Florida v LSU

CFT 2014 Preseason Preview: SEC Predictions

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As the 2014 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 SEC. 

And while we’re at it, check out our CFT 2014 Preseason Preview Repository for our team’s looks at the upcoming season.

SEC EAST

1.  South Carolina (Last year: 11-2; beat Wisconsin in Capital One Bowl)
I’ve said it multiple times and I’ll say it again: this could very well be Steve Spurrier‘s best and deepest Gamecock team since taking over in Columbia a decade ago.  The loss of starting quarterback Connor Shaw will certainly have some impact, but the fact that Dylan Thompson isn’t your typical first-year starter — he’s started three games and thrown passes in 17 others — should help soften the transition.  Losing a pair of defensive line starters and two secondary starters won’t help matters either, but USC has recruited well at those positions the past couple of years and should have the on-paper talent to fill the voids.  A total of 16 starters return, though, including workhorse running back Mike Davis.  The Gamecocks are clearly the class of the East, and it would be more than a little surprising to not see them in Atlanta in early December after qualifying for the SEC championship game.

2. Georgia (Last year: 8-5; lost to Nebraska in Gator Bowl) 
After watching uneven and subpar defensive performances not just last season but the past couple of years, Mark Richt looked to right that ship by going out and reeling in Jeremy Pruitt of the defending BCS champion Florida State Seminoles as defensive coordinator.  Combine that with the returning talent — nine starters on that side of the ball — and the defensive woes of the past should be a thing of the, well, past.  The loss of a four-year starting quarterback will sting, at least initially, but the fact that his replacement, Hutson Mason, started two games at year’s end to go along with Todd Gurley carrying the offensive load while Mason gets his starting sea legs should help in the transition to the post-Murray era.  Having to travel to East favorite South Carolina won’t help the cause, but getting past that early-season hurdle could set the Bulldogs up for a return trip to Atlanta after a one-year absence.

3. Florida (Last year: 4-8)
The Gators could very well be the third-best team in the SEC East — and that may not be enough to save Will Muschamp‘s job.  Beset with injuries and overall poor play — especially on offense — in 2013, UF tripped, bumbled and stumbled its way through the program’s worst season in nearly two decades.  The offense was simply abysmal, especially in the passing game, which served as the impetus for Muschamp to swipe offensive coordinator Kurt Roper from Duke in the offseason.  The early signs point to a rejuvenated offense in general and quarterback Jeff Driskel in particular under Roper.  The defense, as has been the case under Muschamp, will be just fine; if the offense can merely climb to respectable, it should be enough for the Gators to get closer to 2012’s 10-win season than last year’s eight-loss abomination.  The schedule is essentially a wash, with games at Alabama and Florida State offset by tough games against LSU and South Carolina in The Swamp.  UF could be staring an eight-win season square in the face — and that should be enough for Muschamp to get a fourth year on the job.  Anything less than that, and his future employment in Gainesville becomes dicey.

4. Tennessee (Last year: 5-7)
Surprise!!!  Yes, this one could — and quite likely will — come back and bite me square in the arse, but what the hell.  Call it a hunch. Or the fact that they finished with a better record than did the Gators, who I have listed above.  Or a bad case of (insert serious mental disorder here).  Whatever the case, I love what Butch Jones is doing in Knoxville and, while I might be a year early on this, I’m buying in.  How mental am I?  I’m predicting the Vols to finish fourth in the seven-team East, even as I’m fully aware of the fact that UT is the only team in the country that lost every starter on both the offensive and defensive lines.  And then there’s the schedule: the opener at home against an underrated Utah State; a road trip to Oklahoma in Week 3; and SEC away games at Georgia, Ole Miss and South Carolina.  Yep, I’m nuts.  But I do like the defense and the receiving corps, and think that Justin Worley is ready to take a step up to the next level in a conference riddled with questions at the quarterback position, especially as he’s now solidified his hold on the job.  Again, I may not be right, but I think I’m closer to that than wrong.

5. Missouri (Last year: 12-2; beat Oklahoma State in Cotton Bowl) 
The Tigers return just seven of 22 starters — three on offense, four on defense — from last year’s surprise SEC East championship squad.  Mizzou must find a way to replace its leading passer, rusher and three top receivers from a year ago, although the former is a little disingenuous as Maty Mauk showed he was the Tigers’ future at the quarterback position subbing for an injured James Franklin.  Losing Dorial Green-Beckham to a dismissal, though, was a huge blow for Mauk as he assumes the full-time offensive reins for the first time.  The good news is that, while Mauk is adjusting to his new role, Mizzou will feature a pair of running backs — Russell Hansborough and Marcus Murphy — who combined for nearly 1,300 yards and 13 touchdowns last season.  The schedule makers didn’t do Mizzou many favors, with road trips to South Carolina, Florida, Texas A&M and Tennessee in the offing.  The Tigers surprised many most all observers by claiming a division title in just their second season in the conference; it’d be equally surprising if they came even remotely close to matching 2013’s success,

6. Kentucky (Last year: 2-10)
Despite just two wins last season, UK appears to be a football program on the upswing, especially if recruiting rankings mean anything.  The past two recruiting cycles, UK has pulled in the No. 17 (2014) and No. 23 (2013) recruiting classes, and are currently rated No. 20 for 2015.  Prior to Mark Stoops’ arrival, UK had just two recruiting classes — 2006 (No. 36) and 2009 (No. 41) — finish inside the Top 50 nationally since 2002.  How long before that success planted on the recruiting trail bears fruit on the field?  That remains unclear, although it could be 2015 before Stoops truly sees the fruit of his and his staff’s labor.  Until then, it could be another rough football season at the basketball school, even as doubling up on last year’s win total would seem to be a modest and attainable goal.

7. Vanderbilt (Last year: 9-4; beat Houston in BBVA Compass Bowl)
I’m fully aware that the Commodores finished fourth in the East last year and won nine games, including the program’s first-ever back-to-back bowl game.  I’m also fully aware that James Franklin was a huge part of that success, and Franklin and his coaching staff are currently in Happy Valley preparing for the upcoming season.  Do I think Stanford’s Derek Mason was a subpar replacement?  Most definitely not; he was one of the more underrated hires of the offseason.  Do I think he can do what David Shaw did after Jim Harbaugh left The Farm after laying the foundation?  No, because there’s simply not that type of foundation in place in Nashville.  Inexperience on the skill player side of the equation, especially at quarterback and wide receiver, could be Vandy’s undoing.

SEC WEST

1. Alabama (Last year: 11-2; lost to Oklahoma in Sugar Bowl)
Replacing a three-year starter at quarterback?  Pffft, no problem for a Tide squad that boasts two Top-Five SEC running backs in T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry… and the SEC’s best wide receiver-tight end combination in Amari Cooper and O.J. Howard… and at least three returning starters along the offensive line… and a defense that, despite the return of  just four starters, is littered with four- and five-star recruits throughout the depth chart and will, again, be one of the most stout in the conference… and, hands-down, the best coach in college football in Nick Saban.  So, yes, the Tide will, as has ofttimes been the case over the past five-plus years, be the favorite not only in the division but in the conference, despite the presence of East/SEC title winner Auburn.  The Tide is locked and loaded to bounce back from two straight losses to end the 2013 season by a squad that was viewed by some, including its head coach, to be an entitled bunch.  A pissed-off Saban with a legitimate agenda and loads of talent at his disposal entering a season is a dangerous proposition not just for the SEC but for college football as a whole.

2. Auburn (Last year: 12-2; lost to Florida State in BCS title game)
There’s no way around it, no way to tap-dance whilst whistling past the biggest question when it comes to AU football in 2014: did the Tigers use a couple of years (decades?) worth of luck in their magical, unexpected, inexplicable ride to the BCS title game?  Even the biggest homer out on The Plains would have to admit that the Tigers were “fortunate” to end the season where they did.  Of their 12 wins, six were decided by eight points or less.  In four games — Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Georgia, Alabama — they were trailing with less than five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.  The Georgia (“Prayer at Jordan-Hare“) and Alabama (“Kick-Six“) wins immediately earned nicknames for the sheer improbability of the endings.  There’s little doubt that Gus Malzahn has, very quickly, turned AU around from the three-win embarrassment that was the final season of Gene Chizik in 2012.  How much was sheer luck, the kind of once-a-decade (or two) happenstance that simply can’t repeat itself?  Regardless of the answer — I’m guessing the talent is sufficient so as to make the question moot — Malzahn’s Tigers will be one of the more fascinating squads to watch throughout the 2014 season.

3. LSU (Last year: 10-3; beat Iowa in Outback Bowl)
Eight times in Les Miles‘ 10 season on the bayou, the Tigers have won at least 10 games.  Included in that total is a streak of five straight.  Don’t expect that skein to be broken in 2015.   Gone is starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger, leaving LSU with arguably the biggest question mark in the conference at the most important position.  Gone also are the top two receivers and leading rusher.  Back, though, are four offensive line starters and seven defensive starters.  Entering the fray as well is Leonard Fournette, one of the most hyped freshman running backs since Adrian Peterson burst onto the scene as a true freshman in Norman a decade ago.  Fournette has the type of ability that will allow whomever emerges from LSU’s quarterback competition to ease into the job.  Well, that and a defense that will be as physical and stifling as it always is.  The schedule makers also smiled on LSU, with its toughest road trip likely proving to be a Oct. 4 date with Auburn at Jordan-Hare, although a regular season-ending trip to Texas A&M’s Kyle Field won’t exactly be a cakewalk.

4. Ole Miss (Last year: 8-5; beat Georgia Tech in Music City Bowl) 
I was almost — almost — tempted to put the Rebels ahead of the Bayou Bengals, but simply couldn’t pull the trigger.  Ole Miss is the “trendy” sleeper pick heading into 2014, and for good reason.  There’s really not a lot to not like about the potential of the 2014 version of Hugh Freeze‘s 2014 Rebels.  They will, once again, possess one of the best offenses in the SEC to go along with a defense that, quietly, is one of the best in a defense-heavy conference.  The biggest hurdle the Rebels have is something completely out of their control: the division in which they reside.  Since Texas A&M 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.  How Ole Miss can crack the Top Three the way the West is currently constituted is unclear.  What appears to be clear is that they have the head coach who could do just that, whether it be in 2014 or in the coming years.

5. Texas A&M (Last year: 9-4; beat Duke in Chick-fil-A Bowl)
Where do we start?  You lose Johnny ManzielMike Evans, one of the best receivers in the country… the best left tackle in the game in Jake Matthews… myriad defensive contributors due to suspension/dismissals/other forms of attrition from a unit that was really bad in 2013… all of that, and it could be quite the season in College Station coming off the success that was A&M’s first two seasons in the SEC.  One known amidst the question marks is that Kevin Sumlin always fields a Top-10 offense as a head coach; even as just five starters on that side of the ball return, that shouldn’t change as Sumlin’s system remains a big consistent for the Aggies.  That defense, though, needs to step it up a level or eight so that the offense doesn’t have to outscore its expected unevenness on that side of the ball.  Games at South Carolina, Alabama and Auburn — the Gamecocks contest is the season opener — doesn’t bode well for the young but talented Aggies.

6. Mississippi State (Last year: 7-6; beat Rice in Liberty Bowl) 
MSU’s placement of second-to-last is not an indictment of Dan Mullens‘ football program, but merely an indicator of just how deep the West is.  If the Bulldogs were in the East, they could very well be the third-best team in the division.  Given their current football lot, they’ll continue to struggle to get past their in-division rivals.  Since going 5-7 in Mullens’ first season in 2009, MSU’s win total has ranged from seven (twice, including 2013) to nine (2010).  With 16 returning starters back, including nine on defense as well as one of the most experienced returning quarterback starters in the conference (Dak Prescott), MSU could and should very well get in that very same win range for a fifth consecutive season.  Whether that’s good enough for the fans and the administration remains to be seen.

7. Arkansas (Last year: 3-9)
In Bret Bielema‘s first season in Fayetteville, the Razorbacks won just three games; two of those wins came against FCS programs, the other against a Southern Miss team that was in the midst of what would become a 23-game losing streak.  UA ended the season on a nine-game losing streak, finishing up Year 1 of the Great Bielema Southern Experiment at 0-8 in SEC play.  Six of those nine losses came by at least 10 points, with two of them coming by a combined 97 points.  It was a rough first season for Bielema and his charges; it doesn’t expect to get much better in 2014.  The good news for Bielema and his coaching staff is that his boss, athletic director Jeff Long, is committed to them for the long haul; whether the long haul is three years or four years or even five years remains to be seen.  One thing is certain: Bielema has a helluva tough job ahead of him, cleaning up the mess left by the controversy-stained departure of Bobby Petrino and the lost 2012 season under John L. Smith.  Oh, and all the while sweeping the broom in the toughest division in any conference in the conference.  Yeah, good luck with that.

CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME PREDICTION
Alabama over South Carolina

‘Sometime this week or next week,’ ex-Miami TE Jerome Washington should sign with Rutgers

PISCATAWAY, NJ - NOVEMBER 16: Rutgers Scarlet Knights are wearing helmets with a stars and stripes logo in honor of Military Appreciation Day before the start of their game against the Cincinnati Bearcats at High Point Solutions Stadium on November 16, 2013 in Piscataway, New Jersey. (Photo by Rich Schultz /Getty Images)
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In mid-April, former Miami tight end Jerome Washington confirmed that Rutgers will be his likely transfer destination.  Three weeks later, that move is coming closer to fruition.

Speaking to nj.com, Washington stated that, when it comes to officially signing with the Scarlet Knights, “[h]opefully it’s sometime this week or next week.”  All indications are RU will send the required paperwork in short order to officially make Washington the newest member of first-year head coach Chris Ash‘s football program.

“I haven’t signed but they told me they have a scholarship offer for me,” Washington told the website. “And when I asked what I should say to schools recruiting me, they said I should say I’m not interested, which means I’m basically good to go. Coach Ash told my cousin that last week at the recruiting event.”

If Washington lands at RU, or any other FBS program, he’d have to sit out the 2016 season, but would then have two years of eligibility remaining beginning in 2017.

Washington, a rising sophomore, appeared in nine games in 2015 for the Hurricanes but did not record a statistic. He arrived at The U by way of Mercer County Community College.

In February, Washington announced that he would be transferring from Miami and continuing his playing career elsewhere.

Minnesota losing DL Mose Hall to transfer

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - NOVEMBER 15: The jersey and helmet of Jon Christenson #63 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers are seen during the third quarter of the game against the Ohio State Buckeyes on November 15, 2014 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Buckeyes defeated the Golden Gophers 31-24. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
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The transfer train continues its run down the tracks, with Minnesota the latest to see its roster hit with attrition.

As all the cool kids are doing these days, Mose Hall took to social media confirm a change in his current situation, announcing on Twitter that he has decided to transfer out of the Gophers football program. No reason was given for the defensive lineman’s departure.

Should Hall move on to another FBS program, he’d have to sit out the 2016 season. He’d then have three seasons of eligibility remaining beginning in 2017.

Hall was a three-star 2015 recruit rated as the No. 98 strongside defensive end by 247Sports.com.  He was also the No. 61 player at any position in the state of Alabama.

Last season as a true freshman, Hall took a redshirt.

Expansion rumblings once again swirling around Big 12

Matt Ritchey
Associated Press
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Expansion in major college football has been in hibernation for a couple of years now, but it appears movement on that front could be imminent.  Or it could not.  One of the two.

Over the past 24 hours or so, a handful of stories have surfaced that, once again, have the speculation swirling around the Big 12 when it comes to that conference getting back to matching its numerical name.  From analytics to potential expansion candidates to the 800-pound Longhorn in the middle of the room, the Big 12’s annual spring meetings this week figure to at least begin — or, more specifically, continue — the process of settling the expansion/conference title game/league network issues that are all inextricably intertwined.

To wit:

— Monday, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby confirmed that in research performed by an analytics outfit hired by the league, a 12-team conference with an eight-game league schedule and a championship game is the best model for one of its teams qualifying for the college football playoff.  Right now, the Big 12 is the exact opposite of that model, with 10 teams, nine conference games and no title game.

According to Bowlsby, the first combination would increase a league’s chances of sending a team to the playoffs by five percent.  As Chuck Carlton of the Dallas Morning News asked, would that slight bump be enough to get everyone onboard with expansion and a title game?

“Some would say we want every advantage we can get,” Bowlsby said. “Others may say it’s not enough to blow up a good scheduling model.”

From Carlton’s report:

Bowlsby said the Big 12 is scheduled to receive “two major reports” in Irving. In addition to information on the title game, Navigate will examine scheduling models for a 10-, 12- and 14-team conference and the variables involved.

In February, Bowlsby said he hoped to have an answer to the expansion question, one way or the other, this summer.  Just how close Bowlsby gets to that timeline will depend on how things go in Phoenix this week.

— Boise State, BYU, Cincinnati, Houston, Memphis and UCF have all been mentioned as potential candidates if the Big 12 opts to expand.  According to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the UofM has been lobbying the conference for inclusion in a next round of expansion if it comes.

University of Memphis president M. David Rudd sent a promotional publication – highlighting the finer points of the city and its major university – to University of Texas president Dr. Gregory Fenves in December, showcasing the U of M as a possible Big 12 expansion candidate.

Rudd said the publication, entitled “Memphis Soul of a City,” captures “the passion and proud history of Tiger athletics including a historic run by our football program.”

The Memphis publication highlights the city’s top Fortune 500 companies, its overall attributes and the U of M’s attributes, including its recent athletic accomplishments, particularly the turnaround by the football program. Tiger football has gone 19-7 the past two seasons.

— And, finally,that 800-pound Longhorn we spoke of earlier.

It’s long been believed that Texas is not in favor of expanding the conference, especially at the expense of folding its Longhorn Network into a conference-wide network, with Texas Tech and TCU, for their own reasons, following in lock-step with the state’s flagship institution.  According to a report from the Cincinnati Enquirer, the conference is one vote shy of garnering enough support to expand.

It’s believed seven of the 10 schools favor expansion. But Big 12 bylaws call for a super majority vote of 75 percent (so at least eight schools) to make a major change. Texas is believed to be influencing Texas Tech’s and Texas Christian’s decisions to also be reluctant to expansion.

Texas Tech has long fallen in line with Texas. Both are public universities that have been in the same league together since 1956, when they were in the Southwest Conference. Texas and Texas Tech were founding members of the Big 12 in 1996.

TCU is believed to be following Texas’ lead because the conference’s power broker reportedly helped the Horned Frogs get into the Big 12 four years ago.

In other words, we’re right back to where we’ve been on multiple occasions in the past: as Texas goes, so goes Big 12 expansion.  Or doesn’t go, as the case may be.

UPDATED 6:38 p.m. ET: If you want an idea as to Texas’ thought process at the moment, I think this sentence pretty much tells you everything you need to know.

Iowa State lands Duke grad transfer Evrett Edwards

DURHAM, NC - SEPTEMBER 26:  Evrett Edwards #2 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts after a play against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets during their game at Wallace Wade Stadium on September 26, 2015 in Durham, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Duke’s secondary loss will turn into Iowa State’s gain.

In a tweet posted to his personal Twitter account Monday, Evrett Edwards announced that he will continue his collegiate playing career at Iowa State.  The defensive back visited Ames in the middle of April, pulling the trigger on a decision two weeks later.

Maryland and Troy were also potential landing spots for the graduate transfer, who will be eligible to play immediately for the Cyclones this fall.  The upcoming season will be Edwards’ final year of eligibility.

After redshirting as a true freshman in 2013, Edwards played in 25 games the past two seasons. He was listed as the top backup at the Bandit safety position throughout the 2015 season.