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CFT 2014 Preseason Preview: SEC Predictions

Florida v LSU

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

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Michigan lowers student-ticket prices for 2015 season

Minnesota v Michigan

The Big House’s student section should be completely full during every game next season.

After recent complaints by the student body, the University of Michigan decided its in the school’s best interests to decrease the prices of student tickets for the 2015 campaign.

This season, a season ticket purchased by a student was $280. Next season, the prices will be dropped to $175 per season ticket.

“We’ve been listening,” Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon told The Michigan Daily Thursday. “We really learned that two really important components to re-engaging with our students in trying to create a more robust, more enthusiastic and larger student section for next year’s football season was price and strength of schedule.

“A nearly 40-percent reduction in ticket prices is, I think it’s fair to say, unprecedented.”

However, it’s not quite to the price level demanded by the president of Michigan’s central student government, Bobby Dishell, a week earlier at Michigan’s Board of Regents meeting.

During’s Dishell’s address to the board, he said Michigan’s “athletic department has broken its trust” with students. Another student representative respectfully asked for Brandon’s resignation.

Dishell appears happy with the change, though.

“It’s been great working together,”  Dishell told The Michigan Daily. “We realized that the University takes need into account when you’re coming here, so your experiences here should also take that into account.”

As the future of the football program remains in turmoil, it appears to have regained the trust of its students and may avoid seeing empty seats at Michigan Stadium.

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Hackenberg, other Nittany Lions deliver pizzas to ‘Nittanyville’

Christian Hackenberg AP

Christian Hackenberg may not be delivering on the field the way he did as a true freshman last season, but he sure is off of it.

(Waiting for the groaning to die down… waiting… still waiting… and we’re good)

This week, students at Penn State have set up camp in “Nittanyville” ahead of Saturday’s primetime showdown with Ohio State in Happy Valley.  And by “this week” I mean “several days ahead of the contest.”

As is ofttimes the case with individuals in that age group, they came down with a serious case of the munchies.  And, thanks to the Nittany Lions’ starting quarterback and some of his teammates, said craving was sated Wednesday night.

Before you ask, I have no idea who paid for the pizzas.  And, for video of the special delivery that we can’t embed here, click HERE.

The Nittany Lions, incidentally, will be looking to snap a two-game Big Ten losing streak when they host the 13th-ranked Buckeyes.  And Hackenberg will be looking to bounce back from both a rough first half of the 2014 season (five touchdowns, seven interceptions compared to 20-10 a year ago) and his worst day yardage-wise a year ago (112 in a 63-14 thrashing by OSU in Columbus).

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Butch Jones playing coy with Justin Worley’s availability for ‘Bama

Justin Worley, Robert Nkemdiche AP

Earlier this week, Butch Jones seemed to indicate that there was little doubt his starting quarterback would be healthy enough to play this weekend.

With the Alabama game getting closer on the horizon?  Yeah, not so much.

Justin Worley was knocked out of the Week 8 loss to Ole Miss with a shoulder injury.  While Worley has practiced since, the Vols’ head coach intimated during his radio show Wednesday night that it’s up in the air whether or not Worley plays in the rivalry game.

It’s ongoing right now,” Jones said when asked for an update on Worley’s status. “We’ll have to make a decision here later in the week with Justin’s status. The great thing for us is the way we practice all of our quarterback get equal reps in practice.”

That said, it’s widely expected Worley will be on the field and under center when the Vols square off with the Tide in Neyland Stadium.  Should the unexpected happen and Worley is shelved, either Josh Dobbs or Nathan Peterman would assume the position.

Regardless of just who is under center, though, the UT offensive line, with all new starters from last year’s unit, needs to do a better job of protecting the quarterback.  The 30 sacks surrendered by the Vols is second only to SMU’s 35 as the most at the FBS level this season.

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Northwestern CB retires… after learning he has one kidney?

Alonzo Moore, Dwight White AP

This is something you don’t hear or read about every day.

In a press release Thursday, Northwestern announce that Dwight White has decided to retire from the game of football.  No specific reason, injury, medical or otherwise, was given, although the cornerback said in a statement that the “decision I’ve had to make [is] for my long-term health.”

According to InsideNU.com, however, the reason for the decision is that the player has one less significant organ than most.

OK then.

“We love Dwight and we’re proud to have him as a part of the Wildcats football family,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said in a statement. “It’s disappointing to lose a great teammate from the field but I’m excited he’s able to remain involved in the program, and I’m looking forward to his continuing development as a student, a leader and a professional at Northwestern.”

After starting six of the 12 games in which he played in 2013, White was being looked upon as a significant contributor to the Wildcats’ secondary this season. After playing in the season opener, White was subsequently announced the following week as being out with an undisclosed injury. He hadn’t seen the field since.

“I would like to thank my family, friends, coaches, teammates and especially the Northwestern Sports Medicine staff for all of their support,” the final portion of White’s statement read.

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Five-person committee to steer SEC search for Slive replacement

Mike Slive

Just a little over a week after Mike Slive not-so-unexpectedly announced he would be stepping down as the commissioner of the SEC next year, the conference has taken the next expected step in securing a replacement.

The SEC announced in a press release Thursday that it is set to launch its search for Slive’s successor.  As part of that search, Vanderbilt chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos, current chair of the SEC’s presidents and chancellors, has appointed a five-person committee charged with the task of hiring the eighth commissioner in the conference’s history. The Fab Search Five are:

  • Dr. David Gearhart, Arkansas chancellor
  • Dr. Judith Bonner, Alabama president
  • Dr. Eli Capilouto, Kentucky president
  • Dr. Mark Keenum, Mississippi State president
  • Dr. R. Bowen Loftin, Missouri chancellor.

Dr. Gearhart’s will serve as the committee’s chairperson.

“The SEC has enjoyed an era of unprecedented success under Mike Slive and at the same time has been a leader in dramatic change in the landscape of college athletics under his direction,” Zeppos said in the statement. “It is critical to have an efficient transition of leadership in order to continue our success on the fields of play as well as to identify a staunch advocate for academic achievement, integrity and sportsmanship. Our objective is to seamlessly maintain our conference’s participation in shaping the future of intercollegiate athletics.”

It’s widely believed that the SEC’s current chief operating officer, Greg Sankey, is the current favorite to take over for Slive.  Before what many assume to be the inevitable happens, though, the committee will undertake a search that’s national in scope.

As for a timeline, there’s not one specific in nature.  The release, though, stated that “the presidents and chancellors hope to select the new commissioner in a timely manner to allow a transition period before Slive’s retirement on July 31, 2015.”

By most accounts, the conference would like to have the successor in place around the first couple of months of the new year to allow for as smooth a transition as possible.

“The SEC has enjoyed an era of unprecedented success under Mike Slive and at the same time has been a leader in dramatic change in the landscape of college athletics under his direction,” Zeppos said. “It is critical to have an efficient transition of leadership in order to continue our success on the fields of play as well as to identify a staunch advocate for academic achievement, integrity and sportsmanship. Our objective is to seamlessly maintain our conference’s participation in shaping the future of intercollegiate athletics.”

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Report: SMU ‘floating $4 million annually’ to entice Mack Brown

Mack Brown

If SMU fails to land Mack Brown as its next head coach, it won’t be for lack of trying.  Or financial incentive.

In a piece detailing just who may emerge as legitimate candidates for the Mustangs job opened by June Jones’ abrupt retirement two games into the 2014 season, Dallas Morning News writer Bill Nichols dropped the intriguing nugget below a handful of paragraphs into the article:

And basketball’s quick ascension under Larry Brown seems to have galvanized the school’s football commitment.

Thus, it’s not shocking that SMU officials have already had preliminary discussions with former Texas coach Mack Brown, floating $4 million annually over eight years, sources say. Brown, 63, fits the Larry Brown model — a national championship winner who can land star prospects on name alone.

A $4 million-per-year commitment would more than double Jones’ 2013 salary of $1.9 million. The healthiest salary for an AAC head coach in 2013 was the $3.7 million earned by Louisville’s Charlie Strong, who, oddly enough, replaced Brown in Austin. Cincinnati’s Tommy Tuberville made $3.1 million at Cincinnati last season, while Strong’s successor at the UofL, Bobby Petrino, will average $3.5 million annually on a seven-year contract.

In his final season at Texas, Brown pulled in just over $5.4 million.

All of the discussion involving Brown, SMU and salary, though, is wholly dependent on whether the coach wants to return to the sidelines.

Earlier this month, the former UT head coach’s attorney confirmed that SMU had approached his client about a return to the sidelines. While acknowledging that Brown misses coaching, the attorney, Joe Jamail, flatly stated that “he’s not interested in coaching anywhere right now.”

Brown, currently serving as a college football analyst on ESPN, himself said a week earlier that he will decide in December if his coaching career is done.

Should Brown decide to take over the reins at SMU, he’d be stepping into an on-field mess.  The Mustangs’ offense has scored 39 points in six games this season; 14 teams are averaging at least that many points per per game.  UConn is the second-lowest scoring team in the country, and they’ve nearly doubled up SMU’s output (77 points in seven games).

To add insult to offensive injury, the Mustangs rank dead last in points allowed at 48 per game.  Not so unexpectedly, they are 125th out of 125 teams in total defense (548.8 ypg) and next-to-last in total offense (249.2 ypg, ahead of only Wake Forest’s 206.7).

On the flip side, the Mustangs qualified for four straight bowl games from 2009-12 before missing out with a 5-7 record in 2013, so there is a recent track record of both some modicum of talent and success.  Still, it’s a significant rebuilding effort for anyone who takes over, let alone an individual who will turn 64 prior to the start of the 2015 season.

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Texas OC, Okla. St. trade lawsuits over play-calling duties

Joe Wickline AP

Just who is calling plays for Texas in 2014 is at the heart of a pair of lawsuits that have begun their journeys through the legal system.

Oklahoma State filed a lawsuit Oct. 17 (case summary HERE) against former OSU assistant and current Texas co-offensive coordinator Joe Wickline in which the university essentially accuses Wickline of lying about the duties his new position entails.  Wickline left the Cowboys in January to become the Longhorns’ co-offensive coordinator along alongside Shawn Watson; in that role, Wickline would reportedly hold play-calling responsibilities.

That latter aspect is key as, the Austin American-Statesman wrote, “Wickline would owe OSU the balance of his contract unless he was named offensive coordinator ‘with play-calling duties’ or went to the NFL.” The balance of that contract is nearly $600,000, which OSU is seeking in its lawsuit.

The impetus for this legal back and forth appears to have been triggered, in part, by Wickline’s new boss. Back in mid-March, ESPN.com wrote, “[UT head coach Charlie] Strong changed course publicly, clarifying that Watson and Wickline would share play-calling duties and that ‘the one final voice will be Shawn.'”

Six days later, Wickline was sent a letter from OSU athletic director Mike Holder that contained the following passage.

“Further, it has now come to our attention that you do not have ‘play-calling duties,'” Holder wrote in a letter dated March 24. “Instead, it appears that your head coach has confirmed that Shawn Watson, not you, will be calling the plays. Thus, in reality it appears you unilaterally and voluntarily terminated the Contract to make a lateral move and as such a waiver of the liquidated damages clause of the Contract is not triggered.

“While OSU wishes you every success in your endeavors and burgeoning career, it is paramount to OSU that contract terms be taken seriously and that they be strictly enforced in the interest of professionalism. Accordingly, OSU will insist upon payment of the liquidated damages clause of the Contract.

It’s readily apparent that Wickline does not hold sole play-calling duties at UT. Based on multiple media accounts, Wickline’s OSU contract also didn’t specify that he must maintain sole play-calling responsibilities or be liable for damages. It’s that distinction that will likely be the crux of the battle should the lawsuits ever see the light of day in a courtroom.

Wickline’s lawsuit, meanwhile, was filed Monday and claims “tortuous interference” on the part of OSU. The coach’s suit makes the claim that his former school’s action “is baseless and its sole purpose is to interfere with coach Wickline’s ongoing employment relationship with UT and the UT contract.”

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Pac-12 paces Lott IMPACT quarterfinalists

Ifo Ekpre-Olomu

You know you how you can tell another season is quickly beginning to wind down?  Awards begin to whittle their lengthy preseason watch lists down to quarterfinalists or semifinalists.

The first to get down to its quarterfinalists was the Lott IMPACT Trophy, which announced its group of 20 Wednesday.  There were two quarterfinalists from a year ago that made the cut this time around: Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and UCLA linebacker Eric Kendricks.

The Pac-12 led all conferences with seven players selected.  The ACC and SEC had four players apiece, while the Big Ten and Big 12 had two each.  There were no players from the Non-Power Five conferences as Notre Dame claims the remaining player.

Washington was the only school with two players included.

Linebackers and defensive ends had the most players for positions with eight and six, respectively.  Cornerbacks, safeties and defensive tackles accounted for two apiece.

The Lott Trophy, named after Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott, is presented annually to the player who best embodies the award’s six tenets — Integrity, Maturity, Performance, Academics, Community and Tenacity. Last year’s winner was UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr.

Eight semifinalists for the award will be announced Nov. 11. In a release, the award states that “four finalists will fly to Newport Beach for a black-tie gala at the Pacific Club on Dec. 14 where the winner will be announced.”

Below is the complete list of 20 Lott IMPACT quarterfinalists.

Vic Beasley, DE, Clemson
Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State
Henry Coley, LB, Virginia
Landon Collins, S, Alabama
Ronald Darby, CB, Florida State
Michael Doctor, LB, Oregon State
Bud Dupree, DE, Kentucky
Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon
Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
David Helton, LB, Duke
A.J. Johnson, LB, Tennessee
Eric Kendricks, LB, UCLA
Hau’oli Kikaha, DE, Washington
Ryan Mueller, DE, Kansas State
Jordan Richards, S, Stanford
Deterrian Shackelford, LB, Ole Miss
Danny Shelton, DT, Washington
Eric Striker, LB, Oklahoma
Jaylon Smith, LB, Notre Dame
Leonard Williams, DT, USC

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‘Extremely doubtful’ Wyoming’s injured leading tackler returns in ’14

Mark Nzeocha, Taylor Graham

Wyoming’s defense will likely have to play the remainder of the 2014 season without one of its leaders on that side of the ball.

Mark Nzeocha suffered what appeared to be a knee injury during last Saturday’s overtime loss to San Jose State. While head coach Craig Bohl wouldn’t specify the exact nature of the injury, he was decidedly pessimistic about the senior linebacker’s availability moving forward.

“The outlook for him to be playing the rest of the year would be extremely doubtful,” the coach said.

Nzeocha currently leads the Cowboys in both tackles (59) and passes broken up (five). He’s tied for the team lead with two sacks and he’s second in tackles for loss with three.

With Nzeocha sidelined, seniors Devyn Harris or Jordan Stanton will likely serve as his replacement.

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Ole Miss, Wake agree to future home-and-home

Dester McCluster, Alphonso Smith AP

It’s not exactly to the level of some of the heavyweight non-conference clashes announced in recent months, but at least it involves a pair of Power Five programs, right?

Anyway, Ole Miss and Wake Forest announced in twin press releases Wednesday that the two football programs have reached an agreement on a future home-and-home series. The agreement calls for the teams to meet in Winston-Salem on Sept. 14, 2024 and Oxford, on Sept. 13, 2025.

The two schools have played just twice in football, and those came recently. The Demon Deacons traveled to Oxford in 2006 while the Rebels returned the favor in 2008.

Wake won both matchups, 27-3 in the first and 30-28 in the second.

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One of Cal’s top WRs won’t play vs. Oregon

UCLA v California AP

Cal’s prolific passing attack will be down a weapon for its Week 9 Pac-12 game.

Head coach Sonny Dykes confirmed Tuesday that Trevor Davis will not play in Friday night’s game against Oregon. Davis suffered a neck/head injury in last Saturday’s loss to UCLA.

After being briefly hospitalized, Davis was released. Just how long the wide receiver will be sidelined remains to be seen.

“Luckily all the tests came back good, and his long-term prognosis is good,” Dykes said.

Davis is tied for third on the Bears in receiving yards (360) and receiving touchdowns (four), and is fourth in receptions (21).

The good news for Cal’s offense is that fellow receiver Chris Harper, injured in the same game, will play against the Ducks. Harper’s 25 catches are third on the team.

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John Wolford good to go at QB for Wake

John Wolford, Eric Crume

An injury that knocked John Wolford out of Wake Forest’s last game won’t do the same for the next one.

Dave Clawson confirmed Tuesday that the quarterback will be available and start this Saturday’s game against Boston College.  Wolford suffered a head injury in the loss to Syracuse last weekend.

It was very quickly determined, however, that Wolford did not incur a concussion.  From the Raleigh News & Observer:

“Because the hit was in the head … we were taking zero chances,” Clawson said Tuesday, adding that when Wolford “felt fine” on Sunday, “we knew he was good to go this week.”

Wolford became the first Demon Deacon to start an opener as a true freshman since 1974, but he’s certainly had his growing pains.

His 12 interceptions (in 124 attempts) are tied for second-worst in the country with Texas Tech’s Davis Webb (196 attempts), behind only New Mexico State’s Tyler Rodgers‘ 15 (170 attempts).  With an interception ration of 1:10, he’s fourth-worst in the country behind only Tulane’s Tanner Lee ((one pick every 7.8 attempts), Kansas’ Montell Cozart (one every 8.9 attempts) and Florida’s Jeff Driskel (one every 9.7 attempts) for quarterbacks who have thrown at least 60 passes.

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Barring ‘something unusual,’ Deshaun Watson is starter when healthy

FBC-T25 Clemson Watson AP

And, in other breaking news, water is wet and the sky is blue.

Deshaun Watson underwent surgery earlier this month to repair the hand injury he suffered in Clemson’s Oct. 11 win over Louisville and is expected to be sidelined for up to five weeks.  Most (rightly) assumed that Cole Stoudt would merely be keeping the quarterbacking seat warm before turning the job back over to Watson once healthy.

Tuesday, Watson’s head coach confirmed as much.

“Yeah. Yeah. Deshaun’s the starter. Whenever he’s healthy, he’ll be back out there,” Dabo Swinney said. “Guys don’t lose their jobs because they get hurt. Something unusual would have to happen for that to be the case.

“But we’ll worry about all that when the time comes.”

Swinney’s declaration is a no-brainer as the Tigers’ offense is simply a more explosive and lethal with Watson on the field.

In the two full games the true freshman started — North Carolina Sept. 27, North Carolina State Oct. 4 — the Tigers averaged 45.5 points per game; the last two games against Louisville and Boston College, which includes the one Watson left very early due to injury, the Tigers are averaging 20 points per game.

Watson is currently second in the country in passing efficiency, behind only Oregon’s Marcus Mariota.  Stoudt, meanwhile, is 99th in the same category as he has thrown just one touchdown and two interceptions in his 147 attempts.

Based on the current timeline, Watson will definitely be back no later than the Nov. 15 game against Georgia Tech, the 10th game of the season.  There’s also the chance he could return for the Nov. 6 game against Wake Forest, which comes after the Tigers second and last bye of the season.

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Rutgers WR Ruhann Peele arrested on assault charge back in August

Ruhann Peele, Andrew Adams AP

Nearly two months after it happened, the arrest of a Rutgers football player has surfaced publicly.

According to the Newark Star-Ledger, Ruhann Peele was arrested following an incident Aug. 30.  The wide receiver was subsequently charged with simple assault.  No details of what preceded the arrest and charge have been revealed.

“We are aware of the situation involving Ruhann,” a statement from RU head coach Kyle Flood read. “Due to the fact he has a pending court date, we will not comment until the legal process is complete.”

Peele has not played at all this season due to what’s only been described as an upper-body injury sustained in early August. The Star-Ledger writes that “[h]is absence from football activities, including practice, is 100 percent medically-related at this point, a source familiar with the situation said.”

Whether he heals up in time to play this season and would then face sanctions from the football program for the off-field incident is unknown.

Peele finished fifth on the team last season with 28 catches for 478 yards. He was third on the team when, due to injuries, he was moved from receiver to cornerback in late October for a handful of games.

Entering summer camp, it was expected Peele would be a significant contributor in the passing game in 2014.

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Following arrest, Cincinnati suspends backup QB

players names AP

An off-field incident will likely cost one of Cincinnati’s quarterbacks some game time.

Early Sunday morning, Bearcats backup Jarred Evans was arrested on a misdemeanor assault charge shortly after returning from a road win over SMU.  Evans allegedly knocked a man to the ground with a punch, with the alleged victim suffering a concussion and needing stitches.

Evans spent Sunday night in jail before bail was posted Monday.

While Tommy Tuberville said there’s a “[g]ood chance he’s not guilty,” the UC head coach has still indefinitely suspended the player.

“It’s just hard to get through their heads that you are different than everybody else,” Tuberville said according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. “You can’t even think about making a mistake or even being close to a mistake. Even if it’s not your fault, you’re still implicated. So, that’s how we handle it and I hope our players on the team see that and understand that and we’ll go from there. …

“I talk to these guys every day about you being a lot more responsible than any other person on campus. They understand that right or wrong, football players, basketball players, athletes across the country are guilty until proven innocent, even in my eyes, because you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Until this season, the JUCO transfer Evans had totaled no stats at the FBS level. In the win over the Mustangs, the 22-year-old Evans rushed for a team-high 67 yards and a touchdown, while also completing both of his pass attempts for 10 yards.

It’s unclear if Evans will be available for Friday’s game against USF.

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