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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…

Hawaii removes WR Melquise Stovall from program

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Hawaii head coach Nick Rolovich has announced the removal of wide receiver Melquise Stovall from the program, effective immediately. While no details about the removal from the program were given, Rolovich noted all players are held to certain standards that, apparently, Stovall was unable to meet.

“There are certain expectations required of a football student-athlete here at the University of Hawai’i,” Rolovich said in a released statement. “We hold all of our student-athletes to these standards and expect them to represent our football program to the highest degree. We wish Melquise the best as he moves forward.”

Stovall appeared in five games for Hawaii this season. In those five games, Stovall caught 18 passes for 248 yards and four touchdowns. During his freshman year at Cal, Stovall caught 42 passes for 415 yards and three touchdowns in 2016.

Miami’s N’Kosi Perry suffers shoulder injury after returning to starting lineup to replace injured Williams

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Well, this has to sting for the Miami Hurricanes. N’Kosi Perry, who recently was temporarily named the starting quarterback, suffered a shoulder injury in Miami’s loss over the weekend to Georgia Tech. The injury to Perry, a separated shoulder, was revealed to the media Monday by Miami offensive coordinator Dan Enos during a press conference according to The Miami Herald.

The shoulder injured is Perry’s left shoulder, his non-throwing shoulder. It is currently unknown how this injury may impact Perry’s availability for Miami’s road game this weekend at Pittsburgh.

“That’s up to our doctors and medical team to establish that,” Enos said.

Perry has started the last two games for Miami while starter Jarren Williams works his way back from his own shoulder injury. Williams did enter last weekend’s game in place of the injured Perry, but it is still unknown just when Williams will be ready to return to the starting role. With Perry’s status also now floating up in the air a bit, Miami could have a tough quarterback situation coming up this weekend against the Panthers. Third-string quarterback Tate Martell, who transferred from Ohio State after Justin Fields joined the Buckeyes from Georgia, would be the next in line for the Hurricanes if needed. But head coach Manny Diaz doesn’t seem to be thinking that will be necessary.

“We still have a package for Tate,” Diaz said. “But when I look at what we’re doing offensively now, and I look at our numbers … when Jarren has played and what N’Kosi has done over the last couple weeks have absolutely given us a chance to win all those games. And that’s nothing against Tate, but those guys are playing well.”

Whoever plays quarterback for Miami against the Panthers this week, it looks as though it will be either Perry or Williams.

Michigan safety J’Marick Woods enters transfer portal, looking to grad transfer

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While the Michigan Wolverines try to regroup and find a way to topple Notre Dame this week after a tough loss at Penn State, safety J’Marick Woods is the early stages of weighing his potential transfer options. Woods has reportedly entered the transfer portal.

As noted by Nick Baumgardner of The Athletic, Woods will be a graduate transfer, which will allow him to be eligible to play for any other FBS program next season. He has one final year of eligibility to use, so wherever he ends up will be for a one-year term.

Woods, a junior, has appeared in four games this season, in which he has recorded four tackles. Woods played in 11 games for Michigan last season and 12 games in 2017. The Alabama native may be better suited to finding a new opportunity as the Wolverines are in solid shape with depth in the secondary, and he was already playing a minimal role in the defense.

By entering the transfer portal, Woods is free to have contact with any other college football program interested in recruiting him to their program. Woods also has the option of pulling his name from the portal to remain at Michigan if he decides to stay put.

Injured Minnesota linebacker a game-time decision vs. Maryland

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The Minnesota Golden Gophers are looking to improve to 8-0 for the first time since winning the national championship in 1941 with an 8-0 record. When Minnesota returns home to face Maryland, a decision on whether or not linebacker Kamal Martin will be made.

Martin injured his right knee in last weekend’s road game at Rutgers, but head coach P.J. Fleck told reporters on Monday there is a chance the injury was not too serious. Fleck said Martin will be a game-time decision after monitoring his progress throughout the week and checking with trainers and medical staff to evaluate his availability.

“I don’t have a specific answer yet,” Fleck said on Monday, according to The Star Tribune. “He’s still got a few more tests. But we got some really good news, and that’s where we’re at.”

It’s possible Minnesota may not need their leading tackler to take care of Maryland at home this week, but having Martin healthy and ready to go for their following game may be essential. Minnesota hosts No. 6 Penn State on Nov. 9. The Gophers will have a bye week after playing Maryland to provide more possible rest for Martin if needed. even if Martin is ruled out for Maryland, it sounds as though Fleck is optimistic Martin will get to play against the Nittany Lions. If things work out, it could be a clash of undefeated Big Ten teams few expected could happen before the start of the season.