Pac-12: California Golden Bears

Your humble #4Pac welcomes you to another installment of what will be a regular feature on the Pac-12 blog. Here's how it works: We take one question or one topic, or maybe it's some other really cool format that we haven't even thought of yet, and all contribute our thoughts.

Have a suggestion for something we should address in a future #4Pac roundtable? Go ahead and send it to our mailbag.

Today's question: Which non-bowl eligible Pac-12 team could most use extra December practice time?

Kevin Gemmell / @kevin_gemmell: This one feels like a no-brainer to me. The “worst” team in the league could always use the most work and time to improve. You’ll note the quotations around worst because their record says they are the worst. But ask Cal, or Oregon State or UCLA or Utah if they are the worst team in the conference. All of those teams survived the Buffs by fewer than seven points, and in the case of Cal and UCLA, needed double-overtime to get it done.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a Mike MacIntyre interview this year that doesn’t include at least one reference to “us being one of the youngest teams in the country.” Youth improves with practice and experience. And an extra set of practices for one of the youngest teams in college football sure would have been nice.

Remember how the first half of the UCLA game ended? The chaotic scramble that produced no points and left MacIntyre with his face in his hands. He took the blame, but I’m sure a few extra practices and some two-minute work couldn’t hurt.

Colorado looks like a team on the verge of breaking through -- or at least getting to .500 ball. The Buffs were far more competitive, but still didn’t get the results in the standings. They’ll be better next year than they were this year. But they also need the extra work more than the other three.

Ted Miller / @TedMillerRK: Washington State lost six of its final seven games, an odd victory over Oregon State acting as an anomaly cruelly hinting at what might have been amid a dreary season of massive disappointment. And, after that streak began with a 60-59 loss to California, which featured a bumbling finish by both players and coaches, those five other defeats came by an average of 23 points. It wasn’t like the Cougs were close. By season’s end, you could say they were as far away from something good as they had been since Mike Leach’s angst-filled first season in 2012.

[+] EnlargeWashington State's Luke Falk
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesExtra practice time would have been valuable for freshman QB Luke Falk and an offense the Cougars will lean heavily on in 2015.
You also could believe Leach and his team needed a break from each other, not more practices together, as the general theme of Leach’s late-season remarks blamed an enduring loser’s mentality haunting his program. Accurate observation or not, Leach’s lack of a filter is starting to wear on some Coug fans.

So there’s a worrisome malaise seemingly creeping around Pullman, one that could be aggravated by time off. That’s why bowl practices -- or any practices -- would have given Leach and his team leaders a chance to show returning players a new script before guys got fat and happy this winter. While some teams want extra practices to capitalize on positive momentum, Leach needs bowl practices to reverse a downward trend that surprisingly took over his third season.

ChantelJennings / @ChantelJennings: There are only four Pac-12 teams that didn’t make bowls so I supposed it’d make the most sense -- be the most fair -- if I went with Oregon State, but I really don’t think the extra practice would’ve served the Beavers best. So, I’m going to double up on Ted’s pick and go with Washington State.

Any time you have a young quarterback, any extra time in the system -- the real system, not the player-run offseason system -- is going to be highly beneficial. We saw how much Luke Falk grew in the final four games of the season. With the bowl game, he would’ve only gotten one more game, but he would’ve gotten two weeks worth of practice which is so, so valuable for a young signal-caller and an offense.

Yes, this is kind of disregarding the Wazzu defense, which some fans would say is par for the course with Leach. However, maybe Mike Breske would’ve stayed through the bowl, maybe not. Who knows? But I’m picking Washington State for the offense alone. I don’t see this team winning games with its defense any time soon. Yes, it’s an improving group but as long as Leach is coach, this is going to be a team that wins because it outscores its opponents. Give Falk and his boys another two weeks and the Cougars are one step closer to that goal and the possibility of bowl eligibility next season.

David Lombardi / @LombardiESPN: Of all the non-bowl eligible Pac-12 teams, I think it's fair to say that 5-7 Cal was the best. In fact, they did beat each of the other three losing squads -- though the wins against Washington State and Colorado both came in the narrowest fashion possible. But the original point remains: Of the teams on the onside looking in, the Bears were the closest to punching their ticket, and that's why I think they could most use that extra push of additional practices. The work would be enough to push them over the top in 2015.

Two major flaws hindered Cal this season: The Bears were again bad defensively (they allowed a conference-worst 39.8 points per game) and they were the Pac-12's most penalized team (82.2 yards per game). The whole penalty problem screams, "we need more practice!" right? And when it comes to that leaky defense, it's clear there was improvement from the 2013 version (Cal surrendered 45 points per game that year), but even more is needed. Give Jared Goff and those receivers just a little more to work with, and the wins will start piling up. So Sonny Dykes' crew certainly could have made great use of a little additional refinement time.
Has this been the greatest season in Pac-12 history? The jury is still out on that front, as bowl games remain to be played, and Oregon is tasked with carrying the conference flag into a playoff battle with the nation's big boys. But after a captivating regular season, the conference is undoubtedly in strong position entering this final foray.

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

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

6. Cal’s stand against Colorado in double overtime

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It was one of those “never-say-die” games when it came to Cal and Colorado earlier this year. Jared Goff and Sefo Liufau threw for seven touchdowns each. EACH. How many conferences even have seven touchdown passes in one game? There were 1,200-plus yards, which is either incredibly impressive or unimpressive, depending on whether you’re a fan of offense or defense.

But regardless, this game clearly wasn’t going to be decided in regulation, so, we got some free football.

Cal struck first in the first OT. After the Colorado defense had come up with two stops for no gain on first and second down, Goff found Bryce Treggs for a 25-yard TD. Liufau responded by finding Nelson Spruce on the Buffs’ first down, pulling Colorado even. But then the Buffs kind of stalled. They were able to get two first downs to start the second OT, but when the game was on the line and Colorado was -- almost literally -- on the goal line, the Cal defense came up with its biggest stop of the year. Liufau was tackled on fourth-and-goal for a loss of three yards by Jalen Jefferson and Michael Lowe.

Cal kicked a field goal to win. It was Cal’s first conference win of the year and the Bears’ first since Oct. 13, 2012. Though the Bears only went on to win two more games and fell short of becoming bowl-eligible, it was a good statement moment and statement win for a team that’s clearly on the rise.

5. Marcus Mariota flip vs. Michigan State

Earlier last week, Pac-12 Blog readers voted this play as Mariota’s “Heisman Moment,” which was pretty telling about a few different things. First of all, it’s not a scoring play. In fact, for Mariota’s standards, it was pretty darn near basic. There are no flips, no spins, no hurdles, no nothing. It’s Mariota getting out of the pocket, making things happen and then getting the ball -- at the perfect time -- to someone else who can make more things happen.

Essentially, your typical Mariota.

The play came when the Ducks needed it most. The Spartans had scored 20 unanswered points and Oregon trailed 27-18 in the third quarter on Sept. 6. The Ducks faced a third-and-long following a sack, and everyone knew that MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi was going to bring pressure again, and he did. But Mariota was able to avoid sack attempts from Darien Harris, Riley Bullough and Ed Davis before making his way toward his left and sending a shovel pass in the direction of Royce Freeman.

Freeman picked up the first down and more (17 yards) and the Ducks were able to score on that drive, pulling within two of the Spartans, before cruising through the fourth quarter and winning 46-27.

4. The fumble heard round the Pac-12

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And we move from one of Mariota’s best plays to one of his worst, thanks to eventual Bronko Nagurski Trophy winner Scooby Wright.

With the No. 2 Ducks trailing by seven at home to unranked Arizona with just over two minutes remaining in the game, Mariota took the snap on a first-and-10 at the 35-yard line. Oregon needed to score on this drive in order to keep itself alive on Oct. 2, but then the unthinkable happened.

Wright seemingly came out of nowhere, stripped Mariota and recovered the fumble.

The play was one of a handful that really sealed the upset victory for the Wildcats. It was the Ducks’ only blemish on their schedule and it certainly created some questions for the playoff committee (at least at that point in the season) regarding Oregon. As the conference season played on and the Wildcats earned more respect, and eventually a spot in the Pac-12 game, the loss became less questionable, though a loss nonetheless.

Mariota and Oregon were able to avenge the fumble in the Pac-12 championship game, but it certainly was one of those very, very rare moments this season in which the unflappable and unstoppable Mariota looked human.

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

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

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

9. Andy Phillips game-winning FG vs. UCLA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Cal touchdowns against Stanford #Pac12refs

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

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

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

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

Other defining moments:

Pac-12 morning links

December, 17, 2014
Dec 17
8:00
AM ET
Because you know I'm all about that bass, 'bout that bass.

Leading off

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

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

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

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

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

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

News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

In case you missed it (and it would have been pretty hard to miss it if you follow Pac-12 football), here's the full presentation of Marcus Mariota reading the Top 10 on the "Late Show with David Letterman."
Eight Pac-12 teams are bowling, but four are home for the holidays with losing records. Here's a look at their seasons and a take on their futures.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2015 outlook: It appears Mike MacIntyre has this train rolling in the right direction, and he returns Spruce next season. The Liufau-led offense, then, should pack some punch. Offseason strengthening will be of paramount importance for the Colorado defense, which must stiffen up against the run. If the Buffs can improve there, they'll turn some of 2014's close losses into 2015 wins.
Has this been the greatest season in Pac-12 history? The jury is still out on that front, as the league's bowl slate remains to be played, and Oregon is tasked with carrying the conference flag into a playoff battle with the nation's big boys. But after a captivating regular season, the conference is undoubtedly in strong position entering this final foray.

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

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

No. 15 -- Mannion sets conference passing record

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Oregon State's season -- and Mike Riley's tenure in Corvallis -- ended in a 5-7 disappointment. That means senior quarterback Sean Mannion has reached the end of his prolific collegiate journey. But the Beaver certainly didn't exit with a whimper. Aside from setting every single career passing mark in the Oregon State record books, Mannion also etched his name into conference history. With a 15-yard fourth quarter pass to Connor Hamlett on Nov. 1 against California, Mannion surpassed USC's Matt Barkley to become the top passer in Pac-12 history.

This individual accomplishment did not alter the wild conference race in any way, but it did provide a powerful symbol of just how much talent the league has amassed in its meteoric rise, particularly at the quarterback position. Heading into 2014, there was a heavy dose of hype regarding what was anticipated to be Year of the Signal-caller in the Pac-12. Between Marcus Mariota's Heisman exploits, Connor Halliday's absurd statistical production, and the fine campaigns of players such as Brett Hundley, Cody Kessler, and Jared Goff, there was plenty to enjoy in the 2014 aerial show. Mannion is the one who grabbed the lasting career mark.

Of course, Mannion's record likely won't last forever -- Goff may have a great shot to break it if he sticks around Berkeley for a full four years -- but it was a testament to a steady, accurate, and poised Pac-12 passer in a season that featured a true gold mine of talent at the position.

No. 14 -- Wazzu missed field goal against Cal ruins Halliday's record night

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It seemed as if Halliday couldn't catch a break over the course of his tragic Washington State career, but he kept fighting until he could fight no more, and that valiant effort left him with a place in the national record book. Halliday's injury-riddled career in Pullman included a game played with a lacerated liver and finished with a gruesome leg break this season against USC. The misfortune that may best encapsulate his tough luck, though, came on Oct. 4 against Cal.

In a dizzyingly precise passing display, Halliday shredded the Bears' defense to the tune of an NCAA single-game record 734 yards. He completed 49 of his 70 passes and tossed six touchdowns without a single interception. With the Cougars trailing 60-59 as time wound down, Halliday even led his team on a 68-yard drive to the California 2-yard line. With only 19 seconds remained, Washington State was an extra point-length field goal away from winning on Halliday's historic night.

But kicker Quentin Breshears missed the 19-yard attempt, and Halliday looked on in dazed, losing disbelief on the night during which he had made history. Football can be a cruel sport, and Halliday got a particularly vicious dose of it. This was a truly stunning dichotomy. Halliday was the victim of one of the Pac-12's 2014 Twilight Zone finishes -- one that featured a mind-numbing seizure of defeat from the jaws of victory.

No. 13 -- USC stuffs Stanford

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Stanford entered 2014 having won back-to-back Pac-12 titles, but it didn't take long for alarms to sound on the Farm. The first disturbing exhibit of offensive decay came in Week 2, when a short-handed USC defense delivered a bend-but-don't-break performance for the ages. The Cardinal reached scoring territory (at least the Trojans' 35-yard line) on all nine of their possessions, but managed to score only 10 total points throughout all of those chances. USC won the game 13-10, delivering a psychological gut punch that Stanford's offense never fully recovered from. The Cardinal's 119th-place national finish in red zone efficiency was a primary culprit in their tumble to 7-5, and this was the game that set them firmly on that disappointing course.

The slide's seminal moment might have arrived late in the third quarter on Sept. 6. Stanford led 10-7, and they faced a fourth-and-one from the USC 3-yard line. In the championship years of the past, this is where the Cardinal had always brutally asserted their control of the proceedings.

Not this time.

Without Toby Gerhart, Stepfan Taylor, or Tyler Gaffney to hand off to, Kevin Hogan fed true freshman Daniel Marx the ball, and USC stuffed him short of the first down marker behind an excellent torpedo play from Su'a Cravens. The tables had turned: The Cardinal were not the bullies up front they used to be. They could no longer stomp on their opposition the old-fashioned way, and the resulting Pac-12 power shift was in full effect.
Oregon's Marcus Mariota won the Pac-12's first Heisman Trophy since 2005, and he did so in historically dominant fashion. A record 95.16 percent of voters listed Mariota on their Heisman ballots, and heading into Saturday's presentation, there wasn't much of a question that the Duck would take home college football's most hallowed hardware.

Though he still has a year of college eligibility remaining, Mariota will almost certainly declare for the 2015 NFL draft, so the Pac-12 will have to look elsewhere to repeat the Heisman feat. Here are some early 2015 candidates. Key word here is "early," as we have yet to finish 2014 and some of the players below are still deciding if they will be back next year. Keep that in mind as we quickly imagine the potential future.

Scooby Wright, LB, Arizona

Aside from Mariota, the only Pac-12 player to finish in the top 10 of Heisman balloting was this dominant desert stud. Wright earned four second-place votes and 13 third-place votes, and it would be tough to argue with either of those evaluations based on his absurd 2014 production. Wright's numbers in tackles, sacks, tackles for loss and forced fumbles were all either at or near the top of the nation; he was the only player who averaged over two TFL per game, and that race wasn't remotely close. It's clear that Arizona has an absolute machine working the middle of its defense. Yes, the Heisman Trophy has a clear bias toward the offensive side of the football, but Wright was awesome enough to earn 17 votes at linebacker -- as a sophomore.

Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon

This 230-pound bruiser did his best to give new meaning to the term "true freshman" in 2014. Aside from displaying remarkable vision, Freeman physically pounded opposing defenses like a battle-hardened senior. He supplied Oregon's rushing attack with an irreplaceable dose of physicality. The first-year statistical returns are as eye-popping as they were pad-popping: 1,299 yards, 5.6 yards per carry, 16 touchdowns. With Mariota almost certainly moving on, the Ducks' offense may center more on this young tank in 2015, and that focus could thrust Freeman into Heisman contention.

Cody Kessler, QB, USC

Kessler was the only quarterback in the nation to attempt over 400 passes and throw fewer than five interceptions in 2014. In the not-so-distant past, those kinds of numbers would automatically thrust a USC quarterback into the midst of the Heisman Trophy discussion. Kessler, however, flew under the radar throughout the entire campaign. If he decides to return to USC for his senior season, expect him to generate a big amount of preseason hype. Related note: Running back Javorius Allen and wide receiver Nelson Agholor also have eligibility remaining. If those two are back in Troy next year, include them as possible big-time award candidates too.

Paul Perkins, RB, UCLA

Statistically, 2014 was an excellent campaign for this Bruin, who is a redshirt sophomore. He led the Pac-12 in rushing, racking up 1,378 yards on a league-best 6.0 yards per carry. Perkins will have to score more touchdowns to generate more Heisman hype. He found pay dirt only nine times this season, but 2015 will likely present an opportunity to enter the end zone more often, as touchdown machine Brett Hundley has indicated that he will likely be moving on to the NFL. That means that Perkins may become the centerpiece of UCLA's offense. More touches, more glory.

Jared Goff, QB, California

Goff's statistical output was impressive in 2014 (3,973 yards, 35 touchdowns, 7 interceptions), but any hype surrounding him was quickly extinguished by memories of the Bears' nightmarish 2013 campaign (1-11). Cal improved to 5-7 this season, but it still failed to earn a postseason berth. Given the upward trajectory of Sonny Dykes' program, that likely won't be the case in 2015. There's a strong chance that Goff will be the quarterback of a winning team. If he continues to post gaudy numbers under that scenario (also likely), this talented gunslinger will arrive on the radar for major postseason awards. Don't sleep on him.

D.J. Foster, RB/WR, Arizona State

If wide receiver Jaelen Strong returns to ASU for his final year of eligibility, keep an eye out for him. But that seems unlikely, so the top Sun Devil to watch will probably be the versatile Foster, who was the only Pac-12 player to finish with more than 1,000 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards in 2014. Foster's 59 catches were second to only Strong in Tempe, and his explosiveness makes him a prime sizzle candidate if he decides to stay in school for one more season. Side note: Don't forget freshman running back Demario Richard, who averaged 5.7 yards per carry as a 17-year-old this season.

Nick Wilson, RB, Arizona

If you enjoy watching impressive freshman running backs, Wilson is a good player to follow. He delivered an awfully dynamic inaugural campaign in Rich Rodriguez's system, delivering 5.9 yards per carry and more than 100 ground yards per game. Wilson's 15 rushing touchdowns were second among Pac-12 running backs, so second-year improvement would absolutely make him a contender for some major hardware in 2014.

Pac-12 morning links

December, 15, 2014
Dec 15
8:00
AM ET
As you know Robbie's shining moment this year was when he set a school record for cursing in an eighth grade English class.

Let's get the week started off right. I'm guessing it was a tough weekend for a lot of people. After all, it was our first weekend without Pac-12 football in months. Don't worry, it's coming back soon enough. But, at least there was really good news for the Pac-12 this weekend. Let's start with a Mr. Marcus Mariota who won the Heisman this past Saturday.

First, let's give some major props to this MahaloMarcus.com video because it's very much worth your time and you can view it right here. It has some classic 8-year-old Mariota footage meshed with some current footage, some emotional music and quotes from Oregon coach Mark Helfrich and the gang. Well done to the edit staff. Well done to Mariota for all these plays.

If four minutes of Mariota on video isn't enough for you ... well, lucky you, everyone and their mother reacted to this news, so we'll give you a breakdown of some writer's reactions.
The state of Oregon just doubled down. And the ghosts of this state's football programs just doubled over. Anyone who has regularly seen Mariota operate the heavy machinery that is the Ducks' offense this season knows he's the best player in America, but it really is something to see the rest of the country see it, too.

And finally, props to Oregon State for recognizing Mariota as well. The Beavers bought a full page ad in The Oregonian's special section for Mariota.

Back page of The Oregonian's special section on Marcus Mariota. Classy move from the Beavers.

A photo posted by Karly Imus (@karlyimus) on

Other awards:

It wasn't just Mariota who picked up a big award this weekend. UCLA linebacker Eric Kendricks won the Lott IMPACT Trophy. Kendricks follows in the footsteps of Anthony Barr, who won the award last year. Jack Wang wrote that Kendricks is the latest in what could be a long line of linebacker lineage at UCLA.

And look at how cordial everyone was about Kendricks' win. But would you assume anything else? Never. Especially not from the Lott IMPACT guys.



Also, Washington linebacker Shaq Thompson won the Hornung Award, given to college football's most versatile athlete. The Pac-12 Blog agrees.

All right. Here's a quick rundown ...

Best of the visits: Pac-12

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The final weekend before the month-long dead period saw a number of official visitors on Pac-12 campuses. Here is a look at those trips through the eyes of the recruits on social media.

Hollywood in Westwood

UCLA hosted ESPN 300 prospect Malik Jefferson and four-star athlete DeAndre McNeal from Texas, and the Lone Star State prospects were introduced to life in Los Angeles via an encounter with actress Kerry Washington. While McNeal tweeted about the meeting, Jefferson, the nation's No. 35 recruit, snapped a picture of his mother meeting the actress.
The visitors to UCLA were also treated to a basketball game at Pauley Pavilion, from where McNeal delivered this tweet. The Bruins have made their presence felt in Texas the past few years and grabbing commitments from these two would send a significant message about head coach Jim Mora's recruiting momentum.

UCLA also hosted wide receiver commit L.J. Reed on his official visit. Cal's big weekend

From the looks of the photo tweeted by Cal quarterback Ross Bowers, the Golden Bears hosted at least nine official visitors this weekend. The Golden Bears have 15 commitments with room for several more. Bowers was joined on the trip by juco defensive end and Washington State commit DeVante Wilson, Duke commit and dual-threat quarterback DePriest Turner and tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe, among others. Utes host local linebacker

It's a big year for talent in Utah and the Utes look like they'll miss out on the three big ESPN 300 prospect in state -- Andre James, Osa Masina and Porter Gustin. After losing a commitment from four-star offensive tackle Branden Bowen, it'll be important for Utah to land several in-state prospects, as they have just one commitment from any of the top-10 prospects in Utah.

This past weekend, the Utes hosted linebacker Christian Folau -- a former Stanford commit -- and are among the top three programs for him. Trojans chasing Ross

USC gained a significant commitment from ESPN 300 tight end Tyler Petite on Friday, then hosted a trio of recruits over the weekend, including ESPN 300 athlete Ykili Ross. Capable of playing cornerback or safety, Ross looks to be a primary target for USC head coach Steve Sarkisian down the stretch. The Trojans also brought in athletic director Pat Haden during the trip. Buffs bring in commits

After an impressive showing last weekend that eventually netted two commitments, Colorado posted another big weekend, with a number of verbal commitments making the trip. ESPN 300 lineman Timmy Lynott is the most important commitment in Colorado's class, and was on hand. The Buffs also received an official visit from four-star running back Donald Gordon, who appeared to very much enjoy the trip.

Pac-12's top recruiting visits 

December, 12, 2014
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It's the last opportunity for college coaches to host official visitors before the month-long dead period begins Monday, and Pac-12 campuses will be full of top prospects this weekend. Virtually every Pac-12 program is hosting an important weekend, with ESPN 300 prospects scheduled to visit at least four schools in the conference.

With the regular season over, a number of Pac-12 players with remaining NCAA eligibility are mulling over decisions regarding whether to declare for the NFL draft. Here are some of the key decisions awaiting players from the Pac-12 North. This features some football-only evaluations from ESPN scout Steve Muench. Keep in mind that other factors also influence players' decisions.

Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, a redshirt junior, is obviously the most prominent member of the pack with remaining eligibility, but there's a virtually unanimous consensus on his abilities: He's a top-flight NFL prospect. So here's a look around the rest of the division.

DL Arik Armstead, Oregon

It's easy to understand why the junior is seen as a valuable asset among NFL scouts: Armstead checks in at 6-foot-8, 290 pounds. That's a massive frame oozing with potential, one that could theoretically succeed along the offensive line, too. Armstead, though, has chosen to specialize in work along the defensive front, and he has worked with an Oregon front seven that's peaking at the right time with the College Football Playoff approaching. He leads the Ducks with six quarterback hits, and rumor is that he's planning to declare for the draft.

Muench's take: "Armstead is a very good defensive end/defensive tackle. He's a long, athletic kid who can develop into a pretty good defensive end at the next level. If he comes out, he'll probably go in the first two rounds just because of that frame. It's tough to find a guy who's that big who also carries his frame that well. He's athletic."

DL DeForest Buckner, Oregon

Buckner's intimidating facemask is not his only scary feature. Like Armstead, this guy is massive, as in 6-7, 290. He enjoyed a productive 2014, too, leading Oregon defensive linemen with 69 tackles and the entire team with 12 tackles for loss. Buckner's performance in the Pac-12 championship game was particularly impressive, as he led the Ducks' effort in stonewalling Arizona to the tune of 25 total yards in the first half. He might not be a household name yet, but there've been rumblings from the scouting community that Buckner could be selected in the top two rounds if he declares.

LB/RB Shaq Thompson, Washington

Thompson might be the Pac-12's most interesting draft-eligible player simply because of his versatility. He enjoyed a highlight reel year at Washington, scoring four defensive touchdowns from his original linebacker position before adding 456 yards (7.5 per carry) and two touchdowns from running back. While most experts have tabbed the 6-1, 228-pound Thompson as a defensive contributor at the next level, some think the junior has an offensive future as well.

Muench's take: "Some people are looking at him as a running back, and that's interesting to me, because he does have the size to play there. But if you're looking at defense, I think that's where he fits best, even though he'd be on the smaller side for an NFL linebacker. That's where he's most natural. The NFL needs linebackers who can match up with running backs and athletic guys coming out of the backfield, and I think Shaq Thompson can do that. Working in the phone booth is not his strength, but as a weakside linebacker, I think he won't have to come off the field. He's an athletic, rangy guy who I can see going in the high second round."

WR Devon Cajuste, Stanford

The Cardinal's passing game suffered in 2014, but Cajuste remains an intriguing prospect who has flown under the radar. Academically, he's a senior, but a redshirt year in 2011 gives him 2015 eligibility at Stanford if he chooses to use it. The 6-4, 230-pound Cajuste first earned playing time in David Shaw's offense because his large frame made him an excellent blocker outside. He then started making big catches in 2013. Stanford's staff insists that he's one of the faster players on the team, and if that speed shows up on the stopwatch, more NFL heads will turn.

Muench's take: "The size is so intriguing… I like him, I think he's a big-bodied guy who catches the ball well. I don't think he'll be a second-round pick; he'll be a day three, middle-round guy. He's a matc-up problem for smaller safeties. And if he comes out and runs a 4.5, that's going to be really good for him. If he comes out and runs a 4.4, that will be amazing for him."

LT Andrus Peat, Stanford

The 6-7, 316-pound junior, son of former NFL offensive lineman Todd Peat, has long been projected as a future high-round draft pick. He was the nation's top offensive line prospect coming out of high school in 2012, and his professional pedigree meshes perfectly with his elite size. There has been a report circulating saying Peat is strongly considering returning to Stanford for his senior year, but the big tackle says he hasn't made his decision.

Muench's take: "I hope he does come back. He was one of my favorite prospects coming into this year. He has a chance to be a really good right tackle in the NFL for a long time. But I just haven't seen the development this year. He was a top 20 kind of guy coming into this season. The biggest concern for me is his balance: He's lunging a lot and is occasionally off-balance. Guys will take advantage of that at the next level. For me, I think it's in his best interest to work on staying back on his heels more. For a guy who's so dominant with his physical ability, I'd also like to see more aggressiveness from him."

WR Chris Harper, California

A scout has called this 5-11, 175-pound junior a "poor man's DeSean Jackson." He has succeeded in Sonny Dykes' system with talented quarterback Jared Goff. This season, Harper grabbed 52 passes for 634 yards and six touchdowns. He posted remarkably similar numbers to his counterparts Kenny Lawler and Bryce Treggs (both also finished with more than 50 catches), and a series of tweets indicated that the entire trio will likely be back in 2015.

Pac-12 season recruiting superlatives 

December, 9, 2014
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It was another entertaining season in the Pac-12, as Oregon made its mark on the North, while the South was largely determined by two Hail Marys. But while fans got their money’s worth from the action on the field, the happenings on the recruiting trail during the year made an impact as well, marked by big commitments, misses and surprises. Here’s a look at the Pac-12 recruiting superlatives, based on events that took place during the season.


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Marcus Mariota, Cody KesslerUSA TODAY Sports, Icon SportswireMarcus Mariota and Cody Kessler's combined statistics: 72 touchdown passes, 6 interceptions.
The regular season is over, so it's a fine time to look at some final team statistical tallies (and a few relevant individual ones) from around the Pac-12 to evaluate how teams stacked up with each other in critical categories:

  • Oregon and Stanford clearly led the Pac-12 in offense and defense, respectively. The Ducks' 45.9 points per game were more than a touchdown better than second-place offense California (38.2 points per game). The Cardinal's 16.0 points per game allowed were more than a touchdown better than second-place defense Oregon (23.2 points per game). The Ducks showed the greatest overall balance (tops in points scored, second in points allowed), so it's no surprise they're favored to win Friday's conference title game.
  • The Cardinal, meanwhile, complemented their league-best defensive numbers with the Pac-12's worst scoring offense (25.7 points per game), so it's no surprise that they finished with an unremarkable 7-5 record. Every conference team averaged 30 points per game except Stanford, Oregon State and Colorado.
  • More on the defensive end: Cal was again the Pac-12's worst team in that category, allowing 39.8 points per game. The Bears did improve from their 2013 statistics, when they allowed 45.9 points per game. Oregon State (31.6), Washington State (38.6), and Colorado (39.0) all surrendered more than 30 points per game. Arizona State (27.7) featured the worst defense among the Pac-12 teams that finished with a winning record.
  • Of course, point totals should not serve as the exclusive barometer of offensive and defensive play. The yards per play average can be a solid efficiency measurement. On the offensive end, Oregon averaged 7.4 yards per play. Second place Washington State and Cal were way behind at 6.1 yards per play. Utah's offense finished last in this metric, averaging just 5.2 yards per play.
  • Like Oregon on the offensive side, Stanford's defense finished head and shoulders above the rest of the Pac-12 by allowing only 4.2 yards per play. The second-most efficient defense in the conference was UCLA, a full yard behind at 5.2 yards per play. USC (5.3) and Washington (5.3) both closely trailed the Bruins; Colorado allowed a league-worst 6.5 yards per play.
  • The gap between the best and worst rushing offenses in the Pac-12 is the size of the Grand Canyon: Oregon ran for 33 touchdowns while pass-happy Washington State only totaled five. The Ducks (5.4) were the only team to average more than five yards per rush, while the Cougars mustered only 2.0 per carry. Arizona checks in at 4.7 yards per rush, so the Pac-12's two most efficient ground attacks are squaring off in the title game.
  • Marcus Mariota is leading Oregon and the nation with more than 10 yards per pass attempt. The second-most-efficient conference aerial attack belonged to Cody Kessler's USC unit (8.4 yards per attempt). Colorado was way behind everyone else here, mustering only 6.3 yards per attempt. By the way, only two quarterbacks nationally finished with more than 3,000 passing yards and fewer than five interceptions: Mariota (2) and Kessler (4). Both threw 36 touchdown passes during the regular season.
  • Stanford narrowly led the Pac-12 in rush defense (3.2 yards per carry allowed, just ahead of Washington at 3.3), but their lead in pass defense was massive (5.2 yards per attempt allowed was more than a full yard better than second-place USC, who checked in at 6.4 yards per attempt allowed). Washington State's pass defense performed the least efficiently, surrendering 8.3 yards per attempt.
  • The Cardinal's defense led the Pac-12 in almost all critical categories, but USC actually bested Stanford in two big ones: third-down defense and red-zone defense. The Trojans finished at the top of the heap in both, allowing their opponents to convert only 35.2 percent of third downs (better than the Cardinal's 35.6) and 72.3 percent of red-zone scoring opportunities. Interestingly, Oregon featured the Pac-12's worst third-down defense (43.6 percent), but their offense was by far the league's best (51.3 percent).
  • Cal was the Pac-12's most-penalized team (81.1 yards per game) and Utah was its least-penalized team (49.1 yards per game).
  • Washington forced the most takeaways (27), but Oregon suffered the fewest turnovers (8), so the Ducks had the best margin in the conference (plus-15). Of the seven teams that finished with a positive turnover margin, six sported winning records. Of the five teams that finished with a negative turnover margin, only two attained marks above .500.
  • UCLA featured the Pac-12's best red-zone offense, averaging 5.4 points per trip inside the 20-yard line. Stanford was the league's worst, mustering only 4.2 points per red-zone trip.
  • Utah (52) and Washington led the nation in sacks, while the Huskies' Hau'oli Kikaha (18.0) and the Utes' Nate Orchard (17.5) led the country individually in that category. It should be noted that Orchard played one fewer game than Kikaha, so his per-game average was higher (1.46 to 1.38). Meanwhile, Arizona's Scooby Wright blasted everyone in the nation when it came to tackles for loss per game. He averaged 2.25; second place Kikaha was way behind at 1.85.
Last month, we wrote about how the Pac-12 South had collectively overtaken the North. With the regular season over, the final numbers are in, and they're staggering: For the first time since the league's expansion in 2011, the South won the head-to-head battle against the North, and they did so in commanding fashion.

Of course, the ultimate prize still resides in the Pac-12 North: Either Oregon or Stanford has won every conference title since the creation of the two-division format. Arizona will try to change that Friday, and if the Wildcats succeed, they'll add icing onto the cake of this 2014 shift of power.

The North held the head-to-head advantage over the South for three years, but the margin shrunk in each season, setting the table for the South's takeover. With just the Pac-12 championship game remaining, the North is 9-15 against the South. Non-Oregon Pac-12 North teams beat ranked South opponents only twice this season. Both of those wins were significant, though, as they derailed their opponents' College Football Playoff hopes (Oregon State over ASU, Stanford over UCLA).

During this regular season, the combined conference record of the Pac-12 South was 30-24, while the combined conference record of the North was 24-30. It should be noted that the South maintained this advantage even while dragging around the dead weight of 0-9 Colorado. Remove the lowest teams from both divisions (the Buffs from the South and 2-7 Washington State from the North), and the disparity is even more astonishing: The Pac-12 South finishes with a 30-15 record in conference play, while the North is at 22-23.

Stanford, the Pac-12 North's second-place team, would finish in sixth place if it were in the South -- ahead of only Colorado.

What will happen in 2015 and beyond? Will the South only grow relatively stronger, or will the North circle the wagons and stop the bleeding? We'll examine future prospects in the coming days, but one thing is clear: Oregon is carrying the flag for the Pac-12 North now, and the Ducks are the division's last line of defense against total domination from the South in 2014.
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The West region isn't often home to impact defensive tackles, as evidenced by the Pac-12's signing just two of the top 27 defensive tackles in the country this past signing day. By contrast, the Big Ten signed two of the top seven, and the SEC inked four of the top six.


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