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CFT 2014 Preseason Preview: 12-Pack of Top Games

The Swami AP

In 17 days — 16 if you’re a degenerate like me who counts Abilene Christian at Georgia State the day before — the 2014 college football season kicks off, with all eyes focused on Texas A&M, playing its first game without Johnny Manziel under center since 2011, traveling to Columbia to face what could very well be the best team Steve Spurrier‘s had in what will be his 10th season at South Carolina.

As we have been and will continue doing throughout the month of August, CFT trudges on with previews of the upcoming season, with the 12 games that could have the biggest impact on both key conference races and the national landscape.  Said national landscape will include, for the first-time ever, a College Football Playoff.  Of course, the reality once we get into the season can change greatly from the preseason perceptions — see: 2013 Auburn Tigers — but the following 12-pack should form some sort of solid guide through what’s certain to be yet another eventful season in the great game of college football.

So, without further ado and for your reading pleasure, here’s a sampling of some of the top games on the 2014 slate.  And, as always, you can whine/bitch/moan in the comment section that your team was snubbed…

TEXAS A&M AT SOUTH CAROLINA, AUG. 28
LAST MEETING: First meeting
SERIES RECORD: 0-0
THE SKINNY: This contest has a handful of firsts going for it.  Most importantly to the business side of the conference, it will be the first-ever football game televised on the fledgling SEC Network, a network that’s expected to drop tens of millions of dollars annually into the coffers of each conference member.  Additionally, as noted above, it’s the first-ever meeting between the two football programs.  And finally, both the Aggies and Gamecocks will be breaking in new starting quarterbacks for the first time in two and two-plus years, respectively, with the former going with (Kenny Hill or Kyle Allen) and the latter Dylan Thompson.  While neither Hill nor Allen have started a game at the collegiate level, Thompson at least has some experience in that capacity — he’s 3-0 in his career as a starter replacing Connor Shaw, and has thrown passes in 20 of the games in which he’s played the past three years.  Even as the Aggies will face a deficit in experience at the most important position on the field, it’s not their most pressing concern as Kevin Sumlin could probably throw you or I in at quarterback and still put up 30-plus per game.  Rather, it’s the defense that should cause the most consternation, especially facing a running back as talented as Mike Davis.  A defense that was suspect throughout 2013 is even more so in 2014, with attrition via dismissals, graduation, etc.  This game could be the beginning of an uneven season in College Station, which would be the first since the Aggies joined the SEC in 2012.
THE WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: South Carolina 41, Texas A&M 27

WISCONSIN VS. LSU IN HOUSTON, AUG. 30
LAST MEETING: Sept. 30, 1972, a 27-7 LSU win in Baton Rouge
SERIES RECORD: LSU leads 2-0
THE SKINNY: Any time teams from the Big Ten and SEC meet it’s a big deal, especially when it’s two programs that have been at or near the top of their respective conferences for the past few years.  At least football-wise, this game is the dictionary definition of unstoppable force vs. immovable object: the Tigers will bring their always-stout run defense ( 35th nationally, third in SEC in 2013) into the neutral site affair against a Badgers football that thrives on running the football (8th in rushing offense) and would much rather take a pair of steel-toed boots to the groin than pass it (93rd in passing offense).  Perhaps most importantly, especially as far as fans are concerned, this game will give the winning league bragging rights until bowl season as this marks the only marquee match-up between the Big Ten and SEC during the regular season.
THE WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: LSU 24, Wisconsin 17

MICHIGAN STATE AT OREGON, SEPT. 6
LAST MEETING: Sept. 2, 1999, a 27-20 Michigan State win in East Lansing
SERIES RECORD: Tied at 2-2
THE SKINNY: There might not be a game this season featuring a pair of teams that are such extreme polar opposites of one another.  The Spartans’ 2013 success was predicated on a physical, dominating defense complemented by a methodical and productive rushing attack, with the passing game managing games and putting up big numbers when necessary.  The Ducks are the antithesis of the Spartans.  UO is a balls-to-the-wall, pedal-mashed-to-the-floor offense that is equally adept — and deadly — at running or passing the football.  Oh, and the Ducks can play some defense as well, as evidenced by the fact that they finished 13th nationally in scoring defense last season (MSU was third).  This game has the potential to be one of the more fascinating matchups for the upcoming season, and it’s probably the non-conference game that I’m looking at with the most anticipation — even as I foresee a blowout in Eugene for the East Lansing boys.
THE WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: Oregon 48, Michigan State 27

GEORGIA AT SOUTH CAROLINA, SEPT. 13
LAST MEETING: Sept,. 7, 2013, a 41-30 Georgia win in Athens
SERIES RECORD: Georgia leads 47-17-2
THE SKINNY: After being unceremoniously shoved to the side by Missouri last season, the Bulldogs and Gamecocks are once again expected to be the cream of the SEC East crop.  And, because of that, this game will go a long way in determining just who will represent the division in the SEC championship game against their West counterparts.  USC has won three of the last four in the series, with the lone blemish being the 11-point loss in Athens last season.  This year, and as is the case throughout the conference, both teams will be breaking in new starting quarterbacks.  The Gamecocks’ situation is a little different from most, though, as Dylan Thompson is a very seasoned backup with nearly two dozen games played and three starts. Hutson Mason, meanwhile, got a taste of what it’s like to be a starter in the SEC as he took over under center for the injured Aaron Murray the last two and a half games and performed well, throwing for over 800 yards and four touchdowns in that stretch.  The good news for both is that they will have very talented and accomplished running backs at their disposal, Mike Davis for the Gamecocks and Todd Gurley for the Bulldogs.  How those two go, so should their respective teams as this game could be a rarity these days: one that’s determined in large part by the running game.
THE WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: South Carolina 34, Georgia 21

UCLA AT ARIZONA STATE, SEPT. 27
LAST MEETING: Nov. 23, 2013, a 38-33 Arizona State win in Tempe
SERIES RECORD: UCLA 18-11-1
THE SKINNY: For everything that Oregon-Stanford is as far as the Pac-12 North is concerned, Arizona State-UCLA is fast becoming the same for the South.  Like 2013 when ASU tripped up UCLA to help stake its claim to a spot in the conference championship game, 2014 should be no different.  Both teams will feature very experienced and extremely talented quarterbacks, Taylor Kelly for the Sun Devils and Brett Hundley.  Both could, or even should, be in the thick of the Heisman chase when this game rolls around, which would be a testament to both their individual performances and their team’s success.  The Bruins, though, easily return the most talent with 18 starters (eight each on offense and defense to go along with both kickers) coming back while the Sun Devils return just 10, including a paltry two on the defensive side of the ball.  Is that advantage, along with being at home this around, be enough to put the Bruins back in the title game?  Time will tell, although USC may have a little something to say about the latter before it’s all said and done.
THE WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: UCLA 48, Arizona State 38

OREGON AT UCLA, OCT. 11
LAST MEETING: Oct. 26, 2013, a 42-14 Oregon win in Eugene
SERIES RECORD: UCLA leads 39-27
THE SKINNY: Depending on how things play out, this very well could be a preview of the Pac-12 championship game.  The Bruins’ loss to the Ducks last year, the second of back-to-back conference losses, all but handed the South division to Arizona State.  Getting UO in Los Angeles should make the task a little less treacherous, but not much as the Ducks are expected to be the class of the league and the odds-on favorite to represent the Pac-12 in the College Football Playoff.  Last season’s win was Oregon’s fifth straight in the series; a sixth straight could further push the Ducks toward their ultimate postseason goal, while snapping that skein would go a long way in helping the Bruins get back to the top of the conference — and perhaps climbing back on to the national stage for the first time in a very, very long time.
THE WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: Oregon 49, UCLA 31

STANFORD AT OREGON, NOV. 1
LAST MEETING: Nov. 7, 2013, a 26-20 Oregon win in Stanford
SERIES RECORD: Stanford leads 43-30-1
THE SKINNY: In all three years of the Pac-12 championship game, either the Cardinal or the Ducks have been the North’s representative — 2012 and 2013 for the former, 2011 for the latter.  That’s not expected to change in Year 4 as both teams are, once again, the class of the division.  UO, in fact, may end up being the class of college football at year’s end.  Both teams return a ton of starters, 15 (nine on offense) coming back for the Ducks and 14 (seven on defense) for the Cardinal.  Four of the starters who don’t return to The Farm, however, come from the offensive line, so David Shaw and his offensive staff have to hope the new players plugged in have gelled into a cohesive unit by the time this game rolls around.  Even if that happens, can the Cardinal keep pace with a high-powered offense triggered by Heisman front-runner Marcus Mariota?  The answer was resounding “hell yes!!!” in 2013; whether that’s the case in 2014 will go a long way in determining which team takes this game — and which team likely punches its ticket to another conference championship game.
THE WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: Oregon 41, Stanford 27

ALABAMA AT LSU, NOV. 8
LAST MEETING: Nov. 9, 2013, a 38-17 Alabama win in Tuscaloosa
SERIES RECORD: Alabama leads 48-25-5
THE SKINNY: This one of those games where, when the schedule comes out, you always check to see when it will be played.  For all of the hype it receives, however, it’s been a bit lopsided of sorts of late, at least results-wise.  The Tide was won three straight in the series, including the BCS title game following the 2012 season and a blowout win last year.  There are very few certainties in college football, but here’s one you can just about chisel in stone: there won’t be many points scored when the two teams clash in Tuscaloosa in early November.  Thanks to what’s ofttimes a pair of suffocating defenses, just once has a team scored more than 30 points — the Tide in its 38-17 win last year — in the last eight meetings.  In the last thirteen meetings, one or both of the teams failed to score at least 20 points a whopping 10 times.  The microcosm of the series?  The 9-6 Battle of the Kickers in 2011 that was the epitome of the defensive duels between the two SEC West programs.  As both teams reload their respective defenses the way most people change their underwear, and both offenses will be manned by first-year starters at quarterback, it should be lather, rinse, repeat on the defensive front once again.
THE WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: Alabama 24, LSU 14

OHIO STATE AT MICHIGAN STATE, NOV. 8
LAST MEETING: Dec. 7, 2013, a 34-24 Michigan State win in Indianapolis (Big Ten title game)
SERIES RECORD: Ohio State leads 28-14
THE SKINNY: This will easily be the most anticipated Big Ten game of the year, with the Buckeyes looking to avenge a double-digit “upset” loss to the Spartans in the Big Ten championship game.  A loss, incidentally, that both ended No. 2 OSU’s 24-game losing streak and knocked the Buckeyes out of a likely spot in the BCS title game against Florida State.  As was the case last season, one key in this year’s game will be MSU’s stifling defense’s ability to contain Braxton Miller.  While the OSU quarterback did rush for 142 and a pair of touchdowns, he was held to a paltry 8-of-21 passing for just 101 yards.  Connor Cook, on the other hand, riddled a porous Buckeyes pass defense for 304 yards and three touchdowns.  Throw in Jeremy Langford‘s 128 yards rushing, and MSU was able to flip a 24-17 deficit late in the third quarter to a 10-point win that propelled the Spartans into the Rose Bowl.  So, yes, “revenge” will be a key storyline heading into this game — along with MSU looking to prove yet again that it belongs on the national stage.  And one more tidbit: thanks to the additions of Maryland and Rutgers to the Big Ten and subsequent shifts in the divisions, this game will now likely be a contest for East supremacy and a spot in the conference championship game.  Just a little bit on the line in this game, in other words.
THE WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: Ohio State 27, Michigan State 24

BAYLOR AT OKLAHOMA, NOV. 8
LAST MEETING: Nov. 7, 2013, a 41-12 Baylor win in Waco
SERIES RECORD: Oklahoma leads 20-2
THE SKINNY: The Sooners have absolutely owned the Bears for the whole of the series, but the tide is certainly shifting.  After losing the first 17 meetings to OU — all but three by 12 points or more, and 11 by 20-plus points — BU has won two of the last three.  Included in that total was last year’s evisceration, a 29-point beatdown in early November that signaled the  Bears were the team to beat in the Big 12.  Can that trend continue?  If it does, it’ll do so with some new pieces in place.  The Bears must replace seven starters on the defensive side of the ball, including a pair of first-team All-Big 12 performers and three members of its secondary.  Bryce Petty is still Bryce Petty and Art Briles‘ offense is still Art Briles’ offense, so the Bears will maintain the ability to outscore most of the defensive liabilities it may possess.  On the flip side, the Sooners return 14 starters, including quarterback Trevor Knight.  Whether that’s a positive or a negative remains to be seen as no one knows which Knight will show up: the one who struggled to hold on to his job throughout the season or the one who strafed Alabama’s defense in the Sugar Bowl.  The answer to that question will go a long way in determining who wins this game and, as a result, who controls the Big 12 and a likely spot in the College Football Playoff.
THE WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: Baylor 38, Oklahoma 35

AUBURN AT ALABAMA, NOV. 29
LAST MEETING: Nov. 30, 2013, a 34-28 Auburn win in Auburn
SERIES RECORD: Alabama leads 42-35-1
THE SKINNY: The annual Iron Bowl grudge/hate match would make this type of list year-in and year-out.  After last year?  This one comes in at or near the top of the 2014 version of these lists.  Of course, I’m referring to the most memorable play of the 2013 season, “The Kick-Six” at Jordan-Hare that stunned the Tide and propelled the Tigers into the SEC championship game and, ultimately, the BCS title game.  The questions entering the season for AU are twofold: one, can they replace 1,800-yard rusher Tre’ Mason and, two, how many more miracles does Gus Malzahn & Company have tucked into their hip pockets?  The Tide has its own questions to answer as well, not the least of which is just who will replace three-year starter AJ McCarron under center.  The knowns, though are that AU will have Nick Marshall, who’s expected to do nothing but get better in his second season as a starting quarterback, while UA will have what’s become an annual twin tradition under Nick Saban: a punishing rushing attack with its stable of backs to go along with a physical, suffocating defense.  This year’s version may not match the drama of last year’s, but it’s still compelling, must-see TV.
THE WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: Alabama 38, Auburn 31

MICHIGAN AT OHIO STATE, NOV. 29
LAST MEETING: Nov. 30, 2013, a 42-41 Ohio State win in Ann Arbor
SERIES RECORD: Michigan leads 58-45-6
THE SKINNY: Regardless of the records or prospects of either or both teams, The Game is and always will be a destination event for college football viewers.  While the Wolverines have owned the overall series, it’s the Buckeyes who’ve owned That School Up North this century as OSU has won (on the field) nine of the last 10 and 11 of the last 13.  Both teams will enter the season with question marks littering the offensive line, with the Buckeyes needing to replace four starters while the Wolverines, which had significant issues in that group last year, must replace an All-American tackle and the starter on the other side as well.  Where this game may be won or lost is at the quarterback position, which bodes well for OSU.  Braxton Miller, the reigning two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, returns and looks to take his game to the next level as a senior, while the Wolverines will go with either the inconsistent, turnover-prone Devin Gardner or the unproven Shane Morris.  Decided advantage, OSU.  If the Buckeyes can cure its secondary woes, woes that are directly to blame for its two-game losing streak to end last season, they should have little problem in dispatching their bitter rivals and possibly continuing on a Big Ten/CFP title run.
THE WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: Ohio State 45, Michigan 31

(Click HERE for the CFT 2014 Preseason Preview Repository)

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Georgia will apply for reinstatement of Todd Gurley today

Todd Gurley

Georgia running back Todd Gurley was suspended earlier this month while an investigation commenced regarding the alleged autograph signings for compensation. The university has stood by their student-athlete and is now prepared to apply for his reinstatement. Georgia will formally apply for a reinstatement later today, the school said in a statement released on the university’s athletics website.

“I want to thank the University, coaches, teammates, and the Bulldog Nation for their patience and support,” Gurley said.  “I take full responsibility for the mistakes I made, and I can’t thank the University, my coaches, and teammates enough for supporting me throughout this process.  I’m looking forward to getting back on the field with my teammates.”

It is Georgia’s hope a decision on the reinstatement application will be made quickly. Georgia is off this week but travels to Jacksonville next week to face Florida. Georgia has won two games without Gurley on the field, both in impressive fashion. Despite how good Georgia has looked the past tow weeks, it is clear Gurley remains one of the best players in college football. Having Gurley on the field only makes Georgia more of a threat to win the SEC and possibly wiggle into the College Football Playoff.

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TCU to mix up signals vs. Texas Tech

Texas Tech v Oklahoma

TCU is looking to keep its hopes at winning the Big 12 alive this weekend when the No. 10 Horned Frogs host in-state rival Texas Tech. The Red Raiders have struggled to a 3-4 record (1-3 in Big 12 play), but TCU will be cautious with its offensive calling this weekend. TCU will be changing up its usual hand signals this week, knowing that Texas Tech may have a little insight to how the TCU coaches and players relay plays.

TCU co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Sonny Cumbie is a former Texas Tech quarterback. He joined the TCU staff last December after four seasons as an assistant coach at Texas Tech, so Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury and his staff and team should be aware of how Cumbie operates. TCU head coach Gary Patterson told reporters Tuesday his staff will do what they can to change things up from the sideline to keep texas Tech guessing.

“Everybody has everybody’s signals,” Patterson said. “We’ll change what we have to change. There will have to be some tweaks.”

As with most Big 12 games, Patterson expects points to be scored this week, but he says the game plan is always to stay grounded on defense. In this conference, that does not always hold true for very long. A couple of weeks ago TCU got caught failing to protect a 21-point lead on the road at Baylor. Patterson said playing with a lead does lead to a change in a play calling mindset.

“It makes a difference in how you call a ballgame. Whether people believe it or not, I’m just about winning,” Patterson explained. “How do I need to call a game where we’re winning? We’re going to try to put a game plan together that is zero points. That hardly ever happens. Our game plan is zero and hopefully we get them to 17 or 21. So, how can you be aggressive but still do the things you need to defensively against a fast-paced offense. That’ll be our challenge again this week.”

Texas Tech enters this week averaging 30.9 points per game, which is seventh best in the Big 12. TCU has averaged 45.2 points per game, only trailing Baylor in that category (49.0 ppg). TCU leads the Big 12 in scoring defense with 20.7 ppg allowed, while Texas Tech is last in the 10-team Big 12 with an average of 36.9 ppg allowed. Patterson may be found playing with the lead once again this week.

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Travis Wilson starting again at Utah, but Whittingham still evaluating options

Travis Wilson

Utah is off to a solid start this season thanks in large part to the play of the defense and the production of the running game. Those two areas have helped to overcome some quarterback indecision for the Utes. After just one week, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham has decided to hand the offense back to Travis Wilson under center. Kendal Thompson will return to the back-up position when No. 19 Utah hosts No. 20 USC this weekend.

“We think Travis’ performance is a little bit better so far this season than Kendal overall,” Whittingham said this week. “When you look at the numbers, it’s very close. It’s no different than when we came out of fall camp, with it being a tight race. Kendal has run the ball a little bit better than Travis has so far this season, Travis has thrown the ball a little bit better than Kendal. It’s very tight.”

Whittingham may be giving the starting job back to Wilson, but the head coach of the Utes also suggested Thompson will still see some playing time. This is far from a concrete answer for the quarterback solution at Utah.

“There is a very strong possibility that you’ll see Kendal in the game this week as well,” Whittingham said. “It’s still not what I term a two-quarterback system. People say ‘you’re playing two quarterbacks so it’s a two quarterback system’ – no it’s not, as far as my definition where both guys know they are going to play X amount of time or X amount of plays, whatever the case may be. We’re waiting for some separation to occur. Ideally we’d like some separation to occur, and one guy to take charge and settle in and be the guy, but that hasn’t happened yet, so they’re both going to get opportunities until that does happen.”

Utah’s passing offense ranks 11th in the Pac-12, just ahead of Washington. The Utes quarterbacks have combined for 1,151 passing yards in six games, an average of 191.8 yards per game. Combined, Wilson and Thompson have nine touchdown passes and two interceptions that have come through inconsistent play. Fortunately for Utah, the running game has excelled so far this season and the defense has kept games within reach.

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Candidates for governor of Florida debate FSU, of course

Jameis Winston

There has been plenty of conversation about Florida State and its handling of the Jameis Winston investigation and so much more. At this point, I am not going to delve into that conversation now, but it is interesting to note just how important the image of Florida State football is in the state of Florida.

On Tuesday night a debate for the governor’s seat in the state of Florida was held between Governor Rick Scott and Democrat Charlie Crist, who is challenging Scott for his seat in office. Among the topics that popped up for debate…

Politics and football. What a combo.

Of course, with Florida State being such a huge part of the community, it is fair to question if there are larger concerns that can be addressed by the governor. This is true of any state institution, not just Florida State.

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Tebow just another former college star slamming his former team

Tim Tebow

It’s tough watching Florida Gators football this season. Even former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow thinks so. Tebow, a former Heisman Trophy winner at Florida and still a fan favorite among the Florida faithful, went on radio recently and suggested one of the many problems Florida is battling through right now is a lack of identity and leadership.

“I don’t think that the offense has an identity right now, and I don’t think that they know what they want their identity to be,” Tebow said while on air with 1010 XL in Jacksonville. “One of the biggest problems on the offense is leadership. You need to have something to motivate you, something to give you an edge…they’re not out of the SEC East.”

Tebow is far from the first former player to come out and hammer his former college program. Just this season former Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron offered some criticism of Alabama’s performance. At USC, former Trojans running back LenDale White has not held anything back in his critiquing of the current state of the USC program. That even led to him being ejected from the Los Angeles Coliseum this past weekend.

Tebow is a bit different from the McCarron and White cases of course. Tebow is a member fo the media, paid for his opinions on college football. Specifically, Tebow is paid for his commentary on the SEC as a member of the SEC Network. How much insight Tebow actually has into the locker room in Gainesville may be fair to question as a new coaching staff is in place since his last played for the Gators, although when images like this pop up following a dismal performance at home…

… Tebow’s suggestions there is a leadership problem carry some weight. This isn’t even the first time a scene like this played out under Will Muschamp. Remember this, from after the 2013 Sugar Bowl loss to Louisville?

Does Florida have a leadership problem? Maybe. Or maybe this team just is not very good.

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Does the AP poll have an SEC bias?

SEC Football Championship - Florida v Alabama Getty Images

This week’s latest Associated Press top 25 poll features four teams from the SEC in the top five, which has helped to ignite the discussion about a perceived SEC bias from poll voters. Is it legitimate? Looking to defend the integrity of its poll, the AP decided to dig into the numbers to see if there is anything to support the idea of a bias toward the conference that has dominated on the national stage for the better part of the past decade.

With some help from STATS, the AP reviewed the weekly polls from 2009 through 2013. Do SEC teams jump up the rankings faster than schools from the Big Ten or Big 12 or Pac-12 or ACC when they win? Do the SEC schools drop as far as schools form the other conferences do? This is what the AP wanted to find out.

From 2009 through 2013, SEC schools jumped an average of 1.5 spot sin the AP poll following a win. According to the data compiled, SEC schools had the smallest jump up in the AP poll following a win. ACC schools moved up an average of 2.0 spots. The Big Ten saw schools move up an average of 1.9 spots, the Big 12 had an average jump of 18 spots and the Pac-10/Pac-12 jumped an average of 1.6 spots. What is not properly demonstrated here is the minimal gain to be had by teams ranked highly in the AP poll. SEC schools ranked highly in that time span (Alabama, Florida, Auburn for example) never had much room to move up.

But how far are the schools from the SEC dropping? According to the data, SEC schools tend to have a smaller fall in the rankings than schools from all of the power conferences, except for the Pac-12. Pac-12 schools dropped an average of 5.3 spots in the AP poll following a loss. SEC schools dropped an average of 5.5 spots. ACC schools were hit the hardest with a drop of an average 6.6 spots following a loss. The Big Ten and Big 12 each dropped an average of 6.0 spots in the PA poll following a loss.

Midway through the 2014 season the numbers seem to suggest the SEC schools take a harder hit per loss and see a smaller boost following a win. Let’s see how these numbers play out through the end of this season.

The good news this season is the AP poll really does not mean a thing. The College Football Playoff selection committee will have its own ranking, which will begin to be published next week, and the committee will run independently of any existing polling system.

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Big 12 reprimands Baylor SID for Twitter rant

Angry Bird At Computer

Baylor sports information director Heath Nielsen vented some frustrations during Baylor’s road loss to West Virgina on Saturday by taking to Twitter. The Big 12 did not take too kindly to comments made by Nielsen on Twitter, and issued a public reprimand for his social media rant. In addition to a public reprimand, the Big 12 has also issued a $1,000 fine to Nielsen.

“Mr. Nielsen’s public statements via social media, and those of others that were shared on his Twitter account, called into question the integrity and competence of game officials and the Conference’s officiating program,” stated Commissioner Bob Bowlsby. “Big 12 administrators are reminded annually that they fall under the same sportsmanship guidelines as our coaches and student-athletes.”

Nielsen issued a public apology in the Big 12’s statement regarding the reaction to his statements.

“I apologize to the Big 12 Conference for having sent and retweeted some tweets last Saturday regarding officiating,” Nielsen said. “It was a regrettable act for someone in my position.”

A quick scan of Nielsen’s timeline looks as though any controversial tweets and retweets have since been taken down, but this one is still funny.

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Heart of Dallas Bowl has a tasty new sponsor

HOD Bowl

The Heart of Dallas Bowl has a brand new bowl sponsor. Zaxby’s, a popular casual restaurant chain found throughout the southeast, has signed on for a four-year sponsorship deal with the Heart of Dallas Bowl. The game, played in the historic Cotton Bowl Stadium, will be sponsored by Zaxby’s through the 2017 season, and the contract has an option for an extension.

“We are delighted to join with an organization that is fully dedicated to supporting college football, and look forward to expanding the Zaxby’s brand across the nation with the title sponsorship of our bowl game,” said Brant Ringler, Executive Director of the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl. “It’s only fitting that the ‘Official Chicken of Sports Fanz’ will be on hand to enhance the experience of our participating teams and football fans that travel to Dallas.”

Zaxby’s, based out of Athens, Georgia, claims there are over 640 stores found in 15 states. This is the first bowl game sponsorship deal the chain has negotiated.

The Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl will be played this season on December 26 at 1 p.m. eastern. The game, owned and operated by ESPN, will air — naturally — on ESPN. The game has tie-ins with the Big Ten and Conference USA. Conference USA is 2-0 in the bowl game, first played in 2011. The Big Ten is 0-3.

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Sun Belt offers some alternative sports programming tonight

Terrance Broadway, Elijah McGuire

Word is there is some important sporting event getting started tonight, but we will leave the baseball conversation to our friends over at Hardball Talk. If baseball is not your thing, feel free to tune in to some good old-fashioned Tuesday night Sun Belt Conference action as Louisiana hosts Arkansas State in a battle of Sun Belt unbeaten teams. Both are attempting to keep pace with conference newcomer Georgia Southern.

Georgia Southern is off to a 4-0 start in Sun Belt play, its first season in the conference. We’ll have to wait to see if the new FBS program can keep up that pace in the second half of the year, but it should be noted the Eagles are ineligible to represent the conference in a postseason bowl game. Because this is a transition season for Georgia Southern, it is ineligible for postseason play, although it can be recognized as the Sun Belt conference champion. With that caveat in play, the conference’s top bowl spot should be considered on the line tonight down in Lafayette.

Arkansas State appears to be entering tonight’s Sun Belt match-up on a bit of a hot streak with three straight wins. Among those wins is a victory over Utah State and another against Louisiana-Monroe. Casual viewers just catching Arkansas State for the first time tonight will likely become familiar with quarterback Fredi Knighten, a dual-threat option in the Red Wolves offense. Knighten has passed for seven touchdowns and run for six more. In his past two games, Knighten has accounted for a total of eight touchdowns.

Louisiana’s quarterback, Terrance Broadway, is also one to keep an eye on. As his last night might suggest, he could put on a memorable show. In a victory over Texas State a week ago, Broadway rushed for 101 yards to go with his 225 passing yards in a 34-10 victory on the road.

The winner of this particular match-up has gone on to win the Sun Belt Conference championship each of the past three years. Tonight’s game will be seen on ESPN 2 at 8:00 p.m. ET.

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Utah State loses QB Garretson to wrist surgery

Darell Garretson

This season has not been kind to Utah State quarterbacks. For the second time this season the Aggies are losing a starting quarterback due to injury. Darell Garretson, who had been starting in place of an injured Chuckie Keeton, will undergo wrist surgery. The recovery will keep him off the field for at least a few weeks, and a return before the end of the season is still possible. The timeline for his recovery though, is unconfirmed.

What we do know is Garretson will be out this weekend when Utah State plays UNLV in conference play. Craig Harrison is listed as the starting quarterback for this weekend’s game on the latest Utah State depth chart. Harrison has appeared in two games and completed five of 12 pass attempts for 28 yards. The senior played in eight games last season, completing 47.3 percent of his passes in a similar back-up role behind Keeton and Garretson.

Garretson injured his wrist in Utah State’s loss to Colorado State. He had a sling put on his arm and placed an ice pack on his wrist. Utah State still has six games left to play this season. If Garretson only misses three or four weeks, he would likely be available for the final game or two, depending on how quickly he recovers.

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Devin Gardner shrugs aside social media criticism and racism

Devin Gardner

Twitter is full of anonymous online bullies who feel it is their right to be able to say whatever they want at whomever they want. Athletes may be the most targeted among the Twitterspehere, and it gets ugly time and time again, especially when a player or team is not performing well. Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner has certainly seen his share of cyberbullying directed at him this season.

“I’ve been called the N-word so many times this year,” Gardner said in a profile story published by The Detroit News. “One guy told me I was the N-word, and said I know N-words can’t play quarterback. And I was like, are we not past this? Say what you want about my skill, but come on.”

Some athletes would shut down their online profiles when they come under such attacks, but Gardner does what he can to block it out. Some players are incapable of brushing off the criticism from Internet tough guys, but fortunately Gardner seems to have the right frame of mind when it comes to this sort of thing. In a sense, it is the way Gardner attempts to play through pain.

“You can’t not feel the pain,” Gardner said. “The thing is, it’s mind over matter. You have to ignore it. Try to ignore it. You can’t compare a sprain to a broken bone, but high-ankle sprains are pretty bad. They hurt pretty bad. The Ohio game was different. This game, too, if I had to run, I would have been able to do it. If I had to, if it was third and seven and they gave me a lane to run, I was going to do it.”

I don’t particularly understand the rationale that defends lobbing Twitter or Facebook insults at others, never mind high school and college athletes. Perhaps there are other ways to relieve tension that builds up watching sports.

Just a thought.

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Elbow injury likely ends season of Beavers starting wideout

Richard Mullaney, Davion Orphey

Unfortunately, the injury to one of Oregon State’s leading receivers was as bad as originally feared.

In the second half of last Thursday night’s double-overtime loss to Utah, Richard Mullaney suffered an elbow injury.  At the time, Mike Riley said the wide receiver would be “out for a while.”

A few days later, the head coach wasn’t nearly as “optimistic” as he was shortly after the loss.

“We’ll be lucky if we get him back before the end of the year,” Riley succinctly stated.

As Mullaney is the most experienced member of OSU’s receiving corps, the loss will be a significant one. And one that the coaching staff isn’t downplaying.

“I think everyone’s disappointed for Mullaney,” the player’s position coach, Brent Brennan, said. “He’s an awesome kid, he’s a good teammate, he’s been a good player.

“So that hurts us and we’re sad for him.”

Through six games, Mullaney is third on the Beavers in receptions (18) and receiving yards (216). With Mullaney out, redshirt freshman Jordan Villamin (6-115-2) will take over as a starting receiver.

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ACC, Notre Dame announce games through 2025

jack swarbrick  john swofford AP

Tuesday afternoon, Notre Dame further cemented its relationship with the ACC.

Both the school and the conference announced today the playing dates through the 2025 season, with the release stating that the announcement “formally [seals] the partnership that began this season.” The conference had previously announced games involving members of the league and the Irish through the 2016 season, meaning that this amounts to a nine-year extension of the scheduling arrangement.

“The football partnership between the ACC and Notre Dame is a terrific enhancement for all parties,” said ACC commissioner John Swofford. “Notre Dame not only adds to our league’s already highly ambitious schedules, it also provides the opportunity for almost all of our student-athletes to play against Notre Dame during their careers. When you add in the excitement that it brings to our fans, there’s no question that this partnership is significant.”

In six of the 12 years, Notre Dame will play five ACC schools. Three of the years — 2014, 2022, 2024 — will feature four games, while three other years — 2015, 2019, 2023 — will see six games.

With the exception of Boston College, Pittsburgh and Wake Forest, Notre Dame will play each ACC member four times — two at home, two on the road — in the 12-year span. The Irish will face BC, Pitt and Wake on five occasions. Three of the games against the latter will be played in South Bend and three of the games against the Panthers will be played in Pittsburgh, while the 2015 game against the former will be played in historic Fenway Park.

Both of the “home” games for Syracuse will be played at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ.

“Nine additional seasons of games against Atlantic Coast Conference opponents again adds both variety and quality to future University of Notre Dame football schedules,” said ND athletic director Jack Swarbrick in a statement. “Over those nine years, four ACC programs that have never played in Notre Dame Stadium (Louisville, NC State, Virginia and Virginia Tech) will come to South Bend, and two others that have only played at Notre Dame one time (Wake Forest and Clemson) also will travel to our campus.

“On the other side of the coin, during that period we will take our team to four ACC campuses at which Notre Dame never has played football (Louisville, NC State, Virginia and Virginia Tech), plus three others (Clemson, Duke and Wake Forest) where our team has played only once.”

Below is the complete scheduling arrangement between the ACC and Notre Dame.

2014
1. Notre Dame vs. Syracuse (MetLife Stadium), 9/27*
2. North Carolina at Notre Dame, 10/11
3. Notre Dame at Florida State, 10/18
4. Louisville at Notre Dame, 11/22

2015
1. Notre Dame at Virginia, 9/12
2. Georgia Tech at Notre Dame, 9/19
3. Notre Dame at Clemson, 10/3
4. Notre Dame at Pitt, 11/7
5. Wake Forest at Notre Dame, 11/14
6. Notre Dame vs. Boston College (Fenway Park), 11/21@

2016
1. Duke at Notre Dame, 9/24
2. Notre Dame vs. Syracuse (MetLife Stadium), 10/1*
3. Notre Dame at NC State, 10/8
4. Miami at Notre Dame, 10/29
5. Virginia Tech at Notre Dame, 11/19

2017
1. Notre Dame at Boston College, 9/16
2. Notre Dame at North Carolina, 10/07
3. NC State at Notre Dame, 10/28
4. Wake Forest at Notre Dame, 11/04
5. Notre Dame at Miami, 11/11

2018
1. Syracuse at Notre Dame, 9/22
2. Notre Dame at Virginia Tech, 10/13
3. Pittsburgh at Notre Dame, 10/20
4. Florida State at Notre Dame, 11/10
5. Notre Dame at Wake Forest, 11/17

2019
1. Notre Dame at Louisville, 9/2 (Labor Day)
2. Virginia at Notre Dame, 9/28
3. Notre Dame at Georgia Tech, 10/19
4. Virginia Tech at Notre Dame, 11/02
5. Notre Dame at Duke, 11/09
6. Boston College at Notre Dame, 11/23

2020
1. Notre Dame at Wake Forest
2. Notre Dame at Pittsburgh
3. Duke at Notre Dame
4. Clemson at Notre Dame
5. Louisville at Notre Dame

2021
1. Notre Dame at Florida State, 9/6 (Labor Day)
2. Notre Dame at Virginia Tech
3. North Carolina at Notre Dame
4. Notre Dame at Virginia
5. Georgia Tech at Notre Dame

2022
1. Notre Dame at North Carolina
2. Notre Dame at Syracuse
3. Boston College at Notre Dame
4. Clemson at Notre Dame

2023
1. Notre Dame at NC State
2. Notre Dame at Duke
3. Notre Dame at Louisville
4. Wake Forest at Notre Dame
5. Notre Dame at Clemson
6. Pittsburgh at Notre Dame

2024
1. Miami at Notre Dame
2. Notre Dame at Georgia Tech
3. Florida State at Notre Dame
4. Virginia at Notre Dame

2025
1. Notre Dame at Miami
2. NC State at Notre Dame
3. Notre Dame at Boston College
4. Notre Dame at Pittsburgh
5. Syracuse at Notre Dame

* – Designated ‘home’ game for Syracuse
@ – Designated ‘home’ game for Notre Dame

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Auburn’s Jermaine Whitehead reinstated after four-game sabbatical

Arkansas v Auburn Getty Images

Just a little over a month after being forced to the sidelines, Jermaine Whitehead is back with his teammates.  When he gets back on the field for real game action, though, remains to be seen.

Tuesday morning, Gus Malzahn confirmed that the defensive back has been reinstated to the Auburn football team.  White head began practicing with the team Sunday.

Malzahn declined to say whether Whitehead will play in this Saturday’s game against South Carolina.

“He practiced with the team on Sunday, and he’s going to do everything he can to earn his (place) back on the field,” the head coach said. “I don’t know how long that will take, I don’t have a timetable on it, but we’ll see how that goes.”

Whitehead was indefinitely suspended back in mid-September, reportedly for getting into a verbal altercation with an assistant coach.  The suspension ultimately cost him four games.

Prior to his suspension, Whitehead had started the last 26 games at safety, and is still currently tied for the second on the team in interceptions with two. One of those picks was returned for a touchdown in the season-opening win over Arkansas.

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Saban downplays Kiffin’s return to Tennessee

Karma Is A Butch

Almost from the moment Alabama hired Lane Kiffin as its offensive coordinator this past January, Oct. 25 has been circled on many a Rocky Top fan’s calendar.

That’s the day Tennessee will play host to Alabama.  It’s also the day that will mark Kiffin’s return to Neyland Stadium for the first time since unceremoniously dumping the Vols in January of 2010 after one season to take the same job at USC.

As expected, the anticipation for Kiffin’s return to Knoxville is growing.  Just as expected, Kiffin’s boss is downplaying the return.

Saying “it’s only a distraction if you allow it to be a distraction,” Nick Saban tried to shift the focus from his coordinator to the team and the players.

“So if it doesn’t mean anything to us and we can stay focused on what we need to do to do what’s best for our team, then that’s the way you manage it, that’s the way you handle it, that’s the way we need to look at it,” Saban said of the hype surrounding Kiffin’s return. “So it doesn’t really mean anything to us. The game, our players, their players. That’s what means something to us and that’s what should mean something to every coach on our staff.”

Saban’s counterpart is of the same mindset when it comes to Kiffin.

“The game means everything to our football program and our fans because it’s the University of Alabama, not because it’s Lane Kiffin,” UT’s Butch Jones said. “Three-quarters of our team — he’s a great coach, but nobody knows who Lane Kiffin is. That’s for the fans.

“We have to concentrate on the game. We’re playing a great, great opponent, a top-five opponent. They played as inspired of a football game as I’ve seen in a very, very long time against Texas A&M. They’re a great football team.

“They’re a measuring stick for a lot of programs, so again, we have to focus on the task at hand.”

Jones and Saban are both correct. No current UT players were there under Kiffin, so to them it’s just another conference game. No coaches remain either.

The hype when it comes to Kiffin’s return is all about the fans. And politics, as it turns out.

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