Pac-12 mailbag: Oregon, Washington issues

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This mailbag is being done at Bunk Sandwiches in Portland. I am about to eat a pork belly cubano. You should hate me for this.

To the notes:

Jeff from Salem, Ore., writes: With yet another transfer how big of an issue is RB depth at Oregon? And is Josh huff next to leave?

Ted Miller: You refer to the expected transfer of Tra Carson, who rushed for 254 yards as a true freshman and was expected to be the Ducks No. 3 RB -- and power option -- behind Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas. When you toss in the other recent transfers of Dontae Williams and Lache Seastrunk, an abundance of riches at the position is no longer so abundant.

Things are tight but hardly desperate. Barner replaces LaMichael James as the starter and Thomas takes on a hybrid role as a RB/WR. With no Carson, the need now is to find a No. 3. While that likely will include plenty of in-game touches, fretting the No. 3 RB is digging fairly deep in the worry bag. The most likely No. 3 now is incoming freshman Byron Marshall, younger brother of Arizona State's Cameron Marshall -- ergo, good bloodlines.

If everyone stays healthy, that sounds like a solid threesome. But if Barner or Thomas were to get hurt, things would be iffy.

What about receiver Josh Huff? My feeling is Huff will be with the Ducks next year after he resolves his off-field issues, though my guess is he'll get a great big frowny face from coach Chip Kelly. As he should. I also suspect he stays at receiver, though his talents do translate well to running the football. Remember: Kelly isn't the sort to feel bound by traditional position names. But Huff rushed for 214 yards in 2010 -- 17.8 yards per pop -- and zero in 2011. That suggests he's a receiver, particularly with his being the most experienced returning receiver on the team.

And don't be surprised if sometime this spring or in the fall that you read about a position change. Kelly is obsessed with recruiting speed, so he could always switch a defensive back or receiver to running back. You know, like he did with Barner.

Rabid Husky from Everett, Wash., writes: You know how proud [Washington fans] are of our history of stout, intimidating defenses.The Alamo was disappointing on so many levels defensively.Husky fans like my self are excited but nervous about the guys we've hired on that side of the ball. My question to you is two fold:-Do you think Wilcox and co can get this unit to the middle of the pack in the conference? While i know we lacked talent at spots, i refuse to believe this was a unit-wide dilemma. We do have some talent on the defense that is young and needs coaching up and i think Wilcox's freshman friendly system and his flexibility will show that. Do you agree?-With a mediocre defense we won 7 games. Improved defense and offensive line play will be the key to being competitive with the elite teams like USC and LSU. How much improvement do you see from the defense? If the defense is average (middle of the pack), how do you see our season turning out?

Ted Miller: One of the bigger surprises to me was how bad the Washington defense was in 2011. I wrote a lot in the preseason about how I expected it to improve, so it's general turrible-ness bothered me because it allowed people to remind me how wrong I was. Some of you seem to enjoy that.

The talent coming back in 2012 is OK. I'd rate the talent middle-of-the-road in the conference already.

But I believe that new coordinator Justin Wilcox is a game-changer, a guy who has instincts about both understanding the nuanced talents of his players as well as the Xs and Os side of things.

The question is how quickly Wilcox and his players get in sync. His defense at Tennessee made a big jump in year two after surging late in 2010.

If the Huskies defense improves 20 percent in scoring, it will give up 26.7 points per game, which would have rated sixth in the conference in 2011.

That's my prediction. And if it comes true, the Huskies will win eight games.

Jeff from Salt Lake City writes: Considering we still do not know Oregon's fate, this may be a waste of breath. But in the event that they do receive a bowl ban in 2012 and USC runs the table on the way to the BCS NCG, we may be looking at the most hotly contended 3rd place battle in Pac-12 history. Stanford and Utah both appear to have an outside shot as Rose Bowl replacements, but I want to know your take. Do you believe that there's a team behind USC and Oregon in 2012 that could win 10 games and finish within the Top-15 of the final rankings to receive that hypothetical Rose Bowl bid? And if you do, who do you think stands the best chance to do so?

Ted Miller: I doubt Oregon will be banned from the 2012 postseason. At this point, I also doubt that, if USC and Oregon are the top two teams in the Pac-12, that there will be a third team ranked in the top 14 of the final BCS standings as required to be an at-large selection for a BCS bowl game, though I would rate Utah and Stanford as the most likely possibilities.

The question is this: Is there a team, other than Oregon or USC, that is capable of finishing 10-2? Last year, only two three-loss teams -- Baylor and Oklahoma -- were in the final top 14 of the BCS standings with three defeats. Of course, there are plenty of variables here because every season is different.

There also might be a question of whether the Rose Bowl would stick to its traditional matchup in the event that, say, Stanford was 9-3 and ranked 14th. With all the playoff talk of late, which could threaten the Rose Bowl's previously thought unbreakable connection to the Pac-12 and Big Ten, would the Rose Bowl pass up, say, No. 6 Texas in favor of a three-loss team that finished third in the Pac-12 pecking order? Recall the joke of a matchup when the Rose Bowl put No. 13, three-loss Illinois in the Rose Bowl opposite USC after the 2007 season. As the college football landscape changes, would the Rose Bowl want to relive that, instead of going with a potential top-10 matchup that would produce higher ratings?

As for looking at Stanford and Utah, the Cardinal has a tougher schedule. It plays Oregon, USC and Notre Dame, as well as in the tougher North Division. Utah misses Stanford and Oregon and plays host to USC and BYU. It wouldn't surprise me if one or the other ended up 9-3. But I don't see the dominoes falling in a way that either ends up in the Rose Bowl as an at-large selection.

Nick from Los Angeles writes: Can you do me a favor and write an article about how good Oregon will be on defense next year. Please highlight Dion Jordan, John Boyett, Michael Clay, Kiko Alonso, Boseko Lokombo. Please use the word "scary." And can you get it on the front page of the ESPN college football page, with a picture. Thanks a million.Nick

Ted Miller: Nick is being witty, but after chatting with John Boyett this past week, I'm starting to buy-in. He was able to selling me pretty well that some of the concerns -- replacing DE Terrell Turner and rover Eddie Pleasant -- won't be that big of a deal.

The Ducks' defense was solid last year, ranking fifth in the conference in scoring and total defense. And, as Ducks fans often note, the defense's yards per play of 5.07 was second in the conference behind Utah.

I'd rate it a high degree of certainty the defense doesn't take a step back. A significant step forward would mean it ranking in the top fourth of the Pac-12 and top 25 in the nation.