Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback AJ McCarron throws on the run in front of LSU Tigers cornerback Ron Brooks during their NCAA BCS National Championship college football game in New Orleans

CFT Preseason Top 25: No. 3 Alabama

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2011 record: 12-1 overall, 7-1 in SEC (2nd in West)

2011 postseason: BcS title game (21-0 win over LSU)

2011 final AP/coaches’ ranking: No. 1/No. 1

Head coach: Nick Saban (146-56-1 overall; 55-12 in five seasons at Alabama)

Offensive coordinator: Doug Nussmeier (first season)

2011 offensive rankings: No. 16 rushing offense (214.5 ypg); 69th passing offense (215.1 ypg); 31st total offense (429.6 ypg); No. 20 scoring offense (34.8 ppg)

Returning offensive starters: seven

Defensive coordinator: Kirby Smart (sixth season at Alabama, fifth as DC)

2011 defensive rankings: No. 1 rushing defense (72.1 ypg); No. 1 passing defense (111.5 ypg); No. 1 total defense (183.6 ypg); No. 1 scoring defense (8.1 ppg)

Returning defensive starters: four

Location: Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Stadium: Bryant-Denny Stadium (101,821; grass)

Last league title: 2009

Schedule: [view]

Roster: [view]

2011 statistics: [view]

The Good
Nick Saban’s a lot of things (insert various one-liners at your leisure), but he’s not someone who allows himself, his coaching staff or his players to make the same mistake again.  Coming off its BcS title following the 2009 regular season, the Tide consistently stubbed its toe on the way to a three-loss post-crystal season in 2010.  Coming off its second title in three years, Saban’s determined to keep a repeat of 2010 from happening again in 2012.  Could it happen again?  Of course, anything’s possible.  But, in the case, I wouldn’t bet on history repeating itself.

The Bad
If the Tide does party like it’s 2010, however, it will likely be because of a defense that led the country in nearly every major statistical in the run to another BcS title last season.  Gone from that suffocating defense are seven starters, including its top three tacklers and four of the top five total; its top two tackles-for-loss producers; and two of the three leaders in sacks.  Certainly, thanks to the bounty that is recruiting, there is plenty of on-paper talent that can fill the depth chart.  How fast those replacements can actually fill the sizable shoes left in the wake of departures, though, will determine whether a third title in four years is in the offing.

The Unknown
The defense wasn’t the only side of the ball impacted by departures.  The loss of running back Trent Richardson will certainly affect an offense that will be under the direction of a new coordinator — former Washington OC Doug Nussmeier.  While there’s plenty of talent in the backfield — starter Eddie Lacy and backups Jalston Fowler, Dee Hart and T.J. Yeldon — the addition of the pass-leaning Nussmeier could be a signal that Saban is ready to put more responsibility on the right shoulder of AJ McCarron.  The starting quarterback proved last season that he was more than capable of handling the responsibilities in a balanced offensive attack; if called upon — and that’s a big coaching if right now — can he handle a bigger responsibility in the passing game?  Stay tuned …

Make-or-break game: at LSU, Nov. 3
No offense to Arkansas or new SEC member Missouri or even non-conference foe Michigan, the game on both of these team’s schedules this season is a rematch of the BcS title game.  And the field-goal-laden regular season game that cost the Tide a shot at an SEC title.  Much like with the USC-Oregon game the same day, this contest has the potential to feature a pair of unbeaten, Top 5 teams if the schedule plays out as expected, although in this case it will likely determine which team represents its division in the conference championship game.  The bad news for the Tide is the fact that they will have to travel to Death Valley, a place where the Tide has won just once in its last four attempts.

Heisman hopeful: quarterback AJ McCarron
Should Saban decide to put more emphasis on the passing game, and should the Tide perform up to its preseason expectations, McCarron should at least merit considerations on the fringes of the Heisman discussion early on in the season.  In his first season as a starter last year McCarron completed nearly 67 percent of his passes, throwing for over 2,600 yards, 16 touchdowns and just five interceptions, finishing third in the SEC in passing efficiency.  With even a slight bump statistically, McCarron will likely find himself in the Heisman mix.

Return to CFT’s preseason Top 25

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Greg Ward Jr., to Heisman voters: ‘Psssttt, I’m still here, don’t forget’

Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. (1) runs past Connecticut defensive lineman Folorunso Fatukasi, left, en route to a 30-yard touchdown in the first half of an NCAA college football game, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)
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Deservedly so, most of the Heisman focus these first four-plus weeks of the 2016 season has been squarely on Lamar Jackson and the stunningly phenomenal season the Louisville quarterback is putting together. There are others, though, who merit mention.

Case in point? Greg Ward Jr.

In No. 6 Houston’s Thursday night 42-14 romp over UConn, the quarterback completed just over 84 percent of his passes for 389 yards and three touchdowns, and ran for 65 yards and two scores for good measure. The win was the Cougars’ eighth in a row, with the last loss coming Nov. 21 of last year to… these very same Huskies.

On at least one occasion in avenging the loss, though, Ward Jr.’s sterling completion percentage got a little help from one of his receiving friends.

The latest virtuoso performance, which included his third 300-yard passing game of the season, pushed Ward Jr. to 1,503 yards of offense (1,325 passing, 178 rushing) and 13 total touchdowns (eight passing, five rushing) in four games while also battling a lingering shoulder issue. For comparison’s sake, and you know we’re not alone in doing so, Jackson will enter Week 5 with a statistical ledger that’s straight from a teenager’s video game: 1,856 yards of total offense and a ridiculous 25 total touchdowns in his four games.

While it’s still quite a ways down the road, Ward’s Cougars and Jackson’s Cardinals will square off in what’s shaping up to be a monumental mid-November Thursday night game that could go a long way in determining not only the Heisman race, but helping to shape the playoff picture as well.  In between, voters, don’t forget about the kid from Houston.

Report: Wisconsin linebacker Vince Biegel undergoes surgery, out as long as a month

SAN DIEGO, CA - DECEMBER 30:  Sojourn Shelton #8 of the Wisconsin Badgers, Vince Biegel #47 of the Wisconsin Badgers, T.J. Edwards #53 of the Wisconsin Badgers react to a interception during the second half of a game against the USC Trojans in the National University Holiday Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium on December 30, 2015 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
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Just in time for their toughest stretch of the season, No. 8 Wisconsin may be without one of the team’s most important defensive players.

Badgers linebacker Vince Biegel is set to miss the next several weeks after undergoing surgery to insert a screw in his cracked foot.

“He’s been playing on it for the last couple weeks, and it was bothering him a little bit,” Biegel’s father Rocky told ESPN. “He had X-rays last night and confirmed it was cracked. He either plays on it, and then if he breaks it, then he’s going to be out for eight weeks. Either way, he’s got to have surgery on it. So he can keep playing until it breaks or try to go through the season with it and try to fix it. At any time, he could break it all the way through. It was just a crack and they’re just putting a screw in it. It’s a very, very minor crack.”

No matter how minor it is, losing Biegel for as long as a month is a huge blow to a defense that has been among the best in the country this season. Wisconsin does have a bye week after traveling to No. 4 Michigan on Saturday but also have to play No. 2 Ohio State and division rivals Iowa and Nebraska to close out October.

Biegel has nine tackles on the year and a sack but is among the most experienced players on the team having played in 46 games at Wisconsin, including 32 starts. Redshirt freshman Zack Baun is expected to take his place.

If there is one bright spot for head coach Paul Chryst and defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox however, it’s that the Badgers’ linebacking corp is one of the best in the country. Still, as good as Jack Cichy, T.J. Edwards and T.J. Watt have been this year, they’ll have to step up their games with an imposing schedule coming up.

Houston missing four starters for AAC matchup against UConn

SAN MARCOS, TX - SEPTEMBER 24: Duke Catalon #2 of the Houston Cougars runs against Brandon McDowell #6 of the Texas State Bobcats at Bobcat Stadium on September 24, 2016 in San Marcos, Texas. (Photo by Chris Covatta/Getty Images)
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Houston is looking to avenge their only loss of the 2015 season on Thursday night against Connecticut but the Cougars will have to do so a little short-handed.

According to the Houston Chronicle, the team is down a whopping four starters and a key backup against the Huskies: starting linebackers Tyus Bowser (head injury) and Matthew Adams (coaches’ decision), running back Duke Catalon (head injury), cornerback Brandon Wilson (lower leg) plus backup tight end Alex Leslie (ankle injury).

Catalon has already missed a game this season and is arguably the biggest loss for the team as that will force them to rely on quarterback Greg Ward Jr. (who missed last year’s game) even more against UConn. The transfer from Texas is averaging 4.7 yards a carry on the year and had a big game against Oklahoma in the opener.

Coach Tom Herman and the sixth-ranked Cougars still should be able handle their business at home against a conference foe but the mounting injuries this early in the season are starting to get a little concerning if you’re a Houston fan.

Alabama quarterback Blake Barnett officially withdraws from school

ARLINGTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 05:  Blake Barnett #6 of the Alabama Crimson Tide throws before the Advocare Classic against the Wisconsin Badgers at AT&T Stadium on September 5, 2015 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Despite the wishes of Alabama head coach Nick Saban, the Crimson Tide depth chart officially became a little thinner on Thursday.

After nearly a day of speculation, Alabama announced that quarterback Blake Barnett is no longer a part of the Crimson Tide football team.

“We received word this afternoon that Blake Barnett has officially withdrawn from school and is no longer with our program,” Saban said in a statement. “The quarterback position is a very unique position where only one player can play. We are very disappointed any time a player leaves the program who feels he can compete for a starting position elsewhere, rather than here at Alabama. We wish Blake the very best of luck in the future.”

Barnett started the opener against USC and has thrown for 219 yards and two touchdowns on the year. However the redshirt freshman lost the starting job to true freshman Jalen Hurts and has only played sparingly in the first month of the season.

Saban recently said he wanted Barnett to remain with the program but it seems pretty obvious that playing time would be limited as the team’s backup signal-caller and a transfer would be forthcoming. Now it appears the only question is where to for the former five-star recruit, who is a Southern California native and was recruited by nearly everybody coming out of high school.