Something to prove in the Pac-12

August, 26, 2014
Aug 26
Enough chatter. Enough previews. Enough hype. It’s game week. Time to put up or shhhhhh.

Today we’re going to take a look at players/coaches/position groups with something to prove in 2014. These are in no particular order, but each is just as significant.

  1. Hot seat coaches: While Utah coach Kyle Whittingham's and Cal coach Sonny Dykes' seats aren’t exactly roasting, it’s not like they just took the ice bucket challenge, either. The Utes have missed the postseason for consecutive seasons, and the Bears have dropped 16 straight FBS teams (11 under Dykes’ watch). Unless either has a disastrous season, the Pac-12 blog sees them back in 2015. But results need to come sooner than later.
  2. [+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
    AP Photo/Don RyanThe preseason hype has been in full force for Pac-12 QBs like Oregon's Marcus Mariota. It's now time to deliver.
     Quarterbacks: The 10 returning starters have brought a crush of national attention to the Pac-12. Now it’s time for those guys to earn it. Some are calling this the most talented collection of quarterbacks in one league in the history of college football -- headlined by Heisman trophy candidates Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley. The expectations have never been higher for Pac-12 signal-callers.
  3. Stanford’s offensive line: Speaking of hype … a couple of years ago the Cardinal inked what some called the best offensive line recruiting class in the history of history. Now all five starters are from that class. Some already have significant experience. Others saw some work in Stanford’s “extra linemen” packages last season. This group has to live up to its billing for the Cardinal to do what they want to do on offense.
  4. Austin Hill: In 2012, he was a beast, catching 81 balls for 1,364 yards and 11 touchdowns. Then an ACL injury suffered in the spring of 2013 cost him all of last season. Now he headlines an extremely deep and talented wide-receiving corps for the Wildcats in a Rich Rodriguez system that favors pass-catchers. No doubt, Hill is looking to get that first catch, first hit and first touchdown out of the way. If redshirt freshman quarterback Anu Solomon can produce solid quarterback play, Hill could be in for another outstanding season.
  5. USC freshmen: Damien Mama and Toa Lobendahn are slated at right and left guard, respectively, for the season opener against Fresno State. Ajene Harris is listed as a starting wide receiver. Adoree’ Jackson and JuJu Smith are expected to contribute as receivers and on special teams. And with the loss of Josh Shaw, Jackson might see extended time at cornerback. Steve Sarkisian made a huge splash in his first preseason by landing a top-notch recruiting class. Now it’s time for these guys to go out and prove it.
  6. Mark Helfrich: Sometimes the burden of expectation can weigh heaviest of all. Helfirch got a taste of that last season when, despite going 11-2 and beating Texas in the Alamo Bowl, there were some who considered Oregon’s 2013 campaign an unsuccessful one. He lost to Stanford (Chip Kelly also did, twice, by the way), lost to Arizona and some off-field incidents (Colt Lyerla, Rose Bowl comments, snowball fight) became bigger talking points than what was happening on the field. On the field, in case you forgot, was a Heisman-favorite quarterback playing the second half of the season with a partially torn knee ligament. A Pac-12 championship would go a long way toward silencing his doubters.
  7. D.J. Foster: Working in tandem with Marion Grice last season, Foster rushed for 501 yards and six touchdowns to go with his 653 receiving yards and four touchdowns. He’s a versatile back that Mike Norvell loves to split out and use in the passing game. But with Grice gone, Foster now takes over as the primary back. They’ll still use him in the passing attack. He’s too talented for them not to. But he’ll get a lot more work as a runner beyond the 93 carries he had last fall.
  8. Myles Jack: The Pac-12 blog has a special column on Jack coming out later this week so we won’t spoil anything. All we’ll say for now is he’s getting a ton of national love. From All-America lists to Heisman chatter, Jack is the national darling of preseason college football. Thing is, he might just be worth all of the hype. His encore season will be telling.
  9. The new guys: That the Huskies are a preseason Top 25 team speaks to how highly the national media thinks of Chris Petersen -- especially after they lost their quarterback, running back and tight end. He has his work cut out for him in a brutal Pac-12 North. But the expectations aren’t as extreme as they are for the guy he replaced. Sarkisian and the Trojans are expected to compete for a South Division title, a conference crown and a spot in the College Football Playoff. Beating UCLA would be a good start.
  10. Cal’s defense: The Bears had a rough go of it last season. No doubt. As the injuries piled up, and younger players were forced into action. The end result was, well, Cal in 2013. With a new defensive coordinator in Art Kaufman and finally a little health, guys like Brennan Scarlett, Mustafa Jalil and Stefan McClure take center stage in what the Bears hope will be a defensive revival.

Paul Finebaum answers fans' questions about college football, including which four teams will make the College Football Playoff and Florida State QB Jameis Winston's chances of winning another Heisman Trophy.

Pac-12 fearless predictions

August, 26, 2014
Aug 26
Ivan Maisel offered up some bold national predictions for the 2014 season. Here's some we're calling in the Pac-12:

1. A Pac-12 team will win the national championship: As the Pac-12 continues to gain ground on the SEC in conversations about the toughest conference in college football, there's really only one more step to take: win a national title. It has been 10 years since USC hoisted the Waterford Crystal football, but the conference's title drought will end this year. Oregon, UCLA, Stanford and USC are all preseason top-15 teams and one of them will be the last team standing in the first year of the College Football Playoff.

2. A Pac-12 player will win the Heisman Trophy: The drought will end! The Pac-12 has not one, but two A-list quarterbacks who enter the season as front-runners. Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley have plenty of hype and the talent to match. Both play for preseason top-10 teams (and the more they win, the more voters will gravitate toward them) and both are going to put up premium dual-threat numbers. Both fit the current Heisman blueprint.

[+] EnlargeSefo Liufau
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesChances are good that QB Sefo Liufau and Colorado could upset one of the five preseason-ranked teams the Buffaloes will face in 2014.
3. No Pac-12 coach will be fired at season's end: The coaching carousel will hit the skids for at least one season. There are really only two Pac-12 coaches with seats above frosty -- Cal's Sonny Dykes and Utah's Kyle Whittingham -- and their temperature is tepid at best. If neither coach shows significant improvement in 2014 (that probably means a bowl game for Utah and at least a few FBS wins for Cal), then we won't make this declaration for 2015. But unless either really, really bombs, they'll be given another shot next season. And the Pac-12 blog doesn't think either will really, really bomb.

4. Cal and Colorado will be good enough to deliver a major upset this fall: There won't be many wins between the Buffs and Bears, but between the two, there will be at least one that no one sees coming. Utah set the precedent last season when it went 2-7 in conference play with one of those wins against conference champion Stanford. We like Colorado's chances better, but weirder things have happened.

5. The USC-UCLA game will be a battle of top-10 teams: We're almost there already. The Bruins are at No. 7 and the Trojans are at No. 15. Win or lose in Week 2 at Stanford, the Trojans probably wouldn't fall out of the Top 25. If they beat No. 19 ASU, the schedule is there for them to run off seven or eight wins in advance of the UCLA game Nov. 22. UCLA's showdown with No. 3 Oregon on Oct. 11 could bolster or bust UCLA's rankings. But with four games between the time it faces the Ducks and the Trojans -- including a trip to Washington -- UCLA could get back in the top 10 win or lose against Oregon. If the Bruins win, they'll be one of the top three teams in the country.

6. Oregon will cover the spread against Michigan State in Week 2: While the conventional thinking might be Michigan State beat the team that beat Oregon, as the Spartans slipped by Stanford, the Ducks' Pac-12 conqueror, in the Rose Bowl, that doesn't apply here. For one, Stanford was a familiar team to the Spartans. The Cardinal are built more like a typical Big Ten power team than most Big Ten power teams. The Ducks are a different matter. Michigan State hasn't seen anything like the Oregon offense, and you can't duplicate it in practice. Further, Oregon is playing in Autzen Stadium with a healthy Mariota. The Spartans are tough, but the Ducks should roll by at least two touchdowns.

7. The Pac-12 will go 3-0 against Notre Dame: Last season, Notre Dame went 2-1 against the Pac-12, beating Arizona State and USC and losing to Stanford. This year, the Pac-12 will take revenge. The Sun Devils and Trojans will roll at home, while Stanford wants its vengeance set at Notre Dame, site of its grand jobbing in 2012, when the Cardinal twice scored a tying touchdown in overtime that the referees just couldn't manage to notice. (This is when Notre Dame fans chime in with their reflexive counter. Easy response: The video evidence is UNQUESTIONABLE.) Part of this is all three Pac-12 teams are better than Notre Dame in any event. The other part is the Fighting Irish are dealing with suspensions and scandal that could lead to season-long distraction.

8. Whoever starts at quarterback for Arizona will pass for more than 3,000 yards: Rich Rodriguez announced that Anu Solomon will be starting for the Wildcats against UNLV, but after that, we'll see. The Pac-12 blog believes that by the fourth week of the season, Arizona will be settled on a starter. It could be Solomon. It could be someone else. Whichever quarterback it is, he'll pass for 3,000 yards. With Nate Phillips, Austin Hill, Cayleb Jones and Davonte' Neal (among others), he'll have targets downfield who are more than capable of turning the passer into a 3,000-yard guy.

9. Stanford QB Kevin Hogan will be the Pac-12's most improved player: Hogan has proved he's a winner -- two seasons, two Pac-12 titles -- but he didn't have the individual season many were expecting in 2013. Look for him to deliver in 2014 as he returns for a third season, along with a talented group of receivers and not much in the way of experienced rushers.

10. Six teams will be ranked in the final Top 25 at the end of the season: Six Pac-12 teams started the season in the Top 25 and guess what, six Pac-12 teams will end in the Top 25 as well. No promises that it'll be the same six, but there will be six.

Pac-12 morning links

August, 26, 2014
Aug 26
At first, I thought prohibition was a good thing. People were drinking more and having a lot more fun. Without beer, prohibition doesn't work!

Leading off

Ahhhh, the honeymoon phase. It’s that first year when a new head coach adjusts to his new surroundings (or in the case of Mark Helfrich, a new office). There is joy and excitement leading up to that first game.

And then reality hits. That joy and excitement turns to second-guessing and not-so-subtle whispers about whether this is the right guy.

The Pac-12 has a trio of second-year coaches: the aforementioned Helfrich, Sonny Dykes at Cal and Mike MacIntyre at Colorado. And Athlon Sports decided to take a look at the expectations for all of the second-year coaches in college football.

Here are their thoughts on Colorado:
But as the 2014 season approaches, it’s easy to see why Colorado is probably a year away from contending for a bowl. The Buffaloes catch Oregon and Washington in crossover play with the North and must replace standout receiver Paul Richardson. Sophomore quarterback Sefo Liufau is promising, and the depth on defense is getting better. An upset or two wouldn’t be a surprise in Pac-12 games. However, a 4-8 final record with a more competitive team in conference action is very likely for MacIntyre.

The key word is in the final sentence: competitive. Two of the Buffs wins were against FCS teams last season (one of which was scheduled, the other one was a result of the disastrous flooding and cancelation of the Fresno State game). This year there are no FCS teams on the schedule, so while he Buffs will likely still hover in the 3-4 win range, those would be considered of a greater quality. And while the Pac-12 blog is yet to meet a coach who can stomach morale victories, there is something to be said for being more competitive. And we too expect the Buffs to be a tougher team in 2014.

For Helfrich, it’s business as usual. We all knew, and I’m sure he did too, that he would be judged by a different jury than MacIntyre or Dykes. All he did was win 11 games, win a bowl game and do it with a quarterback limping through the second half of the season. There’s no question the Ducks are primed for a serious run. But if that run doesn’t end in a playoff berth, is this season a bust? Curious to hear your thoughts. Tweet them at me.

As for Dykes, we’ve spent months rehashing all of the problems Cal went through last year, from the system changes to the youth to the onslaught of injuries. The tide will turn once (if?) the Bears start winning some games.

Who’s all sneaky?

CBS’s Jeremy Fowler took a look at 10 teams that could be “sneaky contenders” in 2014. Among his 10 are Arizona State and Washington.

His thoughts on the Sun Devils:
Arizona State wins 10 games and is still considered the fifth- or sixth-best team Pac-12 team on national scale. Well, don't be confused if the Sun Devils mess around and win the Pac-12 South for a second straight year. If Todd Graham gets a young defense ready, the potent offense will handle the rest.

Definitely not ready to count out the Sun Devils. We know about the losses to the defense – nine starters gone – but we also know how good that offense can be this year. If the offense can out-sprint some teams early in the season and give the defense time to get its footing, the Sun Devils will certainly be in the hunt for the South title. The timing of that UCLA game in Week 4 is very interesting.

Getting deep

Monday was depth chart day. Months of speculation has all been settled with one piece of paper. Unless you see an "or" in between players. Then the debate rages.

Because the Pac-12 blog likes you so much, we dug up all the depth charts that were available online. Some weren't. We'll try to update throughout the day. On the air

Your Pac-12 reporters have been making the rounds on multiple platforms. Here are a couple of links. News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

The entire Oregon cheer squad takes the ice bucket challenge.

Washington's Psalm Wooching is cooler than you.

And finally, if you want to learn how to Haka, Arizona has you covered.

The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's regular feature, giving you a daily dose of recruiting news across the country. Today's offerings: Five-star defensive end Byron Cowart is closing ranks and instead of focusing on the more than 50 schools that have offered him scholarships, he's zeroing in on four schools leading up to his late September decision. Plus, Oregon fans can rest a little easier knowing the Ducks' star running back recruit didn't suffer major damage in his first game of the season, and we continue our tour of the top recruiting happenings on social media.

Pac-12 by the numbers: Week 1

August, 25, 2014
Aug 25
All 12 Pac-12 teams are in action this week, which means we can soon wave goodbye to preseason hype and focus on things that actually matter. To tide you over between now and Thursday, when three teams begin their seasons, here are five random stats or notes relating to each game.

Want another hard-to-find stat looked up? I take requests on Twitter.


Idaho State at Utah
  • Utah is 6-0 against Idaho State and 36-0 against teams currently in the Big Sky Conference.
  • Coach Kyle Whittingham was the Utes' defensive line coach the last time Utah played Idaho State ... a 66-0 win in 1994. It was his second game on the staff.
  • Dating back to its win at Michigan in 2008, the Utes have won their last six season openers.
  • Since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, Utah has the conference's third-best winning percentage in nonconference games at 90 percent (9-1). During those games, it has outscored opponents by an average of 18.7 point per game -- also the third-best mark in the conference.
  • In their 10 nonconference games over the past three years, the Utes have only committed a total of six turnovers and are plus-17 in that span.
Rutgers vs. Washington State, in Seattle
  • The Cougars are 5-6 when playing at CenturyLink Field, dating back to the first-ever football game played in the stadium -- a win against Nevada in 2002.
  • Breakdown of where WSU QB Connor Halliday threw the ball last year: Left of the hashmarks: 31.2 percent. Between the hashmarks: 19.3 percent. Right of the hashmarks 49.4 percent.
  • Combined record of teams Rutgers beat last year: 17-54. Of those wins, only 11 were against FBS teams.
  • The last time WSU hosted a Big Ten team in Seattle, it lost 42-7 to Ohio State in 1974 -- the first Heisman-winning season for Buckeyes running back Archie Griffin.
  • Bob Robertson is set to begin his 48th season in the radio booth for WSU football games -- the longest streak in the country -- but will shift from play-by-play to analyst duties.
Weber State at No. 19 Arizona State
  • Since coach Todd Graham and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell arrived in 2012, Arizona State has averaged 41.8 points per game in nonconference games.
  • In both games it played against FBS teams last year -- Utah and Utah State -- Weber State allowed 70 points.
  • In 195 career carries, running back D.J. Foster has never lost a fumble.
  • QB Taylor Kelly's passes averaged 8.6 yards in the air last season, the second-most in the Pac-12 behind Stanford's Kevin Hogan (10.52).
  • Kicker Zane Gonzalez made more field goals (25) than anyone in the country last year.

Colorado State vs. Colorado
  • The Buffaloes are 7-3 vs their in-state rivals since 2004 and have scored on 35 percent of their 124 drives in that span.
  • How important was wide receiver Paul Richardson to the Colorado offense? He had the highest percent of his team's receptions (35.3) and touchdown catches (47.6) in the conference last year.
  • Only Oregon State (24) had more first downs from penalties last year than Colorado (24) in the Pac-12.
  • Colorado ranked last in the Pac-12 in drives of 60-plus yards last year (30).
  • Only 10 FBS teams in the country committed fewer penalties than Colorado (50) last year.
UNLV at Arizona
  • Arizona is 2-0 against UNLV all-time after a 58-13 win last season.
  • In two years at Arizona, coach Rich Rodriguez has yet to lose against a team outside the Pac-12 (8-0). In those games, the Wildcats' average margin of victory (26.6) is second-best in the conference behind Oregon (35.9).
  • Freshly-minted starting QB Anu Solomon, a redshirt freshman, was a rare four-year varsity starter in high school at Bishop Gorman High in Las Vegas. He led the Gaels to state titles all four years.
  • Worth pointing out (again): Ka'Deem Carey led the nation with 3,814 yards rushing over the past two seasons and Terris Jones-Grigsby, who is now atop the Arizona depth chart, is a redshirt senior without a carry in his career.
  • The Wildcats have rushed for at least 185 yards as a team in eight straight games, the fourth-longest active streak in the country.

No. 7 UCLA at Virginia
  • Since 2004, current Pac-12 teams are 16-4 against ACC teams and 3-2 on the road. Average margin in those 20 games: plus-17.5.
  • Virginia had just one win against an FBS team last year (beat BYU 19-16) and has the nation's fourth-longest losing streak (9 games).
  • Since Jim Mora has been at UCLA, the Bruins are 7-1 in nonconference games.
  • Brett Hundley's odds to win the Heisman Trophy, according to Bovada: 10-to-1.
  • UCLA was the second-most penalized team in the nation last year at 8.15 per game, behind only Baylor.
Cal at Northwestern
  • Cal QB Jared Goff led the nation in yards passing per nonconference game last year (435.3).
  • The last time Cal had a second-half lead against an FBS team came against Northwestern in the season opener last year. The Bears led 24-20 early in the third before losing 44-30.
  • Cal and Miami (Ohio) share the nation's longest losing streak against FBS teams (16).
  • The Bears have allowed at least 30 points in 14-straight games, the longest streak in the country.
  • Dating back to 2004, Pac-12 teams are a combined 29-18 against Big Ten teams.
Portland State at Oregon State
  • Three Portland State players (receiver Stevie Coury, punter Kyle Loomis and defensive tackle Joe Lopez) transferred from Oregon State and a total of eight Vikings transferred from Pac-12 schools.
  • Oregon State has finished ranked in the final AP poll in four of the last eight seasons.
  • Oregon State went 3-and-out on just 16.6 percent of its drives last season, the second-lowest rate in the Pac-12.
  • Where Sean Mannion ranked nationally last year: completions (3), attempts (3), passing yards (2), touchdown passes (t4), completions of 20-plus yards (t3).
  • Mannion's Heisman odds are 50-to-1, according to Bovada.
UC Davis at Stanford
  • In 2005, Davis' last trip to Stanford, the Aggies won 20-17.
  • Stanford rushing yards by direction in 2013: outside left tackle (824), toward left guard (380), up the middle (736), toward right guard (361), outside right tackle (681).
  • On average, passes travelled 14.6 yards in the air when targeting receiver Devon Cajuste last year -- the highest in the Pac-12.
  • On passing plays, Stanford targeted its tight ends at a 3.5-percent clip last year. In 2012, that number was 38.1.
  • In games played before November since David Shaw took over, the Cardinal is 21-3.
Fresno State at No. 15 USC
  • Since the Pac-12 expanded in 2011, the conference is 19-7 against the Mountain West.
  • Despite their relative proximity, USC and Fresno State have met just three times in history with the Trojans holding a 2-1 advantage following last year's 45-20 win.
  • USC's all-time record with Steve Sarkisian on the coaching staff: 75-15.
  • USC is one of seven teams in the country -- and only school in the Pac-12 -- that hasn't lost to a non-AQ school in the past 10 years.
  • Among players with at lest 15 punt returns last year, Nelson Agholor ranked second in the country averaging 19.1 yards per return.
No. 25 Washington at Hawaii
  • New coach Chris Petersen's record in eight seasons at Boise State: 92-12.
  • Hawaii was 0-2 against the Pac-12 last year and lost its first 11 games before winning the season-finale against Army.
  • Washington ranked second in the Pac-12 averaging 499.3 yards per game last season.
  • The Huskies held opponents to a Pac-12 best 34.6-percent conversion rate on fourth down last year.
  • Cornerback Josh Shaw leads the nation in children saved from drowning.
South Dakota at No. 3 Oregon
  • Oregon ranked second in the country in yards per play (7.6) last year, behind Florida State (7.7).
  • QB Marcus Mariota owns the Pac-12 record for consecutive passes without an interception (327).
  • Since Chip Kelly installed his offense in 2007, Oregon's average margin per game is plus-20.5 -- the best among Power-Five teams.
  • South Dakota's last game against a ranked FBS team came in 2011, a 59-10 loss to No. 6 Wisconsin.
  • No team in the country attempted more 2-point conversions last year than the Ducks (6).
Statistics via ESPN TruMedia
Some notes and quotes from Oregon Ducks 's media access on Monday. Feel free to turn on the theme to Duck Tales if you feel so inclined.

  • Obvious note: Marcus Mariota is the starting quarterback. His knees looked fine today. No word on whether he has received his letter from Hogwarts. Onto more serious things.
  • The running backs are listed as an "OR" situation between Byron Marshall, Thomas Tyner and Royce Freeman. Each is pretty similar but brings something different to the table according to running back coach Gary Campbell. You can read more about the running back situation here.
  • Other "OR" situations -- WR: Dwayne Stanford and Darren Carrington, RG: Jake Pisarcik and Cameron Hunt, TE: Pharaoh Brown, Johnny Mundt and Evan Baylis, No. 2 DE: T.J. Daniel and Stetzon Bair, S: Tyree Robinson and Reggie Daniels, No. 2 PR: Keanon Lowe or Carrington.
  • As far as wide receivers go, chances are both Stanford and Carrington are going to get good reps. "It's tough to decide because both deserve to play. … We're going to play a bunch of receivers just because we run so much and play so much." Frost said that Carrington has come a long way and that Stanford is really consistent. He also said the top three guys on the outside are going to play about equal and that this wide receiver group is the most depth they've ever had.
  • Devon Allen is listed as one of the starting wide receivers. According to Frost, Allen did "everything right. ... The best thing that we can hope for is that his best days have been in scrimmages and games when the competition is hot so I hope that carries over to the football field for him." He's definitely one of the players that I'm most intrigued to see this spring. I watched him win the 110-meter hurdle race at the NCAA Track & Field Championships and then follow that up with his "Yep, football is still No. 1" talk. If he wins national and world titles in track, what is he going to be able to do on the field?
  • Cornerback Dior Mathis got the nod in the spring game, it seemed but the depth chart lists Troy Hill as the starting CB opposite Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.
  • With Tyler Johnstone's injury, it was unsure where exactly the Duck O-line would go from here. Andre Yruretagoyena had emerged as the front runner initially, just because he had taken many of Johnstone's reps in the spring while Johnstone was still rehabbing. However, the depth chart now lists Jake Fisher as the starting left tackle (in the spring he was at right tackle). Yruretagoyena is listed as the starting right tackle. Hamani Stevens and Hroniss Grasu are still listed as starting left guard and center, respectively. And then -- as stated earlier -- the right guard spot is listed as an "OR" battle. This shuffling definitely leaves some question marks. Coming into the fall the O-line was thought to be a huge strength with five returning starters. Now, there are position battles with a week to go and new starters on both sides of the line.
  • Frost said that the offense has evolved a bit, by necessity. "We definitely have some new wrinkles and we've evolved. We've done a good job around here that we've had enough things in that we could keep other people guessing a little bit and we've definitely tried to make a few changes this year to do the same thing." He said that they have looked outside the program for a few wrinkles, but that a lot of the ideas have come from coach Mark Helfrich.
  • His thoughts on the three running backs: "Any one of those guys could come in and play for us right away. We have all the confidence in the world in each of those guys and each of them are preparing as if they are the starter, so whoever it may be, we have all the confidence in them."
  • On what he wants to know about the team after Saturday's game: "I want to be able -- as an offense -- execute it to the best of our abilities. Go out there and start fast. We had a tendency last year to kind of start off a little slow, including myself."
  • On the national publicity. Does he like it? "Not at all. To be honest, for me I like to keep my personal life private. With more media, bigger media coming in, that's getting tougher. But at the same time, I just like to keep myself low-key, out of the spotlight. This is a team sport."
  • Oregon doesn't start classes until Sept. 29 whereas many of the Ducks opponents will begin shortly or are already in session. Mariota said that it's a "huge" advantage because it allowed the Ducks to spend much of the first month of the season just focusing on football. "It gives us an opportunity, like right now, right when we're done with practice, to go watch practice film. You can lay low and relax a little bit."
EUGENE, Ore. -- It can be tricky to make too many assumptions during fall camp, especially when all the practices happen behind closed doors.

One coach’s thoughts might be to ramp up the attention for a less-prominent guy, someone who has shown flashes but likely won’t get consistent playing time during the season. With the media unable to see anything, it has to go off the coach’s word, so why not give some pub to a guy who won’t get it later?

[+] EnlargeRoyce Freeman
AP Photo/Eric GayCan Royce Freeman go from starring in high school last season to starting at Oregon?
And other coaches might downplay a younger, less-experienced player. Why put the limelight on him before he even takes one significant snap as a college player? Could that harm his overall development if he gets too big of a head?

But if depth charts are to be believed, then Oregon running back Royce Freeman is in neither of those categories. All fall the freshman was talked up by players and coaches, and on Monday, the Ducks’ depth chart backed that up. He’s listed in a three-way battle for the top running back position for the Ducks, alongside sophomore Thomas Tyner and Byron Marshall.

“We don’t plan on redshirting anybody -- every guy we bring in here we’re preparing to be a starter,” Oregon running back coach Gary Campbell said. “And he came in with that attitude.”

Marshall rushed for 1,000 yards last season. Tyner was right there, improving consistently through the season and finishing with 711 yards.

And Freeman? Well, he rushed for 2,824 yards and 41 touchdowns … but it was against high school competition.

Try searching for Freeman on Google. The first handful of links go to recruiting profiles. The images that pop up of Freeman are him in his red and white Imperial High School (Calif.) Tigers uniform.

Even in the past when the Ducks have had abundant talent in the backfield, they’ve listed it out as a first, second and third string. In 2011, on Oregon’s fall camp depth chart, La’Michael James was listed as the top back, Kenjon Barner was next and De’Anthony Thomas came in third.

And that’s exactly how the season played out. James led the way with 1,805 yards and 18 rushing touchdowns. Barner finished second with 939 yards and 11 rushing touchdowns, and Thomas concluded the season with 595 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns.

Last year, Thomas was listed as the first-string back, Marshall was listed as second and Tyner was third. It played out that way as well.

Now, just five days from the Ducks’ season opener against South Dakota, the Ducks have a freshman, sophomore and junior all on an even playing field. The word “or” is acting as the public equalizer of all three.

The one starting Saturday will be the one who’s practicing best and from there on out, game production will weigh more heavily. Campbell said the players can tell who’s making progress and who’s not, so presumably the practices this week are going to be heated for the backs.

He said all three players are pretty similar but that Marshall has the advantage of experience, Tyner has the advantage of speed and Freeman has the advantage of strength.

Put all three of those together and the Ducks would have the best singular running back in the nation by far. Instead, they have a three-headed monster.

Is that a good problem to have?

“It’s a great one,” Campbell said.

The depth chart has backed up the fall talk. Now, it’s the waiting game until Saturday to see if the on-field play backs up the depth chart, and if this freshman -- who has been the talk of the town -- is as good as we’ve heard and seen (on paper).

“We never are sure what we’re going to get with our freshmen until they get here,” Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost said. “You can look great in high school but if you don’t come in mature it just takes longer for you to pick it up. … You never know what you’re going to get with freshmen, but you can tell the guys who can do it almost from day one because they come in in-shape with the right attitude and they start learning right away.”

Could Freeman be that guy? Saturday will reveal at least some of the answer.

Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit discuss the top candidates for the Heisman Trophy.

FPI: To look ahead it looks back

August, 25, 2014
Aug 25
Reigning BCS champion Florida State returns seven offensive starters from a top-five offense, six defensive starters from a top -five defense, the Heisman Trophy-winning starting quarterback and its head coach, and the Seminoles have had top-10 recruiting classes over the last four years. With all of that going for the Seminoles, how could they be anything but the No. 1 team in a system that uses all of that information?

That system is the College Football Power Index (FPI). Introduced last year, the method has been improved to account for all of the above information because, well, those things matter. You as a fan know it, and the numbers support it.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston, Jimbo Fisher
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesFPI has the Seminoles at No. 1, but it also maintains some major skepticism about a repeat.
FPI not only says the obvious -- such as Florida State being No. 1 -- but it also gives nuance, such as the Seminoles having just a 39-percent chance of going undefeated through the ACC championship game, despite how good they are.

It also says the surprising -- such as Marshall having the second-best chance of going undefeated this year, thanks to the easiest schedule in college football. If Marshall climbs the polls this year, remember that pretty much any average team would have a similar chance to go undefeated against the Thundering Herd’s slate. FPI ranks them 54th, roughly average across FBS teams, but this means that an average team would have a pretty good chance to go undefeated against that schedule. Only a road game against Old Dominion does the Thundering Herd have less than a 60 percent chance of winning. If they go undefeated, the College Football Playoff selection committee shouldn’t look at them seriously if it values a team’s strength of schedule.

FPI captures a lot but might not capture everything. Last year, Michigan State fans hated FPI because it never saw the Spartans as a top-five or even a top-10 team. The reason was an offense that got into the end zone a total of three times against weak teams Purdue, Western Michigan and South Florida. FPI kept predicting Michigan State to lose or to at least not cover the spread. And FPI kept being wrong.

But we improved FPI this year, and it now predicts games at about 75 percent over 10 years (and does better with last year’s Michigan State team). Because it predicts games well, it can simulate every game for every FBS team for the entire season and produce these kinds of prognostications for 2014.

  • Oregon has the third-best chance of going undefeated at 6 percent. That’s not very likely, so don’t get mad at FPI if it doesn’t happen.
  • Realistically, there will be only one undefeated team through this season’s conference championships.
  • Auburn has a better FPI rank than South Carolina, but South Carolina’s chances to win the SEC are higher than Auburn’s. This is because Auburn’s schedule is quite a bit harder, playing seven teams in the FPI top 25 (four on the road) compared with South Carolina’s five (two on the road).
  • The four most difficult schedules in the country are in the Pac-12. Every Pac-12 team has a schedule rated in the top 40. Five Pac-12 teams play only one team with an FPI under zero, where an FPI of zero represents a team that is exactly average. No other team in any other conference plays fewer than two games like this. Pac-12 teams don’t schedule easy games.
  • UCLA has the most difficult schedule and, as a result, projects to lose three games despite being the fourth-best team in FPI. They’re projected to be so high in FPI because they return 17 starters from what was a very good team last year.
  • The loss of Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller lowered the Buckeyes’ FPI rank from sixth to 12th. It likely adds a projected loss to their record and lowers their chances to win the Big Ten from about 40 percent to about 30 percent. That 30 percent chance, though, still leaves them as the favorite in FPI’s eyes.
That brings us back to Michigan State. Michigan State’s projected record is only about 8-4, and the Spartans have just an 11-percent chance to win the Big Ten. There are a couple of reasons FPI doesn’t like Michigan State as much as (seemingly) everyone else. It returns only five to its vaunted defense. Its offense hasn’t been particularly good over the last few years. And people forget that they were a very mediocre 7-6 team in 2012 in a weak conference.

FPI doesn’t account for any specific strength that the Spartans coaching staff has for rebuilding the defense, so it could be wrong. FPI doesn’t account for Connor Cook being some analysts’ favorite dark horse quarterback, so it could be wrong. But FPI has seen a lot of seasons, a lot of coaching staffs, a lot of quarterbacks, and it’s learned to ignore the hype. So, yes, FPI hedges its bets and says the Spartans have about a 1 in 9 chance to win the Big Ten.

It’s not ruling it out. And it might change its mind if the Spartans start the season destroying teams. Just like on-air analysts, FPI is allowed to incorporate new information.

One thing FPI won’t be particularly good at, though, is identifying which teams should be in the Playoff. This is because we, the fans, and the College Football Playoff selection committee don’t know what we want in the Playoff. The polls and the committee will reflect something different than who will win the next game. Polls often reflect a season résumé, including accomplishments such as a conference championship, a win-loss record in combination with a strength of schedule (something we put into a metric called “Strength of Record”), as well as in-game dominance.

FPI is about looking forward. As a result, it’s perfect for this time of year.

Who cares if Pac-12 opens quietly?

August, 25, 2014
Aug 25
A week from now, there's certain to be at least some fretful handwringing, but for at least three more days, every Pac-12 team remains undefeated, flushed with hope and imaging an entitled grabbing all of its 2014 goals.

While the FBS season officially kicks off on Wednesday with Abilene Christian at Georgia State, things truly get rolling on Thursday. The A-list national game is Texas A&M's visit to South Carolina -- the Post Johnny Football Era begins with a whipping from Coach Spurrier -- and the Pac-12 features three matchups, though only one of notable quality with Rutgers playing Washington State in Seattle at CenturyLink Field.

In less scintillating action -- but action, nonetheless -- Idaho State visits Utah and Arizona State plays host to Weber State.

[+] EnlargeBrett Hundley
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillHeisman Trophy candidate Brett Hundley and UCLA travel to Virginia -- 2-10 last season -- on college football's opening weekend, and other Pac-12 matchups aren't nearly as interesting.
And so it begins, the 2014 season, our first with a new four-team College Football Playoff, a highly-promising campaign for the Pac-12, at least based on preseason expectations. The conference features six teams ranked in the preseason polls, including three teams in the top 11, which makes Oregon, UCLA and Stanford playoff contenders. Ducks QB Marcus Mariota and Bruins QB Brett Hundley are both top Heisman Trophy contenders.

In three consecutive evenings of college football -- yes, there are even two games on Friday night -- every Pac-12 team plays. No lame first-week byes here. The marquee matchup? Well, hmm... if it's not the aforementioned showcase of Mike Leach's Cougs and Rutgers, a newly minted Big Ten team, then perhaps its No. 7 UCLA's visit to Virginia or California's redemption tour beginning at Northwestern.

Don't form too many overriding judgments about those two seeming mismatches. Virginia, though coming off a 2-10 season, is not devoid of talent and experience, see 17 returning starters. The Bruins will be making a long trip and are laden with considerable preseason hype, both as a team and with Sports Illustrated cover boy Hundley. It's possible they might press a bit, at least early, before settling down.

As for the Bears, don't write them off. Though Cal lost to the Wildcats 44-30 last year in Berkeley, the game was tied in fourth quarter, with Northwestern benefiting from two pick-sixes off deflected passes. Further, it's been a fairly tumultuous offseason for Northwestern.

Suffice it to say the Pac-12 is not afraid of the road. With Washington visiting Hawaii, that makes five conference teams opening away from their home stadium, as Colorado plays Colorado State on Friday in Denver.

The Huskies visit to Hawaii is interesting because it will be the debut of coach Chris Petersen, who has jumped from the mid-majors at Boise State and the Mountain West to arguably the nation's toughest conference. Another level of intrigue in that game is QB Jeff Lindquist. He was named the Huskies starter last week, but it remains to be seen if that is only because Cyler Miles is yoked with a one-game suspension. Is Miles actually the guy? And what if Lindquist is lights-out against the Warriors? The broader issue for the Huskies is who starts at home on Sept. 6 against Eastern Washington.

Wait. Did someone mention Sept. 6? Ah, yes, well that is the day when the Pac-12 slate really heats up. It features: 1. The Pac-12's nonconference game of the year (Michigan State at Oregon); 2. A big-time conference matchup between USC and homestanding Stanford.

Yet, we can't get ahead of ourselves, so we apologize for whetting your appetite with those two gourmet football entrées. As you well know, we play one game at a time in the Pac-12 blog. Each game is a Super Bowl unto itself.

Heck, first new USC coach Steve Sarkisian needs to make his own debut after moving south from Seattle, a homecoming of sorts for a guy who ran Pete Caroll's offense during the Trojans recent dynastic run. USC plays host Saturday to Fresno State, the very team the Trojans whipped in the Las Vegas Bowl, only now without QB Derek Carr and WR Davante Adams.

Finally, Arizona will be featuring a new starting QB against UNLV on Friday night. Rich Rodriguez, as of this typing, hasn't named who that will be, and it's possible that the opener against the Rebels will showcase more than one guy and a permanent arrangement might be a few weeks coming. We shall see.

It's not the best slate of opening week games from a Pac-12 perspective. It only will be slightly revealing. At least, that's the hope, as more than one defeat could feel deflating. Cal is the only underdog.

But it's college football. It's what we've been waiting for since Florida State slipped Auburn on Jan. 6.

And I've got a feeling it's going to be a special season for your team.
Braxton Miller, Marcus Mariota and Jameis WinstonGetty ImagesSchools sell multiple jerseys with the numbers of Braxton Miller, Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston.

Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller missing the season could hit the school, retailers and Nike in the wallet.

Only four players in all of college football are more merchandised than Miller, according to jersey options matched to the most marketable players that are being sold on official school website stores.

Oregon is selling 25 different jerseys, counting colors and sizes, of No. 8, quarterback Marcus Mariota.

Michigan offers 17 different versions, in blue and white, in infant, youth, toddler, women's and men's cut, of No. 98, worn by its quarterback Devin Gardner.

Notre Dame has 15 different jerseys of its quarterback Everett Golson, who wears No. 5.

The University of Alabama website features 10 different jersey choices of No. 4, the same number worn by its star running back T.J. Yeldon.

Ohio State's official store is selling seven versions of Miller's No. 5.

That's even more jersey options (six) than Florida State fans have of No. 5 to choose from, the number worn by Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston.

The NCAA and its schools have long contended that numbers don't necessarily correspond to current players, but common sense, as proven by all the cases above, suggests otherwise.

While players one day might be able to realize a percentage of the business from their jersey sales, the recent O'Bannon ruling did not include commentary on this area.

It's not known how many No. 5 Ohio State jerseys have been produced for this season, but Miller's absence will be the biggest hit to the college jersey marketplace in two years. In August 2012, LSU safety Tyrann Mathieu was dismissed from the team weeks before Baton Rouge retailers got their shipment of No. 7 jerseys. The number is finally fashionable again thanks to it being given to Leonard Fournette, the nation's top running back recruit.

Pac-12 morning links

August, 25, 2014
Aug 25
Why bats, Master Wayne?

Bats frighten me. It’s time my enemies shared my dread.

Leading off

We had a taste of college football this weekend with Eastern Washington (which travels to Washington on Sept. 6) knocking off Sam Houston 56-35. Former WSU receiver Blair Bomber caught a pair of touchdowns, and former UCLA safety Tevin McDonald had an interception.

But with college football comes the return of College GameDay. And with the first College GameDay comes predictions.

Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit and Desmond Howard all picked UCLA to win the Pac-12, and Corso and Howard tapped the Bruins as 2014 national champions.

And in other predictions news, Herbstreit is down on the Ducks and neither he nor David Pollack think Oregon will make the College Football Playoff.

Here’s the video of those two and Scott Van Pelt debating Stanford.

video Players in the news

If you follow the Pac-12, then you haven’t forgotten about Austin Hill. But the rest of the country might have. After having one of the best receiving seasons in school history, Hill returns after missing all of last season with a torn ACL he suffered in the spring. He chatted with Daniel Berk about his return.

You can see the complete Q&A here.

In unhappy player news ... one Washington player has been dismissed and another suspended for violating team rules.

Freshman safety Lavon Washington is the third player coach Chris Petersen has bumped since he was hired in December after Steve Sarkisian departed for USC. Backup tight end Derrick Brown has also been suspended indefinitely for a situation unrelated to Washington's.

Petersen’s first few months on the job have been overshadowed by off-the-field incidents. Quarterback Cyler Miles is suspended for the season opener and wide receiver Damore'ea Stringfellow transferred out after both were tied to a post-Super Bowl assault incident. Miles wasn’t charged, and Stringfellow pled guilty to three misdemeanors.

Jeff Lindquist will get the start for the Huskies against Hawaii. After that, we’ll see if Miles plays his way back into the job.

If you’re a Washington fan, it’s frustrating. But you also have to respect the hardline approach Petersen is taking.

News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

Welcome to game week.

Pac-12 questions entering opening week

August, 24, 2014
Aug 24
ESPN Pac-12 reporter Ted Miller joins Zubin Mehenti to discuss expectations at UCLA and the biggest weakness for Oregon.


Byron Marshall Pulls A DeSean Jackson
Just inches from a touchdown, Oregon RB Byron Marshall let go of the football before he crossed the goal line.