Oregon Ducks: Byron Marshall

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To the notes.

Jake from Spokane writes: What do you think Chris Petersen should do with Cyler Miles and Damore’ea Stringfellow? I know Miles wasn't charged and Stringfellow got off easy, but don't you think he should make an example out of them?

Ted Miller: Yes. And no.

As many of you know, I typically side with second chances. I think zero-tolerance is bad policy. Everything should be a case-by-case basis. For one, there's typically two sides to every story, with the less public, after-the-big-headlines side often being closer to the truth -- see past assault accusations against former Arizona running back Ka'Deem Carey and Oregon running back LaMichael James. Or Duke lacrosse, for that matter.

I know the self-righteous out there love to tell everyone about their inflexible absolutes with behavior and Puritan standards for character. My experience with people like that is they almost always are full of pooh.

And yet a line I often do draw is at bullying, which the two incidents involving Miles and Stringfellow approximate. A bigger person pushing around a smaller person just because he can is abhorrent. That, to me, does reveal a deep-seated character flaw. The fact that alcohol apparently wasn't involved actually almost makes it worse. When you can't blame the booze, what can you blame, other than a flawed moral compass?

Based on what I know typing this today, here's what I would do if I were Petersen.

First, I would meet with a crew of Huskies seniors who command respect in the locker room and ask their positions on the situation and why they feel that way. I would ask if there were details of the incidents that they knew of or had heard of from reasonably reliable sources that differed from public accounts. I wouldn't ask what they thought I should do, but I would take the measures of their feelings toward both, including whether those feelings were different between the pair.

[+] EnlargeChris Petersen
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenChris Petersen hasn't announced the punishment for Washington players Cyler Miles and Damore'ea Stringfellow.
Barring any major surprises, I'd then meet with Miles and tell him he was being conditionally reinstated, though he would be suspended for the first game (at Hawaii, so he'd truly be missing a fun trip). I'd provide him a list of in-house punishments, which would include a generous amount of extra quality time with strength coach Tim Socha.

And I would tell him that this was his second chance. There won't be a third. A quarterback, in particular, is supposed to set a standard in the locker room.

Then, I'd meet with Stringfellow. He too would be conditionally reinstated, though he would be suspended for the first three games. I'd provide him a list of in-house punishments, which would include a generous amount of extra quality time with Socha.

And I would tell him that this was his second chance. There won't be a third.

I'd publicly announce my decision in May or June so it wasn't a big, distracting story right before the beginning of preseason practices. I'd also have both of them meet with the media, though only after a stern session with myself and sports information director Jeff Bechthold, where we'd hammer home talking points about being humble, regretful and accountable while not reviewing too many details of the incidents. Something like, "I know I won't do this again because of how horrible I felt and still feel for hurting someone and embarrassing my family, my school and my team."

I'd also minimize the "put it behind me" talk, which always comes off as lacking regret while suggesting impatience with a justifiable inquisition. Want to win a news conference? Say, "No, I'm not going to put this behind me. I'm going to think about it every day to remind myself of what it feels like to be a bad person, which I never want to feel again."

These situations typically involve a complicated calculus, particularly when the players are key contributors, as both of these guys are. Petersen has a duty to his players, fans, administrators and himself to do what he was truly hired to do: Win. Yes, he should aim to build character and help young men grow into quality adults, but the reality is that comes in second place to winning. Sorry if that bursts your idealistic bubble, but there's a reason why even the greatest teachers aren't paid $3 million a year.

That said, bad apples in a locker room don't help the cause. Sometimes temporary pain -- suspensions or giving players the boot -- helps a program, helps it win over the long term.

My impression of Petersen is he's the clearest of thinkers. While most of us view this as the first big test of his administration, I suspect it feels fairly routine for him.


Tim from Portland writes: Hey Ted, I wonder if I'm the only one thinking that the loss of the Ducks' top four receivers could actually be a good thing. I know we lose a lot of numbers with those four out, but isn't it possible Oregon could go back to the blue-collar attitude they had in Chip [Kelly's] first couple years as head coach? I mean, in those years at least we met or exceeded the expectations for the season.

Ted Miller: Yes, Tim, you are the only one thinking that.

Are you saying that Bralon Addison's blowing out his knee this spring is a good thing? My answer to that: No. One thousand times no. Have you seen Addison play? Before he got hurt, I saw him as a legitimate All-Pac-12 candidate.

And, no, losing your top four receivers is never a good thing, either. Never. Well, unless they all ran 5.0 40s and were locker room cancers.

Also, I'm not sure if I've ever viewed Oregon as a "blue-collar" team. I see Oregon as a cutting edge, fancy-pants team that has the best facilities in the nation and gets to go behind the velvet rope at all the cool clubs.

I'd also like to point out that the Ducks' horribly disappointing season included 11 wins, a dominant bowl victory over Texas and a top-10 final ranking.

Now, if you're saying the Ducks might run the ball more next fall with four returning starting O-linemen, a good crew of tight ends and what should be a dynamic RB combination in Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner, I could get on board with that.

That said, quarterback Marcus Mariota is an A-list passer. While there are unknowns at receiver, I suspect the cupboard isn't empty. I'd be surprised if Mariota doesn't throw for at least 250 yards per game.


Dave from Tucson writes: Ted, thanks for some good, informative articles on football. Just a minor reporting point on this: "...Not when you consider what Rodriguez and Smith have done with their past two first-year starters in Matt Scott and B.J. Denker." Actually, Matt Scott had beaten out Nick Foles to start the 2009 season and started two games before being benched for Foles. Denker also started a game and played the entire game against Colorado in the 2012 season when Matt Scott was down with a concussion. Matt Scott was not a first-year starter in 2012 and Denker was not a first-year starter in 2013.

Ted Miller: I think you're mixing up "first-time" and "first-year."

Both Scott and Denker had started games and seen action before ascending officially to the starting job, but neither was a returning starter, which is typically defined as starting at least five games during the previous season. Nick Foles preceded Scott as the 2012 starter, and Scott preceded Denker as the 2013 starter.

And, just as Washington QB Cyler Miles, despite starting at Oregon State, was not the Huskies' starting QB in 2013. That was Keith Price.


Mr. Elizabeth Bennet from Salt Lake City writes: I enjoyed the quote you added to your lunch links from April 16. I wonder what your thoughts are on how Jane Austen would have commented on the state of college football, given all the clamoring for change that has happened and the widening gap of aristocracy between the conferences? Also, which "Pride & Prejudice" character best describes each Pac-12 football coach/team? It seems like the Pac-12 blog does a good job as the Elizabeth Bennet of the college football world, offering witty, but insightful commentary on the society within college football.

Ted Miller: I think it's a universally acknowledged truth that Jane Austen would have been a heck of a sportswriter, full of sense and sensibility as well as persuasion. While some -- mostly those who haven't read her -- probably see her as some sort of "chick-lit," the reality is she's a wonderfully biting observer of how folks behave, not to mention underrated when it comes to humor.

As for Austen and college football, she's already commented. You may not know this, but Lady Bertram in "Mansfield Park" is the personification of the NCAA, a novel, by the way, that includes these two felicitous quotes:

  • Selfishness must always be forgiven you know, because there is no hope of a cure.
  • A large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of.

As for the "Pride and Prejudice" request, I'm not going to wander down that road -- who wants to be Wickham or Collins or Lydia? -- but I will say Chip Kelly had plenty of "Darcy" in him.
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EUGENE, Ore. -- A team is only as good as its twos and threes -- or so says Oregon wide receiver coach Matt Lubick. If that’s true, the Ducks are about to find out how good they are in the passing game.

While the addition of former Ducks basketball player Johnathan Loyd to the football team brought some excitement last week, it was quickly overshadowed by the news that wide receiver Bralon Addison had torn his ACL.

While there have been several success stories of players who’ve returned quickly from these types of injuries, considering the timing of Addison’s injury, Lubick needs to count on his twos and threes for the brunt of the receiving duties in the 2014-15 season.

[+] EnlargeThomas Tyner
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsOregon RB Thomas Tyner might need to make more plays in the passing game this season.
“They’re very eager,” Lubick said of his youthful players. “They’re excited to learn. If there’s a blessing in disguise about an injury happening at this time it’s that it gives those guys reps now as opposed to right in the middle of the season when they wouldn’t get as many reps.”

And those guys need to take the reps considering the personnel situation in the wide receiver corps.

Of the Ducks’ top 10 leaders in receptions last season, the top four will not be playing next season (that includes Addison, who was the No. 2 receiver last season). Those four players accounted for nearly 70 percent of the Ducks’ receptions and 72 percent of the Ducks’ receiving yardage. As a group, receivers 5-10 last season accounted for only slightly more catches than Josh Huff did on his own.

And of those six players who return, only two are pure receivers -- Keanon Lowe and Chance Allen. The other four are tight ends (John Mundt and Pharaoh Brown) and running backs (Thomas Tyner and Byron Marshall).

“The neat thing about spring ball is you’re trying to figure out about your team,” Lubick said. “Is our best personnel group two tight ends? Is our best personnel group two running backs or is it still three wideouts? We still don’t know that. We’re still trying to find that out.”

Over the past three seasons Oregon has had a running back in its top four receivers, including the 2012-13 season when running back De'Anthony Thomas led the team in receptions. However, for Tyner or Marshall to boost themselves into the top four, they’d have to nearly triple their receptions next season. It’s certainly possible, but Oregon would still need receivers to step up because they’re not going to be able to throw to backs or tight ends on every play.

The two returning receivers from last season’s top-10 group -- Lowe and Allen -- only accounted for 23 catches, 331 yards and four touchdowns in 2013.

However, it’s not ridiculous to believe that such inexperienced players could make a huge jump in just one season. From the 2011-12 season to the 2012-13 season Colt Lyerla and Daryle Hawkins went from just 12 combined catches to 50 catches. From the 2012-13 season to the 2013-14 season Addison went from 22 catches and 243 yards to 61 catches and 890 yards.

But when Lyerla, Hawkins and Addison made those jumps there were several other players making huge impacts from a receiving standpoint as well, guys like Thomas and Huff. This season, Lowe and Allen won’t have that luxury because there aren’t other experienced players around them in the passing game.

Another issue for the Ducks is that the young guys are going to need to play above their age from a consistency and blocking standpoint. Generally, blocking isn’t one of the aspects emphasized for most high school wide receivers and so they get to college and need to learn that skill.

“At Oregon, it’s not just about catching balls,” Lubick said. “You have to be able to make plays without the ball. You have to be able to make plays with the ball. You can’t do one without the other, you have to do both. That’s sometimes the biggest adjustment for guys who weren’t used to doing that in high school.”

Lubick said that he, offensive coordinator Scott Frost and coach Mark Helfrich will be looking for the most consistent wide receivers through the spring and those will be the ones who get the starts in the spring game.

“The good thing about it is we have a lot of talent, a lot of resources and our offense gives us a lot of flexibility to have a whole bunch of personnel groupings,” he said. “… To be in our offense, whether you’re a tight end or running back, you have to know all the spots. It’s an opportunity for other guys to step up.”

But chances are, no matter who steps up, there will be at least a few completely new names catching balls during the spring game.

On one end will be a possible Heisman contender (assuming his receivers can help boost his passing yards) and one of the best-known quarterbacks in the nation. And on the other end will be a bunch of the Ducks’ twos and threes. People know how good QB Marcus Mariota is. Now, according to Lubick’s reasoning, they’ll find out how good the passing offense is as a whole.
Happy Friday. Welcome to the mailbag.

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To the notes!

Matt from Beaverton, Ore., writes: I'm sure by now you've read the news about the Ducks losing Bralon Addison this season due to an ACL tear. He looked to take a huge step in becoming a focal point of the Ducks offense with Huff graduating. Do you think Oregon returns to running the ball far more frequently, or are there players you think will step up to fill the void? I'm curious how Jonathan Lloyd (senior point guard for the basketball team) pans out as a return specialist/WR.

[+] EnlargeBralon Addison
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenThe Ducks are not devoid of offensive talent, but replacing Bralon Addison will be difficult.
Ted Miller: Losing Addison is a big blow for two reasons. First, he's an intriguing talent who was expected to become QB Marcus Mariota's No. 1 target this fall, an important distinction considering Mariota is a Heisman Trophy contender. Second, the Ducks are now as green at receiver as any team in the Pac-12. They will be without their top four receivers from 2013.

What's left? There's veteran Keanon Lowe, a good leader and a tough blocker, but he only caught 18 passes last year. In terms of wideouts, the next most productive returning receiver is sophomore Chance Allen, who caught five passes.

Of course, there's young talent. A top-five team with Oregon's offensive name brand isn't going to be devoid of guys who could immediately step in and shine, but how that pecking order develops is a mystery. Allen, sophomore Dwayne Stanford, redshirt freshman Darren Carrington and the mercurial B.J. Kelley are possibilities.

Lloyd? It's fun to speculate, but being a great athlete doesn't mean you'll be a good receiver. That gets a firm "We shall see."

As for compensating in the passing game, the Ducks are strong at tight end, so you probably will see more from those guys. They also, as you note, could lean more on the running game, as Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner have the potential to be a 2,500-plus-yard tandem.

One of the Ducks mottos is "next man in" and losing Addison hardly knocks the Ducks out of the Pac-12 and national title race. But if you made a list of the top-five most important Ducks in 2014 a week ago, he would have been on it.

 




Ray from Tucson, Ariz., writes: Recognizing that football is a big moneymaker for college athletic departments, conferences and networks, I'm curious as to whether we've already seen the peak of this sport. Between unionization of athletes and issues with concussions and the incidence of brain damage in former players, it seems like there are some issues ahead. Can educational institutions continue to feature a sport that has apparent long term consequences to the players and cash the checks without some lifetime responsibility to those students? 18-22 year olds always think they are immortal, but the faculty and administrators should know that a significant percentage of the kids have potential for injury and brain damage. Perhaps not as bad as what the Roman gladiators had, but still substantial enough that some court cases could change the financial equation. Do you think you'll need to bone up on badminton or soccer rules as an alternative sport for the Pac-12 blog at some point?

Ted Miller: This is a time of change in college football on many levels, and those changes aren't independent of each other.

We've reached critical mass with the flowing revenue and big-money salaries, where the relative deprivation between athlete and coach/administrator is impossible to ignore. We've also reached a point where we need to take strong steps to address player safety and long-term health issues. Most folks around the game see this, even if they don't agree on all the next steps.

The good news is this: Crisis often breeds progress.

As for your question, "Has college football peaked?" Maybe. But that's not my impression.

Ultimately, I don't think college football is going anywhere. Too many people love it and care about it to not figure out ways to improve things.

And the notion of no Pac-12 blog surely will motivate them all to come up with changes we all can believe in.

 




Derek from Salt Lake City writes: So recently it was announced that the student government at the University of Utah was proposing changes to the fight song "Utah Man" because they felt it was sexist and offensive to some people. I would love to know what someone who is not a die-hard Ute thinks about the whole situation ...

Ted Miller: It's funny how trivial things such as this are often highly controversial, emotional and political. My guess is the folks who most loudly claim they are aggrieved probably have never and will never even sing the song.

Still, my first response? Why not change it to "Utah Fan." What is lost? Fact is plenty of Utah fans are women. The assertion that "man" is an inclusion term is disingenuous.

Don't think so? Your momma is a man. See.

The story included Utah social work professor Joanne Yaffe observing, "I don’t think I’m being hyper-PC, I’m just thinking about not really being included in the song."

I agree. Perfectly reasonable observation. And reason to make a change.

Yet she then unfortunately added, "I think that the U can feel like a very isolating, unwelcoming place, and maybe this song is part of that."

Sigh. That's just gobbledygook. And disingenuous whining is a good way to lose a sympathetic audience.

If I were in charge at Utah, I'd change it to "Utah Fan."

And you folks know I'm up to snuff and never bluff.
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.
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.

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.
You remember the three-headed monster, right? It's about returning production that will scare -- terrify! --opponents. Or not.

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s take a look:

1. Oregon

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

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

2. Stanford

QB Kevin Hogan, RB ?, WR Ty Montgomery

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

3. Oregon State

QB Sean Mannion, RB Terron Ward, WR Richard Mullaney

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

4. Washington State

QB Connor Halliday, RB Marcus Mason, WR Gabe Marks

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

5. Washington

QB?, RB Jesse Callier, WR, Jaydon Mickens

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

6. California

QB Jared Goff, RB Khalfani Muhammad, WR Bryce Treggs

The skinny: There is a lot of potential in this group. The Bears just need that potential to translate into points on the field. Goff threw for 3,508 yards in his debut season, and Treggs caught 77 of his passes. Though just one for a touchdown (Chris Harper and Kenny Lawler each caught five). Though the departed Brendan Bigelow had more carries, Muhammad outperformed him with more yards and touchdowns.
There are still two weeks until Oregon begins spring practice, but that won’t keep us from looking ahead and making predictions about what we'll see in the spring game.

Prediction No. 1: Marcus Mariota, Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner will carry the ball 35 times in the spring game.

Why: Last season, the Ducks were the second-most prolific offense in the nation, falling just behind a potent Baylor attack. Oregon accounted for 565 yards of offense per game and 7.55 yards per play (also second best, this time to Florida State).

[+] EnlargeThomas Tyner
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsOregon's Thomas Tyner should get ready for some additional work.
Mariota led a balanced offense, with about half of that production coming from the running game (273.5 yards per game, 6.3 yards per rush). The Ducks tallied 42 rushing touchdowns and scored a rushing touchdown, on average, once every 13 carries.

Though the Ducks lost De'Anthony Thomas, they still return their top three rushers --- Marshall, Mariota and Tyner. Marshall led the Ducks with 14 rushing touchdowns and 86.5 rushing yards per game and Mariota and Tyner accounted for nine rushing touchdowns each, creating a three-headed monster that found holes in nearly every defense.

A season later, these three should be even better as they’ve matured in the game, know the playbook better, and have another cycle of offseason conditioning and strength training.

The rushing attack will need to be more prolific this season, at least early on. The Ducks lost their No. 1 and No. 3 receivers, so other offensive players are going to need to make up for that lost production. It doesn't necessarily need to come from other receivers (though, per prediction No. 4, the tight ends will step up), and with how much experience Oregon returns in the run game, it seems like Oregon might attack with the rushing game early and often to get the offense moving. In situations such as the Sept. 6 game against Michigan State, don't be surprised if the Ducks favor the run over the pass. And don't be surprised if you start to see the pieces of that puzzle forming in the spring game.

In the May 3 scrimmage, with these three on the field (and a defensive line that will still be making major shifts and adjustments), they’ll be able to run wild. Mariota will look to get the ball down the field, but don’t be surprised if these three account for 35 carries in the spring game -- an increase of four carries from the trio’s average of 31 per game last season.

Other spring game predictions:

  • No. 5: The D-line won’t be as far along as people would like
  • No. 4: The tight ends will be more involved in the pass game
  • No. 3: Cameron Hunt will make the most noticeable strides on the O-line
  • No. 2: The offense will look great ... the defense certainly won’t
There are still two weeks until Oregon begins spring practice, but that won’t keep us from looking ahead and making predictions about what we'll see in the spring game.

Prediction No. 2: The offense will look great … but the defense certainly won’t.

Why: This isn’t a huge surprise. Offenses can evolve more quickly (especially when so many players on the offensive line return) and it theoretically takes less for them to impress fans than a defense. On top of that, because the defense does have more players to replace, the Oregon offense will be playing a group that is still in building mode.

[+] EnlargeOregon/Texas
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesByron Marshall and the Oregon offense should be ahead of the defense this spring.
This won’t necessarily be the case in 2015 if Marcus Mariota leaves and the offense finds itself trying to find its way under a new quarterback. But for now, the core of the offense -- Mariota, the offensive line and the top three rushers (Mariota, Byron Marshall, Thomas Tyner) -- return. It will take more work to get the receivers up to the level of the rest of the offense, but (see prediction No. 4) there’s a decent chance the tight ends will get more involved in the pass game.

So, essentially, this spring game isn’t going to tell a whole lot about this team. Yes, Mariota should look great. The offensive line should be able to move the line of scrimmage against a less experienced defensive line, and the running backs -- who have ample experience -- should be able to find the holes and get solid gains.

Those are all certainly things that will make every fan excited, but also remember that it’s also Oregon’s defense out there. The defense will have many more yards to make up and though they’ll show improvement, they’ll be the lesser skilled group out there on the field on May 3.

The best benchmark for the team is at won’t come until the second week of the season when Michigan State, the reigning Big Ten and Rose Bowl champions, comes to Eugene. That will be the first great defense that Mariota and his arsenal will face, and it will be the first good offense that the Ducks will face and try to slow.

Other spring game predictions:

  • No. 5: The D-line won’t be as far along as most would like
  • No. 4: The tight ends will be far more involved in the pass game
  • No. 3: Cameron Hunt will make the most noticeable strides on the O-line
On Oct. 26, No. 2 Oregon rolled over No. 12 UCLA in raucous Autzen Stadium. It was a vintage Oregon performance. The game was tied at the half and then -- zip! wham! zooooom! -- it was 42-14 and the Bruins looked stunned.

Ducks sophomore running back Byron Marshall rushed for 133 yards on just 19 carries and three touchdowns, including two during the dominant second half. Running back had been a position of concern in the preseason. Marshall had answered that concern.

[+] EnlargeByron Marshall
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesByron Marshall's performance against UCLA was his last big game before suffering through injuries and ineffectiveness the rest of the season.
He led Pac-12 running backs with 6.8 yards per carry. He was tied for first with 12 rushing TDs. His 109.9 yards per game ranked fourth in the conference and 18th in the nation. The UCLA game was his fifth consecutive game with more than 100 yards rushing.

And Oregon was rolling toward the national title game. It was averaging 55.6 points and 331.5 yards rushing per game, both numbers ranking second in the country. The Ducks appeared unstoppable, despite that slight limp in quarterback Marcus Mariota's stride after the UCLA victory.

Then … Stanford.

"We took a shot to our confidence in that game," Marshall said. "I don't think we were the same team after that. That kind of put a downfall to everyone's performance. Stanford was a big loss and that hurt."

Yep. And the Ducks' downfall after that 26-20 defeat ran parallel to Marshall's own personal slide.

The Oregon offense would average just 29.2 points over its final five games. During that span, Marshall would rush for 159 total yards, average 4.2 yards per carry, score just two more TDs and sit out most of the Arizona loss and the narrow win over Oregon State due to injury. With Marshall hurt or in check, the Ducks averaged 180.8 yards rushing over the final five games. Good for some teams, but not for Oregon.

While the popular -- and ultimately accurate -- explanation for the Ducks' slide in 2013 was a knee injury to Mariota that pretty much eliminated him as a running threat, Marshall's waning production over those final five games is also pretty telling.

When Oregon opens spring practice on April 1, Marshall and the Ducks are going to be in both familiar and unfamiliar positions. They, again, are going to be Pac-12 favorites and national title contenders. And they are going to be grumpy.

"11-2 is never a bad season, a bad record to have, but to know you are definitely one of the most talented teams in the country and could have been in the national championship or at least a BCS game, that's kind of eating at all of us," Marshall said. "We know we were better than we played in that last month. A lot of guys were hungry to come back and start working for next season."

Of course, the Ducks did get a boost shortly after the season ended when Mariota announced he would return for his redshirt junior season instead of entering the NFL draft, where he likely would have been a first-round pick.

"It kind of seemed like he might have his eye on the first round," Marshall said. "It's really hard to see that and come back for another season. It was definitely good news. It did catch me as a bit of a surprise. Everyone was super-excited about that. Our offense will have the same, familiar pace. There's definitely that chemistry that will still be there. His leadership will be still there. I feel like we're going to pick up better than where we left off last year."

Marshall, 5-foot-10, 201 pounds, has been focused on getting stronger this offseason so he can be a more physical runner, as well as working on his lateral quickness. He knows there are no gimmes on the depth chart. Speedy Thomas Tyner, a touted 2013 recruit, rushed for 711 yards -- a school record for a true freshman -- and nine touchdowns last year, matching Marshall's 6.2 yards per carry. While they look like a dynamic backfield duo, Marshall wants to maintain his status as option 1A.

"I think both of us are capable of making big plays," Marshall said. "We just kind of have to see how the coaches are going to play that out. It's not necessarily my decision. Of course, I'd like to get the ball every play for all four quarters. Obviously, that's not going to happen."

While Mariota is the unquestioned star of the offense, the key for the Ducks getting back on track is restoring their dominant running game. Mariota is a dynamic runner, both leading the spread option and as an improvisational scrambler, but keeping him healthy is critical for the Ducks' national title hopes. Further, if Marshall and Tyner are scaring opposing defenses, that will open up the downfield passing game.

If Marshall becomes a star this season, the offense will be tough to stop. Marshall, in fact, might be the difference between a third consecutive season looking up at Stanford in the North Division standings -- another near-miss -- or the Ducks earning a berth in the inaugural four-team College Football Playoff.

While Marshall and Oregon will be all about "Win the Day" again in the fall, focusing only on the immediate game at hand, don't think for a minute the offseason musing doesn't include coveting the one thing that has eluded the program: a national title.

Said Marshall, "The last two or three years, we've kind of been right on the edge of going to the national championship game. Or winning the national championship game. It's too long. I feel like we're overdue. I know other people do too."

Spring position breakdown: RBs

February, 25, 2014
Feb 25
7:15
PM ET
Our look at position groups in the Pac-12 continues.

Arizona: With Ka'Deem Carey off to the NFL, figuring out Arizona's running back situation requires a bit of guesswork. Backups Daniel Jenkins and Kylan Butler are out of eligibility and rising junior Jared Baker tore his ACL in the regular-season finale. That leaves no running backs who had a carry last season. Those competing for carries will be redshirt freshmen Pierre Cormier and Zach Green, and true freshmen Jonathan Haden, an early enrollee, and Nick Wilson.

[+] EnlargeOregon/Texas
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesByron Marshall will be the Pac-12's leading returning rusher in 2014.
Arizona State: The torch was passed from Marion Grice to D.J. Foster toward the end of last season, and Foster will have a full offseason to prepare to be the No. 1 guy. He showed impressive flashes in spot playing time in the past two seasons, and ran for 318 yards (6.2 yards per carry) in three starts after Grice was lost to injury.

California: Much was made about Brendan Bigelow's talent during his career in Berkeley, but it never materialized the way many expected it would. He was beaten out by true freshman Khalfani Muhammad a year ago, then opted out of his final year of eligibility for a shot at the NFL -- and subsequently was not invited to the combine. Getting a feel for how coach Sonny Dykes would like to use his running backs is tough considering the lopsided nature of most of the games last year, but Muhammad showed all the signs that he would develop into a good Pac-12 running back.

Colorado: Christian Powell and Michael Adkins II will both be back after combining for 1,097 yards rushing in 2013. With receiver Paul Richardson off to the NFL, there's the need for added production on offense, and while coach Mike MacIntyre showed at San Jose State he'd prefer that to come through the air, it could add up to more opportunities for Powell and Adkins.

Oregon: Does it even matter who the Ducks hand the ball to? Sometimes it doesn't seem like it, but, regardless, Oregon remains loaded with speed and talent at running back. Byron Marshall (1,038 yards rushing) and Thomas Tyner (711 yards) will both see plenty of carries when quarterback Marcus Mariota (715 yards) isn't running on his own. The team does lose De'Anthony Thomas, who opted to leave early for the NFL, but Thomas turned into a relative afterthought last season anyway.

Oregon State: It shouldn't be hard to improve the Beavers' running game after they ranked 115th in the country in rushing yards per game last season. Their top two backs -- Terron Ward and Storm Woods -- return and figure to see more use under new offensive coordinator John Garrett. There was a glimpse of what could be against Boise State in the Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl as the Beavers unleashed a more balanced approach. Woods ran for 107 yards on 16 carries and Ward added 54 yards on nine carries in a comfortable 38-23 victory.

Stanford:The Cardinal's running back situation is outlined here in more detail, but it should be noted that the competition between Remound Wright, Barry J. Sanders and Ricky Seale -- competing to replace Tyler Gaffney -- will also include Kelsey Young. Young was recruited to Stanford to play running back, but was switched to receiver and is now back at running back. Sanders has the name recognition, but all signs point to Wright getting the first crack at being the primary back. However it plays out, it would be a complete shock if one back was used as much as Gaffney was in 2013 and Stepfan Taylor the two seasons before that.

UCLA: If things play out the way UCLA coach Jim Mora hopes they will, linebacker Myles Jack will be just that … a linebacker. After winning Pac-12 Offensive and Defensive Freshman of the Year, the Bruins would ideally keep him on defense. For that to happen, someone needs to step up. That conversation still includes Jordon James and Paul Perkins, while Craig Lee, a four-star recruit who redshirted last year, also factors into the equation.

[+] EnlargeJavorius Allen
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiBuck Allen will likely head up USC's running back committee next season.
USC: After watching Bishop Sankey turn into one of the nation's premier backs under the tutelage of new coach Steve Sarkisian, USC's deep stable of running backs has to be intrigued. The Trojans will return four of their top five leading rushers from a year ago -- Javorius "Buck" Allen, Tre Madden, Justin Davis, Ty Isaac -- when they were predominantly a run-first team. Allen, who was named the team MVP in 2013, figures to get the first crack at being the starter, but that could be just in name only as a running-back-by-committee scenario seems likely.

Utah: Another season, another new offensive coordinator for the Utes. This time it's Dave Christensen's job to invoke life in the Utah offense, which will return leading rusher Bubba Poole (607 yards) and Lucky Radley (284 yards). The Utes averaged just 4.1 yards a carry as a team last year, which is partially to blame for the change from Dennis Erickson to Christensen after just one year.

Washington: The NFL combine taught us that Bishop Sankey might have been the most physically gifted running back in the country last year. It's not as simple as plugging in another guy to replace him, but the Huskies are still in good shape. Senior Jesse Callier (48 carries, 213 yards in 2013), who was slated to be the starter before an ACL tear in the season opener in 2012, is intriguing and will compete with fellow senior Deontae Cooper (43 carries, 270 yards) and sophomore Dwayne Washington (27 carries, 332 yards).

Washington State: Considering quarterback Connor Halliday had three single-game passing totals that were more than leading rusher Marcus Mason ran for in entire season (429), any discussion about the Cougars' running game is tough to take seriously. Yes, there will still be running backs on the roster. No, they probably won't combine to run for 1,000 yards as a team.

Previous positions

Quarterback
video
Earlier this morning, we took a look at who might replace the guys who jumped to the NFL in the South Division. Here’s a look at the North.

Leaving: Brendan Bigelow, RB, Cal

The replacement: Khalfani Muhammad and Daniel Lasco are both coming back, so there is at least some experience at the position. Jeffrey Coprich and Darren Ervin could also see some time. Incoming freshman Devante Downs is built more like a fullback but could also see some carries in the running game.

Leaving: Richard Rodgers, WR, Cal

The replacement: Stephen Anderson is a possibility to emerge at inside receiver. Darius Powe is going to see action regardless of whether it’s inside or outside and Raymond Hudson, Jacob Wark, and Drake Whitehurst are all possibilities.

Leaving: Khairi Fortt, LB, Cal

The replacement: Nathan Broussard is coming off an injury and Raymond Davison and Jason Gibson are moving back to linebacker from safety. Juco transfers Sam Atoe and Jonathon Johnson could help. Also, Downs (see the Bigelow section) comes in as an athlete, and putting him on the defensive side of the ball is a possibility.

Leaving: Kameron Jackson, CB, Cal

The replacement: Darius Allensworth and Trey Cheek will get the most looks. Cedric Dozier saw some starting time last season. He’s not a lock but has some experience. Isaac Lapite, Adrian Lee and Joel Willis are also possibilities. Stefan McClure should also be back from his 2013 injury, and Cameron Walker, who was playing out of position at safety, might move back to corner.

Leaving: Viliami Moala, DT, Cal

The replacement: Jacobi Hunter should be the main guy, but transfers Trevor Kelly and Marcus Manley should help out across the line. Austin Clark is still waiting to hear about his sixth year of eligibility, but if he gets it, he and Mustafa Jalil could shuffle up and down the line as they look to replace the graduated Deandre Coleman as well.

Leaving: Chris McCain, DE, Cal (Previously dismissed from team)

The replacement: Kyle Kragen and Puka Lopa were the top two guys to replace McCain after he left. Brennan Scarlett is also expected back and Johnson could be in the mix. The coaching staff seems to be really high on him.

[+] EnlargeDe'Anthony Thomas
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesDe'Anthony Thomas' unique set of skills will be hard for Oregon to replicate.
Leaving: De'Anthony Thomas, RB, Oregon

The replacement: Unless Oregon is hiding another multitalented back who can run like DAT, there is no "real" replacement. Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner should continue to get the work as the primary 1-2 punch, but it will be interesting to see if the Ducks use either in a more dynamic way like they did Thomas.

Leaving: Colt Lyerla, TE, Oregon (Left the team earlier in the season).

The replacement: Pharaoh Brown, Evan Baylis and John Mundt will all continue to get work, probably in that order. They all pitched in in some capacity after Lyerla left the team, so the Ducks should be in good shape at the position.

Leaving: Terrance Mitchell, CB, Oregon

The replacement: That Ifo Ekpre-Olomu opted to return bodes well for the Ducks. Troy Hill would have been the obvious selection, but he remains suspended indefinitely, and his future with the program is in question. Dior Mathis has experience and the coaching staff is high on redshirt freshman Chris Seisay. Juco transfer Dominique Harrison enrolled early and will participate in spring ball, so there are options.

Leaving: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State

The replacement: Much like USC’s dilemma with Marqise Lee, The Beavers' task of replacing a Biletnikoff winner is no easy one. Victor Bolden is the logical choice. He returned kicks, ran a few fly sweeps and was Cooks’ immediate backup. But a big wide receiver class last year that included Bolden, Hunter Jarmon and Walter Jones could make things more interesting in the spring.

Leaving: Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State

The replacement: Lavonte Barnett was the backup all season but didn’t have much production. Jaswha James has bounced around a bit -- mostly at linebacker -- but has finally settled at DE and had a nice bowl performance. Titus Failauga is also a possibility as Mike Riley went out of his way to specifically mention him during a recent teleconference. There are also rumblings that Obum Gwacham -- a talented athlete who hasn’t worked out at wide receiver -- could move to defensive end.

Leaving: David Yankey, OL, Stanford

[+] EnlargeDavid Yankey
AP Photo/Ben LiebenbergStanford has a lot of offensive linemen with experience, but replacing an All-American such as David Yankey is never easy.
The replacement: A member of Stanford’s lauded offensive line recruiting class of 2012, Joshua Garnett has already seen his share of playing time. That’s one of the big advantages of being an offensive lineman at Stanford. With their multiple offensive-linemen sets, there is plenty of rotation. Then again, Yankey was a two-time All-American -- it's tough to replace that.

Leaving: Cameron Fleming, OL, Stanford

The replacement: Like Garnett, Kyle Murphy was part of the ’12 class and has also seen his share of action on the offensive line. The Cardinal are replacing four offensive linemen, but most of those replacements -- such as Garnett and Murphy -- already have some playing experience.

Leaving: Ed Reynolds, FS, Stanford

The replacement: Good question. All of Stanford’s free safeties are gone, while returning strong safeties include Jordan Richards and Zach Hoffpauir. Someone could make a switch, or it’s possible that former quarterback Dallas Lloyd, who is now making the transition to safety, could play here.

Leaving: Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington

The replacement: Jesse Callier started the 2012 season, but a season-ending injury gave rise to Sankey. Dwayne Washington seems like he could be an every down-type back, while Callier excels in third-down situations or as a changeup back. Deontae Cooper will also see carries.

Leaving: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington

The replacement: Joshua Perkins was the No. 2 all season, so there’s little reason to think he won’t graduate to No. 1. He’s more receiver than blocker, but he’s got talent and shouldn’t have a problem assuming the role of the outgoing Mackey winner.

Season review: Oregon

January, 9, 2014
Jan 9
5:30
PM ET
We continue our team-by-team review of the Pac-12 with Oregon.

[+] EnlargeMariota
Soobum Im/USA TODAY SportsA healthy Marcus Mariota made a huge difference for the Oregon offense.
Offense: Things were going pretty well there, for a while. The Ducks stormed out of the gates and scored at least 50 points in their first five games and in six of their first seven. Then Marcus Mariota quietly, partially, tore his MCL and Oregon’s offensive decline was evident. They went from scoring an average of 57.5 points per game in the first seven to 31.3 over the final six. Still, they averaged more than 45 points per game, which was fourth nationally, and they were a top-10 rushing team and a top-25 passing team. All in all, the Ducks were again one of the most dominant offensive teams in the country. Obviously, as Mariota goes, so go the Ducks. In the first seven games, pre-injury, he was completing 62 percent of his throws with 19 touchdowns, zero interceptions and an adjusted QBR of 95.3. He also had nine rushing touchdowns. Post-injury, his completion percentage actually went up to 64 percent because he wasn’t running, but that also means he had zero rushing touchdowns, 12 passing touchdowns, four interceptions and an adjusted QBR of 79.9 percent. Still, he finished as the national leader in adjusted QBR, Byron Marshall was a 1,000-yard rusher and Josh Huff and Bralon Addison were a vicious receiving duo. Aside from a couple of games, the Ducks offense was explosive and potent. Grade: A

Defense: Stanford and Arizona used similar tactics in their wins over the Ducks. Run, rinse, repeat. Tyler Gaffney carried the ball 45 times and Terrance Mitchell and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu were as advertised, combining for eight interceptions and Derrick Malone posted a team-high 105 tackles with two interceptions. Avery Patterson also pitched in three picks as the Ducks were plus-seven in turnover margin. But the lingering problem all year was third-down defense, where the Ducks allowed teams to convert better than 40 percent of the time -- which was 10th in the conference. In the games when things got tight, the defense wasn’t able to get off the field. Grade: B

Special teams: The kicking game is always an, ahem, adventure, when it comes to the Ducks. But this year things were a little more consistent. Matt Wogan was a solid 7 of 9 and Alejandro Maldonado was 3 of 5. Though neither converted a kick beyond 40 yards (Wogan attempted only one and missed, Maldonado didn’t attempt any). Plus, there were three missed PATs on the year (Wogan missed two, Maldonado one). Maldonado was solid at punting and the kick return and coverage teams were steady. Addison returned two punts for touchdowns and De’Anthony Thomas returned one kick for a score. Grade: B+

Overall: Again, we base a lot of these grades on what the expectation was versus where the team finished. And despite an 11-win season, the Ducks, once thought to be a national championship contender, failed to meet those expectations. In fact, they failed to make it to a BCS bowl game. The loss to Stanford was viewed as disappointing -- but certainly not shocking. The loss to Arizona was head-scratching. And from a public relations standpoint, the Ducks didn’t have a great year. Still, they did win their bowl game and finished ranked in the top 10. There’s something to be said for that. And we’re in no way calling Mark Helfrich’s first year as coach a bust. He won a bowl game in his first year – which Chip Kelly never did -- and probably learned a few lessons along the way. When you have a title-game-or-bust mentality, every loss is heart-wrenching. But we also understand that injuries can impact a team -- especially injuries to a Heisman-contending quarterback. Grade: B.

Valero Alamo Bowl roundtable

December, 30, 2013
12/30/13
1:30
PM ET
Pac-12 reporter Kevin Gemmell and Texas reporter Max Olson break down the biggest storylines in Monday’s Valero Alamo Bowl matchup featuring Texas and No. 10 Oregon:

How do you think Mack Brown's resignation affects this game?

Max Olson: Throughout the past few weeks, Brown has stuck to the same message publicly: Texas players should win this game for themselves, not for their coach. They’ve had a brutal season, overcome plenty and have a chance to cap it with a ninth win and a few good memories. Brown keeps saying he wants this to be about the kids, not him.

What we’ll get out of kids, though, I just don’t know. They’ve been big underdogs before. They came out firing against Oklahoma and built real momentum. They held Baylor to 3 points in the first half but ran out of gas. Which Texas team shows up Monday? They’ll need plenty of motivation and good fortune.

Kevin Gemmell: My first thought was that this was going to be a huge motivation advantage for Texas -- and I’m a big believer that the bowl season is all about which team is motivated to be there. But I think the recent news that Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti is also retiring balances things out in the Oregon locker room. While he’s not as big of a name nationally as Brown, he’s as much an Oregon institution as Brown is to Texas.

Both pregame speeches will be rousing. Heartstrings will be tugged. But ultimately it comes down to what happens on the field. If Oregon is able to set aside its disappointment of not being in a BCS game, then who is coaching on which sideline shouldn't matter because on paper Oregon is the stronger team.

What should be expected of a 100-percent healthy Marcus Mariota?

Gemmell: For starters, an extra element to the Oregon offense that makes them that much tougher to stop. Consider Mariota in the first seven games of the season before his knee injury. He averaged 70.4 rushing yards per game and scored nine touchdowns -- including at least one rushing touchdown in all seven games. Since hurting the knee against UCLA, he’s averaged just 17.8 rushing yards with zero rushing touchdowns.

He also threw four interceptions in the final two games after going pick-free for the first 10, so aside from his rushing abilities -- which are substantial -- his throwing mechanics should be much stronger. I’m of the belief that when he’s 100 percent healthy, Mariota is the best football player in the country. And if Texas gets a 100 percent Mariota, he’s going to be very, very difficult to stop.

Olson: Mariota is one of the many reasons why this is just not a good matchup for Texas, especially considering its defense has had legitimate issues defending the option against mobile quarterbacks. Of quarterbacks who started the last two seasons, nobody in the country has a better Total QBR than Mariota at 89.0. He’s the real deal. I fully expect him to put up big numbers in the Alamodome, and it’ll be interesting to see how Texas defends him, probably with Jackson Jeffcoat reprising his freestyle “spinner” role.

Who will be the key player in this game?

Olson: If you’ve been following this Texas team, you know the key isn’t getting a huge performance from Case McCoy. Yes, he needs to play relatively mistake-free and hit on the big passes when they’re there. But Texas doesn’t stand a chance in this one without a big night from Malcolm Brown.

The San Antonio native had rushed for 421 yards in the four games since Texas lost Johnathan Gray, including 118 in the first half against Baylor. He did a terrific job of hitting cutback lanes against the Bears, and run defense hasn’t been a strength for Oregon. Brown needs to get rolling or Texas could fall behind quickly.

Gemmell: Take your pick from any number of superstars on both sides of the ball for Oregon. Be it Mariota, Josh Huff or Byron Marshall. Defensively, cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is as lockdown as they come. But the guy who always seems to show up in the postseason is De’Anthony Thomas.

Last season against Kansas State in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, he returned the opening kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown, caught four balls for 60 yards and a score and rushed twice for 15 yards. In the 2011 Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio, he carried twice for 155 yards and two touchdowns in the win over Wisconsin. He also caught four balls for 34 yards and returned five kicks for 125 yards. Thomas is a big-game player with blazing speed and scary elusiveness. When he’s hitting on all cylinders, he’s a difference maker.

After a trying second half of the season, Christmas came early for Oregon coach Mark Helfrich when quarterback Marcus Mariota announced Tuesday that he would return for his redshirt junior season instead of entering the NFL draft, in which he almost certainly would have been an early first-round selection.

As a stocking stuffer, two-time first-team All-Pac-12 center Hroniss Grasu also announced he will return. Goducks.com, the school’s athletics website, announced the news for both.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsMarcus Mariota will return to Oregon next season as a Heisman Trophy favorite.
While the Ducks probably are going to say goodbye to receiver De'Anthony Thomas and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who have yet to announce their intentions, Mariota's decision does make one thing clear: Oregon will be the favorite to win the Pac-12 in 2014, the first year of the four-team College Football Playoff.

Mariota, a first-team All-Pac-12 selection for a second consecutive year, will be the preseason favorite to win the Heisman Trophy as he captains an offense that looks like it will welcome back eight starters, a calculation that doesn't include DAT or RB Byron Marshall, the Ducks leading rusher.

While the Ducks' defense will take a few hits, Helfrich's second team appears stacked and ready for a potential bounce-back season. North Division rival Stanford will be replacing a number of key stars on both sides of the ball, including eight players who earned first- or second-team All-Pac-12 honors.

Mariota completed 227 of 360 attempts for 3,412 yards with 30 touchdowns and four interceptions and rushed for 582 yards and nine touchdowns this season. He set a Pac-12 record from the end of last season into this year by attempting 353 passes without an interception. He ranks second in the nation in ESPN.com Stats & Information's Total QBR.

Of course, a knee injury suffered against UCLA on Oct. 26 hampered him over the second half of the season, most notably in the Ducks' first loss at Stanford. Still, the Ducks "down" year produced a 10-2 record, a sixth consecutive 10-win season with a bowl game left to play.

Mariota's return means that as many as 10 conference teams could welcome back their 2013 starting quarterback. We still await word from UCLA's Brett Hundley and Oregon State's Sean Mannion on whether they will enter the NFL draft. The return of Utah's Travis Wilson is up in the air due to health issues.

Only Arizona and Washington started seniors at QB this year.

The dual return of Mariota and Grasu means the brains of the Ducks' offense will be back in 2014. Grasu, perhaps the nation's top center, should have a mastery of the Ducks' offensive line calls, while Mariota figures to own an Andrew Luck-like knowledge of the nuances of the Ducks' offense as a third-year starter.

That's a huge advantage heading into 2014.

Further, their return is a vote of confidence in Helfrich. If one or the other didn't believe in the Ducks' first-year coach, they almost certainly would have moved on.

The only Ducks who might be unhappy with Mariota's decision are backup QBs Jeff Lockie and Jake Rodrigues, who will be redshirt sophomores next season. They probably expected to be in a hotly contested competition for the starting job this spring. That said, they might benefit from another year of seasoning playing behind a future high NFL draft choice.

Of course, sometimes the celebrated return of a QB doesn't always work out (see: USC's Matt Barkley in 2012). Fans and NFL scouts will expect Mariota to be even better next fall. Comparable numbers might be viewed as a sign of his plateauing.

But that's a potentiality that isn't worth fretting over today.

Oregon fans were frustrated when the program lost two of its final four games and fell out of the national title race. Here's a guess that those frowns just turned upside down.

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