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CFT Predicts: the SEC

Nick Saban AP

As the 2013 season draws near, we peek into our crystal ball and guess project how each of the five major conferences will play out. Today, we examine the SEC. 

And while we’re at it, check out our other conference previews: Big Ten, Pac-12

SEC East

1.  South Carolina (Last year: 11-2; beat Michigan in Outback Bowl)
What happened last season?
The Gamecocks put together an 11-2 season for the second straight year — the first time in school history the program has accomplished such a feat. Yet, Steve Spurrier‘s team still didn’t make it to the SEC championship game despite handing it to SEC champ Georgia 35-7 in Columbia. Also, this happened. You may have seen it before on SportsCenter. 

So why are they ranked here?
South Carolina and Georgia have taken their respective turns representing the East division in the SEC title for the past three years, and it looks like 2013 will be two-team race between these two once again. The Gamecocks get the edge this time because of their defense, which features preseason Heisman candidate Jadeveon Clowney. But it’s not just the projected No. 1 NFL draft pick that makes this defense so good. Cornerback Victor Hampton and defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles also return.

Anything else?
That’s a Clowney question, bro. But for real, the offense loses wide receiver Ace Sanders. However, the Gamecocks have a solid wide receiver group led by Bruce Ellington and Damiere Byrd. 

2. Georgia (Last year: 12-2; beat Nebraska in Capital One Bowl) 
What happened last season?
If only Chris Conley had been a few yards further, Georgia would have been playing in the BCS championship game. Still, 12-2 and a January bowl win aren’t too shabby. Despite getting blasted by South Carolina midway through the season, UGA still won the East division for the second year in a row.

So why are they ranked here?
The Bulldogs’ offense returns so many key players, including seventh-year senior quarterback Aaron Murray and running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. But conversely, it’s the defense that loses just about everyone. There’s plenty of talent on that side of the ball and Todd Grantham is considered one of the best in the business at defense coordinator, but there’s enough turnover to cost the Bulldogs the top spot in the East.

Anything else?
Georgia is the media’s favorite to win the SEC East this year, but the month of September could get the Bulldogs off to a slow start. Georgia faces four tough opponents to start the season: Clemson, South Carolina, North Texas* and LSU.

(*Kidding, obviously. But seriously #GoMeanGreen.) 

3. Florida (Last year: 11-2; lost to Louisville in Sugar Bowl)
What happened last season?
It wasn’t always pretty, but Florida won 11 regular season games with arguably one of the tougher schedules in college football. However, the Gators’ season ended in a Sugar Bowl loss to Louisville, something only our favorite Cardinals fan Mark Ennis could have foreseen.

So why are they ranked here?
This is where the Gators fit. The East will continue to be dominated by Georgia and South Carolina at least for another season, and there are some injury concerns on offense for Florida with wide receiver Andre Debose out for the year and running back Matt Jones out indefinitely with a viral infection. Quarterback Jeff Driskel is now a junior and should be a bigger part of this offense. On defense, this team needs to replace stars Matt Elam, Jelani Jenkins and Sharrif Floyd.

Anything else?
It doesn’t affect SEC records, but the Gators have two meaty non-conference games: the annual rivalry with Florida State and an early season game against Miami, a team some feel are flying under the radar.

4. Vanderbilt (Last year: 9-4; beat NC State in the Music City Bowl)
What happened last season?
Seven straight wins to end 2012 gave Vanderbilt its first nine-win season since 1915. James Franklin continues to do an outstanding job building the Commodores’ brand and is now quickly becoming one of the most intriguing coaches in the game.

So why are they ranked here?
That nine-win season? Yeah, Vandy returns 17 starters from that team a year ago. Leading receiver Jordan Matthews is back, but Chris Boydthe team’s second-leading receiver, is currently dealing with a legal issue related to a horrific rape allegation involving four former VU players. Still there should be plenty of firepower on offense and the defensive front seven should be a strength.

Anything else?
Vanderbilt’s next step is to knock off a SEC favorite. This team will have four opportunities to do so against South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Texas A&M. A season-opener against Ole Miss could also build some early momentum for the ‘Dores.

5. Missouri (Last year: 5-7) 
What happened last season?
Missouri’s first year in the SEC was, shall we say, eye-opening. The Tigers suffered their first losing season under Gary Pinkel in eight years thanks, at least in part, to the fact that quarterback James Franklin couldn’t stay healthy. Missouri’s only two conference wins came against Kentucky and Tennessee.

So why are they ranked here?
It’s not a stretch to think Mizzou can have, say, a two-game swing in the win column this season. The Tigers don’t have to play Alabama or LSU out of the West and there are about four winnable conference games on the schedule. Franklin has to stay healthy, which could again be an issue if the offensive line doesn’t come through. Running back Henry Josey returns after missing last season with a significant knee injury and one-time five-star wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham is a sophomore who needs to have a big year. A lot of previously unknown names are going to have to emerge as playmakers.

Anything else?
Pinkel has been the head coach of Mizzou for 13 years if you can believe it. And, if nothing else, the Tigers have been fairly consistent with winning records. But a new conference and a disappointing 2012 campaign has made the seat beneath Pinkel’s keister a little warm. If there’s not at least a little bit of a turnaround, or some reason to be excited about the future, Mizzou could be looking for another direction by year’s end.

6. Tennessee (Last year: 5-7)
What happened last season?
The Vols suffered their third straight losing season and Derek Dooley was punished by being demoted to the wide receivers coach for the Dallas Cowboys.

So why are they ranked here?
Butch Jones is a good coach and he should be the guy to finally get things turned around for Tennessee. He’s a natural with young people and players love him. That said, Neyland Stadium wasn’t built in a day — neither were UT’s shiny new facilities — and the Vols took a solid gut punch in the passing game with the departures of wide receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson. Defense has been bad too. There’s a lot to fix and not a lot to work with right away.

Anything else?
The stretch between Sept. 21 (at Florida) and Oct. 26 (at Alabama) is ruthless and unkind. But winning one game against either the Gators, Georgia or South Carolina would go a long way for Jones no matter the final record.

7. Kentucky (Last year: 2-10)
What happened last season?
The Wildcats beat Samford and Kent State, the latter of which almost had a chance to make a BCS bowl appearance. Strange, indeed. Either way, Joker Phillips got canned.

So why are they ranked here?
If Tennessee is building things “brick by brick”, then Kentucky’s going to need some heavier materials. UK made an interesting hire with former Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops, who is recruiting extremely well early. Signing Day 2014 is still a ways off and it’s yet to be seen if those efforts will pay dividends down the road. For now, the Wildcats have too much to improve upon to make a real dent.

Anything else?
The schedule the Wildcats go through doesn’t help. Road games against South Carolina and Georgia aren’t even the worst games — that distinction would belong to hosting Alabama on Oct. 12.

SEC West

1. Alabama (Last year: 13-1; beat Notre Dame in BCS championship)
What happened last season?
Oh, not much. The Tide won the SEC and then mercilessly beat Notre Dame in the BCS championship, giving Nick Saban his third national title in four years with Alabama. Of course, it wasn’t all perfect. Texas A&M came into Tuscaloosa in November and stunned the top-ranked team in the country 29-24. Saban has since been playing that game on loop around the football facilities because money isn’t the root of all evil — satisfaction is.

So why are they ranked here?
Unless the wheels inexplicably fall off or Saban takes his coaching talents to the pros, Alabama is in rolling along (see what we did–ah forget it) and there’s nothing anybody can do to stop it. We could talk about returning starters like A.J. McCarron or C.J. Moseley, or how the Tide’s schedule doesn’t feature any of the SEC East teams expected to finish at or near the top of that respective division. Those are all fine and well, but as long as Saban is wearing crimson, this program is going to be a perennial favorite.

Anything else?
Because college football black magic is very, very real, it should be pointed out again that Alabama has never have won a BCS title when ranked atop the preseason coaches poll. Guess where they’re ranked this year.

2. LSU (last year: 10-3; lost to Clemson in Chick-fil-A Bowl)
What happened last season?
The Tigers shocked the college football world by beating up on a much more talented North Texas team* to open the year and came thisclose to beating Alabama at home (tailback screen FTW!) on their way to a 10-win season. LSU lost by one point to Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl as Tajh Boyd pulled off the toughest individual postseason performance of the year.

(*Kidding, obviously. But seriously #GoMeanGreen.) 

So why are they ranked here?
LSU is an interesting team who’s getting overshadowed by two other SEC West teams. Understandably, Alabama is the overwhelming favorite not only to win the West division, but to win the SEC and get back to another national championship. But the Tigers shouldn’t be counted out so quickly. Defense will always be a staple and Zach Mettenberger has all the tools to be an elite quarterback, he just has to put it all together. Ironically, perhaps his best game last season came in that agonizing loss to Alabama.

Anything else?
Les Miles‘ team has some big games this year, including road games against Georgia and Alabama, and a season-opener against TCU. This is a program that’s thrived in those environments over the last few years (sans a BCS title loss to Alabama in 2012). They’ll need to again if they want to knock off the preseason favorite.

3. Texas A&M (last year: 11-2; beat Oklahoma in Cotton Bowl)
What happened last season?
Kevin Sumlin started Johnny Manziel at quarterback and all of us — defenses, media members, all of us — looked like idiots. Also, Manziel won the Heisman as a redshirt freshman. Just as a reminder.

So why are they ranked here?
Manziel is back… maybe. In fact, this is probably one of the few predictions that actually deserves an asterisk next to it. With the NCAA reportedly investigating whether Manziel improperly received money for signing thousands of pieces of memorabilia, it’s possible he could face suspension. If he does, and depending when and for how long, the Aggies’ win total could dip tremendously. There are a lot of questions defensively even with Manziel in the lineup, and while I personally don’t believe the offseason “controversies” will affect Manziel’s play on the field, he still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback.

Anything else?
Wide receiver Mike Evans burst on to the scene last year with over 1,100 yards as a freshman. All the talk is about Manziel, but Evans provides an athletic, big target to throw to in this offense. He could have an even bigger year as a sophomore.

4. Ole Miss (Last year: 7-6; beat Pitt in the BBVA Compass Bowl) 
What happened last season?
Hugh Freeze made one of the bigger first-season splashes by leading the Rebels to a seven-win season and then pulling in one of the most impressive recruiting classes for 2013.

So why are they ranked here?
The Rebels are considered to be on the upswing, but the first half of their ’13 schedule is bordering on unfair. Ole Miss travels to Vanderbilt, to Texas in non-conference play, to Alabama, and to Auburn before finally catching a break and hosting Texas A&M and LSU. It seems impossible to get through that stretch unscathed, but if quarterback Bo Wallace cuts down on his mistakes (17 interceptions a year ago) and the defense can clamp down even a little (the Rebels gave up an average of 36 points in five losses to the aforementioned six opponents last season thanks in part to 66 points from the Longhorns), then this team should find itself with some quality wins headed into an easier second half of the schedule.

Anything else?
If you think Ole Miss has broken any recruiting rules, Freeze asks that you email compliance@olemiss.edu. Thanks and hotty toddy!

5. Auburn (Last year: 3-9)
What happened last season?
The Tigers failed to win a conference game and Gene Chizik, two years removed from winning a BCS championship, was fired.

So why are they ranked here?
Gus Malzahn, who was the offensive coordinator for Auburn when it won that national title over Oregon in 2011, returns to The Plains as head coach hoping to turn things around. There are plenty of guys returning on both sides of the ball… it’s just that neither side played particularly well. It’s not like there’s a lack of talent at Auburn, so if Malzahn and his coaching staff, which features veteran defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, can get the production out of their players in a way Chizik couldn’t, then there’s no reason this team can’t go bowling this year.

Anything else?
Nick Marshall, a former Georgia defensive back, will be the starting quarterback for the Tigers. Meanwhile, Kiehl Frazier, Auburn’s former starting quarterback, has moved to defensive back.

6. Mississippi State (Last year: 8-5; lost to Northwestern in the Gator Bowl) 
What happened last season?
Things were looking good for Dan Mullen‘s team, which was 7-0 headed into a late October game against Alabama. That’s when it fell apart and the schedule got significantly harder. The Bulldogs lost 38-7 in Tuscaloosa and went on to drop five of their last six games, including a bowl loss to Northwestern.

So why are they ranked here?
Because the SEC West is arguably the deepest division in college football. It’s quite possible that six teams could be bowl eligible here. Quarterback Tyler Russell is back, but there will be plenty of new faces at wide receiver. Six starters return on defense, but in all, this is a relatively young team that will be tested when it faces South Carolina, Texas A&M and Alabama in consecutive weeks.

Anything else?
If Bulldogs center Dillon Day plays as well as he bowls, then MSU should have a spectacular season.

7. Arkansas (Last year: 4-8)
What happened last season?
Bobby Petrino drove his motorcycle off a road. John L. Smith then drove the BCS-ready Razorbacks into the ground. Hog fans didn’t take either particularly well.

So why are they ranked here?
Arkansas brings in a new coach in Bret Bielema, but loses quarterback Tyler Wilson, its top two leading rushers and receivers from a year ago. Defense was a major liability last season and will have to improve significantly if the offense doesn’t get going. And that schedule? Brutal. The Hogs may not win a game past September.

Anything else?
Freshman running back Alex Collins had some drama trying to Fayetteville, but in Bielema’s run-heavy offense, he could make a huge impact right away.

—————————————-

John Taylor‘s prediction:

East
1. Georgia
2. South Carolina
3. Florida
4. Tennessee
5. Vanderbilt
6. Kentucky
7. Missouri

West
1. Alabama
2. LSU
3. Texas A&M
4. Ole Miss
5. Mississippi State
6. Arkansas
7. Auburn
Ben’s SEC champ: Alabama
John’s SEC champ: Alabama
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UCLA defense leads Bruins past Virginia

UCLA Virginia Football

No. 7 UCLA’s (1-0) defense had to do a little bit of everything in picking up what turned out to be a much tougher game than anticipated at Virginia (0-1). The Bruins held on for a 28-20 victory on the road, but the offense had little to do with the result.

UCLA scored three touchdowns in the second quarter of the game, and it could not have come on a better day. UCLA’s offense was off-key for most of the early afternoon kickoff, converting on just seven of 18 third down attempts and failing on both fourth down conversion attempts. The Bruins managed just 116 rushing yards and gave up five sacks to the Virginia defense. Brett Hundley, entering the season as a Heisman hopeful, did not have much of a Heisman-quality game. Hundley completed 20 of 33 pass attempts for 242 yards but failed to send one pass into the end zone. He did, however, rush for one touchdown and 39 yards.

Virginia managed to move the ball on UCLA for most of the game, and the Cavaliers held the edge in time of possession by holding the football for 34 minutes 30 seconds. Quarterback Greyson Lambert got off to a rough start, but a quarterback change to Matt Johns seemed to give the home team a spark on offense. Johns completed 13 of 22 passes for 154 yards and a pair of touchdowns to give Virginia life in the second half. the damage done by the first half turnovers though were too much of a hole to dig out of on this day.

It was not much to speak of as far as a complete game effort by UCLA, but the offense did make some key plays in the fourth quarter to keep Virginia off the field. At some point though, and hopefully soon, the Bruins will have to get back to making things happen on offense as well. Perhaps they will be given a pass for playing a noon game on the east coast, which is no easy feat for any west coast team in football (college or NFL).

UCLA returns home next weekend to host Memphis. The following week the Bruins will head to Arlington, Texas to take on the Texas Longhorns.

Virginia will stay home and host Mike London‘s previous program, Richmond.

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Five-peat: Cyclones latest FBS victim for North Dakota State

Aaron Wimberly, Carlton Littlejohn AP

Fear the Bison indeed.

Saturday afternoon in Ames, North Dakota State beat — note the lack of the word “upset” — the homestanding Iowa State Cyclones, walking out with a 34-14 beating and/or woodshedding of ISU.  A few years ago, such a win would’ve been seismic.  Now?  Just another day at the football office for the Bison.

The season-opening win marks the fifth straight season that NDSU, the FCS champions the past three season, has knocked off an FBS team.  In fact, it’s the fourth win against a team from one of the so-called Power Five conferences in that span.

The growing list of slain FBS victims is as follows:

– a season-opening 24-21 win over Kansas State in 2013.
— a 22-7 win over Colorado State in 2012.
— a 2011 win over Minnesota by the score of 37-24.
–a 6-3 win over Kansas in the 2010 opener.

Memo to FBS football programs, especially those lower-level Power Five conference teams: Stop.  Scheduling. The Bison.  You’re welcome.

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Ohio State shows holes but powers past Navy

J.T. Barrett, Jacoby Boren, Bernard Sarra

It took some time for things to come together, but Urban Meyer finally saw his No. 5 Ohio State (1-0) team let their size and strength advantage paved the way to a season opening win in Baltimore against Navy (0-1). Playing without Braxton Miller at quarterback, the Buckeyes offense lacked much to give Navy trouble for most of the afternoon, but eventually the Buckeyes found a way to wear down the Navy defense and take advantage of some holes down the stretch of a 34-17 victory.

The second half started in wild fashion. Ohio State’s Darren Lee picked up and returned a fumble for a 61-yard touchdown early in the third quarter, but Navy stormed right down field with a quick four-play touchdown drive over 84 yards to regain the lead. Barrett unloaded a deep pass to Devin Street later in the third quarter for an 80-yard touchdown following a touchback on a punt. Ohio State went on to pull away in the second half by outscoring Navy 28-10 in the second half.

J.T. Barrett completed 12 of 15 pass attempts for 226 yards and a pair of touchdowns with one interception. Barrett also led the Ohio State running game with 50 rushing yards. In the end, the formula was a familiar one for Ohio State without Miller, although at times the absence of Miller was unmistakable.

Going into the season the biggest questions for Ohio State were probably focused on the state of the running game and the stability of the offensive line. One game in, those concerns will still need to be addressed in Columbus. In this game, Navy managed to show why those concerns were legitimate, and the Midshipmen even showed an ability to wear down Ohio State’s defense at times. The Buckeyes had the talent to avoid letting it hurt them in the win column this weekend, but Meyer and his staff know what needs to improve moving forward.

Navy’s quarterback, Keenan Reynolds, ran the football 23 times for 42 yards and a touchdown before being removed from the game late in the fourth quarter. Ryan Williams-Jenkins was Navy’s leading rusher on the afternoon with 118 yards. Navy left points on the scoreboard though, but missed opportunities may not have led to a different outcome. The Buckeyes remain undefeated in the regular season since Meyer was named the head coach. Ohio State’s two losses last season both came in postseason play.

Ohio State will return home to Columbus next weekend, and it should make for another good defensive battle. Virginia Tech will be the opponent, and the Hokies could bring one of the better defenses in the ACC to town with them. Virginia Tech’s defense should be bigger and stronger than Navy’s, so Ohio State will have to really work on getting more out of the offense.

Navy will head to Philadelphia next week for a game against Temple. The Owls are coming off a season-opening victory at Vanderbilt. Navy will not play a true home game in Annapolis until September 20 when they host another Big Ten opponent, Rutgers.

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Irish will be down a starting DB for opener

BYU v Notre Dame Getty Images

An injury will cost Notre Dame an experienced member of its secondary for the season opener this afternoon.

According to IrishIllustrated.com, starting safety Austin Collinsworth has a strained MCL and will not play in the game against Rice.  The school would only confirm that Collinsworth would not play due to an unspecified injury.

Not only is the defensive back out for the opener, the website is reporting he could miss a couple of weeks.  That would put the senior’s availability for the primetime matchup next Saturday with Michigan up in the air as well.

Last season, Collinsworth started 11 of the 13 games in which he played.  Elijah Shumate and his five career starts will take over for Collinsworth.

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Blake Sims, not Jacob Coker, to get start for Tide vs. WVU

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In the end, the presumptive frontrunner will find himself on the sidelines when Alabama’s offense takes to the field for the first time in 2014.

A couple of hours prior to the opener against West Virginia, and as was hinted at earlier in the week, Nick Saban confirmed to ESPN that Blake Sims will be the Tide’s starting quarterback for this afternoon’s game.  Sims, AJ McCarron‘s backup in 2013, had been engaged in a competition throughout summer camp with Jacob Coker, the Florida State transfer who many (most?) had expected to stake his claim as McCarron’s successor.

The Tide head coach said the reason for his decision was that Sims knew the system better.  While both Sims and Coker are in their first year with new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, the former had the benefit of an entire spring learning the new scheme.  Coker, meanwhile, didn’t come to the Tide until the summer.

Even as  Sims will start the WVU game, it didn’t sound as if he’s locked down the job for the remainder of the schedule.

“We’ll start Blake … and we’ll make the decisions and judgments from there,” Saban told ESPN.

Sims, a redshirt senior, will be making his first start at the collegiate level.

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Michigan’s Gardner-Funchess combo going off on App State

Devin Funchess

It doesn’t appear a replay of the 2007 nightmare is in the offing for Michigan.

At the end of the first half in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines are up on transitioning-into-FBS Appalachian State 35-0.  The first three of those five UM touchdowns came from the right arm of quarterback Devin Gardner to the hands of wide receiver Devin Funchess.

Gardner has completed 11 of his 12 passes for 153 yards.  Funchess, wearing his new jersey number well, has seven catches for 93 yards in the first half.

Additionally, sophomore running back Derrick Green, a five-star member of UM’s 2013 recruiting class, has rushed for 85 yards on eight carries.  Green’s backup, De’Veon Smith, has been even more productive in rushing for 99 yards on just six carries.

Defensively, the Wolverines have held the Mountaineers to just 74 yards of total offense — UM has 334 — and have not allowed a third-down conversion (0-8).  ASU has just four-first-half first downs, and went three-and-out on six of their first seven drives.

Appalachian State, which stunned Michigan seven years ago in the Big House, was 4-8 last year and is in its first season as a member of the Sun Belt Conference.

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Miller-less Buckeyes struggling to find offense vs Navy

Keenan Reynolds ,

Ohio State is experiencing first hand just how valuable Braxton Miller may have been to the Buckeyes offense. Without the experienced playmaker under center, Ohio State finds themselves in a tough battle with Navy in Baltimore. The Midshipmen hold a 7-6 lead at the half.

J.T. Barrett was given the start for Ohio State at quarterback, and he has shown some signs of being a young player. Barrett scrambled out of a tackle but tossed a bad interception deep in the Navy end of the field. It was picked off by Navy, but the Mids were unable to do anything with the football but run time off the clock. That is fine with Navy though.

Keenan Reynolds has led the signature triple-option offense for Navy as expected, and was bailed out by a video review overturning what was originally ruled a fumble recovery by Ohio State deep in the Navy end. A lapse in time management may have hurt Navy at the end of the first half when a timeout was not called with time ticking away in the final minute. Instead of having time for at least one more play, Navy was forced to go right to a field goal attempt in the final seconds of the first half. The kick was wide to keep the score set at 7-6.

Navy will get the football to start the second half. If this is going to be a low-scoring contest, that may eventually pay off for Navy as the offense could wear down Ohio State’s defense over time.

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UCLA defense scores 3 TDs in second quarter at Virginia

Ka'Deem Carey, Myles Jack

Perhaps the UCLA Bruins are still shrugging off some jet lag from a flight across the country. UCLA’s offense is off to a sluggish start on the road against Virginia Despite the rough start, the Bruins are still on top on the scoreboard 21-10 at the half. You can thank the defense for that.

UCLA took a 7-0 lead on a 20-yard interception returned for a touchdown by Ishmael Adams early in the second quarter. Later in the second quarter UCLA added to the lead with a 75-yard fumble recovery returned for a touchdown by defensive back Randall Goforth just as Virginia was moving the football. On the ensuing drive Eric Kendricks (12 tackles) picked off a pass from Greyson Lambert and returned it 37-yards for a third touchdown in the second quarter. That led to a quarterback change for Mike London and Virginia, with Matt Johns coming in under center on the next drive. Linebacker Myles Jack has recorded 11 tackles and broken up a pass in the first half. Defense has not been the problem for the Bruins.

Heisman Trophy contender Brett Hundley has failed to take advantage of his performance early on in front of the east coast. Hundley has completed seven of 14 pass attempts for 98 yards and has been sacked three times.

At some point UCLA will need to do something on offense. They may not have to do it today though.

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Penn State QB makes history in Croke Park Classic

Christian Hackenberg

Not even Kerry Collins, Todd Blackledge or Michael Robinson did what Penn State’s sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg accomplished Saturday in the Croke Park Classic against the UCF Knights.

Hackenberg is the first quarterback in Penn State history to throw for 400 yards or more in a single game as he lead the Nittany Lions to a thrilling 26-24 victory over the Knights in Dublin, Ireland.

The sophomore finished 32-of-47 passing for 454 yards. The performance was highlighted by a game-winning drive. Hackenberg was 4-of-6 passing for 47 yards during the final 1:13 of the contest to set up the winning field goal by senior kicker Sam Ficken.

During the performance, pundits were drooling over the potential which Hackenberg represents. Hackenberg forced a couple of throws which resulted in interceptions, but those poor throws didn’t take away from the fact he was the best player on the field. This was simply a great performance to build upon a resume that may result in Hackenberg becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 or 2017 NFL draft.

And Penn State capitalized on the talent it has behind center.

Once the team couldn’t establish the run early in the game, the onus fell on Hackenberg to carry the team. He was clearly able to do so. The young signal caller was able to evade pressure in the pocket, make throws on the move and manipulate UCF’s secondary to complete a beautiful 79-yard touchdown pass to sophomore Geno Lewis to give the Nittany Lions a 20-10 lead entering the fourth quarter.

Lewis finished with 173 receiving yards. Redshirt freshman DaeSean Hamilton was nearly as good with 11 receptions for 165 yards.

For UCF, head coach George O’Leary waited far too long to make a crucial change at quarterback.

Redshirt freshman Pete DiNovo started the game and struggled mightly. DiNovo was a paltry 3-of-8 passing for 18 yards in the first half. O’Leary then inserted Justin Holman into the lineup during the third quarter, and the sophomore brought instant energy to the lineup. Holman led the Knights to 21 points in the second half with 204 passing yards. He added a pair of touchdowns, one passing and one running. Holman had his team in a position to win with 1:13 remaining, but the Knights’ defense simply couldn’t hold.

Despite the outcome, the two teams learned something equally important about their quarterbacks.

Penn State quickly came to the realization it must rely heavily on Hackenberg this season as the offensive line continues to gel and the running game struggles. UCF, meanwhile, will almost certainly move forward with Holman behind center, and the Knights will be a better team for it.

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Michigan WR Funchess looks to carry on new uniform tradition

Devin Funchess

Michigan football has a relatively new history of suiting up key players with historic uniform numbers for players. Wide receiver Devin Funchess, playing tight end last season, wore the number 87 jersey, which is the number previously worn by one of the all-time greats in Michigan football history, Ron Kramer. With Funchess moving to wide receiver this season, the Wolverine decided it was best to leave that uniform number to the tight end position.

“It was an incredible honor to be selected to wear the number 87 Legends jersey in honor of Ron Kramer,” Funchess said in a statement shared by Michigan. “I spoke with his son, Kurt, and many of my teammates before I decided to change my number and they were all unbelievably supportive. Ron Kramer was the best tight end in Michigan history, and I think his number should be worn by someone playing that position.”

Funchess will now wear the number one on his uniform. The inspiration to wear that uniform number came from watching former Michigan receivers make big plays wearing the number.

“I watched a lot of Michigan greats over the offseason and kept seeing receivers wearing number one making plays, from Anthony Carter to Derrick Alexander, David Terrell and Braylon Edwards, and I wanted to carry on another Michigan tradition this season.”

Funchess gives Michigan a big target at receiver and it should help boost the quality of receivers for Michigan at what might be a bit of a question mark at the start of the new season. Michigan opens the seaosn at home against Appalachian State.

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Ohio State’s Heuerman will wear Braxton’s No. 5

Braxton Miller

Ohio State opens the news season in Baltimore this afternoon against Navy. The Buckeyes were dealt a major blow to the roster, and thus their lofty expectations, with the loss of quarterback Braxton Miller to a shoulder injury before the season started. Though Miller will not be playing on the field, his presence will be recognized.

Ohio State tight end Jeff Heuerman, a co-captain for the Buckeyes, will wear Miller’s uniform number as a tribute to the injured quarterback.

A classy move, for sure.

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Halftime: Penn State QB is the difference in Croke Park Classic

Christian Hackenberg

Quarterback play is what currently separates the Penn State Nittany Lions from the UCF Knights in the Croke Park Classic in Dublin, Ireland. The Nittany Lions lead the Knights 10-3 thanks to the play of sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg.

Early in the contest, the Knights were winning at the line of scrimmage. The Nittany Lions running game was shut down, and Hackenberg was under duress when he dropped back to pass. The 11 yards on the ground Penn State did accumulate came courtesy of Hackenberg scrambling from the pocket.

Penn State adjusted by moving the pocket and allowed Hackenberg to take over in the passing game. The sophomore was able to complete multiple passes on third down to extend drives which eventually resulted in points. At the half, Hackenberg is 17-of-26 passing for 218 yards. Redshirt freshman wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton was the biggest beneficiary of Hackenberg’s play with 107 receiving yards through two quarters.

Hackenberg was allowed to get on track after a roughing the punter penalty granted the Nittany Lions a first down during their initial drive. Hackenberg connected with Hamilton for a 44-yard gain, which eventually resulted in a 1-yard rushing touchdown by Zach Zwinak. The score held up as the difference going into halftime.

Pete DiNovo, meanwhile, struggled during his first start as UCF’s quarterback. DiNovo was 3-of-7 passing for 18 yards. The quarterback’s inability to connect in the passing game allowed Penn State to load the box and shut down the Knights’ running game. The Knights only had 17 yards via the ground game.

Due to DiNovo’s ineffectiveness, UCF head coach George O’Leary replaced him just before halftime with sophomore Justin Holman, who served as Blake Bortles‘ backup last season.

O’Leary now has a decision to make coming out of halftime. Will he allow Holman to continue at quarterback, or will the coach go back to DiNovo?

The answer will decide UCF’s fate during the second half of play.

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CFB after dark: Houston falls to in-state underdog, Arizona’s offense still rolling

Larry Coker

Saturday may be the first full day of college football, but quality games were being played into the wee hours Friday night.

The biggest surprise on the night came from UTSA’s stunning 27-7 upset of the Houston Cougars. The Roadrunners are in their fourth season as a program and are led by head coach Larry Coker (remember him?). The program enters its first season as a full-fledged FBS member. Yet, UTSA dominated a Cougars squad that was expected to compete for an American Athletic Conference championship this year and features one of the best young quarterbacks in the nation in John O’Korn.

O’Korn and the Cougars couldn’t get on track on offense. Houston only managed 206 total yards. The Cougars were held to minus-26 yards rushing. The Roadrunners also intercepted O’Korn four times.

The Roadrunners, meanwhile, relied on a strong running game. UTSA accumulated 146 yards on the ground and three rushing touchdowns.

Coker is now 20-15 overall as he continues to build the Roadrunners program. Despite being 60-15 during his six seasons as the head coach of the Miami Hurricanes and a national championship, Coker couldn’t be happier than he is today.

“It’s probably the most rewarding thing I’ve been involved with as far as coaching is concerned,” Coker told SI.com’s Pete Thamel.

In Las Vegas, the underdog UNLV Rebels didn’t have a chance against the Arizona Wildcats.

UNLV ran into a buzzsaw Friday night during a 58-13 loss to the Arizona Wildcats. Arizona’s redshirt freshman quarterback Anu Solomon starred during his first start. Solomon threw for 425 yards and four touchdowns as the offense rolled up a school record 787 total yards. The performance was stunning after Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez waited until earlier in the week to finally name Solomon the starting quarterback.

During the Wildcats’ impressive offensive effort, two running backs, Terris Jones-Grigsby and Nick Wilson, as well as two receivers, Austin Hill and Samajie Grant, accumulated 100 yards on the ground and in the air.

The Wildcats added an exclamation point to start of their season. Arizona’s next opponent? The UTSA Roadrunners.

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Auburn’s Robenson Therezie ruled eligible to play against Arkansas

Robenson Therezie, Brett Bartolone

One the eve of college football’s first Saturday of the season, the Auburn Tigers received very good news. The team’s “star” on defense, Robenson Therezie, will be eligible to play against the Arkansas Razorbacks.

The news was announced Friday night on twitter by the school’s sports information director, Kirk Sampson.

There were concerns Therezie wouldn’t be able to play at the start of the season. Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said two weeks ago Therezie was “working through some eligibility issues.”

The school never specified the issues, but Therezie was cleared just in time. The senior is a key cog in Ellis Johnson‘s defense. Not only is Therezie an opportunistic pass defender, but he is also a strong run defender. Last season, Therezie finished sixth on the team with 57 total tackles and led the team with four interceptions. His leadership in the secondary only adds to the team’s most experienced unit. Four of the five starters among the Tigers’ defensive backs are seniors. This level of experience will only help as the team attempts to repeat as SEC champions.

The addition of Therezie also helps build depth along the Tigers’ secondary. The senior isn’t guaranteed to start against the Razorbacks, though. The coaching staff prepared junior Justin Garrett to start over the course of two weeks. Garrett can now be counted upon when needed to provide quality reps in the defense. It will be up to Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn to decide whether or not Therezie starts.

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Access denied: FIU doesn’t provide credential for only beat writer

Ron Turner, FIU

Exposure is everything in today’s college football landscape. Unfortunately for the players at Florida International University, the school’s decision makers don’t feel the same way.

FIU and the Miami Herald are caught in a little tiff.

The Herald is the only news agency in the area which employs a beat writer to cover FIU athletics. In the infinite wisdom of those making decisions at FIU, they denied access to the Herald’s beat writer, David J. Neal, for the Panthers’ season-opener against Bethune-Cookman.

“It’s unprecedented for any local team to refuse to credential our beat reporter without reason,” Miami Herald Executive Editor Aminda Marqués Gonzalez said. “The team does not get to choose who covers the program.”

The newspaper decided not cover the game at all after FIU denied the credential.

“We’re very disappointed the Herald has decided on this course,” Sandra Gonzalez-Levy, FIU’s senior vice president for external relations, said. “Credentials were given to other reporters. We regret that this is the Herald’s choice.”

FIU never provided a reason why Neal’s credential was denied.

It’s simply another misstep for a football program has been in a downward spiral since it fired Mario Cristobal. During Cristobal’s tenure the coach led the Panthers to two bowl games before he was unceremoniously dismissed. The team then struggled to find any coaching candidates that were interested in the vacant position. The team eventually hired Ron Turner, who finished with an 1-11 record during his first season.

Furthermore, the people hurt by this decision are the players. They don’t get the exposure they deserve for the work they’ve done. And the community doesn’t have the opportunity to read about a program the newspaper is willing to support.

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