CFT Preseason Top 25: No. 17 Ole Miss

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2013 record: 8-5 overall, 3-5 in SEC (T-5th in SEC West)
2013 postseason: Music City Bowl vs. Georgia Tech (25-17 win)
2013 final AP/coaches’ ranking: unranked/unranked
Head coach: Hugh Freeze (45-18 overall; 15-11 in two years at Ole Miss)
Offensive coordinator: Matt Luke (third season); Dan Werner (third season)
2013 offensive rankings: 42nd rushing offense (109 ypg); 23rd passing offense (283.3 ypg); 21st total offense (473.3 ypg); 57th scoring offense (30 ppg)
Returning offensive starters: Five
Defensive coordinator: Dave Wommack (third season); Jason Jones (second season)
2013 defensive rankings: 51st rushing defense (154.9 ypg); 36th passing defense (215.5 ypg); 38th total defense (370.5 ypg); 37th scoring defense (23.7 ppg)
Returning defensive starters: Nine
Location: Oxford, Miss.
Stadium: Vaught-Hemingway Stadium (60,580; FieldTurf)
Last conference title: 1963

THE GOOD
Unbelievably, with Bo Wallace under center, Ole Miss will enter the 2014 season with the most experienced quarterback in the conference.  While that might give some cause for pause, Wallace was actually, quietly, a very solid quarterback in 2013.  While the Rebels lost its leading receiver yardage-wise in Donte Moncrief, they have a handful of talented players who can help replace the lost production.  The running game is a productive two-headed creature, while the defense returns nine starters from what was one of the more solid defenses in the defensive-minded SEC.  The schedule sets up somewhat favorably as well, with two of the four road games consisting of trips to Vanderbilt (9-4, but with a new head coach) and Arkansas (3-9 overall, 0-8 in SEC play).  But, then again…

THE BAD
Believe it or not, there’s not a whole heck of a lot bad going on down in Oxford.  Freeze has the Rebels rounding into a very nice football program, one capable of peeling off eight or nine wins a year and one that looks, based on recruiting, capable of reeling in the ofttimes elusive sustainability.  The offense will be one of the best in the SEC year-in and year-out, while the defense is vastly underrated.  The biggest bad for Ole Miss?  The division in which they reside, over which they have no control.  At the moment, they simply can’t consistently compete with West compatriots Alabama, Auburn and LSU.  Texas A&M, despite the attrition they’ve suffered in the offseason, are in this for the long haul as evidenced by the money they’re pouring into the football program, so there’s that College Station hurdle as well.  Since the Aggies joined the SEC in 2012, the Rebels are just 2-6 against those four programs — a three-point home win against LSU last season and a win in 2012 against an Auburn team that would ultimately win three games and fire its head coach.  And that’s without even mentioning that Ole Miss has lost four of the last five Egg Bowls against in-state rival — and divisional foe — Mississippi State.  Ole Miss has a tough row to hoe if they’re looking to climb to elite status; if they’re just looking for eight-ish wins a year plus a nice bowl bid, then they’re set.

THE UNKNOWN
While nine starters on the defensive side of ball return, just five do so on offense.  Included in the attrition are three starters along the offensive line along with, as previously mentioned, one of the most productive receivers in school history.  With a neutral-site game against a very good Boise State team with what should prove to be an improved — and disruptive defense — leading off the 2014 schedule, it’s imperative that Freeze and his offensive coaching staff quickly identify the line replacements and give them plenty of work as a unit in summer camp.

MAKE-OR-BREAK GAME: at Texas A&M, Oct. 11
There’s a fairly decent chance that, heading into this game, the Rebels will be 4-1, with the lone loss coming the week before against powerhouse Alabama.  This could be viewed as a swing game for Ole Miss, with A&M serving as the second game of a gauntlet that goes Alabama/Texas A&M/LSU/Auburn in a span of five weeks.  If the Rebels can come out of that meat grinder 1-3 at worst, they’re set up for a perhaps a nine-win season that would likely launch them into one of the better bowl games to which the SEC is attached.  If they can somehow manage that beast of a four-game stretch at 2-2?   The Rebels could be staring their first 10-win season since 2003 square in the face.

HEISMAN HOPEFUL: Quarterback Bo Wallace
This is one of those no-brainer kind of things.  And, as jarring as it may be, Wallace possesses the most impressive pedigree of all the returning quarterbacks in the SEC.  The stats, though, show Wallace has quietly put together a nice career.  Last season, he completed nearly 65 percent of his passes for over 3,300 yards and 18 touchdowns.  He added six touchdowns on the ground for good measure.  The 10 interceptions might be a bit of a cause for concern, but considering they came in the midst of 437 pass attempts the concern it’s somewhat mitigated.  Any off-the-radar Heisman candidacy that hopes to get on the radar will be determined by how Wallace — and his team — performs in that brutal four-game midseason stretch.

(Click HERE for the CFT 2014 Preseason Preview Repository)

QB controversy in Tuscaloosa? Freshman Tua Tagovailoa impresses at Alabama spring game

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Alabama’s annual A-Day spring game took place at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday and those tuning in to the Crimson team’s last minute 27-24 win over the White team had to be especially impressed with the Tide’s explosive offense under new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll.

In particular that comes at the quarterback position, where there might be more of a controversy at the spot than first thought. Incumbent Jalen Hurts was very sharp on his downfield passes but his strong outing (301 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) was overshadowed by true freshman Tua Tagovailoa, who simply stole the show down in Tuscaloosa.

The early enrollee signal-caller from Hawaii jumped onto the scene in the first half of the game and wound up completing 17 passes for 313 yards, three touchdowns and an interception while working with both the first- and second-team offenses. You could normally dismiss numbers put up against a team’s second-string defense, this is Alabama we’re talking about so you know it’s coming against numerous future All-SEC players.

Tagovailoa did throw a pick-six in the second quarter but that was mostly because linebacker Terrell Hall made an unbelievable play on a swing pass to snatch the ball out of the air and run it all the way back to the opposite end zone. Freshman tailback Najee Harris (70 yards rushing) as well as stud wide receivers Calvin Ridley, Robert Foster and Jerry Jeudy (134 yards, two scores) also stood out on Saturday.

In all, offense ruled the day as the two quarterbacks combined for over 600 yards through the air. That probably won’t make reviewing film with Nick Saban all that pleasant for members of the secondary next week but was probably good news to most fans after lackluster performances down the stretch to end last season.

Either way, everybody should probably start brushing up on how to pronounce Tagovailoa even if he doesn’t ultimately unseat Hurts as the starter because the young QB has lived up to the early billing by recruiting analysts.

Baylor freshman tailback Abram Smith out for the season with spring ACL tear

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Baylor kicked off the first spring game of the Matt Rhule era on Saturday and wrapped things up with a 65-39 Gold team victory over the Green squad that included a pretty impressive touchdown catch from former basketball player Ish Wainright.

The news wasn’t all rosy in Waco however as after the game Rhule announced that freshman running back Abram Smith would be lost for the 2017 season after suffering an ACL tear in the Bears’ first spring practice.

Smith wasn’t being counted on as being a starter this season but his loss is a fairly big blow to the team’s depth at the position. Returnees JaMycal Hasty and Terence Williams already missed parts of the spring game due to injuries on Saturday, leaving just senior Wyatt Schrepfer to take most of the carries late in the contest.

All three figure to be good to go by the time fall camp rolls around but there’s not much behind them with Smith being lost for the year. A three-star recruit coming out of high school, the early enrollee likely would have seen some snaps in 2017 but will instead have to spend it redshirting on the bench.

Brian Kelly takes the blame for Notre Dame’s struggles last season

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Notre Dame wrapped up spring football with the Irish’s annual spring game on NBC Sports Network on Saturday afternoon in South Bend and front and center was not surprisingly head coach Brian Kelly.

While fans of the team were probably most interested in how quarterback Brandon Wimbush looked, Kelly did go into detail about what the offseason has been like after last year’s disappointing 4-8 campaign. While the coach has been known to be a bit defensive when it comes to the team’s struggles, he did open up during a sit-down interview and was transparent in taking the blame for the way 2016 went.

“When you have a losing season, you have to look at yourself first,” Kelly told NBC Sports’ Jac Collinsworth. “I’ve always felt like there isn’t a bad football team but there is bad leadership and I don’t think I provided the kind of leadership (last year). It starts with yourself.”

Kelly goes on to discuss the significant changes to the Irish coaching staff, how this team is very much a work in progress and how Wimbush is handling taking over as the starting signal-caller.

The Gold team ended up winning the spring game 27-14 over the Blue team behind a strong defensive performance. If Saturday’s outing was any indication, Notre Dame should be much improved this upcoming season and that seems to start from the top on down.

SEC commissioner confirms graduate transfer rule changes will be discussed at spring meetings

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We’re still over a month away from the SEC’s annual spring meetings down in Destin, Fla. but one item we might be able to confirm is on the agenda will be the graduate transfer rules for the conference.

It’s a hot topic around the league and particularly so at Florida, which is in the mix to land Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire but can’t officially take him due to restrictions from the conference office.

That may change however, as SEC commissioner Greg Sankey confirmed in a radio interview on Friday with ESPN Gainesville.

“It will come up,” Sankey said, according to SECCountry.com. “I do think we need to look where we’ve been restrictive in the past because of the absence of national rules and look at reducing some of those restrictions. I’m one who would position it as interest in freeing things up without just removing every restraint, because I think the restraints have been healthy for us.”

At the heart of the issue is a rule that limits schools from taking additional graduate transfers if previous graduate transfers failed to meet academic requirements after enrolling. The move was designed to prevent a number of situations where players would transfer over just to play and not really go through coursework at their new school.

Other NCAA conferences have failed to follow the SEC’s lead in this area however and now the league is being put at a bit of a disadvantage on the graduate transfer market. This is particularly an issue with the Gators this offseason but it seems as though there will be quite the discussion down in Destin among athletic directors and head coaches about changing the rules to be on more of a level playing field with other conferences on this front.