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CFT 2018 Preseason Previews: Pac-12

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If there’s any conference that looks forward to the fresh slate of a new season in 2018, it’s the Pac-12. The league missed the College Football Playoff for the second time in four tries last year and endured a disastrous — to put it mildly — bowl season that saw teams go 1-8 overall with few competitive contests. That’s all in the past though, as commissioner Larry Scott and his 12 schools look to turn the page and underscore that things on the gridiron out West are not quite as dour as the national narrative suggests. There are a handful of legitimate Playoff contenders entering this year’s campaign, a deep middle-class of teams sure to complicate division races and a handful of budding superstars that should factor heavily in the race for the Heisman Trophy once again. While it’s true there’s nowhere, really, to go but up for the Pac-12 in 2018, the conference appears primed to get back on track going forward.

Leading the charge will once again be Chris Petersen’s Washington Huskies, who are on paper the Pac-12’s only truly elite team and a heavy favorite to win the conference crown and make the final four. The group up in Seattle checks off all the boxes you’re looking for in a front-runner, including a savvy quarterback in Jake Browning, elite skill position talent like tailback Myles Gaskin, a stout defense and the best depth in the trenches on both sides of the ball. They’ll have a chance right away to cement their name in the national conversation with a trip to Atlanta to open against Auburn in Week 1, and will also benefit from hosting rival Stanford at home late in the season. Speaking of the Cardinal, they’ll be a contender once again thanks in part to what should be the school’s best offense since the days of Andrew Luck throwing passes on the Farm. Bryce Love headlines the group as a dynamic threat to score from just about everywhere but quarterback K.J. Costello should be able to take some of the pressure off in his second season as the established starter at quarterback. If there’s one area of concern for David Shaw’s team it’s on defense, which is something you could also say for the rest of the teams in the league as well.

Elsewhere in the Pac-12 North, Oregon should be a team that is a regular in the top 25 for Mario Cristobal’s first full year in charge up in Eugene. Quarterback Justin Herbert, when healthy, has the look of a first-round pick behind center and the team should benefit from a relatively stable offseason after so much change the past few years. After the Ducks though, the rest of the division is in various stages of rebuilding mode. Cal was better than their 5-7 record from 2017 suggests and returns most of their offense, but it will still be tough to be a week-in, week-out threat in the Pac-12 until head coach Justin Wilcox can add to the depth on defense. Washington State will always be a pesky thorn in everybody’s side as long as Mike Leach is in charge but the Cougars are facing massive coaching turnover (six new assistants) and it remains to be seen if the program is truly over the tragic loss of quarterback Tyler Hilinski. Oregon State figures to once again remain in the cellar even with a bit of a jolt from new coach Jonathan Smith.

While there’s a somewhat clear pecking order in the North, the Pac-12 South is about as wide-open as the division ever has been. USC once again will trot out the most talent of any of the six teams, but there’s still plenty of skepticism over the future of head coach Clay Helton and just how much depth the Trojans will have come the end of the season. Seeking not to repeat the quarterback controversy from two years ago, Helton has opted to go with true freshman J.T. Daniels at quarterback — a move that could pay off longterm but might lead to issues early as the signal-caller who should still be in high school adjusts to life in the Pac-12. Southern Cal remains the preseason media favorite to win the South but the door is certainly open for two others in Utah and Arizona.

In Salt Lake City, it might just be now or never for Kyle Whittingham’s squad despite a tough slate of crossover games (Oregon/Washington) on the schedule. The Utes get both the Wildcats and Trojans at Rice-Eccles and easily sport the South’s stingiest defense. The offense, a constant issue ever since joining the Pac-12, could be much more consistent than in years past thanks to a backfield that sports second-year QB Tyler Huntley and the terrific one-two punch of Zack Moss and Armand Shyne. Speaking of good second-year signal-callers, Kevin Sumlin finds himself in a great position as a first-year head coach at Arizona by having Heisman candidate Khalil Tate to work with. The bulk of a young defense is also back in Tucson and if the new staff can help bring Tate along as a passer, that elusive trip to the Rose Bowl might not be so far out of reach for the Wildcats like it once was.

Despite all that firepower to work with and high expectations though, Sumlin won’t be the most-watched first-year coach in the division thanks to the arrival of Chip Kelly at UCLA and the ever-quotable Herm Edwards at Arizona State. The Sun Devils have a chance to surprise a bit with quarterback Manny Wilkins under center and a budding superstar in wideout N'Keal Harry, but the team has one of the most difficult schedules in the country and a huge unknown in the coaching staff. Not much is expected of the Bruins in Kelly’s first season given numerous roster issues in Westwood, but nobody is putting it past the spread offense guru to get the team to be competitive in short order. Figuring out who starts at quarterback from a number of options is task No. 1 for the powder blues, but issues abound along the offensive line, running back and on defense. Some of those same issues are present up at Colorado as well, which looks ticketed toward another down season and probably needs to make a bowl game at a minimum to save Mike MacIntyre’s job in Boulder going forward.

 PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH

Pac-12 North

1. Washington
2. Stanford
3. Oregon
4. Cal
5. Washington State
6. Oregon State

Pac-12 South

1. Utah
2. Arizona
3. USC
4. Arizona State
5. UCLA
6. Colorado

IN SHORT…

Jim Delany was highest paid conference commissioner in 2017-18; NCAA president Mark Emmert’s salary climbs to nearly $4 million

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The life of a conference commissioner is not an easy one given the amount of criticism from just about every level but at least they are well compensated for their troubles.

Really well in most cases.

Thanks to the latest round of 2017-18 tax returns from the various Power Five conferences and the NCAA being released, we now have a good picture at how everybody stacks up and business booming has resulted in even larger paychecks for most. Here’s the latest figures for the Power Five and NCAA President Mark Emmert:

  • The Big Ten’s Jim Delany moved into the top spot as the highest paid commissioner thanks to a reported $5.5 million paycheck, per USA Today.
  • Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott was not far behind his Rose Bowl counterpart with over $5.2 million in compensation, according to the San Jose Mercury News.
  • Big 12 head honcho Bob Bowlsby was bumped to a total of $4.1 million.
  • ACC commissioner John Swofford took home slightly over $3.5 million.
  • SEC leader Greg Sankey was by far the best bargain of the group, with the most recently appointed commissioner making right around $2 million last year.
  • Emmert’s salary was the biggest mover of the group of power players as Yahoo! Sports notes his take-home pay jumped 60% by going from $2.4 million the previous year to $3.9 million. All told, the NCAA’s public face has seen his salary jump by some $2 million since 2015 alone.

As you all know, the compensation for the student-athletes officially remained at $0 in pay for the same time period.

Alcohol sales expected to be hot topic at SEC spring meetings

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It just means more… beer?

It certainly could in the SEC as early as this upcoming season depending on how the league’s annual spring meetings in Destin, Fla. go next week. As Sports Illustrated reports ahead of everybody’s trip down by the beach, repealing an archaic conference rule banning alcohol sales in the general public sections of stadiums is expected to be the hot button topic that will drive the conversation among school presidents, athletic directors and coaches:

Many of the conference’s high-ranking administrators are optimistic that league presidents will not only seriously discuss the alcohol ban but will overturn an archaic policy that exists in no other major conference. The bylaw will be “front and center” during the four-day event at the Hilton Sandestin Beach Resort, says one athletic director; another AD says it’s “the main thing.” The administrators spoke to Sports Illustrated on a condition of anonymity.

It probably goes without saying that SEC fans have been clamoring for overturning the rule and expanding sales beyond the club areas where adult beverages are currently allowed to be sold. The conference is one of the few holdouts in this area as college football has swung back from being relatively dry the past decade-plus. Half the Big Ten will permit sales in 2019 and other programs like Oklahoma became the latest big program elsewhere to join the trend earlier this month.

There’s two positives supporters of an SEC repeal will no doubt trot out next week, the first being the increased revenues schools can make by opening up sales and the other being the decrease in binge drinking just prior to kickoff. The latter in particular is not something likely to escape the conference presidents given some of the game day atmospheres in the league.

We’ll see if things ultimately get over the finish line in terms of a repeal after a few years of discussion but it probably speaks to the health of the league that throwing a few drinks back is the topic de jour down in Destin this year.

Thanks to resurgence under Kirby Smart, Georgia donors have contributed $140 million the past two years

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Kirby Smart is just plain good for business at Georgia as much as the head coach is for the Bulldogs on the field.

Like, really good for business.

The Athens Banner-Herald recapped a number of the financial figures for UGA athletics’ recently approved 2020 budget and while the overall $153.89 million figure was notable and the projected $44.5 million distribution from the SEC Network somewhat striking, it was one nugget buried in the story that was really eye-opening:

‘Fueled by the football team’s success the last couple of seasons under coach Kirby Smart, donors have contributed about $140 million total over the last two years.’

$140 million over two years!

“Sustainability in college athletics is an ongoing challenge and we are fortunate to be one of the few institutions being on solid ground,” AD Greg McGarity told the board.

We’ll say. That $140 million figure over two years is slightly more than what fellow SEC peers Kentucky and South Carolina brought in just last year in terms of total revenue, per USA Today’s finances database, and even if you split it in two is still a figure that greatly exceeds most Group of Five programs entire budget. And keep in mind this is just donations for the Bulldogs, not revenues from media deals, ticket sales and other items.

Given that UGA has made the national title game and the Sugar Bowl the past two seasons, it’s probably not a huge surprise to see a big uptick in donations but that quite the whopper of a figure thanks to the Smart-led resurgence in Athens.

Wyoming set to ask the state for funds to help with War Memorial Stadium renovation

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Add Wyoming to the long, long list of FBS schools hoping to complete a facelift for their home stadium over the next few years.

According to the Gillette News Record, the Cowboys are all set to ask the state for nearly $50 million in funds to help with the renovation of War Memorial Stadium and other athletics projects such as a pool.

“On the lower west side, the treads and the risers in the bleacher section and the press box are far below Mountain West Conference standards and we need to find a way to upgrade that,” athletic director Tom Burman told the paper. “We’re going to need, as part of our vision, to make fans feel better, whether it’s back-rests or chair-backs or better concessions. They have an expectation level of what Saturday football’s supposed to be like and it’s very different from what we provide.”

The total cost for the stadium and pool, which are not being separated in the request to the state for funds, is expected to cost $74.2 million. Some $24.6 million is expected to be fundraised by the school with the rest covered by the money provided by the legislature.

War Memorial Stadium seats just over 29,000 people for Cowboys home games but has really only seen minor renovations to upgrade the venue in 2004 and 2010. Given that the venue was built in 1950 and only expanded to near its current capacity in the 1970’s, it’s understandable why the school wants to upgrade the home football experience as a result.

Wyoming opens their 2019 season in Laramie against Missouri on August 31.