Holy Cow! Q&A on Washington Star Hau’oli Kikaha, Bowl Outlook for Utah and Colorado and Harry Caray

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You’ve got questions, and The College Football Huddle has answers. Maybe. At the very least, I’ll try. Every Thursday, I will respond to your inquires on social media at either @kensing45 or @cfbhuddle, or via Facebook at facebook.com/TheCollegeFootballHuddle.

Hau’oli Kikaha’s star turn in 2013 was a story that really deserved more national attention. He returned from missing the equivalent of nearly two seasons to record 13 sacks–as many as Clemson All-American Vic Beasley and more than every other player in college football save Trent Murphy or Marcus Smith.

At last year’s Pac-12 media day, I asked Steve Sarkisian why Washington’s defense improved so dramatically in 2012 from a disastrous 2012, and he touted coordinator Justin Wilcox’s adjusting of scheme to fit his personnel’s skill set.

Wilcox followed Sarkisian to USC, but new coordinator Pete Kwiatkowksi arrives at Washington with a proven track of crafting strategies that maximize his pass-rushers’ abilities. His Boise State defense in 2012 ranked No. 13 in sacks made, and his 2010 unit led the nation.

Necessary adjustments needed to the Huskies defense are negligible, but one tweak he may introduce is playing Kikaha as more of a drop-end than a down-lineman.

Washington has the talent in its front seven for Kwiatkowski to tinker, despite losing Josh Shirley earlier this month. The linebacker corps is among the Pac-12’s best, returning stalwart John Timu and scary-talented Shaq Thompson. Danny Shelton is an elite gap plugger up front, while Cory Littleton and converted tight end Evan Hudson can cause havoc in the backfield alongside Kikaha.

Comparing Utah and Colorado purely head-to-head, the Utes are just better and there’s not really room for argument. That doesn’t necessarily translate to Utah having a higher likelihood of a bowl game, however.

Utah plays a significantly more difficult schedule. The Utes’ nonconference includes a home date with Fresno State, the reigning Mountain West champion and contender to repeat, and a trip to the Big House to face Michigan.

Conversely, Colorado draws UMass, Hawaii and in-state rival Colorado State. The Rams finished 2013 strong, most notably with their comeback defeat of Washington State in the New Mexico Bowl, and head coach Jim McElwain has CSU headed in the right direction. But should the Buffs pick up the win there, it’s almost a slam dunk that they get halfway to bowl eligibility just from nonconference play.

The Buffs also draw a much more favorable conference slate. Five of their nine Pac-12 games are at home; Utah gets just four home Pac-12 dates. Colorado avoids Stanford from the North, whereas the Utes travel to The Farm in a game every Cardinal on last year’s roster is sure to have circled on his calendar.

But ultimately, while Colorado’s road is slightly more manageable, I like the Utes to sneak back into the postseason. A 2-1 nonconference docket means Kyle Whittingham’s bunch needs to go 4-5 in Pac-12 play. Last year’s upset of Stanford proved that Rice-Eccels can be a difficult venue for visitors.

Still, the Utes’ bowl hopes will likely rely on winning at least once on the road–perhaps Nov. 29, the season finale at Colorado, will be the win that gets Utah back to the postseason?

Sixty? That can’t possibly be right. Among my earliest sports memories are watching Andre Dawson shine for the late 1980s Chicago Cubs. I have fond memories of watching Cubs afternoon broadcasts on WGN with my dad. Even as a youngster–or perhaps, especially as a youngster–I got a kick out of Harry Caray.

My dad loved Harry and did an impression of him that both predates and puts Will Farrell’s to shame (say nothing of Ryan Dempster’s. For all of our sake, Ryan: Please stop). Of course, as a youngster watching Harry calling the Cubs’ magical 1989 season, when Andre Dawson was my favorite player, I obviously had no clue Harry was living up to his reputation as a Bud Man.

Fast forward to about 2 minutes in the below clip for a great Harry Caray drinking story:

I spent my last Halloween in college partying as Harry Caray, and you can bet there were plenty of hacky imitated calls of the Hawk on that. Recounting that night actually makes me feel older than The Hawk qualifying for AARP; at 31, I am no longer capable of broing-out with the zeal I once did.

The arrival of my first child earlier this summer was the final nail in the coffin of Bro Kyle. And that’s just fine. Quite frankly, I’m more excited about the prospect of one day sharing moments like my dad and I shared watching those Cubs teams with Liam.

Now, from Cubs to Bears:

Well…it’s tough for the Golden Bears to be any worse.

Seriously though, I do like Cal to make strides in Sonny Dykes’ second year and perhaps curb some of the early hot seat talk. Louisiana Tech made considerably improvement in Dykes’ second season as head coach, improving from a 5-7 finish in 2010 to eight wins and the WAC championship in 2011.

Moreover, Dykes faced a quarterback controversy in that 2011 campaign, which lasted into the middle of the season. He has no such issue in Year 2 at Cal. Jared Goff is talented and is working with a great group of receivers. Bryce Treggs and Kenny Lawler have genuine star potential.

Expect a bigger role for Khalfani Muhammad this season, as well. Last season was not indicative of Dykes’ style; he’s typically relied on a more balanced run game to complement his air-raid passing attack. To wit, Louisiana Tech’s Kenneth Dixon led the nation in rushing touchdowns in 2012. But digging early holes and inconsistent from the running backs hindered the Bears’ ability to jump-start the ground game last season.

Of course, Cal’s big problem in 2013 was its defense. Only lowly Idaho gave up more points. The Golden Bears lost three defenders to the NFL draft, further complicating new coordinator Art Kaufman’s already difficult task. Right now, the defense is a complete unknown. Its progression and limiting mental mistakes such as penalties are the differences in another trying year, and competing with Washington State for a lower-tier bowl bid.

It’s not fair to offer an authoritative critique on the College Football Playoff now, before even one season under this new system. The first year will provide some clarity as to what factors will weigh most heavily for entry into the Playoff, but until then, we’re left only with conjucture–save on one front.

The Playoff is virtually unattainable for the non-AQ conferences and independents, save Notre Dame. It’s not too difficult to read between the lines on this front, given the SEC and ACC mandates on nonconference scheduling.

The inherent irony is that, while playoff talk has persisted for as long as I can remember, it seemed to really gain a groundswell after the 2008 season. That campaign ended with Utah finishing the sole unbeaten season in FBS with a dominant Sugar Bowl win over Alabama.

With its win over Alabama, Utah beat just one less ranked opponent than BCS champion Florida but also played one fewer game than the Gators. The Utes absolutely deserved a title shot, yet the College Football Playoff is setting itself up in such a way that they likely would have been denied the opportunity. The same is true for the 2010 TCU Horned Frogs.

Power conference elites might roll their eyes and scoff at the mere suggestion the non-power leagues at least have a crack at the championship, citing the 2007 Hawaii Sugar Bowl team or 2012 Northern Illinois Orange Bowl team. And they have a point. But the deserving non-power conference teams that prove themselves, as Utah did in 2004 and 2008 and TCU did in 2010, should not be frozen out.

Now, TCU and Utah both parlayed their Mountain West success into power conference invites. But would the Big 12 and Pac-12 have come calling had those programs been denied the chance to shine on the BCS stage?

For the time being, my primary concern with the new landscape is the sport’s power brokers are paving over the preexisting glass ceiling with concrete. The logic in doing so is no different than the motivating factor behind any major change in college football: revenue. The Playoff feels somewhat like a Swiss bank account for the Power 5 to keep the non-power conferences from dipping their hands into.

Once the Playoff actually begins and it’s wildly entertaining and means more football, I’m all aboard. But in the meantime, it’s tough to not see it as an exclusionary cash-grab by the Haves, at the expense of the Have-Nots.