CFT Preseason Top 25: No. 13 LSU

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2013 record: 10-3 overall, 5-3 in SEC (third in SEC West)
2013 postseason: Outback Bowl vs. Iowa (21-14 win)
2013 final AP/coaches’ ranking: 14/14
Head coach: Les Miles (123-45 overall; 95-24 in nine years at LSU)
Offensive coordinator: Cam Cameron (second season)
2013 offensive rankings: 29th rushing offense (202.3 ypg); 44th passing offense (251 ypg); 35th total offense (453.3 ypg); 23rd scoring offense (35.8 ppg)
Returning offensive starters: six
Defensive coordinator: John Chavis (sixth season)
2013 defensive rankings: 35th rushing defense (143.2 ypg); 13th passing defense (197.5 ypg);  15th total defense (340.7 ypg); 21st scoring defense (22 ppg)
Returning defensive starters: seven
Location: Baton Rouge, La.
Stadium: Tiger Stadium (102,321; grass)
Last conference title: 2011

THE GOOD
The good when it comes to the LSU Tigers is usually the following: powerful running game and dominating defense.  2014 is not expected to be any different.  Sure, the Tigers lost their leading and No. 3 rushers, but Nos. 2 and 4 — Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard — return.  Oh, and there’s the addition of one of the most touted running back prospects in a decade or more, 2014 five-star signee Leonard Fournette — he could immediately make anyone and everyone say “Jeremy Hill who?” given the immense talent he possesses.  Among the returning starters are four offensive linemen, three of them seniors, which bodes well for both the revamped running game and whoever the new starter under center will be.  The defense returns seven starters from a group that finished inside the Top 20 in total defense and just outside the Top 20 in the most important statistical category: scoring defense.  LSU has won 10 or more games in seven of Miles’ nine years in Baton Rouge, including each of the last four seasons; given the amount of returning talent and the deep recruiting classes brought in year after year — all but two of those classes in the Top 10, none outside the Top 18 — don’t expect that win total to dip below double-digits in 2014.

THE BAD
As is ofttimes the case with the Tigers, it’s the departures, early and otherwise, that constitute a negative.  On offense, LSU lost its starting quarterback, top two wide receivers and nearly 1,800 rushing yards.  Defensively, the Tigers must replace its top two defensive tackles, although they grow athletic, dominant tackles on trees down on the bayou.  All of the departures, especially offensively, could make for choppy, uneven play early on; fortunately, after the opener against Wisconsin in Houston, LSU has a four-game stretch that consists of three games — Sam Houston State, Louisiana-Monroe, New Mexico State — that are essentially scrimmages that actually count.  The first conference tilt comes in the fourth game against Mississippi State (Sept.20); the first true conference test comes two weeks later against Auburn, which gives Les Miles and his coaching staff what they hope will be plenty of time to work out the kinks.

THE UNKNOWN
As is the case up and down the SEC, the quarterback position is a big unknown.  With Zach Mettenberger‘s departure, Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris — not necessarily in that order — will battle to take over as the starter.  While Jennings has the edge in experience — he served as Mettenberger’s primary backup in 2013 —  Harris came out of spring practice looking as the slight leader in the eyes of some observers.  Regardless of which player wins the job, LSU will, as it always does, rely heavily on a force-of-nature running game and ask its quarterback to be a mistake-free(ish) game manager.  Can either, though, come up big in the passing game when the need inevitably arises?  That question can’t and won’t be answered for several weeks on down the road.

MAKE-OR-BREAK GAME: at Auburn, Oct. 4
Given how the series has played out over the last few years — and how important it’s been in both the conference race and national chase — I was extremely tempted to go with the Alabama game Nov. 8.  Instead, I’ll go with the road trip to Jordan-Hare a month earlier.  After all, The Plains Tigers are the defending SEC champions and BCS runner-ups, making them the first measuring stick (sorry, Badgers) for just where the Bayou Bengals are as a team.  With the two Tiger teams and the Tide all coming off a season in which they won 10 or more games — and with Texas A&M expected to dip a bit given the offensive departures and defensive attrition — most expect the SEC West to come down to, essentially, a three-team round-robin tournament.  The first of the three all-important games is LSU-AU; how that game plays out could go a long way in determining the division’s rep in the SEC title game.  Then again, Auburn lost to LSU last year and still stood atop the league at season’s end, so…

HEISMAN HOPEFUL: running back Leonard Fournette
The past two Heismans were won by a redshirt freshman for the first two times in the history of the award.  Could a true freshman ever break through that stiff-armed ceiling?  It seems doubtful, but Fournette certainly looks the part.  Fournette is a highly-touted five-star member of LSU’s most recent recruiting class, rated as the top running back in that class; the No. 1 player in the state of Louisiana; and the No. 4 player at any position in the country.  He’s a mountain of a man-child already at 6-1, 230 pounds, yet he’s one of the fastest players on the Tigers team.  His ability is off the charts; whether that ability translates into immediate on-field results is unknown, but don’t be surprised if he’s not at least on the periphery of the Heisman discussion at some point this season.

(Click HERE for the CFT 2014 Preseason Preview Repository)

How much does Tua Tagovailoa’s injury actually impact Alabama and the College Football Playoff? Not as much as you’d think

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Since the moment Tua Tagovailoa went down with a season-ending injury on Saturday, the focus of the bigger College Football Playoff picture has been hotly debated. Should Alabama be given the benefit of the doubt? Would Alabama with one loss and no SEC title and no Tua be more deserving of a playoff shot over a one-loss Pac-12 champion? How does a potential 1-loss Alabama compare to some other 1-loss teams in the country right now, including Oregon, Utah, Oklahoma, Penn State and, of course, Georgia?

We are in the time of the season when hypothetical scenarios are the most fun to rationally discuss debate with great intensity explore for the fun of it, and this new Alabama situation is a wrinkle we haven’t exactly seen since the inaugural College Football Playoff with Ohio State. As it turns out, Ohio State is the prime example Alabama fans and defenders will point to as one of their top arguments. Of course, 2014 Ohio State and 2019 Alabama are still very different situations.

In 2014, Ohio State lost starting quarterback Braxton Miller to an early season-ending injury but managed to get through the regular season with just one early loss with J.T. Barrett stepping in to guide the Buckeyes offense. But Barrett was injured in the regular-season finale and Cardale Jones had to keep things rolling. Ohio State demolished Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten championship game and convinced the College Football Playoff selection committee they were still worthy of a playoff bid over a pair of 1-loss Big 12 champions (Baylor and TCU) even with their injury concerns at quarterback. This precedent would seem to favor Alabama. Although the Tide may not be as deep at quarterback as Ohio State certainly was, there is an embarrassing amount of riches around the rest of the roster thanks to top recruiting class after top recruiting class being signed by Nick Saban.

There is just one major problem for Alabama. They aren’t likely to get a shot at playing for the SEC championship and prove their case one final time. LSU would have to lose its final two games in order to open the door to the SEC Championship Game for Alabama, and that assumes Alabama wins at Auburn in the Iron Bowl. Alabama (and Ohio State) have made the playoff without winning their divisions before, but this year’s field could be a bit too crowded to allow for that possibility to happen again.

Alabama is in the toughest spot it has been in during the College Football Playoff era. The only team to play in each College Football Playoff, Alabama still has a shot at playing in the playoff once again. At least one team currently ranked ahead of them is going to lose. If it’s Georgia and Alabama stands firm on its ranking, that could see Alabama slide into the fourth spot. But if the season ends with undefeated champions in the ACC (Clemson), Big Ten (Ohio State) and SEC (LSU) and 1-loss champions in the Pac-12 (Oregon or Utah) and Big 12 (Oklahoma or Baylor), how exactly would Alabama compare with no more than one top 25 win? With or without Tua, Alabama should be in some danger of being left out of the playoff for the first time.

And that doesn’t even account for the scenarios that see Penn State beat Ohio State and both the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes end the year with one loss. In that case, Ohio State would still be more worthy of a top-four spot than Alabama, and they may not even make it under these conditions. And if Georgia beats LSU in the SEC title game and both teams end the year with one loss, they’d each get in the playoff before Alabama.

Simply put, Alabama’s playoff odds are probably not as drastically impacted by Tagovailoa’s injury as it is being presented. Alabama would still probably need some help no matter if Tagovailoa or Joe Namath was playing quarterback. It may not be too much help that is needed, but some help would absolutely be welcome in Tuscaloosa.

On Tuesday night, however, we’ll get our first taste of just how this injury to Tagovailoa impacts Alabama in the playoff race. The selection committee will release its third set of rankings this season and determine just where Alabama sits in the pack. Alabama fell to No. 5 after their loss to LSU, firmly keeping the Tide in the hunt. They still managed to control their game against Mississippi State this weekend, but other contenders had good performances as well (see: Oregon, Utah, Oklahoma). Alabama is also still lacking a top 25 win the way a few other 1-loss teams now own (see: Oklahoma, Penn State, Minnesota).

How will the committee react? We’re about to find out Tuesday night.

American sticking with 8-game conference schedule, no divisions in 2020-21

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With UConn about to unceremoniously depart the American Athletic Conference to live life as an FBS independent and realign with their old Big East basketball family, the American Athletic Conference was in need of figuring out how to adjust the schedule for football beginning next season. It has done just that.

The AAC announced on Monday how the football schedule will work for the 2020 and 2021 seasons. The 11-team conference will stick with an 8-game schedule and rotate the schedule around to every team in the conference will face each other conference member at least once over the next two seasons. Each school will get four home conference games and play four more on the road. On top of that, there will be no divisions in the conference.

“This scheduling model provides balance and competitive equity and will contribute to the exciting seasons to which we have become accustomed in the American Athletic Conference,” AAC commissioner Mike Aresco said in a released statement. “It is a fair model that was unanimously supported by our athletic directors.”

The AAC has not shared details on how the two teams to participate in the AAC championship game will be determined, although the simple answer is the top two teams in the standings will get to play. But tiebreakers may have to be re-evaluated with the new scheduling format just to cover all of the bases.

This format is only mapped out for the next two seasons, so it remains to be seen what will happen in 2022 and beyond. This does leave room for the possibility of adding a 12th member to return to a division format if that is desired by the conference. At this point, there has never been a peep that suggested the AAC was interested in adding a 12th member, but that is something that can always change on any given day ending in “Y.” Or perhaps the conference will just reshuffle the conference schedule again for the next two seasons after 2021.

Semi-finalists for Ray Guy Award announced, but missing last year’s winner

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Who is the best punter in the land? According to the Ray Guy Award, there are now 10 players left in the running for that title in the 2019 season.

This year’s semi-finalists for the Ray Guy Award are Oscar Bradburn (Virginia Tech), Joseph Charlton (South Carolina), Max Duffy (Kentucky), Tyson Dyer (New Mexico), Sterling Hofrichter (Syracuse), Adam Korsak (Rutgers), Dane Roy (Houston), Tommy Townsend (Florida), Michael Turk (Arizona State), Owen White (Navy).

Somehow, last year’s winner, Texas A&M’s Braden Mann, didn’t make the cut. Mann is third in the nation in punting average (48.21 yards per punt). Not exactly sure how that happened, but there will be a new Ray Guy Award winner this season as a result of this slip form the award’s committee.

John Mackey Award names eight semi-finalists for top tight end award

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Eight of the nation’s top tight ends were officially named semi-finalists for this season’s John Mackey Award on Monday. The award, named after Pro Football Hall of Fame tight end and former Syracuse player John Mackey, is presented to the nation’s top tight-end as determined by a select voting panel.

This year’s semi-finalists are:

  • Harrison Bryant, Florida Atlantic
  • Hunter Bryant, Washington
  • Brycen Hopkins, Purdue
  • Brevin Jordan, Miami
  • Charlie Kolar, Iowa State
  • Albert Okwuegbunam, Missouri
  • Colby Parkinson, Stanford
  • Giovanni Ricci, Western Michigan

A couple of notable omissions from this list stand out. Florida’s Kyle Pitts, who has the second-most receptions and fifth-most receiving yards among the nation’s tight ends somehow slipped through the voters here. The sophomore for the Gators has averaged 4.2 receptions per game and has accounted for 566 yards and five touchdowns for the Gators. No other tight end in the SEC has more yards per game than Pitts. Penn State’s Pat Freiemuth being omitted was also slightly surprising. Freiermuth has seven touchdowns, easily more than any other Big Ten tight end this season and tied for third-most in the conference this season.

Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson won the John Mackey Award in 2018. Other past winners of the award include Dallas Clark of Iowa, Tyler Eiffert of Notre Dame, Jake Butt of Michigan, Austin Seferian-Jenkins of Washington, and Aaron Hernandez of Florida.

This year’s Mackey Award winner will be announced on Dec. 11th.