Pac-12: Oregon Ducks

The 2014 Pac-12 season starts tonight, and that is unquestionably a righteous thing. The first week's slate of games? Well, it's not exactly going to awaken any echoes. Still, Confucius say he who casts a disrespectful glance at a season opener finds his beer warm and his prayers to the college football gods unanswered.

Yet with all due respect, the Pac-12 plays five games versus overmatched FCS foes and is double-digit favorites in four other games. The only underdog is California, which visits Northwestern.

Ah, but that second Saturday. That, my friends, is a biggie. Not entirely across the conference, but two games will attract beaucoup Pac-12 and national eyeballs and are decidedly meaningful in terms of setting up the first season of the College Football Playoff.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
AP Photo/Don RyanMarcus Mariota and Oregon can make a significant statement with a win over Michigan State in Week 2.
Start with No. 8 Michigan State's visit to No. 3 Oregon. This might be the biggest nonconference matchup of the season, and it's even bigger after the season-ending injury to Ohio State QB Braxton Miller. The Spartans are now the clear favorites in the Big Ten, as the Ducks are the popular preseason pick in the Pac-12. It might look like a Rose Bowl, but it probably ends up operating like a CFP elimination game. Or validation game.

It's an intriguing matchup, too: Celebrated offense versus celebrated defense, with the Ducks, led by preseason Heisman favorite Marcus Mariota, facing Spartans defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who might be the best in the business.

Meanwhile, No. 11 Stanford plays host to No. 15 USC. The Trojans used to feast on the Cardinal. Now this is a bitter and highly competitive rivalry. What makes this game fun is the rivalry is as much player-based as fan based. That bitterness ignited between Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh -- "What's your deal?" -- and has maintained its burn over the past few years, with the teams exchanging major upsets the past two seasons.

It also won't cool things down, at least in terms of perception, that new Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian and Stanford coach David Shaw were at public loggerheads last year over the Cardinal allegedly faking injuries in a tight victory over Sark's Washington team. While it might be responsible to note that Shaw and Sarkisian seem to get along well and chat amiably at coaching functions, that would de-sensationalize an angle the Pac-12 blog would prefer to jump up and down and point at next week.

It also has been established, though less publicly, that more than a few Stanford players were extremely unhappy with Sarkisian's accusation, most notably DE Ben Gardner, whose NFL career has already been waylaid by the shoulder issue that hampered him against the Huskies.

We also must add that the irreverent Stanford band surely is already clicking its collective heels over the possibilities the "Josh Shaw Tall Tale of Heroism" offers for a halftime snark.

Even if you cast aside the emotions, this is a big Pac-12 game. The winner figures to establish itself as a top-10 team and national contender. While they occupy different divisions, one will end up 0-1 in conference play and the other will be 1-0. In what figure to be tight races in both divisions, that one-game swing could prove critical.

A USC victory would be a significant event in the South Division. The Trojans don't play Oregon, as UCLA does. Arizona State doesn't, either. The Bruins and the Sun Devils both play Stanford. The Sun Devils visit USC. In other words, in terms of schedule strength among the contenders, a USC win over Stanford might change the perception of the South race.

Of course, from a coach's perspective we are getting ahead of ourselves. USC plays host to Fresno State on Saturday. While the Bulldogs don't look like the formidable foe the Trojans whipped in the Las Vegas Bowl a year ago, they certainly have a pulse. Stanford plays UC Davis and Oregon plays South Dakota. Both will roll, though some Davis folks have pointed out the Aggies upset the Cardinal in 2005, one of the notable moments of Walt Harris' coaching tenure.

As you well know, sports teams play one game at a time.

"We approach this game, literally, exactly like every other one," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said of South Dakota and, by extension, Michigan State. "To do anything else would be a conflict of our process, disrespectful to our opponent and to the game."

While Helfrich and Shaw admit that they spent plenty of time this offseason reviewing Michigan State and USC/Washington film knowing about their big dates in Week 2, the nature of football is routine, and routine dictates you prepare for each game the same way.

Dangers of looking ahead this week? Unlikely. For one, it's the first game of the season. The opportunity to play a real game in front of a crowd after a long preseason camp is a reward in itself. Don't expect players to be blasé and unfocused.

And there are stakes for players in game one, no matter how undecorated the foe is, according to Shaw.

"We have a lot of guys still competing for things, for who's going to get more playing time," he said. "I'd feel bad for the guy who shows a sign of not focusing on the task at hand. He's going to meet with a not very happy Coach Shaw."
Initially, when I sat down to write about the Oregon Ducks-South Dakota Coyotes game, a few things came to mind.
  1. Maybe I should compare South Dakota to the opening act and Michigan State to the main show. That's essentially what this is, right?
  2. "The best that Oregon fans can hope for is an injury-free game and a second half that calls for rosters to be pulled out of pockets so they can keep track of who's actually on the field."
  3. Lame. Lame. Lame. FCS. C'mon, bro.
  4. They're the Coyotes? Maybe I can do something clever with that.

And then I realized I've seen this before. I've seen a major power get cocky about an FCS opponent coming into their stadium to open the season. I've seen a team look ahead to Week 2 before handling its business in Week 1. I've seen fans in the position where most Oregon fans find themselves right about now.

And I've seen it all come crashing down, when a seemingly unstoppable machine screeches to a halt.

I saw the worst upset in college football. Ever.

My first football game as a student at the University of Michigan was Appalachian State, 2007. You remember that one, right? Everyone does.

But heading into that week, no one was talking about the Appalachian State game. Everyone wanted the Week 2 opponent, Oregon. That -- the big, bad Mike Bellotti Ducks -- would be the real measuring stick for the Wolverines, who went into that season ranked No. 6.

Chad Henne. Jake Long. Mike Hart. Lloyd Carr -- this was all anyone talked about through Michigan's annual Welcome Week (on the first school day of the year, the student newspaper would turn that into its headline: "Welcome WEAK" with a photo of a dejected Henne walking off the field after the 34-32 loss).

All the talk entering the season was that this was the year. If Michigan was going to win another national title, the time was now.

In the week leading up to the game, posts on the then-newish Facebook linked to a scene from “The Longest Yard.” In it Adam Sandler's character tells Burt Reynolds' character: "In college, we'd start every season against Appalachian State or some slack Division-II team, kick the living s--- out of them, get their confidence up."

Reynolds laughs.

So did Michigan fans.

The only time that clip became more famous was after Michigan lost to Appalachian State and suddenly it was being passed around the Internet with the caption "LOLOLOL Michigan" or "Yep, they deserve this."

And maybe they did. Pride does come before the fall. And while App State was an FCS national champion and South Dakota is ... well ... not, the lesson still applies: There's a difference between confidence and cockiness.

But right now? Take it from Michigan, Oregon fans, this isn't the time to be cocky. Sure, be confident. You have Marcus Mariota and three running backs who apparently are going to set the world on fire and an All-American cornerback. And you've got one heck of an opponent in Week 2 ... but that comes seven days after Week 1.

And you can guarantee that if this game somehow goes south, those seven days are going to feel terrible and that feeling will last a lifetime.

Because last time I checked, they'll have 11 players on the field and so will Oregon. And just remember: David beat Goliath; "Shakespeare in Love" beat out "Saving Private Ryan" for Best Picture; Harry Truman beat Thomas Dewey in the 1948 presidential election.

Oh, how the mighty fall. And fall hard at that.

I didn't see Michigan in action against Oregon in Week 2 in 2007. I sold my ticket. The Wolverines lost that one, too, I heard. And suddenly, at 0-2 Michigan was nowhere near the national champion conversation. Despite all the talent they had returning on the offensive side of the ball (sound familiar?) they were bunk.

And who remembers that season most? Appalachian State and the rest of the world. Who knows what App State did the rest of the season, because they beat Michigan in Week 1. That's all that matters.

Earlier this week, South Dakota coach Joe Glenn told The Oregonian's John Canzano that this game is going to be the "stuff our kids will tell their grandchildren."

And I promise you that if Oregon somehow manages to lose this one, those grandchildren -- when they find out you went to Oregon or are/were an Oregon fan -- will say, "Hey, remember that time..." Every time. Every. Freaking. Time.

It happens to me, sometimes. I smile politely, nod and say, "Yep, I was there in the southwest corner of the stadium."

And, like Reynolds did in "The Longest Yard," they will shake their heads and laugh.

It'll be somewhere between sympathy and hilarity for them.

And for Oregon fans? It'll taste like humble pie.

It's terrible. Just ask Michigan fans.

Pac-12 morning links

August, 27, 2014
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Well, I'm not crazy about the plutonium or nicotine, but it is very nice to see Bart eating his vegetables.

Leading off

If the first day of Week 1 is any indication of how the season will go, it's going to be an odd season.

The big story in the Pac-12, well, the country, was the peculiar circumstances surrounding USC cornerback Josh Shaw. News broke early in the day that the story of how he originally injured his ankles -- leaping from a balcony and rescuing his nephew from a pool -- might be exaggerated, or possibly fabricated.

Here are some of the latest stories (as of late Tuesday night).
The story was fantastical when it was true. If it's false, it's even more bizarre. Plenty of hearsay and conjecture still floating around for anyone to put all of the pieces together yet. Be sure to follow ESPNLA's Arash Markazi for the latest.

More predictions

Yesterday was also prediction day. The Pac-12 blog came out with 10 bold predictions for the conference (I did three of them, if you can guess which three, I'll give you a "you're awesome" shout out on Twitter), and Fox Sports had its own set of predictions for college football -- three of their 10 involved the Pac-12 in one form or another.

One of them is that Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday will attempt 100 passes in a game. It's bold, but it might not be that crazy. Recall last year he hit 89 pass attempts against Oregon. Last year the Cougars averaged 58.1 pass attempts per game -- so take that for what it's worth.

However, Halliday does own most of the school's single-game pass attempt records. (Here's a little something I pulled from the WSU media guide).
  • 89 Connor Halliday Oregon 10/19/13
  • 67 Connor Halliday California 10/5/13
  • 66 Drew Bledsoe Montana 9/5/92
  • 65 Connor Halliday Auburn 8/31/13
  • 62 Connor Halliday Utah 11/23/13
  • 60 Connor Halliday Colorado 9/22/12
  • 60 Connor Halliday Oregon 9/29/12
  • 59 Alex Brink Oregon State 10/28/05
  • 59 Jeff Tuel Stanford 10/27/12
  • 59 Connor Halliday Washington 10/29/13

Thoughts? Does he get to 100? I know CougarBrian will be anxious to weigh in.

Going, going, gone

Of all the preseason teams you'd like to see your favorite players on, this is not one of them. Athlon released its "All Gone" team, which picks the best players by position who are gone for the year.

Three Pac-12 players made the list. Proceed with caution ... and possibly some tissues if you're the emotional type.

Best of the best

NFL.com released its top 20 players in college football, and six from the Pac-12 are on the list (a much better list than the previous one).

It's the usual suspects:
As always, take lists with the grainy salt in which they are intended. I've seen plenty that have Hundley as a top 10 or top five player. Others have Mariota at No. 1. The good news is games start this week, and we can start putting some production to the lists.

News/notes/practice reports
Just for fun

An Oregon season hype video. I love these.

Click here, and productivity across the state of Oregon will instantly drop by 96 percent.

As the Huskies prepare for their season opener at Hawaii, the Pac-12 blog has no qualms saying it is officially jealous of Seattle Times writer Adam Jude. Cheers.

The talk of Pac-12 town this season is the quarterbacks. Yes, yes, we know.

But don’t forget the talent the league has at running back, too. The run game, after all, is what opens up the passing lanes for the signal-callers.

The 1,000-yard mark has acted as a benchmark for backs for years, so, how many Pac-12 rushers (for fun, let's include QBs) will hit the mark in 2014?

SportsNation

How many 1,000-yard rushers will the Pac-12 have in 2014?

  •  
    11%
  •  
    26%
  •  
    28%
  •  
    20%
  •  
    15%

Discuss (Total votes: 4,181)

In 2013 there were four 1,000-yard rushers: Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey (1,885), Washington’s Bishop Sankey (1,869), Stanford’s Tyler Gaffney (1,709) and Oregon’s Byron Marshall (1,038). Only one of those guys, Marshall, returns in 2014, and even he is listed in a three-way battle for the starting RB spot at Oregon with Thomas Tyner and Royce Freeman.

In 2012 and 2010 there were six 1,000-yard rushers, and in 2011 there were seven. So what exactly will 2014 bring us?

Oregon has its three-headed monster (in addition to quarterback Marcus Mariota, who rushed for 715 yards last season). Will one or two emerge and become 1,000-yard backs? Or will they split carries, gain major yardage together and not have a single guy hit that mark? Could go either way.

USC has Buck Allen and Justin Davis and Tre Madden. ASU has D.J. Foster. Utah has Bubba Poole. Could Stanford’s Barry Sanders follow in his dad’s footsteps? Or will it be Kelsey Young who steals the show at Stanford? UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley accounted for 748 rushing yards last season. Could he add a few more long runs and hit the mark? What about one of his backs, such as Jordon James or Paul Perkins?

Colorado is pretty deep, Washington has options, and Oregon State says its run game is much improved.

With all those guys, how many 1,000-yard rushers will we actually see? History says it can range greatly. But what say you?

Something to prove in the Pac-12

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

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

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

Pac-12 by the numbers: Week 1

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

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

Thursday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is that a good problem to have?

“It’s a great one,” Campbell said.

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

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

Could Freeman be that guy? Saturday will reveal at least some of the answer.
Boston College coach Steve Addazio remembers an era when players wanted to redshirt as true freshmen to better prepare them for the final four years of their college career.

"Now it's 'I want to play,' " Addazio, 55, said. "If you're talking about not playing them early, the majority are like 'What do you mean?'"

So, the ability to play or possibly even start as a true freshman has become a regular sales pitch for coaches from the Power Five to the Group of Five. It's certainly a tool in the belt for Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher. Last week, Fisher alluded to the number of freshmen All-Americans he's coached the last four seasons. Twenty-four hours later, it was on the program's official recruiting Twitter page.

"The last [four] years we've had 14 freshmen All-Americans," said Fisher, condensing multiple outlets' freshmen award teams into one, concise Florida State propaganda poster. "If you come in ready to play, we're willing to put you on the field. It's critical for guys to come in saying 'When I'm the best, I'll play.'"

Fisher has the goods to back up his claims, even if the numbers are obviously skewed to best represent his program. But how does his résumé compare to those coaching some of the country's other top programs?

I tried to come up with a way to accurately discern which schools play the most freshmen and decided true freshmen letterwinners was the simplest and most effective way to crunch the numbers. To earn a letter, a player has to actually play consistently through the season. The disclaimer is each program can use different benchmarks when awarding letters, but there is never going to be a perfect way.

I began with Florida State's, looking back at the 2011-2013 classes. To properly quantify the data from Florida State, I decided I'd look at the five schools ranked highest in the preseason polls that have had its coach in place at least five seasons. Oregon's Mark Helfrich was offered an exemption because he was promoted from within and is in his sixth season with the Ducks. Coaches in place at least five years was the stipulation since an incoming coach might be susceptible to playing the prospects he recruited or having a number of transfers that could open up starting or rotational spots.

The criteria: Each class was looked at and the total number of signees was pared down to just those who enrolled as members of the football team in the fall. Junior college signees were excluded, as were any recruits who were academically or medically disqualified before playing a game. That explains why the total number of freshmen for our purposes might look different than what might be seen on RecruitingNation. Any true freshmen who spent a year at a post-graduate or prep school was also excluded. Redshirt freshmen were disqualified, too.

Bottom line is if the player was not a part of the football team the fall following his high school graduation, he was excluded.

Nearly all of the data was collected after poring through media guides and archives, although the communications departments at some of the schools were also helpful providing numbers and deserve recognition.

So, here is the actual data:

 

It is hardly a coincidence that Fisher and Alabama's Nick Saban, who mentored Fisher at LSU, have identical percentages of true freshmen earning a letter. Fisher and Saban arguably have been the two best recruiters over the last few cycles, and, the data shows those two are not going to keep young talent off the field simply because of age. Nearly half of the true freshmen at Alabama and Florida State lettered over the last three seasons.

Mark Dantonio has built Michigan State into a national title contender in a different manor, relying on experience. Only 12 percent of true freshmen lettered over the last three seasons. Recruiting to Michigan State is not the easy task it is at some other top-10 programs, and the Spartans are not recruiting as many ESPN 300-level players as the likes of Alabama and Florida State.

It should be noted Michigan State, Oklahoma and Oregon don't have quite the recruiting base Alabama and Florida State do.

Inquiring minds want to see how that 45 percent stacks up to some of the other top programs in the country, so even though they did not fit the criteria I looked at a few other schools with coaches in place at least five seasons and lately in the top half of the rankings. LSU was worth a look considering it's Les Miles' 10th season in Baton Rouge and, like Fisher and Saban, has recruited exceptionally well for a long period of time. Mark Richt is in his 14th season at Georgia and, like Miles, usually has a highly-regarded recruiting class. Steve Spurrier is in his 10th season at South Carolina and has steadily improved the Gamecocks' class to the point that the 2015 class is No. 5 nationally. Dabo Swinney has turned Clemson from a perennial disappointment into a two-time BCS bowl participant. And Ohio State and Texas A&M, mainly because it's worth seeing how third-year Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer fares considering he frequently voices his preference to avoid redshirting. Kevin Sumlin is also in the process of trying to build an SEC power that can compete with Alabama and LSU in the SEC West.

 

For the Buckeyes, out of the 69 true freshmen to land in Columbus, Ohio, from 2011-2013, 31 lettered -- the same 45 percent. Looking at just Meyer's two seasons, however, he is decimals ahead of Fisher and Saban at 46 percent (21 out of 46), thanks in large part to 14 freshmen letterwinners in his first season.

Georgia's Mark Richt has a percentage of nearly 50 percent, but the Bulldogs' numbers might be the most skewed. Along with South Carolina, the Bulldogs had several recruits that either did not qualify or spent time at a prep school or junior college. Also, Georgia's long list of dismissals and transfers is well documented, and all of the departures has opened up spots for freshmen to earn immediate playing time.

It is Miles, though, who plays a higher percentage of freshmen than all of the others. Twelve true freshmen lettered for LSU in both 2012 and 2013, and another nine earned a letter in 2011. There were a total of 65 applicable freshmen to enter LSU during that span and 33 of them lettered. That's a percentage of 51 percent.

Certainly the numbers will fluctuate year to year, and coaches at every single program are playing freshmen more frequently than ever before. When taking into account the timeline is over three years, LSU averages just one more freshman letterwinner per season than Alabama and Florida State. For our intents and purposes, though, the data shows which top programs consistently play the most freshmen in this new era of freshmen phenoms.

And, uh, FYI, Alabama has 19 ESPN 300 players prepping for their freshmen season this fall. LSU has 16, and Florida State isn't far off with 13 of their own.
[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesCornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu says practicing against Marcus Mariota lets him prepare for all the other experienced Pac-12 quarterbacks.
EUGENE, Ore. -- If the Pac-12 is a quarterback league this season, then it must also be regarded -- at least a bit -- as a league for opportunistic cornerbacks. Given the depth of talent at quarterback, there will be plenty of chances for cornerbacks to make big plays against bigger names.

And that idea is exciting a few Oregon Ducks defensive backs.

"I'm ready to play against all the best people," cornerback Dior Mathis said.

And yes, every college football player says that, but not every one actually gets to play against the best.

The Pac-12 cornerbacks, however, do.

With 10 returning starting quarterbacks in the Pac-12, cornerbacks are going to be tested by experienced, talented signal-callers.

Last season the Pac-12 passed more frequently than any other Power Five conference. On average, each Pac-12 quarterback attempted 386 passes through the season. That works to be just a bit more than 32 passes per game. Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday's numbers do skew the average a bit. But if even if we exclude Halliday, the average Pac-12 signal-caller still threw about 30 passes.

Compared across the other four power conferences, that's quite the jump. The Big Ten led the rest of the power conferences with each quarterback averaging 309 passes through the season.

That means that per game, Pac-12 defensive backs will get about 11 more chances at a pass than a Big 12 defensive back. It works out to be nine more opportunities than DBs in the SEC and ACC and about six more chances for Big Ten DBs.

But Oregon isn't getting cocky just because there are more opportunities. All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu knows that all 10 of those returning starters have gotten better than they were last season when he collected three interceptions and six pass break ups.

"Playing in the Pac-12 you pretty much know you're going to play against some pretty good quarterbacks," Ekpre-Olomu said. "But at the same time, you play against the same guys for three years. Just like they improve, we improve."

But the one advantage that Ekpre-Olomu and Mathis have over other cornerbacks, across the conference and country, is that they face Heisman favorite Marcus Mariota every single day in practice.

There might not be better practice for facing a Halliday or Sean Mannion or Taylor Kelly or Kevin Hogan, than going against Mariota.

"Going against him every day and seeing how he progresses and seeing his accuracy when he throws to receivers, going against him, it's cool," Mathis said of Mariota. "You get the best quarterback in the country, in my opinion. [We're] going against him every single day. It's doing nothing but making us better."

"Going against Marcus you have to be smart and you have to be on your toes really," Ekpre-Olomu added. "To get a ball thrown at you, especially playing against somebody like that, you have to outsmart the quarterback."

And if Ekpre-Olomu and Mathis can find a way to outsmart Mariota, the Duck defense might be taking a huge step forward when it plays teams with quarterbacks-not-named Mariota.
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Nearly 90 recruits -- including 10 ESPN 300 prospects -- made commitments to the Pac-12 since the start of June, as the conference recruiting race heated up alongside the weather this summer. Not surpisingly, even with the boon over the past two and a half months, the Pac-12 still lags behind other conferences when it comes to sheer commitment numbers. Many Pac-12 programs have become content to wait until the season, or after the season, to put an emphasis on official visits and commitments. At this point, 35 programs hold commitments from 16 or more recruits, and only one of those -- Arizona -- resides in the Pac-12.

Earlier this week, Ted took a look around the conference and ranked which Pac-12 rivalries are heating up, cooling down or doing anything between those two extremes. There were a few specific rivalries that really interested me -- the in-state rivalries.

I went to college at the University of Michigan, which is about 40 minutes (depending on whether you drive the speed limit or not) from its in-state rival, Michigan State. For the most part, it really was one of those “throw the records out the window” kinds of game and the football -- and insults -- flew.

SportsNation

Which in-state Pac-12 rivalry game will have the best finish in 2014?

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    17%
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    24%
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    28%
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    17%
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    14%

Discuss (Total votes: 8,055)

There’s something about these in-state rivalries that just really create such a cool atmosphere. Any time a rivalry game can be a drive, instead of a flight, there’s a better chance the stadium is more split. I love that -- a team taking over their rival’s turf. And sometimes it’s even better when the home fans really have owned their own stadium and the visitors come in fighting like David against Goliath. Either way, they’re awesome.

These in-state rivalries just have a special hold over the state, whether it creates divides in high school, families, relationships, whatever.

Just looking at some of these in-state rivalries on the Pac-12 slate make me really excited for my first year of covering West Coast football. Which brings me to the poll question: Which of these five in-state, in-conference rivalry games is going to have the best finish this season?

What game is going to come down to the final drive? What game is going to have that highlight play in the waning moments? Which two teams will provide us with a fourth-and-2 on your own 28-yard line with second ticking down on the clock in the fourth quarter, Hail Mary kind of game? The kind of stuff you tell your grandkids about. The kind of stuff your grandkids will tell their grandkids about.

ARIZONA-ARIZONA STATE
Details: Friday, Nov. 28 @ Arizona
2013 finish: ASU 58, Arizona 21
Visiting teams have had decent success in the rivalry (at least better than some others) but could this finally be the season that -- behind their fans -- that the Wildcats and Rich Rodriguez finally takes down Todd Graham?

OREGON-OREGON STATE
Details: Saturday, Nov. 29 @ Oregon State
2013 finish: Oregon 36, Oregon State 35
The Civil War in Corvallis. Will Sean Mannion cap off his final year for the Beavers in an exciting fashion or will Marcus Mariota march through the season in a furious, Heisman-like fashion?

USC-UCLA
Details: Saturday, Nov. 22 @ UCLA
2013 finish: UCLA 35, USC 14
The bright lights of Hollywood will shine on a brand new coach facing off on opposing grounds against a team that has found its recent success and a pre-season top-10 ranking.

WASHINGTON-WASHINGTON STATE
Details: Saturday, Nov. 29 @ Washington State
2013 finish: Washington 27, Washington State 17
The Apple Cup isn’t exactly the fiercest of names for a rivalry (sorry, guys), but this could really be an interesting match up. Mike Leach's against first-year coach Chris Petersen. Can Petersen and his Huskies handle the air raid?

USC-STANFORD
Details: Saturday, Sept. 6 @ Stanford
2013 finish: USC 20, Stanford 17
So, I know this isn't a drive (unless you’re super ambitious), but it’s an old and lovely in-state rivalry that I’m psyched to see. Unlike most rivalry games, we’ll get this one very early in the season, but could Week 2 provide one of the best rivalry finishes this season in Pac-12 football?
Without a doubt, redshirt junior quarterback Marcus Mariota has cemented himself in the Oregon football history books. He holds the school records for most rushing yards by a quarterback and the best completion percentage. The two-time All-Pac 12 selection will likely own the total touchdowns, touchdown passes and total offense records by the end of this season.


What he doesn't have is Heisman trophy. And what does history have to say about that?

For starters, he's a quarterback, which means history is on his side. Twelve of the last 13 winners were signal callers (with the only non-quarterback being Alabama running back Mark Ingram in 2009).

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
AP ImagesOregon's running game this season could tip the Heisman scales in QB Marcus Mariota's favor.
History also likes the fact that he's a redshirt junior. Nine of the last 10 Heisman winners were non-seniors (Ohio State senior Troy Smith won it in 2006).

And again, history clings to Mariota (at least in the Mariota-Jameis Winston debate) when considering the fact that only one player has won the Heisman twice, Ohio State running back Archie Griffin (1974 and '75).

The injury bug caught Mariota last year, hampering the Ducks' season. And though he has stayed healthy so far this year the bug seems to be hovering just close enough to him to still have an effect. First it was wide receiver Bralon Addison, who tore his ACL during the first week of spring camp. Then it was left tackle Tyler Johnstone, who tore his ACL during the first week of fall camp. Losing a top receiver and the left tackle who has protected a quarterback's blind side for the past 26 games isn't exactly favorable.

But again, history says that a bit of adversity during a Heisman season is a good thing.

Quarterbacks Winston, Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M's and Cam Newton of Auburn -- three of the last four winners -- were first-year starters. They really hadn't built any kind of chemistry with any of their players (plus, the Aggies were going through the Mike Sherman-to-Kevin Sumlin transition).

Those three didn't have tremendous experience with their batch of players during their Heisman seasons, but what they did have -- and what Mariota lacks -- is experience at wide receiver.

Winston's top three receivers last season were also in the top five for Seminoles receivers in 2012. Manziel got the No. 1 and No. 3 receivers from the 2011 team in his 2012 arsenal. When Robert Griffin III won the Heisman in 2011 (he's the only multi-year starter of the last four Heisman winners), four of the top five receivers from the previous season were back for the Baylor attack. And Newton had three of the top five 2009 receivers during his 2010 Heisman campaign.

That means that -- on average -- each of the last four Heisman-winning quarterbacks returned three of their teams' top five receivers from the previous season.

Mariota has just one -- Keanon Lowe, who caught 18 passes in 2013.

More importantly, for each of those four quarterbacks, their team's top receiver from the previous season returned to the team for that QB's Heisman year -- Winston had Rashad Greene, Manziel had Ryan Swope, Griffin had Kendall Wright and Newton had Darvin Adams.

Mariota isn't just missing his top receiver from 2013. He lacks his No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 receivers.

Inexperience isn't a death sentence for Heisman campaigns. But it's not necessarily welcomed, especially when Mariota's main competition for the Heisman this year, Winston, again welcomes back his top receiver in Greene.

Where the footing seems to be a bit more in Mariota's favor -- against Winston and history -- is in the run game. Including Mariota, the Ducks return four of their top five rushers from last season. Of the last four Heisman winners, no guy has had as much returning help as Mariota will get in the backfield.

In fact, of the Winston-Manziel-Griffin-Newton batch, none had their top rusher from the previous season return in their Heisman season. Mariota returns his No. 1 and No. 2 -- Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner.

Last year, Winston had two of the top-five 2012 rushers on board for 2013 (Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr.). Manziel also had just two of the team's top five rushers from the previous season in his rushing attack -- Ben Malena and Christine Michael. Griffin had two of his top five rushers from the previous season, while Newton had three.

Could the experience and talent in the Oregon run game be enough to make up for the lack of experience in the pass game? Is that enough to help Mariota take the Heisman? It's possible. If the rushing attack is as good as the Ducks believe it can be, then teams are going to have to put more guys in the box in order to really corral the ground game, leaving opportunities for the young receivers downfield. Maybe most coaches wouldn't want to throw at a redshirt freshman or sophomore. But if it's a one-on-one against a defensive back and the ball is coming from the pin-pointedly accurate hands of Mariota, doesn't that swing the scales a bit?

History is split, but history doesn't decide. Mariota has anywhere between 12 and 15 games to make his own case and write his name in history books outside of the Pac-12.
The college football season is quickly approaching. And for those of you who haven't stepped back from that, you should know that the NFL season is quickly approaching as well.

Jones
Kelly
And you should check out some of the NFL coverage every once in a while because you'll see some of your favorite former Pac-12 players and coaches hanging out. One of those guys is Eagles coach and former Oregon coach Chip Kelly.

Though I didn't cover the conference when Kelly was a coach, in my few months on the West Coast I've quickly learned that people fall into two categories when it comes to Kelly. One: They love to love him. Two: They love to hate him.

One of the things he was known for while he was at the helm of the Ducks were his "Chipisms." They became so famous that it warranted its own Twitter. It hasn't been updated recently, but it's worth a scroll when you have a few minutes. You might even remember a piece that ESPN.com's Ted Miller wrote a few years ago, "The Wit and Wisdom of Chip Kelly," in which he outlines some of his personal favorite Chipisms.

And if you think the NFL has changed the man, you're wrong. As my grandma always says, you can take the Chip out of the Pac-12 but not the chip out of the Chip.

In the most recent ESPN The Magazine, writer Seth Wickersham takes a look at the eight lessons that running back LeSean McCoy had to learn when he joined the Eagles. Pac-12 fans will recognize pieces of these in Kelly's former Oregon ways.

A few of my favorite lessons that McCoy had to learn:
  • He spins horse crap into touchdowns
  • He keeps shady slim
  • He causes cramps

If that doesn't make you want to read the story, then I don't know what will.
Our earliest indicators of Heisman Trophy voting say that it might come down to Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota and Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston.

Winston is the reigning Heisman winner and if he were to win it again, the Florida State quarterback would join Ohio State’s Archie Griffin as the only two-time winner. In 2013, he threw for 4,057 yards and completed 66.9 percent of his passes. He had 40 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Mariota -- who was slowed by a knee injury during the Pac-12 season -- finished the 2013 season with 3,665 passing yards, 31 touchdowns and four interceptions. He completed 63.5 percent of his passes en route to picking up his second consecutive All-Pac-12 honor.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesJameis Winston had a storybook redshirt freshman season on the field, winning the Heisman Trophy and the national championship.
But they’ve grown and matured. Their teams are a bit different than they were last season and the biggest question at this point is: Which player is the early favorite to win the Heisman in the inaugural year of the College Football Playoff?

Jared Shanker and Chantel Jennings discussed a few key points to see where different advantages fall in regard to this debate.

Offensive line: Florida State

Shanker: Among the positions we’re looking at, the gap may be widest at offensive line. Florida State’s offensive line consists of five seniors, all with starting experience. Combined, they have more than 100 career starts. Cameron Erving is one of the best left tackles in the country, and right guard Tre’ Jackson could be the first guard taken in the NFL draft next spring. The Ducks might have center Hroniss Grasu, but overall, the Oregon offensive line can’t compete with the Seminoles’ O-line. Right, Chantel?

Jennings: A week ago, I might have fought you a little harder on this, but now that Tyler Johnstone is out for the season with an ACL injury, I’d say you’re completely right. Andre Yruretagoyena will replace the 26-game starter Johnstone … but Yruretagoyena has never started a game at Oregon. Grasu is the headliner of the bunch, but outside of his conference-leading 40 starts, the other three combine for just 41 total. Advantage definitely goes to Winston’s offensive front.

Running backs: Oregon

Jennings: Mariota returns his top two running threats from 2013 and, from everything Oregon coach Mark Helfrich is saying, these two are even better than numbers last year. Both Byron Marshall and Tyner averaged 6.2 yards per carry, and Marshall led the team overall with 1,038 rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns. Tyner rushed for 711 yards and nine touchdowns. Take those two and add Mariota -- who accounted for 715 yards and nine rushing touchdowns -- and you have a three-headed monster that might be the best backfield in college football.

Shanker: Agree that the edge has to go to Oregon here. The Florida State coaching staff is high on senior running back Karlos Williams, but he was a safety entering the 2013 season and has taken very few carries during the meaningful portions of games. He was a five-star recruit coming out of high school and had very strong numbers last season as the No. 3 running back, but we’ll see how he fares this season as “The Guy.” This could be a much closer debate by the end of the season depending on the progress of Williams and his backups Dalvin Cook and Mario Pender.

Wide receivers: Florida State, but it’s close

Shanker: This is a tough one as both quarterbacks have some question marks on the outside. Rashad Greene is a potential All-American, but who is going to replace Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw’s production -- nearly 2,000 receiving yards combined. There is certainly talent at receiver, especially in the freshman class. Ermon Lane and Travis Rudolph were top-10 receivers nationally coming out of high school, but Rudolph’s foot has been slow to heal from offseason surgery. Jesus “Bobo” Wilson is indefinitely suspended, and Isaiah Jones could be an academic casualty. The positive here is that the attention Greene and tight end Nick O’Leary will draw should facilitate the emergence of a legitimate No. 2 receiver.

Jennings: If the coaches at Oregon are to be believed in what they’re saying at this point in fall camp, then this is one of the deepest groups of wide receivers in recent memory. Now, it’s untested talent, so it’s still just potential. But the fact that wide receivers coach Matt Lubick thinks -- that if the Ducks played today -- that they could go with eight different receivers, that’s pretty impressive. Even if half of those guys pan out, it’s still pretty good. But in this case one proven guy is greater than eight unproven guys -- though veteran Keanon Lowe returns -- he was fifth on the team last year with 18 receptions.

Schedule: Florida State, and it’s not close

Shanker: Certainly the schedule is tougher, and 2014 won’t be a cakewalk, but the Seminoles do not have three teams in the top 11 of the USA Today Coaches Poll on their schedule. Oregon does. And two of those teams, Michigan State and Stanford, are among the best teams defensively. Florida State does have to face Clemson, which could be vastly improved on defense, but the Seminoles hung 50 on the Tigers on the road in 2013. Oklahoma State is rebuilding, and Notre Dame has potential with Everett Golson back, but it would not be a shock if both teams finish the season unranked. The Florida defense should be very good again this season, but it might not matter if their offense cannot alleviate any of the pressure. That’s exactly what happened when Florida and Florida State played last season.

Jennings: The Ducks take off in Week 2 against Michigan State and don’t slow from there. In Week 4 they’ll travel to Pullman, Wash. to take on Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense, which is always a headache for defensive coordinators. They have Arizona, Stanford and Washington at home. They have UCLA and Oregon State on the road. I’d like to see FSU play half of that schedule and see what their record is. If a player’s team needs to be perfect -- or nearly perfect -- then Winston has a much, much better shot at that with Florida State's schedule.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesMarcus Mariota's reputation is practically unblemished nationally.
National perception: Mariota

Jennings: People know Mariota because he's a darn good player. In his career for the Ducks, he has never made a misstep. The only people who don’t like Mariota are the fans of the teams that play against him. And even then, I would bet if he showed up at a dinner party or wanted to date someone’s daughter, he’d be welcomed in no problem. He has already graduated. His teammates love him. His coaches talk about him as if he's their golden child. Even other quarterbacks in the conference like him.

Shanker: It’s no secret Winston is not well-liked outside of Tallahassee for the most part, as David Hale pointed out earlier this week. Considered affable in September, Winston was considered arrogant and above the law two months later. The sexual assault investigation, coupled with the seafood heist, has brought a lot of notoriety to Winston. On the field, the expectations will be higher for Winston this season. As the returning Heisman winner, Winston is going to be held to a higher standard. It’s unlikely he repeats his 4,000-yard, 40-touchdown season in 2014, and if Winston gives voters any reason to not vote for him, there will be more than a few who won't.
EUGENE, Ore. -- With practices at Oregon closed, most of what is known -- outside of the locker room -- is speculation.

This is what is known: Marcus Mariota is the quarterback. The wide receivers are a flurry of youth. There are options at tight end and they'll likely be more involved in the pass game, but still, nothing extreme. And the offensive line is pretty much set, despite a recent shake up.

[+] EnlargeByron Marshall
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsByron Marshall rushed for 1,038 yards for the Ducks in 2013.
And the biggest "battle" remaining, might not even be a true battle depending on what coaches decide to do. Because between Mariota's mobility and running backs Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner, the Ducks have a pretty loaded backfield.

Could Oregon use both and employ a tandem system? Could one emerge as a featured back? Would they split carries nearly equal to keep legs and bodies fresh?

All those possibilities have their pros and cons, and the answer to those questions likely won't surface until Oregon takes the field against Michigan State in Week 2 (assuming there's no real reason to show their playbook in Week 1).

What's obvious is that the coaches and team feel very confident in both players. Center Hroniss Grasu made a pretty bold claim at Oregon media day when he said, "It's nice and comforting to know that what we have in the backfield is probably the best backfield in college football."

Then, left tackle Tyler Johnstone -- who tore his ACL on Monday and will be out for the season -- disagreed, saying that it's not just probably the best, but that it is the best backfield in America.

"I think it's kind of crazy if you don't look at it like that," he said. "What other teams have that many weapons in that small area of the field?"

He's right. Not many teams have that many weapons in that small of an area. A Heisman hopeful plus two possible 1,000-yard rushers isn't exactly an unwanted problem.

So, what else is definitely known?

Both guys -- according to those around them -- have improved on their mistakes from last season.

Tyner -- who drew praise from fans when they saw him destroy a defensive back in the Ducks' spring game -- carried the ball 115 times for 711 yards and had nine rushing touchdowns in 2013.

Oregon coach Mark Helfrich has been pretty open about the fact it took Tyner a while to acclimate himself to the college game. He said that with players there are the guys who come in and go full speed before they realize they need to slow down and learn, and then there are the guys who stay slower and need confidence before they can really have their best performances.

And Tyner? He's in the second camp.

"Last year I wasn't as comfortable as I am this year," Tyner said. "When I was on the field, I thought a lot. This year I'm a lot more comfortable with the offense and how to play and so everything right now is just natural."

Marshall, who led the Ducks with 168 carries, 1,038 rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns, has been searching for consistency this offseason. Last season his numbers fluctuated -- 2.1 yards per rush during one early-season game, 9.1 yards per rush in the middle of the Pac-12 schedule, 3.3 yards per carry in the season close against Texas.

[+] EnlargeThomas Tyner
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsOregon RB Thomas Tyner has high expectations for himself and the Ducks' 2014 season.
"I think part of that with Byron is conditioning, part of that is confidence, part of that is total overall scope of the system and just cutting it loose," Helfrich said. "But that only comes again with great preparation and he's another guy who can practice a little bit better."

Neither low confidence nor inconsistency is something a coach wants in his top player (or for that matter, any player). Helfrich has harped on when someone does something a second, third or fourth time, they should be better than they were before. Given that reasoning, these issues should be behind them.

Both guys are coming into this season with high expectations. Both guys have great potential at Oregon.

But, outside of that, little is known. Yes, it sounds as though they've laid the foundation for an aggressive rushing attack, but is it enough for -- as Johnstone said -- the best in the country?

Give it a few weeks and the answer will have a chance to reveal itself against one of the best run defenses in the country. At that point we'll see if their play backs up others' words.

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