CFT Preseason Top 25: No. 22 Arizona State

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2013 record: 10-4 overall, 8-1 in Pac-12 (1st in South division)
2013 postseason: Holiday Bowl vs. Texas Tech, (37-23 loss)
2013 final AP/coaches’ ranking: No. 21/No. 20
Head coach: Todd Graham (67-38 overall; 18-9 in two years at Arizona State)
Offensive coordinator: Mike Norvell (3rd year at Arizona State)
2013 offensive rankings: 40th rushing offense (191.4 ypg); 32nd passing offense (265.9 ypg); 32nd total offense (457.3 ypg); 10th scoring offense (39.7 ppg)
Returning offensive starters: six
Co-defensive coordinators: Keith Patterson (1st year) and Chris Ball (3rd year)
2013 defensive rankings: 26th rushing defense (137.6 ypg); 71st passing defense (234.7 ypg);  42nd total defense (372.4 ypg); tied for 63rd in scoring defense (26.6 ppg)
Returning defensive starters: two
Location: Tempe, Arizona
Stadium: Sun Devil Stadium (71,706; grass)
Last conference title: 2007

THE GOOD
When the game is on the line, it’s always beneficial to have one of the best players in the country at his position on the field and ready to make a play. Arizona State has one of those players in wide receiver Jaelen Strong. Strong, who is an early candidate to be a first-round pick in the 2015 NFL draft, led the team last season with 1,122 receiving yards, which also makes him the leading-returning receiver in the Pac-12. At 6-3 and 212 pounds with some of the strongest hands in the nation, Strong is nearly impossible to cover. Opposing defenses will have to build their gameplans around stopping Strong. Once they do, senior quarterback Taylor Kelly can start to exploit mismatches elsewhere on the field. And Strong’s presence will open up the field for junior running back D.J. Foster, who finished third on the team in rushing yards and second with 63 receptions. Defenses will have to pick their poison when they scheme against the Sun Devils’ up-tempo offense.

THE BAD
The team’s front seven was obliterated by graduation. Gone are two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton, disruptive defensive end Carl Bradford, fellow pass rusher Gannon Conway, productive defensive lineman Devon Coleman and linebacker Chris Young, the team’s leading tackler. Those four players combined to make 317 tackles, 24 sacks and 72 tackles for loss. The onus will now fall on junior defensive tackle Jaxon Hood.  Hood is one of two returning starters on defense and the only one in the front seven. Defensive lineman Marcus Hardison will also be expected to step up and produce after playing in 13 games last year. The linebackers, meanwhile, will be led by Salamon Fiso, who played in 14 games last season and finished third on the team with 71 tackles.

THE UNKNOWN
If Arizona State plans on remaining one of the most aggressive defenses in the country, Graham will need help rebuilding the unit and devising game plans. Help is coming from Patterson, who was named the team’s new co-defensive coordinator in the offseason. Patterson will become Graham’s sounding board this season. Patterson wants to be the x-factor that helps an inexperienced defense gel this season.

“(I just want) to be the bond that pulls it all together,” Patterson told the Arizona Republic. “I look at that defensive staff, and that’s what has me excited, working with the caliber of coaches that we have here. I just want to slide into my role and try to add another perspective on things and hopefully be able to be a positive asset.”

MAKE-OR-BREAK GAME: vs. Stanford
If the Sun Devils are going to get over the hump in the Pac-12, they need to get past the Stanford Cardinal. Last season, the Sun Devils lost to the Cardinal twice by a combined score of 80-42. One of those losses came in the Pac-12 Championship Game and cost Arizona State an appearance in the Rose Bowl. This year’s meeting takes place Oct. 18 at Sun Devil Stadium, and it comes at the end of a brutal three-game stretch for Arizona State. Prior to Stanford, the Sun Devils face UCLA and USC. How Arizona State performs against Stanford at the end of the team’s toughest part of the schedule will determine expectations for the second half of Pac-12 play.

HEISMAN HOPEFUL: QB Taylor Kelly
The Pac-12 is littered with talented quarterbacks. Oregon’s Marcus Mariota is considered a favorite to win the Heisman Trophy this season. UCLA’s Brett Hundley is projected to be a top pick in the 2015 NFL draft. Oregon State’s Sean Mannion is the nation’s leading returning passer. Yet, Kelly has been as productive and efficient as any quarterback in the Pac-12 the past two years. Since becoming the team’s starter in 2012, Kelly has completed 64.4 percent of his passes for 6.674 yards, 57 touchdowns and 21 interceptions. Kelly is also a viable dual-threat quarterback. He’s rushed for over 500 yards each of the past two seasons. Another improbable run to the Pac-12 Championship Game could easily place Kelly in Heisman contention.

(Click HERE for the CFT 2014 Preseason Preview Repository)

Conference USA releases 2018 schedule

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Conference USA released its 2018 schedule on Tuesday, confirming that once again the league will play football this fall.

The league slate kicks off Sept. 8 with FIU’s visit to Old Dominion, while the first game involving a C-USA team is set for Aug. 25, when Rice hosts Prairie View A&M. Conference games are scattered throughout the month of September, with the first full Saturday slate coming on Oct. 6 with Old Dominion at Florida Atlantic, UAB at Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee at Marshall, North Texas at UTEP and UTSA at Rice.

While the MAC has opted for a full embrace of midweek football, Conference USA has gone in the exact opposite direction. Not one C-USA game is scheduled as of today for a weeknight — Thursday or Friday included — and only one game will be played on a day other than Saturday, a Friday, Aug. 31 visit to Wisconsin by Western Kentucky.

The most-anticipated non-conference games involving C-USA teams are Florida Atlantic’s opener at Oklahoma and on Sept. 1 and the Owls’ Sept. 22 visit to reigning American and Peach Bowl champion UCF. North Texas also has two shots to win nationwide respect for the league in its opener against SMU on Sept. 1 in Denton and a Sept. 15 visit to retooling Arkansas.

The highlight of the league schedule comes on Nov. 17 with a rematch of the 2017 title game when Florida Atlantic visits North Texas. The Owls won both meetings last season by a combined score of 110-48.

The 14th C-USA Championship will be held on Dec. 1 at the home of the division winner with the best conference record. FAU will look to become the second straight back-to-back C-USA champion, joining Western Kentucky in 2015-16.

Former LSU offensive coordinator Matt Canada reportedly lands at Maryland

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It’s good to be Matt Canada.

He parachuted into Baton Rouge for a year, got paid a bunch of money, then got paid even more money to leave. And now he’s set to get paid from another school.

According to ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg, Canada is set to join the Maryland staff as offensive coordinator. Rittenberg notes that Canada signed a multi-year agreement with the Terps, though salary terms were not revealed. Walt Bell, who left to become the offensive coordinator at Florida State, made $500,000 in 2017, according to USA Today.

Maryland will be Canada’s seventh school to call plays for in this decade alone. He spent 2010 (and three years before that) at Indiana, then moved to Northern Illinois in 2011. He parlayed that into one season at Wisconsin, three at NC State, and then one season stints at Pittsburgh, LSU and now Maryland.

Report: Oklahoma State signs 27-year-old Australian punter

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Australian punters are the hot new commodity in college football, and word has made it back to the Land Down Under: punt the ball far and high enough and you, too, can receive a full scholarship to an American university.

According to the Latrobe Valley Express — which you now is legit, because its header as of press time already reads Wednesday, January 24 — 27-year-old Australian punter Tom Hutton has signed with Oklahoma State. Hutton hails from Newborough, Australia, about a two hour ride from Melbourne, and in December attended a training session at Prokick Australia.

“I was told about [American football] a few years ago so I thought ‘I’ll probably be too old for it now’, thinking that it was like Aussie Rules and that if you were over 21 then you had no chance,” Hutton told the paper. “But then I saw a few older blokes getting scholarships so I thought I may as well give it a go.”

Prokick Australia claims the last five Ray Guy Award winners as alums, including 2017 victor Michael Dickson of Texas. Oklahoma State saw his ability up close, as Dickson punted 11 times for a 50.9-yard average in October, nearly booting his way to victory in a 13-10 Cowboys overtime victory. “Their punter is — did he win the Ray Guy Award last year?” Mike Gundy said after that game. “He should have won it. He changed the field on us. I don’t know what the yardage is, I just know that every time we go a little bit of field position, he changed the field … he was fantastic for them.”

The story of how Hutton was approved for an Oklahoma State offer doesn’t go into details, but Hutton’s recollection of how Hutton, who works overnights at a paper mill in addition to playing Aussie rules football in the Mid Gippsland Football League, received the offer is perfect.

“I woke up after night shift on two hours sleep and this person said ‘we know where you’re going, you’re going to Oklahoma State and we’ve got the coach on the phone,'” he said. “I thought ‘Jesus Christ, can you give me half an hour? I need to have a shower and actually wake up and make sure this is not a dream.'”

According to the Oklahoma State blog Pistols Firing, Hutton will arrive in Stillwater in July and have four years of eligibility.

Arkansas adds TCU signee who signed with New York Yankees

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Austin Aune‘s circuitous sports journey, one which Chris Weinke and Brandon Weeden would approve, has taken its next stop in Fayetteville.

According to 247Sports.com, Aune has joined the Arkansas football program and is enrolled in classes at the university.  At least initially, the quarterback will be a part of the Razorbacks as a walk-on; it’s expected he’ll take the field with the rest of his new teammates when spring practice kicks off month after next.

According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Aune had also considered TCU and North Texas before the SEC’s mystique proved to be too much.

“The allure of the SEC and the SEC West and Chad [Morris] and Coach [Joe] Craddock, and everybody being on the same page up there as far as the opportunity goes,” the player’s father, Greg Aune, told the Democrat-Gazette. “He likes their system. It’s a fast-paced system, wide-open system. That’s what he played in high school. It’s a pass-oriented offense. He’s a read-run oriented guy, so that’s a lot of what those guys do.”

The fact that Aune considered TCU as a potential landing spot before settling on Morris and UA shouldn’t come as a surprise as he actually signed with the Horned Frogs back in 2012.  However, he was drafted by the New York Yankees that same year and, after signing a contract that included a $1 million signing bonus, embarked on what turned out to be a six-year career in the minor leagues.  Despite that financial commitment, Aune never made it past Single-A ball.