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

Ragin’ Cajuns confirm hiring of Sun Devils OC Billy Napier as head coach

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This phase of The Grand Experiment at Arizona State is officially an abject failure.

In hiring Herm Edwards, it was known that ASU was looking to retain both of Todd Graham‘s coordinators in an effort to ease Edwards’ return to coaching after a decade-long absence.  Earlier this week, the new Sun Devils head coach confirmed that defensive coordinator Phil Bennett was leaving the staff because of what were described as “family matters.” Overnight, reports surfaced that offensive coordinator Billy Napier had been offered the head-coaching job at a Sun Belt Conference program and was likely to accept it.

Friday afternoon, that likelihood became a reality as Louisiana announced that Napier has been named as the Ragin’ Cajuns next head football coach.  Napier replaces Mark Hudspethfired earlier this month after seven years with the program.

The football program will officially introduce their new coach at a Monday press conference.

“My family and I are excited and humbled for the opportunity to serve Cajun Nation and our Louisiana football program,” Napier said. “We will make it a priority to bring in the best talent from the state of Louisiana and the nation.”

Napier just completed his first season at ASU.  Prior to that, he spent five seasons as the wide receivers coach at Alabama.  Next Sept. 29th, Napier’s Ragin’ Cajuns squad will square off with… the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa.

With Napier’s hiring, Kent State is the lone FBS program without a head coach.

Shea Patterson, Michigan should have 2018 eligibility decision in late January/early February

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In an interview earlier this week, transferring Ole Miss quarterback Shea Patterson expressed confidence that he would be immediately eligible to play for Michigan in 2018.  Whether that confidence will be rewarded, though,  won’t be known for a couple of months down the road.

Patterson and other transferring Rebels football players have retained the services of Thomas Mars — known to most of the college football world as the bulldog attorney who handled Houston Nutt‘s lawsuit against Ole Miss — in their attempt at immediate eligibility next season without having to sit out the transfer season normally required by the NCAA.  In an interview with Angelique Chengalis of the Detroit News, Mars revealed that a final decision on Patterson’s eligibility to play for the Wolverines in 2018 won’t be known until late January or early February.

In the interim, Mars will argue to the NCAA that Ole Miss displayed “egregious behavior,” including misleading recruits like Patterson and his family regarding the potential seriousness of the NCAA issues facing the football program,  and thus the standard transfer year should be waived in this case. “At this point, there’s no room for Ole Miss to deny it unlawfully kept the NOA (NCAA Notice of Allegations) it had just received under wraps for five months while the school misled prospects and their parents about how the NCAA investigation would likely impact the future of the football program and the goals and dreams of the student-athletes who ended up signing with Ole Miss under false pretenses,” the lawyer told Chengalis.

The News also laid out the process that will play out between Patterson, Ole Miss, Michigan and the NCAA in the coming weeks:

In the case of Patterson, Michigan must send a package to Ole Miss with information that supports the premise of Ole Miss’ “egregious behavior.” Ole Miss has several options — it can support what Michigan sent, oppose it, express neutrality or not respond at all. Once the NCAA has Ole Miss’ position on this, it moves forward with its decision-making process.

“If Ole Miss supports the transfer waivers, this could be a very easy decision (by the NCAA),” Mars said.

If Patterson is able to gain instant eligibility, he’d immediately become the favorite to win the Wolverines’ starting quarterback job.

Seth Collins leaving Oregon State a second time

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Seth Collins‘ winding journey in Corvallis has taken yet another twist.

After asking for it, Collins has been granted a release from his Oregon State scholarship, the school has confirmed. The junior wide receiver has already parted ways with the team, and no specific reason for the departure has been given.

This marks the second time that Collins has left the Beavers football program.  In January of 2016, Collins, amidst speculation that he would be moved from quarterback to wide receiver, made the decision to transfer; three months later, he returned to OSU — as a receiver.

Last season, Collins was second on the team in catches (36) and yards (418).  After three games this season, Collins was ruled out indefinitely because of what was described by the team as a health-related issue; he didn’t play again for the Beavers in 2017.  In the three games in which he played this season, he caught 12 passes for 130 yards and a touchdown.

That illness was unrelated to the unspecified health event last season that left him hospitalized and caused him to miss not only the last two games of 2016 but spring practice this year as well.

If Collins moves on to another FBS school, it’s believed he’ll have to sit out the 2018 season.  That would leave him with one season of eligibility that he can use in 2019.

It was thought that, when Collins left the first time, he was headed to Northern Illinois, so that’s certainly something to keep an eye on moving forward.

Minnesota assistant Ed Warinner tweets he’s ‘never been contacted’ about Kent State job

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You just have to love the vagaries of the annual coaching rumor mill.

The offensive line coach and running-game coordinator at Minnesota, Ed Warinner has been mentioned as a potential replacement for Paul Haynes as the head coach at Kent State.  In fact, just yesterday, the former Ohio State and Notre Dame assistant had been labeled as a “strong candidate” for the opening.

Thursday night, however, FootballScoop.com tweeted that Warinner is no longer a candidate.

Less than 20 minutes after that tweet, Warinner took to his personal Twitter to confirm he is not only not a candidate for the job but claimed that he has “never been contacted by anyone involved with the school.” Left unsaid is whether those representing or associated with him had been in contact with the university.

Kansas defensive coordinator Clint Bowen (HERE) and Syracuse offensive coordinator Sean Lewis (HERE) are the latest names du jour connected to the opening at the MAC school.

Kent State’s one of two jobs at the FBS level that remain open, although the other, Louisiana, could be closed in short order.