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)

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.

No. 15 Washington State leads Colorado by two scores after ugly first half

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Ugly weather, ugly football. At least for No. 15 Washington State, they can say they held the lead.

In a rainy, lackluster first half of football, the Cougars managed to head to the locker room up 14-0 over Colorado at the break in a game that was far from the best showcase of Pac-12 After Dark given the sub-optimal conditions on the Palouse.

Neither offense found much of a rhythm at all as the opposing defenses were fairly feisty and active in the front seven. Wazzu QB Luke Falk at least was doing better than he was last week in a loss to Cal, throwing for 123 yards and the two touchdowns that made a difference on the scoreboard. Running back Jamal Morrow chipped in with 53 on the ground despite just seven carries.

Things were not as bright on the other sideline as the Buffs failed to convert on third down in the half and recorded just four first downs. Tailback Phillip Lindsay was kept in check (58 yards on 18 carries), while QB Steven Montez was only 4-of-13 for a whopping 21 yards.

To make matters worse, Colorado starting left tackle Jeromy Irwin was ejected for targeting on a play in which he came back to nail a WSU defender.

Falk did seem to start heating up for the Cougs as the second quarter wore on and the rain seemed to die down, but neither team can lay claim to playing all that great early on as one of the few teams still in action late on Saturday night. Hopefully for everybody who’s football-starved and still watching, some halftime adjustments will lead to some improved play on both sides.