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CFT 2014 Preseason Preview: Pac-12 Predictions

Washington v Arizona State Getty Images

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 Manzielthe 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

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Abdullah runs for 225 yards and 3 TDs as No. 16 Huskers pound Rutgers

Rutgers v Nebraska

Nebraska and Rutgers playing a Big Ten conference game was weird to see. Watching Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah run wild over an overpowered defense was nothing out of the ordinary though. Abdullah added to his Heisman Trophy profile by rushing for 225 yards and three touchdowns as No. 16 Nebraska (7-1, 3-1 Big Ten) blew away Rutgers (5-3, 1-3 Big Ten) by a final score of 42-24.

Nebraska’s victory over Rutgers was fueled by Abdullah, but he had a supporting cast doing its part as well. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong passed for 163 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Kenny Bell led Nebraska with 63 receiving yards. Abdullah was the story of the game though, turning in the second highest rushing total of his career. Abdullah rushed for a career-high 232 yards in week one of the season against Florida Atlantic. His 225 yards Saturday afternoon tied the second-highest mark of his career.

Rutgers put up a fight early on. A Gary Nova completion over the middle to Leonte Carroo turned a medium gain for a first down into a 71-yard touchdown to tie the game at 7-7 late in the first quarter. Nebraska responded in a big way by scoring two touchdowns off big runs by Abdullah to take a 21-7 lead into the half. Nebraska would later take a 35-17 lead to the fourth quarter, keeping the visiting Scarlet Knights at arm’s length the rest fo the way.

Nebraska only had three more rushing attempts than Rutgers, but Nebraska averaged 7.1 yards per rushing attempt to the 3.8 averaged by Rutgers. Nebraska also ended the game with 149 more rushing yards. Abdullah rushing for touchdowns from 53, 48 and 23 yards certainly helps inflate those numbers. Abdullah was quite the difference-maker.

Nebraska could very well be the favorite in the Big Ten West Division the rest of the way. Minnesota got a test on the road at Illinois today, but the Gophers remain in first place in the division with an uphill battle to climb the rest of the way. Nebraska will still have to play road games at Wisconsin and Iowa as well as a home game against Minnesota. Wisconsin and Iowa are still in the mix as well. Nebraska has a habit of winning nine games per year lately, so the Huskers are either going to break that trend this season or come stumbling down the finish line to the season in spectacular fashion. As long as Abdullah stays healthy and Nebraska keeps feeding his Heisman campaign, these Huskers could be rolling to the Big Ten championship game with double digits in the win column.

Rutgers is still one win shy of becoming bowl eligible in its first season in the Big Ten. Next is a home game against Wisconsin, with the Badgers coming off a pounding of Maryland in Madison. Rutgers will also host Indiana and finish the season on the road against Michigan State and Maryland. There could very well be a win to be had in there for Rutgers.

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No. 11 Kansas State does enough to stay perfect in Big 12

Jake Waters

When the sun comes up on Sunday, No. 11 Kansas State (6-1, 4-0 Big 12) will remain in first place in the Big 12. The Wildcats remain in control of the Big 12 after holding off Texas (3-5, 2-3 Big 12) on Saturday afternoon with a 23-0 victory over the Longhorns.

Kansas State quarterback Jake Waters put together a workmanlike performance, which is to be expected when discussing Kansas State in general. Waters completed 18 of 29 pass attempts for 219 yards. The numbers will not impress much, but the majority of those yards came in key third-down situations. Kansas State converted eight of 15 third-down conversion attempts in the game. This helped to milk as much clock as possible for Kansas State, with the Wildcats controlling the football for over 38 minutes. Everything about the way this game played out is what has made head coach Bill Snyder a College Football Hall of Fame candidate. The Wildcats will not dazzle with flashy play, but there are few teams that are as fundamentally well-rounded as Kansas State right now. The recipe may not work against programs like Florida State, Auburn or Oregon, but it works for Kansas State in the Big 12. This is all that will ultimately matter.

Kansas State also played a very clean game as well. The Wildcats were flagged just three times in the game and the offense did not lose the football. It also helped to have a dependable kicker with Matthew McCrane successfully sending all three of his field goal attempts through the goal posts. Early on, this came in handy as Kansas State was stopped by Texas inside the red zone. Kansas State’s defense held Texas to just 198 yards of total offense too. This is Kansas State football.

Kansas State will host Oklahoma State next weekend before heading to TCU for what could be a pivotal match-up in the Big 12 race coming down the stretch. The Wildcats also have a road trip to West Virginia and a season-ending road trip to Baylor to come as well. It is still premature to suggest Kansas State is the favorite to win the Big 12 at this point. The conference is very much up for grabs for a few teams right now, including TCU, West Virginia and Baylor.

Texas is, without question, far from being in the hunt for the Big 12 championship. This afternoon’s loss drops the Longhorns to 2-3 in Big 12 play with four games to play. The goal now should be to scratch together three more wins to become bowl-eligible. Texas has played in a postseason bowl game every season but two since the formation of the Big 12 in 1997. Charlie Strong is in danger of becoming just the second Texas coach since Edwin Price in 1951 not to lead Texas to a bowl game in his first year on the job. Texas plays at Texas Tech next week and still has West Virginia, Oklahoma State and TCU on the schedule. Two losses and Texas will be staying home this offseason.

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Kentucky’s Stanley Williams not cleared to play against No. 1 Mississippi State

Kentucky v LSU

The Kentucky Wildcats will face the No. 1 Mississippi State Bulldogs this afternoon without one of their most potent offensive weapons.

Freshman running back Stanley Williams suffered a concussion last Saturday against the LSU Tigers. He didn’t return to the game nor did he practice all week.

Williams announced on twitter that he won’t be available for today’s contest:

The 5-9, 200-pound running back was third on the team with 222 rushing yards. The talented freshman averaged 7.4 yards each time he ran the ball, though.

Williams was Kentucky’s best all-around threat. The running back already had eight catches for 90 yards this season. He is also the team’s primary kick returner and averages 30 yards per return.

With Williams out of the lineup, the Wildcats have three capable running back that already split time in the backfield. Sophomore JoJo Kemp, junior Braylon Heard and freshman Mikel Horton will continue to rotate at running back against the Bulldogs’ talented defensive front.

On special teams, sophomore cornerback J.D. Harmon is Williams’ likely replacement as the team’s top kicker returner. Harmon returned two kicks this season for 53 yards.

Anytime the No. 1 team in the country comes to town, the underdog needs all the help it can get to potentially pull off an upset. Unfortunately for Kentucky, one of the Wildcats’ most explosive players isn’t available, and they’ll have to adjust.

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Iowa suspends starting LB after alcohol-related incident

Indiana v Iowa

Iowa’s on a bye this weekend, but the Hawkeyes still managed to find a way to make headlines.

In a press release, UI announced that Reggie Spearman has been suspended from the football program for at least one game.  The release stated that the linebacker was cited for an alcohol-related offense early Saturday morning.

Just what the specific citation was wasn’t detailed.

“I was disappointed to hear of the charges against Reggie,” said head coach Kirk Ferentz in a statement. “Reggie will face a minimum one-game suspension, as well as other consequences within the program. We will work with authorities in gathering all the facts. Reggie will go through the UI Student Athlete Code of Conduct process and we will move forward from there.”

The suspension means Spearman will miss at least the Nov. 1 game against Northwestern.

Spearman has started all seven games for the 5-2 Hawkeyes this season. He’s currently tied for seventh in tackles with 34.

UPDATED 2:13 p.m. ET: According to the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Spearman was charged with operating while intoxicated after being pulled over shortly after midnight local time.

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Fat guy TD pass to long-snapper? God bless Arkansas

Bret Bielema

I can now, officially, die a happy and contented man.

In the second quarter of Arkansas’ game against UAB this afternoon, arguably the greatest touchdown in the history of college football — or any level of football for that matter — was scored as Sebastian Tretola tossed a six-yard “strike” to Alan D’Appollonio.  The greatness lies in the particulars: Tretola is a 350-pound offensive guard, while D’Appollonio is a long-snapper by trade.

Perhaps the best part?  Tretola was lined up in the shotgun.  The second-best part?  Tretola striking the Heisman pose after the catch.

Below is the video.  Soak in its greatness in and enjoy.

 

God bless Tretola.  And God bless Bret Bielema for bringing that play into our collective lives.  We’re all forever in your debt.

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Kansas State ahead but letting Texas hang around

DeMarcus Robinson

Kansas State played a clean half of football, but has struggled to bury Texas in the first half. With some tough defense pulling through in key situations, Texas has managed to get to halftime only trailing 13-0 on the road.

Texas was called for six penalties in the first half, while Kansas State avoided giving officials a reason to throw a penalty flag. There have been no turnovers in the game as well. This all seems to play in Kansas State’s favor as they try to stay in first place in Big 12 play. The offense could use a little more in the second half though, just to deliver a knockout punch to the visiting Longhorns.

Texas quarterback Tyrone Swoopes has completed just six of 16 pass attempts for 40 yards. Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray each have 18 rushing yards for the Longhorns, and Swoops has added 16 more yards on the ground. Texas just cannot get an edge in the field position game. Texas went three-and-out three times in the first half and has had to punt the ball away each of their six first-half possessions.

Kansas State has been mildly better for much of the half. Both of the first two possessions for Kansas State had to settle for field goals inside the red zone, and then the Wildcats had to punt on their next two possessions after losing a total of 14 yards combined. Kansas State did break through with a touchdown before the half with a 12-play drive ending with DeMarcus Robinson scoring from three yards out for a 13-0 lead.

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Minnesota playing like they’ve seen a ghost vs. Illinois

Illinois v Wisconsin

Minnesota entered this weekend unbeaten in Big Ten play, but perhaps the image of gray uniforms staring them down was too much to handle in the first half. Illinois, wearing specially designed uniforms to honor Illini legend Red Grange, has taken a 14-3 lead into halftime Saturday afternoon.

Illinois scored both touchdowns of the half in the first quarter. Quarterback Reilly O’Toole tossed a short pass to Jon Davis for the first score of the game. He would later run for the game’s second touchdown as Illinois took a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. Minnesota finally got on the scoreboard in the second quarter with a 44-yard field goal by Ryan Santoso.

Illinois had been struggling against the run this season, but the Gophers have failed to get on track on the ground. David Cobb has been stuffed for just 24 yards on 12 attempts. Illinois has held Minnesota to just 86 yards of total offense after one half. The Illini offense has recorded 165 yards of offense.

Despite O’Toole playing well early on, Illinois head coach Tim Beckman replaced him under center with Aaron Bailey to mix things up after jumping out to a 14-0 lead. This was probably part of the game plan going in, but it was a bit of a questionable decision when things were going well. O’Toole did return to lead the offense soon enough though.

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Huskies’ starting QB, Cyler Miles, won’t play vs. Sun Devils

Washington v Oregon Getty Images

If Washington is going to pull off the upset against 14th-ranked Arizona State later on tonight, it’ll have to do so without its starting quarterback.

Citing school sources, the Seattle Times reported overnight that Cyler Miles will not play in Saturday night’s game against the Sun Devils.  ESPN‘s College GameDay show subsequently reported something similar.

Miles, 41st nationally and eighth among Pac-12 quarterbacks in passing efficiency, was knocked out of the Week 8 loss to Oregon with a concussion.

With Miles likely out, Troy Williams appears set to make his first start at the collegiate level.  The redshirt freshman took reps with the first-team offense throughout practice this week in preparation for the start. Williams had been behind sophomore Jeff Lindquist in the quarterback pecking order until recently.

Lindquist had started the season opener after Miles was suspended for the game against Hawaii.

Not only will Miles likely be sidelined, but the Huskies’ top two running backs could join him.  Both Dwayne Washington and Lavon Coleman are questionable, the Times reported, for the Sun Devils after suffering injuries against the Ducks. The latter leads UW in rushing with 438 yards, while the former is second with 239.

Should either or both of those two not play, it’d mean more playing time for Deontae Cooper linebacker Shaq Thompson.

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Oklahoma State dismisses freshman CB

Juwan Offray

Oklahoma State has dismissed freshman cornerback Juwan Offray from the football program.

According to the original report published by OColly.com, Offray was let go by the football program following an arrest for public intoxication Sunday morning. Offray was arrested with wide receiver Jhajuan Seales after the two were found passed out in a fast food drive thru. Per the report, this was not the first strike for Offray, but the details of any previous infractions have not been confirmed.

Offray is still enrolled at Oklahoma State, although it is being reported he will pursue a transfer in the future to continue playing football elsewhere in the Big 12.

Offray has appeared in all seven games to this point in the season for Oklahoma State, with three tackles to show for it. Oklahoma State’s secondary should prove to be as vulnerable as ever as the depth thins out following this dismissal. Oklahoma State ranks 10th in the 10-team Big 12 against the pass. The Cowboys have allowed an average of 288.4 passing yards per game, and Baylor and Oklahoma still remain on the schedule after West Virginia today. So do Kansas State and Texas.

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Boise State back in hunt for New Years bowl? Yeah, it’s possible

Entering the 2014 college football season, it would have been wise to suggest Cincinnati and Boise State would play a key role in the new Group of Five hunt for the automatic access bowl spot under the new structure. As Friday came and went, the Bearcats and Broncos still hold some cards in the chase for a spot in the access bowl line-up, though perhaps not quite as initially expected.

As a general reminder, one spot in the College Football Playoff New Years Bowl line-up will be reserved for the highest-ranked champion from the American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West Conference or Sun Belt Conference. That ranking will be determined by the College Football Playoff selection committee (te committee begins releasing its top 25 ranking on Tuesday night). This new structure figures to be one that should see programs like Cincinnati and Boise State in the big bowl conversation on a somewhat regular basis. However, both teams have seemed to take a bit of a step back for other potential candidates this season.

East Carolina still looks to be the frontrunner on the strength of victories over a pair of ACC schools (Virginia Tech, North Carolina), but that ground is a little less stable than it was a month ago. Virginia Tech was tanked at home by Miami and is now in slight danger of not making a bowl game. UNC also has an uphill battle to become bowl-eligible. Marshall is waiting for some help as they look to run through an undefeated, 13-0 season (13-0 with a Conference USA championship game victory). Marshall likely needs East Carolina to lose a second game this season to move past the Pirates. The way East Carolina played Thursday night against UConn and the way Cincinnati performed against USF should prove to most that Cincinnati is East Carolina’s biggest threat to a New Years bowl trip.

Mike Boone rushed for 212 yards to lead Cincinnati past USF Friday night, 34-17. The preseason media favorite in the American put up nearly 600 yards of offense in the game and went three-for-three on fourth-down conversion attempts. Gunner Kiel has played well as the team’s starting quarterback, but Cincinnati already has three losses on the year. With those losses, Cincinnati may need a lot of help even to sniff a New Years access bowl. But they still pose a serious threat to ECU.

A third contender appears to be Colorado State, but the Rams have a Boise State problem. Boise State won a head-to-head match-up with the Rams earlier this season, which means Boise State would have to lose once more while Colorado State wins out in order for the Rams to compete in the Mountain West Conference championship game. Without a conference championship, Colorado State will not qualify for the Group of Five access bowl consideration under the selection committee’s guidelines. Boise state blew away a sinking BYU program Friday night in non-conference action. Boise State still has games against New Mexico, San Diego State, Wyoming and Utah State. Colorado State still has five more conference games to play through, including tonight’s home game against Wyoming.

Boise State has lost twice, including a non-conference neutral site game against Ole Miss. The Broncos have some catching up to do to make a push for a New Years bowl game, but maybe Boise State is hitting its stride at just the right time. Could a 2-loss Boise State edge an undefeated Marshall? Possibly, although probably not very likely. A 1-loss East Carolina? Not likely. But a three-loss Cincinnati? Absolutely.

This is going to be fun.

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Mariota’s 5 TD night pushes Heisman buzz, keeps No. 6 Oregon in playoff hunt

Marcus Mariota

For the second time this season, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota threw five touchdowns. For the first time this season, he was intercepted. It was another wild night for offensive football as No. 6 Oregon (7-1, 4-1 Pac-12) pulled away from upset-minded California (4-4, 2-4 Pac-12) Friday night in the first college football game ever played in new Levi’s Stadium. The Ducks continued to roll with a 59-41 victory in a game that saw plenty of offense.

Mariota continued on his Heisman campaign with 326 passing yards, 5 touchdowns and 36 rushing yards as Oregon proved to have just a bit more offense than a rising Cal program. The game was a back-and-forth contest with the offenses trading scores on the game’s first four possessions. After going down 14-7 in the first quarter, Oregon rattled off 24 straight points to seemingly take control of the game. Cal answered before halftime though by picking up a pair of touchdowns in the span of a little under two minutes, thanks in part to an Oregon fumble. With the lead down to three points (31-28), Mariota led the Ducks down field to pad the lead before the break. He did not have to far to go either, as the Ducks started at their 40-yard line. Three plays later, Mariota connected with Dwayne Stanford for a 24-yard touchdown and a 10-point lead.

After halftime Mariota and Byron Marshall hooked up for a 54-yard touchdown pass to quickly get on the board in the second half. At this point Oregon seemed to have a hold of the game. A short touchdown run from Royce Freeman midway through the third quarter gave Oregon a comfortable 52-28 lead.

California went into this game knowing they would be able to move the football and score some points against Oregon. The Ducks have been vulnerable to offenses of this nature in the past few years, but the Ducks still have an overall advantage in talent to be able to overcome holes on defense most of the time. California quarterback Jared Goff ran the offense of Sonny Dykes very well against Oregon by throwing for 360 yards and two touchdowns without an interception. A questionable fumble that was upheld by a video replay hurt Goff and Cal’s chances to make things a little more interesting in the first half. Goff may have been moving his arm forward as the Oregon defense knocked the ball out of his hand. The video replay was not very definitive either way on the play, but because the ruling on the field was a fumble it was far from enough to overturn the call. If the call had been there was forward motion of Goff’s arm, video replay still may have been questionable enough to not overturn the call for a fumble either.

Since losing to Arizona, Oregon has won three straight games in Pac-12 play. At this point, Oregon looks to be the team to beat in the Pac-12 and should be on track for a return trip to the Pac-12 championship game after missing the last two years (Stanford represented the Pac-12 North each of the past two seasons). Next up for Oregon will be a home game against Stanford. The Cardinal have been a trip for Oregon the past couple of years. This should be the biggest hurdle for Mariota and head coach Mark Helfrich to get over before making any case for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Oregon hosts Stanford on November 1.

At some point, Oregon may have to play some defense, but with what is sitting in front of them the rest of the way into the postseason, these Ducks should keep flying.

Meanwhile, California is still sitting two wins shy of becoming eligible for postseason play. The BEars will have quite an uphill battle to get those two wins too. The next two games will be played on the road, first at Oregon State and then at USC. The season wraps up at home with games against Stanford and BYU. Stanford’s defense could be tough, but the Cardinal have no offense. BYU was shredded Friday night by Boise State and continue to be in some form of free fall mode since losing quarterback Taysom Hill.

California has enough to get two more wins, but they may not come easily.

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Vandy QB Patton Robinette cleared to play, won’t start against Missouri

Patton Robinette

Four quarterbacks have played for the Vanderbilt Commodores this season. Sophomore Patton Robinette has proven to be the most effective during the limited time he’s been at the helm of the offense.

However, Robinette is recovering from a concussion and won’t start Saturday against the Missouri Tigers despite being cleared to play.

Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason already made 10 changes at the quarterback position through seven games. Freshman Wade Freebeck started last weekend against the Charleston Southern Buccaneers. Freedbeck was 5-of-7 passing for 20 yards before suffering a finger injury during the Commodores’ narrow 21-20 over the FCS program.

Freshman Johnny McCrary took over for Freebeck and played relatively well. The two then competed during practice this week to be the team’s starter. McCrary eventually won the opportunity to start this Saturday.

“When I step on the field, I can only do my best,” McCrary told The Tennessean‘s Adam Sparks Wednesday. “If my best isn’t good enough, I’ll take myself out of the game. You can tell if you’re not moving this team, but I want to stay tough and maybe something special will happen.”

If McCary doesn’t play at his best, he won’t have to pull himself. Mason has proven he’s more than willing to make changes at the position. Now that Robinette is healthy, McCrary could very well be on a short leash.

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UPDATE: Syracuse football is under NCAA investigation

Scott Shafer

Syracuse is the latest football program to find itself in the clutches of the NCAA.

While the Orange’s basketball team was believed to be the focus of an ongoing investigation, there are concerns regarding the football program, too.

Syracuse.com’s Nate Mink reported the investigation could affect multiple areas within the school’s athletic department.

“The Syracuse football program is part of the wide-ranging NCAA investigation into the school’s athletic department,” sources told Mink.

“The information shows that the NCAA inquiry that has swirled around the basketball team for two years is more involved, and that the football team is part of the investigation and potentially exposed to penalties. It’s unclear if other teams are involved.”

If the Orange football team was to receive any type of sanctions, possible infractions apparently didn’t occur during Doug Marrone‘s tenure. Marrone served as the Orange’s head coach from 2009-12. The current head coach of the Buffalo Bills spoke with Fink about possible reasons behind the investigation.

“There’s nothing that I know about that we did that wasn’t either punished or put forth,” Marrone said.

“One thing I did, if we made a mistake, an incidental contact or something, I just always reported it. It’s not worth it. This way I can sleep at night.”

Syracuse officials are expected to meet with the NCAA in Indianapolis at some point before the end of the month.

UPDATE (8:45 ET): ESPN.com’s Brett Murphy reported Syracuse officials will go to Indianapolis on Oct. 30-31 to face the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions.

While the basketball program is the primary target of the investigation, the football program might not escape unscathed.

“The football team is also facing allegations involving extra benefits, but only for a two-or-three-year stretch around 2004 or 2005,” a source told McMurphy.

The time period falls between Syracuse’s transition from Paul Pasqualoni to Greg Robinson as the team’s head coach. The Orange were 7-16 during those two campaigns.

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Maryland approves policy to link coaches’ bonuses to academic success

Randy Edsall

Some institutions are serious about keeping the student in student-athlete.

The Maryland Board of Regents unanimously voted in favor of a policy “denying bonuses to coaches and athletic directors whose players don’t measure up academically”, according to the Baltimore Sun.

“I think this is another step for Maryland to be in the vanguard on issues of intercollegiate athletics,” former U.S. Rep. Tom McMillen, who is a member of the Board of Regents, told the Sun. “They were a leader on guaranteed scholarships and now they are a leader in academic accountability.”

Maryland approved a “lifetime guarantee degree” in August. At that time, athletic director Kevin Anderson said, “Our vision is to be the best intercollegiate athletic program while producing graduates who are prepared to serve as leaders in the local, state and global communities. We are confident ‘The Maryland Way Guarantee’ will further demonstrate our commitment to our student-athletes’ pursuit of a college degree.”

The school’s commitment — which extends to Towson, Coppin State and UMBC — took a logical step by making its coaches more accountable for the academic performance of their athletes.

The coaches’ bonuses will ultimately be tied to the school’s yearly Academic Progress Rate. To determine a school’s APR, as defined by the NCAA, “a score of a thousand means every student-athlete on that team stayed eligible and returned to school. You begin losing points for students who are not eligible and/or are not retained.”

During the 2012-13 seasons, the Maryland Terrapins received a score of 950, which would have been worst among Big Ten schools. Clearly, there is room for improvement from Maryland head coach Randy Edsall.

This decision also becomes a recruiting advantage for the Terrapins. With the school’s added emphasis on education and new demands on its coaches, parents can see how dedicated the university is to each student-athlete. Education is at the forefront for Maryland, and it will only help the school’s athletics.

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Two Georgia Tech starters ruled out for Pitt contest

Zach Laskey, Akeem Langham

Saturday’s meeting between the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and Pitt Panthers is a crucial match up in the ACC Coastal division. Both teams are trying to stay within striking distance of the Duke Blue Devils.

The Yellow Jackets will have to do so without their starting right tackle. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Chris Griffin has been ruled out for Saturday’s contest.

The redshirt freshman started all seven games on the strong side this season, but he’s currently dealing with a shoulder injury.

With Griffin out of the lineup, another redshirt freshman, Eason Fromayan, is expected to slide into the starting lineup. Fromayan already started one game this season at left tackle when Bryan Chamberlain was unable to play in the Duke contest due to an ankle injury.

Griffin isn’t the only starter that’s been ruled out for the upcoming game. Starting B-back (fullback) Zach Laskey is also dealing with a shoulder injury and won’t be able to play against Pitt.

Laskey is a key component in Georgia Tech’s triple-option attack, which is currently ranked fourth overall in rushing yards per game. The fullback is the team’s second-leading rusher with 595 yards on the ground.

Seniors Synjyn Days and Matt Connors should be able to fill in for Laskey and provide the presence needed to keep the Yellow Jackets’ inside running attack viable. Without the mid-line option, the Panthers will have a much easier time defending the outside runs or pitches by quarterback Justin Thomas.

These injuries will only help a Pitt defense that ranks 18th in the nation against the run.

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