Pac-12 problem: Losing expansion?

August, 22, 2014
Aug 22
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Over the past five or so years, the Power Five conferences started playing expansion roulette. Although the ultimate wisdom of these moves can be measured only over the long term, the short-term results can be judged.

That judgment? Things worked out well for the SEC and Big Ten. Not so much for the Pac-12 and Big 12.

The Big Ten added Nebraska three seasons ago to give it 12 teams. The Cornhuskers, despite not satisfying their demanding fans, have gone 17-7 in league play and won 28 games overall.

[+] EnlargeSefo Liufau and Tenny Palepoi
AP Photo/Rick BowmerColorado and Utah have a dismal 13-41 combined record in league play since joining the Pac-12.
The SEC added Missouri and Texas A&M from the Big 12. Each has posted double-digit wins and high national rankings as an SEC member, and their two-year conference marks essentially match what they did in their last two years in the Big 12.

The Big 12 replaced those two with TCU and West Virginia, teams that had won BCS bowl games as members of the Mountain West and Big East conferences, respectively. Yet neither has posted a winning record in Big 12 play, and both regressed to 4-8 overall and 2-7 in the conference last year.

The Pac-12? It raided the Big 12 for Colorado, which went 5-7 and 2-6 in 2010, and the Mountain West for Utah, which went 10-3, 7-1 that year. Neither has matched its 2010 records in the Pac-12 nor posted a winning record in conference play. The Buffaloes have gone a meager 4-23 against Pac-12 foes, while the Utes have gone from 4-5 to 3-6 to 2-7 in conference games.

Nebraska has been to three consecutive New Year's Day bowls, beating Georgia in the Gator Bowl last year, while Texas A&M has won a Heisman Trophy and two bowl games. Like the Aggies, Missouri has won a Cotton Bowl against the Big 12. Both have produced top-five rankings over the past two years.

The lone badge of postseason honor for the Pac-12 newbies? Utah's victory over Georgia Tech in the 2011 Sun Bowl. To the Utes' credit, they have gone 9-1 in games outside the Pac-12 over the past three seasons, including 3-0 versus their bitter rival BYU.

Although the Pac-12 has surged after realignment in terms of national perception, gaining ground on the SEC, and the Big Ten has stagnated by comparison, that's had nothing to do with expansion. While Pac-12 folks aren't going to whine about the fruits of expansion -- Exhibit A being a $3 billion TV deal -- or even grouse about poor-to-middling results from the new members, it's fair to say the short-term gain in terms of assets on Saturdays has been slight.

As assets, Colorado and Utah don't attract national eyeballs at present as they would if they were winning 10 games and were nationally ranked. The Utes' nail-biter with Arizona State in November was an interesting game, but it would have been featured prominently in highlight shows that night if it were a battle of ranked teams eyeballing the South Division title.

That said, other Pac-12 coaches might enjoy not having two more teams threatening to play at a Top 25 -- or better -- level. The conference, even with the Utes and Buffs slumping, is deeper than it's ever been. In fact, if both were playing at a high level, the conference's chances to put two teams in BCS bowl games, as it did in two of the previous three years, would have been reduced, costing each team about $1 million since 2011. That holds true looking forward to a potential berth -- or berths -- in the College Football Playoff.

Depth is good. It's fun to celebrate top-to-bottom quality. But it also makes it more difficult to go 12-0 or 11-1 in the regular season, records typically required for national title contention.

Still, the Pac-12 is better served by Utah and Colorado improving. The conference certainly would like the Denver and Salt Lake City markets to turn their attention to college football in large numbers.

Not to conclude with an outlandish assertion here, but here's a guess that the folks most eager for the Buffs and Utes to help the Pac-12 feel good about its expansion choices are the fans, administrators, players and coaches associated with both programs.

Pac-12's perfect passing storm

August, 22, 2014
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Athletes often refuse to play along with media storylines, or they simply are oblivious to them. That's not the case with the Pac-12's stellar 2014 crop of quarterbacks. They get it. They know they are good and you are interested. They are perfectly aware that 10 of them are returning starters, and a handful of them are expected to be early NFL draft picks this spring.

For the most part, they know each other. Many crossed paths in recruiting. Others sought each other out after games. Seven of them bonded at the Manning Passing Academy in Tbibodaux, Louisiana, this summer. There's a reasonable degree of believability when they insist they all like each other.

“It’s kind of a brother deal," said Washington State's Connor Halliday, one of seven Pac-12 quarterbacks who threw at least 20 touchdown passes a year ago. "We’re all representing the conference.”

That collegial connectedness means Halliday is perfectly willing to map out the NFL prospects of the crew, even if he opts to leave himself out -- Oregon State's Sean Mannion, he says, is the most NFL-ready, while Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley have the most upside. That chumminess means -- cover your eyes, USC and UCLA fans -- Hundley and Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler feel free to talk about how cool the other is.

The preseason scuttlebutt is the Pac-12 will follow up perhaps its best season in terms of top-to-bottom quality depth with a 2014 encore that should be even better. There's legitimacy to the belief that the Pac-12 might eclipse the SEC this fall as the nation's best conference, and that seeming apostasy begins behind center, where the SEC doesn't have a bona fide proven passer.

The Pac-12? Five returning QBs passed for more than 3,500 yards in 2013. If you give Kessler 32 more yards and Stanford's Kevin Hogan 370, then you have eight who passed for 3,000. Mariota, Hundley and Mannion are potential first-round NFL draft picks. Hogan is a three-year starter who's started in two Rose Bowls. Arizona State's Taylor Kelly, some forget, was second-team All-Pac-12 in 2013 and led his team past Hundley and UCLA in the South Division. Halliday had 34 touchdown passes in 2013, while California's Jared Goff and Colorado's Sefo Liufau were true freshman starters. Before he got hurt, Utah's Travis Wilson was good enough to lead an upset of Stanford.

Seems pretty odd to mention the USC quarterback last, but there you have it: Kessler surged late in the season and should thrive under new coach Steve Sarkisian's up-tempo scheme.

The sum is quarterback depth that has everyone gushing, including Pac-12 coaches.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Charles Baus/CSMUSC's Cody Kessler threw for 2,968 yards in 2013, a robust total that only ranked seventh in a stacked league for quarterbacks, the Pac-12.
"Oh, I don't think there is a conference that is even close in terms of the quality of quarterbacks," UCLA coach Jim Mora said.

Said Washington's Chris Petersen, who, like Arizona's Rich Rodriguez, doesn't have a returning starter at quarterback: “There’s not a crop like this coming back in the country. It’s scary when you don’t have one of those returning guys. Every week, you’re going to have to face one of them.”

The question bouncing around before the season is whether it's the best quarterback class, well, ever, and not just for the Pac-12. Maybe, maybe not.

The Pac-10 was pretty impressive in 2004: USC's Matt Leinart, California's Aaron Rodgers, Arizona State's Andrew Walter, UCLA's Drew Olson, Oregon's Kellen Clemens, Oregon State's Derek Anderson, Washington State's Alex Brink and Stanford's Trent Edwards. If you wanted, you also could throw in Utah's Alex Smith, though he was still in the Mountain West Conference at the time. A handful of those guys are still in the NFL, with Rodgers in the discussion as the best quarterback in the league.

Outside of the Pac-12, there's the Big 12 in 2008: Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, Texas' Colt McCoy, Baylor's Robert Griffin III, Missouri's Chase Daniel, Texas Tech's Graham Harrell, Kansas' Todd Reesing and Kansas State's Josh Freeman.

Ultimately, a judgment will be best delivered at season's end, and things rarely go as projected in the preseason. Injuries are, unfortunately, often an issue, and the pecking order could change. Don't be shocked, for example, if the estimations of Hogan, Kessler, Halliday and Goff go way up this fall.

The obvious leader is Mariota, probably the Heisman Trophy co-favorite with Florida State's Jameis Winston, the 2013 winner. While Mariota's return for his redshirt junior season was a bit of a surprise, how he's conducted himself during the preseason is not. He's not going to get in trouble off the field and he's not a look-at-me guy on it.

“He cares more about practice rep 13 in period 12 in 7-on-7 than anyone I’ve ever been around," coach Mark Helfrich said. "That carries over to every single guy in our program.”

But Mariota doesn't top everyone's list. Washington State linebacker Darryl Monroe favors Mannion, who won the Elite 11 Counselor's Challenge this summer after leading the conference with 4,662 yards and 37 TD passes last year.

“He’s a true NFL quarterback," Monroe said. “He has one of the best arms I’ve played against. Or seen in person.”

[+] EnlargeChris Petersen
AP PhotoAside from a Nov. 15 date against Arizona, Washington coach Chris Petersen will likely face a returning starter at quarterback in every one of the Huskies' Pac-12 games.
Monroe, the boisterous contrarian, ranked Kelly No. 2.

“He ran that offense like a point guard," Monroe said.

Obviously, the expectation is that these 10 returning starters will combine talent and experience and put up huge numbers. As important as the position is, however, a good quarterback can't do it alone. He's got to have some places to deliver the ball. The good news for these guys is most have a strong supporting cast. While Mariota and Mannion have questions at receiver, that position is strong and deep throughout the conference.

Nine teams have at least three starting offensive linemen back, and five have four or more. Oregon is the only team without at least one of its top two receivers back. It's also notable that more than a few teams have questions in the secondary.

It could be a year when preseason hype meets big passing numbers. But stats are not what football is all about, either.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to winning games," Kessler said. “I don’t look at the stat box. I look at who won. Most of the time, if you look at who won, I can tell you how the quarterback played.”

That's the truth: Winning is the ultimate measure of a quarterback. More than a few Pac-12 quarterbacks through the years have put up big numbers but haven't led their teams to championships, conference or national. It's likely that the first-team All-Pac-12 quarterback this fall, a guy who should be in line for a variety of national awards and All-America honors, will be sitting atop the final standings.

As for the celebration of Pac-12 quarterbacks in 2014, some ambivalence does follow the fawning. While there is a sense of genial community when discussing the depth at the position, most coaches would rather have their guy be talented and experienced and everyone else to be searching for answers behind center.

Said Stanford coach David Shaw, “I can’t wait for some of these guys to get out of our conference, which I thought a couple of them would last year.”

Pac-12 morning links

August, 22, 2014
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Happy Friday!

Leading off

We kicked off Thursday’s links column talking about Pac-12 head coaches and how they’ve done against AP Top 25 competition.

Today we’ll take a look at the job security of those coaches, courtesy of CBS’s Dennis Dodd, who released his annual “hot seat” rankings for every coach.

Things are relatively air-conditioned in the Pac-12. But they are heating up for a couple of coaches. Using a 0-5 rating – five essentially being nuclear and zero being a getaway on Hoth – Dodd writes that Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and Cal coach Sonny Dykes have the hottest seats in the Pac-12. First, here’s the rating for all 12 coaches and their rating from the 2013 season (listed second).
[+] Enlarge Kyle Whittingham
George Frey/Getty ImagesKyle Whittingham seems to have the Utes close to a breakthrough after two tough, 5-7 seasons.

  • Rich Rodriguez: 1-1
  • Todd Graham: 1-0
  • Sonny Dykes : 3-0.5
  • Mike MacIntyre: 1.5-1.0
  • Mark Helfrich: 2.0-1.5
  • Mike Riley: 1-1
  • David Shaw: 0-0
  • Jim Mora: 0.5-0.5
  • Steve Sarkisian: 2.5-N/A
  • Kyle Whittingham: 3.5-3.0
  • Chris Petersen: 0.5-N/A
  • Mike Leach: 0.5-1

I don’t disagree with the sentiment on either coach. That said, I don’t think a change will be made with either, either. And here’s why:

Kyle Whittingham has something few coaches can boast: An undefeated season, a No. 2 final ranking and a BCS bowl victory (technically, two). That sort of success not only buys you goodwill, it buys you career longevity.

As noted by Whittingham’s rating, he’s “starting to feel the pressure.” That’s fair. A team like Utah isn’t used to missing bowl games in back-to-back years. But when you look at last season, the Utes are close. They beat Stanford – arguably the greatest regular-season victory in school history – lost to Arizona State by a point, took Oregon State to overtime and lost by a touchdown to UCLA. This is a team that’s close.

That being said, the road schedule is brutal. I think if the Utes start 2-0 (and they should), then the Michigan game will be high noon. Win that one and there’s a good chance the Utes go bowling. Having a quarterback make it through the season without injury couldn't hurt, either.

As for Dykes, let’s not forget he was the one of the most sought-after coaches in the country before the 2013 season. He just happened to run into one of the worst rashes of injuries I’ve seen in my 17 years covering all levels of football, and he had a true freshman quarterback.

Dykes has a proven system. Give it time (and health) to develop.

Who’s No. 1?

The SEC can certainly claim dominance over the BCS era. Not even the most argumentative, devil’s-advocate-loving, stubborn columnist I know – Ted Miller – could argue otherwise. The proof is in the hardware.

But that era has passed. What have you won for me lately? It’s now the College Football Playoff era. And according to Yahoo Sports’ Pat Forde, it’s the Pac-12 that will be at the vanguard of the next installment of college football’s highest honor.

Forde rationalizes his thought process with three determining factors:

  1. The Pac-12 has a deep roster of coaches.
  2. The Pac-12 has the best quarterbacks.
  3. The Pac-12 plays a tough schedule.

Check, check and check. No arguments here. Every year, it seems like a Pac-12 coach will make the comment that the league is as good as it’s ever been. And each year it keeps adding quality coaches. If you’ve been following along with our “Better Know a Pac-12 Quarterback” series, then you know how good the league is when it comes to the QBs. And the last couple of days we’ve been linking plenty of lists of must-see Pac-12 games. All of them feature Top 25 matchups, be it in conference or nonleague.

However, I don’t think we’ll ever see a time where Stanford fans are chanting "P-A-C, P-A-C" if the Ducks win a title, or vice versa. Not our style out West.

News/notes/practice reports
Just for fun

The football team isn't the only squad going through fall camp. Fight on.

The Pac-12 is blessed with an abundance of returning starting quarterbacks in 2014. With 10 starters coming back, many are wondering if the league is on pace for its best quarterback year ever. This week the Pac-12 blog will give you a snapshot of all 10.

Name: Brett Hundley

School: UCLA

Grade: Junior

[+] EnlargeBrett Hundley
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesKnown for his running ability, Brett Hundley has the passing chops to make him a Heisman candidate and a future first-round draft pick.
2013 passing stats: Completed 248 of 369 passes (67.2 percent) to go with 3,071 passing yards and 24 touchdowns to nine interceptions. Posted a raw QBR of 75.3 and adjusted QBR of 82.3.

Career passing stats: Completed 567 of 848 passes (66.9 percent) to go with 6,816 yards and 52 touchdowns to 20 interceptions. Has a raw QBR of 67.0 and an adjusted QBR of 74.4.

2013 rushing stats: Rushed 160 times for 748 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Career rushing stats: Rushed 320 times for 1,103 yards and 20 touchdowns.

Hundley on Twitter

What you need to know about Hundley: Former UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel hasn’t been shy about talking up what kind of talent Hundley had when he recruited him. Nor is he shy about his decision to redshirt Hundley in what turned out to be his final season as head coach. As a result, incoming coach Jim Mora benefited greatly and watched Hundley easily separate himself from Kevin Prince, Richard Brehaut and Jerry Neuheisel. Hundley has since gone on to start 27 straight games, is an early Heisman candidate and widely regarded as one of the most athletic and explosive players in college football.

Career high point: Should we go with USC in 2012? Or USC in 2013? In either case, Hundley was sensational in both. He has five combined touchdowns (one passing, four rushing) in two games against the Trojans and has completed 70 percent of his throws against the cross-town rivals. And while he’s struggled against Stanford and Oregon (games he and the Bruins need to win to prove they are worthy of their top-10 ranking) he’s brought his A-game both times around against USC.

Career low point: Hundley wasn’t terrible in last season's loss to Arizona State. He threw a couple of touchdowns and completed 60 percent of his passes. But a furious ASU front sacked Hundley nine times and corralled him to a season-low five yards rushing. On top of it, the loss gave the South Division title (which the Bruins had held the previous two seasons) to the Sun Devils.

When he was a recruit: Hundley was the No. 6 overall quarterback in 2011 and the gem of UCLA's recruiting class. The No. 107 prospect in the country, Hundley held offers from programs such as Michigan, Oregon, Stanford, Texas A&M and Washington, among others. He eventually selected the Bruins over the Huskies. There were very few questions as to whether Hundley would become a star at the next level and when his redshirt freshman season coincided with the arrival of head coach Jim Mora and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, Hundley’s career predictably took off. "He is a spread offense signal-caller that is a huge part of this offense both with his legs and his arm," his ESPN Recruiting Nation profile reads. "Overall, Hundley is a physically imposing athlete that can do it all. He has great upside to become more crisp and fluid in his mechanics, as he is just entering into his second year as a full-time starter. He will become a hot commodity quite quickly."

Opposing head coach’s take: “Similar to Mannion when you look at him. He’s a prototypical NFL quarterback, but with that mobility; with that ability to move in the pocket and out of the pocket. He’s going to be a high-round draft pick because of his size and his athletic ability. He’s a smart kid. He’s an accurate passer. The sky is the limit for him.”

Scouts' take: Even-keeled and mature individual. Dedicated student who is currently pursuing a double major. Loves football and is passionate about it. Strong work ethic and willing to make the sacrifices necessary. First guy in and last guy out of the building. ... Highly competitive. Adequate-to-above-average decision-maker. Still will make some questionable reads at times and force throws into coverage he shouldn’t attempt but in general is not careless with ball security. ... On one hand he is a deceiving athlete with very good size and strength to escape pressure and buy time. Not overly quick and gradually builds to top-end speed as runner. He has better mobility than anticipated on tape and poses enough of a threat to pick up chunk yards if not accounted for as a runner. On the flip side, he still has a lot of room for improvement working the pocket, which is the biggest concern from an evaluation standpoint heading into the 2014 season. Will get finicky when feeling pressure and must show better patience within the pocket. Often vacates pocket too early instead of sliding to open area and getting through progressions. Also has a bad habit of dropping his eyes and looking at the rush when evading pressure and will miss reads as a result.

What to expect in 2014: At this point, it’s about the little details. Hundley spent a couple of weeks during the offseason working out with current and former NFL quarterbacks for the sole purpose of learning what it’s like to play in the league. The hope is that the knowledge gained will transfer to his college game. He’s one of the most dynamic and exciting players in the country. Yet all too often he gets labeled as a running quarterback when he threw for more than 3,000 yards and led all quarterbacks in the Pac-12 in completion percentage. That’s right, Mr. Scramble was the most accurate passer in the league last season. We expect his already stellar touchdown-to-interception ratio to improve while still maintaining his outstanding rushing numbers. The belief is that with some health and experience on the offensive line, Hundley’s sack numbers will also go down (no Pac-12 quarterback has been sacked more than Hundley's 87 times in the past two seasons). Look for Hundley to be in the running for all sorts of postseason awards -- Heisman included -- before hearing his name called in the first round of the 2015 draft.

Erik McKinney and Kevin Weidl contributed to this report.
The Pac-12 is blessed with an abundance of returning starting quarterbacks in 2014. With 10 starters coming back, many are wondering if the league is on pace for its best quarterback year ever. This week the Pac-12 blog will give you a snapshot of all 10.

Name: Cody Kessler

School: USC

Grade: Junior

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsCody Kessler finished with 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions last fall.
2013 passing stats: Completed 236 of 361 passes (65.4 percent) for 2,968 yards with 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Posted a raw QBR of 59 with an adjusted QBR of 66.1.

Career passing stats: Completed 238 of 363 passes (65.6 percent) for 2,977 yards with 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Posted a raw QBR of 59 with an adjusted QBR of 66.1.

2013 rushing stats: Rushed 42 times for minus-124 yards with one rushing touchdown.

Career rushing stats: Same as above.

Kessler on Twitter

What you need to know about Kessler: Kessler was locked in a quarterback competition with Max Wittek following the 2012 season and Matt Barkley's departure. That competition went from the winter into the spring and continued to spill over into the fall while then-coach Lane Kiffin flip-flopped the first few games. Kessler eventually won the job and -- under offensive coordinator Clay Helton’s direction and play-calling -- steadily improved during the Ed Orgeron era. When Steve Sarkisian was hired, Kessler proved himself all over again, beating out Max Browne in the spring to retain his spot. He has a firm grasp of the pro-style scheme and showed his smarts to Sarkisian and Co. by quickly picking up the up-tempo elements. So much so that Sarkisian named Kessler the starter in the 12th practice of the spring.

Career high point: From a team standpoint, without a question, it was the victory against Stanford last season. Kessler was an efficient 25 of 37 for 288 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. From a personal, statistical standpoint, he was outstanding in USC’s 45-20 win against Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl. He connected on 22 of 30 passes for a career high 345 yards and four touchdowns and was named the game’s MVP.

Career low point: Kessler had one multi-interception game last season, and it was in a 62-41 blowout loss to ASU. Not only was that a low point for him, but it was one of the darkest days in program history (or brightest, depending how you felt about Kiffin). That loss led to Kiffin’s infamous airport firing, but also united the Trojans under Orgeron and they went on to win seven of their final nine games. Still, that had to be a bad flight from Tempe to Los Angeles.

When he was a recruit: The No. 29 overall quarterback in the 2011 class, Kessler was 26 slots lower than Max Wittek, who also signed with USC that year and eventually transferred when Kessler earned the starting position. Despite lacking prototypical height for the position, Kessler earned offers from Alabama, Arizona State, Nebraska, Pittsburgh, UCLA and Washington, among others. Fortuitous timing led to his commitment to USC. As Kessler was in his coach’s office, ready to make a phone call and commit to the Washington Huskies and then-head coach Steve Sarkisian, the phone rang. It was the USC coaches calling to offer a scholarship, which completely changed the trajectory of Kessler’s recruitment. Kessler jumped on board, even though the Trojans already held a commitment from Wittek. Kessler went on to grind his way to the top of the depth chart, which sounds fairly familiar. "Kessler is an impressive prospect that grows on you the more you watch him. He has a salty demeanor and swagger about him that makes you want to watch more of him," his ESPN Recruiting Nation profile read.

Opposing head coach's take: "Cody battled some early things. He didn’t play great early in the season. But we really saw him come on. Much like a Kevin Hogan, it’s not always the highlight plays. But you see a guy make a tough play to win a football games -- taking a hit in the pocket and standing in there to make a play down the field, pushing up in the pocket and escaping for a first down. You see him do all the things that good football players do."

What to expect in 2014: Kessler is accurate and he takes care of the football. Those are two extremely important keys to success, regardless of who your coach is or what kind of a scheme you run. Of the returning starters, only Marcus Mariota had fewer interceptions than Kessler. And it’s worth noting that after Kiffin was fired and Helton took over the play-calling, Kessler had just three interceptions over the final nine games. No other quarterback in the league can claim that type of ball security over that stretch. Sarkisian wisely retained Helton as his offensive coordinator, which Kessler has said several times was a big relief because those two work so well together. So you factor all of that, combined with the experience gained last season and an up-tempo twist (which certainly benefited Keith Price's efficiency last season when Sarkisian was at Washington), and you have the potential for a very efficient and dangerous quarterback. Oh yeah, it also helps to have Nelson Agholor and a healthy George Farmer at receiver.

Erik McKinney contributed reporting.
Pick a word, any word.

That’s what I asked the 65 coaches from the Power Five conferences and Notre Dame to do. Describe their team in one word.

Some coaches were one-word wonders, but a few insisted they needed two words. That’s fine because the descriptions shed some insight into how coaches view their team and/or what they want the public perception of their team to be.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
AP Photo/Damian DovarganesStanford's David Shaw describes his team as 'underappreciated.'
Of the 65 coaches, “hungry” was the most common description. Nine coaches went with it, making a “hungry” team the modern-day equivalent of the “taking it one game at a time” cliché. Four coaches used “unproven,” another four “experienced” and three said “young.” Two coaches each used “redemption,” “committed,” “improved” or “youthful."

In all, the 65 coaches used 44 different descriptions.

Well, here’s to taking it one “word” at a time. My word: Enjoy.

Pac-12

Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez: Hungry
Arizona State’s Todd Graham: Character
Cal’s Sonny Dykes: Hungry
Colorado’s Mike MacIntryre: More confident
Oregon’s Mark Helfrich: Redemption
Oregon State’s Mike Riley: Leadership
Stanford’s David Shaw: Underappreciated
UCLA’s Jim Mora: Determined
USC’s Steve Sarkisian: Tough
Utah’s Kyle Whittingham: Warriors
Washington’s Chris Petersen: Unknown
Washington State’s Mike Leach: Improving

Timing right for USC, Sark marriage

August, 21, 2014
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USC safety Taylor Mays didn't exactly grin from ear to ear at the question back in 2008, but his face did acknowledge that the reporter had offered him an underhanded pitch that he could belt out of the L.A. Coliseum in any direction he wished.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsIn his second stint as a college football head coach, Steve Sarkisian faces the pressure of guiding a national powerhouse program in USC.
Mays and the top-ranked USC Trojans had just made No. 5 Ohio State look like a high school team in a 35-3 whipping that wasn't nearly as close as the final score suggested. The question was whether the Buckeyes had been shocked by just how much better the Trojans were. Mays paused, seeming to savor the question as he coolly assessed the contents of his locker, before delivering a response.

"Many teams wonder what this SC thing is about -- why have we been so successful these past years," he said. "We came out there and showed them. They're Ohio State and that means something. But we prepare so well that we just do what we do."

There was a time under Pete Carroll when USC pretty much won games when they got off the bus. They simply looked a whole lot better -- bigger, faster, more confident -- than anyone else in college football. Reporters and fans would encircle the Trojans' open scrimmages, particularly during Competition Tuesdays, and marvel at the talent level and intensity.

New USC coach Steve Sarkisian was Carroll's top offensive assistant for much of that run from 2002 to '08 before heading off to Washington. He missed the 2004 BCS national title season while spending an unhappy year with the Oakland Raiders, as well as the start of the program's decline in 2009, a 9-4 finish after the Trojans had lost just nine games in the previous seven seasons. Then Carroll bolted for the Seattle Seahawks.

So Sarkisian knows what things were like during the Trojans' most recent dynastic run. He was there for its creation. A Southern California native, he knows the area, the program's traditions and how quickly expectations can become stratospheric. He knows what he is taking over. And getting himself into.

He knows USC is one of the most powerful brands in college sports, one whose name and logo have impact in South Florida, Ohio and Texas, as well as in its home territory.

"When you have that SC interlock on your chest and you walk into a school [to recruit], whether it's in Southern California or anywhere else, this talks about 11 national championships, six Heisman Trophies, more NFL draft picks, more All-Americans, more All-Pros, more Hall of Famers than any other school," Sarkisian said. "So it's a powerful brand."

Sarkisian also knows timing. He knows it's better not to be the "man after the man," as his friend Lane Kiffin was with Carroll. Sarkisian was Carroll's personal preference to replace him, and then-athletic director Mike Garrett made a play for Sarkisian before offering the job to Kiffin. Sarkisian was then heading into his second season at Washington and felt it wouldn't be the right time to bail out on the Huskies.

Oh, and he also knew NCAA sanctions were on the horizon, though there was little indication at the time that they would be as severe as they ended up being.

Good timing? As of June, USC is no longer yoked with those sanctions that included the loss of 30 scholarships over three years. After signing a highly rated class in February, despite limits, Sarkisian could have the Trojans at around 80 scholarship players next fall, according to ESPN.com's Garry Paskwietz, not far below the limit of 85, and substantially better than the numbers that have made depth the team's most worrisome issue since 2010. The Trojans presently rank 14th in the nation and first in the Pac-12 in the ESPN.com recruiting rankings.

Timing? Even during Carroll's run, USC's facilities were second-rate. No longer. After putting $120 million toward new and renovated buildings, including the 110,000-square foot John McKay Center, USC matches up with the most elite teams.

Timing? Sarkisian inherits 18 returning starters from a team that won 10 games in 2013. The Trojans should be contenders in the South Division this fall, emerging from so-called crippling sanctions in pretty good shape after averaging "only" 8.8 wins per season from 2009 through last year.

Of course, his timing isn't that perfect. He's got a UCLA problem that Carroll didn't have to contend with. The Bruins are surging under Jim Mora and are hardly quaking at the prospect of USC again being whole. It's notable that Sarkisian and Mora have long had a cordial relationship, though that might be difficult to sustain going forward.

"I think [hiring Sarkisian] has given them a shot of energy that I wish they didn't get," Mora quipped at Pac-12 media days. "I have great respect for Sark, and I like him as a person and as a coach. I just know he's going to make my job harder."

While USC can again sign a full recruiting class of 25, which should make the going tougher for all 11 other Pac-12 teams, there's also some undercurrent of smugness within the conference from coaches and fans that Sarkisian hasn't truly earned a job like USC and that he isn't much different from Kiffin. His critics dubbed him "Seven-Win Steve" after he led Washington to three consecutive 7-6 seasons, a rut that had some Huskies fans putting him on the hot seat heading into the 2013 season.

The Huskies improved to 9-4 last season, finishing with a Top 25 ranking for the first time since 2001. Some also seemed to forget that Sarkisian inherited a team that went 0-12 in 2008. While there's been an odd effort to rewrite the history of how down the program was back then, it was outscored 463-159 that season and hadn't posted a winning record since 2002. Washington went 1-10 in 2004 and 2-9 in 2005. Further, majestic Husky Stadium was falling apart.

Chris Petersen has inherited a team from Sarkisian that's played in four consecutive bowl games, is ranked in the preseason, and is playing in a beautifully renovated stadium.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY SportsUSC Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian was optimistic at Pac-12 media days, saying: "I think we have a chance to do something special this year."
This is not to say Sarkisian did a perfect job at Washington. He made mistakes like most first-time head coaches, including sticking with overmatched defensive coordinator Nick Holt for too long. Yet the feeling among USC insiders is that the Trojans are getting Sark 2.0, and he's surrounded himself with a staff that is touted for its X's and O's acumen (most notably defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox) as well as its recruiting savvy. Sarkisian retained receivers coach Tee Martin, one of the most quietly important coups of the transition.

Sarkisian isn't necessarily bringing back Carroll's "Win Forever" rhetoric and culture. For one, he runs an up-tempo offense, not Carroll's pro style, and a 3-4 hybrid defense, not Carroll's 4-3. That could be seen as part of Sarkisian's maturation, of finding his own way. When Sarkisian took the Washington job after the 2009 Rose Bowl, Carroll actually told him that he needed to be his own man, not mimic Carroll.

"His final words to me walking out was, 'Go be you, because when adversity strikes, the real you is going to come out anyway,'" Sarkisian said.

For USC fans, adversity has already struck and stuck hard. Sarkisian's charge is to make sure those adverse days are done. Adversity going forward is losing more than two Pac-12 games.

Or is that losing more than one game, period?

Preseason All-Pac-12 team

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
9:00
AM ET
The kickoff to the 2014 season is fast approaching, so it's time to unveil the Pac-12 blog's preseason all-conference team. We're doing it a bit differently. In order to account for varying schemes in the conference, we've selected three wide receivers and one tight end on offense and four defensive lineman and four linebackers on defense (so each unit has 12 preseason selections). And we have opted to choose the five best offensive linemen in the conference, in our estimation, rather than select by position.

Here it is:

Offense

QB: Marcus Mariota, Oregon: A leading Heisman Trophy candidate and two-time first-team All-Pac-12 quarterback, he accounted for 40 touchdowns last season, rushing for 715 yards and passing for 3,665. The Ducks' offense led the Pac-12 with 45.5 points per game.

RB: Byron Marshall, Oregon: Marshall is the conference’s only returning 1,000-yard back after rushing for 1,038 yards last season. However, he will face stiff competition in his own backfield from Thomas Tyner and freshman Royce Freeman.

RB: D.J. Foster, Arizona State: After working in tandem with Marion Grice last season, Foster is now the headliner. That doesn’t mean he won’t still catch passes. The coaching staff loves to split him out in the slot.

WR: Nelson Agholor, USC: He caught 56 passes for 918 yards and six touchdowns last season and also returned kicks (17.5 average) and punts (19.1 average). With Marqise Lee off to the NFL, Agholor will be the Trojans’ top offensive target.

WR: Jaelen Strong, Arizona State: In his first season with the Sun Devils, Strong burst onto the scene with 75 receptions for 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns, establishing himself as one of the conference’s best and a future pro.

WR: Ty Montgomery, Stanford: Montgomery’s totals (61 catches, 958 yards, 10 touchdowns) don’t adequately compare him to the country’s other elite receivers. In a run-heavy offense, he was responsible for 32.1 percent of the Cardinal’s receptions, which was second-most in the Pac-12 behind Colorado’s Paul Richardson (35.3).

TE: Connor Hamlett, Oregon State: After catching 40 balls for 364 yards and five touchdowns, he is widely regarded as the top tight end in a league that has produced some great ones of late. Look for him to be a popular target as QB Sean Mannion and the Beavers adjust to life without star receiver Brandin Cooks.

OL: Alex Redmond, UCLA: A freshman All-American last season, he helped an injury-riddled Bruins offensive line maintain elite offensive numbers, including nearly 40 points per game. Expect a big step forward as a sophomore with a year of seasoning.

OL: Hroniss Grasu, Oregon: A rare four-year starter with 40 starts to his credit, he is a two-time first-team All-Pac-12 selection. A favorite for the Rimington Trophy, he was the centerpiece of the Pac-12’s No. 1 rushing offense.

OL: Andrus Peat, Stanford: When your head coach is comparing you to Jonathan Ogden, you must be doing something right. If Peat comes out, the junior will be in the running to be the first offensive lineman taken in next year’s NFL draft.

OL: Jamil Douglas, Arizona State: A second-team All-Pac-12 selection last year, Douglas has started every game over the past two seasons and appeared in every game during the 2011 season.

OL: Isaac Seumalo, Oregon State: Though he has excelled at center the previous two years, the coaching staff might move him around this season to fill some holes on the line. A foot injury might limit his playing time early in the season.

Defense

DL: Leonard Williams, USC: An All-American and Bednarik semifinalist last season, Williams returns after leading the Trojans with 13.5 tackles for loss. He projects to be a top-5 pick in the 2015 NFL draft and is regarded as the top defensive lineman in the country.

DL: Danny Shelton, Washington: Shelton’s frame (6-foot-2, 339 pounds) and his athleticism make him a potential first-round NFL pick next spring. He had 59 tackles, two sacks and two blocked kicks last season while often facing more than one blocker.

DL: Henry Anderson, Stanford: An All-Pac-12 honorable mention selection last year despite battling injuries, Anderson is expected to fill the void left by the departures of Ben Gardner and Josh Mauro.

DL: Hau'oli Kikaha, Washington: He was second in the conference last season with 13 sacks (second-most in school history) and seventh with 15.5 tackles for loss. Also on the Bednarik watch list, he was second-team all-conference last year after missing all of 2012 with a knee injury.

LB: Myles Jack, UCLA: One of the biggest names in college football, Jack was the conference’s Defensive (and Offensive) Freshman of the Year last season. He recovered two fumbles, had two interceptions and recorded 75 tackles, seven for loss.

LB: Hayes Pullard, USC: He has led the Trojans in tackles for two of the past three seasons, including 94 last season with 5.5 tackles for loss. A second-team All-Conference performer in 2013, he is a veteran of 39 starts and a mainstay on what might be the conference’s best defense.

LB: Shaq Thompson, Washington: Like Jack, Thompson has the potential to be among the most versatile players in college football, as new coach Chris Petersen also plans to use Thompson on offense. He was an All-Pac-12 honorable mention selection last year and is on the watch list for the Bednarik Award.

LB: Eric Kendricks, UCLA: No one has more tackles in the Pac-12 over the past three seasons. He doesn’t get the premium tackles-for-loss stats or sack stats that some of the lauded outside linebackers in the conference get. But he is as good a run-stopper as there is in the country.

CB: Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon: Perhaps the best cornerback in the country, Ekpre-Olomu has twice been named first-team All-Pac-12. He led the Ducks with 53 unassisted tackles last season, recorded three interceptions and broke up six passes.

CB: Marcus Peters, Washington: A second-team all-conference performer, he tied for third in the league last season in passes defended (14) and had five interceptions and two fumble recoveries. He projects to be a high draft pick in 2015.

S: Jordan Richards, Stanford: One of the more unique athletes in the conference, Richards is effective against the run and in coverage. He has started every game the past two years and recorded 168 tackles and six interceptions the past three.

S: Su'a Cravens, USC: He earned freshman All-America honors after an outstanding rookie campaign that included 52 stops and four interceptions. Has All-America potential as a sophomore.

Special teams

K: Andy Phillips, Utah: Phillips was a Lou Groza semifinalist last year when he connected on 17 of 20 field goal attempts. Not bad for a former competitive alpine skier who had never kicked before walking on in 2012.

P: Tom Hackett, Utah: The All-Pac-12 first-team punter last season, Hackett averaged 43.4 yards per punt and downed 27 of 76 punts inside the 20-yard line.

Pac-12 morning links

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
8:00
AM ET
Cogito ergo sum.

Leading off

As we hit the one-week countdown for the start of the Pac-12 season, it never hurts to go back and see where things stand with your head coach.

As the Pac-12 blog wrote a few months back, it’s possible that we might make it through 2014 without a coaching change. Maybe. Since 10 of the 12 teams have changed coaches since the start of the 2011 season, nothing is for certain.

A key determining factor is always how coaches stack up against top competition. And the Wall Street Journal Online released an interesting chart of every coach in the Power 5 (plus Notre Dame) and their record against AP Top 25 teams.



They also had some flattering things to say about Stanford coach David Shaw:
The best winning percentage (.778). Granted, it is a relatively small sample size—Shaw has been a head coach for only three seasons, and he took over a strong program — but 18 ranked opponents in three years is a ton. Urban Meyer has faced seven in two years at Ohio State. (Also, two of Shaw's four losses were in overtime.)

Here’s how the Pac-12 coaches shake out (career/at current school), plus I tossed in what I think was the biggest win. Feel free to tell me where I’m wrong:
  • Rich Rodriguez 16-26 and 3-7 (beating No. 5 Oregon in 2013)
  • Todd Graham 6-12 and 3-5 (beating No. 14 UCLA in 2013)
  • Sonny Dykes 0-9 and 0-5 (N/A)
  • Mike MacIntyre 0-10 and 0-3 (N/A)
  • Mark Helfrich 2-1 and 2-1 (Beating No. 16 Washington in 2013)
  • Mike Riley 13-39 and 13-39 (Beating USC in 2006)
  • David Shaw 14-4 and 14-4 (Beating Oregon in 2012)
  • Jim Mora 5-5 and 5-5 (Beating USC in 2012)
  • Steve Sarkisian 8-18 and 0-0 (Beating USC in 2009)
  • Kyle Whittingham 9-13 and 9-13 (Beating No. 4 Alabama in the 2008 season/2009 Sugar Bowl).
  • Chris Petersen 8-4 and 0-0 (Beating No. 11 Oklahoma in the 2006 season/2007 Fiesta Bowl).
  • Mike Leach 13-38 and 1-7 (Beating No. 1 Texas in 2008).

In digging up some of these old games, I had to go back through and watch some highlights of the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. So, so awesome.

All-Americans

ESPN.com will be releasing its preseason All-America team later today. CBS Sports released its Wednesday. I’m not going to give out any spoilers on ours, but we have more Pac-12 players. And thus, ours is superior, said the Pac-12 writer.

Oregon center Hroniss Grasu is the only Pac-12 player on offense, while the defense has a trio of Pac-12 players in USC defensive end Leonard Williams, UCLA linebacker Myles Jack and Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Stanford’s Ty Montgomery is the selection at kick return.

Keep an eye out

The Senior Bowl Watch list is out, and of the 350 players, 40 are from the Pac-12. All of the names you’d expect are on it. You can see the complete list (sortable by school, conference and position) here.

More must-see TV (Take 2)

On Wednesday, we brought you a couple of links with must-see games in the league. Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News also popped up his can’t-miss games in the league this year. They are what you’d expect. Stanford, Oregon, Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, a dash of USC. However, Wilner opted to list his chronologically, rather than ranking them. Shrewd, Mr. Wilner. Very shrewd indeed.

News/notes/practice reports
Just for fun

A fun little story from Chris Foster of the LA Times on a trio of teams experiencing Rose Bowl droughts. The premise is that UCLA has a good shot at the Rose Bowl this year. But they haven’t been there since ’99. But that’s not as long as Cal, Oregon State or Arizona State. Any post that can weave in Frankie Avalon, The Beatles and Bill Clinton is worth five minutes of your time.

Always cool to see walk-on players getting signing their scholarships. Five Sun Devils got theirs yesterday.

And finally, the Bruins had a guest speaker at practice yesterday ... Den-freaking-zel. King Kong ain’t got (horse pucky) on him.

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

Sometimes, like today, we'll be playing Devil's advocate for a specific team, player or idea.

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

Our first topic is centered on wide receiver depth. Specifically, which team in the conference has the most? As a group, we selected the four schools below -- something that was not clear cut -- and then divvied them up between the four of us.

Arizona

Ted Miller/@TedMillerRK: Arizona would rate near the top of the Pac-12 just on what it's got coming back from 2013, starting with leading receiver Nate Phillips, who earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors as a true freshman. Toss in the water-bug quick Samajie Grant and 6-foot-4 David Richards, who combined for 29 receptions last season, as well as the surging Trey Griffey -- son of Kenny Griffey Jr. -- who hauled in two TD passes in the bowl game, and you have a talented, experienced unit.

Yet, the receivers that didn't play in 2013 have the Wildcats among the nation's best at receiver this fall.

First, there's Austin Hill, a 6-foot-3, 212-pounder who was second-team All-Pac-12 in 2012 with 81 receptions for 1,364 yards. He would have been a Biletnikoff contender in 2013 if he didn't miss the season with a blown-out knee. Then there are a pair of marquee transfers, Cayleb Jones (Texas) and Davonte' Neal (Notre Dame) who had to sit last season due to NCAA rules. Jones is another big, athletic target, while Neal is a dangerous runner with the ball in his hands out of the slot.

The list of intriguing athletes doesn't end there, but that is enough to establish Arizona as the Pac-12's deepest receiving unit. It will be interesting to see who ends up leading the unit in receptions, as Hill, Phillips and Jones are legit possibilities. The only issue? Who the heck is going to deliver the ball?

California

Kyle Bonagura/@BonaguraESPN: With apologies to Stanford, which was tough to leave off this list, Cal is the Bay Area team with the most receiver depth this season. If we’re talking top 3, maybe things are different, but considering Cal uses four receivers on just about every play and doesn’t even list a tight end, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

By returning Chris Harper (70 catches, 853 yards) and Bryce Treggs (77 catches, 751 yards), Cal is the only school in the conference that has a pair of 700-yard receivers from last season. Treggs played primarily on the inside, but the coaching staff plans to take advantage of his varied skill set by using him on the outside this season.

Interestingly, Harper wasn’t even listed with the starters on Cal’s preseason depth chart. He was behind Hawaii transfer Trevor Davis, who sat out last season after catching 45 passes for 601 and five touchdowns in two seasons with the Warriors. That shouldn’t matter too much because Cal will rotate receivers heavily, but still worth noting.

Along with Treggs and Davis, Cal listed Kenny Lawler (37 catches, 347 yards) and Stephen Anderson (14 catches, 125 yards) as the other two starting receivers. There's plenty of depth behind them too with Darius Powe (25 catches, 231 yards), Maurice Harris and Bryce McGovern.

USC

Kevin Gemmell/@Kevin_Gemmell: I’m not going to spew out a couple hundred words and pretend that the Trojans have the deepest wide receiver corps in the conference. Because they don’t -- at least not at first glance. The other schools on this list -- Arizona, Cal and Washington State -- are heavy at receiver because they run spread offenses contingent on a deep wide receiving corps.

But what the Trojans do have is Nelson Agholor, who is widely regarded as the best receiver in the conference and one of the top five in the country. And that has to count for something. I know what the counter argument is -- what if USC loses Agholor? Well, then it's in trouble. You could say that for any team’s No. 1 receiver. But there is also some talented potential behind Agholor that could be getting overlooked.

Remember George Farmer? He’s finally healthy and appears on track to start opposite Agholor after rave reviews this fall. Sports Illustrated even tapped him as one of its top players set to have a bounce-back year. Darreus Rogers (22 catches last season), Steven Mitchell, Victor Blackwell and five-star recruit JuJu Smith are also waiting in the wings. Another five-star recruit, Adoree' Jackson, could see work at receiver.

Agholor’s presence automatically makes USC relevant to this conversation. And with explosive potential behind him, it would be unwise to disregard USC’s receiving corps.

Washington State

Chantel Jennings/@ChantelJennings: I don’t know how anyone is going to make an argument for any team other than Washington State. The Cougars throw the ball more than any other team in the conference, thus they need more receivers than any other team in the conference.

They return their top seven receivers from last season. Each of those players caught at least 35 passes, and the top five receivers averaged at least 40 yards per game. What other team can say that? Yes, other teams might have a player who averages 100 or 120 receiving yards per game but the Cougars have weapons everywhere on the field. Though they might contribute in smaller amounts, the end total is greater.

Senior Vince Mayle had a huge spring for the Cougars and is continuing to impress in the fall, becoming Connor Halliday's go-to guy. Look for him and junior Gabe Marks to lead the pack. But, there’s a pretty deep group behind those two headliners.

Warning: here comes a long (very long) list of names ... but that’s what you get with the deepest receiver group in the Pac-12.

There are the guys who most will remember from last season -- senior Kristoff Williams, sophomore River Cracraft, junior Dom Williams, senior Rickey Galvin and senior Isiah Myers. And that’s just the guys who played last year. Two freshmen could contribute this season -- redshirt freshman Robert Lewis and true freshman Calvin Green.
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#4Pac

As you might have heard, the Pac-12 has a bit of depth at quarterback this year. Actually, a ridiculous amount. Maybe the most in college football history.

The chances are slim, but there’s a foreseeable scenario in which the conference could feature two Heisman Trophy finalists (Brett Hundley and Marcus Mariota), the nation’s leader in touchdown passes (Sean Mannion), the nation’s passing yardage leader (Connor Halliday) and send two others to the NFL next season (Taylor Kelly and Kevin Hogan).

That’s before factoring in USC’s Cody Kessler, whom Bovada installed at 75-to-1 to win the Heisman, and Utah’s Travis Wilson, who has a chance to become one of the best comeback stories in recent memory.

With all that talent, Cal’s Jared Goff and Colorado’s Sefo Liufau are, for the most part, flying comfortably below the radar. However, if things progress the way the pair of sophomores -- both of whom started as true freshmen -- are expecting, that will soon change.

[+] EnlargeJared Goff
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesThrown into the fire as a true freshman, Cal's Jared Goff is poised for a breakthrough.
It was at about this time a year ago that Goff was named the starter, but he and Liufau were still getting comfortable with their teammates, learning new offenses and unsure of the road ahead.

"Fall camp was a little overwhelming," Liufau said. "It was hard to grasp the whole offense and decipher what defenses were doing, call out the protections, run the correct play, use all the signals. Things were going too fast for me to comprehend."

And now?

"Night and day," he said. "Everything has slowed down."

For Goff, the difference is equally palpable.

"Last year, I was more focused on bigger things, the basics," he said, "and now I can go into more detailed stuff and make more intricate reads."

Getting thrown into the fire as a true freshman quarterback ranks up there with the more difficult tasks in college football, but because they were also playing for first-year coaches in systems that were foreign to their teammates, the learning curve was even tougher. Goff didn’t have the luxury of a soft opening, either, facing four ranked teams in his first six starts.

All things considered, Goff’s freshman season — from an individual standpoint — went about as well as one could have hoped. He completed 320 of 531 passes (60.3 percent) for 3,508 yards and 18 touchdowns. Of the 16 quarterbacks at the FBS level that attempted at least 430 passes, only five had fewer interceptions than Goff’s 10.

After a summer in which he spent at least three days a week running 7-on-7 drills with the Golden Bears' impressive collection of receivers, Goff's development has been obvious during Cal practices.

"His ability to be on the same page with the receivers has really improved," coach Sonny Dykes said. "He's a lot more poised, a lot more confident. He's stronger. The ball is coming out quicker and he's a lot more decisive."

Unlike Goff, Liufau was eased into the job last season. He sat for the first four games and came off the bench against Arizona State in the fifth before taking the reins against Charleston Southern and keeping them the rest of the year. He completed 149 of 251 passes (59.4 percent) for 1,779 yards with 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

The numbers won't blow anyone away, but it was enough of a foundation for Colorado fans to be confident they had a guy with a bright future.

However, that was with talented receiver Paul Richardson. The Seattle Seahawks' second-round pick averaged 6.9 catches for nearly 98 yards with Liufau entrenched as the starter and was as reliable a security blanket as there was in college football.

Without him, there's reasons for skepticism, but Liufau doesn't seem worried.

"I see big strides from numerous players and the team overall," he said. "I think we can win every game. It sounds crazy to people, but if we execute the way we have in fall camp, it’s definitely possible."
The Pac-12 is blessed with an abundance of returning starting quarterbacks in 2014. With 10 starters coming back, many are wondering if the league is on pace for its best quarterback year ever. This week the Pac-12 blog will give you a snapshot of all 10.

Name: Jared Goff

School: California

Grade: Sophomore

[+] EnlargeJared Goff
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsSophomore Jared Goff showed his potential last season, throwing for over 3,500 yards and 18 TDs.
2013 passing stats: Completed 320 of 531 pass attempts for a 60.3 completion percentage and 3,508 yards. Threw 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions with a raw QBR of 48.0 and an adjusted QBR of 53.5.

Career passing stats: Same as above.

2013 rushing stats: Rushed 59 times for minus-62 yards with one touchdown.

Career rushing stats: Same as above.

Goff on Twitter (Though his last Tweet was 'see you in January,' so maybe follow now and Tweet @ later).

What you need to know about Goff: Goff entered the program already locked in a three-way competition with Zach Kline (who has since transferred) and Austin Hinder. He won the job for the plain and simple reason that he was the most consistent. Goff put up monster numbers for a true freshman, breaking single-season marks for yards, completions and attempts. In the first half of his season, he saw No. 22 Northwestern, No. 4 Ohio State, No. 2 Oregon and No. 11 UCLA. That’s as tough a slate as you’ll see as a quarterback, let alone for a true freshman. Despite his record as a starter, Goff is full of talent and potential.

Career high point: For a team that failed to beat an FBS team last season, there aren’t many. Despite massive defensive injuries, Goff (one of just four Cal players to start all 12 games last year) shouldered a lot of the blame -- as any good quarterback does. He had four touchdowns (but two interceptions) in a tight loss to Arizona and three in a blowout loss to to USC. He also had three in a loss to Ohio State. The Pac-12 blog is reluctant to give credit for beating FCS teams. So we’ll just say Goff’s best days are still ahead of him. Because we believe they are.

Career low point: Believe it or not, Goff didn’t really have any horrendous statistical games. He had three interceptions in the season-opening loss to Northwestern -- but a couple of those were on his receivers. He didn’t play poorly in the Big Game loss to Stanford, though 63-13 is just a ridiculous blowout that no one at Cal probably felt good about. We’ll go with Oregon, though. He lost two fumbles in the first three possessions (in monsoon conditions) and was replaced by Kline in the first quarter.

When he was a recruit: Goff committed to Cal in March of his junior season, then led his Marin Catholic team to the state finals, throwing for 3,692 yards and 40 touchdowns as the starter ahead of eventual Oregon quarterback signee, Morgan Mahalak. An Elite 11 finalist and an ESPN 300 prospect at No. 267 overall, Goff was a top-20 quarterback recruit and was Cal’s first commitment in the 2013 recruiting class, selecting the Golden Bears over offers from Boise State and Washington State. While it was no sure thing that Goff would walk in and immediately grab the starting position over quarterbacks such as Kyle Boehm and Kline, there was plenty in his ESPNRecruiting Nation scouting report to suggest he was capable. “Goff is a really crisp pocket passer with a tight, quick release. He has ideal height and adequate bulk already and is only going to get bigger, fill out and should become a powerful passer in time. Goff is very consistent fundamentally and his arm, release and accuracy are very attractive.”

Opposing head coach’s take: “In my humble opinion, he’s a budding superstar. He’s got to put some weight on because he’s still a little skinny. You talk about quick release. You talk about accurate. We talk about quarterbacks that are smooth. The best quarterbacks are always smooth. And as much as he got hit last year, he can stand in the pocket and release that ball and make some great decisions. I think the arrow is really going up for him.”

What to expect in 2014: A lot more maturity and a lot more consistency. Again, the Pac-12 blog doesn’t believe Cal’s record last year is indicative of his talent. Goff had five games last year where he didn’t throw an interception, so that mindset of protecting the football is already well ingrained in him. Goff has an extremely talented crop of receivers to work with -- arguably one of the best groups in the league -- and the coaching staff has said they are dedicated establishing a rushing attack, which will take a lot of the pressure off of Goff to make plays with his arm. Or at least, make easier plays. He’s told the Pac-12 blog on several occasions that last year was an amazing and positive learning experience for him. And at Pac-12 media days he talked about channeling some of the frustrations from last year (of which there were many) into getting better in 2014. He’s certainly in the right offense for his skill set. Recall, in 2012 Sonny Dykes had the No. 1 scoring offense in the country at Louisiana Tech, averaging 51.5 points per game, and the No. 1 total offense, averaging 577.9 yards per game. With the experienced gained last year, we’re looking for Goff to make big strides statistically (more touchdowns, better completion percentage) and as a team leader.

Erik McKinney contributed reporting.
The Pac-12 is blessed with an abundance of returning starting quarterbacks in 2014. With 10 starters coming back, many are wondering if the league is on pace for its best quarterback year ever. This week the Pac-12 blog will give you a snapshot of all 10.

Name: Sefo Liufau (pronounced seff-0h loo-fow)

School: Colorado Buffaloes

Grade: Sophomore

2013 passing stats: Completed 149 of 251 passes (59.4 percent) for 1,779 yards, 12 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions. He had a raw QBR of 44.8 and an adjusted QBR of 54.4.

Career passing stats: Same as above.

2013 rushing stats: Rushed 40 times for 43 yards and zero touchdowns.

Career rushing stats: Same as above.

Liufau on Twitter

[+] EnlargeSefo Liufau
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesSefo Liufau will need to be more consistent in his second season at Colorado.
What you need to know about Liufau: When the Buffs saw their nonconference game against Fresno State canceled because of flooding in Boulder last year, it opened up the schedule for another FCS team in Charleston Southern. That's when head coach Mike MacIntyre shrewdly pulled the trigger and inserted Liufau into the starting lineup -- though he'd seen extended action the previous game against ASU. The move gave the freshman a bit of confidence as he went 14-of-20 for 198 yards and a touchdown. The Liufau era was officially underway. Jordan Gehrke played well enough in the spring to keep Liufau on his toes during fall camp -- though as the only Buffs quarterback with any game experience, Liufau is the guy unless he plays himself out of the starting spot.

Career high point: Besides the Charleston Southern win, Liufau's only other victory as a starter came in a 41-24 victory over Cal. He was impressive, completing 23 of 36 passes for 364 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. In the process, the Buffs snapped a 14-game skid against conference opponents. Liufau is young, and the Buffs coaching staff hope he's got many more career high points to come.

Career low point: Like the career high point, he doesn't have many games to work with. But the 59-7 loss to Washington last year was a pretty rough game all around. Liufau completed just 12 of 22 passes with a touchdown and two interceptions. One of his interceptions was a pick-six on the first drive of the second half, and the second one came on the very next drive. He was pulled in the fourth quarter in favor of Connor Wood.

When he was a recruit: Colorado was Liufau's only offer, but that doesn't truly tell the story of his recruitment, as the former four-star quarterback received plenty of interest from some of the Pac-12's top programs, including Oregon, Stanford and UCLA. While it was something of an up-and-down season for Liufau once he took over as a starter in the seventh game of the season, that didn't come as much of a shock, due to his status as a first-year player and looking back to his ESPN RecruitingNation scouting report. There are the ups: "He is an imposing player who, when in rhythm, can really get hot and make every throw on the field." The downs: "His release mechanics show promise, but are not always consistent. He can look smooth on one throw and quirky on the next." And what makes him exciting for the future at Colorado: "Liufau is raw fundamentally and has some street ball characteristics when things break down, but there are tools to mold and he has upside as a result."

Opposing head coach's take: “Very athletic. Strong player. He's got a great future. We have to see what he does without that big No. 6 there as a security blanket (receiver Paul Richardson). If they can put some pieces around him, he could be a strong leader for that program. But he's still young. He's got a lot of developing to do.”

What to expect in 2014: Liufau is a work in progress. But there were flashes in 2013 of what he's capable of. As our opposing head coach said, seeing what he can do without the benefit of Richardson will be interesting. Of Liufau's 149 completions last season, 52 were made by Richardson. And 5 of his 12 touchdown passes were caught by “big No. 6.” He's already been voted a season-long team captain by his teammates. So his teammates have faith in him. He's got three starting offensive linemen returning to protect him and there's a potentially strong running game behind him. No one is tapping Liufau for all-conference just yet. But the playing experience he gained last season should pay dividends as the Buffs move into a much more difficult schedule (remember, no FCS teams this year). First mental test comes in Week 1 against rival Colorado State. Matching last year's win total (which included two wins over FCS teams) would be considered a step forward for the program and Liufau could cement himself as the Colorado starter for the next couple of years.

Erik McKinney contributed reporting.

Pac-12 morning links

August, 20, 2014
Aug 20
8:00
AM ET
And I have one of those very loud, stupid laughs. I mean if I ever sat behind myself in a movie or something, I'd probably lean over and tell myself to please shut up.

Leading off

Previews, previews, previews. Lots of them hit the web yesterday. Fox, SI and Athlon all had major Pac-12 pieces.

Perhaps the biggest surprise came from Fox Sports’ Stewart Mandel, who picked the Washington Huskies to win the North Division and Oregon to finish third.

Here’s Mandel’s take on the Ducks:
The string of 11- and 12-win seasons can’t go on forever, and despite the return of star quarterback Marcus Mariota, the Ducks’ once-unstoppable offense showed cracks last year following Chip Kelly’s departure. Oregon’s defense may miss retired coordinator Nick Aliotti.

There’s a couple of ways to interpret this. First, Mandel -- a good friend who knows college football as well as anyone in the country -- is brilliant. And when the Huskies are walking away with the North title, he’s going to have a satisfied grin on his face for the entire offseason. Or, he could be wrong. Nothing wrong with putting yourself out there.

The country seems high on the No. 25 Huskies. For the national voters to place them in the Top 25 after losing their starting quarterback, a Doak Walker finalist running back and a Mackey Award winning tight end speaks to how highly Chris Petersen is regarded as a head coach. And maybe, just maybe those East of the Rockies are starting to pay the Pac-12 a little more national respect.

But as the Pac-12 blog is fond of saying (and so is every single coach in America), the final rankings are the only ones that matter. So a tip of the cap to Mandel for by far the boldest prediction of this preseason.

Some other previews:

SI’s Lindsey Schnell has Oregon and UCLA playing in the Pac-12 title game -- a common pick among most media, including the Pac-12 blog -- UCLA’s Myles Jack as the league’s defensive MVP. That’s another fairly bold prediction considering the quality of players like Leonard Williams, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Shaq Thompson, Hau'oli Kikaha and Jack’s teammate, Eric Kendricks. That’s going to be a fun award to keep an eye on throughout the season.

NFL.com’s college football blog pays homage to the quarterback depth in the Pac-12, and Bryan Fischer taps Kevin Hogan as the league’s breakout player in 2014.

Schedule accordingly

A couple different posts have come out over the last two days about must-see games. Let’s put it this way – if you plan on watching Oregon, Stanford or UCLA, you’re covered.

First up, Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports has his annual list of the 25 most intriguing games of the 2014 season and five of the 25 involve Pac-12 teams. From his list:
  • No. 2 Michigan State at Oregon (Sept. 6)
  • No. 4 UCLA at Texas (Sept. 13)
  • No. 7 Stanford at Oregon (Nov. 1)
  • No. 14 Oregon at UCLA (Oct. 11)
  • No. 17 USC at Stanford (Sept. 6)

Next up is Athlon Sports, which posted 25 must-see games specific to the Pac-12. Here’s their top 5:
  • No. 1 Stanford at Oregon
  • No. 2 Oregon at UCLA
  • No. 3 Michigan State at Oregon
  • No. 4 USC at UCLA
  • No. 5. Stanford at UCLA

You can see some interesting opinions in terms of placement. But for the most part all of the major games are covered.

Rank’em

Athlon also came out with its rankings of the top 37 players in the Pac-12.

Here’s what their top 10 looks like:
  1. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon
  2. Leonard Williams, DE, USC
  3. Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA
  4. Ifo-Ekpre Olomu, CB, Oregon
  5. Andrus Peat, OT, Stanford
  6. Myles Jack, LB, UCLA
  7. Taylor Kelly, QB, ASU
  8. Sean Mannion, QB, Oregon State
  9. Hroniss Grasu, C, Oregon
  10. Jaelen Strong, WR, ASU

The top four are identical to what the Pac-12 blog had for its Top 25 players. Though we lumped a trio of receivers in our 5-10 and gave the nod to Agholor over Strong for his special teams contributions.

Also, Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News released his all-conference projections for 2014. Not a lot of surprises, though it’s interesting to see UCLA’s Jordon James get the nod over Oregon’s Byron Marshall.

News/notes/practice reports
Just for fun

One member of the Stanford coaching staff told me he believes center Graham Shuler could be better than both of the guys who preceded him.

 

And speaking of reunions, these guys are back together. This could get interesting.

 
DANVILLE, Calif. -- As he stood outside a movie theater in an affluent East Bay Area suburb on Sunday, Landrin Kelly fought back tears.

He's used to it now. Ten years have not completely quelled the pain he was left with following the murder of his son, Terrance, just days before he was set to begin a promising college football career at Oregon. No amount of time will.

A couple hundred others also gathered at the theater to see an early screening of "When The Game Stands Tall," a movie that chronicles the story of Terrance's death and the ensuing impact it had on the famed football program at Concord's De La Salle High. Based on the book by author Neil Hayes, the movie is set to hit theaters nationwide on Friday.

[+] EnlargeKelly
Courtesy of the Terrance Kelly Youth FoundationTerrence Kelly was killed in August of 2004, just days before leaving for the University of Oregon.
For Landrin, the emotions were bittersweet.

"I've been to a lot of events [that remember Terrance]," he said. "The exciting part is that the story is being told of my son."

Violence is a harsh reality in the crime-riddled city of Richmond, just north of Oakland, where the Kelly family called home. It was a main factor in the decision to send Terrance to De La Salle, a private Catholic school 25 miles to the east. Known nationally as a football power, De La Salle provided a safe haven for Kelly and the opportunity to play for legendary coach Bob Ladouceur.

"We wanted to get him out of Richmond," Landrin said.

During his four years at De La Salle, Kelly blossomed into a good student, a team leader and one of the best football prospects in the country. A running back and linebacker for the Spartans, Scout.com ranked Kelly as the No. 16 safety in the country -- one spot ahead of current Washington Redskins and two-time Pro Bowler Dashon Goldson.

Ask those around the De La Salle community how good Kelly was, and they'll tell you -- like his high school teammates Maurice Jones-Drew and T.J. Ward -- there was little doubt he was destined for a career in the NFL.

Oregon was the first school to offer Kelly a scholarship, but the entire Pac-10 followed suit. He ultimately committed to the Ducks -- over UCLA and Cal -- based largely on the relationship he developed with defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, whose brother, Joe, was on Ladouceur's staff.

In his personal statement, as part of his admissions application at Oregon, Kelly reflected on what life was like growing up in Richmond and his plans for the future:
Many people imagine the life of a teenager as being carefree and simple, but that in not the case in the city I live in. While growing up in Richmond, California there has been a lot of distractions. For example, the murder rate of young African Americans in the city is very high, drugs are rampant in the community, not very many of the youth in the community understand the importance of an education, much less if they live or die. Many youth place more importance on being in a gang than an education. A large number of the youth don't even graduate from high school. They either dropout, go to jail, or unfortunately get murdered. Something as simple as sitting down doing your homework can be a challenge. While trying to study I have often had to contend with hearing gunshots, ambulance or police cars racing up and down the streets. The library is just a shelter for the homeless and a baby-sitter for young children waiting until their parents get off work.

Through all of this I have established high expectations and standards for myself. I am determined not to end up like many of my peers. I have a strong sense of purpose and direction for my life. I am motivated to strive to be the best person I can be, with the understanding that a solid education can lead to self-improvement as well as, social and economic empowerment.

De La Salle teammates Cameron Colvin, Jackie Bates and Willie Glasper also signed with Oregon, in no small part because of Kelly. Ward eventually walked on the following year.

[+] EnlargeTerrance Kelly
Jeff Chiu/AP PhotoBrother Christopher Brady, principal at De La Salle High School, adjusts a makeshift memorial for Terrance Kelly in this 2004 photo.
"T.K. was the guy that held them all together," said Ladouceur, who is portrayed brilliantly in the movie by Jim Caviezel. "When that happened to him, it took a real motivation out of their lives. They were like the four musketeers and for them to all of a sudden have to go up there minus one, was really, really hard."

The impact Kelly's death had at Oregon was nearly as substantial as it was at home.

"[Aliotti] didn't believe it when I called him and told him somebody killed my baby," Landrin Kelly said. "He didn't believe it. I had to say, 'No, for real Nick.' I was crying. I had to give the phone to my wife because I was so heart broken."

After Terrance's passing, the bond between his family and the Oregon program continued to strengthen. At his funeral in Richmond, part of which is depicted during an emotional scene in the film, Aliotti delivered the eulogy and he went on to keep a picture of Terrance on his desk until his recent retirement.

In 2007, in what would have been Kelly's senior year, Oregon invited Landrin, and his grandson, on to the field to take part in the Senior Day ceremony. He proudly showed off a No. 32 jersey that day and continues to make at least one trip to Eugene a year to watch the Ducks.

In memory of his son, Landrin, along with the help of several others, operates the Terrance Kelly Youth Foundation. The foundation exists to provide community outreach for children between the ages of 5 and 17, and aims to inspire kids to become responsible and productive adults in the community. The non-profit organization provides several programs and scholarships for youth in Richmond.

Darren Pratcher was 15-years-old when he shot Kelly four times as sat in his car outside a house in Richmond, waiting to pick up his stepbrother to give him a ride home. The killing came in retaliation for a perceived slight during a pick-up basketball game, which is also depicted in the film.

Pratcher was prosecuted as an adult, and after five days of deliberations in October 2006, a jury convicted him of first-degree murder and weapon enhancements. He was later sentenced to 50 years to life in prison.

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