Allstate Sugar Bowl - Oklahoma v Alabama

CFT Preseason Top 25: No. 5 Oklahoma

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2013 record: 11-2 overall, 7-2 in Big 12 Conference (tied 2nd in conference)
2013 postseason: Sugar Bowl vs. Alabama (45-31 win)
2013 final AP/coaches’ ranking: No. 6/No. 6
Head coach: Bob Stoops (160-39 overall; 160-39 in 15 years at Oklahoma)
Co-offensive coordinators: Josh Heupel (9th year at Oklahoma) and Jay Norvell (6th year)
2013 offensive rankings: 18th rushing offense (223.9 ypg); 90th passing offense (199.1 ypg); 52nd total offense (423 ypg); 40th scoring offense (32.8 ppg)
Returning offensive starters: five
Defensive coordinator: Mike Stoops (eight years at Oklahoma)
2013 defensive rankings: 25th rushing defense (137.6 ypg); 30th passing defense (212.5 ypg);  20th total defense (350.2 ypg); 22nd scoring defense (22.1 ppg)
Returning defensive starters: nine
Location: Norman, Oklahoma
Stadium: Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium (82,112; grass)
Last conference title: 2012 (co-champions with Kansas State)

THE GOOD
The Sooners lay claim to the best defense in the Big 12 conference. The unit finished 20th overall in total defense last season, which is an impressive feat considering the wide-open offenses seen during conference play. The defense is led by outside linebacker Eric Striker. Striker is one of the most intimidating defenders in the country. Not only is the linebacker one of the most explosive edge rushers in college football, but the Sooners move him around throughout the game to keep offenses on their heels. It’s nearly impossible for an offense to key on a specific defender and set their blocking schemes if they don’t know where he’s going to be lined up on a down-by-down basis. The team’s linebackers as a whole are very talented. Leading tackler Frank Shannon won’t play this season due to suspension, but senior Geneo Grissom showed how dangerous he can be opposite Striker with 2.5 sacks against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. And inside linebacker Dominique Alexander was named the 2013 Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year. Both starting cornerbacks return as does strong safety Quentin Hayes. The defense will also get a boost when the massive (6-6, 334) Jordan Phillips returns to the lineup as the starting nose tackle after missing the final 10 weeks of the season due to a back injury. The Sooners defense is talented, aggressive and experienced. Even if Oklahoma’s offense struggles during stretches, the defense is good enough to win games for them this season.

THE BAD
If the Sooners are going to be earn a spot in the first College Football Playoff, the team absolutely has to be more consistent at the quarterback position. Expectations are sky high for Trevor Knight (see: below) after his surprising and dominant performance against the Alabama Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl. Knight has to prove it wasn’t an one-game aberration. The most damning evidence against Oklahoma’s quarterbacks last year was finishing ninth (out of 10 teams) in the Big 12 in passing offense. The ability to stretch the field vertically opens up the rest of the offense, but Oklahoma was never able to do so last year until the bowl game. And for a quarterback to be able to open up the offense, he has to have reliable receivers. Junior wide receiver Sterling Shephard will have to develop into a No. 1 target after finishing second on the team last season with 51 receptions for 603 yards. The Sooners’ other projected starters at wide receiver, Durron Neal and Derrick Woods, combined to make 15 receptions for 205 yards. Consistency at quarterback and wide receiver will be the primary indicator of how successful the Sooners are in 2014.

THE UNKNOWN
The University of Oklahoma suspended two of the team’s most talented players in Shannon and running back Joe Mixon prior to the start of the season for the entirety of 2014 campaign. Plus, the team hoped Missouri transfer Dorial Green-Beckham would be eligible to play this season. The NCAA denied Green-Beckam’s transfer waiver, and the wide receiver will have to wait until next year to make a mark with the Sooners…if he does at all. These are three very talented players that would have contributed plenty to the Sooners this season. Shannon was the team’s leading tackler in 2013. Sophomore Jordan Evans, who played in eight games last season as a true freshman, will take over for Shannon. The Sooners’ passing game will have to rely heavily on Shepard due to the lack of experience with the rest of the team’s wide receivers. Keith Ford and Alex Ross will split reps without the explosive Mixon being a part of the running back stable. Of the three, the junior linebacker’s suspension could prove to be the most problematic this season, while the team will simply have to wait another year to receive contributions from Mixon and Green-Beckham.

MAKE-OR-BREAK GAME: vs. Tennessee
The scheduling within the Big 12 Conference is so underwhelming an one-loss Sooners’ squad might be the team on the outside looking in during the inaugural College Football Player. It’s quite possible Oklahoma will slip up at least once during Big 12 play. The reason the Tennessee game is so important is due to it being the team’s only non-conference game against a Power Five opponent. The Volunteers may have been 5-7 last season, but their affiliation with the SEC holds plenty of water. The game will be a test to see how Oklahoma stacks up against the best conference in college football. A resounding victory by Oklahoma will show the Sooners are superior to the SEC’s middle class. And it will leave a positive impression in the playoff committee’s collective mind as the Sooners attempt to navigate their treacherous conference schedule.

HEISMAN HOPEFUL: QB Trevor Knight
Knight made it look easy against the Alabama Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl. The ball effortlessly flew out of the quarterback’s hand as he broke a Sugar Bowl record with 32 completions for 348 yards and four touchdowns. Knight’s performance in the bowl game leaves a lasting impression on Heisman voters and provides momentum as he enters his first season as a full-time starter. The reality, though, is Knight didn’t play well during the regular season. Knight won the starting job in fall camp last year only to hand the spot back to Blake Bell. Knight’s highest output in a single game before his explosion against Alabama was 171 passing yards. In fact, Knight only passed for 471 yards and five touchdowns during his previous eight appearances. But Knight’s Heisman candidacy is based purely on potential. If Knight can play at the same level seen against Alabama throughout the 2014 campaign, the Sooners will be one of the best teams in college football and the quarterback will be sitting in New York City waiting to hear his name called as the latest Heisman Trophy winner.

(Click HERE for the CFT 2014 Preseason Preview Repository)

Wake Forest starts 4-0 for first time in a decade

BLOOMINGTON, IN - SEPTEMBER 24: Jessie Bates #3 of the Wake Forest Demon Deacons reaches for and makes the interception against the Indiana Hoosiers at Memorial Stadium on September 24, 2016 in Bloomington, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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In 2006, Wake Forest began the season 4-0 en route to an improbable bid to the Orange Bowl.  A decade later, could it be deja vu all over again?

Unbelievably, the answer to that is, well, yeah.  Well, it’s at least technically possible — although glancing at the latest box score that would’ve been the furthest thing from your mind.

In Saturday’s game against Indiana, the Demon Deacons were outgained 611-352 in total offense.  Hoosiers quarterback Richard Lagow strafed Wake’s defense for 496 yards and three touchdowns.  But then you catch a glimpse of the category that reads “Turnovers.”

The Demon Deacon defense intercepted Lagow a whopping five times.  Not only did the defense return one of those for a touchdown, the offense converted another two picks into 10 points.

The final score?  Wake 33, Indiana 28.

With the win, Wake improved to 4-0 on the season for the first time since that 2006 campaign mentioned in the lede.  Before you go out and bet your house on an ACC Coastal title for the Deacons, however, keep this in mind: Wake still has games left against No. 13 Florida State (10/15), No. 3 Louisville (11/12) and No. 5 Clemson (11/19), with the first two games on the road.

If you’re a Wake fan, though, it’s fun to dream — especially when your team’s six-game losing streak to close out the 2015 season is factored in.

Auburn leads at halftime in must-win game against LSU

BATON ROUGE, LA - SEPTEMBER 19:  A general view of play between the Auburn Tigers and the LSU Tigers at Tiger Stadium on September 19, 2015 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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In a must-win game for both head coaches, Auburn’s Gus Malzahn went to the locker room at halftime up 9-7 on LSU’s Les Miles in a game as prodding and slow as the score would indicate.

The Tigers were unable to find the end zone despite breaking open some big plays and had to rely on three Daniel Carlson field goals to hold the lead after two quarters. Quarterback Sean White only had three incompletions among his 14 passes (for 144 yards) but looked as though he was starting to get in a rhythm against LSU’s tough defensive front.

Speaking of that defense, the Baton Rouge-based Tigers came up big just before halftime by stopping Kerryon Johnson on both third- and fourth-and-goal from the one yard line.

LSU averaged over seven yards a rush on offense but simply didn’t have the ball much, running just 24 snaps in the first half. Quarterback Danny Etling had 23 yards passing on six completions but did end up escaping pressure and shot-putting the ball to Foster Moreau for the game’s only touchdown.

Leonard Fournette added 64 yards on a robust 9.1 yards per carry.

The close score means both teams figure to be a little tight in what many are already labeling the Buyout Bowl given rumors about both head coaches being on the hot seat.

No. 14 Tennessee scores 38 straight to snap losing streak to No. 19 Florida

KNOXVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 24: Evan Berry #29 of the Tennessee Volunteers reacts after a fumble recovery against the Florida Gators in the first quarter at Neyland Stadium on September 24, 2016 in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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No. 14 Tennessee (4-0, 1-0 SEC) brought an end to an 11-game losing streak to No. 19 Florida (3-1, 1-1 SEC) in resounding fashion Saturday afternoon in Neyland Stadium. Down 21-0 in the first half, Tennessee roared back with 38 straight points en route to a wild 38-28 victory in a key SEC East battle.

The phrase “tale of two halves” gets thrown around a lot, sometimes more than necessary, but there was simply no way to describe what just happened in a checkered-out Neyland Stadium. The Vols looked lost and sloppy in the first half of the game, shooting themselves in the feet twice inside the Florida 10-yard line with nothing to show for it. But the second half was a reversal of fortune, as the Vols defense started getting off the field quickly and the offense started clicking. Joshua Dobbs shrugged off an awful first half and came back to lead the charge with four touchdown passes in the second half, and one more on the ground just for good measure. Dobbs was Tennessee’s second-leading rusher (behind Jalen Hurd) on top of passing for over 300 yards against the Gators.

Tennessee took the lead on a play that appeared to be eerily similar to a key play from a year ago. Dobbs found a wide-open Jauan Jennings down the right side of the field for an easy touchdown. The score gave the Vols the lead. It was a long passing play last season that saw Florida take the lead on the Vols when it appeared a victory was in hand for Tennessee.

The Vols tacked on more to put the game in he win column, of course. The defense picked off a pass from Austin Appleby on Florida’s first play of the ensuing drive and that was quickly turned into a touchdown. Florida then had to punt after three plays on the next drive, and the Vols scored four plays later. The momentum had swung back to Tennessee and never returned to the Gators’ sideline, even after a 16-play touchdown drive. Nothing was stopping Tennessee at this point, as Florida’s frustration boiled over so much, Brandon Powell was ejected from the game in the fourth quarter for throwing a punch.

Trying to figure out what this means for Tennessee going forward is a bit of a tricky proposition. That is because you just don’t really know which Tennessee was closer to the real Tennessee. The SEC East is most definitely their’s to take this year, with a head-to-head tiebreaker with Florida in the fold and Georgia looking abysmal on the road earlier in the day in a blowout loss at Ole Miss. Tennessee will get a chance to seize complete control of the division next week when they head to Athens to take on those Georgia Bulldogs. A win there and the SEC East crown should be pretty easy to claim, although the Vols still have a road trip to Texas A&M and a home game against Alabama  after that Georgia game, so there is no easy path to the SEC East just yet.

And with a challenging schedule ahead of them in conference play the next few weeks, Florida is not out of the picture just yet. The Gators get no easy games with LSU and Arkansas in cross-division play, but a game at Vanderbilt next week offers a chance to bounce back before hosting LSU and Missouri and then taking on Georgia in Jacksonville. Florida can remain in the hunt, but the margin for error has been reduced as a result of this one.

Notre Dame stumbles to 1-3 start as Duke adds to defensive woes

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 24:  Jela Duncan #25 of the Duke Blue Devils rushes for a touchdown during the first half of a game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 24, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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In the eyes of many, Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was, or at least should be, on the hot seat entering the Duke game.  Exiting the Week 4 game, that bandwagon is likely overloaded.

The day started out well enough for the Irish as they held a 14-0 lead midway through the second quarter.  However, against a Blue Devils offense that came into the game 94th nationally in scoring (25.3 points per game), the Irish defense had no answers as Duke scored 38 points over the next three and a half quarters to stun the Domers 38-35 in South Bend.

The Irish held a seven-point lead midway through the fourth quarter as well before the defense gave up a 64-yard touchdown pass to knot the score at 35-all. The defense then allowed a back-breaking 10-play drive that resulted in what turned out to be a game-winning field goal with 1:24 remaining.

Notre Dame, which began the season ranked in the Top 10, has now tumbled to 1-3 on the year.  In each of those three losses, the Irish have given up at least 36 points.

Whether head coach Brian Kelly pulls the trigger on an in-season move with VanGorder remains to be seen.  Based on the early returns, one could hardly blame him if he did.