Pac-12: California Golden Bears

Over the past few weeks, ESPN writers and analysts sat down to rank the top 100 football players in the country based on their own predictions of the kind of contribution -- both quantitatively and qualitatively -- they’d make to their team in this upcoming season.

We perused about 460 different players who hailed from each position group and conference across the country and ranked those players on a scale of 0-10. If we thought a player would be a “stellar contributor,” we ranked him somewhere in the 8-10 range.

A “solid contributor” earned a 4-7 ranking and a “contributor” (meaning, he’ll certainly contribute but not to the level of the others who were listed on the voting sheet) was given a 0-3. Their averages were found and then ranked and we were left with the top 100 players.

Twenty players from the Pac-12 made their way on to the list, including two players in the top 10 (both of which are from the same team -- can you guess whom?). This week, we’ll be counting down those 100 players. Keep your eyes here as we begin our march toward the 2014 season.

Media Days takeaways: Day 2

July, 24, 2014
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Some thoughts, observations and musings about Day 2 of media days from the Pac-12 blog's Kevin Gemmell, Kyle Bonagura and Chantel Jennings.

Biggest football-centric takeaway?

Gemmell: I think it's pretty notable that Stanford wide receiver Ty Montgomery -- a guy on the Biletnikoff watch list and a guy coach David Shaw called one of the most explosive players in college football -- probably won't play in Week 1. Shaw identified it as an "arm" injury for Montgomery, who didn't participate in spring ball. Shaw said it's likely they will take it slow for fall camp and might keep him out of Week 1. Translation: "We're playing UC Davis and should be fine without him." Because a week later they play USC. And they will need him for that game.

Jennings: There were plenty of good nuggets that came out of Day 2, but I was particularly interested to hear that UCLA linebacker Myles Jack, the reigning Offensive/Defensive Freshman of the Year, put on 15 pounds of muscle during this offseason. That's a lot of weight for a kid who already hit (and ran) pretty darn well. It'll be interesting to see how a bigger and stronger Jack does in Year 2 with Jim Mora and the Bruins.

Bonagura: For a media day, it was actually pretty quiet. The big news was clearly Washington coach Chris Petersen's decision to suspend projected starting quarterback Cyler Miles for the Huskies' opener against Hawaii, but even that will have little impact on the season. No one is expecting that to be much of a game regardless of who's under center for Washington. If anything, the move could end up helping the Huskies from a football standpoint because they'll get much-needed game experience for whoever ends up being the backup and give Miles extra time to digest the new coaching staff's system after missing every practice and meeting during spring ball.

Biggest nonfootball takeaway?

[+] EnlargeTodd Graham
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesHow long does Todd Graham have to stay in Tempe for rumors about a departure to subside?
Gemmell: Todd Graham caught a lot of flak -- I mean A LOT of flak -- when he jumped from Pitt to Arizona State. He had a reputation as a program hopper always looking for the best opportunity. When most jobs became available, Graham was always rumored (usually unsubstantiated) as wanting to move on. Well, he's not, and he addressed that Thursday. Coming into his third year (a longer tenure than five other Pac-12 coaches, mind you) he says he's committed to ASU for the "long haul" and could see himself retiring in Tempe. His house is paid off, he's got pretty good continuity with his staff and he's winning. Sounds like the makings of a long and happy relationship. But if he does leave on his own, is three years fair? Five? Time to let the "Todd Graham is gonna jump ship" storyline go.

Jennings: Cue the campfire and Kumbaya, please. Everyone is becoming bff's.

Not only is this year going to hold one of the deepest crops of quarterbacks in a single conference ever, this could also be one of the closer groups of quarterbacks ever. So many of these guys attended the Manning Passing Academy together -- Sean Mannion and Brett Hundley roomed together at the camp. And through the two media days, there just seemed to be so much bromance. You've got the guys in other conferences who say, "Yeah, he's a good player and I respect him" but it felt like this group genuinely could become fraternity brothers or something. Sure, they're going to take the field and try to destroy each other's teams, but I also feel like -- if given the chance -- most of them would sit down for a dinner together the next day.

Bonagura: UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley is ready for the spotlight. And maybe he's been ready, but it's going to be brighter this year. This was my first chance seeing Hundley handle a throng of media attention, in person, and he came off like a seasoned pro. Other players were similarly impressive, but with the festivities being held in Southern California, Hundley drew the most attention and it didn't faze him. Forget the fact that he's one of the most exciting players to watch in the country, there are plenty of reasons why he's an easy player to root for.

Best quote of the day?

Gemmell: I asked Colorado defensive end Juda Parker, of the 10 returning quarterbacks which one does he most want to sack. He responded with this gem: "The one I WILL sack is Oregon's Marcus Mariota. He's my classmate and we went to high school together. I'm looking forward to it. I'll probably give him an extra nudge and say, ‘We'll talk about this after the game.'"

Jennings: I was walking by a group of men when one of them announced, "That's why you don't raise raccoons." I should've stopped and completely put myself into the conversation because, let's be serious, this could've been one of the most interesting points of the day. But I was on a mission and decided to find coffee that it was easier to just input my own thoughts as to why they were talking about that. I'd like to imagine it was something like, "We need to achieve world peace and ... that's why you don't raise raccoons."

However, I would also like to imagine that at one point in time Mike Leach attempted to raise a raccoon.

[+] EnlargeJim Mora
Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY SportsJim Mora's not budging from UCLA if he has any say in it.
Bonagura: UCLA coach Jim Mora was asked about his commitment to the school and after a long-winded answer, he finished with: "I'm staying there until they kick me out. That might be tomorrow, who knows. I've been kicked out before. But I'm staying until they kick me out."

Going to go out on a limb and say UCLA is not going to fire Jim Mora tomorrow. So modest, Jim.

Which player made a good impression on you?

Gemmell: I've known Stanford safety Jordan Richards for a while. We've talked a lot and done several videos together over the years. And I'm always impressed with his poise and confidence. I love how much he loves football. A lot of defensive players I talked to over the last couple of days admitted they have a tough road ahead with all of the offensive talent in the league. Richards shrugs it off and says it's the quarterbacks who have to prove themselves worthy of all the praise. I like that.

Jennings: I'm going to give some major props to Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan here. One reporter asked Hogan about Mariota and Hogan went on a diatribe about how great of a person and player Mariota is. I'd imagine there are a lot of players out there who get sick of their same-position guys being talked about constantly (and having questions pitched to them about said guys), but Hogan couldn't say enough good things about Mariota. And yes, that says plenty about Mariota, but I think it says even more about the type of person Hogan is.

Bonagura: Relative to the rest of the players who were brought to Hollywood over the past two days, Juda Parker was one of the players I knew the least about. About 30 seconds into a chat with him, it became clear he's headed for big things. Time will tell if that's in professional football -- he's got a chance -- or in something else, but he expressed how important it was to develop skills during his time at Colorado that'll help both on the football field and "in a cubicle." It was obviously more detailed than that, but let's just say he served as an impressive ambassador for Colorado.

Cornhole was one of the activities available for the players and coaches at Pac-12 media days. If you could pick a threesome to play corn hole with, who would you pick and why?

Gemmell: Isn't this one obvious? Brett Hundley, Sean Mannion and Cody Kessler. Leave the coaches out of it. Stick with the three of the four most accurate quarterbacks in the Pac-12 from last year. Hundley led the conference with a 66.8 completion percentage. Mannion was second with 66.3 and Kessler was fourth at 65.4 (Keith Price was third at 66.2). The name of the game is accuracy. I want the guys who aren't going to miss.

Jennings: I'd pick Hundley as my teammate, because he and Eric Kendricks swept their competition -- 7-0, according to the leaderboard -- and I'm going to assume that the Heisman-contending QB was a big part of that. And for the competition, I'm going to pick Steve Sarkisian and Mark Helfrich -- the two coaches that are likely going to battle Hundley the most for the top spot in the south division and the championship game. Overall, there'd be plenty of real rivalry happening and I love some good trash talk (which I'm hoping there'd be some of). Plus, if we lost, I'd convince Hundley to just walk around throwing footballs at people and saying it was because he's the Campus Enforcer.

Bonagura: For my teammate, I'm choosing Sean Mannion. If his 68 career touchdown passes aren't reason enough, I'm putting a lot of stock in his recent victory in the Air-It-Out Challenge at the Manning Passing Academy. That event showcased his accuracy against several of the nation's best quarterbacks including USC's Cody Kessler and Oregon's Marcus Mariota, both of whom were also in Hollywood this week. As for who we're playing against, I want Mike Leach on my side of the pit (is it a cornhole pit?) purely for entertainment value and Sonny Dykes on the other to provide a reunion for the close friends.
We continue with our series looking at each Pac-12 team's nonconference opponents in 2014.

CALIFORNIA

At Northwestern, Saturday, Aug. 30
  • Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (55-46), ninth year
  • 2013 record: 5-7, 1-7 Big Ten
  • Returning starters: 9 offense, 9 defense
  • Offensive headliner: After playing the last couple of seasons in a two-quarterback system, Trevor Siemian is the full-time guy. He has more than 3,700 yards and 20 touchdowns to his credit.
  • Defensive headliner: Remember Collin Ellis? You should. He had a pair of pick-sixes for the Wildcats in the second half of last year's game that ended up being the difference. Now he's making the transition to middle linebacker to replace the departed Damien Proby.
  • The skinny: After starting out 4-0 last year, the Wildcats went on to drop seven straight before closing out the season with a win over Illinois. Four of those losses were by a touchdown or less and two of them were in overtime -- including a triple-overtime loss to Michigan. With 18 starters coming back, surely there are some lessons learned about playing in close games.
Sacramento State, Saturday, Sept. 6
  • Coach: Jody Sears (interim), first year
  • 2013 record: 5-7, 4-4 Big Sky
  • Returning starters: 10 offense, seven defense
  • Offensive headliner: Wide receiver DeAndre Carter caught 64 balls for 934 yards and matched the team record with 14 receiving touchdowns last season. He was recently named to the preseason All-Big Sky squad.
  • Defensive headliner: Linebacker Darnell Sankey, who spent most of last season at defensive end, is making the move to middle linebacker and will try to replace all-conference linebacker Todd Davis.
  • The skinny: This is not a team to be taken for granted. Recall, the Hornets topped Oregon State in the season opener in 2011 and then stung again by beating Colorado in 2012. But that was under Marshall Sperbeck, who suddenly resigned after seven seasons in April amid possible NCAA allegations. Still, you can't take an FCS team for granted -- especially this one and its recent history of upsets.
BYU, Saturday Nov. 29
  • Coach: Bronco Mendenhall (82-34), 10th year
  • 2013 record: 8-5, Independent
  • Returning starters: eight offense, six defense
  • Offensive headliner: Quarterback Taysom Hill is a dynamic dual-threat player. He started in every game last year and threw for 19 touchdowns while rushing for 10 more.
  • Defensive headliner: Safety Craig Bills returns after posting 78 tackles last season, which was second on the team. He's versatile enough to play either safety spot.
  • The skinny: BYU always seems to be good. But never great. Still, this is a big challenge for a Cal team that is looking to make strides in Year 2 under Sonny Dykes. The timing of the game is interesting. It's the season finale for both teams. By Nov. 29, the Bears could be a battle-tested group and Jared Goff could be having an all-conference season. Or, not. BYU has won just once in its last five games against the Pac-12.
Thoughts: There are a lot of "ifs-thens" going on in Berkeley these days. If some defensive players come back healthy ... if Jared Goff takes the next step and his receivers play to their potential ... if the change at defensive coordinator pays dividends ... if, if, if ... then Cal will be better. Being on the road for your first game of the season is always a challenge -- regardless of the opponent. But recall that Cal was in that game against Northwestern if not for a couple of tipped passes. You never want to overlook an FCS team. And with just one career win at Cal (against an FCS team), Sonny Dykes certainly won't be overlooking Sacramento State. As for the BYU game, it's almost impossible to make any sort of prediction, because it's likely both teams will look very different on Nov. 29 than they do when the season opens in August. We can all agree that a winless nonconference slate would be devastating to Dykes' rebuilding efforts. One win is expected. But a second or third would be considered tangible signs of improvement -- and probably a welcomed treat for the Cal faithful.
BEAVERTON, Ore. -- Pac-12 programs hold commitments from 13 prospects who participated in Nike's The Opening this week, including four quarterbacks who finished in the final Elite 11 quarterback ranking and two offensive linemen who were named to the Final Five on that side of the ball. Though the conference will undoubtedly finish with commitments from many more of the recruits in attendance, we take a look at how the 13 commitments fared over the four days.

Pac-12 lunch links

July, 11, 2014
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Happy Friday!

Five Pac-12 players to root for

July, 11, 2014
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There is no shortage of players who will excite on the field in the Pac-12 this season, but it's not all about on-field performance. Whether it's for their off-field contributions or their on-field demeanor, here are five guys worth rooting for even if they don't play for your team.

Taylor Kelly, quarterback, Arizona State: Quick, who was the second-team All-Pac-12 quarterback last season -- UCLA’s Brett Hundley or Arizona State’s Kelly? Outside the Pac-12, the assumption would probably be Hundley, and that would be wrong. Kelly quietly led ASU to the best regular-season record in the Pac-12 last season and has a likely NFL future. His time in Tempe hasn’t been one big party, either. The Master’s candidate volunteers at local schools two days a week and is heavily involved in the Scholar Baller leadership and outreach program, for which he teaches high school students about leadership and character among other things. Kelly is also an accomplished drag racer, but that passion is currently on hold at the request of ASU coach Todd Graham. As a result of his vast car knowledge, Kelly has turned into the de facto mechanic for the ASU football team.

[+] EnlargeMariota
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsWhen Marcus Mariota isn't piling up big stats on the field, he can usually be found studying somewhere.
Marcus Mariota, quarterback, Oregon: After passing up a good shot at being the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft to return to school, Mariota has all the makings of a Heisman Trophy favorite. And he won’t come with much controversy. If Andrew Luck set the standard for unassuming superstar quarterbacks in the Pac-12, Mariota isn’t far behind. He’s quiet, he’s polite, he’s humble and while pursuing a degree in General Science, he has developed a reputation as one of the most studious athletes on campus. For those looking for reasons to root against him, as an individual, it will be hard to justify.

Toni Pole, defensive tackle, Washington State: When Pole intercepted a Keith Price pass in overtime and nearly returned it for a touchdown in the 2012 Apple Cup, he created a memory Washington State fans will remember for a long time. For many, that is not the only lasting impression he has produced. Pole is a frequent volunteer in the Pullman community, and his philantrophic efforts have included helping to put on “Butch’s Bash,” a holiday party for local kids. He makes trips to the local senior center where he plays games with the residents and is musically inclined. When the Cougars are on the road, he can be found playing the piano in hotel lobbies and has sang the National Anthem at women’s basketball games.

Ty Montgomery, receiver, Stanford: Stanford coach David Shaw has said Montgomery has the talent to be a No. 1 receiver in the NFL, but after big junior year with the Cardinal, Montgomery didn’t even consider a pre-graduation jump to Sunday football. He didn’t even ask for an evaluation from the NFL or for a draft-round projection, which is common for draft-eligible players. He chose Stanford largely for academic reasons and chose to stay for the same. As soft-spoken as they come, Montgomery has already been named to the Maxwell and Hornung Award watch lists and is one of the more dynamic kick returners in the country.

Stefan McClure, cornerback, Cal: After a solid true freshman season in 2011, McClure appeared on his way to a great career for Cal. It hasn’t quite worked out that way, but it’s not for a lack of talent. He sat out the 2012 season rehabbing a torn ACL, then suffered another torn ACL five games into last season. If there is anyone who could use some good vibes coming his way, it’s McClure.
As much talk as there has been (including here at the Pac-12 blog) about how good the offenses in the conference will be this season, Thursday's release of the watch lists for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, given to the nation's best defensive player, and Outland Trophy, given to the nation's best interior lineman, shows the Pac-12 measures up well against other conferences in defensive talent, too.

The Pac-12 led all conferences with 18 players on the Nagurski list, edging out the SEC (16), Big 12 (13), ACC (12) and Big Ten (10). For the Outland Trophy, which includes a mix of defensive and offensive players, the Pac-12 ranked second with 11 players behind the SEC (19).

Stanford's Henry Anderson, USC's Leonard Williams and Washington's Danny Shelton are on both.

Here are the Pac-12 players that were included:

Nagurski (defensive player)
Outland Trophy
Other watch lists

Pac-12 lunch links

July, 9, 2014
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I would rather learn what it feels like to burn than feel nothing at all.

Pac-12 lunch links

July, 7, 2014
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It's the remix to ignition.
We're continuing our preseason position reviews. Please, hold your applause until we are finished.

Here's how we do this. We provide three evaluative categories: "Great shape," "Good shape" and "We'll see."

Hint: You'd prefer your team to be in "Great shape."

"We'll see" doesn't mean you're going to stink at said position. It means just what it says -- we'll see, because there's no way at present to know.

You can review last year's rankings here.

Up next: Defensive end. And as we said before, this is a difficult position to stagger when teams vary their scheme between 3-4 and 4-3 looks.

GREAT SHAPE

USC: Would we start with anyone other than Leonard Williams? Of course not. He was the only sophomore on the All-Pac-12 defensive team last season and he's out for a monstrous junior year, too. He recorded 13.5 tackles for a loss last season (including six sacks) and with the added depth on the D-line, he'll be an even bigger force this year. When Williams is out, look for Delvon Simmons to get in on the attack. Simmons, a Texas Tech transfer, has added 20 pounds since his sophomore year with the Red Raiders (in that season he tallied 27 tackles, 6 tackles for a loss).

Washington: The Huskies will field the nation's top-returning sack leader, Hau'oli Kikaha. On the UW website, he's now referred to as an outside linebacker, but for the sake of this post, we're going to still refer to him as a defensive end because chances are that his responsibilities are going to be largely the same. Evan Hudson and Joe Mathis will also be names to know, but the headliner at DE -- undoubtedly -- for the Huskies will be Kikaha.

Oregon: The Ducks have DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead. Those two are a talented pair that really came out this spring. Buckner has the most experience of the defensive ends and Armstead, who was a dual sport athlete (basketball) until last season, is now focused solely on football -- which showed. Plus, there's good depth behind those two with T.J. Daniel, junior college transfer Tui Talia and Stetzon Bair.

Stanford: Between Henry Anderson, who could be one of the best defensive linemen in the conference, and Blake Lueders, the Cardinal are in a very good place. Add to that group players like Luke Kaumatule -- the converted tight end -- and Aziz Shittu -- who can play tackle or end -- and Stanford should be talented up front yet again in 2014.

GOOD SHAPE

UCLA: Between Owamagbe Odighizuwa (who's still flying under some folks' radars) and Eddie Vanderdoes the Bruins have two pretty good-looking bookends on their defensive line. Vanderdoes sat out during the spring because of a broken foot, but should be up and available come fall. Ellis McCarthy is a bit of a tweener, but he and Kylie Fitts should be able to contribute.

Utah: Nate Orchard, who has 23 starts under his belt, is back for the Utes and will anchor one side of the line. Opposite Orchard is either going to be Jason Fanaika, the Utah State transfer, or Hunter Dimick. Orchard is going to be a force, and we have a feeling he's going to bring along whoever is opposite himself. The Utes have a good thing going here.

Oregon State: The Beavers are in solid shape with Dylan Wynn on one side and the other side still up for grabs in a pretty interesting position battle between Jaswha James, Lavonte Barnett and Titus Failauga. James will most likely snag the starting spot officially by the fall, but the competition is good for all involved. Oregon State also built in more depth here this spring when Obum Gwacham moved from receiver to defensive end (incredible position switch but a tremendous athlete and jumper), so he should also provide a few interesting rotations.

WE'LL SEE

Arizona: The Wildcats lost Sione Tuihalamaka and only return Reggie Gilbert (34 tackles, 7 tackles for a loss) and Dan Pettinato (10 tackles). However, they got an offseason boost from the addition of LSU transfer Jordan Allen, who will be able to play immediately for Arizona. He only registered 16 tackles and two sacks last season while losing his starting job, but he'll bring experience and depth to the Wildcats' defensive ends. These three guys present a pretty intriguing position group, but there are still too many unknowns.

Washington State: Xavier Cooper is moving inside to tackle, leaving the end spots up for grabs. Toni Pole and Destiny Vaeao will fit on the outside with Robert Barber and Lyman Faoliu taking some reps as well. There's just not enough experience or production (with too much of a history of not being consistently strong up front) to say this is anything other than a group that has lots of unproven potential.

Arizona State: During spring season the Sun Devils lined up in a bit more 4-3 than we've seen in the past. This move puts Mo Latu and Chans Cox at the end positions. Marcus Hardison played a bit inside but finished the spring season as the No. 1 DE on ASU's depth chart, with junior college transfer Edmond Boateng as his backup. It seems as though the Sun Devils might show a few different looks this season, which makes the differentiation between whether a player is an end vs. tackle vs. whatever a bit more difficult. Overall there are too many questions lingering here.

California: With new defensive coordinator Art Kaufman, the Bear defensive line is going to be experimenting in 2014 with a new version of the 4-3 this season -- the Miami 4-3 -- which leaves a few question marks until it's truly implemented into game situations. However, there's good talent and decent depth at the end positions for Cal. Brennan Scarlett, who missed last season with a broken hand, will be anchoring one end and will be backed up by Todd Barr and Antione Davis. On the other side, there's a position battle brewing between Kyle Kragen, Puka Lopa and junior college transfer Jonathan Johnson.

Colorado: Replacing Chidera Uzo-Diribe is no small task for the Buffs and though senior Juda Parker returns (28 tackles) it seems like the other end position will be filled by a redshirt freshman -- Derek McCartney. And if that doesn't work out, true freshman Michael Mathewes could become a contributor (or at least a fixture in the rotation) for the Buffs. Youth isn't always a bad thing, but when it's filling in the spot of a player like Uzo-Diribe, a guy who played the most snaps on the Colorado defensive line in 2013, it's not great.

OTHER POSITION REVIEWS:
It's here! It's here! The start of watch list season!

This morning, the National College Football Awards Association rolled out its first two watch lists and -- no surprise -- several Pac-12 players were named to both the Bednarik Award watch list (given to the nation's best defensive player) and the Maxwell Award watch list (the nation's best offensive player).

Of the 76 players on the Maxwell Award watch list, 16 hail from the Pac-12. Arizona State, Oregon and USC lead the way with three players a piece on that list but again -- no surprises here -- the quarterbacks ruled the day for the conference as seven Pac-12 quarterbacks were listed. Five wide receivers got nods and four running backs made the list (including both of the Ducks' top guys).

MAXWELL AWARD WATCH LIST

Of the 76 players on the Bednarik Award watch list, 13 are from the Pac-12. Stanford landed four guys while USC and Washington notched three apiece. Like the offense, almost half of the conference's recognition was in one position group (the linebackers), but there's still a good spread of recognition among the rest of the Pac-12 position groups -- three defensive linemen, six linebackers, two cornerbacks and two safeties.

BEDNARIK AWARD WATCH LIST

For a full list of the watch listers, click here. The lists will continue rolling out over the next two weeks so keep your eyes peeled. Don't get too distraught if you don't see your favorite player's name. It's early and there's still plenty of time for change. All of these lists are in pencil (like, a digital pencil) so don't panic yet.

Pac-12 lunch links

July, 1, 2014
Jul 1
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So hold on to the ones who really care. In the end they'll be the only ones there. When you get old and start losing hair, can you tell me who will still care? Can you tell me who will still care? Mmmmmmmmm bop.

Pac-12 lunch links

June, 19, 2014
Jun 19
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Ain't no party like an S Club party.

Position U: Running backs

June, 17, 2014
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video
Who really deserves to claim the title of "Running Back U" for the 2000s?

1. Arkansas (104 points)
In perhaps the biggest upset at any position, Arkansas can call itself “Running Back U” for the 2000s. Certainly Darren McFadden played the biggest role in the Razorbacks’ claim, but he got an assist from Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis. Those former backfield mates are among six Arkansas running backs who have been drafted since 2001, helping the Hogs barely edge Oklahoma for the top spot.

Award winners: McFadden, Walker (2006, 2007), Camp (2007).
Consensus All-Americans: McFadden (2006, 2007).
First-team all-conference: Fred Talley (2002), Cedric Cobbs (2003), Darren McFadden (2005, 2006, 2007).
NFL first-round draft picks: Jones (2008), McFadden (2008).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Cobbs (Round 4, 2004), Knile Davis (Round 3, 2013).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Hillis (Round 7, 2008), Kiero Small (Round 7, 2014).

2. Oklahoma (102 points)
When someone like Adrian Peterson has been on your campus, you have to start there when discussing Oklahoma running backs. But one of the main reasons the Sooners racked up such a considerable point total is the Big 12’s unusual practice of honoring fullbacks on its all-conference team. In addition to the Petersons and DeMarco Murrays, there are also several blocking backs included in the Sooners’ 12 all-conference running backs who made our list.

Award winners: None.
Consensus All-Americans: Peterson (2004).
First-team all-conference: Quentin Griffin (2002), Peterson (2004, 2005, 2006), J.D. Runnels (2005), Brody Eldridge (2007), DeMarco Murray (2008, 2010), Matt Clapp (2008), Trey Millard (2011, 2012, 2013).
NFL first-round draft picks: Peterson (2007).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Griffin (Round 4, 2003), Murray (Round 3, 2011).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Runnels (Round 6, 2006), Patrick (Round 7, 2008), Trey Millard (Round 7, 2014).

3. Alabama (100 points)
Arkansas’ Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams had better pick it up this season, or the Alabama train is going to roll to the top spot. The Crimson Tide once again has one of the nation’s most talented backfields with T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry set to join the likes of Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy as top point producers from Alabama.

Award winners: Ingram, Heisman (2009); Richardson, Walker (2011).
Consensus All-Americans: Ingram (2009), Richardson (2011).
First-team all-conference: Kenneth Darby (2005), Ingram (2009), Richardson (2011), Lacy (2012), Yeldon (2013).
NFL first-round draft picks: Ingram (2011), Richardson (2012).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Le’Ron McClain (Round 4, 2007), Glen Coffee (Round 3, 2009), Lacy (Round 2, 2013).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Ahmaad Galloway (Round 7, 2003), Darby (Round 7, 2007), Brad Smelley (Round 7, 2012).

4. Auburn (86 points)
Auburn hasn’t been as flashy as its in-state rival -- the Tigers don’t have a single award winner or consensus All-American in the 2000s -- but few schools have been as consistent at developing solid tailbacks. Perhaps the most memorable names are the stars from the undefeated 2004 team -- Ronnie Brown and Carnell “Cadillac” Williams -- but Rudi Johnson, Kenny Irons, Ben Tate and Tre Mason all made big impacts at Auburn, as well.

Award winners: None.
Consensus All-Americans: None.
First-team all-conference: Johnson (2000), Williams (2003, 2004), Brown (2004), Irons (2005, 2006), Michael Dyer (2011), Mason (2013).
NFL first-round draft picks: Brown (2005), Williams (2005).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Heath Evans (Round 3, 2001), Johnson (Round 4, 2001), Irons (Round 2, 2007), Tate (Round 2, 2010), Mason (Round 3, 2014).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Jay Prosch (Round 6, 2014).

4. Wisconsin (86 points)
Montee Ball is Wisconsin’s only major award winner and consensus All-America tailback from the 2000s, but the Badgers have an impressive tradition of turning out 1,000-yard rushers. Among the program’s top producers from this era are 2001 first-round pick Michael Bennett, Brian Calhoun and Anthony Davis, among others. Ball posted huge yardage and touchdown totals in 2011 and 2012 -- which explains why he was a two-time All-American and won the 2012 Doak Walker Award -- but it’s the run of consistency at running back that makes Wisconsin a producer of top rushers.

Award winners: Ball, Walker (2012).
Consensus All-Americans: Ball (2011, 2012).
First-team all-conference: Davis (2001), Calhoun (2005), P.J. Hill (2006), John Clay (2009), Ball (2011, 2012).
NFL first-round draft picks: Bennett (2001).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Calhoun (Round 3, 2006), Ball (Round 2, 2013), James White (Round 4, 2014).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Davis (Round 7, 2005), Bradie Ewing (Round 5, 2012).

6. Oregon (82 points)
Although the Ducks have ranked among the nation’s top programs over the past half-decade, LaMichael James’ 2010 Doak Walker Award is the only major award that an Oregon player has won at any position in the 2000s. James is the Ducks’ top point producer out of the backfield in recent years, but they also won points with backs like Maurice Morris and Onterrio Smith before Chip Kelly’s rushing attack turned Oregon into the offensive juggernaut that we see today.

Award winners: James, Walker (2010).
Consensus All-Americans: James (2010), Kenjon Barner (2012).
First-team all-conference: Smith (2002), Jonathan Stewart (2007), James (2010, 2011), Barner (2012).
NFL first-round draft picks: Stewart (2008).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Morris (Round 2, 2002), Smith (Round 4, 2003), LaMichael James (Round 2, 2012), De’Anthony Thomas (Round 4, 2014).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Barner (Round 6, 2013).

7. USC (78 points)
Reggie Bush was actually a two-time All-American, but we aren’t factoring the 2004 nod he received because that was as an all-purpose player, not a running back. Nonetheless, Bush’s standout 2005 season was the main points driver as the Trojans cracked the top 10 largely because of the former No. 2 overall NFL pick’s accomplishments. It bears mentioning, however, that USC has already had eight running backs drafted in the 2000s.

Award winners: Bush, Heisman (2005), Camp (2005), Walker (2005).
Consensus All-Americans: Bush (2005).
First-team all-conference: Bush (2004, 2005).
NFL first-round draft picks: Bush (2006).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Justin Fargas (Round 3, 2003), LenDale White (Round 2, 2006), Joe McKnight (Round 4, 2010).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Malaefou Mackenzie (Round 7, 2003), David Kirtman (Round 5, 2006), Allen Bradford (Round 6, 2011), Stanley Havili (Round 7, 2011).

8. Penn State (72 points)
Larry Johnson’s huge 2002 season accounts for much of Penn State’s point production -- he generated 52 points between winning three national awards, becoming a consensus All-American, winning first-team all-conference honors and getting drafted in the 2003 first round -- but the Nittany Lions have had five running backs drafted and Evan Royster also won all-conference honors in 2009.

Award winners: Johnson, Camp (2002), Maxwell (2002), Walker (2002).
Consensus All-Americans: Johnson (2002).
First-team all-conference: Johnson (2002), Royster (2009).
NFL first-round draft picks: Johnson (2003).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Omar Easy (Round 4, 2002), Michael Robinson (Round 4, 2006), Tony Hunt (Round 3, 2007).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Royster (Round 6, 2011).

9. Oklahoma State (70 points)
There’s nothing flashy about Oklahoma State’s point production here. No national awards, and just Kendall Hunter among its All-Americans. But the Cowboys have been outstanding at producing all-conference running backs, with Hunter (twice) and Tatum Bell ranking among their eight backs who made the coaches’ first team.

Award winners: None.
Consensus All-Americans: Hunter (2010.
First-team all-conference: Bell (2003), Dantrell Savage (2007), Hunter (2008, 2010), Keith Toston (2009), Bryant Ward (2009, 2010), Joseph Randle (2012).
NFL first-round draft picks: None.
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Bell (Round 2, 2004), Vernand Morency (Round 3, 2005), Hunter (Round 4, 2011).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Randle (Round 5, 2013).

10. California (66 points)
Considering how Cal shares a conference with splashy programs like Oregon and USC, perhaps it’s understandable that its success developing tailbacks might fly a bit under the radar. But just look at the Bears’ résumé, starting with Marshawn Lynch, Jahvid Best and J.J. Arrington. There have been some enormously productive tailbacks who got their start in Berkeley.

Award winners: None.
Consensus All-Americans: Arrington (2004).
First-team all-conference: Adimchinobe Echemandu (2003), Arrington (2004), Lynch (2006), Justin Forsett (2007), Best (2008).
NFL first-round draft picks: Lynch (2007), Best (2010).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Arrington (Round 2, 2005), Shane Vereen (Round 2, 2011).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Echemandu (Round 7, 2004), Forsett (Round 7, 2008).

10. Virginia Tech (66 points)
Frank Beamer’s Hokies are another bunch who trotted out productive tailback after productive tailback. Virginia Tech hasn’t won a national award and has only Kevin Jones among its All-America backs, but its list of all-conference backs -- including first-round picks Jones and David Wilson, along with Lee Suggs, Brandon Orr and Ryan Williams -- features some players whose running abilities fit perfectly with Beamer’s winning formula in Blacksburg.

Award winners: None.
Consensus All-Americans: Jones (2003).
First-team all-conference: Suggs (2000), Jones (2003), Orr (2006), Williams (2009), Wilson (2011).
NFL first-round draft picks: Jones (2004), Wilson (2012).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Suggs (Round 4, 2003), Williams (Round 2, 2011).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Jarrett Ferguson (Round 7, 2002), Cedric Humes (Round 7, 2006).

REST OF “RUNNING BACK U” RANKINGS
62 -- Boston College; 60 -- Michigan, Ohio State; 58 -- Stanford; 56 -- LSU, Miami; 52 -- Georgia Tech, Oregon State; 50 -- West Virginia; 48 -- BYU; 44 -- Arizona, Michigan State, Pittsburgh, TCU; 42 -- Texas; 40 -- Clemson, Iowa, Nebraska; 36 -- Kansas State, Rutgers; 32 -- Georgia, Minnesota; 28 -- Florida State, Louisville, Tennessee, UCLA; 26 -- Illinois, Maryland, Syracuse; 24 -- Virginia; 20 -- Colorado, North Carolina; 18 -- Baylor, Mississippi State, Wake Forest; 16 -- Florida, Northwestern, Washington, Washington State; 14 -- Ole Miss, South Carolina, Texas Tech; 12 -- Iowa State, Kentucky; 10 -- Kansas, N.C. State, Texas A&M; 8 -- Missouri, Utah; 6 -- Arizona State, Duke, Indiana, Notre Dame; 2 -- Vanderbilt
All players are equal, but some players are more equal than others. That's the basis of our Most Important Player series.

First off, quarterbacks are excluded to make things more interesting. It goes without saying, for example, that Marcus Mariota is Oregon's most important player.

And most important doesn't necessarily have to be "best." An All-American's backup can be pretty darn good, too. USC's Leonard Williams might be the best defensive lineman in the nation, but is he the Trojans' most important player considering the talent and depth on their D-line?

Our most important guys are players who could swing a win total one way or the other, based on their living up to expectations. Or their absence.

[+] EnlargeBrennan Scarlett
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezBrennan Scarlett missed the 2013 season with a hand injury.
California: DE Brennan Scarlett

2013 production: Out with a hand injury.

Why Scarlett is so important: California had the worst defense in the Pac-12 last year. In fact, it probably had the worst defense in school history.

The Golden Bears yielded 45.9 points per game. They also ranked last in the conference in total defense, pass defense, pass defense efficiency, opponent third-down conversion percentage, red-zone defense, fourth-down defense, etc.

Part -- perhaps even most -- of the reason it cratered so badly was injuries. Scarlett was arguably first among the long list of key players missing all or significant parts of the season, as a hand injury developed a staph infection and spiraled from there, forcing him to miss every game and even, for a worrisome period, threatening his career.

In 2012, he started nine games and registered 40 tackles, six tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. He flashed tremendous potential, and the general feeling among his coaches hasn't wavered: A healthy Scarlett should become an NFL player.

The Bears desperately need him to become a pass-rushing threat. While questionable everywhere, the Bears secondary has the most issues, so it can't afford to be exposed to a quarterback's eager eyeballing for five or six seconds every pass play. Last year, Cal had just 18 sacks. If Scarlett plays to his potential, the 6-foot-4, 265-pounder should at least approach half that total on his own this fall.

If Cal is going to have a bounce-back season, its defense must improve dramatically. It is difficult to believe that would happen without Scarlett becoming a disruptive force.

Other Most Important Players:

Arizona: LB Scooby Wright

Arizona State: S Damarious Randall

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