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CFT Preseason Top 25: three in a row, Roll Tide Roll

Alabama head coach Saban is doused with Gatorade after they defeated Notre Dame in the NCAA National Championship college football game in Miami AP

I have some good news and bad news for you, Tide Nation.

The good? In the 2011 edition of CFT’s preseason Top 25, I predicted the Tide would rise again and claim its second BCS title under Nick Saban; five months later, Alabama did just that. The bad? More times than not, my preseason prognostications are historically and prodigiously horrendous… and that doesn’t even begin to do it justice.

In 2009, 2010 and 2012, Oklahoma, Florida and USC, respectively, ranked as CFT’s preseason No. 1. Five losses later for the Sooners and Gators, and six for the Trojans, none of those three finished the season ranked in either the final Associated Press or coaches’ poll. The eventual BCS champions those seasons — Alabama (2012), Auburn (2010) and Alabama again (2009) — were ranked No. 3, No. 15 and No. 19 by CFT in the preseason.

So, will 2013 be CFT’s Nostradumbass norm for the Tide, or will the 2011 exception take hold? Or, will the Tide fall somewhere in between? More than anyone else, and based on my track record, I don’t have a clue; that’s why they play the games, as the saying goes.

And that’s why, for better or worse and for posterity’s sake, the complete 2013 edition of CFT’s fifth-annual preseason Top 25 appears after the jump.  By conference, you’ll find six teams from the SEC — all in the Top 12 — five from the Big 12, four each from the Big Ten and Pac-12, three from the ACC and one apiece from the AAC, MWC and Independents.

I’d ask y’all to be some semblance of kind and/or gentle in the comments section, but there’s really no point…

1. Alabama
2012 record: 13-1 (won BCS title game, won SEC championship game)
Final 2012 rankings: No. 1 (coaches’ poll); No. 1 (Associated Press)
2013 preseason rankings: No. 1 (coaches’ poll); No. 1 (AP)

The Tide returns 13 starters from last year’s back-to-back BCS title squad, which the esteemed Phil Steele says is the team’s second-highest number of returnees since 2007. That’s all well and good, but Alabama’s 2013 season can be narrowed down to two titanic matchups: at Texas A&M Sept. 14 in an attempt to avenge their lone loss in 2012, and Nov. 9 vs. LSU in Tuscaloosa. Win both, and the Tide is on the fast track to an SEC title-game appearance and a shot at an unprecedented third-straight BCS title and four in five years. As they proved the past two seasons, though, even one loss in conference play won’t derail their title hopes. This team may not have the star power of the other title-winning Tide teams, but it has the potential to be one of the best, if not the best, of the Nick Saban era.

Ohio State Introduces Urban Meyer2. Ohio State
2012 record: 12-0 (no bowl game due to NCAA sanctions)
Final 2012 rankings: ineligible (coaches’); No. 3 (AP)
2013 preseason rankings: No. 2 (coaches’ poll); No. 2 (AP)

We could talk about returning starters (nine offense, four defense) or that one starter from each side of the ball will be suspended for various lengths of time to begin the season (starting running back Carlos Hyde for three, All-American cornerback Bradley Roby for at least one), but the reality is that the Buckeyes’ season can be summed up in one word: schedule. As in “pastry-soft schedule.” Their non-conference slate consists of Buffalo, San Diego State, Cal and Florida A&M, with just one of those (the Golden Bears) on the road; the Aztecs at 9-4 were the only one of the four that won at least four games in 2012. Just three teams on their 2013 schedule (Michigan, No. 17; Northwestern, No. 22; Wisconsin, No. 23) are currently ranked in the AP Top 25. In fact, OSU will likely be favored in every single game this season, and will be expected by many to carry a 23-game winning streak into The Game, to be played this season in Ann Arbor. Look out for the Oct. 5 trip to Evanston, though; that game has “trap” written all over it.

3. Stanford
2012 record: 12-2 (won Pac-12 championship, won Rose Bowl)
Final 2012 rankings No. 6 (coaches’); No. 7 (AP):
2013 preseason rankings: No. 4 (coaches’); No. 4 (AP)

Entering his third season at Stanford, David Shaw has done nothing but build upon and, in some cases, improve the foundation laid by Jim Harbaugh. With 23 wins in two years on The Farm, Shaw has helped push expectations to the point where anything less than 10 wins would be considered a down season for the Cardinal. With one of the top defenses in the country and a more-experienced Kevin Hogan under center — and drawing four of their toughest on-paper games at home (Arizona State, UCLA, Oregon and Notre Dame) — Stanford should once again hit that mark and be in the BCS title mix. Replacing Stepfan Taylor would normally be a cause for concern, but possessing an offensive line that’s annually one of the best in the country will make even a by-committee approach a successful tack for the running game.

4. Louisville
2012 record: 11-2 (Big East champion, won Sugar Bowl)
Final 2012 rankings: No. 13 (coaches’); No. 13 (AP)
2013 preseason rankings: No. 9 (coaches’); No. 9 (AP)

Last year at this time, I was writing that I had the feeling, ala Auburn in 2010, that I was rating Louisville too low when I pegged them as the No. 24 team in CFT’s preseason Top 25. That won’t happen again this year. Not after watching the Cardinals roll through an 11-win season in Charlie Strong’s second year that included a route of SEC East runnerup Florida in the Sugar Bowl. Not armed with the knowledge that quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, not Jadeveon Clowney, could very well be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft. And definitely not after factoring in the combination of returning starters (six offense, 10 defense) and a schedule that includes exactly zero teams currently ranked in either of the two major polls. Talent-wise, the Cardinals might not be the No. 4 team in the country at the moment; given the experienced talent they do possess plus their current placement in the rebuilt and evolving American Athletic Conference — they’ll move to the ACC in 2014 — there’s no reason, other than inexplicably stubbing their toes against the likes of Rutgers of UCF or (shudder) Kentucky, Louisville can’t and won’t head into the 2013 postseason carrying an unblemished record.

5. Georgia
2012 record: 12-2 (lost SEC championship game, won Capital One bowl)
Final 2012 rankings: No. 4 (coaches’); No. 5 (AP)
2013 preseason rankings: No. 5 (coaches’); No. 5 (AP)

In its attempt to get back to a third consecutive SEC championship game, Georgia has several challenges awaiting them. The Bulldogs’ first two SEC games are against top-12 teams, No. 6 South Carolina and No. 12 LSU. Fortunately for UGA both of those games are at home, although a season opener against No. 8 Clemson that should play a role in the BCS race is on the road. A defensive unit that was above-average in most categories nationally last year returns just three starters, and, especially in the secondary, has been bitten by the injury/suspension bug. The offense, on the other hand, returns nine starters from a unit that was one of the most explosive in the SEC. After that brutal opening gauntlet against ranked opponents, the Bulldogs’ schedule softens a bit and becomes much more manageable over the remainder of the year. In other words, by the end of September, we’ll know what if any type of presence the Bulldogs will have on the national stage at season’s end.

6. Oregon
2012 record: 12-1 (T-1st Pac-12 North, won Fiesta Bowl)
Final 2012 rankings: No 2 (coaches’); No. 2 (AP)
2013 preseason rankings: No. 3 (coaches’); No. 3 (AP)

What I think is that Mark Helfrich is going to be a very, very good head football coach at the FBS level. What I know is that, if Chip Kelly hadn’t bolted Eugene for the NFL in the offseason, the Ducks would be sitting closer to No 1 than they are right now given the amount of talent returning this year. And that’s no slight to Helfrich; rather, that’s a show of respect for the absolute machine Kelly built in the Northwest section of the collegiate football landscape. That said, it would not surprise at all if Helfrich pulled a Shaw: take over for an NFL-bound coach at a Pac-12 school and the program not skip a beat. Speaking of which, UO’s conference season and national title hopes could, for the second straight year, come down to one game. On Nov. 7, the Ducks will travel to Stanford on a Thursday night looking to avenge its only loss of the 2012 season, a 17-14 overtime heartbreaker to the Cardinal in Eugene. However, when you can bring the likes of Marcus Mariota, DeAnthony Thomas et al, you have to like your chances, whether it’s at home or on the road. And whether you’re replacing the man who took the program to the next level.

7. ClemsonChick Fil A Bowl Football
2012 record: 11-2 (t-1st, ACC Atlantic, won Chick-fil-A Bowl)
Final 2012 rankings: No. 9 (coaches’); No. 11 (AP)
2013 preseason rankings: No. 8 (coaches’); No. 8 (AP)

Open against No. 5 Georgia and close against No. 6 South Carolina, with a conference matchup against No. 11 Florida State thrown in the middle for good measure that could again determine the Atlantic’s representative in the ACC title game? A good numbers omen for the Tigers is that they have made the ACC title game in odd-numbered years under Dabo Sweeney; with this being 2013, and with the Seminoles visiting the East Coast version of Death Valley, that bodes well. Well, that and the presence of Tajh Boyd under center, a plethora of weapons at his disposal and a defense that’s improved exponentially since the bowl embarrassment against West Virginia to end the 2011 season. Whether Clemson can take that next step remains to be seen, especially with that trio of games littered throughout the season. This might, though, be Swinney’s best chance to get Clemson its first national championship in over three decades.

8. LSU
2012 record: 10-3 (T-2nd SEC West, lost Chick-fil-A Bowl)
Final 2012 rankings: No. 12 (coaches’); No. 14 (AP)
2013 preseason rankings: No. 13 (coaches’); No. 12 (AP)

Remember how I said earlier that there are times when I feel like I’m underrating a particular team? There are also times when the opposite is true — and this is one of those times. While LSU does return a respectable 10 starters from the double-digit-win team of a year ago, they were also hit hard by early departures for the NFL as a whopping 10 players with eligibility remaining left the program. Normally the strength of the team in both talent and experience, the Tigers will be forced to replace eight defensive starters. including all four defensive linemen and two of three linebackers. While the defense readjusts — notice I didn’t say rebuild — the offense and its eight returning starters, led by Zach Mettenberger, may have to shoulder a bit more of the responsibility than it’s been accustomed to. Fortunately, after the opener against No. 20 TCU, the Tigers get a bit of a scheduling breather before facing Georgia in late September which will allow the defense to grow for a stretch run that includes games against Florida, Ole Miss, Alabama and Texas A&M.

9. Texas A&M
2012 record: 11-2 (T-2nd SEC West, won Cotton Bowl)
Final 2012 rankings: No. 5 (coaches’); T-No. 5 (AP)
2013 preseason rankings: No. 6 (coaches’); No. 7 (AP)

After a normal offseason coming off such a smashing debut in the SEC in 2012, A&M would seemingly be comfortably slotted inside the Top Five of most if not all preseason polls. Of course, it was no normal offseason; we won’t rehash everything, or even anything, involving star quarterback and reigning Heisman winner Johnny Manziel, but suffice to say a cloud of NCAA uncertainty still hangs over College Station just days before the start of a new season. If Manziel can maintain his eligibility… if the Aggies can pull off a repeat in their rematch with Alabama the third weekend of the season… if both of those things happen, the sky appears to be the limit for A&M’s SEC encore. That may be easier said than done, especially when it comes to the Tide, who have had an entire offseason to adjust to what Manziel and Kevin Sumlin’s offense brings to the conference table.

10. Oklahoma State
2012 record: 10-2 (T-3rd Big 12, won Heart of Dallas Bowl)
Final 2012 rankings:  unranked in both polls
2013 preseason rankings: No. 14 (coaches’); No. 13 (AP)

With the quarterback position unsettled — Mike Gundy will head into the opener without a starter in name among Clint Chelf and J.W. Walsh — I may be inflating the value of the Cowboys’ 2013 stock. But, with 15 returning starters and a favorable schedule that hands the Cowboys Baylor, TCU and in-state rival Oklahoma in Stillwater, the table is set for OSU to claim the Big 12’s BCS berth in the final year of the current system. The quarterback situation, though, bears watching; if Gundy hopes to get the Cowboys back to the top of the conference, either Chelf or Walsh needs to grab hold of the job sooner rather later. And preferably before the Oct. 19 game against the Horned Frogs.

11. South Carolina
2012 record: 11-2 (Third SEC East, won Outback Bowl)
Final 2012 rankings: No. 7 (coaches’); No. 8 (AP)
2013 preseason rankings: No. 7 (coaches’); No. 6 (AP)

South Carolina doesn’t need Mike Davis, the newly-minted starting running back, to be the next Marcus Lattimore; it needs the combination of Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson to improve their production in the passing game to the point where the field opens up and it seems like there are a whole bunch of Lattimores running around. The Gamecocks’ passing game has ranked 57th (2012) and 95th (2011) nationally the past two years, and hasn’t finished better than 44th (2010) the past five years. Either Shaw, entering his third season as the starter, or Thompson must take their play to the next level in order to break their SEC divisional title drought. There’s only so much that preseason Heisman contender Jadeveon Clowney and a defensive unit ranked in the top-13 nationally in total and scoring defense can do without a little help from the other side of the ball. And they’d better do it quick as they travel to Athens the second weekend of the season in a conference game that will set the tone for the year.

Jeff Driskel12. Florida
2012 record: 11-2 (T-1st SEC East, lost Sugar Bowl)
Final 2012 rankings: No. 10 (coaches’); No. 9 (AP)
2013 preseason rankings: No. 10 (coaches’); No. 10 (AP)

Florida has the running game, the defense and the special teams — save for replacing Caleb Sturgis — to be an elite team. Much like their SEC rival Gamecocks, though, there are question marks surrounding the passing game. Enter Jeff Driskel, the quarterback who Gator coaches have publicly and privately raved about throughout the offseason, praising the strides he’s made in becoming a more complete passer. An expected jump in performance by Driskel could portend well for the Gators’ fortunes, especially with road games against LSU, Georgia and South Carolina on tap in the conference and Miami out of conference. Or that daunting scheduling gauntlet could doom UF’s season. One of the two.

13. TCU
2012 record: 7-6 (T-5th Big 12, lost in Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl)
Final 2012 rankings: unranked in both polls
2013 preseason rankings: No. 20 (coaches’); No. 20 (AP)

TCU easily carries the worst 2012 record out of any team I’ve ranked thus far, so this might be going out on a limb a bit placing the Horned Frogs inside the Top 15 — but it’s not exactly a thin one. TCU returns 16 starters, including Casey Pachall. While Gary Patterson has yet to commit to the rehabbed quarterback as his starter, Pachall is expected to be under center when the season opens against LSU. Over the past two seasons, Pachall is 15-2 as a starter; in games that Pachall doesn’t start, the Horned Frogs are 3-6. Coincidence or not, TCU is a better team with Pachall in charge of the offense. Add the senior’s return to a defense that returned to expected levels in 2012, and TCU should be in solid shape to contend for its first Big 12 title in its second season in the conference.

14. Florida State
2012 record: 12-2 (ACC champion, Orange Bowl winner)
Final 2012 rankings: No. 8 (coaches’); No. 10 (AP)
2013 preseason rankings: No. 12 (coaches’); No 11 (AP)

As the loquacious George W. Bush once oh-so-eloquently stated, “Fool me once, shame on me; fool me… you can’t get fooled again.” Such is my feeling in regards to Florida State. Each of the past three seasons I’ve proclaimed FSU to be “back,” only to be let down to one degree or another. Yes, the 12-win season last year was the program’s best since 1999, but the inexplicable midseason misstep against North Carolina State effectively crushed a season that began with such promise, especially after the win over Clemson two weeks before. In addition to replacing half the starting 22 — including the underrated and undervalued EJ Manuel at quarterback — Jimbo Fisher was forced to replace two-thirds of his coaching staff throughout the offseason. While that seems like a lot to overcome in one offseason, the talent is still there and Fisher is a helluva football coach. Just don’t expect me to proclaim “they’re back” again until after they actually are.

15. Michigan
2012 record: 8-5 (2nd Big Ten Legends, lost Outback Bowl)
Final 2012 rankings: unranked (coaches’); No. 24 (AP)
2013 preseason rankings: No. 17 (coaches’); No. 17 (AP)

Devin Gardner with half of a season under his belt, ready to become even more of a passer already than Denard Robinson ever was? Check. A top-20 defense that returns a sizable chunk of its productivity? Check. A schedule that gives them Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State in Ann Arbor? Check. A shot at its first Big Ten title in nearly a decade? Hold that check. Certainly there’s a shot — even a good one — but inexperience along the interior of the offensive line, replacing a couple of key defensive starters — linebacker Jake Ryan should be back no later than mid-October from a torn ACL — and depth at wide receiver could prove problematic, at least for the short-term. Again, the schedule is favorable, but road trips to Michigan State and Northwestern in November bear watching.

16. Notre Dame
2012 record: 12-1 (lost in BCS title game)
Final 2012 rankings: No. 3 (coaches’); No. 4 (AP)
2013 preseason rankings: No. 11 (coaches’); No. 14 (AP)

Prior to May 25 of this year, Notre Dame appeared primed for a return to the Top Ten of the polls — at least — coming off its BCS title game appearance. They had eight starters from a top-ten defense coming back, and six starters returning from an offense that had shown steady improvement. After May 25, the number on the latter side dipped to five as starting quarterback Everett Golson left school due to “poor academic choices,” casting a pall over the Irish’s prospects for the 2013 season. The good news at the position is that there’s an experienced hand to take over, with Tommy Rees expected to take back over the starting job — he was named the starter in June — and hold on to it as long as he can take better care of the football. Making the task all the more daunting is a schedule that includes Michigan and Stanford on the road and Oklahoma, BYU and USC at home. Based on everything, another 10-win season would be a positive for the Golden Domers.

17. Boise StateColorado State v Boise State
2012 record: 11-2 (T-1st MWC, won Las Vegas Bowl)
Final 2012 rankings: No. 14 (coaches’); No. 18 (AP)
2013 preseason rankings: No. 19 (coaches’); No. 19 (AP)

Seven straight seasons, and in 10 of the last 11, Boise State has reached double digits in wins. Thanks to an ever-improving Mountain West Conference — yes, that’s actually happening — and a solid non-conference schedule, the Broncos streak of 10-plus wins could face a very stiff test. On paper, BSU’s toughest conference games this season will come against Fresno State, Utah State and San Diego State, and all three of those will be on the road. Additionally, the Broncos have to travel to Washington in the season opener and then to BYU in late October in non-conference action. While it’s not exactly an SEC-level meatgrinder, that’s actually a very, very solid slate and will prove to be a good test for Joe Southwick, with a season of starting under his belt, and a young but talented defensive unit. If the Broncos get back to a BCS bowl this year, there should be no wailing and gnashing of teeth as the Lil’ Program That Could will have earned it.

18. Oklahoma
2012 record: 10-3 (T-1st Big 12, lost Cotton Bowl)
Final 2012 rankings: No. 15 (coaches’); No. 15 (AP)
2013 preseason rankings: No. 16 (coaches’); No. 16 (AP)

Expected by some (most) to go with the Belldozer as Landry Jones’ replacement, Bob Stoops stunned some (most) by opting for redshirt freshman Trevor Knight as his starting quarterback over Blake Bell — and that decision could leave OU vastly underrated heading into the 2013 season. By all accounts, Knight is every bit the factor in the running game as Bell, and already twice the passer even as he has never attempted a pass at the collegiate level. With a veteran offense behind him that returns seven starters — including four offensive linemen — Knight will have plenty of support in his first season as a starter. Defense is another story, however, as the Sooners return just four starters from last year’s 10-win team. The schedule is a challenge, too, with trips to Notre Dame, Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma State in the offing for Knight, although the latter three won’t come until after the eighth game of the season.

19. UCLA
2012 record: 9-5 (won Pac-12 South, lost Holiday Bowl)
Final 2012 rankings: unranked in both polls
2013 preseason rankings: No. 21 (coaches’); No. 21 (AP)

The loss of all-time leading rusher Johnathan Franklin can be somewhat minimized by the combination of a bevy of talented — but inexperienced — running backs as well the continued improvement of Brett Hundley, who in his first year as a starter quickly became one of the best young quarterbacks in the college game. What can’t be minimized is an absolutely brutal conference schedule: at Stanford and Oregon in back-to-back weeks in October, then at USC to close out the season. Mix in a non-conference road game against Nebraska the second weekend of September, and the Bruins path back to the Pac-12 championship game, let alone the periphery of BCS title talk, is rife with landmines.

20. Baylor
2012 record: 8-5 (T-5th Big 12, won Holiday Bowl)
Final 2012 rankings: unranked in both polls
2013 preseason rankings: unranked in both polls

Call this one a hunch. All Baylor did was win five of their last six games last season over the likes of, among others, No. 1 Kansas State, No. 23 Oklahoma State and No. 17 UCLA. Its only loss in that span was by eight points on the road against No. 12 Oklahoma. The Bears will return 12 starters, although Bryce Petty will be in his first season as a starting quarterback as he attempts to replace Nick Florence, who quietly did an outstanding job replacing Robert Griffin III. Given Art Briles’ track record with players at that position, and with the presence of Heisman sleeper Lache Seastrunk in the backfield, that should be the least of the Bears’ worries. After giving up over 800 yards and 70 points to West Virginia early on in 2012, and relative to the rest of the Big 12, the Bears’ defense actually showed improvement as the season wore on. If that improvement continues, the Bears could and should be a factor in the Big 12 race through November.

21. Nebraska
2012 record: 10-4 (lost Big Ten championship game, lost Capital One Bowl)
Final 2012 rankings: No. 23 (coaches’); No. 25 (AP)
2013 preseason rankings: No. 18 (coaches’); No. 18 (AP)

Losses by a combined 53 points in its last two games took some of the luster off of what was arguably Nebraska’s best and most complete team under Bo Pelini. Still, with eight starters, including quarterback Taylor Martinez, returning, the offensive side of the ball should be no cause for worry. A defense that brings back just four starters from last year’s unit, however, is. The fact that the Cornhuskers’ toughest road game is at Michigan in early November — and that they avoid both Ohio State and Wisconsin (accounted for two of their losses in 2012) — bodes well for the ‘Huskers finally getting over the hump and winning its first Big Ten championship. If they can get past the B1G’s Big Two, of course.

22. Arizona State
2012 record: 8-5 (T-2nd Pac-12 South, won Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl)
Final 2012 rankings: unranked in both polls
2013 preseason rankings: unranked in both polls

Todd Graham is building something for the long haul in the desert, provided he’s in the desert for the long haul of course. The Sun Devils return their starting quarterback, two top running backs and eight starters from a defense that finished second in the Pac-12 and 14th nationally in scoring. The offensive line, despite the loss of two starters, has the chance to be one of the top units in the conference. The depth and experience at wide receiver is a concern, as is a schedule that includes conference road games against Stanford and UCLA and nonconference matchups with Wisconsin and Notre Dame. In the end, though, No. 22 may be too low of a start for the Sun Devils.

Mack Brown23. Texas
2012 record: 9-4 (T-3rd Big 12, won Alamo Bowl)
Final 2012 rankings: No. 18 (coaches’); No. 19 (AP)
2013 preseason rankings: No. 15 (coaches’); No. 15 (AP)

And now we come to the portion of the rankings program where I get the most vitriol tossed in my general direction. Sorry, I’m not buying it. Not yet. Yes, Texas returns a whopping 19 starters, easily the most in the Big 12 and one of the top totals at the FBS level. Yes, David Ash may be the best quarterback in the conference (which may say more about the Big 12 than Ash). Yes, there’s the sense that, with all of the talent UT possesses, the Longhorns are primed for a return to the national stage for the first time since 2009. That’s the thing, though. There’s always talent in Austin thanks to top recruiting classes year-in and year-out. Translating that on-paper talent into on-field success has been the problem over the past three seasons. Until Mack Brown and his coaching staff can turn those clippings into winnings, I’m officially from Missouri when it comes to the Longhorns.

24. Miami
2012 record: 7-5 (T1st ACC Coastal, ineligible for postseason)
Final 2012 rankings: ineligible (coaches’); unranked (AP)
2013 preseason rankings: unranked in both polls

Self-imposed sanctions kept Miami from an ACC title game date with Florida State in 2012, but that won’t be an issue this year. And neither will the competition in the Coastal, which continues to languish behind the upper-echelon of the Atlantic talent-wise. With Virginia Tech racked with injuries and a shell of its former 10-wins-annually self, North Carolina and Georgia Tech looks to be the Hurricanes’ only significant competition in the division. While the ‘Canes will be forced to travel to Chapel Hill in a game that could very well decide the division’s representative in the conference title game, they get the Yellow Jackets at home. The fact that they return 18 starters — tied with Boston College for the ACC’s most — sends all signs pointing to The U appearing in their first-ever ACC Championship game.

25. Northwestern
2012 record: 10-3 (3rd Big Ten Legends, won Gator Bowl)
Final 2012 rankings: No. 16 (coaches’); No. 17 (AP)
2013 preseason rankings: No. 22 (coaches’); No. 22 (AP)

Yes, the nerds make it into CFT’s Top 25 ahead of, among others, defending Big Ten champion Wisconsin… and for good reason. By all accounts, this is Pat Fitzgerald’s most talented team in his seven years in Evanston, with 15 starters coming back from last year’s 10-win squad — the program’s first double-digit win total since 1995. Fitzgerald’s biggest problems might be, one, expectations (with Fitz, complacency won’t be an issue) and, two, the schedule. After avoiding Ohio State and Wisconsin last year, the Wildcats get them both (Buckeyes at home, Bucky in Madison) as well as a road trip to Nebraska. Conversely, NU drew both Michigan and Michigan State at home. While one wouldn’t expect a repeat of the 10-win season, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if/when it happens.

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Study says football players need more time between seasons to recover from head impacts

Penn State football spring practice number 11

Football players need more than six months of no-contact to properly recover from various forms of head trauma, a study by PLOS-ONE recently determined. At a time when we are learning more and more about the long-lasting effects of head trauma in football, could this one day change the approach at the college level when it comes to spring practices?

The Verge describes the procedure for conducting the study on head trauma and football players, which determine six out of 10 players showed signs of needing more time to recover from head trauma;

To study the effect of non-concussive, repetitive head impacts, researchers put accelerometers in the helmets of 10 University of Rochester football players. The scientists used these sensors to monitor the quantity and severity of the blows that the players suffered over the course of the 2011 season. They found that each player received between 431 and 1,850 impacts to the head during the regular season. And although none of these blows resulted in a concussion, they still caused mild brain injury. Moreover, six out of the 10 players continued to exhibit these signs at the end of a six month-long resting period.

Spring football games have gone into retirement at some schools, in part because of the fear of injuries and because of the added value placed on one more practice session. This study may not lead to the removal of spring football just yet, but it could help open the door for a conversation about potentially pushing spring practices back or to restructure how some are organized. The NCAA and schools tend to take head injury precautions seriously and there are already rules in place to reduce the risks associated with contact drills, but this study may be used as a reason for future changes to spring football.

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Mark Dantonio wants more than 300 spartan fans at spring game

Mark Dantonio

Michigan State is coming off one of the most successful football seasons in quite some time, and head coach Mark Dantonio wants to see that enthusiasm continue with the upcoming spring game. Danotnio has said before he wants to see a big crowd for the Spartans’ spring game next week, and he has high hopes for a big turnout.

“I want to see 50,000 at the Green and White game,” Dantonio said according to MLive.com. “I think that’s where this program needs to go.”

Of course, weather can always be an issue. Michigan State athletics director Mark Hollis is hoping for a good turnout as well, but as with most spring games the weather can always be a concern.

“I know the enthusiasm’s there, I think that was reflected out in Pasadena,” Hollis said. “But if it’s pouring rain, I don’t think we’ll have 50,000, but we might. If it’s sunny, I think we have the potential to exceed a number like that.”

Getting 50,000 fans would be a very respectable crowd, and would more than double the crowd that turned out for last year’s spring game in East Lansing and the Michigan spring game earlier this month. If Dantonio gets the crowd he desires, Michigan State would have one of the larger spring crowds this season and would very likely finish the spring with at least the fourth largest spring crowd in the Big Ten.

Penn State currently leads the nation in spring game attendance with an estimated 72,000 last weekend. Nebraska recorded a crowd of 61,772 and Ohio State was just behind the Huskers with 61,058. The only other school to record at least 50,000 for the spring game has been Tennessee (68,500). That is expected to change once Alabama and Auburn hold their spring games this weekend. Both SEC West schools tend to draw very well for the spring game.

This is a relatively up-to-date record of spring game attendance this year. Some schools have not provided spring attendance numbers so there are some missing figures, but it is mostly accurate.

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Alabama 2014 defense fueled by dismal Sugar Bowl performance

Allstate Sugar Bowl - Oklahoma v Alabama

Don’t make Alabama angry. You might not like them when they are angry.

To say Alabama’s end of the 2013 did not go well is a bit of an understatement. After one of the biggest surprises in college football history knocked Alabama out of the SEC Championship Game and BCS Championship Game picture, the Crimson Tide we left for dust by Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. Alabama allowed 35 points to be scored off of five turnovers in the game, and that defensive performance has not been sitting well since January.

“It wasn’t the way we play,” linebacker Trey DePriest said to ESPN.com. “We don’t get that many points put up on us. That’s way more than what our goal is — 13 points or less. It didn’t seem like us. We were ready, we just didn’t go out and leave it on the field like it was our last game. It’s definitely been a driving force.”

The holes in Alabama’s defense were visible long before the Sugar Bowl though. Texas A&M racked up big yards and plenty of points against the two-time defending BCS champions last September in College Station as Johnny Manziel once again went wild on Alabama (although he did have a couple of turnovers as well). Alabama’s defense was able to get through most of the season on their overall talent alone last fall, but the holes were there all along. Oklahoma capitalized on it, giving Nick Saban and his program plenty to work on and fix this offseason.

Have opposing offenses found  formula that can overcome Alabama, or will the Tide rise again as they make adjustments to slow down quick-tempo offenses designed to wear down physical defenses?

Alabama will very likely be one of the top teams in the country next fall, and fine tuning on defense will be key.

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Kansas names starting QB with plenty of room to improve

Montell Cozart

Kansas head coach Charlie Weis has named his starting quarterback for the Jayhawks in 2014. That task will belong to sophomore Montell Cozart, who will look to turn around the production at the quarterback position.

Cozart is coming off an admirable spring game performance, completing six of 10 pass attempts for 58 yards, and rushing for 70 more yards and a pair of touchdowns while leading his spring team to victory. He beat out Jake Heaps and T.J. Millweard for the job. Cozart may have been the most likely starter for 2014 because he replaced Heaps under center last season.

How high is the bar of success for Kansas? Each of the past two seasons have ended with the top two quarterbacks on the roster completing fewer than 50 percent of their passes and combining for 25 interceptions to just 15 touchdowns. It may be safe to say the bar is quite low, or perhaps there is plenty of room for improvement.

Weis initially wanted to keep the quarterback competition open leading up closer to the fall, but it seems he has seen enough. This could come in handy, as now Weis and his offensive assistants can start planning to build an offense Cozart will be best suited to lead, which should give players more time to be ready for whatever the coaches put together.

Hey, why not take an optimistic spin where you can?

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Do you have any quarterbacks? Texas Tech says “Go fish!”

Texas Tech v Oklahoma

Texas Tech is down to just one quarterback on the roster as the spring comes to a close. Davis Webb was named the starting quarterback for the Red Raiders last week, but who will be there to back him up? The Dallas Morning News reports walk-on quarterbacks Tanner Tausch and Mike Richardson are both leaving the program, leaving Webb as the only quarterback left on the roster heading into the summer.

Tausch is not leaving Texas Tech, but he is leaving the football team to focus on academics. Richardson is looking for a chance to compete for more playing time that is not likely to be available at Texas Tech. In all, Texas Tech has lost five quarterbacks over the past six months. Fortuneately for Texas Tech, the future is still bright under center.

Texas Tech will be adding a quarterback through the most recent recruiting class with Patrick Mahomes, a three-star prospect according to Rivals.com, and a handful of walk-ons are expected to join the team in the coming months as well, including the son of former Heisman Trophy winner Vinny Testaverde, Vincent Testaverde. The Class of 2015 already has one of the top quarterback prospects in the nation lined up as well with four-star recruit Jarrett Stidham already committed.

All head coach Kliff Kingsbury needs to do is get through the 2014 season without any quarterback injuries before he can really get to work with the future leader of his offense.

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Breaking Bad: Brady Hoke likes Michigan’s chemistry

Brady Hoke

Michigan has not been bad since Brady Hoke took over as head coach, but the Wolverines have been traveling on a downward trend as far as wins are concerned. Will the 2014 season see things turn around in Ann Arbor? Hoke seems to like his chances, suggesting the chemistry cooking this spring was something he has not seen in years.

“This team has a chemistry that I think we haven’t had in a while,” Hoke said Wednesday during an interview on SiriusXM Radio, according to MLive.com. “When you look at the different groups and the leadership, we have really a team that’s back-loaded on the freshman and sophomore class. But we’ve got some really good guys in that senior class. Jake Ryan and Frank Clark. Devin Gardner. Desmond Morgan. We’ve got some really good leadership there.”

This is a pretty important year for Hoke. As MLive.com makes note of and as I have said before, this is finally Hoke’s team. Every player who signed with Michigan did so knowing Hoke would be the head coach of the Wolverines. Now it is time to show Hoke can develop that talent — Michigan has signed top three classes in the Big Ten according to Rivals.com in three of the last four years — he has brought in and make Michigan a contender in the Big Ten. Up until now he has fallen short of the high bar he set in his debut season when he took what was left from the Rich Rodriguez all the way to a Sugar Bowl victory. Since then, the Wolverines have stumbled to a mediocre 7-6 season capped with a loss in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

“We’re better mentally, and that’s a big part of it,” Hoke said earlier this week, according to MLive.com. “We’re not exactly where we want to be yet, but I like the way our team has reacted (to last season) and how we’ve gone about our business.”

If Hoke is right, Michigan could be in the winning business. It’s basic chemistry, yo.

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Northwestern alums say players being pushed to vote against union

Kain Colter

A meeting of former Northwestern football players Wednesday night brought attention to concerns that current players were being pressured to vote no on an upcoming vote to determine if Northwestern football players will form a union. Some Northwestern alums suggested current players on the football team have been receiving phone calls from alumni pushing them to vote no on the union next week.

The biggest problem right now is a state of confusion over the impact of players at Northwestern forming a union could potentially mean. The NCAA and the university will lead you to think it could be the beginning of the dismantling of many other sports at the division one level, but that could just be an extreme worst-case scenario. The biggest push right now by this players union movement is to have a seat at the table with Northwestern leaders and have their voices heard.

“We want the facts to be the facts,” said Kevin Brown, a former Northwestern football player from the 1980s. Brown did not take stance for or against the union vote, at least not in front of the media attending the meeting Wednesday night, but his message seemed pretty clear. Get out as much information as possible so the players can make an informed decision when they cast their ballot.

Some alumni believe the players should voice their concerns directly to the head coach, Pat Fitzgerald.

“They could have taken these issues straight to Coach Fitz and Northwestern,” former Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa said. “It’s frustrating to see your coach and your school come under fire like this.”

Fitzgerald has been on record speaking against the union idea and he has said he wants his players to think long and hard before voting on unionization. If it were up to Fitzgerald, Northwestern players would vote no. There is no indication Fitzgerald is applying pressure on players to vote no, but he will not shy away from voicing his concerns for the best interest of his players.

“We want to make sure that they have all the information, so that’s a process we’re starting to work through right now,” Fitzgerald said earlier this month. “I’m honored to have that opportunity with our guys and we’ll work through it day by day.”

A regional office of the National Labor Relations Board empowered players to hold such a vote, recognizing the football players as employees of Northwestern University. The players are set to vote on forming a union next week, although there are mixed emotions when it comes to whether or not it is a good idea. Now former quarterback Kain Colter has become the face of the union movement at Northwestern but earlier this month it was his replacement under center, Trevor Siemian who voiced his concerns about the formation of a union. Northwestern is prepared to contest the ruling all the way up to the Supreme Court if necessary, which has been expected from the start.

When it comes time to vote on forming a union, will there be enough votes to take the next step?

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Report: Sooners’ leading tackler facing sexual assault accusations

.J. Yeldon, Frank Shannon AP

While no charges have been filed as of yet, an Oklahoma football player is the target of some very serious accusations, the Daily Oklahoman is reporting.

According to the paper, linebacker Frank Shannon has been accused of sexually assaulting a female student at his off-campus apartment Jan. 20.  The accusation comes in the form of a Title IX sexual misconduct allegation report obtained from the university.

From the paper, relating to that report:

…the woman alleges that after a party, she intended to walk home. Shannon offered her a ride, but said he first needed to drop off friends near his apartment.

Shannon allegedly took the woman into his bedroom. According to the complaint, he came up behind her, pulled down her pants and attempted to have sex with her.

The complainant said Shannon became frustrated when she wouldn’t cooperate.

Shannon allegedly asked if she was menstruating, and when she said yes, he went to the bathroom. At that time, she left and met a friend in the parking lot, whom the woman had texted to come get her. The friend called the police.

For those unaware, Title IX is a Federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs and activities. Under Title IX, the U.S. Department of Education website states, “discrimination on the basis of sex can include sexual harassment or sexual violence, such as rape, sexual assault, sexual battery, and sexual coercion.” All incidents of alleged sexual misconduct involving students must be reported when the university becomes aware of such an allegation.

The Norman Police Department is currently investigating the accusations, but, again, no charges have been filed. It should be noted, however, that the matter is not completely out of the university’s hands as, according to Title IX guidelines, “[a] criminal investigation into allegations of sexual harassment or sexual violence does not relieve the school of its duty under Title IX to resolve complaints promptly and equitably.”

As a redshirt sophomore in 2013, Shannon started all 13 games and led the Sooners in tackles with 92. He neither practiced last Thursday nor played in Saturday’s spring game due to what head coach Bob Stoops described as personal reasons.

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Three Texas A&M Aggies were arrested last week

Howard Matthews, Charles Ross

It has been a whole ten days since the last time we wrote about a Texas A&M player being arrested, so let’s do some catching up. Three Texas A&M players – defensive back Howard Matthews, wide receiver Edward Pope and defensive lineman Gavin Stansbury — were arrested last Thursday according to multiple reports citing police records. All three were suspended by the university from team activities, although Stansbury has since returned.

“We are continuing to gather information,” a Texas A&M statement reads. “Gavin Stansbury was initially suspended from all athletic activities, but has since been reinstated to the team. Howard Matthews and Ed Pope were not suspended and are still members of the football team.”

Matthews was arrested and charged for speeding and failure to provide a driver’s licence after being pulled over for an expired registration. Pope and Stansbury were in the car at the time. Matthews and Pope both face a charge for failure to appear, although Pope’s charge stemmed from an earlier failure to comply on an unrelated incident. Warrants for all three players were discovered once the police officer pulling the car over ran the licenses of the players.

Stansbury is facing a misdemeanor charge for assault after being accused of pouring a can of beer on a person and then struck the person with a closed fist at Rice University.

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Is Chad Kelly’s apology to Clemson too little, too late?

South Carolina State v Clemson Getty Images

Former Clemson quarterback Chad Kelly shared his apology to his coaches, teammates and family after being dismissed by the program earlier this week. The nephew of Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly said he let his family down.

”I let down not only my coaches, and teammates, but also Clemson University and all of our fans,” Kelly said. ”Most importantly, I’ve let down myself and my family.”

Kelly was booted from the team following an apparent meltdown during the spring game last weekend, but it was a pattern of poor behavior that ultimately cost him his spot on the Clemson roster. Head coach Dabo Swinney stated a pattern of behavior as the reasoning behind the roster cut after it was reported Kelly was arguing with coaches over play calling in the spring game.

”He has had a pattern of behavior that is not consistent with the values of our program,” Swinney said earlier this week. ”I hope he will mature and grow from this and become the man and player I know he can be. I wish him nothing but the best in the future academically and athletically.”

Kelly understands and agrees with that thought as well.

”I let my emotions get the best of me, culminating in this unfortunate situation with coach Swinney and the Clemson Tigers,” Kelly said. ”What’s most important now is that I use this experience to grow as a student, as an athlete and most importantly, as a man.”

The apology may be too little, too late as far as his position with Clemson is concerned. Clemson named Cole Stoudt as the starting quarterback to replace Tajh Boyd this upcoming season soon after the dismissal of Kelly.

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James Madison will pass on Sun Belt and FBS move

Stony Brook James Madison Football

With a number of programs making the move from the FCS to the FBS in recent years, James Madison will hold firm with their place in the Colonial Athletic Association at the FCS level.

“Consistent with these values and principles and the ongoing issue of conference alignment, JMU will not pursue or accept an invitation from a conference that does not meet our criteria,” James Madison president Jonthan Alger said in a statement released on the school’s athletics website this week. “If we do receive an offer consistent with our established values, we are prepared to review it and make a recommendation to the Board of Visitors. This process is ongoing and will require continued support on the part of the university, students, faculty, staff, coaches, alumni, and fans.”

Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson told reporters the powerhouse FCS program was under consideration for an invite to join the conference, which will add Appalachian State and Georgia Southern this season.

“We never offered an invitation,“ Benson said, but “[t]hey were under consideration.”

If James Madison was to move up, Conference USA would look to be the most attractive and realistic option for the Dukes. Conference USA has added Old Dominion, another school from Virginia, and is adding Charlotte in football in 2015. There is no indication Conference USA is looking to add any other future members after Charlotte, which makes for a rough spot for James Madison and any FBS plans. As Massachusetts can prove, making the move for the sake of making the move can sometimes backfire on a school. If Conference USA is not coming to James Madison, the best situation for the Dukes may be to sit still, because it is not likely the ACC or SEC will come calling anytime soon.

The Sun Belt has been exploring expansion possibilities for a while now. James Madison may have been removed from the conversation, but that will not stop the conference from looking at all possibilities for future consideration. Liberty appears to be one of the consistent names in the mix to be the next FCS school to make the move up to the FBS ranks, and the Sun Belt Conference would appear to be a good fit with the latest additions to the conference (Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Georgia State). The Sun Belt will have 12 football members including the additions of Idaho and New Mexico this season, so the football membership is even without any further expansions.

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NCAA approves new roughing the passer penalty for hits below knees

Tennessee v Florida Getty Images

Hitting a quarterback below the knees in passing situations will result in a 15-yard penalty for roughing the passer according to a new rule approved by the NCAA’s Playing Rules Oversight Panel. The new rule will go into effect this fall around the country.

One of the first questions that may come to mind is just what qualifies as a passing situation in a game where passing has become more and more frequent? Will every pass play by considered a passing situation, or just plays that come on third and long or perhaps even second and long? Fortunately the NCAA laid out the basics for when this penalty will come into play.

According to the NCAA, “the rule specifically covers a scenario in which a quarterback is in a passing posture with one or both feet on the ground.” When in this situation, no defensive player rushing unabated can hit the quarterback at the knees or below the knees. In addition, a defensive player may not roll or lunge and forcibly hit the quarterback in the knee or below. So a defender already on the ground may not roll into the quarterback.

There are exceptions to the rule though. A quarterback who takes off to run, no matter where located on the field, is no longer considered in a passing situation so he would be vulnerable. If a defender is already engaging in wrapping up the quarterback for a tackle, the passing situation is considered over. Any defender blocked into a passer is also in the clear as far as a penalty is concerned, but this means officials will have to keep a close eye on the entire play to determine if a player hitting below the knee was pushed into the passer or if the dive or lunge was initiated by the defender.

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Florida State expresses disappointment in New York Times story

Florida State Spring Game Getty Images

Florida State University issued a statement in response to a story published by the New York Times on Wednesday. The university expressed disappointment in the story that profiles the timeline of the response taken by the university and Tallahassee police in an investigation for an alleged sexual assault committed by quarterback Jameis Winston.

According to the statement released by Florida State, many of the responses provided during the process of writing the story were not included in the final copy that was released. Among the many points made by the university in an outline of issues with the story include is a statement that Florida State does not tolerate sexual assault, state and federal privacy laws restrict what the university can do on certain student matters, and the university must balance the duty to investigate with the general welfare of the alleged victim. By leaving out information Florida State feels were justified to include in telling what it believes to be the full story, the New York Times has done a disservice to its readers and the Florida State community, the statement says.

“Like all other colleges and universities, FSU is faced with a balancing act when following the “Dear Colleague” letter,” the statement by Florida State opens.

“Given the inherent tension within the “Dear Colleague” letter, FSU seeks to empower victims by giving great weight to their wishes when it comes to counseling, academic accommodations and supporting them through criminal or university proceedings,” the statement continues. “In a great number of cases, the victims make it quite clear that they don’t want to file a police report or pursue a Code of Conduct process.”

You can read the full statement released by Florida State as well as the full outline of points the university feels were missing from the New York Times story.

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‘Cuse confirms Terrel Hunt will remain QB starter

Terrel Hunt AP

Not that there was much mystery involved to begin with, but the question marks surrounding the quarterback position at Syracuse have been answered.

As expected, offensive coordinator George McDonald has confirmed to ESPN.com that Terrell Hunt will remain the Orange’s man under center.  While Hunt ended last season in that position, the competition was open once again this spring.

McDonald said Hunt’s growth throughout the spring locked down the job once again for the player.

“He’s had a really good spring,” McDonald said of the incumbent. “He’s doing a lot of things he wasn’t able to do last spring. For him, the game that made him a lot more comfortable was the Minnesota game. He’s really built off that game. He’s playing at a different level this spring.”

Hunt ultimately started the final 10 games of the 2013 season after Oklahoma transfer Drew Allen, who started the first three, was benched for poor performance.  In addition to throwing for over 1,600 yards and 10 touchdowns, Hunt was also second on the team with 500 yards rushing and seven touchdowns on the ground.

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LSU, ‘Cuse officially set future home-and-home

1965 Sugar Bowl

After a month or more of speculation, the long wait for official word on a future series between programs from the ACC and SEC is finally, thankfully over.

Syracuse confirmed via a release Wednesday that it will play a future home-and-home series against LSU.  The Orange will host the Tigers Sept. 26, 2015, in the Carrier Dome, while ‘Cuse gets the “pleasure” of traveling to Death Valley to face the Bayou Bengals Sept. 9, 2017.

“We are thrilled to enter into this home-and-home agreement with a premiere program like LSU. Student-athletes come to Syracuse to play on the biggest stage possible, and this gives our coaches and young men the chance to battle one of the standard-bearers of the SEC on our home turf,” said athletic director Dr. Daryl Gross in a statement. “It is a complicated process to arrange games of this magnitude, and I couldn’t be happier for our fans and for all who will be involved in this upcoming series.”

The two football programs have never met during the regular season, but have squared off twice in the postseason. The first meeting came in the 1965 Sugar Bowl (LSU, 13-10) and the second and last came in the 1989 Hall of Fame Bowl (Syracuse, 23-10).

And, while I’m here, Syracuse introduced some new uniforms this afternoon as well.  So, instead of wasting any additional space on uniform news, here they are. Enjoy:

Syracuse Unis

(Program photo credit: Allstate Sugar Bowl)

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