glad you asked (and you can view the final 2013 power rankings here).

1. Oregon: I know. We always rank Oregon here, underrating Stanford and its more physical but less sexy style of play. But the return of QB Marcus Mariota and a veteran offensive line is just too tantalizing. The Ducks look like the Pac-12's best bet for an entrant in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

2. UCLA: I know. We're dropping the two-time defending Pac-12 champions to No. 3, underrating Stanford and its more physical but less sexy style of play. But the Pac-12 blog keeps reviewing the Bruins' depth chart and contemplating a trip to Vegas ... 20/1 ... hmm.

3. Stanford: The quandary with Stanford: Was the defensive front seven dominant this spring because it's going to again be among the best in the nation (probably)? Or was it because four new starters on the O-line means a step back on offense (maybe)? Two other issues: 1. Replacing D-coordinator Derek Mason; 2. Can QB Kevin Hogan improve enough on short and intermediate throws to take advantage of a strong crew of receivers?

4. USC: The Trojans enter the final season under NCAA scholarship reductions with a starting 22 good enough to win the Pac-12, but depth and health are issues. There is a lot to like on both sides of the ball, though the offensive line probably rates as the most critical question mark.

5. Arizona State: The defending South champions are going to be tough to stop on offense behind QB Taylor Kelly and WR Jaelen Strong, but replacing nine starters -- and just about all its star power -- on defense is not an issue you can write off with a "Hey, we've got lots of great JC transfers coming in."

6. Washington: The return of QB Cyler Miles from suspension provides a big boost and probably means that the Huskies can be a factor in the North race. The secondary is a concern, and that's not a good concern to have in the QB-laden conference this fall. And there is some mystery as to whether there will be growing pains during the transition to Chris Petersen from Steve Sarkisian.

7. Oregon State: We expect the Beavers defense to be better this fall compared to last season, so the big question is how do the 10 guys on offense complement QB Sean Mannion? The O-line -- again -- is a question, and it's not easy to replace the nation's best receiver. Still, we expect the 2014 Beavers to be better than the 2013 version. Perhaps much better.

8. Washington State: If you are looking for a true conference dark horse, it's the Cougars. There are questions on the O-line and on defense, but the passing game should be outstanding with third-year starter Connor Halliday and a deep, talented crew of receivers. Put it this way: What does this team look like if it improves as much in Mike Leach's third year as it did in Year 2?

9. Arizona: The Wildcats are outstanding at receiver, good on the offensive line and solid at safety. There are questions just about everywhere else, and the strange thing is that quarterback might be the least worrisome. Still, to show how we view the Pac-12's depth again this fall, the Wildcats over/under for wins is seven.

10. Utah: The Utes situation seems fairly simple. If the production at quarterback is consistent, this is a bowl team. The best bet is with a healthy Travis Wilson, though it really is about just starting the same guy all 12 games.

11. Colorado: The Buffaloes should take another step forward in Year 2 under Mike MacIntyre, but the real issue is whom can they crawl over to rise in the conference pecking order? With about six or seven projected senior starters this fall, the Buffs might not make a move up until 2015.

12. California: If the bet were to pick who finishes last in the Pac-12 in 2014, Cal or the field, I'd be reluctant to tap Cal. I'd much rather go with the field because I think the Bears were awful in Year 1 under Sonny Dykes because of an epidemic of injuries and a poorly-coached defense. The latter should be solved by the hiring of coordinator Art Kaufman, and I can't foresee the injury situation being nearly as bad.
ESPN’s Todd McShay released his Way-too-early 2015 mock draft on Wednesday, giving a very early look into the future of some potential NFL draftees next season. Once again, the SEC leads the way, putting 10 players in the first 32 picks of McShay's first mock draft.

McShay predicts the No. 1 draft pick being a defensive lineman just like the 2014 draft. Only, instead of coming out of the SEC, he believes that defensive lineman will be one out of the Pac-12, USC's Leonard Williams.

McShay put eight Pac-12 players in the first round, including three top-10 picks. The ACC is behind the Pac-12 with seven picks, though six of those are from Florida State. The Big Ten has four players on the list while the Big 12 landed three.

Oregon leads the way for the Pac-12 with three players in the top 20 picks -- cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, quarterback Marcus Mariota and center Hroniss Grasu. USC got on the board with two players in the top 32 while UCLA, Stanford and Arizona State each had one player.
ESPN Insider Brian Fremeau’s post-spring Top 25 projections Insider showcase high expectations for the Pac-12 in 2014. Six teams from the conference appear, including No. 2 Oregon and No. 4 Stanford.

The total number of teams ranks second to the 14-team SEC (7), but both conferences have five teams among the top 15.

Marcus Mariota is a main reason Oregon is expected to compete for a national title, writes Fremeau:
The Ducks' offense projects to be the most efficient in the country, and quarterback [Mariota] may be the leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy as a result.

This won't the be last time UCLA is called a playoff contender:
UCLA is loaded with returning starters and has enough program momentum to break through as a national championship playoff contender in 2014.

Washington will play four of the conference teams ranked ahead of it, but will miss USC (and former coach Steve Sarkisian):
A tough conference schedule means Washington may be on the wrong end of a few lopsided Pac-12 losses this fall, but the Huskies should be the best of the next tier in the league.

Mark Schlabach's post-spring way-too-early top 25 also was released Monday. It included four Pac-12 teams: No. 5 Oregon, No. 11 Stanford, No. 12 UCLA, No. 20 USC.

 

The Pac-12 entered spring practices with more clarity and quality at quarterback than any conference in the nation by a wide margin. It exits with even more clarity at the position.

With new USC coach Steve Sarkisian announcing that Cody Kessler retained his starting job, and Utah's Travis Wilson's apparently successful return from a career-threatening medical condition (an intracranial artery injury diagnosed in November), the Pac-12 welcomes back 10 returning starters heading into the fall, with a handful -- such as Oregon's Marcus Mariota, UCLA's Brett Hundley, Arizona State's Taylor Kelly and Oregon State's Sean Mannion -- who are candidates for All-America honors and national awards.

Further, it became clear this spring that the Pac-12 is overflowing with quality receivers, with several teams combining depth, talent and experience at the position. So things figure to be pass happy in the fall.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Williams
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsUSC junior defensive lineman Leonard Williams is one of the few Pac-12 defensive stars returning this season.
But what about defense? After all, they say, defense wins championships, and Woody Hayes told us, "Three things can happen when you throw the ball, and two of them are bad," an optimistic take that leaves out the quarterback sack.

While conference teams average 6.4 returning starters on defense, and just three -- Arizona State (3), Oregon (5) and Utah (5) -- welcome back fewer than six starters on that side of the ball, the loss of star power is notable.

Just two first-team All-Pac-12 defenders return in 2014: USC defensive tackle Leonard Williams and Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Only four from the second team return.

Washington defensive end Hau'oli Kikaha and Oregon outside linebacker Tony Washington are the only returning defenders who ranked among the conference's top 12 in sacks last season. The same is true in the secondary: Only two of the top eight interception leaders are back in 2014.

So, without marquee guys chasing them or trying to steal their passes, life seems good at quarterback heading into the offseason. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, few teams seem to be fretting their situation on the mean side of the ball.

Take Stanford, owner of the Pac-12's best defense in 2013. While the Cardinal appeared more settled on offense than defense entering spring practices, the defense mostly ruled when the ball was snapped.

"No question," Cardinal coach David Shaw said. "If you look at our defensive front, it's a bunch of fourth-year and fifth-year seniors ... we've got a lot of guys coming back who've played a lot of football for us."

While Stanford lost some big names, such as linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov, it also welcomes back a strong foundation of seven returning starters and experienced backups. Shaw noted that Aziz Shittu is only non-fourth- or fifth-year guy in the mix for playing time in the front seven. He lauded defensive end Henry Anderson, an athletic 6-foot-6, 295 pounder, this spring as a potential breakout star this season, with an NFL future.

Over at Oregon, the Ducks are not only replacing two of three defensive linemen and three starters in the secondary, they also are breaking in a new defensive coordinator, as Don Pellum moved up from linebackers coach to replace the retiring Nick Aliotti.

Yet even when matched against Mariota and a potent and experienced Ducks offense, the defense held its own.

"I think we've had a great give and take as far as who's had the upper hand," Ducks coach Mark Helfrich said. "Marcus is obviously a difference-maker and a special guy. Defensively, we're building where we need to be. It was good give and take overall."

In the South Division, UCLA and USC both look strong on defense despite losing some marquee players. Both welcome back eight starters from accomplished units. Defending champion Arizona State lost almost all of its star power, but Sun Devils coach Todd Graham was almost defiant all spring about his expectations for his defense.

Of course, he's also counting on a number of newcomers playing key roles, which often is a matter of keeping the ole fingers crossed.

“People come here to play defense, that’s what we’re known for," he said. "We’re known for defense, so I don’t expect anything less than last year.”

While there might be some defensive questions among the teams thought to be competing for division championships, the defenses that finished on the bottom in 2013 could be much improved.

Oregon State, Colorado and California, the Nos. 9, 11 and 12 scoring defenses last season, each welcome back eight starters. The Golden Bears and Beavers, in particular, could dramatically improve if injury woes from 2013 reverse themselves.

"I think our team is tougher and better conditioned and our players are in a much better place than they were last year," Cal coach Sonny Dykes said. "I think that's something players noticed. We have some experience coming back. It's the second year in the system. So, yeah, I think everybody feels like we're a lot better football team than we were a year ago."

It seems certain that Pac-12 offenses will again be high-flying and potent in 2014. But the conference teams that have earned BCS bowl berths the past decade or so also have played good defense. As we exit spring and head into the offseason, there is hope -- but not nearly as much certainty -- there.

Mailbag: Next big Pac-12 thing?

April, 25, 2014
4/25/14
5:45
PM ET
Happy Friday. Welcome to the Mailbag.

Following the Pac-12 blog on Twitter is the equivalent of eating a perfectly cooked bone-in ribeye, only with the caloric burn of a P90X workout.

To the notes.

Bellingham Duck from Bellingham, Wash., writes: I remember as kid sitting on my back porch listening to my Ducks get blown out by perennial powerhouse Oklahoma 62-7. I dreamed of what it what it would be like to ever be that good. Too ashamed to ask God to intervene, I accepted what seemed to be our fate. What Pac-12 program that is currently down is most unlikely but still destined to reach the top and stay a while?

Ted Miller: This question interested me because of my initial reaction: I see reasons for optimism for EVERY SINGLE PAC-12 TEAM.

That reaction made me grumpy. That much optimism doesn't sit well with me. The Pac-12 blog is not "Oprah." We aren't about uplifting folks. We aren't about fairy tales and happy endings. We are about being realistic. Objective. We want to tell it like it is. We're like Marlo Stanfield in "The Wire" whispering with understated but ineluctable menace, "You want it to be one way… but it's the other way."

And we are not embarrassed to admit we enjoy a bit of snark.

Yet here's what I see with the Pac-12 heading into the 2014 season: Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Arizona State and Washington look like potential top-25 teams to me. Oregon State, Arizona, Washington State and Utah look like teams that could be dark horses if a couple of things fall into place and they stay healthy. And California and Colorado look like they will be much better in 2014 than they were last season.

The biggest potential backward step? Arizona State, because it's rebuilding its defense. But I see the Sun Devils as a team that could win nine games, so we're not talking about a tumble.

But none of this answers your question.

Part of that nonanswer is only Utah, Colorado and California could qualify as "down" after the 2013 season. Everyone else seemed to be maintaining a solid status or trending up.

So if you are asking me which program among those three should most decisively reverse course in the next five years, I'd go with Cal, mostly because of its recently -- and dramatically -- upgraded facilities and recruiting base.

If you're asking me which Pac-12 team is on the midst of making a major leap as a program, I'd go with UCLA in the South Division -- as long the Bruins retain Jim Mora -- and Washington in the North.

I also think the Arizona-Arizona State rivalry is going to get very interesting if both retain their present coaching staffs.


Brandon from Seattle writes: This isn't a new topic and relates more to my recent discovery of cfbstats.com (and my loss of productivity). I'm a die-hard Coug fan and after looking into some rushing statistics, I've got a small bone to pick with college football analysts. The last two seasons, much has been made about WSU's ineffectiveness running the football. This viewpoint comes around because of two archaic "truths" of college football: 1. Balance means a team is 50-50 rushing and passing; and 2. Sacks are counted as rush attempts. Without getting into why I believe those "truths" are archaic, I'll just state my point that WSU's rushing game isn't nearly as bad as it's made out to be. In fact, if you look just at rushes by running backs, WSU ranks sixth in yards per attempt at 4.97. That's better than Stanford at 4.96 and UCLA at 4.72. I?m definitely not downplaying those teams' abilities to run the ball, but instead I'd like to bring to light the fact that WSU's O-line and running backs are significantly more efficient in the run game than what we're led to believe by many media members. Just food for thought and a hope that analysts might eventually take a deeper dive than rushing and passing totals.

Ted Miller: This gets a yes and no.

Yes, Washington State was better running the ball than its paltry 53.4 yards per game suggests. Each of its top four running backs averaged 4.5 yards per carry or better. The poor rushing stats were mostly due to a lack of attempts and, as you note, losing 244 yards on 32 sacks. Further, as coach Mike Leach often points out, his short passing game using running backs isn't much different than handing off.

Yet, just as you've gone inside the numbers, you also can go a bit deeper.

Two stats stand out: Third-down conversions and red-zone offense. Both tend to be better for teams with reliable running games.

The Cougars ranked seventh in the Pac-12 in third-down conversions and 10th in red-zone offense. They were eighth in red-zone TD percentage (though it's a curiosity that said TD percentage was better than both Arizona State and Stanford, two good running teams).

Most notable: The Cougars turned the ball over in the red zone a conference-worst seven times. Hard to believe part of that isn't about the challenge of throwing the ball in a compressed space when defenses aren't worried about the run.

All this said, it's really about results. The Cougars ranked eighth in the Pac-12 in scoring last year -- ninth in conference games -- and finished 6-7. If they finished in the top three in scoring and won eight or more games, nobody would care about the rushing statistics.


Mitch from Tucson writes: Hey Ted, longtime reader, first-time writer. What was your reasoning for leaving Austin Hill off the "2014 challengers" list? If I remember correctly, that guy was pretty good. ... Maybe even All-American good: "The sophomore looked like a potential All-American in 2013 after catching 81 passes for 1,364 yards -- 16.8 yards per reception -- with 11 touchdowns. " - Ted Miller

Ted Miller: Considering the receiving depth in the Pac-12 next year, if I listed all the potential challengers to lead the Pac-12 in receiving yards, there would be 20 names.

There are two reasons I left out Hill. First, he's coming back from a knee injury that killed his 2013 season and he wasn't 100 percent himself this spring. I want to see how he reacts when the lights come on and the games are for real. I do suspect we're going to see a guy who is even better than he was in 2012.

But the biggest reason is this: Arizona is as deep as any team in the country at receiver. It's much deeper than it was in 2012, when Hill put up huge numbers, and 2013, when Hill was out. I could see multiple 1,000-yard receivers for Arizona -- or four guys with over 800 yards -- but not one guy with, say, 1,500 yards.

Also, based on how Texas transfer Cayleb Jones looked this spring, he might actually be the favorite to lead the Wildcats in receiving yards.


Kurt from Corvallis writes: Naming the starting QB? Simple: When the coach knows, he announces.

Ted Miller: Maybe for some, but plenty of coaches subscribe to the notion that they want to prolong the competition as long as possible.

For example, it was pretty obvious that B.J. Denker was going to be Arizona's starting quarterback early in fall camp last year, but Rich Rodriguez opted not to announce it until the week of the first game. Why? He didn't want Denker to become comfortable. He told me specifically that he wanted to cultivate as much mental toughness as possible in Denker because he knew Denker's lackluster arm would not be widely celebrated among the Wildcats' fan base and there would be growing pains. As there were -- see his game at Washington.

Chip Kelly also wasn't a big fan of showing his cards early. Think about what we know about Marcus Mariota now. But he wasn't revealed as the Ducks starter as a freshman until after 22 fall camp practices, one week before the opener.

Again, some coaches like to anoint a QB as soon as possible in order to allow him to take up a defined leadership role. Others like to wait as long as possible, believing a lengthy, stressful competition creates mental toughness.


Matt from Carrollton, Texas, writes: Hi, Ted. I'm a longtime fan of USC and the Pac-12 blog, which means it would take something I consider especially momentous to write in (given that I value Kevin and your opinions so much). Anyways, I also happen to be an avid NCAA football gamer on Xbox 360 (read in: nerd), and I hit a milestone this past weekend with a resounding 252-0 win as USC over Wazzu (the first game in my 21st Dynasty season, and first over 250 points). I figured I'd send you this in the hopes that it warrants some space on your next mailbag, especially since it probably took me roughly 340-plus hours of gameplay to accomplish this. P.S.: Before you ask, those 340 hours took place over the course of the past 21 months, and yes, this was on "freshman" difficulty, but in my defense I do play only six-minute quarters and use an accelerated play clock. That's gotta count for something right?

Ted Miller: The Nobel committee has been alerted.

Now, Matt, please go read a book.

Lunch links: Remembering Tillman

April, 22, 2014
4/22/14
2:30
PM ET
There's a tiny door in my office, Maxine. It's a portal and it takes you inside John Malkovich. You see the world through John Malkovich's eyes... and then after about 15 minutes, you're spit out ... into a ditch on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike.

Poll: Best three-headed monster?

March, 28, 2014
3/28/14
1:00
PM ET
Which Pac-12 team has the best overall three-headed monster?

To review what the heck we are writing about: On offense, that's an elite combination at quarterback, running back and receiver. On defense, it's an elite combination of a leading tackler, a leader in sacks and leader in interceptions.

SportsNation

Which Pac-12 unit has the best three-headed monster?

  •  
    15%
  •  
    44%
  •  
    23%
  •  
    7%
  •  
    11%

Discuss (Total votes: 5,817)

We've reviewed South offenses and North offenses and South defenses and North defenses.

But now we want your take on whose troika is the mightiest. Who has the surest thing heading into 2014?

On offense, we like Oregon in the North and Arizona State in the South.

Oregon offers QB Marcus Mariota, RB Byron Marshall and WR Bralon Addison. Arizona State counters with QB Taylor Kelly, RB D.J. Foster, WR Jaelen Strong. That right there is a tough call.

The Ducks probably have a lead at quarterback, but you could say the Sun Devils are better at the other two spots. Or you might not.

On defense, we like USC in the South and Stanford in the North.

USC offers LB Hayes Pullard, DT Leonard Williams and S Su'a Cravens, while Stanford has LB A.J. Tarpley, DE Henry Anderson and S Jordan Richards.

That's a group of six players who figures to earn All-Pac-12 honors.

First you might choose which crew you like on offense and which one you like on defense. Then you could ask yourself which one you'd most want to play for your team.

It's nice to have star power at all three levels on either side of the ball. But your question today is whose stars shine the brightest.
You remember the three-headed monster, right? It's about returning production that will scare -- terrify! --opponents. Or not.

On offense, it's elite combinations at quarterback, running back and receiver.

On defense, it's elite combinations of a leading tackler, a leader in sacks and leader in interceptions.

This year, we're breaking things down by division.

We looked at the South Division offensive three-headed monsters on Monday. On Tuesday, we’ll take a look at the North Division offense.

Only Cal and Washington State return their three-headed leaders from last season. The other four teams have all had a change of some kind. And there are some big question marks surrounding a couple of schools -- especially the one in Seattle.

Let’s take a look:

1. Oregon

QB Marcus Mariota, RB Byron Marshall, WR, Bralon Addison

The skinny: Heisman candidate + rising star + explosive playmaker = nasty. Though losing Josh Huff and De’Anthony Thomas, the Oregon offense should be explosive once again. Mariota led the nation in adjusted QBR last season to go with 31 passing touchdowns to just four interceptions. Marshall is a returning 1,000-yard rusher with 14 touchdowns last season, and Addison hauled in nine scores.

2. Stanford

QB Kevin Hogan, RB ?, WR Ty Montgomery

The skinny: The Cardinal get the No. 2 spot here based on experience at quarterback and the fact Montgomery is returning after a second-team all-league year. And whoever the “regular” running back is, be it Kelsey Young (the leading returner in yards), Ricky Seale, Barry Sanders or Remound Wright, he will be running behind a stellar offensive line. Worth noting that Hogan and Montgomery had more rushing yards last year than any of the listed running backs. But Stanford's success running the football leads the Pac-12 blog to give it the benefit of the doubt.

3. Oregon State

QB Sean Mannion, RB Terron Ward, WR Richard Mullaney

The skinny: Though the Beavers lose Brandin Cooks, Mannion has the potential to be one of the top quarterbacks in the country after throwing 37 touchdowns last year. Storm Woods had more carries and touchdowns, but Ward had more yards, so they’ll likely work in unison, again. Mullaney had 52 catches last season.

4. Washington State

QB Connor Halliday, RB Marcus Mason, WR Gabe Marks

The skinny: WSU gets the edge in the rankings over Washington (for now) because there are still a lot of question marks around the Huskies. Halliday tossed 34 touchdowns last year and threw for nearly 4,600 yards. Marks has blossomed into a bona fide playmaker and should be in the mix for all-conference honors. The Cougars don’t do much in the way of running the football. But when they did last year, Mason totaled 429 yards on 87 carries.

5. Washington

QB?, RB Jesse Callier, WR, Jaydon Mickens

The skinny: Washington is one of those programs that could end up in one of the top two spots by the end of the season. But for now, there is too much unknown. The status of QB Cyler Miles is still up in the air. Callier has the most returning attempts (one more than Dwayne Washington and five more than Deontae Cooper) and the Huskies expect Kasen Williams back by the fall at receiver. Mickens caught 65 balls and five touchdowns last year and the aforementioned RB trio combined for 10 touchdowns.

6. California

QB Jared Goff, RB Khalfani Muhammad, WR Bryce Treggs

The skinny: There is a lot of potential in this group. The Bears just need that potential to translate into points on the field. Goff threw for 3,508 yards in his debut season, and Treggs caught 77 of his passes. Though just one for a touchdown (Chris Harper and Kenny Lawler each caught five). Though the departed Brendan Bigelow had more carries, Muhammad outperformed him with more yards and touchdowns.
It is absolutely necessary, for the peace and safety of mankind, that some of earth's dark, dead corners and unplumbed depths be left alone; lest sleeping abnormalities wake to resurgent life, and blasphemously surviving nightmares squirm and splash out of their black lairs to newer and wider conquests.

Lunch links: QB Mariota's return

March, 12, 2014
3/12/14
2:30
PM ET
You take the van, I'll keep the dog.
There are plenty of issues Pac-12 teams will be addressing this spring. Here are some that are front and center for your Pac-12 insiders.

Ted Miller: Spring practice is the official transition from taking stock of the 2013 season, including recruiting, to looking ahead to next fall. The 2013 season was all about top-to-bottom depth for the Pac-12 -- and the lack of an elite national-title contender. That might be the case again in 2014, but if the conference is going to be nationally relevant in Year 1 of the four-team College Football Playoff, I think it will be because of the depth and quality of the quarterbacks.

If Travis Wilson is cleared to play at Utah, 10 Pac-12 teams welcome back their 2013 starters, and many of these guys are All-American candidates, most notably Oregon's Marcus Mariota, UCLA's Brett Hundley, Arizona State's Taylor Kelly and Oregon State's Sean Mannion.

[+] EnlargeBrett Hundley
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsHaving Brett Hundley back makes UCLA the favorite in the Pac-12 South.
The big question for these guys is if they can be better this season than last. If that happens -- for the above four and the six other returning starters -- then it should be a high-flying season with lots of offense. And perhaps a team emerges as a candidate for the playoff.

What most interests you this spring with the Pac-12?

Kyle Bonagura: As a result of the continuity at quarterback, offenses should be in line for a collective step forward. How far could be determined by how quickly the conference's seven new defensive coordinators acclimate to -- and perform at -- their new jobs.

We won't get a great read on how that process is going during the spring, but it'll be interesting to see in what ways defenses evolve moving forward.

For Arizona State, Oregon, Stanford and UCLA, the change will be minimal. Todd Graham will remain heavily involved in how ASU plays defense, and the other three promoted staff members will use the framework and schemes already in place. USC might have a new staff, but considering coach Steve Sarkisian and defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox were in the conference last season, it should be an easy transition.

I'm more interested to see how things play out at California and Washington.

Washington is set up for success with the much-anticipated arrival of longtime Boise State coach Chris Petersen, who brought his defensive coordinator for the past four seasons, Pete Kwiatkowski. They have a talented front seven to work with and a favorable early schedule that will allow the staff to iron out any kinks: at Hawaii, Eastern Washington, Illinois, Georgia State.

Art Kaufman's job taking over the Cal defense won't be as easy. The Golden Bears should be in better shape than last season from a health and experience standpoint -- the latter partially a result of 2013's injury woes -- but there's a lot of ground to cover between where they were and being competitive.

Ted Miller: One team that had coaching continuity at both coordinator spots is Arizona, and I think the Wildcats are setting up to be a dark horse in the Pac-12 South, though I do see UCLA as a strong favorite at this point. The intrigue with Arizona, though, is at quarterback. It seems like the most wide-open competition in the conference.

If Cyler Miles gets back in Petersen's good graces, he's got a significant lead for the Washington QB vacancy. At USC, I think that Cody Kessler is likely to retain his starting job over touted redshirt freshman Max Browne. Kessler steadily improved as a difficult season went on, and he still has his 2013 offensive coordinator/position coach in Clay Helton. At Utah, a healthy Wilson starts for the Utes.

But Arizona has four guys with a legitimate shot at winning the starting QB job this fall: Redshirt freshman Anu Solomon, senior Jesse Scroggins, sophomore Connor Brewer and junior Jerrard Randall. Solomon was one of the jewels of the 2013 recruiting class, while the other three are transfers from A-list programs -- Scroggins from USC, Brewer from Texas and Randall from LSU.

The first big question will be whether Rich Rodriguez narrows the field at the end of spring practices. How much does he want to establish a clear pecking order? You'd think at least one of these guys is going to be relegated to fourth place because there are only so many practice reps to go around.

The good news is the guy who wins the job is going to have an outstanding crew of receivers. He won't have running back Ka'Deem Carey lining up as a security blanket behind him, but Rodriguez's offenses almost always run the ball well. The Wildcats will average more than 200 yards rushing again next season, I feel confident saying that.

The million-dollar question -- the difference between competing for the South title and winning eight games again -- is how efficient the guy behind center is.

Any position battles particularly intrigue you this spring?

Kyle Bonagura: Like you, I'm really intrigued to see how the quarterback competition at Arizona progresses. That's a lot of pressure for the three guys who already transferred from big-time programs. All of them clearly want to play, and it makes you wonder if one of them will end up at an FCS school before the season starts.

The most high-profile battle outside of quarterback has to be at Stanford, where four guys are competing to replace Tyler Gaffney at running back. I was out at the Cardinal's first open practice of the spring last week -- and will be out there again on Saturday -- and what stood out immediately was how balanced the reps were. If Remound Wright, Ricky Seale, Barry Sanders and Kelsey Young didn't have equal reps with the first team, it was close.

However it plays out, it's unlikely Stanford will feature one back like it has the past six years with Gaffney, Stepfan Taylor and Toby Gerhart.

Wright probably holds a slight edge in terms of the overall package -- largely because of his capabilities in pass protection -- but there are more similarities than differences in comparing each guy. A lot of people ask about Sanders because of his famous father (my favorite football player as a kid), but the reality with him is that expectations were probably too high when he arrived. His name and recruiting profile are to blame, and the coaching staff isn't going to force his development.

Young, who switched back to running back from receiver, might be the most dangerous with the ball in his hands and Seale, a fifth-year senior, might have the best grasp of the offense.

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