CFT 2015 Preseason Preview: SEC Predictions

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As the 2015 season draws near, we peek into our crystal ball and guess project how each of the five major conferences will play out. Today, we will be examining the home of the defending national champion, the Big Ten. 

And while we’re at it, check out some of our other Power Five conference predictions HERE (ACC), HERE (Big 12) and HERE (Big Ten) as the CFT team continues to take its month-long glimpse of the upcoming season.

SEC EAST

1. Georgia (10-3; beat Louisville in Belk Bowl)
There is one certainty when it comes to the East: UGA will not finish lower than third, a low-water benchmark for each of Mark Richt‘s 14 seasons in Athens that has included five division titles — none since 2012, though.  They return the most talent of any team in the division, although the fact that they opted for Grayson Lambert as the starting quarterback has me second-guessing my prediction.  It’s been a decade since UGA’s last SEC championship, and if they’re going to get back to that level they’ll have to do so with a schedule that includes both Alabama and Auburn as well as a road trip to Tennessee.  Still, anything less than an East title and a spot in the SEC championship game would be decidedly disappointing — and would lead to yet another offseason of “is it time to go in another direction?” speculation.

2. Tennessee (7-6; beat Iowa in Taxslayer Bowl)
Am I a year early with this lofty projection?  Possibly, especially given the team right below them.  Still, there’s no denying that Butch Jones has stuffed his talent cupboard after the barren years under his predecessor, Derek Dooley.  The Vols closed out last year on a positive note, going 4-1 down the stretch — the lone loss coming by eight to Mizzou — capping it off with an impressive 45-28 win over the Hawkeyes in the bowl game.  That final flourish coincided with Josh Dobbs‘ ascension as the starting quarterback.  With the scintillating playmaker poised to build off his first season at this level, the Vols could very well challenge both UGA and Mizzou for East supremacy.

3. Missouri (11-3; beat Minnesota in Citrus Bowl)
“Here we go again, denigrating the two-time defending East champion Tigers.” — the two Mizzou fans who frequent this site, probably.  And, actually, that’s an understandable reaction, given how the Tigers have been the class of the division the past two seasons.  They’re also one of the few teams in the conference that returns its starting quarterback.  Still, there are concerns along the defensive line — they return just five starters on that side of the ball, period — and their schedule doesn’t do them very many favors as they play at Georgia and Arkansas as well as play host to Mississippi State.  It wouldn’t shock me, though, if Mizzou made it three straight titles.  In fact, the only thing that would shock the system is if they finish outside the top three in the division.

4. Florida (7-5; beat East Carolina in Birmingham Bowl)
The good news for Florida?  They return seven defensive starters.  The bad?  They return only four on the other side of the ball, although, given that the Gators finished 93rd in total offense, that number of returnees might actually be viewed as a potential positive.  With Will Muschamp gone, there seems to be a breath of fresh air in The Swamp under new head coach Jim McElwain.  It may take the former Alabama coordinator a year to get his SEC feet back under him, but the Gators should show immediate improvements both offensively and in the won/loss column.  Playing at Missouri, at LSU and at Georgia in back-to-back-to-back games should, though, temper any talk of an East title right out of the gate for McElwain.

5. South Carolina (7-6; beat Miami in Independence Bowl)
The Gamecocks could very well match or exceed their win total from a year ago and still find themselves in the bottom half of the division as, as evidenced by their postseason performance in 2014 (5-0), the East appears to be on a slight uptick.  There are two main concerns for the Ol’ Ball Coach: one, the play of first-year starting quarterback Connor Mitch and, two, a front seven that was gashed for 212.1 yards rushing per game, a number that was 13th in the 14-team SEC and 105th nationally.  To help rectify the latter problem, Steve Spurrier brought in Jon Hoke as co-defensive coordinator.  On the former front, solid play from Mitch, combined with an improved running game with multiple contributors, could leave me low-balling the ‘Cocks projection-wise.

6. Kentucky (5-7)
Despite all of the noise over Mark Stoops‘ recruiting prowess, it still seems as if, at least in the here and now, the best UK can hope to aspire this season is a middle-of-the-road team in the East at best.  Stoops has taken a program that won seven games total in the two years prior to his arrival to one that’s, well, won seven games in his two seasons.  There’s no doubt, though, that Stoops has raised the talent level in Lexington.  The question is, with a schedule that includes road games against South Carolina, Mississippi State and Georgia as well as a home date with West power Auburn and annual nemesis Florida (28 straight losses to Gators), can Stoops get the program back to its first bowl game since 2010?  If he does, toss some Coach of the Year votes his way.

7. Vanderbilt (3-9)
There’s no question Vandy will finish in the East cellar.  The only question is, will Derek Mason make it to Year 3 as the Commodores’ head coach?  A good man and a solid football coach, Mason has somewhat fallen victim to the expectations created by James Franklin‘s time with the Commodores.  Vandy does return 16 starters, a total that’s tied for second in the conference behind Tennessee’s 18.  I hope Mason gets another season (or two) despite yet another basement finish; hopefully the university’s administration feels the same way as Mason has the kind of program-building potential that should be supported, not prematurely ditched.

SEC WEST

1. Auburn (8-5 in 2014; lost to Wisconsin in Outback Bowl)
I’m particularly bullish on the Tigers, and the reason for that is, essentially, the addition of one man to the football building.  With Gus Malzahn in the house, AU could roll out of bed and put a Top-20 offense on the field.  Defense, though, is another matter entirely — or was.  Potentially.  The pass defense was abysmal in 2014, giving up the third-most yards per game in the conference.  Enter Will Muschamp, who, despite his abject failure as a head coach at Florida, remains one of the top defensive minds in the country.  It would be stunning if the Tigers didn’t finish in the top half(ish) of the conference in nearly every major defensive statistical category.  And, if that happens, AU is poised for a return to the national stage.

2. Alabama (12-2; lost to Ohio State in CFP semifinal)
If they can stay healthy, the Tide, one of four playoff teams a year ago, will, once again, have a rock-solid running game and a top-notch defense.  That leaves the same question mark as this time a year ago: the quarterback position.  Regardless of which quarterback earns the job for the first time in his career, they will have one obstacle Blake Sims didn’t a year ago: replacing the production lost with stud Amari Cooper‘s departure, a wide receiver who served as the ultimate security blanket for a first-year starter.  If Jake Coker/David Cornwell/Alec Morris can give offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin just average, game-manager play at the position, the Tide is set-up to once again be contenders in the division, conference and nationally.

3. LSU (8-5; lost to Notre Dame in Music City Bowl)
Seemingly every year, the Tigers’ preseason projections and in-season hopes hinge on improved play at the quarterback position.  For 2015, it’s lather, rinse, repeat under center.  Despite the loss of coordinator John Chavis, the Tigers will once again field one of the most talented defenses in the country.  The skill-position players on offense are as good as any at the FBS level, which brings us right back to the quarterback.  The job this camp has been won by Brandon Harris; if the sophomore can just, well, not be 2014 Anthony Jennings, the Bayou Bengals will challenge Auburn and Alabama for West supremacy.  If he can’t, and another season implodes?  The same questions asked of Mark Richt will be asked of Les Miles at season’s end.

4. Arkansas (7-6; beat Texas in Texas Bowl)
The Razorbacks are the Volunteers of the West: the go-to pick for a team on the rise and looking to surprise.  At least when it comes to the Hogs, that appears to be a promising bet, albeit one with a significant and daunting scheduling asterisk.  Last season, the Razorbacks lost four of their 2014 SEC games by a total of 22 points, with two of those coming on the road and one in overtime.  That and 15 returning starters has led to rampant optimism in and around Fayetteville.  Playing the role of Debbie Downer is the schedule, which features road games against Alabama, Ole Miss, LSU and an improved Tennessee as a well as a home date with reigning East champ Missouri.

5. Ole Miss (9-4; lost to TCU in Peach Bowl)
The Rebels were one of the toasts of college football through the first two months of the 2014 season, going 7-0 in an opening half that included an upset of Alabama.  They then lost four of their next five against Power Five teams, punctuated by a 39-point beatdown in the bowl game.  Despite that stumble to the finish, there’s a reason for a modicum of optimism as Hugh Freeze will be able to pencil 16 returning starters into his lineup, including nine on the offensive side.  It’ll be that side of the ball that determines the Rebels’ 2015 fate as they will once again field a top-tier SEC defense.  Playing at Alabama, at Auburn and at Mississippi State, a second-tier spot in the West seems to be, once again, the best the Oxford bunch can aspire to this season.

6. Texas A&M (8-5; beat West Virginia in Liberty Bowl)
Most discussions of A&M’s prospects for the 2015 season begin and end with the defense — specifically, the run defense.  The Aggies finished the 2014 season 109th nationally in rushing yards allowed, ending the regular season by giving up 363, 335 and 384 yards on the ground to Auburn, Missouri and LSU, respectively. Akin to what Auburn did on The Plains, A&M brought in one of the top coordinators in the game, swiping John Chavis away from LSU.  The Chief’s presence alone should assure a marked improvement defensively, especially when it comes to stopping the run.  After taking over for a benched Kenny Hill, Kyle Allen showed enough promise as a true freshman to be confident that the offense is in good hands.  The opener against a very good Arizona State will prove to be a solid litmus test for how far all three phases of the team have to go before entering conference play three weeks later.

7. Mississippi State (10-3; lost to Georgia Tech in Orange Bowl)
Beginning in mid-October and on into early November, the Bulldogs were sitting atop the college football world as the No. 1 team in the country. Nine months later, they’re being forecast by numerous entities, myself included, to finish at the bottom of the West.  More than anything, that’s a testament to the top-to-bottom strength of the division.  It’s also, though, an acknowledgement that MSU lost a plethora of talent: only three teams at the FBS level — Kansas and UT-San Antonio (six) and South Alabama (five) — return fewer starters than their seven.  One of the seven, at least, is starting quarterback and Heisman contender Dak Prescott, so that gives the Bulldogs a fighting chance.  Still, it will be a tough row to hoe for Dan Mullen‘s squad to again reach double digits.

CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME PREDICTION
Auburn over Georgia

Nobody placed a bid on Harbaugh’s autographed khakis

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Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh has certainly made a name for himself over the years with his affinity for a simple pair of khakis. It is not uncommon for clothes worn by coaches to be auctioned off for a charitable reason, but any hope of bringing in big money over a pair of khakis signed by the head coach of the Wolverines came up empty in a recent auction, according to Land of 10.

The U of M Club of Detroit hoped a pair of signed khakis would be a great auction item, but the one-of-a-kind auction item had nobody biting. Perhaps it was the starting bid of $900 that kept potential bidders away. Or maybe a signed pair of pants is just not at all the kind of piece even the most devoted Michigan collector wants to add to their collection?

This is not all that unheard of given the style of the auction. Because it was a silent auction, there was never a chance to see the bidding go back-and-forth between potential suitors. HAd the pants been auctioned off in a standard auction format, the odds are the item may have been able to be sold to one lucky high bidder. The risk, however, would be not fetching the desired goal for the item. If the starting bid was lower in a regular auction, there is no guarantee it would have reached the desired $900 goal.

For now, the pants will likely stay in storage awaiting the next silent auction, so all is not lost. The khakis will just have to wait for another day to be won by one lucky Michigan fan or devoted khaki enthusiast.

TCU WR Isaiah Graham announces transfer from Horned Frogs

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Sophomore wide receiver Isaiah Graham is leaving TCU behind in search of a new opportunity. Graham announced his intention to seek a new place to call home with a statement on his Twitter account. In it, Graham thanked TCU head coach Gary Patterson and the coaching staff for bringing him into the football program in Fort Worth.

As a freshman, Graham played in nine games, in which he caught six passes for 68 yards. This season, Graham appeared in 10 games and caught two passes for 16 yards. The sophomore was buried on the depth chart and his chances to get on the field had largely been in nothing more than a reserve role the past two seasons. With that outlook not looking to drastically change in 2018, Graham will look for a place where he might have the chance to play more of a contributing role in an offense.

Graham will have to sit out the 2018 season if the former three-star recruit (according to Rivals) lands at another FBS program. He will have two years of eligibility after sitting out the 2018 season. He has yet to use a redshirt season.The Louisiana native chose TCU over offers from a number of programs including Arkansas, Louisiana Tech, Miami, Mississippi State, Nebraska, SMU, Tennessee, and more. Whether any of those programs remain in play for Graham now remains unknown.

Nebraska loads up on FCS cupcakes in future scheduling

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The future of Nebraska football is beginning to look a bit more optimistic with the recent hiring of Scott Frost. Time will tell just how many wins Nebraska will start racking up in Big Ten play under Frost, but Nebraska has made some moves to secure some likely wins in future seasons.

In a scheduling announcement on Wednesday, Nebraska has announced future games against two FCS opponents — South Dakota State and North Dakota — and Georgia Southern of the Sun Belt Conference. Nebraska will host South Dakota State in 2020, 2024, and 2028. North Dakota (NOT North Dakota State) will head to Lincoln in 2022 and 2026. Georgia Southern will occupy a spot on the non-conference schedule in 2022. Per Nebraska;

  • South Dakota State—Sept 12, 2020; Aug. 31, 2024; Sept. 9, 2028
  • North Dakota—Sept. 3, 2022; Sept. 19, 2026
  • Georgia Southern—Sept. 10, 2022

It is important to note Nebraska’s addition of South Dakota State and North Dakota no longer violates the Big Ten’s scheduling initiative to ban FCS opponents. That policy was revised to allow for the addition of these teams in years Big Ten teams only have four conference games scheduled at home (and five road games in conference play). Big Ten teams are still required to schedule a game against another power conference opponent or an approved opponent to satisfy the requirement, however. Nebraska is currently scheduled to play old Big 12 (and Big 8) rivals Oklahoma in 2021 and 2022 and Colorado in 2023 and 2024.Nebraska has also met the power conference scheduling requirement for 2026 (Tennessee) and 2028 (Arizona). Both games are part of home-and-home arrangements.

The 2022 season is an exception for Nebraska. The Cornhuskers are scheduled to host South Dakota State, Central Michigan, and Cincinnati. The Big Ten has ruled Cincinnati to be an exception to the power conference scheduling for Nebraska. Nebraska originally scheduled a series with Cincinnati in 2013, prior to the Big Ten adopting its scheduling philosophy to increase the overall quality of strength of schedule across the conference.

Heisman winner Baker Mayfield among 14 to earn unanimous All-American honors

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In order to be considered a unanimous All-American by the NCAA, a college football player needs to earn first-team needs from all five of the following organizations: the Associated Press, the American Football Coaches Association, the Football Writers Association of America, the Sporting News, and the Walter Camp Football Foundation.  With the release of the AFCA team Wednesday, a total of 14 players have been accorded unanimous All-American honors for the 2017 season.

Heading that pack, unsurprisingly, is Oklahoma quarterback and 2017 Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield.  Since those five organizations were established as the criteria in 2002, Mayfield becomes the sixth quarterback to earn that honor, joining Louisville’s Lamar Jackson (2016), Oregon’s Marcus Mariota (2014), Texas’ Colt McCoy (2009), Ohio State’s Troy Smith (2006) and Oklahoma’s Jason White (2003).   Prior to White, the last quarterback named a unanimous All-American was Charlie Ward of Florida State in 1993.

Of the 14 unanimous All-Americans this season — there were the same number in 2016 — exactly half came from Oklahoma (three), Iowa (two) and Texas (two).

Below are the remaining baker’s dozen (no pun intended) unanimous All-Americans:

  • Oklahoma tight end Mark Andrews
  • Oklahoma offensive lineman Orlando Brown Jr.
  • North Carolina State defensive lineman Bradley Chubb
  • Texas punter Michael Dickson
  • Texas defensive back DeShon Elliott
  • Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick
  • Iowa defensive back Josh Jackson
  • Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell
  • Stanford running back Bryce Love
  • Notre Dame offensive lineman Quenton Nelson
  • Ohio State offensive lineman Billy Price
  • Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith
  • Oklahoma State wide receiver James Washington