Roundtable: Most intriguing nonconference game

February, 26, 2015
Feb 26
3:00
PM ET
In this week’s poll readers voted on which nonconference/non-Notre Dame game was the most intriguing of the 2015 season. Fear not, next week we’ll be discussing which nonconference game (including Notre Dame games … and, yes, a certain Arizona State game) will tell us the most about a team early in the season.

But for now, we were talking about intrigue -- intrigue in storylines and crossed paths and coaching changes and whatnot. The poll revealed that many readers thought that the Oregon-Michigan State matchup would be the most intriguing and our writers had a few thoughts on that as well. Specifically, David Lombardi, Chantel Jennings and Kevin Gemmell decided to hash it out for the world to see in this week’s roundtable.

Which nonconference/non-Notre Dame game provides the most intrigue to you this season and why?
  • Lombardi: Utah vs. Michigan
Opening weekend has a heavenly flurry of nonconference action in store for us. Friday features Washington-Boise State, and Saturday boasts ASU-Texas A&M, which is some pretty darn rich icing on the cake. But look no further than Thursday -- opening night -- for the biggest intrigue. That’s when Michigan visits Utah to kick off the 2015 campaign.

In other words, that’s when Jim Harbaugh makes his return to college football in front of a crowd known for its fervor, especially at night. Utah wasn’t in the conference back when Harbaugh made a massive mark at Stanford, but the Utes did spank Michigan in the Big House last year. That means there’s recent history here to pour gasoline on this game’s fire. The Wolverines will be hungry for vengeance under their new head coach, while Utah is already champing at the bit for more after their resurgent 9-4 season.

Both of these teams will be looking to address significant question marks, and that only adds to the fascination factor of this game. That national perspective will likely focus on Harbaugh and how quickly he can bring the Michigan engine roaring back to life, but Utah is a compelling character in its own right. After playing a game of serious catchup to their new conference in recruiting and player development, the Utes featured a rugged, physical roster in 2014. They seriously competed in the chaotic Pac-12 South. Devontae Booker's return means that quarterback play may be the one critical variable Kyle Whittingham's team needs to make that next push, and this opener is a chance for Utah to begin their much-anticipated bid.
  • Jennings: Oregon at Michigan State
C’mon, guys. Everyone loves a good rematch.

Michigan State gave Oregon a good fight last season but it wasn’t a consistent fight and Mr. Marcus Mariota did what he always (with a few exceptions) did and the Ducks rolled in the fourth quarter. But I think this season is going to be a little bit different.

You’ve got two teams that really don’t have that big of a test in Week 1. Oregon will face off against Eastern Washington (which, actually, could be a decent test) and Michigan State plays Western Michigan in its opener. Those aren’t exactly awesome measuring sticks for either team. But, lucky for football fans and the coaches, a great measuring test is right around the corner.

And what makes this such an interesting on-field matchup is that no one really knows what either team is going to look like. Sure, Oregon is going to have an up-tempo offense, but, how up tempo exactly now that Mariota is gone? And who exactly will be running that offense? And the Spartans will have their stout defense, as has become their trademark, but will it look exactly the same now that Pat Narduzzi -- MSU defensive coordinator of eight years -- is gone? And it’s not just Narduzzi that the Spartan Dawg defense loses. It’s Trae Waynes (who just ran the fastest 40 time for a CB at the NFL combine); it’s safeties Kurtis Drummond and Tony Lippett; it’s linebacker Taiwan Jones and defensive end Marcus Rush.

Two big returners for the Spartans are defensive lineman Shilique Calhoun (aka Bane) and quarterback Connor Cook. Personally, I can’t wait to see how Cook handles Pellum’s defensive schemes and pass rush and whether Scott Frost/Steve Greatwood can put together a QB/OL combo that will fare as well against Calhoun as did Mariota and his O-line last season.

Plus, there’s just something so great about a Big Ten-Pac-12 matchup. It’s old school Rose Bowl feelings and with the Rose Bowl not acting as a semifinal this season, we’re going to have another chance for an awesome, top-25 Big Ten-Pac-12 matchup at season’s end.
  • Gemmell: Washington at Boise State
There’s simply no way to stress the importance of the Washington-Boise State season opener, other than to say this is a must-win game for the Huskies on so many, many different levels.

All new head coaches are generally given a honeymoon when they take over a new program. But when you’re the only coach to ever win the Bear Bryant Award twice, your honeymoon has all the romance and courtship of a shotgun wedding.

For years, Petersen was the great white buffalo of coaching. Teams with far greater tradition weren’t able to lure him away from Boise State. But Washington landed him. And in his first season the Huskies were an inconsistent 8-6, failing to beat a ranked team and losing to Oklahoma State in the Cactus Bowl.

I’m of the opinion Petersen will still work out to be a great hire ... given the proper time. That’s why his date at Boise State is so critical. Because anything but a win cuts into whatever goodwill remains from his initial hire. He made Boise State what it is today -- a hard-nosed program that, for one week, can compete with virtually any team in the country. We can debate whether the Broncos could sustain it in a Power 5 conference another time. That’s irrelevant. For one week, with lots of prep time, Boise State is dangerous, regardless of the venue. See: Bowl, Fiesta.

Petersen will be facing players he recruited, and then divorced. He’ll see coaches he groomed, and then left. And they’d love nothing more than to blast Petersen and his new team, followed by a “sorry, not sorry.”

A win sets up Washington for a likely 3-0 start heading into conference play -- though Utah State is no gimme with Chuckie Keeton back for a 17th season. A loss, however, discourages a fan base that was hoping to see improvements over the 2014 edition. And perhaps it raises unfair questions about whether Petersen is the right guy.

You could probably argue that others are “the best.” But for a team at a crossroads like the Huskies are, this one is by far the most intriguing.

Spring questions: Colorado

February, 26, 2015
Feb 26
1:00
PM ET
Spring practices end the retrospective glances at the last season and begin the forward-looking process of the next fall. Departed players need to be replaced and returning starters need to get better and youngsters need to step up.

While some teams have more issues than others, every team has specific issues that will be front and center. So we begin a look at the main questions each Pac-12 team will address this spring.

Up next: Colorado. The Buffs, by the way, have already been at it in spring practice for over a week. They started their session earlier than any other Pac-12 program.

1. Will the defensive front seven develop into a more cohesive run-stuffing unit? Colorado surrendered 5.6 yards per carry last season, a full yard more than the conference's second-worst team (Oregon State, 4.6). Opponents routinely gashed the Buffs up front. There's optimism emanating from Boulder, though, that another year of experience will be the salve for this defense. Underclassmen comprised all of the Colorado's primary depth along the defensive line in 2014, so every single spring practice brings further maturation to a developing unit. So far, the Buffs seem excited about their offseason gains, and they have to be thrilled by the return of lineman Samson Kafovalu, who took last season off. Spring is a time to see if the Buffs' strengthening is leading to better flow up front. A lack thereof left plenty of gaping holes for opposing backs to barrel through last season.

2. Is this the beginning of breakthrough Year 3? The third year of Mike MacIntyre's first head-coaching job was the charm. That's when he led San Jose State to a 10-2 record and a Military Bowl championship. His success that season with the Spartans came on the heels of 1-11 and 5-7 seasons, the second of which featured a number of blown double-digit fourth-quarter leads. A closer look at MacIntyre's first two seasons in Boulder reveals similarities to his time at San Jose State: Though Colorado has struggled to win so far, Year 2 saw the Buffs develop enough of a competitive spirit to lose in heartbreaking fashion -- just like that 5-7 San Jose State team. Spring ball means that the third year is officially here, and it will be intriguing to see if the parallels to MacIntyre's first head-coaching foray continue.

3. Will strength and conditioning gains begin translating to the field? Sports performance director Dave Forman and star receiver Nelson Spruce have both lauded Colorado players for impressive gains during the recent winter conditioning stretch. It's now time to find out if those improvements will translate into wins. The Buffs lost two games in double overtime last season -- brutal, to say the least -- so they're looking for that extra boost to push them into the win column and earn the momentum that comes with a dose of success. If Colorado shows more physicality during spring than they have in the past, it will be safe to say that they're on the right track. It's taken some time for this program to rebuild its foundation from the ground up. There's now a strong demand for tangible results in the win column. Bring on the spring litmus test.
The Oregon defense was on an upward trajectory from the middle of the season to the end until it hit the season finale, struggling mightily against Ohio State in the national title game.

On Wednesday, Oregon defensive coordinator Don Pellum chatted with the Pac-12 Blog about that performance, as well as the season as a whole and what he's looking for out of his defensive unit this spring.

Warning: Pellum is as lengthy with his responses as he is sartorial with his suit choices.

With the number of ups and downs the Oregon defense had this season, how exactly do you grade the unit?

[+] EnlargeDon Pellum
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/USA TODAY SportsOregon defensive coordinator Don Pellum said the Ducks "didn't communicate as well," and "fundamentally, we didn't play well" against Ohio State.
Pellum: The way we evaluate ourselves and our players is that throughout the season the issues or things that we weren't doing well, the problems that came up -- did we come up solutions? The solutions are not just changing calls or changing personnel, some of it may be that there was a period of time early in the season when we weren't tackling well and we were leaving a lot of plays on the field, we were giving up a lot of yards after contact so we created some periods [in practice] where we did more tackling, but it wasn't just your normal tackling drills. We took the film, looked at the tackles we were missing and the leverages that we were missing and created some drills to clean it up. That was kind of our approach throughout the season and I think right about midseason we played better. I think the improved performance was a byproduct of us really continuing to look at ourselves and how we could get better at what we did defensively.

I think overall from that standpoint we grew the defense. It was a new defense, a new staff, some new faces last year. Although the defense from the outside appeared the same, it was coached differently, there was a different emphasis, different stress points and it took us a while to actually get to a point where it was looking like how it was supposed to look. I think we did a pretty good job of that. Could it be better? Absolutely.

Along with tackling, communication was an area where the Ducks struggled this season early on. Did you see the same kind of improvement there?

Pellum: Absolutely. The things that improved the most … [if] we're going from the first game to the end of the season, it was the tackles and the leveraging of people the right way so that your teammate could make tackles and then the overall communication. There were a couple games down the stretch when we gave up a couple big plays and they just lacked communication but the majority of the game, even with us rotating a lot of guys, because of the communication we were successful and we played a lot better.

Not to beleaguer the downfalls of this group but one of those games that lacked communication and tackling was the title game. How many times since you've been back in Eugene have you watched that game film?

Pellum: I've seen it a fair amount of times. [Laughter] Yes, I have seen it a couple times.

They say you're never as good as you think you are, nor are you ever as bad as you think you are. What did that film say about the team -- did that saying hold true?

Pellum: Honestly, we did a lot of good things but they were definitely overshadowed. From midseason right down to the conference championship game and then spilling into the Florida State game we were playing better, we were making strides in different areas. And then in the national championship, we didn't play our best game. We had been working toward it, but we didn't. We didn't communicate as well. The thing we did a poor job of was that we didn't read well, we didn't tackle well, probably could've changed some calls and done some other things. But fundamentally, we didn't play well.

So going forward, you have to replace a lot of faces and you're coming off a rough loss, but you want to have optimism for 2015 -- what's your baseline for this group?

Pellum: We're back to basics the day after the championship game. The first thing from coach [Mark] Helfrich was, ‘We've got to get back in the weight room, we've got to get back into conditioning, we have to get back into our routine.' From a defensive standpoint, our base 3-4 package, we really, really excelled in there. Down the stretch it was very, very good. So, we've identified some things that were very good. … We've got to do a better job in some of the passing situations.

We've got to settle down on the two or three things we're going to do in the third-and-long categories and how we're going to disguise them and then really fine tune those. And then we have to continue to get better with the communication, which is something the kids can do every day. Those are areas. We've got some real good things we've identified. We've already put those on the board and labeled them ‘This is the bread and butter, here it is.' Then we have to go add the dressing on it, what are the other things we want to feature? Last year got us a lot of good and a lot of bad, but it has given us an opportunity to go through a season of what we thought we were going to do and what we thought we liked, and now we can really hone in on what we really like and the other things, move away from.
Colorado quarterback Sefo Liufau posted a record-breaking season in 2014, setting school single-season marks for touchdown passes (28) and yardage (3,200) as well as TD passes in a single game (7). So it's not a stretch to say he had one of the best seasons behind center in Buffaloes history.

Yet Colorado finished 2-10 overall and 0-9 in Pac-12 play, so the program suffered through one of its worst seasons. Holy dialectic opposition!

The Buffs, 4-32 in Pac-12 play since joining the conference in 2011, were a lot closer in 2014. Their conference losses came by an average of two touchdowns instead of the four-plus the previous two seasons. Still, as grounds for a potential end-of-season celebration, that's not terribly ambitious.

[+] EnlargeSefo Liufau
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesColorado has gone just 4-32 in the Pac-12 since joining the conference, but there are positive signs for quarterback Sefo Liufau and the Buffaloes.
Liufau wasn't blameless either. His 15 interceptions were the most in the Pac-12 -- only seven FBS QBs threw more -- and more than a few were critical. And avoidable. Liufau knows this as much if not more than anyone, and as the QB, he knows he's got to be the guy out front making sure the execution doesn't falter when the screws tighten in the fourth quarter.

“It's just being able to make plays in tight situations," he said. “There were one or two plays, maybe on third down, maybe in the red zone, we could have turned into seven points or at least a field goal. We didn’t do that last year.”

Think of that that third-down drop late in the fourth against UCLA. Or Liufau's fourth-quarter interception against Arizona. Or failing to score any points in the second overtime against California after earning a first-and-goal at the 2-yard line. Regrets, the Buffs have a few. But so does every team that's not Ohio State.

After throwing seven interceptions in a four-game span, Liufau didn't start at Oregon, the second to last game of the season, interrupting a run of 17 consecutive starts that began his true freshman year. While it wasn't a straight benching -- he'd suffered a concussion late against Arizona that made him miss practices during an off week -- it seemed pretty evident that coach Mike MacIntyre was at least curious to see what backup Jordan Gehrke could do, particularly when Liufau started the second half and returned to the starting job for the season finale.

“You accept whatever decision the coach makes," Liufau said. “I wasn’t mad. Obviously you’re a little upset because you want to play every game, but it’s over and it’s done with and I think people make more out of it than I do.”

The good news for the Buffaloes is Liufau's top target, receiver Nelson Spruce, is back, and the cast of skill players is promising. Further, the offense may not have to score 40 every game for the Buffs to have a chance because the defense will be far more experienced, and new coordinator Jim Leavitt is widely celebrated for his X's and O's and motivation skills.

It's not too naive to project the Buffs closeness in 2014 translating into a few more wins in 2015, even though the South Division will again be the nation's toughest division. At least, that's the way Liufau and his teammates are seeing things this spring.

"We were close last year and we felt like we could have won more," he said, "but I definitely think we are going to be able to take those close games and put them into Ws next year."

Mailbag: Beaming for Tom Bradley

February, 25, 2015
Feb 25
7:00
PM ET
After a brief hiatus (literally, I did nothing but sit around in my briefs and binge watch "Bates Motel"), I’m back with a mailbag -- at least this personality is. Follow me on Twitter, it will make my mom happy.

To the notes!

Joe Bruin in Westwood writes: I am a happy Bruin after finding out that Jim Mora has hired a quality coach in Tom Bradley. The defense has definitely been the weakest link in the Jim Mora era. How big of an impact, if any, does this hire have on our team? How confident do you feel that UCLA, with the addition of Coach Bradley, is going to compete for the Pac-12 title, and ultimately grab a spot in the playoffs?

Kevin Gemmell: It’s never a bad thing to add quality and experience, which is exactly what Bradley brings to the table. And to get that kind of a coach in late February, after a lot of the staff changes have already happened across the country, is pretty significant.

As for the defense being the “weak link” of the Mora tenure, I guess it depends on what your definition of weak is. Looking at it year by year:
  • In 2012 UCLA ranked eighth in the league in scoring defense (27.6), eighth in total defense (415.9 ypg), third in sacks (47), fourth in third-down defense (32.8 percent) and fourth in turnover margin (plus-7).
  • In 2013 the Bruins were fifth in scoring defense (23.2), fifth in total defense (385.9), sixth in sacks (32), third in third-down defense (34.9), and third in turnover margin (plus-10).
  • Last year they were seventh in scoring defense (28.1), third in total defense (398.5), tied for eighth in sacks (29), eighth in third-down defense (39.9) and eighth in turnover margin (even).

Are those “weak” numbers? Scoring defense hasn’t broken the 30-point mark (the Bruins were over 30 points in the final two years of the Rick Neuheisel era). The third-down defense was in the 40 percent range prior to Mora’s arrival. The trend here is UCLA’s defense is better under Mora than it was previously.

Whether Bradley pushes the Bruins into the upper-echelon of the conference -- i.e., the top two or three spots in each of those categories -- remains to be seen. The drop-off in sacks last year makes sense when you take guys like Anthony Barr and Cassius Marsh out of the equation and pair it with a new defensive coordinator.

Don’t get too caught up in the odd-front vs. even-front argument either. This is an experienced staff that can adjust on the fly either way. Besides, few teams in the Pac-12 are married anymore to just one front. There is so much disguising and diversity because of the range of offenses that “base” defenses fluctuate.

That’s the long answer. Short answer, be excited to nab a quality defensive-minded coach this late in the game.


Travis in Truckee writes: Seeing as draft day is the next real big event that pertains to college football, I'm curious who the blog thinks has the biggest potential to be an under-the-radar steal (a late rounder who winds up contributing heavily over the long haul) out of the Pac-12 this year. Cheers.

Kevin Gemmell: I’d say spring ball is pretty significant. We’ll be ramping up our coverage on all of the teams in the next few weeks. So don’t just disappear until April 30. Hang out for a while.

As for sleepers, if I could say with any certainty, they probably wouldn’t be under the radar, now would they?

So much depends on where they go, who the coach is and what’s the system. I think of Brandin Cooks, for example, being a phenomenal fit for New Orleans. Had he gone somewhere else, he might have been good, but maybe he doesn’t break 50 catches in his first season.

Granted, he was a first-round pick, so not exactly under the radar. I’m just using him as an example of right place, right system, right teammates.

Then you have someone like Cameron Fleming, drafted late in the fourth, making a contribution on a Super Bowl-winning team.

I think a guy like Sean Mannion could end up making a general manager look really, really smart. I’ve seen him projected around the third round. Chances are he goes to a team where he can sit for a year or two, learn the game without the “win now” pressure that Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston -- or maybe even Brett Hundley and Bryce Petty -- are going to be facing.

He has all of the physical tools to be a very good pocket quarterback. He understands defenses and he spent his entire career learning from a former NFL coach. While the NFL is tinkering more with zone reads and athletic quarterbacks are en vogue, it’s still a game built on solid quarterback fundamentals. Mannion has those. Given the right situation, I think he could be a very nice sleeper.


Dale in Stockton, Calif., writes: What is the latest news on DT Kenny Bigelow.

Kevin Gemmell: I reached out to my super-duper secret sources at USC … OK, I emailed Garry Paskwietz from WeAreSC … and he gave me the scoop.

Sounds like Bigelow is participating fully in the conditioning sessions. Media isn’t allowed in those, but according to Paskwietz, Bigelow left the field this morning “drenched in sweat.” So either he’s been living it up in the steam room, or he’s grinding.

There’s no official word on how much he’ll be participating in spring ball. But I imagine as we get closer to the Trojans kicking off on March 3, we’ll start to get a little more info on his status. Sounds like he’s been pretty active. Which is a good sign.
Last week your humble Pac-12 Blog broke down the 2015 Pac-12 recruiting class and where those players came from. But those kinds of numbers always prompt more questions like: OK, this is one class, what about the last two classes? The last three? What about every class that each Pac-12 coach has signed?

Well, your humble Pac-12 Blog is back. And it's back with those answers (with signees by state).

ARIZONA WILDCATS:
Rich Rodriguez, four classes -- 98 signees, 11 ESPN 300 members
  • California: 41
  • Arizona: 16
  • Texas: 9
  • Florida: 7
  • Louisiana: 5
  • Colorado: 3
  • Two signees: Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia
  • One signee: Canada, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Nevada, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Washington
ARIZONA STATE SUN DEVILS:
Todd Graham, four classes -- 100 signees, seven ESPN 300 members
  • California: 46
  • Arizona: 17
  • Florida: 7
  • Louisiana: 6
  • Three signees: Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas
  • Two signees: Nevada, Washington, Washington D.C.
  • One signee: Canada, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Kansas, New York, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah
CALIFORNIA BEARS:

Sonny Dykes, three classes -- 71 signees, four ESPN 300 members
  • California: 49
  • Texas: 6
  • Three signees: Arizona, Washington
  • Two signees: Hawaii, Mississippi, Oregon
  • One signee: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana
COLORADO BUFFALOES:

Mike MacIntyre, three classes -- 66 signees, no ESPN 300 members
  • California: 33
  • Colorado: 14
  • Texas: 8
  • Arizona: 3
  • Two signees: Hawaii, Utah
  • One signee: Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Washington
OREGON DUCKS:

Mark Helfrich, three classes -- 63 signees, 17 ESPN 300 members
  • California: 26
  • Oregon: 5
  • Four signees: Arizona, Texas, Washington
  • Three signees: Florida, Georgia, Hawaii
  • Two signees: Louisiana, Nevada
  • One signee: Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Tennessee
OREGON STATE BEAVERS:

Gary Andersen, one class -- 22 signees, no ESPN 300 members
  • Utah: 6
  • Four signees: California, Florida
  • Two signees: Oregon, Texas
  • One signee: American Samoa, Arizona, Hawaii, Louisiana
STANFORD CARDINAL:

David Shaw, five classes -- 95 signees, 26 ESPN 300 members
  • California: 25
  • Georgia: 7
  • Six signees: Arizona, Florida, Texas
  • Five signees: Utah, Washington
  • Four signees: Louisiana
  • Three signees: North Carolina
  • Two signees: Colorado, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, Virginia
  • One signee: Hawaii, Indiana, Idaho, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Washington D.C.
UCLA BRUINS:

Jim Mora, four classes -- 92 signees, 31 ESPN 300 members
  • California: 55
  • Texas: 10
  • Arizona: 5
  • Three signees: Florida, Georgia, Hawaii
  • Two signees: Delaware
  • One signee: Colorado, Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, Washington
USC TROJANS:

Steve Sarkisian, two classes -- 43 signees, 25 ESPN 300 members
  • California: 32
  • Texas: 3
  • Two signees: Florida, Utah
  • One signee: Georgia, Idaho, Nevada, Oklahoma
UTAH UTES:

Kyle Whittingham, five classes* -- 108 signees, 0 ESPN 300 members
  • California: 40
  • Utah: 29
  • Texas: 15
  • Florida: 8
  • Louisiana: 6
  • Nevada: 3
  • Two signees: Arizona, Hawaii
  • One signee: Maryland, New Jersey, New York

*This is only counting Whittingham's classes that he recruited into the Pac-12 conference (so, starting with the 2011 signing class since the Utes made it official on June 22, 2010).

WASHINGTON HUSKIES:

Chris Petersen, two classes -- 49 signees, 4 ESPN 300 members
  • California: 28
  • Washington: 14
  • Idaho: 2
  • One signee: Maryland, Montana, Oregon, Texas, Wyoming
WASHINGTON STATE COUGARS:

Mike Leach, four classes -- 102 signees, one ESPN 300 members
  • California: 57
  • Washington: 14
  • American Samoa: 7
  • Three signees: Arizona, Florida, Hawaii, Texas
  • Two signees: Alabama, Georgia
  • One signee: Colorado, Delaware, Louisiana, Maryland, Montana, Oregon, Oklahoma, Utah
NOTES/OBSERVATIONS:

There are 20 states from which no current Pac-12 South coach has ever signed a player, and 18 from which no current North coaches have never signed a player. Of those states, 11 are overlapping, meaning that no player from the following states has been signed to a current Pac-12 coach during his tenure as head coach -- Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

It's not surprising that no players has been signed from Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska or North Dakota because those are the four least-populated states in the U.S. What is surprising is that only three players have been signed from the state of Alabama -- two to Mike Leach and one to Sonny Dykes.

Long story short: If you're a high school prospect and you want to play in the Pac-12, it doesn't hurt to live in California, Florida or Texas (if you live outside of "Pac-12 territory"). If you're a high school prospect and you live in Wisconsin or West Virginia -- even though some of these coaches have been head coaches in those states, your chances don't look good at all.

Eleven of the 12 programs have signed the most players from the state of California during current coaches' tenures. The only coach who hasn't is Oregon State coach Gary Andersen, but California is tied for second-most on his list.

North coaches have signed -- on average -- three classes per coach while the South coaches have signed -- on average -- four per. While it's really only a difference of one class, it is a difference of 20-30 student athletes per coach, so really the possibility of 120-180 different home states.

In the South the most recruited states outside of California and home states -- as a whole -- are Florida and Texas. Again, this might not be surprising considering how talent-rich both of those states are, but the only Pac-12 South coach who has ever coached in one of those states is Todd Graham (Rice).

In the North, it's a bit more of a mash-up. The states of Arizona and Washington are big for Cal and Oregon. Florida is big for Oregon State and Stanford. Chris Petersen really hasn't had to reach out of California or Washington, much like his in-state foe, Mike Leach. However, Leach also likes to go to American Samoa, where he has signed seven players.

USC has had the most success with the top recruits. Fifty-eight percent of Sarkisian's recruits are ESPN 300 members. After him, the next most "successful" recruiting coaches are Mora (33.7 percent), Shaw (31.6 percent) and Helfrich (27 percent).

Signing top recruits certainly gives teams a boost on the field as evidenced by the teams above and the successes they've had under each coach. But look at Utah. Whittingham hasn't signed a single ESPN 300 player and yet his team was in the hunt for the South title last season. It's the same with Rich Rodriguez: Even though just 7 percent of his players have been ESPN 300 members, he has still had major success on the field for the Wildcats.

Spring questions: California

February, 25, 2015
Feb 25
1:00
PM ET
Spring practices end the retrospective glances at the last season and begin the forward-looking process of the next fall. Departed players need to be replaced and returning starters need to get better and youngsters need to step up.

While some teams have more issues than others, every team has specific issues that will be front and center. So we begin a look at the main questions each Pac-12 team will address this spring.

The alphabet tells us that California is next.

1. Can the secondary finally improve? The Bears surrendered a conference-worst 367.2 passing yards per game in 2014. Their secondary was young, oft-injured and undersized. That's not a good combination in the pass-happy Pac-12. Spring practice is Cal's first chance to show that winter conditioning helped fortify this beleaguered unit. A pair of junior college transfers -- Derron Brown and Antoine Albert -- are expected to provide a boost to the secondary, and Brown will have a chance to make his first impression this spring (Albert will not arrive in Berkeley until the fall).

Given how much Cal has struggled on the back end lately, improvement in this position group is a massive project moving forward. Physical work, experience and repetitions are the Bears' greatest allies in their quest for brighter days. That's why the upcoming spring session is so vital.

2. Can the offensive line continue to improve? Cal's hogs up front showed enormous improvement in 2014 -- especially in the run game. The Bears began to open up holes on the ground with some serious nasty, and that proved to be the key in the offense's surge to the next level. (Cal averaged over 4 yards per carry after mustering only 3.4 in 2013.) But pass protection still left something to be desired: Opponents sacked Jared Goff 28 times on the year.

The Bears are stocked with talent at quarterback, receiver and even running back. The offensive line is the one position group on that side of the ball where marked improvement still seems realistic, and spring practice will be an excellent early opportunity to achieve some forward progress there. Position coach Zach Yenser has left to Kansas, so the Bears are tasked with replacing graduating center Chris Adcock under new leadership. Brandon Jones is the new assistant in charge, and Cal hopes 305-pounder Chris Borrayo continues manhandling defenders under his watch.

3. Will we see Goff morph into superhuman form? The answer to this question is likely contingent on the answer to the question No. 2. Goff made tremendous strides from his freshman to his sophomore years, and that's created some serious anticipation ahead of his junior campaign. Last season's 5-1 ratio of touchdowns to interceptions was very good, but further rapid statistical improvement can push Goff into the realm of transcendent in 2015. Beyond his own talent, the quarterback has the necessary tools for a great year at his disposal: Cal's talented receiving corps remains intact and surging running back Daniel Lasco will return for his final season. With some decent pass protection, Goff can continue his upward climb and become a true star in 2015. The real fireworks, of course, must wait until September, but it'll be fun to track his continued development through spring practice.

Ranking the Pac-12 coaching jobs

February, 25, 2015
Feb 25
11:25
AM ET
Our task today is a subjective one: Rank the head-coaching jobs in the Pac-12. Note: jobs, not individual coaches.

For me, this is like ranking my children. I love them all equally, however different they might be.

Let's take a gander at it.

1. USC: USC is arguably the nation's preeminent football program in terms of national and conference titles, award winners, All-Americans and NFL Hall of Famers. It's a big-stadium team, and its new football building is pretty freaking cool. Moreover, while there are great national programs with comparable -- or perhaps even superior -- traditions such as Alabama or Notre Dame, USC is in Los Angeles, which is infinitely cooler than Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and South Bend, Indiana.

2. Oregon: The Ducks rank No. 2 based on their steady rise to national prominence, as well as a seven-year run that ranks the program among the super-elite. Oh, and their facilities are sparkly.

3. UCLA: Nos. 1 and 2 are pretty obvious here. After that, things get pretty bunched up, but UCLA emerges in the coveted No. 3 spot because of its recent success under coach Jim Mora, which includes three consecutive wins over the Trojans. While the Rose Bowl is off campus, it's still the Rose Bowl, and its recent renovation gave it a considerable upgrade. It also appears that the school is finally investing in the program -- see a new football building on the way -- so it can debunk the notion it's a basketball school (the basketball team also is contributing to that cause). Further, Southern California's A-list prep talent means the Bruins can sustain success under the right coach -- read: Mora.

4. Arizona State: Todd Graham appears to have awoken a program that has long been termed a "sleeping giant." The school is in the process of upgrading Sun Devil Stadium, which is long overdue. There is also potential to continue to upgrade recruiting with a nice combination of location, weather and admission standards.

5. Washington: Obviously, we feel the Washington job has room to move up, as the program has just about everything, other than a recent run of success, to help it. There was a temptation to put Washington higher just because of the magisterial renovation of Husky Stadium.

6. Stanford: Ah, the subjectivity of this list. The Cardinal sit here in the middle of the pack in large part because of academic standards that most coaches would feel are highly unfavorable. David Shaw, a Stanford graduate, doesn't feel that way and has found ways to make it a recruiting benefit instead of a bane. Still, when a program can't even consider most of the ESPN 300 due to academics, that's a challenge for a coach.

7. California: While Berkeley is arguably the nation's best state university, it has been able to get "special admits" to the football program through the years, which was particularly a boon to former coach Jeff Tedford. It appears things are a bit tougher for third-year coach Sonny Dykes. Still, there's good talent available in Northern California and the facilities are A-list. No reason the Golden Bears can't regain the traction they once had under Tedford.

8. Arizona: Arizona has upgraded its facilities and is on an uptick under Rich Rodriguez. Still, most view Arizona as a basketball-first school, and the historical success of both programs supports that perception. Of course, if Rodriguez gets the Wildcats to the Rose Bowl for the first time and eclipses rival Arizona State on the field on a consistent basis, Arizona would move up.

9. Utah: The teams from here and down on this list find themselves hit for at least one of two reasons: (1) stadium size/attendance; (2) winning. Utah is on the uptick on the latter, which is why it ranks ahead of the others. It has also experienced the most recent national relevance, though not as a member of the Pac-12.

10. Oregon State: The Beavers typically found a way to win under Mike Riley, but the program -- other than a charmed 2000 season under Dennis Erickson -- has not been able to take substantial and consistent steps toward national relevance. We do take note that when Riley bolted for Nebraska, the Beavers were able to impressively lure Gary Andersen away from Wisconsin. If Andersen makes Oregon State a nine- or 10-win team, the Beavers will move up.

11. Colorado: Though its time in the Pac-12 has been miserable, Colorado has solid tradition -- highlighted by a split national championship in 1990 -- and Boulder, Colorado, is among the nation's very best college towns. That said, the facilities and administrative commitment have lagged behind other programs in college football's arms race. The losing is an issue as well.

12. Washington State: The Cougars have played in two Rose Bowls since 1997 -- how many other programs can say that? So it's a fact that the right coach can win at Washington State. Still, when the wins aren't coming, it becomes relevant to note the size of Martin Stadium and the isolation of Pullman, Washington. As noted by alumnus Kyle Bonagura, Washington State is the Pac-12's most challenging job.
Colorado is 4-32 in Pac-12 play since joining the conference in 2011. That's obviously not a good record.

In fact, it's so bad that it threatens to derail the case I'm about to make. There's no way that Colorado ranking 55th of 65 Power 5 teams when it comes to head-coaching job desirability is a surprise, right?

If anything, the Buffs' miserable .111 conference win percentage over the past four seasons would suggest that the No. 55 ranking is too high, right?

Nope. That's not the case.

Don't let Colorado's decade from hell -- the Buffs haven't finished with a winning record since 2005 -- fool you: This program offers an enviable job with serious winning potential.

In fact, it's entirely possible that Mike MacIntyre is unlocking the treasure in front of him as we speak. There's a sense of cautious optimism emanating from Colorado, one that stems from the belief that the roster will finally be strong enough in 2015 to make a dent in the Pac-12 standings.

The Buffs believe that they're close to a breakthrough. When it finally and inevitably comes, it shouldn't be viewed as a huge surprise. Rather, the surprise should come courtesy of the Buffs' low spot in the aforementioned job quality rankings.

That's because tremendous success is possible at Colorado. Look no further than the program's 1990 national championship, which capped an 11-1-1 season and came right on the heels of an 11-1 campaign.

Boulder is a beautiful place. It's the idyllic college town, nestled in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, offering a harmonious balance of outdoor bliss and a cozy-fun vibe.

Perhaps most important, Boulder doesn't suffer from the isolation issue that hinders fellow beautiful conference location Pullman, Washington. The Buffs' home is only 25 miles away from Denver, and this big city brings fertile recruiting ground with it.

Aging facilities may have hindered the Buffs' effort for some time in the past, but extensive renovations in and around Folsom Field are helping Colorado gain essential traction in the college football arms race. Once the on-field breakthrough finally does come, an enviable thin-air advantage will be on full display: Boulder is 5,430 feet above sea level.

At the moment, though, the Buffs are still clawing their way out of a massive hole, so it's important to repeat that their recent record isn't indicative of future potential. Colorado's freshest history may not be envied around the nation, but the essential tools at the Buffs' disposal certainly are.

Five programs in need of a 2016 QB 

February, 25, 2015
Feb 25
9:00
AM ET
video
Quarterbacks are committing earlier and earlier in the recruiting process. With 16 of the 27 signal-callers in the ESPN Junior 300 already having given verbal pledges, there is increased pressure to get a top quarterback in the fold early. While some programs are set in 2016 or for the future at the vital position, several programs face the task of having to sign a potential difference maker at the position in the 2016 class.

Here are five programs that must sign a difference maker in 2016, and some of those are well on the way.

Stanford will have to overcome a myriad of questions if it is to prove that 2014's five-loss campaign was just a temporary tumble from college football's elite. But on the first day of 2015 spring practice, David Shaw embraced the skepticism coming his program's way.

"I love it," he said. "There's a hunger now. As much as we try not to worry about what other people say about us, it's nice when people talk about our conference and don't talk about us. Our guys get a little upset. I think that's great."

[+] EnlargeKevin Hogan, Barry Sanders
Kyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsQB Kevin Hogan and RB Barry Sanders return to lead the Stanford offense.
The Cardinal enjoyed an offensive resurgence to end 2014, but there are questions about their attack's ability to sustain that success for an entire season. Meanwhile, the core of Stanford's vaunted defense has been completely gutted. Shaw's club must replace all three starting defensive linemen from last season.

Winter training, which took place over the course of the past two months, was the first step in the Cardinal's reloading effort. Players say that sports performance coordinator Shannon Turley refined the program this year, and the changes helped infuse a fresh sense of accountability following disappointment in 2014.

"No one can half-ass a rep," quarterback Kevin Hogan said.

Monday's practice practice was Stanford's first chance to work out under full supervision of the coaching staff. While workout strain had been the dominant theme of January and the first half of February, the complete football package has now returned to the forefront. Shaw indicated that he was pleased with Stanford's communication on the first non-padded day of practice.

"There's a lot to compete for," he said. 'There'll be a lot of questions people have about us, and our guys are eager to answer those."

Here are some early returns:

The questions to answer

  • Stanford is dealing with a smattering of injuries and absences in spring practice, and those further complicate the challenges facing the Cardinal. Defensive lineman Aziz Shittu and cornerback Ronnie Harris, the two most experienced members of their respective position groups, will both miss spring practice due to injury. That sets the table for potentially wild competition in the trenches and in the secondary this spring: It'll be a free-for-all of unproven players battling for playing time at those positions. Shaw noted that Luke Kaumatule will shift between outside linebacker and defensive end (in nickel situations), movement that could be a fitting illustration of what is -- at this point -- an unsettled defense. "We have talented young defensive linemen that we're excited to see play," Shaw said. "But they've got a lot to learn."

  • Running back Remound Wright will miss the first half of spring practice because of a disciplinary issue, leaving Stanford with only two scholarship backs -- Christian McCaffrey and Barry Sanders -- at the moment. Shaw said that fullbacks Pat Skov (when he returns from injury) and Daniel Marx will receive single-back carries, which seems indicative of Stanford's hunger for a power runner.

  • Hogan is clearly Stanford's man at quarterback, but Shaw said that both Keller Chryst and Ryan Burns will receive first team chances as they compete for the backup job.
There isn’t a Pac-12 defense that will need to replace more major contributors than Washington.

The entire defensive front of Danny Shelton, Hau'oli Kikaha, Andrew Hudson and Evan Hudson is gone. So are Paul Hornung Award winner Shaq Thompson and John Timu, who led the Huskies in tackles during two of the four seasons he started. Washington assistant coach/linebackers coach Bob Gregory has his work cut out.

“Well, that’s college football,” Gregory said. “It’s never approached that there’s a problem. It’s just, ‘Hey, we’re moving on, that’s just the way it is.’ You’ve got pro football where you might have guys for a long time but [here] you’re going to graduate guys every single year.”

[+] EnlargeShaq Thompson
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesWashington is losing its entire defensive front as well as star linebacker Shaq Thompson.
But they’re not just replacing “guys.” They’re replacing their front four, and more specifically for Gregory they’re replacing two of the best inside linebackers that Washington has seen in a while.

Thus far the eventual heirs to the thrones look like the 2014 backups -- Keishawn Bierria for Thompson and Scott Lawyer or maybe Azeem Victor for Timu.

Bierria started four games in 2014, including picking up starts during the two games that Thompson moved over to tailback. Gregory said Bierria could be joined in the competition by outside linebackers Travis Feeney and Cory Littleton as the Huskies search for that perfect match of productivity and playmaking ability, but in Bierria’s limited time this season Gregory was impressed with his natural instinct and how he “made plays when we needed to make some plays.”

“He’s got a chance to be a good football player,” Gregory said. “Hopefully sooner rather than later."

Gregory is also hoping that Lawyer or Victor proves himself as a starter sooner rather than later. Lawyer has the upper hand when it comes to experience, Gregory noted, but he also said he sees great potential in Victor, who redshirted last season.

But the common thread to all of these guys is this: Everyone is going to be relatively inexperienced and everyone is going to be replacing someone who was far from that.

Which brings up the topic that Gregory will have to bridge this season -- balancing the expectations of the players who fill these shoes in the fact that maybe they don’t need to be filled in the exact same way as the player who came before them.

There seems to be an art in this transition and Washington won’t be the only Pac-12 team that has to face this issue. Gary Andersen and Mark Helfrich both need to replace recording-breaking quarterbacks. Kyle Whittingham needs to replace the conference leader in sacks. Steve Sarkisian needs to replace a 100-yard-per-game rusher. And all of the conference players who step into these roles will be younger, less-experienced players.

Does Gregory expect Bierria to score four defensive touchdowns next season? Does Gregory expect Lawyer or Victor to come in and register a 100-plus tackles in his first year starting?

No. But Gregory has seen it done at each of those positions so he knows that it is possible.

“These kids are competitors and they have very high expectations,” Gregory said. “But, it’s all about them, it’s all about you as a player developing. We don’t want them to think they need to be Shaq, we just want whoever it is to be themselves and to develop and be consistent players and play hard -- but all within themselves.”

Interior expectations aren’t the only thing Gregory needs to balance. He knows that in year two of the Chris Petersen tenure, there will be higher expectations from the administration and the public and within the coaches themselves -- all of this after losing so much on defense.

“It’s another year, the expectations are going to be a little bit higher,” Gregory said. “On the flipside, we’re going to have a lot of new faces on the defense. … We want to push the players as much as we can, but we have to bring those players along at a good pace and slowly so they can get it.”

Luckily for Gregory, all of these guys are on campus right now -- Washington isn’t relying on any true freshmen who won’t get to campus until June or July. And what each of these players is missing -- experience -- is only going to be found on the field.

Washington kicks off spring football on March 30.

“Now the challenge is the next guy up and we’ve got to develop those kids and bring them along at a fast pace,” Gregory said. “You go through winter conditioning and you hope you get better; you go through spring football and you hope you get better; then it’s summer. You hope all these phases of the offseason you want those guys to continue to improve.”

Spring questions: Arizona State

February, 24, 2015
Feb 24
1:00
PM ET
Spring practices end the retrospective glances at the last season and begin the forward-looking process of the next fall. Departed players need to be replaced and returning starters need to get better and youngsters need to step up.

While some teams have more issues than others, every team has specific issues that will be front and center. So we begin a look at the main questions each Pac-12 team will address this spring.

Continuing our reliance on the Roman alphabet, Arizona State is up next.

1. How do you even begin to replace Jaelen Strong? Strong hauled in 82 passes for 1,165 yards and 10 touchdowns -- including one amazing Hail Mary that brought us “Berco-ing.” If you haven’t thanked him yet for that alone, you should. Head coach Todd Graham has said do-everything back D.J. Foster would move to wide out, despite rushing for 1,081 yards last year. Look for a dusting of him in the run game -- a la speed sweeps, fly motion etc. -- but given the depth at running back, the move makes sense. Especially since Foster already has 163 catches for 1,874 yards and 11 touchdowns for his career. Nice luxury to have your 1K rusher become your go-to wide receiver.

2. How much will special teams be a factor? A lot. Count on it. Graham made special teams a point of emphasis in 2014 after a fairly abysmal 2013. The Sun Devils are in good shape with kicker Zane Gonzalez, but they’ll work with Matt Haack to become more consistent. The return game will be a priority, with Dechavon Hayes making the jump off of the scout team. The coaching staff loves his speed and he’ll likely be penciled in as the punt returner. Look for Kalen Ballage, who had a fantastic return day against Duke in the Sun Bowl, to stay with kickoff return duties.

3. Tackle talk? Perhaps more important than replacing Strong will be protecting presumed starting quarterback Mike Bercovici on the corners. With both offensive tackles -- Jamil Douglas and Tyler Sulka -- departing, the Sun Devils will look first to Evan Goodman at left tackle and Billy McGehee at right tackle. There’s some depth here, which helps. Freshman Quinn Bailey could get a look, and guard Christian Westerman could move outside, opening up Stephon McCray as an option inside.

You can follow along with the entire spring questions series here.
Washington finished 8-6 in Chris Petersen's first season this fall and more than a few Huskies fans were pretty grumpy about it. They expected more.

Now, you could make an argument they were right to be irritated. The Huskies had a lot of talent, particularly on defense, and Petersen's reputation when he was lured away from Boise State was that he got more out of his team's talent, not less.

Or you could make an argument that eight victories -- even in a 14-game season -- is pretty darn good for a program that has averaged just 5.42 wins over the past 14 years and has won more than eight games just once during that span (2013).

Yet whether you are a grumpy, hopeful or resigned Huskies fan, we bring you tidings of great joy. Washington will rise again. We, the perspicacious team known as the "Pac-12 blog," view the Huskies as the Pac-12 program with the most upside from its present state.

Why? More than a few reasons.

Washington has not only been elite before, it's an all-time top-25 program. It won the 1991 national title and has won 15 conference championships. When we mention those 14 years of averaging 5.42 wins, we make a cutoff after the Huskies' 2000 season, in which they won the Rose Bowl, finished 11-1 and ranked No. 3 in the country. From 1980 to 2000, the Huskies won seven Pac-10 championships.

Of course, the Huskies' good friends in Eugene, Oregon, those low-key, humble Ducks, are politely raising their hands and gently protesting, "With all due respect ... live in the past much?"

Ah, but there are plenty of reasons for optimism, which Huskies fans can share, perhaps after asking Oregon fans if they'd like to know what it's like to actually win a national title.

For one, Husky Stadium might be the Pac-12's best stadium. Heck, it might be among the nation's best venues since its $280 million renovation that was completed before the 2013 season. It's on campus, it's big -- seating 70,000 -- and its location on Lake Washington with fantastic views of the snow-capped Cascade Mountains is postcard worthy.

It won't be difficult for Petersen to recruit to that stadium, which ranked third in the Pac-12 in attendance this fall at 64,508. Further, it is just the centerpiece of a program with A-list facilities.

Finally, we are certainly not even close to changing our "buy" rating on Petersen after one middling year, pretty much the only middling year of his career, and the first year in which he was a head coach in unfamiliar surroundings. Here's a guess his list of "What I Learned in My First Pac-12 Season" is fairly lengthy.

Unfortunately for our desire to be immediately right with this projection, the Huskies might, in fact, take a step back next season, despite the North Division looking wide-open after Oregon. Washington is replacing just about every defensive playmaker and its offense has even more questions, starting at quarterback but including a rebuilding offensive line.

Still, in terms of its long-term prospects, we're betting on Petersen to shortly push Washington back into the Pac-12 and national hunt.
The talk for the 2015 Pac-12 title is already in full swing, but let’s bring it back a notch. Or a few, depending on wherever you might place -- in varying levels of importance -- the nonconference football season.

But it’s what’s closest for us for football action, and the Pac-12 has a few very, very exciting games on the docket in 2015. Now, for the sake of this vote (as our technology only allows five options) we’ve taken Notre Dame games off the table. Sorry, Irish, maybe next time.

So, which nonconference, non-Notre Dame match up do you find most intriguing in the 2015 season?

1. Utah vs. Michigan | Thursday, Sept. 3

SportsNation

Which 2015 nonconference (non-Notre Dame) game is most intriguing?

  •  
    21%
  •  
    6%
  •  
    61%
  •  
    6%
  •  
    6%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,940)

What a college football homecoming for Mr. Jim Harbaugh. While he was at Stanford, the Utes were of little thought considering they hadn’t even joined the Pac-12 yet. But now with Harbaugh back in college football and back in the Pac-12, he gets to face one of the newest to the Pac. And if the off-the-field storylines aren’t enough for ya, the on-field ones are pretty good, too. Utah took care of business in Ann Arbor last season but this year, in the season opener, they welcome the Wolverines to Salt Lake City for a Thursday night game in Rice-Eccles Stadium. Michigan is in a state of flux -- losing its quarterback (Devin Gardner), top receiver (Devin Funchess) and top defensive player (Jake Ryan) from the 2014 season. Utah has had a few significant losses as well -- Nate Orchard, Kaelin Clay and Dres Anderson ... just to name a few.

2. Cal at Texas | Saturday, Sept. 19

The Bears shocked many (well, not me, I was the only one to pick that upset) when they went on the road last season in Week 1 and beat Northwestern, 31-24. But going on the road to Texas is an entirely different beast. Can Jared Goff lead Cal to victory in front of 100K in Week 3 this season? Cal is a perfect example of how much a program can grow between the first and second year under a new head coach. The Longhorns had their own struggles under Charlie Strong last year -- player dismissals, injuries, etc. -- but they still managed to make a bowl game. Plus, let’s add a bit of history to this game. Cal fans will still remember the 2005 Rose Bowl -- one that Texas got into (with politicking from former Texas coach Mack Brown) instead of Cal, even though the Bears led the Longhorns in the final regular season BCS poll that season.

3. Oregon at Michigan State | Saturday, Sept. 12

This was one of the most talked about matchups of the 2014 season and expect the same to be true for 2015. This year, it’s going to be a little bit different. The headlining quarterback? Not the Duck, but the Spartan -- soon-to-be-senior Connor Cook, who led the Big Ten in passing yards per game (247.2) last season. He’ll be matched up against a largely revamped Oregon secondary, which will feature mostly new (and young) faces. On the other side of the ball, this will be the first chance fans get to see Royce Freeman -- with another college offseason under his belt -- perform against an FBS-level defense (though, it will be a non-Pat Narduzzi defense, which should be noted). And what quarterback will Oregon field for this game? Still up in the air. But whoever it is should get ready for whatever Mark Dantonio is going to throw at him. Because even though Narduzzi is gone, Dantonio is going to want to use this game as a statement game for the MSU defense and specifically, its pass rush.

4. Oregon State at Michigan | Saturday, Sept. 12

Nothing like a former Big Ten coach taking his first road trip of his Pac-12 head coaching career … back to Big Ten country. And, there’s nothing like a former Pac-12 coach leading a Big Ten team against a former Big Ten coach leading a Pac-12 team. Follow? It’s a bit dizzying. Gary Andersen was more recently in the opposite conference, but he isn’t too familiar with Michigan. During his two seasons at Wisconsin, the Badgers and Wolverines never met on the field. But with the statement an underrated Utah team made at Michigan in Week 4 last season, could we see a bit of déjà vu in the Big House in Week 2 this year? Jim Harbaugh begins his Michigan tenure with two Pac-12 teams -- we’ll see how much either team tests or bests his Wolverines.

5. Washington at Boise State | Saturday, Sept. 5

SO. MANY. HOMECOMINGS. Next up: Chris Petersen gets the chance to go back to Boise State and that beautiful blue field to avoid what he did to so many Power 5 teams when he was at Boise State. The Broncos are coming off a solid season, 12-2 in its first year of the non-Petersen era. And Pac-12 teams might remember that No. 20 Boise State took down No. 10 Arizona in the Vizio Fiesta Bowl, 38-30. (And Arizona took down Washington, 27-26, six weeks earlier -- we know how our Pac-12 Blog readers love the law of transitive property…) But how much different will Washington look in Year 2 under Petersen? There’s certainly a lot to replace -- Shaq Thompson, Hau’oli Kikaha, Danny Shelton -- and that’s only the defensive side of the ball. But, can this offseason be a strong enough one for the Huskies that they come out full force in the first weekend of the season and avoid a defeat against a historically strong giant slayer? We’ll see.

SPONSORED HEADLINES