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)

No. 3 Clemson punches playoff ticket with ACC championship win over Virginia Tech

ORLANDO, FL - DECEMBER 03:  The Clemson Tigers take the field during the ACC Championship against the Virginia Tech Hokies on December 3, 2016 in Orlando, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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For the second straight season, Clemson can say they punched their ticket to the College Football Playoff with yet another close ACC championship game victory.

The third-ranked Tigers jumped out to a big lead, led throughout and ultimately prevailed over Virginia Tech in a 42-35 win that was a tad closer than the final score indicated.

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson continued his stellar play down the stretch this season, throwing for 288 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. The signal-caller added another two scores on the ground to go with his team-high 85 yards rushing as well on a night where he made some clutch throws down the stretch to keep the team in front of a stingy Bud Foster defense.

Tailback Wayne Gallman also found the end zone in Orlando but was still relatively limited with just 59 yards on 17 carries.

The Hokies did make sure Clemson sweated out things by threatening in the second and third quarters. Quarterback Jerod Evans threw for 264 yards and a touchdown but couldn’t get any help from Virginia Tech’s normally reliable ground game and threw an interception with 71 seconds left to end a comeback. Evans also led the team in rushing and scored twice while running back Travon McMillian did the same but managed to do so on only 37 yards rushing.

With a second straight ACC title in the bag for Dabo Swinney and company, the only question left for Clemson is where will they stand on Sunday afternoon and what semifinal site they will head to. Alabama appears locked into the No. 1 seed in the Peach Bowl but could the close result against Virginia Tech — combined with Washington’s emphatic win in the Pac-12 title game — force a national title game rematch in Atlanta?

That’s probably not on the minds of the Tigers on Saturday night as they rightfully celebrate yet another league championship and look like a dangerous team to face at the end of the month.

No. 7 Penn State completes comeback for the ages to claim B1G title

Penn State's Saquon Barkley (26) makes an 18-yard touchdown catch against Wisconsin's T.J. Watt (42) during the second half of the Big Ten championship NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)
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On Sept. 24, Penn State was 2-2 on the season, 0-1 in Big Ten play after a 49-10 undressing by Michigan in Ann Arbor. Their Big Ten title hopes were left for dead. As we know, they managed to rally and win the Big Ten East.

And then, with 5:15 left in the second quarter, the Nittany Lions trailed 28-7 and their chances of actually winning the game were again left for dead.

But the Cardiac Cats rallied. Again. The seventh-ranked Lions closed the game on a 31-3 run to race past No. 6 Wisconsin for a 38-31 Big Ten Championship victory.

Of course, this win means much more than that. At 11-2 on the season, winners of nine in a row and winners of college football’s best conference, the question now becomes whether the College Football Playoff selection committee chooses the Lions over 11-1 Ohio State or Pac-12 champion Washington on Sunday.

But first, the comeback.

Penn State simply could not get out of its own way — or get Wisconsin out of its way… or get in Wisconsin’s way, for that matter — over the game’s first 25 minutes. The Badgers opened by forcing two three-and-outs and launching two long touchdown drives to grab a 14-0 lead a dozen minutes into the game. After a McSorley touchdown pass put Penn State on the board, the Nittany Lions allowed an errant snap to be returned for a touchdown early in the second quarter.

James Franklin elected to go for a fourth-and-short in his own territory on the ensuing possession and was rebuffed. Wisconsin again capitalized on the mistake to grab a 28-7 lead with 5:15 remaining in the first half. Penn State again failed on a fourth-and-short near midfield on the next possession, but this time the Badgers failed to cash in. And that proved costly.

Because that failure to land the death blow allowed Penn State’s Cardiac Cats persona to awaken.

The Lions’ comeback started when McSorley hit Saeed Blacknall for a 40-yard touchdown catch with 58 seconds left in the half to pull within  a more manageable 28-14 deficit at the break.

After Wisconsin missed a field goal to open the second half, McSorley answered by finding Blacknall for a 70-yard scoring strike on the very next play. Then Penn State tied the game on its next touch as Saquon Barkley punched in a 1-yard score at the 4:22 mark of the third quarter.

Wisconsin re-gained the lead with a 23-yard Andrew Endicott chip shot, but only after Bart Houston missed what would have been a walk-in touchdown to tight end Troy Fumagalli on 2nd-and-8 from the 10-yard line.

Given the opportunity to take the lead, Penn State took full advantage, marching 81 yards in only four plays as Barkley hauled in an 18-yard wheel route from McSorley.

McSorley finished the game hitting 22-of-31 passes for 384 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions — against a defense that came in allowing eight touchdowns while swiping 21 interceptions. Compared to Houston’s numbers — 16-of-21 for 174 yards — quarterback play proved to be the difference in the game. McSorley’s play allowed Penn State to win a game in which it was out-rushed 241-51.

Wisconsin punted on its next touch, and Penn State missed its chance to deliver a knockout punch, instead settling for a 24-yard Tyler Davis field goal with 5:14 to play in the game.

Wisconsin would need a touchdown to force overtime, while Penn State would need a stop to complete its 21-point comeback. The Badgers moved to the Penn State 24, but, facing a 4th-and-1, Corey Clement was stuffed for no gain.

Penn State expired the final 58 seconds and secured the largest comeback ever in a Power 5 conference championship game.

Arkansas State, Appalachian State end up as SBC co-champs

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Two of the 10 FBS conferences don’t have championship games to determine a league champion.  The Big 12, which will go to a title game format next season, crowned an undisputed champion earlier today.  The other game-less league, on the other hand, will have more than one official champ.

Arkansas State had the opportunity to potentially win the Sun Belt Conference outright, but lost in Week 13 to drop to 6-1 in conference play.  Appalachian State won the same weekend to finish the season at 7-1 and claim at least a share of league title.

ASU and Troy, both 6-1 entering Week 14, needed a win to claim its share.

Troy failed miserably, falling 28-24 on the road to a Georgia Southern team that entered the game 4-7 overall and 3-4 in the SBC.  ASU, though, passed its final regular season test, putting 20 fourth-quarter points on the scoreboard in getting past Texas State in a 36-14 win in San Marcos.

The Red Wolves have now won five SBC titles the past six years, with three of those (2011, 2012, 2015) being undisputed.  They’re also the first team since Troy was in the midst of a five-year run from 2006-10 to win back-to-back championships.

As for App State, this is the Mountaineers’ first FBS league championship since moving to the SBC from the FCS for the 2014 season.

The three teams at the top of the SBC will play in some combination of the New Orleans/Dollar General/Camellia Bowls.  Arkansas State will be playing in its sixth straight bowl game, while Appalachian State will be in its second in a row in just its third season at this level.  Troy, meanwhile, will be making its first postseason appearance since winning the New Orleans Bowl in 2010.

San Diego State runs past Wyoming for second straight Mountain West title

San Diego State's Donnel Humphrey runs for a touchdown during the first half against Wyoming in an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016, in Laramie, Wyo. (AP Photo/Michael Smith)
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They say revenge is a dish best served cold. San Diego State checked off both boxes on Saturday night.

The Aztecs captured their second straight Mountain West championship and avenged an earlier loss with a 27-24 win over Wyoming in freezing conditions up in Laramie.

The San Diego State ground game was clicking all night long in a game where it was difficult to get much of anything through the air. Star tailback Donnel Pumphrey finished with 110 yards and a touchdown, passing former Texas great Ricky Williams to become the second leading rusher in FBS history late in the third quarter. The senior trails only Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne by 108 yards on the all-time list with a chance to top his mark later this month in what will likely be a berth in the Las Vegas Bowl.

Pumphrey’s backup Rashaad Penny wasn’t too shabby either, picking up a team-high 117 yards on the ground and finding the end zone twice. It was a good thing both players were humming in the backfield as quarterback Christian Chapman managed only 85 yards on six completions.

The SDSU defense also came to play in one of their best performances in a while. They picked off Wyoming’s Josh Allen twice, recovered a fumble late in the second half and bottled up the prolific runner Brian Hill to the tune of just 93 yards.

The Cowboys made a run to close the gap to just a field goal in the fourth quarter but couldn’t quite get over the hump for their second win in as many weeks over the Aztecs for a first ever Mountain West title.

Instead it was Rocky Long’s San Diego State squad that could lay claim to being the best in the conference this season for the second year in a row.