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College football national championship 2020: LSU dethrones Clemson, Joe Burrow caps historic season

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LSU has become the first No. 1 seed to win the College Football Playoff, and Joe Burrow is the first Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback to win a national title in the playoff era. LSU pulled away from Clemson, 42-25, to snap Clemson’s 29-game winning streak and dethrone the defending national champions.

But how did it all happen?  Scroll through the story below for our tick-tock the 2020 College Football National title game.


8:19 PM ET: The game has finally started (promptly at 8:19 p.m. ET) with Clemson getting the ball first. On the first play from scrimmage, Clemson tried rolling out a bit of a trick play to catch LSU off guard, but there was no fooling LSU. Trevor Lawrence responded to the busted first play by connecting with Justyn Ross for a 35-yard gain on the next play. But Clemson’s first drive stalled thanks in part to LSU’s Grant Delpit blowing up the middle for a sack of Lawrence on third down, forcing a Clemson punt. A fun pace to the start of this one, with the Heisman Trophy winner and the explosive LSU offense heading to the field.

Home-field advantage for LSU in New Orleans? Naturally.

As expected, President Donald Trump is attending tonight’s game, and he received a healthy ovation from the fans in New Orleans.

8:41 PM ET: For a couple of offenses have been lighting thing sup this season, this game has been all about the defense so far, especially Clemson’s. LSU has been pinned back against their end zone on each of their first two possessions and have had no room to work with a pair of three-and-outs to get started. Isaiah Simmons has ben a handle for the LSU offensive line early on.

8:48 PM ET: We have a touchdown! The third drive was the charm for the Clemson Tigers as Trevor Lawrence finished off the best possession of the game with a short touchdown run. Lawrence took off to the right side of the line as the LSU defense focused on Travis Etienne, who nearly scored on the previous play, and Lawrence was untouched into the end zone for the first score of the game.

9:01 PM ET: We have ourselves a tied ballgame! Joe Burrow finally got some room to breathe and it paid off in a big way. Burrow completed a 52-yard touchdown to Ja'Marr Chase to draw the game even at 7-7 late in the first quarter.

9:06 PM ET: We have reached the end of the first quarter, with LSU and Clemson tied 7-7. It took LSU a while to get its offense some room to work, while Clemson has had to punt a couple of times in LSU territory. Will that come back to haunt Dabo Swinney and his Clemson Tigers? We’ll see later on. But for now, we have a pretty good pace going with some good defense on display on both sides.

9:11 PM ET: Oh, you thought college kickers couldn’t kick? Well guess again. Clemson’s B.T. Potter, who converted on just 12 of 20 field goal attempts coming into the night, just booted a 52-yard field goal early in the second quarter to regain the lead for Clemson. Clemson is up 10-7.

9:26 PM ET: Tee Higgins just provided our early leader for play of the night. Higgins took off on a misdirection play for a 36-yard touchdown that saw him bump off a defender, keep his toes in bounds, and diving into the end zone for a big touchdown.

Clemson took a 17-7 lead with the Higgins score, but LSU quickly responded. A 56-yard pass from Burrow to Chase quickly put the LSU Tigers near the end zone, eventually leading to a third and goal. LSU just called timeout to think things over a bit. That gives us all a chance to catch our breath.

9:33 PM ET: After the timeout, Joe Burrow decided to keep it himself and plunge forward for a short touchdown run. LSU really needed that answer after Clemson took a 10-point lead. And just like that, we have a 17-14 game in favor of Clemson before hitting the midway point of the second quarter. The offenses have taken over folks, so get ready for a track meet now.

9:50 PM ET: LSU has taken its first lead of the night, and who else but Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase doing the honors. The two connected on a 14-yard pas sin the red zone to give LSU a 21-17 lead, officially pulling out of a 17-7 hole earlier in the quarter.

Chase has caught five passes for 147 yards and two scores and we still have a full half and more to play tonight. Burrow is now up over 240 yards with the two touchdowns after getting through a rough start to the game.

10:12 PM ET: Wow. OK then. Already leading 21-17, Joe Burrow and LSU picked up one last huge touchdown just before halftime, and a gutsy decision to run by Burrow gave the Tigers a chance for a significant touchdown.

A quick and easy pass to a standing Thaddeus Moss put LSU up 28-17 at the half. Check out Bryan Fischer’s halftime post for his thoughts from the first half in New Orleans.

10:38 PM ET: And we’re back! LSU has the football to start the second half.

10:46 PM ET: Clemson really could not have had much of a better start to the second half. After forcing the LSU off the field quickly to start the half, and with LSU getting called for interfering with the fielding of the punt return, Clemson start their first possession of the half at midfield. A few plays, and a 15-yard face mask penalty on LSU, Clemson was in the end zone with Travis Etienne just crossing the goal line on a short run. A two-point conversion and we have ourselves a three-point game. LSU is leading, 28-25, less than five minutes into the first half.

The game is also approaching the over, for those who are paying close enough attention.

11:05 pm ET: Clemson wide receiver just jogged his way back to the locker room area midway through the third quarter. Earlier in the quarter, Higgins took a good shot on a pass play to his thigh area. For now, there is no update on his status for the rest of this game, but that would be a tough loss for Clemson if Higgins is unavailable for any extended period of time.

11:16 PM ET: Clemson’s defense just lost a player too. James Skalski was ejected from the game for targeting on a pass to LSU’s Justin Jefferson inside the Clemson 10-yard line. He was forced to leave and watch the rest of the game from the locker room. One play later, LSU extended its lead with Joe Burrow coming to a touchdown pass to Thaddeus Moss for a 35-25 lead with just over five minutes remaining in the third quarter.

Meanwhile, LSU wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase has already set a new College Football Playoff National Championship Game record with 218 receiving yards, eclipsing Alabama tight end O.J. Mayo‘s 208 yards from 2016. He has plenty of time to add to that record.

And speaking of records, Joe Burrow now owns a new single-season touchdown record all by himself.

11:32 PM ET: The third quarter has come to a close, with LSU leading Clemson 35-25. If you are on the east coast, we will get through this together.

11:40 PM ET: Never count out a champion, but LSU may have just put Clemson to bed. Joe Burrow’s 60th (60th!!!) touchdown pass of the season went to Terrace Marshall Jr. early in the fourth quarter to extend the LSU lead to 42-25. With 12:08 left to play, Clemson has a lot of work to do.

Burrow is now up to 442 passing yards with five touchdowns, plus 60 rushing yards and a rushing touchdown. He is easily on his way to MVP honors in this game.

Oh, we also have now hit the over in this game. That was an easy pick to make.

12:12 AM ET: LSU pretty much had this game locked up, but a fumble by Trevor Lawrence late in the fourth quarter has allowed LSU to start milking the clock. With 90 seconds to play, LSU is about to win its first national championship of the playoff era.

College Football All-Decade Team — CFT’s selections

College Football All-Decade Team
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Hey, look, it’s a College Football All-Decade Football Team, so let the whining commence in earnest as there’s little doubt that we hate (insert name of your favorite player from your favorite team here).

While it might be hard for some to believe, we have come to the end of yet another decade. As such, we — Zach Barnett, Bryan Fischer, Kevin McGuire and myself — decided to cobble together a list of players who have been the best of the best in college football over the past 10 years. And, yes, we’ve done so fully aware of the verbal slings and written arrows that are sure to follow.

(Writer’s note: Speaking of the esteemed panel and verbal slings/written arrows, their personal Twitter accounts can be found HERE, HERE and HERE. Fire away at will.)

This was truly an impossible task — with a small handful of exceptions. Justin Blackmon as one of the wide receivers? Zero doubt. Luke Kuechly manning one of the linebacker spots? No-brainer. Aaron Donald in the middle of the defensive line? Obviously.

Outside of those three, plus a couple of more? Good luck.

Let’s also be clear: This team is based on what the players did at the collegiate level.  What they did or didn’t do in the NFL has no — zero, none, zip, zilch, nada — bearing whatsoever in this endeavor.

One final note before we get on to the festivities: Players needed to have spent more than half of their collegiate careers in this decade to be included. Thus, players such as Alabama’s Mark Barron, Oklahoma’s Ryan Broyles, Alabama’s Julio Jones, Nebraska’s Ndamukong Suh and Texas’ Early Thomas were ineligible.

With that all out of the way, let’s get it on.  Or something.

OFFENSE

QB: Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
A three-time Heisman finalist, the former two-time walk-on finally claimed the trophy in 2017.  Twice Mayfield helped lead the Sooners into the College Football Playoffs as well as breaking the FBS pass-efficiency rating each of his last two seasons in Norman.  This was arguably the hardest selection as I wouldn’t argue one bit if someone were to put the special mention in this spot.
(Special Mention: Deshaun Watson, Clemson)
(Honorable mention: Lamar Jackson, Louisville; Robert Griffin III, Baylor)

RB: Derrick Henry, Alabama; Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin 
The only reason this position was “easier” to select than quarterback is the fact that there are two players instead of one.  Taylor is a two-time Doak Walker Award winner who this season, in breaking Herschel Walker‘s record, became the only player in FBS history with more than 6,000 yards rushing his first three seasons.  As part of the Crimson Tide’s 2015 title team, Henry won the Heisman Trophy after rushing for more than 2,200 yards and 28 touchdowns.  He was the only running back to win the Heisman this decade.
(Special mention: Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State; Christian McCaffrey, Stanford)
(Honorable mention: Any other Wisconsin running back; Ka’Deem Carey, Arizona)

WR: Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma State*; Amari Cooper, Alabama*
As noted earlier, Blackmon was one of the no-brainers.  In 2010 and 2011, Blackmon caught 233 passes for 3,304 yards and 38 touchdowns.  He’s one of just two receivers to win back-to-back Biletnikoff Awards, the other being Texas Tech’s Michael Crabtree. Cooper put up two 1,000-yard seasons during his three years in Tuscaloosa, winning the Biletnikoff following the 2014 season.  He was a unanimous All-American that year as well.
(Special mention: Corey Davis, Western Michigan)
(Honorable mention: Justin Hardy, East Carolina; Marquie Lee, USC; James Washington, Oklahoma State)

TE: Mark Andrews, Oklahoma
Andrews totaled 22 touchdowns during his three seasons with the Sooners, coinciding with Baker Mayfield‘s time in Norman.  He was named the winner of the Mackey Award after catching 62 passes for 958 yards and eight touchdowns in 2017.
(Honorable mention: Jake Butts, Michigan; Evan Ingram, Ole Miss; Nick O’Leary, Florida State)

OT: Barrett Jones, Alabama*; Brandon Scherff, Iowa*
Jones was a four-year starter at Alabama.  He was a Freshman All-American at guard, won the 2011 Outland Trophy at tackle and claimed the 2012 Rimington Trophy at center.  Those last two seasons, he was a consensus All-American.  Scherff started at both guard and tackle at Iowa, and was a consensus All-American and Outland Trophy winner for the 2014 season.
(Special mention: Luke Joeckel, Texas A&M; Cam Robinson, Alabama)
(Honorable mention: Spencer Drango, Baylor; Jake Matthews, Texas A&M; David Yankey, Stanford)

G: Quinton Nelson, Notre Dame*; David DeCastro, Stanford
Nelson was a three-year starter for the Fighting Irish.  He earned unanimous All-American honors in 2017.  A two-time first-team All-Pac-12 selection, DeCastro was a unanimous All-American in 2011.
(Honorable mention: Chance Warmack, Alabama)

C: Pat Elflein, Ohio State
Elflein began his career as a guard, where he was twice named All-Big Ten.  After moving to center, he was named as the 2016 winner of the Rimington Trophy.
(Special mention: Ryan Kelly, Alabama; Billy Price, Ohio State)

DEFENSE

DE: Joey Bosa, Ohio State*; Myles Garrett, Texas A&M
On the defensive side of the ball, this might’ve been the toughest group to select.  His last two seasons in Columbus, Bosa was a unanimous All-American one year and a consensus All-American the other.  In three seasons, he totaled 51 tackles for loss and 26 sacks. Garrett was a two-time All-American who had 31 sacks his last two seasons with the Aggies.
(Special mention: Derek Barnett, Tennessee; Chase Young, Ohio State)
(Honorable mention: Vic Beasley, Clemson, Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina; Sutton Smith, Northern Illinois)

DT: Ed Oliver, Houston; Aaron Donald, Pitt*
I think people tend to forget just how dominating Donald was at the collegiate level.  His last three seasons, Donald was credited with 63 tackles for loss (63!!!).  A two-time unanimous All-American, Donald won Outland, Lombardi, Bednarik and Nagurski Awards in the same season.  In just 32 career games, Oliver accumulated 53 tackles for loss.  In 2017, he became the first sophomore to win the Outland Trophy.
(Special mention: Christian Wilkins, Clemson)

LB: Luke Kuechly, Boston College*; Jarvis Jones, Georgia; C.J. Mosley, Alabama
Kuechly, who finished his three seasons at BC with more than 530 tackles, was a two-time consensus All-American and the winner of the 2011 Butkus, Lombardi, Lott IMPACT and Nagurski Awards.  Like Kuechly, Mosley was a two-time consensus All-American and a Butkus Award winner.  Jones, who began his collegiate career at USC, was a two-time consensus All-American as well.
(Special mention: Khalil Mack, Buffalo)
(Honorable mention: Dont’a Hightower, Alabama; Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame; Roquan Smith, Georgia; Manti Te’o, Notre Dame)

CB: Morris Claiborne, LSU; Desmond King, Iowa*; Jalen Ramsey, Florida State*
Ramsey played multiple positions in the secondary during his time with the Seminoles, earning All-American accolades his last two seasons.  King was a two-time All-American as well who started all four seasons for the Hawkeyes.  His junior season, he was named winner of the Jim Thorpe Award.  Claiborne won the Thorpe Award in 2011.
(Special mention: Vernon Hargreaves, Florida)
(Honorable mention: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State; Adoree’ Jackson, USC)

S: Tyrann Mathieu, LSU*; Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama*
One of the most exciting players in the sport this past decade, Mathieu was a finalist for the 2011 Heisman after a season in which, among other things, he returned two fumbles and two punts for touchdowns.  The Honey Badger won the Bednarik Award that season as well.  A two-time consensus All-American and winner of both the Bednarik and Thorpe Awards in 2017, Fitzpatrick was the greatest defensive back produced by a Tide program known for cranking out quality secondary personnel.
(Honorable mention: Landon Collins, Alabama; Grant Delpit, LSU)

SPECIALISTS

K: Roberto Aguayo, Florida State*
Twice a first-team All-American, Aguayo is the third-most accurate kicker in college football history on field goals and never missed an extra point.  Following the 2013 regular season,  he was named as the winner of the Lou Groza Award.
(Honorable mention: Zane Gonzalez, Arizona State)

P: Tom Hackett, Utah
Hackett was the second punter to win back-to-back Ray Guy Awards.  As a senior, he averages exactly 48 yards per punt. For his career, he placed nearly 44 percent of his 242 punts inside the 20-yard line.
(Special mention: Ryan Allen, Louisiana Tech; Michael Dickson, Texas)

RS: Rashaad Penny, San Diego State
Penny finished his collegiate career tied for the most career kick return-touchdowns (7) and combined kick-/punt-return touchdowns (8) in FBS history.  Four of those seven kick returns went for 100 yards, one shy of the FBS record.
(Special mention: Adoree’ Jackson, USC)

AP: Christian McCaffrey, Stanford*
In 2015, McCaffrey shattered Barry Sanderssingle-season all-purpose yardage record, finishing that season with 3,864 yards (Sanders’ old record was 3,250).  McCaffrey finished his time with the Cardinal with (take a deep breath) 3,922 yards rushing and 21 rushing touchdowns; 1,206 yards and 10 touchdowns on 99 receptions; a 26.4-yard average and one touchdown on 56 kick returns; an 11.2-yard average and a touchdown on 34 punt returns; two passing touchdowns; and seven tackles.
(Special mention: Saquon Barkley, Penn State; Jabrill Peppers, Michigan)

(*Denotes unanimous selection)

CFT 2018 Preseason Previews: Playoff Predictions

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Every season is a snowflake, in that each set of circumstances is unique to the dynamics and characters of that season and is unlikely to be repeated again. We saw Ohio State jump TCU in Baylor in 2014. The 2016 debate saw a 1-loss non-division champion (Ohio State) jump a 2-loss conference champion (Penn State), despite the non-champion losing to the champion. Last year we saw a non-division champion that lost its final regular season game (Alabama) fend off a 2-loss conference champion (Ohio State).

But one lesson has remained constant: talent wins out. The College Football Playoff has not been kind to the underdog. With the understanding that there’s really no such thing as a Cinderella in a system that selects excludes 126 of the 130 teams, the biggest upset we’ve seen is… Ohio State over Alabama in 2014? And given what we know now, that Buckeyes win wasn’t an upset at all. Only three “developmental” programs have reached the Playoff in four seasons — Oregon in 2014, Michigan State in 2015 and Washington in 2016. Oregon blew out an overrated Florida State team, then was blown out itself by Ohio State in the championship game. Michigan State lost to Alabama 38-0 in the 2015 Cotton Bowl. Washington was dusted 24-7 by Alabama in the 2016 Peach Bowl.

Meanwhile, Alabama has reached three straight title games. They played Clemson twice, and Georgia once.

Getting to the College Football Playoff is extremely hard for anyone to do. Winning it, for anyone other than the elite of the elite, has proven to be impossible. Such a reality appears in the CFT staff’s picks for the 2018 CFP field.

Kevin
Orange Bowl: Clemson over Penn State
Cotton Bowl: Alabama over Oklahoma
CFP National Championship: Alabama over Clemson

Bryan
Orange Bowl: Clemson over Wisconsin
Cotton Bowl: Alabama over Washington
CFP National Championship: Clemson over Alabama

Zach
Orange Bowl: Clemson over Washington
Cotton Bowl: Georgia over Wisconsin
CFP National Championship: Clemson over Georgia

John
Orange Bowl: Ohio State over Clemson
Cotton Bowl: Georgia over Washington
CFP National Championship: Ohio State over Georgia

CFT 2018 Preseason Previews: SEC

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It wasn’t that long ago the SEC was labeled as being “down” in part due to the lack of good quarterback play across the league. How things have changed, as this year’s stellar crop of signal-callers makes the conference one of the toughest to play in yet again and more than capable of producing multiple College Football Playoff contenders throughout the season. Missouri’s Drew Lock has been labeled as an early first-rounder, as is Auburn’s Heisman contender in Jarrett Stidham. Alabama has not one but two good options behind center and transfers like LSU’s Joe Burrow (from Ohio State) have bolstered the ranks even further. Add in a host of new coaches to the league and there’s perhaps never been more intrigue from top to bottom of each division. 

In the SEC West, things begin and end as they always do in the era of Nick Saban with Alabama. The Crimson Tide looks primed to defend their title but this time around will be led by their offense. No matter who winds up being the long-term option at quarterback between Tua Tagovailoa or Jalen Hurts, the team will sport perhaps their best collection of young skill position talent in the last several years and another stout offensive line. The front seven remains loaded and while there are concerns about replacing so many starters in the secondary, few are going to doubt Saban from figuring something out. Their biggest challenge might come in their own state as Gus Malzahn sports another explosive offensive full of weapons and teams that up with a defense that very well could be the best in the conference. 

Don’t sleep on Mississippi State crashing the top two in the West, either, as new coach Joe Moorhead is a perfect fit for dual-threat QB Nick Fitzgerald and the Bulldogs have the players in the trenches on both sides of the ball to go toe-to-toe with anybody. Speaking of new coaches, nobody has more eyeballs on them than Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher, who will no doubt have a few growing pains in College Station but has enough talent to keep the Aggies afloat despite the tough schedule. Ed Orgeron faces an increasing amount of pressure to win big at LSU but, even with the addition of Burrow to run the offense, that might be a tough task in 2018. Both Ole Miss and Arkansas (with new coach Chad Morris) face rebuilding situations, but both sport a pair of fun offenses that should at least make their shootouts fun to watch even if the wins don’t follow.

Over on the eastern side of the conference, defending champion Georgia is primed to repeat in the division and make yet another run at the national title. The losses of guys like Nick Chubb and Roquan Smith hurt but nobody has recruited as well as Kirby Smart has since taking over in Athens and the Bulldogs will once again trot out more talent than anybody in the East. Their biggest challenger will likely come in the form of Will Muschamp’s Gamecocks as QB Jake Bentley and WR Deebo Samuel is one of the top combos in the league — and they get UGA in Columbia this season. Dan Mullen is back in The Swamp and in charge at Florida but the Gators, while set to be much improved, still have a way to go before they catch their rivals.

The aforementioned Lock has a lot to work with at Mizzou, but the Tigers will still have their work cut out for them, especially with Derek Dooley taking over as offensive coordinator despite previously never calling plays. Play-calling won’t be as big of an issue at Kentucky, which can build around terrific RB Benny Snell but enters rebuilding mode for veteran coach Mark Stoops. There’s a lot more talent for Jeremy Pruitt to work with in Knoxville during his first season with Tennessee, but it might still be a bit of a stretch to call the Vols pesky as the entire program turns over after a difficult stretch. Finally, Vanderbilt not surprisingly faces an uphill battle but does have a solid signal-caller to build around in Kyle Shurmur. 

Add it all up and it will just mean more yet again. Fresh off a season in which they put two teams in the national title game, it would surprise nobody if there’s a repeat of history for the SEC as it proves once again to be the best conference around.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH

SEC East

1. Georgia
2. South Carolina
3. Florida
4. Missouri
5. Tennessee
6. Kentucky
7. Vanderbilt

SEC West

1. Alabama
2. Auburn
3. Mississippi State
4. Texas A&M
5. LSU
6. Ole Miss
7. Arkansas

IN SHORT…

 

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…