CFT Preseason Top 25: No. 3 Alabama

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2013 record: 11-2 overall, 7-1 in SEC (T-1st in SEC West)
2013 postseason: Sugar Bowl vs. Oklahoma (45-31 loss)
2013 final AP/coaches’ ranking: No. 7/No. 8
Head coach: Nick Saban (165-57 overall; 78-16 in seven years at Alabama)
Offensive coordinator: Lane Kiffin (first season)
2013 offensive rankings: 25th rushing offense (205.6 ypg); 49th passing offense (248.5 ypg); 33rd total offense (454.1 ypg); 17th scoring offense (38.2 ppg)
Returning offensive starters: Eight
Defensive coordinator: Kirby Smart (seventh season)
2013 defensive rankings: 7th rushing defense (106.2 ypg); 11th passing defense (180.3 ypg); 5th total defense (286.5 ypg); fourth scoring defense (13.9 ppg)
Returning defensive starters: Four
Location: Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Stadium: Bryant-Denny Stadium (101,821; Grass)
Last conference title: 2012

THE GOOD
Replacing a three-year starter at quarterback?  Pffft, no problem for a Tide squad that boasts two Top-Five SEC running backs in T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry… and the SEC’s best wide receiver-tight end combination in Amari Cooper and O.J. Howard… and at least three returning starters along the offensive line… and a defense that, despite the return of  just four starters, is littered with four- and five-star recruits throughout the depth chart and will, again, be one of the most stout in the conference… and, hands-down, the best coach in college football in Nick Saban.  In other words, and as they have been for the past few years, the Tide will enter a season as one of the handful of favorites to end the year No. 1.

THE BAD
I wouldn’t necessarily call this “bad,” but still.  Yes, Saban reloads his defense with four- and five-star talent, but the Tide still must replace a whopping seven starters from last year’s Top-10 squad on that side of the ball.  Not only that, three of those starters, all along the defensive line, have had their issues throughout the offseason and on into camp: two with suspensions, one with injury.  There are also experience issues in the secondary, with three starters needing replaced.  Fortunately for what will be a youthful Tide defense, their first three opponents (West Virginia, FAU, Southern Miss) won a total of 11 games last season, with all three finishing 78th or worse in scoring offense nationally.  In other words, the defense will have plenty of time to sort themselves out and gel before facing their first real test in Tuscaloosa against… four-win Florida, which finished T-112th in scoring.  The first real test against a team with more than a Pop Warner offense comes, after a bye, against Ole Miss Oct. 4.  Plenty of time, but still some concern over the inexperience.

THE UNKNOWN
We may have pffft’d replacing AJ McCarron, but it’s easily the biggest unknown heading into the 2014 season.  With less than week left before the start of the regular season, Saban, first-year offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin and the rest of the staff have not yet, at least publicly, settled on Jacob Coker, the Florida State transfer viewed as the presumptive front-runner, or Blake Sims, McCarron’s backup last season, as the starting quarterback.  Most believe that Coker will ultimately prevail, but there’s a possibility the Tide could go a game or two — or three of four — giving each an opportunity to grab the bull by the horns.  Saban said earlier this year that “consistency in performance” would be the key in settling on a starter; throughout the first three weeks or so of summer camp, neither Coker nor Sims has shown the type of consistency Saban has craved during his time in Tuscaloosa.  Back in July, Saban downplayed the Tide’s chances at a College Football Playoff title because of the inexperience at the position — Coker has attempted 41 passes in his career, Sims 39.  Saban’s downplaying comes with an asterisk, however, as the last two times he had a first-time full-time starter at the position — AJ McCarron in 2011, Greg McElroy in 2009 — the Tide won a BCS title.

MAKE-OR-BREAK GAME: Nov. 29 vs. Auburn
It took less than a half a second to work my way through the Tide’s 12 games and settle on this one.  Certainly, the Nov. 8 road trip will be rife with implications both conference-wise and nationally, but this one… this one’s easily the “It” game for both sides this year.  The annual Iron Bowl grudge/hate match would get consideration year-in and year-out regardless of the most recent one played.  After last year?  This one comes in head, shoulders and half a torso above the other 11 games for the Tide.  Of course, the “last year” I referenced was the most memorable play of the 2013 season, “The Kick-Six” at Jordan-Hare that stunned the Tide and propelled the Tigers into the SEC championship game and, ultimately, the BCS title game.  While the coach and his team would never express it publicly, revenge will certainly be on their collective minds as the Tigers make their trek to Tuscaloosa in late November.  This year’s version may not match the drama of last year’s, but it’s still compelling, must-see TV — and could very well determine which team comes out of the SEC West and claims that division’s spot in the SEC championship game, with a spot in the College Football Playoff (likely) riding on all of it.

HEISMAN HOPEFUL: running back T.J. Yeldon
After rushing for 1,235 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, this bruising back has it all: speed, power, change of direction and surprisingly soft hands (20-183) for a man his size.  He is everything Nick Saban wants in a running back.  What he doesn’t have?  Sole ownership of the Tide’s running game load, the kind of ownership that would allow him to put up eye-catching numbers, because of the presence of Derrick Henry.  The reality is Henry is too good of a back and too much of a weapon to not utilize, which means Yeldon could still be one of the most Heisman-worthy players in the country and not have the stats to show it.  Such is life on Saban’s Five-Star Island.

(Click HERE for the CFT 2014 Preseason Preview Repository)

UCF’s 25-game winning streak now longest in all of college football

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When we say a streak, a stat, a side of the ball is the best in college football, typically it’s implied such a statement applies only to FBS. The game’s highest division gobbles up 99.9 percent of the attention, and with good reason — that’s where 99.9 percent of the best players live.

But when we say UCF’s 25-game winning streak is now the longest in college football, it’s actually true now.

Mary Hardin-Baylor (Texas) knocked off Mount Union (Ohio) 24-16 in the Division III National Championship on Friday night, in the process ending the Purple Raiders’ 29-game winning streak and handing UCF the crown.

According to a CFT study, half of the nation’s 10 longest winning streaks reside in the FBS, and with good reason. While the other divisions funnel all their best teams into one bracket in order to find the very best team, FBS puts only four teams in its tournament, allowing UCF to put together two straight unbeaten seasons (minus one game) without competing for the national championship.

Top 10 College Football Winning Streaks
1. UCF — 25 games
2. North Dakota State (FCS) — 20
3(t). Alabama — 15
3(t). Mary Hardin-Baylor (Division III) — 15
3(t). Morningside (NAIA) — 15
3(t). Valdosta State (Division II) — 15
7(t). Clemson — 13
7(t). Notre Dame — 13
9. Princeton (FCS) — 10
10. Army — 8

Certainly the Knights would trade their 25-game winning streak for a shot at Alabama, Clemson and the like, but their consolation prize is the longest winning streak in all of college football — for as long as they keep winning.

Oregon lands commitment from nation’s No. 2 player

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Mario Cristobal got the biggest win of his Oregon head coaching tenure on Saturday, the Ducks don’t play again until New Year’s Eve.

Oregon landed the commitment of 5-star defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux on Saturday, a 6-foot-4, 239-pound defensive end out of Oaks Christian in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Thibodeaux announced his pledge on ESPN during halftime of Utah State’s New Mexico Bowl drubbing of North Texas.

Thibodeaux is rated the No. 1 player in ESPN’s rankings and No. 10 by Rivals and 247Sports. Those rankings put him at No. 2 in the 247Sports Composite rankings, trailing only IMG Academy defensive end Nolan Smith, a Georgia commit.

Oregon beat out Alabama, Florida and Florida State for Thibodeaux’s services.

“There were a lot of reasons why I chose Oregon,” Thibodeaux said, via 247Sports. “I have a great comfort level with the coaching staff and I know I can go in there and get developed. I’ve known coach (Keith) Heyward since I was just a freshman and I really like coach Joe (Salave’a, DL coach) a lot. He’s a great coach, one of the best coaches in the country and I can’t wait to learn from him.

Thibodeaux will be only the third 247Sports Composite top-2 player to sign with a Pac-12 school in the past decade, following USC’s Matt Barkley in 2009 and UCLA’s Jalean Phillips in 2017. As a cautionary tale for all in Eugene, neither player really lived up to his respective billing. Barkely did not lead USC back to the elite of college football and has thrown just 174 passes as a mid-round NFL draft pick, while Phillips is reportedly leaving the team after two seasons at UCLA.

With Thibodeaux now in the fold, Oregon’s 2019 class now ranks No. 5 nationally in the 247Sports Composite team rankings, a 20-man class that includes 11 4-stars and now a 12th blue chip player in Thibodeaux.

Morningside College claims first NAIA national title

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A 16-yard touchdown pass from Trent Solsma to Connor Niles with 1:29 remaining handed Morningside College its first NAIA national championship on Saturday, capping a 35-28 win over Benedictine in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Morningside College is located Sioux Falls, Iowa, while Benedictine College is in Atchison, Kan.

The Solsma-to-Niles connection was massive for Morningside. Solsma completed 19-of-36 passes for 292 yards and four touchdowns and two interceptions, with the bulk of the damage going to Niles, who caught seven passes for 164 yards and three touchdowns.

The game started with a Shaefer Schuetz 26-yard touchdown pass for Benedictine, as the Ravens held leads of 7-0, 14-7 and 20-14 — all in the first half. But the Morningside defense stepped up in the second half, allowing the Mustangs to take control of the game with two Solsma touchdown passes, the first an 80-yarder to Niles, then a 19-yard score to Reid Jurgensmeier, putting Morningside in front 28-20 at the 9:53 mark of the third quarter.

Benedictine forged the game’s third tie with a 1-yard Frank Trent rush with 5:49 remaining in the fourth quarter, then had a chance to take the lead again after forcing a Morningside punt, but a holding call killed the Ravens’ drive and then disaster struck when a botched punt snap handed Morningside the ball at the Benedictine 18-yard line with two minutes remaining. On a 3rd-and-8 from the 16, Solsma found Niles for the winning score.

“It was going to him no matter what,” Solsma said. “He’s made big plays his entire career. This was no different.”

Niles’ catch, the last of his career, saw him finish with 6,175 career receiving yards, the most in NAIA history.

“I just remember catching it and then going to my knees,” Niles said. “After that, it was all cameras and teammates mobbing me. This is absolutely amazing.”

Morningside had been on the cusp of their first national title for the majority of the decade; the Mustangs lost the NAIA title game in 2012 and then fell in the NAIA semifinals in four of the past five seasons. The semifinal round saw Morningside avenge its 2016 and ’17 playoff losses to the University of Saint Francis — who would go on to win those seasons’ national titles — in a 34-28 overtime thriller.

“I’ve been motivated to not let this season end,” Morningside head coach Steve Ryan said. “The toughest part for me was that, at the end of the night, the year would be over. I’m so proud of what they’ve accomplished. It ended the way we were hoping … I’m ecstatic.”

Report: Former No. 1 recruit Jaelan Phillips leaves team at UCLA

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UCLA linebacker Jaelan Phillips has left the team and is unlikely to return, according to a report from BruinReportOnline.

Phillips, a Redlands, Calif., native, was the No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2017, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings. He enrolled in January of that year but has yet to make an impact one would expect of the top overall player in his class. He started his first game as a Bruin as well as three more in 2017 and finished the year with 21 tackles, seven TFLs and 3.5 sacks.

He appeared in just four games as a sophomore, posting 20 tackles with one sack, while battling a number of injuries.

According to the report, Phillips is considering quitting football altogether, but if he does transfer and play elsewhere — he would have two years of eligibility remaining — it would be at a school that offers a music production/technology degree, which UCLA does not.