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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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Swoopes there it is: ‘Horns tap incumbent as starting QB

Tyrone Swoopes

Not surprisingly, Texas will begin the season with a familiar face under center.

Charlie Strong confirmed the expected at his Monday press conference, acknowledging that it’ll be Tyrone Swoopes who starts at quarterback when UT travels to South Bend for Saturday’s game against Notre Dame.  Swoopes had been in a battle with redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard, although most thought the nod would go to the incumbent.

In fact, Strong stated that he had known for a couple of weeks that Swoopes was his guy, but held off on publicly naming a starter to allow the competition to play out a little longer.

Taking over as the starter for a concussed David Ash last season, Swoopes started all but one game in 2014.  He had moments where he was brilliant — 300-plus yards passing Oklahoma, Iowa State and Oklahoma State — and others where he looked absolutely lost — 24-point bowl loss to Arkansas, four interceptions in a 38-point loss to TCU.  Those latter two performances came in back-to-back games to close out the season, leading Strong to open up the competition in the spring.

Swoopes exited the spring as the No. 1 quarterback, and maintained that position throughout summer camp.  As he had previously stated, Strong reiterated that both Swoopes and Heard will see the field.

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Urban won’t name Buckeyes’ starting QB before opener vs. Hokies

Ohio State Spring Game Getty Images

To find out just who has won Ohio State’s much-discussed quarterback competition, you’ll have to wait until shortly after 8 p.m. ET next Monday.

At his Monday press conference, Urban Meyer revealed that he will not publicly name a starting quarterback prior to the Labor Day opener against Virginia Tech. Instead, the coach said, “[w]e will announce the starter when the first guy takes the snap.”

What is known is that the starter will either be 2014 regular-season record-setter J.T. Barrett or 2014 postseason hero Cardale Jones. As for the competition itself, Meyer described it as “still really close;” if it weren’t, the fourth-year OSU coach said, he’d publicly anoint a starter. While Meyer won’t disclose it to the media, he said he’ll know by Wednesday whether it’ll be Barrett or Jones who starts against the Hokies.

Not surprisingly, Meyer hasn’t ruled out playing both quarterbacks. Interestingly, though, the competition will apparently remain open on into the regular season.

I’ll still say that it’s Barrett who takes the first snap against the only team that beat the defending national champions next season. After that, Barrett’s performance will dictate whether he holds on to the job.

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Leading rusher one of two Toledo starters suspended for two games

GoDaddy Bowl - Toledo v Arkansas State AP

The season has yet to kick off and Toledo has already a suffered a pair of significant blows, one on each side of the ball.

The football program announced Monday morning that senior defensive end Allen Covington and junior running back Kareem Hunt have been suspended for the first two games of the 2015 season. Other than “violating team policy,” no reason for the twin punitive measures was given.

The players will miss Thursday’s opener against Stony Brook, as well as the following week’s home game against No. 18 Arkansas. Both will be eligible to return for the Iowa State game Sept. 19.

Of the two, the loss of Hunt will be the most damaging.

Last season, Hunt’s total of 1,631 yards rushing was tops in the MAC and good for 10th nationally. His 16 rushing touchdowns were tied for 14th in the country.

Covington’s four tackles for loss were tied for sixth on the Rockets last season. He was expected to start at one of the end spots on UT’s defensive line.

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CFT 2015 Preseason Preview: Big Ten Predictions

Michigan State v Maryland AP

As the 2015 season draws near, we peek into our crystal ball and guess project how each of the five major conferences will play out. Today, we will be examining the home of the defending national champion, the Big Ten. 

And while we’re at it, check out some of our other Power Five conference predictions HERE (ACC) and HERE (Big 12) as the CFT team continues to take its month-long glimpse of the upcoming season.

BIG TEN EAST

1. Ohio State (14-1 in 2014; beat Oregon in College Football Playoff title game)
For the forseeable future, you can pencil in Urban Meyer‘s Buckeyes as the class of the both the division and conference, as well as an annual contender for a playoff spot thanks to the one-two combination of the coaching staff and its recruiting prowess.  Last year, Meyer thought his Buckeyes were a year away from contention… and all they did was run through Wisconsin, No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Oregon in the postseason to claim the inaugural CFP championship.  What can OSU do for an encore?  Given the returning talent, they could very well be the eighth team since the Poll Era began (1936) to go back-to-back — provided they can get past, among others, the very stout, tremendously talented and extremely motivated team directly below this blurb.

2. Michigan State (11-2; beat Baylor in Cotton Bowl)
The Spartans have several positives going for them entering the 2015 season, from one of the best offensive and defensive lines in the conference to one of the best quarterbacks in the entire country in senior Connor Cook to one of the most underrated head coaches in Mark Dantonio.  There’s every reason to think that the Spartans, ranked fifth in the preseason, will remain in that neighborhood for a sizable chunk of the season.  Losing defensive mastermind Pat Narduzzi, now the head coach at Pittsburgh, could negatively impact the season, as could the schedule: three of MSU’s toughest games are on the road (Ohio State, Nebraska and Michigan) while they also play host to a Top Ten in Week 2 in Oregon.

3. Michigan (5-7)
Yes, I’m drinking the Jim Harbaugh-flavored Kool-Aid already, and there are two good reasons as to why.  One, and look no further than what he did at Stanford, he is one of the best coaches at any level of football.  In the five years prior to his arrival on The Farm, the Cardinal won just 16 games; in Harbaugh’s four years heading the program, and taking over a one-win squad, the win total jumped to 29.  Secondly, he and his staff aren’t exactly coming into the kitchen with a bare cupboard.  In 2013 and 2012, UM’s recruiting classes were ranked fifth and seventh nationally and second in the Big Ten, respectively, according to Rivals.com. Even in 2014, amidst much speculation that Brady Hoke was as good as done, he still pulled in a class that ranked 31st in the country and fourth in the conference.  The talent is there, the coaching there, so there’s no reason to think that an immediate improvement won’t be there as well.

4. Penn State (7-6; beat Boston College in Pinstripe Bowl)
The biggest thing the Nittany Lions have going for them this season, the thing that could have them too low in this East prediction?  Their schedule.  They will be heavily favored in all six games — three conference, three non-conference — before traveling to Ohio State in mid-October, plus the scheduling gods gave them Illinois and Northwestern as their cross-divisional games this season.  Should the defense, as expected, remain one of the best in the conference, and Christian Hackenberg can overcome any crisis of confidence caused by a subpar offensive line — he was sacked 44 times in 2014, a season in which he tossed more interceptions (15) than touchdowns (12) — the Nittany Lions could very well increase their win total from a year ago.

5. Maryland (7-6; lost to Stanford in Foster Farms Bowl)
Relatively speaking, and compared to much of Randy Edsall‘s first four seasons in College Park, the Terps got off to a rousing start in 2014, winning five of their first seven games.  They then limped home with a 2-4 finish, punctuated by a 24-point loss to Stanford in the Foster Farms Bowl.  Like it or not, The Terps could very well be back in rebuilding mode, what with just 10 returning starters on both sides of the ball and a schedule that includes road trips to West Virginia, Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan State as well as a home game against West power Wisconsin.  Given that combination, getting back to a bowl game would serve as a huge plus for Edsall’s program.

6. Indiana (4-8)
It’s very simple for the Hoosiers: either win and make a bowl game, or the program will be looking for a new head coach following the upcoming season.  In four years thus far, the Kevin Wilson experiment has netted just 14 wins, with seven of those coming against Power Five teams and six against conference members.  For IU to get back to a bowl game for the first time since 2007 — and just the second time since 1993 — they’ll need to take advantage of a slate that includes five very winnable games; if they can squeeze out an upset along the way, they could very well go bowling — and save Wilson’s job in the process.

7. Rutgers (8-5; beat North Carolina in Quick Lane Bowl)
If this particular prediction were to ultimately come to fruition, Rutgers would be the next Big Ten school looking for a new head coach.  Normally a coach that went 8-5 in the program’s first season in a Power Five conference wouldn’t even be remotely close to the hot seat, but Kyle Flood‘s recent off-field issue will place even more pressure on the fourth-year coach to win and win bigger than last season’s surprise total.  That, though, could prove to be an impossible row to hoe.  Not only do the Scarlet Knights return just 10 starters, they also lost 28 lettermen with varied amounts of experience and playing time, further exposing a glaring lack of depth compared to just one season ago.  Adding to the potential 2015 angst is that, in addition to the East heavyweights, RU also drew West stalwarts Nebraska and Wisconsin.  In fact, it’s conceivable and not even remotely out of the question that the Scarlet Knights could go winless in conference play.

BIG TEN WEST

1. Nebraska (9-4; lost to USC in Holiday Bowl)
The first season post-Bo Pelini in Lincoln is expected to be a breath of fresh air both on and off the field.  Mike Riley is a big reason for that, although how quickly the Cornhuskers adapt to his style of offense will likely determine whether or not this first-year prediction of success is overly optimistic.  NU was on the cusp of grabbing a divisional talent last season before dropping back-to-back November games against Wisconsin and Minnesota.  This season, the ‘Huskers get the Badgers at home, although they’ll have to make a mid-October trip to the Gophers.  One other question mark?  Replacing a handful of playmakers on the defensive side of the ball.

2. Wisconsin (11-3; beat Auburn in Outback Bowl)
Whether it was Barry Alvarez or Bret Bielema or Gary Andersen, the Badgers merely locked and reloaded at running back, along the offensive line and on defense from year to year to year with great success.  Can they do the same under first-year head coach and former UW offensive coordinator Paul Chryst?  The Badgers should again have one of the best defenses in the conference as well as one of the top running games in college football, although, again, the team will likely struggle to make gains through the air.  If they flip the script on the latter, though, they could be one of the most dangerous teams in the country and very well make it back to yet another conference championship game.  Another plus?  They avoid both Ohio State and Michigan State in the regular season, although they do have to travel to both Lincoln and Minneapolis.

3. Minnesota (8-5; lost to Missouri in Citrus Bowl)
How close were the Gophers to an absolutely epic 2014 season?  They held a four-point third-quarter lead in the regular-season finale against Wisconsin in a game that, with a win, would’ve meant a trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship.  They lost that lead, then proceeded to lose both their bowl game (by double digits to Mizzou) and 12 starters, including leading rusher David Cobb, leading receiver Maxx Williams and their two most productive players on the defensive side of the ball.  Perhaps the best news?  They get both Nebraska and Wisconsin at home.

4. Northwestern (5-7)
Call this slotting a hunch.  Or a significant reach.  One of the two.  After going bowling for five straight seasons from 2008-12, the Wildcats have back-to-back postseason-less years from which they’re attempting to bounce back.  Returning 14 starters is a good start to the rebound; the schedule makers didn’t do the Evanston bunch many favors, though, as they’ll tackle Stanford in the opener, Duke and Michigan on the road as well as a home date against Penn State — and that’s in addition to the divisional games against Nebraska, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.  While it won’t be easy, look for the Wildcats to get back to at least six wins and into a bowl game.

5. Iowa (7-6; lost to Tennessee in Taxslayer Bowl)
From 2002 through 2009, the Hawkeyes averaged nearly nine wins per season; in the five years since, they’ve averaged less than seven, and finished fourth or worse in the Big Ten in four of those seasons.  Last year, they didn’t beat a single FBS program that ended the year with a winning record.  Entering his 17th season at the school, and despite the lack of recent success, Kirk Ferentz has the benefit of a very loyal athletic department — and a hefty buyout that, in essence, handcuffs said department.  The 2015 season should serve up more of the same style of play on the field: running game-centric offense, brutish defense and just hanging around in games long enough and often enough to qualify for another third-tier bowl game.  How long the fair-to-middlin’ results will continue to be acceptable to the Hawkeye faithful — and boosters — remains to be seen.

6. Illinois (6-7; lost to Louisiana Tech in Heart of Dallas Bowl)
A two-game winning streak at the end of last season put the Illini into a bowl game and saved Tim Beckman‘s job; his alleged treatment of players, though, forced the athletic department’s hand and resulted in Beckman being dismissed exactly one week before the season opener.  Enter offensive coordinator Bill Cubit as the interim coach, although, from a projection standpoint, not much should really change. The Illini actually returns 15 starters — that’s in the top third of the Big Ten — including a starting quarterback in Wes Lunt who has the talent to be productive and thrive in this offensive system if he can only stay healthy.  Looking at the schedule, though, four wins seem to be a reasonable projection while five wins appears to be the best to which the Illini can aspire.  Should they get to 6-8 wins?  There may be no need to conduct a coaching search after all.

7. Purdue (3-9)
Let’s just get straight to the point.  Darrell Hazell has won a mere four games in his first two seasons in West Lafayette, including one lone win in Big Ten play.  His non-conference schedule this season includes Virginia Tech and a road trip to defending Conference USA champion Marshall, while there’s a better-than-average chance he will go winless in conference play for the second time in three years.  If the 15 returning starters can improve enough, there’s a chance the Boilermakers could, akin to a fat man shimmying into a pair of skinny jeans, squeeze its way into a postseason bid, which is likely the only way this branch of the Jim Tressel coaching tree gets another season.

CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME PREDICTION
Ohio State over Nebraska

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Miami RB Gus Edwards lost for all of 2015 with foot injury

Arkansas State v Miami Getty Images

Miami already knew it was going to be have to replace its all-time leading rusher in Duke Johnson.  Now, the ‘Canes will be forced to deal with replacing one of his prime replacements.

An injury originally described as minor turned out to be much more severe, with the football program confirming Sunday night that Gus Edwards will miss the entire 2015 season because of a foot issue.  The school declined to reveal the specific nature of the injury.

“Gus worked extremely hard for the last nine months to prepare for this moment,” head coach Al Golden said in a statement. “He set a high standard and did a great job leading and being unselfish. We are tremendously disappointed for him, but we will be there with him on the road to recovery and anxiously await his return.”

Edwards was third on the team in rushing last season with 349 yards. His six rushing touchdowns were second to Johnson’s 10 in 2014. He was expected to start and shoulder a significant amount of the running game load.

The good news for the Hurricanes is last year’s second-leading rusher, Joseph Yearby (509 yards), returns. Also on scholarship are Trayone Gray (24 yards, one touchdown as a true freshman last season) and four-star 2015 signee Mark Walton.  Yearby and Walton are listed as the co-starters on the depth chart released the same time as the Edwards injury news.

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Gamecocks to wear helmet sticker honoring church shooting victims

Emanuel 9

A tragedy that shocked both a state and a country will be commemorated by the former’s flagship football program.

South Carolina announced Sunday that its helmets will be adorned with a sticker honoring the nine individuals gunned down in cold blood in a Charleston church shooting this past June.  The inexplicably heinous act, committed by an individual with ties to hate groups, prompted a national discussion on the Confederate flag, and both the football program and the athletic department weren’t shy in letting their feelings be known on the issue.

“Whether it’s Greenville, Columbia, Charleston or any other cities in South Carolina, we feel a tremendous sense of pride in this state,” a statement from USC athletic director Ray Tanner. “The tragedy that happened in Charleston doesn’t just affect people in Charleston; it affects the entire state. We feel very much a part of that at the university. Coach Steve Spurrier and University President Harris Pastides felt very strongly that the ‘Emanuel 9’ should be recognized.”

According to Tanner, head coach Steve Spurrier had a significant voice in the decision to honor the victims.

“Coach Spurrier was very engaged in this process,” Tanner said. “Football coaches are usually focused on just getting ready for their season, and he very much is too, but he took the time to be engaged with what we were going to do. He is excited that we are going to do the helmet sticker.”

The sticker will be worn on every helmet for every game this season, the first of which will be the opener against North Carolina Thursday.

(Photo credit: South Carolina athletics)

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Knee injury to KO FAU WR Derek Moise for all of 2015

Florida Atlantic v Nebraska Getty Images

Unfortunately for both the player and the program, FAU’s worst fears when it comes to the status of Derek Moise have been realized.

Following up on speculation the past few days, Charlie Partridge confirmed this weekend that a knee injury sustained by Moise earlier in the week will sideline the wide receiver for the entire 2015 season.  The head coach declined to discuss the specific nature of the injury, although it’s believed the senior sustained a torn ACL in his right knee.

As is ofttimes the case, it was a non-contact injury that knocked out the receiver, with the Orlando Sentinel writing that “Moise said his knee buckled when he slipped and landed improperly after catching a pass from backup quarterback Jason Driskel.”

“As far as his spirit right now, he’s in a good place – as good as he can be,” Partridge said of Moise’s spirits. “It’s the same with the team. They’re disappointed for him and sad for him. But he’s in about as good of an emotional state as you can expect.”

Partridge also confirmed that Moise will seek a sixth season of eligibility through the NCAA.

Last season, Moise had career highs in receptions (10), receiving yards (74) and receiving touchdowns (one). Those totals are third among returning Owl wide receivers.

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Bowling Green the landing spot for ex-Kentucky LB Dorian Hendrix

MAC Championship AP

Dorian Hendrix played his high school football in the state of Ohio and, after a brief detour to the south, he’s back in his home state.

Bowling Green announced in a press release that Hendrix has been added to Dino Babers‘ football program.  Because of NCAA transfer rules, the linebacker will be forced to sit out the 2015 season.

Beginning in 2016, Hendrix will then have three years of eligibility remaining at the MAC school.

“We are excited to add a player like Dorian to our program,” a statement from Babers began. “He comes from a great high school program in Huber Heights Wayne and will be a great addition to our linebacker unit and also our defense. We look forward to seeing the impact that Dorian will make on both our University and our football program in the future.”

A three-star member of Kentucky’s 2014 recruiting class, Hendrix was rated as the No. 25 inside linebacker in the country and the No. 36 player at any position in the state of Ohio. He took a redshirt as a true freshman, then left the Wildcats earlier this offseason.

As BGSU noted in its release, Hendrix is the fifth player from a Power Five program to transfer to the Falcons under Babers since last August, joining Malik Brown (Tennessee), Robbie Rhodes (Baylor), Donovan Wilson (Georgia Tech) and Eilar Hardy (graduate transfer, Notre Dame).

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Hogs P Blake Johnson arrested after taking a leak on a light pole

Stadium light pole AP

Just last month we were espousing the virtues of a Bret Bielema-run Arkansas football program that had seen just two of his Razorbacks arrested since he took over in December of 2012.  That’d qualify as an oops as, the last two days, Bielema has seen that number double.

First, tight end C.J. O’Grady, on a scooter no less, was arrested and charged with, among other things, driving while intoxicated.  A day later, another Razorback was popped for an alcohol-related incident.

According to KFSM-TV in Fayetteville, Blake Johnson was arrested very early Saturday morning and charged with public intoxication, minor in possession and disorderly conduct. The incident that led to the charges?

According to a police report, Johnson was found urinating on a light pole in a university parking lot at 1:39 a.m. by an officer. When the officer approached him and asked why he was urinating on the light pole, he responded “because I needed to go.”

When reached for comment, long-time Hogs fan Jeff Goldblum was heard to state very matter-of-factly…

 

Johnson, who was in Fayetteville at the time of the incident, twice answered “Riverside, Calif.” when asked by the arresting officers where he was coming from that evening.

Johnson was a three-star member of UA’s 2015 recruiting class.  He was rated as the No. 3 kicker in the country, but is currently listed as a punter on the Razorbacks’ official roster.

(Tip O’ the Cap: ArrestNation.com)

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Sarkisian to cede ‘SC play-calling duties to OC

Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl - Fresno State v USC Getty Images

Well, for the most part he will.

Off the field, Steve Sarkisian has seen a series of significant developments this offseason, from a divorce to apologizing for “behavior, inappropriate language” to seeking treatment for a potential alcohol issue.  Saturday night, Sarkisian unveiled a rather significant on-field development.

According to the USC head coach’s post-practice pronouncement, coordinator “Clay Helton will assume more of the offensive play-calling responsibilities” for the Trojans this season. The athletic department’s official Twitter account writes that “Sarkisian has been developing the plan to cede play-calling duties to Helton since spring football.”

The fact that this official ceding of a major part of Sarkisian’s role comes so close to his very public off-field issues being laid bare would qualify as a little more than coincidental, although that’s not the way it’s being couched.

While Helton, entering his third season with the Trojans as “coordinator” and sixth as quarterbacks coach, will technically be the play-caller, Sarkisian will still be “involved on third downs and red-zone situations.”  Still, this is a significant development for a head coach who very much prides himself on his play-calling prowess.

“I have a firm belief in my own capability to execute those duties, as the head coach and the playcaller,” Sarkisian said in September of last year.

The fact that the Trojans have a senior Heisman Trophy candidate in Cody Kessler will make the ceding of duties a little easier, even as it remains to be seen how much ceding there will actually be as the season moves on.

Last season, with Sarkisian wearing both the head-coaching and play-calling hats, the 9-4 Trojans were tied for 22nd nationally in points per game at 35.8.  That average was good for fourth in the Pac-12; the Trojan defense was fifth in the conference in ppg at 25.2.

“Me being in defensive meetings, me being in every special-teams meeting, me really understanding the nuances of those things is critical to our success,” Sark said when it comes to the benefits of his diminished offensive role.

“I just felt like we’ll be a better team for it. Time will tell.”

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TE P.J. Gallo leaving Terps after 2015… for Wall Street

Maryland v Penn State Getty Images

The 2015 season hasn’t even kicked off yet and Maryland already knows one player is set to leave College Park with eligibility on the table — and not for the NFL draft, either.

Instead of working out with his teammates this past summer getting prepped for the upcoming season, Gallo worked out alone while serving a 10-week internship at Goldman Sachs in New York City.  The internship led to a job offer from the Wall Street staple, and also a choice for Gallo: pass on the job to play his final season of college football in 2016, or give up the sport and embark on his post-football career.

In the end, and after talking with head coach Randy Edsall, Gallo decided to leave the playing field early and get a head-start on the financial field.

“It was actually an easier conversation than I thought it was going to be because he was very supportive of it,” said Gallo to the Washington Post regarding his talk with Edsall. “I made the right decision for myself, for my future. Hopefully, five years from now, I can still look back and say it was the right decision.”

Gallo is on track to graduate from Maryland this spring and move to the Big Apple next summer, starting his new life in July.

In the fall, though, he’ll resume his role as mainly a blocking tight end for the Terps. Gallo has played in all 26 games the past two seasons, starting two of those contests. He has caught two passes in his career, including his first touchdown reception in an early-November win over Penn State last season.

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Holy Stitt! Montana stuns four-time defending FCS champ ND State

Bob Stitt AP

#StittHappens has always been a kind of cute and sorta naughty Twitter hashtag. Now, the man behind that expression has put some D-I meat on the marketing bone.

Two-touchdown underdogs entering the regular season and home opener, No. 12 Montana dropped a stunning 38-35 loss on FCS powerhouse and top-ranked North Dakota State Saturday evening. The Bison had entered the opener as back-to-back-to-back-to-back champions of the Football Championship Series, with this defeat marking just their fourth regular-season loss since the end of the 2010 season.

This game, though, was all about #StittHappening.

Bob Stitt became a cult hero in the game of college football thanks to his stint as the innovative — and flat-out unconventional — head coach at the Colorado School of Mines. After 15 seasons at the Div. II school, Stitt jumped into his first-ever head-coaching job at the Div. I level, and made an immediate impact.

Trailing 35-28 and facing a fourth and goal from the 11-yard line with roughly 3:30 remaining in the fourth quarter, Stitt opted for a field goal that cut the lead to four. Needing a defensive stand, the Grizzlies got just that on the ensuing drive in forcing a three and out, handing the ball back to the offense with just under two minutes remaining and 80 yards away from the winning score.

Facing a fourth and 10 from the NDSU 44-yard line, Brady Gustafson completed a beautiful pass over the middle to Reese Carlson that went for 33 yards to set the Grizz up in the red zone. Five plays later, on a fourth and goal from the one, Joey Counts powered over through the left side of the line for the game-winning score with just two ticks of the clock remaining.

Don’t fret, though, Bison fan; I get the feeling that, in the end, NDSU will be right back where they’ve been the last handful of years.

Holy Stitt, though, that was a fun way to open the 2015 Div. I season.

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No sir! Kevin Sumlin tweets, deletes ‘Sark After Dark’ crack

Kevin Sumlin AP

That uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach when, nanoseconds after sending what you thought was a direct message on Twitter to one of your friends/family members/close associates, you realize had instead been sent out for all 71,000-plus of your followers to see and digest?  Yeah, Kevin Sumlin suddenly knows that feeling all too well.

As you may have heard by now, USC head coach Steve Sarkisian essentially made an inebriated fool of himself at a school-sponsored event last weekend.  The second-year coach apologized in a statement for his behavior shortly thereafter and then offered up another apology in his first meeting in front of reporters, acknowledging that he will seek treatment to see if he has some type of drinking problem.

Fast-forward to Saturday afternoon, and the Texas A&M coach (accidentally), well, went here:

The tweet, obviously meant as a private missive to someone, was very quickly deleted.

Let this serve as a message to all of the youngsters in the audience: Twitter’s for sharing your public thoughts, and any thoughts that you think should be DM’d should instead be sent in the form of a text message.  On an untraceable burner phone.

Unless you have a fall guy, then all bets are off and just do whatever the hell you want.

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Arizona loses versatile LB Cody Ippolito to torn ACL

Arizona v UCLA Getty Images

For the second time the last three years, Cody Ippolito will be sidelined for the season with a knee injury.

Rich Rodriguez confirmed Friday evening the severity of the latest injury sustained by the linebacker, announcing that Ippolito tore an ACL in practice earlier in the week. Obviously, the redshirt junior will miss the entire 2015 season.

“Cody was having a really good camp and he’s a tough, hard-nosed football player,” Rodriguez said. “He loves to compete and loves to practice, so I was really disappointed for him. He’ll rehab like crazy after surgery, and hopefully we’ll get him back for another year or two playing at a high level.”

The “good” news that comes out of this, as the Wildcats head coach intimated, is that Ippolito is a prime candidate for fifth and sixth seasons of eligibility due to the fact that he missed complete seasons because of injury.

Last season, coming off his first collegiate knee injury in 2013, Ippolito started six of the 14 games in which he played. Ippolito had been in a battle with Derrick Turituri for the strongside ‘backer spot before the injury claimed him. He was also to serve as All-American Scooby Wright‘s primary backup at middle linebacker.

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Injured Hogs RB received handwritten note from new SEC commish

Greg Sankey AP

Departed SEC commissioner was widely known in college football circles as a man of integrity and class.  It appears his successor is cut from the same cloth.

Initially diagnosed with a foot injury that was expected to sideline him for an extended period of time, Arkansas running back Jonathan Williams was subsequently ruled out for the entire season because of the issue.  Even as Williams will likely never play a down under his stewardship, new SEC commissioner Greg Sankey decided to reach out to the injured Razorback.

And not only did the new conference boss reach out, he did it in an old-school style that would make the likes of Bill Snyder proud: a handwritten note.

That’s just class right there.  And yet another sign that the conference will remain in good hands for the foreseeable future.

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