PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 02:  Quarterback Sam Darnold #14 of the USC Trojans passes the ball against the Penn State Nittany Lions during the 2017 Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual at the Rose Bowl on January 2, 2017 in Pasadena, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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A Look Ahead: CFT’s Way-Too-Early 2017 Top 25

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The last bit of confetti has barely settled onto the Raymond James Stadium turf and the carcass of the 2016 season isn’t even cold yet, and we’re already rolling out a way-too-early Top 25 for the 2017 season? Yep. Because that’s how we roll. Or something.

In our role as preseason Nostradumbass, the first 10 of CFT’s Top 25 consisted of No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 2 Alabama, No. 3 Florida State, No. 4 Clemson, No. 5 LSU, No. 6 Notre Dame (ouch), No. 7 Washington (yeah us!), No. 8 TCU, No. 9 Michigan State (whoops) and No. 10 Tennessee. A little over 4½ months later?

Three of the four playoff participants were in our Top 10; the fourth, Ohio State, was just outside at No. 11. While not No. 1, Oklahoma came into the postseason ranked seventh in the College Football Playoff Top 25, and will likely move up thanks to the 16-point Sugar Bowl win over No. 14 Auburn (not in our preseason Top 25). Florida State (No. 11), LSU (No. 20) and Tennessee (No. 21) were all ranked at least eight spots lower when the postseason began, but all three won their respective bowl games.

On the flip side, TCU, at 6-6, earned a bowl bid… and subsequently lost to finish under .500. And then there was Notre Dame and Michigan State, which combined to win a total of seven games so let’s just forget about that and move on.

The point of this whole review-before-we-look-ahead exercise? Preseason polls are meaningless — but not nearly as meaningless as polls produced nearly eight months ahead of the start of a new season. With that in mind, enjoy this way-to-early Top 25 that will put the “mean” in meaningless. And the “less” in it, for that matter.

Oh, and as always, feel free to complain/whine/moan/bitch away in the comments section below.

NO. 1 USC
WHY? As a redshirt freshman, Sam Darnold emerged as one of the most electrifying playmakers at the quarterback position in college football, and should, to the chagrin of opponents, get even better with a full offseason as the man at the position.  Winning nine straight to close out the season doesn’t hurt either.
WHY NOT? There’s always at least one team that’s way overhyped — hello 2016 Notre Dame — and the hoopla and attention proves to be too much for the young Trojans to bear.

NO. 2 ALABAMA
WHY? Nick Saban + top-ranked recruiting classes year-in, year-out + a burning desire to be the greatest there ever was at this level = a permanent spot inside the Top 10 as long as The Nicktator resides in Tuscaloosa.
WHY NOT? An NFL team (finally) entices Saban to go back and finish what he started — and abruptly ended — in the big boy league of football.  It’s not going to happen, of course, but that’s about the only thing that could derail the Crimson Tide juggernaut — well, that and a Tiger named Deshaun.

Clemson v Florida StateNO. 3 FLORIDA STATE
WHY? The Seminoles are once again loaded with top-flight talent on both sides of the ball and at every positional unit, with Deondre Francois showing flashes in his first season as the starter of being one of the best young quarterbacks in the sport.
WHY NOT? They face Alabama on a (ahem) neutral field to open the season, then travel to Gainesville to face Florida in the regular-season finale.  In between, there’s a trip to Death Valley for their annual ACC Atlantic grudge match with Clemson.

NO. 4 OKLAHOMA
WHY? With Baker Mayfield returning, and the rest of the conference still trying to play catch-up, the Sooners are clearly the cream of the Big 12 crop.
WHY NOT? The twin backfield loses of Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine can’t be overcome and Mayfield has to shoulder too much of the offensive burden. Plus, the road trips to Ohio State, Baylor and Oklahoma State for Bedlam.

NO. 5 WASHINGTON
WHY? They have a talented arm in quarterback Jake Browning, a very staunch defense and a schedule that’s very favorable, with the toughest road game being the trip to Stanford.
WHY NOT? They are losing a significant amount of talent that helped get them to the College Football Playoffs.

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl - Ohio State v ClemsonNO. 6 OHIO STATE
WHY? Given the personnel losses after the 2015 season, 2016 was thought to be a rebuilding year but turned into another playoff appearance.  The target was always the 2017 season for this young Buckeyes team, and a squad loaded with this much talent will be a factor throughout.
WHY NOT? J.T Barrett continues to regress as a quarterback despite Urban Meyer shaking up the top of his offensive coaching staff, and none of the other young quarterbacks are quite ready for prime time.

NO. 7 CLEMSON
WHY? Despite losing a couple of pieces, Brent Venables‘ defense will once again be one of the best in the nation.  The Tigers won 10 or more games in each of the three seasons prior to Deshaun Watson‘s arrival, so it’s far from a one-man show that Dabo Swinney has built.
WHY NOT? Losing Watson, a three-year starter at quarterback, proves to be too much as his replacement simply can’t handle the burden.

NO. 8 MICHIGAN
WHY? For all of his well-publicized off-field antics, Jim Harbaugh is simply one of the best head coaches in the sport and will settle for nothing less than getting his beloved Wolverines back into the national title discussion on an annual basis.  Wilton Speight was a breakout star in 2016 and should flourish despite the loss of his quarterbacks coach, while Don Brown continues to be one of the best defensive minds in the game.
WHY NOT? Too much talent was lost to the NFL, and Harbaugh simply hasn’t gotten the requisite time to completely restock the cupboard in Ann Arbor to compete with the Ohio States of the college football world.

Oklahoma State v BaylorNO. 9 OKLAHOMA STATE
WHY? One of the best quarterback-wide receiver tandems in the country, Mason Rudolph and James Washington, eschewed an early shot at the NFL and returned for one more season in Stillwater.
WHY NOT? A defense that was 53rd in scoring as it was loses nearly half its starters, plus OSU will have to play at Pittsburgh, Texas and West Virginia.

NO. 10 PENN STATE
WHY? They return a bunch of talent from their Big Ten-winning squad, including Heisman contenders in quarterback Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley, and get Michigan, Nebraska and Pittsburgh in Happy Valley.
WHY NOT? They lost a very talented wide receiver in Chris Godwin and have to play at Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State.

NO. 11 STANFORD
NO. 12 AUBURN
NO. 13 TEXAS
NO. 14 LSU
NO. 15 WISCONSIN
NO. 16 LOUISVILLE
NO. 17 GEORGIA
NO. 18 WEST VIRGINIA
NO. 19 SOUTH FLORIDA
NO. 20 FLORIDA
NO. 21 KANSAS STATE
NO. 22 COLORADO
NO. 23 WASHINGTON STATE
NO. 24 SAN DIEGO STATE
NO. 25 OREGON

Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown to receive new 5-year contract

EAST LANSING, MI - OCTOBER 29: Defensive Coordinator Don Brown reacts to a Michigan Wolverines goal line stance during the third quarter of the game against the Michigan State Spartans at Spartan Stadium on October 29, 2016 in East Lansing, Michigan. Michigan defeated Michigan State 32-23. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images
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Despite how the season ended for the Wolverines, Michigan appears set to keep its staff in sync in the years to come following a largely successful season in Ann arbor. One of the key reasons why Michigan was so successful in turning things around under head coach Jim Harbaugh has been the play of the defense. DJ Durkin took a head coaching opportunity in 2016 at Maryland but Michigan filled the void with flying colors by adding Don Brown to the staff to serve as defensive coordinator. Now, according to reports, Brown is expected to be locked in for the next five years with a brand new contract.

Bruce Feldman of FOX Sports reported Michigan has come to an agreement with Brown on a new five-year contract. According to the terms of the new deal, Brown will be paid $1.4 million per year. Given the resources Michigan has available to them, paying a defensive coordinator top dollar was to be expected, especially as Michigan appears to be moving closer to competing for a Big Ten championship, and perhaps a berth in the College Football Playoff.

Michigan had one of the top defenses in the country in 2016, but not being able to hold on to leads in the fourth quarter in their final two games against Ohio State in the regular season and against Florida State in the Orange Bowl left a bit of a sour taste in the mouth of the Michigan program. With Brown back on board for the next full seasons, however, expect the Wolverines to continue to be a force to reckon with in the Big Ten, and on the national stage.

Defense leads McCaffrey-less No. 18 Stanford past North Carolina in Sun Bowl

North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky tries to get past Stanford safety Dallas Lloyd in the second quarter of the Sun Bowl NCAA college football game Friday, Dec., 30, 2016 in El Paso, Texas. (AP Photo/Mark Lambie)
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Who needs Christian McCaffrey? Or a starting quarterback for that matter? Playing without its regular backfield battery, No. 18 Stanford used a standout effort from running back Bryce Love and a relentless defense to hold off North Carolina 25-23 in an overcast Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas.

Keller Chryst started the game at quarterback and, after a three-and-out and a UNC touchdown to open the game, put Stanford on the board with a 49-yard snatch-and-dash toss to Love. After a Tar Heels punt, Chryst maneuvered Stanford to within scoring territory before he was forced to leave the game after injuring his right knee on an 8-yard scramble. Conrad Ukropina put Stanford on top with a 44-yard field goal with 14:13 to play in the first half.

The Cardinal eventually pushed the lead to 16-7 thanks to a defense that stifled North Carolina’s offense. Playing in perhaps his final college game before a possible first-round selection in this spring’s NFL Draft, Stanford forced Mitch Trubisky into an interception inside his own territory and a fumble inside his own red zone. Nick Weiler, hero of the Florida State win, added to the misery when he missed a 51-yard field goal, leading to Ukropina’s third field goal of the game (with one miss mixed in) to push the Cardinal lead to nine.

North Carolina responded with its best offensive stretch of the day, moving a combined 123 yards over 17 plays to secure a 37-yard Weiler field goal and a 5-yard Jordon Brown rush, staking the Heels to a 17-16 lead with 2:09 to play in the third quarter. But Stanford got Trubisky one last time, taking as Dallas Lloyd claimed his second interception of the day and returned it untouched for a 19-yard pick-six at the 14:13 mark of the fourth quarter. Ryan Burns, playing for Chryst, saw his 2-point pass fall incomplete, forcing Stanford to live with a 22-17 lead. Burns managed the offense and produced just enough points for the win, completing 6-of-11 passes for 86 yards without a turnover. (Chryst left the game with 86 passing yards, 14 rushing yards and a touchdown.) Love rushed 22 times for a game-high 115 yards with a 49-yard touchdown reception.

The Heels moved 35 yards on a would-be go-ahead possession before punting, and Stanford put together a vintage Stanford (10-3) drive, consuming more than seven minutes to run 12 plays. But Stanford, un-Stanford-like fashion, could not push the ball across the goal line, settling for Ukropina’s fourth field goal of the day instead.

North Carolina (8-5) took the field at its own 25 with an eternity — 3:23, to be exact — and all three of its timeouts, needing a touchdown and a 2-point conversion to force a 25-25 tie, but could not gain a first down. Trubisky completed a pass to Ryan Switzer for no gain on first down, threw incomplete on second down and was sacked by Solomon Thomas on third down, forcing a punt with exactly two minutes remaining.

The Cardinal killed only ten seconds on three Love runs — with a third down one puzzlingly going out of bounds — but a 56-yard Jake Bailey punt pinned North Carolina at its own three with 1:34 and one timeout remaining. That inability to cross the line once, either to score the game-winning touchdown or a game-ending first down one drive later, proved costly. Given new life, Trubisky moved North Carolina 97 yards in one minute, as Trubisky scrambled to his right and found Bug Howard opened in the left side of the end zone for a 2-yard touchdown that traveled about 40 through the air.

Needing a 2-point conversion to extend the game, Trubisky again scrambled to his right but was swallowed by Thomas and a host of Cardinal defenders.

Stanford recovered the ensuing onside kick and expired the final 25 seconds to hold on for the win. In what may be his final on-field audition for the NFL, Trubisky finished 23-of-39 passing for 280 yards with two touchdowns and three turnovers (one a pick-six).

With the win, the first of the post-Christian McCaffrey era on the Farm, Stanford secured its second consecutive 10-win season and top-20 season, its fifth such season in six tries under David Shaw and its sixth double-digit, top-20 season in the last seven years dating back to the Jim Harbaugh era.

Quinton Flowers’ legs push USF to lead on South Carolina in Birmingham Bowl

This Nov. 19, 2016 photo shows South Florida quarterback Quinton Flowers (9) looking on from the sidelines during the second half of an NCAA college football game against SMU in Dallas. South Carolina will face South Florida on Thursday in the Birmingham Bowl. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)
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Through the first two quarters of play in the Birmingham Bowl, South Carolina is getting a healthy taste of Lamar Jackson Lite.

In the first 30 minutes of what is a 29-14 halftime lead for USF, Quinton Flowers did an uncanny impression of the reigning Heisman winner, accounting for all four of the Bulls’ touchdowns and 267 yards of total offense.  Three of those scores and 67 of the yards came on the ground, which is not surprising as Flowers’ 1,425 yards rushing this season was second to Jackson’s 1,538 amongst FBS quarterbacks.

The junior also completed 18-of-22 passes for 200 yards.

Also nearly perfect was Flowers’ Gamecocks counterpart, Jake Bentley, who was as impressive in the passing portion of the game as the USF quarterback was in the running/passing phases.  The true freshman completed 15 of his 19 passes in the half — after missing on his first two attempts — for 198 yards and both of USC’s touchdowns, a 25-yarder to Hayden Hurst early in the second quarter that temporarily brought the ‘Cocks to within one score and a second, with 1:12 left in the second quarter, that again brought them to within eight –temporarily, as it turned out again, as Flowers connected with D'Ernest Johnson on fourth down on a 37-yard touchdown pass with :07 left in the half.

South Carolina will receive the kickoff to open the second half.

Wake Forest continues ACC’s strong bowl start with upset of No. 24 Temple

Wake Forest running back Cade Carney runs the ball against Temple during the first half of the Military Bowl NCAA college football game, Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2016 in Annapolis, Md. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)
Associated Press
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If the ACC’s upper crust is as competitive as the league’s middle class, Florida State, Louisville and Clemson should go ahead and start popping the champagne now. After 6-6 Boston College and 6-6 NC State earned a pair of bowl victories over fellow 6-6 Power 5 teams on Monday, 6-6 Wake Forest scored an impressive pelt on Tuesday with a 34-26 upset of American champion and 24th-ranked Temple in the Military Bowl in Annapolis, Md.

The Owls, playing on the same field on which they trounced Navy to win their conference title earlier this month, started as they finished that day — with an interception of Wake Forest John Wolford on the third snap of the game, and a 48-yard touchdown pass from Phillip Walker to Adonis Jennings just one play later.

Wolford redeemed himself two drives later, finding Cam Serigne for a game-tying 41-yard touchdown pass and then a 20-yard scoring strike to Tabari Hines one drive later, giving Wake Forest a 14-7 lead at the 5:20 mark of the first quarter.

The lead would not change hands again.

In fact, the Demon Deacons (7-6) ripped off a 31-0 first half run, turning a Temple fumble and interception inside its own territory into a pair of touchdowns to build the 24-point lead.

Temple (10-4) spent the next two quarters chipping away at that deficit, using another long touchdown pass from Walker to Jennings and four Aaron Boumerhi field goals to eventually climb back to within 31-26 with 3:56 left to play in the game. But the Owls’ inability to convert on third down did them in; three of Boumerhi’s four field goals were from 38 yards or closer. Walker completed 28-of-49 passes for 396 yards with two scores to Jennings and an interception, but the Owls netted minus-20 rushing yards and converted only one of a dozen third down tries.

With a chance to force a stop and add a touchdown to complete the comeback, Temple allowed an 80-yard kickoff return by John Armstrong to start Wake Forest’s next drive at the Temple 15-yard line. The Deacons could not move the ball, but a 30-yard Mike Weaver field goal pushed the lead to 34-26 with 1:59 remaining, and Temple’s would-be game-tying drive ended before it started as the Owls were pushed off the field in a turnover on downs.

Wolford completed 10-of-19 passes for 183 yards with two touchdowns and a pick, while Cade Carney and Matt Colburn combined to rush 31 times for 131 yards and a touchdown apiece.

As good as the ACC’s start to bowl season has been, the American’s has been that bad. Outside of Tulsa’s whipping of Central Michigan, the American has fallen short of expectations this December, with Houston being blown out by San Diego State, Memphis failing to keep pace with Western Kentucky, Central Florida losing to Arkansas State in an effective home game, and now its league champion falling to a 6-6 Power 5 team.