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CFT 2017 Preseason Previews: The Pac-12

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While the Pac-12 has not gotten over the hump and won a national title in over a decade, last season was in many respects a banner year for the league. Washington went toe-to-toe with Alabama in the College Football Playoff and USC capped off an incredible run to finish in the top three of the final polls. Add in some incredible depth (four teams with double-digit wins) and plenty of national recognition and there was plenty for commissioner Larry Scott to be excited about.

Things will be much the same again in 2017 for the conference. The Huskies and Trojans will start off the year in the top 10 of just about every poll and have their sights on being in the final four at the end of the year. USC signal-caller Sam Darnold is the overwhelming favorite to win the Heisman Trophy and the so-called ‘Conference of Champions’ might have to change its name to ‘Conference of Quarterbacks’ given how many great players there are at the position this year.

How will things shape up out West? Here’s a look at the Pac-12 heading into the 2017 campaign and how things should shake out:

NORTH
1. Washington (12-2 overall, 8-1 in Pac-12 last season)
Everybody kept saying it was only a matter of time before Chris Petersen would turn the Huskies into a monster and that prophecy came true last season. The team returns the bulk of their offensive production from 2016 and are headlined by their terrific backfield of Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin. The defense looses plenty of NFL talent but is still pretty stocked with guys like Vita Vea holding down the fort along the defensive line. Add in a very easy schedule and it’s hard not to see UW coast to the conference title game once again.

2. Stanford (10-3, 6-3 last season)
Head coach David Shaw said last year was a disappointment for the Cardinal despite winning 10 games. That’s a pretty clear sign of how things have changed on the Farm the past few seasons but there’s plenty of optimism at returning to the top of the North division in 2017 with a stout defense and strong offensive line play once again. It will be tough to replace all-everything superstar Christian McCaffrey but Stanford will once again be a tough team to get past on a weekly basis.

3. Washington State (8-5, 7-2 last season)
Don’t discount the Cougars from making a run to win the division. The offense is loaded as you would expect for a Mike Leach coached team and have a star in QB Luke Falk. What is really the difference on the Palouse this time around is a quality defense that will be tough to run on.

4. Oregon (4-8, 2-7 last season)
Just about everything that could go wrong for the Ducks last year, did. Hence a coaching change and the arrival of a new era under Willie Taggart. The defense has nowhere to go but up and the offense has enough pieces to spark a turnaround and sneak into a bowl game when all is said and done.

5. Oregon State (4-8, 3-6 last season)
If you’re looking for a team to emulate Colorado’s turnaround from 2016, look no further than the Beavers after they put together a nice surge down the stretch heading into the offseason. Ryan Nall remains a load to tackle at running back and OSU’s defense has enough experience to help the team get back to .500.

6. California (5-7, 3-6 last season)
It’s going to be a long rebuild in Berkeley for new coach Justin Wilcox. The offense may not be worth tuning in for and the same certainly can be said of the Bears’ lackluster defense.

SOUTH

1. USC (10-3 overall, 7-1 in Pac-12 last season)
Expectations are always high around Troy but things are through the roof in Los Angeles this year. Darnold’s return under center has a lot to do with things but there’s NFL talent across the board in the program and plenty of momentum from last year’s run to the Roses. The South is a mess behind Clay Helton’s squad so go ahead and pencil in the Trojans for a trip to Santa Clara (and possibly beyond).

2. Utah (9-4, 5-4 last season)
Like other teams in the division, there’s a number of question marks about the Utes heading into the year. Despite that, Kyle Whittingham has developed a remarkably consistent program that is a tough out each week in conference play and a new look offense could finally be the answer for a team that will always field a strong defense.
3. UCLA (4-8, 2-7 last season)
Jim Mora enters the year firmly on the hot seat in Los Angeles after a program that was trending downward finally bottomed out with a disastrous 2016 campaign. A healthy Josh Rosen returning to action is worth several wins alone but we’ll have to see just how well the Bruins will come together in order to turn things around at the Rose Bowl.

4. Colorado (10-4, 8-1 last season)
The Buffs wild run to the conference title game was the talk of college football in November and December. Now comes the hard part in following up that success with a ton of seniors no longer in Boulder. QB Steven Montez showed enough potential as a freshman to indicate that life will be okay for CU but a slight step back is expected in 2017.

5. Arizona State (5-7, 2-7 last season)
There’s enough talent returning in Tempe that this could be the surprise team in the South that could make things a little interesting when the end of the year rolls around. Either way, the pressure is on Todd Graham, who is undoubtedly coaching for his job this season.

6. Arizona (3-9, 1-8 last season)
Few teams had worse injury luck than the Wildcats have had the past few years. The offense should be a lot more fun to watch if tailback J.J. Taylor remains healthy but the defense has miles to go before it’s helping the team move up in the standings.

Report: Steve Spurrier Jr. leaving WKU for job at Wazzu

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With coaching holes throughout his Washington State staff to fill thanks to significant offseason poaching, Mike Leach has added a very famous college football surname.  Reportedly.

According to the Bowling Green Daily News, Steve Spurrier Jr. is leaving Western Kentucky to take a job under Leach at Wazzu.  The son of College Football Hall of Famer Steve Spurrier just completed his first season as the Hilltoppers’ quarterbacks coach.  He also held the title of assistant head coach under Mike Sanford.

It’s unclear what specific title Spurrier Jr. will hold at Wazzu.

Prior to his one season at WKU, and one season as an off-field staffer at Oklahoma, Spurrier Jr. had been an assistant on his father’s South Carolina staff for 11 seasons.  During his time with the Gamecocks, he served at various points as wide receivers coach (2005-15), passing-game coordinator (2009-11) and co-offensive coordinator (2012-15).

Spurrier Jr., who played wide receiver at Duke, has also spent time during his coaching career as receivers coach at Oklahoma (1999-2001) and with the Washington Redskins (2002-03).

Ex-Texas All-Big 12 defensive tackle takes DL coaching job at Baylor

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Baylor’s latest coaching addition is a very familiar name in the state of Texas.

BU confirmed Wednesday evening that Frank Okam has been added to Matt Rhule‘s coaching staff.  Okam, who was a Freshman All-American and two-time All-Big 12 defensive tackle at Texas from 2004-07, will coach the Bears’ defensive line.

“Frank is a living embodiment of everything the young men in our program should want to accomplish,” the head coach said in a statement. “He’s a college graduate, an All-American, a Big 12 champion, a national champion, a NFL draft pick and then he continued life after football earning his master’s degree from Rice and is now one of the top young football coaches in the country.

“We are excited to have Coach Okam on staff and for him to mentor our defensive line group and help take them to the next level.”

The 32-year-old Okam, who went to high school in Dallas, spent the past four seasons at Rice, the last two as the Owls’ line coach.  This will mark Okam’s first coaching job at a Power Five program.

Longtime ESPN play-by-play man Mike Patrick announces retirement

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ESPN’s roster of college football play-by-play announcers suffered a high number of attrition of late. Brent Musburger retired. Brad Nessler replaced Verne Lundquist at CBS. Sean McDonough moved to Monday Night Football. Now the dean of ESPN’s Saturday voices is going away, too.

Mike Patrick announced his retirement on Wednesday, ending a 32-year run that began in 1982, three years after the network launched.

“It’s wonderful to reflect on how I’ve done exactly what I wanted to do with my life,” Patrick said. “At the same time, I’ve had the great pleasure of working with some of the very best people I’ve ever known, both on the air and behind the scenes. While I’m not sure exactly what’s next for me, I’m looking forward to continuing my journey with new life experiences.”

His biggest assignment came as the voice of ESPN’s Sunday Night Football from 1987 until the package moved to NBC after the 2005 season, but outside of that he was one of the Worldwide Leader’s leading college sports voices. He was the lead voice on the network’s ACC basketball package, he called the Women’s Final Four for a decade and a half, and he was a leading voice on the College World Series and served as the play-by-play man for ESPN’s Thursday night and Saturday night packages, before ESPN turned its Saturday primetime window into the top package owned by the network.

You may remember this moment.

ESPN will say goodbye to Patrick through a pre-recorded tribute voiced by Rece Davis airing throughout the day on SportsCenter and a tribute during the network’s coverage of the Louisville vs. Duke basketball game tonight (9 p.m. ET).

Heisman winner Chris Weinke hired as Tennessee’s running backs coach

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It can be argued that the only reason Tennessee has a national championship is because of Chris Weinke. As we know, the Vols claimed the 1998 national championship by defeating Florida State in the 1999 Fiesta Bowl, the first national championship game of the BCS era. Tennessee won that game, 23-16, thanks in large part to a pick-six thrown by Marcus Outzen, a third-string quarterback forced into action due to an injury by the two signal callers ahead of him on the depth chart.

Here’s how a Sports Illustrated article described Weinke and that FSU team in its 1999 preview issue:

Don’t think of 1999 as a new season for Florida State, think of it as the resumption of an old one. Before quarterback Chris Weinke was dumped on his head and suffered a season-ending ruptured disk in his neck in a 45-14 win over Virginia last Nov. 7, no team in the country was playing better than the Seminoles, who had bounced back from an early-season defeat at North Carolina State. So how cruel was this? Upset losses suffered by Ohio State, UCLA and Kansas State sent 11-1 Florida State to the national title game in the Fiesta Bowl, but without its best quarterback. The Seminoles and backup signal-caller Marcus Outzen struggled on offense and lost to Tennessee.

Nevertheless, Tennessee won that season’s title, Weinke would lead Florida State to the 1999 national title and take the Heisman Trophy a year after that. The past is the past.

But now the past is the present, as the former Florida State quarterback on Wednesday was announced as Tennessee’s running backs coach.

“I’m excited to have Chris Weinke on our staff to coach running backs,” Vols head coach Jeremy Pruitt said in a statement. “He has played the game at the highest level and what he has accomplished on the field speaks for itself. He is also an outstanding coach and teacher of the game, coaching in the NFL, in college this past season and at the high school level. He has a great eye for talent and knows the game on the offensive side of the ball as well as anybody I’ve been around. He will be a great fit for our Tennessee program.”

Weinke entered the NFL as a 26-year-old and lasted seven seasons with the Panthers and 49ers before moving into coaching. He first worked as a trainer at IMG Academy, then moved onto coaching the high school program, where he went 19-2 as head coach and offensive coordinator. From there he deposited a stint as the Los Angeles Rams’ quarterbacks coach before spending the 2017 season as an offensive analyst at Alabama, where he hooked up with Pruitt.

Weinke will be charged with re-building the Vols’ backfield after losing John Kelly to an early entry into the NFL draft. Rising sophomore Ty Chandler is Tennessee’s leading returning rusher, carrying 71 times for 305 yards and two touchdowns in 2017.