Washington v Arizona State

CFT 2014 Preseason Preview: Pac-12 Predictions

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As the 2014 season draws near, we peek into our crystal ball and guess project how each of the five major conferences will play out. Today, we will be examining the Pac-12. 

And while we’re at it, check out our CFT 2014 Preseason Preview Repository for our team’s looks at the upcoming season.

PAC-12 NORTH

1. Oregon (Last year: 11-2; beat Texas at Alamo Bowl)
The Ducks have been on the cusp of elite status as a program for the past four seasons. It’s time for the program to get over the hump and win a national title. This year’s squad may have the best chance to capture the school’s first national championship. It all starts with the quarterback position. Marcus Mariota is the best signal caller currently playing collegiate football. Yes, that includes Florida State’s Heisman Trophy winner, Jameis Winston. Mariota may have hoisted the trophy last year if he didn’t suffer a knee injury late in the season which hampered his style of play. Mariota is extremely efficient as a passer, highly intelligent with his decision-making and a deadly athlete when he decides to run with the football. The Ducks also return key starters at vital positions. Cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and center Hroniss Grasu may have been the top players selected at their position in May’s NFL draft. Yet, they decided to return to Eugene.  The team’s leading rusher (Byron Marshall), tackler (Derrick Malone) and sack artist (Tony Washington) return as well. As Mark Helfrich enters his second year as head coach, there aren’t any excuses for the Ducks this season. It’s a national championship or bust. This is the year for Oregon to prove its more than a flashy offense and uniform trendsetters.

2. Stanford (Last year: 11-3; lost to Michigan State in Rose Bowl)
Cardinal faithful will almost certainly remind anyone who will listen that their team beat Oregon the past two seasons and claimed Pac-12 conference titles. However, the Cardinal simply aren’t as talented from top to bottom as the Ducks. The key players Oregon retained; the Cardinal lost. The team lost it’s leading rusher, tackler, sack artist and four of its starting offensive linemen. While Senior quarterback Kevin Hogan may be entering his second full season as the team’s starter, he’s a notch below the elite quarterbacks in the Pac-12 conference.David Shaw is one of the best coaches in college football. This team will continue it’s winning ways. But Stanford will likely take a slight step backwards as the Ducks reclaim the honor as the best team in the Pac-12 Conference.

3. Oregon State (Last year: 7-6; beat Boise State in Hawai’i Bowl)
College football’s leading-returning passer resides in Corvallis, Oregon. Quarterback Sean Mannion returns for his senior campaign after throwing for 4,662 yards and 37 touchdowns. But Mannion won’t have Biletnikoff Trophy winner Brandin Cooks to throw to anymore. And that ‘s a good thing. Mannion’s experience behind center is a major positive for the Beavers, but Oregon State head coach Mike Riley admitted the coaching staff became enamored with throwing the football due to their dynamic duo at quarterback and wide receiver. This season, the Beavers will be more balanced on offense and more closely resemble the team that went 9-4 in 2012 instead of the one that was 7-6 last season. Senior Terran Ward and junior Storm Woods combined for 1,060 rushing yards last season. They should receive bigger workloads. With a more balanced attack, the Beavers hope to avoid another five-game losing streak in Pac-12 play. The team seen during its 38-23 victory over Boise State in the Hawai’i Bowl is the one Pac-12 opponents should expect to face Saturdays this fall.

4. Washington (Last year: 9-4; beat BYU in Fight Hunger Bowl)
The University of Washington did the impossible; they pried Chris Petersen out of Boise and made him their new head coach. Petersen inherits a talented roster built slowly over time by previous head coach Steve Sarkisian. After three straight 7-6 seasons, the Huskies finally broke through with an 9-4 campaign in 2013. The team then lost it’s head coach, quarterback and workhorse running back. Change of that degree will likely cause the Huskies to take a small step back during the upcoming season. While Peterson was ultra-successful during his eight seasons at Boise State, his team stumbled last year and lost four games for the first time in eight years. The last coach to have that type of success at Boise then finish with a four-loss team before moving to the Pac-12 was Dan Hawkins. Furthermore, there are still questions at quarterback for the Huskies. Cyler Miles hasn’t shown he’s ready to take over the team. Until one of the quarterbacks does, the Huskies will have to rely on a talented defense, particularly a defensive line that features nose tackle Danny Shelton and defensive end Hau’oli Kikaha.

5. Washington State (Last year: 6-7; lost to Colorado State in New Mexico Bowl)
This will be Mike Leach‘s third year in Pullman, Washington. It was in Leach’s third year at Texas Tech he was able to lead the Red Raiders to a nine-win season. He won’t be as lucky with the Cougars. It’s taken Leach some time to implement the “Air Raid” offense that far north. This should be the first season in which it’s fully functional with senior Connor Halliday as the trigger-man behind center. However, the team’s defense struggled mightily in 2013 and finished 102nd overall. Leach’s run at Texas Tech was special, because he could out-scheme nearly everyone in the Big 12. But he could always rely on the talent he recruited in the state of Texas. The state of Washington doesn’t present the same level of talent. In three recruiting classes, only one former four-star recruit, wide receiver Gabe Marks, is expected to contribute for the Cougars this season. And that talent disparity will keep Wazzu toward the bottom of the Pac-12.

6. Cal (Last year: 1-11)
The hiring of Sonny Dykes as Cal’s head coach was an absolute disaster. The Golden Bears finished 1-11. They didn’t play any defense whatsoever. Players were leaving the program as soon as possible once the season ended. The only expectation for the team this season is to improve on last year’s record and actually win a conference game. Cal should be able to move the ball in Dykes’ version of the “Air Raid” offense. Quarterback Jared Goff enters his second season as starter after he put together a solid season as a true freshman. Plus, four of Goff’s top five receivers return. The Golden Bears will be able to throw the football, but the question is whether or not the defense will be able to stop anyone. History says no. Art Kaufman was hired as the team’s defensive coordinator this off season, and he has an uphill battle in front of him. Even when Dykes led Louisiana Tech to a 9-3 record, a national ranking and nearly defeated a Texas A&M team led by Johnny Manziel, the Bulldogs were the worst defensive team in college football. Dykes’ emphasis falls on the offensive side of the ball, and that is not going to change. It’s only a matter of time before Cal is looking for another head coach once the school’s new athletic director is named.

PAC-12 SOUTH

1. UCLA (Last year: 10-3; beat Virginia Tech in Sun Bowl)
Expectations are sky high at UCLA. And they should be. In two short years, Jim Mora has completely rebuilt the culture in Westwood. Plus, the Bruins are fortunate to have one of the best quarterbacks in the nation in Brett Hundley. If Hundley declared for the NFL draft this year, he would have been a first-round selection. He’s projected to be a Top 10 pick for next May. The quarterback is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to talent on this roster. Senior Jordan James and sophomore Paul Perkins return in the backfield after combining for 1,107 rushing yards in 2013. Devin Fuller is a dynamic play maker out of the slot. And the defense may be even more talented. The two-way superstar Myles Jacks is one of college football’s top linebackers and a pretty good running back too. Erik Kendricks is highly instinctive and a tackling machine. Sophomores Kenny Clark and Eddie Vanderdoes will be one year better and impossible to move along the defensive interior. And the secondary is experienced with Anthony Jefferson and Ishmael Adams returning. The No. 1 one goal for the Bruins will be to claim a Pac-12 championship, but this team has legitimate national championship potential. They simply have to get past Oregon and Stanford to prove they’re worthy of a berth in the College Football Playoff.

2. USC (Last year: 10-4; beat Fresno State in Las Vegas Bowl)
It’s hard to maintain momentum from one season to another. Although, USC appeared to regain its confidence and swagger as a program when it won six of its last seven games under the direction of interim head coach Ed Oregeron. Despite the team’s late season success, Oregeron wasn’t hired to become the team’s permanent head coach. Enter Steve Sarkisian, a former co-offensive coordinator under Pete Carroll. Despite sub-par seasons by USC’s standards in recent years, the team has two things in its favor. First, the talent from the top of the roster to the bottom is always among the best in college football. Second, the team’s depth will continue to improve as the bottom of the roster is rebuilt after being previously hamstrung by NCAA sanctions. The Trojans will be led by a strong defense which features the potential No. 1 overall pick in May’s NFL draft, defensive lineman Leonard Williams. The unit finished 13th overall in total defense last season. The offense, meanwhile, will continue to grow under the direction of offensive coordinator Clay Helton and junior quarterback Cody Kessler. The offense played at a much higher level once Lane Kiffin was fired and Helton became the primary play-caller. It was a smart decision by Sarkisian to retain Helton on his staff.  All the pieces are in place for the Trojans to become a factor in the Pac-12 again. USC faithful has to hope Sarkisian was the right hire to keep them in the national conversation.

3. Arizona State (Last year: 10-4; lost to Texas Tech in Holiday Bowl)
Since the Pac-12 South is generally considered the weaker division in the conference, it’s been somewhat overlooked that the Sun Devils played in the league’s championship game last year. Head coach Todd Graham has built a team that is known for its fast-pace offense and aggressive defense. In fact, Arizona State features the best quarterback-wide receiver tandem in the Pac-12 with Taylor Kelly behind center and Jaelen Strong creating mismatches for defenses. Kelly, in particular, has been one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the Pac-12 the past two seasons. And running back D.J. Foster is a dangerous weapon out of the backfield. Arizona State may even be able to challenge UCLA and USC atop the Pac-12 South, but the team’s previously devastating defensive front is being completely rebuilt. The team lost it’s top tackler, sack artist and two-time Pac-12 Defense Player of the Year Will Sutton to the NFL. Graham will continue to blitz every chance he gets, but he no longer has the talent to win individual match-ups on a regular basis. The offense will score points, but the defense will have trouble stopping anyone. 

4.  Arizona (Last year: 8-5; beat Boston College in AdvoCare V100 Bowl)
Is the year the Wildcats are ready to take the next step under head coach Rich Rodriguez? During his first two seasons with the program, Arizona finished with an 8-5 record. The problem with Rodriguez is the passing game and defense suffer from the coach’s insistence to implement his offensive scheme, which is a zone-read heavy. The x-factor this season will be whomever Rodriguez’s names as his starting quarterback. Last season, B.J. Denker didn’t provide any consistency throwing the football. It will either be redshirt freshman Anu Solomon or senior transfer Jesse Scroggins which takes over the offense. Solomon reportedly has a slight lead in the competition during fall camp. These two will have to be better dual-threats out of the backfield than Denker was. And the defense has to be better after surrendering 401.1 yards per game last season. If these two things happen, the Wildcats will finish higher in the standings than CFT currently projects. But, it’s unlikely.

5. Colorado (Last year: 4-8)
A 4-8 record for any other program would be a disappointment. Colorado, however, isn’t just any program. It’s a school that went through an ugly divorce with previous head coach Jon Embree. Four wins by first-year head coach Mike MacIntyre was actually a three-game improvement. MacIntyre has a history of rebuilding a program in a similar fashion. He took San Jose State from a one-win team to 10 wins in three seasons. While the growth at Colorado should be far more incremental, the Buffaloes will continue to improve under the current coaching staff. The team returns 16 starters, including quarterback Sefo Liufau, and has a manageable non-conference schedule. There are at least five games the Buffaloes could be considered the favorites to win. It will be up to the coaching staff and players to steal one or two more wins from Pac-12 opponents.

6.  Utah (Last year: 5-7)
Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham enters his 10th season with the program, and it could be his last if the Utes fall to the basement of the Pac-12 South. The problems start on the offensive side of the football. Whittingham used numerous different play-callers in recent years, but the Utes’ offense continued to sputter. Utah finished 76th overall in total offense during the 2013 campaign. Last season the defense wasn’t the team’s saving grace either. The Utes finished 60th overall in total defense. Whittingham will need key players to step up this season if the team has any hope of consistently competing in the Pac-12. Quarterback Travis Wilson has to improve after throwing 16 touchdowns and 16 interceptions as a sophomore. Another 5-7 season or worse will likely signal change within the program.

CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME PREDICTION
Oregon over UCLA

Pat Narduzzi believes Pitt RB James Conner will play in 2016

In this photo taken Nov. 21, 2015, Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi, right, applauds a touchdown by his team next to James Conner in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game against Louisville in Pittsburgh. Conner spent the last three months weighing whether to return next fall or head to the NFL after a torn knee ligament ended his junior season before it really began. (Matt Freed/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP) MAGAZINES OUT; NO SALES; MONESSEN OUT; KITTANNING OUT; CONNELLSVILLE OUT; GREENSBURG OUT; TARENTUM OUT; NORTH HILLS NEWS RECORD OUT; BUTLER OUT; MANDATORY CREDIT
Matt Freed/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP
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The college football world was stunned when Pittsburgh running back James Conner, who missed the bulk of the 2015 season due to a knee injury, announced he is battling cancer. Despite his ongoing bout with Stage 2 Hodgkin’s lymphoma in his neck and chest, Conner is said to be in great physical shape and looks he could even be ready to play for the Panthers this fall once he beats cancer.

“I saw him yesterday in the hallway and he’s been working out with our kids to keep his sanity and he’s having fun doing it,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said recently to ESPN.com reporter James Shanker. “That’s the key is he’s having fun beating cancer and he’s got a great attitude and he looks good right now. He’s doing well and looks well. Doesn’t look like he lost weight. Looks like he could still play. He doesn’t look like he has cancer.”

Conner declared his intention to play football again when he announced his cancer to the world last December.

“I will play football again,” Conner said in early December. “I will be at Heinz Field again. I have the best coaches and teammates in the country. I thank God I chose Pitt because now I also have the best doctors in the country and together we will win. I know this city has my back.”

The former ACC Player of the Year is receiving financial support from Pitt to handle the costs of the treatments, which is allowed by the NCAA for special circumstances. This is certainly a special circumstance. Per NCAA rules, Conner and his family are required to have personal insurance but schools may pick up the tab for remaining costs not covered by the student’s insurance coverage. Pitt is able to lend its support because cancer is affecting Conner’s ability to play football.

The college football world will continue to root for Conner as he works his way back to the football field.

Cost of attendance not having negative recruiting impact on Group of Five (yet)

Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. (1) runs for a first down against Temple during the second half of the American Athletic Conference championship football game, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015, in Houston. Houston won 24-13. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
AP Photo/David J. Phillip
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The outlook on the impact cost of attendance has on non-power conference institutions may not be known for another year or so, but after one recruiting cycle since the power conferences were granted autonomy powers, cost of attendance stipends have not been seen to be a major difference in the game as one might have thought originally.

Underdog Dynasty took a look at the issue and how Group of Five schools have fared. The initial findings suggest Group of Five programs are not struggling nearly as much as once suspected when it comes to cost of attendance stipends, although it is something that not every program has jumped into providing just yet. And yes, the topic of stipends does pop up on the recruiting trail, which suggests the Group of Five programs that can provide a little extra money as part of a player’s enrollment do figure to have some sort of advantage. However, stipends do not appear to be a game changer on a massive enough scale.

From Underdog Dynasty;

Another fear from last season was that smaller athletic departments couldn’t afford it. Those may have been overblown as well. My Google search turned up news of South Dakota State phasing in COA stipends for all student-athletes, something North Dakota and North Dakota State already have done.

All three are FCS schools. If they can afford the stipends, albeit funding 63 football scholarships rather than 85, G5 schools should as well. Even the Sun Belt distributes more than $1 million per school in College Football Playoff payouts.

Houston, of the American Athletic Conference, just landed a recruiting class that would make a good number of power conference programs jealous, although the Cougars were the only Group of Five program to finish ranked in the top 50 in the final team rankings compiled by Rivals (BYU finished No. 48). Boise State, UCF and Temple fell in the upper half of the FBS mix as well.

Just as one year of the College Football Playoff system did not provide enough empirical evidence to suggest the Big 12 should expand to 12 just to get a conference championship game, one year of cost of attendance stipends is not nearly enough to suggest it has a devastating or minimal impact on the recruiting game in college football. This is just something that will have to be watched for a few more years in order to gather more evidence to evaluate.

Former Wolverine Brian Cole transferring to Kentucky

FILE - In this Nov. 16, 2013, file photo, Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops watches from the sideline during the second quarter of an NCAA college football game against Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn. Stoops has recruited some high-level talent since coming to Lexington three years ago and the Wildcats have taken substantial steps forward. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)
AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File
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Maybe it’s the new uniforms. Maybe it’s an opportunity for a fresh start. Whatever the reason, former Michigan wide receiver and defensive back Brian Cole is heading to Kentucky.

Cole was a four-star recruit in Michigan’s Class of 2015. The second-ranked player from the state of Michigan was a significant addition to the Wolverines by then first-year Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, which helps make his decision to leave for another program now a bit interesting to note considering the momentum seemingly being generated in Ann Arbor. He was released from his scholarship in Michigan in January.

Due to NCAA transfer rules, Cole will be forced to sit out the 2016 season and will be eligible to return to the playing field again in 2017. The good news for Cole is he will still have three years of eligibility remaining.

Cole appeared in two games for the Wolverines in 2015, but he spent most of the season held back by injury issues. His addition to the Kentucky roster is a big win for head coach Mark Stoops, who has developed a little bit of a habit for adding some talented transfers to his program in Lexington.

Michigan and Notre Dame could be rekindling their football series

FILE - In this Sept. 10, 1994, file photo, Notre Dame's Derrick Mayes (1) pulls in a touchdown catch in front of Michigan's Chuck Winters (35) during the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind. Mayes may have grabbed this spectacular catch for a score, but Michigan's Remy Hamilton kicked four field goals, including a 42-yarder with 2 seconds left, to give the Wolverines a 26-24  victory. (AP Photo/Beth A. Keiser, File)
AP Photo/Beth A. Keiser, File
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The bitter divorce between Michigan and Notre Dame on the football field could soon be forgiven. There are hints and clues the series could be heading to a revival.

Michigan athletics director Jim Hackett started lighting the fire for the rivalry series renewal discussion last week when he mentioned during a radio interview the two schools have opened communication on the subject.

“I will tell you this, the relationship is good, and it started with [Jim Harbaugh] and coach [Brian Kelly] working together on a desire to play together,” Hackett said. “But (there’s) nothing firm yet.”

In 2013, when the two schools were beginning to play what was to be their final game son the existing contract, Kelly downplayed the rivalry with Michigan by noting it has not been one of the best rivalries in Notre Dame’s history. In his defense, he is right. In fact, Notre Dame has a more storied history with Michigan State, not to mention USC or Navy.

“I really haven’t seen it as one of those historic, traditional Notre Dame rivalries,” Kelly said according to the Chicago Tribune. “I’ve seen it as just one of those great football games that Notre Dame has played.

“For me, I’ve been in Michigan a long time, I’ve always felt the Notre Dame-Michigan game was a big regional game. But in the Notre Dame history books, this game has (been) played, but obviously there have been some years where it hasn’t been played for a number of years.”

Kelly did later go on to say he was optimistic the series with Michigan would return in the future. Harbaugh was quick to follow up on the idea of playing Notre Dame again. Now we just sit and wait to see when that may become a possibility.

Scheduling for both Michigan and Notre Dame have become a bit more complex in more recent years than it used to be. Notre Dame is part of an ACC scheduling rotation that guarantees a certain number of power conference opponents from the ACC each season and the Irish continue rivalry game son an annual basis with USC, Stanford and Navy. Michigan is moving to a nine-game Big Ten schedule with the requirement to play at least one power conference opponent in its non-conference slate each season. The Wolverines already have that requirement met through the 2027 season but have shown a willingness to schedule two power conference opponents in a season, which is the case in 2020 and 2021 (games vs. Washington and Virginia Tech in alternating home-and-home deals).