Welcome to the mailbag. It's Friday, and that is always a good thing.

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To the notes.

Bryan from Portland, Ore., writes: Now that Northwestern football players have been declared employees, and are eligible to unionize, can they be taxed for their scholarship? Nobody would be very happy to have to pay $15K in taxes for a full ride scholarship to NW.

Ted Miller: You are correct. And if college football teams in the major conferences unionized across the country, things would become complicated.

In fact, I don't think that's what's going to happen. Further, despite my mailbag last week and tweak of Texas AD Steve Patterson here about being all business until it comes to the issue of treating college football players like employees, my feeling at present is unionizing college football would be fraught with potentially negative unintended consequences and probably not a good thing for the sport -- both for those who play as well as those who coach and administer.

Yet the threat of unionization, the threat of players uniting to get a better cut of the action, is what I view as a positive good. Unionizing should be a last resort if the folks who run things don't figure out a way to treat the players better.

To repeat myself from last week, my thinking on this aligns with Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples, and I keep linking his article because he wrote things I was thinking before I did, so he merits acknowledgment.

Further, this represents a change of heart for me. For a long time, I saw a scholarship as enough payment, and I resented the ignorance of the drive-by-columnists who took shots at college football without regularly covering the sport. My feeling was only a handful of players owned real star power, and that the jersey players wore on Saturdays actually held the enduring value and ultimately created the revenue. But that position was developed in the 1990s. Over the past three to five years, with conferences realigning and then signing mega-deals for broadcasting rights, as well as the coming College Football Playoff, I've adjusted my thinking.

What should players get? Glad you asked.
  • Full cost of attendance scholarships. My feeling is this is going to happen pretty soon.
  • Lifetime disability coverage for injuries suffered while they played college football.
  • Players should be able to profit from their images, though we certainly understand this could get complicated to monitor.
  • Transfer rules need to be reevaluated, making it easier for players to change schools. That will make life difficult for coaches, but they are paid $3 million or so a year to deal with difficulties.
  • There should be a need-based fund that pays for parents to go on recruiting visits and to attend games.

I also think we need to reevaluate player-agent contact. While pay-for-play with boosters is about a program gaining a competitive advantage, player-agent contact is about a player looking out for his future. You'll notice that the carping about agents tends to come from coaches, ADs and fans because they don't want their star players entering the draft before their eligibility has expired. Rules against agents have zero benefits for players.

Sure, you could open up some unsavory situations, but it seems like it would be better to have as much as possible happening out in the open than what we have now.


Gret from Salt Lake City writes: Hey guys, the Big Ten blog did this a while back and I thought it would be fun to try here! If you could be the dictator of the Pac-12 for a day, and could only make three changes, what changes would you make?? and no school, no matter how powerful, could fight you on anything. They would all just have to go along with whatever decisions you made.

Ted Miller: First, I adopt much of what I wrote above.

Second, I'd force the Pac-12 Network and DirectTV to reach a compromise deal. This is mostly because I am sick of hearing about the impasse between Pac-12 Network and DirectTV.

Third, I'd schedule more day games. There would be no more than two 7 p.m. PT (or later) kickoffs during the Pac-12 schedule.

Fourth, I'd make Kevin call me "The Great and Powerful Oz." Oh, oh … or "Heisenberg."


Ryan from New York writes: Ted, Nice "puff" piece on the Bruins. But they need to beat somebody other than embattled Bo Pelini and a depleted USC team that dressed less than 50 scholarship players in LA last fall. UCLA is 1-6 in the last couple of years against Oregon, Stanford and ASU. Not good. Before you start popping off about being a national title contender, you have to beat the good teams. Oh, and beating an underachieving Virginia Tech team that played more than half the game with a backup QB who had thrown less than 5 passes all year doesn't count. Peace out.

Ted Miller: I was wondering where you'd been. I fear it's going to be a long and frustrating year for you, Ryan.

UCLA welcomes back 19 starters from a squad that beat five teams that won eight or more games last year, including a 10-win USC team. By 21 points! Also back is QB Brett Hundley, leading a team that finished the season 10-3 and ranked 16th.

The Bruins are going to be ranked in or very near the preseason top 10. Oregon, USC and Stanford all visit the Rose Bowl.

You can stew and frump all you want, but the reason people think highly of the Bruins’ chances is something called "supporting evidence."


Brian from San Diego writes: You know how cities across the U.S. have sister cities? Los Angeles has Athens, Greece for example; and San Francisco has Naples, Italy. Just for fun what schools would you say are "sister schools" of Pac-12 members?

Ted Miller: Just for fun.
  • Arizona-Florida: If you've hung out at both places, you'd get it. Close color schemes, too.
  • Arizona State-Florida State: Hey, bud, let's party!
  • California-Michigan: Great state schools. And not afraid to tell you about it.
  • Colorado-Texas: Perhaps the nation's two best college towns.
  • Oregon-Ohio State: Our fan base is more obnoxious. No, our fan base is more obnoxious. Wait. I like how you think. Same here! (Hugs). [70 percent of Oregon fans will find that at least reasonably funny; 30 percent will swear a blood oath against the Pac-12 blog].
  • Oregon State-Kansas State: Great coaches, overachieving programs, folksy atmosphere, cool towns.
  • Stanford-Duke: They could talk about computer code and James Joyce. Only problem is Duke students are mostly folks who got rejected by Stanford and the Ivy League.
  • UCLA-North Carolina: Good schools. Great hoops tradition. And shades of light blue!
  • USC-Alabama: They'd argue endlessly about which program is the "Greatest in College Football History," and the experience would be absolute bliss for each fan base.
  • Utah-TCU: The Pac-12 is hard! The Big 12 is hard!
  • Washington-Miami: They shared a national title and are presently trying to regain their national stature. And this pairing would give Hurricanes fans somewhere to go in the summer and Huskies fans somewhere to go in the winter.
  • Washington State-LSU: These programs are very different but if you got the fan bases together the party would be absolutely epic, whispered about for centuries, as in: "Great Granddaddy, tell me about the time you partied for four weeks with those Cajuns."



Happy Friday!
It might be a very different looking Oregon team that takes the field next fall … and not because of the uniform changes (though, those are sure to be something different). Instead, the guys wearing those uniforms might fill them out a bit differently.

[+] EnlargeOregon Ducks and Tennessee Volunteers
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesOregon is hoping the weight gained by player like Johnny Mundt will not affect the team's speed advantage.
Through this winter, several players went through some significant weight changes by making minor tweaks in the strength and conditioning program. But coach Mark Helfrich is hoping that the weight gains aren't just shown physically but in how the players take the field, as well.

“Hopefully a lot of that is confidence,” Helfrich said. “Just that edge of you feeling a little better about yourself, you’re moving a bit more, you’re physically bigger. It’s just you’re coming into the play with more confidence and that’s a big deal.”

Defensive lineman Sam Kamp put on the most weight of any player, packing on another 29 pounds and fellow lineman T.J. Daniel added 22. Not to be outdone, the offensive linemen packed on more than 100 pounds as a unit, with guard Doug Brenner leading the way with 26 pounds and Matt Pierson, Cameron Hunt and Elijah George all bulking up at least 20 pounds.

“I think we’ve kept our speed and athleticism,” center Hroniss Grasu said. “The added weight gain is just there to get us more physical and blowing the defensive line off the ball where we lacked that toward the end of the season.”

But it wasn’t just the big men making significant changes. Tight end John Mundt packed on 20 pounds and in the linebacker group, guys like Tyson Coleman, Joe Walker and Tyrell Robinson all put on at least 15 pounds.

Quarterback Marcus Mariota is up to 218 pounds and hopes to be at 220 for the start of the 2014 season, while both leading backs made some important changes -- Byron Marshall lost six pounds (down to 201 pounds) while Thomas Tyner added 14 pounds and is up to 215.

With all of the weight gain the main concern would be that the high-powered offense the Ducks feature might be lacking some of that Oregon speed, but the players have tried to keep up their speed with the added weight. Mundt said that one of the focuses was finding that sweet spot for each player at which he stayed as fast as possible but got as big as possible.

“We were all pushing each other in the weight room and in conditioning,” Mundt said. “We’ve all gotten better and stronger, so that’s a good thing. … I think we have more strength and size across the board, but we’re still moving fast.”

Added bulk is certainly going to benefit this team,and as long as each guy can still move the same, the only teams struggling with the weight gain with be opponents. In May, if a player doesn’t appear the same when he takes the field for the spring game, it’s not the uniform, it’s the guy in the uniform.
Athlon Sports is big on lists. And we’re big on bringing you their lists because, well, it's the offseason, and it’s fun.

One annual list in particular always seems to get folks all hot and bothered, and that’s their annual ranking of the Pac-12 coaches.

Before people go all crazy on Twitter, remember, THIS IS NOT A PAC-12 BLOG LIST. We are simply sharing it because we think it’s interesting. Your thoughts are always welcomed in the mailbag.

Here’s the 2014 list that Steven Lassan put together:

  1. David Shaw, Stanford
  2. Chris Petersen, Washington
  3. Todd Graham, Arizona State
  4. Mike Riley, Oregon State
  5. Mike Leach, Washington State
  6. Rich Rodriguez, Arizona
  7. Jim Mora, UCLA
  8. Steve Sarkisian, USC
  9. Mike MacIntyre, Colorado
  10. Kyle Whittingham, Utah
  11. Mark Helfrich, Oregon
  12. Sonny Dykes, California

Some thoughts:
    [+] EnlargeRodriguez/Graham
    AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez (right) is ranked sixth on the Pac-12 coaching list by Athlon.

  • I went back to their 2013 and 2012 rankings and noticed a few interesting moves. Rich Rodriguez was No. 3 last year and is No. 6 this year. I find that interesting since he won the same amount of games last season as in 2012 (8-5), scored a signature win last season by topping No. 5 Oregon and did it without his 2012 quarterback. Granted, Arizona had a light nonconference schedule last fall, but does that warrant being dropped a quarter of the way down?
  • Two years ago, Shaw was No. 9 on their list, despite being named Pac-12 Coach of the Year in 2011. Last year, he bounced up to No. 1 and is in the top spot again. For having won back-to-back Pac-12 titles, I see no problem with him being No. 1 again.
  • My first thought was that Petersen was way too high, considering he has never coached a single game in the conference. Then I pushed that silliness out of my mind. He has coached against this conference, going 5-2 during his stint with Boise (not counting games against Utah when it was in the Mountain West or the bowl loss to Oregon State last season when he wasn’t the head coach). Plus, he’s a two-time national coach of the year. That’s a better résumé than anyone else in the league. I’ll buy him at No. 2.
  • My biggest gripe with the list is Mora at No. 7. He was No. 11 on the 2012 list and No. 8 on the 2013 list. All he has done is go 19-8, win the South title one of those two years and beat USC twice. Doesn’t that get you a statue on campus? He has bolstered the national reputation of the program and was given a nice contract extension for his work. I would slot him in either the No. 3 or No. 4 spot with Todd Graham. Both have nearly identical résumés so far. Both are 2-0 against their rival. Both have won the Pac-12 South. They have split their head-to-head games with each winning once on the road. Both have had one blowout bowl win and one bad bowl loss. The only reason I’d probably put Graham ahead is that he was named coach of the year. But Mora belongs in the upper third.
  • Sarkisian is interesting. People are quick to rip his hire at USC, but recall the coaching job he did at Washington when he first got there. He turned a winless team into a pretty good program. Petersen is coming into a much more advantageous position than when Sark first got there. How that translates to USC remains to be seen.
  • Helfrich was No. 12 in 2013. For winning 11 games in 2013, he gets that big boost all the way up to No. 11. I get the sentiment -- that the Ducks were “supposed” to go to the BCS title game last season. He can’t control an injury to his quarterback. Don’t be shocked if he’s in the top five when Athlon releases its 2015 list.
  • Whittingham has stumbled from the No. 4 spot he occupied in 2012. Like Helfrich, he can’t control the unfortunate rash of injuries that have plagued his quarterbacks since coming into the league. I know this, there aren’t many defensive-minded coaches I’d take over Whittingham.
  • Riley continues to be in the upper half of the list. Which is completely fair. He’s done more in that setting than most people could. Oregon State fans seem to clamor annually about what’s on the other side of the fence. When the day comes that Riley does step down (and I have to imagine it will be on his own terms), those complaining about change will miss him.

You get the idea. Lists are hard to put together, because everyone has a bias and an opinion. I think MacIntyre has done some great things at Colorado, and I think Washington State’s progress under Leach has been outstanding. As for Dykes, well, let’s give it another year and see what he can do with a healthy roster.

So we once again salute Athlon for making the list. Even if we don’t always agree with it.

Pac-12's lunch links

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Oh, you mean my pilot's license? That's out back in the Cessna. Or perhaps you're referring to my license to kill. Revoked. Trouble at the Kazakhstan border. I could give you the details but then I'd have to kill you, which I can't do because my license to kill has been revoked.

Reviewing the Pac-12 pro days

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Washington was the final Pac-12 school to host its pro day Wednesday, essentially putting an end to 40-yard-dash season. Here is a look at some of the conference's top prospects and a few others who helped their cause over the past month.

Arizona (March 6)
Big name: RB Ka'Deem Carey. After getting clocked at 4.70 in the 40 at the combine, Carey's pro day was a bit more intriguing than some of the other big-name players. There was some improvement -- various reports had him in the high 4.6-range -- but it wasn't enough to change the book on him. Still, Carey's production should make up for his perceived shortcomings.
Sleeper: OLB Marquis Flowers. Flowers reportedly ran in the 4.4s and had a good showing in position drills.

Arizona State (March 7)
Big name: DT Will Sutton. The Sun Devils' pro day further cemented what scouts learned at the combine, when he turned in below average numbers. There was slight improvement at the pro day, according to several reports, but nothing to save his falling stock.
Sleeper: RB Marion Grice. Grice was invited to the combine, but didn't participate as he recovers from a broken leg suffered late in the season. He also didn't participate at the pro day, but will hold an individual workout for NFL scouts on April 8.

California (March 19)
Big name: DT Deandre Coleman. Coleman only participated in the bench press at the combine, but fared well in field drills on campus with a reported 40 time in the mid 4.9-range. Coleman is projected by most to be a mid-round selection.
Sleeper: RB Brendan Bigelow. Bigelow was perhaps the player with the most to gain at pro day. The book on him has always been that he's loaded with talent and the physical skills necessary to be an impact player. It didn't happen for the Bears before he decided to leave early for a shot at Sunday football. Despite injuring his hamstring midway through his 40, Bigelow still was reported as running in the high 4.4-range with former Cal running backs Marshawn Lynch and Jahvid Best looking on.

Colorado (March 12)
Big name: WR Paul Richardson. There were 24 teams on hand, with Richardson the obvious prize of the nine that worked out. He only participated in the vertical jump, short shuttle and three-cone drills.
Sleeper: LS Ryan Iverson. Iverson will not be drafted, but after four years as the Colorado long snapper he has a chance to make some money at the next level. His 27 reps on the bench press were a team high. All the Colorado results can be viewed here.

Oregon (March 13)
Big name: RB De'Anthony Thomas. Thomas' 4.50 40 time at the combine was among the disappointments for the conference and turned a perceived strength into average attribute. After his showing in Eugene -- a 4.34 40 time -- the world is back on its axis. On his combine performance, Thomas told the Ducks' official website: “I ran a 4.5 in ninth grade, so I was like, ‘Wow, that’s crazy’. I feel like that made me train harder and I used it as motivation.”
Sleeper: CB Avery Patterson. Patterson was left puzzled by his own performance after putting up just 10 repetitions in the bench press, but the two-year starter remains focused on making the jump to the next level. He's likely the type of player that will have to earn his way on a team via a training camp invitation and possibly a practice squad.

Oregon State (March 14)
Big name: WR Brandin Cooks. The Biletnikoff Award winner could have showed up to the Beavers' pro day as a spectator and it likely wouldn't have mattered. His showing at the combine was enough to solidify his stock as a first-round pick. Cooks didn't take part in field drills, but did run routes.
Sleeper: WR Micah Hatfield. Yes, a receiver with 20 career catches helped his cause. One scout told the Oregonian he had Hatfield at 4.33 in the 40 -- the same times Cooks clocked when he was the fastest receiver at the combine.

Stanford (March 20)
Big name: OL David Yankey. Kansas City, Tampa Bay and St. Louis were the only no-shows at Stanford. If the mock drafts are to be trusted, Yankey figures to be the first Stanford player of the board. He improved slightly on the bench press (22 to 25) and clocked the same 40 time (5.48) from the combine.
Sleeper: DE Ben Gardner. Is it fair to call Gardner a sleeper after earning some form of all-Pac-12 recognition the past three years? Probably not, but after not being invited to the NFL combine we'll go ahead and list him here anyways. Gardner benefitted most from the day, quantifying his explosiveness and athleticism with a 39.5-inch vertical jump.

UCLA (March 11)
Big name: OLB Anthony Barr. After running a 4.66 40 at the combine, Barr was clocked at 4.45 to ease any lingering doubt about his straight-line speed. Barr helped his case to become a top-10 pick and will likely be the first player from the Pac-12 selected.
Sleeper: RB Malcolm Jones. The Gatorade national high school player of the year never developed into the player UCLA fans were hoping for, but he's still hanging on to hopes of an NFL career. He was credited with a 4.57 40 at the Bruins' pro day.

USC (March 12)
Big name: WR Marqise Lee. Lee went Jerry Seinfeld and chose not to run, letting his combine performance serve as the final measurement of his ability. After not lifting in Indianapolis, Lee finished with 11 reps in the bench. He's tagged for the first round.
Sleeper: DE Morgan Breslin. Like Gardner, who he has been working out with in San Ramon, Calif., Breslin was a combine snub. He ran a 4.75 40, put up 26 reps on the bench and registered a 35.5-inch vertical jump. Here are the complete results for the 18 players who took part.

Utah (March 19)
Big name: CB Keith McGill. One of the fastest risers since the season has ended, McGill decided to participate in every drill despite a good showing at the combine. His 40 time (4.52) was a hundredth of second slower than what he did at combine, and his vertical leap (35.5) was about four inches less.
Sleeper: FB Karl Williams. The 240-pound former walk-on clocked a 4.5, which will could give him a shot to get in a training camp.

Washington (April 2)
Big name: RB Bishop Sankey. Content with his good showing in Indy, Sankey elected to just run the 60-yard shuttle and catch passes. Most mock drafts have Sankey, who left with a year of eligibility remaining, as the No. 2 running back.
Sleeper: QB Keith Price. There were 19 quarterbacks at the combine, but Price was not one of them, marking the first time since at least 1999 that the conference didn't send a quarterback -- and it could be longer -- we could only find combine rosters dating back that far. Price got good reviews for his performance Wednesday, but it would still be surprising if he gets drafted.

Washington State (March 13)
Big name: S Deone Bucannon. WSU's remote location and limited number of pro prospects resulted in less than a dozen scouts on hand, but those that were there got to see one of the conference's most intriguing prospects. Bucannon just participated in position drills after performing well across the board in Indianapolis.
Sleeper: K Andrew Furney. Furney showed a leg capable of hitting from beyond 60 yards and further established himself as a potential candidate for training camp invitations.
The true mark of a great offensive line is for it to never be talked about, for it to be the silent wall that moves the pile and allows for others -- the running backs, quarterbacks, wide receivers -- to shine.

It’s an unfortunate position in that regard because it means really the only time people will talk about it is when it’s playing poorly -- none of the fame, all of the blame.

But it’s a part of the position. For players like Oregon center Hroniss Grasu, it’s almost better because rather than just having receiving stats or passing stats or rushing stats, the O-line gets to celebrate all three.

[+] EnlargeHroniss Grasu
AP Photo/Chris BernacchiSenior center Hroniss Grasu has taken it upon himself to be a vocal leader on Oregon's O-line.
“As an offensive lineman, that’s your characteristic,” Grasu said. “When our running backs score a touchdown, we take a lot of pride in that or when Marcus [Mariota] has six, seven seconds to sit in the pocket and throw a touchdown, we feel like that’s ... our moment of glory. A lot of people don’t see it that way but as offensive linemen, we understand it.”

So from that perspective, the Oregon offensive line racked up the stats last season. It was top 20 in the nation in passing yardage, top five in the nation in passer efficiency, and top 10 in the nation in rushing yardage.

But it was in the losses when the O-line gained its moments of bigger recognition that stand out the most clearly to Grasu and his group.

“They wanted it more,” Grasu said of the opposing defensive lines. “That’s very hard to say.”

They didn’t win the line of scrimmage, didn’t hold their blocks as long as they should’ve, didn’t play with a low enough pad level. All of the basics, all of the things that group needs to go unrecognized, weren't executed. And suddenly, they’re deficiencies, and recognizable ones at that.

The Ducks rushed for 198 yards in their loss to Arizona, averaging 5.1 yards per rush. However, when the three longest runs of the game are taken out of the equation that statistic drops to 4.1 yards per rush, more than two yards below their season average.

The same was true in the Ducks’ loss to Stanford, except that they only rushed for 62 yards (2.6 yards per rush). And when the three longest runs in that game are taken out, that number drops to just 1 yard per rush.

Against the Wildcats, Oregon reached the red zone five times but only converted on three of those attempts (two touchdowns, one field goal). Against the Cardinal, the Ducks got there just three times and only scored one touchdown.

“When we’re getting down in the red zone it’s on the offensive line,” Grasu said. “We have to score the ball. When we get down on the 5-yard line against Stanford or the 1-yard line against Arizona, that just, for an offensive lineman, takes a lot of pride out of you.”

So re-instating that pride became a focal point for Grasu and the rest of the line during the offseason, which means they want to go back to being as anonymous as possible in the public while providing obvious production.

They started in the weight room, packing on more than 100 pounds as a unit. The competition started there, with each guy trying to one up the other on each rep each week, resulting in a much bigger O-line at the start of spring practices.

“I think as far as from the size aspect we’ve always gotten a little bit of bad press for being a little undersized,” left tackle Tyler Johnstone said. “And I think we’re turning that around this year. ... We’re bigger and stronger and a little more fierce this spring ball for sure.”

Johnstone, who isn’t participating in spring practices as he rehabs his knee, has become a player-coach of sorts, coaching the group up from the sideline.

He, like Grasu, is becoming more vocal, pointing out the smallest of errors on the line. After the size gain in the offseason, that has become the focus of his spring -- making the minutiae the most important and making sure every member in the offensive line meeting room feels the same way.

Being that vocal enforcer isn’t always easy, though.

“The issue was that since we’re all such good friends, we don’t want to upset someone else,” Grasu said. “If someone isn’t playing hard enough we don’t want to get on their case, we’re going to wait until the coach does so we don’t look like the bad guy.”

Grasu said that winning games now trumps being the “bad guy,” and that players are pushing each other more and more as they look back and film and realize how different a play could’ve been if they had just held a block a moment longer or stayed in the film room to study gap assignments for just 10 more minutes after practice one day.

“It’s very easy to look back and say ‘Hey, if we just move our feet six inches and don’t hold on this play, it’s a touchdown,’ ‘If you execute here it’s the difference between a huge win or not,’” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. “We need to get a little edge of toughness, a little edge of physicality while still being extremely disciplined. That absolutely is a topic this spring.”

And as long as the O-line gets edgier and more physical on the field, they’ll be as anonymous as they want everywhere else.
1. Texas athletic director Steve Patterson made a compelling case Tuesday for the value of participating in college athletics, echoing Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany. They both said, in so many words, if you want to go pro, go pro; let college athletics be college athletics. I hope the difference is maintained, too. There is room to provide more benefits to college athletes without professionalizing them. But once an employer-employee relationship is established, the rules will change. Whether they can change without rendering college athletics unrecognizable, ay, there’s the rub.

2. Oregon has won 60 consecutive games when leading at the half, the longest streak in the FBS. Oklahoma is second at 42. Both are perennial national contenders with explosive offenses that can quickly make a game one-sided. But here’s the surprise: Kansas State is third on the list at 39 games. In the five seasons since Bill Snyder returned to the sideline, Kansas State (42-22, .656) has been good, but not dominant. Without dominance, I’d guess the streak has a lot to do with Snyder, mental toughness and a lack of mistakes.

3. Speaking of Oklahoma, did you see the Sooners’ April Fool’s tweet that Blake Bell had returned to quarterback? The surprise is that Bell actually finished last season with a higher efficiency rating (132.20) than the player replacing him, freshman Trevor Knight (125.00). What that tells you is how much Knight improved over the course of the year. He shredded Alabama for 348 yards and four touchdowns in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. In the last three games, Knight went 49-of-71 for 547 yards with 2 interceptions and 5 touchdowns for an efficiency of 151.34. That’s why Bell is a tight end.
As you might be aware, Oregon and Stanford are in the midst of two very impressive runs having combined to appear in eight BCS bowls over the past five years.

The reasons are aplenty, but ESPN Insider's Brian Fremeau provided a fascinating look Insider at how the two programs have measured up offensively compared to the rest of the country over that time frame.

It's not just yards, yards per play, points -- you know, the simple stuff -- that he takes a look at, either. Fremeau's Offensive FEI ratings take into account a whole lot more than that. Starting field position and defensive strength are factors, while drives that are killed by the clock are not.

A more detailed explanation for the metric can be found here and the more I read about it, the more I shook my head in agreement. Especially this part:
A team is rewarded for playing well against good teams, win or lose, and is punished more severely for playing poorly against bad teams than it is rewarded for playing well against bad teams.

In looking at every program in the country, it was determined the Ducks ranked No. 4 and Cardinal No. 5.

While last year might have been the only year in the five-year range Oregon didn't qualify for a BCS bowl, the data suggests the Ducks took a step forward offensively and appear destined to get even better next season.
The team with the best opportunity to rank first in opponent-adjusted offensive efficiency this year is the Ducks. Oregon returns nine offensive starters, including quarterback Marcus Mariota, the nation's leader in total offense yards per play last season (9.1). Oregon has had a top-20 opponent-adjusted offense every year since 2007, and the Ducks' 2013 version was the best according to FEI.

Having Andrew Luck's entire career apart of the dataset certainly helped the Cardinal, which trended backwards last season. Still, compared to what the traditional stats say, Stanford still was pretty good last year coming in at No. 22.
The Cardinal are the biggest surprise in our Program Offense ratings, propped up by the strength of the opposing defenses Stanford has faced in the past few years. The Cardinal played the fourth-toughest set of opponent offenses last year according to our data, and performed admirably, ranking 12th nationally in explosive drives (21 percent of possessions) and 23rd in available yards.
Here is how the Pac-12 teams stacked up nationally in 2013, according to the index:

No. 4 Oregon
No. 6 Arizona State
No. 11 UCLA
No. 13 Washington
No. 19 Arizona
No. 22 Stanford
No. 28 USC
No. 35 Utah
No. 39 Oregon State
No. 55 Washington State
No. 85 Colorado
No. 89 California

My math isn't advanced as Fremeau's, but I can tell you 22.5 percent of the top 40 offenses came from the Pac-12 and that's pretty impressive.

New Washington coach Chris Petersen's former team, Boise State, checked in at No. 49.
I saw the sign and it opened up my mind.

Q&A: Oregon DC Don Pellum

April, 2, 2014
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Don Pellum has been around the Oregon football program for decades, first as a player and then as a coach. Following the Valero Alamo Bowl, coach Mark Helfrich announced that Pellum would be taking over for defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti. On Monday, following the Ducks' first spring practice, he sat down with ESPN.com to talk about his new coaching duties, the 3-4 defense and improvements from Day 1.

How different is it coming into this spring season as a coordinator instead of a position coach?

[+] EnlargeDon Pellum
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/USA TODAY SportsNew Oregon defensive coordinator Don Pellum has a lot more on his plate this spring.
Don Pellum: The biggest difference is that you’re looking at the big picture. Prior to this year the focus was just on the run game and the inside. Now, you have to continue to look at the big picture. It’s going to stretch you a little bit more because you have to continue to take care of your position group, but you have a lot more people that you need to see, a lot more things you need to see on the field. It’s exciting.

Many more meetings?

DP: Just longer meetings. We’ll have the same meetings but before when you sat in that room, you watched your guys. You pay attention to everything but you didn’t focus as hard; now you’re focusing on everything. It’s longer meetings, and then prior to some of these meetings, you have to go watch the film and be prepared to discuss everything. But it’s going well. No complaints.

Is the transition to defensive coordinator made easier because the linebackers have the most depth of any defensive position group?

DP: Having a veteran group helps from the standpoint of the fact that some of they understand the way we want to teach things, so there’s flexibility with that group because I can tell them one thing and they get it. They understand exactly where I’m coming from. So from that standpoint, the veteran group helps. I still have to spend the same amount of time getting them ready because those are my guys. I can’t let those guys not be prepared. But it’s comforting because it is a veteran group. If it were a freshman group or just a young group, it’d be a bit more difficult because I’d have to spend some extra time with them.

Even though the depth is in the linebacker group, with how much the Ducks struggled against the run last season, would you consider playing a 4-3 defense instead of a 3-4 this season?

DP: I’m not familiar with the debate at all. I don’t watch as much TV as I should and I read a lot of things, but I don’t read that news. The debate between the 3-4 and the 4-3, it varies. I honestly believe that we need to be smart enough to look at your players and your talent and your abilities and ask, ‘What can we do?’ We run some 4-3, but we’re more 3-4. I think everyone has a package where you run both, but some teams are much more predominant with one or the other. But our personnel, if you say the strength of our team or the strength in terms of veteran players on our team is at the linebackers, then we should be in a 3-4. Because that’s going to put more of those guys on the field. I think both of those defenses are good. I don’t think there’s any bad defense, as long as you understand it. I don’t think you can declare, ‘I’m going to run this defense,’ but then not know it and not have the personnel -- I think that’s a recipe for disaster.

Which part of the game needs to make the biggest strides this spring in order to be successful next fall?

DP: Fundamentals. You look at our defense, and I’d suspect this is everywhere, you look at the big plays and lot of the big plays are from a missed tackle, poor angles -- those are fundamentals. To improve this defense from where we are right now to where we want to get, we’ve got to improve our fundamentals. So that’s tackling, shedding blocks, getting off blocks and running like maniacs. That’s what defense is.

Even though you were only able to see the group for one day, are you starting to see the early forms of that?

DP: Was it near where we want? No. But for the first day was it pretty good? It was pretty good. The communication was really good. You could tell that although we appear to be a young group, you could tell that the guys have been paying attention because across the board they were pretty savvy today about what we were asking them to do. The communication was good. The angles were good. As you walk down the sideline, they weren’t talking about what happened yesterday; they were talking about today and the next [practice], so they’re thinking like you do in a game situation. That’s what we’re trying to create because that’s the culture we need on the sideline. It was encouraging.

Helfrich also said he was impressed with the communication on Day 1. What can that be attributed to?

DP: I think we’ve made that a point as a staff. We’ve made that a concise point to the team that we need to be smarter. We need to increase our knowledge and understanding. As a coaching staff we’ve done a phenomenal job of going through everything, nit-picking everything and making sure that we’re really on the same page with a lot of different things. We changed some things. We’ve reduced some of the words. We’ve tried to make some of the words friendlier for the players and more specific to those techniques. So we’ve done a lot of things ourselves as coaches. We looked at what we were telling them, looked at what we were talking about. Let’s break that down and then go and reteach it to them and give it to them in a different form. So that’s what we’ve done. And it was kind of neat because it was just the first day, but there was some evidence of it.
On Monday, we took a look at how the Pac-12's offensive players stack up as NFL prospects in the eyes of ESPN analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay. Tuesday, it's the defense's turn.

Defensive line

  • DE Scott Crichton, Oregon State: No. 4 (Kiper), No. 5 (McShay)
  • DT Will Sutton, Arizona State: No. 8 (Kiper), No. 10 (McShay)

If you've been following along since the end of the season, Sutton's spot isn't all too surprising. He didn't have a good showing at the combine and has taken heat about his physical condition, dating to before last season. Even with the concerns, it's hard to imagine he won't eventually find his way in the NFL. After all, he's only the second player in conference history to be a two-time Defensive Player of the Year. Washington's Steve Emtman (1990-91) was the other. That's not by accident.

Coincidentally, the SEC's Defensive Player of the Year, Michael Sam, isn't ranked in the top 10 by either. See the list here. Insider

Other Pac-12 defensive linemen who figure to be in the mix in the draft are Cassius Marsh (UCLA), Taylor Hart (Oregon), Deandre Coleman (Cal), George Uko (USC), Tenny Palepoi (Utah), Morgan Breslin (USC), Ben Gardner (Stanford) and Josh Mauro (Stanford).

Linebacker

  • [+] EnlargeAnthony Barr
    Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsFormer UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr could be the first Pac-12 player to be drafted this year.
    OLB Anthony Barr, UCLA: No. 2 (both)
  • OLB Trent Murphy, Stanford: No. 6 (Kiper), No. 9 (McShay)
  • ILB Shayne Skov, Stanford: No. 3 (both)
  • ILB Jordan Zumwalt, UCLA: No. 8 (Kiper)

Barr is widely considered the Pac-12's best hope at landing in the first 10 picks, but if McShay was drafting, that wouldn't be the case. On drafting Barr, McShay wrote:
[Barr] of UCLA is a speed-rusher who stalls out when attempting to convert speed to power, and there is too much finesse to his game for me to pay a top-15 price for him. He looks like he's on skates when he attempts to set the edge.

That's not exactly a ringing endorsement for the same player Stanford coach David Shaw compared to Jevon Kearse. Shaw called Barr called the best (defensive) player the conference has had in the "last few years."

Murphy is in a similar boat to Sutton in that his college production isn't necessarily being viewed as a lock to translate to the NFL. He still figures to be a good fit for a 3-4 team and should be expected to contribute right away.

Outside of the four listed, it wasn't a very deep year for linebackers in the conference. Utah's Trevor Reilly, who can play both OLB and DE, Arizona State OLB Carl Bradford and USC's Devon Kennard headline the rest of the NFL hopefuls.

Defensive back

McGill should send a thank you card in Pete Carroll's direction. It's largely because of Seattle's use of big-bodied corners en route to a Super Bowl victory that the league appears to be trending in that direction. At 6-foot-4, McGill's size -- in addition to his solid showing at the combine -- is a rare asset among the group of corners.

Bucannon looks like he'll be the first defensive back off the board, but will he be a first-round pick? That's unlikely, but it would be a surprise if he lasts into the third round.

Another storyline to watch is where the three defensive backs who left early -- safety Ed Reynolds (Stanford), cornerback Terrance Mitchell (Oregon) and cornerback Kameron Jackson (Cal) -- wind up.

See the lists for linebackers and defensive backs here.Insider

Video: Mailbag on improving Oregon

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Kevin Gemmell answers a reader's question about what Oregon has to do to get over the hump.
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Oregon QB Marcus Mariota discusses his decision to return for another season, growing as a leader and what he needs to do to take the next step in his development.

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