CFT Preseason Top 25: No. 2 Oregon

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2013 record: 11-2 overall, 7-2 in Pac-12 Conference (2nd in South division)
2013 postseason: Alamo Bowl vs. Texas (30-7 win)
2013 final AP/coaches’ ranking: No. 9/No. 9
Head coach: Mark Helfrich (11-2 overall; 11-2 in one year at Oregon)
Offensive coordinator: Scott Frost (5th year at Oregon)
2013 offensive rankings: 9th rushing offense (273.5 ypg); 21st passing offense (291.5 ypg); 2nd total offense (565 ypg); 4th scoring offense (45.5 ppg)
Returning offensive starters: eight
Defensive coordinator: Don Pellum (22nd year at Oregon)
2013 defensive rankings: 66th rushing defense (165.5 ypg); 21st passing defense (204.5 ypg);  37th total defense (370.1 ypg); 13th scoring defense (20.5 ppg)
Returning defensive starters: five
Location: Eugene, Oregon
Stadium: Autzen Stadium (58,000; FieldTurf)
Last conference title: 2011

THE GOOD
The most underrated aspect of Oregon’s football program is the commitment found within its coaching staff. It’s not to say there hasn’t been turnover in the program. Head coach Chip Kelly left the Ducks prior to last season. Defensive coordinator Nick Allioti retired during the offseason after spending 24 seasons with the program. Instead of rushing out to hire the hottest coach available on the market, the program simply promotes from within. Mark Helfrich is now entering his second season as the team’s head coach after serving as the Ducks’ offensive coordinator the previous four seasons. The team’s new defensive coordinator, Don Pellum, spent 22 years as a full-time assistant. During the last 16 years, Pellum was tasked with coaching the linebackers. While each promotion brings slight tweaks to the system, the influences of Rich Brooks and Mike Bellotti during their tenures as head coach remains a part of the program. The Ducks have continued to build from the day Brooks was hired as their head coach in 1977  to today. As a result of the continuity built within program, Oregon has developed into one of the premier programs in the nation. A program that has the talent to win a national championship this season.

THE BAD
The tempo at which the Ducks operate on offense is always a double-edged sword. While the offense can be impossible to stop at times, the defense can also be gashed by opponents. When the Ducks went to the BCS National Championship Game in Jan. 2011, they surrendered 346 yards per game and the offensive’s time of possession was 27:54 minutes per game. During each of the past three seasons, the Ducks have given up more yards per game and operated at a faster pace. It’s not a good combination. The Ducks have had talent on the defensive side of the football during those years, but they simply didn’t play to the same level that finally led them to the title game. This season isn’t any different. Senior cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is arguably the best cornerback in college football. Defensive lineman Arik Armstead is a considered an early-round prospect for the 2015 NFL draft. Defensive end Tony Washington returns after leading the team with seven sacks last season. The team’s leading tackler, Derrick Malone, is also back in the middle of the defense. There is talent at all three levels of the Ducks defense. Oregon is more than just a flashy offense. The team’s defense has to play at a high level for the Ducks to be a part of the first College Football Playoff.

THE UNKNOWN
Kelly’s approach to offensive line play was there wasn’t much difference between playing guard and tackle in his system. The system hasn’t changed under Helfrich, but the importance of the tackle position is far more pertinent this season. The team’s senior left tackle, Tyler Johnstone, re-tore his ACL at the start of fall camp. It caused Helfrich to reshuffle his offensive line. Junior Andre Yruretagoyena will replace Johnstone on the blindside. There are two issues any time there are major changes along the offensive line. The first is building continuity within the unit to operate at a high level. Due to the team’s heavy zone-blocking scheme and its tempo on offense, this can be especially difficult to establish. The Ducks also lost the leadership and experience Johnstone brought to the lineup after starting 26 straight games. Furthermore, Yruretagoyena will be protecting the blindside of the one of the nations’ top quarterbacks, Marcus Mariota. The No. 1 goal for the Oregon’s offensive line this season is keep Mariota healthy. And that proposition may be a little more difficult with the veteran at left tackle.

MAKE-OR-BREAK GAME: vs. Stanford
There is no other choice here. The Cardinal dashed the Ducks’ national championship aspirations the past two seasons. The two games were evenly matched with Stanford’s win margin at only nine points. But Stanford is as much a mental obstacle for Oregon as it is a physical one. Very few teams have slowed Oregon’s explosive offense in recent years. Yet, Stanford has seemed to find the secret recipe with their physical 3-4 defense. The Ducks simply haven’t been able to gash the Cardinal for big plays. And most of that has to do with a defensive front that consistently plays in the backfield. The Ducks averaged as least 537 yards per game the last two seasons. Stanford has held Oregon at least 120 yards below its average in each contest. Oregon simply hasn’t been able to get on track against Stanford. The Ducks can’t fail against Stanford again this year, or their season will be a major disappointment.

HEISMAN HOPEFUL: QB Marcus Mariota
Let’s compare Mariota’s resume last season to Jameis Winston‘s, shall we? Mariota threw for 3,665 yards, 31 touchdowns and only four interceptions. Mariota also ran for 715 yards and nine touchdowns. Winston, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, threw for 4,057 yards, 40 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He added 219 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. While Winston was the clear favorite to win the Heisman last season, Mariota wasn’t far behind the redshirt freshman. When last year’s play is considered and  two factors are added into the equation, Mariota could be the favorite to win the trophy this season. There are two reasons why Mariota’s numbers weren’t quite as spectacular as Winston’s in 2013. The Oregon quarterback suffered a slight knee injury during the second half of the season which limited his play, and he played one less game than Winston. A fully healthy Mariota is arguably the best NFL prospect in the entire country. While professional potential doesn’t translate to college football awards, it does exclude Mariota from any excuses if he doesn’t make a national title run with the Ducks this season and capture the school’s first Heisman Trophy.

(Click HERE for the CFT 2014 Preseason Preview Repository)

Iowa TE Noah Fant threatened with a gun while at Omaha park

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Iowa tight end Noah Fant’s return home to Omaha, Nebraska for the summer became a lot more newsworthy than he would have liked this week.

According to a local police report, Des Moines TV station 13WHO reports that Fant was approached by a area man on Tuesday night who pointed a handgun at the sophomore football player and told him to leave the area:

Fant left the park and called police.  He initially told them he didn’t want to press charges but said if police were able to find him he would.  He told officers he believed the suspect lived in a house near the park because he’d seen the man before in the area.

As officers were searching the area near the park they spotted a man matching the description provided by Fant run into a home.  Police were able to talk to the man’s mother who convinced him to come to the door.  Officers reported the man, 23-year-old Matthew Trimble, was heavily intoxicated and placed him in the back of their cruiser for their own safety.  Trimble’s mother says her son told her that he had confronted a group he believed to be smoking marijuana in the park.  She agreed to turn over his handgun to officers.  Police say the gun was loaded with one round in the chamber and 11 in the magazine.

Trimble was later charged with one count of Making a Terroristic Threat with a Firearm after Fant identified that he was in fact the one who pulled the gun on him.

Luckily Fant (or anyone else) was not injured in the incident and everything eventually played out somewhat peacefully. The Omaha native caught nine passes for 70 yards and one touchdown last season for the Hawkeyes and is expected to return to the team later on.

School officials did not release a statement on the incident involving Fant but did tell Landof10 that they were looking into the matter as of Thursday evening.

Northwestern WR Solomon Vault reportedly set to miss 2017 season after surgery

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Northwestern’s task of replacing the Big Ten’s leading receiver from a year ago appeared to take a hit on Friday.

InsideNU reports that wide receiver Solomon Vault will miss the upcoming 2017 season after undergoing “lower body surgery” and will now take a redshirt for the year.

The speedy pass-catcher had 15 receptions for 164 yards and two touchdowns last season for the Wildcats and was expected to step up and see a big increase in targets with all-Big Ten receiver Austin Carr off to the NFL. In addition to his duties catching passes from Clayton Thorson, Vault was also Northwestern’s first choice at kick returner after scoring a whopping five touchdowns on returns in the past three years.

Assuming that Vault does indeed take 2017 off, he’ll have just one year left to play in 2018 as a redshirt senior.

The school has not yet confirmed the report about Vault but it certainly seems that the Wildcats’ special teams are set to take a hit going forward if he even misses part of the upcoming campaign for the program. It was already going to be difficult to replace so much production at receiver too and this bit of news will only server to reinforce that point as Northwestern enters their summer workout programs in the next few weeks.

LSU coaches set to learn DL Arden Key’s status for 2017 next week

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LSU is all set to learn whether or not they’ll have the services of one of the nation’s best pass rushers for the 2017 season.

That’s according to Tigers defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who told reporters on Thursday that the coaching staff should learn defensive lineman Arden Key‘s status for the season next week.

“Arden’s been around, so I’ve seen Arden,” Aranda said, according to AL.com. “Arden’s looking good. We get back together next week with a full staff. … I anticipate at that time that we’ll hear about Arden’s direction and where he’s going and whether he’ll be with us or not.

“I’m very hopeful that he will be.”

Key announced back in February that he would be stepping away from the program this spring “for personal reasons.” It’s been vague as to what those reasons really are or if the edge rusher would even return to the field for LSU in 2017, but it appears we’ll know either way fairly soon. Key himself tweeted last month that he would not be sitting out his upcoming junior year — leading to speculation that he would indeed be back in the lineup for the Tigers.

Aranda’s comments also seem to indicate things moving in that direction but LSU fans and the rest of the opponents on the schedule will apparently have to wait another week in order to get confirmation on Key’s status for the upcoming season.

Lane Kiffin reportedly bringing Jim Harbaugh and Tennessee coaches to work FAU summer camp

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The calendar is just about ready to flip over to June and with that date change comes time to kick off plenty of summer camps for high school recruits around the country.

While all eyes will be on major outings such as USC’s annual Rising Stars Camp or Florida’s Friday Night Lights, there may be a smaller school’s camp that will draw just as much attention. The one in question? Well of course it would be Lane Kiffin’s first summer camp at Florida Atlantic.

While the draw of Kiffin alone is enough to elicit some higher than normal interest, the list of coaches tagging along for the Owls’ June 5th camp is even more eyebrow-raising than that of the hosts. Namely that includes Jim Harbaugh (and the rest of the Michigan staff per the Sun-Sentinelalong with a few familiar faces from the Tennessee staff, among others.

Yes, that’s right, Kiffin’s old employer is all set to buddy up with the ex-Vols coach down in Boca according to a report from FAUOwlAccess.com.

Given recent limits put on satellite camps by the NCAA, it certainly makes plenty of sense for schools like Michigan and Tennessee to send their staffs to work camps at places like FAU given the latter’s close proximity to so many top recruits. Likewise, it’s pretty understandable to see Kiffin bring in some even bigger names to his first summer camp in order to draw attention to the program he took over in the offseason.

Still, it should be more than a little interesting for many fans in the Volunteer State to see a few Tennessee coaches working alongside the man many blame for their program’s slide in recent years. It’s been several years (and coaching stops) since Kiffin left Knoxville so perhaps next month we’ll find out if time really does heal all wounds.

To the surprise of nobody though, FAU hasn’t even played a game under their new head coach and the Owls are already making waves and finding plenty of time in the national spotlight.