Utah State

Utah pours salt on Harbaugh’s Michigan debut, 24-17

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The long-term future looks to be in good shape for as long as Jim Harbaugh sticks around Ann Arbor. The short-term future, on the other hand, suggests there could be some tough roads ahead. The Harbaugh era at Michigan got off to a losing start Thursday night in Salt Lake City. Utah’s (1-0) defense held firm in the fourth quarter with Justin Thomas picking off a pass from Michigan (0-1) quarterback Jake Rudock and returning it for a 55-yard touchdown and later stuffing the Wolverines on a fourth and short with 5:13 to play. For a second straight season, Utah flexed its muscle against Michigan, winning this year by a final score of 24-17.

Kyle Whittingham had his Utes ready to play typical Utah football, which is to say Utah played well on defense, forced some turnovers and managed to avoid having Travis Wilson implode. Utah’s quarterback was picked off once, but he completed 24 of his 33 pass attempts as Utah kept to mostly safe plays to wear down Michigan’s defense. That meant putting the ball on the ground with Devontae Booker leading the rushing attack and Wilson taking off as well. Each had a rushing touchdown in the victory.

While Michigan will fly home with a loss, there were some bright spots worth noting. Tight end Jake Butt proved to be a reliable target for Rudock as the two connected eight times for 93 yards and a touchdown. Amara Darboh also had a good game with seven catches for 91 yards. Jabrill Peppers had a good evening, making some key plays in the second half. He also had a kick return for 36 yards. And it was encouraging to see Rudock put together some plays late in the game to at least give Michigan a chance, if they had just recovered an onside kick.

This game alone should not go far in assessing the overall strength of the Pac-12 or the Big Ten against any other conference. Those arguments will continue to play out in games to come. However, the Big Ten could have benefitted from Michigan winning this one to carry over momentum gained from last year’s postseason. Now, the Pac-12 claims another notable victory to its profile. These types of wins can end up playing a deciding factor when it comes time to weighing playoff teams against one another, even if it does not involve Utah or Michigan. So point for the Pac-12 (and Pac-12 South), and no points for the Big Ten.

Michigan will welcome Harbaugh home in Ann arbor next weekend as the Wolverines once again play a Pac-12 opponent. This time it will be Oregon State, with former Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen making his way back to Big Ten territory almost as quickly as he left it. Michigan will have some time to work out some kinks, but BYU will offer another stiff defensive test at the end of the month before Harbaugh’s Wolverines jump into Big Ten play.

Utah will stay home next week to play Utah State. The Aggies were in a real tough battle with FCS Southern Utah, losing 9-5 at the conclusion of the Utah-Michigan game), with Chuckie Keeton having an ineffective night. Maybe Utah State wasn’t showing much to refrain from giving Utah much film? Or maybe this game will be a tad easier than initially expected for the Utes.

CFT 2015 Preseason Preview: Pac-12 Predictions

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As the 2015 season draws near, we peek into our crystal ball and guess project how each of the five major conferences will play out. Today, we will be examining the home of the defending national champion, the Big Ten. 

And while we’re at it, check out some of our other Power Five conference predictions HERE (ACC) and HERE (Big 12) and HERE (Big Ten) as the CFT team continues to take its month-long glimpse of the upcoming season.

PAC-12 NORTH

1. Oregon (Last year: 13-2, lost to Ohio State in College Football Playoff national championship game)

First thing’s first, replacing Marcus Mariota is not exactly easy for Mark Helfrich. The Heisman Trophy winner from a year ago leaves big shoes to fill. Fortunately, Oregon added one of the top quarterbacks in the nation to transfer schools this offseason with Vernon Adams leaving FCS powerhouse Eastern Washington to join the Ducks (he is now listed as the starter). The transition will go well enough for Oregon’s offense to continue making big things happen, especially with Royce Freeman looking to join the young crop of running backs expected to have a big season. The good news is Adams has a pretty solid offensive line back with starting experience, but road trips to Michigan State and Arizona State will be tough to return home with wins. Oregon finishes the season with two wins, which puts last year’s national runner-up on the fringe of the playoff conversation at the end of the season.

2. Stanford (Last year: 8-5, beat Maryland in Foster Farms Bowl)

Stanford will once again be Oregon’s biggest threat in the Pac-12 North this season, while Washington takes some time to rebound and Cal’s defense a major work in progress. Defense will be the consistent key to the Cardinal this season even though it returns just a small handful of starters from last season. The biggest concern for Stanford last season was a slow-starting offense. The offense finally started to click at the end of the year and must get off to a better start this year. Kevin Hogan has nearly his entire starting offensive line back this fall, and Stanford should have a decent running game to work with. Stanford gets Oregon at home and an early road trip to USC could be a toss-up.

3. Washington (Last year: 8-6, lost to Oklahoma State in the Cactus Bowl)

I still believe good things are coming to Washington under Chris Petersen. I just think this is a step back before the Huskies start stepping forward. There are just too many holes on the roster right now after losing a load of talent to the NFL. Give Petersen some time though and Washington should be an improved team in 2016. This season could get off to a rough start on the road against Boise State and a home game against Utah State. Good for the Mountain West Conference. Not so good for the Pac-12. Washington also gets USC, Oregon and Stanford in consecutive weeks in the middle of the year. Ouch.

4. California (Last year: 5-7)

No win total will justify how fun this team will be to watch this season. The offense is there with Jared Goff leading the offense. The defense is a different story, as it will struggle to slow down anybody. Cal suffered some close calls last season. Getting to six wins is not impossible if the Bears can get off to a fast start. I’m just not sure if they will do that. A 1-3 record before hosting Washington State is what I’m seeing in the cards, and that cannot happen if Cal is to go bowling this season.

5. Oregon State (Last year: 5-7)

Mike Riley left for Nebraska, and he may have taken the good vibes with him this season. In steps Gary Andersen, fresh off a 59-0 beatdown at the hands of Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game last year. Andersen is a good enough coach to make Oregon State do some good things, but his defense returns just two starters and he inherits an unstable quarterback situation lacking in experience. They may be up and down in the first half of the season but they run into a wall starting with, believe it or not, Colorado.

6. Washington State (Last year: 3-9)

The Mike Leach experiment at Washington State may come to a close soon if things do not show promise and progress this season in Pullman. After winning just three games last season, the Cougars added some junior college experience to the roster this season. If Leach can channel his inner Bill Snyder (whom Leach once called a sorcerer), maybe the Cougars can scratch together enough wins to reach the postseason. I’m not sure I see enough of those wins though, especially in Pac-12 play.

PAC-12 SOUTH

1. Arizona State (Last year: 10-3, beat Duke in Sun Bowl)

The Sun Devils do few things extraordinarily well, and getting out of the Pac-12 South unscathed will be difficult for every team in the division. So it must be the schedule, right? You may actually like Arizona State’s chances in the opener against Texas A&M in Houston, and they get USC at home a few weeks later. Tough road tests at UCLA and Utah before the bye week are not automatic losses, although those games could spell trouble. Fortunately for Arizona State,they score an upset at home on a Thursday night after a bye week against Oregon (setting up an eventual rematch in the Pac-12 championship game) and they will not lose again in the regular season. Quarterback Mike Bercovici finds a comfort level with receiver D.J. Foster as the Sun Devils put a streak together at the perfect time. While all that is happening, cannibalism within the division will help place Arizona State on top of the pile.

2. USC (Last year: 9-4, beat Nebraska in Holiday Bowl)

The Trojans were tabbed the media preseason favorite at Pac-12 media days. Sure, USC looks attractive, but don’t we need to see some more consistency out of Cody Kessler and to see Steve Sarkisian win a big game before buying into the hype? Throw in the fact this is a tough division, is anybody sure USC gets out of it without a couple of losses along the way? That said, they are in the running for the Pac-12 South crown, but I do not see them getting by Arizona State on the road the week after hosting Stanford. I have USC splitting those two games, but it could just as well end up being an 0-2 setback heading into the bye week (sure, I suppose it could also be 2-0). I also think USC comes back from South Bend with a loss to Notre Dame and a road game at Oregon is a probable loss as well.

3. Utah (Last year: 9-4, beat Colorado State in Las Vegas Bowl)

Utah is my wild card team in the Pac-12 South this season because they play what may be the best defense in the division, if not the conference. Utah will be extremely difficult to beat at home, but three tough road games ultimately hold Utah back from reaching the Pac-12 championship game (Oregon, USC, Arizona). I do think things get off to a good start at home against Michigan, spoiling Jim Harbaugh‘s debut as head coach of the Wolverines, and the next week against Chuckie Keeton and Utah State. They even get a chance to knock off Arizona State at home in the middle of the season. Potential is there, but the offense needs to keep its foot on the gas to make any run.

4. Arizona (Last year: 10-4, lost to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl)

After coming up small against Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl last season, the Wildcats still look to be moving forward. Anu Solomon is one of the top quarterbacks in the conference and should be ready for a big season with Caleb Jones back as his go-to receiver. The offensive and defensive lines have some holes to plug, but the Wildcats have linebacker Scooby Wright III at linebacker to pick up the slack in the middle of the defense. What I do not like about Arizona is the schedule. Arizona plays 12 straight games without a bye week. It will be a grind, but Arizona is capable of being in the hunt in this crazy division and may be welcoming that bye week at the end of the season if things fall into place again this fall. I think the final four games could be hitting a wall for Arizona though, as I have them losing three of the final four games (three of the final four on the road).

5. UCLA (Last year: 10-3, beat Kansas State in the Alamo Bowl)

The Bruins were the trendy pick last summer. Now it seems we are taking a much more scaled-back stance on UCLA. But why? UCLA returns a ton of starters from a year ago and has added a new defensive coordinator in Tom Bradley that should help. The talent is there with just one key position to address; quarterback. If Josh Rosen can step right in and have an impact, UCLA will be a contender in this competitive division. But freshmen, even the great ones, can make mistakes. Rosen has the hype, and there is a good chance to get comfortable early on with home games against Virginia and BYU and a road game at UNLV. UCLA can play itself into controlling the fate of the Pac-12 South coming down the stretch, but back-to-back road games at Utah and USC to end the season is not an easy draw.

6. Colorado (Last year: 2-10)

Colorado is not going to return to its 1990s powerhouse form in 2015, but we should see some signs of continued progress with the program under Mike MacIntyre. Colorado has a chance to enter October with a winning record, which would be a promising start. The Buffs return nine starters on defense and six on offense, so the hope is experience helps develop some talent to continue being competitive. Colorado lost some close calls last season. If they can turn a couple of those close games the other way, Colorado and a bowl trip is not out of the mix. Seriously.

PAC-12 CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

Oregon over Arizona State

Oregon remains my team to beat, and they could be hitting a stride just at the right time by the time the conference championship game comes around. Oregon would be playing in the title game for the third time in five seasons while Arizona State would be in the game for the second time in three years. Oregon’s offense once again leads the way, but Arizona State gives them a run.

FCS-to-Ducks transfer one of 30 QBs on Unitas Award watch list

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Even as one high-profile FCS transfer has yet to be officially added to his new Power Five program’s roster, he’s still highly thought of by at least one major award.

Tuesday, the fine folks at the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award released its preseason watch list, with the annual award given to the best college senior or fourth-year junior quarterback recognizing 30 players who meet the qualifications.  And, again, those qualifications are that they are, one, a quarterback and, two, are a college senior or fourth-year junior.

Included in that group of 30 is Vernon Adams, one of the most decorated players in the Football Championship Series who announced in February of this year that he would be transferring from Eastern Washington to Oregon for his final season of collegiate eligibility.  In early July it was reported that Adams had been admitted to UO and ruled eligible to enroll in classes at the university.  However, Adams will likely miss at least the first three days of the Ducks’ summer camp that begins Aug. 10 as he cleans up one final class that will allow him formal admission and his inclusion on his new squad’s roster.

There’s also one current FCS quarterback in the group: North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz.

In addition to Adams and Wentz, 2014 Unitas finalists Cody Kessler of USC and Dak Prescott of Mississippi State are included in the initial watch list.   Last year’s winner was the man Adams will attempt to replace, Marcus Mariota.

Below is the complete list of preseason Unitas Award watch listers.  And, again, those eligible are college senior or fourth-year junior quarterbacks.

Vernon Adams, Oregon
Brandon Allen, Arkansas
Tommy Armstrong, Nebraska
Mike Bercovici, Arizona State
Trevone Boykin, TCU
Jacoby Brissett, NC State
Connor Cook, Michigan State
Brandon Doughty, WKU
Blake Frohnapfel, UMass
Everett Golson, Florida State
Taysom Hill, BYU
Kevin Hogan, Stanford
Driphus Jackson, Rice
Matt Johnson, Bowling Green
Chuckie Keeton, Utah State
Cody Kessler, USC
Gunner Kiel, Cincinnati
Fredi Knighten, Arkansas State
Joe Licata, Buffalo
Paxton Lynch, Memphis
Maty Mauk, Missouri
Dak Prescott, Mississippi State
Keenan Reynolds, Navy
Nate Sudfeld, Indiana
Zach Terrell, Western Michigan
Justin Thomas, Georgia Tech
Chad Voytik, Pittsburgh
Carson Wentz, N. Dakota State
Marquise Williams, North Carolina
Travis Wilson, Utah

Media hands out preseason MWC honors, picks

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As we roll on toward the start of summer camps and, ultimately, a new season, the Mountain West becomes the latest to unveil its preseason selections.

The media that covers the MWC has tapped defending champion Boise State as its favorite to win the Mountain division, while San Diego State is the favorite in the West.  The Broncos received 28 of a possible 30 first-place votes, while the Aztecs garnered 27.  The other three West votes went to Fresno State, which claimed that division in 2014 but fell to Boise in the conference championship game.

Individually, Colorado State wide receiver Rashard Higgins was named as the Preseason Offensive Player of the Year; Utah State linebacker Kyler Fackrell the Defensive POTY; and San Diego State kicker Donny Hageman the Special Teams POTY.

Below is the media’s predicted order of finish in bot divisions, followed by the first-team all-conference squad.

Mountain Division (First-Place Votes), Total Points
1. Boise State (28) 177
2. Utah State (2) 150
3. Colorado State 108
4. Air Force 90
5. Wyoming 64
6. New Mexico 41

West Division
1. San Diego State (27) 177
2. Fresno State (3) 141
3. Nevada 113
4. San José State 91
5. Hawai‘i 70
6. UNLV 38

Defense
DL Eddie Yarbrough* Sr. Wyoming
DL Alex Hansen** Sr. Air Force
DL Kamalei Correa* Jr. Boise State
DL Ian Seau** Sr. Nevada
LB Tanner Vallejo** Jr. Boise State
LB Kyler Fackrell Sr. Utah State
LB Nick Vigil* Jr. Utah State
DB Weston Steelhammer* Jr. Air Force
DB Donte Deayon** Sr. Boise State
DB Darian Thompson* Sr. Boise State
DB Damontae Kazee** Jr. San Diego State

Offense
QB Chuckie Keeton Sr. Utah State
WR Rashard Higgins* Jr. Colorado State
WR Devonte Boyd** So. UNLV
RB Donnel Pumphrey* Jr. San Diego State
RB Marteze Waller** Sr. Fresno State
OL Marcus Henry* Sr. Boise State OL Rees Odhiambo** Sr. Boise State
OL Alex Fifita Sr. Fresno State
OL Ben Clarke Sr. Hawaiʻi
OL Pearce Slater Sr. San Diego State
TE Steven Walker* Sr. Colorado State

Specialists
P Alex Boy** Sr. Nevada
PK Donny Hageman Sr. San Diego State
Ret. Carlos Wiggins Sr. New Mexico

* – member of the 2014 All-Mountain West first team.
** – member of the 2014 All-Mountain West second team.

Boise State carries Group of 5 banner with it to Mountain West media days

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Boise State has gone from perennial BCS busting candidate to the new team to beat in the Group of Five conversation. The postseason format may have evolved to open a door for the non-power conference schools, but Boise State remains the program the rest are chasing in pursuit of a spot in the New Years Six line-up. As the Mountain West Conference gets ready to begin its annual media day event in Las Vegas, Boise State will be under a familiar spotlight.

The preseason Mountain West Conference poll will be released tomorrow. When it is, expect Boise State to be on top. We won’t hear from Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin and the Bronco player representatives until Wednesday, but questions about being the favorites and the New Years Six figure to be fired in their direction when they do meet the press. This has become the norm for Boise State. While dreams of receiving an invitation to the Big 12 will be left unfilled, Boise State has established itself as a program  in a terrific spot to be in the big money bowls at the end of the season under the new postseason format with the College Football Playoff. The strength of the Mountain West Conference plays in Boise State’s favor, as the champion out of the conference figures to have a healthier profile than a conference champion from Conference USA or the Sun Belt Conference, and more often than not the champion out of the MAC.

Who will be the biggest threat to Boise State this season? Outside of a healthy Chuckie Keeton and Utah State and perhaps San Diego State out of the West Division, Boise State fans should be paying close attention to the developments in the American Athletic Conference. Cincinnati and Houston could be the biggest challengers competing indirectly with the Broncos. As Boise State fans are well aware, there is no time to waste comparing what Boise State does with what happens in other conferences if Boise State does not take care of its own business.

Boise State coudl make for a very interesting conversation as the season plays out if it gets off to a strong start. Ironically, that begins with a home game against Washington, coached by former Boise State coach Chris Petersen. If Boise State can send its old coach back home with a loss, and follows that with road wins at BYU and Virginia, the thought of a 12-0 Boise State making for a heated College Football Playoff debate will become all the more likely. Forget about locking up a spot in the New Years Six. Boise State fans will be thinking about the playoff itself, and they will even have a conference championship game to help boost them into the field.

There will be much to watch in Boise this season, and the mentality of the potential favorites will be shown this week.