Nick Saban

CFT predicts: the SEC

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Home of the last six BCS champions, the SEC will try to make it seven straight this season. The power of the SEC should once again reside in the West with Alabama, Arkansas and LSU all eyeing a trip to Atlanta. The East? It’s a work in progress as traditional powers Florida and Tennessee try to reclaim the glory days. Who knows, maybe Missouri will sneak in and grab a divisional title in its first year.

Looking ahead to the 2012 season, here’s how I see the SEC shaking out this season:

(Let it be known that I reserve the right to change my mind at any time without notice.)

East Division

1. Georgia (last season: 10-4, lost Outback Bowl)
After spending a couple of years on the hot seat, Georgia coach Mark Richt, who is as upstanding and genuine as any coach you’ll meet, sold his soul to Satan for a 10-win season and SEC title game appearance. But, karma’s a you-know-what, and the Bulldogs have witnessed an offseason of unusually high player attrition. Sounds like Georgia doesn’t stand much of a chance, huh? Well, you’re forgetting one thing: it’s the SEC East. Plus, picking South Carolina may as well be the kiss of death. Speaking of which …

2. South Carolina (last season: 11-2; won Capital One Bowl) 
Based on the Gamecocks’ inverse theory of expectations*, where preseason high praise and lauding inevitably lead to disaster later, this should be a relatively good sign for Steve Spurrier and Co. Another good one? Running back Marcus Lattimore. He’s back after suffering a season-ending knee injury a year ago. So, by picking South Carolina to finish second in the East, I’m actually secretly projecting the Gamecocks to finish first. I think. I don’t know.

(*see also: Clemson)

3. Tennessee (last season: 5-7) 
Tennessee is the super sexy sleeper pick for the East title. The Vols return a boatload of starters, but I’m not a huge believer in Tyler Bray yet — though in his defense, Bray wasn’t healthy for much of last season. Nevertheless, this is a crucial year for head coach Derek Dooley. Three losing seasons just isn’t going to do it in Knoxville, not when the fan base is used to winning and the program is pouring money into facilities. The Vols do have two outstanding receivers, though: Justin Hunter (when he’s healthy) and Da’Rick Rogers (when his head is on straight).

4. Florida (last season: 7-6; won Gator Bowl) 
The dropoff in the East starts here. I like the move to pick up Brent Pease as the team’s new offensive coordinator from Boise State and the Gators return some key playmakers from a top 25 defense a year ago. The schedule sets up nicely for Florida too with LSU and South Carolina at home, plus Florida avoids Alabama and Arkansas. If Florida can be a little — okay, a lot — more efficient on offense,  it can be competitive in the East.

5. Missouri (last season in Big 12: 8-5; won Independence Bowl) 
This is where it starts to even out in the East division. Frankly, I can see spots 4-6 all being shuffled around easily. I’m going to go with Missouri here because of the health of quarterback James Franklin. Although coach Gary Pinkel has insisted time and time again Franklin will be ready by the start of the season following shoulder surgery, I’m skeptical that he can stay healthy all season. And it’s not like Mizzou has amazing depth behind Franklin, either. The Tigers will do better in their inaugural year in the SEC than Texas A&M, but I still get the feeling there will be a somewhat rude awakening.

6. Vanderbilt (last season: 6-7; lost Music City Bowl) 
I absolutely love what James Franklin is building at Vanderbilt. He’s a relentless recruiter and the university is recognizing what it needs to do to stay competitive by improving facilities. Franklin may eventually compete, and possibly win, an SEC East title … just not this year. But, watch out: Vandy could upset South Carolina in the first game of the season and the Commodores’ toughest SEC West opponent is Auburn.

7. Kentucky (last season: 5-7) 
Hey, at least Mississippi isn’t alone in the SEC cellar. Kentucky’s non-conference slate is manageable, but that’s about it. Ticket sales are lagging too, showing the crowd in Lexington has probably had enough of the Joker Phillips era unless he does something to generate excitement. I don’t think he does, and the Wildcats finish last in the East.

West Division

1. Alabama (last season: 12-1; won BCS championship)
I picked against the Crimson Tide to win the West prior to last season, which turned out to be a somewhat accurate prediction. But, because I’m a well-documented numbskull, I unwisely disrespected the Tide again in the BCS championship game without considering that it’s nearly impossible to beat Nick Saban head-to-head when he has weeks to prepare. Point being, I’m not going to pick against Alabama again this season. I expect much improvement from quarterback A.J. McCarron after watching him make good (or otherwise non-lethal) decisions in the BCS championship game. Replacing Trent Richardson won’t be a big deal, but going on the road to Arkansas and LSU will be.

2. Arkansas (last season: 11-2; won Cotton Bowl) 
Say what you will about Bobby Petrino the man — and there’s a lot to be said —  but the guy could flat out coach a college football team. But, hey, you go for a ride on a motorcycle with your subordinate who you just so happen to be sleeping with, and a couple lies later, you’re out of a job. It happens. Now, the Hogs move on with former assistant coach John L Smith. The guy has a 10-month contract and a team primed to make a SEC championship run. Tyler Wilson should have been in a hospital with the hits he took last year, so there’s no arguing his toughness. Also returning is the explosive, yet oft-injured running back Knile Davis. Arkansas’ defense is stacked with seniors, and while I like the fact that the Hogs get ‘Bama and LSU at home, Smith is the wild card here.

3. LSU (last season: 13-1; lost BCS championship) 
I’m going to go out on a limb with the preseason No. 1 team (in the coaches’ poll). The defending SEC champion will be this year what Arkansas was last year: a talented team (now without Tyrann Mathieu) stuck in a division with two other phenomenal teams. Because of that, I’m going to put the Tigers at No. 3 in the West. I keep hearing that quarterback Zach Mettenberger is the missing piece for the Tigers if they want to win another BCS championship. That’s interesting considering he’s completely unproven. I know, I know, so were McCarron, Cam Newton and Greg McElroy when they won national championships. That trend stops this year.

4. Auburn (last season 8-5; won Chick-fil-A Bowl) 
2011 was a somewhat sobering year for Auburn, which was just removed from a BCS championship and a Heisman winning quarterback. The Tigers lost five games last season by an average of just under 28 points per game. First order of business? A new defensive coordinator in Brian VanGorder. Second order? Develop some household names on offense not named Phillip Lutzenkirchen in Scot Loeffler‘s more pro style offense. Running back Michael Dyer is gone and he gave the Tigers back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, but Onterio McCalebb is back.  So is leading receiver Emory Blake. I’m looking for both guys to have huge years.

5. Mississippi State (last season: 7-6; won Music City Bowl) 
Auburn and Mississippi State could be flipped, but Auburn should win the early-season matchup in Starkville and I like the Tigers’ talent more. Outside of that game, though, the Bulldogs’ first seven games could give them a hot start; it’s the final five games that could give Mississippi State trouble. Save the season-ending Egg Bowl against Mississippi, the Bulldogs’ schedule is backloaded with games against Alabama, LSU and Arkansas — and two of those are on the road. Also, I’m still waiting for a program-defining win from Dan Mullen.

6. Texas A&M (last season in Big 12: 7-6; won Meineke Car Care Bowl) 
Kevin Sumlin made a promise that Texas A&M will “fight its ass off” this season. Awesome. So will every other team. The Aggies may be changing conferences, but the things that win football games don’t. A&M does have the chance to start off right by hosting Florida on Sept. 8, but there’s nothing fun about A&M’s schedule starting Sept. 29. There’s too much turnover for Sumlin and Co. to contend for a West title right away.

7. Mississippi (last season: 2-10) 
It’s going to be a tough first year for Hugh Freeze. I’m not convinced all the JUCO players in Mississippi could help the Rebels, either. A soft non-conference schedule might help build some confidence for the Rebels, but 2012 has the looks of a winless conference record.

CFT’s SEC champion: Alabama

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Interested in our other 10 conference projections along with Division 1-A (FBS) Independents? View ’em all below by clicking the individual links or our projections landing page HERE. And don’t forget to check out CFT’s preseason Top 25.

ACC
Big East
Big Ten
Big 12
Conference USA
MAC
Mountain West
Pac-12
Sun Belt
WAC
Independents

Jim Harbaugh is looking forward to seeing Chief Osceola and Renegade at the Orange Bowl

TALLAHASSEE, FL - SEPTEMBER 15:  Chief Osceola, mascot of the Florida State Seminoles plants a spear at midfield prior to a game against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons at Doak Campbell Stadium on September 15, 2012 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh and Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher got together for a joint press conference in Miami today as the two coaches prepare to face one another in the Orange Bowl on December 30. Harbaugh said he is looking forward to the matchup but seemed to be much more interested in getting a chance to witness one of the pregame traditions of Florida State; Chief Osceola riding on Renegade and planting a spear in the turf.

“I’ve never been to a game at Florida State,” Harbaugh said. “I’ve always wanted to go there and see what that atmosphere was like in person. This will be as close as I’ve ever been to that. I’m excited for that. I know I’m going to get some chills when that Appaloosa comes riding out there.”

Of course, this isn’t exactly a home game for the Seminoles, so sometimes pregame traditions are put on ice for the bowl season. Knowing this, Harbaugh made his case and made sure everyone listening knows just how cool he thinks it is.

“I want to see that. That’s one of the cool things,” Harbaugh said. “We have cool things and other teams have cool things, but that is right up there as one of the coolest things.”

Fortunately for Harbaugh, he will indeed get a chance to witness this pregame routine in person. Florida State Associate Athletics Director Jason Dennard said on Twitter Chief Osceola and Renegade will make the trip to Miami from Tallahassee.

Houston reportedly closing in on a head coach; Kiffin and Miles still being considered

TUSCALOOSA, AL - APRIL 18:  Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin of the Alabama Crimson Tide watches action prior to the University of Alabama A Day spring game at Bryant-Denny Stadium on April 18, 2015 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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The Houston Cougars are reportedly hoping to have a new head coach named as soon as this coming weekend. As expected, Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin and former LSU head coach Les Miles are among the final candidates being considered for the job.

One candidate no longer to be in the mix, according to a report from Joseph Duarte of The Houston Chronicle, is Oklahoma offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. That should be good news for Oklahoma, as it likely means Riley will be back in Norman for at least one more season to run the offense (and with Baker Mayfield coming back for 2017, the Sooners offense should continue to rack up some big numbers).

As noted by Duarte, five total candidates were vetted by Houston for the head coaching job. Kiffin, Miles and interim Houston coach Todd Orlando and offensive coordinator Major Applewhite along with Riley all were checked by the university as a decision is approaching.

KD Cannon promised Matt Rhule Baylor will beat Boise State in Cactus Bowl

WACO, TX - SEPTEMBER 12:  KD Cannon #9 of the Baylor Bears at McLane Stadium on September 12, 2015 in Waco, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Baylor introduced new head coach Matt Rhule in a press conference setting today, and it would seem Rhule has already gotten some opportunities to speak to his new players in Waco. One player in particular delivered a promise to the new Bears head coach. Baylor wide receiver KD Cannon reportedly made a bowl game guarantee to Rhule.

Baylor started the season with a 6-0 record but dropped their last six games to enter the bowl season at just 6-6. The Broncos of Boise State finished the season with a 10-2 record and second in the Mountain Division behind Wyoming in the Mountain West Conference. Boise State has won six bowl game sin the last seven seasons between head coaches Chris Petersen (now at Washington) and Bryan Harsin.

Personally, I’m still trying to figure out how many people thought pairing Boise State and Baylor in a bowl game would be a good idea, considering the unfortunate story surrounding former Boise State and Baylor player Sam Ukwuachu. We can focus plenty on the non-controversial stuff leading up to the Cactus Bowl, but that is one story that cannot be totally overlooked either, especially given the current state of the Baylor football program.

Baylor and Boise State have never faced each other in football. The two will play in the Cactus Bowl in Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona on Tuesday, Dec. 27.

Mark Emmert thought “Penn State’s season was spectacular”

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - JULY 23:  NCAA president Mark Emmert speaks during a press conference at the NCAA's headquarters to announce sanctions against Penn State University's football program on July 23, 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The sanctions are a result of a report that the university concealed allegations of child sexual abuse made against former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, who was found guilty on 45 of 48 counts related to sexual abuse of boys over a 15-year period. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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There was a certain irony in seeing Penn State win and celebrate a Big Ten championship in Indianapolis on Saturday night. Penn State, five years after the horrifying revelations of the Jerry Sandusky scandal ripped through the program, university, and community, was slammed hard by the NCAA, whose offices are located in Indianapolis with sanction terms that were thought to be crippling for the program at the time in the summer of 2012.

So, with Penn State clinching the Big Ten title in the home city of the NCAA headquarters, what did NCAA President Mark Emmert have to say about it?

I thought Penn State’s season was spectacular,” Emmert said while taking questions at the Learfield Intercollegiate Athletics Forum in New York on Wednesday: “What coach [James] Franklin has done there, I think, is very, very impressive.”

Emmert has been criticized by many who have taken issue with the NCAA getting involved with any decisions regarding Penn State’s football program in the aftermath of the Sandusky fallout following the release of the Freeh Report, which the NCAA used in place of its own in-depth investigation.

“It’s great to see it bounce back and do well,” Emmert said of Penn State’s 11-2 season. “While people will occasionally say those sanctions were meant to cripple the university, that’s not true at all. I’ve always said and always believed Penn state is a wonderful university, because it is, and secondly it’s got great sports traditions.”

Emmert may say the sanctions dropped on Penn State were never meant to cripple the university, but that is exactly what a four-year postseason ban and a massive reduction of available scholarships (reduced to 15 per year as opposed to the typical 25) is intended to do. Regardless, Emmert had nothing but praise for Penn State’s 2016 season.

“How can you not be pleased that they’re playing good football again? That’s very good stuff.”