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

Notre Dame jumps to No. 9, Iowa State replaces Michigan in latest AP poll

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The most newsworthy changes in the latest AP poll come at the bottom. Michigan is out after falling 42-13 at No. 2 Penn State. Taking their place? The twisting Cyclones of Iowa State. Following a 31-13 win at Texas Tech and riding the crest of a 3-game winning streak that began at then-No. 3 OklahomaMatt Campbell‘s crew is off to its best start since 2002 and in the AP poll for the first time since Sept. 25, 2005. The Cyclones will have to earn their keep, though. Their next three games: No. 4 TCU, at No. 22 West Virginia and No. 11 Oklahoma State.

Elsewhere, Notre Dame jumped four spots to No. 9 after a 49-14 destruction of USC, a loss that pushed the Trojans down 10 spots to No. 21.

After a 31-21 win at Navy, Central Florida continues to track down I-4 rival South Florida as the top-ranked Group of 5 team; the Knights are up two spots to No. 18, while South Florida dropped a spot to No. 17.

The full poll:

1. Alabama — 1,525 total points (61 first-place votes)
2. Penn State — 1,444
3. Georgia — 1,409
4. TCU — 1,327
5. Wisconsin — 1,241
6. Ohio State — 1,165
7. Clemson — 1,113
8. Miami — 1,101
9. Notre Dame — 1,066
10. Oklahoma — 1,040
11. Oklahoma State — 894
12. Washington — 836
13. Virginia Tech — 791
14. NC State — 666
15. Washington State — 648
16. Michigan State — 615
17. South Florida — 604
18. Central Florida — 500
19. Auburn — 397
20. Stanford — 344
21. USC — 319
22. West Virginia — 196
23. LSU — 182
24. Memphis — 111
25. Iowa State — 98

Coaches’ Poll: Top 5 remains the same, Notre Dame moves into top 10

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The top five remained the same in the latest edition of the Coaches’ Poll, released Sunday. Notre Dame’s 49-14 whipping of then-No. 11 USC allowed the Irish to move into the top 10, while the Trojans plummeted all the way to No. 21.

Michigan was the other big loser this week, falling 10 spots to No. 25 after falling 42-13 at No. 2 Penn State.

And in our weekly reminder why the Coaches’ Poll is the lesser of the two irrelevant polls, voters moved Clemson ahead of Miami after the Hurricanes beat Syracuse, the team the idle Tigers lost to just one week ago.

The full poll:

1. Alabama — 1,600 total points (64 first-place votes)
2. Penn State — 1,520
3. Georgia — 1,463
4. TCU — 1,385
5. Wisconsin — 1,343
6. Ohio State — 1,244
7. Clemson — 1,173
8. Miami — 1,172
9. Oklahoma — 1,084
10. Notre Dame — 951
11. Washington — 931
12. Oklahoma State — 926
13. Virginia Tech — 818
14. South Florida — 730
15. NC State — 683
16. Washington State — 636
17. Central Florida — 561
18. Michigan State — 560
19. Auburn — 455
20. Stanford — 367
21. USC — 321
22. West Virginia — 211
23. LSU — 178
24. Texas A&M — 151
25. Michigan — 121

Ole Miss QB Shea Patterson to miss rest of season with knee injury

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An already lost Ole Miss season just drove deeper into the woods with no way out.

Rebels quarterback Shea Patterson tore the PCL in his right knee during the first half of Ole Miss’s 40-24 loss to No. 24 LSU on Saturday night. OM Spirit broke the news, citing confirmation from Patterson’s father and head coach Matt Luke, and the program later confirmed it.

Patterson was examined in the medical tent during the first half of Saturday night’s game. He was given a brace around the knee and remained in the game until the final series of the loss. He finished the night 10-of-23 for 116 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions, easily the worst night of the sophomore’s brief but stellar career. He’ll finish the season hitting 166-of-260 throws (63.8 percent) for 2,259 yards (8.7 per attempt) with 17 touchdowns against nine interceptions. His 151.49 efficiency rating ranks fifth in the SEC.

The loss dropped Ole Miss to 3-4 on the year and 1-3 in SEC play. Though the schedule does lighten from here, the Rebels will still be underdogs in at least three of their five remaining games. The program announced a self-imposed bowl ban in February, but it seems the rest of the SEC and Patterson’s injury will likely conspire to make that bit of penance unnecessary.

Ole Miss will now turn to junior Jordan Ta’amu, and their fortunes may have been better on Saturday had they done that earlier. He finished the LSU loss hitting 7-of-11 throws for 78 yards with three carries for 20 yards. It was the first action of the New Mexico Military Institution transfer’s career.

No. 15 Washington State rebounds from first loss to thump Colorado with a shutout

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It was not the most rousing of responses, but No. 15 Washington State bounced back from their first loss of the year last week and thumped Colorado 28-0 on Saturday night.

Many of the struggles could be explained by the conditions, which were rainy and windy for most of the night in a not so lovely bit of fall/winter weather out on the Palouse. Nevertheless, it was an impressive outing by the Cougars defense as they controlled the game throughout and held the Buffs to just one third down conversion all night while recording three sacks and making life miserable for last year’s Pac-12 South champs.

Luke Falk was not the most efficient quarterback running WSU’s Air Raid, but did enough to get the victory in a game that never was as close as the scoreboard indicated. He set another Pac-12 career record, this time for completions on a night where he threw just 17 total for 197 yards and three touchdowns. Running back Jamal Morrow was part of a more balanced approach on offense, rushing for 73 yards and a score that was part of a season-high 194 on the ground.

If there was any Pac-12 After Dark element to this game, a Mike Leach team coming close to rushing for more yards than they had through the air would be it.

As for the Buffs, there will not be much to enjoy when they go back and watch the game film. Running back Phillip Lindsay was bottled up fairly successfully and needed nearly 30 carries to run for 98 yards on the night. QB Steven Montez had just four completions and was benched in the second half for Sam Noyer after a rough, rough outing. The defense had their moments in recovering two fumbles but were continually put in bad spots given how lackluster the offense was.

The victory by Wazzu moves them to 7-1 on the year for the team’s best start in over a decade and keeps them atop the Pac-12 North standings — while also keeping them within control of their own destiny when it comes to the conference title. It also sets up a very interesting road trip next week, as they go to Tucson to play an Arizona team that also finds themselves suddenly in the mix for a division title as well.

Strange times indeed out West, even if things aren’t always pretty.