CFT Preseason Top 25: No. 8 Auburn

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2013 record: 12-2 overall, 7-1 in SEC (1st in West division)
2013 postseason: BCS title game vs. Florida State (34-31 loss)
2013 final AP/coaches’ ranking: No. 2/No. 2
Head coach: Gus Malzahn (21-5 overall; 12-2 in one year at Auburn)
Offensive coordinator: Rhett Lashlee (second season); Dameyune Craig (second season as co-coordinator)
2013 offensive rankings: 1st rushing offense (328.3 ypg); 106th passing offense (173 ypg); 11th total offense (501.3 ypg); 12th scoring offense (39.5 ppg)
Returning offensive starters: 7
Defensive coordinator: Ellis Johnson (second season); Charlie Harbison (second season as co-coordinator)
2013 defensive rankings: 62nd rushing defense (162.1 ypg); 100th passing defense (258.6 ypg); 86th total defense (420.7 ypg); 48th scoring defense (24.7 ppg)
Returning defensive starters: 6
Location: Auburn, Ala.
Stadium: Jordan-Hare Stadium (87,451; grass)
Last conference title: 2013

THE GOOD
No one was able to control the Tigers’ powerful rushing attack and, even with the departure of its leading rusher, that’s expected to continue on into 2014 and the second season in Gus Malzahn‘s fast-paced, relentless offense.  Having Nick Marshall, expected to be much improved in the passing-game aspect, in his second season as a starter should help soften the blow that was running back Tre Mason‘s departure for the NFL.  As AU goes from the hunter to the hunted, it’ll be incumbent on Marshall to take that next step, one his head coach feels he’s ready to do.

THE BAD
When you have as magical ride as AU did last season there’s not a whole heck of a lot of bad going on, but the defense was, at the very least, suspect during that run to Pasadena.  They were in the bottom half of the country in yards allowed per game, although they were in the top half in the most important stat: points allowed.  That, though, was only good for eighth in the SEC.  In fairness, it was the Tigers’ first season under coordinator Ellis Johnson, so the expectation is that just based on familiarity with the scheme the defense will improve.  The good news is that there’s really nowhere for that group to go but up, especially as it relates to the rest of the SEC.  There’s also the little matter of the schedule as AU has conference road games scheduled for Mississippi State (Oct. 11), Ole Miss (Nov. 1), Georgia (Nov. 15) and Alabama (Nov. 29) to go along with a non-conference tilt at underrated Kansas State.  AU won’t sneak up on anyone this season, so they will get every team’s best, most concentrated shot, especially on the road.

THE UNKNOWN
(Writer’s note: pardon me while I repeat myself)
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 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 mostly moot — Malzahn’s Tigers will be one of the more fascinating squads to watch throughout the 2014 season.

MAKE-OR-BREAK GAME: at Alabama Nov. 29
As Auburn and Alabama are expected to be the class of the SEC West, it only makes sense to put the season-ending Iron Bowl in this slot.  Last year’s dramatic, last-second win over the Tide that propelled the Tigers into the SEC championship game and, ultimately, the BCS title game was one of the most exhilarating and improbable in the storied history of the rivalry.  UA will have revenge on its mind as the Tide looks to get back on the national championship stage after its one-year sabbatical in 2013.  More than likely, the winner of this game will claim the West’s spot in the SEC championship game and, perhaps, a spot in the four-team playoff.  So, yes, this will be one of the more anticipated games of the year — provided both teams can make it to the game unscathed, of course.

HEISMAN HOPEFUL: Quarterback Nick Marshall
Marshall’s first season as a starter wasn’t statistically overwhelming — less than 2,000 yards passing, just 14 touchdown passes — but it was deadly in its efficiency. Marijuana citation aside, Marshall is said to have had a very good offseason, improving his throwing mechanics and becoming more and more comfortable in Gus Malzahn‘s offense. If true, and if the passing aspect of his game improves — as evidenced by his 1,068 yards rushing and 12 rushing touchdowns, he’ll continue to get his on the ground — that could prove to be bad news for the SEC in general and the West specifically. Thanks to the departure of their leading rusher, the Tigers will likely lean even more heavily on both Marshall’s arm and legs; as far as his Heisman chances go, that’s certainly good news.  Hell, one teammate has even already called his stiff-armed shot for Marshall, so he’s got that going for him.  Which is nice.

(Click HERE for the CFT 2014 Preseason Preview Repository)

Northern Michigan OL Anthony Herbert passes away

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Northern Michigan offensive lineman Anthony Herbert has passed away following a workout Tuesday, the school has confirmed. He was 20.

Herbert is the second college football player to pass away in less than a week. His passing comes as Oregon has come under fire with three players hospitalized after a grueling workout, for which the Ducks’ strength coach has been suspended without pay for one month.

“Anthony’s passing is felt deeply by many,” NMU athletic director Forrest Karr said in a statement. “He made a positive impact on our campus and was everything we hope for in a student-athlete. Our thoughts are with his family, friends and teammates, and we are focused on supporting them during this difficult time.”

Officials cited by ESPN state Herbert participated in a Tuesday workout, ate breakfast and returned to his dorm room, where he passed out. EMTs unsuccessfully attempted to revive him, and he was pronounced dead shortly thereafter.

“In my brief time with Anthony, I could tell that he was a great young man,” head coach Kyle Nystrom said. “He was well respected by his coaches and teammates and was a leader on the offensive line. We are devastated by this tragedy, and we are keeping his family in our prayers.”

A native of Lapeer, Mich., Herbert started every game at left guard as a redshirt sophomore in 2016. He was a member of the All-Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference All-Academic Team.

Pac-12 announces 2017 schedule

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 02:  Quarterback Sam Darnold #14 of the USC Trojans scrambles prior to throwing a touchdown pass in the third quarter against the Penn State Nittany Lions during the 2017 Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual at the Rose Bowl on January 2, 2017 in Pasadena, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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The Pac-12 announced its 2017 schedule on Wednesday, beginning with a New Mexico State-Arizona State/North Dakota-Utah double-header and ending with the conference title game, once again set for Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on the first weekend of December.

The headliner is USC, the league’s presumed champion and best shot at snapping its 12-year streak without a national title, playing 12 consecutive games without a bye week. The Trojans open with home games against Western Michigan, Stanford and Texas, and play straight through their Nov. 18 finale against UCLA at the LA Coliseum.

Speaking of UCLA road games, the Bruins have a lot of them — and they’re all tough. They’ll go on the road to face Memphis, Stanford, Arizona, Washington and Utah (over a 6-day stretch) before their finale at USC. The Bruins also host Texas A&M and Oregon.

Washington’s title defense will begin with a trip to Colorado (after another pillow-soft non-conference schedule of Rutgers, Montana and Fresno State) along with a key stretch that requires a home game with Oregon followed by a trip to Stanford six days later.

For the full schedule, click here.

Washington QB Jake Browning reportedly undergoes surgery on throwing shoulder

PULLMAN, WA - NOVEMBER 25:  Jake Browning #3 of the Washington Huskies looks to pass against the Washington State Cougars in the first half of the 109th Apple Cup at Martin Stadium on November 25, 2016 in Pullman, Washington.  (Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images)
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Washington quarterback Jake Browning has undergone surgery on his throwing shoulder, according to a report from The Seattle Times.

The Times reports Browning injured his right shoulder during a 44-18 win over Arizona State on Nov. 18, though the exact nature of the injury is unknown. Washington kept the injury hidden during the season’s final stretch, as the Huskies claimed the Pac-12 championship and reached the College Football Playoff.

Browning played through the injury, hitting 21-of-29 passes for 292 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions in a 45-17 drubbing of Washington State just six days later. Browning’s performance suffered from there, though. He hit only 9-of-24 passes for 118 yards (with two touchdowns and no picks) in a Pac-12 Championship win over Colorado, then completed 20-of-38 passes for 150 yards with a touchdown and two picks in a 24-7 loss to Alabama.

How much those subpar performances were caused by the injury or by the opponent — or, most likely, a combination of the two — will be left to mystery.

Browning was the nation’s second-most efficient passer in the month of September, No. 3 in October, No. 16 in November and No. 66 in December. He finished the year ranked seventh, hitting 62.1 percent of his tosses for 8.8 yards per attempt with 43 touchdowns against nine interceptions.

Huskies head coach Chris Petersen has a policy of not discussing injuries, but he let on to Brock Huard’s radio show earlier this month that Browning did not finish the season 100 percent.

“I do think he was fighting through some things as the season went on because he’s a tough guy,” Petersen told the show, via The Seattle Times. “We had to do some things. Let me say this: We’ve got some tough kids on our team. Those kids, they fight through some things, and we don’t talk about who’s hurt and all this stuff, but Jake’s a tough kid and I’ll just say that. He fought through some stuff.”

Browning’s recovery time is expected to be six weeks, the paper reports.

Oregon suspends strength coach in wake of player hospitalizations

EUGENE, OR - OCTOBER 6: Close-up of the Oregon Ducks 'Liquid Metal' helmet during the the game between the Oregon Ducks and the Washington Huskies on October 6, 2012 at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Oregon. Oregon won the game 52-21. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
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Three Oregon players were hospitalized after grueling winter workouts conducted by new strength coach Irele Oderinde, and now the school has suspended Oderinde for one month without pay.

The original report from The Oregonian, which the school later confirmed, saw at least one player contract symptoms of rhabdomyolysis, a soft tissue condition triggered by overwork that can lead to kidney damage. Other players showed signs as well, according to the report.

The sources said that some players “passed out” and others later complained of discolored urine, which is a common symptom of rhabdomyolysis. After testing, others were found to have highly elevated levels of creatine kinase, an indicator of the syndrome.

As a result, Oderinde has been suspended and head coach Willie Taggart has issued an apology. Oderinde previously worked for Taggart at South Florida.

“I have visited with the three young men involved in the incidents in the past few days and I have been in constant contact with their families, offering my sincere apologies,” Taggart said in a statement. “As the head football coach, I hold myself responsible for all of our football-related activities and the safety of our students must come first. I have addressed the issue with our strength and conditioning staff, and I fully support the actions taken today by the university.

“I want to thank our medical staff and doctors for caring for all of our young men, and I want to apologize to the university, our students, alumni and fans.

Added AD Rob Mullens: “The university holds the health, safety and well-being of all of our students in high regard. We are confident that these athletes will soon return to full health, and we will continue to support them and their families in their recoveries.”

Additionally, Oderinde will now report to director of performance and sport science Andrew Murray instead of Taggart.