Michigan's Bell leaps for extra yardage between Celek and Georgia's Washington during the Outback Bowl NCAA college football game in Tampa

CFT Preseason Top 25: No. 14 Michigan State

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2011 record: 11-3 overall, 7-1 in Big Ten (1st in Legends)

2011 postseason: Big Ten title game (42-39 loss to Wisconsin); Outback Bowl (33-30 win over Georgia in 3 OT)

2011 final AP/coaches’ ranking: No. 11/No. 10

Head coach: Mark Dantonio (62-39 overall, 44-22 in five seasons at Michigan State)

Offensive coordinator: Dan Roushar (six seasons at Michigan State, two as OC)

2011 offensive rankings: 78th rushing offense (137.9 ypg); 41st passing offense (252.5 ypg); 56th total offense (390.4 ypg); 37th scoring offense (31 ppg)

Returning offensive starters: four

Defensive coordinator: Pat Narduzzi (six seasons at Michigan State, six as DC)

2011 defensive rankings: 9th rushing defense (100.5 ypg); 11th passing defense (176.9 ypg); 6th total defense (277.4 ypg); 10th scoring defense (18.4 ppg)

Returning defensive starters: eight

Location: East Lansing, Mich.

Stadium: Spartan Stadium (75,005; grass)

Last league title: 2010 (co-champs with Ohio State and Penn State)

Schedule: [view]

Roster: [view]

2011 statistics: [view]

The Good
Eight starters from a defense that finished sixth and 10th nationally in total defense and scoring defense, respectively?  Yeah, that’s pretty good.  The Spartans also return talented experience in the backfield as well as four-fifths of its starting offensive line, which should give first-year quarterback starter Andrew Maxwell time to adjust to his new role as the triggerman of Michigan State’s offense.

The Bad
Despite the returning talent in the backfield and along the line, the Spartans must still find a way to replace four of its top pass catchers in 2011, all of whom combined for a total of 202 of Michigan State’s 288 receptions last season.  One saving grace for the receiving corps is DeAnthony Arnett, the transfer from Tennessee who was granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA.  As a true freshman at Tennessee last season, the former four-star recruit caught 24 passes for 242 yards and two touchdowns, so he adds some much-needed experience, limited as it is, at the position.

The Unknown
After four years of outstanding leadership off the field and production on it, the Spartans are entering uncharted territory in Year One of the post-Kirk Cousins Era.  Exit Cousins and enter Maxwell, the top-rated quarterback in the Class of 2009 who has played sparingly since coming to East Lansing thanks to the presence of Cousins.  If Maxwell would’ve made it through an entire set of spring practices this wouldn’t be as much of an unknown; unfortunately, a knee issue kept him out the last two weeks of spring and cost him valuable reps.  That bump in the road aside, Maxwell certainly possesses the talent to keep the Spartans in Big Ten contention, especially if it’s in his head that he needs to be Maxwell v1.0 and not Cousins v2.0.

Make-or-break game: vs. Michigan, Oct. 20
This one’s the mother of all no-brainers, or at least an aunt.  Not only are the two schools bitter in-state rivals, but both, along with Nebraska, are expected to serve as the front-runners for the Legends title, which the Spartans captured en route to an appearance in the Big Ten’s inaugural championship game.  Last season at home, the Spartans came out on the winning end of a 28-14 score.  This season, Michigan State must make the trek to Ann Arbor to face a team with even higher expectations, if it is to extend its winning streak to in the series to five games.

Heisman hopeful: running back Le’Veon Bell
Bell has a couple of things going in his favor.  First, after being named starter in the middle of October, Bell ended up leading what up until then was an anemic Spartans’ rushing attack with 948 yards and 13 touchdowns.  Secondly, with a first-year starter under center, Bell should shoulder a hefty portion of the offensive workload, especially early in the season.  Add the two together, and the junior is likely to put up the type of numbers that generally grab the attention of Heisman voters.

Return to CFT’s preseason Top 25

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Win over Grambling approved, Cal officially becomes bowl eligible

Jared Goff
Associated Press
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Earlier today we had the report that Cal, they of the normally bowl-eligible six wins on the season, were not actually bowl eligible. The hang up was due to some NCAA red tape on how many scholarships Grambling, a 73-14 victim to the Bears on opening Saturday, had actually awarded this year.

Why the number of scholarships awarded by an opponent of a 6-5 team could determine what glorified exhibition said 6-5 could or could not play is a matter for another time, but the fact is it mattered.

But according to a report from Kevin Gemmell of ESPN.com, the Bears received approval to count the win toward their total, meaning Sonny Dykes and company will go bowling for the first time since 2011.

“We have conferred with both Grambling and the NCAA,” Cal spokesman Wes Mallette told ESPN. “As anticipated, Grambling has confirmed their football program has met the 90 percent financial aid requirement over the rolling two-year average. Therefore, Cal football’s win over Grambling counts toward bowl eligibility. Cal football is bowl eligible.”

The Bears have a chance to become bowl eligible the old fashioned way with a win over Arizona State Saturday in Berkeley.


Tulane reportedly set to fire head coach Curtis Johnson

Curtis Johnson
Associated Press
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The end of the college football regular season brings with it bowl bids, conference championship entries and rivalry games. Along the way, though, come end-of-season firings. So many end of-season firings.

According to a report from Dan Wolken of USA Today Wednesday night, the first one is already on the books. Or at least close to it.

Wolken reports Tulane is set to part ways with head coach Curtis Johnson following the Green Wave’s Friday finale against Tulsa “barring a last-minute change of direction.”

Johnson is 15-33 in nearly four complete seasons at Tulane, reaching a high point of a 7-6 mark wtih a New Orleans Bowl appearance in 2013 but winning two, three and three games in his other three campaigns.

If and when the move becomes official, Tulane will become the 15th FBS school to change head coaches this season, matching the total number of changes during the 2014-15 cycle.

Wolken reports Tulane will hire a new athletics director within the next week, and once that hiring is complete the school will then embark on hiring Johnson’s replacement.

Reports: Michigan DC D.J. Durkin a “strong candidate” for Maryland vacancy

D.J. Durkin
Associated Press

Michigan defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin has emerged a “strong candidate” for the Maryland job, according to reports from Yahoo‘s Pat Forde and Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman Wednesday.

“Durkin, 37, met recently with Maryland officials, sources said,” Forde wrote. “No job offer was made, but the interview went well, sources said.”

Added Feldman:

Durkin is in his first season as Michigan’s defensive coordinator, helping the 9-2 Wolverines jump from 14th to third nationally in yards per play allowed (4.77 to 4.15) and 27th to sixth in scoring defense (22.4 to 14.9).

Prior to working on Jim Harbaugh‘s staff, Durkin served as Will Muschamp‘s defensive coordinator at Florida for two years, and as his special teams coordinator for two years before that. He previously worked at Stanford, Bowling Green (his alma mater) and Notre Dame.

Should he be offered and accept the job, Durkin would immediately become Big Ten East rivals with his mentor Harbaugh.

“This week is so important to our guys, my 100% focus is on this game and our players — that’s what this profession is all about. You’ve got to make sure you’re taking care of the job you have week in and week out. It’s a tough task, especially with this team we have this week,” Durkin told the Detroit Free Press when asked about the reports.

“My goal is to get the best game plan possible together for Ohio State and have our guys go play well. To answer rumors or speculation right now and put something to it, my total focus is 100% on Ohio State and nothing else.”

Illini to decide on fate of interim head coach Bill Cubit by Sunday

Bill Cubit
Associated Press

Illinois will decide whether or not to retain interim head coach Bill Cubit for the full-time job by Sunday, interim AD Paul Kowalczyk told WSKJ-FM Wednesday.

“We need to make that call and figure out which way we’re going for everyone’s sake,” Kowalczyk said, via the Chicago Tribune. “For me, it’s posthaste.”

Illinois closes its regular season Saturday against No. 16 Northwestern in Champaign. The Illini are 5-6 on the year and, for what it’s worth, Cubit desperately wants the job.

Also worth noting: the athletics department is operating under a total state of dysfunction in the wake of AD Mike Thomas‘s firing.

From 670 The Score in Chicago on Wednesday:

Sources tell 670 The Score that as overwhelmed university officials are dithering and providing little guidance, the group of trustees, boosters and alums left to run things can’t yet agree on much.  Some want to hire a search firm with a spotty recent track record, others want to form their own search committee, while another faction thinks they need to act faster by using their own contacts to target specific AD and coaching candidates right now and just get moving.

Any support for retaining Bill Cubit is getting strong push-back from those who don’t believe he wasn’t aware of Tim Beckman’s aberrant behavior, and from some who feel strongly about making a more dynamic hire.

For those keeping score at home: Illinois is dealing with a power vacuum of trustees, boosters and alums battling for control while an interim chancellor and interim athletics director work to reach a resolution on an interim football coach.

And the coaching carousel starts spinning in full four days from now.