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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.

Pac-12's lunch links

April, 1, 2014
Apr 1
2:30
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I pledge my life and honor to the Night's Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.

ESPN CFB Spring Tour: Oregon

April, 1, 2014
Apr 1
11:00
AM ET
How will Year 2 in the Mark Helfrich Era go in Eugene? Our ESPN College Football Spring Tour continues in the Pacific Northwest, where Oregon reporter Chantel Jennings will be bringing you the sights and sounds from campus today. Keep this page open starting at 10 a.m. PT as Chantel provides insight, interviews, pictures and videos from Ducks camp.

Five keys for Oregon's title run

April, 1, 2014
Apr 1
10:35
AM ET

There may not be another team in college football with as wide of a set of expectations as the Oregon Ducks. Some have the Ducks finishing as one of highest-ranked teams in the country (including ESPN Insider Brian Fremeau), while others believe Oregon could end up outside of the AP Top 25 by the end of the 2014 campaign.

A case on either side of the debate can be made, but in reviewing the game tapes, metrics and scouting notes, it's apparent that there is a clear path for Oregon to a Pac-12 title and national championship playoff berth.

Five elements will be key to Oregon achieving this goal.

A fully healthy season from Marcus Mariota

Mariota is one of the few players who can give reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston strong competition for the 2014 version of that award.

Last season, Mariota led all college football QBs by posting an 89.5 mark in Adjusted Total QBR. (This metric revises the Raw QBR mark by strength of schedule and thus balances showings in this statistic.)

He also set a modern Oregon single-game record with seven total touchdowns (five passing, two rushing) against Colorado and set a Pac-12 record by going 353 passes without throwing an interception.

What makes the Total QBR and zero interception numbers even more amazing is how well Mariota fared against Washington, UCLA and Stanford -- even though the Stanford game was a clunker based on the outcome. These three teams all finished in the top 32 in Adjusted Total QBR allowed and Mariota's composite performances against them yielded a 90.3 Adjusted Total QBR that was actually slightly higher than his season-ending total in this category. He also racked up zero bad decisions in these contests (defined as a mental error that leads to a turnover opportunity for the opposing team) and thus protected the ball just as well as his overall numbers would suggest.

By most football standards, last season in Eugene, Ore., was a success. Under a first-year head coach the Ducks had an 11-win season while their 273.5 rushing yards per game and 291.5 passing yards per game were among the best in the country. But there was no Pac-12 championship and no BCS bowl game (ending the Ducks’ run of four-consecutive BCS bowl game appearances). So, year two is going to be as big of a test as the first for Mark Helfrich & Co.

With spring practices beginning Tuesday, the first steps of 2014 will be taken as the Ducks look to build on what they did last season and fix the mistakes that were made and the shortcomings that plagued them.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesThe return of Marcus Mariota meant big expectations are back for Oregon's offense.
Offensively, their identity is set. Marcus Mariota decided to return to Oregon, and with that decision expectations soared for what this offense could do. The Ducks lost their No. 1 and No. 3 receivers but with Mariota slinging it behind an offensive line that returns abundant talent and experience, even average receivers could look great. The receiver depth is far better than average. Keanon Lowe and Bralon Addison need to continue to contribute at a high level as they look to make up for the loss of two of the top three receivers from 2013.

However, since the receiver experience is limited, look for Helfrich to get the tight ends more involved in the pass game as the Ducks return a trio that could help take some of the yardage burden off those WRs. In 2013 the tight end trio of Pharaoh Brown, Johnny Mundt and Evan Baylis accounted for five touchdowns and 475 yards on just 30 receptions.

The run game, again, will be no surprise to anyone. Even without De'Anthony Thomas, the Ducks should be fine. Byron Marshall -- who led Oregon with 14 rushing touchdowns and 1,038 rushing yards -- and Thomas Tyner will be able to attack defenses up front and be a very formidable matchup in the option when teams try to stop the run. They both boast good hands, so they’ll be able to help out in the pass game as well, helping Mariota put up even bigger numbers in 2014.

All of that combined will make up a high-powered offense, which is exactly what people expect out of Oregon. But the biggest question will be whether the defense can be an equal counterpart. And with an attack like Oregon’s, the defense must almost be even stronger considering it’s on the field about 10 minutes more per game than teams.

So it’s not very fair to put up their straight defensive numbers and statistics against any other team that doesn’t feature as prolific of an offense. But it is fair to say that it’s one of the bigger concerns heading into this spring and one of the facets of the game that must make the biggest strides.

Last year, Oregon was known for its deep secondary as it dared teams to throw. But in return, the Ducks struggled against the run even with an experienced group. They gave up 3.8 yards per rush and allowed opponents to convert on 65.5 percent of rushing attempts on third downs (119th nationally). Oregon returns DeForest Buckner on the D-line, but overall, the group will need to improve its numbers against the run. It’s certainly a place where players could emerge through spring ball and one of the most important position groups that must build depth.

But even with the shuffling and inexperience on the defensive line, new defensive coordinator Don Pellum will stick with the 3-4 base defense because of the depth and experience the Ducks have in their linebacker group, which returns three starters, and their defensive backs. Even though the Ducks have just one returning starter in the secondary (cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu), most of the DBs got some experience last season.

Next season could be huge for Oregon, but the foundation of what happens next December and January begins right now.
Last week, Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay updated their top-10 lists at each position for the upcoming NFL draft.

Here's a look at how the Pac-12 offensive players stack up:

Quarterback

Marcus Mariota might have been taken No. 1 overall if he decided to leave Oregon, but without him the Pac-12 doesn't have any top-10 representation. Washington's Keith Price, who was not invited to the NFL combine, has a big day on Wednesday when the Huskies hold their pro day. Barring a team taking a flyer on him in the draft, Price is probably going to have to take the undrafted route to forge a NFL career.

Running back/fullback

The surprise here is how little both analysts think of Carey, who was the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year and ranked No. 3 in the nation in rushing yards. Sure, his 40-yard dash time at the NFL combine (4.70) didn't do him any favors, but this feels like a situation where the film isn't speaking as loudly as it does for others.

The love for Thomas was a bit surprising as well, but it's also tough to compare him to the rest of the group because he doesn't project as a true running back in the NFL. His versatility undoubtedly scored him points, but it also should be noted that 10 other running backs clocked faster 40 times at the combine -- including Stanford's Tyler Gaffney. See the whole list here Insider.

Receiver/tight end

Cooks and Lee, a pair of Biletnikoff Award winners, will both expect to hear their name called in the first round. After that, it will be interesting to see how the rest of the pass-catchers fall into place.

[+] EnlargeBrandin Cooks
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhOregon State wideout Brandin Cooks could be a first-round pick.
Notably absent is Colorado WR Paul Richardson, who ran a 4.40 40 at the combine and caught 83 passes for 1,343 yards and 10 touchdowns for the Buffaloes. He still figures to have a shot to go in the second-round to third-round range.

McShay lists Lyerla as the pass-catcher with the biggest risk:
Lyerla has some significant behavioral and emotional issues (leaving the Oregon program at midseason in 2013 and being arrested for cocaine possession weeks later) that just aren't worth dealing with, even for the potential reward his talent promises, were he to straighten things out.

See the whole list here Insider.

Offensive line

If they were quarterbacks, Yankey and Su'a-Filo would be forever linked. Widely regarded as two of the best offensive guards in the country, it will be interesting to see who goes off the board first. Su'a-Filo was the players' choice as the best offensive lineman in the conference in 2013, but Yankey was given the honor in 2012.

Martin is one of eight players Kiper and McShay agree is the best player at his position. See the whole list here Insider.
video

WeAreSC's Blair Angulo caught up with ESPN Junior 300 LB Cameron Smith this past Sunday at the Passing Down Elite 7on7 SoCal Regional in Fontana, Calif.
That was a crazy game of poker.

CFB's five most efficient offenses

March, 31, 2014
Mar 31
11:56
AM ET

It is the era of up-tempo, explosive offenses in college football, and records for scoring production are threatened or broken on an almost weekly basis. Nine teams averaged at least 40 points per game in the 2013 season, including six teams from "big five" conferences. There were as many 50-PPG offenses last season (Baylor and Florida State) as there were 40-PPG offenses four years earlier (Houston and Boise State).

We account for strength of opposition in our Offensive FEI (OFEI) ratings, a measure of scoring efficiency by possession based on starting field position. The top offenses according to OFEI are productive not only in terms of raw performance, but also have exceptional production against elite defenses. Florida State led the nation in baseline offensive efficiency last year, but since the Seminoles played only the 64th-toughest set of opposing defenses, their OFEI was a more modest No. 12 overall.

Which teams are projected to have the best opponent-adjusted offenses in 2014? Our model starts with a five-year measure of offensive success, Program Offense, which has a stronger correlation to next-year success than any other baseline factor we have tested.

As such, here are the top five offenses of the past five years according to opponent-adjusted Program Offense, and a breakdown of the challenges each will face in producing elite efficiency again this fall.


Baylor Bears

Program Offense rank (over past five years): No. 1
2013 Offensive FEI rank: No. 10

In 2013, the Bears led the nation in points per game for the season (52.4), their third straight season ranked in the top five nationally in scoring offense and in the top 10 in opponent-adjusted offensive FEI. However, their dominance early on in 2013 gave way to inconsistent production down the stretch. Baylor averaged at least 10 yards per play on 42 percent of its offensive possessions through the first seven weeks of the season, but posted a more modest explosive drive rate of only 21.4 percent the rest of the year. Oklahoma State held Baylor in check in its only regular-season loss (in late November), as the Bears punted on five of their first six drives against the Cowboys after having four or fewer total punts in eight of their previous nine games.


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Football will be back in Eugene soon enough, but it’s always good to reflect on 2013 and see what can be learned from last season and taken into next. Leading up to spring football, we’re going to break down some stats that need to improve next season.

Stat: Third-down passing conversions

Backing that up: The Ducks were quite fortunate at quarterback last season. Marcus Mariota had an incredible season. He threw for 3,665 yards and 31 touchdowns with only four interceptions. And when his backups stepped in, they played well too. Jeff Lockie appeared in nine games and completed 8 of 13 passes for 57 yards. Jake Rodrigues played in seven games, completing 3 of 6 passes and threw for one touchdown.

Their combined numbers put them near the top of the nation in almost every single important quarterback statistic. The Ducks completed 60.5 percent of their passes of 10-plus yards (No. 9 nationally), 68 percent of their completions gained a first down or touchdown (No. 7 nationally) and one in every 13 passes scored a touchdown (No. 7 nationally).

But, there was one area in which the Oregon quarterbacks struggled mightily -- third-down passing conversions. In this category the Ducks completed just 32.4 of their passes, moving them from one of the nation’s best group to No. 77 nationally.

Of the 12 FBS teams the Ducks played, their defenses gave up completions on 34.8 of opposing teams’ third-down passing conversions. The difference of 2.4 percent might not seem like a big deal and in most cases it wouldn’t be. It’s just so strange in Oregon’s case because in so many of the other statistical categories the Duck offense destroyed their opponents.

Passing yards per game:
Oregon’s offense: 291.5 yards
12 FBS opponents’ defenses: 248.7 yards

Yards per completion:
Oregon’s offense: 14.8 yards
12 FBS opponents’ defenses: 12.1 yards

Touchdowns per passing attempt:
Oregon’s offense: 7.9 percent
12 FBS opponents’ defenses: 4.6 percent

Percent of completions that went for 10-plus yards:
Oregon’s offense: 60.5 percent
12 FBS opponents’ defenses: 46.5 percent

Percent of completions that gained a first down or touchdown:
Oregon’s offense: 68 percent
12 FBS opponents’ defenses: 55.3 percent

Percentage of completions on third-down passes:
Oregon’s offense: 32.4 percent
12 FBS opponents’ defenses: 34.8 percent

So when looking at the Oregon offense next season and the strides it must take, third-down passing conversions certainly needs to be a part of the Ducks’ game that needs to move along.

In every category the Ducks are a top-10 team and when Mariota is discussed, his peers are the Jameis Winstons of the world. But in this category that was far from the case as Winston (49), Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater (52.2 percent), Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel (49 percent) and Stanford’s Kevin Hogan (44.6 percent) were far superior to Mariota.

Other stats that must improve:

Texas Relays recruiting notebook 

March, 30, 2014
Mar 30
6:30
PM ET
AUSTIN, Texas -- The state of Texas’ top track athletes descended on Austin this weekend to compete in the annual Clyde Littlefield Texas Relays on the campus of the University of Texas, and the field of competitors included several touted 2015 and 2016 recruits. Here’s an update on where a few of them stand in their recruitment.

RB Jones wants to travel

The battle for Ronald Jones II, one of the state’s top running back recruits out of McKinney North, rages on as he should be hitting the road in the next few months.


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Mailbag: College football unions?

March, 28, 2014
Mar 28
6:30
PM ET
Welcome to the mailbag. We're grilling up some steaks and the bar is open.

Follow the Pac-12 blog on Twitter. Please.

To the notes!

Sam from Portland writes: Ted, what's your view on the unionization of the Northwestern football team? Personally, I think the whole issue is junk. As a Pac-12 university graduate, I get insulted every time I hear college athletes say they're slaves and that they don't get anything. I had to pay $24,000 per year for what they get for free: a degree and the attendant costs. Not only that, they get admiration and to do what they love while getting this stuff for free. These athletes point to their hours. Well, I was in the marching band and spent 30 hours a week on that as well as focusing on REAL college courses with real coursework. I didn't get a scholarship. I didn't get the massive admiration. I didn't get the shot at making the NFL. There's no Internet blog with 2.5 authors dedicated to the hard work I put in to my performances. Let's face it: Even at the small schools, the scholarship athletes get a TON more than regular students, and they get it for free. I'm not going to be dense here. I understand that the NCAA is making serious money off the hard work of the athletes, and there is a good argument that they deserve some direct monetary compensation, but the need for a union? Why should these athletes be coddled when the rest of the students pay millions (together, not apiece) just for the chance at getting a small portion of what these athletes get for free?

[+] EnlargeKain Colter, Tim Waters, Leo Gerard
AP Photo/Paul BeatyKain Colter's attempt to unionize the Northwestern football team could be a significant development in how colleges treat scholarship athletes.
Brandon from Seal Beach, Calif., writes: I appreciate the concern and well-being of college athletes, but when did this entitlement idea come into play that they deserve additional compensation? Sure, the NCAA and universities make boat-loads of money off of the athletes posing to be students, but demanding additional compensation is akin to me calling up my CEO and demanding he split the company profits with me. If they don't want to risk injury, don't feel like the scholarship, minimal stipend, and various perks being a Div. I scholar athlete bring about, there is absolutely nothing stopping them from pursuing other avenues. I don't know -- maybe I'm in the minority, but I think this is a slippery slope we're traversing.

Ted Miller: We live in interesting college football times.

The biggest takeaway for me from the Northwestern union and Ed O'Bannon vs. NCAA cases is that college football is going to continue to change in many ways over the next decade. Just as conference realignment and the advent of the College Football Playoff dominated the discussion the past few years, the debate on how we should properly compensate and support college athletes will consume us in the years ahead.

What we have is an asset -- big-time college football -- that is very popular and therefore very valuable. That value, however, has been monetized over the past quarter-century in a way that disproportionately benefits management -- coaches, athletic administrators and the NCAA -- and external businesses -- television, merchandisers, athletic apparel companies, etc. The athletes -- labor! -- have not seen their benefits and compensation increase.

Ergo, we have an argument that is typical across many commercial enterprises in this country. When many folks say they love free markets, what they mean is they love a market that they control, one in which they make the rules, which -- surprise, surprise -- makes it easier for them to make money. When folks say that market forces allow FBS head coaches make $5 million a year, why don't they also nod when market forces motivate a would-be agent to give Reggie Bush's family a house rent-free?

Of course, it's against the rules, rules that -- coincidentally -- were made by and/or benefit the folks who are getting rich off college sports.

Now, I'm not an extremist on this by any means. One of my pet peeves is when fans, athletes or sports writers discount the value of a college scholarship. If you are presently paying for a child to go to college, you know full well that athletes already are well-compensated.

But this does touch on a long-debated solution that I expect to happen in the next couple of years: Athletic scholarships covering the full cost of attendance. While that expense will further separate the haves and the have-nots in college sports, that seems to be an inexorable trend in any event. The programs banking big bucks in the power conferences need to find a way to share their wealth.

A complication? We don't know what this might mean for non-revenue sports. Title IX prevents programs from giving more money to male athletes in revenue sports compared to female athletes. If the cost of scholarships increase across the board, you will see a lot of programs cutting sports, most likely men's non-revenue sports.

There are plenty of other things the NCAA and college athletic departments can do, from lifetime disability coverage for injuries to figuring out creative ways to allow athletes to pocket some of the revenue they are playing a major role in creating. I think Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples does a nice job here of laying things out with the Northwestern-union case and Ed O'Bannon lawsuit against the NCAA.

Now I don't want to ignore the points of Sam and Brandon from above.

Unions? That could get complicated. But, first of all, I'm skeptical that we'll get to a point anytime soon in which college athletes unionize. The cumulative effect here, to me, is going to be forcing the NCAA and the major conferences to institute reforms to placate revenue-producing athletes so they don't continue to pursue legal action.

Sam, the reason college athletes get coddled is they have a highly valuable skill. You mention you were in the band. If you, say, happened to cut two gold records while you were in high school, I'd bet you would have gotten a scholarship to your Pac-12 school. Colleges love really talented folks. Not that you aren't talented. You, after all, read the Pac-12 Blog.

Brandon goes with the "there is absolutely nothing stopping them from pursuing other avenues" argument if they don't like the current system. Actually, when it comes to football, there really isn't another route to the professional ranks. What percentage of NFL players didn't play college football?

Brandon also notes that "demanding additional compensation is akin to me calling up my CEO and demanding he split the company profits with me." Well, if you have leverage and high value, go to your CEO and ask for a raise. That's the free market.

What these college football players are doing at Northwestern is quintessentially American. They are exercising leverage in our social and commercial systems.

I'm proud of them.


Keith from Teutopolis, Ill., writes: Pro days. What's the big deal? I'm confused by all the fawning over Johnny Football's pro day and by the criticisms of Teddy Bridgewater's. Scouts have dozens of hours of real game action to look at. How or why does a QB's draft stock skyrocket or plunge based on an hour of throwing a football in a controlled environment?

Ted Miller: Keith, I wouldn't get bogged down in the gushing.

Most of what you hear from NFL folks this time of year is misdirection. If an NFL scout with a top-10 pick really wants to draft Johnny Manziel, he's probably whispering to a reporter off the record that Manziel has a hitch in his throwing motion that means he'll average 25 interceptions a year before running off to Tahiti with a flamenco dancer.

I was at the Senior Bowl one time listening to a scout gush about a player I had covered who I didn't think much of. When he finished, I went, "Really?"

He took a sip of his beer, grinned and slurred, "Maybe."


Sonoran Coug from the Desert writes: Ted, I want to let you in on some information. Washington State is going to win the Pac-12 North. How? WSU is poised to put up big numbers in 2014; the Pac-12 North lays down nicely for an awakening WSU program. The no 'natty' Diva Squad plays in Pullman this year, Stanford's roster resembles their fan base, and there is a quarterback-less Washington. And while we are on the subject of Washington, ARE YOU KIDDING!! New quarterback, new running back, new offensive and defensive coaching staff. My mouth is watering for apples as I write this. Or are you and Kevin going to fall for the new coach trick again, so shiny, so new? We here in Coug Nation don't dwell on the past. P12 North results 2014: 1. WSU; 2. OSU; 3. Oregon; 4. Stanford; 5. Washington; 6. California.

Ted Miller: The "No 'Natty Diva Squad" is going to be the name of Kevin and my new band. (We're sort of a Men Without Hats/Iron Butterfly fusion with a hip-hop component).

As for the Cougs… well, maybe. Stranger things have happened.

Who saw the Cougars coming in 1997?

I was at the 2000 Apple Cup -- brrr -- when the Washington brutalized Washington State 51-3. The Huskies went on to win the Rose Bowl and the Cougars finished 4-7.

The next year, the Cougs began a run of three consecutive 10-win seasons.

As for next year, the passing game should be strong with senior QB Connor Halliday and a deep crew of receivers. The 2014 schedule also is favorable with just five road games, no UCLA and Oregon, and USC and Washington both coming to Pullman.

But what holds back my Coug optimism is the O-line and secondary. Need to see how that all fits together.

Finally, you well know that we won't fall for the "shiny new coach trick" any more than we would fall for the banana in the tailpipe.

Ohhh… but Chris Petersen is so… shiny!


Blake from Mesa, Ariz., writes: I don't know how you guys can continue to post poll questions. You must know that no matter the topic, the winner is going to be Oregon. As an Oregon fan myself, I find this comical but also annoying. Maybe for the next poll you can state in your post that the winner is Oregon and that the poll is to see who the fans think is No. 2.

Ted Miller: Oregon fans do mobilize for their team, and they do seem to vote for the Ducks whether they actually believe they merit the vote or not.

Yet the Pac-12 blog will continue to maintain its absolute neutrality and allow market forces to prevail without instituting arbitrary regulations.
Happy Friday.
 

Poll: Best three-headed monster?

March, 28, 2014
Mar 28
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.
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In a talk with ESPN's Toni Collins, national recruiting reporter Gerry Hamilton shares things heard and lessons learned from talking with top recruits at a recent camp in the Southeast.

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PAC-12 SCOREBOARD

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