CFT Preseason Top 25: No. 14 USC

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2013 record: 10-4 overall, 6-3 in the Pac-12 conference (tied for 2nd in South division)
2013 postseason: Las Vegas Bowl vs. Fresno State (45-25 win)
2013 final AP/coaches’ ranking: No. 19/No. 19
Head coach: Steve Sarkisian (34-29 overall; 1st year at USC)
Offensive coordinator: Clay Helton (5th year at USC)
2013 offensive rankings: 59th rushing offense (172.8 ypg); 70th passing offense (227.1 ypg); 72nd total offense (399.9 ypg); 60th scoring offense (29.7 ppg)
Returning offensive starters: seven
Defensive coordinator: Justin Wilcox (1st year at USC)
2013 defensive rankings: 15th rushing defense (120.6 ypg); 32nd passing defense (214.6 ypg);  13th total defense (335.2 ypg); 16th scoring defense (21.2 ppg)
Returning defensive starters: seven
Location: Los Angeles
Stadium: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (93,607; grass)
Last conference title: 2008

THE GOOD
Once USC athletic director Pat Haden cut ties with head coach Lane Kiffin during the middle of season, the Trojans played very well down the stretch. The team won six of its last seven games to finish 10-4. The offense in particular played at a much higher level. In the team’s final seven games, junior quarterback Cody Kessler threw 12 touchdowns compared to only two interceptions. Kessler had to battle earlier in the season with fellow quarterback Max Wittek to earn the starting job, but once Kessler was handed the reins, the team’s offense played at a much higher level. They did so under the supervision of offensive coordinator Clay Helton, who was retained by new head coach Steve Sarkisian. An experienced quarterback and improved system should help the Trojans play at a more consistent level on offense during the upcoming season.

THE BAD
As the Trojans prepare for the season, the team’s situation at offensive line is tenuous at best. Max Tuerk may be one of the most versatile linemen in college football — he’ll start at center for the first time this fall — and Chad Wheeler improved throughout his freshmen campaign. But the rest of the projected starters along the offensive line lack experience. Aundrey Walker was expected to provide a veteran presence and potentially start, but he has yet to practice during camp due to a lingering leg injury. Zach Banner (right tackle), Khaliel Rodgers (right guard) and Toa Lobendahn (left guard) continue to practice with the first unit, yet Banner is the only one to even appear in a game as a member of the Trojans. In fact, Lobendahn is a true freshman. It’s a unit that will require time to gel and needs to gain experience throughout the season for USC to play to expectations this season.

THE UNKNOWN
Will the Trojans ever be able to recapture the magic that once surrounded the program during Pete Carroll‘s nine-year run as the team’s head coach? It already failed to do so when named Lane Kiffin, the team’s former co-offensive coordinator, was named as Carroll’s replacement. Yet, the school went back to the same well and named Kiffin’s former running mate as the program’s newest head coach. Sarkisian seems like an ideal fit due to his history with the team, but the coach was never able to get the Washington Huskies over the hump during his five seasons with the program. Granted, USC’s talent level compared to Washington’s at the time Sarkisian took over is night and day. It has to be a concern for USC faithful that Sarkisian never finished better than 8-4 as a head coach.

MAKE-OR-BREAK GAME: at UCLA
Last season, the Trojans got the proverbial monkey off their backs by beating the fifth-ranked Stanford Cardinal for the first time since 2008. The next obstacle for the Trojans is overcome their cross-town rival, the UCLA Bruins. As the Trojans dealt with NCAA sanctions, Bruins head coach Jim Mora rebuilt UCLA and made the Bruins into one of the top teams in the nation entering this season. While the Bruins haven’t been able to overcome the Trojans on the recruiting trail, UCLA still won the last two contests between the teams by a combined score of 73-42. It’s likely that when these two teams meet to play on Nov. 12 the Pac-12 South division and an appearance in the conference’s championship game will be on the line.

HEISMAN HOPEFUL: DT Leonard Williams
Everyone knows that a only one player primarily from the defensive side of the football has ever won the Heisman Trophy, and Michigan’s Charles Woodson had the luxury of playing special teams and a little bit of offense too. However, Nebraska’s Ndamukong Suh and Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o have shown in recent years that dominant defenders in the midst of a special season can garner legitimate consideration for the sport’s most prestigious trophy. Williams is the most talented player on USC’s roster. He’s projected as a possible No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft. In 13 games last season, Williams was second on the team with 74 tackles and added 13.5 tackles for loss and six sacks. It’s not out of the realm of possibility to think Williams will put together a season like Suh did in 2009 (85 tackles, 24 tackles for loss, 12 sacks) and establish himself as the most dominant defender in college football.

(Click HERE for the CFT 2014 Preseason Preview Repository)

Oklahoma State punter Zach Sinor launches campaign for… Heisman Trophy

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Move over Baker Mayfield and Mason Rudolph, because it appears there is another college football player from the state of Oklahoma who has his eyes set on winning the Heisman Trophy.

Oklahoma State punter — yes, punter — Zach Sinor has officially launched his Heisman Trophy campaign with a fun video promotion from the Oklahoma State football social media team. In it, you get a real sense of what is motivating the Cowboys punter, who was left off the Ray Guy Award list a year ago.

I shouldn’t have to remind you that a punter has never won the Heisman Trophy award, but that does not mean we can’t have some fun and laughs along the way as Sinor looks to state his case this season.

Vanderbilt suspends three players connected to parking lot shooting incident

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Days after two Vanderbilt football players were shot in an incident involving a stolen phone, head coach Derek Mason has suspended three players connected to the incident. Defensive backs Tae Daley and Frank Coppet and wide receiver Donaven Tennyson have all been indefinitely suspended from all football activities in Nashville.

Daley and Coppet were shot outside a Nashville Target on Monday night. Neither player suffered what is considered a critical injury, which is good to hear, but the entire incident centering around a meeting in which Tennyson was attempting to recover a cellphone that had been stolen from him. Tennyson brought his teammates with him in what has been described by authorities as “an ill-conceived plan.”

Mason clearly agreed.

No arrests have been made, but police are continuing to work the case to identify the shooters.

NCAA considering changing transfer rules

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The NCAA’s Division I Council Transfer Working Group on Wednesday unleashed a set of suggestions that could either radically change or slightly tweak the way transfers are handled in college sports’ highest level.

Let’s start with the (possible) radical changes. The working group is considering a suggestion that would make all transfers immediately eligible, provided they hit certain academic benchmarks:

Establishing uniform transfer rules — which would require everyone to follow the same rules regardless of the sport they play — was a topic that the group agrees will likely take longer to resolve. While most members agreed the concept of uniformity would be positive, what the specific rules would be is less clear.

Members discussed two models: One model would require every transfer student to sit out a year to acclimate to a new school; the other would allow all transfers to play immediately provided they present academic credentials that predict graduation at the new institution.

Walking back from that, the working group did recommend changing the transfer process to where players seeking new destinations would no longer need their former school’s approval. Considering the NCAA formally argues its athletes are merely students, and there is no limit on normal students receiving financial aid upon transferring to a new institution, this change should pass without a word to the contrary. But, you know, the NCAA is the NCAA.

Group members believe financial aid should not be tied to whether a school grants permission to contact. They want to know if others in the membership feel the same way. The group also agreed that enhancements should be made to the formal process students use to notify a school of their desire to transfer. The group will seek input from the membership on appropriate enhancements.

To curb a possible spike in transfers, the working group suggested upping penalties for coaches caught tampering with scholarship athletes at other schools.

The group expressed interest in increasing the consequences for coaches who break recruiting rules to seek out undergraduate and potential graduate students. The working group will ask the Committee on Infractions and enforcement staff to review the concept and provide feedback.

Finally, the working group suggested adding academic accountability to the graduate transfer market by either making graduate transfers count against the 85-man scholarship limit for two years or tweaking the APR formula to up the impact graduate transfers’ academic progress has in the system.

One potential approach could be to require that the financial aid provided to graduate students count against a team’s scholarship limit for two years, regardless of whether the graduate student stays for two years or leaves when their eligibility is complete.

Another concept for increasing that accountability is through the Academic Progress Rate calculation, specifically the eligibility and retention points for which a student would be held accountable as they pursue a graduate degree. The Committee on Academics discussed the calculation and the working group plans to continue conversations on the topic.

“I am thrilled with the great progress made this week, and I’m confident we can move forward with some initial concepts for consideration in this year’s legislative cycle,” South Dakota State AD and working group chair Justin Sell said in a statement. “We are working toward academics-based, data-driven decisions that benefit student-athletes, teams and schools.”

Any changes proposed by the working group are merely suggestions. The earliest any proposals could be voted on would be April 2018.

Michigan WR Grant Perry pleads guilty to felony resisting of a police officer

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Michigan wide receiver Grant Perry on Wednesday pleaded guilty to resisting of a police officer in a Lansing, Mich., court, according to the Lansing State Journal. The charge carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison.

Perry also pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of assault and battery, but did so to avoid two counts of fourth-degree sexual assault and one alcohol charge.

The case stemmed from an October incident in which Perry was accused of groping a female outside an East Lansing bar. (The Wolverines were off that weekend.) A Michigan State student said Perry “started licking his lips and smiling and pushing his chest up against her chest” before groping her.

Police were called to the scene, and Perry attempted to escape.

“When (police) arrived on scene, we tried to grab onto him, and we had to chase him,” East Lansing P.D. spokesman Lt. Scott Wriggelsworth said at the time. “In the midst of that fracas, one of our officers suffered a minor hand injury.”

Prosecutor Christina Johnson said Wednesday she has not ruled out sentencing Perry under the Holmes Youthful Trainee Act, which, pending Perry’s completion of certain requirements, would wipe Wednesday’s conviction from his record by his 24th birthday.

In the meantime, Perry has been suspended by Michigan but has since resumed practicing with the team. Jim Harbaugh has said Perry will not play for the Wolverines until his case is resolved, which it will be by the time Michigan opens the season against Florida on Sept. 2. Sentencing for the case is set for Aug. 2.