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)

Mark Dantonio ‘disappointed’ watching Connor Cook’s draft free fall

EAST LANSING, MI - NOVEMBER 14: Head coach Mark Dantonio and Connor Cook #18 of the Michigan State Spartans look on during the game against the Maryland Terrapins at Spartan Stadium on November 14, 2015 in East Lansing, Michigan. Michigan State defeated Maryland 24-7. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Every year a player falls unexpectedly in the draft, and this year’s poster boy, aside from Laremy Tunsil‘s gas mask bong and Confederate flag imbroglio, on that front was Connor Cook.

The former Michigan State quarterback was thought by some to have a chance at landing toward the end of the first round, with most seeing him scooped up before the end of the second round. Instead, Cook watched as 99 other players, including six fellow quarterbacks, were selected before hearing his name called by the Oakland Raiders in the fourth round.

It was a mighty tumble for a prospect whose biggest flaw, according to draftniks, was leadership — he famously wasn’t elected as a captain of the Spartans in the preseason, which some considered quite revealing, and damning, for a three-year starter at quarterback.

As hard as it was on Cook, it was just as hard on his former head coach. After watching Cook lead his Spartans to a 34-5 record as a starter the last three years, Mark Dantonio found it difficult to digest his former player’s free fall.

“I was probably living through the entire thing, as well, watched the entire draft,” Dantonio said by way of mlive.com. “I was disappointed. I think that Connor is an excellent football player. He’s done a tremendous job for us here and for his football team, and a lot of that success that we’ve had can be credited to his play and his leadership on our football team. …

“I think it did wear on him as time went on, but he tried to continue to stay above it. I remember when Kirk Cousins was drafted and he was really disappointed in the fact that he had gone in the fourth round and they had drafted a guy in the second round and the first round, and what did that do for his future.”

Speaking of Cousins, the Washington Redskins quarterback who supplanted former Heisman winner Robert Griffin III as the starter, he offered up some encouragement to his fellow Spartan.

Four Auburn Tigers arrested for pot possession

AUBURN, AL - NOVEMBER 28:  Richard Mullaney #16 of the Alabama Crimson Tide fails to pull in this reception against Carlton Davis #18 of the Auburn Tigers at Jordan Hare Stadium on November 28, 2015 in Auburn, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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With another weekend in the books, it’s time to, once again, reset ye olde arrest ticker.

The latest football program to send the tracker back to double zeroes is Auburn, with the Opelika-Auburn News reporting that four Tigers football players, defensive end Byron Cowart, defensive back Carlton Davis, wide receiver Ryan Davis and defensive back Jeremiah Dinson, were arrested by the Auburn police department late Saturday night.  According to the News, all four were arrested on a single charge each of second-degree possession of marijuana.

The papers write that “[s]econd degree marijuana possession is listed under Alabama Code – Section 13A-12-214 as a person who commits the crime if said person possesses marijuana for personal use only.”

Head coach Gus Malzahn told the News that he is “aware of the situation and we will handle this matter appropriately.”

The defensive back Davis is the most noteworthy of the pot-smoking foursome.  As a true freshman in 2015, he started at corner for the Tigers and led all SEC freshmen with three interceptions.  He was named to the SEC All-Freshman team at the end of the season.

Cowart, a five-star 2015 signee, played in all 13 games as a true freshman, while Dinson played in nine games in his first season with the Tigers.  The receiver Davis, also a true freshman, didn’t have a reception in 2015 but ran the ball twice for 20 yards.  Davis’ first college carry went for 28 yards.

ESPN tabs seven Big Ten games for primetime kickoffs

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - FEBRUARY 05:  A view of the logo during ESPN The Party on February 5, 2016 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for ESPN)
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Mark your calendars, because these are only five months away! (/sobs)

ESPN on Monday announced seven Big Ten games that’ll kick off in primetime, either on ABC, ESPN or ESPN2, this upcoming season. Not surprisingly, six of the seven feature either Ohio State or Michigan. The list:

Oct. 8: Michigan at Rutgers (7 p.m. or 8 p.m. ET)
Oct. 15: Ohio State at Wisconsin (8 p.m. ET)
Oct. 22: Ohio State at Penn State (8 p.m. ET)
Oct. 29: Northwestern at Ohio State (5:30 p.m. ET)
Oct. 29: Nebraska at Wisconsin (7 p.m. ET)
Nov. 5: Nebraska at Ohio State (8 p.m. ET)
Nov. 12: Michigan at Iowa (7 p.m. or 8 p.m. ET)

Noticeably absent from this list is Michigan State, though the Big Ten has a deal with Fox, too, meaning the Spartans will almost certainly play in primetime at some point this season. Plus, Ohio State and Michigan equal ratings, no matter how good either team is (and both are expected to be pretty good this season, of course).

 

ECU transfer QB Kurt Benkert moves on to Virginia

In this photo taken Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2015 East Carolina quarterback Kurt Benkert rolls out to pass during NCAA college football practice in Greenville, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
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On April 25, East Carolina announced that Kurt Benkert had decided to transfer out of the Pirates football program.  Less than a week later, the quarterback has found himself a new football home.

On Twitter Sunday afternoon, Benkert confirmed that he will be enrolling at Virginia and continuing his collegiate playing career with the Cavaliers.  Beckert also acknowledged his decision in a text message to 247Sports.com.

“I’m really excited to be here,” Beckert said in a portion of the brief text.

As Beckert is headed to UVa. as a graduate transfer, he will be eligible to play for the Hoos immediately in 2016.  Not only that, but he will have two years of eligibility remaining.

Beckert was named the Pirates’ starter in early August of 2015, but sustained a right knee injury a couple of weeks later that knocked him out for the entire season.  In Charlottesville, Beckert will join a competition that includes returning starter Matt Johns and Texas/Arizona transfer Connor Brewer.