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

SWAC moving conference title game “permanently” on-campus after issues last season

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The Birmingham, Alabama area may be more well known for hosting SEC Media Days this week but the city was also the epicenter of another kickoff event in the SWAC’s annual media day on Tuesday.

And in contrast to their FBS friends down the road in Hoover, the SWAC actually had a bit of pertinent news to discuss in announcing that the league’s annual conference title game in football is moving away from a neutral site going forward.

“The permanent home of the SWAC championship will be on the campus of the higher seed,” commissioner Dr. Charles McClelland said, according to the Baton Rouge Advocate.

McClelland reportedly said several cities bid on hosting the game in the future but the lessons of 2018 had to be a big factor in the league sticking with the home-hosted model adopted by just about everybody outside of the FBS Power Five conferences. Last year the SWAC was forced to move their game on-campus from Legion Field after UAB won their CUSA division and had a chance to host their respective league title game.

Legion Field and the Blazers didn’t wind up actually hosting the CUSA title game but the simple threat of it happening pushed the SWAC out after the league had made a big deal about returning to Birmingham for the game after five years away.

The SWAC and its member schools will still have to worry about last minute location changes for their Dec. 7 title tilt but at least now it will be of their own making and not somebody else’s.

Pair of Eastern Washington players who were shot are out of the hospital, expect to play in 2019

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After a scary incident over the weekend in Spokane, two Eastern Washington football players were released from the hospital earlier this week and appear well on their way to making a full recovery despite some life-threatening injuries sustained in a shooting.

Per The Spokesman-Review, safety Dehonta Hayes was discharged on Saturday evening and defensive lineman Keith Moore was released on Monday after both were shot.

“Keith had broken up a fight outside and the guys took off running,” Hayes told the paper. “I was outside looking for my car keys, and as I got to my car door that was locked, I walked away and heard two pops. They shot at us.”

Despite the serious nature of things, each player still expects to contribute for the Eagles this year after both were listed as a starter coming into 2019. Hayes, who remarkably confirmed he still has a bullet that remains in his neck (!!!), said he’ll be back by camp on August 1st. Moore, who took one to the chest, will return closer to the end of the month.

It goes without saying that both guys are incredibly lucky to not only survive a shooting with those injuries, but to be able to bounce-back and play football just over a month later.

Doak Walker Award releases 2019 watch list

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On Tuesday, we admired the Davey O’Brien Award’s restraint when it came to its watch list. The reason we did that was evident Wednesday, when the Doak Walker Award dropped its watch list.

A whopping 71 players are on alert to be proclaimed the nation’s top running back, compared to yesterday’s 30 quarterbacks. Basically — with one notable exception — if you’ve got a clear starter, he made the list.

The notable exception? Kansas’ Pooka Williams, perhaps because the selectors are concerned that missing the Indiana State game will hurt his numbers that badly.

Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor won the honor in 2018 and he’s back to defend it this year, which would make him the third player in the 30-year history of the award to repeat, joining Texas’ Ricky Williams (1997-98) and Arkansas’ Darren McFadden (2006-07). Taylor is the fourth Badger to win the Doak Walker, following Ron Dayne (1999), Montee Ball (2012) and Melvin Gordon (2014).

In addition to Taylor, returning finalist Travis Etienne (Clemson) made the list, alongside 2018 semifinalists Eno Benjamin (Arizona State), AJ Dillon (Boston College) and JJ Taylor (Arizona).

Ten semifinalists will be named in November, and three finalists will be announced Nov. 20. The winner will be named during the college football awards show on Dec. 12.

The full watch list is below:

Cam Akers, Florida State
Darius Anderson, TCU
Jafar Armstrong, Notre Dame
LaVante Bellamy, Western Michigan
Eno Benjamin, Arizona State
Max Borghi, Washington State
Isaiah Bowser, Northwestern
Rakeem Boyd, Arkansas
Darius Bradwell, Tulane
Shamari Brooks, Tulsa
Spencer Brown, UAB
Brittain Brown, Duke
Cade Carney, Wake Forest
Michael Carter, North Carolina
Ty Chandler, Tennessee
Andrew Clair, Bowling Green
Jashaun Corbin, Texas A&M
Reggie Corbin, Illinois
AJ Dillon, Boston College
J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State
Travis Dye, Oregon
Travis Etienne , Clemson
Darrynton Evans, Appalachian State
Dayton Furuta, Hawaii
Tre Harbison, Northern Illinois
Najee Harris, Alabama
Kylin Hill, Mississippi State
Jerry Howard, Jr., Georgia Tech
Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State
Mohamed Ibrahim, Minnesota
Keaontay Ingram, Texas
Deon Jackson, Duke
Jermar Jefferson, Oregon State
Tony Jones, Jr., Notre Dame
Lopini Katoa, BYU
Joshua Kelley, UCLA
Bryant Koback, Toledo
Benny LeMay, Charlotte
Vavae Malepeai, USC
Kam Martin, Auburn
Jordan Mason, Georgia Tech
Greg McCrae, UCF
Anthony McFarland, Jr., Maryland
Tra Minter, South Alabama
Elijah Mitchell, Louisiana
Marcel Murray, Arkansas State
Moe Neal, Syracuse
Jaret Patterson, Buffalo
Lamical Perine, Florida
Scottie Phillips, Ole Miss
Trey Ragas, Louisiana
Ronnie Rivers, Fresno State
Larry Rountree III, Missouri
Mekhi Sargent, Iowa
Cameron Scarlett, Stanford
Stevie Scott III, Indiana
BJ Smith, Troy
Rodney Smith, Minnesota
Kesean Strong, Old Dominion
D’Andre Swift, Georgia
Toa Taua, Nevada
Corey Taylor II, Tulsa
J.J. Taylor, Arizona
Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin
Patrick Taylor, Memphis
DeAndre Torrey, North Texas
Breck Turner, Eastern Michigan
KeShawn Vaughn, Vanderbilt
CJ Verdell, Oregon
Quardraiz Wadley, UTEP
Michael Warren II, Cincinnati
Devwah Whaley, Arkansas

Alabama blames Clemson blowout on lack of preparation, focus

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Wouldn’t you have loved to be a fly on the wall in Alabama’s football offices as the Crimson Tide prepared for the national championship game against Clemson? How great would it be to be inside the inside, to know exactly how Nick Saban and his charges planned to attack Trevor Lawrence and neutralize the Tigers’ vaunted defensive line?

Well, to hear Alabama tell it six months after the fact, any flies inside the Mal Moore Athletic Complex in early January wouldn’t have seen any football prep at all. It seems the Tide actually spent the nine days between their Orange Bowl victory over Oklahoma and their title game whupping at Clemson’s hand playing XBox and planning their summer vacations.

Saban expanded on that point in his time at the podium.

But I think that our players learned a lot from that experience. I think that we didn’t play with the discipline at the end of the season that we’d like to have as a team. I don’t think that our preparation, so that we can go in a game and be very responsible and accountable to do our job at a high level on a consistent basis, was what it needed to be.

And you know, whether or not people were worried about personal outcomes more than team outcomes, it’s always hard to judge that. But it seems like we had a lot of distractions at the end of the year. So hopefully we learned from those scenarios, and it will help us do the things that we need to do to be able to play to our full potential throughout this season.

And the head coach wasn’t the only one. Tide linebacker Dylan Moses said the club apparently didn’t prepare like their opponent was a 14-0 team that had won nine straight games by at least 20 points.

This has been a theme under Saban: any time Alabama loses a bowl game, it’s because it just wasn’t motivated and/or concerned about their next destination, whether it be the NFL draft or the next coaching job.

And, to be fair, there’s certainly a grain of truth in that. The coaching carousel spins all throughout December — remember, the 2016 loss to Clemson was blamed on Lane Kiffin‘s inability to juggle his dual jobs as Alabama’s offensive coordinator and Florida Atlantic’s head coach — and it would be impossible to not think about the possible life-changing event that is the NFL draft process lurking just around the corner.

But everyone goes through that stuff, not just Alabama.

Yes, Alabama was surely distracted, but this trope is evident of Alabama’s, and Nick Saban‘s specifically, apparent inability to come out and say, “We got beat by a better team.”

But, hey, maybe we’re reading too much into all this. Maybe Alabama’s coaches were really on Zillow when they should have been looking at film. After all, the 44-16 final score certainly tells the story of one team that was prepared to play and another that wasn’t.