In February, Mark Schlabach released his "Way Too Early Top 25," which was his best guess at what the preseason top 25 will look like when released.

His list was graced by five Pac-12 teams:
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Which of these teams has the best shot to finish the 2015-16 season in the top 25?

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But that left us wondering about which team could be a surprise team this year in the Pac-12. Last February there were five teams in his 2014 version of the Way Too Early Top 25. And at the end of this season, in the College Football Playoff Ranking year-end poll there were six, but they didn't completely overlap. On Schlabach's list he had Oregon, UCLA, Stanford, USC, and Washington. At season's end Stanford and Washington were nowhere to be found, but a resurgence in the Pac-12 South led Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah to find a way onto the final top 25 of the season.

These things happen. Players have big seasons, and a team that no one was talking about could be a Cinderella in 2015. So, outside of the five teams Schlabach has listed (next week we'll get to which team on that list won't finish in the top 25), which underdog team has the best shot to finish next season in the top 25?

1. Stanford

This is a new spot for the Cardinal, which isn't accustomed to being unranked. Maybe that will create a chip on the shoulders of its players. Stanford finished last season much better than it started, and though there are some key players who need to be replaced, maybe that momentum will carry over. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. For a team that played in four-consecutive BCS bowls leading up to the first season of the College Football Playoff, there are a lot of maybes.

2. Washington

Could Year 2 be the year Chris Petersen turns his Huskies into the team so many hoped it would be in Year 1? Washington will have its work cut out for it -- replacing six members of the defensive front seven and four offensive linemen. Though turnover in the trenches is rarely a recipe for success, Washington expects to take strides in Petersen's second season. What better stride than a step into the top 25?

3. Utah

No one was talking about Utah a year ago at this time, yet, as the season came to a close the Utes found themselves in a fight for the South championship. Not too shabby, Kyle Whittingham. Can he do it again? Yes, Utah will need to find replacements for Nate Orchard (no small task), and Kaelin Clay and Westlee Tonga (the No. 1 and No. 3 receivers from a last season), but it returns talent in Devontae Booker, Travis Wilson, Kenneth Scott, and Kendal Thompson (who the Utes hope will return from injury this summer).

4. Other

It still seems like a bit of a stretch to think Colorado, Oregon State, Cal, or Wazzu could jump into that group. But, we wanted to give you guys the option of voting for them if you really, truly believe it's a possibility. Because, you know, #Pac12AfterDark.
Spring practices end the retrospective glances of last season and begin the forward-looking process toward the next fall. Departed players need to be replaced, and returning starters need to get better, and youngsters need to step up.

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

Up next: Stanford.

1. Can the team address its scary defensive line situation? Stanford players warmed up with their position groups during this past Saturday’s open practice. Smatterings of about 10 players each gathered for drills in various areas of the field. One corner, though, was sparsely populated -- and noticeably so. Only three bodies warmed up with Stanford’s defensive line group.

The (sort of) good news: The Cardinal run a 3-4, so they have just enough healthy defensive linemen to practice without forcing a coach to step in as a placeholder (that would be rather dangerous). The bad news: That trench is the most physically strenuous position on the football field, and the combination of departures and injuries has decimated Stanford to the point where they have literally no depth there beyond the starting three. Harrison Phillips, Nate Lohn, and Jordan Watkins -- three relatively untested players -- must carry the load without substitute relief for the time being.


Stanford is counting on Aziz Shittu and Solomon Thomas to return from their injuries as quickly as possible. The Cardinal must also work for rapid development from their healthy players, because the shoes of Henry Anderson and David Parry are massive ones to fill. In that regard, this spring presents an enormous reloading challenge up front.

2. Which young defensive backs will emerge? Stanford has also had a large exodus of talent from its secondary. Jordan Richards is graduating, Wayne Lyons is transferring, and Alex Carter is leaving early for the NFL draft. Even Zach Hoffpauir may be gone by the time the 2015 season comes along, as he’s seriously considering turning pro in baseball. Ronnie Harris is the Cardinal’s most experienced returning defensive back, and he’s currently hurt, so the entire position group is one big, fat unresolved question mark at the moment.

Stanford is thankful that they’ve signed two straight recruiting classes that have been exceptionally strong at defensive back. It seems that those hauls may come in handy during the current pinch. Terrence Alexander appears to be the leading young candidate at cornerback, but there’s plenty of other unproven talent looking to gain position in this wild spring horse race. Taijuan Thomas played well at nickel back in Saturday’s open practice, while the likes of Brandon Simmons, Alijah Holder, Alameen Murphy, and Denzel Franklin will have opportunities to make their moves as well. Time is of the essence, because veteran offensive converts Dallas Lloyd and Kodi Whitfield look to be in good position to contribute. Touted freshman prospects Frank Buncom IV, Ben Edwards, and Quenton Meeks are slated to arrive on campus this summer, so even more fresh faces are expected to crowd Duane Akina’s room soon.

3. Can the offense develop into a unit that sustains success over the long haul? Stanford has carried over confidence from the offensive success that it saw to close 2014. Since Ty Montgomery was already hurt then, the unit has lost only two starters from that impressive stretch: left tackle Andrus Peat and fullback Lee Ward. The hope is that minimal turnover helps foster greater consistency on this side of the football. So far in spring, the offense looks well-equipped to succeed, as Christian McCaffrey has added strength to complement his explosive presence. If Kevin Hogan can continue to efficiently distribute the football to the Cardinal’s four gigantic tight ends while making some plays with his legs, Stanford’s attack can be effective next season. This spring is all about establishing stability in that regard.
CORVALLIS, Ore. -- When Gary Andersen took the head coaching job at Oregon State in December, he handed a sheet of paper to his wife, Stacey.

The sheet contained a dream list of hires that Andersen wanted to bring with him to Corvallis.

“You’re crazy, those guys aren’t going to go anywhere in the country with you,” he remembers her saying.

The names on the sheet were mostly those of men that Andersen had coached with before. The two that Stacey Andersen didn’t know were wide receiver coach Brent Brennan, whom Andersen hoped to retain from Mike Riley’s staff, and running back coach Telly Lockette, who had the same position at South Florida.

[+] EnlargeGary Andersen
Susan Ragan/USA TODAY SportsGary Andersen has brought the band back together at Oregon State, as many of his assistant have worked with him at other stops.
But Stacey knew the rest well.

  • Defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake had been Gary Andersen’s running back/tight end coach at Southern Utah in 2003, then was brought to Utah to coach the linebackers when Andersen was promoted to assistant head coach/defensive coordinator of the Utes.
  • Offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin had been Andersen’s OC at Utah State from 2009-12.
  • Defensive line coach Chad Kauha'aha'a was Andersen’s defensive line coach at Utah State (2009-10) and then again at Wisconsin (2013-14).
  • Quarterback coach Kevin McGiven coached quarterbacks during Andersen’s first season at Utah State (2009).
  • Defensive back coach Derrick Odum coached the Utah secondary from 2000-02 while Andersen was working with the Utes' defensive tackles and special teams. Andersen then brought Odum to Utah from 2005-07 to work with the safeties.
  • Linebacker coach Ilaisa Tuiaki was Andersen’s defensive graduate assistant at Utah in 2008 and then worked with him again at Utah State from 2009-11.
  • Offensive line coach T.J. Woods worked with tight ends and special teams and then the offensive line during Andersen’s head coaching tenure at Utah State. Andersen brought him along to Wisconsin from 2013-14 to coach the OL again.
  • Strength and conditioning coach Evan Simon met Andersen during the 2006 season at Utah, when he was an assistant director of strength and conditioning. When Andersen left for Utah State in 2009 and Wisconsin in 2013, he brought Simon along to be the director of strength and conditioning both times.

It was a pretty ambitious list, and the Andersens knew that.

“She said, ‘... they’re in good spots, they’ve got great jobs.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m going to see,’ ” Gary Andersen remembered.

The staff looked very different from his coaching staff at Wisconsin, but it was a dream team, all the best guys hand picked from different points of Andersen's coaching life.

“I told the coaches as we kept going through it I was like, ‘We’re like an ‘80s band getting the band back together and going on tour,’ ” Andersen said. “But it has been awesome to be able to get everyone here.”

Unlike an ‘80s band, there doesn’t have to be a whole lot of retuning with this group. Because Andersen had remained pretty consistent throughout his coaching career -- he has a handbook he developed early on and has used at every stop since -- most of the coaches know the way he works, the lingo they’ll use, and how everything will get done.

Each defensive assistant has spent at least four seasons with Andersen. Though Kauha’aha’a was the only defensive coach who was with Andersen at his two most recent spots, this feels like very little turnover to Andersen, which should help the fact that the Beavers have to replace nine defensive starters.

The offensive side of the ball is a little different. Lockette and Brennan need to learn the language, but it should help that Baldwin, McGiven and Woods were all on Andersen’s staff during the 2009 season.

Baldwin said that he has already felt more comfortable in the first season of this job than he has anywhere else (he has coached at 13 other schools). He said it was nice to have a Day 1 in which there really didn't need to be any introductions to other staff members.

“You're not worried 'Do you have a tie on or slacks or suit coat?" Baldwin said of his first day in Corvallis. "I came in my coaching sweats because we weren't impressing anybody, we knew each other."

So while the entire Beavers roster will spend the spring getting to know the new staff, the new staff doesn't feel too new to one another. It feels like a reunion of the school of Andersen.
Every team has players who have to step up this spring. Whether it's scout guys trying to become backups, backups trying to become starters or starters trying to become all-conference, every player should feel like he has something to prove. If they don't, someone behind them will.

That said, there are some positions/players who really have to something to prove. Chris Low is taking a national look at some players. Here are five more within the conference (in no particular order).

Evan Goodman, OT, ASU

[+] EnlargeAnu Solomon
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriSpring practices should assist Arizona quarterback Anu Solomon in finding his mojo again.
Goodman was one of the most sought-after recruits in Florida. Dennis Erickson started recruiting him and Todd Graham closed the deal. Now it's time for the former four-star to live up to the hype. He has the frame at 6-foot-4, 305 pounds. And with Jamil Douglas leaving, the Sun Devils just happen to need a left tackle. Quarterback Mike Bercovici will be only as good as his protection. Goodman must win this job convincingly.

Anu Solomon, QB, Arizona

We could say this about a lot of quarterbacks. So feel free to insert a “duh, Gemmell” after you read this. But what makes Solomon an interesting case is that the first-year starter actually regressed as the season went on. Consider his first nine games: 25 touchdowns to just five interceptions. Over his final five, he had just three touchdowns and two picks. The opponents, of course, have something to do with that: Washington, Utah, ASU, Oregon and Boise State weren't slouches. But the poise he showed seemed a bit shaken at the end. This spring would be a great time for him to re-establish himself as a steely team leader -- especially with changes coming across the offensive line.

Samson Kafovalu, DL, Colorado

Remember the name? He played in 17 games as a true freshman and sophomore and tallied three sacks in 2013. But academic and personal issues kept him off the team in 2014. He's back. And he has to win the trust of his coaches and his teammates before jumping into what should be a starting role. According to one Colorado staffer, he's been "tossing linemen around like rag dolls." His return could provide a much-needed boost to a defense that ranked last in the Pac-12 in rush defense last season, allowing 204.8 yards on the ground per game.

Destiny Vaeao, DL, Washington State

After losing a couple of top-notch wide receivers in Vince Mayle and Isiah Myers, guys such as Dom Williams and Gabe Marks come to mind ... especially with Washington State looking for a new QB. But the Cougars also took a hit on the defensive front with Toni Pole graduating and Xavier Cooper jumping to the NFL. Vaeao has started the past two years and has shown some glimpses, tallying 3.5 tackles for a loss and two sacks last season. But as the only returning starter on the line, the staff is looking for more production from him in 2015.

Travis Feeney, LB, Washington

The obvious choice here is quarterback Cyler Miles. Maybe in Year 2 at the helm, things click for him and the offense. But what he won't have in Year 2 is the benefit of a veteran front seven backing him up. That's why Feeney, the lone returner in that front seven, is in such a critical position. While guys such as Keishawn Bierria, Azeem Victor, Joe Mathis and Elijah Qualls jockey for spots along the front seven, it will be Feeney the coaches will look at to assume the leadership role. The Huskies' defensive talent drain leaves plenty of questions. It's up to Feeney to step up, lead the front seven and answer them.
While many of the nation's best in the Class of 2016 were known commodities headed into the 2014 season, prospects still develop at different rates and appear on the national radar at different times. This spring, there are a number of ultra-talented prospects who will bring out college coaches by the dozens:

Damion Dickens, DE
ESPN Junior 300 ranking: No. 93


A short-term memory is useful to succeed in some situations, while a longer one is more preferable in others.

Colorado receiver Nelson Spruce is juggling both ends of that spectrum right now. As a pass-gobbling machine, he’s already mastered the former. His team’s ability to effectively embrace the latter is key if Spruce is to lead the Buffaloes into the Pac-12 win column.

There’s not much room for bobbles or drops in Spruce’s gaudy numbers -- a conference-best 106 catches and 12 touchdown receptions in 2014 -- and there certainly isn’t an opportunity to dwell on their rare occurrences.

“Dropping a ball, it’s a weird feeling,” Spruce says. “I freeze out for a second. But I’ve learned to forget about it and move on so it doesn't happen again.”

[+] EnlargeNelson Spruce
AP Photo/David Zalubowski"I'm working on being vocal and doing whatever I can do to help this team win some more games," Nelson Spruce said. "We were so close so many times last year."
The opposite mental processing skills are needed for Colorado to climb out of its current pit of despair. The Buffs, 4-32 in Pac-12 play since entering the conference in 2011, endured a particularly excruciating 0-9 finish in 2014. Opponents outscored Colorado in regulation by an average of only about two points in four of those losses. Double overtime made two of those setbacks especially agonizing.

“I still remember the feeling of devastation after in the locker room,” Spruce says. “We’re trying to use those memories and turn them into motivation. We want them to fuel us this offseason.”

So those long memory skills are proving to be especially vital now, as Colorado strains through the offseason work needed to make them faster, stronger, and more focused in crunch time next fall. Any bit of extra psychological ammunition is welcome, and Spruce is intent on helping deliver it. He’ll be a fifth-year senior in 2015, and he wants to lead the breakthrough.

“I’m working on being vocal and doing whatever I can do to help this team win some more games,” he says. “We were so close so many times last year."

Up to this point, it’s been a classic case of "close, but no cigar" for the Buffs. But Spruce says that's been a major catalyst of what's been a productive offseason so far. The first two weeks of spring practice in Boulder have featured a heavy emphasis on situational drills, where the Buffs have simulated the overtime and game-winning situations that were so vexing for them last season. A focus on lower repetition counts and heavier lifts in winter conditioning led the vast majority of the roster to set personal records in the weight room.

“We feel like we’re ready to compete with the powerful Pac-12 teams,” Spruce says. “I’m squatting and benching as much as I ever have. In years past, we’ve been smaller and less athletic than the competition. Looking at our team now, I think we’re right in the mix with everyone else.”

Meanwhile, the 6-foot-1, 195-pound receiver is preparing to assemble a 2015 campaign that challenges his brilliant 2014 statistical performance. He’s been focusing on beating press coverage in his work with Colorado wide receivers coach Troy Walters, a former Stanford All-American at the position who went on to play in the NFL -- Spruce's dream destination after next year.

“I’m also working to be quicker in and out of breaks,” Spruce says. “I want to show that I can be a little more explosive down the field.”

And the hands that often seem like they’re made of glue -- the ones Spruce developed while playing shortstop in baseball -- well, don’t plan on them leaving anytime soon.

“Baseball helped me develop my hand-eye coordination first,” he says. “Now, I’m not getting lazy with it. I’m doing a lot of distraction drills and tip drills. Everything to keep reinforcing concentration.”

For a team that sniffed victory so many times in 2014, but was unable to ever make that final push in Pac-12 play, maintaining focus may be the ticket toward ending years of frustration.

Spruce is fully aware of that as he enters his last college hurrah, and he's locked in on making the most of his final push. The ripened fruit was just inches from Colorado's grasp last year. Individually, Spruce has had little trouble snagging footballs out of midair. Now, he's intent on seeing his team seize the prize, too.

"We thought we’d hit the turning point at some point," he says. "But we didn’t. It’s a competitive league and nothing is going to be given to us.”

Except one final opportunity, one that Spruce is working to maximize at this very moment.
Spring practices end the retrospective glances at the last season and begin the forward-looking process toward the next fall. Departed players need to be replaced, and returning starters need to get better, and youngsters need to step up.

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

Up next: Oregon State.

1. How quickly can the Beavers adjust to the new regime? No matter how many questions Oregon State answer this spring and next fall, this will be the most important question and likely the one that acts as a catalyst to everything else. Mike Riley leaving was a shock to everyone and for a team (especially one that expected its coach to retire in Corvallis) to suddenly have a new coach who has new policies, new ways of running practices and new ways of attacking the game, it can be a hard adjustment. Gary Andersen already said that he knows that not everyone gives in to change so easily and he doesn’t expect all 100-plus players to just buy in immediately, but the faster Oregon State buys in to the new way of life in Corvallis, the faster it can get to the other very pressing questions.

2. How quickly can the Beavers adjust to post-Sean Mannion life? Not only are the Beavers adjusting to a new coach, they’ll also be adjusting to a new signal-caller. Life without Mannion is going to be a huge adjustment for everyone on the team. Yes, he was the foundation for the offense, but he was also a calming influence in the locker room and having that kind of turnover coincide with a coaching turnover is a lot. It’ll also be interesting to see if there’s any attrition here. Andersen’s offense is going to look quite a bit different from what Beaver fans are used to. He’s going to run a “wide open” offense and just by looking at the dual-threat QB he signed in the 2015 class, you get the idea that he’s moving in a different direction. Some of the quarterbacks on Oregon State’s roster seem to have that ability and potential, but there are others who might not be the right kind of fit for an offense that uses a mobile QB.

3. Who steps up on defense? The Beavers need to replace nine starters on the defensive side of the ball, including their top six tacklers from the 2014 season -- the defensive line returns only Jaswha James and the secondary returns only Larry Scott, while the linebackers are in complete turnover mode. Andersen said he’s looking at this as an opportunity for other guys to step up, and in reality it might be better that he and defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake can come in and implement what needs to be implemented without too many guys who played much in another scheme. But no matter what way he slices this, there are a lot of shoes to be filled.
Spring has sprung, which means every team can show you hope in a handful of grass -- real or artificial.

Some Pac-12 teams have already started, such as Colorado and Stanford, and others begin this week, such as Arizona, Oregon State and USC. Others start later.

But it feels like the right time to take a look at 10 burning issues in the conference. Please keep your hands clear of this post, as it is sizzling hot.

1. Life after Marcus Mariota at Oregon: You might recall Oregon's quarterback over the past three years was a pretty fair player. But Mariota is off to the NFL, where he's sure to get blinged up, buy four Bentleys and start giving everyone alternating left-right cheek air kisses. That leaves the Ducks with a vacancy behind center. While many -- including a few of my esteemed Pac-12 blog associates -- believe Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams is almost certain to take over when he arrives in the fall, you all know I am an inveterate party pooper, so I'm skeptical the transition to an FCS QB, albeit a very good one, will be all rainbows and puppy dogs. So what happens this spring, pre-Adams, should have a high degree of relevance for the ensuing fall competition. That means Jeff Lockie and Morgan Mahalak or someone else has an opportunity to throw down the gauntlet and stake a strong claim to the job.

[+] EnlargeGary Andersen
Susan Ragan/USA TODAY SportsOregon State's Gary Andersen is the only new head coach in the Pac-12.
2. Gary Andersen takes over at Oregon State: Mike Riley started the 2014 season as the dean of Pac-12 coaches. Stanford coach David Shaw went so far as to call him the Godfather, which showed Shaw was once a reader of the Pac-12 blog's "Best case-worst case" stories. Riley, however, will begin the 2015 season at Nebraska, a stunning development that is, well, still a bit stunning. Enter Andersen, who's hiring away from Big Ten power Wisconsin was almost as much of a stunner. That means the Beavers, the only Pac-12 team to change head coaches, will be installing new systems on both sides of the ball, as well as getting to know a new coaching staff. Andersen certainly will want to get past the "Hello, my name is..." phase as quickly as possible.

3. USC returns returns to national relevance? The first issue here is whether this deserved a question mark or a period, because the Trojans are fairly certain to begin the 2015 season ranked in the top 10. That means they start the season nationally relevant, period. The question mark, though, concerns whether they can sustain that elevation as they move beyond crippling NCAA sanctions with an impressive roster and improving depth. One might recall it wasn't too long ago when the program's "Unfinished Business" campaign flopped. Second-year coach Steve Sarkisian will be under not inconsiderable pressure to make sure he doesn't suffer through a Lane Kiffin redo.

4. UCLA replaces Brett Hundley: UCLA has 18 starters and a number of other contributors coming back from a team that won 10 games last season and finished ranked 10th. That makes you wonder if perhaps the wrong L.A. team is getting hyped. Ah, but the Bruins are replacing Hundley, a three-year starter who is on the short list of best QBs in program history. While it seems like more than a few folks -- NFL sorts, mostly -- are picking apart Hundley's game of late, what should stand out is how often he delivered for the Bruins, including a troika of wins over That Team From Downtown. Further, this is an interesting battle between a scrappy veteran with a familiar last name in junior Jerry Neuheisel, and a brash, touted true freshman in Josh Rosen, who entered school early with the anticipation of taking over for Hundley. It will be interesting to see if any pecking order develops this spring or if coaches drop an "or" between them on the depth chart. Oh, wait. UCLA is the only Pac-12 that doesn't publish a depth chart. Never mind.

5. Oregon State replaces Sean Mannion: Mannion and the Beavers didn't have a great 2014, but you don't say goodbye to a four-year starter with 83 career touchdown passes lightly and without some sense of transition, particularly when there's also a new coaching staff on hand. Things appear to be wide open between Luke Del Rio -- Mannion's backup -- Brent VanderVeen, Kyle Kempt, Marcus McMaryion, Nick Mitchell, etc. (There are seven QBs on the roster.) It seems reasonable to believe Andersen will want to winnow that list down to around three guys by the end of spring.

6. Washington's no-name defense{ The Huskies say goodbye to six defensive starters, including three -- linebackers Shaq Thompson and Hau'oli Kikaha and defensive tackle Danny Shelton -- who were first-team All-Pac-12 and earned All-American honors. All three are expected to be early picks in the NFL draft, so the talent drain is legitimate, not just a system thing. The only returning defender who earned any type of postseason recognition is true sophomore safety Budda Baker, who was honorable mention All-Pac-12 and has huge upside. That's a good start, but it's unlikely the Huskies will be able to replace these mainstays' production with typical depth-chart promotions. If the Huskies' defense is going to equal or, perhaps, exceed its 2014 numbers, it's going to have to play better as a team, which will be a key test of the second-year coaching staff led by coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski.

7. Getting coordinated: Oregon State had the only coaching change at the top, which included new coordinators on both sides of the ball, but four other teams have changed defensive coordinators and Utah replaced both coordinators, who both bolted for other jobs. Utes coach Kyle Whittingham went the familiar face route, promoting Aaron Roderick from within on offense to replace Dave Christensen, now at Texas A&M, and bringing John Pease out of retirement to replace longtime defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake, who joined Andersen at Oregon State. Colorado pushed aside defensive coordinator Kent Baer, who left for UNLV, and hired former South Florida head coach Jim Leavitt, a major coup for the Buffs. UCLA replaced Jeff Ulbrich, who departed for a job with the Atlanta Falcons, with former Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, who was at West Virginia in 2014. Washington State fired Mike Breske and replaced him with Alex Grinch, a defensive backs coach at Missouri last year. That's a pretty significant amount of turnover on one side of the ball, which will make life more interesting for the conference's offensive minds, particularly early in the season.

8. Stanford rebuilds defense: Speaking of defense, the conference's best unit over the past five years is replacing seven starters, including all of its D-linemen and three of four starters in the secondary. Further, a number of injuries, most notably to D-lineman Aziz Shittu and cornerback Ronnie Harris, will muddy the waters this spring. While it seems unlikely the bottom will fall out for the Cardinal -- there's plenty of promising youngsters on hand -- it's difficult to believe this won't be a transitional season on the mean side of the ball.

9. California dreaming? Cal has 17 starters back, second most in the conference and among the most in the nation, from a team that seemed to turn a corner in 2014 in Year 2 under Sonny Dykes. That crew includes quarterback Jared Goff, an NFL prospect who could make a star turn this fall if the Bears start to win. The offense, which averaged 38 points per game last season, should be good. The question is defense. That unit improved its points surrendered total by nearly a TD from 2013 to 2014, but that still ended up ranked last in the Pac-12 at 39.8 points per game. The Bears might be good enough to become bowl eligible with a defense that is only slightly better. But if they want to take a decisive step forward in the North Division, they need to at least find a way to be mediocre on defense.

10. Next-step QBs: Last season, the Pac-12 featured a glittering group of returning starting quarterbacks led by Mariota, Hundley, Mannion and Arizona State's Taylor Kelly. This year, seven teams welcome back established QBs, but the list is far less scintillating, while a couple other teams have decided front-runners at the position, most notably Mike Bercovici at Arizona State. USC's Cody Kessler leads the bunch, but he has to show he can win big games. Goff is a candidate for all-conference honors, and Stanford's Kevin Hogan finished strong last season after muddling through the first three-fourths of the season. Arizona's Anu Solomon and Colorado's Sefo Liufau are trying to take the proverbial next step, while Utah's Travis Wilson wants to show he should be a four-year starter this spring with Kendal Thompson out with an injury. Washington's returning starter, Cyler Miles, figures to face a tough challenge this spring to retain his job, while Washington State's Luke Falk wants to build on the mostly solid job he did after replacing Connor Halliday.
The first Stanford open spring practice is in the books, and it's possible to make two broad opening observations:

  • Stanford can be very good offensively in 2015 if Kevin Hogan continues the solid quarterback play that he finished 2014 with.

  • Success on the defensive side of the ball is a massive question mark, as it appears a daunting number of dominoes must fall between now and September for the Cardinal to maintain high-level efficiency on that side of the football.

Stanford will spend the next six months grinding to make the necessary variables break in its favor. Health will be key -- the roster is lacking on that front at the moment -- and successful player development will be essential. Here's why, viewed in the context of Saturday's first public look at the squad:

Decimated defensive line

To this point, Stanford has somehow, someway overcome a rash of bad breaks along the defensive line.

Let's take a quick trip down memory lane:

[+] EnlargeAziz Shittu
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezStanford is looking for healthy bodies this spring. DE Aziz Shittu is out due to an injury that ended his 2014 season.
 Henry Anderson, David Parry, and Ben Gardner all fought through serious injuries in 2013. Ikenna Nwafor, the projected nose tackle of the future, was forced to medically retire due to a foot injury suffered in that same year. Meanwhile, Lance Callihan and Anthony Hayes never developed into significant contributors, making it more difficult to alleviate the strain inflicted by the injuries.

The aforementioned players are all out of the program now, but a perfect storm of gut punches persists. Aziz Shittu, Stanford's most experienced player at the position, will miss all of spring ball because of the serious injury that ended his 2014 season. Luke Kaumatule appears to be a better fit at outside linebacker. To make matters even worse, hot young prospect Solomon Thomas is now in a walking boot after jamming his toe this week. He'll miss the first session of spring practice. Dependable walk-on Alex Yazdi still has a year of eligibility remaining, but he recently decided to focus on his career outside of football, so even the "Iranian Meatball" isn't around any longer to provide much-needed depth.

The end result is frightening.

It likely has coach David Shaw thankful that the season opener is six months -- and not six weeks -- away: The Cardinal had only three defensive linemen suited up Saturday. Harrison Phillips, Nate Lohn, and Jordan Watkins (all lighter and less experienced compared to the rugged veterans Stanford had featured in this trench the past several seasons) took every single snap at practice.

That's a virtual death sentence at college football's most physically strenuous position, where depth is a prerequisite for effectiveness.

"It's very, very difficult for three guys to make it through an entire practice [without backups]," Shaw said. "They didn't bat an eyelash. They didn't back off. They were battling all through practice."

The trio earned hearty applause for their perseverance from Stanford's post-practice huddle, but that did little to address grave concerns up front. Increased health, depth and strength must come for the Cardinal this offseason if the program intends to overcome troubles along the defensive line as effectively as it has the past two seasons.

It's tough to bet against the Stanford defense after witnessing it deliver sturdy reloading efforts in recent seasons. But this is shaping up to be the most unnerving offseason test yet for defensive coordinator Lance Anderson and line coach Randy Hart.

Big runs galore

Stanford's offense, in particular its ground game, is the direct spring beneficiary of the team's depleted defensive front. Coaches say Christian McCaffrey has added strength to run more frequently between the tackles, and he certainly looks the part. Along with Barry Sanders, McCaffrey ripped off a number of big runs Saturday.

The Stanford offense features an enviable combination of explosiveness (see McCaffrey and Michael Rector) and size (see receiver Devon Cajuste and four powerful tight ends). Shaw noted that the offensive line, which lost only one starter this offseason, is far ahead of where it was at this point last year.

The power Cardinal have a powerful arsenal offensively, and they're counting on Hogan to deliver consistent play to glue it all together. For the first time since Andrew Luck roamed campus, in fact, Stanford appears to have fewer spring questions on offense than they do on the defensive side.

Assorted notes

  • Quarterback coach Tavita Pritchard said that backups Ryan Burns and Keller Chryst have not yet mastered the playbook. He did note that their athleticism and size (both appear fully physically developed) has impressed the Cardinal. Shaw hinted that a leader for the second-string spot probably won't emerge until August.

  • Nick Davidson, fresh off a stint with Stanford's basketball team, earned first team snaps at right tackle. Dave Bright played right guard next to him, while Johnny Caspers manned second-team center duties with Jesse Burkett out (illness). Caspers is expected to be in the thick of the right guard competition, as is Brendon Austin, who did not participate in practice.

  • Conrad Ukropina showed improved height on his kicks during the field-goal session.
Happy Friday. Welcome to the mailbag.

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To the notes!

Caruso from Stamford, Connecticut, writes: With three of the Power 5 leagues at 14 teams, I propose we bring back to the table the expansion debate! The traditionalist in me wants to bring on Utah State and Colorado State to match up with their in-state rivals already in the Pac. This has an added bonus in that they've both been pretty good the past few years. Any chance this would ever have legs? I'm guessing in addition to the financial negotiations, there are some academic benchmarks and such that have to be met before schools can join the Pac, but just imagine all the joy brought to us Pac fans with mild OCD! Thoughts?

Ted Miller: What fans often miss about conference expansion discussions -- expansion that has happened or could happen -- is that it's not about "fan" things, such as picking up natural rivals or up-and-coming programs or even a program's tradition of success. It's about TV markets and revenue bottom lines.

When the discussion turns to expansion, the name of the school doesn't matter that much. It's the demographics and what those mean for the current members of the conference that's considering adding members. If Larry Scott had an expansion idea for the Pac-12 to become the Pac-14, the school presidents wouldn't particularly care about the name of the school or how it could upgrade the quality on the field. It's almost entirely about money.

[+] EnlargeScott
Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY SportsIt's very unlikely that Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott is pursuing expansion these days.
I say almost entirely because academics do matter in the Pac-12, as do values. Any potential new member must be like-minded when it comes to institutional policies.

What would get the Pac-12 to raise an eyebrow anew to expanding is market share: Would adding Teams A and B add significant eyeballs in front of TVs, thereby making the conference significantly more valuable when the next TV contract comes up? And by "significantly," we mean that a share of revenue split 14 ways would significantly exceed that revenue split 12 ways.

That wouldn't happen with the addition of Utah State and Colorado State, nor would it happen with Fresno State, San Diego State nor Boise State.

It would with Texas. That was the big prize back during the expansion feeding-frenzy five years ago and it continues to be, but that flirtation seems at an end, at least in the near term.

In fact, without Texas, I don't see any Pac-12 expansion on the horizon, at least in our current conference/postseason model. While you never say never, there seems to be zero momentum behind the idea from Pac-12 decision-makers.


Scott from La Jolla, California, writes: I am wondering about your take on the ranking of the coaching jobs from worst to best? I thought it was a very interesting piece, and by and large very well done. A few quibbles, which likely reflect a (long) lifetime of being an interested watcher of West Coast football (at an increasingly late hour of the day, unfortunately): 1. I notice the "panel" of experts who had input have no direct experience out West; 2. Utah behind Kentucky, Texas Tech, Maryland, Pittsburgh and (less so) Iowa? How many BCS, etc., games have those schools been to in the last 20 years? 3. Arizona behind North Carolina? 4. Oregon tied with Texas A&M, and not even in the top 10. I read where Oregon is the winningest program in the country over the last 20 years. In that same time frame, they have six outright conference titles and one shared (with Washington and Oregon State). How many consecutive decades do you have to be good to have "tradition?"

Ted Miller: Obviously, these rankings are subjective and would vary year-to-year -- and widely so every five years.

Further, if you asked me to make a top-25 on Jan. 10 and then asked me to do one today -- and I couldn't look at my Jan. 10 list for reference -- the one I did today would be different. They subjectively would even strike at the pollsters on mercurial whims that have little to do with developments with the programs.

With Utah, it was ranked a high of 39 and a low of 58 among the five pollsters and finished 47th. I understand your quibble with that. Below Kentucky? Really?

Only Kentucky will pay Mark Stoops $3.25 million this season, and, despite his success, Kyle Whittingham "only" will get $2.6 million. Not to be mercenary, but...

Keep in mind this isn't a ranking of the programs. It's a ranking of the coaching jobs.

Further, of all those teams you note, only Pittsburgh played in front of fewer fans last year than Utah, while Kentucky, Texas Tech, Maryland and Pittsburgh certainly are in more fertile recruiting territory.

My rankings would have had Utah higher, and I believe Utah would have been higher if the Utes didn't have that bit of soap opera after the season between Whittingham and athletic director Chris Hill, which included a loss a both coordinators.

Yet I also think these rankings were pretty darn well done.


Ryan from Salt Lake City writes: How big of an impact do you see Kylie Fitts having for the Utes next season? He was a big recruit for UCLA a couple years ago and adds to an already dominant D-line for Utah.

Ted Miller: How big? I have no idea. We haven't seen enough of Fitts -- he had one tackle as a true freshman at UCLA in 2013 -- to know what he can do against Pac-12 competition.

We know he was a fairly highly rated recruit, good enough to be offered by both USC and UCLA, though his recruiting story was a bit tangled, as he flipped from the Trojans to the Bruins when USC belatedly told him they didn't have enough space for him to enroll early. We also know that he said -- tweeted -- that he left UCLA for personal and not football reasons.

My guess is he's going to have an impact next year, though he's got a fight on his hands to earn a starting slot. As you noted, the Utes look pretty strong -- as usual -- on the defensive line.

My general thought on first-year players -- freshmen and transfers -- is to take the Missouri approach: You've got to show me.


Gavin from Portland writes: Has there ever been an offseason when the Pac-10 blog has not named [Washington] a rising program, on the cusp of a breakout season, contender to challenge for North title?

Ted Miller: Yes.

And it's the Pac-12 blog.

Spring questions: Oregon Ducks

February, 27, 2015
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Spring practices end the retrospective glances at the last season and begin the forward-looking process toward the next fall. Departed players need to be replaced, and returning starters need to get better, and youngsters need to step up.

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

Up next: Oregon.

1. What will this quarterback competition look like? By now, everyone knows that Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams is a talented, dual-threat quarterback who basically fits the mold for the Oregon offense (except for the fact he's a smidge short at 5-foot-10). But, unfortunately for Adams, he won’t be able to come to campus until he finishes at EWU, and worse yet, he won’t be working out with the Eagles on campus since they're Oregon’s season opener. Could that put him a beat (or several) behind when it comes to the Ducks? Absolutely. Because while he’s working out on his own, there is going to be a slew of other quarterbacks in Eugene throwing with the Oregon wide receivers, working with the running backs, getting acclimated to the offense line, building relationships with Scott Frost. Which of these guys on campus can emerge as the front-runner? Or at least the front-runner to battle Adams once he arrives on campus? It has been a while since there was a quarterback battle (for the starting job) in Eugene but now, we’ve got one. Jeff Lockie? Morgan Mahalak? Those seem to be the front-runners, but for how long?

2. Who’s going to emerge in the secondary? Oregon defensive backs coach John Neal has his work cut out for him. Not only does he need to replace All-American Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Neal also needs to replace Erick Dargan, who led the Pac-12 in interceptions, and Troy Hill, who played some really strong football for the Ducks last year. Chris Seisay made some strides in making Neal’s job a little less tough last season when he stepped in for Ekpre-Olomu in the postseason, but the right cornerback and free safety positions are still in question. People need to step up and step up soon because the Ducks weren’t in the top pack of Pac-12 pass defenses, and with several good QBs on the Ducks’ schedule in 2015 taking a step back isn’t an option.

3. Is anyone going to challenge Royce Freeman for carries? Freeman beating out Byron Marshall for the running back spot last fall might’ve been the best thing that ever happened in Marshall’s career. Without it, he’s just a good running back. With it, he’s one of the best threats in the Pac-12 when it comes to defensive coordinators trying to know what he’s going to do. Plus, he gets out of this battle for carries that’s now happening between Freeman and Thomas Tyner, who had a great postseason for the Ducks. Add to that incoming freshman Taj Griffin, the nation’s No. 4 running back, and we have, yet again, some serious questions to answer when it comes to the Ducks’ running backs. Griffin might not be able to compete 100 percent yet this spring as he’s still recovering from a knee injury, but expect him to still be a factor in the discussions.

Q&A: ASU's Mike Norvell

February, 27, 2015
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As the Sun Devils gear up for spring ball later next month, offensive coordinator Mike Norvell took a few minutes to chat with the Pac-12 blog about the 2015 season, his future with the program and some of the priorities for spring ball. He also weighs in on the phenomenon gripping the nation known as BERCO-ing.

Can we just go ahead and assume Mike Bercovici is penciled in as the starter?

[+] EnlargeMike Bercovici
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsMike Bercovici begins the spring at the top of Arizona State's depth chart.
Mike Norvell: Mike is going to be coming in as our starter. I’m excited about the guys that are there behind him and there to push him. But I think, when you look at what he did this last season, he’s a guy that can lead this football team and we’re excited about what he can bring this year.

Physically, we know what he brings. And it’s a little different than Taylor Kelly. Mentally, how is he different?

MN: Much like Taylor, he’s a very intelligent football player. He knows the offense better than anybody we have here. He loves that part of the game. He loves studying film. He understands all the different progressions and the things we ask quarterbacks to do here. He’s a true student of the game in that sense. We’re excited about what he does physically, but the mental aspect of how he plays, we feel is a huge advantage for us.

Coach [Todd] Graham has already said D.J. Foster would be moving to wide receiver. Have you ever been part of a program where a 1,000-yard rusher moves to the outside?

MN: No, and I think that shows you how special of an athlete D.J. is. We’ve got tremendous confidence in the guys we have in the backfield. We have a tremendous stable of running backs. Demario Richard, Kalen Ballage, a guy people don’t really know about is De’Chavon Hayes. He’s a guy that was a junior college guy that wasn’t cleared this past year, but will be ready to go this fall. D.J. will help us with matchups on the perimeter, but you’ll still see the ball in his hands from time to time. We’ll make sure he gets plenty of opportunities.

Without giving away the playbook, can we assume we’ll see him on speed sweeps and some fly stuff, a la Brandin Cooks?

MN: Yeah. He’s a guy that, no question, you have to get the ball in his hands. How many different opportunities and ways we can do that is what makes it fun to be a play caller and make sure we can utilize all his skills and talent.

You have to replace two tackles on the offensive line. Is that priority No. 1 in the spring?

MN: Yeah. We’re continuing to build that depth up front. We feel good about the guys we have up there, but we're also getting a better sense of getting what that five-man unit is going to be. I’d love to say we have six or seven guys we view as starters. If we can get to that point, we’ll have some great competition. We’re trying to get to that point as quickly as possible.

You’re entering the fourth year of the system. Is this where you saw the offense being when you guys came in and mapped it out?

MN: It’s multiple. We’ve made some great strides with what we’re trying to do and where we’re trying to go. I think we’re on track. Have we hit every goal that we want to accomplish? No, we’ve not. Is the future bright and do we have a lot of pieces in place to have high expectations for this year? Yes, we do. I’m looking forward to this year and the guys that we have. I love seeing the continuity and the growth that we have at each position. I think we’re going to have a special group. We just have to continue to work and have some guys step up and develop the young guys we have.

I know you don’t love talking about yourself, but you have been pursued by several teams over the last few years. Is there ever a right time for a coordinator to branch out and take over his own program? How much thought have you given that?

MN: I think every situation, you have to look at it. That’s the only way to be fair to myself and my family. It’s a tremendous compliment to the young men that we have and the coaching staff that we have here when people do express interest. I can’t tell you what that opportunity is going to be. You look at each situation and you see what the fit is. But it’s a tremendous compliment to the program we have here and Coach Graham, someone I’ve worked with going on nine or 10 years. I believe in the vision. I believe in how we treat our players. I believe in everything we do here and I’m excited to be a part of it. The brightest days are in front of us. Does that mean there might be an opportunity one day when I can lead a team? I don’t know. Right now, we have a tremendous program and a tremendous opportunity here and I’m extremely fortunate to be able to lead this offense.

What are your thoughts on “Berco-ing?” And have you ever done it?

MN: (Extended laugh) I’ve never done it. But if it’s after that result, I’m all about it. I might do it with him next time.
When looking out west, it’s USC, Oregon, UCLA, and Arizona State receiving the majority of recruiting headlines. On Thursday, it was California’s turn picking up its first ESPN Jr 300 commitment, safety Marquel Dismuke. The Golden Bears equaled the 2015 class on Thursday after having signed just a single ESPN 300 in the 2015 class and finishing No. 53 in the RecruitingNation class rankings.


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If you asked Mike Leach, odds are he'd probably tell you his job at Washington State is a wee bit more difficult than he might have expected when he was first hired. And it won't be long before Wake Forest fans start to realize just how remarkable Jim Grobe's tenure was in Winston-Salem.

For a variety of reasons -- namely money, scheduling, academics, facilities and recruiting -- the path to the College Football Playoff is simply easier for some Power 5 coaches and nearly impossible for others. Here's a look at the top-10 easiest coaching paths to the playoff, starting with the easiest, and the 10 most difficult coaching jobs:

EASIEST COACHING PATHS TO THE PLAYOFF

1. Texas
One of the wealthiest, most visible brand-name programs in the country wants for nothing -- and unlike Florida State, it doesn't have to navigate through a conference title game. Right now it's in a catch-22 situation. Texas has to win to own the state in recruiting again, but it has to get the recruits to win.

2. Florida State
The Noles can own and have owned the ACC, with Clemson being their most difficult hurdle. The combination of first-class facilities, in-state recruiting and available salary money makes this one of the most desirable jobs for a coach aspiring to reach the playoff.

3. Ohio State
The East Division isn't easy, but it's manageable, and the Big 33 recruiting turf and financial security -- along with the incredible support and facilities -- puts this brand-name program on the fast track to the playoff. It's easy to sell the program that has been the flagship of the conference for more than a decade.

4. Oklahoma
With no conference title game to trip over, the Sooners have one of the easiest paths to the playoff, not to mention the facilities and financial resources to recruit players and pay coaches.

5. Clemson
It's on par with the SEC as far as recruiting and facilities, but has an easier league to navigate. The program has the resources and salaries needed to recruit and coach a top-four team.

6. USC
When this storied program is at full strength -- without scholarship limitations and postseason penalties -- there's nothing in the way of a top-four ranking. Its pipeline of players to the NFL is proof.

7. Notre Dame
The Irish control their strength of schedule and can now sell an ACC bowl lineup to recruits.

8. Georgia
The Bulldogs have owned the state, and while Florida has to contend with FSU (and dreadful facilities), Georgia has had the upper hand in the series against Georgia Tech. Everything is in place for a title run.

9. Alabama
The program oozes money and tradition, luring the best players in the country. It's ranked low because of a grueling SEC West schedule and conference title game to navigate through.

10. LSU
Much like Alabama, the Tigers are the epitome of SEC success, able to cherry-pick recruits and pay for the best coaches in the country. The biggest obstacle is LSU's own conference schedule.

MOST DIFFICULT COACHING PATHS TO THE PLAYOFF

1. Vanderbilt
There's no school in the country with more of an uphill battle to the playoff than Vandy. The stringent academic requirements are a big reason the program can't recruit the elite athletes necessary to compete with the top teams in the league -- which is why it never will.

2. Wake Forest
The smallest school in the BCS had one historic Orange Bowl run, but that was an anomaly, not the trend. It's not the best program in the state, let alone the Atlantic Division.

3. Washington State
The Cougs are the Pac-12's most isolated, rural program, making recruiting difficult -- the heart of Wazzu's troubles over the past 11 straight losing seasons. It also doesn't help to be looking up at Oregon in the North Division.

4. Colorado
After nine straight losing seasons, the Buffs have faded into irrelevance, and they're competing in a South Division that's on the upswing, led by USC and Arizona. The coaching turnover, subpar recruiting and lack of investment in facilities have made the past decade a disaster.

5. Indiana
The Hoosiers have been stuck in a rut of mediocrity and are outpaced when it comes to facilities and coaching hires. Equally as problematic is IU's place in the East Division, alongside heavyweights Ohio State and Michigan State.

6. Kansas
The program has always been overshadowed by its hoops counterpart and hasn't been relevant in football since its 2007 Orange Bowl appearance.

7. Purdue
The fans have lost interest -- and apparently so have the recruits -- but the program also hasn't had the financial backing it needs to stay on pace with the rest of the conference.

8. Iowa State
Not only is there not much in-state talent, but the Cyclones have to share it with rival Iowa.

9. Kentucky
The program has made a renewed financial commitment recently and has demonstrated that bowl eligibility is a reality, but Kentucky has to win the SEC East before it can be taken seriously as a playoff contender.

10. Syracuse
There's a sense of apathy surrounding the program, which is stuck in the ACC's stronger Atlantic Division with FSU, Clemson and Louisville. There's not enough depth on Syracuse's roster to overcome injuries -- or the schedule.

Roundtable: Most intriguing nonconference game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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