Nick Marsh

CFT 2015 Preseason Preview: Six-Pack of Storylines

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Finally, after (nearly) seven long, agonizing months filled with seemingly nothing but arrests, suspensions, transfers, lawsuits and yet another Sharknado, the dawn of a new season is nearly upon us.

In just 17 days, we’ll all be hunkered down in front of the television taking in the glory (?) that is the South Carolina Gamecocks and North Carolina Tar Heels throwing down at a neutral site in Charlotte, and chase that FBS opener down later that night with the return of a certain high-profile coach as Michigan travels to Utah for a significant early test of the new era in Ann Arbor.

In between now and then? Previews. Glorious, illuminating, voluminous previews as far as the eye can see.

We’ll kick off the look at the upcoming season the same way we have the past six years: storylines that you should pay attention to or could be in play in the coming months.

Proceed, and enjoy.

Ohio State Spring Game
The Contenders

WHO’LL ORCHESTRATE OSU’S BUCK-TO-BUCK BID?
The riches Ohio State possesses at the quarterback position borderlines on the embarrassing, so much so that two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Braxton Miller, still not fully recovered from a second shoulder surgery that knocked him out for all of 2014, has moved to another position as he looks to get on the field in some fashion his senior season.  That leaves regular-season hero J.T. Barrett and postseason whirlwind Cardale Jones to vie for the opportunity to line up under center and guide the Buckeyes’ offense in their attempt to go back-to-back in the College Football Playoff.

It seems that most view Jones, perhaps in part because of his outgoing personality vs. Barrett’s naturally reserved, quiet nature, as the favorite to win the job; the question is, should they?  Or better yet, have they forgotten?

After getting off to a rough start last season in place of Miller — three touchdowns and four interceptions in the first two games, which included the lone loss to Virginia Tech — Barrett bounced back to have a season for the OSU ages, finishing the last 10 games with 31 touchdowns and just six interceptions before going down with a season-ending leg injury in the regular-season finale against Michigan.  His 45 total touchdowns set a Big Ten record, breaking the standard previously held by Purdue’s Drew Brees, and he rushed for nearly 1,000 yards as a redshirt freshman.  And all of that production, people seem to forget as well, came after he beat out Jones in summer camp for the No. 2 spot behind Miller, just prior to the reemergence of the senior’s shoulder issue.

It’s not like Jones is chipped chopped ham, though; in his first three starts, all in the postseason, the rifle-armed 12-Gauge passed for 742 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions as OSU dropped Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten title game and topped No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Oregon in the playoffs.  The fact that Ezekiel Elliott ran for nearly 700 hundreds in those starts certainly didn’t hurt… or was it Jones and his arm’s ability to stretch the field and add another element to the passing attack that Barrett — or most any other quarterback for that matter — couldn’t that opened things up for Eazy-E?

Decisions, decisions, decisions this OSU coaching staff will have to make, decisions that make them the envy of nearly every other coaching staff in the country.  Really, how can they go wrong with whomever they choose?

Jim Harbaugh
Jim Harbaugh

HOW MANY B1G CALLERS AHEAD OF US, JIMMY?
Even considering the once-in-a-lifetime quarterback situation for the defending national champions, there wasn’t a bigger storyline this college football offseason than Jim Harbaugh‘s self-imposed NFL exile ending and his return to this level of the sport — and at his stumbling, struggling alma mater Michigan no less.  The former Stanford head coach had made headlines on a seemingly daily basis since his hiring, from his Twitter posts to forays into baseball to shirts-and-skins to epically awkward interviews to satellite camps to “Attacking this day with Enthusiasm Unknown to Mankind” to just about anything, really, that the coach did.

With the clock ticking down on the start of a new season, though, the attention shifts from Harbaugh, the off-field character, to Harbaugh, the on-field coach.  Or, more precisely, how fast can he get the Wolverines back to national prominence?  To be blunt, Harbaugh’s timing couldn’t have been “worse” divisionally, with hated rival Ohio State at the top of the college football world and poised to be there for years to come with a recruiting cupboard continually restocked on an annual basis with top-shelf talent, and hated in-state rival Michigan State playing — and recruiting — at a level unseen in East Lansing.  Harbaugh & Company are already playing from behind when it comes to those two East rivals, but Harbaugh’s not exactly coming to the fight empty-handed.

For all of the on-field angst that Brady Hoke inspired — after an initial 11-2 record with RichRod-recruited players, UM proceeded to go 8-5/7-6/5-7 — the fired head coach recruited well. In 2013 and 2012, UM’s recruiting classes were ranked fifth and seventh nationally and second in the Big Ten, respectively, according to Rivals.com. Even in 2014, amidst much speculation that Hoke was as good as done, he still pulled in a class that ranked 31st in the country and fourth in the conference.

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Dissecting Nick Saban’s response to SEC misconduct transfer policy

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Sometimes it does not take much to get Alabama head coach Nick Saban going off on a tangent about any issue on his mind. He did just that today when asked about the SEC’s new policy banning transfers previously disciplined for serious misconduct. Asked if he was in favor of the new rule, Saban voiced his concerns regarding the rule and the limits it has on he and other coaches while dropping the names Cam Newton and Nick Marshall and once again suggesting each power conference should abide by the same set of rules. Maybe he lost his train of thought while answering the question?

Let’s break down Saban’s response to the question, piece by piece because hoo boy there is much to digest. Quotes provided by Al.com;

“I understand what they’re trying to do, and I was really [looking] to clearly define exactly why — or what — I thought convicted and felonies should be involved in the rule, and I guess I got sort of misinterpreted. But one of the points that I tried to make was Cam Newton being in the SEC and Nick Marshall being in the SEC benefited the SEC, and it benefited those players.”

Correct, Newton and Marshall did benefit by playing in the SEC. The league’s notoriety surely helped elevate each player’s skills and prepared them for the next level in the NFL. And yes, each player had some issues in their past before landing at, that’s right, Alabama’s biggest rival in the SEC (Auburn). Except neither player was involved in a crime of the nature the new SEC rule was designed to address. No domestic violence or sexual assault issues followed either player that would, coincidentally, go on to defeat Saban’s Tide en route to an SEC championship during their respective runs as starting quarterback. But perhaps Saban was just using those random (or not so random) players as an example to address the theme of the policy. Saban’s larger sticking point is once again having each power conference play under the same rules, something that carries over from the satellite camp debate.

“What I’m most concerned about, I just think that we should have the same rules in the SEC as all the other Big 5 schools have because now we’re not just talking about the SEC. We’re talking about having a playoff — no different than the NFL. One division in the NFL doesn’t have different rules, different salary caps, different anything because the league knows that parity is the best competitive balance that you can create.”

This statement in particular will be what many latch on to, although it leaves room for interpretation. Is Saban saying every conference should adopt the SEC rules or merely saying each conference should use the same rules? In theory, and perhaps in an ideal world, Saban would have his way with everybody playing by the same set of rules, and this is one idea I happen to think Saban is right on the money about. However, who is to say the SEC rules should trump what the Big Ten plays by? Certainly not Saban.

Carry on Saban.

“So when we pass rules that other people that we have to compete against — and if that is really what’s best for the young people that we’re dealing with here, the student-athletes that we’re dealing with – then it should be best for everyone, or otherwise we shouldn’t do it. So I’m hopeful that some kind of way we’ll be able to get the Big 5 together — under the NCAA’s supervision — to try to create rules that we all see in the best interest of student-athletes, which I think we need to be thinking about here: Why do we do this? It is to benefit the student-athletes, to promote opportunities for the student-athletes.”

To his credit, Saban has established a track record of giving players second (or more) chances during his career. This has rubbed some the wrong way, but sometimes players do deserve another chance to thrive. This has gotten Saban into a sticky situation recently, but his overlaying theme is a good one. If we really are to believe these power conferences and programs have the best interests of the student-athletes and want to do everything possible to provide the best opportunities when they leave, then putting rules in place that allow for this to happen is needed, and preferably every conference would adopt the same rules. But we know this is not ultimately the case, which leaves Saban likely to stand alone with some of his opinions.

One more from Saban, again per Al.com

“Now, they have a responsibility and obligation to do the right thing. But what I see happening a lot is people don’t get convicted of things. They’re condemned as soon as they get arrested, and I’m not sure that’s fair because I don’t think that’s what our country was really built on.”

You may not like Saban for one reason or another, but he does go to the defense of his players, even when it may not be the wisest decision. Does he have other interests at heart? Undoubtedly. He is not the highest-paid head coach in college football for no reason, but he does seem to want the best for his players and the players on other programs as well. If it helps him win some extra games, then great. He may have gone off the mark in his response to this particular subject, but his statements should not go completely without merit.

Auburn does the expected, names Jeremy Johnson as starting QB

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Earlier this month, Jeremy Johnson had yet to separate himself from the rest of the Auburn quarterback pack, even as he’s long been expected to be the successor to Nick Marshall.  Monday, the expected officially came to fruition.

Head coach Gus Malzahn took to Twitter Monday afternoon to announce, to the surprise of absolutely no one, Johnson has been named as the Tigers’ starting quarterback.  The anointing comes two days after Auburn’s spring game.

“Everyone in our program has 100 percent confidence in him!” Malzahn wrote in his tweet.

Johnson’s main competition had been redshirt freshman Sean White.  Jason Smith and Tyler Queen were also technically in the mix.

Last season as Marshall’s primary backup, Johnson completed 28-of-37 passes for 436 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. More than half of those pass attempts (21) came in the 2014 opener against Arkansas as Johnson started in place of Marshall, who was suspended following an offseason weed incident.

Johnson and Auburn will open the 2015 season Sept. 5 against Louisville in a neutral-site matchup in the Georgia Dome.

Muschamp already has Auburn’s defense leading the way

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Ask anyone who watched Auburn the biggest need of improvement from 214, and the answer might be the defense. Auburn’s defense is on the right track in a hurry with Will Muschamp taking over as defensive coordinator. The spring game was the latest example of that defense turning a corner.

Since Gus Malzahn has been named head coach at Auburn a couple of years ago, this was the lowest scoring spring game for the Tigers. Credit that to Muschamp getting to work early with the Tigers defense and making some changes. He also brings some energy to the defense, something he has been noted for throughout his coaching career.

“They’re flying around,” Malzahn said. “They’re playing hard.”

Everybody loves Coach Muschamp,” defensive tackle Montravius Adams said after the game, per Al.com. “He’s bringing that energy and changing the question to the whole defense, so we’re going to be a top contender.”

It was just a spring game, but Auburn is feeling more comfortable on defense. They have a defensive coordinator who can cook up some good schemes and have his players buy in. It’s working, and that could be huge if Auburn is going to make some things happen in 2015.

The other side of the Auburn conversation is who replaces Nick Marshall at quarterback? After the spring game it looks as though the answer is more and more likely to be Jeremy Johnson. In fact, let’s put him atop the depth chart for the summer now. Johnson completed 14-of-22 passes for 252 yards with a pair of long touchdowns to Duke Williams and Myron Burton.

“I thought Jeremy did some good things,” Malzahn said. “He has really good command of our offense. He probably held the ball a little too long a couple of throws, but, overall, I thought he did a good job.”

Auburn opens the 2015 season in Atlanta against Louisville in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff on September 5.

Jeremy Johnson yet to separate self from Auburn QB pack

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Barring the unforeseen or unexpected, Auburn is expected to head into the 2015 opener against Louisville Sept. 5 with Jeremy Johnson under center.  After nearly four weeks of spring practice, however, the junior has yet to gain a stranglehold on the starting quarterback job — or, at least, his coach refuses to acknowledge he has.

During a scrimmage Saturday, Johnson and redshirt freshman Sean White, the Opelika-Auburn News writes, “split the reps at quarterback with the first-team offense — rotating between the blue group and the orange group.” The reps weren’t exactly split evenly, however, as Johnson, the primary backup to starter Nick Marshall in 2014, took a few more snaps than did White.

At this point in time, head coach Gus Malzahn doesn’t appear inclined to name a starter, even as Johnson remains the odds-on favorite.

“I think they did OK,” Malzahn said of the performance of both Johnson and White. “I don’t think there was anything that stood out negatively.”

At least technically, the Tigers’ quarterback competition is a four-person duel, with Jason Smith and Tyler Queen also in the mix. Malzahn, though, seems to make it clear that the list of starting candidates has been pared in half from where it was at the start of spring practice last month.

“I think with those first two guys (Johnson and White), we do have a lot of information,” Malzahn said. “You know, Sean White in the bowl practices, went live. Tyler, today was live. But those first two, we’ve got really good information. We know how they’re going to react. Now they both wanted to go live, but we’re going to be smart. Now that’s a good thing. Most quarterbacks do. That way they can play the game.

“But we were smart with them today.”

Last season, Johnson completed 28-of-37 passes for 436 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. More than half of those pass attempts (21) came in the 2014 opener against Arkansas as Johnson started in place of Marshall, who was suspended following an offseason weed incident.