2017 Preseason: PAC-12 preview

The Pac12 was strong in 2016 and with North Division teams on the rise, this bowl season should be filled with West Coasters. Although the North will rule the ratings, it is the South that will provide the PAC-12 champion.

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­1     USC                        37 rank points                   11 wins

It’s been entertaining to watch the USC circus of frustrations. But alas, the big top has folded and the clowns have departed. For once, USC has an authentic leader in HC Clay Helton who may never be mistaken for Johnny Lightning, but he also won’t be remembered with the likes of Sark or Haden.

QB Sam Darnold just needs to keep a level head this season to put up big numbers.  Well that, and unlevel heads don’t look good on Heisman posters.  Yeah, I know he was 31/9 td/int and 3088 yards and blah-blah-blah. But know what impresses me the most?  He hit for over 67% accuracy.

Is it any wonder that Max Browne transferred to Pitt?

Only two OL starters return and those who left were really, really good.

So now, with the OL in flux, comes the question: Can USC’s running attack get to the level of “average” once again? Even if not, Ronald Jones Jr. will be a 1000+ star, enough to keep LBs from pinning their ears back and sacking Darnold.

Michael Pittman Jr. and Deontay Burnett give Darnold two outstanding receivers.

Most of the defense returns although it won’t be as effective without Adoree’ Jackson. Junior LB Cameron Smith is a self-made wrecking ball with All-PAC12 credentials and All-American candidacy.

Don’t expect the USC defense to rise to the level of Alabama, Ohio St., or Clemson, but it should rise higher than last year’s 36th-ranking. DC Clancy Pendergast will build this into a national championship unit, but it won’t be there this year.

Savvy has never been “on” with this team because of the malfunctioning tin hats at the top, but those issues are solved and Helton is the right man to lead this program. The Index says 11-1 and probable playoff spot.

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2   Washington            36 rank points         10 wins

The 12th-ranked defense, the 8th-best scoring offense, a QB with a 43/9 td/int ratio, and a coach who has assembled a very deep roster. Those are the reasons the Huskies made the playoff and are strong candidates to do so again in 2017.

It’s been pointed out lately that coach Chris Petersen has been losing the northwest recruiting battle, both in numbers as well as in-state recruits, to Oregon since the Ducks hired recruiting dynamo Willie Taggart. But see, Petersen will point out that even by signing only 17 compared to the Ducks’ 21, he still snagged more elites than his downy-south nemesis.  He doesn’t want every player; just the good ones.

QB Jake Browning will tell you it doesn’t matter to him because he can get the job done no matter who he has. And, that might come in handy when he looks out across the downfield horizon and doesn’t see the familiar face of speedy and athletic John Ross who concluded that there are more perks in the NFL than in college. 

WR Dante Pettis is likely to be All Pac12 and the air is filled with buzz for freshman Ty Jones who flipped the short hop from UU to UW. He was only a 3-star recruit but that is understandable since he is from Utah, you know, that place the star-setters seem to think is only for stopovers and transfers.  Jones was the only 2017 recruit to enroll and participate early and it payed off in the spring game as the 6’4″ freshman ran advanced routs, raced past a CB for a long reception, and has been named a starter.

Even if you could ground HuskiAire, you still have to stop Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman who rushed for over 2200 yards at more than 6ypc.  Gaskin had the 2nd-highest ypc in the PAC-12 last season.

How about just trying to outscore or outrun the Huskies?  You know, just make it a footrace and see if you can get to 70 before they do. Oregon tried that. The Huskies got to 70.  Oregon never made it to 25.  Cal tried it.  UW got to 66.  Cal never made it to 30.

UW is ferocious on defense. Like any title contender, the Huskie-D is big and bad and beautifully ugly. It will be even better this year since most of the starters return and it has stars at all levels led by All America candidate DL Vita Vea, All PAC-12 LB Azeem Victor, and outstanding newcomer S Taylor Rapp. 

If you know anything about UW defense, edge rushers are critical.  And, if you know that much, then you probably also know that The Dub finds those dawgs one way or another.  But right now, we’re not seeing them and we are much later in the process than usual.

As good as UW is, it lost two of its last five games and both times, it was to powerful championship contenders (USC and Alabama). The Husky defense was good enough in both games but, the offense  could only muster an average of ten points which tells us that Pedersen has some work to do before his ‘dawgs do more than just nip at the ‘Natty.

The Seattlites start the year with six cream-puffs before tests against revitalized Oregon, Stanford, and Washington State and a few nominal scrimmages with Colorado, Utah, and UCLA.

UW will climb the rankings with big margins through October but will fall short of the playoff because losing in November won’t provide enough time to climb back up.

According to Savvy, the Huskies will be 11-1 plus the PAC12 title game and the bowl season.  But, everyone knows this team is capable of 12-0 and another playoff bid.

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3     Stanford                  36 rank points          10 wins

When Jim Harbaugh rebuilds a football program, he has one purpose above all others—to build the biggest, baddest, bully on the block.

That’s what he did at Stanford a decade ago and he became known as a miracle-worker and somewhat the Pope of Cardinal nation.

The Harbaugh blueprint has continued well under coach David Shaw with annual rankings, bowl games, frequent North Division titles, and only one season under ten wins in the past six years.

There are no secrets in how this bully has been built. It starts with the offensive line. Get yourself some massive bodies, mix in a big dose of conditioning, and teach them how to bulldoze lesser humanoids.

Indeed, it is akin to Woody Hayes and his “three yards and a cloud of dust” which sounds endlessly boring but is red meat to trench lions. Offensive linemen love that kinda stuff because it gives them a chance to be…well…most offensive.  You can still hear the cries of long-ago OLs who lament the passage of fields made of real grass and the ritual of forearming opponents’ faces deep in the compost of natural mud.

I suppose that’s sad, but for the advance of civilization, we move on.

Most of the OL returns and while it’s not bigger than last season (286-299 pounds) it is as Harbaugh-bully as ever.  There is one big lineman. How big?  Herbig—as in Nate Herbig, a 6’4”, 350 pound Hawaiian who, in the Spring game had the LG hole open all day and that resulted in a 58-yard touchdown run that caused coach Shaw to smile,  prod the grass,  and wish for rain.

It would be a mistake to suggest the Cardinal will decline after the departure of Christian whats-his-name, because Bryce Love averaged even more yards-per-carry (7.1) and is thought by some to be the shiftiest feature-back in the PAC12. His speed and vision make him one of the most difficult “stops” in all of college football.

And, Stanford has incoming freshman Trevor Speights who rushed for 3195 yards, 50 touchdowns, and an insane 13.7 ypc in just his senior season of high school. I have to say that again … 3195 yards in ONE season. 

In the Spring game, Speights made a strong challenge to backup RB Cameron Scarlett by catching a 27 yard pass to set up one score, then breaking free for a 33 yard run followed by a three yard burst into the end zone.

So the question for the offense is at quarterback. Keller Chryst was injured much of last season. He has looked better in fall workouts but he must keep that going because the Cardinal need more than 57% passing and more than 6.7 yards per pass attempt if it is going to become a playoff team. 

Ryan Burns has been considered Chryst’s backup but lately, David Shaw has been more impressed with K.J. Costello and will likely enter the freshman in the second QB slot of the depth chart. Costello was one of the most-recruited high school pro-style QBs in the nation last year with offers from USC, Michigan, Florida St., etc.

Plenty of outstanding receivers return led by Mr. NeverGetRattled Trent Irwin who led the Cardinal in receptions and receiving yardage. Irwin is not likely to have 1000 receiving yards because Stanford is committed to running the football and NFL fans will ask, “Trent who?” when he is drafted a year from now.  But, Irwin is an outstanding receiver with excellent route running and very sure hands.  I watched those skills often when he was in high school.

The other starting receiver is J.J. Arcineaga-Whiteside who is not only big (6’3” and 228 lbs) but his average reception is 32% longer than Irwin’s.

Jet Toner.

Say what?

No,  it’s not some kind of printer ink but it is a name you will hear often because he is likely to become a premier college kicker. In the spring game, Toner hit field goals from 47, 42, 40, and 34 yards.

The Cardinal defense was strong but not dominating in 2016 and is not likely to dominate in 2017 either. The starting lineup is built of entirely upperclassmen so there is experience and conditioning, but the front is weak.  The LBs are somewhat unsettled although there is talent while the secondary is strong with All PAC12 candidates SS Justin Reid and CB Quenton Meeks returning as juniors.

Getting the linebacking group in order is going to be important for Stanford. In the spring, Shaw moved explosive OLB Joey Alfieri to the inside but seems more set on returning Joey to the outside and starting Bobby Okereke at ILB. Shaw was also complimentary of Casey Toohill at OLB.

So much of Stanford’s defense is based on having all four LB spots functioning at a high level, yet nothing has been finalized in this group. My guess is Alfieri and Peter Kalambai at OLBs and Okereke and Kevin Palma at ILBs.

The schedule has @USC, @San Diego State, @Utah, Oregon, @Washington St., Washington, Notre Dame.

Savvy has a strong alert for the Washington State game and it should not be considered a surprise if WSU wins. QBs are important and Luke Falk is considered by the NFL to be a high prospect whereas Keller Chryst’s knee is considered to be highly suspect.

Savvy sees 9-3 but this team’s reliability factor is as unstable as its QB and LBs. Savvy is likely to adjust this team up one game or down one game before the August 26th opener against Rice.

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4    Washington St.         35 rank points           9 wins

Cougars are known for their ability to lie low, hide in plain sight, and spring with surprise.  But, the  gig is up for that “surprise” thing.  We all know this group and they won’t be sneaking up on anyone.

It seemed easy to write the Cougars off early last season after they led off with a loss to an FCS team (same as the year before) and followed that by giving up an 85-yard pick six, a 14-0 first-quarter deficit, and an eventual loss to Boise State.

Worse than 0-and-2, they were 0-and-bad.

Last year we were predominantly freshmen and sophomores,” coach Mike Leach observed, “and I think we struggled as far as adjusting to being on the field for the first time in some cases. We go out there, first game, college football, first time. All of a sudden, eyes got wide and we tried to do too much.”

We all love Mike Leach, but still, there is a question here:   You’re 0-5 in season openers.  So, you’ve never had upperclassmen to start a season?

You don’t have to answer, Mike, because in a way, you already have.   You’re Cougars bounced back, feasted on eight straight wins, posted a 7-2 PAC-12 record, and finished second in the North.  Four of your losses were to bowl teams and four losses by five-or-fewer points.

Those are all nicey-nice, but they also blow your cover.

And, there’s something else you can’t hide either— Luke-freaking-Falk.  He’s 6’3”, the 7th-leading passer of 2016, the 4th-ranked QB draft prospect by the NFL (of 117), and he threw for more than 4400 yards.

Oh … yeah … and another thing.   He wears a red shirt.

And, it doesn’t look like your running game is ducking for cover either.  It was enough that Jamal Morrow pointed to a 1000 yard season and your intent to surpass last year’s 23 rushing touchdowns, but he actually spouted to the media,  “We have it all, speed, versatility, power, and elusiveness”.

Way to lay low, Jamal.

The receiving group is spectacular with the Tavares Martin Jr., Kyle Sweet, and Robert Lewis combining for 149 receptions and nearly 1500 yards.

You don’t get those kinds of stats with a weak OL and Washington State has one of the best returning.

LB Peyton Pelluer leads a defense that rose credibly last year to finish in the top-half of all FBS. The accomplishment was led by DC Alex Grinch who gets nine starters back for 2017.

This is a really good Washington State team with no significant deficiencies. Savvy is looking at 9-3 with a flashing red alert for WSU’s possible upset of USC in the Palouse on September 29. Yeah, this team is that good.

We can’t leave Cougardom without a Leachism, right? So, let’s go back to last week and listen in on Leach describing the outstanding character of Morrow and Pelluer. (Those are) “two quality players getting their degrees, and are basically everything that my parents wish I was.”

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5     Oregon                   34 rank points           9 wins

How could a program with elite talent, tradition, and speed fall from 13-2 and a national championship appearance to 4-8 in just two years?

Two reasons:  disunity and lack of accountability.

The commitment to team-building and camaraderie had fallen by the wayside and internal rivalries were left unresolved. Many players shrugged off conditioning while others partied until early morning hours at a popular downtown club.

It was infectious and it was spreading.  It wasn’t invisible.  It wasn’t unnoticeable.  Indeed, there was algae in the pond.  But, nobody went for chlorine.

As early as Sept. 17th, it seemed probable that coach Mark Helfrich had lost the Oregon edge, if not the team.  The signs were there— the body language, the blank expressions with each misfortune, and the constant complaining to refs instead of coaching his players.  A losing season seemed inevitable and with it, Helfrich was fired.  The $11-mil buyout was a big price to pay but at last, someone had finally done something.

And, “Do Something” is the motto of dynamic new coach Willie Taggart who has instantly excited hopeful Eugenetics because first thing off the plane, it was obvious—Willie T. don’t put up with no algae. 

Some call him Mister T.   Some call him Mister Chlorine.  Everyone calls him Mister.    

He’s known all along— even from the other side of this nation— why Oregon could never win the national championship.  He not only knows why but— dad-gum, fist-on-table— he’s about to go out and fix it!  (Not this year dear Pondsters; be patient.)

Here are some reasons why:

1)  Size up front.  Oregon has always been fast but never big in the trenches to take on Ohio State, Alabama, etc.  Willie knows it.  Willie said it.  First day. Since then, he’s gotten 300 pound Scott Pagano to transfer from national champion Clemson. Pagano is not one of your second-rate players looking for a chance to start at a weaker school.  No way.  He was a starter who played in 13 games and posted 92 tackles.

Then, he recruited 345 pound, 4-star, Jordon Scott who has a YouTube video of his amazing agility as he does a full forward flip from a low diving board.  Scott has conditioned well and is probably going to start.

2)  Taggart meant business when he said players needed to behave. “You watch,” he said last spring, “someone is going to test me and someone’s going to find out.”  Exit All PAC12 receiver Darren Carrington.

3)  Willie was appalled with the poor conditioning of a team that was supposed to be elite.  He demanded conditioning and the results are  evident.

4)  He was shocked at team disunity and set programs in place to bring players together because he believes that you don’t have a team until players know each other and play for one another.

5) He installed a blue-collar environment with requirements for hard work and he has pared the array of flashy uniform combinations down to a few and announced that to get the full complement back, they must be earned.

6) He put an end to the graduate-transfer QB that alienated QuakerBackers who want their QBs to rise from the ranks and be around long enough for fans to know them and sort-of own them.  Right now, the starter is not only from the ranks, but he’s also a local native from Sheldon High School.

7) He hired assistant coaches who are recruiters and they instantly re-Oregonized a failing platform and somehow brought the Ducks to a top-20 finish.  On August 3, 2017, Scout.com said this year’s recruiting class at Oregon is #1 in the country.

Did Willie inherit anything good?

Yes.  The players.

He has that local boy Justin Herbert at QB and the rangy rifler connected on 63% of his passes for 1936 yards while earning a 19/4 td/interception ratio—in just eight games as a pure freshman.

He will have plenty of talented targets with the return of sophomore WR Dillon Mitchell and Alex Ofodile (son of NFL O.J. Ofodile) although there is caution because each has a knee issue. Malik Lovette was one of the highest WR recruits coming out of high school and will be a big time target.

All PAC12 slot Charles Nelson is a rugged and effective athlete with speed. He leads returners in number of receptions and number of receiving tds.  And, he is now backed by lightning fast, former 5-star RB Taj Griffin.  

Finally, the Ducks have an outstanding offensive line built on the All PAC12 potential of LT Tyrell Crosby. The entire starting group returns and will be among the best in the West.

Oregon is known as RB-U and Willie has plenty of them, beginning with Royce Freeman who is expected to get over 1500 rushing yards and has a little Heisman buzz.

Behind him is shifty Tony Brooks-James who had 771 yards (7.6ypc) and Kani Benoit who had 300 despite each missing several games because of injuries.

And now, for the other shoe.

Defense.

Ker-plunk. 

41ppg.

Oregon’s defense ranked behind the likes of New Mexico State, Idaho, and Florida International.  That will change in 2017, not just because of a bigger defensive middle or Jim Leavitt as DC or a change back to 3-4.

It will be better because of those two things we said earlier:  unity and accountability.  A defense cannot succeed if players don’t “play for each other” and cover for each other and are accountable for training.  Those problems have been fixed.

Defensive coaches are excited about sophomore ILB Troy Dye, and the development of safety Khalil Oliver.  The secondary has talent but 40% of the starters are freshman led by Portland standout rs-Brady Breeze and spectacular All California corner Thomas Graham Jr. who was recruited by every elite program in the nation.  There is so much talent at safety that  Taggart will move Brenden Schooler from safety to WR.  That’s quite a move given that Schooler led the team in interceptions and was third in tackles as a freshman.

This won’t be a top-40 defense right now, but my personal projection moves it from 126th-ranked to 79th by the end of this season.  That ain’t great, but it’s certainly enough to get this team into a bowl.

Savvy is solid in its assessment that this is a 9-3 team.

With an entirely new coaching staff, it’s difficult to say what all this team is capable off but there is one thing we know for certain.  With Willie T. at the top, this team will “Do Something”.

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6     Colorado             32 rank points               8 wins

There have been tremors in the mountains for years. We all felt the rumblings.  We all said to one another, “They’re better than that.”  We all knew that when the time came, the Boulderites wouldn’t just sneak into the dance and do some little prance.  No way.  Instead, the Buffaloes would stampede the gates and trample the noteworthy—Stanford, Oregon, UCLA, and Utah.

RIP.

I suppose y’all will call this Boulder-dash, but you know that stampede thing?  It’s sorta not going to happen this year.  Would it help if I say I’m wincing?  And hey, this this isn’t forever; just for right now.

Colorado saw eight defensive starters graduate followed by DC Jim Leavitt’s decision to leave.  He sold his loyalties to the Ducks for a poultry $1.5-mil, a sum of insignificance at Nike U but is the highest for DCs in the FBS.  Many in Colorado cried, “Foul!” to which the feathered ones smirked, “Of course.”

So, this year will be different.  So much talent has left and I’m not seeing immediate-impact defensive newcomers.  And, if I’m reading their depth charts right, neither do they. 

There is pure freshman ILB Nate Landman and he might become a star, although before that, he needs to become a starter. Four transfers should help but when you add this all up, you have eight new players, a new DC, and no one to duplicate the secondary talents of Awuzie or Witherspoon. 

The composite of all of that will not be anything like last year’s group that was statistically better than Florida State, Auburn, Michigan State, and USC. 

So, I’m looking things over and I’m reckoning the Buffs will go from 21.7ppg to 25.4. That’s means a defense ranked about 47th—still good enough for a bowl but not good enough for the playoff.

QB Steven Montez is back and the phrase “Sefo who?” has been heard in The Sink.  Montez won’t be mistaken for a Heisman guy but with his leadership, he will “will” this team to success.  He’s very agile and a great competitor.  He will be even better if one of y’all will sidle on over and remind him of the importance of throwing the ball to the right team.

The OL is beefy and has four returning starters so expect RB Phillip Lindsay to get  free for another 1300 yards and 16 touchdowns. Sorta getting the idea that will be 1600 and 19.

Devin Ross, Shay Fields, and Bryce Bobo lead a group of five returning receivers who accounted for 264 receptions and nearly 3100 yards and that gives this offense everything it needs to be exciting and successful.

But, be aware all of you who are in the Buff. This offense is built on seniors—seven of them— and they won’t be coming back next year.  So in 2018, Colorado will be rebuilding its offense like it is rebuilding its defense now.

The schedule is easier and that means that even with so much defensive upheaval,  Savvy can get to 8-4 for Colorado.   

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7      Utah                      30 rank points                   7  wins

Last season, you had to love how coach Kyle Whittingham proved his resourcefulness. He needed a running back and he wasn’t afraid to chase through the campus until he found one and with some convincing, he brought Joe Williams out of retirement, slapped a jersey on him and watched with a broad smile as the senior blasted his way to over 1400 rushing yards, 6.7ypc, and 10 touchdowns.  Add another 222 yards at 8.5ypc in the Foster Farms Bowl win over Indiana.

* Sigh *

I’m outa breath.

But if last year needed some Kyle-contrivance, then this season needs even more because the two-Williams scheme is now defunct. Forever. Joe Williams suffered a setback that is even greater than retirement. He graduated. Terminal. Irreversible. No longer eligible for a campus chase-down.

The other part of the Williams partnership is QB Troy Williams (not related). As the starter in 2016, Williams was a little less than adequate in running the football (2.1ypc) and in passing it (53% completions).

So why is he the starting QB?

Because after comparing Williams to his other options, coach W finds himself saying, “Troy is a little better in completion percentage.” For a team that wants to pass more, that is not very good news.

We started this thing with coach W’s creativity so it’s time to look into what he’s doing this season.

It’s starting to look like a bit of a mid-life crisis, except in football terms.  You see, he’s dumped his decades’-old offensive scheme in favor of one of them younger and more modern and fancy and fast-paced models. Can you understand my reluctance to use the word “spread”?

But the new Ute attack won’t be like the Oregon blur. Coach W wants more of a multiple-style approach and for that, he went to Eastern Washington and propositioned Troy Taylor, not to be confused with Troy Williams.

Unfortunately, that transition will take some time because it’s an entirely new playbook, Troy Williams isn’t a multi-faceted QB, Troy Taylor doesn’t yet have the parts he needs (Jake Tuttle doesn’t get here until next year), and the offensive line is a bit of a mess.

The OL has some big time concerns because just one starter is coming back, 50 of 65 starts must be replaced, and on August 9th, starting center Lo Falemaka was carried from practice following a knee injury.  His return status is uncertain.

There are also no proven RBs to replace Joe Williams although former Miami (Fl) commit RB Zach Moss (5’10”, 210 pounds) expects to exceed 1000 yards and has looked promising in workouts. It is believed that Armand Shyne is ready to contribute and, if healthy, might take over the top RB spot.

Coach W didn’t see any returning receivers with either 30 receptions nor 500 yards.  Time for another campus chase-down?  Yup.  But, not his own campus.  Instead, he went to Oregon and latched on to shunned Duck Darren Carrington who has All PAC-12 recognition.

The “Go-go-go” offense is not designed to focus on a single go-to receiver so expect Raelon Singleton (6’3”) and lighting fast slot Demari Simpkins to get a lot of opportunities. 

And while you’re spreading the ball around, why not mix in some entertainment by passing to the likes of Siale Fakailoatonga and Bapa Falemaka. They might not be very good, but listening to the announcers would be.

Defense will again be the foundation for Utah’s success and it’s built on one of the best DLs in the nation which is anchored by All American DT Lowell Lotulelei (317 pounds).

The front group is so strong, it doesn’t need linebackers, but just in case, Utah has an amazing unit with Sunia Tauteoli and David Luafatasaga.

The back-end will be thin and young, but it does have outstanding safeties in All American candidate Chase Hansen and four-star transfer Corrion Ballard.

In a nutshell, there is one question here: The Utes can stop everyone, but can they move anyone?

Savvy says they’ll move seven and not move five. Throw in a bowl win and you’ve got 8-5.

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8    Oregon St.                29 rank points              5 wins

There’s been something gnawing at me. I think it’s those freakish big teeth of Bucky Beaver. No, it’s not just the teeth; it’s the wonder of who is tasked with brushing them?

There are plenty of reasons for Beaver fans to be excited. They have the incoming transfer of former 5-star RB Thomas Tyner to go with bruiser Ryan Nall; they might have found a true QB in Ventura transfer Jake Luton; and they might be primed to make it to a bowl game—thump on wood.

Even the highest of the mighty analysts project this team to approach middle-of-the-road status and if you don’t understand why that would be an exciting thing in Corvallis, then check this out:

* OSU hasn’t won more than five games since 2013 but, despite a tough schedule, might make it to 6+ and a bowl.

* Three of State’s losses were by a single possession, and all three to bowl teams

* The Beavers went through a great deal of transition when Riley left for Nebraska and hadn’t filled the roster with competitive recruits but the most-recent recruiting class finished ahead of West Virginia, Boise St., Kansas St., Houston, and San Diego St.

* The Beavs won their final two games of 2016 and have carried that momentum and enthusiasm into the new season.

The Beaver offense has suffered from an inconsistent (often non-existent) air attack but Luton is going to change that. The 6’6” roto-arm broke passing records at Ventura College and VCCC QB coach Taylor Barton said, “He’s got a quick release to go with his strong arm strength and he has great feet in the pocket and can move well for a guy his size.”

Only two authentic starters are back to the OL but one non-authentic OL is a starter from the DL. Sumner Houston will be the starting center and has progressed extraordinarily well. Nonetheless, the weakness of this OL was masked by the sheer power and ability of Wrecking Nall with the ball who simply would not be tackled. The OL MUST get better and it must stay healthy.

Three proven receivers will give Luton plenty of targets and senior WR-X Jordan Villamin has been telling fans that this is the year he finally shows that he is better than the 3-star, under-recruited, under-performing player that he has been. If indeed Villamin becomes a villain, fans might once again see that beautiful pigskin spiraling ‘gainst the azure glory of Oregon’s sky.

The Beavs had a pretty good defense and nearly half of it returns and is expected to be the strongest unit of all. Baker Pritchard has impressed at one DE and transfer Phillip Napoleon should start just for his name alone, although he seems to have had no problem taking the RDE on his own.

Manase Hungalu is a superior LB and if you haven’t watched safety Xavier Crawford, then you’ve missed one of the best. Great jump to the ball, excellent instincts, and tough as they come.

There is a very real chance that this team starts 3-0. It opens at Colorado State and if you’ve followed the Rams in past years, there is a history of early-season losses (often via turnovers).  CSU has its most-talented team in decades so although that opening mission is possible, it won’t be all that probable.

The following week is against Portland State and while PSU has a history of knocking off the big boys, the Vikings don’t appear strong enough take down the Beavs.

Minnesota is the third game and was a one-possession difference last year. The Gophs now have pioneer (or eccentric) coach P.J. Fleck who led Western Michigan to 13-0 so it’s hard to tell what to expect. But, OSU gets that Big-10 rival at home and that will help.  It wasn’t a great game in 2016 and won’t be this year either. Does that mean it will not be interesting?   Let’s see … Gophers … Beavers … gotta say … gnaw.

Savvy sees a mid-season sag leading to 5-7. Like we said last year, this Beaver team is better than it seems. That hasn’t changed. The problem is that schedule is not going to let that show.

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9    UCLA                       28 rank points               5 wins

I can’t believe we’re “here” again—irreverently speaking of more demise for the once-proud UCLA Bruins. But again, we have to say it: UCLAns, be ready for Mora frustration.

This is a school in the sun that rubs shoulders with Hollywood and has such pretty blue uniforms. It signs top-10 recruiting classes then struggles to finish in the top-10 of its own conference.

So, what in the sixth letter of the alphabet is wrong here?

You have elite players, big name coaches, all of the pub, and you’re the school with the Wizard.  If asked why UCLA can’t reach its potential, I’m sure he would explain that you don’t win in team sports unless you have unity. Conversely, you lose more than you should if you have disunity.

Remember the feuds coach Jim Mora had with his assistants on national television? How about screaming matches with his QB? Remember Myles Jacks’ injury and how he not only didn’t adhere to his team but left school completely? And how about those curious defections BEFORE the Bruins’ last bowl game? And, the bizarre rapper-dad who threatened coaches, leaped to attack, and made national headlines when he was arrested.

If you care to point to QB Josh Rosen’s injury as the primary cause of UCLA’s demise, fair enough. But keep in mind that the running game was an even bigger problem as it finished next-to-the-last in the nation and couldn’t produce an average of even 85 yards per game.

And, it’s no secret that under-producing running games are often caused by poor communications among offensive linemen which results in missed blocks.  OLs must have unity to be effective.

UCLA has a history of playing beneath its talent level and that can be seen in Rosen himself.  Even as a junior in high school, analysts ranked him as the top quarterback in the nation. Now that he is going into his junior year of college, his stats are nowhere near the hype. He’s averaging under 60% completions and it’s taken two years to get to 30 td passes—while throwing 16 interceptions. That’s not bad. But, it’s also not elite.

UCLA has two excellent running backs in Soso Jamabo and Nate Starks. Years ago, both were elite high school prospects with huge statistics.  But, after years of trying, neither has surpassed 32 yards average rushing per game in any season.

Jamabo was a 5-star in high school and, in one game, rushed for 500 yards and six touchdowns. It took two years at UCLA for him to surpass the stats from that one game. Again—major talent; marginal results.

Blame the system. Blame the scheme.  Blame the revolving door of coordinators.  But, the common connector to it all is the man in control, coach Jim Mora.

Seeing the need for a stronger rushing game, Mora decided it was time to hire a new OC, the third in three years.  Mora is a bit of a loose canon and certainly a maverick. He does things his way.  So now with the self-stated mission to electrify the running game, Mora has hired Jedd Fisch who was—smh—Michigan’s passing assistant.  Not an offensive coordinator and not a rushing expert—a passing assistant.  

There are some nice receivers at UCLA, like Jordan Lasley and Darren Andrews who combined for 96 receptions and over 1300 yards. Add in an expected breakthrough season for athletic sophomore Theo Howard and this is a nice unit.

UCLA fans always have plenty to crow about on the defensive side. Last year, the Bruins were 2nd-best in the PAC12 for yards allowed and did that with an offense that could neither move the ball (127th) nor hold on to it (107th).

DC Tom Bradley has returning talent at all levels including All American candidate Kenny Young at LB. Just one senior will start along with 5-star freshmen, CB Darnay Holmes (the nation’s #12-rated player) and RDE Jaelan Phillips.

It’s not a matter of talent in Westwood. In fact, it seems shameful how talent overflows the powder blue cup yet never reaches a gilded bowl.

It’s possible the Bruinites could reach a low-level bowl game but that can only happen if 1) UCLA comes up with a ground attack, and 2) Rosen finally produces, and 3) Mora finally gets over his own self and brings his troops together.

There are too many “ifs” to argue with Savvy’s 5-7 projection.

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10    Arizona St.             26 rank points                4 wins

I love the state of Arizona. Love the Sun Devils. Wish them all the best.  So, it’s like mama use to say, “This is going to hurt me more than it does you.” There’s just no way around it. The Sun Devils don’t have enough.

If you travel through Tempe and you ask what it takes to play college defense, you will be met with a twisted expression and the question, “Can you spell it for me and use it in a sentence?”

Before I give you some ugly facts, I need to remind you that the ASU I’m talking about is neither Appalachia State nor Alcorn State nor Alabama State although I understand how easily this information would be attributed to them. The ASU I’m talkin’ about is THE ASU—Arizona State—that member of the PAC12 and a Power Five member.

Teams in that realm are not supposed to give up more than 520 total yards per game, but Arizona State did. If not for Texas Tech, the Sun Devils would have finished dead last in the FBS for dismal defense.

And when it comes time to play that all-important rivalry game against your cross-state nemesis, you’re not suppose to grit your teeth with determination and rattle your devil forks and set your devil-tail on fire—then go out and give up 511 yards—JUST ON THE GROUND— to an Arizona team that was on a nine game losing streak.

So with that devil-tail-on-fire, you now know some of the heat that coach Todd Graham feels. He may have donated to the facilities, but that won’t be enough if the 11-14 of the past two years doesn’t reverse soon.

So how do you fix the nation’s next-to-the-worst defense? You fire the DC and hire the DC from that bastion of defensive indifference, Baylor. Yeah, Baylor.

ASU’s secondary was susceptible to the long ball last season and two starters with eligibility decided to not return putting Loop U into a frenzy. With no reliable veterans, the Devs will fill one of those spots with talented but unproven rs-freshman and former 4-star at Chandler High School, Chase Lucas.

The Sun Devils will back away from their ultra-blitz style of defense and that should stop some of the long-ball grievance. But, it also will reduce pressure which means there won’t be 28 sacks again. The way it’s being assembled leads me to believe the net of schematic changes will improve  ASU’s defensive position. Fans can expect the Sun Devils to bring down that godawful 358 yards per game they donated to opposing teams just through the air.

Many analysts have stated that Manny Wilkins will be the starter at QB for the Devils but Blake Barnett (former Alabama QB) has learned the ASU offense faster than expected and I see him as the starter by early September.

Arizona State skill players are magnificently versatile and cause great problems for opponents. Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage are interchangeable between running back and receiver and both pulled the skill trifecta last year—each rushing for touchdowns, each receiving touchdown passes, and each completing a pass. In fact, Ballage was 3-for-4 with a touchdown.

ASU wants both of them on the field for 80 offensive plays per game and to do that, the Sun Devils will utilize a two-back system much more than before.

The offensive line was a problem (123rd in sacks allowed) and won’t be much better this year.

In summary, the defense will be better, but not top-100. Barnett will pass for some big plays but also run for his life because the OL is just not very good.

It wouldn’t be hard to imagine ASU starting 2-1. It might be even easier to imagine following that with seven losses (Oregon, Stanford, Washington, Utah, USC, Colorado, UCLA) and finishing 3-9, which is Savvy’s projection.

I know… I don’t want to hear that either, but the roster is incomplete, the system is changing, and the schedule is brutal.

While coach Graham has suggested to his players that they should spend less time playing video games with an abundance of fast food and spend more time in the game room watching film, it’s concerning to me that he stopped short of demanding it.

If you love coach Graham, then you can help him by getting your extinguisher and standing by.  The tempest in Tempe is only beginning to heat up.

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11     Arizona                  24 rank points             2 wins

Honestly, I’m not picking on the state of Arizona. It’s a great place with so much to see and it’s crazy and dynamic and beautiful and friendly and courageous. And, I’ve always respected coach Rich Rodriguez and wish him the best. But the Wildcats football team was bad last year and doesn’t show signs of significant revival now and that leads me to this oxymoronic lament:  Poor Rich.

Not that long ago Arizona won the South Division of the PAC-12 and was a major cacti prick for those from the bright lights.  Then last year— three wins.  You could cover for Rich with the “injuries” argument and I get that.  But, I also see a decline in recruiting which disables the Wildcats’ ability to play strong even when starters are infirmed.

So this past off-season, Rich and his crew went to work to fix that and in a short time, he had a top-20 recruiting class packing its bags for Tucson.

It never made it.

Those vultures from the bright lights began pecking at the ‘Cats’ recruits and they didn’t relent until only a carcass remained.

Then, UA defensive backs coach Donte Williams split for Nebraska and the recruitment of elite and cherished 4-star athlete Greg Johnson unwound and  that top-20 class fell to 44th and that depth problem from before is the same  that is now.

It’s not as if nothing good has happened.  For example, Arizona was a top-20 rushing team, averaging over 235 yards on the ground and 26 touchdowns. And then, there’s that satisfying beat-down of Arizona State to end the season.

But the problems were many and they were real and most of them remain.

On the offensive side, there just was no credible passing threat.  Neither Brandon Dawkins nor Khalil Tate exceeded 55% accuracy and their combined td/int ratio was 11/9. 

Tate was an elite recruit and was given one chance to start in 2016.  Things didn’t go well.  Tate bombed so badly that he was  cane-yanked and awkwardly replaced by Matt Morin—awkward not because Morin is a bad football player but rather because he is a tight end.

I watched Tate in high school and, like USC, Texas A&M, Florida State, UCLA, etc., I saw his talent and next-level ability to run a dual-threat system like Arizona.  I’m sure his time will come but for now, he’s working hard to hold off the challenge of 26 year old Donovan Tate (not related) who has a strong arm, was once a 3rd-round MLB draft pick, and proclaims his successful divorce from a long-running chemical romance.

Even if UA comes up with a QB who can pass, there is little assurance that any of the receivers can catch, with the exception of Shun Brown.  Cam Denson and Tyrell Johnson are starters but both have been in the program for years and have yet to make meaningful impacts.  Arizona was a bottom-20 passing team last year and I can’t see any reason to think it will be better now.

The OL showed decent run blocking but was only 85th ranked for yielding sacks, a statistic that is superficially elevated by the fact that the Wildcats didn’t pass as often as most.  Coaches see an improved future with the emergence of sophomore Nathan Eldrige at center and rs-fr Michael Eletise at right tackle.  It’s a utilitarian OL but not a great one.

Nick Wilson is an outstanding RB and he will be backed by J.J. Taylor who was recruited two years ago to become Wilson’s replacement.  That replacement might come sooner than later since Wilson has a history if injuries.  

Dawkins is also a danger on the ground after running up 944 rushing yards in 2016 which explains why he ran the show most of the time.

So, the scouting message to opposing defenses is simple: move a safety forward and focus on the run because the UofA passing attack has all of the potency of a whiffle ball.

Defensively, only nine other FBS teams gave up more points than UA last season. There are a lot of holes in the front but help might be on the way at the linebacking level.  Last week, coach Rodriguez said, “The position that I’m excited about, even though there’s going to be some new guys playing, is at linebacker.  We got really thin there the last two years. … We’ve got about six or seven new linebackers that are probably going to play, but I’m not nervous about it, because they’re more talented than what we’ve had there.” 

On the most-recent depth chart I reviewed, all of the LBs in the two-deep are freshmen except one.

The secondary will be competitive with most of the starters returning, including outstanding safety Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles who will be released into more of a rover role.  Dane Cruikshank is a former 3-star recruit and has been impressive in workouts and is likely to solve one of the corners.

In summary,  opposing defenses will “load the box” to stop the run causing the UA offense to stumble, and opposing offenses will temper their challenges of the UA secondary and choose instead to grind things out against a weak and inexperienced defensive front.

The net result is a struggling win over FCS Northern Arizona, a narrow win at Cal in October, and ten losses,  including the revenge of Arizona State in Tempe.

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12    California                24 rank points          2 wins

Last year, QB Davis Webb averaged 52 passing attempts per game in coach Sonny Dykes Bear-raid offense. Meanwhile, the defense was giving up an average of 519 yards.  Exciting to watch, but the final rose doesn’t go to seven-time losers.  

(No, honestly, I don’t watch it.  I’m a pitiful victim of second-hand Bachelorette-ism.)

Dykes’ exit was not hard to foresee.  He just wasn’t there for the right reasons!  (Oops.)  But, the timing of his release was odd even for Bay area folks.  I mean, I know the time-line and the issues, but you can’t wait FORTY-THREE days after the season has ended.  By then, all of the sensible programs have their new coaches and they’re all tucked in nice ‘n secure.  So, after waiting so long, why would anyone think Cal would come up with an experienced or proven head coach?

Okay, so I like Justin Wilcox because I have some common high school kinship and I believe he is smart and ready, but he’s also unproven at the HC level and he’s a defensive guy taking over an offensive (sometimes literally) program.

Wilcox has recruited a fabulous staff and there-in lies the great hope. 

Beau Baldwin is among the best known HC’s from FCS after his amazing run at Eastern Washington.  As Cal’s new OC, Baldwin will use a multiple-style offense very much like EWU and it seems to me that Cal players will adapt quickly and be effective. 

Tim DeRuyter was hired to run the Cal defense after a dismal run as HC at Fresno State.  Don’t be fooled by that failure because DeRuyter is a proven winner when it comes to defense.

In a way, I find this coaching carousel a bit amusing.  I mean, Wilcox was a defensive coordinator who must now prove himself as a head coach.  Baldwin was a head coach who must now prove himself as an offensive coordinator.  DeRuyter was a head coach who must again prove himself as a defensive coordinator.  

Just a hunch here, but I suspect that two years from now, Beau Baldwin will be Cal’s head coach.  The Bear admins won’t wait long for a turnaround and will be trigger-twitchy so they’re never again last in line for the coaching carousel.

So, here are the problems.  

There is an entirely new coaching staff  in which none of the top three are doing now what they did last year. 

The Baldwin multiple offensive scheme requires a proven QB who can pass.  So far, there aren’t any.  It’s apparent that Chase Forrest will be the starter and he had a very good spring. 

But if his actual game experience means anything, then I’m not convinced he is proven.  Two years ago (before last season’s red shirt), he passed for one touchdown and threw one interception.  Not very convincing and even less when one considers it was against Grambling in a 52-0 win.  The spring game did nothing to prove Forrest’s merits as he hit for less than 52% accuracy and he had two interceptions to go with one touchdown pass.

Although Forrest is still first on the depth chart, Ross Bowers is closing fast and had a much better spring game (3 tds, 0 ints). 

Only two starters return to the OL so RBs Tre Watson (709 yards) and Vic Enwere will have to bulldoze their own successes.  There are no options for Cal—the offensive line MUST develop!

I know this won’t surprise you, but Cal has a great corps of receivers and Demetris Robertson might be one of the best in the West. While only a freshman last year, D.R. caught 50 passes for nearly 800 yards and that was as a secondary target to All American Chad Hansen.

This season, the defense should improve to “awful”; a significant upgrade from “abysmal” which was well-earned after the Bears’ defeatfence finished 127th over all, 125th in yards allowed, over 42ppg, and— I won’t bore you with the rest.

Normally in the spring you expect to see the defense ahead of the offense.  That was not at all the case for Cal.  Instead—check this out— the offense scored on 89% of its possessions!  Eighty-freaking-nine percent!

Obviously, the “D” couldn’t stop anything and that explains how 14 different receivers caught passes.

There are some prospects here, though.  Like former 4-star DE Russell Ude who forced a fumble and came up with two sacks and Aisea Tonilava who had one, but like many oddities here, those successes in the spring didn’t put either name on current two-deeps.

Cameron Saffle’s name is and he is part of a pretty good group of linebackers that includes returning starters Raymond Davison and Devante Downs. 

Most analytics I’ve read think the secondary won’t be very good.

I think differently.

CB Darius Allensworth is a returning starter and a good one. Evan Rambo  made himself known as a freshman and will now be an impact player at FS.   Quentin Tartabull has some experience at SS and is, for now at least, the probable starter.

The most exciting news for this defense is at the other corner.  Although Marloshawn Franklin is currently number one, I can’t imagine that pure freshman Elijah Hicks won’t take over soon.

Hicks is a former 4-star Notre Dame commit who flipped in January and has proven to be a no-nonsense, physical corner with instincts, size (6-foot), and toughness.  In the spring game, he put his credentials on the table with three pass breakups and one interception.  If you haven’t heard this before—Elijah Hicks is a big time talent who is going to become a big time name.

Unfortunately, this new Cal startup is not going to be pretty.  Except for a certain win against Weber State, the Bears’ start the season @North Carolina, Ole Miss, USC, @Oregon, @Washington, and home against Washington State.

Savvy sees this as a 2-10 team and assumes a home win over Arizona.  Personally, I disagree with that last part and think Cal goes 1-11. 

The question is … Will those antsy fingers pull the trigger?  I think that despite a drop in wins, the admins will give Justin more time.  But, they shocked us last year by firing late so what’s to say they won’t do it this year by firing early?

 What will they do?  Will Justin get that final rose?  All we can do is stay tuned.

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