While some like to gleefully dance around a raging bonfire in nothing but a loincloth with the heads of college football coaches on pitchforks, the Pac-12 blog is less demonstrative. And more empathetic.

It believes there is no glee in seeing someone fired, even if said coach is snarky, unavailable or arrogant. Let he who is not sometimes snarky, unavailable or arrogant cast the first stone! (Pac-12 blog starts sheepishly whistling.)

That's why the Pac-12 blog cringes every year when it acts as a reluctant prophet of doom by putting a thermometer to each conference coaches' stool and announcing a temperature. It gives us no pleasure to tell the coach to slide over a bit so we can scramble some eggs and rustle up some bacon (thick cut) on a portion of his seat.

Ah, but there is good news in 2014. The Pac-12 coaching stools range from comfortably chilled to slightly warm to the touch. There are no Will Muschamps, Mike Londons or Dana Holgorsens in the Pac-12 this year.

So while there's always going to be someone stuck at No. 12 when Pac-12 teams are ranked, there's good reason to believe the conference just might get through a season without a coaching change -- at least not one created by a boot and a slamming door.

1. David Shaw, Stanford: Shaw has won consecutive Pac-12 titles. He inherited a good thing from Jim Harbaugh and made it better. He's a Stanford graduate and he loves raising his family among family in Palo Alto. While many view him as a future NFL coach -- and you never say never in coaching -- he's the most likely guy on this list to be in the same place a decade from now.

[+] EnlargeJim Mora
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsJim Mora is 19-8 in two seasons at UCLA.
2. Jim Mora, UCLA: In just two seasons, Mora has built the Bruins into a Pac-12 and national contender. He has considerable positive momentum on the field and in recruiting. The most likely scenario for departure is him leaving on his own accord. UCLA can avoid that by continuing to invest in the football program -- read: coaching salaries and facilities upgrades.

3. Todd Graham, Arizona State: Mora and Graham are really 2A and 2B, as they have both turned so-called "sleeping giants" into potentially awakening giants. While some still believe Graham could eventually have a wandering eye, every indication -- including this -- is he is setting up for the long term in Tempe.

4. Chris Petersen, Washington: Petersen is not only secure because he's in his first season with the Huskies, he's also secure because he's Chris Petersen, who's widely regarded as an elite coach. Of course, if he's a 7-5 or 6-6 Chris Petersen in December, then the Sark II jokes will begin.

5. Mike Leach, Washington State: While Leach isn't great at avoiding controversy -- he feels no need to place a filter between his brain and mouth -- his team took a big step forward last year. Further, he seems like a great fit in Pullman and with Coug fans, who enjoy his quirkiness. Finally, he's got a good and supportive AD in Bill Moos, who has tirelessly worked to improve the facilities around the program.

6. Rich Rodriguez, Arizona: Rodriguez has done a good job his first two years in Tucson, winning more than a few games he shouldn't have, as well as grabbing a pair of bowl victories. What knocks him down here is Graham's success in Tempe and Graham's 2-0 record in the Territorial Cup. Rich Rod can't afford for that to become a long-term trend.

7. Mike Riley, Oregon State: The notion that Riley could be terminated feels unlikely, but there is a faction of Beavers fans that is dissatisfied with the program, in large part because of Oregon's rise to national prominence. If those folks would write the athletic department a $68 million check, they'd have more legitimacy and a better chance of getting an audience with AD Bob De Carolis.

8. Mike MacIntyre, Colorado: MacIntyre's early returns are solid. Colorado improved in myriad ways last year. He seems like a good fit. But the Buffaloes are just 1-8 in conference games the past two seasons. You'd suspect fans are ready to show some patience, but a coach is never secure until he starts winning conference games.

9. Steve Sarkisian, USC: How can Sarkisian be all the way down here in his first year? For one, it's because his hiring wasn't overwhelmingly greeted with celebratory cheers. But it's also that USC fans have a small window for satisfaction: Pac-12 championships and national titles. You even can win a bunch of the former and not be loved if you're not competing for the latter.

10. Mark Helfrich, Oregon: Helfrich has some of the same issues as Sark, though he's in his second year leading a nouveau riche program as opposed to an old-school power. He won 11 games and was in the national title picture much of 2013 but some Ducks fans only know him for Not Being Chip Kelly. The Ducks are again Pac-12 favorites and top national title contenders. If they lose more than one regular-season game, though, some fans might become disgruntled. Not saying it's right, but it would happen.

11. Kyle Whittingham, Utah: Whittingham is the starting line on this list for where there's actually some real warmth, but he also has a strong track record with his program and a legitimate excuse: It ain't easy moving up from the Mountain West to the Pac-12. Still, Utes fans are eager to gain some traction in the South Division. Whittingham should be safe with a return to the postseason, but a third consecutive losing record could tighten the screws considerably.

12. Sonny Dykes, California: Dykes is only in his second season, which typically would mean he's safe. The conventional wisdom is a coach needs at least three and preferably five years to be fairly evaluated. But college football has become far less patient with losing -- even academic bastions like Berkeley -- and Cal has spent a bunch of cash for fancy facilities upgrades. The expectation here is Dykes will be back in 2015 if his team wins three or four games and shows improvement in terms of soundness and consistent focus. But he can't afford another feckless 1-11 season.
Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.
Over on the SEC blog, Alex Scarborough decided to take a look at some heartbreakers in the SEC in recent years in honor of the U.S. soccer team’s heartbreaking finish on Sunday.

The Pac-12 is no stranger to last-minute agonies. They might not have fancy names like “The Kick-6” or "The Prayer at Jordan-Hare." But whether it’s nonconference or in-conference, the last few years have provided Pac-12 fans with plenty of tears in their tea (or tears of joy, depending on which colors you wear).

Here are a few in that last few years that come to mind.

[+] EnlargeKivon Cartwright, Tanner Hedstrom, Theron West, Joe Dahl
AP Photo/Matt YorkA second-half New Mexico Bowl collapse, where it squandered a 22-point lead to Colorado State, ended Washington State's 2013 season with a thud.
Misery in New Mexico: Colorado State was down by eight points with less than two minutes left in last year's New Mexico Bowl. But they were able to capitalize on a pair of late fumbles from Washington State as the Rams went on to erase a one-time 35-13 deficit. Lost was a sensational six-touchdown, 410-yard effort from Connor Halliday. Remembered is a meltdown so inconceivable, the Pac-12 blog still can’t fully comprehend it.

Busted in South Bend: Did he or didn’t he? Stanford fans will swear up and down that Stepfan Taylor crossed the goal line with a second effort. Notre Dame fans are convinced the play was dead and the Fighting Irish had stopped Taylor on fourth down in overtime, sealing a 20-13 victory. The review judge agreed with the Irish. If it’s any consolation, the Cardinal went on to win eight straight games and the Rose Bowl. But that one was a stinger.

Apples and apples: Washington State has been on the good side of a few close Apple Cups. Therefore, by definition, Washington has been on the bad side. There was the 2012 game where Washington let an 18-point lead slip away in the fourth quarter. And, of course, the famed 2008 "Crapple Cup", where winless Washington fell 16-13 in overtime to 1-11 Washington State.

Masoli mastery: Oh ‘Zona Zoo ... you were so ready to storm the field in 2009. Then Jeremiah Masoli hit Ed Dickson on an 8-yard touchdown pass with six seconds left to tie the game at 31-31 before his 1-yard touchdown locked up a 44-41 win in double overtime. Cheers for the Ducks, heartbreak for the Wildcats.

Another Ducking: This one was as slow burn. After California pulled to within 15-13 against the Ducks in 2010, the hurry-up Oregon offense slowed down. The Ducks went on a grinding 18-play, 65-yard drive that even David Shaw would have to fist bump. It lasted 9 minutes and 25 seconds to run out the clock and prevent the Golden Bears -- who put forth a stellar defensive effort -- from ever getting the ball back.

Double Ducked: Oregon wasn’t on the cheery end of all the close games in the last few years. Field goal misses in 2011 and 2012 put Oregon on the sour side of a couple close games. In 2011, it was a missed 37-yard field goal at home against USC that would have tied the game at 38-38 as time expired. The kicking game cost the Ducks again in 2012 at home against Stanford, where a missed 41-yard field goal set up Jordan Williamson’s 37-yard game winner for a 17-14 Cardinal win.

Territorial blues: We can’t mention close games without bringing up the 2010 Territorial Cup. First, Arizona State's James Brooks blocked a PAT that would have given Arizona a 21-20 edge with 27 seconds left in the game. Instead, the game went to two overtimes. And with ASU leading 30-23, David Douglas scored on a 9-yard run for 'Zona. But the PAT was blocked again, by Brooks, again, giving the Sun Devils a 30-29 victory.

Seattle thriller: I can’t think of a single instance of the Pac-12 blog second-guessing a coach’s decision to go for two and end a game. This isn’t one of them. It’s gutsy. So first, I say bravo to Mike Riley. That said, a failed 2-point attempt was the difference in Washington’s 35-34 2OT win in 2010. As it turns out, the Beavers would go on to lose four of their next six and miss the postseason. Washington would finish with seven wins and advance to the Holiday Bowl.

There are more. Of course there are more. There are always more. And I'm sure you'll remind us of them. Ted would love to hear your thoughts.
It's time to start our preseason position reviews. Please, hold your applause until we are finished.

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

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

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

You can review last year's rankings here.

We continue the series with running backs.

GREAT SHAPE

Oregon: The combination of Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner should be as dangerous as ever. De'Anthony Thomas never really grew into the role as an every-down back, but Marshall carried 168 times for 1,038 yards and 14 touchdowns. Tyner slowly picked up more carries and finished with 115 for 711 yards and nine touchdowns. Folks are also excited to see what incoming freshman Royce Freeman brings to the table. This is a scary corps, even before you realize that Marcus Mariota also carried 96 times for 715 yards and nine touchdowns last year.

USC: The emergence of Buck Allen was a pleasant surprise after he spent much time in Lane Kiffin purgatory. He boasted 5.8 yards per carry to go with 785 yards and 14 touchdowns. He'll be pushed by Tre Madden, Justin Davis and D.J. Morgan, who is back after missing all of 2013 with a knee injury. This is a group that could do damage in Steve Sarkisian's up-tempo offense. Think about what Bishop Sankey did last year.

Arizona State: Marion Grice was a touchdown machine. But D.J. Foster is no slouch after rushing for 501 yards and catching 63 passes for 653 yards in a dual-threat role. The local product is explosive and has big-play speed. Deantre Lewis and Kyle Middlebrooks, back from injury, provide depth since Mike Norvell won't want to pass up the opportunity to use Foster in the slot at times. The depth has ASU teetering on the Great Shape/Good Shape fence, but Foster's experience and explosiveness give ASU a perfect replacement for Grice. So we're confident saying ASU is in great shape with him at the helm.

GOOD SHAPE

UCLA: No, we're not going to list Myles Jack as a running back. Get over it. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone told the Pac-12 blog he's been looking for Jordon James to make strides as a "one-cut" runner. He believes he has. And Paul Perkins and Steven Manfro will press for carries with the intriguing Craig Lee waiting in the wings. Keep in mind it was quarterback Brett Hundley who led the Bruins in carries (160), yards (748) and touchdowns (11). Maybe ... just maybe ... we'll see Jack also pick up a few carries. The Bruins are dedicated to the run (only Oregon has more carries over the last three seasons) and they have the depth to deliver.

Stanford: No Tyler Gaffney. Four of five starters on the line are gone. Surely this is the year Stanford's running game takes a step backward, right? Probably not. The line will feature five members of the heralded 2012 recruiting class and a committee approach with Remound Wright, Ricky Seale, Barry Sanders and Kelsey Young seems likely. Only Oregon and UCLA have attempted more rushes over the last three seasons, so the Cardinal are going to continue to be dedicated to the ground game. There is a lot of untapped potential with this group and they have a coach who loves to run the football. There are a lot of unknowns, but Stanford's recent history of success running the football warrants the benefit of the doubt to put them in the "Good Shape" column.

Utah: For now, it looks like Bubba Poole will be the primary back. But Kyle Whittingham and Co. are excited about the emergence of JC transfer Davontae Booker and the complementary role Troy McCormick might play. They aren't married to the idea of a single back. In fact, Whittingham told the Pac-12 blog he'd like to have situational flexibility. This trio provides that at Utah for the first time in a while. Spreading things out is a priority for new offensive coordinator Dave Christensen. But don't be surprised to see a balanced attack if these three see success.

Colorado: The Buffs are surprisingly deep in the running backs department, with seasoned players like Christian Powell, Michael Adkins II, Tony Jones and Donta Abron returning. Powell (562 yards, three touchdowns) provided the power while Adkins emerged as a fine complement with 5.2 yards per carry (103 carries, 535 yards and six touchdowns). Look for the coaching staff to keep using those two in unison as a thunder-and-lightning tandem.

Oregon State: The running game, or lack thereof, has been a sore spot for Mike Riley the last couple of seasons. However, with last year's combination of Sean Mannion and Brandin Cooks the personnel dictated 603 passing attempts. With Cooks gone, the staff will look to Terron Ward and Storm Woods (who combined for 240 carries, 998 yards and 11 touchdowns) to build off of last year's showing of 94.4 yards per game -- which was 11th in the conference. This tandem has the potential to be very good. It just has to go out and show it.

Washington State: That the Cougars return their top two rushers from last season, Marcus Mason and Teondray Caldwell, bodes well -- even in an offense in which the running back serves more to keep the opposition in check than to run the football. However, it might be Theron West and redshirt freshman Jamal Morrow who get the majority of the carries. The coaching staff was high on Morrow in the spring and if the Cougs can do just enough to keep the safeties guessing, it might open things up more for the Air Raid's primary objective.

WE'LL SEE

Arizona: The Wildcats have to replace Ka'Deem Carey. No easy task. And it was made worse by the recent news that Pierre Cormier's won't be returning. That leaves carries to be divided among Nick Wilson, Zach Green and Terris Jones-Grigsby. Jonathan Haden is still waiting to get cleared and Jared Baker missed the spring with an injury from last year's ASU game. Look for special packages with DaVonte' Neal as well. The Wildcats are silly with wide receivers, which could help open things up in the running game.

California: The Bears averaged just 122.2 rushing yards per game last year -- ninth in the league. Despite the reputation for being a pass-happy team, the coaches would actually prefer more balance, so they'll need better production out of oft-injured Daniel Lasco and Khalfani Muhammad. The departed Brendan Bigelow had the most carries (105) last year, but Muhammad and Lasco combined for 141 totes for 762 yards and six touchdowns. Muhammad is the burner at 175 pounds while Lasco has the bigger frame at 200 and change. Incoming freshman Tre Watson is also an intriguing prospect.

Washington: Like Arizona, the Huskies must replace a phenomenal back in Sankey. But there are options. Dwayne Washington was the No. 2 behind Sankey last year, rushing for 332 yards and four touchdowns on 47 carries. Behind him are Jesse Callier, who was the original starter in 2012 before his injury gave rise to Sankey, and Deontae Cooper. Both have a history of knee injuries. Jomon Dotson and Lavon Coleman could see time. We'll see isn't necessarily a bad thing. It just means, we'll see.

OTHER POSITION REVIEWS

Quarterback

Mailbag: Bucks = boos?

June, 25, 2014
Jun 25
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Ken in Berkeley, Calif. writes: Kevin, If college teams were populated by professional employees instead of amateur athletes, wouldn't it change the relationship with fans, who would play the role of shareholders with Athletic Departments being like corporate management? It is currently very rare to boo an unpaid player. But if a paid player screwed up, we could be all over them like we now boo coaches when they screw up. Is that the world they want? Even their fellow students would become their employers via the tickets they buy. If they slack off senior year looking to the NFL, then they should be at risk for losing their job. And what does this mean for equality of opportunity for women athletes? A full ride, including room/board/books is quite another thing as many scholars receive that.

Kevin Gemmell: You tell me, Ken. Would it change how you feel about a player? Have you gone to a Single-A baseball game and ripped into an 18-year-old pitcher who was just drafted in the third round? Did you boo Kobe Bryant or Kevin Garnett when they jumped from high school to the NBA and got paid, but had bad games?

Are those taunts justified compared to, say, the UCLA folks who were booing the Bruins on their final offensive drive against ASU last year? After all, Brett Hundley was sacked twice and there were back-to-back holding penalties. The Bruins went 11 yards in eight plays with the South Division title on the line. That didn't stop people at the Rose Bowl from booing. Was that deserved?

I get your point, and it's valid. But folks are going to boo players regardless of whether they are getting paid. Usually it's out of heat-of-the-moment passion. Sometimes fans are just jerks (see the Marcus Smart situation).

Now, as for the idea of equity. That's a whole other argument -- especially when you're talking about women's athletics and non-revenue sports. In terms of payment, does the starting quarterback make more than the backup long snapper? Or is it equal across the board? Those answers depend on how much money we're talking about.

No question, it's dicey. And I don't have a perfect and equitable solution. I do think more needs to be done for athletes. Whether that's full cost of tuition and/or modest stipends to go with the scholarships and room and board and meal plans, etc.

There will always be those who believe a college education is payment enough -- especially when you look at the cost of some of the private schools. And there will always be those who feel college football is simply a farm system for the NFL and players should be getting a thick piece of the pie. I believe there is common ground between those extremes.

But how you choose to look at the athletes is entirely up to you. If you were the kind of person who was programmed to boo them before, you'll boo them again.

We're always looking for good poll questions, and this might be an interesting one for later in the week.



John in Dublin, Calif. writes: While I agree Nelson Agholor is an important player for USC, in a conference with a bunch of returning quarterbacks, and a variety of offenses, the most important player will always be on defense. In which case, Leonard Williams or even Su'a Cravens should emerge as the most important player.

Kevin Gemmell: Can't argue with that. So I won't try. What Justin Wilcox did at Washington with three- and four-star players was outstanding. And I can't wait to see what he's going to do now that he has some four- and five-star athletes to work with.

USC's defense made fantastic strides when it moved to an odd front. The Trojans were first in the conference in total defense and third in scoring defense last year. Compare that to 2012 when they were fifth in scoring defense and seventh in total defense. Strides were made, and guys such as Cravens and Williams were a big part of that.

That's the beauty of the Most Important Player series. Some folks have sent mailbag notes saying it's a boring waste of time. Ted and I concoct these types of series not just to fill the slow summer months, but to spark some debate amongst fans.

I have a feeling, John, if you and I sat down over a couple of root beers, we could talk for a few hours about this. And it would be a fun discussion. And while we sit around and speculate and count days until the season starts, I don't see anything wrong with a little lively debate.



Joe Bruin in Los Angeles writes: Hey Kev! Long time! Maybe it's just me, but do you feel like Kendricks hasn't gotten the attention he deserves over the years and is classified as underrated? Obviously, you guys of the Pac-12 blog are quick to notice how important of a player he is for UCLA, but why don't the ESPN "expert" analysts such as Herbstreit, Corso, Palmer, etc. give him much love? Also, are you taking any vacations this summer? You have been working hard on the blog and definitely deserve a nice PAID vacation from Ted!

Kevin Gemmell: Every moment Ted and I aren't working together is like sticking toothpicks under my fingernails. I just can't quit him.

Your Pac-12 bloggers are just as guilty as some of those other guys you named. True, I picked Eric Kendricks as Most Important Player. But go back and look at our preseason and postseason Top 25s from the past couple of years. You won't see Kendricks on them. And that's our fault.

Every year when Ted and I put those lists together, there is vigorous debate and usually a bit of name calling. And when we're finally done, there are always a couple of names that we look back and ask ourselves, “how the heck did we leave him off this list.” Kendricks is one of them. But I promise you he will be in the preseason top 25. You hear that, Ted!? You won't shout me down this time.

No one in the league has had more tackles over the past three seasons than Kendricks (331). The only other player close was Deone Bucannon, who had 300 and led the league last season.

Kendricks doesn't tally a lot of the premium stats, like sacks and tackles for loss, that some of the other outside linebackers do. He's just a good, hard-nosed run-stopper. And he's one of the best in the country at what he does.



Tom in Ft. Myers, Fla. writes: You missed what I thought was the worst loss for Colorado -- Fresno State. 69-14 from 2012 and down 35-0 after 1 quarter. Colorado best win 17-14 at Utah in 2011. Snapped a 23 game road losing streak, which dated back to 2007.

Kevin Gemmell: Yep, that one was all kinds of yucky. It was as demoralizing of a loss as there was in the league over the past four years. I picked those assorted games for Colorado because I just remembered all of those games where players were setting offensive records.

Each week during the season, I do the Pac-12 Blog player of the week post on Mondays and it felt like every single week during 2012 I was picking a player who did something great against Colorado.

As for wins, that Utah victory is a good call. I went with the Colorado State game from last season because, to me, it symbolized a changing of the guard of sorts. Out with the old and in with the new.

But like our Most Important Player post, there really isn't a right or wrong answer. It's just fun to have those kinds of discussions in the offseason.

UCLA leads Pac-12 in experience

June, 25, 2014
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Returning starters, returning lettermen, key returning players, etc., -- these are all ways we evaluate teams in the preseason. While experience doesn't necessarily equate to "good," it does suggest a team should, at least, improve on what it did the previous season.

Fact is, the very best programs won't typically return the most starters, in large part because those teams recruit guys who often leave early for the NFL.

Still, this table from Phil Steele is interesting. After reviewing several different measures of team experience, he's put together an experience ranking on a scale from one to 100 for all 128 FBS teams.

Here's his explanation:
We still do the exact same chart but now I just list the Senior starters, the rest of the seniors in the two deep and the points accumulated by using the system I used from 2002-2008. In the chart listed below I have now included 4 other factors. The 2nd factor listed in the chart below is the % of lettermen returning. I devised a point system for this and explain it in depth on page 28 of this year’s magazine. Also added was the % of returning offensive yards. I took the total yards passing, rushing and receiving for each team and divided out the yardage of the returning players and the yards returning % listed below is that figure. I did the same with the total tackles from last year and the % of tackles returning. This gives us an idea of the defense’s experience. The final factor is the career starts returning for the offensive line. These players are not included in the stats but are a vital part of the offense.

So, you ask, how does the Pac-12 stack up in terms of experience. Glad you asked (number on left is national ranking):
24. UCLA
31. Oregon
36. California
45. Colorado
51. Oregon State
62. USC
65. Utah
66. Washington
70. Washington State
93. Stanford
94. Arizona
108. Arizona State

What does this mean?

Well, it's more good news for UCLA. It's more reason to believe the Bruins are going to be in the thick of the Pac-12 and national mix. It also suggests that UCLA versus Oregon is a solid projection for the Pac-12 championship game in December, when a spot in the College Football Playoff could be on the line.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are sure to be some harrumphs from you guys shortly followed by contentions that this is meaningless gobbledigook.

Arizona State is at the bottom because it only welcomes back three starters on defense. Arizona loses a lot of production on offense (RB Ka'Deem Carey and QB B.J. Denker), while Stanford is replacing RB Tyler Gaffney, four O-line starters, many of its top defensive playmakers and lacks senior experience.

Finally, these numbers are probably encouraging for teams trying to climb up from the bottom, such as Cal and Colorado.

Of course, if the Sun Devils end up repeating as South Division champions, then this little chart will be something we can crack wise about at season's end. Hindsight is great that way.

By the way, Arizona, you might note that while everyone is tooling on your supposedly weak nonconference schedule, including the Pac-12 blog, you Wildcats play two of the nation's most experienced teams: No. 1 UTSA and No. 30 Nevada.

Might not want to take those guys too lightly, despite all the outside chirping.
You're not a wartime consigliere, Tom.
It was reported this week that LeBron James will exercise his early termination option with the Miami Heat and become an unrestricted free agent on July 1.

So what does this minor sports factoid have to do with the Pac-12? Everything, of course, as the world is best seen through a Pac-12 prism.

While most reporters are focused on James' potential homecoming to Cleveland or forming a new superstar triumvirate in a major media market, your Pac-12 blog attached itself to a perfectly implausible notion: Which Pac-12 football team would be the best fit for James to take his talents?

You know you were thinking the same thing. Oh, yes you were.

Kevin Gemmell: When Ted first pitched me this idea for a Take 2, my initial thought was, what team couldn’t use a 6-foot-8, 250-pound athlete who is loyal and clutch in the fourth quarter. Then I remembered he was talking about LeBron James.

Zing!

I kid, your Grace.

So this is obviously for kicks. The man who launched a thousand recruits saying they’re going to “take their talents” on national signing day could be on the move again.

So which Pac-12 school would be the best fit for his highness? Well, let’s look at this strictly from a football perspective. Arizona and ASU are already silly with wide receivers. I don’t think he has the right makeup to be a fullback in the Stanford offense. Oregon’s Nike ties create an interesting incentive. The glamour of Los Angeles is also an interesting draw for either USC or UCLA.

But I’m going to go off the beaten path and say when you have a 6-8 tight end/receiver (I’m just assuming this will be much like his basketball career and he’ll strictly play offense), you pair him with a 6-7 quarterback. And with the news that Utah’s Travis Wilson has been medically cleared to play in 2014, this feels like a no-brainer.

For starters, the Utes are spreading things out even more under new offensive coordinator Dave Christensen. When things spread out, in theory, that creates single coverage. And while I like the safeties in this conference, I know they’d be hard-pressed to cover someone of James’ stature.

Next, the Utes have a pretty good-looking trio of running backs who are all going to get some work. That means grinding out some yards (yes, LeBron, you might have to block a little) and that means some good red-zone opportunities. That’s really where the King could make the greatest difference. Stick him in the corner of the end zone and let Wilson chuck fades and jump balls all day long.

And after a well-played game at Rice-Eccles, he can kick back and watch the Jazz.

This seems like a no-brainer. I feel like LeBron-to-Utah analysis would have dominated the sports world yesterday and today if only Luis Suarez hadn’t stolen the news cycle.

Ted Miller: Like most of you, my first thought was Washington State. LeBron James plus Mike Leach would equal endless awesome. They'd bond over their mutual hero, Geronimo. But having hung with James' posse countless times in South Beach, I can tell you that he's developed an affection for warm weather.

So the answer is obvious: UCLA.

For one, the ensuing celebratory musical theater after the announcement performed by coach Jim Mora and offense coordinator Noel Mazzone would be priceless. Imagine combining Monty Python, "Gladiator" and the "Britney/Brittany" episode from "Glee" into a two-man arrhythmic song-and-dance routine. Yes, it would be that good.

Without a doubt, James would play both ways. He'd become an A-list target for QB Brett Hundley, particularly in the red zone, and he could double as a spot pass rusher, replacing the perimeter athleticism of Anthony Barr. A spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff would be a certainty.

Further, James would offer a big boost for Hundley's Heisman Trophy candidacy, both in terms of on-field numbers and off-field soundbites. Here's a guess that James would appreciate being the No. 2 star on his team for once, too.

Let's not forget the What's-In-It-For-Me angle. There are plenty of reasons for LeBron to relocate to Westwood.

For one, after the inevitable easing of certain NCAA rules, he could moonlight with a team some call "The Los Angeles Lakers." While football would be the priority, he could take some heat off Kobe and Company in their battle with that that other LA hoops squad that has ownership issues.

Finally, picking UCLA goes against the grain. Many hearing that James was headed to LA seeking more coverage from the Pac-12 blog would immediately assume he would join USC, the Pac-12's longtime preeminent power. But opting to become a Bruin, thereby shifting the balance of power in LA, would mean he could establish his own preeminence.

You know, after Hundley.
It's time to start our preseason position reviews. Please, hold your applause until we are finished.

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

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

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

You can review last year's rankings here.

And away we go ... starting, of course, with quarterback.

GREAT SHAPE

Oregon: Junior Marcus Mariota is -- again -- a leading Heisman Trophy candidate and a two-time first-team All-Pac-12 performer. He would have been an early-round NFL draft pick this spring if he'd opted not to return. The Ducks have some questions at receiver though.

UCLA: Junior Brett Hundley is the conference's No. 2 Heisman Trophy candidate. While Arizona State's Taylor Kelly eclipsed him for second-team All-Pac-12 last fall, Hundley's tremendous upside is why he has NFL scouts eagerly awaiting his entering the draft.

Arizona State: As noted, Kelly was the Pac-12's No. 2 QB last season, which means he was one of the nation's best at the position. It also helps his cause that he's got WR Jaelen Strong, an All-American candidate. However, Kelly does need to take fewer sacks -- you could say the same for Hundley -- and throw fewer interceptions.

Oregon State: Sean Mannion ranked second in the nation with 358.6 yards passing per game in 2013 and is also an NFL prospect. Life might be just a bit harder in the passing game without Brandin Cooks.

GOOD SHAPE

Stanford: Kevin Hogan, a third-year starter, had a good but not great sophomore season while leading the Cardinal to the Pac-12 championship. He was mostly efficient and showed a good touch downfield, but he made some surprisingly bad decisions and needs work with his intermediate passing game. He's got a good crew of veteran receivers coming back, which bodes well for him.

Washington State: Connor Halliday threw for a bunch of yards (4,597) and TDs (34) last season, but he also tossed way too many interceptions (22). Part of that was an inconsistent O-line and a neglected running game. The good news is he's in his third year under Mike Leach and has a strong crew of returning receivers. Of all the Pac-12 QBs, he might make the biggest climb this season.

USC: Cody Kessler didn't put up big numbers last season and didn't beat Notre Dame or UCLA but significantly improved after Lane Kiffin was fired. Like Kelly, he's got an A-list target coming back in WR Nelson Agholor. We expect Kessler to thrive with a new, up-tempo scheme under Steve Sarkisian.

Utah: Utah received good news yesterday when 16-game starter Travis Wilson was medically cleared to play. When healthy, Wilson has been a solid performer with good upside. He'll have to fight off a challenge this preseason from Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson though.

California: Jared Goff averaged 292 yards passing per game as a true freshman. That's good. But the Cal offense struggled to do much else but throw the ball between the 20s -- hence a conference-worst 23 points per game. He had just 18 TD passes on 531 attempts. Still, he flashed potential and has a very good crew of receivers coming back.

Colorado: Sefo Liufau became the Buffaloes' starter at midseason and often played like the true freshman he was. Furthermore, he won't have Paul Richardson serving as a safety blanket and making big plays for him. Still, Liufau's baptism by Pac-12 fire provided some seasoning that was evident this spring. The Buffs feel pretty good about having a returning starter behind center.

WE'LL SEE

Washington: While Cyler Miles flashed potential last season coming of the bench for Keith Price, logging a road victory at Oregon State in his first start, he also had an off-field issue that has muddied the waters at QB for the Huskies. It remains to be seen how quickly Miles emerges from Chris Petersen's doghouse, and if he can beat out Jeff Lindquist and Troy Williams.

Arizona: The Wildcats have no clear frontrunner in their QB competition. That's the bad news. The good news is the performances this spring were generally solid. Rich Rodriguez believes he's got a couple of guys who can win games for him. He's just not sure which guy is No. 1 between Jesse Scroggins, Connor Brewer, Anu Solomon and Jerrard Randall.
There was a general feeling of cautious optimism when Utah quarterback Travis Wilson was cleared for non-contact participation this past spring. Pretty obvious reason for that. Just a few months before, the general feeling was his career was over because of a pre-existing medical condition that was discovered only after he suffered a concussion against Arizona State.

That pre-existing condition diagnosed in November was termed an injury to an intracranial artery. While the Pac-12 blog isn't a doctor, I think we can all agree that just sounds bad. When team physician David Petron felt he needed to tell Utes fans at the time, "We do not believe it is life-threatening," well, it was fairly obvious the issue was different than a torn something or other.

[+] EnlargeTravis Wilson
AP Photo/Rick BowmerTravis Wilson helped lead the Utes to an upset win against Stanford last season.
So it rates as more than just your run of the mill positive team news that Wilson has been fully cleared by doctors to rejoin the Utes. Whether you root for Utah or not, you have to feel good that a young man will get to resume playing a game he loves. Not too far in the background is the revelation that said intracranial artery has remained stable, which has to be reassuring for Wilson and his family, whatever happened with football.

Yet after we raise our glass to what is important in the grand scheme, we then can get reductive again: Football. What does this mean for the Utes?

For one, it means the Utah offense gets a two-year starter back, a guy who at his best looks like a legitimate Pac-12 quarterback. Recall that last season, after a dreadful game against UCLA, Wilson helped lead the Utes to an upset win against Stanford. At that point in mid-October, Utah was 4-2, those two losses coming in overtime to Oregon State and, despite six interceptions, by seven points to the Bruins, the eventual South Division champion. Though six interceptions put a dent in Wilson's overall numbers, it is notable that his efficiency rating at the time was just four points lower than Arizona State's Taylor Kelly, who ended up second-team All-Pac-12.

When healthy, Wilson has looked like a guy who can make the Utes a legitimate threat in the South Division.

Of course, our using the word "healthy" to describe a Utah quarterback has sent Utes fans scrambling to knock on wood, rub their rabbit's feet or burn incense in front of their Jobu shrine. The last time a Utah quarterback made it through a season without injury was in 2008.

So ... what happened in 2008? Anyone recall? Utah fans might want to remind dismissive Pac-12 fans about that.

Our feeling is that if Wilson is healthy for 12 regular-season games, Utah will return to the postseason this fall.

Wilson's return, however, is not without intrigue. Just a few paragraphs down in the news release from the school announcing Wilson's clean bill of health, it said, Wilson "will enter fall camp No. 1 on the depth chart, although he must beat out five other scholarship QBs to regain his starting job."

Hmm.

It is also curious that those five quarterbacks were listed in a news release about Wilson's medical clearance:
Battling Wilson for the starting job when fall camp opens on Aug. 4 will be Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson, redshirt freshman Conner Manning and junior Adam Schulz, along with redshirt freshman Brandon Cox and true freshman Donovan Isom.

Here is a guess that Thompson is the chief reason Utah is conspicuously writing Wilson's name in pencil as the No. 1 quarterback. Though Thompson is mostly an idea -- he did very little for the Sooners -- new offensive coordinator Dave Christensen clearly thinks Thompson has a shot to unseat Wilson. The institutional position -- via news release, no less -- is that this is an earnest competition, and Wilson's present lead is mostly about seniority. With pressure increasing on coach Kyle Whittingham to get Utah back to its winning ways, seniority only means you get the first piece of pizza on Day 1 of preseason camp. Little else.

If Thompson comes in and is decisively better than Wilson, then fine, that is how competitive sports work. You compete and sometimes you lose a competition and get relegated to second string. If Thompson beats out Wilson, then Utes fans should assume before the opener that he is pretty good. In that scenario, they also should feel pretty good about finally having a backup quarterback -- Wilson -- who inspires confidence.

But if the competition is close, things could be testy. There is the whole New Guy vs. Veteran deal, for one. More than a few players probably will feel loyal to Wilson. That could divide the locker room. And what if Thompson wins the job but struggles early in the season? How long before Christensen and Whittingham give him the hook, creating a quarterback controversy?

The same, by the way, could be written about Wilson starting slowly.

I know: We are negatively speculating on a day when the news is supposed to be good. Yes, we are Debbie Downers. But Utah's news release brought this up first, not the pure-as-the-driven-snow Pac-12 blog.

This, of course, is ultimately not a day for Utah hand-wringing. It is a day of good news for the quarterback position, and those have hardly been plentiful since the Utes joined the Pac-12.

The love of competition, after all, is probably why Wilson started playing football. Being medically cleared means he can resume that bit of grittiness that makes sports rewarding.
All players are equal, but some players are more equal than others. That's the basis of our Most Important Players series.

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

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

[+] EnlargeXavier Cooper
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsThe Cougars will lean on Xavier Cooper to get to the opponents' quarterback again this season.
Our most important guys are players who could swing a win total one way or the other, based on them living up to expectations. Or their absence.

Washington State: DE Xavier Cooper

2013 production: 50 tackles, 13.5 tackles for a loss, 5 sacks, 4 QB hurries, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries

Why Cooper is important: Washington State should have a potent passing game this fall that helps the Cougars score enough points to win more games in Year 3 under Mike Leach than the program has since it won 10 in 2003. Whether that number is just seven or something more notable like eight or nine depends on what kind of defense the Cougs play.

And what kind of defense the Cougs play significantly hinges on whether Cooper takes another step forward in his development and becomes an All-Conference sort of performer.

Start with the pass rush for the 6-foot-4, 298-pound junior. Cooper led the Cougars with five sacks last year, but the defense's overall production getting to the QB was anemic. Washington State ranked 10th in the conference with just 21 sacks, and that was a big reason a solid, experienced secondary only put up middling numbers.

While the line takes a hit with the loss of NT Ioane Gauta, the Cougs feel pretty good about their front-seven. The secondary? Big question. It replaces four starters, including first-round NFL draft pick Deone Bucannon.

Cooper is capable of recording eight or nine sacks. Perhaps more. Moreover, he can make sure his secondary isn't stuck on an island for five seconds by harassing the opposing QB and making offensive coordinators respect him.

Put it this way: If Cooper ends up at least second-team All-Pac-12, it's not difficult to imagine Washington State breaking through in 2014.

Other Most Important Players:

Links: ASU's big recruiting day

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I came in like a wrecking ball
I never hit so hard in love
All I wanted was to break your walls
All you ever did was break me
Yeah, you wreck me.
Google “Jamil Douglas.”

You’ll see assorted stories about the Arizona State offensive line taking shape, a piece on Douglas growing into a leadership role, and even a story on why Douglas is “a freak” athlete. Put it all together and it tells the tale of a talented collegiate lineman with a bright NFL future.

Now, Google “Jamil Douglas Xbox,” “Jamil Douglas laptop,” or “Jamil Douglas arrested.”

The Internet spits out a different narrative. Those stories are from 2010, when a couple of stupid freshmen made a stupid mistake. Douglas and former teammate Lee Adams were caught on video stealing an Xbox and laptops from another player’s dorm room. Per some of the comments from those stories, public reaction was expectedly harsh.

“Kick them off the team," and “They should go to jail," were just a couple examples.

[+] EnlargeJamil Douglas
Ric Tapia/Icon SMIJamil Douglas will have a master's degree in liberal studies by the end of the 2014 season.
Douglas, who played a lesser role in the crime, was suspended while Adams was dismissed from the team by then-coach Dennis Erickson.

There was community service for Douglas after a reduced sentence, but no jail time. It was a hard road back to earning his spot on the team and the trust of his teammates.

Four years later, Douglas already has his degree in criminal justice, and he’ll have a master’s in liberal studies by the end of the 2014 season. He’s been honored as a Pac-12 All-Academic performer, a second-team all-conference player, and next month, he’ll be representing Arizona State as the face of the program at the league’s media day in Los Angeles.

“Being young and being out on my own for the first time, it was a dumb mistake I made,” Douglas said. “That being said, if you don’t learn from your mistakes and make good from them, what’s the point? I’ve learned a tremendous amount from it, and I’ve used it to turn around my career. I’ve used it as fuel to do better and to be a better person and I’m blessed that this coaching staff gave me a shot to prove myself to them.”

If ever there was a poster boy for second chances and redemption, it’s Douglas.

“It was a no-brainer for me,” said head coach Todd Graham on his decision to bring Douglas to media day. “He’s one of the most respected players in our program. … I told him when I came in that things happen and it’s the adversities that define who you are and your character. It’s what you do moving forward that counts. And he’s done everything we’ve asked and more. He’s one of the best young men I’ve ever coached.”

Having started 27 consecutive games, Douglas is making the move from left guard to left tackle where he’ll be asked to protect the blindside of quarterback Taylor Kelly. Don’t think for a second that this is a smooth transition that requires minimal effort on the part of the 6-4, 302-pound Douglas. He’ll have to prove himself all over again.

“At guard, everything is right in front of you; there is a D-tackle lined up in front of you, and it’s you and him,” Douglas explained. “At tackle, there is a lot more to see on the field. You have a speed rusher who is probably a freakish athlete. There are corners coming off the edge. It’s a big transition. But I feel like I’m getting the hang of it.”

[+] EnlargeTodd Graham
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesTodd Graham said Jamil Douglas is one of the best young men he's coached.
Douglas thinks he’s got a pretty good shot at an NFL gig next season at guard or tackle. His coaches think so too. If that doesn’t work out -- or if it does and when it’s over -- he’d like to work with inner-city children as either a counselor or probation officer. He feels like he’s got some things to say about growing from mistakes. Especially since in the .com era, his skeletons are already online for all to see.

“Most people know. And if they don’t, I’ll tell them,” Douglas said. “I was young. I made mistakes like everyone else has. Mine were just more scrutinized. But I won’t run from them. I think it takes a big person to come back from something like that and be in the position I’m in now.”

Graham agrees. That’s why he wants Douglas to be the face of his program.

“When you look at his character, his work ethic and his leadership, for me it was no question,” Graham said.

Naturally, Douglas is proud of what he’s been able to do on the field. But it’s his work in the classroom that makes him puff out his barrel chest just a little more. For him, performing at an all-academic level was an important step toward showing his coaches and teammates that he was serious about rehabilitating his image.

“I set a goal to graduate a year early and I was able to do that with my criminal justice degree,” Douglas said. “Soon I’ll have my master’s. I wanted to make sure that I was serious about doing the things that a student-athlete is supposed to do in order to be successful.”

He’s also very open with the younger players about his mistakes so they aren’t replicated.

“I didn’t have someone to take me under their wing and show me how things go,” he said. “That’s not an excuse. But with these younger guys, I make it a point to teach them the right way to go about things.

“We can all learn from our mistakes.”

Video: UCLA coach Jim Mora

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ESPN.com reporter Kevin Gemmell talks with UCLA coach Jim Mora about expectations for the Bruins and what's happening leading up to fall camp.
Eight Pac-12 players were named first-team preseason All-Americans by Athlon's on Monday, while 11 others were named to the other three teams.

Oregon, Stanford and USC each had a pair of first-team selections. The Ducks were represented by center Hroniss Grasu and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Stanford's pair was OT Andrus Peat and kick returner Ty Montgomery, while USC was represented by WR Nelson Agholor and DT Leonard Williams.

The other two first-team selections were UCLA LB Myles Jack and Washington LB Shaq Thompson.

Oregon QB Marcus Mariota, the Pac-12's top Heisman Trophy candidate was second-team behind FSU's Jameis Winston, who won the trophy last year.

On the third team were three defenders: UCLA LB Eric Kendricks, USC LB Hayes Pullard and Washington DT Danny Shelton. Agholor also was named a punt returner, so he got two spots.

On the fourth team: Arizona State WR Jaelen Strong, Oregon State C Isaac Seumalo and USC O-lineman Max Tuerk, who was listed as a guard even though he plays center. Stanford safety Jordan Richards was fourth team with the defense, while Utah kicker Andy Phillips was a fourth-team specialist.

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