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No. 17 Memphis secures AAC championship, likely punching ticket to Cotton Bowl

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After losing two consecutive AAC Championship Games the past two years, No. 17 Memphis (12-1, 7-1 AAC) has finally cleared the final hurdle and is celebrating a long-awaited American Athletic Conference championship. The Tigers edged No. 20 Cincinnati (10-3, 7-1 AAC) on Saturday afternoon in the AAC Championship Game, 29-24, to win the first outright conference championship in program history since winning the 1969 Missouri Valley Conference title.

This one came with plenty of late-game drama and heroics.

Midway through the fourth quarter, with Memphis leading 23-21, Cincinnati chose to try a quarterback sneak for a first down and got it. But a video replay was called to determine if Cincinnati had too many men on the field. After a lengthy review, the official ruling determined there was not enough video evidence to confirm there were too many men on the field, allowing Cincinnati to continue the drive rather than move back five yards on fourth down. The drive ended with a go-ahead field goal when the Bearcats opted to take the lead rather than try their luck on another 4th-and-1 situation. Hindsight is always 20/20, of course, but the Tigers stormed right down the field on the ensuing possession.

Memphis strung together a 10-play drive that featured Antonio Gibson doing damage on the ground with his speed on the edges and a big pass from Brady White to Kenneth Gainwell to get into Cincinnati territory quickly. White’s six-yard pass to Gibson gave Memphis a 29-24 lead with 1:14 to play, but a two-point conversion failing allowed Cincinnati one last chance to take the lead. On 4th and 15 from the Memphis 26-yard line though, Desmond Ridder‘s last attempt fell incomplete and allowed Memphis to run out the remaining 26 seconds off the clock.

There are a number of moving parts to this story now. For starters, there is the New Years Six situation. Given each team’s ranking coming into the game, it was expected this would essentially be a play-in game for the Group of 5’s spot in the New Years Six, even with Boise State handling their business in the Mountain West Conference Championship Game (and Appalachian State getting its last chance to make a case earlier in the day). That idea still feels pretty solid, with an official announcement to be made Sunday afternoon by the College Football Playoff selection committee. It would be a pretty big shock if AAC CHAMPION is not heading to the Cotton Bowl to face an at-large team from a power conference (Baylor, Florida, Alabama, Penn State and more could all be options).

The other moving part here is the status of Memphis head coach Mike Norvell. Norvell is expected to be named the next head coach at Florida State. Florida State will hold a press conference tomorrow to officially introduce its next head coach. All that might be left to figure out is whether or not Norvell will pull double duty for the next few weeks to coach Memphis in the Cotton Bowl or if he leaves to take on the Florida State job on a full-time basis with an early signing period creeping up.

Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell may still have his name thrown around the rumor mill as the coaching carousel continues to spin, but he is not currently attached to any rumors regarding imminent changes.

East Carolina suspends starting lineman arrested on felony intent-to-sell charge

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As we continue our annual plunge into the offseason, the East Carolina football program is the latest FBS school that has an off-field issue with which to deal.

(CC: @TheFulmerCup)

According to multiple media outlets in the area, ECU offensive lineman Cortez Herrin was arrested late Saturday night on a pair of charges.  Herrin is facing one felony count of possession with the intent to sell or distribute.  He’s also facing a misdemeanor charge of possession of marijuana paraphernalia.

The details of what led up to the arrest haven’t yet been divulged.

What is known is that the East Carolina football program has suspended the starting lineman as the situation begins to make its way through the legal system.

“We are aware of the matter concerning Cortez Herrin,” East Carolina football head coach Mike Houston said in a statement. “He has been suspended indefinitely from all football activities as we continue to gather information.”

When healthy, Herrin has been a part-time or full-time starter at left guard for ECU the past three seasons.

In 2018, Houston started all 12 games for the Pirates.  He made five starts in 2017 as well.  A knee injury in 2019 helped limit him to five starts.

The news of Herrin’s arrest comes amidst an upheaval in Houston’s coaching staff.

Two hires complete Tom Allen’s Indiana coaching staff

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Once again, the Indiana Hoosiers football coaching staff is whole.

Sunday afternoon, the Hoosiers announced the additions of two assistant coaches for Tom Allen. Jason Jones will serve as safeties coach, while Kevin Wright will coach tight ends.

Allen and Jones have a prior working relationship, having served on the same coaching staff at Ole Miss.

“I have so much respect for Jason,” the Indiana Hoosiers football head coach said in a statement. “I was fortunate to work with him for two seasons at Ole Miss. He has worked in the SEC and the Big 12, and he was a part of one of the top defenses in the country last year. Jason’s a great football coach and is the kind of husband, father and man I want in this program.”

Last year, Jones was the cornerbacks coach at Florida Atlantic.

“I am so thankful to Coach Allen for giving me the opportunity to be a part of this great staff,” Jones said. “IU impressed me so much last season, and I can’t wait to contribute to even more success. I am excited and ready to get to work.”

Wright is a 20-year coaching veteran, with 13 of those years in the state of Indiana and the last five at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.

“I’ve known Kevin for many, many years” Allen said. “He’s been one of the most successful high school coaches in the country and has done a tremendous job working with some of the top talent in the country at IMG. Kevin allows us to expand our recruiting base and continue our success in the state of Florida. He’s a great fit for our program in so many ways, and we are excited to welcome Kevin and his family to IU.”

These hirings came a month after a new seven-year deal for Allen was announced.

North Carolina new home for All-American FCS kicker

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The North Carolina football program is the latest to dip into the FCS ranks for some talent. Placekicker talent, but still.

Sunday afternoon, the North Carolina football program announced that Grayson Atkins is transferring to the Tar Heels. Atkins spent the past three seasons at Furman.

According to UNC, Atkins will graduate from the FCS school in the spring.  He’ll then join the North Carolina football program in the summer.

As a graduate transfer, Atkins will have one season of eligibility remaining.

Below are Atkins’ particulars, as relayed by UNC’s release:

An Inman, S.C. native, Atkins converted on 33-of-41 field goal attempts and 132-of-138 PAT attempts during his three seasons at Furman. He earned first-team All-America honors as a junior and second-team honors as a sophomore. Atkins was also named All-Southern Conference twice. His 231 career points rank 10th on Furman’s career scoring list and fifth on the kick scoring list. Combining the end of his junior season and the beginning of his senior season, Atkins made 18 consecutive field goals, which is a Furman and Southern Conference record.

As a junior in 2019, Atkins earned first-team AFCA FCS Coaches’ All-America honors to go along with All-America honors form the Associated Press and STATS FCS. He converted on 13-of-15 field goal attempts and 48-of-50 PATs. Atkins made all six field-goal attempts under 40 yards and went 7-of-9 on attempts from 40 or more yards including a 55-yarder. In addition to his first-team All-SoCon honors as a placekicker, Atkins earned second-team accolades as a punter after averaging 43.5 yards per punt.

This past season, sophomore Noah Ruggles made all 45 of his extra-point attempts for the Tar Heels.  He also hit on just 19 of his 27 field-goal attempts.

Florida transfer Chris Bleich moves on to Syracuse

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This development involving a now-former Florida Gators football player flew under our radar last week, so we’ll rectify that with an early-morning post to start this work week.

Chris Bleich started eight of the first nine games at right guard for Florida this past season, with the lone start he missed being due to blisters on his foot. However, the redshirt freshman had begun to lose playing time due to performance even as he maintained the starting job in name.

With his grip on the position loosening, though, Bleich decided to take his leave of the Gators in early November.  Florida Gators football head coach Dan Mullen subsequently confirmed the departure.  Mullen also confirmed that unspecified family issues at home triggered the decision.

In the latest Bleich development, Syracuse announced late this past week that the lineman has been added to the Orange’s roster. In its release, the football program stated that “Bleich must sit out the 2020 season due to NCAA transfer regulations unless granted immediate eligibility.”

It’s expected that Bleich will seek a waiver from the NCAA that would allow him to play this coming season.

Bleich was a three-star member of Florida’s 2018 recruiting class, rated as the No. 13 player at any position in the state of Pennsylvania. The 6-6, 330-pound lineman played in just four games as a true freshman, and was able to preserve a year of eligibility by taking a redshirt that season.

If Bleich is granted a waiver, he’ll have three seasons to play three years.  If not, he’ll sit out 2020 and then have two years of eligibility starting in 2021.