CFT Predicts: the Pac-12

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As the 2013 season draws near, we peek into our crystal ball and guess project how each of the five major conferences will play out. Today, we examine the Pac-12.  

While we’re at it, be sure to check out our other conference predictions: SEC, Big Ten

Pac-12 North

1. Stanford (Last year: 12-2; beat Wisconsin in Rose Bowl)
What happened last season?
Though Stanford lost arguably the best quarterback to ever pass through the program in Andrew Luck, the Cardinal did something it couldn’t when Luck and Jim Harbaugh were on The Farm: win the Pac-12. David Shaw is quickly ascending the list of best college coaches in the country. I mean, the guy did a Ted Talk. Clearly Stanford is big-time now.

So why are they ranked here?
The Cardinal are experienced and there really aren’t many glaring weaknesses on either side of the ball. Quarterback Kevin Hogan is undefeated as a starter and has a solid offensive line and running game that brings back Tyler Gaffney. The defensive front seven returns plenty of starters too, including linebacker Shayne Skov. This is a solid team all around.

Anything else?
Things get a little more interesting schedule-wise in the second half of the season. The Cardinal play UCLA, Oregon State and Oregon in consecutive weeks before ending the year against Cal and Notre Dame. Weather that schedule and Stanford will absolutely be in the national title discussion. And I’d like their chances of winning it all (meaning, by rule of the jinx, they’ll go 8-5 and OMG I’m so sorry, you guys [sad face]).

2. Oregon (Last year: 12-1; beat Kansas State in Fiesta Bowl)
What happened last season?
Another BCS win for the Ducks would end up being the final game for coach Chip Kelly, who left for the NFL shortly thereafter. But the important story line here is that the one-point safety happened and we are all now better off as humans for seeing it.

So why are they ranked here?
The Pac-12 North looks like it could play out in a similar fashion to the SEC East, where Georgia and South Carolina could be slotted in either order as 1A or 1B. Oregon is actually the preseason favorite to win the North (and the league’s championship game) — albeit by the slimmest of margins — but if it comes down to it, I’m going to go with Shaw over first-year coach Mark Helfrich.

Anything else?
There’s a lot of national focus on Teddy Bridgewater and Johnny Manziel as far as as quarterbacks go, but keep an eye on Marcus Mariota. This redshirt sophomore was efficient in his first year as a starter, throwing for 32 touchdowns to just six interceptions while completing nearly 70 percent of his passes. He has great size (6-foot-4 and 211 pounds) and athleticism.

3. Oregon State (Last year: 9-4; lost to Texas in Alamo Bowl)
What happened last season?
Just when you think Mike Riley is on the way out of Corvallis, he orchestrates one of the more dramatic turnarounds in college football. (Not that I thought Riley was on his way out or anything… Okay, I did.) The Beavers started 6-0 before exchanging wins and losses through the rest of the year, which ended in a bowl loss to Texas.

So why are they ranked here?
There’s good offensive firepower returning for Oregon State. This team has two capable quarterbacks in Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz, and running back has both talent and depth. The question will continue to be on the offensive line can pave the way for OSU to have a better rushing attack than the one that ranked 101st in the country a year ago. On defense, the Beavers’ secondary should be a strength even with the departure of Jordan Poyer.

Anything else?
It wouldn’t be surprising to see this team 7-0 headed into a huge home game against Stanford — and playing in Reser Stadium can be a thorn for opposing teams. But there are no gimmes on the schedule once late October rolls around.

4. Washington (Last year: 7-6; lost to Boise State in MAACO Bowl Las Vegas)
What happened last season?
This can be summed up in highlights and lowlights. Highlight: beating Stanford, however ugly it was, 17-13. Lowlight: a regular-season ending loss to Wazzu in the Apple Cup. In overtime. Woof.

So why are they ranked here?
Steve Sarkisian isn’t on the hot seat, but it’s time to win more than seven games. Keith Price returns as one of the more talented quarterbacks in the Pac-12, but he’s also never experienced the luxury known as pass protection. If he has time, this is an offense that can put up a lot of points. The defense made major strides in 2012 under Justin Wilcox and will need to keep pace against a schedule that features plenty of good offensive opponents.

Anything else?
Tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins is currently dealing with a broken pinkie. There’s optimism he can return by Week 1, though, as Sarkisian said it was a clean break. Jenkins will be counted on a lot this season in the passing game, so his health is crucial.

5. Washington State (Last year: 3-9)
What happened last season?
Yeah, Mike Leach‘s first season in Pullman didn’t exactly go as planned. The Cougars passed the ball a lot (go figure) but struggled to score and couldn’t stop anyone. But, hey, y’all beat Washington so huzzah!

So why are they ranked here?
There are still plenty of concerns on both sides of the ball, but Wazzu is not a team completely deprived of talent. Connor Halliday returns at quarterback, but the offensive line needs to come together to give him some more protection. Sacks and interceptions doomed the Cougars offense last season. If the offense can jell, a turnaround might start taking some form in 2013.

Anything else?
Wazzu doesn’t have to run the ball more, but they have to run it more effectively. This is a team that averaged 29 yards per game on the ground in 2012. Twenty. Nine. That’s, like, De’Anthony Thomas‘ yards-per-carry or something.

6. Cal (Last year: 3-9)
What happened last season?
The Golden Bears lost their shine and Jeff Tedford was shown the door. Things got really bad at the end when Cal lost their final two games by an average of 45 points.

So why are they ranked here?
Sonny Dykes will win in Berkeley, it just won’t be this year. True freshman Jared Goff will be thrown into the fire immediately as the team’s starting quarterback, and the schedule is unforgiving.

Anything else?
Cal will likely lose three of their first four games, but we could still get a decent understanding of what this team can potentially accomplish in Dykes’ first year if they hang tough with Northwestern, Ohio State or Oregon.

Pac-12 South

1. UCLA (Last year: 9-5; lost to Baylor in Holiday Bowl)
What happened last season?
The Bruins took a huge step forward under first-year coach Jim Mora by winning nine games and making it to the Pac-12 championship. UCLA got torched by Baylor in the Holiday Bowl, but the Bears were playing their best football at the end of the year.

So why are they ranked here?
There’s a new edge in Pasadena that previously wasn’t there. That’s a reflection on Mora, and things are only looking up for UCLA. Brett Hundley returns as one of the most gifted quarterbacks in the league. This is an offense that will need to find a replacement for Johnathan Franklin in the running game to take the pressure off of Hundley. The defense has to replace its entire secondary too. But this is a talented, young team.

Anything else?
Part of that talented youth is Notre Dame transfer Eddie Vanderdoes. The defensive lineman will be able to play immediately and he’s expected to do so.

2. Arizona State (Last year: 8-5; beat Navy in Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl) 
What happened last season?
First-year coach Todd Graham did a good job getting the Sun Devils to eight wins. And, of course, beating Arizona always helps.

So why are they ranked here?
ASU could be a sneaky good team this year. There’s a lot of hype in Tempe around Taylor Kelly, who already has a 3,000-yard passing season under his belt.  This team features 17 returning starters, including All-American defensive tackle Will Sutton. There’s room to grow at the receiver spot, but the Sun Devils have a good backfield with Marion Grice and D.J. Foster. Based on their 2012 play, this is a team that can right in the middle of the Pac-12 South hunt.

Anything else?
ASU has an interesting and difficult early part of the season with Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame in consecutive weeks. Winning both of those early Pac-12 games would be huge.

3. USC (Last year: 7-6; lost to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl) 
What happened last season?
USC went from the preseason No. 1 team to being unranked at the end of the season after losing a to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl in embarrassing fashion. Matt Barkley hurt his shoulder and couldn’t finish out his career with the Trojans. There were almost too many disappointments to list.

So why are they ranked here?
There are a lot of question marks on offense with the departure of Barkley and receiver Robert Woods. Marqise Lee is back though and figures to be a huge part of the game plan — if he can stay healthy. There was a lot of staff turnover during the offseason, so it could take some time for everything to come together. And let’s not forget the depth issues affecting this team while it rides out the scholarship reductions from the NCAA. Still, it’s not like USC is lacking talent. That should be enough to keep this team from going under .500 this year.

Anything else?
Well, that’s the thing. Lane Kiffin can’t afford to go under .500 — or .500 at all —  and realistically expect to keep his job. The scholarship reductions hurt, but they don’t have any impact on failed two-point conversions, or switching numbers between plays midway through a game. Pull shenanigans like that and win seven again, and Kiffin could be headed for the unemployment line.

4. Arizona (Last year: 8-5; beat Nevada in New Mexico Bowl)
What happened last season?
Rich Rodriguez rebounded from his short Michigan gig by winning right away with Arizona. The highlight of the year included a 39-36 win over what was then a top-10 ranked USC team.

So why are they ranked here?
Matt Scott waited his turn and had himself a banner senior season. He left for the NFL as one of the more intriguing quarterback prospects. But while the Wildcats have to replace him, they do bring back Ka’Deem Carey, who was the country’s leading running back last year. Carey figures to be the focal point of the offense this year, which may need to win some shootouts again.

Anything else?
The defense was the worst in the Pac-12 last season at giving up points. Jeff Casteel is a fine defensive coordinator, so that’ll be a unit to watch to see if any significant improvement can be made.

5. Utah (Last year: 5-7) 
What happened last season?
It was another disappointing year for Kyle Whittingham. The offense, especially the passing game, couldn’t get going and Jordan Wynn had to end his oft-injured career earlier than he’d hoped.

So why are they ranked here?
Dennis Erickson been brought in as co-offensive coordinator to light a fire under one of the worst passing games in the Pac-12 last season. The defensive line loses three key players as well in Star Lotulelei, Joe Kruger and Dave Kruger. There’s a lot to replace and plenty of tough games on the schedule.

Anything else?
Erickson is more than just another offensive mind to add to the staff. He’s familiar with the recent Pac-12 landscape from his time with Arizona State. That should pay dividends for the Utes, but just how soon remains unclear.

6. Colorado (Last year: 1-11) 
What happened last season?
The Buffaloes were terrible and Jon Embree got fired. During Embree’s final press conference, it become abundantly clear from a national perspective just how much work this program has to do to get back to its former winning ways.

So why are they ranked here?
Mike MacIntyre did wonders at San Jose State. He’ll need to work those miracles again in Boulder, but 2013 looks like it could be another brutal year for this program. The Buffs have a dire QB situation right now, though it appears Texas transfer Connor Wood will get the nod. There is a lot of experience returning for Colorado (17 starters), but how long it takes them to adjust to MacIntyre remains to be seen.

Anything else?
It won’t count toward Pac-12 standings, but Colorado can make a big splash at the start of the season by beating Colorado State. When little is expected to go your way, grabbing a win over an in-state rival goes a long way.

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John Taylor‘s prediction:
North
1. Stanford
2. Oregon
3. Oregon State
4. Washington
5. Washington State
6. Cal

South
1. UCLA
2. Arizona State
3. USC
4. Utah
5. Arizona
6. Colorado

Ben’s Pac-12 champ: Stanford
John’s Pac-12 champ: Stanford

Nick Saban thinks skipping bowl games could lead to recruits doing same thing in high school

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Grand Poobah of college football and Alabama head coach Nick Saban has had some interesting ideas about the sport over the years that conflict with the general consensus of his peers. The latest subject to fit that mold? How players like Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey skipping their bowl games could filter down to the high school level with recruits.

“Same thing will happen in high school if they make the signing day before the season,” Saban told CBS Sports. “It will take a few years, then some kid will say, ‘Hey, I’m going to Notre Dame. I’m not playing my senior year.'”

The Crimson Tide coach is referencing not only the two tailbacks skipping bowl games but also the possibility that upcoming December signing date could be moved up on the calendar. Big 12 commissioner (and chairman of the Football Oversight Committee) Bob Bowlsby said at his conference media days that the date for signing could be changed or even extended to a longer signing period as part of ongoing discussions about the recruiting process.

Talk of players signing with a college prior to their senior season in high school has not been broadly talked about by coaches or administrators but it does seem like everything is on the table when it comes to NCAA reforms in this area. It remains to be seen if any recruit will actually go as far as sitting out a full year in order to protect himself from injury in order to play in college… just as it remains questionable as to whether Fournette and McCaffrey’s decisions will develop into a broader trend at the college level.

Coaches are no fans of dramatically altering the status quo and it seems Saban is among the group who want to stem the postseason defection of players before things turn into a regular occurrence at any level of football.

Coastal Carolina coach Joe Mogila has precautionary surgery on trachea

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Coastal Carolina is one of the newest members of the FBS ranks and the program’s first ever Sun Belt conference media day was supposed to be one of the highlights for the school transitioning the ranks in college football. Unfortunately for the Chanticleers, their head coach won’t be able to make it following a health scare.

The Sun Belt released a statement Friday afternoon saying that Coastal Carolina assistant Jamey Chadwell will represent the team at media day after head coach Joe Mogila “had a precancerous nodule on his trachea and doctors wanted it removed as a precaution.”

The 68-year-old Mogila is perhaps best known to those outside the sport for his time on Wall Street, including a productive stint as CEO of the company now known as TD Ameritrade. He got the itch to coach college football however and has been in charge of the Chanticleers since 2012, leading the program to a 51–15 record at the FCS level.

Chadwell was named CCU’s offensive coordinator this past January after previously serving as head coach at Charleston Southern. Neither the school or the conference indicated any timetable for Mogila’s recovery but based on the release it seems the operation was a success and the coach is now recovering.

Coastal Carolina opens the season on September 2nd against UMass in what will be the school’s first game as a FBS program.

So it begins… Ole Miss recruit decommits after Hugh Freeze departure

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It didn’t take long before Ole Miss to suffer on the recruiting trail from the abrupt departure of Hugh Freeze as head coach on Thursday evening.

In what was probably only a matter of time (just a few hours as it turns out), Rebels 2019 Houston (Tex.) cornerback recruit Bobby Wolfe confirmed to ESPN that he had decommitted from the program on Thursday night following Freeze’s resignation. Several other recruiting services also confirmed the news and noted that many of Ole Miss’ 2018 commitments are starting to have second thoughts about the situation in Oxford.

That the team is struggling to pull in recruits like they were in Freeze’s heyday when the Rebels were a regular in the top 10 of the recruiting rankings is not exactly surprising. Even before the head coach was shown the door, the school was dealing with the fallout from an ongoing NCAA infractions case and are facing the possibility that their bowl ban will extend beyond the self-imposed sit-out of the 2017 season.

With Wolfe no longer committed, Ole Miss doesn’t have a single 2019 pledge according to 247Sports and has just 10 players in the 2018 class — all of whom are three-stars or lower — that currently sits 11th in the conference team rankings. As for the Texas cornerback, he recently picked up an offer from SEC rival LSU and had Baylor extend a verbal scholarship offer not long after re-opening his recruitment.

Former 49ers executive reportedly joining Jim Harbaugh in Ann Arbor

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Jim Harbaugh is reaching back to his NFL days for the latest hire at Michigan.

Veteran Bay Area journalist Tim Kawakami reports that recent San Francisco 49ers personnel executive Tom Gamble is headed to Ann Arbor to join the Wolverines staff.

According to the fine folks over at sister site ProFootballTalk, Gamble left the 49ers in February shortly after John Lynch was hired by the franchise as general manager. He worked with Harbaugh when their tenures with San Francisco overlapped in 2011 and 2012 before Gamble eventually departed for a two-year stint with the Philadelphia Eagles.

It’s unclear what role specifically Gamble will take with the Wolverines as Harbaugh already hired a new director of player personnel this year by bringing Sean Magee over from Navy. The former 49ers executive doesn’t have much college experience in the past few decades beyond scouting so it will be interesting to see what his official title at Michigan will be once formally announced by the school.

Either way, it seems like Harbaugh is fully investing in off-the-field roles like his peers at Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State and he is not shying away from reaching into the NFL ranks to do so.