CFT 2014 Preseason Preview: Heisman Watch List

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And now we come to one of the most fruitless and frustrating portions of preview season: the preseason Heisman watch list.

Last year around this time, Johnny Manziel, fresh off becoming the first freshman to ever claim the Heisman, was being viewed as the co-favorite to become just the second-ever to stake his claim to a pair of stiff-armed trophies. AJ McCarron, still basking in the glow of becoming the first starting quarterback with back-to-back BCS title-game wins, was viewed as a potential challenger to Johnny Football. So too were Braxton Miller, Jadeveon Clowney, Teddy Bridgewater and a whole host of other players.

And then, of course, Jameis Winston happened. A 35-1 longshot last August, Winston went on to claim the 2013 Heisman in near-record fashion, joining Manziel as the only freshmen to win the award.

Winston, as you can expect, will be the favorite heading into the 2014 season. Is there, though, another Jameis out there this year? Let’s take a snapshot look at the reigning winner as well as 20 players, in alphabetical order so as not to (gasp!) offend anyone, who could snatch the trophy from the preseason front-runner.

JAMEIS WINSTON, FLORIDA STATE, QB
2013 STAT LINE: 257-of-384 passing (66.9%) for 4,057 yards, 40 touchdowns, 10 interceptions; 88 carries for 219 yards (2.8 yards per carry) and four touchdowns
QUICK HIT: There’s really not much to say here that hasn’t already been said.  Winston was the best player in college football last season, and also happened to play on the best team for good measure.  He’s lost a couple of weapons, but twice as many returned to go along with the obligatory growth of some of the younger skill players who should see their roles expand in 2014.  Also remember that Winston was in his first year as a starter; if his skill-set makes even a nominal jump, look out Archie Griffin… especially if he can avoid the negative off-field headlines.

AMEER ABDULLAH, NEBRASKA, RB
2013 STAT LINE: 281 carries for 1,690 yards (6.0 ypc) and nine touchdowns; 26 receptions for 232 yards and two touchdowns
QUICK HIT: Unbeknownst to quite a number of people I’d suspect, Abdullah, not Melvin Gordon (see below) or anyone else, led the Big Ten in rushing last season.  As you can see by his receiving numbers, he’s quite adept at coming out of the backfield as well.  If you’re looking for a Heisman darkhorse, you could do worse than focusing on Abdullah as he will be the focal point of the Cornhuskers’ offense yet again..

RAKEEM CATO, MARSHALL, QB
2013 STAT LINE: 298-of-499 passing (59.7 %) for 3,916 yards, 39 touchdowns, nine interceptions; 99 carries for 294 yards (3.0 ypc) and six touchdowns
QUICK HIT: The first of two players on this list from non-Power Five conferences, and the one who has the best chance of crashing the December New York City Heisman party as a finalist.  The 2013 stats speak for themselves, and should do nothing but improve in 2014.  What separates Cato from the rest of the “have-not” pack is his team: there’s a very good chance that Cato and the Herd roll through the regular season unbeaten, and do so very, very easily.  Will the fact that exactly zero of the 12 opponents come from Power Five conferences impact Cato’s chances?  Possibly, but if the quarterback jabs voters in the face with a left-right combo of stats and team success, they won’t have a choice but to pay attention.

MIKE DAVIS, SOUTH CAROLINA, QB
2013 STAT LINE: 203 carries for 1,183 yards (5.8 ypc) and 11 touchdowns; 34 receptions for 352 yards
QUICK HIT: One of the most underrated players in the country at any position, Davis will get the opportunity, especially early on, to carry more of the offensive workload as Dylan Thompson establishes his footing as the full-time starter for the first time.  As with Abdullah, his work in the passing game is an overlooked facet that provides an extra dimension for his offense — and another consideration for voters.

MELVIN GORDON, WISCONSIN, RB
2013 STAT LINE: 206 carries for 1,609 yards (7.8 ypc) and 12 touchdowns; one reception for 10 yards
QUICK HIT: Gordon may not have led his conference in rushing as mentioned earlier, but he did lead the country in yards per carry for those backs with at least 200 carries.  In fact, he was one of just two running backs in the country who had 200-plus carries and averaged over seven yards a carry, with the other being Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde (7.3).  With running mate James White (1,444 yards, 13 touchdowns) off to the NFL, the path is cleared for Gordon to double-up on his 2013 production — and I’m only slightly exaggerating.

TODD GURLEY, GEORGIA, RB
2013 STAT LINE: 165 carries for 989 yards (6.0 ypc) and 10 touchdowns; 37 receptions for 441 yards and six touchdowns
QUICK HIT: An injury cost this Bulldog three games in the month of October.  When healthy — and he’s expected to be just that to start the season — he’s arguably the most talented back in the country.  Add in Georgia being one of a handful of SEC teams breaking in new quarterbacks, and Gurley should be at or near the top of most Heisman watch lists throughout the season.

CHRISTIAN HACKENBERG, PENN STATE, QB
2013 STAT LINE: 231-of-392 passing (58.9%) for 2,955 yards, 20 touchdowns, 10 interceptions; 49 carries for -68 yards (-1.9 ypc) and four touchdowns
QUICK HIT: One of just two true sophomores on this list, Hackenberg flourished under QB guru Bill O’Brien.  With O’Brien off to the NFL, how will Hackenberg handle new head coach James Franklin and an entirely different offensive system?  Based on watching a kid who just oozes talent and confidence, I’m guessing he’ll adapt just fine, thank you very much.

BRETT HUNDLEY, UCLA, QB
2013 STAT LINE: 248-of-369 passing (67.2%) for 3,071 yards, 24 touchdowns, nine interceptions; 160 carries for 748 yards (4.7 ypc) and 11 touchdowns; one reception for seven yards and a touchdown
QUICK HIT: All Hundley has done in two seasons as the Bruins’ starter is throw for over 6,800 yards and 53 touchdowns, all while completing a ridiculous 67-percent of his passes (nearly).  Oh, and he’s added more than 1,100 yards rushing and 20 touchdowns on the ground for good measure.  If he’d have been putting up those numbers for a team that played in a conference east of the Mississippi, you could be looking at the biggest challenger to Winston’s crown.  Instead, you’re looking at a player still fighting for the respect he richly deserves.  Hopefully voters look west and beyond their narrow focus on a certain Duck if Hundley continues to put up the numbers he has.

MYLES JACK, UCLA, LB/RB
2013 STAT LINE: 75 tackles, 11 passes defensed, two interceptions, one return touchdown; 38 carries for 269 yards (7.0 ypc) and seven touchdowns
QUICK HIT: Jack is the other of the two true sophomores.  As a true freshman, he was a two-way highlight machine, finishing fifth on the Bruins in tackles while landing behind only Hundley in rushing touchdowns.  If Jack goes both ways again this year — and that appears to be the plan — and does it all season, there’s little doubt he’ll be on the tip of many a Heisman voter’s tongue come November.

DUKE JOHNSON, MIAMI, RB
2013 STAT LINE: 145 carries for 920 yards (6.3 ypc) and six touchdowns; four receptions for 77 yards; 14 kick returns for 396 yards (28.3 yards per return)
QUICK HIT: A devastating ankle injury cost Johnson the final five games of last season and sidelined him for all of spring practice as well.  Johnson, at 100-percent, can put scores on the board rushing, receiving and in the kick-return game.  A healthy Johnson will be a factor in both the ACC and Heisman races, especially given the very unsettled nature of The U’s quarterback situation.

CHUCKIE KEETON, UTAH STATE, QB
2013 STAT LINE: 136-of-196 passing (69.4%) for 1,388 yards, 18 touchdowns, two interceptions; 55 carries for 241 yards (4.4 ypc) and two touchdowns
QUICK HIT: The second of just two non-Power Five conference players on the list.  Also one of the ones coming off a significant injury, one suffered in the sixth game of the year that cost the Aggie senior more than half the season.  If he can get back to the form he displayed in 2012… if USU can maintain its presence as a 10-win(ish) mid-major… if he can put on a show in Knoxville against Tennessee in the opener… if those three things take place, you never know.  Watching a potential mid-major between Keeton and Cato develop would be fascinating, though.

TAYLOR KELLY, ARIZONA STATE, QB
2013 STAT LINE: 302-of-484 (63.4%) for 3,635 yards, 28 touchdowns, 12 interceptions; 173 carries for 608 yards (3.5 ypc) and nine touchdowns
QUICK HIT: If I were a gambling man, I’d bet you I’d put a little bit of money on Mr. Kelly and his 100/1 odds for the 2014 Heisman.  Call it a hunch.  Kelly has been flying underneath the national radar the last two seasons; entering his third year as a starter, he’s ready to break out and become a household name.  Again, a hunch.

TREVOR KNIGHT, OKLAHOMA, QB
2013 STAT LINE: 79-of-134 passing (59%) for 819 yards, nine touchdowns, five interceptions; 67 carries for 445 yards (6.6 ypc) and two touchdowns
QUICK HIT: This one may be the first real stretch in the group, so much so that I think I just felt something pop.  Which Knight will show up this year, the one who had issues hanging on to the job in his first season as a starter or the one that torched Alabama for 348 yards passing and four touchdowns in the Sugar Bowl?  From this vantage point, I’ll say somewhere in between, with a big jump the deeper we get into 2014 and on into the 2015 season.

SEAN MANNION, OREGON STATE, QB
2013 STAT LINE:
QUICK HIT: One of the most prolific quarterbacks in the country statistically in 2013, Mannion was hamstrung by one simple fact — his seven-win Beavers were just a fair-to-middling squad.  If OSU can get closer to 10 wins than five, and Mannion can put up similar numbers — won’t be easy with the loss of Brandin Cooks — he should be on the radar through October and on into November.

MARCUS MARIOTA, OREGON, QB
2013 STAT LINE: 245-of-386 passing (63.5%) for 3,665 yards, 31 touchdowns; four interceptions; 96 carries for 715 yards (7.4 ypc) and nine touchdowns
QUICK HIT: Simply put, Mariota is one of the best — THE best in my opinion — quarterbacks in college football.  You’ve heard all of the well-deserved superlatives, so there’s no need for me to drop to my knees as well.  He’ll be a factor in the Heisman race from Game 1 through Game 12 and on into the Ducks’ (expected) appearance in the Pac-12 championship game.

NICK MARSHALL, AUBURN, QB
2013 STAT LINE: 142-of-239 passing (59.4%) for 1,976 yards, 14 touchdowns, six interceptions; 172 carries for 1,068 yards (6.2 ypc) and 12 touchdowns; one reception for 35 yards
QUICK HIT: Marshall’s first season as a starter wasn’t statistically overwhelming, but it was deadly in its efficiency.  Marijuana citation aside, Marshall is said to have had a very good offseason, improving his throwing mechanics and becoming more and more comfortable in Gus Malzahn‘s offense.  If true, and if the passing aspect of his game improves, that could prove to be bad news for the SEC in general and the West specifically.

BRAXTON MILLER, OHIO STATE, QB
2013 STAT LINE: 162-of-255 passing (63.5%) for 2,094 yards, 24 touchdowns, seven interceptions; 171 carries for 1,068 yards (6.2 ypc) and 12 touchdowns
QUICK HIT: Miller improved in nearly every statistical category in his third season as a starter.  Entering his fourth year, it’s time for the 2013 preseason Heisman favorite to take the next step, which means becoming more of a passing quarterback and less of a running one.  A greater threat in the passing game while maintaining the “holy crap, he may take off” aspect of his run threat would prove to be a lethal combination that not many quarterback’s possess — and not many coordinators would stand a chance of counteracting.

TY MONTGOMERY, STANFORD, WR
2013 STAT LINE: 61 receptions for 958 yards (15.7 ypc) and 10 touchdowns; 36 kick returns for 1,091 yards (30.3 ypr)
QUICK HIT: Montgomery’s long-shot candidacy may have suffered a fatal blow before it even started as shoulder surgery leaves him questionable for the first two games of the year.  One missed game would all but end the candidacy; two missed games would kill it for a receiver.  Still, I felt, given the immense two-way talent Montgomery is, he at least deserved a mention.

BRYCE PETTY, BAYLOR, QB
2013 STAT LINE: 250-for-403 passing (62%) for 4,200 yards, 32 touchdowns, three interceptions; 94 carries for 209 yards (2.2 ypc) and 14 touchdowns
QUICK HIT: Along with Winston, Miller and Mariota, Petty is widely viewed as a quarter of the four-headed Heisman favorite.  While the passing yards and touchdowns certainly catch the eye, the fact that Petty threw just three picks in 403 attempts is enough to drop the jaw to the floor.  Art Briles‘ system just chugs along — at warp speed — year after year; don’t expect anything to change in Petty’s second year as the Bears’ triggerman.

KEENAN REYNOLDS, NAVY, QB
2013 STAT LINE: 68-of-128 passing (53.1%) for 1,057 yards, eight touchdowns, two interceptions; 300 carries for 1,346 yards (4.5 ypc) and 31 touchdowns
QUICK HIT: How could you not put a player like Reynolds on a list like this?  Yes, the Midshipmen have somewhat of a penchant for running the ball and utter disdain for throwing it, which means Reynolds won’t have the gaudy passing stats that catch a voter’s attention the way a set of jingling keys catches a toddler’s.  Still, any player with 31 rushing touchdowns — 31!!!!!! — in a single season deserves a shout-out.  Especially one who comes from one of our nation’s great service academies.

T.J. YELDON, ALABAMA, RB
2013 STAT LINE: 207 carries for 1,235 yards (6.0 ypc) and 14 touchdowns; 20 receptions for 183 yards
QUICK HIT: This bruising back has it all: speed, power, change of direction and surprisingly soft hands for a man his size.  He’s everything Nick Saban wants in a running back.  What he doesn’t have?  Sole ownership of the Tide’s running game load, the kind of ownership that would allow him to put up eye-catching numbers, because of the presence of Derrick Henry.  The reality is Henry is too good of a back and too much of a weapon to not utilize, which means Yeldon could still be one of the most Heisman-worthy players in the country and not have the stats to show it.  Such is life on Five-Star Island.

(Click HERE for the CFT 2014 Preseason Preview Repository)

Lane Kiffin reportedly bringing Jim Harbaugh and Tennessee coaches to work FAU summer camp

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The calendar is just about ready to flip over to June and with that date change comes time to kick off plenty of summer camps for high school recruits around the country.

While all eyes will be on major outings such as USC’s annual Rising Stars Camp or Florida’s Friday Night Lights, there may be a smaller school’s camp that will draw just as much attention. The one in question? Well of course it would be Lane Kiffin’s first summer camp at Florida Atlantic.

While the draw of Kiffin alone is enough to elicit some higher than normal interest, the list of coaches tagging along for the Owls’ June 5th camp is even more eyebrow-raising than that of the hosts. Namely that includes Jim Harbaugh (and the rest of the Michigan staff per the Sun-Sentinelalong with a few familiar faces from the Tennessee staff, among others.

Yes, that’s right, Kiffin’s old employer is all set to buddy up with the ex-Vols coach down in Boca according to a report from FAUOwlAccess.com.

Given recent limits put on satellite camps by the NCAA, it certainly makes plenty of sense for schools like Michigan and Tennessee to send their staffs to work camps at places like FAU given the latter’s close proximity to so many top recruits. Likewise, it’s pretty understandable to see Kiffin bring in some even bigger names to his first summer camp in order to draw attention to the program he took over in the offseason.

Still, it should be more than a little interesting for many fans in the Volunteer State to see a few Tennessee coaches working alongside the man many blame for their program’s slide in recent years. It’s been several years (and coaching stops) since Kiffin left Knoxville so perhaps next month we’ll find out if time really does heal all wounds.

To the surprise of nobody though, FAU hasn’t even played a game under their new head coach and the Owls are already making waves and finding plenty of time in the national spotlight.

Florida adds South Alabama to 2020 schedule

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Florida may not be able to beat Alabama, so they’ll do their best to make sure they take care of South Alabama in 2020. The Gators and Jaguars added a future non-conference game to the 2020 schedule, with Florida paying South Alabama a reported $1.2 million for the game in Gainesville.

The two schools will meet for the first time on September 19, 2020 at Florida. The game will be played in Week 3, likely following an SEC game on Florida’s schedule. Florida is scheduled to open the season at home against FCS opponent Eastern Washington and has an opening likely to be filled by a conference game in Week 2 of the schedule. Florida now has just one non-conference scheduling vacancy to fill before 2021, with one spot available in 2019 (Florida opens in Orlando against Miami and has Florida State at the end of the year).

As a member of the SEC, Florida is required to play one power conference opponent each season. Obviously, South Alabama doesn’t satisfy that requirement, but the Gators play ACC rival Florida State on an annual basis so the scheduling requirement is fulfilled any time the Seminoles are tacked on the schedule. Florida will open the 2017 season against Michigan as well.

South Alabama has filled up the bulk of their non-conference slots through the 2022 season with a good dose of power conference opponents. South Alabama will play Ole Miss and Oklahoma State this year, Oklahoma State in 2018, and has future games lined up against Nebraska, Tennessee, and UCLA. South Alabama has just one vacancy to fill before the 2023 season, with one spot in 2021 available.

John Swofford turns down volume on Notre Dame to ACC talk

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If there are any serious conversations behind closed doors between the ACC and Notre Dame about potential football membership, ACC commissioner John Swofford is not showing his cards. In a radio interview Friday morning, Swofford was asked about the rumor the conference and the Fighting Irish have had discussions, to which Swofford avoided any controversy.

Swofford said the ACC and Notre Dame have not had any such discussions about Notre Dame joining the conference in football to complete its membership in the conference, but he also didn’t slam the door shut on the potential option down the line.

Earlier this month the rumor mill got turning in wild fashion after a radio interview saw FOX Sports broadcaster Tim Brando say “conversations have taken place” about the ACC adding Notre Dame as a full member. That comment alone got the gears working on some exaggerated headlines across the Internet, some going so far as to suggest the Irish were on the verge of joining the ACC and abandoning their football independence once and for all. As I suggested at the time, there is absolutely reason to believe Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick has had at least some degree of conversation with the ACC about the possibility, because a good AD would at least test the water on any and all potential scenarios should the time come the university approaches its football program differently.

The latest edition of the Notre Dame to ACC rumors followed the scheduling announcement from the ACC and Notre Dame for future game sin the ACC schedule rotation with the Irish through 2037.

Swofford did drop an interesting, although completely unsurprising, nugget of information as well when he mentioned the ACC would explore adding a 16th team to the fold if Notre Dame could be added in football. That alone will be enough to keep fans of certain programs interested in the ACC’s future, although they will all have to wait for a while in all likelihood, as no changes would be expected until current media rights deals expire and are up for renewal in the next decade.

Chip Kelly’s new ESPN gig could be pit stop back to college sideline

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After being cut from his second NFL job in as many years just after the college football coaching carousel came to a halt, we just knew Chip Kelly couldn’t keep himself away from the college football game this fall.

ESPN announced today Kelly has been hired to be a college football studio analyst with the network for the upcoming season.

“Chip is one of the most innovative football minds of our generation,” ESPN senior coordinating producer Lee Fitting, said in a released statement. “As a coach, he saw the game from a unique perspective, never afraid to take an unconventional approach. We want him to bring that mentality to our college football coverage each week, offering fans a varying viewpoint outside of the conventional thought process.”

Kelly says he is ready for the new job.

“Over the last 30 years, I have experienced football from one perspective – as a coach,” Kelly said in his statement. “Working in television will allow me to see the game from a different angle; simultaneously, I‘ll provide viewers an insight to the mindset of a coach and team while offering alternative views of various situations.”

Of course, the obvious thought here is this studio gig with ESPN is a one-year job at the most for Kelly, because his name will be one of the most popular names in the coaching rumor mills the moment something goes wrong at any number of programs this upcoming season. Kelly has been fending off rumors about his expected return to college coaching from the very beginning of his brief run in the NFL, first with the Philadelphia Eagles and then with the San Francisco 49ers. It’s pretty much par for the course for the former Oregon Ducks coach who also fought off NFL rumors for years before finally leaving for the NFL.

The job could be a good fit for Kelly, because he certainly knows his football and has a unique perspective to offer. Kelly could follow a path previously ventured by Rich Rodriguez (Michigan to CBS Sports Network to Arizona) and Urban Meyer (Florida to ESPN to Ohio State).

If there is one person who may be happy to have Kelly on board, it may be Monday Night Football analysts Jon Gruden, who now will hear a co-worker’s name heard in rumor mills more often for the next few months.