Oregon Ducks: Marcus Mariota

Meaningful early Pac-12 odds

April, 24, 2014
Apr 24
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So what is the early verdict on the 2014 college football season from those who take more than a casual interest in such things -- as in the Vegas sorts? Glad you asked.

We checked out some early "odds" and ends from a Pac-12 perspective.

First week betting lines (obviously not all games are included).

UNLV at Arizona (-25.5)

Colorado State (pick 'em) at Colorado (in Denver)

Washington (-21.5) at Hawaii

Odds to win 2014-2015 BCS National Championship (from 5 Dimes, unless otherwise noted)

Arizona 100-1
Arizona State 75-1
California 500-1 (Bovada)
Colorado NA
Oregon 49-4
Oregon State 300-1
Stanford 41-1
UCLA 26-1
USC 50-1
Utah 500-1
Washington 75-1
Washington State 300-1

Odds to win the Heisman Trophy from Bovada (23 total players were listed)

Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon: 5-1 (No. 2 overall behind 2013 winner Jameis Winston: 5-2)
Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA: 14-1
Sean Mannion, QB, Oregon State: 28-1
Taylor Kelly, QB, Arizona State: 28-1
Myles Jack, LB-RB, UCLA: 33-1

3-point stance: Pac-12 QB talent

April, 24, 2014
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1. According to ESPN Insider and Reese’s Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage, it’s a thin year for veteran quarterbacks everywhere but the Pac-12. Listing the top pro prospects for the 2015 NFL draft, Savage, speaking with me on the ESPNU College Football Podcast on Wednesday, started with Marcus Mariota of Oregon and Brett Hundley of UCLA, then tossed in Sean Mannion of Oregon State. Not to mention the league has Kevin Hogan of Stanford, Taylor Kelly of Arizona State and Cody Kessler of USC.

2. Dabo Swinney is a good man and a stand-up guy. He is proud of his Christianity and believes it can help others as much as it has helped him. As the coach of Clemson, a public university in a religious state, he is preaching to the choir. I’d bet it never occurred to Swinney that he stepped over the line between church and state, perhaps because the line is blurrier in South Carolina than in Madison, Wis., where the Freedom From Religion Foundation is based. If the foundation’s complaint makes Swinney realize again that everyone is not Christian, then the foundation’s complaint is a success.

3. The town of State College is crowdsourcing a statue to honor the late Joe Paterno, and it’s wonderful that the planned site is not far from Old Main, the home of the Penn State administration that removed the original Paterno statue from outside of Beaver Stadium in July 2012. What are the university administrators thinking? Do they understand they never should have made the removal of the statue permanent? Do they understand how much they rushed to judgment to vilify Paterno? When will they do their part to restore Paterno’s place of honor in Penn State history? The locals are doing their part.

Lunch links: Remembering Tillman

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

Follow the Pac-12 blog on Twitter.

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.
Happy Friday. Welcome to the mailbag.

Follow the Pac-12 blog on on the Metaphysician Network.

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.
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:

Poll: Best three-headed monster?

March, 28, 2014
Mar 28
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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.

Video: Mailbag on QB draft decisions

March, 25, 2014
Mar 25
5:30
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video
Kevin Gemmell answers a reader's question about returning quarterbacks in the Pac-12.
It is absolutely necessary, for the peace and safety of mankind, that some of earth's dark, dead corners and unplumbed depths be left alone; lest sleeping abnormalities wake to resurgent life, and blasphemously surviving nightmares squirm and splash out of their black lairs to newer and wider conquests.
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
Every summer we do our “Proving Grounds” post for the North and South divisions. We’ll hit that up again this summer.

But for now, ESPN Insider Travis Haney took a look at some offensive players with something to prove Insider on a national level. Only one Pac-12 player is listed, but he’s an important one.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesMarcus Mariota could earn a huge boost in his Heisman Trophy candidacy on Sept. 6.
Haney notes that this is a critical season for Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, stating that for the third-year starter, it’s Heisman Trophy finalist or bust.

Writes Haney:
Mariota, in particular, has something to prove after racing out as the Heisman front-runner but then fading with a knee injury that limited his ability to run and react.

The Ducks have been on the cusp of national title contention the past two seasons, only to be stunted by losses to Stanford. That game in 2013 was the first evidence of a limited Mariota, who had negative rushing yards that week and the one after.

Before the aforementioned knee injury, Mariota looked like a lock to end up in New York. But the injury, coupled with losses to Stanford and Arizona to close out the season, put him in a nationally recognized tailspin from which he could not recover. That the Ducks didn’t qualify for a BCS bowl game didn’t help, either.

With all of that said, Mariota is still, without question, one of the top handful of players in the country and should receive plenty of preseason Heisman buzz. Last year he led the nation in Adjusted QBR and was second only to Jameis Winston in Total QBR. You might recall, also, a tiny little Pac-12 record he set by throwing 353 passes without an interception. Last year he threw 31 touchdowns to just four interceptions and ran for another nine scores.

The Ducks have won at least 10 games in six straight seasons, so they’ll remain in the national spotlight. And Mariota’s stock could rise with a strong performance early in the season when Rose Bowl champion Michigan State comes to Eugene on Sept. 6. It’s one of the biggest, if not the biggest, nonconference games in the Pac-12 in 2014, and a lot of folks will be watching. He’ll start the Heisman race behind Winston, last year’s winner and the clear front-runner. But Michigan State could provide a huge statement game early in the season for the Ducks and their quarterback.

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