JUCO signing day winners 

December, 17, 2014
Dec 17
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The ceremonies have concluded, the ink has dried and the fax machines are quiet. And just like that, a number of teams filled needs with impact players from the ESPN Junior College 50. Here are five teams that stood out on Wednesday:
videoSo much for Oregon, injury riddled much of the year, getting healthy for its Rose Bowl matchup with Florida State in the College Football Playoff. So much for the A-list matchup between Ducks All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who injured his knee Tuesday, and Seminoles receiver Rashad Greene.

So much for the Ducks hitting their earnest preparation for, potentially, the program's first college football national title with positive momentum.

Oregon doesn't talk about injuries, but we do and this is a bad one. Oregon, when it does at least acknowledge that a key player might be hurt, reverts to the mantra, "Next man in," and that will be the case here. But the Ducks next man in at cornerback won't be anyone close to Ekpre-Olomu, a consensus All-American. While Oregon will don all-green uniforms for the Rose Bowl, the guy who steps in for Ekpre-Olomu might as well show up in highlighter yellow -- an actual Ducks uniform option! -- based on how the Seminoles and quarterback Jameis Winston are going to view him.

[+] EnlargeOregon defense
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsOregon star cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu suffered a severe knee injury during the Ducks' practice Tuesday and will miss the rest of the season.
It's likely senior Dior Mathis will get the call. The fifth-year senior has seen a lot of action but he has been unable to break into the starting lineup. Or the Ducks could go with promising youngster Chris Seisay, a redshirt freshman who was listed behind Ekpre-Olomu on the depth chart in advance of the Pac-12 championship game. At 6-foot-1, Seisay, who started against Wyoming in place of Troy Hill, brings better size to field than the 5-foot-9 Mathis -- or the 5-10 Ekpre-Olomu for that matter -- but it's not encouraging when the laudatory remark next to his name on the depth chart is "has tackles in five straight games."

Ekpre-Olomu, a senior who has been a starter since midway through his freshman year, has 63 tackles and nine passes defended, including two interceptions, this season. While he's been notably beaten a few times, there were whispers that he was playing through some bumps and bruises that were slowing him down. He was one of many Ducks who were expected to greatly benefit from nearly a month off.

Suddenly losing a star like Ekpre-Olomu is about more than a starting lineup, though. It also takes an emotional toll on a team, both during preparation as well as the game. The Ducks secondary loses its best player -- a potential first-round NFL draft pick -- and a veteran leader, a guy everyone counted on. Think Mathis or Seisay will have some butterflies when they see Greene, who caught 93 passes for 1,306 yards this season, coming his way? Think Oregon's safeties will be asked to play differently than they have all season with Ifo in street clothes?

The Ducks secondary will be less talented and less confident without Ekpre-Olomu.

Injuries? Oregon's had a few. It lost offensive tackle Tyler Johnston, a 26-game starter, and No. 1 receiver Bralon Addison before the season began. It saw emerging tight end Pharaoh Brown go down on Nov. 8 against Utah. It's been without All-Pac-12 center Hroniss Grasu for three games. It's seen several other key players miss games, including offensive tackle Jake Fisher, running back Thomas Tyner and defensive end Arik Armstead.

Yet the general feeling was the Ducks had survived. And, in fact, thrived, scrapping their way to the No. 2 seed in the CFP. By scrapping we mean winning their last eight games by an average of 26 points since suffering their lone loss to Arizona.

That, in itself, will be something the Oregon locker room will look at and point to as it gets ready for FSU. This is an elite program, one that can overcome adversity, even an injury to perhaps the team's second-best player behind a certain guy who plays behind center.

But there is no changing the fact that Oregon is worse without Ekpre-Olomu, and against a team like FSU, the defending national champions and winners of 29 consecutive games, you don't want to be at anything but your best.
Of all the Pac-12 teams going bowling this season, Stanford is the biggest favorite. The Cardinal are two-touchdown chalk over fellow 7-5 contender Maryland. It's understandable, then, that the 2014 Foster Farms Bowl may not pack a whole lot of surface-level intrigue, especially for a program coming off four consecutive BCS bowl appearances.

But when it comes to Stanford, there's a deeper layer of uncertainty here that piques the interest: In what direction is David Shaw's program heading?

On that front, a critical variable remains in limbo and data points from opposite ends of the spectrum conflict with each other.

[+] EnlargeKevin Hogan
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesAmid an up-and-down season, Kevin Hogan had arguably his best game his last time out vs. UCLA.
One can argue that Stanford's tumble to five losses was the telltale sign of a decaying powerhouse. The Cardinal's stale offense finished last in Pac-12 point production, after all. The train that was the offense had wobbled on the tracks ever since Andrew Luck's departure following the 2011 season, and it completely derailed here in 2014.

But then came the eyebrow-raising 31-10 road romp at UCLA to end the season, a finish that may suggest that the winds on the Farm are blowing in a completely different direction.

"We knew we had that potential all season long," receiver Michael Rector said. "We wish it would have been a little earlier in the season when we all clicked. Better late than never, I guess."

Not late would have been better, of course.

But here the Cardinal are, churning through December bowl practices, focusing on their team's next step with an unusual mixed feeling of disappointment and shining optimism. Dispiriting seasons capped off by statement successes tend to produce such conflicting emotions.

But bowl preparation is a valuable opportunity to build for the future, and Stanford is utilizing it enthusiastically: Veteran lineman Josh Garnett voluntarily stayed after practice earlier this week to share his tricks of trade with some of the Cardinal's green linemen.

"This time is about getting the young guys ready," Garnett said. "It helps me when I can teach someone, because that means I have to master it."

The zeal and gusto of a group once known for its "Enthusiasm Unknown to Mankind" -- think the Jim Harbaugh era, which is seeing its final players finish their Stanford careers this month -- isn't dead yet. Garnett and his fellow offensive linemen, criticized for soft play at critical junctures of this season, admit they were frustrated by their play in 2014. They delivered a throwback manhandling performance their last time out, and that appears to have at least temporarily given the Cardinal a second wind.

"It had gotten to the point where we had to stop talking about being the best offensive line and actually put it on tape," Garnett said. "We had to start moving people again. We had to get back to that David DeCastro, Jonathan Martin, Cam Fleming, and David Yankey era of Stanford football. They taught us, and we have to teach it to the younger guys."

Of course, it's too early to tell if Stanford has permanently rediscovered the blue collar, chip-on-the-shoulder mentality that had fueled their extraordinary run of BCS success earlier this decade. For all that we know right now, the UCLA success might have just marked a one-game resurgence. But there's hope for the future now that the offense has finally flexed its muscles.

"All the units got better individually, and then we put it all together collectively," Rector said. "Our quarterback might have played the best game of his career."

Ah yes, quarterback -- if Stanford hopes to sustain its offensive success moving forward, that's likely the most important variable of all. Kevin Hogan delivered a sparkling 16-for-19, 234-yard performance in that UCLA win, setting up a fascinating future decision for Shaw at this crossroads.

Hogan struggled in parts of this season, leading many observers to wonder whether or not he’d be the Cardinal’s starting quarterback again in 2015, his fifth-year senior campaign. Touted prospects Keller Chryst and Ryan Burns are waiting in the wings. But Hogan's sensational performance to close the regular season prompted Shaw to hint that a run at the NFL is not out of the cards for Hogan yet. If the coach does indeed feel so strongly about his quarterback’s potential, one would think Hogan would be the favorite to start again at Stanford next season.

"I expect him to come back [next year]," Shaw said. "But I wouldn't be shocked if he left because I think he has the ability to play at the next level. I think that last game showed what his capabilities are. That's where his ceiling is. And if he plays like that for any stretch of time, I'm excited about him at the next level."

That's the confusion of this 2014 Stanford season, encapsulated in one quote. It's tough to know what to make of a quarterback -- and a team -- when their play over the course of a season resembles Dr. Jekyll on one end of the spectrum and Mr. Hyde on the other. But the uncertainty emanating from the Cardinal's play makes their next moves particularly intriguing -- even if their final game destination this season isn't as prestigious as in years past.

2014 Pac-12 All-Underrated team

December, 17, 2014
Dec 17
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You've surely already seen plenty of glittering All-Pac-12 teams. Here's the All-Pac-12 team from the conference coaches. And here's ESPN.com's version. Lots of star value. While there were a few tough omissions with legitimate differences of opinion -- running back? defensive front seven? -- there also was plenty of consensus, particularly if you made two teams.

Yet there also were some very good players who got just about no recognition and should have. That's why we're creating an "All-Underrated" team.

The idea was to spotlight players, mostly upperclassmen, who didn't make the first- or second-All-Pac-12 teams from the coaches or from ESPN.com.

Funny thing is, this team was also pretty darn difficult to make. There was lots of star value in the Pac-12 this season, and lots of good players who got lost in the shadows of those stars.

OFFENSE

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Harry How/Getty ImagesCody Kessler was quietly efficient for USC, throwing 36 touchdowns and only four interceptions.
QB: Cody Kessler, Jr., USC: Kessler completed 71 percent of his passes for 3,505 yards with 36 TDs and just four interceptions. He was second in the Pac-12 and sixth in the nation in Total QBR.

RB: Daniel Lasco, Jr., California: Ranked sixth in conference with 92.9 yards per game, finishing the season with 1,115 yards and 12 TDs, which ranked third among conference running backs.

RB: Byron Marshall, Jr., Oregon: After leading the Ducks in rushing last season, Marshall did most of his work as a receiver this year, but we're putting him here because this is his natural position. He led the Ducks with 61 receptions for 814 yards with five touchdowns while also rushing for 383 yards and a TD, averaging 7.7 yards per carry.

WR: Austin Hill, Sr., Arizona: Hill wasn't the super-productive guy he was in 2012 before his knee injury, but he was a clutch and critical contributor to the Wildcats high-powered offense. He ranked second on the team with 45 receptions for 605 yards with four touchdowns. He also showed versatility as a tight end and demonstrated a willingness to block.

WR: Isiah Myers, Sr., Washington State: Finished second on the Cougars with 78 catches, and his 972 receiving yards were fifth-most in the Pac-12. His 12 touchdown catches tied for the Pac-12 lead and tied for the second-most in WSU history. He posted three 100-yard games and finished his career sixth in WSU history with 164 receptions and tied for fourth with 19 career touchdowns.

WR: Jordan Payton, Jr., UCLA: He led the Bruins with 63 receptions (8th on all-time UCLA single-season list) and 896 yards (10th) with seven touchdowns. His 14.2 yards per catch tied for second in the Pac-12.

OL: Joe Dahl, Jr., Washington State: The left tackle allowed just one sack in WSU’s Pac-12 record 771 pass attempts and earned the team’s “Bone” Award (given to the team’s best offensive lineman following each game) a team-best six times. He has started all 25 games he has been at WSU, starting 12 at left guard before moving to left tackle in the New Mexico Bowl last year.

OL: Josh Mitchell, Jr., Oregon State: He stepped in for injured All-American candidate Isaac Seumalo and became the leader of the Beavers offensive line, the one constant for a unit that used six different combinations.

OL: Vi Teofilo, Jr., Arizona State: A physical blocker who got better as the season wore on, he earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors from the coaches.

OL: Hamani Stevens, Sr., Oregon: Slid over from left guard to center when All-American Hroniss Grasu went down and did a solid job. Was the only Ducks linemen to start every game this season.

OL: Daniel Munyer, Sr., Colorado: The Buffaloes best O-lineman -- the Buffs yielded the second-fewest sacks in the Pac-12 -- he graded out at 90.9 percent this season with a team-best 51 knockdowns.

DEFENSE

DL Andrew Hudson, Sr., Washington: Hudson ranked fourth in the Pac-12 with 11.5 sacks, and his 0.88 sacks per game ranked 13th in the nation. Finished fourth on the Huskies with 71 tackles, including 14.5 for a loss, with three forced fumbles.

DL David Parry, Sr., Stanford: A force in the middle of Stanford's dominant defense, he had 30 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks. He also had six QB hurries.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Hardison
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesMarcus Hardison (1) was an impact player on the Arizona State defensive line this season.
DL: Marcus Hardison, Sr., Arizona State: Ranked fifth in the conference with 10 sacks. He also had 40 tackles, including 14.0 tackles for a loss, with two forced fumbles and two memorable interceptions.

LB: Jared Norris, Jr., Utah: Led the Utes and was fourth in the conference in total tackles (108) and tackles per game (9.0). His 10.0 TFL is tied for 10th. He also had four sacks.


LB: Blake Martinez, Jr., Stanford: More than a few folks think Martinez manned the middle of the Stanford defense this fall better than Shayne Skov did the previous few seasons. He led the Cardinal with 96 tackles and had six tackles for a loss, four sacks and two forced fumbles.

LB: J.R. Tavai, Sr., USC: Despite missing two games with a knee injury, he led the Trojans with seven sacks. Also had 47 tackles, including 12 for losses, with two deflections, a fumble recovery and a team-best three forced fumbles. Won USC’s Chris Carlisle Courage Award.

LB Michael Doctor, Sr., Oregon State: Doctor returned from an ankle injury that killed his 2013 season and finished with 62 tackles (third on the team). He also tied for the team lead with three interceptions, including a pick-6 off Taylor Kelly in the Beavers' upset of Arizona State. Doctor also had two forced fumbles and a recovery.

S: Jordan Simone, Jr., Arizona State: Former walk-on finished second on the Sun Devils with 90 tackles, including 4.5 for a loss, and a sack. He also had two interceptions and a forced fumble.

S: Jared Tevis, Sr., Arizona: While he got lost amid the deserved hoopla for LB Scooby Wright III, Tevis, a former walk-on, finished second on the Wildcats with 119 tackles, including nine for loss, with four sacks and two interceptions. Most of that production came in the second half of the season.

CB: Alex Carter, Jr., Stanford: Carter didn't have a lot of numbers -- 39 tackles, one interception, one forced fumble -- but there are a lot of observers who might rate him right up with Oregon's Ifo Ekpre-Olomu as an NFL prospect.

CB: Eric Rowe, Sr., Utah: Third in the Pac-11 in passes defended per game (1.18). Tied for fourth in total passes defended (13). Looks like he could be the next NFL cornerback out of Utah.

SPECIALISTS

K: Cameron Van Winkle, So., Washington: Led the Pac-12 in field goal percentage after connecting on 20 of 23 kicks -- 87 percent -- with a long of 51.

P: Darragh O'Neill, Sr., Colorado: Had a 44.1 average, which ranked third in the conference, and had 27 punts inside the 20 -- second in the Pac-12 -- including 14 inside the 15. 66.7 percent of his punts (65) were not returned.
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A flurry of commitments and decommitments has led to considerable movement in the latest class rankings update. Several top-10 programs added ESPN 300 prospects, including Tennessee, which picked up top-10 ILB Darrin Kirkland Jr. The Vols already have a class that features a talented group of defensive linemen, and have now added a big, powerful inside linebacker that can develop into a tough downhill run-stopper. Butch Jones now has Tennessee in contention for a second-straight top-five finish.

Outside the top 10, USC landed a verbal from in-state tight end Tyler Petite, a tall, lengthy prospect with the size, speed and leaping ability to potentially create mismatches as a receiving target at the position. After landing the former Duke commit, USC's class features eight ESPN 300 prospects.

Ole Miss also saw a move up in the rankings with a pair of additions. The Rebels landed ESPN Junior College 50 QB Chad Kelly, a player who is physically gifted enough to be a strong candidate to replace QB Bo Wallace, a one-time junior college transfer himself. Ole Miss, who not sits at No. 17, also landed ESPN 300 OT Michael Howard. He is a lean OL prospect that needs to fill out, but is an athletic and tenacious player and with development could end up being a real strong pick-up out of Florida for the Rebels.

Inside the rankings

Coach Art Briles has had two very distinct luxuries when it comes to recruiting in today's complicated landscape -- recruiting in the shadows and recruiting without pressure. Both are actually in many ways, one in the same. As Briles has built this program, he's been able to do it his way without public pressure or booster interference because early on, nobody thought it could be done and nobody cared.

This staff was able to go after who they wanted, on their own timetable and without much scrutiny. In today's recruiting world, that's a huge luxury. Players like Levi Norwood, Antwan Goodley or Tevin Reese, who was a late qualifier, were all bypassed by other Power 5 programs, but nobody even noticed Baylor signed them or griped, "who are these guys" on signing day.

As a result, prospects like these were brought along at a normal pace and developed properly by the coaching staff. Redshirting the bulk of the classes for the first few years has also been huge for the Bears. The challenge going forward will be dealing with increased program exposure and expectation level which almost always brings with it increased recruiting scrutiny from boosters and fans alike. But the Bears don??t need to change a thing.



To see the full class rankings, click here.
Has this been the greatest season in Pac-12 history? The jury is still out on that front, as the league's bowl slate remains to be played, and Oregon is tasked with carrying the conference flag into a playoff battle with the nation's big boys. But after a captivating regular season, the conference is undoubtedly in strong position entering this final foray.

The 2014 ride -- usually unpredictable, frequently stunning, always entertaining -- has been bathed in a downright surreal aura throughout (see #Pac12AfterDark). We want to commemorate the Paction, so we've assembled a list of the top 15 moments that defined this bizarre Pac-12 campaign while impacting its eccentric, memorable course.

We'll be counting down in increments of three throughout this entire week. Here's the third installment:

9. Andy Phillips game-winning FG vs. UCLA

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A 29-yard field goal attempt is cake for Andy Phillips. But with the Utes trailing by one point with 37 seconds remaining, this wasn't exactly a stroll in the park.

The three previous plays had only managed 5 yards, all on the ground. It all resulted in a fourth-and-5 and Phillips shining moment. But, as he had done so many times already in the 2014 season (and as he would do so many more times this season), Phillips was cool and collected, nailing the 29-yarder.

Phillips' field goal didn't completely seal the game for the Utes. The Bruins were able to go 36 yards in six plays, setting up Ka'imi Fairbairn to attempt a 50-yard field goal. But it was short and the unranked Utes managed to upset then-No. 8 UCLA in Pasadena.

“I've never understood what the word 'signature win' is, but this is a big win for us on the road,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.

8. Jerry Neuheisel putting the Bruins on his back in Texas

When UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley got injured on the second offensive drive for the Bruins, there was certainly a sinking feeling in Arlington. The depth behind Hundley was, well, limited and coach Jim Mora would be turning to sophomore Jerry Neuheisel, who had only attempted 13 passes total during his UCLA career.

But what Neuheisel did was nothing short of spectacular. He led the Bruin offense, completing 23 of 30 passes for 178 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions. Though, the crowning play -- and one that made him look like a true veteran -- was the game-winning 33-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Payton. The touchdown and ensuing PAT pulled the Bruins ahead 20-17 and the ensuing defensive series (holding the Longhorns to just 3 yards and a punt) kept No. 12 UCLA in the playoff conversation.

Neuheisel's play was also an early signifier as to how good the quarterback depth was in the Pac-12. Though we'd eventually go on to see Mike Bercovici, Luke Falk and Kendal Thompson/Travis Wilson (pick your starter and your back up), they'd all be referenced back to Neuheisel as he was kind of the starting point for the backup QB conversation after this performance against Texas.

7. Cal touchdowns against Stanford #Pac12refs

Oh, Pac-12 refs. Hell hath no furry like fans scorned. And there were several Pac-12 fan bases scorned this season. But Cal? Oh boy.

The Pac-12 announced on Nov. 25 that the officiating crew for the Stanford-Cal game made two mistakes and it cost the Bears a third-quarter touchdown. The replay crew overturned two touchdowns and the Pac-12 later decided that there was actually not enough evidence to overturn either of those calls.

A release stated that the "replay crew will be held accountable for the errors through the Conference's disciplinary process."

Just a month and a half before these unfortunate errors, NFL referee Tony Corrente resigned as the league's coordinator of football officiating. To say that it wasn't the greatest year for #Pac12refs would be an understatement. Better luck next year (because seriously, it can't get much worse).

Other defining moments:
Marcus Mariota, Jameis WinstonGetty ImagesMarcus Mariota will try to use his accuracy to hand Jameis Winston his first career defeat.
The College Football Playoff already has epic storylines leading into its inaugural season.

Headlining the No. 2 Oregon-No. 3 Florida State matchup in the Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual is the quarterback pairing of Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston, creating what has the potential to be one of the best showings of quarterbacks that college football has seen in recent memory.

The strengths of these two quarterbacks are evident in the statistics (which we’ll get to in a bit), but the main thread that runs through both is that they know how to win. Criticize Florida State’s play (specifically in the first half) all you want, but one thing is for sure -- late in a game Winston has been a QB worth having and he has proven that time and time again.

The same can be said for Mariota. Though the Ducks haven’t had as many tight games as the Seminoles -- and they do have a loss, which FSU doesn’t -- Mariota has shown the guts needed in crucial situations to make something out of nothing.

And the numbers back that up. Of active FBS quarterbacks (with at least 15 starts under their belts), Mariota and Winston have the highest career winning percentages -- Winston is 26-0; Mariota is 35-4.

But what is it about these two guys that makes them such winners?

We analyze …

MARIOTA’S STRENGTH: He’s clean.

Mariota’s biggest strength is his accuracy. He has attempted 372 passes this season and only two of those have ended up in the hands of opponents. His 0.5 percent interception rate is the lowest among qualified FBS quarterbacks and his TD-interception ratio of 19-1 is more than double that of the nation’s second best (Cody Kessler, 9-1) and 13 times better than Winston (1.41-1).

Mariota is highly accurate when opponents send four or fewer pass-rushers. He has gone more than 300 pass attempts against this kind of pressure without throwing a pick, and guess what … Florida State sends four or fewer pass-rushers on 67 percent of its opponents’ dropbacks.

Additionally, 27 of Mariota’s 38 passing touchdowns this season have come when opponents send four or fewer pass-rushers.

WINSTON’S STRENGTH: He’s clutch.

Yes, his statistics aren’t as impressive as they were last year. But, as Oregon coach Mark Helfrich pointed out on Tuesday, that can’t always be a very accurate portrayal of how effective any given quarterback is during a game.

“We don’t have the luxury of knowing, ‘OK, Clemson played them this way last year and this way the year before and now it’s that much different or leading up to that game how they defended people,'” Helfrich said of Winston.

Winston’s total QBR has dropped from 89.4 last season to 67.1 this season and his touchdown-to-interception total has plummeted (40-10 in 2013, 24-17 so far in 2014), but he is clutch. And not just in late-game scenarios.

Of all quarterbacks who have started at least one year, Winston leads the nation in third-down QBR (91.6) and has converted 51 percent of his third-down pass plays, which is 15 percent higher than the national average.

In a strange way, considering these two teams have never faced off, this sort of feels like a rivalry game in the fact that tendencies and statistics will probably be thrown out the window as we see some really incredible football unfold.

But would anything less be expected when a field plays host to two Heisman winners? After all, this has only happened three times before. And all three times proved to be very exciting games.

Most recently, it was Tim Tebow’s No. 2 Florida Gators facing off against Sam Bradford’s top-ranked Oklahoma Sooners in January 2009. Tebow had won the Heisman the year before, but the Gators took this game 24-14 and went on to win the national title.

Four seasons earlier, it was 2004 Heisman trophy winner Matt Leinart and his top-ranked USC Trojans who took down the 2003 winner -- Oklahoma quarterback Jason White -- in the Orange Bowl with the national title on the line. Leinart led the Trojans with five touchdown passes as they cruised to a season-high 55 points.

And the only other time it happened was during the 1949 championship season when 1949 Heisman winner Leon Hart and Notre Dame took on Doak Walker and SMU (though to be fair, Walker didn’t play that game as he was sidelined due to an injury).

In each of these instances, whichever quarterback won the Heisman versus Heisman matchup also went on to win the national title. That could certainly be the case when Florida State and Oregon face off on Jan. 1.

If past be present, both of these quarterbacks are going to bring their best play and the qualities that won each of them the Heisman are going to be on full display. For everyone watching in Pasadena, California, or at home, that means this is going to be a really, really fun matchup. Not only between Florida State and Oregon, but also between Winston and Mariota.

Players provide College Football Playoff picks

December, 17, 2014
Dec 17
1:32
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Some of the top college football players in the country provide their picks on who will win the inaugural College Football Playoff.
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It started with a rumor and a casual conversation. There were search firms and lists, but there were also back channels, innuendo and a lot of "this guy talked to that guy who heard this..." going on.

That's how the process of expediting Gary Andersen from Wisconsin to Oregon State began.

"A lot of it, we figured, was probably rumors," said Oregon State athletic director Bob De Carolis. "But you talk to people and you hear things. Maybe things aren't as rosy as they should be. A lot of it was probably rumors, but you follow up on it to make sure if there is some truth to it."

But in a matter of days, rumors became facts, facts became introductions and introductions led to Andersen being named Oregon State's new head coach less than a week after Mike Riley's jolting departure to Nebraska.

[+] EnlargeGary Andersen
Susan Ragan/USA TODAY SportsAthletic director Bob De Carolis (at left) said the hiring process to get coach Gary Andersen to Oregon State all happened very quickly.
The running joke is that every athletic director has a list in his back pocket of football coaches they'd hire should the rainy day come. And on Dec. 4, when news broke that Riley was leaving Oregon State, De Carolis went into what he called "attack mode."

"It wasn't in my back pocket, that was for sure," De Carolis said with a chuckle. "That's a bit of urban myth. I think what you do at our level, you watch people over time and you keep people in the back of your mind. You never know. We didn't think with Coach Riley's situation that anything was imminent. We weren't thinking that way. But once we got an inkling that something was happening, we went into attack mode."

Within two days, De Carolis had what he called a "robust" list of candidates -- names that were acquired through various channels. Some contacted De Carolis through their agents. Others called on their own. Some OSU reached out to. He looked at Power 5 coaches, Group of 5 coaches, FCS coaches and out-of-work coaches working in assorted media.

"You'd be surprised to hear the people that might be willing to have a conversation," De Carolis said.

But the name he kept hearing through those casual conversations was Andersen's.

"On that Saturday, his name popped up and our interest popped up when we heard that might be a possibility," De Carolis said. "We got connected with his representatives to make sure it was accurate and we scheduled a face-to-face for Tuesday [Dec. 9]."

De Carolis said a total of five candidates were interviewed for the job, and overtures toward Andersen were made following the Big Ten championship game. By Sunday, the parties had connected and by the following Tuesday, De Carolis and Andersen agreed to a deal in principle. The next day, Andersen was introduced as OSU's 28th head coach.

"It was all such a whirlwind," Andersen says. "You know how these things go. They reached out, agents talked and that whole process. Things rolled very, very quickly."

Just as Riley's departure was a college football bombshell, Andersen's hire was also met with dropped jaws.

"I get it. I understand it," Andersen said. "We won nine games and 10 games and got to two Jan. 1st bowl games. We had tremendous success on the field and I was lucky to be part of it. I get the fact that 'why would you do that?' But what I don't understand is the perception of why you'd leave Wisconsin and the Big Ten for Oregon State and the Pac-12. I have a tremendous amount of respect for both conferences and both programs. Oregon State and Wisconsin matchup and are very comparable. That's my opinion."

Now Andersen takes over a program that is home for the holidays in a league that is surging. Their rivals are in the Rose Bowl, one game away from going to the national championship and the balance of power in the league is in a state of flux. Priority No. 1, he said, will be focusing on the roster that's in place.

"You break everything down with your team first," Andersen said. "I don't think you can worry about what you're fighting. You have to put yourself in a position to get your roster put together. ...You want to run your style. The style we want to move into. Look at us at Wisconsin, we were only able to do that to a certain point because where we were. We had the best running back in the country [Melvin Gordon] so we just put the ball in his hands. We're not the smartest coaches in the world, but we're not the dumbest either."

With facility upgrades coming, De Carolis said he believes Andersen is walking into a pretty good situation.

"There's this misnomer that we don't have resources," De Carolis said. "We've got resources ... the good news going forward is Coach Andersen is taking a situation that's not exactly broken. A lot of things we're going to do here will hopefully help him take it to the next level."

Pac-12 morning links

December, 17, 2014
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Because you know I'm all about that bass, 'bout that bass.

Leading off

A few more All-America teams were announced Tuesday, and the usual Pac-12 suspects continue to rake in the honors. Here's the latest breakdown.

First up is the Associated Press All-America team.
  • First-team offense: Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon, Shaq Thompson, AP, Washington.
  • First-team defense: Danny Shelton, DT, Washington, Scooby Wright III, LB, Arizona, Hau’oli Kikaha, LB, Washington, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon, Tom Hackett, P, Utah.
  • Second-team offense: Andrus Peat, OT, Stanford, Hroniss Grasu, C, Oregon
  • Second-team defense: Nate Orchard, DE, Utah, Leonard Williams, DT, USC, Eric Kendricks, LB, UCLA
  • Third-team offense: Jake Fisher, OT, Oregon, Nelson Agholor, WR, USC.
  • Third-team defense: Su’a Cravens, S, USC.

Next up is the Sports Illustrated All-America team.
  • First-team offense: Mariota, Grasu, Peat.
  • First-team defense: Orchard, Wright III, Thompson, Kendricks, Ekpre-Olomu.
  • Second team offense: Jaelen Strong, WR, Arizona State.
  • Second team defense: Williams, Kikaha
  • Second team special teams: Hackett

Here's the Fox Sports All-America team.
  • First-team offense: Mariota
  • First-team defense: Williams, Wright III, Kikaha, Ekpre-Olomu,
  • First-team special teams: Hackett, Kaelin Clay, KR, Utah
  • Second-team offense: Agholor
  • Second-team defense: Orchard, Shelton, Thompson, Kendricks

Also, USA Today put together its Freshman All-America team. Included on that list from the Pac-12 are:
  • Offense: Toa Lobendahn, OL, USC, Jacob Alsadek, OL, Arizona
  • Defense: Lowell Lotulelei, DL, Utah, Adoree’ Jackson, CB, USC, Budda Baker, S, Washington.

Finally, Bruce Feldman of Fox breaks down the most impressive freshmen. Jackson and Baker are on his list.

News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

In case you missed it (and it would have been pretty hard to miss it if you follow Pac-12 football), here's the full presentation of Marcus Mariota reading the Top 10 on the "Late Show with David Letterman."
Has this been the greatest season in Pac-12 history? The jury is still out on that front, as the league's bowl slate remains to be played, and Oregon is tasked with carrying the conference flag into a playoff battle with the nation's big boys. But after a captivating regular season, the conference is undoubtedly in strong position entering this final foray.

The 2014 ride -- usually unpredictable, frequently stunning, always entertaining -- has been bathed in a downright surreal aura throughout (see #Pac12AfterDark). We want to commemorate the Paction, so we've assembled a list of the top 15 moments that defined this bizarre Pac-12 campaign while impacting its eccentric, memorable course.

We'll be counting down in increments of three throughout this entire week. Here's the second installment:

No. 12 -- Shaq Thompson scoring a 99-yard fumble return TD against Cal

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With the Washington Huskies backed up into the end zone on second-and-goal and with the score tied at 0, linebacker Shaq Thompson -- who had made his original verbal commitment to Cal -- made one of his loudest plays of the Pac-12 season against what was then the second-highest scoring offense in the nation.

As Cal quarterback Jared Goff attempted to go over the top, the ball came loose and Thompson took off, returning the ball the length of the field, outrunning a few Bears en route.

It gave Washington the early lead (the Huskies would go on to win 31-7) and the game would end up being Chris Petersen’s first conference win at Washington, after having given up a 20-13 decision to Stanford two weekends before. It also rewrote the history books for UW as the program’s longest fumble return TD -- the previous was 77 yards, which was set by Jim Noe in 1953.

No. 11 -- Washington Coug’n it against Arizona

Yep, sorry, UW, but you definitely pulled a Wazzu and Coug’d it like the best of ‘em with that late game performance against Arizona.

The Huskies had a five-point lead heading into the fourth quarter at then-No. 14 Arizona when everything fell apart. Seriously, everything. Washington had four drives. This is how they played out:

1. Three plays, 9 yards, punt.
2. Three plays, -5 yards, punt.
3. Four plays, 2 yards, punt.
4. Seven plays, 25 yards, lost fumble.

Not exactly offensive efficiency. Not even in the same zipcode as it.

The Husky defense -- though not exactly stout as it gave up 504 yards of total offense that game -- did give Washington a chance at the end. Freshman defensive back Sidney Jones intercepted Arizona quarterback Anu Solomon at the 17-yard line with about four and a half minutes remaining. Certainly that could’ve been enough time for UW to pull something together. Or in reality, just don’t mess up. Hold the ball long enough, make enough movement and walk this thing out.

But on the ensuing drive, running back Deontae Cooper fumbled and lost the ball and the Husky defense allowed the Wildcats to get into field goal range. Casey Skowron nailed the 47 yarder to give Arizona its eighth win of the season. The following week, the Wildcats moved from No. 15 to No. 11 in the College Football Playoff committee rankings.

The complete breakdown from Washington sparked something in the Huskies as they finished out the season with two more wins, combining to beat Oregon State and Washington State 68-26.

No. 10 -- Arizona missed field goal vs. USC

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Oh, the South Division race. We knew you’d be good early on. So much #Pac12AfterDark.

With USC leading by two with 17 seconds remaining, Casey Skowron lined up for a 36-yard field goal attempt. Steve Sarkisian called a timeout to ice the kicker. He had done so earlier and Claude Pelon had blocked Skowron’s kick. What works once could work twice, right?

It was pretty evident that Skowron’s kick was wide right from the moment it left his foot. But even so, he tried to get a roughing the kicker call to no avail. The Trojans held on for their fourth win of the season while also handing the Wildcats their first loss of the season.

There are so many moving parts throughout the entirety of a season, but had Skowron made this field goal, there’s a chance that the Pac-12 South race wouldn’t have lasted as long as it did. If USC had another loss under its belt instead of Arizona, the Wildcats would’ve been in the driver’s seat most of the way, leaving that late-season drama out.

But, for the sake of #Paction and #Pac12AfterDark, let’s just say we’re glad that everything always seemed to go down to the wire. Including this game. Including this season.

Other defining moments:
Eight Pac-12 teams are bowling, but four are home for the holidays with losing records. Here's a look at their seasons and a take on their futures.

California (5-7, 3-6 Pac-12)

The good: The Golden Bears improved from their dreadful 1-11 mark in 2013 to 5-7 in 2014, and they continued the successful development of an explosive offense. The Cal attack finished the season second to only Oregon in the Pac-12, averaging 38.2 points per game. Quarterback Jared Goff (35 touchdowns, seven interceptions) took the next step, and there's plenty of reason to believe he'll be even better his junior year. Emerging running back Daniel Lasco (1,115 yards, 5.3 yards per carry) is a big part of the puzzle: Cal now has a truly dangerous, multifaceted offense.

The bad: Yes, the Bears' defense improved, but the final tally was still horrendous. Cal surrendered a conference-worst 39.8 points and 511 yards per game -- more than 50 yards worse than the Pac-12's 11th-place defense. That being said, the "eye test" certainly confirmed Cal made strides under new defensive coordinator Art Kaufman. There's just so much work still left to do, and it starts with tackling. The Bears were also the most penalized team in the Pac-12.

2015 outlook: Cal has a legitimate shot to break through in Sonny Dykes' third season there. Goff will be a junior, and he'll likely return his trio of talented veteran receivers (Chris Harper, Bryce Treggs and Kenny Lawler). Lasco will be a senior, so the offense will be armed and ready to go. Meanwhile, the only possible trajectory for the defense is up.

Oregon State (5-7, 2-7 Pac-12)

The good: Sean Mannion became the Pac-12's all-time passing leader, surpassing Matt Barkley's mark late in the season. The Beavers avoided what would have been a completely disastrous seven-game losing streak to finish the season by stunning Arizona State at home. Mannion played well in that game, but Oregon State gained initial separation because of dual 100-yard rushing performances from Storm Woods and Terron Ward. With Mannion and Ward graduating, Woods will likely be asked to shoulder a heavy offensive load in his senior season.

The bad: Without explosive receiver Brandin Cooks, the Oregon State attack lost its bite. The Beavers finished ranked last (tied with Stanford) in the Pac-12 at 25.7 points per game. After a strong start, the defense also slipped to ninth in the conference (31.6 points per game). Given that stalling statistical performance, it's not hard to see why Oregon State lost six of last seven games and missed out on bowl eligibility.

2015 outlook: It's a new era in Corvallis. Gary Andersen has taken Mike Riley's place as head coach, and the Pac-12 will watch with keen interest to see exactly how the Beavers evolve. Andersen hasn't delved all too specifically into what type of offense he wants to install at Oregon State, but he will have to find a way to replace Mannion, the school record holder in every passing category. Luke Del Rio is the early favorite to start at quarterback next season. The rest is up in the air until more data points can be gathered.

Washington State (3-9, 2-7 Pac-12)

The good: To be bluntly honest, there wasn't much of it in Pullman this season. The Cougars never recovered from losses to Rutgers and Nevada to begin the year, and they later lost senior quarterback Connor Halliday in horrific fashion. If there's any silver lining to this disappointing season, it's the emergence of redshirt freshman quarterback Luke Falk. He led Wazzu to a road win over Oregon State with 471 passing yards while completing 72 percent of his throws in that game.

The bad: Early on, it appeared Washington State might have turned a corner defensively -- particularly with its pass rush. The Cougars harassed future Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota to the tune of seven sacks in a close loss to Oregon and held sturdy the following week in a 28-27 upset win at Utah. Matters then quickly deteriorated. The Cougars surrendered 60 points at home to Cal and lost despite the fact that Halliday threw for an NCAA-record 734 yards. Wazzu dropped six of its final seven after that devastating loss, which was sealed by a missed 19-yard field goal in crunch time.

2015 outlook: With Halliday gone, Mike Leach will run his offense through Falk. The youngster obviously has talent, but the Cougars must keep him clean to avoid a disappointing 2014 repeat. Leading receiver Vince Mayle will be gone, but productive target River Cracraft will be back. At the end of the day, defense may be the critical variable here: Washington State gave up 38.6 points per game. To give themselves a legitimate chance at a winning season, the Cougars will need to cut that number by at least a touchdown.

Colorado (2-10, 0-9 Pac-12)

The good: The goose egg in their conference record doesn't show this, but the Buffs made competitive strides in the Pac-12 this season. Colorado lost four Pac-12 games that were decided by five points or fewer. They dropped two of those contests in double overtime. Quarterback Sefo Liufau was productive, but he must cut down on his interception rate -- he threw 15 picks this season. His favorite target, Nelson Spruce, finished tied with Mayle for the Pac-12 lead with 106 catches.

The bad: Statistically, Colorado still found itself in the Pac-12 cellar in some key metrics by a relatively massive margin. The Buffs surrendered 6.5 yards per play on defense, worse than even Cal. They allowed 5.6 yards per rush, a full yard worse than 11th-place Oregon State. That number is an indication that Colorado just couldn't yet physically win the necessary battles up front against conference foes.

2015 outlook: It appears Mike MacIntyre has this train rolling in the right direction, and he returns Spruce next season. The Liufau-led offense, then, should pack some punch. Offseason strengthening will be of paramount importance for the Colorado defense, which must stiffen up against the run. If the Buffs can improve there, they'll turn some of 2014's close losses into 2015 wins.
Marcus Mariota, Jameis WinstonGetty ImagesMarcus Mariota and the Ducks led the Pac-12 in turnover margin while Jameis Winston and Florida State had a penchant for turnovers.

The Marcus Mariota vs. Jameis Winston storyline is a delicious headline/ratings grabber, isn't it? A couple of Heisman winners -- both quarterbacks -- meeting in the Granddaddy, which also happens to be the first-ever national semifinal.

Without question, the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner from Florida State and the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner from Oregon will take center stage on New Year's Day in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual. The winner advances to the national championship game to face the winner of Alabama-Ohio State.

And who can't wait for those plays when Mariota will come bursting off the edge on a backside blitz, looking to bury his facemask into Winston's jersey? Or seeing Winston roaming at safety, waiting to pluck a wayward Mariota pass out of the air. Spoiler alert: These things won't happen.

The QB vs. QB storyline, as fun as it is to entertain, simply doesn't play out on the field. Unless, however, you're talking about one quarterback capitalizing off of the other's mistakes. Then, we've got a story.

Turns out that when it comes to making teams pay for their mistakes, Oregon is pretty darn efficient. The Ducks led the Pac-12 in turnover margin, grabbing 14 fumbles and 11 interceptions. Having turned the ball over just eight times (six fumbles, two interceptions) they have a robust plus-17 margin. That's third best in the country behind only Michigan State (plus-20) and TCU (plus-18).

And what do they do with those turnovers? The answer is 120 points. Nearly 20 percent of Oregon's 602 points this season have come after a turnover. When teams turned it over against the Ducks, Oregon taxed them on the scoreboard 72 percent of the time (18 of 25).

This is noteworthy since Florida State has a penchant for turnovers. The Seminoles have given it up 27 times. Oregon, conversely, leads the country with just eight turnovers. Winston has thrown 17 interceptions. Mariota has tossed just two.

Oregon's 120 points off of turnovers ranks sixth nationally, and their points margin of 107 (120 points scored, 13 allowed after a turnover) is second best in the country behind TCU. Again, in this category, Florida State isn't so good. The Seminoles are actually in the negative in points margin at minus-10. They've scored 83 points off of turnovers, but allowed 93. That ranks in the bottom 20 of all Power 5 schools.

This is how we can make the Mariota vs. Winston storyline work. If Winston turns the ball over, there is a good chance Oregon is going to make him pay for that mistake. If Mariota turns the ball over, more than likely, the Oregon defense can course-correct.

Oregon has forced at least one turnover in 12 of 13 games this year (bonus points if you guessed Colorado was the one team that didn't turn the ball over against the Ducks). And in 10 of those 12 games, the Ducks have produced at least seven points off of turnovers. They have multiple scores after turnovers in seven games.

Not surprisingly, in the their lone loss of the season, the Ducks failed to score following a pair of Arizona turnovers back in October. In the rematch, they were 2-for-2 with 10 points off of turnovers. Michigan State, UCLA, Stanford etc. were all victims of Oregon's opportunistic defense and efficient offense.

Granted, Florida State still has the ultimate “scoreboard” argument. The Seminoles haven't lost a game since Gangnam Style was still a thing. They've flirted with defeat plenty of times, but each time they have endured.

No, we won't get to see Mariota and Winston line up on opposite sides of the ball. But how one plays on New Year's Day could dramatically impact what happens to the other. The turnover battle -- and what the other quarterback does with those turnovers -- could end up being the real Mariota vs. Winston storyline.

Play that changed the Pac-12 race

December, 16, 2014
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Seeing that Oregon, the eventual Pac-12 champion, won the North Division by three games, no single play greatly changed the Ducks' conference trajectory. The same can't be said for South champion Arizona, a team whose impressive late-season run could have been waylaid in September in its conference opener against California.

Everyone remembers the stunning play, which set a season-long tone for late-game dramatics in the Pac-12. The Wildcats beat Cal 49-45 on a 47-yard Hail Mary pass from redshirt freshman quarterback Anu Solomon to senior receiver Austin Hill on the final play of the game. The ball traveled about 63 yards in the air, and Hill caught it in the back corner of the end zone, amid a crowd that included four Bears defenders.

If that unlikely completion isn't made and everything else held true to form, UCLA would have won the South, emerging from a four-team tie with Arizona, Arizona State and USC. Each would have finished with a 6-3 conference record, but the Bruins would have prevailed with a 3-0 record among those tied teams.

Would UCLA have had a better chance against Oregon in the Pac-12 title game? Maybe. You never know.

Further, it's reasonable to wonder if Arizona's season might have suffered some season-long consequences from losing to Cal, which failed to win a conference game in 2013. The Wildcats were coming off close wins against UTSA and Nevada, showing little evidence they would become a conference contender. Twelve days after needing a miracle to beat the Bears, the Wildcats won at Oregon, a red-letter and transformative victory for Rich Rodriguez's team.

Funny thing about Arizona's Hail Mary against Cal: It was mostly par for the course in the fourth quarter. The play capped a stunning 36-point run in the final frame after the Wildcats trailed 28-6 at halftime. Solomon had four of his five touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, the Hail Mary being his 73rd pass of the game. Heck, Cal scored 14 points in the fourth quarter, which typically would bode well after leading by 22 at the break.

Weekend recruiting wrap: Pac-12 

December, 16, 2014
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It was a busy weekend in the Pac-12, with commitments, offers, visits and awards touching nearly every team in the conference, including Stanford, USC and Washington reeling in big commitments and UCLA hosting impact prospects. Here is a look at some of the more impactful events of the past few days, as well as a glimpse of what this week could hold in the Pac-12.


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