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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…

Gary Patterson wants names of NCAA employees approving transfer waivers

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Unless I’m missing someone, the coaches that have spoken out about the glut of high-profile transfer waivers that have been approved lately are all against them. Florida Atlantic’s Lane Kiffin said just one day ago that players are transferring because it’s “sexy” and now TCU’s Gary Patterson has cannonballed into the pool with some strong comments of his own.

“I want the names of all those people [at the NCAA] that are deciding to do that, so everybody knows their names when they ruin the game,” Patterson told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “I don’t care if there’s lawyers involved. I don’t care if any of that’s involved. The bottom line to it is we need to do what’s best for the game.

Patterson’s point, and it’s not necessarily a wrong one, is that coaches who believe tough love is the best way to mold players — i.e. Gary Patterson — will then see all their players leave before that love can appropriately toughen them up.

“After they get away from here, as a general rule, they come back as they mature and understand, they figure out what we were trying to do and accomplish,” Patterson said. “If you can’t go through that process with a young man, and grow them up just like a parent does, then we’re cheating them to be honest with you. That’s my personal opinion about it.”

The good news for Patterson and his ilk: if free agency is truly here, it’s likely not here for long. The NCAA announced last month it will take another look at its loosened transfer protocol, and it’s unlikely you’d make such an announcement if you planned on loosening those restrictions even more.

North Carolina CB KJ Sails, Jr., embarks toward transfer portal

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North Carolina cornerback KJ Sails, Jr., is sailing away from Chapel Hill and voyaging toward a new destination.

The Tampa native on Friday announced he will enter his name onto the transfer portal for his final collegiate season. “Thank you to my Carolina family for giving me the opportunity to play the game that I love this is a great school and I will forever love the university,” he wrote in an iPhone note posted to his Twitter account. “My family and I have decided that it is best for me to seek other opportunities.”

After playing sparingly as a true freshman in 2016, Sails started 11 games for the Tar Heels in 2017, collecting 30 tackles while ranking ninth in the ACC with 13 pass break-ups.

He started three games in four appearances in 2018, but an injury knocked him out for the remainder of the year.

Given that he played in only four games, Sails can use last season as a redshirt and play a second senior season elsewhere in 2019, provided he receives a waiver or graduates from North Carolina.

Michigan CB Benjamin St-Juste medically retires

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Cornerback Benjamin St-Juste was not listed on Michigan’s spring roster, and there’s a reason for that. St-Juste has medically retired from football, the program confirmed to the Detroit Free Press.

A 4-star recruit from Quebec, St-Juste appeared in 12 games as a redshirt freshman, primarily on special teams.

He suffered a hamstring injury ahead of the 2018 campaign and did not see any game action. With a similar prognosis ahead of him for 2019, St-Juste has decided to hang up his cleats for good.

LB Jaden Hunter was second Georgia player arrested in March

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A member of the Georgia football program was arrested Wednesday night. Linebacker Jaden Hunter was arrested and charged with driving with a suspended or revoked license. He was also charged with stopping, standing, or parking in a prohibited area.

Hunter spent just two hours in jail after being released on bond late Wednesday night.

The charges are misdemeanors and his status with the Bulldogs has not been confirmed with regard to any possible suspensions or other forms of discipline by head coach Kirby Smart. Given the nature of the charges, it would seem this would be far from calling for removal from the program or any significant form of discipline unless there is more to the story behind the scenes.

Hunter did become the second Georgia football player to be arrested in the month of March. Earlier in the month, redshirt freshman Latavious Brini was arrested on one count of simple battery.