CFT Preseason Top 25: No. 7 South Carolina

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2013 record: 11-2 overall, 6-2 in SEC (2nd in SEC East)
2013 postseason: Capital One Bowl vs. Wisconsin (34-24 win)
2013 final AP/coaches’ ranking: No. 4/No. 4
Head coach: Steve Spurrier (219-79-2 overall; 77-39 in nine years at South Carolina)
Offensive coordinator: Steve Spurrier Jr. (third season as co-coordinator); Shawn Elliott (third season as co-coordinator)
2013 offensive rankings: 32nd rushing offense (198.5 ypg); 40th passing offense (253.8 ypg); 36th total offense (452.3 ypg); 32nd scoring offense (34.1 ppg)
Returning offensive starters: Eight
Defensive coordinator: Lorenzo Ward (third season)
2013 defensive rankings: 50th rushing defense (153.8 ypg); 12th passing defense (196.2 ypg); 19th total defense (350 ypg); 12th scoring defense (20.3 ppg)
Returning defensive starters: Six
Location: Columbia, SC
Stadium: Williams-Brice Stadium (80,250; Grass)
Last conference title: 1969 (ACC)

THE GOOD
Sure, there were a couple of key departures on one of the best defenses in the conference, and the starting quarterback, the winningest of all-time at the school, needs replaced.  That said, this should still be arguably the most talented and deepest squad Spurrier & Company have put on the field since the OBC came to Columbia a decade ago.    Returning are two of the best skill position players in the passing game in the SEC to go along with four starting offensive lineman.  The former will help the new starter under center, while the latter will greatly aid said starter as well as the underrated Mike Davis in the backfield.  The schedule also sets up nicely, with just a pair of what could even remotely be considered formidable road trips: at Auburn and at in-state rival Clemson.  The Gamecocks have owned the ACC Tigers — won five straight — of late, with CU needing to reload at several important positions, so calling that game formidable might be a stretch at this early juncture.

THE BAD
The cornerbacks.  And, actually, that’s way too harsh and not even remotely accurate; the corners aren’t “bad.”  Rather, they’re extremely raw and very inexperienced — only one player at the position has played in a game at the collegiate level.  The good news for the Gamecocks is that they have significant returning experience at both safety positions, which should help as at least two, possibly three, true freshmen will be needed to contribute immediately.  Another negative from the same unit that somewhat relates to the secondary?  USC’s top two pass rushers left for the NFL, meaning any help the young corners could get from a significant pass rush during their transition is somewhat mitigated.  Certainly there’s talent to replace what was lost, but it may take some time..

THE UNKNOWN
With Connor Shaw gone, USC will be breaking in a new first-time full-time starting quarterback.  Dylan Thompson‘s different than a lot of first-time starters, however, as he at least has some experience in that capacity — he’s 3-0 in his career as a starter replacing an injured Shaw and has thrown passes in 20 of the games in which he’s played the past three years.  Still, there’s additional pressure being the everyday, every-down man under center, although Thompson appears to have the kind of poise and personality where the stage won’t even remotely be too big for him.  He won’t have time to ease into that role, either, as USC’s first three games are against Texas A&M, East Carolina (a 10-3 team in 2013) and Georgia.  The good news is that all three of those games are in Columbia, with the first road test coming Sept. 20 against Vanderbilt.

MAKE-OR-BREAK GAME: vs, Georgia, Sept. 13
As I stated in No. 12 Georgia’s preview, and as both Georgia and South Carolina are expected to be the cream of the crop in the SEC East, it would stand to reason that this game, played the third weekend of the season, could prove to be the SEC title game ticket-puncher for the winning side.  While UGA won last year’s game, USC has owned the series of late by winning the previous three by a combined 42 points.  The fact that the game is in Columbia bodes well for the Gamecocks.  Well, that and the fact that, at least on paper, they’ll be the more talented of the two teams.

HEISMAN HOPEFUL: running back Mike Davis
One of the most underrated players in the country at any position, Davis will get the opportunity, especially early on, to carry more of the offensive workload as Thompson establishes his footing as the Gamecocks’ full-time starter for the first time.  While Davis — very quietly — rushed for nearly 1,200 yards last season, his work in the passing game (34-352) is an ofttimes overlooked facet that provides an extra dimension for his offense — and another consideration for voters.  If the Gamecocks can have the type of team success they had in 2013 and Davis can increase his production — especially in high-profile games — then come late November and early December he could very well be in the midst of the discussion.

(Click HERE for the CFT 2014 Preseason Preview Repository)

Middle Tennessee holds on to win the bizarre (and turnover-filled) Camellia Bowl over Arkansas State

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Middle Tennessee State entered the Camellia Bowl 121st in the country in turnover margin and had lost the battle in nine of their 12 games this season. Arkansas State was only a little bit better in the same category, ranking 81st in turnover margin in 2017. Predictably those kinds of statistics came into play on Saturday night in the Camellia Bowl as the two sides played a bit of hot potato — six giveaways — before MTSU hung on for a 35-30 win to cap off the first day of bowl season in college football.

Blue Raiders quarterback Brent Stockstill had a game that could have been a nightmare for a veteran quarterback but ended up being alright thanks to his defense continually picking him on a night where chunk plays were hard to come by. The signal-caller threw the first of his three interceptions on the night on the first drive of the game but bounced back over the final three quarters, throwing for 232 yards and a pair of touchdown passes. That kind of performance, which included several big throws in the second half, helped secure the first bowl victory of his career and give him the rare distinction of being able to win a postseason game with his father Rick as head coach.

It wasn’t all about the Stockstill combo for MTSU however as their run game produced a pair of touchdowns behind tailbacks Terelle West and Tavares Thomas, and the team’s defense had one of their best outings of the season to limit the Sun Belt’s highest scoring offense to well below all their season averages. Linebacker Darius Harris led the way when his unit was on the field, flying from sideline-to-sideline and racking up 12 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and a two pass break ups. His running mate at linebacker, D.J. Sanders, was equally productive with seven tackles and a 54 yard fumble return for a touchdown just before halftime.

The Red Wolves did what they could to threaten to make things interesting down the stretch but never could get over the hill. The team ran a fake punt to open fourth quarter, resulting in a 21 yard strike from the punter to gunner Chris Murray along the sidelines and appeared to seize momentum after a subsequent  touchdown to Warren Wand. However the defense failed to get a stop and then Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year Justice Hansen (337 yards, 3TD, 1 INT) threw a fourth down pass out of the end zone to all but seal a rather lackluster loss for a team that had won six of the last eight coming into the bowl.

Arkansas State also came up a bit short in the record books on the defensive side of the ball as well. In addition to allowing 35 points to MTSU, conference player of the year Ja’Von Rolland-Jones failed to record a sack and thus couldn’t break the NCAA career record (held by former Arizona State and current Baltimore Ravens star Terrell Suggs) of 44 career sacks after entering the game just shy of the mark with 43.5. While the pass rusher did manage to sack Stockstill in the game, the play was negated by a penalty to keep him from taking over on the all-time list.

The victory pushed Middle Tennessee over the .500 mark for the fifth time in six seasons and likely meant a little bit more to the program given how many key injuries the team suffered over the course of 2017 before capturing their first bowl win in eight years. Arkansas State did their best to prevent that from happening as they dropped to 7-5 on the season after a rather bizarre Camellia Bowl that had a little bit of everything.

Defense comes up big to help Middle Tennessee grab Camellia Bowl lead at halftime over Arkansas State

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Middle Tennessee State started off the Camellia Bowl on Saturday night in about the worst way possible with a pair of first quarter interceptions but leaned heavily on their stout defense to manage their way to a 21-10 lead over Arkansas State at halftime in a somewhat low-scoring affair few could have seen coming between these high-scoring offenses.

Blue Raiders quarterback Brent Stockstill tossed an interception on the team’s opening drive of the game but managed to bounce back and throw for  80 yards and a touchdown after another slow start for the veteran signal-caller. Luckily the team’s defense pitched a goal line stand after his first pick and proved to be similarly stout after his second to keep the team in things after such a rough start against the Sun Belt power.

Mistakes proved to be costly for the Red Wolves throughout the night on both sides of the ball as a roughing the punter ruined a potential stop early and led to MTSU tailback Terelle West running right off his left guard for a 45 yard touchdown and a quick lead for the Conference USA squad who wasn’t doing much to move the ball outside of that big play.

The wildest sequence of the bowl season (so far) happened in the closing minutes of the first quarter however, leaving fans, officials and coaches all confused at what exactly just happened. Stockstill appeared to find a receiver over the middle and on the door step of the end zone but ASU’s Justin Clifton had other ideas — stripping the ball and appearing to run it back (with help) for a touchdown. The call went through a lengthy review process that wound up giving Clifton an interception and his offense the ball back at their 18 yard line instead but they ended up punting it away for 61 yards to cap off a truly bizarre few minutes.

Arkansas State quarterback Justice Hansen had some decent numbers (151 yards passing, one rushing TD) but things just weren’t clicking for what had been the Sun Belt’s most prolific offense during the regular season. The signal-caller fumbled shortly before halftime, which allowed D.J. Sanders to rumble 54 yards with a fumble recovery touchdown that extended MTSU’s lead. The Red Wolves did manage to mount a scoring drive on the next possession to get right back in the game but they’ll need to show more down the stretch if they want to reach the eight win mark for the sixth time in seven seasons.

It’s had a few strange moments but the conclusion to the first Saturday of the bowl season is shaping up rather nicely down in Montgomery, Alabama. However both sides in this one will be sure to focus on correcting a bunch of mistakes after that somewhat whacky first half.

Marshall pushes bowl winning streak to six in escaping with win over Colorado State in New Mexico Bowl

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The Streak lives.  Barely.

Marshall (8-5) came into Saturday’s Gildan New Mexico Bowl having won five straight bowl games.  Exiting Albuquerque, Marshall will head back to Huntington armed with a six-game postseason winning streak as they escaped with a 31-28 win over Colorado State (7-6).

The first half was all about the passing of quarterback Chase Litton.  The second half was all about the running game — with a little Litton sprinkled in as well.

Up 21-14 at halftime, Tyler King outran the CSU defense to score on a 90-yard touchdown run very early in the third quarter to give MU a 28-14 lead that had the feeling of putting the game out of reach.  King finished the win with 106 yards rushing, one of two Thundering Herd running backs to top the 100-yard mark as Keion Davis chipped in with a team-high 141 yards.  Davis himself scored on a 68-yard touchdown in the second quarter to give the Herd its halftime lead.

After throwing for 177 in the first half, Litton finished with 262 through the air.  Tyre Brady, who caught six passes for 165 yards and a touchdown, was named the Player of the Game.

Entering the fourth quarter, MU held what walked, talked and looked like an extremely comfortable 31-14 lead.  CSU, however, cut the lead to 31-28 midway through the quarter on a pair of Nick Stevens touchdowns (one passing, one rushing).  Getting the ball back with just over six minutes remaining and pinned back on their own 16-yard line, the Rams, who caught a break when a fumble recovered by the Herd was negated by defensive holding, couldn’t reach midfield on their last drive as their hopes for a come-from-behind win were extinguished after turning the ball over on downs.

(That Michael Gallup catch to briefly extend that last drive, though.  Wow.)

While Marshall extended its winning streak — Doc Holliday is 5-0 as head coach — Colorado State extended a skein in the opposite direction as the Rams have now lost four bowl games in a row.

FCS title game set: defending champ James Madison vs. five-time champ North Dakota State

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If everyone is being honest with themselves, and aside from the opposing fans, this is the matchup we were all looking for.

Friday night, No. 2 North Dakota State (13-1) routed No. 6 Sam Houston State (12-2) 55-13 to claim one spot in the 2017 FCS championship game.  One day later, top seed James Madison (14-0) easily took care of business against No. 5 South Dakota State (11-3), claiming the other spot with a methodical 51-16 semifinal woodshedding.

The top two seeds in this years tournament will now square off Jan. 6 in Frisco, Tex., for the 2017 FCS championship.

James Madison is the reigning national champion, claiming the school’s second-ever title with a 28-14 win over Youngstown State last season.  North Dakota State, meanwhile, will be looking to get back to the trophy mountaintop after they won a record five straight championships from 2011-15.

The Bison will likely be shorthanded for that contest, however, as their two starting cornerbacks — Jalen Allison and Jaylaan Wimbush — suffered knee injuries in the semifinal win while their second-leading rusher, Ty Brooks, suffered a shoulder injury.  Despite the game being nearly three weeks away, all three are expected to be sidelined for the contest.