CFT Preseason Top 25: No. 6 UCLA

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2013 record: 10-3 overall, 6-3 in Pac-12 Conference (2nd in South division)
2013 postseason: Sun Bowl vs. Virginia Tech (42-12 win)
2013 final AP/coaches’ ranking: No. 16/No. 16
Head coach: Jim Mora (19-8 overall; 19-8 in three years at UCLA)
Offensive coordinator: Noel Mazzone (3rd year at UCLA)
2013 offensive rankings: 35th rushing offense (196.6 ypg); 43rd passing offense (251.8 ypg); 38th total offense (448.5 ypg); 2oth scoring offense (36.9 ppg)
Returning offensive starters: nine
Defensive coordinator: Jeff Ulbrich (3rd year at UCLA)
2013 defensive rankings: 71st rushing defense (169.5 ypg); 40th passing defense (217.6 ypg);  54th total defense (387.1 ypg); 35th scoring defense (23.2 ppg)
Returning defensive starters: eight
Location: Los Angeles
Stadium: Rose Bowl (92,542; grass)
Last conference title: 1998

THE GOOD
The talent on UCLA’s roster makes the Bruins contenders in the Pac-12 Conference. The play of quarterback Brett Hundley can place the team in national title contention. Hundley is among the Top 3 quarterbacks in college football along with Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and Florida State’s Jameis Winston. Like Mariota, Hundley would have a first-round pick in May’s NFL draft if he decided to declare early. But he decided to stay in Westwood. The Bruins will gladly continue to build around their talented quarterback. Hundley is an impressive athlete at 6-3 and 226 pounds. Last season. Hundley threw for 3,071 yards and 24 touchdowns. He also led the team with 748 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns. One of the reasons Hundley returned to UCLA for his redshirt junior campaign is to become a better overall quarterback. Hundley did improve his decision making through the final six games of last season. He only threw one of his nine interceptions after Oct. 26. As Hundley continues to develop his overall game, the Bruins will be the biggest beneficiary. And top-notch quarterback play is a key ingredient for any program ready to make the jump from being good to great.

THE BAD
UCLA head coach Jim Mora is a defensive coach by nature. It had to drive him crazy to see the Bruins play as poorly on defense as they did last seson. The Bruins actually finished fifth overall in the Pac-12 in total defense, but that is more an indictment of the overall defensive play around the league. The country’s 71st overall rushing defense simply isn’t good enough. UCLA wants to be able to compete with any team in the country. And it has to be better on defense. The team relied heavily on two talented freshmen, Eddie Vanderdoes and Kenny Clark, along the defensive line last season. Both should naturally improve during their sophomore campaigns. While the team’s starting front is talented, the depth is questionable beyond Ellis McCarthy. Players such as junior Kevin McReynolds, need to provide quality reps as part of the team’s defensive line rotation for them to improve significantly against the run. Isaako Savaiinaea will also be inserted into the starting lineup to replace Jordan Zumwalt at inside linebacker. UCLA knows what to expect of senior linebacker Eric Kendricks, but Savaiinaea’s play could prove to be the difference in the Bruins’ defense as a whole. The Bruins’ progression on the defensive side of the football should be the primary indicator how far the team can go this season.

THE UNKNOWN
UCLA’s offense line was in constant flux in 2013. The team used four different offensive line combinations throughout the season. The team actually changed its starting lineup in six of its last seven games. A lack of continuity up front will have a drastic effect throughout the rest of the offense. While this shouldn’t be a concern which lingers between seasons, the Bruins have already started off on the wrong foot with at least one significant injury along this year’s offensive line. Left tackle Simon Goines will miss at least the first two games of the season after he had bone spurs removed in his ankle Aug. 9. Malcolm Bunche, a Miami transfer, has 13 career starts at left tackle, and he is expected to slide into the spot vacated by Goines. Once Goines returns, the coaching staff will have shuffle the starting lineup. How many times will they have to do so this season? Will Bunche slide inside to guard once Goines is healthy or he remain on the blindside? The fact of the matter is UCLA won’t have their top offensive line on the field until week three of the season with very little practice time as an entire unit. Goines is expected to return just in time for one of the Bruins’ biggest games of the season against Texas. However, he won’t have much time to build a rapport with the rest of the unit. The only ones who will suffer if the offensive can’t gel quickly are Hundley and the rest of UCLA’s skill positions.

MAKE-OR-BREAK GAME: vs. Stanford
It’s been six years since UCLA defeated Stanford. To put that time frame into context, the 2008 season was Rick Neuheisel’s first at UCLA. It was Jim Harbaugh‘s second with the Cardinal. Stanford has gone on to become one of the most successful and intimidating teams in the Pac-12 Conference. The Bruins, meanwhile, have searched for an identity and found one under Mora. This game will be Mora’s opportunity to truly put his stamp on the program. It’s the last game of the regular season. Both UCLA and Stanford are expected to be battling for an appearance in the Pac-12 championship game. Since the game falls on a Friday, both teams will have short practice weeks. The Bruins want to prove they’re among the Pac-12’s elite and a potential national championship contender. Stanford is as tough a team as the Bruins will face all season.

HEISMAN HOPEFUL: linebacker/running back Myles Jack
Hundley is the obvious choice here. There is, however, a natural curiosity that will draw college football fans and Heisman voters to Jack. On one hand, Jack is one of the best young linebackers in college football. On the other, he is a dynamic runner when the Bruins decide to hand him the football. Last season, Jack was third on the Bruins’ defense with 49 tackles. He also added seven tackles for loss and 13 deflected passes while dropping in coverage. On offense, Jack led the team with an average of 7.0 yards per carry. He only ran the ball 38 times, yet he was second on the team with seven rushing touchdowns. And Jack accomplished these numbers as a true freshman. The “runningbacker” simply brings a completely different dynamic to both sides of the football. He’ll be expected to make the big play on defense in crucial parts of the game. And the team clearly favors him when they’re around the goal line on offense. The novelty of Jack playing both ways will draw interest from fans around the country. It’s his talent and ability to play at a high level on both sides of the football that will make him a legitimate Heisman contender.

(Click HERE for the CFT 2014 Preseason Preview Repository)

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey still not a fan of early signing period

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The SEC will gather in Destin, Florida this week for the annual spring meetings. This will be the first time the conference has come together since the adoption of an early signing period in college football, which is something that has not been well-received by some in the SEC. Among the dissenters in the early signing period conversation has been SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, who says he is still no fan of the new recruiting calendar.

I still don’t think that’s best,” Sankey said in an interview with the Associated Press last week.

“I think the early signing date has an impact on high school football,” Sankey said. “I think moving the recruiting calendar has an impact on high school football. I think we all have to be concerned about football and its strength and health at every level. Whether it’s a minority voice or a singular voice, I think those are important issues to consider.”

The stance by some around the SEC against the idea of the early signing period is notably different compared to just a few years ago. At the spring meetings in 2014, the SEC football coaches voted unanimously in favor of an early signing period starting on the Monday after Thanksgiving. Former SEC commissioner Mike Slive, however, expressed his preference to keep the only signing day in February.

As far as the voice coming from the commissioner’s office in the SEC is concerned, the narrative has not changed following the changing of the guard.

College football world will watch as SEC reviews graduate transfer rules at spring meetings

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Among a handful of items on the agenda for this week’s SEC spring meetings will be a review and discussion about the league’s graduate transfer rules. Specifically, the SEC is expected to address the current restrictions on accepting players as graduate transfers if a previous graduate transfer fails to meet that school’s academic requirements.

“This will be the first meaningful conversation that we’ve had since the proliferation of graduate transfers has happened nationally,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said to the Associated Press. ”I expect our membership to have a pretty meaningful conversation about the right perspective on graduate transfers entering the SEC from outside and then the topic of inter-conference transfers.”

Sankey has promised the topic of graduate transfer rules will be reviewed at the SEC spring meetings, and it will be a bit overdue. Better later than never, right?

Like the early signing period, this is a topic the SEC has found themselves standing in the minority crowd. The SEC has had a complicated relationship to graduate transfers since the NCAA opened the door for graduate transfers in 2006. The conference banned all graduate transfers in 2011 after Ole Miss had added former Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli as a graduate transfer. The Masoli transfer was one scrutinized by the NCAA and critics before officially being cleared following an appeal. In 2014, the ban was lifted, but with provisions in place to ensure SEC schools were not adding graduate transfers with no intention of pursuing a graduate degree.

One person who may be watching this development this week with great interest is likely former Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire. Zaire is suspected to be down to deciding whether to transfer to Florida or Texas, and he has already pushed back his decision seemingly to wait and see if the Gators will be an actual option. For that to happen, the SEC will have to amend its graduate transfer policy or allow Florida an exemption.

Florida is unable to add a graduate transfer like Zaire because two previous graduate transfers (former Georgia Tech linebacker Anthony Harrell and former Fordham offensive lineman Mason Halter) failed to meet the academic requirements after transferring to Florida. That put Florida on a three-year ban from adding any graduate transfers through 2018.

But if the SEC is the one lagging behind the competition when it comes to its graduate transfer policies, why would the college football world be watching? That’s easy. If the sEC amends its graduate transfer policies, then makes the conference that already typically dominates in talent acquisition through recruiting has a chance to become even stronger and more desirable. Graduate transfers who may be blocked from enrolling at an SEC school and have been forced to evaluate other options in the Big 12 or Big Ten and so on, could have a chance to transfer to the SEC. For example, Florida could add Zaire to their roster, which leaves Texas hoping Tom Herman really works his QB magic in Austin.

There is a ripple effect that could potentially play out, even in a conference that is in need of catching up in this particular issue. That’s how important the decisions made in the SEC could be for the entire sport.

Brandon Jacobs says he will ‘expose’ Jim Harbaugh, get him fired

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We’re knee-deep — or higher — into the college football offseason, so of course we have a Twitter beef to bide our time until real football begins again.

Brandon Jacobs was a running back who played his college football at FCS Southern Illinois and went on to spend nine mostly productive years at the NFL level, including one season with the San Francisco 49ers.  That one season in the Bay Area wasn’t remembered fondly by Jacobs, though, who used a radio interview this past week to (again) absolutely rip into his head football coach at the time — current Michigan head football coach Jim Harbaugh.

“I had a lot of respect for Jim when I was there, before I got to know him,” a transcription from mlive.com began.

“Let’s be real. They had great assistant coaches, but Jim didn’t know what he was doing. Jim had no idea. … That guy knew nothing, man.”

Not being one to shy away from such a damning public evisceration, Harbaugh got Twitter Biblical in addressing his former player’s public admonition…

… with his former player responding by threatening to expose Harbaugh in such a manner that it will end in his dismissal…

The fact that Jacobs isn’t exactly a fan of Harbaugh doesn’t come as a huge surprise, with the player referring to his former coach as a “bitch” multiple times, as well as a loser, during a radio interview more than three years ago.

He is a bitch, and that’s why he’s never won anything,” Jacobs said. “It is what it is. I’ve got two rings. Harbaugh, though, he’s a bitch. So it doesn’t matter.”

In exactly 97 days, Michigan will open the 2017 college football season against Florida. Whether the Wolverines open the season with Harbaugh at the helm will apparently depend on how much exposing from five years ago Jacobs plans on doing.  Or Jacobs’ lingering and ongoing bitterness won’t make a spit bit of difference.  One of the two.

Report: Big 12 still raking in SEC-level cash

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It’s a bad time for the Big 12. The conference isn’t signing blue chip prospects at the rate of its peers, isn’t producing draft picks at the rate of its peers and isn’t reaching and winning big games at the rate of its peers.

But the Big 12 is still getting paid at the rate of its peers.

The league’s contracts with ESPN and FOX combined with its 10-team set up have allowed the Big 12 to keep pace with the SEC and Big Ten and remain ahead of the ACC and Pac-12 in financial distribution. The Dallas Morning News‘s Big 12 writer Chuck Carlton tweeted on Friday the league’s per-school distribution will again grow 10 percent to more than $33 million in 2017-18.

The SEC distributed just north of $40 million in 2016-17, while the Big Ten was at $33 million by 2014-15.

However, since the Big 12 does not have its own television network, its conference distributions do not include third-tier rights, which its schools keep and sell on their own — like the Longhorn Network. So schools like Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas are likely getting paid equal or above their SEC and Big Ten peers.

Now if only they could start recruiting and winning like them, too.