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CFT’s 2019 Preseason Top 25

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Ready for yet another meaningless and useless preseason poll? Too bad, you’re getting one anyway.

As we have done each and every season around this time of the year, CFT has compiled its annual preseason Top 25 rankings. And, as has been the case each and every time, we’ve used the same tried and true formula: collect individual Top 25s from each of our esteemed staffers — this year it’s again Zach Barnett, Bryan Fischer, Kevin McGuire and myself — as well as a couple of other individuals who prefer to remain anonymous and mash them all together to form an initial Top 25, at which point I manipulate the numbers to ensure that I piss off as many fan bases as humanly possible.

As Clemson and Alabama have combined to win each of the last four national championships, and faced each other in the finale of the 2018 season, is it a surprise at all that they will begin the 2019 campaign at 1-2 in CFT’s Top 25?  Almost one year ago to the day, we pegged Clemson and Alabama as the Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the country; nearly five months later, the Tigers manhandled the defending champion Crimson Tide for its second title in three years.  Our Nos. 3-5 teams last year were Georgia, Ohio State and Wisconsin, respectively; they finished the season, in order, tied for seventh, third and (gulp) unranked.  The other two playoff teams from 2018, Notre Dame and Oklahoma, began last season as our Nos. 8 and 15 teams, respectively.

As for previous years in which we proved we are essentially a collective Nostradumbass?

Back in 2017, Ohio State sat at No. 1, followed by No. 2 USC, No. 3 Florida State, No. 4 Alabama and No. 5 Penn State.  Just one of those teams, the 2017 national champion Crimson Tide, qualified for the playoffs, while the others in our Top Five, the Buckeyes, Nittany Lions, Trojans and Seminoles, finished fifth, eighth, 12th and unranked, respectively.  And the other three teams that actually qualified for the playoffs?  National runner-up Georgia was No. 14 in our 2017 preseason Top 25, while Clemson was No. 9 and Oklahoma was right behind them at No. 10.

In 2016, we had Oklahoma as our preseason No. 1; the Sooners went on to finish 11-2 and third in the country, although they ended the regular season just shy of another berth in the College Football Playoff.  The four teams that did earn playoff berths, national champion Clemson, national runner-up Alabama and semifinalists Ohio State and Washington, began the 2016 season ranked fourth, second, 11th and seventh, respectively, in our preseason Top 25 two years ago.

The year before that, we had Ohio State, TCU, Oregon, Auburn and Michigan State Nos. 1-5; only playoff semifinalist MSU finished the regular season in the Top Five. 2015 national champion Alabama was No. 7 in our preseason rankings — just behind Arizona State, incidentally — while the team the Crimson Tide beat for the title, Clemson, was 14th. Oklahoma, the other of the four College Football Playoff semifinalists in 2015, came in at No. 16 in our friendly neighborhood poll.

All that said, below is CFT’s 2019 preseason Top 25.  Below that is a poll in which you can vote as to which team you feel should start the season No. 1 — or if there should even be a preseason No. 1. Below that is where you may complain and/or whine and/or moan and/or bitch about how disrespected your team and/or conference is.

Enjoy. And complain/whine/moan/bitch away at your leisure.

NO. 1 CLEMSON
2018 RECORD/FINAL ASSOCIATED PRESS RANKING: 15-0/No. 1

Not only do the defending national champions return a wealth of talent — eight starters on offense and 22 returning lettermen on defense, with nearly half of the preseason All-ACC team made up of Tigers — but just two teams on their 2019 schedule (No. 12 Texas A&M, No. 22 Syracuse) are currently ranked in the Associated Press Top 25.  With Heisman Trophy favorite Trevor Lawrence triggering what should again be an explosive offense, the stage is set for yet another return to the College Football Playoff — even as they must replace seven starters on the defensive side of the ball.

NO. 2 ALABAMA
2018 RECORD/FINAL AP RANKING: 14-1/No. 2

Nick Saban spent an offseason unlike any other he’s experienced in Tuscaloosa — or anywhere else for that matter.  Of the 10 coordinators/assistant coaches who were on the Crimson Tide’s staff at the beginning of the 2018 season, only three will return for the 2019 season.  Not only that, but Saban will have to replace nearly half of his starters on each side of the ball, although Tua Tagovailoa, provided he can stay upright and healthy, will return under center.  The season-ending matchup with Auburn on the road could, once again, determine the West’s representative in the SEC championship game, although a mid-October trip to College Station against what should be an improved Texas A&M squad shouldn’t be overlooked.

NO. 3 GEORGIA
2018 RECORD/FINAL AP RANKING: 11-3/T-No. 7

You’ll have to pardon Georgia if there is still a bit of a hangover after how the Bulldogs’ 2018 season ended.  First, UGA blew a 28-14 third-quarter lead on Alabama in the SEC championship game that cost them a spot in the College Football Playoff, then got Bevo’d by Texas by a worse-than-it-looked score of 28-21 in the Sugar Bowl.  That said, they have a three-year starter at quarterback in Jake Fromm, although, like their heavyweight SEC counterpart Alabama, Kirby Smart will have to replace almost half of his starters both offensively and defensively.  A late-September home game against Notre Dame should provide an early clue as to where UGA stands nationally — or how far they need to go to keep pace with ‘Bama.

NO. 4 OKLAHOMA
2018 RECORD/FINAL AP RANKING: 12-2/No. 4

Oklahoma lost Heisman-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield following the 2017 campaign, then proceeded to put up another double-digit win season and Top Five finish in 2018; it’ll be lather, rinse and repeat on the stiff-armed replacement front in 2019 as Heisman-winning quarterback Kyler Murray left Norman early for the NFL following the 2018 season.  Into the quarterbacking fray steps transfer addition Jalen Hurts, who would love nothing better than to get a shot at his former school, Alabama, in the playoffs.  On the one hand, the Sooners return eight starters on defense, and have a new coordinator in the highly-respected Alex Grinch; on the other, they must replace the vast majority of an offensive line that claimed the Joe Moore Award for the best unit in the country, as well as top wideout Marquise Brown.  There is one sign, courtesy of a reader imploring us to not put his beloved Sooners in the top spot, that this could actually be OU’s year: Two quarterbacks with the initials of “JH” — Josh Heupel (2000) and Jamelle Holieway (1985) — have previously won national championships while starting for the Sooners.

NO. 5 OHIO STATE
2018 RECORD/FINAL AP RANKING: 13-1/No. 3

How do you replace a man who went 83-9 overall (54-4 in conference play) in seven seasons, finished first or tied for first in the Big Ten East every year he was in Columbus, and claimed Ohio State’s first national championship in over a decade? That is THE™ overriding question for Buckeye Nation as Ryan Day is chargeed with what some would say is THE™ unenviable task of replacing THE™ retired Urban Meyer (for now) in Columbus.  THE™ good news for THE™ first-time head coach is that OSU brings back eight starters on one of THE™ top defenses in THE™ conference as well as getting Michigan State and Penn State at home in THE™ Horseshoe, although they will have to travel to Ann Arbor to face hated rival Michigan in THE™ regular-season finale.  How quickly acclimated Georgia transfer Justin Fields becomes with THE™ offense and THE™ pressure of replacing THE™ prolific Dwayne Haskins at quarterback will go a long way in determining how big THE™ Game will be this season.

(WRITER’S NOTE: Click HERE for THE™ explanation.)

NO. 6 LSU
2018 RECORD/FINAL AP RANKING: 10-3/No. 6

Don’t tell anyone but, after years of wandering aimlessly through the signal-calling desert, it appears LSU has at long last (gasp!) found an answer at quarterback in Ohio State transfer Joe Burrow.  Coming off an above-average first campaign in Baton Rouge, Burrow will be the triggerman of what’s expected to be an even more (gasp!) 21st-century aerial attack thanks to an under-the-radar addition this offseason in the form of New Orleans Saints staffer Joe Brady as passing-game coordinator.  Eight starters return on each side of the ball, which is a good thing when viewed through the prism of having to go on the road to face Alabama and Texas.

NO. 7 MICHIGAN
2018 RECORD/FINAL AP RANKING: 10-3/No. 14

I’m not saying Jim Harbaugh is on the coaching hot seat, but I am saying his hindquarters should be feeling fairly warm — and for good reason.  One of the highest-paid head coaches in college football, Harbaugh’s Wolverines have finished third, third, fourth and tied for first in the Big Ten East his first four seasons back home in Ann Arbor.  The finish last season provided some optimism heading into the 2019 postseason, although those hopes should be tempered by the reality that Harbaugh is just 2-6 against his school’s chief football rivals — he’s never beaten Ohio State in four tries and is 2-2 against “little brother” Michigan State.  Scheduling-wise, there’s good news on the rivalry front as U-M gets both MSU and OSU at home, although they’ll face stiff road trips to Madison and Happy Valley in the span of a month.  The Wolverines should be improved, perhaps even enough to climb back onto the national stage, but if they don’t and continue to lag behind the hated Buckeyes…

NO. 8 TEXAS
2018 RECORD/FINAL AP RANKING: 10-4/No. 9

Texas is back!?  One of these seasons, that longstanding proclamation/question rivals derisively use at UT’s expense will come to fruition.  The latest reason for hope amongst Longhorn Nation was the finish to the 2018 season in which UT bullied a seemingly disinterested Georgia squad in the Sugar Bowl to put the finishing touches on the football program’s first 10-win season since 2009.  The reality, though, is that the Tom Herman‘s Longhorns return just eight starters — five on offense, three on defense.  By mid-October, we should have a good handle on this year’s version of the “Texas is back!” narrative as UT will face LSU, Oklahoma State, West Virginia (in Morgantown) and Oklahoma in a five-game stretch the first half of the season.  If they can handle that rigorous stretch with, say, just one loss, it’d be fair to say they are back — and probably back for another shot in the Big 12 championship game as well.  Personally, given the lack of experienced players returning, I think Texas sitting inside the Top 10 of any preseason poll is way too high, but time will tell on that front.

NO. 9 NOTRE DAME
2018 RECORD/FINAL AP RANKING: 12-1/No. 5

Last year, in cautiously making the case for Notre Dame being ranked 15th, I wrote that “[t]he last five times the Irish had a chance for back-to-back 10-win seasons, they won four (2016), nine (2013), three (2007), five (2003) and six (1994) games.” So, of course, the Fighting Irish went out and won a dozen games — the first time the program won 10 or more in consecutive seasons since 1991-93 — and earned a spot in the College Football Playoff for the first time ever.  This season, the Irish will be forced to replace their leading rusher, receiver and tackler — they return 13 of 22 starters overall — and have three significant road trips on tap each month of the regular season: Georgia in September, Michigan in October and Stanford in November.  If they can successfully navigate those three away tests, and take care of business with the rest of the schedule, they could very well find themselves punching yet another playoff ticket.

NO. 10 FLORIDA
2018 RECORD/FINAL AP RANKING: 10-3/T-No. 7

After an abominable 4-7 season led to Jim McElwain‘s departure, Florida won 10 games for the first time since 2015 in Dan Mullen‘s first season as head coach in Gainesville last year. Arguably Mullen’s most impressive job during that initial campaign in The Swamp was turning Feleipe Franks into an above-average quarterback; coming off a year in which he threw for nearly 2,500 yards and 24 touchdowns, Franks will see his top six reception leaders returning to the Gators this season.  The defense, which was 21st nationally and sixth in the SEC in points per game at 20.4, returns eight starters as well.  The conference schedule-makers didn’t do them very many favors at all, though, as their league cross-over games are against Auburn and LSU, with the latter matchup being played in Death Valley.

NO. 11: Utah — Every year around this time, there is always one team I fear that I have ranked way too low; the Utes are that team this season.
NO. 12: Texas A&M — Conversely, A&M might be a team ranked too high, if for nothing more than its schedule: road games against Clemson, Georgia and LSU (the latter two to close out the regular season) as well as Alabama and Auburn at home. If Jimbo Fisher matches or exceeds the nine wins from a year ago, that’s Coach of the Year stuff right there.
NO. 13: Washington — Besides having to replace the football program’s all-time leading passer and rusher along with a whopping nine starters on defense, how did you enjoy the play, Mrs. Lincoln?
NO. 14: Penn State — The two biggest road tests Penn State will face this season come at Ohio State and at Michigan State; the last time that happened, in 2017, the Nittany Lions lost both (by a combined four points) and missed out on a trip to the Big Ten championship game.
NO. 15: Oregon — If Oregon can get past Auburn in the opener, and with Heisman contender Justin Hebert directing a potentially explosive offense, the Ducks have the kind of talent to make a serious run at a Pac-12 title — if not more.  Speaking of AU…
NO. 16: Auburn — If Auburn is to get back on the national stage — and get past rival Alabama in the process — the Tigers will do so with a true freshman triggering the offense as five-star 2019 signee Bo Nix was named as AU’s starting quarterback this week.
NO. 17: Wisconsin — In his first two seasons at Wisconsin, true junior Jonathan Taylor has rushed for an astounding 4,171 yards; if he were to put up 2,235 yards this season, he would surpass San Diego State’s Donnell Pumphrey (6,405) as the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher in just three seasons.
NO. 18: Iowa State — If it weren’t for Utah — and three straight games against Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Texas in late October/early November — Iowa State would be the team I feared I have placed too low.
NO. 19: Michigan State — As is normally the case, Michigan State should field an above-average defense. How far the Spartans go, therefore, will be determined by how dramatically one of the worst offenses in the country a year ago — they were 125th out of 129 teams in scoring at 18.7 points per game — improves in 2019.
NO. 20: Iowa — The Hawkeyes have won fewer than seven games just once in the last 11 years — 4-8 in 2012 — a streak that stretches back to the 2008 season.  In eight of those 11 seasons, they have won seven, eight or nine games.  Ferentz gonna Ferentz, most seasons.
NO. 21: Syracuse — Under Dino Babers, Syracuse won 10 games in 2018 after winning a combined eight the two years before, and yet I can’t for the life of me figure out if they will challenge Clemson or sink back to sub-.500 football.
NO. 22: Miami — Tate Martell losing out on the starting quarterback job at The U — bailing on the first practice after the announcement for good measure — and getting work in at wide receiver after leaving Ohio State because he wouldn’t compete with a high-profile transfer might be my most favorite thing of the 2019 offseason.
NO. 23: Cincinnati — After winning just eight games combined the previous two seasons, Cincinnati won 11 in Luke Fickell’s second year with the program in 2018, setting the stage for the Bearcats to be a favorite (the favorite?) to claim the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six bid in 2019.
NO. 24: Mississippi State — I’m just going to be totally blunt here: If it were solely and completely up to me, Mississippi State would not be in this particular Top 25. There, I said it. Bitch and whine at your leisure below.
NO. 25: Army — To paraphrase Maj. Gen. Jefferson Gregory, ‘Merica, dammit.  The Black Knights are coming off the winningest season in academy history and have played in a bowl game three straight years for the first time ever. They will face a huge test in Week 2 as they square off with Michigan in the Big House.

Alabama losing special teams staffer to the New England Patriots

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The Alabama kicking game needs all the help it can get but will have to soldier on without a key member of the coaching staff.

According to The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman, assistant special teams coordinator Joe Houston is leaving Tuscaloosa for a position with the New England Patriots.

Houston certainly has become a fast-riser as a coach. He was kicking field goals for USC from 2007-10 and got into coaching just recently. He served as an assistant special teams coach at Iowa State prior to joining the Crimson Tide staff.

While Houston is highly regarded off the field, his slim small body of work at Alabama was a mixed bag. Kickers Joseph Bulovas and Will Reichard combined to made just 12 of 18 field goal attempts in 2019. That includes a critical miss in the Iron Bowl that knocked the team out of the Playoff chase.

The Tide should still be okay on special teams come 2020 though. Reichard was injured early and hopes to be healthy after signing as the top prep kicker in the country a year ago. Highly regarded special teams coordinator Jeff Banks also returns.

Houston’s move to Foxborough no doubt came with a recommendation from Saban to his old pal Bill Belichick. The latter also struggled with the kicking game last season. Hopefully for both, this latest move will boost both teams in the critical third phase of the game.

Colorado closing in on hiring… Karl Dorrell?

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The unexpected Colorado coaching search may have an unexpected conclusion.

In a move first reported by Yahoo! Sports, the Buffs are supposedly close on hiring Karl Dorrell as their next head coach. USA Today later confirmed the news. He replaces Mel Tucker, who left for Michigan State in early February.

Bringing Dorrell in is, needless to say, a surprise move. The school had flirted heavily with former USC head coach Steve Sarkisian before parting ways. As it turns out, Colorado was looking at the wrong former coach in Los Angeles.

Dorrell spent five seasons in Westwood as head coach at UCLA from 2003-2007. The tenure had a high point of going 10-2 in 2005 but otherwise floated around .500. It didn’t help either that Pete Carroll had things humming across town at the same time as Dorrell was trying to get things turned around at his alma mater.

Since his firing, Dorrell has mostly been in the NFL. He had a one season stint as Vanderbilt’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in 2014 but is otherwise been coaching in the pros. That includes two stints in Miami and others with the Houston Texans and New York Jets.

Less than 24 hours before his reported hire at Colorado, Dorrell was promoted to assistant head coach of the Dolphins by Brian Flores.

Though Dorrell reached a bowl game in all five of his seasons in Westwood, his meddling record saw him pushed out the door. His replacement then? Former Buffs coach Rick Neuheisel. The two memorably helped lead the Bruins to the 1984 Rose Bowl together at the school.

Now Dorrell once again has the goal of getting back to Pasadena. Just not where anybody expected it to happen.

SEC says no to Arkansas spring game in Little Rock

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Arkansas has long been one of the more unique programs in college football in playing their “home” games roughly 200 miles away from campus. As much as playing down the road in Little Rock has become a way of life for the Razorbacks though, it won’t be a part of fans first close up with new head coach Sam Pittman.

In a release this week, UA confirmed that their final practice of spring ball would be held Saturday, April 25 at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville. That was not originally the plan however, as the team was hoping to host the scrimmage at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.

The reasoning? It had nothing to do with scheduling conflicts but rather the conference office.

“As part of our ONE Razorback initiative, our goal remains to engage fans throughout Arkansas and beyond,” Director of Athletics Hunter Yurachek said in a statement. “Unfortunately, we did not receive the necessary waiver to accommodate the spring game at War Memorial Stadium as originally planned. However, we will continue to explore additional opportunities to enhance the numerous events already being held throughout the state to help bring the Razorbacks closer to our fans.”

SEC bylaws require the league to approve any off-campus spring practice. They didn’t despite Little Rock truly being the team’s home away from home for nearly a century.

The school just recently negotiated a new deal with War Memorial that runs through 2024. That was supposed to result in spring games being held at the venue in even years and a trio of conference games against regional rival Missouri in the Fall of every odd year.

It’s not known if the SEC’s decision was more of a one-off or if spring games in 2022 and 2024 will have to be scrapped.

The news is certainly a blow to those in the Southeast part of the state who were hoping to get a glimpse of the Hogs in their backyard instead of making the trip deeper into the Ozarks. Arkansas won’t have a presence at all in Little Rock this season as a result (for the first time since 1931) and will instead be fully confined to Razorback Stadium for all seven home games plus the spring scrimmage (for the first time ever).

It wasn’t too long ago where the Hogs were called in the state capital three or four times a year. That sadly is no longer the case now as a result of the league office putting a kibosh on things this spring.

Voice of Notre Dame Stadium to retire after 2020 season

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It’s the end of an era at Notre Dame Stadium.

The longtime public address announcer at the famed cathedral of college football, Mike Collins, is stepping down after the 2020 season. The school confirmed the news on Friday.

“I told my wife, ‘If Fr. Ted (Hesburgh) can retire at 75, that’s good enough for me,’” Collins said in a statement. “There is no one reason, but I can walk out with my head held high, good health and be proud that I’ll be better for my last game than my first. I’ve always viewed myself as an ambassador of Our Lady’s University, not merely an employee of the athletics department. I was able to do that for the most prestigious institution in the world, which just happened to be my alma mater.”

Collins’ voice has been the soundtrack for Fighting Irish games under the watchful eye of Touchdown Jesus since 1982. His first game that season came in a win over Michigan that doubled as the first ever night game the stadium as well. 

The Pittsburgh native hasn’t stopped since then. Upon the conclusion of the team’s contest against Louisville on Nov. 21, 2020, Collins will have called 233 straight Notre Dame games at the stadium.

No word on how the university will about finding a new public address announcer for the venue but they did note plans to celebrate Collins’ tenure will be announced later this year. 

While it always is going to be hard to call it quits given how good a gig it is, at least Collins will be going out with a bang given the slate ND has this season. The home opener will be against Arkansas on Sept. 12 while traditional rivals like Stanford join ACC foes like Duke and Clemson in coming to South Bend later in the year. All those games will be broadcasted on NBC. 

Western Michigan is also on the docket for the Irish at home in addition to contests like playing Wisconsin at Lambeau Field and a season-opener against Navy in Dublin, Ireland.