CFT Preseason Top 25: No. 8 Auburn

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2013 record: 12-2 overall, 7-1 in SEC (1st in West division)
2013 postseason: BCS title game vs. Florida State (34-31 loss)
2013 final AP/coaches’ ranking: No. 2/No. 2
Head coach: Gus Malzahn (21-5 overall; 12-2 in one year at Auburn)
Offensive coordinator: Rhett Lashlee (second season); Dameyune Craig (second season as co-coordinator)
2013 offensive rankings: 1st rushing offense (328.3 ypg); 106th passing offense (173 ypg); 11th total offense (501.3 ypg); 12th scoring offense (39.5 ppg)
Returning offensive starters: 7
Defensive coordinator: Ellis Johnson (second season); Charlie Harbison (second season as co-coordinator)
2013 defensive rankings: 62nd rushing defense (162.1 ypg); 100th passing defense (258.6 ypg); 86th total defense (420.7 ypg); 48th scoring defense (24.7 ppg)
Returning defensive starters: 6
Location: Auburn, Ala.
Stadium: Jordan-Hare Stadium (87,451; grass)
Last conference title: 2013

THE GOOD
No one was able to control the Tigers’ powerful rushing attack and, even with the departure of its leading rusher, that’s expected to continue on into 2014 and the second season in Gus Malzahn‘s fast-paced, relentless offense.  Having Nick Marshall, expected to be much improved in the passing-game aspect, in his second season as a starter should help soften the blow that was running back Tre Mason‘s departure for the NFL.  As AU goes from the hunter to the hunted, it’ll be incumbent on Marshall to take that next step, one his head coach feels he’s ready to do.

THE BAD
When you have as magical ride as AU did last season there’s not a whole heck of a lot of bad going on, but the defense was, at the very least, suspect during that run to Pasadena.  They were in the bottom half of the country in yards allowed per game, although they were in the top half in the most important stat: points allowed.  That, though, was only good for eighth in the SEC.  In fairness, it was the Tigers’ first season under coordinator Ellis Johnson, so the expectation is that just based on familiarity with the scheme the defense will improve.  The good news is that there’s really nowhere for that group to go but up, especially as it relates to the rest of the SEC.  There’s also the little matter of the schedule as AU has conference road games scheduled for Mississippi State (Oct. 11), Ole Miss (Nov. 1), Georgia (Nov. 15) and Alabama (Nov. 29) to go along with a non-conference tilt at underrated Kansas State.  AU won’t sneak up on anyone this season, so they will get every team’s best, most concentrated shot, especially on the road.

THE UNKNOWN
(Writer’s note: pardon me while I repeat myself)
There’s no way around it, no way to tap-dance whilst whistling past the biggest question when it comes to AU football in 2014 — did the Tigers use a couple of years (decades?) worth of luck in their magical, unexpected, inexplicable ride to the BCS title game?  Even the biggest homer out on The Plains would have to admit that the Tigers were “fortunate” to end the season where they did.  Of their 12 wins, six were decided by eight points or less.  In four games — Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Georgia, Alabama — they were trailing with less than five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.  The Georgia (“Prayer at Jordan-Hare“) and Alabama (“Kick-Six“) wins immediately earned nicknames for the sheer improbability of the endings.  There’s little doubt that Malzahn has, very quickly, turned AU around from the three-win embarrassment that was the final season of Gene Chizik in 2012.  How much was sheer luck, the kind of once-a-decade (or two) happenstance that simply can’t repeat itself?  Regardless of the answer — I’m guessing the talent is sufficient so as to make the question mostly moot — Malzahn’s Tigers will be one of the more fascinating squads to watch throughout the 2014 season.

MAKE-OR-BREAK GAME: at Alabama Nov. 29
As Auburn and Alabama are expected to be the class of the SEC West, it only makes sense to put the season-ending Iron Bowl in this slot.  Last year’s dramatic, last-second win over the Tide that propelled the Tigers into the SEC championship game and, ultimately, the BCS title game was one of the most exhilarating and improbable in the storied history of the rivalry.  UA will have revenge on its mind as the Tide looks to get back on the national championship stage after its one-year sabbatical in 2013.  More than likely, the winner of this game will claim the West’s spot in the SEC championship game and, perhaps, a spot in the four-team playoff.  So, yes, this will be one of the more anticipated games of the year — provided both teams can make it to the game unscathed, of course.

HEISMAN HOPEFUL: Quarterback Nick Marshall
Marshall’s first season as a starter wasn’t statistically overwhelming — less than 2,000 yards passing, just 14 touchdown passes — but it was deadly in its efficiency. Marijuana citation aside, Marshall is said to have had a very good offseason, improving his throwing mechanics and becoming more and more comfortable in Gus Malzahn‘s offense. If true, and if the passing aspect of his game improves — as evidenced by his 1,068 yards rushing and 12 rushing touchdowns, he’ll continue to get his on the ground — that could prove to be bad news for the SEC in general and the West specifically. Thanks to the departure of their leading rusher, the Tigers will likely lean even more heavily on both Marshall’s arm and legs; as far as his Heisman chances go, that’s certainly good news.  Hell, one teammate has even already called his stiff-armed shot for Marshall, so he’s got that going for him.  Which is nice.

(Click HERE for the CFT 2014 Preseason Preview Repository)

“Unfortunate injury” sends LSU freshman offensive lineman to possible season-ending surgery

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LSU head coach Ed Orgeron fears he may have just lost one of his promising new offensive linemen for the 2019 season before it ever gets started. Kendall Thomas will have surgery following an injury suffered in practice last week, Orgeron announced. While Orgeron did not officially say Thomas has been lost for the year, he suggested that may be the result.

“I don’t know if he’s out for the year, but I know he’s getting surgery,” Orgeron said, according to The Advocate. “I think he probably he is. I haven’t heard the final result on that, but he is getting surgery.”

Orgeron called the injury an unfortunate injury due to how it happened. Thomas reportedly had been hit from behind. He had just returned to practice after missing some earlier practices due to a minor injury experienced during camp, although the details of that injury were not revealed.

Thomas was a blue-chip recruit in LSU’s Class of 2019 according to 247 Sports. The recruiting outlet ranked Thomas, a Baton Rouge native, as the fourth-best offensive guard in the nation and the fourth-best player in the state of Louisiana. His commitment to LSU was a strong gain for the Tigers as Orgeron looks to lock down the state’s top prospects on the recruiting trail. Thomas had been committed to the Tigers since July 2016. He was expected to step right into a key role on the offensive line this fall.

If Thomas is out for the year, he can use the 2019 season as a redshirt year. That would give him four years of eligibility remaining beginning in 2020. If he does return in 2019 and plays in four games or fewer, he can also preserve his redshirt year under the NCAA’s revised redshirt rule that went into effect last season.

Oregon suffers two more injury woes at wide receiver

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It has been a rough few days for the Oregon wide receiver unit in camp. A pair of injuries to wide receivers have hampered the possible depth just a little bit to start the new college football season. Freshman wide receiver JR Waters underwent surgery for a foot injury and Mycah Pittman suffered a shoulder injury during a scrimmage this weekend, according to reports from The Oregonian.

Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal confirmed Waters will be out of action for the next four to six weeks. That timeline will keep Waters out of the mix for the season opener against Auburn in Arlington, Texas in Week 1. Being out for four weeks would make the earliest possible return for Waters come in Week 3 against Montana or the following week for the Pac-12 opener at Stanford. Being out for six weeks would mean Waters may be back for the beginning of October when Oregon hosts Cal on Oct. 5). Oregon has a bye week before facing Cal in Eugene.

Pittman’s status is unknown at this time. The Class of 2019 addition landed on his shoulder during the scrimmage while completing a catch, which Cristobal made sure to note when addressing the injury with the media. Whether he misses any practice time or game time once the season starts has not been discussed at this time.

Earlier this month, Oregon lost receiver Brenden Schooler for 6-8 weeks due to a foot injury. He is recovering from surgery to address the injury. With an NFL-hopeful quarterback in Justin Herbert leading the offense, the Ducks will hope to have their top targets on the field as quickly as possible before it potentially ends up costing them something on the field.

The last time the Pittsburgh Panthers won the national championship…

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In the year the nation celebrated its bicentennial, the Pitt Panthers heading into the college football season with some lofty expectations. Head coach Johnny Majors had one of his best teams and the Panthers started the year ranked in the AP top 10 for the first time since 1960. It was a long time coming, but with Tony Dorsett at running back and a defense equipped to make their own steel curtain similar to the glory days of the Pittsburgh Steelers at the time, the Panthers were ready to pounce on a national title.

The 1976 season opened with a bang. No. 9 Pitt defeated No. 11 Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana by a score fo 31-10 on national television. The new polls bumped the Panthers up to No. 3 and the national title race was officially on for the Panthers. A blowout win at Georgia Tech and a home-opening victory over Temple moved Pitt to 3-0 with the defense allowing no more than 14 points in each of the first three games of the season. The defense had their hands full on the road against Duke, but the Blue Devils were unable to ruin a magical run.

After things went off the rails a bit on the road against Duke, Pitt continued their undefeated run with the defense anchoring down the rest of the way. Only three teams managed to score in the double digits against the Panthers after Oct. 2, and Dorsett went on a run to take home the Heisman Trophy along the way.

Dorsett cleaned up on the award circuit in 1976. In addition to the Heisman Trophy, Dorsett took home the Maxwell Award, Walter Camp Award and the UPI Player of the Year. Dorsett rushed for 2,150 yards in the 11-game regular season to finish his collegiate career with 6,082 rushing yards. At the time, that stood as the new NCAA career rushing record and it lasted until 1998 when Ricky Williams of Texas eclipsed the record mark.

The strength of schedule argument was not a great one for the Panthers in 1976 with the regular season being bookended by the only ranked opponents on the schedule (the previously mentioned Irish and No. 16 Penn State in the regular-season finale). A 24-7 victory over the rival Nittany Lions capped a perfect regular season for No. 1 Pittsburgh, setting them up for a chance to play for the first national title in school history since 1937. In an era long before the College Football Playoff, or even the BCS, Pitt was pair3d up with No. 5 Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. The Rose Bowl featured No. 2 Michigan and No. 3 USC, and the Cotton Bowl got to feature No. 4 Maryland against No. 6 Houston. That left the Sugar Bowl to feature the top-ranked Panthers and No. 5 Georgia, champions of the SEC. Dorsett once again shined and helped Pitt remain undefeated to claim its first national title since 1937. Leading 14-0 in the second quarter, Dorsett took off to put Pittsburgh up by three touchdowns with a run off to the right side of the field. There was no coming back from that for the Bulldogs.

Generations have come and gone since Pitt’s national championship victory, and the landscape of Pittsburgh football has certainly evolved along with the entire college football landscape. Here’s a look at what was going on the last time the Panthers won it all.

Last National Championship: 1976 (43 years and counting)

Who was President?

Gerald Ford was in his final year in the White House. With Bob Dole as his running mate, Ford would lose the 1976 presidential election to Jimmy Carter.

Current president Donald Trump was a year away from marrying his first wife, Ivana Zelníčková. In 1976, Trump began his run in Manhattan real estate with a 50 percent stake in the Commodore Hotel, paid for in largely by a loan from his father Fred Trump.

What was on TV?

Heeeeeyyyyyyy. The Fonz was leading the TV ratings with Happy Days being the nation’s top-rated TV show, followed by Laverne & ShirleyM*A*S*H was in its prime during the middle of its run on TV as well.

America was also tuning into shows such as The Six Million Dollar Man and Three’s Company.

Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michael went on the air to try getting The Beatles together for a reunion. His (satirical) efforts would go unrewarded, although the offer of $3,000 for the reunion was fun while it lasted. 1976 was the second year Saturday Nigth Live was on the air live from New York.

1976 also marked the second year on the air for popular game show Wheel of Fortune. But one other popular game show that went on the air for the first time in 1976 was Family Feud.

Cable network Showtime went on the air for the first time, although only in California.

What movies were hot?

Yo, Adrian!

Sylvester Stallone was a big winner on the big screen in 1976 with “Rocky.” Not only did “Rocky” revolutionize the training montage, but the film went on to dominate the top spot in the box office and win an Academy Award. And before we can continue, it is mandated that we must share one training montage.

There were certainly some other notable movies in 1976 as well, including “Taxi Driver” and the first remake of “A Star is Born.” Alfred Hitchcock’s final film, “Family Plot” was release din 1976 to bring a close to the legendary filmmaker’s career. It was also the end of an era for John Wayne, who appeared in his final film, “The Shootist.”

As far as sports movies go, “Rocky” led the way, but we also got “The Bad News Bears” on the big screen too.

Filming on a science fiction movie also began in 1976 directed by an early George Lucas. That movie would end up being “Star Wars.”

What else happened in 1976?

The conference championship picture in 1976 was messy around the country. Other than the ACC (Maryland) and Pac-8 (USC), there were split conference titles all over the place. The Big Eight had a three-way tie with Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Colorado. The Big Ten title was split between Michigan and Ohio State. Georgia and Kentucky shared the SEC title, and Houston and Texas Tech split the Southwest Conference title. BYU and Wyoming shared the WAC championship and Brown and Yale split the Ivy League championship.

Current Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi was 10 years old. Current Alabama head coach Nick Saban was coaching up the linebackers at his alma mater, Kent State, in his fourth season as an assistant head coach. Former Pitt tight end Mike Ditka was in his fourth season as an assistant coach with the Dallas Cowboys. He would be named head coach of the Chicago Bears six years later.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were the reigning Super Bowl champions heading into the 1976 season after their victory over the Dallas Cowboys, but the Oakland Raiders were on their way to a Super Bowl title over the Minnesota Vikings during the 1976 season. The NFL also expanded with the addition of the Seattle Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Each has won a Super Bowl more recently than Pitt own the national title.

The Big Red Machine of the Cincinnati Reds swept the New York Yankees in the World Series. Also taking place in Yankee Stadium that year was Muhammad Ali topping Ken Norton in 15 rounds for the World Heavyweight title.

Can Pitt still be it?

After winning it all in 1976, Majors returned to his alma mater of Tennessee to serve as the head coach of the Vols until 1992. His replacement, Jackie Sherrill, kept the good times rolling for the Panthers from 1977 through 1981 but Sherrill failed to get some of the best teams in program history to celebrate another national title. Pitt has not won a major bowl game since the 1981 season. Majors eventually returned to the Panthers in 1993 after being forced to resign at Tennessee, giving way to offensive coordinator Phillip Fulmer. The glory days of Pitt football had already vanished and could never be recaptured in the short return of Majors. A record of 12-32 was a far cry from the first stint of Majors, and he moved on to serve in a different role in the athletics department.

Since finishing the 1981 season at No. 4 in the final AP poll, the Panthers have finished in the AP top 25 just six times. Just once in that span have the Panthers reached the 10-win mark in any given season. Despite playing for its first ACC Championship last season, the ceiling has been lowered dramatically for the Panthers. Can Pitt climb back to national relevance? Nothing is impossible, but the game has changed and in many ways, Pitt has lost some advantages other programs have to offer from facilities to gameday atmosphere and more. Pitt has sprinkled in some good moments that have played a role in the national title picture (just ask West Virginia) but envisioning the Panthers going on a run like they did from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s may be foggy at best.

Wisconsin QB decision still looming with season approaching

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One of the biggest questions for Wisconsin in 2019 as the Badgers look to climb back to the top of the Big Ten West is who will be the starting quarterback. With the new season now two weeks away in Madison, head coach Paul Chryst isn’t ready to spill the beans on that topic. However, although he may have a better feel for the direction he intends to go, Chryst may not feel the urge to share the news publicly.

According to Wisconsin beat reporter Jim Polzin of the Wisconsin State Journal, Chryst may make his call following a closed scrimmage scheduled for Monday.

The top two leading candidates for the job are Jack Coan and freshman Graham Mertz. Coan has been expected to be the likely replacement for Alex Hornibrook in Madison this season after Hornibrook left Wisconsin and transferred to Florida State, but the arrival of one of the top quarterback recruits has kept the competition ongoing until a decision needs to be made. Coan played in five games for Wisconsin last season, in which he completed 60.2 percent of his pass attempts for 515 yards and five touchdowns with three interceptions.

Mertz likely is the long-term solution for Wisconsin, but the question of how ready he is for the college game is the concern. This is especially the case given Wisconsin has a difficult Big Ten schedule on tap that begins with a game against the Michigan Wolverines in September.

It’s also entirely possible Chryst uses the early non-conference games to give both options a chance to play and use the bye week in Week 3 as the deadline to make a final decision. Such a move is not too uncommon even if it is the less ideal path to reaching a final decision. But the age of freshmen being unable to step in and have an impact on the field is a thing of the past. If Mertz can step in and make some noise, he could end up being the guy for the Badgers as early as this season. For now, Coan is probably still the leader in the clubhouse, even if that means there is a short leash.

Wisconsin opens the 2019 season on the road on Friday, Aug. 30 with a game at USF in Tampa. Wisconsin’s home opener will be played the following weekend on Sept. 7 against Central Michigan.