Texas A&M, Colorado set up series

March, 27, 2015
Mar 27

A couple of SEC schools have announced new future series in recent days, including Texas A&M, which has added a home-and-home series with Colorado in 2020 and 2021.

The former Big 12 mates will play at Texas A&M in 2020 and most likely at Colorado in 2021, although the game might also be staged in Denver.

In case you missed it, Vanderbilt and Stanford also announced a four-game series this week. Vanderbilt will host in 2021 and 2025 and Stanford will host in 2024 and 2027.

Vandy coach Derek Mason was a Stanford assistant before accepting his current position in Nashville.

USC continued spring practice in scorching 91-degree weather Thursday, and optimism continued to emanate from the Trojan camp. For weeks, the national media has focused primarily on USC's stockpile of skill position talent, but Damien Mama -- who has shed nearly 40 pounds -- spoke about the offensive line's chance to be special in 2015.

USC is also excited about incoming tight end Taylor McNamara, who is transferring from Oklahoma to fortify a thin position group. One current member is walk-on Connor Spears, whose interesting story is documented here.

Much USC press has been focused on off-field issues this week. This Bruce Feldman podcast contends that the NCAA completely botched the Todd McNair case, leaving the Trojans holding the short end of the stick. Former coach Pete Carroll reacted to the recently released documents in the case, while athletic director Pat Haden penned some strong words in response to the unsealing.

In other news, former USC wide receiver Mike Williams has been named the new football coach at Los Angeles' Locke High School. Carroll vouched for him during the hiring process.

Stanford players are currently off until the beginning of the second spring session next Monday, but the program has enjoyed a pair of key developments this week.

On Wednesday, Stanford announced home-and-home series with Vanderbilt and TCU. The Cardinal have never played the Commodores or hosted an SEC opponent at Stanford Stadium. They'll travel to Nashville in 2021 and 2015, while Vanderbilt flies to the Bay Area in 2024 and 2027.

On Thursday, prized recruit K.J. Costello -- ESPN's top rated 2016 quarterback from the state of California -- chose the Cardinal over USC and Michigan. This was a critical victory for David Shaw for a number of reasons. Stanford hungered for a quarterback after not signing one in 2015, and their win for Costello also packed some symbolic punch: Both of Costello's parents went to USC, and former Cardinal coach Jim Harbaugh is now at Michigan. It's looking as if Stanford's recruiting appeal has overcome 2014's five-loss season.

Harbaugh, by the way, hasn't been shy in discussing how he wants to duplicate his model of success at Stanford at Michigan.

video Stanford needed to win the recruitment of ESPN Junior 300 quarterback K.J. Costello on Thursday. The reason is simple: The Cardinal did not sign a quarterback in the 2015 class. David Shaw and his staff placed a huge checkmark next to the quarterback position Thursday when Costello committed to Stanford in front of teammates and media at Santa Margarita Catholic (Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.).

We're in the midst of the NCAA tournament, that time of the year when upset wins (and losses, depending on one's perspective) define the month's sporting calendar. To mark the occasion, Ted Miller ranked the top 10 Pac-12 football bracket busters since the turn of the century.

Stanford's 24-23 shocker at USC was technically the biggest upset of them all -- the Cardinal were 41-point underdogs -- but which surprise was the most memorable?

Kevin Gemmell: No. 14 Stanford 17, No. 2 Oregon 14, 2012

Of the “Pac-12” era, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more memorable upset than Stanford’s 17-14 overtime win over Oregon in Eugene in 2012.

You had the Zach Ertz touchdown catch (or non-catch … talk amongst yourselves). You had a Stanford team adjusting to life after Andrew Luck and Kevin Hogan making his first career road start and just his second start overall. You had an Oregon team that had scored at least 42 points in 13 consecutive games. You had Jordan Williamson’s Fiesta Bowl redemption and you had a Stanford defense that was downright brilliant.

Oh, did we mention that Oregon was ranked No. 1 in the country (coaches' poll)?

Stanford’s win busted the two-team BCS bracket wide open. And depending which lines you looked at, Oregon was favored by as many as 21.5 with an over-under of 64.5. The Cardinal couldn’t beat the Ducks the year before … at home … with Luck! … so why on earth would they do it on the road with a green quarterback?

Not only was the outcome surprising, but the way the game played out was equally unexpected. The previous three years, the winner had scored at least 50 points and the loser at least 30. In 2009, Stanford won 51-42. The next two years, Oregon won 52-31 and 53-30, respectively. The 2012 edition rewrote the playbook for how teams attacked Oregon.

Everything about that game was thrilling. And Oregon fans are probably still left wondering what would have been if De'Anthony Thomas had just thrown a block?

Ted Miller: Washington 29, No. 3 Washington State 26, 2002

I covered four of our top-10 upsets but for a myriad of reasons none left a bigger impression than Washington’s shocking 29-26 victory over third-ranked Washington State in the 2002 Apple Cup.

First of all, 2002 was an interesting year. For one, check out the preseason AP poll. Colorado is No. 7, Washington is No. 9 and Washington State is No. 11. Oregon and USC are Nos. 15 and 20. Yeah, that seems a bit weird. The Huskies imploded at Michigan in the season opener, tearing defeat from the jaws of victory, and never really recovered. Washington State bounced back from a loss at Ohio State to roll through the Pac-10, the signature victory over USC punctuated by a sliding Drew Dunning after he kicked the game-winning field goal. You might recall the Pete Carroll era at USC picked up after that.

Oh, and the Rick Neuheisel and Mike Price eras ended at Washington and Washington State after this season for very different reasons, though both would end up in a sort of coaching purgatory by the beginning of 2003.

As for the game, it was a remarkable back-and-forth affair, with a talented Huskies team finally playing to its potential against a Washington State team that was obviously much better. Yet you could feel Martin Stadium gasp with worry when Cougars QB Jason Gesser got hurt. If Gesser didn’t get hurt, the Cougs would have coasted home, but if wishes were fishes then cows would fly.

While the game was exciting for all four-plus hours, which included three overtimes, the ending and aftermath was most remarkable (here’s my column from after the game). It was decided by a controversial call that required referee Gordon Riese to explain himself on the field. That didn’t go well. Cougars fans started pelting the field with bottles and anything else they could get their hands on. It was an ugly scene.

That said, I still talk about this game with Huskies and Cougars alike. Everyone who witnessed has a take on it. Some Cougs tell me they still aren’t over it. And Huskies know that their program pretty much fell into an extended spiral down the toilet after this season. Their next winning campaign didn't come until 2010.

Chantel Jennings: Arizona 31, No. 2 Oregon 24, 2014

This was a pretty easy choice for me for two reasons.

First, it’s the only upset on the list that I saw in person. And let’s be honest: As great as it is to watch games from the comfort of your living room with friends, it doesn’t come close to being able to see the thing in real life.

Second, it was the second straight year this happened. It’s like the old “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me" adage. Only it’s “Upset a team once, it’s surprising; upset a team in back-to-back years, and it doesn’t seem like much of an upset anymore.”

Would we even be having a debate like this if any of the other upsets had happened twice in a row? Can you imagine the chaos that would’ve broken loose if Stanford had beaten USC again in 2008? (Instead, the Cardinal lost by 22.) Or, what if the Beavers came back in 2009 and beat up on the then-fourth-ranked Trojans again? (They almost did, only losing by six.)

Hands down, those would be memorable, right? Because there’s something so great about that moment in which an upset or a second upset spurns a rivalry and the game is never the same. Every junior on Oregon’s roster this season is going to be telling the freshmen and sophomores about how they’ve never beaten the Wildcats in the regular season. Every senior is going to be telling the underclassmen how they want to leave Eugene without the stigma of allowing Arizona to be a stumbling block in the regular season. The difference between avenging a loss and making the same “mistake” twice is something that never leaves these players.

If Oregon had come back and smacked Arizona last year during the regular season, that wouldn’t be the case.

David Lombardi: Stanford 24, No. 2 USC 23, 2007

This was my first foray to the Coliseum, and it happened to feature the largest point spread (41) ever overcome in college football history.

I spoke with only one optimistic Stanford supporter before the game, and that happened to be Jim Harbaugh's fiancée (now wife), Sarah.

The USC dynasty was flying high -- the Trojans still had two more Rose Bowl championships on the way, including one later that season. It seemed as if Stanford hadn't advanced past its 1-11 nadir the year prior. In fact, a week before their trip to Los Angeles, the Cardinal had been blown out 41-3 at home by Arizona State. To further stretch out a long injury list, starting quarterback T.C. Ostrander had suffered a seizure during the week. So Stanford threw skinny sophomore backup Tavita Pritchard to the lions of the Coliseum for his first career start.

Just a few months earlier, Harbaugh had already verbally chest-bumped Pete Carroll, who was then the bully on the Pac-10 block. "We bow to no man, we bow to no program here at Stanford University," the Cardinal's new coach had said to conclude a war of words between the two men, which began when Harbaugh publicly speculated on Carroll's future at USC.

In short, all context suggested that the Trojans would administer a beatdown to put Harbaugh and his overmatched squad in its place.

At halftime, though, USC only led 9-0, and the crowd booed the home team off the field after Stanford had stuffed a fourth-down attempt at the goal line. That was the first in a series of dominoes that fell the Cardinal's way.

Every single break proved instrumental in the upset. Trojan quarterback John David Booty, who remained in the game despite breaking his finger, threw four critical interceptions. Richard Sherman (yes, that Richard Sherman, still a wide receiver playing for Harbaugh and not Carroll back then) converted a do-or-die fourth-and-20 by a millimeter or two.

That set the table for the decisive fourth-and-goal fade, in which Pritchard found Mark Bradford -- whose father had recently passed away -- for the score that pushed Stanford to a 24-23 victory. The Cardinal had sucked the air out of the Coliseum in a shocker that might have cost USC a national title shot in 2007 and ignited the Harbaugh-Carroll rivalry.

If 2014 was the Pac-12's year of the quarterback, then 2015 -- at least its spring -- will focus largely on their replacements. Obviously, the Oregon and UCLA quarterback situations will be closely monitored and draw national scrutiny. Oregon State is replacing the league's all-time leading passer. Even with Travis Wilson getting the snaps at Utah, there's a dusting of potential drama come fall when Kendal Thompson is expected to return.

But perhaps the most intriguing quarterback competition might taking place in Pullman, Washington, where the Cougars have to replace record-setting quarterback Connor Halliday. Washington State opens spring ball Thursday with the quarterback spot on a lot of people's minds. Not just because quarterback is the most important position on the field -- but because Mike Leach-coached quarterbacks are likely destined for big numbers.

[+] EnlargeLuke Falk
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesLuke Falk stepped in and took over the reins in Pullman last fall but will be fighting again for the starting quarterback job this spring.

Halliday's career -- cut short by a gruesome ankle/leg injury in a loss to USC in November -- was checkered with moments of individual brilliance but a lack of team success. He finished his career with a school record 11,304 passing yards (fourth most in league history) and 90 passing touchdowns, which is third all-time in the conference.

The natural assumption is that the guy who replaced him -- Luke Falk -- would be the frontrunner for the starting gig. But addressing the media Wednesday, Leach made it very clear that Falk and redshirt freshmen Peyton Bender would square off – and the competition is likely to carry well into fall camp.

"As far as making decisions, if they don't separate themselves, it's kind of a Catch-22," Leach said. "If they don't separate themselves that means you've got two quarterbacks that are incredibly competitive. If one does separate himself, it allows you to put some extra reps into the guy that's starting to take hold of the thing.

"… But you want to develop enough skills in spring so when they go into the offseason they continue to refine their skills and continue to work. And then you go into camp and you do the same thing. You split the reps and then see who separates themselves that time around too. I've had where a guy had the lead coming out of spring and then in fall, you do the same thing, and the guy who was behind in spring took charge in the fall."

In other words, don't expect any announcements before May.

Still, that didn't stop Leach from heaping on the praise when it came to Falk. As a redshirt freshman, Falk completed 64.2 percent of his throws and tossed 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions for 1,859 yards after he replaced Halliday. That includes one game of mop-up duty against Portland State and the final four games where Halliday was injured.

"The composure and presence he had when he stepped out there -- and it was very sudden when Connor broke his ankle -- he stepped out there and I mean after three plays, he looked like he belonged there," Leach said. "His steady mental makeup I think is something that I think the team grew from as well. Mentally, to not make too much out of it, which is a huge temptation to a freshman, I think the discipline that he had and exhibited in that fashion was the most impressive I've seen out of a freshman."

Leach described Bender as having a "real electric arm," and added that he's looking forward to seeing what freshman Tyler Hilinski can do.

"They've done some good things," Leach said of Bender and Hilinski. "They are going to be a lot of reps for them and they will get a chance to really showcase their talents … Luke and Peyton will split [first-team reps] and we'll see who separates themselves."

Newcomers to watch for Oregon

March, 26, 2015
Mar 26

Andrew Greif from The Oregonian takes a look at six players to watch when the Ducks take the field for spring practices. The emphasis is on newcomers and those who haven't yet been in the spotlight in Eugene.

The real intrigue, he warns, likely won't come until the spring game on May 2nd. That's when we'll see quarterbacks Morgan Mahalak and Ty Griffin in semi-official action, which may offer a better idea as to where each stands in the Ducks QB competition.

LOS ANGLES -- A day after court documents were unsealed to reveal an apparent bias toward USC by the NCAA, quarterback Cody Kessler could only shrug it off. He saw first-hand what the NCAA sanctions did to the Trojans, but his interest in the subject remains almost nonexistent.

And why wouldn’t it?

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesCody Kessler said he has learned to ignore the outside distractions and just focus on his goals.

Nothing that came from the documents related to former USC assistant coach Todd McNair’s defamation lawsuit against the NCAA will have any bearing on the current team. It’s not like the NCAA will pay a penance in the form of extra scholarships to USC named after Reggie Bush. No, this is all just more ambient noise at a place where they’ve had practice tuning it out.

“A lot of people over the years said it. ‘This isn’t fair. This isn’t fair,’” Kessler said in reference to the NCAA sanctions. “And people were always mad about it. But the way we approached it was that it is what it is. It happened. It’s in the past now. I think we’re better from it and ultimately we learned from it.”

To what degrees those lessons will play a role in football-related matters is tough to quantify, but USC will take any advantage it can as its looks to replace defensive lineman Leonard Williams, running back Buck Allen and receiver Nelson Agholor among several others in pursuit of a College Football Playoff berth and a national title.

Anything that doesn't factor into those goals is treated with the appropriate amount of attention. Usually none.

"We had enough guys that have been here for a while and have dealt with a lot," Kessler said. "Anything that gets thrown at us, we'll be ready for."

At the halfway point of spring practice, Kessler remains happy with his call not to join Williams, Allen and Agoholor in pursuit of an NFL career. More than a passing thought went into the decision after he threw 3,826 yards and tied the school record with 39 touchdowns passes last season. But after after talking it through with his family and meeting with coach Steve Sarkisian, it became obvious which path he preferred.

“When I made up my mind, I texted Coach Sark and told him I couldn’t leave without winning a national title with him,” Kessler said.

So despite signing arguably the best recruiting class in the country, it was Kessler’s pledge that will have by far the greatest impact on whether the Trojans can navigates their way back to the top.

“I felt the same way [about him],” Sarksian said. “That’s why you should come back. Guys make decisions to stay or to go, and at the end of the day the college experience is so unique and if you feel like you have a chance to win a championships you should try to do it because once you leave, that’s it. You don’t get another opportunity to do it.

“I think we both feel like we have a chance to do that. It’s going to take a lot of hard work, but I think we understand we’re capable of it.”

Dominating Florida is always critical for Florida State, but another secret to the Seminoles' success is doing well in Virginia, and highly-coveted corner Levonta Taylor could be the Noles' next big get from the state.

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Happy mailbag Wednesday. Follow me here on Twitter.

To the notes!

Greeny in Boston writes: You guys keep saying six Pac-12 teams are going to be ranked or should be ranked. Give me a "buy/sell" on each team, just for arguments sake.

Kevin Gemmell: Sure! Buy/sells are fun this time of year because it’s pure speculation at this point. I actually think it should be seven. Others among us might disagree. But here are some quick thoughts on the seven I believe should be ranked (or will be ranked at some point throughout the season):

  • Arizona: A lot of talent coming back on offense. But we need to see how quickly the offensive line comes together.
  • Arizona State: Smooth quarterback transition and a defense that surged at times last year. Might be my dark horse for the South. Still thinking about that one.
  • Oregon: A perennial contender that should again have the strongest rushing attack in the conference. The quarterback question is the obvious selling point.
  • Stanford: Finished the year as strong as any team in the country. Another dark horse team I’m considering. But the depth at defensive line -- for the first time in a long time -- is the selling point.
  • UCLA: Should be one of the better defenses nationally and the Bruins return the league’s leading rusher from last year. Same selling point as Oregon -- what happens at quarterback?
  • USC: On paper, this is a top-10 team. But as I wrote last week, the Trojans struggled against some of the top-tier teams. That provides enough pause before completely buying in.
  • Utah: Really good defense. Really good special teams. Really good running back. Is this the year we see some consistent quarterback play?

You'll notice that five of these teams are in the South, which again will beat itself up en route to the Pac-12 title game. It's likely not all seven will be ranked at the same time. But at some point during the year, my guess is that all seven will appear in the Top 25.

Dimond Mike in Oakland writes: I think the blog has given Jared Goff plenty of love, but as a fan who has seen the real deal (Aaron Rodgers) and poseur (Kyle Boller), Jared Goff is a no doubt about it starting NFL QB in years to come. He'll have the numbers to back it up, so shouldn't that get him on more national radars, or is it solely about getting 10+ wins?

Kevin Gemmell: Depends on what kind of national radar you’re looking for. If we’re talking Heisman, then yes, 10-plus wins would certainly help. There were four quarterbacks who threw more touchdowns than Goff last season -- and one of them won the Heisman. But that’s also because he ran for 15 on top of his 42 passing. Goff had zero rushing touchdowns.

Unfortunately, the en vogue Heisman candidate does more than just throw touchdowns. He’s a dual-threat guy who is praised or criticized for his team’s success. And when you play for the team that ranked 120th in scoring defense in 2014, well, you do the math.

Remember Colby Cameron? He was Sonny Dykes’ quarterback his last year at Louisiana Tech. He tossed 31 touchdowns to just five interceptions and completed 68.8 percent of his throws for 4,147 yards. Pretty darn good numbers. I believe he plays in Japan now. It’s unfortunate, but quarterbacks in throw-heavy systems get labeled as “system” quarterbacks. Well, guess what: Every single quarterback is a “system” quarterback. Marcus Mariota was a system quarterback. Andrew Luck was a system quarterback. It’s a dumb label. Tangent ...

As to his NFL future, I’m not a scout. But a lot of scouts and coaches I’ve talked to seem to think he’s a budding star. I’ve seen him make all the throws he has to make at the next level. But as always, a lot of it depends on where he goes, how much time he sits or is forced to play. Who is his coach/position coach/coordinator, etc. I think he’ll end up getting drafted. But a lot of his success will come down to where he lands.

Al in Tempe, Ariz. writes: I liked the Travis Haney story on coaching bargains. But do we still have to keep referring to Graham as a program hopper?

Kevin Gemmell: Let me first thank you for being an Insider. With your subscription, Ted can keep the air conditioning on for another week.

I’m not sure the stigma will ever leave him. Which is wildly unfair given the commitment he’s made at ASU. He owns a home. He’s donated half a mill to improving facilities. He also won a Pac-12 South title and is 2-1 in bowl games.

In Travis’ defense, he did say “all jokes aside,” meaning he wasn’t going to make one. But still, the fact that the national media still goes there when thinking about Todd Graham is unfair at this point. While he left Pitt under bad circumstances, he’s also owned it a 1,000 times over, calling it a mistake to go there in the first place. And let’s be honest, do you really want a coach who doesn’t want to be there?

Per the good folks at Arizona State, here’s a list of all the coaches from that hiring class. You’ll note that 11 have already moved on or been dismissed.

2011 coaching hires

  • Urban Meyer, Ohio State (38-3)
  • Jim Mora, UCLA (29-11)
  • Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M (28-11)
  • Todd Graham, Arizona State (28-12)
  • Tim DeRuyter, Fresno State (26-14)
  • Rich Rodriguez, Arizona (26-14)
  • Matt Campbell, Toledo (25-13)
  • Hugh Freeze, Mississippi (24-15)
  • Kyle Flood, Rutgers (23-16)
  • Larry Fedora, North Carolina (21-17)
  • Justin Fuente, Memphis (17-20)
  • Curtis Johnson, Tulane (12-25)
  • Tim Beckman, Illinois (12-25)
  • Mike Leach, Washington State (12-25)
  • Terry Bowden, Akron (11-25)
  • Bob Davie, New Mexico (11-26)
  • Norm Chow, Hawaii (8-29)

Coaching changes (11): Arkansas (John L. Smith), Arkansas State (Gus Malzahn), Colorado State (Jim McElwain), FAU (Carl Pellini), Houston (Tony Levin), Kansas (Charlie Weis), UMASS (Charley Molnar), Penn State (Bill O’Brien), Pitt (Paul Chryst), Southern Miss (Ellis Johnson), UAB (Garrick McGee)

Graham isn’t going anywhere. And even if he does … he gave ASU three good years and a lot of wins (and counting). Can anyone really complain at this point?

Jalen Grimble was expected to make a big difference for Oregon State in 2014. The Miami transfer was a star of spring practices a year ago and he seemed certain to bolster the interior defensive line, which had been a notable weakness in 2013, when the Beavers yielded 31.4 points per game.

Didn't happen. In fact, Grimble is the first to admit his 2014 campaign was a major disappointment.

“If I had a word for it, I’d give it to you but I don’t," he said. "Last year was a ... mess, I guess you could say.”

Injuries, as they often are, were the main culprit. Grimble battled back issues in preseason camp and early in the season and he made little impact, recording just two tackles in the first three games. He said he felt he was playing at about 80 percent. It was frustrating to be healthy enough to play but not healthy enough to meet his or his coaches' expectations.

In the early going of Game 4 against USC, where he'd once been committed, he made a couple of tackles and started to feel like himself.

“I thought it was too good to be true," he said. "It turned out to be.”

He hurt his knee and missed the next six games. He came back late in the season but wasn't effective. He was out of shape and out of sorts.

Said Grimble, “Getting hurt, it was kind of like one of those things ... what’s next?”

What was next was coach Mike Riley surprising everyone, particularly his players, by bolting for Nebraska.

“It was shocking. It really was shocking," Grimble said. "To be honest, it hurt a few people 0n the team.”

While the announcement shortly thereafter that the Beavers had hired Gary Andersen away from Wisconsin was quickly embraced by media and fans as a hiring coup -- one that was nearly as surprising as Riley leaving Corvallis after 14 years (12 consecutively) -- for players like Grimble it didn't make much of an immediate impact.

“We blew Google up, though" Grimble said. "I've got to say now it was a great hire."

It helped that Andersen lured Kalani Sitake away from Utah to run the Beavers' defense. Grimble knew Sitake from recruiting and his Miami transfer. He and defensive line coach Chad Kauha'aha'a have made a positive impression on Grimble, who's dropped 20-plus pounds to 285.

“That’s the biggest thing they’ve changed in the program: energy," Grimble said. "There is no relaxing, taking days off, taking plays off. They don’t let one thing go by, whether it’s a meeting, lifting, a practice.”

The Beavers defense is a big question mark heading into 2015. Just three starters are back from 2014, and only four players have any starting experience, a list that includes Grimble. Still, Grimble, Jaswha James, Lavonte Barnett and Luke Hollingsworth have seen enough action to make the D-line look like a potential sneaky strength. Toss tackle Kyle Peko in there, if he maintains his academics, and there's some depth and options.

Of course, Oregon State can't afford many injures to players like Grimble to have any chance of climbing in the Pac-12's North Division next fall. Grimble still isn't 100 percent and is only seeing limited action this spring.

Still, the new staff's up-tempo, high-energy approach appears to be inspiring optimism. Grimble struggled physically and mentally last year. He was frustrated. Today?

"I feel great," he said.

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

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

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

We tackled offensive trios for the North and the South on Tuesday. This morning, we looked at the defensive situation in the Pac-12 North, which looks to be a rebuilding adventure across the board. Here's a glimpse at the Pac-12 South, which looks like it may be in better shape than the North. There also seems to be some defensive parity across the board in this division, so keep that in mind when considering these rankings. There's no clear standout.

1. Utah

LB Jared Norris, DL Hunter Dimick, LB Gionni Paul

The skinny: The Utes will certainly miss Nate Orchard's beastly productivity (18.5 sacks, 21 TFL), but this strong defensive machine looks to keep on churning. Norris led last year's team with 116 tackles -- the next most productive player after Orchard accumulated only 61. Utah will turn to Dimick (10 sacks, 14.5 TFL) to pick up some pass-rush slack, while Paul's four interceptions paced the roster in 2014.

2. Arizona

LB Scooby Wright, S William Parks, CB Cam Denson

The skinny: To begin, let's establish that Scooby Wright alone delivers the statistical output of an entire three-headed monster: 163 tackles, 19 TFL, 14 sacks and six forced fumbles in 2014. It's remarkable to realize that Parks' 81 tackles -- second most of Arizona's returners -- were less than half of Wright's total last year. The safety did also contribute two interceptions, as did Denson at cornerback. With Jared Tevis and Tra'Mayne Bondurant both gone, the secondary must pick up slack to round out the Wildcats' new three-headed monster.

3. Arizona State

S Jordan Simone, LB Salamo Fiso, CB Kweishi Brown

The skinny: The Sun Devils are coming off a topsy-turvy season on defense, but the bet here is that Todd Graham's maturing unit will show much more consistency in 2015. Simone has gone from walk-on to ASU's leading returning tackler and critical defensive glue. Fiso will likely have to improve upon his 11 tackles for loss from last season to help this unit overcome the pass rush loss of Marcus Hardison. Brown brings back three interceptions.

4. USC

LB Anthony Sarao, LB Su'a Cravens, CB Adoree' Jackson

The skinny: Though leading tacklers Leonard Williams and Hayes Pullard are gone, plenty of exciting talent remains at USC. Sarao, now a senior, is the leading returning tackler on a balanced defense. Cravens is a true Swiss Army knife -- he's effective both in the secondary and at linebacker, evidenced by the fact he led the Trojans in both tackles for loss (17) and interceptions (3) last season. Jackson is still looking for his first career pick, but we're betting that comes soon, as his playmaking ability is not in question.


LB Myles Jack, LB Deon Hollins, CB Ishmael Adams

The skinny: This troika is tasked with filling the shoes of Eric Kendricks, perhaps the nation's most dependable tackling machine (145 last season). Jack is the unit's leading returner (87 stops in 2014), while Hollins led the Bruins with nine sacks as a sophomore. UCLA should benefit from the experience that Adams brings at cornerback. Remember that he housed two interceptions last year, and both returns were electrifying.

6. Colorado

LB Kenneth Olugbode, DL Derek McCartney, S Tedric Thompson

The skinny: The Buffs seem confident that they'll make major improvements to their atrocious run defense in 2015. That'll require a unit-wide effort originating from the front seven. But trio above represents an integral core of statistical production. Olugbode is Colorado's leading returning tackler, McCartney paced last year's team with 4.5 sacks, and Thompson recorded all three of the Buffs' interceptions in 2014.

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

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

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

We're breaking it down by division. Yesterday, we handled North and South offenses. Now, we move to the other side of the ball. As you'll read below, the Pac-12 North must replace a tremendous amount of defensive production in 2015.

1. Oregon

LB Joe Walker, DL DeForest Buckner, CB Chris Seisay

The skinny: The Ducks did lose defensive firepower, but they've also retained some of their big guns. Buckner is a future NFL talent who led the team with 13 tackles for loss (four sacks) last year, while Walker's 49 solo tackles were the most from the linebacking corps. The biggest production vacuum comes in the secondary, where Erick Dargan's conference-best seven interceptions have vanished. Seisay filled in for Ifo Ekpre-Olomu late, so he has big shoes to fill.

2. Stanford

LB Blake Martinez, LB Peter Kalambayi, CB Ronnie Harris

The skinny: The Pac-12's best defense for three years running faces a daunting reloading effort. Cardinal defensive coordinator Lance Anderson remains bullish about much of his roster's talent, though. Martinez returns 101 tackles, the most from the 2014 team, while Kalambayi's speed rush netted 6.5 sacks last season. The secondary saw a heavy load of departures -- Harris is now the elder statesman in the midst of youngsters. The hinge point of Stanford defensive success, though, will likely be the performance of its new-look defensive line.

3. Cal

LB Michael Barton, LB Devante Downs, S Griffin Piatt

The skinny: The Bears return their leading tackler in Barton, who finished with 80 stops last season. Barton also paced the team with 7.5 tackles for loss. Downs came off the bench to top the roster with three sacks, but Cal needs to pressure the quarterback much more effectively to succeed defensively in 2015 -- as a team, they accumulated only 16 total sacks. There's an influx of fresh talent coming into the secondary (the Bears need it to stay healthy this time around), but Piatt grabbed three interceptions in just six games before going down with a season-ending injury.

4. Washington

LB Travis Feeney, S Budda Baker, CB Sidney Jones

The skinny: There's a lot of individual star power to replace in Seattle. Hau'oli Kikaha's boatload of sacks are gone, as are John Timu's tackles and Danny Shelton's mind-boggling numbers from the nose tackle slot. Feeney is the most experienced returning starter. He recorded 4.5 tackles for loss last year for a Washington team that has lost a staggering 60.5 tackles for loss and 44 sacks to graduation. Baker brings back 80 stops -- third most on last year's team -- while Sidney Jones should benefit from having a trial-by-fire freshman year under his belt.

5. Washington State

LB Kache Palacio, LB Jeremiah Allison, CB Charleston White

The skinny: Xavier Cooper has declared for the NFL draft, so Palacio is the Cougars' most productive returner. He led the team with 6.5 sacks last season. Allison's 71 stops in 2014 make him the top returning tackler. Washington State defensive backs finished with only one interception throughout all of last season -- yes, you read that right. It belonged to White, so he earns the mention here, although there are still plenty of questions left to answer.

6. Oregon State

DE Lavonte Barnett, CB Larry Scott, S Justin Strong

The skinny: The Beavers must replace nine defensive starters. Their top six tacklers are all gone, and not a single one of the team's 11 interceptions in 2014 is returning. So finding a strong three-headed nucleus is a tough task at this point. Barnett led the team with 4.5 sacks last year, so there's that. Scott and Strong both racked up tackles in the secondary, but there's not much else to write home about when it comes to proven talent in Corvallis.

Pac-12 morning links

March, 25, 2015
Mar 25

And the capital of Nebraska is Lincoln!

video On Monday, we ranked the best bang-for-the-buck coaching values in college football. Today we look at the opposite end of the spectrum and discuss coaches who are overpaid, based on bloated salaries and a lack of results. Note that some of the coaches below are still relatively new, but the money they’re making will rapidly increase expectations, which will lead to angst if those expectations aren’t met. The estimated salary figures come from a combination of documents obtained by ESPN.com and the USA Today coaches’ salary database. 1. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa Estimated 2015 salary: $4 million Iowa fans are already rolling their eyes. They’ve heard all this before because they’ve seen their school handcuffed for years by the worst contract in college football. If not for a buyout that at one point would have pushed $20 million, Ferentz likely would have been out. No, he definitely would have been out. Instead, because of an unheard of 10-year deal he signed after the 2009 season, Iowa continues to pay top-10 money for a program that isn’t sniffing the top 10 in the polls. Coaches agree that Iowa isn’t the easiest place to win, but the resources and facilities are well above average and the division is the most winnable in the country. For $4 million per season, the Hawkeyes should get something more -- far more -- than Ferentz’s 6.8 victories a year since he signed the extension. As the buyout becomes more reasonable as the contract nears its 2020 completion, it’ll be interesting to see at what point the administration is willing to pull the trigger.

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