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CFT Previews: Your Dec. 19 Bowl Viewer’s Guide

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Taking a quick-hit look at the Dec. 19 bowl menu, which on “opening weekend” features five bowl games as the 2015 postseason officially kicks off.  Included in that quintet of contests is one bowl making its debut, another in just its second year as well as the holiest of Beehive State wars.

WHO: Arizona (6-6) vs. New Mexico (7-5)
WHAT: The 10th Gildan New Mexico Bowl
WHERE: University Stadium, Albuquerque, New Mexico
WHEN: 2 p.m. ET on ESPN
THE SKINNY: The uncertainty over the availability of Arizona starting quarterback Anu Solomon (concussion) has some sportsbooks, including the one we use for lines, Bovada.lv, taking the game off the board.  If Solomon is healthy, the Wildcats would likely be double-digit favorites; without him, one could make a very good case for the Lobos.  In fact, the Wildcats went 0-3 in games that Solomon either didn’t start or didn’t finish because of injury.  Even with Solomon on the field for most of the last five games, though, UA still lost four of those.  UNM, meanwhile, comes into its first bowl berth since 2007 on a high, finishing out the season with wins over bowl-bound Utah State (6-6), Boise State (8-4) and Mountain Division champion Air Force (8-5).  The combination of how both teams finished the season, the uncertainty over Solomon and ‘Zona likely feeling underwhelmed with its postseason lot has a very motivated Lobos squad primed for an upset.
THE LINE: Off the board
THE PREDICTION: New Mexico 33, Arizona 27

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WHO: BYU (9-3) vs. Utah (9-3)
WHAT: The 24th Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl
WHERE: Sam Boyd Stadium, Whitney, Nevada
WHEN: 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC
THE SKINNY: This promises to be one of the best “non-marquee” bowl games of the 2015-16 cycle because not only are both teams coming into it with nine wins but because of the whole “Holy War” aspect, and in Sin City no less.  The two football programs have been on a sabbatical the last two seasons in a rivalry that’s seen 89 previous matchups, but will resume in the regular season beginning next season and running through 2020.  The Utes have won four straight in the series and nine of the last 12 meetings dating back to 2002.  The Cougars’ situation is somewhat muddled as their long-time head coach, Bronco Mendenhall, has accepted the same job at Virginia but will coach his “former” team in the bowl game.  After beginning the season 6-0 and with playoff talk dancing in their heads, the Utes muddled through the remainder of the schedule at 3-3.  Here’s to guessing the Cougars, winners of seven of their last eight, add to their rival’s late-season misery and send their old coach with off with his first bowl win since 2012 — especially if words can be used as motivation.
THE LINE: BYU, +3
THE PREDICTION: BYU 27, Utah 23

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WHO: Ohio (8-4) vs. Appalachian State (10-2)
WHAT: The 2nd Raycom Media Camelia Bowl
WHERE: Cramton Bowl, Montgomery, Alabama
WHEN: 5:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
THE SKINNY: There were 21 teams that won 10 or more games during the 2015 regular/championship season; I’d bet you could make some pretty decent coin regarding Appalachian State’s inclusion in that select group.  And ASU’s two losses this year came against top-ranked Clemson in Death Valley and 2015 Sun Belt Conference champion Arkansas State.  Ohio University, not to be confused with Brady Hoke‘s derisive “Ohio” directed at Ohio State, had a near-perfect start to the season at 5-1, with the only loss coming by three at Minnesota… before they lost three in a row (two by a combined 66 points)… before they regrouped to win their last three by a combined 49 points.  The Bobcats are looking for their first bowl win since 2012, while the Mountaineers are playing in their first bowl game as an FBS program.  ASU is a touchdown favorite… and even that might be a little on the short side.
THE LINE: Ohio, +7½
THE PREDICTION: Appalachian State 45, Ohio 24

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WHO: San Jose State (5-7) vs. Georgia State (6-6)
WHAT: The 1st Cure Bowl
WHERE: Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Florida
WHEN: 7 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network
THE SKINNY: If you like underdog stories, tune into this one.  Georgia State went 3-29 from the beginning of the 2013 (first FBS season) through the eighth game of the 2015 season.  The Panthers then ripped off four straight wins — by double digits in each, no less — to close out the year and reach a level 6-6 to become bowl-eligible.  GSU’s Nick Arbuckle, one of the most prolific quarterbacks you’ve probably never heard of, is currently sixth in the country in passing yards with 4,160.  Its head coach, Trent Miles (pictured), will very likely be one of the hot names on the 2016 spinning of the coaching carousel.  As for San Jose State?  I have zero desire to discuss a sub-.500 team that doesn’t deserve a bowl bid.  And this isn’t to pick on the Spartans; rather, this will be a running theme throughout these types of posts when it comes to 5-7 teams getting an unwarranted and undeserved invitation to the postseason. [/steps off soapbox]
THE LINE: Georgia State, +3
THE PREDICTION: Georgia State 31, San Jose State 21

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WHO: Arkansas State (9-3) vs. Louisiana Tech (8-4)
WHAT: The 15th R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl
WHERE: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, Louisiana
WHEN: 9 p.m. ET on ESPN
THE SKINNY: Arkansas State lost its first two games of the 2015 season (USC, Missouri) then won nine of its last 10 to become the first team in Sun Belt history to go unblemished in conference play.  Louisiana Tech features the potent one-two punch of former Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel (14th nationally in passing yards with 3,575, 26th in pass efficiency) and touchdown machine Kenneth Dixon (83 career scores, tied for second all-time among FBS players).  One thing to keep in mind if you’re the wagering type when it comes to Driskel’s success through the air this season: the Red Wolves are currently 95th nationally against the pass, giving up an average of 251.9 yards per game; Driskel was held under that number just twice in 2015.  ASU did intercept 26 passes this season (No. 1 in the country), and Driskel tossed three in a season-ending loss to Southern Miss, so there is that if you’re on the Red Wolves side.
THE LINE: Arkansas State, +2
THE PREDICTION: Louisiana Tech 48, Arkansas State 45

As expected, Ohio State names Justin Fields starting QB

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We all knew it was going to happen the day he was granted immediate eligibility back in February but it finally became official on Monday: Justin Fields is Ohio State’s starting quarterback.

Change has been the only constant inside the Ohio State quarterback room over the past nine months, as Dwayne Haskins unexpectedly went pro, Urban Meyer retired, Ryan Day was promoted from the QB room to the big chair, Mike Yurcich was hired away from Oklahoma State to coach the Buckeyes’ quarterbacks, Fields transferred in, Tate Martell and Matthew Baldwin transferred out, and the Buckeyes added Kentucky transfer Gunnar Hoak to pair with the Georgia transfer fields and West Virginia transfer Chris Chugunov.

Day insisted Fields would not be handed the Ohio State job and, perhaps to the dismay of Ohio State’s fortunes this season, it took him most of training camp to fend off Hoak.

Still, we all knew Fields was going to be Ohio State’s starter, just as we all knew Kyler Murray was going to start for Oklahoma last year no matter how much Lincoln Riley insisted otherwise. A word of caution, though: Don’t assume Fields will produce Murray-level results. This was indeed a battle for Fields to win the job.

A 5-star recruit in the class of 2018, Fields appeared in 12 games as a true freshman for the Bulldogs. He completed 27-of-39 passes for 328 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions while rushing 42 times for 266 yards and four touchdowns… and one ill-fated fake punt attempt.

Fields will have three seasons of eligibility for the Buckeyes, a career that will officially begin with the first snap against against Florida Atlantic on Aug. 31 (noon ET, FOX).

Clemson, Alabama top preseason AP Top 25

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This won’t come as a shock to you, but Clemson and Alabama will begin 2019 where they finished 2018 — as the top two teams in the nation. The two programs to win the sport’s last four national championships are overwhelmingly favored to extend their combined streak to five, with the three programs nipping at their heels — Georgia, Oklahoma and Ohio State — rounding out the top five.

Clemson’s nod as the No. 1 team ended Alabama’s streak of three consecutive years as the preseason No. 1. The Tide, however, continue their streak of 11 straight seasons inside the AP’s preseason top-5. Ohio State has started seven straight seasons inside the AP top-6.

At the bottom of the poll, Nebraska got by far the benefit of the doubt. The Huskers shook off their 4-8 record of 2018 to check in at No. 24, becoming the first team since Alabama in 2000-01 to lose eight games in one season and appear in the AP preseason Top 25 the next.

Michigan is also a big beneficiary, as the Wolverines leaped from No. 14 in the final 2018 poll to No. 7 today. Nine teams from the final AP top-10 of 2018 returned, as the Wolverines replaced Washington State, No. 10 to close 2018, who fell all the way to No. 23.

The full poll:

1. Clemson — 1,540 total points
2. Alabama — 1,496
3. Georgia — 1,403
4. Oklahoma — 1,331
5. Ohio State — 1,261
6. LSU — 1,199
7. Michigan — 1,164
8. Florida — 1,054
9. Notre Dame — 1,044
10. Texas — 1,005
11. Oregon — 860
12. Texas A&M — 852
13. Washington — 786
14. Utah — 772
15. Penn State — 651
16. Auburn — 578
17. UCF — 410
18. Michigan State — 377
19. Wisconsin — 370
20. Iowa — 330
21. Iowa State — 302
22. Syracuse — 209
23. Washington State — 200
24. Nebraska — 154
25. Stanford — 141

CFT Previews: A six pack of must-see games

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The directive said to write about a six pack of must-see games for the upcoming season, but since I’m the one doing the typing here, I’m going to alter the directive a bit and write exclusively about non-conference games here. Spoiler alert: Texas-OU, Michigan-Ohio State and Alabama-LSU are going to be important again this year.

Let’s talk, in no particular order, about the important games that don’t happen every year.

Miami vs. Florida (Aug. 24, 7 p.m. ET on ESPN, at Orlando): We’re not just including this because it’s the first. This one has real, juicy football implications. Riding a 4-game winning streak to end last season, Florida has generated tons of optimism this season. Well, let’s see how long that optimism sticks around when the Gators’ re-tooled offensive line goes up against the nation’s No. 1 passing defense from a year ago. Remember, Florida scored 16.3 points per game in its three losses last season. On the other side of the ball, it’s redshirt freshman Jarren Williamsfirst start, while N’Kosi Perry and Tate Martell wait for him to throw his first incompletion. If Williams succeeds, Miami could be a legit contender to Clemson in the ACC. If Florida prevails, Georgia could have a challenge in the East.

Auburn vs. Oregon (Aug. 31, 7:30 p.m. ET on ABC, at Dallas): It’s rare to see an entire conference put its reputation on the line in a single evening, and yet here we are yet again. Last year, Washington trekked south and east to face this same Auburn program, lost, and then watched the entire Pac-12 fade from the Playoff conversation the moment the Huskies’ Oct. 13 loss to Oregon went final. The calculus is simple: The Pac-12 is too treacherous, too even for any one team to go undefeated, and no 2-loss conference champion has ever made the Playoff, lest of all a 2-loss Pac-12 champion. Ipso facto, Oregon could be all but eliminated from the Playoff before September even begins.

Cincinnati at Ohio State (Sept. 7, noon ET on ABC): Let’s be honest, nearly ever player wearing Cincinnati red and black imagined themselves wearing Ohio State scarlet and gray instead. Here’s their chance to prove it. The Bearcats went 11-2 last season under head coach Luke Fickell — a Columbus native and a former Buckeye nose guard, graduate assistant assistant coach, co-coordinator, interim head coach and co-coordinator again who definitely saw himself becoming Ohio State’s head coach some day, most likely after Urban Meyer stepped away at some point in the distant future. While Fickell took what looked like the next step — proving he had the goods to be a head coach, at a program that recruited the same area as Ohio State — Ryan Day swooped in and took the job Fickell thought would be his. Now here’s his one and only chance to shove it in his former boss Gene Smith‘s face, in his stadium, on national TV. And, oh by the way, the game should be pretty good, too. Cincinnati could very well win the AAC this season and, if the reports about Justin Fields struggling to win the starting quarterback job are true, Ohio State could be vulnerable in Game 2 with a new quarterback and a new coaching staff. Consider this your season-shaking upset alert.

(This is the point where you’d expect me to include Texas A&M at Clemson, scheduled between these games on Sept. 7, but I’m not going to for this reason: Even if A&M beats Clemson, I don’t think the Aggies can make the Playoff; even if Clemson loses to A&M, I think the Tigers are going to the Playoff. Fun? Yes. Must-see? Eh.)

LSU at Texas (Sept. 7, 7:30 p.m. ET on ABC): It’s two college football blue-bloods playing a clash of cultures that also happens to be a border war. It’s LSU’s first trip to Austin since 1954. It’s the ultimate Big 12 vs. SEC proving ground game. It’ll be played under the lights before a national audience. It’s everything a non-conference home-and-home series is supposed to be. Honestly, it might even be too much. Someone in the stands at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium might die on this sure-to-be-sweltering Austin night.

Outside of all that, it’s also a mighty interesting football game. LSU and Texas both fancy themselves as the next programs to step up and join the elite of the elite, with a chance to prove that by beating the other. Joe Burrow will showcase LSU’s new, we’re-really-doing-it-this-time spread offense against a talented secondary led by All-American candidate Caden Sterns, while Sam Ehlinger gets to make his Heisman case against the best defense’s he’s ever faced. Then there’s the storyline that LSU pursued Tom Herman before going after Ed Orgeron back in November of 2016. Again, it’s too much for a single non-conference game.

Notre Dame at Georgia (Sept. 21, 8 p.m. ET on CBS): Don’t let anyone ever tell you Notre Dame isn’t relevant. The Irish’s first trip inside an SEC stadium since 2004 is enough to get CBS to lower Alabama-LSU from its No. 1 slot for the first time since 2010, and for good reason. This game is going to be a mad house. Both of these programs reached the Playoff in the past two years, and yet it seems like only one program’s trip seems to really count — the team in red and black. It seems TV executives have more faith in Notre Dame’s prospects than fans and writers. Well, there’s no surer route to changing minds than to go into the heart of the South and slay one of the SEC’s sacred cows.

USC at Notre Dame (Oct. 12, 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC): Yes, we’re going back to the same well, but with a different angle. We’ll go more in depth on this tomorrow, but this one is about USC and head coach Clay Helton. Helton sits on the hottest seat in all of college football, and his first-half schedule does him no favors: vs. defending Mountain West champion Fresno State, vs. No. 23 Stanford, at BYU, vs. No. 15 Utah, at No. 12 Washington, at No. 9 Notre Dame. That’s four ranked (according to the Coaches’ Poll, which is all we have as of press time) teams and two of the most difficult Group of 5 opponents possible. If Notre Dame limps into South Bend at 2-3 or 1-4 and then loses to Notre Dame? Helton might be fired on the tarmac Lane Kiffin style, and then it’s off to the races for one of the most desirable jobs in the entire sport. If USC arrives 5-0 or 4-1 and then beats Notre Dame? Helton is good to go and USC bullets into a manageable second half schedule as a Pac-12 and Playoff contender.

 

Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze recovering from potentially life-threatening staph infection

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It appears Hugh Freeze has dodged what could’ve been a fatal bullet.

Liberty announced Tuesday that Hugh Freeze was dealing with severe back spasms and had been unable to participate in practices since Sunday.  As it turns out, there was a significantly more serious underlying issue than simple back spasms as the first-year Flames head football coach told Chris Low of ESPN.com that he underwent emergency surgery at the University of Virginia Medical Center Friday “after a potentially life-threatening strand of staph infection entered his bloodstream.”

From Low’s report:

The doctors told me if it had been another 24 hours, that strand of bacteria could have gotten to my heart and that I would have been fighting for my life,” Freeze told ESPN. “It’s the way God works because there’s no doubt that bacteria would have killed me if President [Jerry] Falwell [Jr.] wasn’t so quick to make sure we got the right people involved.”

When Freeze first told Falwell about the excruciating pain he was experiencing in his back, one of the first calls Falwell made was to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, one of the leading pioneers in neurosurgery. Carson spoke with Liberty professor Anthony Nobles, renowned in the medical device field, and the decision was made to transport Freeze from the hospital in Lynchburg to UVA Medical Center.

Falwell sent the Liberty plane to Scottsdale, Arizona, to bring in Dr. Dilan Ellegala, another leading neurosurgeon who developed his own ultrasonic technology (Sonospine) for spinal surgery, and Ellegala was the one who performed Freeze’s surgery at UVA Medical Center in Charlottesville.

The 49-year-old Freeze remains hospitalized and will continue so for the foreseeable future.  When he is released and resumes his football duties, he’ll likely have to coach from a golf cart as the Flames finish up summer camp; for Liberty’s opener against Syracuse Aug. 31, it’s expected Freeze will have to coach from the booth.

Hired by the Flames in December of last year, Freeze is set to enter his first season as the head coach at the football independent.  Freeze had been out of coaching for two full seasons following his unceremonious ouster as the head coach at Ole Miss in July of 2017.