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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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Harvey Updyke claims he’s going trick-or-treating… as a dead tree

Harvey Updyke AP

Because, of course he is.  Possibly

On the scariest of the holidays, one of the most frightening football fans on the planet, Harvey Updyke, is making a claim related to the criminal offense that turned him into a household name a couple of years ago.  In a Facebook posting this afternoon, the convicted tree-killer claimed that he will be going trick-or-treating this Halloween dressed up as a dead tree.

Updyke, a lifelong Alabama fan, was convicted of poisoning, and ultimately killing, the famed Toomer’s Corner oaks at Auburn following the 2010 Iron Bowl.

This stunt, as it were, comes a couple of months after Updyke had been scheduled to appear at a charity event where people would’ve been allowed to either dunk [Updyke] in a dunking booth or throw pies at his face.  Because of the ensuing uproar, the appearance was canceled.

Even if it’s a joke, which is what we’re guessing will eventually be the case, it likely won’t come off as a particularly funny one to either UA or AU fans.

Updyke, as “Al from Dadeville,” infamously called into the Paul Finebaum radio show in February of 2011 and claimed to have poisoned the Toomer’s oaks after Auburn beat Alabama in the 2010 Iron Bowl. He was subsequently arrested, chargedand ultimately pleaded guilty to one count of criminal damage of an agricultural facility, a Class-C felony. He was sentenced to three years in jailhe served 180 days of the sentence — and was placed on supervised probation for a period of five years. During that probationary period, he has a 7 p.m. curfew.

Additionally, Updyke, who now lives in Louisiana less than an hour from the LSU campus, was ordered to pay $800,000 in restitution and has been barred from the following: any Auburn University property, any collegiate sporting event and speaking to the media.  Thus far, he’s only reportedly paid $99 in restitution.

While there was initial hope that the oaks could be saved, they were ultimately taken down after one final roll. New trees are expected to be planted next year.

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Deshaun Watson resumes throwing football in practice

Deshaun Watson AP

No, Deshaun Watson is not ready for a return to the playing field, but he’s getting closer.  Much, much closer.

For the first time Wednesday night since injuring his hand in the Oct. 11 win over Louisville, the Charleston Post & Courier reported, the Clemson quarterback threw a football at practice.  The fact that Watson is back throwing a football less than three weeks after incurring the injury came as a bit of a shock to the true freshman’s offensive coordinator.

“Looked good. I think he’s kind of surprised everybody how far along he is right now with everything,” Chad Morris said. “[Wednesday] was his first time back into it taking actual snaps and reps, so it was good to see him back in there.”

Despise the surprise of what thus far has been a speedy recovery, don’t look for the original timeline for a return to be updated. Probably.

Morris, whose Tigers are on a bye this weekend, said its “doubtful” Watson would play in the Thursday night game next week against Wake Forest. That, though, is actually a slight upgrade as Watson’s currently listed as “out” on the official Clemson injury report for that game.

Cole Stoudt, who has started the last two games, is still expected to start against the Demon Deacons.  Watson might — might — be available as an emergency-type quarterback if the need arises.  Barring a setback, Watson is expected to return for the Nov. 15 game against Georgia Tech as the starter.

Watson remains the No. 2 quarterback in the country in passing efficiency, behind only Heisman front-runner Marcus Mariota of Oregon. In the two games Watson has started and completed — he was injured early on in his third start– the Tigers have averaged 45.5 points per game; in Stoudt’s four starts against FBS teams, that average is 17.7 ppg.

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Dave Brandon officially out as Michigan’s AD

University of Michigan Introduces Brady Hoke Getty Images

The trigger has officially been pulled.

Following up on reports that surfaced late Friday morning, Michigan president Mark Schlissel announced this afternoon that Dave Brandon has (ahem) “resigned as UM’s athletic director.  The move comes after a month in which Brandon was assailed from numerous corners for various missteps, from the handling of the Shane Morris head injury to the corporate nature of home football games to go along with the pricing to an embarrassing string of emails from the AD to various fans.

Add in the football team’s 3-5 record to start the 2014 season, its worst since 2008, and it’s a recipe for what most will consider a forced resignation after four years on the job.

“Dave feels that it would be in the best interest of our student-athletes, our athletic department and our university community if he moved on,” the president said.  Schlissel stated during a press conference that he accepted Brandon’s resignation this morning and that he agreed with the now-former AD’s decision to step aside.

Former UM football player Jim Hackett will serve as interim athletic director until a permanent replacement is found. Mlive.com wrote that “Hackett, a 1977 Michigan graduate, comes to U-M after two decades as chief executive of Grand Rapids-based Steelcase Inc., one of the world’s largest office furniture makers based.”

Brandon’s departure almost certainly means Brady Hoke, already on one of the hottest coaching seats in America, will be out as the Wolverines’ head coach at season’s end, if not sooner.  And, just who will make the decision to kick the chair out from underneath Hoke’s noosed neck?

Speculation had heavily centered on Arkansas AD and College Football Playoff chairperson Jeff Long even before Brandon’s resignation was announced; expect that speculation to increase exponentially with today’s development.  UConn’s Warde Manuel and Boston College’s Brad Bates have been mentioned prominently as well.  There’s even one report that tosses the name of Oklahoma’s Joe Castiglione into the mix, while another states UM has already reached out to current Central Michigan AD Dave Heeke.

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Kentucky again extends Mark Stoops’ contract

Mark Stoops AP

Back in May, Kentucky announced that it had extended the contract of Mark Stoops.

Nearly six months and eight games later, they’ve done it again.

UK announced Friday afternoon that it had reached an agreement on yet another contract extension for its head football coach.  The deal back in May would’ve kept Stoops with the Wildcats through June 30, 2019; this new agreement binds him to UK through the 2019 season, meaning that it’s a rare half-year extension.

“Mark is guiding our program in the direction we all want it to go and we are proud to reward that,” athletic director Mitch Barnhart wrote in the first of a series of tweets posted to his Twitter account. “I was confident Mark was right for this job when I hired him, but he has exceeded my expectations. From leading a group of young men to recruiting to fundraising, Mark has embraced and excelled in all facets of this job. I am excited about the progress our team has shown on the field, but this is as much about the next five years as it is the last 1.5.

“As I’ve said before, I believe we can compete at the highest level in the toughest conference. @UKCoachStoops is the coach to take us there.”

There was no word on what if any salary increases may be involved.

After going 2-10 in his first season last year, Stoops has his Wildcats sitting at 5-3 in 2014 and on the verge of bowl eligibility for the first time since 2010.  While there’s certainly a greater on-field buzz when it comes to the Wildcats, it’s on the recruiting trail where it’s the loudest and most pronounced.

Kentucky currently has the No. 22 recruiting class for the 2015 cycle after Stoops and his coaching staff pulled in the No. 17 class this past February and the No. 29 class in 2013.  Prior to Stoops’ arrival, UK had just two recruiting classes — 2006 (No. 36) and 2009 (No. 41) — finish inside the Top 50 nationally since 2002.

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David Brandon will reportedly step down as Michigan’s AD

University of Michigan Introduces Brady Hoke Getty Images

It appears Michigan’s athletic department — and likely its football program as well — is about to embark on a new direction.

Late Friday morning, UM announced in a press release that university president Mark Schlissel will conduct a press conference at 1:30 ET this afternoon. The only reason given for the presser was that Schlissel would be making an unspecified announcement.

It’s been rumored for weeks that embattled athletic director Dave Brandon is on his way out. Based on one report, that’s indeed both the case and the subject of the this afternoon’s media event.

The Detroit News subsequently confirmed that Brandon will be stepping down.

In addition to the woeful performance of the football team under Brady Hoke, Brandon has come under fire for the handling of the Shane Morris head injury; the corporate nature of home football games to go along with the pricing; and an embarrassing string of emails from the AD to various fans.

Should Brandon be out as all signs indicate, it would likely serve as the second-to-last nail in Hoke’s coaching coffin, with the last being driven in by the new AD just before he brings in his own hand-picked head coach.

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Tulane loses WR to season-ending ACL injury

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Tulane AP

Unfortunately for both the player and the team, reality matched the speculation.

Tulane confirmed earlier this week that Xavier Rush suffered an undisclosed knee injury during practice and would undergo further evaluation.  There were rumblings that the injury was related to the wide receiver’s ACL.

While the school has yet to confirm it, both the Baton Rouge Advocate and New Orleans Times-Picayune are reporting that Rush has indeed torn an ACL.  The Green Wave is expected to confirm the news at some point today.

As the senior has already used his redshirt season and he will not be eligible for a medical waiver, Rush’s collegiate career has come to an end.

Rush is currently second on the Green Wave in receiving yards with 295 and leads the team with three receiving touchdowns and a 19.7 yards per catch average. His 15 catches are second among receivers and third among all players.

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Reports: Kyle Allen to start at QB for A&M

Kyle Allen AP

The 2014 season began with Kenny “Trill™” Hill being mentioned alongside other Heisman Trophy contenders.  It could, though, end with a performance-based benching.

Officially, Texas A&M will not name a starting quarterback for Saturday’s game against Louisiana-Monroe until shortly before kickoff.  Unofficially, a change is in the offing at the most important position on the football field as both the CBS affiliate in Dallas-Fort Worth and Billy Liucci of TexAgs.com are reporting that Kyle Allen will get the start in the non-conference home game.

Hill tossed six interceptions in the last two losses to Alabama and Ole Miss, leading to the quarterback competition being opened up yet again during the Aggies’ bye week.  He had been named as Johnny Manziel‘s successor in mid-August after a fight with Allen that began in the spring and continued on into summer camp.

Should Allen start against ULM, he’d hit the field with as impressive an on-paper pedigree as any player in the country.  Allen came to College Station this season as a five-star member of the Aggies’ 2014 recruiting class, rated as the No. 1 pro-style quarterback in the country and the No. 7 player at any position.

Allen has thrown passes in four of eight games this season, going 23-38 for 264 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions.

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No. 2 Florida State still unconquered, rallies to beat Louisville 42-31

Dalvin Cook

Before we get to what Louisville didn’t do, first let’s discuss what Florida State did on Thursday night: overcome a 21-0 deficit on the road, score 42 points over the game’s last 30 minutes and 33 seconds, drop 580 yards of total offense (and 380 in the second half) against the nation’s top statistical defense, and held the Louisville without a third- or fourth-down conversion until the game was put away. And in the process, No. 2 Florida State extended its winning streak to 24 games with a rise-from-the-dead 42-31 victory over Louisville.

With that out of the way, here is the list of things Louisville did not do that could have pushed this game the other way:

  • Turn a 1st-and-goal at the four into points on the game’s opening possession.
  • Recover a fumble by Florida State’s Karlos Williams at the goal line in the waning moments of the first half.
  • Hold on to the ball after intercepting Jameis Winston to open the second half.
  • Corral what would have been a possible pick six, which would have pushed Louisville’s lead to 31-21.
  • Convert a third down while the game was still in doubt.
  • Catch a 4th-and-2 pass with room to run while trailing 35-31 deep into the fourth quarter.

In the end, Louisville did just enough to give its fans (and the FSU-hating masses) just enough to hope, but not enough to actually put the game away.

Florida State trailed 21-0 late in the second quarter, and got on the board 33 seconds before halftime after Nick O’Leary recovered Williams’ fumble in the end zone to pull within 21-7 at the half.

Cardinals defensive back Gerold Holliman intercepted Winston – the reigning Heisman winner’s third pick of the night, and second to Holliman – on the first play from scrimmage of the second half, but Winston then forced a fumble as Holliman fought for extra yardage, and wide receiver Travis Rudolph hopped on the loose pigskin.

Louisville forced a turn0ver on downs on the next possession and then pushed the lead to 24-7 a minute later, but the two 50/50 plays falling Florida State’s way gave the Seminoles life.

Normally a 17-point road deficit is overcome through the battle-hardened strength only veterans possess, but true freshman teamed with Winston to overcome and then put away Louisville over the last 25 minutes of the game. Winston hit freshman Rudolph for a 68-yard catch-and-run score to pull within 24-14, and then true freshman Dalvin Cook accounted for 76 yards in an 80-yard drive, including a 40-yard touchdown dash, to make the score 24-21.

Florida State took its first lead with 12:48 to go in the fourth quarter when Winston hit Ermon Lane, another freshman, for a 47-yard pass that somehow threaded through three Louisville defenders, and came one play after Holliman let a possible pick-six bounce off his knee and land incomplete.

Louisville then regained the lead with 9:20 to go on a one-yard Dyer plunge, but the Seminoles re-took it for good with a 38-yard rush by Cook. The Cardinals’ next possession ended when a Will Gardner pass bounced off tight end Charles Standberry‘s hands on 4th-and-2 at the Louisville 39 with a shade over 150 seconds to go. Florida State scored three plays later when Winston hit fullback Freddie Stevenson for a 35-yard play-action touchdown pass on a 3rd-and-6.

Winston posted his finest performance of the season, overcoming self-inflicted adversity and a bum ankle to complete 25-of-48 passes for 401 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions (and one very important forced fumble), while Cook came off the bench to account for 150 yards and two touchdowns on 13 touches.

Gardner threw for 330 yards with a touchdown and an interception, but did not rise to the moment when Louisville needed it, missing every third down pass until the game was out of reach. DeVante Parker carried the Cardinals’ passing attack with eight grabs for 214 yards. Dyer rushed 28 times for 134 yards and three touchdowns, but tallied only 39 yards in the second half.

Louisville drops to a very painful 6-3 (4-3 ACC) on the season and heads to Boston College on Saturday.

Florida State improves to 8-0 on the year, and is now one win away from becoming the 11th team in the last 50 years to mount a 25-game winning streak.

After Clemson (17-10 deficit into a 23-17 win), N.C. State (24-7 deficit into a 56-41 win), Notre Dame (17-10 deficit into a 31-27 win) and tonight, this 2014 Florida State team has taught future opponents that they had best not bother even taking a lead; defeat is inevitable, and that’s just going to make it all the more painful.

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Georgia Southern drubs Troy 42-10, pushes winning streak to six

Willie Fritz, Kevin Ellison

One week after popping Georgia State to the tune of 69 points, 10 touchdowns in 11 possessions and 613 rushing yards, Georgia Southern kept the beat going with a 42-10 blowout of Troy on Thursday night.

Nine Georgia Southern rushers combined for 421 yards and six touchdowns on 63 carries. Quarterback Kevin Ellison led the way with 99 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries while also completing 5-of-9 passes for 31 yards, and Favian Upshaw added 96 yards and a touchdown on seven carries.

Tonight’s result means Georgia Southern, the top-ranked FBS rushing offense at a shade over 400 yards per game, has racked up 1,034 rushing yards in the past five days. They’ve punted twice in 22 combined possessions.

All that running limited Troy to just 44 offensive snaps. Five Trojans combined to rush 33 times for 141 yards, while two quarterbacks lifted only 11 passes with four completions for a combined 13 yards. The Trojans were held out of the end zone until the 1:18 mark of the fourth quarter, with the score already at 42-3.

In all, Georgia Southern outgained Troy 461-154 and held a 28-9 advantage in first downs.

The win pushes Georgia Southern to 7-2 and 6-0 in Sun Belt play with a trip to Texas State waiting next Saturday.

Troy (1-8, 1-4 Sun Belt) will host Georgia State next Saturday.

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NCAA upholds Todd Gurley suspension, won’t return until Nov. 15

Todd Gurley

The Todd Gurley saga has finally reached its final conclusion.

The NCAA announced Thursday night it had upheld Georgia’s appeal of his four-game suspension for accepting more than $3,000 in exchange for autographs.

Gurley has missed the last two games due to the investigation, and will miss the ninth-ranked Bulldogs’ dates with Georgia (Saturday) and Kentucky (Nov. 8).

“We are very disappointed in tonight’s decision by the Division I Student-Athlete Reinstatement Committee regarding our appeal on Todd Gurley’s eligibility reinstatement,” Georgia said in a statement. “We believe our case to the NCAA for Todd’s immediate reinstatement was strong and compelling.  However, we now have exhausted all available options and look forward to Todd’s return to competition on November 15.  The full attention of the Bulldog Nation now needs to be focused on our team and Saturday’s important game against Florida.”

The silver lining here for Georgia is that the Bulldogs should beat the Gators and Wildcats without Gurley, and then get a rested and hacked off version of the nation’s best runner back for No. 4 Auburn on Nov. 15.

Despite missing the past two games, Gurley still leads Georgia in rushing with 773 carries and eight touchdowns on 94 carries while catching 11 passes for 53 yards and completing his only pass for 50 yards.

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Former Iowa State coach, FSU and Vandy AD Clay Stapleton dies at 93

Toledo v Iowa State Getty Images

Former Iowa State head coach and Florida State and Vanderbilt athletics director Clay Stapleton passed away Thursday in Missouri City, Mo. He was 93.

Stapleton is best known for coaching the Cyclones’ famed “Dirty Thirty” 1959 team, remembered for putting together a 7-3 season with only 30 players on the roster. It was Iowa State’s first winning season in a decade. Stapleton went 42-53-4 as head coach from 1958-67.

Stapleton left coaching for athletics administration, first serving as the athletics director at Iowa State, where he was instrumental in the construction of Jack Trice Stadium and Hilton Coliseum and hired future College Football Hall of Fame coach Johnny Majors as his replacement.

He then moved on to serve as athletics director at Florida State (1971-72) and Vanderbilt (1973-78).

Stapleton played at Tennessee, and served as an assistant coach at Wofford College (S.C.), Wyoming and Oregon State.

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Arizona State QB Taylor Kelly, K-State WR Tyler Lockett headline list of Campbell Trophy finalists

Tyler Lockett, Keenon Ward

The National Football Foundation on Thursday released its list of 17 finalists for the Campbell Trophy, college football’s highest scholar-athlete honor. Now in its 25th season, the Campbell Trophy is considered the academic version of the Heisman.

“We are extremely proud to announce this year’s National Scholar-Athlete Class,” said NFF President & CEO Steve Hatchell. “These young men have an unrelenting commitment to excellence in all aspects of their lives, and they represent all that is right in college football. They serve as living examples of our mission of building leaders through football, and they create an exceptional pool of candidates for the Campbell Trophy.”

To be eligible for consideration, finalists much be in their final year of eligibility, carry a GPA of 3.2 or higher, be listed first team on their respective teams’ depth charts, and have an outstanding record as of leadership and community service.

As a group, the players average a 3.69 GPA, a dozen are team captains, 15 have earned all-conference honors, six have received All-America accolades, four have been named their conference’s player of the year, and nine hold school records of some sort.

The 17 finalists are:

  • Terry Baggett, Army running back
  • Austin Damaschke, Concordia (Wis.) quarterback
  • Austin Hasquet, Northern Arizona linebacker
  • David Helton, Duke linebacker
  • Taylor Kelly, Arizona State quarterback
  • Nate Leonard, UTSA center
  • Tyler Lockett, Kansas State wide receiver
  • Mike Mancini, Trinity (Conn.) safety
  • Charles Moore, Tarleton State (Texas) safety
  • Mark Murphy, Indiana safety
  • Jordan Richards, Stanford safety
  • Kevin Rodgers, Henderson State (Ark.) quarterback
  • Mike Sadler, Michigan State punter
  • Caleb Schafffitzel, Missouri State safety
  • Tyler Varga, Yale tailback
  • Brandon Vitabile, Northwestern center
  • Zach Zenner, South Dakota State running back

All 17 finalists will receive $16,000 post-graduate scholarships and will head to New York City for the Dec. 9 awards dinner at the Waldorf=Astoria. The Campbell Trophy winner, in addition to joining a group consisting of Danny Wuerffel,Peyton Manning, and Tim Tebow, receives a $25,000 post-graduate scholarship.

Penn State’s John Urschel won the honor in 2013.

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No. 2 FSU’s 23-game winning streak on the ropes, trails Louisville 21-7 at the half

Florida State v Louisville Getty Images

Thursday night in college football has a long history of seeing highly-ranked favorites see its dream season turn into ash in front of a raucous stadium, and it looks like another upset will get added to the lore tonight. Louisville has pounded No. 2 Florida State to the tune of a 21-7 first half lead in the ‘Ville.

After a scoreless first quarter, Michael Dyer put Louisville on top with a four-yard scoring dash at the 12:13 mark of the second quarter, and then pushed the lead to 14 with a 12-yard jaunt seven minutes later. The Cardinals then pushed the lead to 21 – and thereby put FSU’s 23-game winning streak on life support – with an 11-yard scoring strike from Will Gardner to Gerald Christian.

Florida State stole back momentum immediately after falling down by 21 by cooly marching 78 yards in six plays, saved by a third-and-goal rush at the 1 where a Karlos Williams fumble rolled into the end zone and was recovered by Seminoles tight end Nick O’Leary.

The 21-point deficit – brief as it was – is the largest Florida State has faced on its 23-game streak.

Todd Grantham‘s defense, ranked second nationally in pass efficiency defense heading into tonight with seven touchdowns allowed and 15 interceptions, has lived up to its billing, intercepting Jameis Winston twice (on consecutive passes, no less) and turning both opportunities into touchdowns.

Florida State’s defense, on the other hand, has let Louisville get what it wanted on the ground and through the air. Gardner has thrown for 179 yards, and Dyer already has 95 yards and that pair of touchdowns on 14 carries.

The lead could actually be larger, as a 71-yard pass from Gardner to DeVante Parker on the first play from scrimmage gave the Cardinals a first-and-goal from the four inside the game’s first minute, but a fourth-and-goal pass from Gardner to Christian fell incomplete.

Florida State will get the ball to open the second half on the biggest possession of the season for both teams. A Florida State touchdown makes the score 21-14 and officially pulls the game back into toss-up territory. A stop keeps Louisville in control, and FSU’s status as the second-ranked team back on life support.

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Gamecocks’ leading tackler out vs. Vols

Missouri v South Carolina Getty Images

South Carolina’s defense has struggled throughout the 2014 season with Skai Moore on the field.  Saturday, we’ll see how that side of the ball performs without him.

According to defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward, Moore will not play in Saturday night’s game against Tennessee as the Gamecocks look to get to within one win of bowl eligibility with a victory.  The linebacker injured his right ankle in the seven-point loss to Auburn last Saturday.

With Moore sidelined, sophomore Jonathan Walton will take his spot in the starting lineup.

Moore’s 51 tackles are currently tops on the team. He led the team in the same category as a true freshman last season.

The Gamecocks are currently 98th in the country and tied for dead last in the SEC (with Vanderbilt) giving up an average of 32.8 points per game, and 89th in the nation and 13th in the conference in total defense (437.5 yards per game).

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GaTech’s top two RBs ruled out vs. UVa.

Duke v Georgia Tech Getty Images

The depth of Georgia Tech’s Top-Five ground game will, once again, be put to the test.

The Yellow Jackets released their weekly injury report Thursday afternoon, with Zach Laskey and Charles Perkins listed as out for Saturday’s game against Virginia.  The former is dealing with  a shoulder issue, the latter a knee injury.

Laskey suffered his injury in the Oct. 18 loss to North Carolina and sat out last weekend’s win over Pittsburgh.  Perkins was injured very early on in the Panthers game.

This season, Laskey leads all Tech running backs in rushing yards with 595 (quarterback Justin Thomas has the team lead with 717).  Perkins is second to Lasky with 261.

Synjyn Days, starting in place of Laskey at B-back, led the Jackets with 110 yards on the ground against Pitt. Broderick Snoddy, who came into that game with 61 yards on the season, totaled 82 — on six carries — in the Week 9 win.

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