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The 2016 Summer Olympics are just around the corner, which means athletes from around the globe will descend on Rio to try to take home a gold medal. While an athlete can earn a lot of endorsement money with a gold medal, the actual value in gold isn't nearly as valuable as you might think. In fact, gold medals actually contain very little gold.
The race should be close in the Pac-12 North once again in 2016 with Washington edging it's way into the pack. The Huskies went 7-6 last year, but have the team capable of taking a step forward this fall. What we do know is that it's going to be another rough year for Oregon State.
Related: Pac-12 Football 2016 Predictions
There are six teams in the Pac-12's North Division. This article will apply the win totals from one Vegas casino and discuss if there is any value in these numbers. A selection is made based on the team's schedule, in which the games are broken down into three categories - easy wins, toss-ups and certain losses. Most conference games are in the toss-up category unless there is a clear difference in talent.
Note: Over/under odds courtesy of South Point Casino
Pac-12 North Division
(Over 4 wins -135...Under 4 wins +110)
Record Last Year: 8-5, 4-5
Returning Starters: 8 (3 on offense, 5 on defense)
Offense:Things are going to be real different with Jared Goff in the pros. The addition of Davis Webb, a graduate transfer from Texas Tech, should help things out although he'll have to use a rebuilt WR corps that lost 265 catches from last season. There should be several RBs as part of the offense as well.
Defense: The defense allowed more than 450 yards per game in 2015 and that could be around the same this fall. The front four features DeVante Wilson and James Looney. Injuries at safety will greatly test the depth there.
Schedule: California opens up the season down under in Sydney, Australia against Hawaii. The Golden Bears also play at San Diego State and host Texas as part of the non-conference slate. Sonny Dykes’ team ends its slate with three of four at home although the opponents are Washington, Stanford and UCLA.
Selection: Slight lean to the over here although I don't love it. Webb's arrival potentially makes the offense a factor, but Cal’s defense is still light years behind.
(Over 8.5 wins +110...Under 8.5 wins -135)
Record Last Year: 9-4, 7-2
Returning Starters: 8 (4 on offense, 4 on defense)
Offense: The transfer QB train brought over Dakota Prukop from Montana State to take over the offense. There is talk of a two-quarterback system with freshman Travis Jonsen involved. Prukop was a solid runner for the Bobcats although that's what Royce Freeman is on the roster for. Freeman ran for almost 2,000 yards in 2015. Dwayne Stanford, Charles Nelson and Darren Carrington are back at WR so the cupboard isn't bare there.
Defense: New coordinator Brady Hoke has his work cut out for him with most of the stars gone from last year's defense. That presents a problem considering the unit was already 117th in the nation in total yards allowed. The secondary is pretty much back led by Tyree Robinson.
Schedule: Oregon plays three of its first four at home with UC Davis, Virginia and a trip to Nebraska representing the non-Pac-12 opponents. The Ducks finish with three of their last four on the road with the home contest coming against Stanford.
Selection: The under is the play here although not at this price. The defense is going to struggle big time and there is going to be a boatload of overs on this schedule.
(Over 3.5 wins +115...Under 3.5 wins -135)
Record Last Year: 2-10, 0-9
Returning Starters: 10 (6 on offense, 4 on defense)
Offense: Utah State transfer Darell Garretson comes over to play quarterback. Last year's starting signal-caller, Seth Collins, is moving to a more hybrid role where his skills can be better used. Jordan Villamin and Victor Bolden come back on the outside as well so the passing game could click if the right QB is used.
Defense: The Beavers’ defense welcomes new coordinator Kevin Clune, who is tasked with trying to fix the 114th-ranked defense. This group is going to be very young with six of the front seven needing to be replaced. Special teams should be better.
Schedule: Oregon State gets four of its first six at home although it may not help. The Beavers play at Minnesota to go with home matchups against Idaho State and Boise State for their non-conference slate. The final two road games are at Stanford and UCLA.
Selection: No official pick on this one although I think the under is the play. The Beavers are the only team in the North that has no shot at winning the division. Gary Andersen is just trying to build this program up.
(Over 8 wins -135...Under 8 wins +115)
Record Last Year: 12-2, 8-1
Returning Starters: 9 (4 on offense, 5 on defense)
Offense: Christian McCaffrey looks to build off a 2015 campaign where he accounted for almost 4,000 total yards. He will be running in front of an offensive line with just two returning starters. Keller Chryst and Ryan Burns are dueling for the QB job and there's talk that they may end up both playing.
Defense: Stanford's defense figures to take a step back after some personnel losses, including linebacker Blake Martinez. Solomon Thomas had 10.5 tackles for a loss last season and will need to get some pressure to help out a secondary that is replacing half of its starters.
Schedule: The Cardinal spread their non-conference games out playing Kansas State in September, Notre Dame in October and Rice in November. They have three of their final five on the road and play at Washington and Oregon.
Selection: I think the price is right for the under. Stanford has a couple of tough road trips which could be an issue for a team breaking in a new quarterback. This will be a test for David Shaw.
(Over 9 wins -110...Under 9 wins -110)
Record Last Year: 7-6, 5-4
Returning Starters: 17 (9 on offense, 8 on defense)
Offense: The Huskies have the best offense in the Pac-12 North led by the sophomore combination of QB Jake Browning and RB Myles Gaskin. Browning had 16 touchdown passes in 2015 to just 10 interceptions. The offensive line took it's lumps last year, but is going to be strong in 2016. Expect improvement here.
Defense: The Huskies defense held opponents to just 18.8 points per game last year. They return key contributors at every level in tackle Elijah Qualls, linebacker Azeem Victor and safety Budda Baker. Special teams is going to be stellar too with Dante Pettis expected to return punts.
Schedule: UW has four of its first five at home including three straight to open up the year. They host Rutgers, Idaho and Portland State so a fast start is expected. The Huskies’ toughest stretch is in October when they play three of four Pac-12 games on the road.
Selection: Nine is the number I continue to come up with. The Huskies have the talent to win any game on their schedule but I think road trips to Arizona, Oregon and Utah could be tough.
(Over 7.5 wins +105...Under 7.5 wins -125)
Record Last Year: 9-4, 6-3
Returning Starters: 14 (8 on offense, 6 on defense)
Offense: Luke Falk is back for another season after throwing it a whopping 644 times in 2015. Falk has the majority of his WR group back with Gabe Marks, River Cracraft and Robert Lewis all returning. The right side of the offensive line is set, and this offense should have another good season.
Defense: The Cougars showed some improvement on this side of the ball last year with 24 takeaways and 27.7 points per game allowed. Wazzu has the majority of it's linebackers and secondary back, but it could struggle up front. Peyton Pelluer is a real good player to have at MLB.
Schedule: Washington State plays four of its first six at home with non-conference matchups against Eastern Washington, Boise State and Idaho. Three of the final four are at home including the Apple Cup matchup against Washington.
Selection: The over isn't a bad play here. Outside of playing at Boise State and Stanford, the road tilts aren't that tough. I think Mike Leach’s team could approach nine or 10 wins.
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Josephs prefers non-Power 5 college football and may be the only one wagering on the Sun Belt. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.
The balance of power in college football and the strength of divisions is always cyclical. The Big Ten West is on the wrong side of the cycle in 2016, as Nebraska, Wisconsin and Northwestern enter the year with key question marks and projected to finish outside of the top 25 by most preseason prognosticators. Iowa is the heavy favorite in the Big Ten West this fall, but the Hawkeyes have a few question marks of their own. The receiving corps needs a few playmakers to emerge, and the offensive line loses two standouts. Nebraska returns one of the Big Ten’s top quarterbacks in Tommy Armstrong, but the defense was hit hard by departures up front. Wisconsin returns a solid core of talent and one of the league’s top defenses. However, the Badgers must navigate a difficult schedule.
As mentioned above, Iowa is the clear favorite in the Big Ten West. But which position groups could be the difference between the Hawkeyes challenging the East champ for the conference title or Nebraska winning the West crown? Here are five key position groups to watch for development in 2016:
5 Critical Position Groups to Watch in the Big Ten West
Iowa Special Teams
The development of the receivers outside of senior Matt VandeBerg and the battle to replace offensive line standouts Austin Blythe and Jordan Walsh are two other areas to watch, but let’s focus on Iowa’s special teams. Kicker Marshall Koehn departs after connecting on 16 of 20 field goals last season, and punter Dillon Kidd also expired his eligibility (40.2 avg.). While special teams aren’t as flashy as quarterback play or a skill position, this unit could decide the outcome in a couple of close games. After all, Iowa won five games by eight points or less last season. Sophomore Miguel Recinos and Mick Ellis (0 for 1 career field goals) are the frontrunners to replace Koehn, while redshirt freshman Colten Rastetter holds an edge at punter. Central Michigan graduate transfer Ron Coluzzi (39.2 avg. in 2015) is another name to watch at punter. Iowa should find the right answers here, but this could be something to watch in close games early in the 2016 season.
Opponents didn’t find much room to throw on Minnesota’s defensive backs last season. The Golden Gophers finished 25th nationally in pass efficiency defense, allowed only 13 passing scores and surrendered only five plays of 40 yards or more. Jay Sawvel will handle the play-calling duties after Tracy Claeys was promoted to head coach at the end of last season and will work with new assistant Dan O’Brien on reloading the secondary. Standout cornerbacks Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun and safety Antonio Johnson expired their eligibility after 2015. The cupboard isn’t bare, but Sawvel and O’Brien have to find the right mix. Senior cornerback Jalen Myrick should push for all-conference honors, with sophomore KiAnte Hardin likely to start on the opposite side after recording 13 tackles in 2015. Adekunle Ayinde and Ace Rogers should battle for one of the starting spots at safety, with senior Damarius Travis (returning from injury) claiming the other job. Travis recorded 10 tackles in last season’s opener but missed the rest of the year. His return is a huge boost for this unit.
Nebraska Defensive Line
The development of this unit will be critical to Nebraska’s hopes of challenging Iowa for the Big Ten West Division title. The Cornhuskers will have four new starters up front, with the departure of standout tackles Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine leaving a void on the interior. Nebraska ranked second in the Big Ten against the run last season but only generated 24 sacks. Who will step up for new line coach John Parrella this fall? Sophomore Freedom Akinmoladun is a name to watch on the edge after generating 4.5 sacks in nine games last fall. Senior Ross Dzuris and freshmen Alex Davis and DaiShon Neal are also expected to provide support at end. Senior Kevin Maurice (21 tackles) is the leader on the interior, but talented redshirt freshmen Carlos and Khalil Davis are two names to watch.
Northwestern Wide Receivers
If Northwestern wants to repeat last year’s 10-win campaign, it’s no secret the Wildcats need more out of the passing game. Quarterback Clayton Thorson should take a step forward in his second season as the starter, but coach Pat Fitzgerald needs a few playmakers to step up on the outside. Northwestern loses leading receiver Dan Vitale (33 grabs) and its No. 3 target Christian Jones (23 catches). Who will step up for Thorson this fall? Senior Austin Carr (16 receptions) and two players making a position change – Solomon Vault from running back and Marcus McShepard from defensive back – are three names to remember. Superback Garrett Dickerson should be a key weapon for Thorson, and if the Wildcats need to tap into their recruiting class for help, Ben Skowronek or Riley Lees are two potential instant-impact prospects. A key stat to remember: Northwestern connected on just seven passing plays of 30 yards or more in 2015.
Wisconsin Offensive Line
Wisconsin’s offensive line is usually one of the best in the Big Ten, but this unit didn’t perform up to its normal standard last fall. The Badgers ranked eighth in the conference in sacks allowed (24) and struggled to open up running lanes (3.82 yards per carry). Youth and injuries had a lot to do with the performance of the front five, but there’s plenty of hope for quick improvement in 2016. Four starters are back for coach Paul Chryst, and UW-Stevens Point transfer Ryan Ramczyk is penciled in at left tackle. Sophomores Micah Kapoi, Michael Deiter and Beau Benzschawel should all show improvement in their second year as starter. The development of this unit is critical with a new quarterback taking over, as well as a brutal first-half schedule.
The SEC has done its part once again in scheduling marquee non-conference opponents.
In fact, thanks to the SEC, and the other Power Five conferences, 2016 may feature the greatest week one slate of games in the history of college football. It’s certainly the best opening weekend in recent memory. Really, if you didn’t know better, you might think it was January with this kind of quality.
But it’s not just early September. There are several games throughout the season that should prove to be entertaining. Here are the SEC’s best non-conference games for 2016:
1. Tennessee vs. Virginia Tech (Bristol, Tenn. – Sept. 10)
If everything goes as planned, this will be the biggest college football game ever. Well, at least from an attendance standpoint. Officials at Bristol Motor Speedway are expecting at least 140,000 people to show up for this game. There has been some speculation that attendance could be as high as 160,000. It’s crazy to think about, but this is a game that both fan bases have wanted for a long time.
2. LSU vs. Wisconsin (Lambeau Field, Sept. 3)
There are only a few true palaces in football. It will always be subjective when arguing the beauty of the Rose Bowl versus that of “The Big House,” Soldier Field or Neyland Stadium. But most college football die-hards would agree that Lambeau Field is near the top of that list. This game should be an unbelievable neutral-site spectacle. LSU athletic director Joe Alleva probably put it best when he called this one “a bucket-list type game.”
3. Ole Miss vs. Florida State (Orlando, Fla. – Sept. 5)
Ole Miss and Florida State have met only once before on the gridiron, way back in 1961. The Rebels won that game 33-0. This neutral-site matchup in Orlando, Fla., is intriguing for a number of reasons. First, we should find out pretty early what Florida State is all about. Some think the Seminoles are deserving of a No. 1 ranking. But also, we will see how bad the drop-off is for Ole Miss after an exodus of talent from last season. Will Chad Kelly have to carry the offense by himself?
4. Alabama vs. USC (Arlington, Texas – Sept. 3)
For starters, this is a matchup of two of college football’s most prestigious programs – Alabama and USC. These two schools have combined for approximately 27 national titles (give or take a couple depending on how many you allow Alabama fans to claim). Remarkably, the Trojans and Crimson Tide have only met seven times on the gridiron, with Alabama holding a 5-2 series advantage. The teams last played in 1985, so it will be nice to see such storied history clash on the field once again.
5. Georgia vs. North Carolina (Atlanta – Sept. 3)
This seems to be one of the popular upset picks for week one. It could happen, especially if Georgia’s top two running backs aren’t able to go. Both teams will be looking for stability at the quarterback spot, so you would think the team that is able to run the ball efficiently will have an advantage. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel would be the best bet, if they are healthy, but the Tar Heels have a fantastic running back of their own in Elijah Hood. This one could be a classic to kick off the season.
6. Clemson at Auburn (Sept. 3)
Another popular upset pick, this game isn’t quite as easy to figure out. If Auburn plays to its full potential in week one, anything could happen. The Tigers certainly has talent, but Clemson is coming off a near-miss national championship season. The ACC’s Tigers have the most dynamic quarterback in football in Deshaun Watson, but traveling to Jordan-Hare Stadium won’t be easy. Clemson has won the last two meetings between the teams.
7. Arkansas at TCU (Sept. 10)
The Razorbacks haven’t looked great early in the season under Bret Bielema. By November, they seem to be unstoppable, but lack that intensity in September. Arkansas will be tested early when it travels to Fort Worth to take on TCU. The Horned Frogs could be one of the surprise teams out of the Big 12 this season. This game also has historical value. These two programs used to battle it out in the old Southwest Conference. This will be the first meeting between the Razorbacks and Horned Frogs since 1991.
8. UCLA at Texas A&M (Sept. 3)
Josh Rosen seems poised for a big year with the Bruins. This may finally be the season that UCLA takes the next step, but we’ll find out early if the boys from Los Angeles are for real when they head east into the brutal Texas heat to take on the Aggies. Texas A&M has a few more questions at quarterback, but looks to have a solid option in Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight. This will be a big momentum boost for the winner.
9. Missouri at West Virginia (Sept. 3)
The high-octane, high-flying offense of the Big 12 meets one of the SEC’s best defenses in this week one contest. That will certainly be the matchup to watch. If West Virginia puts up 40 points, turn out the lights, because Mizzou likely will struggle to score touchdowns. But if the Tigers’ defensive line wreaks havoc up front, the Mountaineers could be in big trouble. Regardless, couches will be burning.
10. Vanderbilt at Georgia Tech (Sept. 17)
11. Florida at Florida State (Nov. 26)
Moving to rivalry week now, the annual battle for the Sunshine State could be interesting. Last year, the Gators mustered only two points against the Seminoles. It was sad to watch, honestly. Hopefully, Florida will have more offense to show this year, because the Gators probably will need it against a talented Florida State defense. The Seminoles have won five of the previous six meetings in the series.
12. Mississippi State at BYU (Oct. 14)
This game just seems weird in so many ways. First off, it’s on a Friday night. Second, it’s right in the middle of the season, whereas usually key non-conference games are at the beginning and the end of the season. Regardless of the “when,” the Bulldogs will go on the road to take on a more-than-capable BYU team that pulled off some big upsets last season. This will be third meeting all-time between Mississippi State and BYU.
13. Georgia Tech at Georgia (Nov. 26)
Despite having a first-year head coach, Georgia should be a contender in the SEC East this season. The Bulldogs’ schedule sets up very well inside the conference, but they do have two tough matchups against the ACC. There’s the previously-mentioned game against North Carolina, plus this annual rivalry bout with Georgia Tech. This game is typically close, regardless of which team is having the better year.
14. South Carolina at Clemson (Nov. 26)
The main reason this one is interesting is because of the unusual talent disparity. South Carolina doesn’t have much to work with, and Clemson is absolutely loaded. With all the sarcastic beatdowns delivered by Steve Spurrier’s teams in recent memory, how bad will Clemson want to destroy the Gamecocks in the final week of the regular season? The Tigers could once again have plenty on the line.
15. Georgia Southern at Ole Miss (Nov. 5)
No, I didn’t just pick a random Sun Belt team. Hear me out. Georgia Southern returns a ton of talent from a team that took Georgia to overtime in Athens last November. Not to mention, this team blasted a very good Bowling Green team in the GoDaddy Bowl, 58-27. Ole Miss’ three games before this one: at Arkansas, at LSU, vs. Auburn. The Rebels could be a little banged up and might be looking to take the weekend off. Just sayin’.
Best of the Rest
Kentucky at Louisville (Nov. 26)
Appalachian State at Tennessee (Sept. 1)
Vanderbilt at Western Kentucky (Sept. 24)
Arkansas State at Auburn (Sept. 10)
Mississippi State at UMass (Sept. 24)
Memphis at Ole Miss (Oct. 1)
TCU entered 2015 with aspirations of winning the Big 12 and reaching the College Football Playoff behind Heisman Trophy candidate Trevone Boykin but things didn’t go quite as planned for the Horned Frogs. A rash of injuries, suspensions and other ill-timed roster moves threw the team into flux from a week-to-week basis but, in the end, Gary Patterson delivered one of the most impressive season-long coaching jobs of his storied career in getting the team to an 11-2 record that was capped off with an improbable comeback victory against Oregon in the Alamo Bowl.
While TCU fell a bit short of expectations last season, the seeds for exceeding them in 2016 were planted with so many young players getting a chance to shine on the field. A host of difference-makers still need to be replaced but the schedule sets the team up well to make a run at the final four and bringing another conference title to Fort Worth.
Can the Horned Frogs reach that promised land of the Playoff that they came ever so close to making two years ago? Here are three reasons why TCU will... and three reasons why it won’t.
Three Reasons Why TCU Will Make the College Football Playoff
1. One of the deepest defenses in the country
There may not be a head coach in the country better at scheming a defense than Gary Patterson and it’s to his credit that he’s consistently had one of the best units on that side of the ball no matter what conference he’s in. However, even he had to be surprised at how good TCU was last season on defense, doubly so when you factor in the sheer amount of injuries that the team suffered. While 2015 culminated in walk-ons playing key roles and freshmen being thrown into the fire on a consistent basis, the end result could be the deepest defense in the country this fall. The entire linebacker corps is back and then some and the secondary is a full two-deep of experienced players that have started in the past. Defensive line is a tad thin by comparison but getting back players like James McFarland (who missed all of last year) help soften the blow. In a conference full of elite offenses, having the best defense will certainly be something TCU can hang its hat on during the upcoming season.
2. KaVontae Turpin is a threat to score every time
While Biletnikoff Award finalist Josh Doctson drew most of the off-field press and on-field attention of defenses, the emergence of Turpin was one of the pleasant surprises for TCU in 2015, as the freshman made key contributions on both offense and special teams. He’s one of the fastest players on the team (and that’s saying something with as many track guys as there are at Amon G. Carter Stadium) and a threat to score just about any time he touches the football. Turpin figures to be a monster once again in the kick return game and his flexibility in lining up all over the field should force defenses to adjust on every snap to where he is. Some big names are no longer in a Horned Frogs uniform but coaches are certainly happy to have a versatile star in the making back for 2016 in Turpin.
3. Luck might be back on TCU’s side
When TCU made an incredible run to the Rose Bowl back in 2010 or came within a hair of making the playoff in ‘14, luck seemed to be on the Horned Frogs’ side. While those teams were certainly very good by any measuring stick, there’s little doubt that their success was buoyed by the fact that they seemed to stay remarkably healthy and had great luck in the timing of playing certain opponents. On the flip side, last year’s campaign showed that while TCU was a quality team that finished 11-2, it was remarkably unlucky with injures, which seemed to play a part in failing to live up to sky-high expectations. This year might be a little different though as luck seems to once again alternated to its side. TCU does have some key departures to deal with but these Frog also are getting back a number of key contributors from 2014 and may be as deep as anybody when you look at the young players that got to see the action last season. On top of all that, Big 12 favorite Oklahoma and non-conference foe Arkansas both come to Fort Worth and the mess at Baylor has seemingly narrowed the field of elite teams in the league. It’s always best to be lucky and good and TCU has the vibe of both heading into the fall.
Three Reasons Why TCU Will Not Make the College Football Playoff
1. The clutch playmakers are all gone
One factor for TCU in its late-season slide to end 2015 was the fact that quarterback Trevone Boykin, wide receivers Josh Doctson and Kolby Listenbee, plus a host of defensive starters all missed time with injuries. While that did allow younger players to step up and gain some experience, it goes without saying that replacing some mainstays in the playmaking department on a full-time basis will be a challenge for Patterson and his coordinators. There are talented pieces still around that could have big seasons but it remains to be seen if one player can step up in those key moments and make a play like the departed big names did time after time.
2. Offense is a question mark across the board
TCU was one of two schools not to take a quarterback to Big 12 Media Days this year and Patterson has indicated that it might be the opener before the issue is settled. Co-offensive coordinators Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham both provide continuity and it’s not like the options are lacking between Kenny Hill and Foster Sawyer but... Boykin re-wrote nearly every school record during his time behind center and it’s usually pretty hard to not have growing pains when replacing a player of that caliber. Add in question marks at running back, offensive line and a huge amount of youth at wide receiver and there are reasons to be cautious about the Horned Frogs when they host both Arkansas and Oklahoma early in the season.
3. Kicking could be a big issue
Every coach will tell you that special teams almost always gets overlooked at the beginning of the season but we’re here to correct that: losing kicker Jaden Oberkrom is a big issue for TCU in 2016. Whether it was clutch kicks at the end of games or simply being such a reliable option when the offense moved inside the 40, the Horned Frogs can chalk up a chunk of their success over the past few seasons to trotting out one of the best kickers in the country. Nobody on the roster has ever even attempted a field goal so it’s hard to think that TCU will be as good as it has been in close games that the Horned Frogs will almost certainly find themselves in due to their tough schedule.
There’s a lot to like about TCU heading into 2016 and there are likely to be a number of pundits and analysts that will tout the team as one of the leaders in a stable of dark horses to make the College Football Playoff. There is incredible depth at a number of positions and the Gary Patterson/Sonny Cumbie/Doug Meacham coaching trio is as good as it gets in the country. It’s no stretch to think the Horned Frogs will sport the best defense in the Big 12 and it’s conceivable that last season’s stretch run helped take the sting out of losing so many key playmakers on offense. Still, replacing a quarterback is no easy task and any growing pains associated with that are compounded by a schedule that is front-loaded with key games. TCU has a chance to sneak into the College Football Playoff picture this season but it will all come down to a handful of key questions being answered early and often.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 17
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 9-3
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 8
5 Dimes Projected Over/Under Odds: 8
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
While the days of daily college fantasy football appear to be over (sadly), the season-long game remains alive and well as we head into the 2016 season.
Athlon Sports is here to help you prepare for the upcoming draft season with our positional rankings, which will be rolled out over the course of this week.
Below is the scoring system used to comprise these positional rankings.
Passing Yards, 25 yards = 1 point
Passing TD = 4 points
Rushing Yards, 10 yards = 1 point
Rushing TDs = 6 points
Receptions = 0.5 points per reception
Receiving Yards, 10 yards = 1 point
Receiving TDs = 6 points
2016 College Fantasy Football RB Rankings
1. Christian McCaffrey, Stanford
What doesn’t this guy do? Last year the Heisman Trophy runner-up amassed 2,019 rushing yards, has 45 receptions for 645 yards, accumulated more than 1,100 return yards and scored a total of 15 touchdowns. McCaffrey set the NCAA single-season all-purpose mark with 3,864 total yards, while breaking Stanford’s rushing record in the process. So how does one improve upon such a remarkable year? Many are projecting an increase in rushing touchdowns for McCaffrey following the graduation of short-yardage specialist Remound Wright, who had 13 TDs on the ground last season. Even a slight bump in rushing TDs separates McCaffrey from the pack as the top running back in college fantasy football in 2016.
2. Jeremy McNichols, Boise State
At this point in time last season, we were still unsure as to who would be the new starting running back for Boise State following Jay Ajayi’s graduation. McNichols quickly put those question marks to rest, rushing for 1,337 yards and 20 touchdowns to go along with 51 catches and another six scores. In fact, McNichols accounted for at least one rushing touchdown in every game that he played in, and multiple TDs in all but just two. Even coming close to last year’s numbers solidifies him as the No. 2 fantasy running back in college football in PPR leagues.
3. Leonard Fournette, LSU
The only thing keeping Fournette out of the top spot is how little he is used in the passing game in comparison to both McCaffrey and McNichols. It is conceivable that Fournette will surpass both in rushing yards and touchdowns, but in any PPR league, he will not rack up those additional reception points. There also is plenty of intrigue surrounding back Derrius Guice, who could see his workload increase after averaging 8.5 yards per carry as a freshman. Even so, Fournette should reach 2,000 total yards and account for 20 touchdowns with relative ease.
4. Elijah Hood, North Carolina
After finishing fourth on the team in rushing as a freshman, Hood burst onto the fantasy scene in his second year, rushing for 1,463 yards and 17 touchdowns. With the departure of Marquise Williams (13 rushing TDs in 2015) at quarterback, there could be even more opportunities for Hood to find the end zone this fall. New starter Mitch Trubisky is not the runner that Williams was, which should mean more red zone work for Hood, resulting in a boost in TD totals. Not to mention North Carolina returns four starters along the offensive line, forming one of the better units in the ACC, if not the nation.
5. Dalvin Cook, Florida State
There is no doubt that Cook is one of the top two or three running backs in the entire country, along with McCaffrey and Fournette. So why is he at No. 5 for fantasy? For one, while Cook is a capable receiver out of the backfield, his receptions totals do not match some of the players ranked above him. Secondly, backup Jacques Patrick looked fully capable in his limited action last season of handling an increased workload, and it would not be a surprise to see him get more carries as a sophomore. That said, Cook’s 1,600-yard/16-TD projection is likely his floor and he could very well finish higher in the ranks by season’s end.
6. Royce Freeman, Oregon
Oregon has now had a 1,000-yard rusher for nine consecutive seasons and 2016 will be no different with Freeman returning for his junior season. What will be different, however, is the makeup of the offensive line, which is replacing three starters, as well as who will be handing the ball off to Freeman, as the Ducks will be breaking in a new starting quarterback. Will these changes and question marks hurt Freeman’s production in 2016? Matching last year’s total of 1,836 yards rushing may be a stretch, but Freeman is one of the most complete backs in the country and his numbers shouldn’t see a dramatic dip… if at all.
7. Donnel Pumphrey, San Diego State
Is there a more unheralded player in the country other than Pumphrey? The senior has literally been the Aztecs’ offense for the last two years, rushing for 3,520 rushing yards and scoring 40 total touchdowns (37 rushing) during that span. The only real concern here is workload, as Pumphrey has accumulated 711 carries over the last three years, so it would be understandable if the coaching staff limits his touches early to keep him fresh for later in the season. Pumphrey probably won’t repeat the 300 carries he got in 2015, but will remain the sole focus of the offense and should come close to last year’s rushing totals.
8. Corey Clement, Wisconsin
There were sky-high expectations for Clement last season with Melvin Gordon out of the picture, but injuries limited the junior to just four games. Also contributing to Wisconsin’s unusually low rushing numbers was an out-of-sorts offensive line that was breaking in three new starters and wound up using seven different combinations during the season. Four starters return up front in 2016 and Clement is now fully healed from the sports hernia injury that hampered him last season. We should see the old Wisconsin rushing attack regain its form this year and Clement will be leading the way.
9. Ito Smith, Southern Mississippi
Southern Miss produced two 1,000-yard backs in 2015 with both Smith and Jalen Richard topping that mark, combining for more than 2,200 yards and 24 touchdowns. With Richard now graduated, Smith assumes the role of lead back and likely sees a boost in production by default, though there is still plenty of backfield depth remaining in Patrick Brooks and George Payne. Smith also finished fourth on the team in catches with 49 for 515 yards and three scores – increasing his value in PPR leagues immensely.
10. Elijah McGuire, Louisiana-Lafayette
McGuire did not take off the way many expected last season, rushing for just 1,058 yards in his first year as the No. 1 back. Poor quarterback play contributed to this, as the Ragin’ Cajun signal-callers combined to throw just 13 touchdowns, limiting McGuire’s big plays due to increased attention paid to him by defenses. Better play from the quarterback position should alleviate some of the defensive attention away from McGuire, allowing for improved numbers.
11. Larry Rose III, New Mexico State
Rose doesn’t get much recognition due in large part to New Mexico State not being very good, but in fantasy football, he is a household name. The senior back was named the Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year in 2015 after rushing for 1,651 yards and 14 touchdowns – all with very little help from his supporting cast as the Aggies rotated three quarterbacks during the season. With improved play from everyone surrounding him, we could see an even better Rose in 2016.
12. Wayne Gallman, Clemson
Even with his quarterback getting more than 200 carries, Gallman was still able to top 1,500 yards on the ground, including 100-yard rushing performances in nine out of the 14 games he played. Clemson brings back one of the top offensive lines in the nation and multiple deep threats on the outside to keep defenses from stacking the box, meaning plenty of holes for Gallman to run through again in 2016.
13. Myles Gaskin, Washington
Gaskin closed the regular season on a tear with three consecutive 100-yard rushing performances and then capped off his freshman year with 181 yards and four touchdowns against Southern Miss in the bowl victory. Gaskin wound up setting the school rushing record for a freshman with 1,302 yards and 14 touchdowns, and is one of the reasons why expectations are through the roof for Washington in 2016.
14. Jalen Hurd, Tennessee
There was concern heading into last year that Hurd’s numbers would be limited due to the presence of former Alabama transfer Alvin Kamara as the primary backup. The opposite occurred, though, as Hurd’s rushing totals increased significantly, finishing with 1,288 yards rushing and 12 scores, while also adding 22 receptions. With four starters back along an experienced offensive line, the Volunteers should have one of the top rushing attacks in all of college football with Hurd leading the way.
15. Matt Breida, Georgia Southern
New head coach Tyson Summers announced soon after he was hired that he would continue to run the same triple-option offense installed by his predecessor Willie Fritz. That’s a wise decision from the first-year head coach considering the Eagles have led the nation in rushing each of the past two seasons with Breida doing most of the damage. The senior has rushed for more than 3,000 yards and 34 touchdowns the past two seasons and there are no signs of him slowing down in the near future.
16. Marlon Mack, South Florida
South Florida will be one of the trendy teams heading into 2016, and Mack is a big reason why. Mack followed up a 1,000-yard freshman campaign with nearly 1,400 rushing yards and eight touchdowns as a sophomore, breaking the USF single-season rushing record. The Bulls need to replace three starters along the offensive front, but were in the same situation last season and look what Mack was able to accomplish. The threat of Quinton Flowers at quarterback should be able to keep defenses from loading the box with nine-man fronts as well.
17. Joel Bouagnon, Northern Illinois
Bouagnon was not expected to rank this high, but we still do not know the status of talented backup Jordan Huff for next season as he is not listed on the roster. If Huff is not on the team, the bulk of the carries will fall on the shoulders of Bouagnon, who has proven to be more than capable of handling the workload, rushing for nearly 2,000 yards and 23 touchdowns the past two seasons.
18. Samaje Perine, Oklahoma
The concern prior to last season was that we could see a dip in production from Perine with the presence of Joe Mixon, and that prediction came to reality as his numbers dropped by nearly 400 rushing yards and five touchdowns. That said, Perine’s “down” season ended with 1,349 yards on the ground and 16 touchdowns even with Mixon stealing away a good chunk of his carries. Perine has proven to be a workhorse in his first two years and will be one again in 2016.
19. Brian Hill, Wyoming
Never heard of Hill? Well get to know him because is one of the better backs in all of college football after finishing eighth in the country with 1,631 rushing yards last season. What is keeping him from being higher on this list is the low touchdown total (6), but don’t blame him for that, as he had little to no help from the rest of the Wyoming offense last year. Better play from the supporting cast should help Hill become a household name in 2016.
20. Jahad Thomas, Temple
Thomas broke out last year with four 100-yard rushing performances in his first six games, but then seemingly wore down during the second half. He averaged just 3.9 yards per carry over his last eight games. With more depth behind him this season, Thomas should be able to stay fresher over the course of the year, and will likely match last season’s totals of nearly 1,300 yards on the ground.
21. Matt Dayes, NC State
Dayes was well on his way to a 1,000-yard season in 2015 before injury struck and ended his year after just eight games. Now fully healthy, and with the quarterback position in a state of flux for NC State, Dayes will be leaned on heavily, and should become the Wolfpack’s first 1,000-yard back since 2002.
22. Ray Lawry, Old Dominion
Lawry did not take off in his sophomore season like most expected him to, struggling with fumbles and injuries the second half of last year, but he was still able to rush for 1,136 yards and 11 touchdowns. Old Dominion won’t have to lean on the rushing attack as much in 2016 with the quarterback position in a much better spot, but Lawry should be able to match last year’s numbers with ease as the offensive system has become much more run-oriented since the days of Taylor Heinicke.
23. Kareem Hunt, Toledo
Hunt missed four games last season – two for suspension and two due to injury – but did top 100 yards rushing in four out of the last five games to finish just short of 1,000 yards. Toledo lost up-and-coming head coach Matt Campbell, but the offense is expected to remain the same under former offensive coordinator Jason Candle. With less uncertainty surrounding the offensive line this year (four starters back), Hunt should have his best season as a senior, provided he stays healthy enough for a full season – something he has been unable to do the last two years.
24. Saquon Barkley, Penn State
Barkley has quickly become the face of the program at Penn State with the departure of quarterback Christian Hackenberg. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Barkley also broke the school’s freshman rushing record with 1,076 yards on the ground last season. Big things are expected of him in 2016 with a new Oregon-style spread offense being implemented and four starters back along the offensive line.
25. Devine Redding, Indiana
Despite playing second fiddle to Jordan Howard last season, Redding was able to amass more than 1,000 yards rushing and nine touchdowns. With Howard out of the picture, Redding will be the primary ball carrier this fall and the senior should see a significant boost in his production as he runs behind one of the better offensive lines in the Big Ten.
26. Anthony Wales, Western Kentucky
There could be a wrench thrown into the mix towards the middle of the season if/when former starter Leon Allen returns to the lineup as he continues to recover from the devastating knee injury he suffered last September. As of now, Allen won’t be ready for the start of the year, leaving the job in the hands of Wales, who is a talented runner in his own right, rushing for more than 1,000 yards last year. The senior running back also is used heavily in the passing game, which helps his fantasy value.
27. Marcus Cox, Appalachian State
Head coach Scott Satterfield mentioned prior to last season that he wanted to cut back on the workload of his star running back. However, that didn’t necessarily happen as Cox finished with just 12 fewer carries than he had in 2014. I do expect Cox to get less work this season, if anything because of the development of sophomore backup Jalin Moore, who averaged more than seven yards per carry in 2015. We potentially could see both backs top 1,000 yards this fall.
28. Alex Gardner, FIU
Gardner does not put up overwhelming rushing numbers – just 760 yards in 2016 – but his work in the passing game is why the ranking is so high for the junior running back. Gardner had a team-high 60 receptions last season, good for second among running backs sitting only behind Virginia’s Taquan Mizzell. He is a must-have in any PPR league at the position.
29. Demario Richard, Arizona State
Richard had a superb sophomore season, rushing for 1,104 yards and seven touchdowns despite splitting carries with backup Kalen Ballage. Richard also played a role in the passing game, adding in 31 receptions for 303 yards and three scores. With the Sun Devils breaking in a new starting quarterback this season, expect head coach Todd Graham to lean on the ground game early and often.
30. Justin Stockton, Texas Tech
Stockton accounted for 11 total touchdowns as the backup to DeAndre Washington in 2015, and will now move into a starting role with his predecessor off to the NFL. Until Washington, Texas Tech didn’t have a 1,000 yards rusher from 1999-2013. I fully expect Stockton to make it three seasons in a row this fall.
31. Shaq Vann, Eastern Michigan
32. Jovon Robinson, Auburn
33. Arkeel Newsome, Connecticut
34. James Butler, Nevada
35. Markell Jones, Purdue
36. Taquan Mizzell, Virginia
37. Nick Wilson, Arizona
38. Justin Jackson, Northwestern
39. Aaron Jones, UTEP
40. Mike Warren, Iowa State
41. Jamauri Bogan, Western Michigan
42. Marquis Young, UMass
43. Ralph Webb, Vanderbilt
44. Nick Chubb, Georgia
45. Joe Mixon, Oklahoma
46. Shock Linwood, Baylor
47. Shannon Brooks, Minnesota
48. Jarveon Williams, UTSA
49. Xavier Jones, SMU
50. Travon McMillian, Virginia Tech
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Make sure to follow him on Twitter @MikeBainbridge2.
Braden Gall, David Fox and Mitch Light officially preview the Big 12 in 2016.
- First, expansion. The Big 12 needs to add four teams if it expands and we explain why and who those teams should be. Houston, Cincinnati, BYU, Boise State, UConn, UCF, USF, Memphis and more could all be options.
- Oklahoma is the pick to win the league but are they good enough to make the playoff? What are the Sooners weaknesses?
- Will Charlie Strong do enough to keep his job in Austin? Will the young roster develop fast enough?
- How far could Baylor fall and will totally rebuilt lines of scrimmage be the reason?
- TCU is loaded on defense but will they get enough offense to win the Big 12?
- Oklahoma State has tons of experience returning so the Pokes could be the top challenger to their in-state rival.
- Texas Tech can score but can stop enough teams to move into contention?
- West Virginia and Kansas State look like opposites this fall. Which has a better shot at contention and which one could implode?
- How much fun will Iowa State be to watch the season and are there any reasons to watch Kansas?
Check out the Athlon Sports 2016 College Football Rankings No. 1 to 128.
You can order your preseason Athlon Sports college football magazines here with Amazon.com.
Send any ideas, questions or comments to @BradenGall @AthlonMitch or @DavidFox615 or email [email protected]. The podcast can be found on athlonsports.com/podcast, iTunes, Stitcher and our podcast RSS feed.
The calendar has turned to July, which means NFL training camps will soon be starting up and fantasy football is just around the corner. If you haven’t started your fantasy draft preparation yet there’s still plenty of time to get caught up on everything that has happened since Super Bowl 50 in February.
And when it comes to draft prep, there’s nothing better than doing a mock draft. That’s just what 12 Athlon editors and fantasy contributors did in early May. Since this was done a few months ago, it should come as no surprise that plenty of things have changed. For example, this mock draft exercise was done before Arian Foster signed with Miami and some injury-related news came out, such as Cincinnati tight end Tyler Eifert undergoing ankle surgery in late May, putting his Week 1 availability in doubt.
Below is a complete breakdown of the 12-team, 20-round IDP mock draft we conducted, along with some analysis of my own. This mock draft also can be found in this year's Fantasy Football Preview. This year’s magazine also features more than 400 in-depth player reports including projected stats, a 280-player big board and team-by-team analysis from NFL beat writers as well as other features and content. And for those who enjoy mock drafts, be sure to check out FantasyPros’ Mock Draft Simulator.
12-team, 20-round serpentine-style mock draft based on Athlon Sports standard scoring:
Starting lineup: 1 QB, 2 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE, 1 Flex (RB/WR), 1 K, 1 DEF/ST, 1 DL, 1 LB, 1 DB, 1 Flex IDP (DL/LB/DB), 6 bench spots
|1||1||Antonio Brown||WR||PIT||Mike Clay||ESPN|
|2||2||Adrian Peterson||RB||MIN||Sarah Lewis||AthlonSports.com contributor|
|3||3||Todd Gurley||RB||LA||John Hansen||FantasyGuru.com|
|4||4||Le'Veon Bell||RB||PIT||Michael Horvath||AthlonSports.com contributor|
|5||5||Odell Beckham Jr.||WR||NYG||Matt Schauf||DraftSharks.com|
|6||6||Jamaal Charles||RB||KC||John Gworek||Athlon Sports|
|7||7||Julio Jones||WR||ATL||Jamey Eisenberg||CBS Sports|
|8||8||Rob Gronkowski||TE||NE||Corby Yarbrough||Athlon Sports contributor|
|9||9||David Johnson||RB||ARI||David Gonos||SoCalledFantasyExperts.com|
|10||10||DeAndre Hopkins||WR||HOU||Braden Gall||Athlon Sports|
|11||11||Lamar Miller||RB||HOU||Mark Ross||Athlon Sports|
|12||12||Allen Robinson||WR||JAC||Chris Meyers||AthlonSports.com contributor|
Round 1 Analysis: No QB in the first round? Get used to the sight, as I don’t think you will see many go this early for a QB, even if Athlon cover boy Cam Newton is coming off of an MVP season that probably led many to a fantasy championship. No, while there are many opinions when it comes to who should be the No. 1 overall pick, you can’t really argue with starting with Antonio Brown. That’s not the case for the No. 1 RB, as any of the first five off of the board could be that guy. I for one will be very happy if I have the ninth pick and David Johnson is still hanging around. As for me, I went with Miller thinking Allen Robinson or Dez Bryant would still be there for me with my next pick. Oh well, I still think Miller could have a big season with the expectation he will get a RB1-worthy workload in Houston, which was not the case in Miami.
|1||13||Dez Bryant||WR||DAL||Chris Meyers|
|2||14||Mike Evans||WR||TB||Mark Ross|
|3||15||Ezekiel Elliott||RB||DAL||Braden Gall|
|4||16||Devonta Freeman||RB||ATL||David Gonos|
|5||17||A.J. Green||WR||CIN||Corby Yarbrough|
|6||18||Jordy Nelson||WR||GB||Jamey Eisenberg|
|7||19||Alshon Jeffery||WR||CHI||John Gworek|
|8||20||Eddie Lacy||RB||GB||Matt Schauf|
|9||21||Amari Cooper||WR||OAK||Michael Horvath|
|10||22||Brandin Cooks||WR||NO||John Hansen|
|11||23||T.Y. Hilton||WR||IND||Sarah Lewis|
|12||24||Sammy Watkins||WR||BUF||Mike Clay|
Round 2 Analysis: Will Ezekiel Elliott even last this long? The Dallas running back is certainly no sleeper and if anything the injury to Darren McFadden (fractured elbow) only adds fuel to the fire when it comes to his rising draft stock. At this point it’s all a matter of risk aversion and how much you are willing to trust a rookie to be your RB1. As for the rest of this round it’s the expected WR1 and RB1 types, although Sammy Watkins’ stock is likely to drop with his status for the preseason up in the air following foot surgery in April.
|1||25||Mark Ingram||RB||NO||Mike Clay|
|2||26||Jarvis Landry||WR||MIA||Sarah Lewis|
|3||27||Demaryius Thomas||WR||DEN||John Hansen|
|4||28||Keenan Allen||WR||SD||Michael Horvath|
|5||29||Brandon Marshall||WR||NYJ||Matt Schauf|
|6||30||Doug Martin||RB||TB||John Gworek|
|7||31||LeSean McCoy||RB||BUF||Jamey Eisenberg|
|8||32||C.J. Anderson||RB||DEN||Corby Yarbrough|
|9||33||Randall Cobb||WR||GB||David Gonos|
|10||34||Aaron Rodgers||QB||GB||Braden Gall|
|11||35||Thomas Rawls||RB||SEA||Mark Ross|
|12||36||Cam Newton||QB||CAR||Chris Meyers|
Round 3 Analysis: Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton are the first QBs to come off of the board, and while the order could be switched depending on preference, this will likely be the case once the real drafts get started. Other than Doug Martin, the other RBs taken in this round either underperformed last year (Ingram, Anderson, McCoy) for different reasons (including injury) or the jury is still out on (Rawls). As last year showed with guys like LeSean McCoy, Eddie Lacy, DeMarco Murray and others, sometimes wasting an early-round pick on a RB that turns out be a bust is enough to wreck your fantasy championship dreams.
|1||37||Dion Lewis||RB||NE||Chris Meyers|
|2||38||Kelvin Benjamin||WR||CAR||Mark Ross|
|3||39||Matt Forte||RB||NYJ||Braden Gall|
|4||40||Julian Edelman||WR||NE||David Gonos|
|5||41||Carlos Hyde||RB||SF||Corby Yarbrough|
|6||42||Latavius Murray||RB||OAK||Jamey Eisenberg|
|7||43||Golden Tate||WR||DET||John Gworek|
|8||44||Jay Ajayi||RB||MIA||Matt Schauf|
|9||45||Andrew Luck||QB||IND||Michael Horvath|
|10||46||Matt Jones||RB||WAS||John Hansen|
|11||47||DeMarco Murray||RB||TEN||Sarah Lewis|
|12||48||Jordan Reed||TE||WAS||Mike Clay|
Round 4 Analysis: QBs continue to trickle out with Andrew Luck becoming the third in the first four rounds. Luck was beset by injuries last year but even with better health and the investments Indianapolis has (finally) made along the offensive line, I think it’s perfectly understandable to approach the guy who was supposedly the next sure thing in fantasy cautiously. Speaking of injury, Dion Lewis, Kelvin Benjamin, Julian Edelman are all looking to bounce back after missing all or most of last season because of different issues that required surgery. And has Jordan Reed finally shed his injury-prone label?
|1||49||Jeremy Maclin||WR||KC||Mike Clay|
|2||50||Greg Olsen||TE||CAR||Sarah Lewis|
|3||51||Jeremy Hill||RB||CIN||John Hansen|
|4||52||Jeremy Langford||RB||CHI||Michael Horvath|
|5||53||J.J. Watt||DL||HOU||Matt Schauf|
|6||54||Luke Kuechly||LB||CAR||John Gworek|
|7||55||Russell Wilson||QB||SEA||Jamey Eisenberg|
|8||56||John Brown||WR||ARI||Corby Yarbrough|
|9||57||Jonathan Stewart||RB||CAR||David Gonos|
|10||58||Michael Floyd||WR||ARI||Braden Gall|
|11||59||Ryan Mathews||RB||PHI||Mark Ross|
|12||60||T.J. Yeldon||RB||JAC||Chris Meyers|
Round 5 Analysis: Russell Wilson makes it four QBs in the first five rounds, while the first two IDPs go. No argument that J.J. Watt should be the first IDP taken, but in Round 5? You are expecting a lot of the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year to produce along the lines of a top-50 overall fantasy player. Same for Luke Kuechly, who finished near the back end of the top 10 fantasy scorers at his position in 2015. Also getting to the end of the RB1 options, at least in terms of expected workload, and even that could be debatable given the propensity of teams to employ more of a committee approach in the backfield. Case in point: both Jeremy Hill and Ryan Mathews have produced decent fantasy numbers before, but will they do so again in 2016?
|1||61||Ameer Abdullah||RB||DET||Chris Meyers|
|2||62||Ben Roethlisberger||QB||PIT||Mark Ross|
|3||63||Melvin Gordon||RB||SD||Braden Gall|
|4||64||Doug Baldwin||WR||SEA||David Gonos|
|5||65||DeVante Parker||WR||MIA||Corby Yarbrough|
|6||66||Danny Woodhead||RB||SD||Jamey Eisenberg|
|7||67||Tom Brady||QB||NE||John Gworek|
|8||68||Duke Johnson||RB||CLE||Matt Schauf|
|9||69||Tyler Eifert||TE||CIN||Michael Horvath|
|10||70||Donte Moncrief||WR||IND||John Hansen|
|11||71||Allen Hurns||WR||JAC||Sarah Lewis|
|12||72||Eric Decker||WR||NYJ||Mike Clay|
Round 6 Analysis: Finally a round with more than one QB taken! Well actually maybe we shouldn’t put too much stock in this considering it appears that Tom Brady will end up serving his four-game Deflategate suspension after all. Brady should be just fine starting in Week 5, but when does it make sense to draft a guy you know will miss at least a quarter of the season. Even without the suspension, I prefer Ben Roethlisberger as I think the Steelers offense could be even better this season with Ladarius Green at TE and a recovering Le’Veon Bell likely to not see a ton of carries, at least early on. Speaking of carries, are Ameer Abdullah , Melvin Gordon or Duke Johnson ready to break out in their second seasons? The first two are coming off of offseason surgeries, so be sure to keep an eye on their recoveries once training camp starts up.
|1||73||Drew Brees||QB||NO||Mike Clay|
|2||74||Derrick Henry||RB||TEN||Sarah Lewis|
|3||75||Travis Kelce||TE||KC||John Hansen|
|4||76||Jordan Matthews||WR||PHI||Michael Horvath|
|5||77||Emmanuel Sanders||WR||DEN||Matt Schauf|
|6||78||Rashad Jennings||RB||NYG||John Gworek|
|7||79||Karlos Williams||RB||BUF||Jamey Eisenberg|
|8||80||Carson Palmer||QB||ARI||Corby Yarbrough|
|9||81||Larry Fitzgerald||WR||ARI||David Gonos|
|10||82||Delanie Walker||TE||TEN||Braden Gall|
|11||83||Michael Crabtree||WR||OAK||Mark Ross|
|12||84||Kevin White||WR||CHI||Chris Meyers|
Round 7 Analysis: After Ezekiel Elliott in the second round, the next rookie off of the board is Derrick Henry with the second pick of Round 7 (no. 74 overall). The Heisman Trophy winner’s situation is entirely different from Elliott’s, starting with the fact that Henry has DeMarco Murray ahead of him on the depth chart. There’s also the undisputable fact that Dallas’ offensive line is considerably better than Tennessee’s. So is Henry worth taking before say a clear-cut starter like Frank Gore or a more established veteran like a Giovani Bernard or Justin Forsett? The potential is clearly there, but as we have seen all too often in fantasy potential doesn’t always trump opportunity and there’s always risk when it comes to trusting a rookie over a player with a track record.
|1||85||Laquon Treadwell||WR||MIN||Chris Meyers|
|2||86||Dorial Green-Beckham||WR||TEN||Mark Ross|
|3||87||Sterling Shepard||WR||NYG||Braden Gall|
|4||88||Marvin Jones||WR||DET||David Gonos|
|5||89||Lavonte David||LB||TB||Corby Yarbrough|
|6||90||Coby Fleener||TE||NO||Jamey Eisenberg|
|7||91||Markus Wheaton||WR||PIT||John Gworek|
|8||92||Frank Gore||RB||IND||Matt Schauf|
|9||93||Tevin Coleman||RB||ATL||Michael Horvath|
|10||94||Reshad Jones||DB||MIA||John Hansen|
|11||95||Corey Coleman||WR||CLE||Sarah Lewis|
|12||96||DeSean Jackson||WR||WAS||Mike Clay|
Round 8 Analysis: The first three rookie WRs come off of the board in Round 8. Of the seven WRs taken in this round, Markus Wheaton or DeSean Jackson could be viewed as the safest because of their situations on their respective teams, while Dorial Green-Beckham arguably has the most upside and Marvin Jones could flourish now that he’s in Detroit and doesn’t have to compete with Calvin Johnson for targets. Frank Gore could end up being a huge steal if he lasts this long, considering he rushed for nearly 1,000 yards behind a shaky offensive line and in spite of the fact that Andrew Luck missed more than half of the season. Yes, age and wear and tear are concerns, but it also doesn’t appear that Gore will be taking a back seat to any other RB on the Colts’ roster just yet.
|1||97||Justin Forsett||RB||BAL||Mike Clay|
|2||98||Khalil Mack||DL/LB||OAK||Sarah Lewis|
|3||99||Stefon Diggs||WR||MIN||John Hansen|
|4||100||Charles Sims||RB||TB||Michael Horvath|
|5||101||Ladarius Green||TE||PIT||Matt Schauf|
|6||102||Philip Rivers||QB||SD||John Gworek|
|7||103||Tyler Lockett||WR||SEA||Jamey Eisenberg|
|8||104||NaVorro Bowman||LB||SF||Corby Yarbrough|
|9||105||Blake Bortles||QB||JAC||David Gonos|
|10||106||Josh Doctson||WR||WAS||Braden Gall|
|11||107||Giovani Bernard||RB||CIN||Mark Ross|
|12||108||Austin Seferian-Jenkins||TE||TB||Chris Meyers|
Round 9 Analysis: Khalil Mack sneaks inside the top 100 players taken and chances are his value will continue to rise as we get closer to the start of the season. An All-Pro at two positions, Mack is a legitimate elite starting option at either DL or LB because of his J.J. Watt-esque ability as a playmaking pass rusher. It wouldn’t surprise me if Ladarius Green’s stock continued to rise as well now that he’s landed in Pittsburgh. After all, Antonio Brown can’t catch EVERY pass Ben Roethlisberger throws. Rounding the first 10 QBs taken are Blake Bortles and Philip Rivers. The former had a big 2015 season, but the latter is no slouch and has a few more years under his belt. Whom do you trust more in 2016?
|1||109||Devin Funchess||WR||CAR||Chris Meyers|
|2||110||Muhammad Wilkerson||DL||NYJ||Mark Ross|
|3||111||Paul Perkins||RB||NYG||Braden Gall|
|4||112||Jimmy Graham||TE||SEA||David Gonos|
|5||113||Chris Ivory||RB||JAC||Corby Yarbrough|
|6||114||Willie Snead||WR||NO||Jamey Eisenberg|
|7||115||Jason Pierre-Paul||DL||NYG||John Gworek|
|8||116||Telvin Smith||LB||JAC||Matt Schauf|
|9||117||Breshad Perriman||WR||BAL||Michael Horvath|
|10||118||Matthew Stafford||QB||DET||John Hansen|
|11||119||Charcandrick West||RB||KC||Sarah Lewis|
|12||120||Gary Barnidge||TE||CLE||Mike Clay|
Round 10 Analysis: Halfway through the mock and we barely have more QBs taken than rounds. More evidence that unlike in years past you can wait maybe even a little longer for your QB? Also, look how far Jimmy Graham has fallen in a short span. A debatable first-round pick just two years ago, Graham’s first season in Seattle was nothing short of a disaster as declining production was compounded by another serious knee injury. It’s possible he could bounce all the way back be a top-five fantasy TE once again, but it’s probably best to lower your expectations or at minimum draft a strong backup option should you decide to take your chances on Graham.
|1||121||Theo Riddick||RB||DET||Mike Clay|
|2||122||Andy Dalton||QB||CIN||Sarah Lewis|
|3||123||Alec Ogletree||LB||LA||John Hansen|
|4||124||Michael Thomas||WR||NO||Michael Horvath|
|5||125||Tyrod Taylor||QB||BUF||Matt Schauf|
|6||126||Ha Ha Clinton-Dix||DB||GB||John Gworek|
|7||127||D'Qwell Jackson||LB||IND||Jamey Eisenberg|
|8||128||Carlos Dunlap||DL||CIN||Corby Yarbrough|
|9||129||C.J. Mosley||LB||BAL||David Gonos|
|11||131||Jamie Collins||LB||NE||Mark Ross|
|12||132||Travis Benjamin||WR||SD||Chris Meyers|
Round 11 Analysis: Near the end of Round 11 we finally have our first defense/special teams to come off of the board. But is Seattle still the clear-cut No. 1 fantasy DST? Last season the Seahawks finished fifth in fantasy scoring and a case can certainly be made that the Broncos, Cardinals or even Panthers (and maybe Texans and Vikings?) are just as appealing options.
|1||133||Kenneth Dixon||RB||BAL||Chris Meyers|
|2||134||Zach Ertz||TE||PHI||Mark Ross|
|3||135||Ezekiel Ansah||DL||DET||Braden Gall|
|4||136||Devontae Booker||RB||DEN||David Gonos|
|5||137||Jordan Howard||RB||CHI||Corby Yarbrough|
|6||138||C.J. Prosise||RB||SEA||Jamey Eisenberg|
|8||140||Isaiah Crowell||RB||CLE||Matt Schauf|
|9||141||Olivier Vernon||DL||NYG||Michael Horvath|
|10||142||DeAndre Washington||RB||OAK||John Hansen|
|11||143||Tyler Boyd||WR||CIN||Sarah Lewis|
|12||144||Robert Quinn||DL||LA||Mike Clay|
Round 12 Analysis: It’s a rookie RB-palooza as five first-year ball carriers are taken, including three in a row at one point. Which one will end up being the most valuable in 2016? It’s hard to tell although the buzz has been pretty positive for Kenneth Dixon and Jordan Howard in particular. C.J. Prosise is interesting because he started at Notre Dame as a wide receiver while Devontae Booker could produce in Gary Kubiak’s zone-blocking, run-oriented offense, if given the opportunity. Taking a flyer on any of these guys at this point in the draft is perfectly understandable and it’s likely the stock of a few of these guys will continue to rise depending on what happens in training camp and preseason games.
|1||145||Sean Lee||LB||DAL||Mike Clay|
|2||146||Cameron Jordan||DL||NO||Sarah Lewis|
|3||147||Aaron Donald||DL||LA||John Hansen|
|4||148||Javorius Allen||RB||BAL||Michael Horvath|
|5||149||Marcus Mariota||QB||TEN||Matt Schauf|
|6||150||Tavon Austin||WR||LA||John Gworek|
|7||151||Phillip Dorsett||WR||IND||Jamey Eisenberg|
|8||152||Will Fuller||WR||HOU||Corby Yarbrough|
|9||153||Harrison Smith||DB||MIN||David Gonos|
|10||154||Deone Bucannon||LB||ARI||Braden Gall|
|11||155||Jameis Winston||QB||TB||Mark Ross|
|12||156||Derek Carr||QB||OAK||Chris Meyers|
|1||157||Jerick McKinnon||RB||MIN||Chris Meyers|
|2||158||Bobby Wagner||LB||SEA||Mark Ross|
|3||159||Landon Collins||DB||NYG||Braden Gall|
|4||160||Fletcher Cox||DL||PHI||David Gonos|
|5||161||LeGarrette Blount||RB||NE||Corby Yarbrough|
|6||162||Tyrann Mathieu||DB||ARI||Jamey Eisenberg|
|7||163||Shane Vereen||RB||NYG||John Gworek|
|8||164||Torrey Smith||WR||SF||Matt Schauf|
|9||165||Malcolm Smith||LB||OAK||Michael Horvath|
|10||166||Tony Romo||QB||DAL||John Hansen|
|11||167||Joey Bosa||DL||SD||Sarah Lewis|
|12||168||Kenyan Drake||RB||MIA||Mike Clay|
Rounds 13 and 14 Analysis: This is the point in the mock where IDPs become more of a focus, especially linemen. While J.J. Watt, Khalil Mack, Muhammad Wilkerson and Carlos Dunlap are long gone, there’s nothing wrong with ending up with Aaron Donald or Fletcher Cox. Also interesting is the QBs that go in these two rounds. The upside of Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston and Derek Carr is obvious, but Tony Romo could be a potential steal if he (and Dez Bryant) can stay healthy.
|1||169||Ryan Shazier||LB||PIT||Mike Clay|
|2||170||Ryan Tannehill||QB||MIA||Sarah Lewis|
|3||171||Steve Smith Sr.||WR||BAL||John Hansen|
|4||172||Corey Graham||DB||BUF||Michael Horvath|
|5||173||Mike Wallace||WR||BAL||Matt Schauf|
|6||174||Kamar Aiken||WR||BAL||John Gworek|
|7||175||Michael Bennett||DL||SEA||Jamey Eisenberg|
|9||177||DeAngelo Williams||RB||PIT||David Gonos|
|10||178||Ty Montgomery||WR||GB||Braden Gall|
|1||181||Paul Posluszny||LB||JAC||Chris Meyers|
|2||182||Julius Thomas||TE||JAC||Mark Ross|
|3||183||Eli Manning||QB||NYG||Braden Gall|
|4||184||Nelson Agholor||WR||PHI||David Gonos|
|5||185||Kurt Coleman||DB||CAR||Corby Yarbrough|
|6||186||Antonio Gates||TE||SD||Jamey Eisenberg|
|7||187||Derrick Johnson||LB||KC||John Gworek|
|8||188||Vincent Jackson||WR||TB||Matt Schauf|
|9||189||Kirk Cousins||QB||WAS||Michael Horvath|
|10||190||Wendell Smallwood||RB||PHI||John Hansen|
|12||192||Kansas City||DST||KC||Mike Clay|
Rounds 15 and 16 Analysis: Eli Manning in the 16th round? The QB market has definitely changed. I wouldn’t count on being able to wait that long to snag the only Manning now playing in the NFL, but he could be another later-round value should he slip between the cracks. Along those lines, Kirk Cousins was a top-10 fantasy QB in his own right last season. I would rather put my faith in the Giant than the Redskin, but this is another example of how deep the QB position could end up being.
|1||193||Arian Foster||RB||MIA*||Mike Clay|
|2||194||Pierre Garcon||WR||WAS||Sarah Lewis|
|3||195||Eric Ebron||TE||DET||John Hansen|
|5||197||Eric Kendricks||LB||MIN||Matt Schauf|
|6||198||Bilal Powell||RB||NYJ||John Gworek|
|7||199||Matt Ryan||QB||ATL||Jamey Eisenberg|
|8||200||Mohamed Sanu||WR||ATL||Corby Yarbrough|
|9||201||Victor Cruz||WR||NYG||David Gonos|
|10||202||Darron Lee||LB||NYJ||Braden Gall|
|11||203||Ronnie Hillman||RB||DEN||Mark Ross|
|12||204||Everson Griffen||DL||MIN||Chris Meyers|
*When mock draft was done in early May, Foster was a free agent. He signed a one-year deal with Miami on July 18.
|1||205||Malcolm Jenkins||DB||PHI||Chris Meyers|
|2||206||Terrance Williams||WR||DAL||Mark Ross|
|3||207||Stephen Gostkowski||K||NE||Braden Gall|
|4||208||K.J. Wright||LB||SEA||David Gonos|
|5||209||Kendall Wright||WR||TEN||Corby Yarbrough|
|6||210||Reggie Ragland||LB||BUF||Jamey Eisenberg|
|7||211||Charles Clay||TE||BUF||John Gworek|
|8||212||Eric Weddle||DB||BAL||Matt Schauf|
|9||213||Bashaud Breeland||DB||WAS||Michael Horvath|
|10||214||Blair Walsh||K||MIN||John Hansen|
|11||215||Kenny Vaccaro||DB||NO||Sarah Lewis|
|12||216||Morgan Burnett||DB||GB||Mike Clay|
Rounds 17 and 18 Analysis: Similar to Eli Manning and Kirk Cousins, Matt Ryan could be another steal this late, but Ryan also is a few seasons separated from his best statistical production. Still, as long as Julio Jones stays on the field and the running game does its job, Ryan could very likely find himself back upon the upper tier of fantasy QBs before all is said and done. As has already been mentioned, this mock draft was done prior to Arian Foster signing a one-year deal with Miami. Before this move Foster was an interesting pick. Now, he’s even more intriguing considering the presumption before was that Jay Ajayi was going to get every opportunity to fill Lamar Miller’s shoes as the Dolphins’ No. 1 back. That could still be the case but, provided Foster is completely recovered from the torn Achilles tendon he suffered last October, the former NFL rushing champion could end up being fantasy relevant this season. The same goes for Victor Cruz, who could see plenty of targets (again, if he’s healthy) for the Giants even though Odell Beckham Jr. is now Manning’s No. 1 option.
|1||217||Josh Gordon||WR||CLE||Mike Clay|
|2||218||Chris Johnson||RB||ARI||Sarah Lewis|
|3||219||Los Angeles||DST||LA||John Hansen|
|4||220||Zach Miller||TE||CHI||Michael Horvath|
|5||221||Chris Boswell||K||PIT||Matt Schauf|
|6||222||Jason Witten||TE||DAL||John Gworek|
|7||223||New England||DST||NE||Jamey Eisenberg|
|8||224||Ryan Fitzpatrick||QB||FA||Corby Yarbrough|
|10||226||Green Bay||DST||GB||Braden Gall|
|11||227||Barry Church||DB||DAL||Mark Ross|
|12||228||Karlos Dansby||LB||CIN||Chris Meyers|
|1||229||Graham Gano||K||CAR||Chris Meyers|
|2||230||Steven Hauschka||K||SEA||Mark Ross|
|3||231||Hunter Henry||TE||SD||Braden Gall|
|4||232||Justin Tucker||K||BAL||David Gonos|
|5||233||Dan Bailey||K||DAL||Corby Yarbrough|
|6||234||Chandler Catanzaro||K||ARI||Jamey Eisenberg|
|7||235||Mason Crosby||K||GB||John Gworek|
|9||237||Josh Brown||K||NYG||Michael Horvath|
|10||238||T.J. McDonald||DB||LA||John Hansen|
|11||239||Cairo Santos||K||KC||Sarah Lewis|
|12||240||Adam Vinatieri||K||IND||Mike Clay|
Rounds 19 and 20 Analysis: As can be expected, it’s mostly kickers and the necessary IDPs to round out starting lineups in the final two rounds. I don’t see any reason to take a flyer on Josh Gordon, but if you want to burn the roster spot go ahead. Zach Miller could be in line for a breakout season with the Bears now that Martellus Bennett is in New England. And Ryan Fitzpatrick is the biggest wild card when it comes to QBs right now. If he winds up back with the Jets, he immediately vaults into QB2 territory. If he signs elsewhere, he’s nothing more than a “wait-and-see” option.
Few head coaches in recent memory have been able to come in and immediately provide the type of jolt that Jim Harbaugh gave the Michigan program in 2015. Seemingly overnight, Harbaugh made the Wolverines nationally relevant again and made Ann Arbor a realistic destination for the top recruits in the nation.
It will be tough to top a 10-win season that ended with a beat-down of an opponent in a bowl game, but the Wolverines look to be up to the task in 2016. Hopes and expectations are high, and for good reason. Michigan appears on paper to be one of the most talented teams in the Big Ten — if not the country. If the Wolverines’ hybrid quirky/fiery coach can harness the potential of that talent and navigate a rollercoaster schedule, there is a good chance that we could see the Maize and Blue in one of the two College Football Playoff games on New Year’s Eve.
Three Reasons Why Michigan Will Make the College Football Playoff in 2016
1. Talent at the Skill Positions
If you count tight end Jake Butt, the Wolverines probably have the most talented group of receivers in the Big Ten. There aren’t man duos nationally that can compete with Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson. These two combined for more than 1,500 yards receiving and 14 scores in a system that didn’t exactly lean on the pass. Running back De’Veon Smith also proved to be a capable pass catcher out of the backfield. Whoever ends up winning the starting quarterback job will have no shortage of weapons to distribute the ball to.
2. Elite Playmakers on Defense
You’d be hard-pressed to find a trio of defensive players at each level like the Wolverines have anywhere else in the country. Defensive end Chris Wormley, linebacker Jabrill Peppers and cornerback Jourdan Lewis are all proven difference-makers and game-changers who figure to wreak havoc on opposing offenses and keep coordinators up at night as huge matchup problems. Game-planning around one player is one thing. Scheming against three of the very best defensive players in the country on the same team is another.
3. The Hiring of Don Brown
We all saw what Boston College’s defense was able to do a season ago under Brown with inferior talent compared to what he’ll have at his disposal at Michigan. His hybrid 4-3/3-4 keeps offensive linemen guessing and makes it extremely difficult for quarterbacks to read and react to. Those things lead to breakdowns that allow speedy defenders untouched access to the quarterback, which also result in errors and turnovers. We saw how effective Boston College was in implementing the scheme against a very talented Notre Dame offense last November. The thought of Michigan’s talent unleashing a similar attack in the Big Ten is scary for everyone outside of Ann Arbor.
Three Reasons Why Michigan Will Not Make the College Football Playoff in 2016
1. The Question at Quarterback
Forget for a moment that the job has still not been won. The fact of the matter remains that there wasn’t a quarterback on Michigan’s roster in 2015 good enough to beat out the second-best quarterback on Iowa’s roster in ‘14. Does quarterback play at the college level mean as much as it does in the NFL? Probably not, but you still need leadership and continuity at the position. Right now, Michigan doesn’t have either, and that could be a serious problem for Harbaugh’s bunch.
2. A Pedestrian Rushing Attack
The good news is that Michigan returns four starters on the offensive line. The bad news is that those four starters contributed to only 34.8 percent of Michigan rushing attempts going for five or more yards in 2015 – 107th nationally in that category. There are no obvious signs of anything being done to change that at this point, and that could be a problem. The lack of a dependable running game is going to lead to bigger growing pains for the eventual starting quarterback.
3. A Tough Road Schedule
The Wolverines will only play four true road games in 2016. The problem is, three of those will be against teams that played in New Year’s Six Bowl games last season. The second half of Michigan’s season includes trips to Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State. Without a seasoned quarterback and a solid running game to help close out those games late in the season, it's hard to imagine the Wolverines winning all three games. In fact, winning one of the three would be respectable and fairly impressive.
Overall, the Wolverines are one of the two or three most talented teams in the Big Ten. The question is going to be whether or not they are able to move the chains and put up enough points on offense to give their defense a break. That shouldn't be a problem in most games, but there are three key Big Ten road matchups (at Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State) over the last month of the regular season that are all against defenses that will eat up an offensive attack that is predictable and lacking explosiveness. The Wolverines could only lose one game and still qualify for the Big Ten Championship Game, but it's hard to imagine them winning a third game over a quality opponent away from Ann Arbor — especially on a fast track. A safe bet for the outcome of the 2016 Michigan football season is a similar campaign to ‘15, perhaps with the addition of a division title. Progress is being made under Harbaugh, but the Wolverines are probably a season away from being realistic contenders for a national championship.
Athlon's Projected Final Ranking: 5
Athlon's Projected Final Record: (11-1, 8-1 Big Ten)
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 9.5
5 Dimes Over/Under Odds: 9.5
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.
It’s a big year for Kentucky football, no matter how you look at it. Mark Stoops heads into his fourth season as the Wildcats’ head coach and desperately needs to get to a bowl game after his teams slumped down the stretch each of the past two seasons. This year's team certainly has an offense capable of getting to the postseason, but there are still a ton of questions on the defensive side of the ball.
Kentucky has a pretty difficult November, with games against the two favorites to win the SEC East, Georgia and Tennessee, as well as the annual rivalry game against Louisville. The ‘Cats also have to travel to Tuscaloosa midseason. Luckily for Kentucky, the schedule doesn’t appear to get too ugly too early. The Wildcats should have some winnable games in September and October.
Here is a look at Kentucky’s 12 regular season games, ranked from easiest to toughest:
12. Nov. 19 vs. Austin Peay
Last season, the Governors posted a 0-11 record, which, quite frankly, wasn’t a surprise given that Austin Peay has won only one game since 2012. The Governors are no stranger to SEC competition, but they were pummeled 47-7 by Vanderbilt last year. There really isn’t a good reason to think Austin Peay will be able to compete with the Wildcats late in the season.
11. Sept. 17 vs. New Mexico State
Head coach Doug Martin has a 7-29 record at New Mexico State headed into his fourth season. The Aggies did improve last season, but still won only four games. Running back Larry Rose III, who is on the Doak Walker Award watch list, should lead the offense in continued improvement this year, but the Aggies still have a long way to go. New Mexico State played Florida and Ole Miss last season, losing those games, 61-13 and 52-3 respectively.
10. Sept. 3 vs. Southern Miss
Kentucky opens the season with Southern Miss, a team that improved drastically in 2015 under former head coach Todd Monken. But with coaching turnover being a factor once again in Hattiesburg, we don’t really know what to expect from the Golden Eagles. One thing we do know is that quarterback Nick Mullens is returning and may go down as the best quarterback to ever step on the field for Southern Miss. That could be a problem for Kentucky’s susceptible pass defense.
9. Sept. 24 vs. South Carolina
It’s not that South Carolina is the worst team in the SEC, it’s just that, well, the cupboard is pretty bare right now. This is a good matchup for Kentucky, evidenced by the fact that the Wildcats have beaten South Carolina two years in a row. In a game that may likely be decided by which team has the best offense, it would appear Kentucky has an advantage in this one.
8. Oct. 29 at Missouri
A road trip to Columbia could be a bit trickier for a team desperate to get a few quality SEC East wins. Mizzou is loaded on the defensive front with Charles Harris and company. The key matchup in this game will definitely be Mizzou’s defense against Kentucky’s offense, and the Tigers probably have a leg up, especially playing at home. But can Mizzou score enough points to win?
7. Oct. 22 vs. Mississippi State
The schedule does Kentucky a favor midseason, as the Wildcats get Mississippi State off a bye week. The Bulldogs should be solid on offense once they figure out the quarterback situation, but Kentucky should be able to put up some points as well. The scary thing about this game for Kentucky is Dan Mullen’s track record against the ‘Cats. Mullen’s teams are a perfect 7-0 against their annual cross-division rival.
6. Oct. 8 vs. Vanderbilt
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Vanderbilt returns one of the SEC’s best defenses in 2016. Statistically, that is accurate. Like the Missouri game, this one could be tough for Kentucky if the offense can’t get going. Also, the Vanderbilt game comes just seven days after a road trip to Alabama, so the Wildcats could be a little sore. This will be a key win for one of these teams trying to get to a bowl game.
5. Sept. 10 at Florida
It’s the longest winning streak in the SEC – Florida over Kentucky. The Wildcats haven’t beaten the Gators since 1986, a time when Ronald Reagan was president and “Top Gun” was a hit movie. Florida has absolutely dominated this series, 49-17. But Kentucky has been awfully close to breaking the streak the past two seasons. This will be Florida’s first SEC test of the season, and who knows what the Gators will look like in week two?
4. Nov. 26 at Louisville
Bobby Petrino is in year three at Louisville, which is when he made his breakthrough as Arkansas’ head coach, getting the Razorbacks to the Sugar Bowl. This season, the Cardinals have one of the ACC’s most experienced rosters, with 16 starters returning. Louisville has multiple playmakers on offense and that usually bodes well for a Petrino-coached team. This team should be clicking on all cylinders by November.
3. Nov. 5 vs. Georgia
Kentucky hasn’t had a lot of success lately against Georgia. The past three outcomes in this series, all Georgia wins, were 59-17, 63-31 and 27-3. Stoops’ teams just haven’t been able to figure it out against the Bulldogs. Of course, now Georgia has a new head coach, so there are a few more question marks than usual. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel should both be at full strength by Nov. 5.
2. Nov. 12 at Tennessee
This would be the SEC’s current longest winning streak of one team over another, if not for the Derek Dooley years at Tennessee. The Volunteers have gotten back to their winning ways over Kentucky, winning the last two matchups handily, 50-16 and 52-21. The ‘Cats don’t match up very well against Tennessee, especially this year. The Vols are loaded on offense, defense and even special teams.
1. Oct. 1 at Alabama
Alabama is the standard. There really isn’t any other way to put it. It would be difficult enough getting the Crimson Tide at home, but having to travel to Tuscaloosa makes this one the toughest game on Kentucky’s schedule. Throw in the fact that the Wildcats have only beaten the Tide once since 1922, and the outlook doesn’t appear to be very bright for Kentucky. Hopefully, everybody can stay healthy.
Every college football team has players most would consider underrated. However, defining underrated players is no easy assignment, as that term varies in meaning between fans and experts. With the 2016 season approaching, Athlon Sports wanted to take a look at some players deserving of more preseason accolades or discussion. In an effort to get to 50 names, we tried to stick to players that had yet to earn all-conference honors in their career. However, a few exceptions were made.
After taking a look at the most underrated players in each conference, Athlon Sports has rounded up the top 50 names for the 2016 season. Here are some of the players we think deserve more attention as kickoff for 2016 quickly approaches:
College Football's Top 50 Underrated Players for 2016
Isaac Asiata, OL, Utah
The unquestioned strength of Utah’s offense is its line. All five starters are back for coach Kyle Whittingham, and there’s good depth in place with the addition of junior college recruit Garett Bolles. Tackle J.J. Dielman is generating plenty of attention as an All-America candidate for 2016, but Asiata also shouldn’t be overlooked up front. The Utah native played in six games (and four starts) as a freshman in 2013 and has accumulated 26 starts over the last two years. After earning honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors in 2015, Asiata is poised to earn a spot as one of the league’s top linemen.
Chidobe Awuzie, S, Colorado
Awuzie was a second-team All-Pac-12 selection last season, but the San Jose native deserves more attention for a standout career with the Buffaloes. In 13 games last year, Awuzie was all over the field for coordinator Jim Leavitt. He accumulated 90 stops (second on the team), four sacks, one forced fumble and 10 pass breakups. During his first two years on campus (2013-14), Awuzie recorded 123 tackles and 12 pass breakups. If Awuzie continues to build off his first three seasons in Boulder, he could develop into an All-American at safety this fall.
Jacob Bennett, LT, Bowling Green
Keeping Bowling Green’s offense at the top of the MAC is one of the top priorities for new coach Mike Jinks. The first-year coach isn’t hurting for talent on that side of the ball, as the Falcons return four starters from one of the MAC’s top offensive lines. Bennett is the leader for this group, as the Ohio native enters 2016 with 42 consecutive starts. Bennett has started every game in his collegiate career.
Eric Boggs, LB, Appalachian State
All four of Appalachian State’s starting linebackers from last year’s standout defense are back in 2016. The Mountaineers led the Sun Belt in scoring defense in 2015, limiting opponents to just 19.1 points a game. Boggs played a key role in the performance of this defense last fall, collecting 104 tackles (7.5 for a loss), four sacks, three interceptions and one pass breakup. After earning second-team All-Sun Belt honors in 2015, Boggs is poised to rank among the Sun Belt’s top defenders this season.
Devonte Boyd, WR, UNLV
Fans around the Mountain West know of Boyd’s big-play potential, but it’s time the rest of the nation takes notice. After sitting out his first year on campus (2013), Boyd has emerged as one of the Group of 5’s top receivers. He caught 65 passes for 980 yards and four scores as a freshman in 2014 and followed up that season with a strong sophomore campaign. Boyd played in all 12 games for the Rebels and caught 54 passes for 904 yards and seven scores. Boyd’s 16.7 per-catch average ranked first among Mountain West receivers last fall.
Caleb Brantley, DT, Florida
Florida has three potential all-conference candidates in the trenches this season with the return of Brantley, Cece Jefferson and Bryan Cox. Brantley won’t post huge numbers as an interior player, but the 6-foot-2 tackle anchors a rush defense that gave up only 128.1 yards per game in 2015. In 13 appearances last season, Brantley recorded 29 tackles (6.5 for a loss) and three sacks. Even though the SEC is loaded with talent up front, Brantley should make a strong push for all-conference honors this year.
DeAngelo Brown, DT, Louisville
Sheldon Rankins leaves big shoes to fill in the trenches for coordinator Todd Grantham’s defense. While Rankins will be missed, the Cardinals aren’t completely rebuilding up front. Brown has been a key part for the defensive line over the last two years, finishing 2015 with 40 tackles (6.5 for a loss) and two sacks. The Georgia native should push for all-conference honors this fall.
Richie Brown, LB, Mississippi State
The SEC has its share of standout linebackers returning for 2016, but Brown shouldn’t be overlooked when it comes to discussing the league’s top performers at that position. The Mississippi native has been a key cog in the Bulldogs’ defense over the last three years and racked up 109 stops (13 for a loss) in 2015. And with the departure of defensive tackle Chris Jones and linebacker Beniquez Brown, the senior should take on an even bigger role in leadership for new coordinator Peter Sirmon and anchor the middle of Mississippi State’s 3-4 scheme.
Oren Burks, LB/DB, Vanderbilt
Burks is slated to play a key role for coach Derek Mason’s defense this fall by shifting from to a hybrid “star” defensive back/linebacker position. Moving Burks to this role will allow Vanderbilt’s defense to match up better against some of spread attacks this unit will face in 2016. Burks is coming off his best season for the Commodores after accumulating 59 tackles (two for a loss), one forced fumble and three interceptions in 2015. The Virginia native’s versatility is a huge asset for a defense that allowed only 21 points a game last fall.
Darren Carrington, WR, Oregon
Carrington gets the nod here as Oregon’s most underrated player, but a strong case could be made running back Royce Freeman still doesn’t get enough credit for his 2015 season. Despite not playing in the Ducks’ first six games, Carrington ranked second on the team with 32 catches for 609 yards and six scores. Additionally, had he qualified in the conference statistics, Carrington would have ranked second among receivers by averaging 19.03 yards per reception. With Bralon Addison off to the NFL, Carrington should see even more passes in his direction this fall.
Simmie Cobbs, WR, Indiana
Only three receivers – Cobbs, Aaron Burbridge and Chris Godwin – eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for receivers in the Big Ten last fall. While Burbridge and Godwin both earned a spot on the All-Big Ten team, Cobbs’ 2015 season was largely overlooked. In 13 games, he grabbed 60 passes for 1,035 yards and four scores. Additionally, Cobbs recorded four 100-yard efforts over Indiana’s final seven contests.
Dakota Cox, LB, New Mexico
The Lobos showed marked improvement on defense last season, limiting opponents to 28.4 points a game after giving up 35.9 per contest in 2014. Cox was one of the driving forces behind the defensive improvement, as the Utah native led New Mexico in tackles for the third straight season. Over the last three years, Cox has recorded 312 stops (14 for a loss), five sacks, two interceptions and one fumble recovery.
P.J. Davis, LB, Georgia Tech
At 5-foot-11 and 231 pounds, Davis doesn’t possess the prototypical size for a linebacker, but the Georgia native is a standout playmaker for coach Paul Johnson’s defense. Davis has accumulated 237 tackles (20 for a loss) and four forced fumbles in his three seasons with the Yellow Jackets. His best overall year took place in 2014, recording 119 stops and three forced fumbles in 14 appearances.
Winston Dimel, FB, Kansas State
A fullback is often a fossil in a league known for its high-scoring offenses and spread attacks. However, Dimel is a key cog in Kansas State’s offense and was a first-team selection on the 2015 All-Big 12 team. Dimel’s opportunities to touch the ball are limited. However, he certainly maximizes his opportunities. In 13 games, Dimel recorded 86 rushing yards and six touchdowns on just 28 attempts and caught eight passes for 261 yards (32.6 ypc) and two scores.
Michael Dunn, OT, Maryland
From walk-on to potential All-Big Ten player – that’s the quick way to describe Dunn’s career in College Park. The Maryland native has emerged as a key cog in Maryland’s offensive line after a redshirt season in 2012. Over the last three years, Dunn has started 37 games and earned honorable mention all-conference honors in 2015.
Dane Evans, QB, Tulsa
Tulsa showed marked improvement under first-year coach Philip Montgomery last season. After a 2-10 record in 2014, the Golden Hurricane finished 6-7 last year and made the program’s first bowl trip since 2012. In addition to Montgomery’s arrival, a big reason for the improvement in the win column is due to Evans’ development. The Texas native threw for 4,332 yards and 25 scores last season and ranked seventh nationally by averaging 333.2 passing yards per game.
Gerald Everett, TE, South Alabama
San Jose State’s Billy Freeman and FIU’s Jonnu Smith get most of the preseason attention as the top Group of 5 tight end. However, Everett shouldn’t be overlooked in that conversation, as the UAB transfer was a big-time playmaker for coach Joey Jones in 2015. In 12 games, Everett grabbed 41 receptions for 575 yards and eight scores (14.02 ypc). Additionally, Everett eclipsed the 100-yard mark (108) against a stout San Diego State defense and caught two scores against Troy.
Tanner Gentry, WR, Wyoming
Injuries and a youth movement hit Wyoming’s offense hard last season. The program’s top two quarterbacks – Cameron Coffman and Josh Allen – missed chunks of time due to injury, while Gentry’s season ended after the seventh game due to a shoulder ailment. But prior to his injury, Gentry grabbed 37 receptions for 678 yards and four scores. Had Gentry played enough games to qualify for the Mountain West statistical leaders, his 18.3 per-catch average would rank No. 1 in the league among receivers.
Ryan Glasgow, DT, Michigan
Just how valuable was Glasgow to Michigan’s run defense in 2015? Here’s a stat to consider: Through the first nine games, the Wolverines did not allow an opponent to rush for more than 145 yards in a single game. However, with Glasgow sidelined due to injury, Michigan surrendered over 300 rushing yards in games against Indiana and Ohio State. Glasgow finished the season with 25 tackles (five for a loss) and one sack, but his impact goes beyond the box score as a key cog on the interior for coordinator Don Brown.
Max Halpin, C, WKU
With all five starters returning, WKU’s front five has a strong case as the best offensive line from the Group of 5 ranks in 2016. Left tackle Forrest Lamp is a candidate for All-America honors, but center Max Halpin shouldn’t be overlooked this preseason. The Kentucky native started seven games as a redshirt freshman in 2013 but suffered a season-ending back injury after three starts in 2014. However, Halpin rebounded in a big way last year, starting all 14 games for the Hilltoppers and helping to anchor a line that gave up only 16 sacks in 2015.
Zay Jones, WR, East Carolina
Jones’ play-making ability and overall talent is no mystery to opposing American Athletic Conference coaches. However, Jones doesn’t get enough credit on the national level after a standout 2015 season. In 12 games, Jones grabbed 98 receptions for 1,099 yards and five scores. And for his career, Jones has 241 receptions and ranks third in school history with 2,533 receiving yards. After earning second-team American Athletic all-conference honors last season, Jones should receive a spot on the league’s first team for 2016.
Alvin Kamara, RB, Tennessee
Tennessee’s backfield tandem of Jalen Hurd and Kamara is among the nation’s best, and it’s no secret Hurd gets most of the preseason attention as an All-America candidate. But let’s give Kamara some credit, as the former Alabama running back quietly had a standout debut in his first season on Rocky Top. Kamara rushed for 698 yards and seven scores and caught 34 passes for 291 yards and three touchdowns last season.
Des Lawrence/M.J. Stewart, CB, North Carolina
Both Lawrence and Stewart earned a mention on the ACC’s all-conference team last season, but it’s probably fair to say these two players deserve more credit on the national level. Lawrence played in 14 games in 2015 and finished the year with 59 tackles, two interceptions and 14 pass breakups. Stewart was just as effective, recording 62 tackles (2.5 for a loss), four interceptions and 14 pass breakups. The play of Lawrence and Stewart was a big reason why North Carolina ranked 12th nationally in pass efficiency defense.
Mike McGlinchey/Quenton Nelson, OL, Notre Dame
Replacing left tackle Ronnie Stanley, center Nick Martin and guard Steve Elmer won’t be easy. However, the cupboard is far from bare up front for coach Brian Kelly. McGlinchey and Nelson are the new headliners in the trenches, and both players should push for All-America honors in 2016. McGlinchey has 14 career starts under his belt, while Nelson is expected to start at left guard after earning 11 starts last fall. There’s no question Stanley will be missed, but McGlinchey and Nelson are capable of keeping this group performing at a high level.
Travon McMillian, RB, Virginia Tech
McMillian emerged as Virginia Tech’s go-to back in the second half of last season and finished 2015 with 1,042 yards and seven scores on just 200 carries. After recording only 32 carries through the first five games last year, McMillian posted double-digit attempts in each of the final eight contests, including 33 against Boston College. He also recorded three 100-yard efforts and scored twice in Virginia Tech’s bowl win over Tulsa. McMillian is poised to take on an even bigger role in 2016 under new coach Justin Fuente.
Matt Milano, LB, Boston College
Boston College’s defense was one of the nation’s best in 2015, and despite a few personnel losses, the Eagles should rank near the top of the ACC in 2016. New coordinator Jim Reid won’t have standout linebacker Steven Daniels at his disposal, but this unit is still anchored by Milano and fellow standout Connor Strachan. Milano recorded 60 tackles (including a team-high 17.5 for a loss last season), 6.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. Milano should be one of the ACC’s top linebackers in 2016.
Related: ACC 2016 All-Conference Team
Demetrius Monday, CB, Kent State
We could list any of Kent State’s returning starters in the secondary here, as all three players are deserving of more national recognition. Monday gets the nod as our pick as the underrated player from this group. The Georgia native played in all 12 games for the Golden Flashes in 2015 and recorded 35 stops, six pass breakups and six interceptions. Monday has 13 pass breakups over the last two seasons and is on the radar for NFL scouts as a prospect to watch for the 2018 draft.
Noble Nwachukwu, DL, West Virginia
Coordinator Tony Gibson has a major rebuilding effort on his hands this offseason. The Mountaineers return only three starters on defense and most of the back seven has to be replaced. The clear area of strength for Gibson’s defense will be the line, which could feature three senior starters. Nwachuwku is one of the proven returners for Gibson, as the Texas native enters 2016 with 26 consecutive starts. Over the last three years, Nwachukwu has recorded 86 overall stops and led the team with 13 tackles for a loss in 2015.
Da’Ron Payne, DT, Alabama
As we mentioned earlier in this article with other linemen, it’s not easy to judge the effectiveness of a defensive tackle just by glancing at the stat sheet. And in Alabama’s 3-4 scheme, it’s essential to have a couple of space-eaters in the middle to clog the line of scrimmage and allow the linebackers to make plays. That’s exactly the role Payne contributed in last fall, as he worked as a rotational player on Alabama’s standout defensive front. Payne received snaps in all 15 games and recorded 13 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble. He is expected to anchor the interior of Alabama’s defensive line this fall, with Jonathan Allen and D’Shawn Hand working off the edges.
Steven Parker, S, Oklahoma
Anchored by cornerback Jordan Thomas and two standout safeties, Oklahoma’s secondary should be among the best in the nation this year – even after cornerback Zack Sanchez left for the NFL. Parker was thrown into the fire as a true freshman in 2014, recording 31 tackles in 13 games. The Tulsa native earned a starting spot in all 13 contests for the Sooners last fall and delivered a standout season, recording 60 tackles (four for a loss), 1.5 sacks and four pass breakups. The 6-foot-1 junior is just scratching the surface of his potential and it’s time to consider him among the top defensive backs in the Big 12.
Aarion Penton, CB, Missouri
Most of the attention on Missouri’s standout defense surrounds its standout line, but the back seven has its share of All-SEC candidates, including Penton at cornerback, Michael Scherer at linebacker and Anthony Sherrils at safety. Penton was quietly effective in 2015, recording 59 tackles, one interception and eight pass breakups. Additionally, his play at cornerback was a big reason why the Tigers allowed only 10 passing scores last season.
Kalif Phillips, RB, Charlotte
The 49ers took their share of lumps in 2015, which was the program’s first at the FBS level. While the long-term future at Charlotte is bright, 2016 could be another transition year for this program. Phillips is an underrated star for the 49ers, as he nearly eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark (961) in 11 appearances. In his career, Phillips has rushed for 3,113 yards and 37 scores.
Billy Price, OL, Ohio State
Considering Ohio State returns only six starters and has several new faces stepping into the starting lineup, it’s not easy to pinpoint a player that is underrated in 2016. However, Price is a good candidate for this award, as the Ohio native has started all 28 games in his career for the Buckeyes. Price earned third-team All-Big Ten honors in 2015, but he could be among the nation’s best at his position this fall.
Jake Replogle, DT, Purdue
Lost in Purdue’s struggles in the win column recently has been the development of Replogle into one of the Big Ten’s top defensive linemen. After appearing in seven games as a backup in 2013, Replogle started all 12 games for the Boilermakers in 2014 and finished the year with 10.5 tackles for a loss and three sacks. He took those totals even higher in 2016, as Replogle recorded 60 tackles (14 for a loss), two sacks and two pass breakups.
Demario Richard, RB, Arizona State
Richard was one of six Pac-12 running backs to hit the 1,000-yard mark in 2015. In 12 appearances, Richard rushed for 1,104 yards and seven scores. Additionally, he was also a valuable pass-catcher out of the backfield, nabbing 31 receptions for 303 yards and three touchdowns. After rushing for over 1,000 yards in his first full season as Arizona State’s go-to running back, the arrow on Richard’s career in Tempe is clearly pointing up for 2016 and beyond.
Jalen Robinette, WR, Air Force
Opportunities in the passing game are limited for Air Force’s receivers, but Robinette certainly knows how to make the most of his targets. The Ohio native has caught 85 passes for 1,738 yards and 12 scores during his three years with the Falcons. Additionally, Robinette has averaged at least 18 yards per catch in each season, culminating in a 20.4 career mark.
Nico Siragusa, OL, San Diego State
Anchored by All-America candidate Donnel Pumphrey at running back and a standout offensive line, the Aztecs have one of the nation’s top ground attacks. Siragusa is the leader for coach Rocky Long’s offensive line and has quietly emerged as one of the nation’s top guards. The California native enters 2016 with 28 career starts and is a first-team All-Mountain West pick by Athlon Sports.
Dawuane Smoot, DL, Illinois
Smoot’s 2015 season might have been one of the most underrated performances by a defender in the Big Ten. In 12 games, Smoot recorded 40 tackles (15 for a loss), eight sacks and three forced fumbles. Despite the standout campaign, Smoot did not earn all-conference honors. However, with new coach Lovie Smith and coordinator Hardy Nickerson calling the shots on defense, it’s a safe bet Smoot takes the next step in his development this fall.
Riley Sorenson, OL, Washington State
There’s big shoes to fill in Pullman, as Joe Dahl and Gunnar Eklund depart the left side of Washington State’s offensive line. But the cupboard is far from bare for coach Mike Leach. Three starters are back for 2016, including center Riley Sorenson and promising right tackle Cole Madison. Sorenson has quietly anchored the interior for Leach over the last two seasons, starting 11 games in 2015 and 10 in 2014. The senior should be the Pac-12’s top center in 2016.
Jon Toth, C, Kentucky
Toth has been a fixture on Kentucky’s offensive line over the last three seasons. The Indiana native has started 35 consecutive games and was named to the Rimington Trophy watch list for the 2016 campaign. Toth should clear plenty of running lanes for dynamic running back Boom Williams this season, and the senior should rank as one of the SEC’s top linemen.
KaVontae Turpin, RB/Return Specialist, TCU
Three. That’s how many spots Turpin appears on for Athlon’s projected All-Big 12 team in 2016. The Louisiana native was a standout performer in his freshman campaign last season, leading TCU with 1,675 all-purpose yards and scoring eight times on offense. Turpin also averaged 10.6 yards on punt returns (with one score) and 27 yards per kickoff return last year. Turpin is one of the nation’s top all-purpose players and is due for an even bigger role this fall.
Fred Warner, LB, BYU
New coach Kalani Sitake plans to shift BYU’s defense to a 4-3 approach in 2016, but the change in scheme won’t slow Warner from performing as one of the unit’s top players. After playing in 10 games as a freshman in 2014, Warner emerged as a standout defender for the Cougars last fall, recording 67 stops (11.5 for a loss), four sacks, two interceptions and four fumble recoveries.
Ben Weaver, LB, Boise State
The Broncos are reloading in the trenches, but the front seven isn’t in bad shape thanks to the return of two standout linebackers. Tanner Vallejo earned honorable mention All-Mountain West honors last season, but Weaver’s contributions were overlooked. The Texas native has been a consistent force for Boise State’s defense over the last three years, recording 219 tackles (11 for a loss), three sacks and one forced fumble in that span.
Marquez White, CB, Florida State
Jalen Ramsey was the unquestioned leader and top player in Florida State’s secondary last season, but White quietly turned in a standout 2015 campaign and is poised to emerge as an All-America candidate this fall. White’s statistics last fall – 25 tackles, one interception and three pass breakups – were low due to teams avoiding his side of the field. White did not earn All-ACC honors last season but should be one of the league’s top defenders in 2016.
Jarveon Williams, RB, UTSA
New coach Frank Wilson has worked with plenty of talented running backs during his 11 years as an assistant at the collegiate level. And the first-year coach inherits one of Conference USA’s top backs to utilize in 2016, as Williams returns after posting 1,042 rushing yards and eight scores on just 173 attempts in 2015. In league games, Williams ranked fourth among C-USA rushers with an average of 96 yards per contest.
Brandon Wilson, CB, Houston
The departure of safeties Trevon Stewart and Adrian McDonald and cornerback William Jackson III leave big shoes to fill in Houston’s secondary for 2016. However, coordinator Todd Orlando can start the rebuilding effort around Wilson. The Louisiana native was a valuable two-way player for the Cougars at the end of last season and finished the year with 58 tackles, two forced fumbles, one interception and averaged 26.6 yards on kickoff returns. With injuries limiting running backs Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson, Wilson stepped into the backfield and contributed 111 yards in the 52-31 win over Navy and 70 yards against Temple in the American Athletic Conference Championship.
Deatrich Wise, DE, Arkansas
In SEC-only matchups last fall, Wise ranked third in the league with eight sacks generated. In a conference that features Derek Barnett (Tennessee), Myles Garrett (Texas A&M) and Jonathan Allen (Alabama), it’s easy to overlook Wise’s production for the Razorbacks. However, Wise was one of the SEC’s top defenders in November last season, recording seven of his eight sacks over Arkansas’ last four games. He also finished the year with 10.5 tackles for a loss and forced two fumbles. Wise is a darkhorse candidate to lead the SEC in sacks this fall.
Taylor Young, LB, Baylor
Baylor’s defensive line was one of the league’s best units over the last two seasons and often overshadowed Young’s performance. As a redshirt freshman in 2014, Young recorded 92 tackles (8.5 for a loss), four sacks and two forced fumbles. He followed up that performance with a solid sophomore campaign, amassing 80 tackles (13.5 for a loss) and one fumble recovery. Young is quietly one of the Big 12’s top linebackers and should earn a spot on the all-conference team by the end of 2016.
With two teams ranked among Athlon Sports’ projected College Football Playoff participants and two more in its Top 25, the ACC schedule will feature several important games this season. Fortunately for fans of the league, the interesting matchups are not contained to only league games.
Related: ACC Football 2016 Predictions
There are compelling non-conference matchups that begin on Labor Day weekend and don’t end until the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Many of these will have Playoff implications for both the ACC team and their opponents.
Here is a list of the top non-conference games this season involving ACC programs.
1. Florida State vs. Ole Miss (Orlando, Fla. – Sept. 5)
This game pits two top 10 teams against each other right out of the gate. It will be played in Orlando, giving the Seminoles a territory advantage. Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly and FSU running back Dalvin Cook are two players on the Heisman short list.
2. Virginia Tech vs. Tennessee (Bristol, Tenn. – Sept. 10)
In one of the most anticipated games of the season, the Hokies and Volunteers will tangle in front of an expected 160,000 fans at the Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tenn. The two schools are separated by just 113 miles but they have not met in the regular season since 1937. Tennessee comes in as the favorite to win the SEC East while the Hokies begin a new era under the guidance of new head coach Justin Fuente.
3. Florida at Florida State (Nov. 26)
When the Gators and the Seminoles meet up on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the stakes will be high regardless of how the game’s result will impact the national landscape. However, there is a good chance that at least one of the two teams will be contending for a major bowl bid and perhaps a spot in the College Football Playoff.
4. Clemson at Auburn (Sept. 3)
After closing out last season against Alabama in the national championship game, Clemson heads to the Plains to open up the 2016 season by playing the Crimson Tide’s Iron Bowl rival. The Tigers of Clemson come in ranked in just about everyone’s top five while Gus Malzahn’s Tigers will be looking to rebound from a season in which they finished just 2-6 in SEC play and 7-6 overall.
5. Miami at Notre Dame (Oct. 29)
In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, few collegiate rivalries were as emotional as the one between the Hurricane and Fighting Irish. The game was put on hold after the 1990 meeting in South Bend and the two storied programs did not play again until the 2010 Sun Bowl. The teams also played a Shamrock Series game in Chicago in 2012, but this will be the first true home game in the series since that 1990 contest.
6. Penn State at Pittsburgh (Sept. 10)
In a time when both Penn State and Pittsburgh were independent programs, this was always the biggest game on their respective schedules. But when the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten in 1990 and the Panthers became part of the Big East in ‘91, the game lost some importance and the series halted in 2000. But everyone on both sides has to be thrilled that these heated rivals will be battling again in week two.
7. North Carolina vs. Georgia (Atlanta – Sept. 3)
Much like Ole Miss playing Florida State in Orlando, the game against Georgia in Atlanta is not exactly a neutral site from UNC’s perspective. The Tar Heels rattled off 11 straight wins after losing their 2015 season opener against South Carolina in Charlotte. But if the Heels want to make some national noise this fall they need to take down the Bulldogs in week one.
8. Louisville at Houston (Nov. 17)
When the Cardinals lost at home to the Cougars last September, no one knew exactly how good Houston would become. By the time Louisville heads to Houston in the middle of November, Tom Herman’s group could be viewed as a viable Playoff candidate. The Cardinals should have plenty to play for themselves, with games early in the year against Florida State and Clemson determining just how important this game will be.
9. Virginia Tech at Notre Dame (Nov. 19)
Virginia Tech began playing football in 1892. Notre Dame started its program in 1887. Amazingly, the teams have never played each other. That will change this fall as the Hokies will travel to South Bend to face the Irish in a big late-season showdown.
10. Pittsburgh at Oklahoma State (Sept. 17)
The week after hosting Penn State – and the week before opening ACC play against Coastal Division favorite North Carolina – Pittsburgh goes out to Stillwater to face a team hoping to contend for the Big 12 title. The Panthers will look to pound the Cowboys on the ground with Qadree Ollison and James Conner in an attempt to keep Oklahoma State’s explosive offense on the sidelines.
Best of the Rest
South Carolina at Clemson (Nov. 26)
Florida State at South Florida (Sept. 24)
Kentucky at Louisville (Nov. 26)
Duke at Northwestern (Sept. 17)
Duke at Notre Dame (Sept. 24)
Vanderbilt at Georgia Tech (Sept. 17)
Georgia Tech at Georgia (Nov. 26)
North Carolina at Illinois (Sept. 10)
Virginia at Oregon (Sept. 10)
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)
The Big 12 could be expanding by two or four teams in the near future, as the conference’s board of directors on Tuesday authorized commissioner Bob Bowlsby to evaluate and gather information on programs interested in joining the league. The timeline for expansion is expected to move fast, as the new programs could join the Big 12 in time for the 2017 season. While expansion isn’t guaranteed, all signs point to the Big 12 growing in the next year or two.
As with any league looking to expand, wins and overall success aren't necessarily the only things that matter when conferences evaluate perspective candidates. During Tuesday’s meeting with the media, Oklahoma president David Boren outlined the factors that the Big 12 would consider when evaluating potential expansion candidates: strength of the overall athletic department, fan base, media markets, academic and research standards, and reputation of the program.
Which teams should be at the top of the Big 12’s expansion list? BYU, Cincinnati, Houston, UCF and UConn are just a few of the front-runners, with Memphis and Boise State also in the mix. Athlon Sports ranks the top 10 candidates for Big 12 expansion:
Ranking the Big 12 Expansion Candidates
Pros: Solid all-around athletic department and the potential to tap into a fertile recruiting area in Ohio. Cincinnati also is willing to invest in its facilities, as the program recently renovated Nippert Stadium. There’s the Cincinnati media market to tap into, and the program would provide an eastern partner for West Virginia. On the field, the Bearcats have only one losing season since 2006.
Cons: Not much. It’s fair to wonder how much of the Cincinnati market the Bearcats could capture, but more exposure and better teams in the Big 12 certainly helps. The Bearcats have made no secret of their interest in the Big 12, but one of the key players in the pitch – former president Santa Ono – departed the school for the University of British Columbia.
Podcast: Expansion Analysis and Big 12 preview
Pros: A national fanbase and arguably the best job not currently in a Power 5 conference. BYU had the highest cumulative attendance of any program outside of Notre Dame and the Power 5 teams in 2015. The Cougars could join as a football-only member, eliminating some of the logistical issues of not playing on Sundays. Success on the gridiron is nothing new to this program and BYU would be competitive right away in the Big 12. The Cougars have only four losing seasons since 1972.
Cons: If BYU is invited, how much of a logistical challenge would this present the conference for its sports that play on Sundays? If the Big 12 invites BYU as a football-only member, would the league’s No. 12 team be a football-only member as well to prevent 11 basketball programs? Is the Big 12 more interested in expanding east to bridge the gap to West Virginia?
Pros: The Big 12 doesn’t need to overthink this one: Houston is a program on the rise and more than capable of holding its own in the Big 12. There’s also a new stadium and other improved facilities on the way. The city of Houston is the fourth largest in the United States, which also presents an opportunity to tap into a huge television market. Adding Houston could help the Big 12 strengthen its recruiting area within the city and state of Texas.
Cons: Houston doesn’t add a new market to the Big 12. Instead, the program simply strengthens an area it already has a good chunk of in the state of Texas.
Pros: Adding UConn could help the Big 12 tap into the valuable media markets in the Northeast. The Huskies would provide a boost to the conference’s basketball product, and head coach Bob Diaco has the football program trending in the right direction. Academics – mentioned as a factor by the Big 12 in expansion – is a strength for UConn.
Cons: UConn wouldn’t bring much in the way of a new recruiting area for Big 12 teams. While the Huskies are a solid program, they wouldn’t move the needle much in terms of the overall football product.
Pros: $$$. With support from FedEx, Memphis has corporate support on its side. The football product is improving, and the Tigers also have the potential for a strong basketball program. Memphis ranks as the No. 48 television market. The state of Tennessee isn’t Ohio, Florida or Texas but still brings a solid recruiting area. Adding Memphis also helps the conference bridge the gap to West Virginia.
Cons: Justin Fuente helped Memphis take a step forward on the gridiron, but the Tigers have only six winning seasons since 1995. Facility improvements are needed.
Pros: UCF adds a new market and is a program with a lot of potential to grow in the coming years. Expanding into Florida with UCF or USF likely provides Big 12 teams with more access to a rich recruiting area. UCF also is among the nation’s largest in terms of overall enrollment. One other potential benefit: this program brings a good media market – No. 19 nationally.
Cons: UCF averaged only 30,065 fans in 2015, which ranked seventh in the American Athletic Conference. The numbers weren’t much better for the Knights in 2014 either (37,812 per game). How much of the Orlando/Florida media market could UCF or the Big 12 capture with Florida, Florida State and Miami already entrenched?
7. South Florida
Pros: Similar to UCF, South Florida would add a valuable market. Tampa ranks as the No. 13 media market in the nation, and there’s a fertile recruiting area within USF’s backyard. There’s upside with this program, and head coach Willie Taggart has the Bulls moving in the right direction entering 2016. USF posted four consecutive losing seasons from 2011-14 but played in six consecutive bowl games from 2005-10.
Cons: It may seem like a broken record, but let’s look at UCF’s cons here. How much of the Florida media market could South Florida actually capture? USF averaged only 26,578 fans per game in 2015 and does not have an on-campus stadium.
8. Boise State
Pros: Could Boise State join as a football-only program? That could help the Big 12 solve its number balance if it invites BYU. The Broncos are the top Group of 5 program, winning at least eight games in every season since 1999. Boise State has finished as high as No. 4 nationally in the Associated Press poll and has three BCS/New Year’s Six Bowl victories. Competing in the Big 12 (and at a high level) wouldn’t be an issue for Boise State.
Cons: Boise ranks outside of the top 100 television markets. The city would be a great travel destination for fans, but is the conference more focused on expanding east?
9. Colorado State
Pros: Colorado State is set to open a new 40,000-seat stadium in 2017. Adding Colorado State gets the Big 12 back into Colorado (and potentially the Denver market) after the Buffaloes left for the Pac-12. The Rams have been a consistent winner in the Mountain West, playing in 10 bowl games since 1999 and posting three 10-win seasons in that span.
Cons: Is expanding west the Big 12’s top priority? All signs seem to suggest a move east. Colorado State has been a consistent winner in the Mountain West, but the Rams haven’t finished in the top 25 of the Associated Press poll since 2000. How much of the Denver market could Colorado State really capture?
Pros: Strong academics. Tulane also has location (New Orleans) on its side. The state of Louisiana is a fertile recruiting area – could the Big 12 tap into that with the addition of Tulane? A new on-campus stadium should help this program grow in the future.
Cons: Tulane wouldn’t add much to the program’s football product and would be overmatched right away. The Green Wave have only one bowl appearance since 2003 and has not finished in the final Associated Press poll since 1998.
Kevin Steele’s laugh isn’t derisive. He isn’t trying to make fun of or belittle the question. But he lets loose with a deep chuckle that fairly drips with cream gravy.
So, coach, how much pressure is there for coaches in the SEC?
When you work at four different SEC schools during your career and are beginning a tenure at your third in the past three years, you know plenty about how tough it is to make it on the sidelines in that conference. Steele is in his first season as defensive coordinator at Auburn, a program in desperate need of some help on that side of the ball. He arrives on The Plains after directing LSU’s D last year and spending 2013-14 in Tuscaloosa with old pal Nick Saban. A Tennessee grad, Steele knows the conference about as well as anyone. And that includes the expectations that dog every coach in the league.
“It’s the same, week-to-week, year-in and year-out,” Steele says. “It’s based on the last game. Every week, you have to use the pressure for good. You have to use it as a positive.
“You are expected to play dominant defense and be prolific on offense and win every week. If you don’t like that, then the SEC is probably not the place for you.”
Steele joins the Auburn staff at a crucial time in Gus Malzahn’s tenure. Even though the fourth-year coach reached the BCS title game in January 2014, his last two Tiger outfits have managed a combined 15–11 record, and last year’s 2–6 SEC mark did not satisfy AU fans, who had to endure yet another Alabama national title and the continued celebration of Saban, who is as popular with them as a houndstooth skin rash would be.
There has been no formal announcement that Malzahn’s job is in jeopardy, but another seven- or eight-win season would definitely upset an already agitated fan base. Malzahn’s offensive genius, which catapulted him from the Arkansas high school ranks to an SEC head spot in just eight years, waned last year, as the Tigers managed just 370.0 yards and 27.5 points per game. If you’re going to finish 7–6 and be boring, you won’t gain too much support.
“We didn’t get it done as a group offensively,” Malzahn says. “It’s one of the few teams in my career where it didn’t happen. We were young and inconsistent, but I feel we’re going to get better.”
Two other SEC coaches enter the 2016 season with a similar optimism, and both could use big improvement from their teams. LSU’s Les Miles and Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin experienced surreal campaigns, with Miles going from fired to re-hired in less than a week, and Sumlin enduring the loss of two quarterbacks in the run-up to the Aggies’ bowl game. Both coaches’ teams share a West Division address with Auburn and — more important — Bama, and they understand that another season of unmet expectations could have them searching for new employment. Would it be fair to consign them to the bread line after they experienced success at their schools and Miles won the 2007 national title? Probably not. But nothing about life in the SEC is particularly just.
“The competition at this level is stiff,” Sumlin says. “It’s not for everybody. It just isn’t.
“It’s a combination of elite talent, elite coaching, big crowds and passionate fans. They create an atmosphere that’s the biggest time.”
To hear Sumlin explain it, the first four seasons of his reign in College Station have gone exactly according to schedule. The Aggies’ 36 wins during that time are tied for the most during any four-year period in the past 20 years. You have to go back to the heyday of R.C. Slocum’s “Wrecking Crew” defenses to find a more prosperous quartet of campaigns. (The 1992-95 A&M teams went 41–6–1.)
The Aggies currently have the school’s highest football graduation rate since the NCAA began recording the statistic. In 2014, 74 percent of the Aggies earned sheepskins, tied for fourth-best in the SEC. And Sumlin is extremely proud of A&M’s APR score (a robust 974, measured from 2010-14).
“That shows discipline,” Sumlin says about the academic accomplishments. “The things we did that increased graduation rate and APR are the first steps. Now, it’s time to take the next step.”
Aggie fans hope that the next step is SEC contention. While the 36 overall victories are impressive, especially considering the “success” rates of Sumlin’s two immediate successors — Dennis Franchione (32–29) and Mike Sherman (25–25) — three straight years without a winning mark in conference play aren’t too inspiring. Of course, the Aggies have been in the SEC for only four seasons, and stepping up from the Big 12 to the Big Time was going to involve some sort of struggle.
Sumlin understands that the biggest thing his team needs now is depth. He calls the SEC “a line-of-scrimmage league,” and that means successful teams have plenty of able bodies to commit to the trench warfare, especially on those brutally hot game days early in the season. Since 2013, the Aggies have had 10 players drafted, and five of them have been first-rounders. Sumlin is quite proud of the high-end A&M products — “I’ll take [wideout] Mike Evans back in a heartbeat,” he says — but he understands that the conference’s best have the kind of overall ability that produces multiple NFL picks, across all the rounds. “We want to have people drafted on days two and three,” Sumlin says. “We haven’t had that.”
The Aggies worked hard to create that depth this year with a top-20 recruiting class that replenished both lines and was heavy on blue-chip defensive talent. With 12 starters returning, Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight immediately eligible at quarterback and a schedule that features seven home games and the annual Jerryworld clash with Arkansas, there is hope for a step forward. Not that last year’s 8–5 finish was a disastrous. Aggies fans need to remember that South Carolina was 3–9 last year. Now that’s calamitous.
But A&M started the season 5–0 and staggered home from there. The QB shenanigans didn’t exactly instill confidence in the fan base, or the football community at large. People wondered why Kyler Murray and Kyle Allen left and whether the upheaval would influence the decision of Nevada prep quarterback Tate Martell, a five-star prospect who has already committed for 2017. This season will tell a lot about Sumlin’s progress in College Station. He insists that the foundation has been established, and it is time for life to begin among the SEC elite.
“We’ve accomplished more than people think, but we haven’t accomplished all we’ve wanted to or needed to,” says Sumlin, who arrived in College Station after a four-year stint at Houston. “We understand that. I can only control the direction of this program, which is moving forward and will continue to move forward. The opinion and feeling inside the program may be a little different than what it is on the outside.”
Sumlin expects the two perspectives to move closer together this season. That would certainly help make his job easier.
This feature and more on Texas A&M are available in the Athlon Sports 2016 SEC Preview available now on newsstands and in our online store.
When it comes to big postseason news, defeating Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl doesn’t exactly rate bold-face headlines. Auburn smacked the Tigers 31–10 at the end of December to bring a smile to a year that featured too few celebrations but kept Malzahn’s personal streak of 22 winning seasons alive. Few outside of the 59,000-plus who journeyed to Legion Field paid much attention to the game, but for a program that needed a push heading into 2016, it didn’t matter who noticed. The win was quite welcome.
“Any time you win a bowl game, you have some momentum for the next year,” Malzahn says. “It helps with recruiting, spring ball and getting ready for the next season. We played pretty well in the bowl game.”
The Tigers had several “pretty good” efforts last year. The trouble was that many of them didn’t result in wins. Auburn lost four games by eight points or fewer last year, with the most debilitating a four-overtime defeat at Arkansas that came just as it appeared AU was steadying itself after a pair of early-season defeats against LSU and Mississippi State. “If we won that one [against the Hogs], I like to think our season would have been different,” Malzahn says.
Maybe he’s right. The Tigers dropped two of their next three by a combined 15 points. Perhaps a triumph in Fayetteville would have boosted the confidence of a young team and propelled it to a better outcome. Despite Malzahn’s optimism — and what coach doesn’t point to a play here or there as the turning point in a mediocre season? — the Tigers’ inability to rebound from the disappointing loss demonstrated that they lacked an ingredient necessary to compete in the SEC. The team was young and wasn’t so good defensively, despite the high-profile (and high-salary) hiring of Will Muschamp to run the D. It’s hard to forget the sight of LSU’s Leonard Fournette shucking Auburn tacklers like his little brother’s friends en route to a 228-yard, three-TD performance in LSU’s 45–21 throttling of Auburn in mid-September. And even though the Tigers hung with Alabama for a while in a 29–13 Iron Bowl loss, they were still brutalized on the ground by the Tide’s Derrick Henry, who rushed for 271 yards on a whopping 46 carries, including what seemed to be every fourth-quarter play.
Muschamp has moved on to South Carolina, where he received a surprising second chance to be an SEC head coach. Enter Steele, the calm tactician whose pedigree and intimate knowledge of Saban and Miles are quite welcome at Auburn.
“Stability is a very big deal at the defensive coordinator position, and Kevin is a guy who will stabilize the defense,” Malzahn says. “He has done a wonderful job so far developing relationships with the players.”
Steele will make the Tigers more sound and productive defensively, and if Malzahn’s offense does its job, Steele won’t have to stifle opponents. He’ll just need to control them. But the head coach’s vaunted attack, which earned him the quick trip from the high school sideline to college football’s brightest lights, won’t thrive without stability under center. Last year, neither Jeremy Johnson nor Sean White was able to deliver consistent play, so Malzahn convinced junior college transfer John Franklin III, who began his college career at Florida State, to join the fold. If Franklin III can run the run-heavy spread attack, Auburn could climb the SEC West hierarchy quickly. A schedule that features five straight home games at the outset — though two are against Clemson and LSU — could help. A fast start will build momentum. Staggering from the chute could put Malzahn in jeopardy.
“That’s part of our league,” he says. “It’s the toughest league in college football, and the highs are high, and the lows are low. You have to stay consistent and keep working.
“I am definitely looking forward to this season. The recent history at Auburn has shown that anytime there is a tough season, the team bounces back. We’ll do that. I like where the program is at. I like where our staff is at.
“We should be able to rebound.”
This feature and more on Auburn are available in the Athlon Sports 2016 SEC Preview available now on newsstands and in our online store.
For two weeks last November, LSU football was transformed from a stable, successful program into a reality show. You think the “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” is crazy? Try “Les Miles is fired. Wait, no he’s not.”
From the moment Miles’ Tigers lost a 30–16 decision in Tuscaloosa on Nov. 7, members of the school’s booster community started complaining about the head coach. Forget that the loss dropped LSU to a still-robust 7–1. (It would have been 8–1 if a season-opening game against McNeese State hadn’t been canceled due to bad weather.) Miles had to go, and the reports from “sources” emerged that the coach would indeed be ousted.
Losses to Arkansas and Ole Miss followed, and as the Tigers prepared for their season finale against A&M, the mood around the team was funereal. Crying supporters showed up at Miles’ weekly radio show. There was news that Miles had told an audience that the game against the Aggies would be his last. No one was digging a grave, but many believed the party was over.
And then it wasn’t. Fan support swung hard in Miles’ direction. In Tiger Stadium before the game, the crowd chanted that school AD Joe Alleva should be canned, not the coach. And after LSU whipped A&M, Miles emerged safe and victorious, having outflanked administrators and boosters, with a huge assist from fans.
As he prepares for the 2016 season — his 12th at the school — Miles isn’t reflecting on the past, even though he pulled off one of the most amazing escapes in recent college football history.
“I have to be very honest with you,” he says. “I have always enjoyed working with the young men on this team. They have always played with great effort, and working with these guys and representing LSU has been easy to do. I have never felt like anything on the perimeter that was derogatory has been a distraction.”
Even if Miles has a laser-like focus that allows him to eliminate any outside noise, he still doesn’t stand on the sturdiest ground. He outlasted the posse this time, but should the Tigers stumble again — and at LSU, three losses are considered a stumble — he will be in danger once more, and it’s unlikely he’ll prevail again. There are still those in the school community who want a change, and they will be more prepared to affect one the next time.
The best way for Miles to thwart any efforts by those aligned against him is simple: The Tigers must find a way back to the top of the SEC West. That means overcoming the Crimson Tide, who have beaten LSU five straight times, including in the BCS title game in January 2012. A strong collection of returnees on both sides of the ball, headlined by Fournette (1,953 yards rushing, 22 TDs), helps. But much of LSU’s success will depend on whether junior quarterback Brandon Harris becomes more productive. Thanks to his inconsistent passing (53.8 percent completion rate), opponents played the vast majority of their defenders inside the hashmarks, making it more difficult for Fournette to find room.
“Brandon has shown more poise and is more confident under center,” Miles says. “He has always been a talented thrower. Now, he’s much more of a quarterback than he has ever been.”
The arrival of highly regarded coordinator Dave Aranda from Wisconsin should keep the defense strong, and the usual influx of fast, angry recruits will provide depth. The Tigers play seven home games — including one against the Tide — and have the potential for big things.
“I like our team,” Miles says. “If we can stay away from injuries, we’ll be in good shape.”
And so will the coach.
– By Michael Bradley
It has been a while since the University of Southern California Trojans last contended for a national championship. That was back in 2008, which does seem like a lifetime, but it was really just five coaches and eight years ago. Yet here we are on the cusp of the 2016 season and that feeling of being stuck in neutral remains with the Trojans.
The loss to Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl to end the 2015 season was, literally, very predictable. So predictable, in fact that I wrote about how USC would likely lose – in the event the Trojans did lose – on multiple occasions, including once for Athlon Sports. The USC Trojans are an extremely talented team, unfortunately they’re also the most predictable team in the Pac-12, or they were under the leadership of former athletic director Pat Haden, who has since retired and was replaced by former USC and NFL legend Lynn Swann.
From the outset, Swann set a tone that things around USC would be headed in a different direction. He seems bound and determined to restore USC to the greatness he knows the Trojans can produce, but one has to wonder exactly how much faith he has in a coach that he didn’t choose and was given an extension before trotting his team out to be embarrassed on national television by Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
The differences in the front office aren’t the only changes for the Trojans. There is almost an entirely new coaching staff, plus one or two rehires. USC also lost a number of talented players to the NFL whose production will need to be replaced and the Trojans won’t have much time to do it with Alabama looming as the season opener. So, first let’s take a look at USC through the lens of everything gelling from the outset, then we’ll take a look at USC through Murphy’s Law lens.
Three Reasons USC Will Reach the College Football Playoff in 2016
1. Better QB Play
It’s pretty simple: Cody Kessler was an average quarterback with an abnormal statistical season. Even in his outstanding junior campaign, Kessler was still a flat track bully, rarely posting good numbers against top competition. There can also be no doubting his over reliance upon Juju Smith-Schuster and how his myopic quarterback play was harmful to the team and something USC receivers were all too happy to see gone this spring. Kessler was a great Trojan, but he was a mediocre quarterback.
Max Browne and Sam Darnold open up a host of new offensive options for the Trojans. While Browne is a pocket passer like Kessler, he is more refined with his ball distribution. He also has a bigger build, stronger arm, and an other-worldly passing efficiency trait that has followed him for much of his career. Just spreading the ball out could open up USC offense to the point where it is more dangerous.
In the event that Darnold is given the keys to the car, he represents a more athletic breed of quarterback. To put it simply, Darnold brings with him an electric skill set that USC hasn’t had in a number of years. He’s a proficient passer with a strong arm, but he also has the means to keep defenses honest with his legs. He’s also not shy about taking a hit, though this is something head coach Clay Helton will encourage his young quarterback very strongly to avoid if at all possible. That hard-nosed approach saw Darnold on the sidelines because of a concussion last year while his high school team was in the fourth quarter of a close game. Darnold only had one setting that night – win – and he ended up pushing his body too far. USC will happily take his extraordinary bursts of speed, but the hope is that he will slide more often than not – and slides better than Browne while we’re at it. Okay, that last one was just a joke and meant to be funny for those who get it.
2. Ronald Jones II
RoJo 2.0, Texas Tesla, or whatever else you want to call him, is a major reason why the Trojans can compete for the golden tube of lipstick. Jones literally burst onto the scene last year with his famous horse-buck kick before blazing past opponents for big gains. He also had an extremely ridiculous run against Arizona that left people comparing him to a certain recently-retired NFL running back known as “Money.”
Jones had 987 rushing yards last year as a true freshman, breaking the long-held record of USC legend, Charles White. The record had stood for 39 years and the challenges of a lot of really talented running backs. Jones finished 18th nationally in yards per carry and second in the Pac-12. If he averages 6.5 yards a carry again in 2016, USC should have quite a bit of advantageous field position over the course of the year.
Of course, Jones does need to work on his ability to catch out of the backfield. It was a known weakness last year, but it’s something he’s been drilling and drilling. The only problem with drilling is that nobody knows how it will affect his mental confidence until its game time. It stands to reason, however, that Jones will be just fine and that his catching woes will become a thing of the past. He’s simply too talented and driven.
3. Aggressive Defensive Play
One thing USC never managed under former defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox was an aggressive defensive scheme. There were far too many times last year when the Trojans were bullied and physically bested by their opponents. Enter new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast and his 5-2 scheme known for getting after opposing quarterbacks.
With Su’a Cravens gone, the Trojans will need one of their many four- and five-star recruits to step up and assume a leadership position. A couple of prime candidates to do this are MLB Cameron Smith and OLB/RE Porter Gustin. As physically dominant as they come, Smith and Gustin already showed what imposing forces they can be in a much less aggressive scheme. USC fans will be salivating at the thought of these individuals being set free to do what they do best.
If the Trojans are able to recapture some of the magic of Pendergast’s last run as USC defensive coordinator, then there is a very good chance that this defense will be better off than it was last year. At the very minimum, USC will have opposing quarterbacks running for their lives.
Three Reasons USC Will Not Make the College Football Playoff in 2016
1. Clay Helton
Outside of a single game against UCLA, USC has shown very little under Helton. He’s overseen the program on multiple occasions, but has yet to really grab a signature victory. In fact, his performance in the Pac-12 Championship Game after having the interim title removed was enough to make people question whether or not Haden had picked yet another coach he thinks can reignite the Pete Carroll era.
Helton doesn’t have a ton of experience and USC’s schedule is terrifyingly difficult. Whether or not he’s the right man for the job isn’t likely to be answered in one season, but there are sure to be periods of learning and those could cost USC when it matters most. It’s also a plus that whatever happens when the Trojans and Crimson Tide meet to open the season isn’t likely to affect either team’s chances of making the College Football Playoff in the event of a loss.
This is by no means a make-or-break year for the first-time head coach, but he will need to improve upon his 7-5 overall record if he plans on keeping the job for the long haul.
The first month of USC’s schedule is so difficult that it could see the Trojans out of Playoff contention before the season really gets underway. They open the year with Alabama in Arlington, Texas, followed by Utah State, Utah and Stanford. Three of those games are on the road, one of the three being played at a “neutral site” far closer to Tuscaloosa, Ala., than to Los Angeles.
There are no guarantees that USC even gets out of September with a winning record and that could basically put an end to the Trojans’ Playoff hopes before they ever really take flight. If September’s slate wasn’t bad enough; USC bookends its schedule with a November that includes Oregon, Washington, UCLA and Notre Dame. This schedule is the thing nightmares are made of and it definitely presents a major hurdle to the Trojans’ Playoff hopes.
3. There’s No Evidence to Suggest the Trojans Will
Put simply, USC has not looked anything close to a team that is building and getting better. Each year the Trojans seemingly have a slew of off-the-field problems and distractions, a ton of key injuries, and a steady stream of poor coaches who kept doing the same thing over and over again even when it wasn’t working. Until USC proves it is headed in the right direction, there’s no logical reason to peg the Men of Troy as a Playoff team. Things could change overnight, but as we sit here today, USC is not a team that any experts seriously expect to compete for a national title and with good reason.
The Trojans are a very talented team and have even more talented players coming in this year. It shouldn’t shock anyone if this team pulls off a few major upsets, but still finish with eight or nine wins. The schedule is not set up for this team to make a push for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Recruiting has been good, but not as good as it has been in years past. USC also seems to be losing out on the type of recruits it was signing under Steve Sarkisian and Lane Kiffin. That said, if the Trojans win more games, people will happily take that tradeoff.
The Pac-12 isn’t getting any easier. Teams like Washington and Washington State have come into their own. The coaching changes made by Arizona could see that defense improve to the point where the Wildcats’ offense isn’t forced to win every game. Oregon is still Oregon until proven otherwise and UCLA has really turned a corner with local recruiting.
But the biggest reason USC won’t make the Playoff is because the Pac-12 tends to eviscerate its own. The North has been the stronger division for a while now and this year doesn’t look to be any different. There is a lot of talent in the South, but it’s unproven talent. USC will be good, but not Playoff good.
USC will likely compete for a Pac-12 South crown, but the Trojans are still a ways away from competing once again for college football’s biggest prize.
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Webb is a recruiting analyst for BarkBoard, Scout’s Fresno State affiliate. A contributor to USCFootball.com, Scout’s USC affiliate. He is also a regular guest and contributor for CFBHuddle. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen has proven, if nothing else over the years, that he knows how to get the absolute most out of his players. And that is a compliment most coaches love to hear, because it signifies a job well done. The nation’s top players usually don’t end up in Starkville, so Mullen has to work with what he has. That has been easier over the past few seasons with Dak Prescott at quarterback, but it is about to become more of a challenge.
The Bulldogs’ schedule this season doesn’t make Mullen’s job any easier. Of course, that could be said for most teams in the SEC West. Mississippi State has to travel to Death Valley early in the season, which is tough enough, but the Bulldogs also have an absolutely terrifying November slate – plus a random trip to Provo, Utah, somewhere in the middle.
Here is a look at Mississippi State’s 12 regular season games, ranked from easiest to toughest:
12. Oct. 29 vs. Samford
This is the only real snoozer on Mississippi State’s schedule, but at least the Bulldogs were decent enough to not schedule it in late November. Samford doesn’t bring a lot to the table, but did finish a respectable 6-5 last season. The last time Samford gave an SEC team a run for its money was in 2013 when the Bulldogs from the FCS played Arkansas tough, eventually losing 31-21 in Little Rock.
11. Sept. 3 vs. South Alabama
The last time Mississippi State played South Alabama (2014), the game was in Mobile, where the Bulldogs won comfortably, 35-3. Not much has changed in two years, expect for the fact that Mississippi State will be trying to find its groove on offense. Still, the Jaguars shouldn’t have enough manpower to put a blemish on State’s record in week one.
10. Sept. 24 at UMass
Last season, the Minutemen finished 3-9 but did show signs of life against Temple and Bowling Green. This year, due to someone being bold in the scheduling department, UMass plays three SEC teams. By the time Mississippi State rolls into Foxboro’s Gillette Stadium on Sept. 24, the Minutemen will have already been tested by Florida and Boston College. This game could be tricky, but probably not.
9. Oct. 22 at Kentucky
8. Sept. 10 vs. South Carolina
7. Oct. 8 vs. Auburn
6. Oct. 14 at BYU
This game is centered in the middle of the SEC schedule, it is a long road trip, and it will be played on a Friday night. Because of those three factors, this seems like an awkward challenge for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs probably have a better roster, top to bottom, but BYU won’t be a pushover. Last season, the Cougars went 9-4 and knocked off Nebraska and Boise State in the process. They will be battle-tested coming into this non-conference matchup.
5. Nov. 5 vs. Texas A&M
4. Nov. 19 vs. Arkansas
3. Nov. 26 at Ole Miss
2. Sept. 17 at LSU
1. Nov. 12 at Alabama
For the second straight year, Tennessee is one of the hot names in the offseason as the Volunteers continue to gather steam. Last season, the Vols were a bit of a disappointment, but didn't have to be. They lost four games by one score or less as things just seemed to go wrong late in games. Florida and Georgia could be nipping at Tennessee's heels for the top spot in the SEC East though with each team representing a different challenge.
For the purposes of this exercise, projected win totals are broken down into three categories — definite wins, definite losses and toss-ups. Most of the conference games will in the toss-up category, especially ones on the road. This preview will offer thoughts on each team and if there’s any value either over or under.
Note: Over/under odds courtesy of South Point Casino
(Over 7.5 wins -130...Under 7.5 wins +110)
Record Last Year: 10-4, 7-1
Returning Starters: 11 (5 on offense, 6 on defense)
Offense: A transfer will be under center with Luke Del Rio vying with Austin Appleby for the QB job. Whoever gets the call will have Antonio Callaway and Brandon Powell out wide. The departure of Kelvin Taylor means youth will be served at RB with Jordan Scarlett and Mark Thompson.
Defense: The loss of top cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III will be felt although Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson are pretty good replacements. Even better for the secondary is the presence of a stiff front four that should get constant pressure on the quarterback.
Schedule: The Gators open up with a pillow start, hosting UMass, Kentucky and North Texas before two straight on the road. They play just four true road games and get LSU at home.
Selection:I agree with the money move to the over. My only hesitation will be quarterback, but there are enough pieces around the starter that the Gators should succeed.
(Over 8.5 wins -115...Under 8.5 wins -105)
Record Last Year: 10-3, 5-3
Returning Starters: 13 ( on offense, 5 on defense)
Offense: It all starts and ends with running back Nick Chubb, whose health will be the biggest question entering camp. It becomes an even bigger factor after Sony Michel got hurt this offseason. Brice Ramsey, Jacob Eason and Greyson Lambert make for an intriguing QB competition. We do know that Terry Godwin is the leading returning receiver back and the OL should be good.
Defense: Kirby Smart's influence will probably be felt here and he has a lot of work to do with the front seven. Tackle Trent Thompson needs to continue to grow up front. What we do know is that the secondary is very experienced led by safety Dominick Sanders.
Schedule: The 2016 campaign opens up with North Carolina in Atlanta before three of the next five are on the road. The rest of the non-conference slate consists of Nicholls State, UL Lafayette and Georgia Tech all at home. It's a friendly slate for the first-year head coach.
Selection: Slight lean to the over, but I'm not locking anything in yet with Georgia because of the uncertainty at QB and RB.
(Over 5 wins -110...Under 5 wins -110)
Record Last Year: 5-7, 2-6
Returning Starters: 13 (9 on offense, 4 on defense)
Offense: The run game figures to be strong with Stanley “Boom” Williams, Jojo Kemp and Mikel Horton in the backfield. Williams has been held out of any contact drills so far this offseason. The offensive line is pretty much intact with Drew Barker under center. He's got three of his top WRs back as well. This group should improve from being the 95th-ranked scoring offense in 2015.
Defense: This is where the problems begin with just four returnees. The player that is back with the most sacks from last year is Chris Westry, and he had one from the cornerback position. The depth chart is littered with youth so it could be a long year.
Schedule: The Wildcats play five of their first seven at home. They get Southern Miss, New Mexico State, Austin Peay and Louisville outside of SEC play. UK has just five true road games although two of those are Florida and Alabama.
Selection: I can see the Wildcats getting to .500 if things break right. The home schedule helps out, especially with Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and South Carolina the teams coming to Lexington. That said, the defense is going to have to improve as the year goes on.
(Over 5.5 wins -110...Under 5.5 wins -110)
Record Last Year: 5-7, 1-7
Returning Starters: 13 (5 on offense, 8 on defense)
Offense: Mizzou scored 10 points or less six times in 2015 so pretty much any additional production from this unit will be an improvement. New coordinator Josh Heupel will try to breathe life into this unit and help develop sophomore quarterback Drew Lock, who had twice as many interceptions (eight) as touchdown passes (four) last season. The run game figures to struggle with Nate Strong and Ish Witter leading the way. There is just one returnee up front.
Defense: The defense held up it's end of the bargain last year, holding teams to just 16.2 points per game. The front seven is pretty much back led by Charles Harris and Walter Brady as bookend DEs. The secondary could be a question mark although senior Aarion Penton holds down one corner spot.
Schedule: The Tigers have three of their first four at home although they begin with a road matchup against West Virginia. The rest of the non-conference slate is Eastern Michigan, Delaware State and Middle Tennessee. Missouri also plays at LSU and Florida.
Selection: I think Missouri's offense improves and is able to put more points on the scoreboard this year. I don't feel 100 percent confident on that claim, but the defense should be able to replicate what it did in 2015.
(Over 5 wins EVEN...Under 5 wins -120)
Record Last Year: 3-9, 1-7
Returning Starters: 8 (3 on offense, 5 on defense)
Offense: More questions at QB here with Perry Orth and Brandon McIlwain leading the way. There's a lot of rebuilding going around the QB as well with RB and WR groups that are lacking returnees. New coordinator Kurt Roper has his work cut out for him. Someone needs to step up and emerge.
Defense: The loss of leading tackler and anchor Skai Moore to a season-ending neck injury cannot be understated. The All-SEC-caliber linebacker was the heart and soul of this defense, which likely will struggle to stop the run again this season. Special teams should be strong once again so that's one less thing to worry about.
Schedule: The Gamecocks open with two straight and three of their first four on the road. They host East Carolina, UMass, Western Carolina and play at Clemson in the non-conference. They also have a stretch of five straight at home (Oct. 1-Nov. 5).
Selection: I think five wins is a good number. The schedule is doable, but the lack of talent is not. New head coach Will Muschamp has his work cut out for him and there are too many question marks.
(Over 9.5 wins -110...Under 9.5 wins -110)
Record Last Year: 9-4, 5-3
Returning Starters: 18 (9 on offense, 9 on defense)
Offense: Joshua Dobbs, Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara return from a team that scored more than 35 points per game last year. While the ground game was strong the aerial attack lagged behind, averaging 198.6 yards passing per contest in 2015. Josh Smith and Josh Malone are back at WR as well as most of the O-line.
Defense: New coordinator Bob Shoop comes over from Penn State to coach this veteran bunch. There's talent on every level with DL Derek Barnett, LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin and CB Cameron Sutton all back. I'm looking forward to seeing what sophomore lineman Kahlil McKenzie can do in the middle.
Schedule: Tennessee plays Virginia Tech at Bristol Motor Speedway on Sept. 10 in one of the most intriguing non-conference games of the season. The Volunteers also host Appalachian State, Ohio and Tennessee Tech to make up their non-conference slate. The toughest stretch could be in October when the Vols play at Georgia, Texas A&M and South Carolina with a home matchup against Alabama mixed in.
Selection: It would be a disappointment if Tennessee didn't go over this total. Of course, Butch Jones’ Volunteers were disappointing last year. There are way too many winnable games at home with the tilts against the Hokies, Crimson Tide, Florida and Georgia representing the only challenges.
(Over 5 wins -110...Under 5 wins -110)
Record Last Year: 4-8, 2-6
Returning Starters: 12 (5 on offense, 7 on defense)
Offense: Quarterback continues to be an issue with Kyle Shurmur expected to be the starter this season. He threw for just 583 yards last year, but was given the job during the offseason. Ralph Webb was able to rush for more than 1,000 yards despite the troubles at QB. Caleb Scott and Trent Sherfield are the two leading WRs. The offensive line could be an issue.
Defense: The Commodores were greatly improved on this side of the ball. They allowed just 21 points per game. The front seven will need to replace some big players, but the secondary should be a lot better. Special teams play was a massive issue so a new assistant coach was brought in to fix it.
Schedule: Vanderbilt opens the year with two straight at home before playing four of the next five on the road. The Commodores take on Middle Tennessee, Georgia Tech, Western Kentucky and Tennessee State out of conference.
Selection:I like what head coach Derek Mason has done at the school despite just seven wins in two seasons. The offense has to improve before I can be too optimistic though. I think five is a solid number although if there was value with the under I'd consider that more.
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Josephs prefers non-Power 5 college football and may be the only one wagering on the Sun Belt. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.
The Big Ten moves to a nine-game conference schedule in 2016, meaning fewer non-conference battles to evaluate from the 14-team conference. Even though the number of non-conference tilts has been reduced, there are still some good quality matchups to put some of the Big Ten’s programs to the test.
Related: Big Ten Football 2016 Predictions
If the College Football Playoff selection committee is going to continue to give some bonus points for playing a challenging schedule, then potential Big Ten Playoff contenders could be in good shape with the schedules in front of them this season. Pay particular attention to Sept. 17 when Big Ten teams take on the defending Big 12 champion as well as Notre Dame on the road, while one Big Ten division champion from a season ago takes on a mighty FCS powerhouse nobody should overlook.
The Big Ten will collectively have an opportunity to prove the conference may not be as down this year as some expect with contests against the ACC, Big 12, Pac-12 and even the SEC all in games that will take place away from a Big Ten campus. The bar has been raised, but can the Big Ten clear it in 2016?
Here are the top 10 non-conference games on the Big Ten schedule this season, along with a few other matchups to keep an eye on.
1. Ohio State at Oklahoma (Sept. 17)
This is quite possibly the biggest game of the season for the Big Ten (and perhaps the Big 12). J.T. Barrett will look to keep Ohio State’s offense chugging along as it fills some key holes in what amounts to a mid-September Heisman Trophy contender showdown with Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield. The winning quarterback puts himself in firm position in the Heisman conversation, but more importantly, the winner of this game could eventually help determine if the Big Ten or Big 12 gets a spot in this season’s College Football Playoff.
2. Wisconsin vs. LSU (Lambeau Field, Sept. 3)
The game most people are looking forward to will be the second regular season neutral field matchup between Wisconsin and LSU. With the game taking place at historic Lambeau Field, the festive scene for the opening of the new season will be plenty of fun. Can Wisconsin hold off Leonard Fournette and the Tigers in the opener, unlike when the last time these two met in Houston two seasons ago? If the Badgers can, Wisconsin will score a nice victory for the Big Ten against the SEC out of the gate.
3. Michigan State at Notre Dame (Sept. 17)
The Spartans and Fighting Irish always make for an entertaining and competitive game, and this season should be no exception. A new-look Michigan State squad will have to be in full swing on the road in South Bend, Ind., as the Irish will try to spread things open offensively. Could we see any crazy plays this time? You just never know.
4. Oregon at Nebraska (Sept. 17)
Nebraska head coach Mike Riley is quite familiar with his mid-September opponent from the Pac-12. The former Oregon State head coach goes back to work against the Ducks, which are coming off a relatively disappointing season in 2015 and facing some questions heading into this fall. Oregon and Nebraska may have had rough seasons a year ago, but Nebraska will be put to the test of slowing down what should be a difficult offense.
5. Penn State at Pittsburgh (Sept. 10)
The in-state rivalry between Penn State and Pitt is finally renewed for the first time in 16 years, and it should be well worth the wait. The running back showdown between Saquon Barkley and Pitt’s James Conner is well worth watching as bragging rights are up for grabs. The importance of this game for Penn State is mighty, especially considering the Nittany Lions lost on the road in Pennsylvania last year at Temple. To do so again would be a tough blow to James Franklin’s “Dominate the State” mantra.
6. North Carolina at Illinois (Sept. 10)
With a new head coach, the reason for optimism is rising at Illinois. In Week 2 the Illini take on defending ACC Coastal Division champion North Carolina, and this will be no easy task. The Tar Heels ambushed a disoriented Illinois squad last year at Chapel Hill, 48-14. Smith may be a good defensive coach, but that is a big gap to close.
7. Rutgers at Washington (Sept. 3)
Coming off a wildly entertaining home-and-home series with Washington State, Rutgers shifts to the other Apple Cup opponent with a road game at Washington this season. The Huskies are a program on the rise in the Pac-12 and some feel Chris Petersen’s team could push Stanford for the North Division crown. New Rutgers head coach Chris Ash is taking over a rebuilding project and may not have his team ready to take down Washington on the west coast just yet, but if he did it would be a great victory for the Big Ten.
8. Duke at Northwestern (Sept. 17)
The Academic Bowl between Northwestern and the ACC’s Duke is part of a key slate in mid-September. Northwestern’s stingy defense will hope to slow down Duke’s sometimes big-play offense as the Wildcats go for a third straight win in the series against the Blue Devils.
9. North Dakota State at Iowa (Sept. 17)
FCS super-giant North Dakota State has a knack for taking down opponents from the FBS. The Bison have an impressive 8-3 record against teams from the next level up, and that includes a pair of victories against the Big Ten, both against Minnesota. A year after topping Iowa State, the Bison return to the state of Iowa to take on defending Big Ten West champion Iowa. The Bison may have lost quarterback Carson Wentz to the NFL, but not even Iowa’s defense should overlook what North Dakota State will be capable of doing.
10. Western Michigan at Northwestern (Sept. 3)
Northwestern opens the season against Western Michigan, the prohibitive preseason favorite in the MAC. That means the Wildcats will have to be on top of their game against what could be a dangerous team. Western Michigan will bring a dynamic and experienced offense to Evans Field that should challenge Northwestern’s defense.
Best of the Rest
Fresno State at Nebraska (Sept. 3)
Bowling Green at Ohio State (Sept. 3)
Colorado at Michigan (Sept. 17)
Temple at Penn State (Sept. 17)
Cincinnati at Purdue (Sept. 10)
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)
Jim Harbaugh definitely makes the most of the Wolverines offseason.
The Michigan head coach appears in rapper Bailey's new music video for "Who's Got It Better Than Us?" and it does not disappoint. The song centers around the Wolverines so it would make sense for Harbaugh to have a starring role. He should expect many more requests for cameos after this one.
Coaches and players try to say every game on their schedule is meaningful and counts the same as any other.
That’s true mathematically, but college football lives in the real world and there are specific games teams get up for even more just like the rest of us.
With the countdown on for the approaching college football season, here are the most anticipated conference matchups, non-conference matchups and FBS matchups for many of the top FCS programs in the nation:
Top 5 Conference Matchups
5. (tie) Colgate at Fordham (Nov. 5)
Pity the defenses in this explosive matchup between the last two Patriot League champions, which return veteran offenses. Last meeting: Fordham, 31-29 (2015)
5. (tie) Montana at Eastern Washington (Oct. 29)
There are many good matchups in the largest FCS conference, but these Big Sky rivals always highlight the date on their calendars. Last meeting: Montana, 57-16 (2015)
4. Chattanooga at The Citadel (Oct. 15)
Last year’s Southern Conference co-champs meet again. The Citadel got a look at the Mocs’ new starting quarterback a year early when Alejandro Bennifield threw a 75-yard touchdown pass on a game-opening trick play. Last meeting: Chattanooga, 31-23 (2015)
3. McNeese State at Sam Houston State (Nov. 5)
Defending Southland Conference champion McNeese State’s only loss last season occurred against Sam Houston State in the FCS playoffs. Last meeting: Sam Houston State, 34-29 (2015 playoffs)
2. Richmond at William & Mary (Nov. 19)
Last season, Richmond prevented rival William & Mary from winning an outright CAA Football title and knocked the Tribe from the playoffs in a two-week span. Last meeting: Richmond, 48-13 (2015 playoffs)
1. North Dakota State at Northern Iowa (Oct. 29)
The line of scrimmage will not be a place for the faint of heart. UNI ended the FCS dynasty’s record 33-game winning streak when they last squared off inside the UNI-Dome two years ago. Last meeting: North Dakota State, 23-13 (2015 playoffs)
Top 5 Non-Conference Matchups
5. Northern Iowa at Eastern Washington (Sept. 17)
UNI won last season’s game in Cedar Falls, extending its series lead to 6-0. Both teams will be playing their third tough opponent to open the season. Last meeting: Northern Iowa, 38-35 (2015)
4. Coastal Carolina at Jacksonville State (Sept. 17)
The first meeting between the FCS powers also is their last on the level because Coastal is moving up to the FBS next season. First meeting
3. Charleston Southern at North Dakota State (Aug. 27)
With Coastal Carolina gone from the Big South, the conference gets the national spotlight with the FCS Kickoff. The five-time national champion Bison are a little more accustomed to the bright lights. First meeting
2. Montana at Northern Iowa (Sept. 10)
Montana quarterback Brady Gustafson will pass against an entirely new UNI secondary. UNI’s two 1,000-yard rushers, quarterback Aaron Bailey and running back Tyvis Smith, will attack a Grizzlies defense that will have two returning starters. Last meeting: Montana, 48-10 (2011 playoffs)
1. Eastern Washington at North Dakota State (Sept. 10)
NDSU hasn’t lost a playoff game since the 2010 quarterfinals at Eastern Washington. The big problem for the visiting Eagles is they’re replacing their entire starting offensive line. Last meeting: Eastern Washington, 38-31 in overtime (2010 playoffs)
Top 5 FCS-FBS Matchups
5. Richmond at Virginia (Sept. 3)
The Spiders will attempt to ruin the debut of new Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall. They haven’t had a lot of luck in the series (2-28-2) as they’ve lost four times to the Cavaliers since 2008. Last meeting: Virginia, 45-13 (2014)
4. Northern Iowa at Iowa State (Sept. 3)
Familiar foes meet for the 30th time. The Panthers suffered a one-point loss in 2011 and beat Iowa State, 28-20, in ‘13 before falling again last season. Last meeting: Iowa State, 31-7 (2015)
3. Jacksonville State at LSU (Sept. 10)
Maybe the national runner-up Gamecocks figure a visit to Death Valley can’t get any harder than playing North Dakota State. First meeting
2. Eastern Washington at Washington State (Sept. 3)
EWU All-America wide receiver Cooper Kupp has played three career games against Pac-12 teams and totaled 28 receptions, 510 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. Sun Bowl champion Washington State lost to another Big Sky squad, Portland State, last September. Last meeting: Washington State, 24-20 (2012)
1. North Dakota State at Iowa (Sept. 17)
The Bison hope to extend a five-game winning streak against FBS competition (Kansas, Minnesota, Colorado State, Kansas State and Iowa State). Iowa isn’t as strong as last year’s squad that started the season 12-0. Last meeting: Iowa, 59-0 (1947)
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Top photo by University of Northern Iowa Athletics)
Upon his arrival at Ohio State, head coach Urban Meyer’s initial recruiting class in 2012 consisted of 25 players. While Meyer had high hopes for his initial crop of Buckeyes, he also was far from satisfied.
He described that 2012 class as “pretty strong, but I wouldn’t consider that a great recruiting effort.” It was clear that Meyer was intent on making a splash with his next class. He wanted to sign a 2013 class that could compete for and win national championships. What he got was just that, as well as one that would impact future NFL Drafts.
Part one of this series on Ohio State’s 2013 recruiting class showed the minimal impact caused by departures, as only three players from that group ended up leaving the program. Part two took a look at the nine members who have contributed to the Buckeyes’ success these past several years, with several players still in the running to possibly become starters before their respective collegiate careers conclude.
Part three will discuss the 2013 recruits who were or have developed into starter starters for the Buckeyes. Several of these players have already moved on to the NFL, as Ohio State’s presence was clearly felt in this year’s draft.
These 12 players will be listed in the order that they verbally committed to Ohio State.
1. Jalin Marshall, WR
The second player to verbally commit to Ohio State in January 2012, Marshall was described by Meyer as "a young man that if he was a guy that wanted to play the game and wait till signing day to put the eight hats out there, he could have whatever many amounts of hats he wanted." Marshall redshirted in 2013, but was a key contributor to Ohio State in ‘14 and ‘15 as a wide receiver and special teams player. Marshall's best game as a Buckeye came against Indiana in 2014, when he scored four touchdowns to seal a victory, and clinch the Big Ten East Division for the Buckeyes. Marshall surprisingly declared for the 2016 NFL Draft with two years of eligibility remaining, and was not selected. He signed as an undrafted free agent with the New York Jets.
2. Billy Price, OL
Price was recruited as a defensive lineman, but moved to offensive line after a redshirting in 2013. Price has been a starter at guard since the 2014 season, enters this fall as one of the projected returning starters, and still has one year of eligibility remaining. Price was named a freshman All-American by Athlon Sports and an Academic All-American by the Big Ten in 2014.
3. Eli Apple, CB
After redshirting in 2013, Apple earned a starting cornerback spot in ’14. A key member of the 2014 national championship team, Apple earned freshman All-American recognition by Athlon Sports. Last season, Apple was named second-team All-Big Ten by the coaches and was the 2016 Fiesta Bowl defensive MVP. With two years of eligibility remaining, Apple declared for the 2016 NFL Draft where he was selected 10th overall by the New York Giants.
4. Ezekiel Elliott, RB
Elliott verbally committed to Ohio State in April 2012, but wavered towards possibly flipping to Missouri as the 2013 National Signing Day approached. Fortunately for Ohio State, Elliott remained strong with his commitment to becoming a Buckeye. Elliott earned playing time as a true freshman in 2013, contributing as a running back and on special teams coverage. He took over in the backfield the next season, and served as the catalyst for Ohio State's march towards the national championship. In 2014, Elliott rushed for 1,878 yards rushing, the second-highest single-season total in school history (Eddie George, 1,927 yards in 1995), and named the MVP of the national championship game win over Oregon. Last year, Elliott racked up the accolades, including Big Ten Offensive Player and Running Back of the Year and he won the Chicago Tribune's Silver Football Award as the conference’s Most Valuable Player. He was a semifinalist for the prestigious Maxwell Award and was named second-team All-American by AP and FWAA. Elliott finished his career at Ohio State second on the all-time rushing list with 3,961 yards. Elliott declared early for the 2016 NFL Draft and was taken fourth overall by the Dallas Cowboys.
5. J.T. Barrett, QB
Meyer inherited Braxton Miller, Kenny Guiton and Cardale Jones at quarterback when he was named Ohio State's head coach in November 2011. Barrett was the first quarterback that Meyer and his coaching staff truly recruited. A knee injury that ended his high school career caused Barrett to redshirt in 2013. But it was a season-ending injury to Miller less than two weeks before the start of the 2014 season that thrust Barrett into the starting lineup. Despite a rocky performance against Virginia Tech in his second game, Barrett went on to set 19 records (17 Ohio State, two Big Ten) in leading the Buckeyes to the Big Ten title. For his efforts, Barrett won the Griese-Brees Quarterback of the Year, Thomspon-Randle El Freshman of the Year awards and was named first-team All-Big Ten and a freshman All-American by USA Today, Scout.com and Athlon Sports. An injury in the regular season finale against Michigan sidelined Barrett as Ohio State went on to win the Big Ten Championship Game and the inaugural College Football Playoff. Last season, Barrett alternated snaps with postseason hero Cardale Jones, until the former was named the starter near the end of the season. With Jones now in the NFL, Barrett is the unquestioned No. 1 on the depth chart and has one year of eligibility remaining after the 2016 season.
6. Joey Bosa, DE
As soon as he made his commitment official, Meyer was quick to label Bosa as “one of the best players in the country.” One scan of Bosa’s numerous accolades from his official Ohio State bio proves Meyer knew what he was talking about. A two-time consensus All-American, Bosa also was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2014 and took home the award for conference defensive lineman of the year twice in this three seasons. As a Buckeye, Bosa played in 41 games, started 37 times and ended his career ranked in the program’s top five in four marquee defensive categories: sacks (3rd, 26), sack yardage (4th, 177), tackles for a loss (4th, 50.5) and TFL yardage (4th, 247). Bosa had more stops behind the line of scrimmage during his three seasons than any player in the nation. His five forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries also led to 44 Ohio State points, according to his bio. Bosa declared early for the 2016 NFL Draft where he was taken third overall by the San Diego Chargers.
7. Darron Lee, LB
Lee was an underrated recruit coming out of high school, earning his Ohio State scholarship through stellar performances in summer recruiting camps. Redshirted as an athlete in 2013, Lee moved to linebacker in ‘4, and immediately made an impact with a fumble recovery for a touchdown versus Navy in the season opener. Lee was a second-team Associated Press All-American in 2015 after earning freshman All-American honors in ‘14. Over the last two seasons, he ranked second only to Joey Bosa in tackles for a loss (27.5) and sacks (12). Lee also recorded 147 tackles, five pass breakups, 10 quarterback hurries, three interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries during that span. Lee declared early for the 2016 NFL Draft and was selected 20th overall by the New York Jets.
8. Michael Hill, DL
Hill played sparingly in 2013, resulting in a redshirt season. He appeared in eight games during the 2014 national championship season before becoming a starter last season. Hill is expected to start this fall, alongside 2013 classmate Tracy Sprinkle. Hill will have one year of eligibility remaining after the 2016 season.
9. Tyquan Lewis, DE
Lewis redshirted in 2013, but emerged as a contributor along the defensive line and on special teams the following season. Last season, Lewis started up front for the Buckyes, serving as the bookend to Joey Bosa. Lewis led the team in sacks with eight. He sat out spring practice due to shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum, but is expected to start once he’s cleared to return. Lewis will have one year of eligibility remaining after the 2016 season.
10. Gareon Conley, CB
Conley originally committed to Michigan, but flipped to Ohio State late in the recruiting process, making it official in December 2012. After redshirting in 2013, Conley played extensively at cornerback and on special teams coverage in ‘14. Last season, Conley started opposite Eli Apple, finishing with 49 tackles, five pass breakups, two interceptions, and a blocked punt. Conley is slated to start this fall and will have one year of eligibility remaining after the 2016 season.
11. Dontre Wilson, H-Back
Wilson was a late addition to the 2013 class, flipping his original verbal commitment from Oregon after Chip Kelly departed for the NFL. At H-Back, Wilson plays a hybrid role within the Ohio State offense, as both a running back, receiver, and kickoff/punt returner. Small in stature (5-10, 195), Wilson's primary strength is in creating matchup problems for opposing defenses. Wilson has battled injuries over the last two seasons, which has limited his on-field impact to this point.
12. Vonn Bell, S
Bell was the last of the 2013 class to commit, signing with the Buckeyes on National Signing Day. A backup in 2013, Bell earned his first start in the 2014 Orange Bowl against Clemson. A full-time starter in 2014 and ’15, Bell’s Buckeyes tenure consisted of 42 games and 28 starts over three years. A first-team All-Big Ten selection last season, he also claimed first-team All-American honors from the AP, The Sporting News and SI.com. Bell ended his Ohio State career with 176 career tackles, 24 passes defended and nine interceptions. Bell declared early for the 2016 NFL Draft and was taken in the second round (61st overall) by the New Orleans Saints.
Of the 24 players that signed with Ohio State on Feb. 6, 2013, 21 have either stated or contributed to the Buckeyes’ success during their time on campus. That is a success rate of 87.5 percent, which is better than any other Ohio State recruiting class I have evaluated (since 2005), applying the "The Rule Of Thirds" criteria.
Of the 21 players who remained, 12 emerged as starters, with the possibility that others could eventually emerge as starters before the conclusion of their respective careers. And here is a tidbit that Meyer may not have anticipated when these players signed back in 2013 – three players from the same recruiting class would wind up among the top 10 players picked in the 2016 NFL Draft (Bosa, Elliott, Apple).
With the 2016 college football season rapidly approaching, the remaining members of the 2013 recruiting class still have a chance to contribute positively in what has been arguably the greatest recruiting class in Ohio State's illustrious football history. It will bear watching throughout this fall how players such as Marcus Baugh, Tracy Sprinkle, Chris Worley and Corey Smith perform for the Buckeyes.
— Written by Chip Minnich, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a diehard Ohio State fan. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMinnich.
Who knows what will happen when two of pop culture’s most iconic superheroes face off in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a comic book-inspired double bill?
From Director Zack Snyder comes Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, starring Ben Affleck as Batman and Henry Cavill as Superman in the characters’ first big-screen pairing.
Why are two “good guys” fighting each other? What has brought them to this? Find out when the Warner Bros. flick arrives on Blu-ray this week.
Own the Blu-ray July 19.
Digital HD available now.
Sign up for our free newsletter below for your chance to win one of 10 copies. And increase your chances by tweeting us @AthlonSports with the hashtag #AthlonJustice for a second chance at the prize. All
entries must be submitted by July 29 at noon EDT. Good luck!
BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE and all related characters and elements are trademarks
of and © DC Comics. © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment Inc. All
While the days of daily college fantasy football appear to be over (sadly), the season-long game remains alive and well as we head into the 2016 season.
Over the course of the next week, rankings for each individual position will be rolled out to help you better prepare for the upcoming draft season. Below is the scoring system used to compile this list.
Passing Yards, 25 yards = 1 point
Passing TD = 4 points
Rushing Yards, 10 yards = 1 point
Rushing TDs = 6 points
Receptions = 0.5 points per reception
Receiving Yards, 10 yards = 1 point
Receiving TDs = 6 points
2016 College Fantasy Football QB Rankings
1. Deshaun Watson, Clemson
Not just the No. 1 quarterback, Watson is the consensus top overall player in all of college fantasy football in 2016. Last season, Watson led the Tigers to an average of 514 yards and nearly 40 points per game. And guess what? Most of that group returns intact for another go at a national title with Watson leading the way. The junior has his full arsenal of receivers returning, including senior Mike Williams, who missed most of last year with a neck injury. If you are lucky enough to snag the No. 1 pick in your fantasy draft this season, Watson is the sure-fire selection.
2. Patrick Mahomes, Texas Tech
Mahomes is solidly in the No. 2 spot despite losing his top receiver from last season in Jakeem Grant. As a sophomore, Mahomes displayed surprising mobility, rushing for 456 yards and 10 touchdowns in addition to the typical gaudy passing numbers we all expect from a Texas Tech quarterback. The surrounding cast is not as experienced as last season, but the offensive system in place should allow for Mahomes to come close to matching his totals from a year ago.
3. Greg Ward Jr., Houston
How will Ward perform without his go-to receiver is the big question in 2016 as Demarcus Ayers departed early for the NFL Draft after accumulating 98 receptions and more than 1,200 yards last season. Not to mention, Houston loses its top three running backs from a year ago, as well as three starters along the offensive line. That said, Ward should top 1,000 yards rushing once again as he is the perfect fit in Tom Herman’s up-tempo offense, and there is enough talent leftover at wide receiver to avoid a significant drop-off.
4. Lamar Jackson, Louisville
No, this is not a typo. And no this is not just based upon Jackson’s Music City Bowl performance against Texas A&M in which he piled up 453 yards of total offense and four touchdowns. While it did take the combined effort of three quarterbacks in each season, Bobby Petrino’s offense has produced 3,000 passing yards since he returned to Louisvile in 2014. Jackson should be under center the entire way in 2016, leading to a projection of 3,000-plus yards passing and more than 1,000 yards rushing.
5. Luke Falk, Washington State
Falk was sensational in his first year as the full-time starter, throwing for 4,561 yards and 38 touchdowns, finishing among the top five in the nation in both categories. And he did this despite missing the season finale against Washington, in addition to leaving multiple contests early due to injury. So just think what kind of stats he can pile up if he holds up all season? Falk does lose his top red-zone threat in Dom Williams, but the Cougars return six receivers that caught 15 passes or more last season, including star wideout Gabe Marks (104-1,192-15 in 2015).
6. J.T. Barrett, Ohio State
With Cardale Jones now out of the picture, this is once again Barrett’s team and Ohio State will be better off for it. In 2014, Barrett was exceptional with 34 passing touchdowns to go along with nearly 1,000 yards and 11 scores on the ground, but he was unable to duplicate those numbers as a sophomore due to the presence of Jones. The projection on Barrett is tempered a bit due to the numerous departures to the NFL on offense, but Urban Meyer teams Co. typically find a way to make it work. Barrett will have a bounce-back year.
7. Quinton Flowers, South Florida
Get used to hearing Flowers’ name if you follow college fantasy football because he is one of the top rising stars in the sport. In his first season as the full-time starter, Flowers impressed many by throwing for 2,290 yards and 22 touchdowns while adding another 991 yards and 12 scores on the ground. More importantly, he avoided mistakes, throwing just eight interceptions. With a talented supporting cast around him, including All-AAC running back Marlon Mack, look for Flowers to take another step in his development in 2016.
8. Chad Kelly, Mississippi
Kelly was everything Ole Miss could have hoped for last season, throwing for 4,000 yards and 31 touchdowns, while adding another 500 yards and 10 scores on the ground. This season, the Rebels return just four other starters on offense and will be without the services of No. 1 wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, who left early for the NFL. A slight drop-off is expected, but there are enough pieces remaining on offense for Kelly to remain in the vicinity of last year’s totals.
9. Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
Uncertainty surrounding Oklahoma’s wide receiving corps limits Mayfield’s ranking for now, as he loses his top playmaker from last season in Sterling Shepard. Adding to that, the expectation is for Mayfield to run less as well with no proven backup behind him. Expect Mayfield to put up big numbers, but topping last season (3,700 yards passing/43 TDs) would be a stretch.
10. Seth Russell, Baylor
Earlier this offseason, Russell was in line to be the No. 1 quarterback taken in upcoming college fantasy drafts. But that was prior to the dismissal of head coach Art Briles, the architect of one of the most potent offenses in all of college football. Interim head coach Jim Grobe has utilized option-based offenses at his previous stops, which lends to the thought we could see the Bears incorporate the running game more this year, resulting in a slight drop in Russell’s stock. That and I don’t suspect Russell will be scrambling as much following last year’s neck injury.
11. Skyler Howard, West Virginia
Which Howard will we get in 2016? The one that threw for more than yards and five touchdowns in the Cactus Bowl win over Arizona State or the Howard that threw for at least one interception in nine consecutive games? This ranking is betting on the former as I think Howard will be at his best during his senior season on an offense that returns four out of its top five receivers and eight starters overall. Howard should come close to 4,000 total yards this season.
12. Matt Davis, SMU
Davis had an up and down first season with the Mustangs, but much of that was due in part to youth as SMU started four freshmen on offense last year. With nine starters returning, and another year in Chad Morris’ system, a big leap in production is expected from Davis. He should outdo last year’s passing totals (2,263-16-7) and possibly top 1,000 yards rushing as well.
13. Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State
Rudolph did not have the breakout season many projected in 2015, but much of that was due to sharing time with backup J.W. Walsh. With Walsh now out of the picture, Rudolph should finally be allowed to thrive in this pass-happy offense. Having the Big 12’s top receiver in James Washington doesn’t hurt either. Expect Rudolph to top 4,000 yards passing and 30 touchdowns.
14. Mitch Trubisky, North Carolina
Trubisky was impressive in his brief appearances last season, completing 85 percent of his passes and throwing for six touchdowns with zero interceptions. While not the runner that previous starter Marquise Williams was, Trubisky is thought of as a better passer and still has enough mobility to run if needed. He will surpass 3,000 passing yards with ease in 2016.
15. Dane Evans, Tulsa
We knew that Evans would improve his yardage and touchdown totals under the tutelage of new head coach Philip Montgomery (Art Briles disciple), but the now senior quarterback made tremendous strides in limiting turnovers, cutting his interceptions down from 17 to just eight last season. Evans will top 4,000 yards passing with ease in 2016 as he gets back his top receiver in Keevan Lucas, who missed most of last year due to injury.
16. DeShone Kizer, Notre Dame
At this point in time, Kizer looks to be the odds-on favorite to win the starting quarterback job for the Irish, though Malik Zaire will challenge him right up until Week 1. Brian Kelly has been known to rotate quarterbacks in the past, but I expect Kizer will receive the majority of the snaps in 2016, as he is the superior passer between the two. If that occurs, Kizer should top 4,000 total yards and 30 touchdowns.
17. Kenny Hill, TCU
Which Hill are we going to get in 2016 – the one that lit up South Carolina in the 2014 season opener for 511 passing yards and three touchdowns or the one that eventually lost his starting job mid-way through the season and wound up transferring? I am leaning towards the former as Hill has a similar skill set to former Horned Frogs starter Trevone Boykin, who threw for nearly 7,500 yards the past two years. Hill is a major wild card, but presents tremendous upside if he succeeds in TCU’s offense.
18. Joshua Dobbs, Tennessee
Dobbs had his best season as a junior, upping his passing touchdowns to 15, rushing for 671 yards and 11 touchdowns, all the while cutting back on his interceptions (five). He will never throw for prolific passing numbers, especially with the two-headed monster behind him in Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, but if Dobbs can take another step throwing the football while also maintaining his numbers on the ground, it will be another good year statistically.
19. Tommy Armstrong, Nebraska
Armstrong struggled at times in his first year learning Mike Reilly’s offense, throwing 16 interceptions, but made that issue a focal point during the offseason. Despite attempting more than 400 passes, Armstrong was still able to display his dual-threat ability, rushing for a career-high 400 yards and seven touchdowns. His senior season should be his best.
20. Mike White, Western Kentucky
White was in the midst of a four-way quarterback competition this past spring, but that number was trimmed when leading contender Nelson Fishback suffered a torn pectoral muscle that will keep him out 4-6 months. White, a former South Florida transfer who sat out last season, is the likely starter with Fishback on the shelf, and has the daunting task of replacing Brandon Doughty, the school’s all-time passing leader. White will likely not match Doughty’s 5,000 passing yards, but eclipsing 4,000 is an attainable goal in the Western Kentucky offense.
21. Nick Mullens, Southern Mississippi
Mullens had a breakout season last year with 4,476 passing yards and 38 touchdowns. However, the senior quarterback heads into this season without his top two receivers (Mike Thomas, Casey Martin), as well as his head coach, as Todd Monken left to become the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ offensive coordinator. It’s hard to imagine Mullens will replicate last year’s successes with so much uncertainty surrounding the offense.
22. Eric Dungey, Syracuse
It’s been a while since we have had a Syracuse player that was worthy of such fantasy relevance, but with new head coach Dino Babers now in charge, the Orange will be a hotbed for potential offensive stars. Dungey is first in line this year after combining for 16 total touchdowns and more than1,600 yards in just eight games last year. If Dungey can avoid injury (something he struggled with last season), he should top 3,000 total yards with ease in 2016.
23. Kenny Potter, San Jose State
After playing sparingly through the first five weeks of last season, Potter took over the starting job in Week 6 and finished the year with 1,984 passing yards and 22 total touchdowns. The former JUCO transfer had a span of three straight weeks of three touchdown passes, and had at least one rushing touchdown in six out of the last eight games. With running back Tyler Ervin now in the NFL, this is Potter’s offense.
24. Trevor Knight, Texas A&M
Knight looks to become the latest graduate transfer quarterback to have success at a different school. The former Oklahoma signal-caller has already been announced as the starter by head coach Kevin Sumlin following spring practices, and will have plenty of toys to work with as the Aggies return their top four receivers. New offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone is known for a more balanced version of the spread offense, but did produce a 3,000-yard passer in each of his four seasons with UCLA. That should continue this year.
25. Zach Terrell, Western Michigan
Terrell enters his senior season without his trusted slot receiver in Daniel Braverman, who departed early for the NFL, but still is accompanied by possibly the top wideout in the country in Corey Davis (1,436 yards in 2015). If another receiver develops opposite Davis, Terrell should be able to match his 3,500 passing yards from a season ago.
26. Anu Solomon, Arizona
Health will be critical here as Solomon missed multiple games last season due to concussion issues. If kept upright, Solomon should be able to match his freshman year stats of 3,500-plus passing yards and another 200-plus on the ground. Finding someone to replace star receiver Cayleb Jones will help.
27. James Knapke, Bowling Green
Knapke received extensive playing time two years ago when former quarterback Matt Johnson suffered a hip injury in the 2014 season opener. Knapke started the remainder of the year and played well at times, throwing for 3,173 yards and 15 touchdowns. Former head coach Dino Babers left for greener pastures, but Mike Jinks is expected to retain the high-tempo offense that should suit Knapke well.
28. Tommy Woodson, Akron
Woodson took over the starting job in Week 3 of last season for an ineffective Kyle Pohl and never looked back, as he combined for 19 total touchdowns and threw for more than 2,200 yards the rest of the way. The junior should have a better assortment of weapons in 2016 with leading receiver Jerome Lane back, as well as Utah State transfer JoJo Natson.
29. Brent Stockstill, Middle Tennessee
This time last year we didn’t even know who would be starting at quarterback for Middle Tennessee. Fast-forward 365 days and the Blue Raiders have Stockstill, the head coach’s son and a sophomore who already holds the school’s single-season records for touchdown passes, passing yards and 300-yard games. Losing 1,000-yard wideout Ed’Marques Batties hurts, but Stockstill should have more than enough help from fellow sophomore Richie James to duplicate last year’s totals.
30. Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State
Fitzgerald does not have the starting job locked down yet, as senior Damian Williams provided stiff competition in the spring, but is the likely favorite to take over for Dak Prescott in 2016. As the primary backup to Prescott last year, Fitzgerald was impressive in his limited appearances, completing 78 percent of his passes and accumulating six total touchdowns. Fitzgerald won’t come close to matching Prescott’s numbers, but his dual-threat abilities and Mississippi State’s quarterback-friendly offense push him higher up the list.
31. Taylor Lamb, Appalachian State
32. Jerod Evans, Virginia Tech
33. Dakota Prukop, Oregon
34. Johnny Stanton, UNLV
35. Cooper Rush, Central Michigan
36. Chase Litton, Marshall
37. Brett Rypien, Boise State
38. Drew Hare, Northern Illinois
39. Davis Webb, California
40. Deondre Francois, Florida State
41. John Franklin III, Auburn
42. Tyler Jones, Texas State
43. Kent Myers, Utah State
44. P.J. Walker, Temple
45. Garrett Smith, ULM
46. C.J. Beathard, Iowa
47. Matt Linehan, Idaho
48. Justin Thomas, Georgia Tech
49. Phillip Nelson, East Carolina
50. Josh Rosen, UCLA
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Make sure to follow him on Twitter @MikeBainbridge2.
Ohio State enters the 2016 season with more questions than the Buckeyes have had before at any time during Urban Meyer's tenure. Nine underclassmen joined last season's outgoing senior class in hopes of making it in the NFL. Some of them — including Ezekiel Elliott and Joey Bosa — were among the most dominant players in college football over the last couple of years.
The end results of the mass exodus/player turnover in Columbus are the appearance of vulnerability and the hope that potential can quickly translate into production. Meyer has recruited as well as anyone in the country since he's been at Ohio State. That — combined with some key returnees — means Ohio State is likely to stay on or close to the top of the college football mountain in 2016. This also means that the Buckeyes will remain a target of opportunity for teams looking to impress the College Football Playoff Selection Committee with a quality win, so they'll have the full attention of every team on their schedule.
Three Reasons Why Ohio State Will Make the College Football Playoff in 2016
1. J.T. Barrett's Leadership and Playmaking Ability
You could make a case for Barrett as the best quarterback in all of college football. His skills are a perfect fit for what Meyer wants to do on offense, and it's safe to say Barrett has mastered the scheme. Between his arm, his quick feet and his unselfishness when it comes to distributing the football, Ohio State shouldn't have much trouble moving the chains and putting up points — regardless of the lack of name-brand talent in the offensive huddle.
2. Greg Schiano Helping the Defense
Schiano's hiring as associate head coach/defensive coordinator went a bit under the radar considering the caliber of coach he's been at the collegiate level. The man who is essentially responsible for putting Rutgers on the map steps in to help co-coordinator Luke Fickell coach an underrated defense with stars at every level. Look for Schiano to solidify a secondary that will be led by Garion Conley and improve a pass rush that will feature Sam Hubbard — a star in the making — and Tyquan Lewis, who was just named to the Nagurski Watch List. Having one of the top linebackers in the country in Raekwon McMillan roaming the field is just icing on the cake.
3. Special Teams Controlling Field Position
Elite special teams play is a silent contributor to Ohio State's success. The Buckeyes were able to force opponents to travel greater distances to score than any team in the country in 2016. The average drive against Ohio State started just short of the 25-yard line (24.8). Cameron Johnston — one of the best punters in the nation — was a big reason for that and he'll be looking to repeat his success in 2016. On the other side of the ball, Curtis Samuel and Dontre Wilson are both dangerous return men who should help the Buckeyes start drives in very good field position, just as they did a season ago when Ohio State began their average drive at the 34.5-yard line, which was third best in the nation.
Three Reasons Why Ohio State Won't Make the College Football Playoff in 2016
1. The Loss of Star Power
We can downplay it all day, but the fact of the matter is that players like Ezekiel Elliott, Joey Bosa and Von Bell are just special. Losing those guys as well as the other seniors and early NFL Draft entrants is going to impact the Buckeyes — especially early in the season. You can talk about recruiting rankings until you are blue in the face, but the reality is that nobody knows how anyone is going to pan out until a player is thrown into the fire. Talented as they have the potential to be, the Buckeyes are as raw as any team in the Big Ten heading into 2016.
2. The Schedule is No Cakewalk
The Buckeyes will still be figuring out who they are as a team when they visit Norman to face Oklahoma on Sept. 17. Later in the season, they travel to Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan State before finishing the season at home against a Michigan team that figures to be a national title contender. Going 3-2 in those five games would be quite an accomplishment for any team in the country. Unfortunately, no two-loss team has qualified for the College Football Playoff since its inception, and it's doubtful that changes anytime soon.
3. Factors Outside of Their Control
There are only four spots in the College Football Playoff. During the two years of its existence so far, one Power Five conference champion has been left out each time. It's only a matter of time until the Big Ten is on the short end of that stick. Strength of schedule, records and timing of losses all play a factor. If Ohio State runs the table, they probably have little to worry about. More realistically, however, is the possibility of being one of five or six one-loss Power Five teams. If that is the case, their College Football Playoff fate is out of their hands. The Buckeyes will need to sit back and hope that both they and their opponents have done enough over the duration of the 2016 season to impress the selection committee.
The Buckeyes are at least as talented as every team on their schedule. The Oklahoma game might very well be the only game all season where Ohio State is not favored. Urban Meyer’s team could lose that game and go unbeaten in the Big Ten, with the toughest conference game (including the Big Ten Championship Game) being the home tilt against Michigan. Given that, going 11-1 in the regular season with a win in the conference championship game should be more than enough to get the Buckeyes back into the College Football Playoff. Even with the loss of talent, the 2016 Buckeyes will still be one of the most gifted teams to a man in the nation.
Athlon's Projected Final Ranking: 3
Athlon's Projected Final Record: (12-1, 9-0 Big Ten)
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 9
5 Dimes Over/Under Odds: 9
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.
The MAC has turned into quite the brand and a lot of it comes from the wild conference games that can be seen on almost any day of the week during the college football season. Last year the conference registered only three bowl wins in seven opportunities. There should be plenty of offense once again in 2016.
Related: MAC Football 2016 Predictions
For the purposes of this exercise, projected win totals are broken down into three categories — definite wins, definite losses and toss-ups. Most of the conference games will in the toss-up category, especially ones on the road. This preview will offer thoughts on each team and if there’s any value either over or under.
Note: Over/under odds courtesy of South Point Casino
(Over 5 wins +105...Under 5 wins -125)
Record Last Year: 8-5, 5-3
Returning Starters: 6 (2 on offense, 4 on defense)
Offense:The Zips don't return much, but they dipped into the transfer market to help fix that. Warren Ball comes over from Ohio State. Quarterback Thomas Woodson will have former Utah State Aggie wide receiver/return specialist JoJo Natson to throw to. The real issue is up front where Akron has to replace all five starters.
Defense: Jamal Marcus and Se'Von Pittman are solid bookend defensive linemen to build around. DeAndre Scott had six interceptions last year. This group had the third-ranked rushing defense last year, allowing just 92.9 yards per game.
Schedule: Akron hosts VMI before playing at Wisconsin and Marshall. The Zips close out non-conference play at home against Appalachian State. They finish out with two of their final three at home, although Toledo and Bowling Green are the opponents.
Selection:I think five is about right although I tend to lean to the under. The offense will need time to gel while the defense will take a step back from it's successful stint last season.
(Over 7 wins -125...Under 7 wins +105)
Record Last Year: 10-4, 7-1
Returning Starters: 10 (4 on offense, 6 on defense)
Offense: This team was fun to watch last year. They were the sixth-ranked scoring offense because of a ton of returnees and talent. This year that's not the case as former head coach Dino Babers is now at Syracuse while expected starting quarterback James Knapke attempted just 20 passes all of last season. The only stud receiver that's back is Ronnie Moore while Fred Coppet will get the carries.
Defense: After allowing nearly 500 yards per game in 2014, this side of the ball improved slightly. Linebackers Austin Valdez and Trenton Greene each are back and they figure to be around the ball after making 271 tackles combined in 2015.
Schedule: The Falcons play at Memphis and Ohio State to go with home matchups against North Dakota and Middle Tennessee. They also have four road games over five weeks from Oct. 8 to Nov. 9.
Selection: Slight lean to the under. Bowling Green gets the better MAC teams on the road and I'm not ready to say this defense will get a stop when it needs to. Even with the coaching change and all of the personnel losses these Falcons should still be fun to watch though.
(Over 5 wins -105...Under 5 wins -115)
Record Last Year: 5-7, 3-5
Returning Starters: 10 (2 on offense, 8 on defense)
Offense: There's a lot to rebuild here with the returnees coming on the offensive line. Tyree Jackson and Grant Rohach will battle for the QB job as Chris Merchant decided to transfer. This side of the ball will struggle with all the youth and inexperience.
Defense: The good thing is that coordinator Brian Borland's bunch will be improved. The front four is back along with Brandon Berry at linebacker. Cornerback Boise Ross was eighth in the country last year in passes defended.
Schedule: Albany opens things up again before contests at Nevada, home against Army and at Boston College. The toughest MAC games are on the road – at Northern Illinois, Ohio, Western Michigan and Bowling Green.
Selection: Five is a good number, but the lean is to the under. Buffalo should get two wins out of conference, but the Bulls could struggle with a lackluster offense in the high-powered MAC.
(Over 4.5 wins -125...Under 4.5 wins +105)
Record Last Year: 3-9, 2-6
Returning Starters: 17 (9 on offense, 8 on defense)
Offense: The pieces are in place here for this team to take a step up from last year's 13.1 points per game. George Bollas and Colin Reardon are back along with Nick Holley and Johnny Woods. The offensive line is pretty much intact.
Defense: This side of the ball was very good, allowing just over 350 yards per game. Nate Holley led the team with 141 tackles from his safety spot. End Terrence Waugh and cornerback Demetrius Monday also are back. There's a lot to like about Kent State's defense.
Schedule: The Golden Flashes play at Penn State and Alabama. They also host North Carolina A&T and Monmouth so it balances out. Kent State's toughest stretch is three of four on the road in October.
Selection: Lean to the over here as this team is going to be better on offense and that'll with pair nicely with a pretty good defense. The Golden Flashes might even steal one at home against Northern Illinois, Western Michigan or Ohio.
(Over 4 wins -125...Under 4 wins +105)
Record Last Year: 3-9, 2-6
Returning Starters: 13 (7 on offense, 6 on defense)
Offense: Good news, bad news here as Miami returns a bunch of players, but it's from a group that scored just 17.9 points per game in 2015. Quarterback Billy Bahl needs to cut down on the turnovers after 13 interceptions last year. He has an experienced WR group as well as a veteran OL.
Defense: The RedHawks’ defense wasn't very good last year. J.T. Jones is back with his 10 sacks as well as Paul Moses at linebacker. The secondary is pretty experienced with mostly juniors and seniors.
Schedule: Miami finishes with three of its final five on the road. The RedHawks play at Iowa and Cincinnati while hosting Eastern Illinois and Western Kentucky.
Selection: Four is a good number although I lean under here. The MAC East is filled with a ton of bad teams so it's hard to sort out which is going to have a good season. Offense figures to be an issue for the RedHawks once again in 2016.
(Over 7.5 wins +120...Under 7.5 wins -140)
Record Last Year: 8-5, 5-3
Returning Starters: 12 (6 on offense, 6 on defense)
Offense: There’s some uncertainty at quarterback with J.D. Sprague coming off of offseason shoulder surgery. The team's top three receivers are back along with A.J. Ouellette at running back. Sprague has plenty of experience under center, but the shoulder is a concern.
Defense: I'm a fan of linebacker Quentin Poling, who could wind up the MAC’s defensive player of the year. Thankfully there's talent in the front seven because the secondary could be the weak point.
Schedule: Road games at Kansas and Tennessee are sandwiched by home dates with Texas State and Gardner-Webb. Ohio plays three of its final five on the road.
Selection: The money move is right as the under is the play here. Head coach Frank Solich has done great things for Ohio, but he's got holes in certain places that might be tough to overcome.
(Over 4.5 wins -110...Under 4.5 wins -110)
Record Last Year: 3-9, 2-6
Returning Starters: 14 (5 on offense, 9 on defense)
Offense: Quarterback Riley Neal is back under center and he figures to be busy as the team installs more offensive principles like the Saints use in the NFL with former New Orleans assistant and Ball State quarterback Mike Neu returning to take over at his alma mater. Wide receivers KeVonn Mabon and Corey Lacanaria will be asked to replace the production of the departed Jordan Williams. The offensive line could take time to come together with only one returning starter.
Defense: New coordinator Tim Daoust gets the task to try and improve one of the worst defenses in the FBS last year. Linebacker Sean Wiggins and end Joshua Posley were All-MAC players last season. The secondary returns largely intact so things should start to look up in Muncie.
Schedule: The Cardinals play three of their first four on the road, but they get three straight MAC games at home later on. The non-MAC opponents are at Georgia State, at Indiana followed by Eastern Kentucky at home then at Florida Atlantic.
Selection: I know it seems like a pattern here, but the under is the way to go. The Cardinals’ defense will hold this team back, plus the fact that they play in the stronger division.
(Over 7 wins -135...Under 7 wins +115)
Record Last Year: 7-6, 6-2
Returning Starters: 14 (7 on offense, 7 on defense)
Offense: Quarterback Cooper Rush is back for his senior season along with running back Devon Spalding and wide receivers Jesse Kroll and Mark Chapman. The offensive line will be the key especially if the Chippewas can figure out the left side.
Defense: There's a lot to like here even though the front line is relatively new. Linebacker Malik Fountain and safety Tony Anneese are two veteran presences. Special teams also should be solid.
Schedule: Central Michigan hosts Presbyterian and UNLV as well as playing at Oklahoma State and Virginia for its non-conference slate. In MACtion, the Chippewas will travel to Northern Illinois and Toledo in back-to-back weeks in the middle of October.
Selection: I like the over. Rush is one of the best QBs in the conference and the right players are back on defense to make bowl eligibility an almost certainty.
(Over 3.5 wins EVEN...Under 3.5 wins -120)
Record Last Year: 1-11, 0-8
Returning Starters: 15 (7 on offense, 8 on defense)
Offense: Brogan Roback was the best QB the Eagles had last year and he's back. The offensive line should be strong with everyone back, but the WR group is relatively new. Eastern Michigan needs running back Shaq Vann to be solid in the backfield.
Defense: This side of the ball allowed more than 300 yards rushing per game in 2015. Sure the Eagles have plenty of returnees, but will any of them get better? Coordinator Neal Neathery comes over from UTSA and plans to try a 4-2-5 alignment.
Schedule: The Eagles host Mississippi Valley State before road tilts against Missouri and Charlotte. Eastern Michigan then gets Wyoming at home before three straight against the better MAC teams.
Selection: There are enough winnable games to go over this total, but I just don't know if this defense can make stops when it matters. Head coach Chris Creighton continues to have his work cut out for him at arguably the toughest job in FBS.
(Over 8.5 wins -105...Under 8.5 wins -115)
Record Last Year: 8-6, 6-2
Returning Starters: 12 (6 on offense, 6 on defense)
Offense: Quarterback Drew Hare, RB Joel Bouagnon and WR Kenny Golladay are the senior leaders here. The Huskies scored more than 30 points per game last season and could approach that again in 2016.
Defense: The defense was mediocre last year although the Huskies did hold Ohio State to 20 points in September. The front seven has some experience back and with some health, this unit should be fine.
Schedule: Northern Illinois gets its away games in groups with a pair of back-to-backs and a finishing stretch of three outside of DeKalb. The good thing for the Huskies is three straight home games over a span that stretches from Oct. 15 to Nov. 1.
Selection: Only a lean to the over. There are some toss-up games that could go either way. There's a winning pedigree here which makes me think they can pull out close games.
(Over 7 wins -125...Under 7 wins +105)
Record Last Year: 10-2, 6-2
Returning Starters: 11 (7 on offense, 4 on defense)
Offense: New head coach Jason Candle takes over for Matt Campbell (Iowa State) in Toledo and he's got running back Kareem Hunt to rely on. Hunt had 12 rushing touchdowns last year. Logan Woodside is back under center with Corey Jones and Cody Thompson out wide.
Defense: Getting pressure will be an issue for Toledo with just defensive tackle Treyvon Hester returning up front. The Rockets were porous against the pass and could repeat that in 2016 with safety DeJuan Rogers being the only returnee in the secondary.
Schedule: The Rockets play three of their first five on the road before three straight at home. In non-conference action, they get Maine and Fresno State in the Glass Bowl while travelling to Arkansas State and BYU. Overall, they play just five true road games.
Selection: I like the over. The offense will be near the top of the conference in a bunch of categories. If the defense can play just a bit better Toledo could end up taking the MAC West.
(Over 8.5 wins -130...Under 8.5 wins +110)
Record Last Year: 8-5, 6-2
Returning Starters: 13 (8 on offense, 5 on defense)
Offense: The run game figures to be the strength with both Jamauri Bogan and Jarvion Franklin back. It takes the pressure off quarterback Zach Terrell, who has his security blanket Corey Davis back. This offense will be fun to watch.
Defense: The Broncos’ defense may struggle at times. Safety Asantay Brown and linebacker Robert Spillane are the leaders. The secondary could feature a couple of freshmen.
Schedule: Western Michigan alternates road and home games until Nov. 8. The Broncos get Northern Illinois and Toledo at home, which could be big in deciding the eventual division champion in the West.
Selection: I like the over as I think Western Michigan will win this division. The offense will be tough to slow down in a conference that has a lot of shoddy defenses. It would be nice if head coach P.J. Fleck finally beat Northern Illinois though.
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Josephs prefers non-Power 5 college football and may be the only one wagering on the Sun Belt. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.
(Joel Bouagnon photo courtesy of Scott Walstrom-NIU Photography)