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All college football teams have one player who, if he steps up and plays to or above his potential, could be the catalyst for a magical season. The teams in the Group of Five conferences (American Athletic, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt) are no different, as many of them have key players who could be the difference between another season of flying under the radar nationally and possibly crashing the party that is the New Year's Six bowls.
Here now are the Wild Card players from the Group of Five:
Billy Atterbury, OT, South Florida
The Bulls are favored by many to win the AAC East Division. For that to happen, Atterbury — a freshmen — will need to own the right side of the offensive line like a seasoned upperclassmen. With a quarterback as mobile as USF's Quinton Flowers, there is no such thing as a blind side of the line.
Duke Catalon, RB, Houston
We all know how talented Cougars QB Greg Ward Jr. is. Judging by some of the things head coach Tom Herman has said about Catalon recently, Houston could end up having the most dangerous backfield in the nation. There is already NFL talent all over the field. If Catalon plays up to his potential, there may not be a Group of Five team that can hang with the Cougars.
Tago Smith, QB, Navy
Navy is going to do what Navy does, year in, year out. We all know that. This season, however, is different. Smith steps in under center to replace one of the best players in the country from a season ago, Keenan Reynolds. Additionally, Smith also will be taking over an offensive unit with limited experience. His ability to hit the ground running early on will be key to Navy competing for the conference title.
Ryan Higgins, QB, Louisiana Tech
The Bulldogs have a talented receiver corps and figure to be in the mix for the C-USA West Division title in 2016. Higgins, now a senior, will step in as the full-time starter at quarterback for the first time since his freshman season. His maturity and ability to deliver the ball to his talented playmakers could have his team competing for a conference title.
Carlos Johnson, OT, MTSU
The sophomore left tackle will be the newbie on the Blue Raider offensive line. Luckily for him, his quarterback, Brent Stockstill, is a lefty, so Johnson won't be tabbed with blind side responsibilities. That said, the underclassmen's inexperience will be researched and tested as a vulnerability by opposing defenses all season. He'll need to be on top of his game for the MTSU offense to be the powerhouse it was a season ago.
Ty Pollard, OT, Southern Miss
Golden Eagle quarterback Nick Mullens IS right-handed, which means he will rely on Pollard — a freshman — to protect his blind side. Southern Miss is the favorite to win the conference this fall. As the most talented team in Conference USA, those predictions are legit, but Pollard needs to play beyond his years for this team to reach its full potential.
Ronnie Moore, WR, Bowling Green
The Falcons had one of the most dangerous offenses in the country ago, and that scheme is not likely to change with a new head coach. Moore had a solid season in 2015, but will need to step up as the primary threat and play at an elite level for Bowling Green to repeat the success it had last year.
Sebastian Smith, WR, Ohio
Frank Solich's Bobcats are going to be a real threat to earn the unofficial title of "Best Group of Five Team." For that to happen, Smith will need to play up to the NFL-caliber potential some think he has and make the Ohio passing game close to as dangerous a threat as the ground game is expected to be.
Justin Tranquill, S, Western Michigan
The Broncos have the tools in place on offense to make a serious conference title run. Defensively, they'll need to withstand multiple barrages weekly from some high-powered offenses in order to win would-be high-scoring affairs. Tranquill be the the last obstacle standing between opposing skill players and the end zone. The freshman will need to play focused, mistake-free football at the position.
Dylan Sumner-Gardner, S, Boise State
I had DSG on this list last season and he didn't disappoint. The difference in 2016 will be the overall talent level on defense. He'll need to be a leader — both vocally and with his play on the field — in order to elevate the Boise State defense to a level where the unit can be considered an complement to what looks to be an elite offense.
Christian Chapman, QB, San Diego State
Chapman steps in under center as the full-time starter in 2016. The Aztecs are one of the more talented squads in the Mountain West, and Chapman will have plenty of options in terms of who to deliver the ball to. Eventually, teams are going to game plan around stopping running back Donnel Pumphrey. When that happens — especially in big games — Chapman will likely need to make a game-changing play with his arm.
Jalen Robinette, WR, Air Force
Air Force could end up being one of the biggest stories in college football in 2016. A lot of that has to do with its defense, which is expected to be among the nation's best by some. Robinette is a Power Five-caliber talent at the receiver position. He'll be catching passes from a quarterback who can make every throw — a rarity when it comes to Air Force football. If Robinette can deliver on his talent, Air Force could claim the Commander-in-Chief's trophy, the Mountain West title and possibly more.
Justice Hansen, QB, Arkansas State
The sophomore JUCO transfer will obviously play a key role in the new offensive scheme being installed in Jonesboro. He'll have the luxury of playing behind a line that returns five starters. Beyond that, however, the success the Red Wolves have on offense will rest heavily on Hansen's skill set and performance.
Jeremiah Theus, G, Georgia Southern
Few programs run the football as effectively as Georgia Southern. The blocking scheme that the Eagles implement is a big reason for their success, helping their top back average nearly eight yards per carry a season ago. Theus will likely be one of the few freshmen in the country to start at the guard position. The nature of Georgia Southern's attack will put even more attention on Theus' performance every week. If he can excel, Georgia Southern should roll.
Jordan Davis, QB, UL Lafayette
Davis has sort of fallen into the starting role due to a couple of situations beyond his control. That said, he's a big, strong athlete who very well might end up being the catalyst that takes this talented team to the next level. There are few athletes like him at the position — especially in the Sun Belt. If he can just be above average, the Ragin' Cajuns will be a tough out.
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.
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 15 names, we tried to stick to players that had yet to earn all-conference honors in their career. However, a few exceptions were made.
The balance of power in the ACC clearly rests with the Atlantic Division in 2016, as Florida State and Clemson are expected to challenge for a spot in the College Football Playoff, while Louisville ranks as a top 15-20 team in most preseason projections. However, the cupboard isn't bare on the Coastal side. North Carolina's cornerback duo of Des Lawrence and M.J. Stewart is quietly among the best in the nation, while linebackers P.J. Davis (Georgia Tech) and Matt Galambos (Pitt) are two of the league's most underrated players.
The ACC's 15 Most Underrated Players for 2016
Josh Banks, DT, Wake Forest
Banks has quietly anchored the interior of Wake Forest’s defensive line the last two seasons. The North Carolina native started all 12 games for the Demon Deacons in 2014 and finished the year with 36 tackles, four sacks and one forced fumble. Prior to a suspension that ended Banks’ 2015 campaign after the ninth game, he recorded 24 stops (two for a loss) and one sack. The 6-foot-4, 275-pound tackle won’t accumulate big stats, but his impact his felt beyond the box score for coach Dave Clawson’s defense.
Related: ACC Predictions for 2016
Casey Blaser, OL, Duke
The interior of the Blue Devils’ offensive line must be revamped with the departure of guard Lucas Patrick and center Matt Skura, but the return of tackles Gabe Brandner and Blaser provide a solid foundation for 2016. Blaser emerged as a key cog for Duke’s offensive line in 2014 and started all 13 games for coach David Cutcliffe. In 2015, Blaser once again started all 13 games and earned honorable mention All-ACC honors. Expect Blaser to deliver a standout senior season as the anchor for Duke’s front five.
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.
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.
Matt Galambos, LB, Pitt
With eight starters back, Pitt’s defense is expected to take a step forward in the second year under coach Pat Narduzzi. This unit is anchored by All-America candidates in end Ejuan Price and safety Jordan Whitehead, but Galambos is quietly making a push to be considered among the ACC’s best at linebacker. The Pennsylvania native has played in 39 career games and accumulated 198 overall stops in that span. Galambos also thrived under Narduzzi last fall, as he finished 2015 with 88 tackles (10 for a loss) and five sacks.
B.J. Hill, DT, NC State
Mike Rose (10.5 sacks in 2015) must be replaced, but with Bradley Chubb and Hill leading the way up front, NC State’s defensive line should still rank among the best in the ACC. Hill was instrumental on the interior and helped NC State finish fifth in the ACC against the run last fall. He also recorded 51 tackles (11 for a loss) and forced three fumbles. After two steady seasons with the Wolfpack, the junior is due for a breakout campaign this fall.
Steve Ishmael, WR, Syracuse
Inconsistency and injuries at quarterback have hindered Syracuse’s passing attack over the last few seasons. As a result, Ishmael’s numbers haven’t quite matched his potential. In 12 appearances last year, Ishmael grabbed 39 passes for 570 yards and seven touchdowns and averaged a healthy 14.6 yards per catch. Under new coach Dino Babers and rising star Eric Dungey at quarterback, Ishmael should have a career season in 2016.
Danny Isidora, OL, Miami
Even with four starters returning, Miami’s offensive line enters 2016 as one of the team’s biggest concerns. This unit struggled to open holes in the ground game (3.7 ypc) and gave up 19 sacks over 13 games. One player new line coach Stacy Searels won’t have to worry about in terms of performance is Isidora. The Florida native enters 2016 with 26 consecutive starts and is expected to anchor the line after earning honorable mention All-ACC honors last fall.
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.
Jackson Matteo, C, Virginia
Virginia returns only 10 starters, so a lot of new faces will be stepping into key roles for first-year coach Bronco Mendenhall. Matteo should be one of the leaders for the Cavaliers’ offense this fall, as the senior anchors the line after starting all 12 games in 2015. Matteo was named to the Rimington Trophy award watch list for 2016 and earned a spot on Athlon Sports’ projected All-ACC (fourth) team.
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
Hunter Renfrow, WR, Clemson
Loaded. That’s the one word that best describes the 2016 receiving corps at Clemson. Mike Williams returns after a season-ending neck injury, Artavis Scott is an All-America candidate after grabbing 93 receptions in 2015, and there’s additional support provided by tight end Jordan Leggett and sophomore receivers Deon Cain, Trevion Thompson and Ray-Ray McCloud. While Scott, Williams and Leggett are likely to garner most of the attention from opposing defenses, Renfrow is another weapon for quarterback Deshaun Watson. As a freshman last fall, Renfrow grabbed 33 receptions for 492 yards and five scores, including seven catches for 88 yards and two touchdowns against Alabama. After a standout performance in the College Football Playoff last year, Renfrow should see a few more passes in his direction in 2016.
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.
Personalities and college football experts on SiriusXM College Sports Nation ranked the nation’s top 16 quarterbacks, running backs, coaching staffs, defenses, head coaches, mascots, stadiums, uniforms and fan bases and you can hear in-depth analysis on College Sports Nation, Ch. 84.
Among those taking part are former Alabama national championship quarterback Greg McElroy, former Miami and North Carolina head coach Butch Davis, College Football Hall of Famer Lou Holtz, hosts Chris Childers, Chris Carlin, Mark Packer, myself as well as producers Mike Garvin, Dan Bezilla and Regina Ham, in a collection of expert polls titled #SXMTop16.
Today, we take a look at the running backs. Chime in with your rankings!
1. Leonard Fournette, LSU
He’s simply the best. Size, speed, power, vision, balance, production. Fournette can do it all and has done it all. Should he lead LSU to a division title there is no doubt he’ll be in New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony. There is no excuse for him not to get over 300 touches on offense this fall.
2. Christian McCaffrey, Stanford
The record-setting all-purpose dynamo does everything for Stanford. Not reflected in the stats below is 1,200 return yards and two more touchdowns. In all, he finished with an NCAA record 3,864 all-purpose yards on 434 total touches. With Kevin Hogan gone and a rebuilt offensive line, McCaffrey will have to carry his team to another Pac-12 title.
3. Dalvin Cook, Florida State
There may not be a more explosive player in the country than Cook. He averaged a ridiculous 7.4 yards per carry, willing Florida State to victory numerous times while overcoming nagging injuries all season long. Fans can bet that if Cook can handle the workload, a 300-touch season is in the works in 2016.
4. Samaje Perine, Oklahoma
It took first-year coordinator Lincoln Riley a few games to figure it out, but once he started feeding his running game, Perine delivered in a big way. The Sooners bowling ball rolled up 201 yards against Texas Tech, 166 against Baylor, 188 against TCU and 131 against Oklahoma State — all in the second half of the season. In two seasons, Perine has 3,062 yards, 37 touchdowns and the NCAA’s single-game rushing record (427).
5. Royce Freeman, Oregon
Freeman has quietly put together two monster seasons in Eugene. The bruising back brings power and speed to an offense designed around an explosive running game. Freeman has posted back-to-back 19 total TD seasons and has over 3,200 yards rushing entering his junior season.
What will College Football look like in 2026?
6. Nick Chubb, Georgia
College football was robbed of one its stars last fall when Chubb was lost for the season with a torn ACL after six games. He was averaging over 8.0 yards per carry and had scored eight times. Should he return to form, fans in Athens should be treated to what would amount to his first full year as the true No. 1. His 1,547-yard freshman season came as a pseudo-backup to Todd Gurley.
7. Jalen Hurd, Tennessee
Chubb, Fournette and Derrick Henry got all of the headlines as far as SEC backs go, but Hurd is just as good. The hulking tailback is less than 900 yards away from becoming Tennessee’s all-time leading rusher. The 6-foot-4, 240-pounder leads what should one of the best running games in the entire nation.
8. Saquon Barkley, Penn State
In just his third game as a college player, Barkley carried 21 times for 195 yards and two scores in a Big Ten win over Rutgers. Despite missing two games and playing behind a porous offensive line, Barkley still finished over 1,000 yards and five 100-yard games. He was one of the best freshmen in the nation last fall and will be one of the best sophomores in ‘16.
9. Wayne Gallman, Clemson
After two years on the field, Gallman is 12th in school history in rushing and has an outside shot at putting his name at the top of the list with a big season (1,683 yards). He would pass the likes of C.J. Spiller, Andre Ellington, James Davis, Travis Zachery and Raymond Priester. Gallman is the perfect compliment to superstar quarterback Deshaun Watson.
10. Elijah Hood, North Carolina
The best player the nation hasn’t heard of plays tailback at North Carolina. Hood is the complete package at running back, rushing for 1,463 yards on 6.7 yards per carry in Larry Fedora’s division-winning offense. Look for the Heels to lean on Hood while breaking in a new quarterback this fall.
11. James Conner, Pitt
Conner’s story is appropriately well told. The young man is returning from his battle with cancer after an earth-shattering 2014 campaign. Conner’s numbers earned him ACC Player of the Year. Pat Narduzzi (and the rest of the country) is looking forward to seeing the burly runner back on the field. (stats from 2014).
12. Shock Linwood, Baylor
The Bears offense spreads the ball around so much and takes so many big early leads that Linwood’s number are probably well below his talent and production. He only carried 196 times but was 20th nationally at 110.8 yards per game and averaged 6.8 yards per carry. Jim Grobe will feed him the rock.
13. Donnel Pumphrey, San Diego State
The smallish running back (5-9, 180) has shown that he could handle the work load by finishing 10th in the nation with 22.1 carries per game. His 1,653 yards were seventh nationally and actually worse than his impressive 1,873-yard sophomore campaign. With virtually everyone back in San Diego, look for Pumphrey to have a monster final season.
14. Myles Gaskin, Washington
The other half of the Huskies dynamic freshman backfield (Jake Browning) was Gaskin. The freshman got off to a slow start but finished with at least 100 yards in his last four games and seven of his last nine. He also scored eight times in the final five games.
15. LJ Scott, Michigan State
Scott’s numbers weren’t huge relative to others on this list but he had the most dramatic and important one-yard run of anyone in the nation. His Big Ten championship-winning, Playoff berth-clinching touchdown run capped a 22-play epic Spartans march against Iowa. Look for the 240-pounder to get the bulk of the carries this fall.
16. Corey Clement, Wisconsin
A sports hernia limited Clement to just four games and 48 carries last year. But his offensive line wasn’t opening up traditional Wisconsin-like running avenues anyway. With an improved O-Line and healthy Clement, the Badgers could find themselves back in the Big Ten West hunt.
Special thanks to SiriusXM College Sports Nation, Ch. 84. You can listen the best in college sports talk radio seven days a week, 24 hours a day only on College Sports Nation. Like them on Facebook and follow them on twitter.
The wait continues for Jets fans, who saw their team miss the playoffs last season by losing the regular-season finale in Buffalo. It was a torturous loss for the Jets, falling to their former coach, Rex Ryan. And in some ways, it spoiled many of the good feelings that had built up throughout a 10–6 season in 2015.
The Jets still have not made the playoffs since 2010, when they reached their second of two straight AFC title games under Ryan. But 2015 gave them reasons to hope, as general manager Mike Maccagnan and head coach Todd Bowles — both rookies in those jobs — made promising debuts.
Now, it’s playoffs or bust for these Jets in 2016, as they face a more challenging schedule. Conquering the Patriots in the AFC East won’t be easy, so the Jets could again find themselves clawing for a Wild Card berth in Week 17. But after winning eight, six, eight and four games, respectively, from 2011-14, they at least now have something to build on.
The Jets have an uncertain quarterback situation, with Ryan Fitzpatrick remaining unsigned. Ideally, the Jets would have Fitzpatrick return as their starter in 2016, even though he’s too old, at 33, to be their quarterback of the future. Geno Smith gives them a game-tested backup. It would probably be bad news if the Jets were pressed into playing rookie Christian Hackenberg in 2016. They need time to develop him.
|Head Coach||Todd Bowles|
|Record With Team||10-6|
|Asst. Head Coach/Inside Linebackers||Mike Caldwell|
|Offensive Coordinator||Chan Gailey|
|Defensive Coordinator||Kacy Rodgers|
|Special Teams Coordinator||Brant Boyer|
|Running Backs||Marcel Shipp|
|Wide Receivers||Karl Dorrell|
|Tight Ends||Jimmie Johnson|
|Offensive Line||Steve Marshall|
|Defensive Line||Pepper Johnson|
|Outside Linebackers||Mark Collins|
|Defensive Backs||Joe Danna|
Wide receiver Brandon Marshall remains a dominant factor in the red zone, and Eric Decker can exploit mismatches with slower players while thriving in the slot, as he did last season. Can the Jets find a consistent No. 3 receiver? Quincy Enunwa gives them a big body in that role, but he’s unproven.
With running backs Matt Forté (a prominent free-agent signing) and Bilal Powell, the Jets have two guys in their backfield who are skilled pass catchers. That could be a big asset for offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, who leaned heavily on Powell with screen passes late last season.
The Jets’ offensive line is aging. Center Nick Mangold, 32, is still effective. But for how much longer? Right tackle Breno Giacomini, 30, stunk last season. Left tackle Ryan Clady, 29, arrived via trade after D’Brickashaw Ferguson retired. Clady has struggled with injuries in recent seasons. Can he stay healthy?
The Jets got basically nothing from their tight ends in 2015, but now third-year pro Jace Amaro is returning after missing all of last season with a shoulder injury. He is a potential weapon in the passing game if he can clean up the drop issues that plagued him at times during his rookie season.
The Jets saw a huge upgrade in their offensive performance in 2015, especially in the red zone. They finished third in the NFL in red zone percentage last year, compared to last in 2014. Whether that continues depends largely on the quarterback situation. Even if Fitzpatrick is back, can he repeat his career-year success from 2015?
The Jets have one of the NFL’s best defensive lines, with Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Leonard Williams. Don’t forget, though, that nose tackle Damon Harrison was a huge run-stopping factor for this team last season, and now he’s with the Giants. Steve McLendon, his replacement, appears to be on the next tier down from Harrison among nose tackles.
Inside linebacker Demario Davis was terrible in coverage last season, so the Jets elevated his backup, Erin Henderson, to his starting spot, while letting Davis sign with the Browns. And they also drafted linebacker Darron Lee in Round 1. Bowles hopes Lee’s speed and athleticism will help the Jets in passing situations.
Edge rusher is a huge uncertainty for this team. The Jets will need Lorenzo Mauldin, a second-year pro, to develop into more than just a pass-rushing specialist. Don’t be surprised if third-round pick Jordan Jenkins factors in immediately at outside linebacker.
Cornerback Darrelle Revis showed signs of declining last season, particularly in the Houston loss when DeAndre Hopkins toasted him. The Jets opted to cut Antonio Cromartie and will move slot cornerback Buster Skrine outside to replace him. This is not a sure-thing move, as Skrine has typically played better in the slot. Look for Marcus Williams to take on a bigger role, probably as Skrine’s replacement in the slot.
While Revis is not the player he once was, he still had five interceptions last season. He’ll be 31 when this season starts. It is an important season for him to show that he still has command of his position — at least to some degree.
This season could be the year when strong safety Calvin Pryor, a third-year pro, makes a huge jump forward. He looked so much more disruptive while playing near the line of scrimmage (his natural spot) last season after floundering at times in coverage as a rookie, because the Jets needed him there due to cornerback deficiencies.
The Jets were among the NFL’s best defenses in 2015 (fifth in the NFL in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA ratings). There’s no reason to believe that won’t continue, as Bowles remains one of the NFL’s top defensive minds.
Nick Folk returns for his seventh season as the Jets’ kicker. He has made 81.3 percent of his field goals while with the franchise. The Jets are starting over at punter after letting the ineffective Ryan Quigley leave for the Eagles in free agency. They’re going to have a competition between two Australian-born rookies: Lachlan Edwards (a seventh-round draft pick) and Tom Hackett (an undrafted free-agent signing).
The return spots are up for grabs. Jeremy Ross and Dri Archer, both of whom signed with the Jets this offseason, figure to be the primary competitors for those jobs.
Overall, the Jets need to upgrade their special teams, which have struggled in recent years. Bowles fired special teams coordinator Bobby April following just one season on the job.
It won’t be easy. Five of the Jets’ first six opponents in 2016 made the playoffs last season —Bengals, Chiefs, Seahawks, Steelers and Cardinals. From Week 2 through Week 9, the Jets face a tough eight-game stretch that includes just two home games. But if they’re able to weather all of that and be in position to make the playoffs again, they’ll get a chance to exorcise the demons of last season, because they play the Bills again in the regular-season finale — this time at home.
Prediction: 3rd in AFC East
The drama of last season ended in bitter disappointment for the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game in Denver, a loss that hit the team as hard as any in recent years. Now, as the Patriots prepare to take the next step and chase the organization’s fifth Super Bowl title, controversy again surrounds the team with Tom Brady staring down a four-game suspension from the league due to his role in Deflategate.
There is always the chance that Brady has his suspension overturned, but the Pats are looking at beginning their season against the Arizona Cardinals on the road with third-year backup Jimmy Garoppolo as the starting quarterback.
Bill Belichick and Co. made some interesting offseason moves — both in bringing players in and letting others go — but the core of the team remains intact. Despite its flaws and Brady’s early absence, this should again be a Super Bowl contender.
Garoppolo’s been primed for this opportunity. Before the Deflategate penalties were overturned last year, Garoppolo was preparing to begin the 2015 season as the starter. The former second-round pick from Eastern Illinois has made solid strides each year he’s been in the league and is ready for his turn.
|Head Coach||Bill Belichick|
|Record With Team||187-69|
|Offensive Coordinator/QBs||Josh McDaniels|
|Defensive Coordinator||Matt Patricia|
|Running Backs||Ivan Fears|
|Wide Receivers||Chad O'Shea|
|Tight Ends||Brian Daboll|
|Offensive Line||Dante Scarnecchia|
|Defensive Line||Brendan Daly|
|Special Teams||Joe Judge|
|Linebackers||Bobby April III, Jeff Weeks|
|Defensive Backs||Tim McDonald, Ed Reed|
When Brady does come back, don’t expect him to need too much time to return to form. The offense around him should be even more talented than it was last season, and Brady hasn’t shown any signs of aging.
Overall, look for the offense to revolve heavily around the play of its tight ends. With a healthy Rob Gronkowski and the addition of Martellus Bennett, the Pats will feature plenty of two-tight end sets to challenge teams over the middle and in the red zone.
As usual, Julian Edelman will be the primary weapon at wide receiver. He is especially adept at going over the middle on crossing routes, but it will be important for the Pats to make sure the big hits to Edelman’s head remain limited. When he is out of the lineup, the offense takes a clear step back. He missed seven games last season with a foot injury. He underwent surgery in November, but was able to return for the playoffs. He had a second procedure done in the offseason but is expected to be ready for the start of training camp.
The rest of the wide receiver corps should be solid, as Danny Amendola has proven his worth since the end of the 2014 season. He caught 65 passes a year ago, the most since he had 85 in his second season in the league with the Rams. The Pats hope new addition Chris Hogan can complement the rest of the group as an outside weapon. Still, the roster lacks a true deep threat.
Keep a close eye on how the running game develops. When Dion Lewis, the team’s latest revelation at tailback, went down with a knee injury last season the running game suffered dramatically. Lewis’ ability to catch the ball out of the backfield added another dimension to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ arsenal. A healthy Lewis is critical to the Pats gaining the type of balance they enjoyed early last season.
However, the main point of concern remains the offensive line, as was so clearly shown in the loss to the Broncos in January. If left tackle Nate Solder can remain healthy, the team will be in better shape. The interior line is still young, even with the addition of guard Jonathan Cooper in a trade with Arizona.
This side of the ball made important strides in 2015, and the trend will need to continue for the Pats to take the next step.
One of the main strengths of the team has become its secondary. The emergence of Malcolm Butler as a true No. 1 corner has given defensive coordinator Matt Patricia the ability to play aggressive press man coverage, at which Butler thrives. With Logan Ryan also developing as a solid contributor on the other side, the Pats can man up against top receiver duos and bring pressure from the front seven.
Behind those two is a versatile group of safeties. Devin McCourty remains one of the steadiest center fielders in the game, and Patrick Chung continues to be underrated. Chung’s versatility — he can drop down in the box almost like an extra linebacker, fall back into coverage or lock up in man — is critical to the defense’s success.
The Pats will also boast one of the best linebacker tandems in football. Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins both bring different skills to the table, but together they can blitz, stop the run and provide pass coverage in a way that every offense has to account for on each play.
Depth at linebacker has been spotty at times, and with Collins and Hightower both missing time last year, the Pats needed to address that in the offseason. They believe they did so with the acquisition of free agent Shea McClellin, but look for Jonathan Freeny to hold on to his spot as the third linebacker when the team is in a base 4-3 set.
The defensive line is the area in which the Pats saw the most upheaval over the offseason. Defensive end Chandler Jones, the team’s leader in sacks last season, was traded to the Cardinals for Cooper, and gone also are defensive tackles Akiem Hicks and Dominique Easley. Jones is the biggest loss, but former Rams end Chris Long could slide into his spot. Expect Jabaal Sheard to take on the mantle of the team’s top pass rusher.
Stephen Gostkowski’s extra point miss against the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game was a massive disappointment, but overall he remains one of the best kickers in the game. Punter Ryan Allen also does his job well. He consistently gets good hang time on his kicks and places them accurately.
Where the situation gets a little cloudier is on returns. On punts, the Pats have had success with Edelman, but with the drafting of Alabama’s Cyrus Jones in the second round, they may have found a successor. Amendola might be the most logical choice to return either punts or kicks, but again, the addition of Jones could shake up the depth chart there.
Overall, the Patriots possess a Super Bowl roster that only needs to come together to reach its goals. Unless injuries get in the way, the Pats will be the favorites to represent the AFC in Houston.
Prediction: 1st in AFC East
If coach Dabo Swinney’s “All In’’ slogan can help get Clemson to the national title game, maybe it will get the Buffalo Bills to the NFL playoffs.
After a league-high 16 consecutive seasons of failing to accomplish what should happen just by the law of averages, the Bills are willing to try anything. And after an 8–8 finish punctuated by unfulfilled promises and grumbling among the troops, coach Rex Ryan isn’t too proud to steal a good idea when he hears one.
“I think it’s a great slogan,’’ Ryan says. “[Dabo] used it several years ago, but it was something that I think resonates with our football team. It’s easy to talk, ‘Yeah, I’m all in.’ But having it there is a daily reminder of the commitment we have to each other.’’
Sounds good. But the reality is that salary cap jail resulted in Buffalo’s .500 roster being gutted of expensive veterans, little free-agent shopping and the placement of big pressure on an impressive draft class. If quarterback Tyrod Taylor doesn’t elevate his game significantly, another year out of the postseason is guaranteed
Taylor, the ex-Baltimore Raven, provided a lot of highlight-reel plays on the way to accumulating 3,603 total yards and 24 touchdowns in 2015. Now he must provide a lot more consistency and the ability to close out close games. But at least Buffalo goes into the season knowing who is under center. EJ Manuel, a stagnating first-round pick from 2013, was kept as the No. 2 man as the team squeezes every ounce out of his rookie contract.
|Head Coach||Rex Ryan|
|Record With Team||8-8|
|Offensive Coordinator||Greg Roman|
|Defensive Coordinator||Dennis Thurman|
|Special Teams Coordinator||Danny Crossman|
|Asst. Head Coach/RBs||Anthony Lynn|
|Wide Receivers||Sanjay Lal|
|Tight Ends||Tony Sparano|
|Offensive Line||Aaron Kromer|
|Asst. Head Coach/Defense||Rob Ryan|
|Defensive Line||John Blake|
|Linebackers||Bobby April III, Jeff Weeks|
|Defensive Backs||Tim McDonald, Ed Reed|
Taylor will continue to benefit from a “ground-and-pound’’ approach under Ryan and offensive coordinator Greg Roman. Buffalo’s running game jumped from 26th in the NFL to No. 1 in rushing, improving by nearly 60 yards per game. Some of that is deceiving since Taylor accounted for 568 yards with his scrambling ability. But the additions of Eagles All-Pro LeSean McCoy and rookie Karlos Williams, along with veteran fullback Jerome Felton, made Buffalo a team that could legitimately set its mind to running the ball against anybody.
It was paramount that Buffalo retain the left side of its line, and that was achieved with rich new deals for tackle Cordy Glenn and guard Richie Incognito. The entire unit returns intact. Center Eric Wood remains one of the NFL’s most underrated players; 2015 third-round pick John Miller was a first-day starter at right guard; and Seantrel Henderson is back at right tackle. How his newly diagnosed Crohn’s disease affects his play is uncertain, but the team has very strong depth on the line.
The same can’t be said for wide receiver. Although there will be a dozen players at the position when camp opens, it’s really a case of superstar Sammy Watkins (60 catches, 1,047 yards, nine TDs) and everybody else. And in the case of Watkins, he will likely start camp on the sidelines following surgery in April to insert two screws into his left foot to repair a stress fracture. Fourth-year pro Robert Woods doesn’t draw much coverage away from Watkins. Olympic track athlete Marquise Goodwin and rookie Kolby Listenbee offer some field-stretching options. But the team is likely to miss Chris Hogan (Patriots) and Percy Harvin (retired) in a big way.
That’s unless the tight end plays a larger role, which is what former Dolphin Charles Clay began to do last year with 51 catches. Many believe Clay’s potential is just being scratched. And it wouldn’t hurt if McCoy could increase his production in the passing game after catching 32 passes in 2015.
The Bills’ drop from a No. 4 ranking in yards allowed per game (312.2) to No. 19 (356.4) was the major storyline of Ryan’s first season and a source of great embarrassment. Buffalo’s sack total plummeted from an NFL-best 54 to 21, with players such as the departed Mario Williams and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Marcell Dareus clearly incapable of doing some of the things Ryan was asking in his hybrid 2-5, 3-4, 4-3 scheme. Getting players who fit his plan was the main focus of the offseason, and while it was difficult to achieve in free agency, the Bills believe they accomplished that goal in the draft.
First-round pick Shaq Lawson of Clemson, a hybrid end/outside linebacker, and second-rounder Reggie Ragland of Alabama, a linebacker with blitzing skills, have already been named “Day 1” starters by the team’s brass. Third-round pick Adolphus Washington of Ohio State, a defensive tackle, was also projected as part of Buffalo’s remodeled front seven.
However, Lawson’s debut will be delayed after he underwent shoulder surgery in May. Lawson’s shoulder was initially flagged during the Scouting Combine and reports are he re-injured it during offseason workouts. With an expected timetable of five to six months, Lawson could start the season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, which means he could miss as many as the first six games.
Pro Bowl tackles Dareus and Kyle Williams (when healthy) form one of the NFL’s best 1-2 punches, with Corbin Bryant and the rookie Washington behind them.
At end/outside linebacker, Jerry Hughes, Buffalo’s most consistent performer in 2015, is expected to be even better when Lawson is finally able to join him on the other side. Lawson had 12.5 sacks and 25.5 tackles for a loss last fall for Clemson.
Ragland joins young veteran Preston Brown (120 tackles), free agent Zach Brown (Titans) and Manny Lawson in the linebacker corps, which should be much better at making Ryan’s blitz packages work.
In the secondary, cornerback Leodis McKelvin (Eagles) was lost in the salary cap purge. But there is plenty of size, strength and closing speed in the remaining collection of players.
Now in his fifth season, Stephon Gilmore, the 10th overall pick in 2012, has emerged as one of the league’s best man-coverage corners. Opposite him is Ronald Darby, one of the steals of the 2015 draft as a second-rounder out of Florida State. Darby was an instant-impact player with 68 tackles, two interceptions and 21 passes defended. Nickell Robey and Mario Butler, proven playmakers, will see the bulk of the time in nickel and dime.
Strong safety Aaron Williams was lost to a neck injury in Week 2 last season. He underwent surgery and has been cleared to play, but he’s no lock to reclaim his starting job opposite free safety Corey Graham (team-high 127 tackles, two interceptions). Depth is serviceable with Duke Williams and Jonathan Meeks. Free agents Corey White, Robert Blanton and Colt Anderson will compete for spots judging on their special teams contributions.
Veteran placekicker Dan Carpenter is on the hot seat after missing six kicks from the new PAT distance. He was also just 23-of-27 on field goals after converting a franchise record 34 the season before. He was in Ryan’s doghouse much of the year. Punter Colton Schmidt, a waiver find, has found a home in Buffalo, turning in a second solid season with a 46.4-yard average and 22 kicks dropped inside the 20.
With roster departures, receiver Walter Powell moves to the top of the return specialist list. He’ll have plenty of competition as things develop.
After sitting out the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season dating to his days with the Jets, Ryan has toned down his rhetoric. He needs to focus on making Buffalo’s defense one of the top units in the NFL. If he does that, and Taylor takes a step forward at quarterback, the Bills might just win those two to three extra games needed to snap their unfathomable postseason drought.
Prediction: 2nd in AFC East
Regroup and reboot. That’s been the annual ritual at the Davie headquarters for more than two decades, since the Dolphins’ last appearance in an AFC Championship Game. They haven’t even appeared in the postseason since 2008.
The latest change? The replacement of interim coach Dan Campbell — who had taken over for Joe Philbin — with former Bears and Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase, who, at 38, will be the NFL’s youngest coach this season. Executive vice president Mike Tannenbaum, who researched 25 candidates and interviewed seven, said that “what kept resonating is we wanted to get the right leader. Someone that could relate to young and talented players that we believe we have, and somebody that was high energy and competitive.”
Gase believes he’s ready. “I’ve been in this profession since I was 18 years old, so that’s really more than half my life right now,” he says.
The Dolphins have been in a ditch for about as long. It’s his task to dig them out.
In what was supposed to be a breakout season — with better weapons around Ryan Tannehill — the offense regressed in 2015, as the Dolphins dropped from 14th to 26th in yards and 11th to 27th in points. The Dolphins are largely counting on Gase to serve as the source of improvement. He’s known for working well with quarterbacks; Chicago’s Jay Cutler praised Gase all season and then praised the Dolphins for the hire. Gase will call the plays and is expected to put fewer restrictions on Tannehill, who was limited in his ability to audible under Philbin, Campbell and since-fired offensive coordinator Bill Lazor.
|Head Coach||Adam Gase|
|Record With Team||0-0|
|Offensive Coordinator||Clyde Christiansen|
|Defensive Coordinator||Vance Joseph|
|Asst. Head Coach/Special Teams Coord.||Darren Rizzi|
|Running Backs||Danny Barrett|
|Wide Receivers||Shawn Jefferson|
|Tight Ends||Shane Day|
|Offensive Line||Chris Foerster|
|Defensive Line||Terrell Williams|
|Defensive Backs||Lou Anarumo|
At this point, Tannehill must prove he’s still worthy of “franchise” quarterback status — his contract structure makes him a possible release next offseason. He’s durable, starting all 64 games the past four seasons even while getting sacked 184 times, but has only 29 wins to show for it. His statistics were solid and roughly the same last season as in 2014, other than a dip in completion percentage, but he continued to struggle at times with awareness in key situations.
He will again rely on upon tough-to-tackle receiver Jarvis Landry, who has 194 catches in two seasons, but mostly for modest yardage. The field-stretching may need to be done on the other side, as 2015 first-round pick DeVante Parker gets more comfortable. After taking time to overcome a preseason foot injury and learn the offense, Parker was targeted 42 times in the final six games and had 22 catches for a 22.2-yard average. With Rishard Matthews gone as the third receiver, Miami will need more from tight end Jordan Cameron.
Also gone? Running back Lamar Miller. And while the Dolphins never seemed to use him enough — giving him 20 carries only once in the past two seasons — he was capable of breaking the occasional big play. The first shot at the starting running back job now goes to Jay Ajayi, a 2015 fifth-rounder who got 49 carries as a rookie. He’s a hard runner, but Miami will need to spell him, possibly with slippery rookie Kenyan Drake.
They should have more running lanes, provided that Laremy Tunsil can make the transition to guard, where he’s never played. Tunsil was projected as a top-3 overall pick prior to video of illicit drug use surfacing on his social media account on draft night. His elite quickness and explosion should make him a massive upgrade over the Dolphins’ guard starters last season. Veteran Jermon Bushrod may put those starters, Dallas Thomas and Billy Turner, both in backup roles if he can also convert from tackle to guard. Branden Albert remains the left tackle for now, and he should be back to full strength now that he’s further removed from knee surgery, while 2014 first-rounder Ja’Wuan James gets a fresh start after missing the second half of 2015 with a toe injury. Center Mike Pouncey may be the offense’s best player.
Branden Albert solidified the left tackle spot prior to a season-ending knee injury, so his return to full health is critical. With Albert, center Mike Pouncey (newly signed to a lucrative extension) and right tackle Ja’Wuan James (coming off a good rookie season), Miami appears settled at three spots. The guard spots are in flux; the Dolphins may need fourth-round rookie Jamil Douglas to step in immediately.
They’ll be blocking for Lamar Miller, who had some ups and downs after taking over as the primary ball carrier. Miller, however, finished strong with 270 yards in the season’s final two weeks. Now the question is whether he can handle an even greater load; he averaged 5.1 yards per carry but never had more than 19 attempts. There’s questionable depth at the position.
Kevin Coyle, who had worn out his welcome with most players, is gone as defensive coordinator, replaced by former Bengals defensive backs coach Vance Joseph. While Joseph has experience in 3-4 systems, it appears the Dolphins will run mostly 4-3 schemes — for now.
That seems better suited to Miami’s personnel, even as different as it looks from last season. The Dolphins were supposed to be powerful at the point of attack, but that didn’t play out; even with mega-free agent signing Ndamukong Suh largely playing well, Miami was 28th against the run. Earl Mitchell, who had a disappointing season as Suh’s sidekick, remains the starter and must take better advantage of the attention paid to Suh.
The Dolphins had just 31 sacks, and nearly half of those came from Olivier Vernon and Cameron Wake, one of whom (Vernon) fled for big bucks with the Giants, while the other (Wake) is returning at age 34 from an Achilles tear. Miami will be counting on free-agent acquisition and former No. 1 overall pick Mario Williams looking more like the malevolent disrupter he was in 2013 and 2014 (with 27.5 sacks) than the malcontent he was in 2015 (five sacks). The Dolphins also signed veteran Jason Jones in May to a one-year deal to add depth.
Miami is betting big on two other reclamation projects (linebacker Kiko Alonso and cornerback Byron Maxwell), both acquired from the Eagles in a deal that cost the Dolphins five slots in the first round. Alonso is a volume tackler when healthy, but that’s been the problem. Maxwell signed a lucrative contract last offseason with Philadelphia, which saw enough in one season to part ways.
There are questions at every spot in the back seven other than strong safety, where Reshad Jones bounced back from a down 2014 and was a dynamic playmaker, leading the team in tackles while adding five interceptions, two for touchdowns. But Miami doesn’t appear to have many other game-changers in a group that includes linebackers Koa Misi and Jelani Jenkins, or even new free safety Isa Abdul-Quddus. Xavien Howard, a second-round rookie, will get a chance to make an immediate impact.
Two seasons into his NFL career, Caleb Sturgis still hasn’t cemented his status, not after making 77.5 percent of his field-goal attempts, including 20-of-33 from 40 yards or more. If he’s not better, he’ll likely be replaced. Brandon Fields didn’t have his best season, with his lowest percentage (36.2) of punts inside the 20-yard-line since 2009, and he was in danger of being released prior to restructuring his contract. Landry was the primary punt and kickoff returner last season and — a couple of hiccups aside — did decent work. Ideally, though, the Dolphins would like more of a burner at those spots to save Landry for his receiving duties. So that search will continue.
Consider this season a referendum on Tannehill and Tannenbaum; even though Tannenbaum didn’t draft the quarterback, their futures seem tied together. Gase, who signed a five-year contract, will be given some room to grow, and this roster will require it. What will separate him from others? “I think my passion, my attitude, the way that I go about interacting with players and the relationship that I develop with players,” Gase says. But he will probably need better players before the Dolphins return to the playoffs.
Prediction: 4th AFC East
As the 2016 NFL season approaches, it's time to prepare for America's favorite pastime, fantasy football. While it's hard to control how well you do in your draft, there's one thing you can control—your fantasy football team name. Coming up with a funny, silly, crazy, great, clever, cool or even slightly crude fantasy football team name is a must-have to stand out in your league. With that, here are some absolutely awesome choices for 2016:
Golden Tate Warriors
When the Le'Veon Breaks
Le'Veon la Vida Loca
Le’Veon a Prayer
Game of Jones
Julio Think You Are?
Julio Let the Dogs Out
My Ball Zach Ertz
My TE Ertz When Eifert
Winning Is My Forte
Forte Shades of Grey
Forte Year Old Virgin
San Francisco 4th & 9ers
Stairway to Evans
Knockin on Evans Door
2 Gurley's 1 Cup
Runs Like a Gurley
The Gurley Gates
Wilfork on 1st Date
Mr. Rodgers' Neighborhood
Eat, Drink and D. Murray!
The Walking Dez
Dez Does Dallas
Dez-ed & Confused
From Wentz You Came
Wentz, Twice — Three Times a Lady
Dude, Where's Derek Carr?
Forte inch Ditka
Check My Balls
Yo Belichick Yo Self
Jamaal About That Bass
Jamaal Charles in Charge
JJ S.W.A.T.T. Team
1.21 JJ WATTS
You Down With JPP?
Hernandez Hit Men
Wham! Bam! Thank you Cam!
You Kaepernick the Future
Ladies and Edelman
Backfields and McCoys
Mike Vick in a box
Montee Can Buy you Happiness
My Percy’s on Broadway
Cry Me a Rivers
Pitch a Trent
Drake's New Favorite Team
Waka Flacco Flame
U Mad Bro?
Rudolph Redzone Reindeer
Kung Suh Panda
Suh Girls, One Cup
Boy Named Suh
Party Like a Gronk Star
The Big Gronkowski
We Wilfork You
Wilfork Dance Party
No Money Manziel
Bend it Like Beckham Jr.
Jay-Z's My Agent
Off to Tennessee the Whiz
Remember the Titans
Kissing Suzy Kolber
Smokin' Jay Cutler
Teenage Mutant Ninja Bortles
Dirty Sanchez Butt-Fumblers
Sherman's Last Rant
The Boldin the Beautiful
Mr. UGG Boots
The Brady Bunch
Luck Beat A Brady Tonight
Call Me the Brees
80% Mental, 40% Physical
Show Me the Money
Big Ol' Bortles
Not Racist Redskins
Hard Knocks Life
Turn Your Head and Coughlin
It's Always Runny in Philadelphia
Favre Dollar Footlong
Makin' It DWayne
Up All Night to Get Luck-y
Red Hot Julius Peppers
Slow White Bronco
In the last three seasons, there’s been a sense that the SEC’s dominance is showing vulnerability.
Florida State beat Auburn for the final BCS championship in 2014, and Ohio State eliminated Alabama on the way to the first College Football Playoff title in 2015. The Big Ten is having a resurgence as a national player with Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State all in various stages of being reliable top-10 programs or better. The last undefeated teams standing at the end of the last three regular seasons have come from the ACC.
None of that seemed to matter when Alabama beat Michigan State in a semifinal last season and then pulled away from Clemson in the final moments of a national championship game thriller.
After a two-year absence, an SEC team finished the season as national champions.
The trends in the rest of the Power 5 landscape still seem to reflect more depth and a handful of teams better equipped to face the best the SEC has to offer at the end of the season.
The big question is if such strides will matter in the playoff.
Until another conference makes a compelling case to wrestle the top spot from the SEC, this league remains the dominant force in college football. In the CFB Playoff, Alabama crushed Big Ten champion Michigan State and handed Clemson its only loss of the season to claim an eighth national title in 10 years for the SEC. The brag sheet continues: The entire SEC West went to bowls for the second year in a row, the league went 9–2 in the postseason as a whole, and the conference had five teams in the final AP top 25. The East, which has not produced the league champion since 2008, could start to make up ground if Tennessee becomes a title contender, if Florida continues its improvement under Jim McElwain, and if Kirby Smart brings Georgia the edge it needs.
2. Big Ten
The Big Ten produced six teams that won at least 10 games — more than any other conference — but that couldn’t mask that most of the power resides in the East division. The addition of Jim Harbaugh to a division that already included Urban Meyer, Mark Dantonio and James Franklin raised the recruiting profile of the conference and has ensured that the Big Ten won’t fall behind the rest of the Power 5. The West is a different story. With the exception of the Hawkeyes’ performance in the Big Ten title game, Iowa (12–2) and Northwestern (10–3) were not competitive in their biggest games of the year. Wisconsin won 10 games with smoke and mirrors, and Nebraska couldn’t get out of its own way on the way to a 6–7 season.
Favorite: Ohio State
What will College Football look like in 2026?
Two schools in the North (Stanford and Oregon) have produced the conference champion in each of the last seven seasons. This could be the season that trend comes to a halt. Stanford and Oregon should be solid again. But Washington is poised to return to the national stage, and UCLA has the league’s best quarterback in Josh Rosen. Talented USC can’t be counted out, either. With Oregon State’s Seth Collins moving to receiver, the Pac-12 returns only five starting quarterbacks, making it the only Power 5 conference that must replace more than half of its starters at the position.
The ACC has become a two-team league with Clemson and Florida State claiming each of the last five conference championships. In each of the last three seasons, either the Tigers or the Seminoles have gone into bowl season as the nation’s last undefeated team. That said, Dabo Swinney and Jimbo Fisher can’t get too comfortable: A handful of ACC teams have plans in place to catch up. North Carolina emerged from the always-competitive Coastal Division last season and shows no signs of slowing down. Miami and Virginia Tech made coaching hires that should return both to solid footing.
Favorite: Florida State
5. Big 12
Even Oklahoma’s appearance in the College Football Playoff couldn’t end speculation that the Big 12 will someday, somehow expand. As it is, the Big 12 remains — stylistically speaking — the most up-and-down conference in the country. The league produced four of the top seven offenses and six of the top 25. The Sooners, ranked 39th, were the league’s only top-40 defense. Oklahoma will be a playoff contender again. TCU must replace dynamic quarterback Trevone Boykin but still has the look of a potential contender. Meanwhile, Baylor — now under Jim Grobe — may be one of the most volatile teams in the country. The conference will look to Oklahoma State to take a step forward and for Texas, 11–14 under Charlie Strong, to show some signs of life.
The AAC is coming off the best season in its short history with Houston, Temple, Navy and Memphis leading the way on the national stage. Those four teams accounted for wins over Florida State, Ole Miss, Penn State, Louisville and Pittsburgh. The league must replace some outgoing quarterback and coaching talent, but there’s enough remaining to keep the AAC the leader among the Group of 5 conferences. Houston’s coach-QB tandem in Tom Herman and Greg Ward Jr. would be the envy of a majority of Power 5 teams.
The Mountain West started last season with a thud as the league lost 22 consecutive non-conference games through the first three weeks. It’s no surprise that a league that lost TCU, Utah and BYU over the years is still trying to find its way. The MW will need San Diego State to build upon its 11-win season in 2015 and for Boise State (9–4) to continue to be a thorn in the side of the power players. Air Force and Utah State will be tough outs.
Favorite: Boise State
MACtion is alive and well on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights in November, but in the big picture, the MAC may be little more than a pleasant diversion. The best teams in the league last season, Bowling Green and Toledo, lost their coaches to Power 5 schools. Quarterback talent and experience at Central Michigan, Northern Illinois and Western Michigan will set up a heated race in the West.
Favorite: Western Michigan
Two departures, one expected (WKU quarterback Brandon Doughty) and one abrupt (Southern Miss coach Todd Monken) could hold Conference USA back from producing a CFP host bowl contender. Nevertheless, this remains a league with exciting offenses at the top. But half the league could be among the 30 worst teams in college football.
Favorite: Southern Miss
10. Sun Belt
The addition of Appalachian State and Georgia Southern has been a stroke of genius. Both were national champions at the FCS level and have made a seamless transition. Defending Sun Belt champion Arkansas State has perfected the formula of winning at this level.
Favorite: Appalachian State
The last time we visited Daytona, for the season opener we had a photo finish as Denny Hamlin beat Martin Truex Jr. by inches at the line. It was a shocking end to NASCAR’s Super Bowl that had seen Matt Kenseth dominate down the stretch only for an unexpected charge past him entering turn 3.
Who knew that last-lap unpredictability would last over the next six months?
Despite ratings that continue to decline, the state of NASCAR competition has appeared to stabilize a bit this season through a series of late-race drama. Three of 16 events this season have been settled by an official lead change during the final two laps, while a fourth last weekend saw two passes after the white flag, the last of which happened during the final turn on a road course. Ten events have seen a margin of victory of less than one second; two of them, at Phoenix and in February’s Daytona 500 have been settled by the razor-thin margin of a hundredth of a second. How close is that? Just try to click your stopwatch on and off so you can get 0.01 secs. You’ll be trying long into the night… and get an immediate sense of how close these final laps have been.
It is true aerodynamic problems continue to plague the sport, in particular when passing for the lead despite its new rules package. More technical upgrades, better branding and a blend of fresh faces up front is needed to fully stop the bleeding. But for the first time in several years, the optimism surrounding the sport down in Daytona to start the season has remained in place by the time the series came back around in July. Executives can only hope that feeling holds, leading to financial and audience recovery by the season finale at Homestead in November.
2016 Coke Zero 400
Time: 7:45 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Track: Daytona International Speedway (Daytona Beach, Fla.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Tony Stewart
“Smoke rises.” That’s no longer just an awkward fortune cookie phrase but a NASCAR fact as Stewart rose from the ashes of a lost season to claim victory at Sonoma Sunday afternoon. To do it, Stewart needed a bit of luck in the form of a debris caution that launched him into the lead after pitting; from there, he held off all chargers over the final 20 laps in a heated battle that resulted in a standing ovation from those in attendance in Napa Valley. During the white-flag lap, Denny Hamlin snuck inside of Stewart to take the lead but the three-time series champion dug deep, got back alongside Hamlin in the final turn and rooted the No. 11 car out of the way to take victory. Suddenly, a 45-year-old that looked every bit a driver past his prime during this shortened retirement tour has recovered from eight races missed due to a fractured vertebra and put himself in position to make the Chase. Just nine points out of 30th in the standings, Stewart is on track to qualify as long as six new faces don’t make it to Victory Lane by Richmond, and then? Who knows? For an example, see 2015 series champion Kyle Busch.
Who’s at the Back: Clint Bowyer
Bowyer’s easily become the most disappointing driver of the season’s first half despite lowered expectations after moving to underdog HScott Motorsports. The team, his home for only a year before Bowyer replaces Stewart in 2017, had high hopes for an upset victory at one of their better tracks (Bristol, Sonoma, one of the plate races) that would earn their primary car a postseason appearance. Instead? They look like the Bad News Bears, mechanical failures causing DNFs and difficult races that have Bowyer fuming. Electrical problems ended a promising weekend at Sonoma, put the No. 15 Chevy in dead last and left Bowyer on camera throwing his gloves and a mini tantrum on camera before getting taken back to the garage. At this point, the driver appears resigned to his fate, simply “playing out the string” while the team faces an increasingly uncertain fate for 2017.
Did Denny Hamlin let teammate Tony Stewart win? Conspiracy theorists abounded after Sonoma considering the way Hamlin slowed dramatically entering the final turn of the race, giving Stewart the edge on older tires to nudge him. Not so, says Hamlin, who emphatically defended himself during a series of Thursday questions at Daytona. “Ultimately, I made a mistake and thought we would maybe drag race to the line,” he said. “My biggest mistake I feel like is not recognizing the gap I had behind me. I needed to execute to make him make the decision [as to where to go entering that final turn]. Instead, I made the decision for him.” Hamlin, who apologized to his crew after the event, still has not won a Cup Series race on a road course.
FOX Sports finished its NASCAR coverage with declines in the majority of 16 events it covered, a combination of races on the mother ship and FOX Sports 1. That sobering reality led to the smallest average audience for the network since they first covered NASCAR live in 2001, raising questions as to whether there will be philosophy changes come 2017. Newcomer Jeff Gordon remains committed, quickly squelching rumors after emerging as a finalist to replace Michael Strahan on the popular morning show “Live With Kelly.” Darrell Waltrip and Mike Joy just finished their 17th seasons, respectively calling FOX races along with booth-turned-studio analyst Larry McReynolds.
NASCAR updated its race eligibility requirements to ensure both franchised (Charter teams) along with ones that have to qualify each week (Open teams) would be guaranteed spots in every Chase race. Under the old rules, rookie Ryan Blaney, driving for the “Open” Wood Brothers No. 21 would be forced to qualify on speed in a way the rest of the postseason field would not.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Winners in the first 16 races of the season. Among those that have not yet reached Victory Lane: Greg Biffle, Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson, Ryan Newman.
DNFs apiece for Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Only BK Racing’s Matt DiBenedetto has more.
Playing The Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Traditionally, plate races are a crapshoot when it comes to setting your fantasy roster. But after what we saw here in February, anyone from Joe Gibbs Racing has to be at the top of your list. The four-car tandem of Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth were a 1-2-3-4 bullet train for much of the Daytona 500 along with affiliated teammate Martin Truex Jr. The Toyotas still appear to have a handling edge the other manufacturers haven’t figured out and until they do? Even a backup Toyota, the kind Busch was forced to Friday morning after a wreck will be good enough to be up front for the majority of the race’s 160 laps.
Jamie McMurray, the 2010 Daytona 500 winner, has a handful of victories in restrictor plate races and has this event circled on the calendar. Firmly on the Chase bubble, a victory here means McMurray can breathe easy and shifts the focus toward improving his first round exit from the postseason last year. Weird fact? Since that Daytona victory McMurray, who counts this track among his favorites hasn’t collected another top-5 finish here. Clearly, he’s due.
Don’t let last year’s last-lap slam into the SAFER Barrier upside down scare you off. Austin Dillon, driving the iconic No. 3 car, has five straight top-15 finishes Mat Daytona to go along with a pole during his rookie season. Dillon, who’s developed a knack for plate racing, needs a solid run to get his Chase bid back on safer ground and this night races offers an opportunity for a breakout performance.
Regan Smith. Matt DiBenedetto. Landon Cassill. Chris Buescher. Virtually any underdog can be a solid pick here with the way Daytona levels the playing field; those plates give any Cinderella behind the wheel a chance to sneak through with a shocking run near the front. Of all those listed, my bets would be on Cassill and Smith. Both have plenty of experience in Cup cars, are paired with teams that know how to do well at these tracks, and have a history of cashing in with top-10 finishes. Smith, in particular flexed some muscle late at Daytona before fading back into the pack in February.
What Vegas Thinks
Vegasinsider.com has Dale Earnhardt Jr. earning the early edge at Daytona, posting 6/1 odds with Daytona 500 winner Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson close behind at 9/1. Brad Keselowski, the season’s other plate winner at Talladega and a dark horse here sits next at 12/1.
What I Think
One week after Stewart shocked us I’m going to once again pick off the grid. Austin Dillon weaves through a sea of Toyotas, gets the right help at the right time and avenges his horrifying 2015 flip with a trip to Victory Lane.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)
Cris Carter's son Duron isn't too different from his father.
The CFL receiver for the Montreal Alouettes is catching touchdowns just like the elder Carter, but is adding celebrations all his own. After Duron catches a TD, he goes into a celebration that results in him knocking down the opposing team's coach, causing a brawl with Ottawa. Not surprisingly, Carter was ejected from the game.
Mike Tirico was the voice of ESPN for 25 years, and he's taking his talents to NBC.
ESPN couldn't let him go without creating a tribute to an iconic voice. The play-by-play man has been an intricate part of the network and, at least for now, it's hard to imagine a Monday Night Football game without him.
Thank you to all who have made these 25 years so incredibly enjoyable. It's been an honor to be part of the special @espn family.— MikeTirico (@miketirico) June 30, 2016
UCLA football was left to do some soul-searching after the 2015 season's conclusion. For the first time in head coach Jim Mora's four-year tenure, the Bruins failed to win at least nine games.
Meanwhile, late-season losses at home to Washington State and the first defeat sustained against crosstown rival USC since Mora's arrival denied UCLA a Pac-12 Championship Game appearance.
After an ugly showing in the Foster Farms Bowl, wherein the Bruins lost to a sub-.500 Nebraska team, Mora made some changes. UCLA's introducing a retooled offense to build around the strengths of talented sophomore quarterback Josh Rosen.
With running back Soso Jamabo, a loaded secondary and playmakers along the defensive line, UCLA has the pieces to rebound and make a run at the conference championship. The road to Levi's Stadium won't be easy, though. Here are the Bruins' 12 regular season games ranked from easiest to most difficult.
12. Sept. 10 vs. UNLV
In head coach Tony Sanchez's first year, UNLV dropped four games by single digits. A veteran Rebel lineup in 2016 should convert some of those near-misses into wins, and perhaps crash a bowl game.
In a year with plenty of close finishes, UCLA's visit to Sin City was not among them. The Bruins blasted the Rebels at Sam Boyd Stadium last September, 37-3. Do not expect the return visit to Pasadena to be much more competitive.
11. Nov. 12 vs. Oregon State
UCLA missed Oregon State in 2013 and '14, part of the conference's imbalanced scheduling. Their last meeting before the Bruins' trip to Reser Stadium last November was an Oregon State upset in the Rose Bowl in 2012, Mora's first season.
Last year's 41-0 UCLA romp paid the Beavers back in full. Nevertheless, expect the Bruins to dole out some more change in Oregon State's first trip back to the Rose Bowl since.
10. Oct. 1 vs. Arizona
Arizona once owned this series, winning every meeting from 2007-11, and six of seven from 2005-11. The script flipped with Mora's arrival, as the Wildcats are batting .000 in four meetings with the Bruins since the 2012 campaign.
Though the 2016 Wildcats should be improved from the version UCLA walloped in Tucson last September, the Bruins' dominance of Rich Rodriguez's teams and home-field advantage land Arizona at just No. 10. Consider it less an indictment of Arizona, and more an indication of the strength of UCLA's schedule.
9. Nov. 26 at Cal
UCLA boasted one of the best secondaries in the Pac-12 last season, and arguably one of the most impressive in all of college football given the many pass-happy offenses the Bruins had to face. Among the opponents UCLA grounded was Cal, featuring the No. 1 draft in this spring's NFL draft, Jared Goff.
Cal head coach Sonny Dykes must completely rebuild the passing attack this year with a new quarterback and the departure of last year's top six pass catchers, though the 2016 Golden Bears will be up to speed come the regular-season finale.
UCL is often taken to the limit in its visits to Berkeley. If that's the case once more, it could make for a stressful finale, should the Bruins be in the mix for the Pac-12 Championship Game.
8. Nov. 3 at Colorado
Two of the bigger heartaches Colorado football's suffered in Pac-12 play under head coach Mike MacIntyre are narrow defeats against UCLA.
The Buffs had an opportunity to steal a win on Halloween 2015, and in '14, took the Bruins to overtime in Boulder. Boasting the most veteran lineup in the Pac-12, Colorado is a dangerous team with the ability to shakeup the South division title race.
UCLA visiting Boulder on a Thursday night in November, when the temperatures are likely to dip below freezing, could put a chill on the Bruins' conference championship hopes.
7. Oct. 8 at Arizona State
Mora and Arizona State head coach Todd Graham both arrived in the Pac-12 in the same 2012 season. There of their four meetings thus far have come down to the final possession, and the winner in two of those have gone on to appear in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
The Sun Devils stunned the Bruins in the Rose Bowl last season, ending UCLA's perfect start. That UCLA team was better than Arizona State on paper, so the Sun Devils' projected rebuilding season means little — especially in early October, when the mercury in Tempe still threatens to reach triple digits.
That's just one kind of heat UCLA can expect to deal with in the Valley of the Sun. The other is the constant blitzing heat Graham likes to bring with his defense.
6. Sept. 17 at BYU
BYU's visit to the Rose Bowl last season was an instant classic. Running back Nate Starks came up big for the Bruins, which got a late score to hold off the upset-minded Cougars.
BYU claims at least a few Power Five pelts every year. UCLA avoided being one such victim last season, but Nebraska last year and Pac-12 counterpart Cal in 2014 were not so unfortunate. The always-raucous LaVell Edwards Stadium crowd promises an inhospitable environment for the Pac-12 visitors, and the Cougars quarterback will challenge UCLA's defense, no matter if it's Taysom Hill or Tanner Mangum lining up behind center.
5. Oct. 22 vs. Utah
The visitor has won each of the last three in this series, including Utah spoiling UCLA's previously unblemished record when last visiting the Rose Bowl in 2014.
Last season's matchup was a rough-and-tumble, defensive showdown that ostensibly eliminated Utah from the Pac-12 championship race. Expect a similarly physical matchup this time around, with UCLA's restructured offensive philosophy promising to exchange haymakers with the always-stout Utah defense.
4. Oct. 15 at Washington State
Among the more impressive wins in Washington State's altogether surprising 2015 was its 31-27 shocker of UCLA in the Rose Bowl. The upset effectively knocked the Bruins out of the driver's seat in the Pac-12 South, removing their margin of error for back-to-back road games with Utah and USC.
Luke Falk threw for 331 yards last season in Pasadena, nine yards shy of Rosen's total that night, but Falk had two more passing scores. As two of the top — if not the top two -— quarterbacks in the Pac-12, expect another shootout on the Palouse.
3. Sept. 3 at Texas A&M
Conference pride is at stake when UCLA takes a visit to SEC Country. Week 1 also marks the debut of the Bruins' new offensive philosophy under coordinator Kennedy Polamalu, who replaced Noel Mazzone. Mazzone, meanwhile, is making his debut for... Texas A&M.
Consider the ante raised.
Both UCLA and Texas A&M enter the 2016 season loaded with talent, but face enough question marks that expectations around each program are tempered. An impressive showing here could be the catalyst for a breakout season while a debilitating setback could darken the forecast for the campaign to come.
2.Nov. 19 vs. USC
UCLA's three-year reign over the Los Angeles football scene ended emphatically last November, as USC frustrated and dominated the Bruins like no opponent all season long.
The loss was Mora's first to the Trojans, and kept UCLA out of the Pac-12 Championship Game.
The implications of this year's matchup should be similar. Both the Bruins and Trojans have the talent to contend for the conference title, though the South division's title game representative is likely to emerge from this game.
1. Sept. 24 vs. Stanford
Stanford is the one mountain — or tree, as it were — UCLA's been unable to climb in Mora's tenure.
The Cardinal have enjoyed some memorable moments at the Bruins' expense in that time, winning the program's first conference championship in more than decade in a thrilling Pac-12 Championship Game in 2012; Christian McCaffrey delivering his breakout performance in last year's encounter; and emphatically denying the Bruins a league title game berth with a blowout win in the Rose Bowl in '14.
The 2016 season brings Stanford's return to Pasadena after that stunning loss on Black Friday two years ago. McCaffrey's still donning the cardinal and white, though remarkably, this will mark the first time a Mora-coached UCLA team has seen a quarterback other than Kevin Hogan behind center for Stanford.
The pairing of UCLA's new-look offense against Stanford's always-stout defense ranks among the Pac-12's more intriguing matchups of the 2016 campaign.
You know the big names to take the field in the Big Ten this season, like Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett or Michigan hybrid safety/linebacker Jabrill Peppers. We can go on for days about those players. If you want to dig a little deeper, however, you can uncover some players with the potential to be true wild cards for their teams and in the Big Ten championship hunt.
Related: Big Ten Football 2016 Predictions
Whether they are incoming freshmen or players coming off a redshirt season, players looking to fill big shoes by a player that has moved on or simply just look like a player that could benefit form a change of scenery and coaching staff, the Big Ten has a number of players to keep an eye on this fall.
Big Ten East
Offense: Mitchell Paige, Wide Receiver
Indiana’s offense will look to spread the ball around through the air and Paige returns to help lead the receiving unit. Paige led the Hoosiers with six touchdown receptions in 2015 and should remain a dependable target this fall.
Defense: Jayme Thompson, Husky
Indiana’s pass defense left a lot to be desired last season but should improve as a young core continues to grow. Stepping into a key role will be Thompson in the new Husky position. If all goes well, Thompson could have an impact at the position.
What will College Football look like in 2026?
Offense: Avery Edwards, Tight End
Edwards was Maryland’s top tight end last season with 14 receptions for 115 yards and a pair of touchdowns as a freshman. With a year of experience under his belt now, Edwards could be ready to take on a more dependable role in the offense.
Defense: Adam McLean, Defensive Tackle
The true freshman re-enrolled at Maryland and may have to work to land a starting job on Mike London’s defensive line, but the four-star talent could cause problems for offensive linemen once he does get in the mix.
Offense: Tyrone Wheatley Jr., Tight End
Michigan’s offense is already in terrific shape at the tight end position with Jake Butt returning to the Wolverines this season rather than opt for the NFL Draft, but having a complementary tight end like Wheatley Jr. (son of former Wolverine running back Tyrone Wheatley) could help make Michigan’s offense just a bit more dangerous for opposing defenses if they need to worry about two tight ends.
Defense: Lavert Hill, Defensive Back
The Detroit native may not get a chance to shine right away, but the super talented and highly rated defensive back recruit should find his way on the field this season. Hill was one of many key recruits for Michigan’s Class of 2016. Despite some seniors sitting on top the depth chart, Jim Harbaugh would be wise to try and get Hill involved where he can this season and see what happens.
Offense: Donnie Corley, Wide Receiver
An early enrollee, Corley got a jumpstart on fitting in with the Michigan State offense and has quickly proven to be worthy of some early playing time. He also appears to be a player that could do some damage on special teams at times, making him a versatile option for the Spartans.
Defense: Demetrius Cooper, Defensive End
Though he backed up Shilique Calhoun last fall, Cooper managed to cause some problems for opposing offensive linemen and quarterbacks when he got a chance to line up on the line. Cooper put together five sacks last season and figures to step right in to a starting role alongside Malik McDowell.
Offense: Mike Weber, Running Back
Ezekiel Elliott is gone and will be difficult to replace, but Weber appears ready to make his case for being Ohio State’s next top running back. It may not happen immediately, but look for the redshirt freshman to shine when given opportunities to carry the football, which should eventually lead to him being a key ingredient in the same backfield as J.T. Barrett.
Defense: Dante Booker, Linebacker
Ohio State has a strong history of linebackers and this year should be no exception. Booker was a star recruit in the state of Ohio and will now have a chance to take his game to the next level and, perhaps, be one of the top linebackers in the Big Ten when all is said and done this fall.
Offense: Jake Zembiec, Quarterback
By most accounts, it appears as though Trace McSorley has the leg up on the quest to succeed Christian Hackenberg under center. McSorley has limited playing experience over Zembiec, an early enrollee this past January, but if McSorley struggles at any point then it could be Zembiec who steps in to give it a shot. If he does, he may not give it up.
Defense: Jake Cooper, Linebacker
Penn State’s linebackers may not be quite up to par with past units in the storied history, but one name to keep an eye on might be Cooper. The sophomore can play inside and outside to bring some flexibility to the defense in the event someone needs to step in.
Offense: Hayden Rettig, Quarterback
Rutgers is in dire need of a quarterback stepping up and proving to be a reliable asset in the offense. Rettig, a former transfer from Kansas, could be the guy by the end of the season despite not being much of a running threat. Rutgers can get by with a pocket passer if the line is solid enough, and that could lead to Rettig being the best option.
Defense: Ross Taylor-Douglas, Defensive Back
Rutgers has reason to be optimistic about its secondary this season after going through some significant growing pains in 2015. One new addition that could help be a reliable leader could be Taylor-Douglas, a graduate transfer from Michigan. His impact may end up being felt more on the sideline than on the field, but there is value to that.
Big Ten West
Offense: Tre Nations, Running Back
The Illini’s running show will be led by Ke’Shawn Vaughn, but Nation will be the likely next man up in a shallow backfield. The three-star recruit out of Alabama will do his best to fill a void left by the injured Dre Brown and could see a good number of carries as a result. He also has an awesome name.
Defense: Tre Watson, Linebacker
The Illini have a good number of upperclassmen across the defensive side of the field, but Watson is the lone exception. Look for the sophomore to fit right in on the outside and develop into a defensive leader this fall.
Offense: James Daniels, Offensive Guard
Iowa’s offensive line will undergo some turnover this season from last season’s Big Ten West championship roster. Daniels is expected to lock down a starting job at right guard, where he will have the responsibility to help open running lanes for his older brother, LeShun Daniels.
Defense: Matt Nelson, Defensive End
With not too many holes to plug on defense, Iowa is putting the biggest plug they have at defensive end. Nelson (6-8, 275) has the size and should fit in nicely on the end of the defensive line. He lacks experience but there is enough of a veteran presence around him to help make up for that concern, which should benefit him and the Hawkeyes in the long run.
Offense: Rashad Still, Wide Receiver
Minnesota has a couple of upperclassmen to look to make strides in the receiving game, but one younger name to watch will be Still. He appeared in 12 games last fall and caught 18 passes for 194 yards and three touchdowns. He could see his role increase this season as the Gophers look to replace KJ Maye.
Defense: KiAnte Hardin, Defensive Back
There are some big shoes to fill in the defensive backfield, which means Hardin, a sophomore, may be looked to mature quickly as he fills a starting job. Hardin did appear in all 13 games Minnesota played last season, with an average of one tackle per game to show for it. His role will be much more definitive in 2016.
Offense: Derrion Grim, Wide Receiver
Grimm enrolled early and has already started to impress with his abilities. Because his work ethic and skill have been so admirable, Nebraska expects to throw Grim into the mix right away after a solid spring showing.
Defense: Khalil Davis, Defensive Tackle
After sitting out the 2015 season with a redshirt, Davis has been putting in the work in the weight room and building himself to being a potential stopgap on the defensive line. After earing offseason workout recognition from the program, Davis is one giant step closer to sitting in the middle of the line. His twin brother, Carlos Davis, may be a slight step ahead of him, but it may not be long until Khalil leaves an impact as well.
Offense: Garrett Dickerson, Tight End
Northwestern is losing a talented tight end in Dan Vitale, which means the Wildcats have to hope someone can step up and take on the leading role at the position. Dickerson may be best suited for the task as a junior. Formerly a running back, he appeared in 12 games in 2015 recording 12 catches for 124 yards.
Defense: Xavier Washington, Defensive End
Washington enters his third season with the program and could be ready to redeem himself a bit after a disappointing 2015. Washington will join an upperclassmen-filled line and look to draw form his prior playing experience to take his game to the next level to become more of a disruptive force.
Offense: Elijah Sindelar, Quarterback
It goes without saying Purdue does not have Drew Brees to count on any more, as the Boilermakers embark on another season with a huge question mark at quarterback. David Blough may be the guy for now, but do not be surprised if head coach Darrell Hazell makes a switch to Sindelar, a freshman. Hazell’s job security may even depend on it.
Defense: Evyn Cooper, Defensive Back
The redshirt freshman may have to win the job away from somebody, but Cooper has already benefitted from a solid spring and has generated some momentum to a possible starting job sooner rather than later. Purdue could use all the help it can get in the secondary too, so Cooper may have a chance to make some plays early on.
Offense: Alex Hornibrook, Quarterback
The Badgers could be in store for a rough start to the season, which may fuel the fire for a possible QB switch if Bart Houston is the starter at the beginning of the fall. If Houston gets yanked, in will step Hornibrook, a freshman. Whether or not he will be ready for the spotlight remains to be seen, but he should have a chance to finish the season on a high note, which could be good for his development.
Defense: T.J. Watt, Linebacker
The younger brother of former Badger and NFL star J.J. Watt, T.J. looks to step in to a key role of his own this season in Madison. After being converted form the tight end position, has an opportunity to lock down a key role on the defensive side of the football at a position that has been reliable for Wisconsin over the years. And if he is half as good as his older brother, Wisconsin should be in good shape.
— 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 writes for CollegeFootballTalk.com, TheComeback.com and hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.
As we all know, a majority of college football games are played on Saturday. But there are quite a few games this year that fall on Friday - 56 to be exact. That is the most ever, and hey, maybe that’s not a bad thing. A matchup on Friday (or a midweek game) provides Group of 5 teams more publicity. But these matchups also take away from high school games and prospective student-athletes with Friday Night Lights. However, at the end of the day, more football exposure, the better. Here are the best quarterback matchups that will be played on a Friday in 2016.
CFB's Top 15 QB Matchups for Friday Games in 2016
|1. Jake Browning (WASH) vs. Luke Falk (WSU) 11/25|
This mouth-watering Apple Cup matchup will display two of the finest arms in the country with Jake Browning and Luke Falk combining for 7,516 yards and 54 touchdowns in the air last fall.
|2. Seth Russell (BAY) vs. Patrick Mahomes II (TTU) 11/25|
|Another Week 13 matchup, this Big 12 clash will feature a couple of gunslingers who are underrated runners. The pair rushed for over 400 yards each last season, respectively.|
|3. Kenny Hill (TCU) vs. Matt Davis (SMU) 9/17|
|Maybe the best matchup of dual-threats quarterbacks on Friday in 2016, expect Hill to rush for over 100 yards with the Mustangs’ front seven only returning two starters from last year.|
|4. Thomas Sirk (DUKE) vs. Lamar Jackson (LOU) 10/14|
|This game will display some of the best running quarterbacks in the ACC as both combined for 1,763 yards and 19 touchdowns on the ground last season.|
|5. Dakota Prukop (ORE) vs. Davis Webb (CAL) 10/21|
|Two former transfers look to improve their draft stock in the Pac-12 in what should be a high-scoring affair.|
|6. Quinton Flowers (USF) vs. P.J. Walker (TEM) 10/21|
|Some of the finest Group of 5 dual-threats square off in AAC action. Expect both to find paydirt on the ground.|
|7. Brett Rypien (BOISE) vs. Lamar Jordan (UNM) 10/7|
|These two each bring a different facet to the game - Rypien with his arm (3,353 passing yards) and Jordan with his legs (807 rushing yards).|
|8. Lamar Jackson (LOU) vs. Eric Dungey (SYR) 9/9|
|This will be Jackson’s first road test this fall and look for him to have a lot of rushing yards that night against a Syracuse defense that is expected to start two ends with no playing experience.|
|9. Tommy Armstrong (NEB) vs. C.J. Beathard (IOWA) 11/25|
|Two underrated quarterbacks in the Big Ten ought to slug out a traditional pro-style offensive game to close out the regular season.|
|10. Keller Chryst (STAN) vs. Jake Browning (WASH) 9/30|
|This will be Chryst's first time playing out of state as the Cardinal takes on Athlon's pick to win the Pac 12 (Washington) in Seattle.|
|11. Cooper Rush (CMU) vs. Billy Bahl (MIAO) 11/4|
|The only worthy MAC Friday game on the list, watch for Rush to lead the Chippewas to a strong finish in November.|
|12. Patrick Towles (BC) vs. Deondre Francois (FSU) 11/11|
|The only game the night of November 11, Towles will face the best defense he will see all year in Tallahassee.|
|13. Johnny Stanton (UNLV) vs. Brett Rypien (BOISE) 11/18|
|Will Stanton be comfortable come November in Barney Cotton’s offense? Rypien and Co. will be looking to win here to solidify a spot in the MWC Championship Game.|
|14. Jesse Ertz (KSU) vs. Keller Chryst (STAN) 9/2|
The only Power 5 versus Power 5 Friday matchup in Week 1 features two unproven play-callers looking to start off the year on a high note.
|15. Tago Smith (NAVY) vs. Quinton Flowers (USF) 10/28|
|Another AAC quarterback battle takes place and it will be enjoyable seeing the growth of Keenan Reynolds replacement, Tago Smith.|
There is one date that stands out on the 2016 FSU football calendar — Oct. 29.
With both Clemson and Florida State welcoming back just about every key offensive player along with plenty of talent on defense, it’s more than likely that that game will again determine the ACC Atlantic Division champion. And unless you believe that two ACC teams will make the final four, there's a good chance that a College Football Playoff spot will be on the line that Saturday as well.
Related: ACC Football 2016 Predictions
But after witnessing what happened at Georgia Tech last October, Florida State fans know all too well that every game is important. And there are a lot of potential landmines on this year’s schedule.
Here is a ranking of Florida State’s schedule from the easiest game to the hardest.
12. Sept. 10 vs. Charleston Southern
Athlon Sports ranks the Buccaneers at No. 6 team in their preseason FCS Top 25 and they return a potent, senior-dominated backfield. But CSU has been run over by FBS competition, going 0-14 in program history, losing those games by an average score of 59-9.
11. Oct. 15 vs. Wake Forest
The Demon Deacons played a lot of underclassmen in 2015 and that experience figures to pay dividends this season. But the offense was underwhelming last fall and will need to make huge strides to become even average this year. Plus, the loss of star linebacker Brandon Chubb will be difficult to overcome.
10. Nov. 11 vs. Boston College
The Friday night contest comes following a game at NC State, making for a short preparation week. The Eagles’ defense should again be strong and they hope that Kentucky transfer Patrick Towles can solidify their quarterback situation. However, BC has very few threats on offense, especially if running back Jon Hilliman is not 100 percent recovered from last year’s broken foot.
9. Nov. 19 at Syracuse
The Orange will be adapting to new head coach Dino Babers’s fast-paced offense. The good news: sophomore quarterback Eric Dungey looks like he is a perfect fit for the offense. The bad news: the defense will again be shaky. Syracuse will be improved and the Carrier Dome will be noisy when the Noles come to upstate New York.
8. Sept. 24 at South Florida
When the Bulls lost to FSU last September, head coach Willie Taggart was on the hot seat. Now they are one of the favorites in the American Athletic Conference. USF returns 14 starters including difference-makers in running back Marlon Mack and quarterback Quinton Flowers. That South Florida is the eighth toughest game is a testament to how challenging Florida State’s schedule will be this fall.
7. Nov. 5 at NC State
It seems that Florida State always gets the Wolfpack in the most difficult spot. The week after playing Clemson in the game of the year, the Noles have to go to Raleigh. NC State loses quarterback Jacoby Brissett and the offensive line is in flux. But the defense should be good and there is a history of tough battles between the two programs.
6. Oct. 1 vs. North Carolina
Quarterback Mitch Trubisky steps in to lead what should be a very explosive Tar Heels offense. Running back Elijah Hood can churn up yards and Ryan Switzer is a dangerous wide receiver/return man. But Dalvin Cook’s eyes will light up knowing he will be facing last year’s 122nd-ranked rushing defense in this game.
5. Nov. 26 vs. Florida
Head coach Jim McElwain will eventually fix the Florida offense, but probably not this year. The Gators have question marks all over their offense with the biggest being at the quarterback position. The defense should once again be very nasty and the season-ending matchup is always an extremely emotional affair for both sides.
4. Oct. 8 at Miami
The Hurricanes have lost six straight to the Seminoles but the last two contests have been very close. Mark Richt brings a new attitude to Coral Gables and he has an outstanding quarterback to build around in Brad Kaaya. With three layups and Georgia Tech on the schedule before Florida State, everyone in south Florida will be ready for the Seminole invasion.
3. Sept. 5 vs. Ole Miss (Orlando, Fla.)
How good will Ole Miss be this year? Gone are wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, defensive end Robert Nkemdiche and left tackle Laremy Tunsil. Chad Kelly is back to direct the offense and there is plenty of athleticism on the defense. It helps FSU that this neutral site game is in Orlando.
2. Sept. 17 at Louisville
With all the talk about Florida State and Clemson, the Cardinals feel a little disrespected in the ACC Atlantic conversation. This will be their first opportunity to show the country that they are in the same class as the big two. Quarterback Lamar Jackson should be even better as a sophomore and it will again be tough to score on Todd Grantham’s defense.
1. Oct. 29 vs. Clemson
Deshaun Watson. Wayne Gallman. Artavis Scott. Jordan Leggett. And Mike Williams returning from injury. The Clemson offense could be scary good. The defense loses several key pieces like Kevin Dodd and Shaq Lawson, but defensive coordinator Brent Venables has a lot of talent at his disposal.
— 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.
Jason Pierre-Paul doesn't want you to make the same mistake he did.
The Giants defensive end appears in a Fourth of July public service announcement to prevent others from doing anything crazy involving fireworks. Paul tells the scary tale of what happened that faithful Independence night.
You know the overused saying, "the schedule does them no favors" that gets applied to almost every team prior to the start of a college football season? Well, that doesn't really apply to Michigan this year.
Jim Harbaugh's team begin 2016 with five consecutive appearances at the Big House, giving them eight home games in all. The non-conference schedule is a cakewalk as the three foes combined for a 7-31 record in 2015. That said, Michigan's three toughest matchups (Michigan State, Iowa, Ohio State) will all be on the road, two of which come in November when the weather turns cold and conditions can potentially play a factor in the outcome.
If the Wolverines do somehow come out of those three games unscathed, they could be looking at their first-ever trip to the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis.
Here is a look at Michigan’s 12 regular season games, ranked from easiest to the most difficult matchup.
12. Sept. 3 vs. Hawaii
These are not your Colt Brennan-led Hawaii Rainbow Warriors of old coming into the Big House. Projected starting quarterback Ikaika Woolsey has yet to throw for a positive touchdown-to-interception ratio in each of his three years with the team. Talent deficit aside, Hawaii has one of the most challenging starts to the 2016 season of any team as it kicks things off a week earlier in Australia against Cal before hitting the road again to face the Wolverines. This will likely be a three-or four-score game after just the first quarter.
11. Sept. 10 vs. UCF
After finishing 2015 winless for the second time in 11 years, UCF should be much improved this upcoming season, due in large part to new head coach and former Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost bringing his up-tempo offense to Orlando. The Knights better hope they can take care of business against South Carolina State in Week 1 to end their winless streak, though, because a W is not the likely outcome against the Wolverines. UCF’s talented group of receivers will pose a challenge for new defensive coordinator Don Brown, but the Michigan secondary is one of the best in the country Jourdan Lewis leading the way.
10. Sept. 17 vs. Colorado
If we knew for certain that Colorado starting quarterback Sefo Liufau would be available for this matchup, it could move up a few notches on the list. But as Liufau continues to recover from a fractured left foot he suffered against USC late last season, the Buffs are unsure as to who will be under center to start the year. That does not bode well for a team that will need all hands on deck on the road against Michigan, which should have their quarterback situation figured out by Week 3.
9. Oct. 22 vs. Illinois
The only difficult part about this matchup with the Illini for the Wolverines will be keeping their focus as they will travel to East Lansing that next week. There is finally some excitement surrounding the Illinois program with new head coach Lovie Smith at the helm, but not many pieces for him to work with on either side of the ball as the Illini return just 11 total starters. Michigan should win with ease in its Homecoming game.
8. Nov. 5 vs. Maryland
Don’t expect Jim Harbaugh to take it easy on former defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin, who is now the head man at Maryland. Michigan completely dominated the Terrapins last season, holding them to just 105 yards of total offense in a 28-0 victory, and Maryland really hasn’t improved all that much on the offensive side of the ball in terms of personnel. Unless star cornerback William Likely can provide multiple interceptions or a special teams touchdown, the Terps are unlikely to generate enough offense against the Wolverines’ defense.
7. Nov. 19 vs. Indiana
The Wolverines have completely dominated the all-time series with the Hoosiers, winning 86 percent of the 64 total meetings (55-9), including last year’s 48-41 thrilling overtime victory. Despite having the No. 4 defense in the entire country, Michigan was gashed by Indiana, giving up more than 500 yards of total offense. Did Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson figure out the Wolverines’ defense? He will have to do so again this year – this time on the road and without his starting quarterback and running back from a season ago. Don’t expect a repeat performance from the Hoosiers in the Big House.
6. Oct. 8 at Rutgers
Rutgers is one of the two or three worst teams on Michigan’s schedule, so why is this game ranked sixth? For one, this is a primetime matchup on the road where Michigan did not fare so well the last time, losing 26-24 in Piscataway in 2014. Night games on the road are never an easy task in college football. Secondly, the relatively new rivalry between both coaching staffs on the recruiting trails adds another element of intrigue as Harbaugh continues to poach high school players (Jabrill Peppers, Rashan Gary) out of the New Jersey area. Rutgers will be highly motivated for this one.
5. Sept. 24 vs. Penn State
The Penn State matchup kicks off the Big Ten slate for the Wolverines in what will be their fourth consecutive game at home to start the season. Michigan’s defense dominated the Nittany Lions last season in Happy Valley, holding them to just 207 total yards of offense. Penn State figures to be improve on offense with new coordinator Joe Moorhead installing a form of the spread offense, but expecting the Nittany Lions to be clicking on all cylinders this early in the year may be a stretch. Michigan’s defense should be able to put the clamps on the Penn State offense once again.
4. Oct. 1 vs. Wisconsin
The Badgers and Wolverines have not played each other since 2010 despite their 63 all-time meetings, and while Michigan leads the series by a considerable margin (49-14), the Badgers have won the last two. Expect the Wolverines to focus solely on stopping the run, as Wisconsin will be breaking in a new starting quarterback, but should have star running back Corey Clement at full strength following a injury-plagued 2015. If this game was in Madison, it may have a different outcome, but this will be the Wolverines’ fifth consecutive home game to start the year.
3. Oct. 29 at Michigan State
This spot was a tossup between the Spartans and Hawkeyes, but Iowa gets the nod as its quarterback position looks to be much more settled heading into 2016. Not to say that Sparty will not be sufficient on offense with senior Tyler O’Connor at the helm, but one career start in four years does not exude a ton of confidence. With both of the games in questions coming on the road, most would take their chances against the team with an unproven quarterback, though that could change by Week 9 of the season. Either matchup is a tough one for Michigan.
2. Nov. 12 at Iowa
Most expect there to be a slight drop off this year for the Hawkeyes after finishing the 2015 regular season undefeated, but with eight starters back on defense and an improving offense under the direction of senior quarterback C.J. Beathard, Iowa should once again be a factor in the Big Ten West. That alone makes this a difficult challenge for the Wolverines, which have lost four out of the last five matchups against the Hawkeyes. Now add in that this game takes place in mid-November at Kinnick Stadium in prime time. If Michigan is to escape Iowa City with a win, it will have been earned.
1. Nov. 26 at Ohio State
Regardless of the year, regardless of the other teams on the schedule, Ohio State will likely always rank at the top of this list as long as Urban Meyer is still around. Despite losing the likes of Ezekiel Elliott, Joey Bosa, Taylor Decker, Darron Lee, Eli Apple, Taylor Decker and other starters, the Buckeyes recruit with the best of them in college football and still have a roster chock full of four- and five-star prospects. Most importantly, starting quarterback J.T. Barrett is fully healthy and back under center as one of the top returning players in the entire country. With this game possibly determining who plays in Indy for the Big Ten championship (and the driver’s seat for a spot in the College Football Playoff), this is far and away the toughest task the Wolverines will face in 2016.
— 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
Personalities and college football experts on SiriusXM College Sports Nation ranked the nation’s top 16 quarterbacks, running backs, coaching staffs, defenses, head coaches, mascots, stadiums, uniforms and fan bases and you can hear in-depth analysis on College Sports Nation, Ch. 84.
Among those taking part are former Alabama national championship quarterback Greg McElroy, former Miami and North Carolina head coach Butch Davis, College Football Hall of Famer Lou Holtz, hosts Chris Childers, Chris Carlin, Mark Packer, myself as well as producers Mike Garvin, Dan Bezilla and Regina Ham, in a collection of expert polls titled #SXMTop16.
Today, we take a look at the quarterbacks. Chime in with your rankings!
1. Deshaun Watson, Clemson
There's no real doubting who the best and most important player in college football will be in 2016. The Tigers quarterback was downright extraterrestrial in the postseason last fall and has Clemson poised for another run at the allusive national championship. He is as good a passer as he is a runner… and he’s a phenomenal athlete.
2. Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
The only player in the nation who can give Watson a run for his money in the “MVP” department is Mayfield. The Sooners go as their emotional leader carries them. His backyard style is as fun to watch as anything in the game today. And he, too, is chasing a return trip to the College Football Playoff.
3. Chad Kelly, Ole Miss
It was a bumpy road getting to Oxford, but all Kelly did in his first season as the starter was set more than a dozen school records, including total yards (4,542), passing yards and touchdowns, completion percentage and passing efficiency. He led the Rebels to 10 wins for the first time since 2003 and just the second time since 1971.
4. J.T. Barrett, Ohio State
Obviously his numbers listed below were limited by Cardale Jones (and one bad off-the-field decision). But when he was on the field, he was just as good as he was during his record-setting freshman season. In case you forgot, Barrett did this in his first season: 2,834 passing yards, 34 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 938 rushing yards and 11 additional touchdowns and a berth in the Big Ten title game.
5. Brad Kaaya, Miami
This one takes some projecting and some deeper digging, but Kaaya has all of the skills of an elite signal caller. His supporting cast has been easily the worst of any name on this list and that has impacted his production. He can flat spin it and has a chance to blossom in a big way under Mark Richt.
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6. Greg Ward Jr., Houston
Ward has to stay healthy and become a more vocal leader but few players in the nation this side of Watson are more dynamic than the Cougars quarterback. Learning more how to play in the pocket could allow him to more even higher up this board.
7. Josh Rosen, UCLA
From a pure talent standpoint, no one in college football throws a better pass than Rosen. The numbers and wins are impressive for a true freshman last fall but his school-record consecutive passes without an interception (245) might be the most notable. The sky is the limit for Rosen and you can pencil him in as the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.
8. Patrick Mahomes, Texas Tech
No returns to college football with more yards through the air last year than Kliff Kingsbury’s trigger man. He is more athletic than a traditional Air Raid quarterback and proved he could win games away from home with wins over Arkansas and Texas. And remember, someone forced Mayfield to leave Lubbock for reason.
9. Seth Russell, Baylor
Certainly, Russell’s surgically repaired neck has to be fully healthy for Russell to stay in the top 10 (heck, his backup might be worthy of a spot on this list). Losing Art Briles hurts but his supporting cast is still amongst the best in the nation. His numbers last year in just seven games were as good as most hope for in a full season.
10. Luke Falk, Washington State
No one threw (644) or completed (447) passes than Falk last year and no one returns to college football with more TD passes (38). His receiving corps is ridiculously talented and experienced and has Mike Leach calling plays.
11. Joshua Dobbs, Tennessee
He will never be the pure passer like many of the rest of the names on this list but he is as smart as they come and can do a lot of things outside of the pocket. The Vols are poised to win the East for the first time in a decade because of his leadership and playmaking ability. If he can add the intermediate passing game to his arsenal, he could be unstoppable.
12. Lamar Jackson, Louisville
Most will only remember his huge performance against Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl (227 yards passing, 226 yards rushing) but that would be a mistake. He almost rushed for a 1,000 yards and turned an 0-3 record into an 8-2 finish when he was inserted into the starting line-up (eight starts). Oh, by the way, all of this as a true freshman. The sky is the limit if he can stay healthy and improve his passing ability.
13. DeShone Kizer, Notre Dame
If Kizer was assured the starting job, a case could be made that he is easily a top 10 quarterback. After the Irish lost starter Malik Zaire, the backup freshman showed poise beyond his years and nearly led Notre Dame to a College Football Playoff berth. This QB decision won’t be an easy one for Brian Kelly.
14. Jake Browning, Washington
Another true sophomore makes the list due to a remarkable freshman season. He started 12 of 13 games as a true freshman, becoming the first such player to start a season opener for the Huskies. Browning got better as the year went along and he has a phenomenal supporting cast back around him as the Pac-12 frontrunner.
15. Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State
Mike Gundy removed the redshirt from Rudolph late in the 2014 season and his young freshman into the starting lineup. He’s gone 12-3 since then and has proven to be one of the nation’s top passers. If he continues to improve, he could push Mayfield for best signal caller in the Big 12.
16. C.J. Beathard, Iowa
Fearless leader is what comes to mind when breaking down Beathard. But he’s also more athletic than given credit, takes care of the football and is a perfect fit for the Iowa program. He led his team to a 12-0 mark before stumbling late in the year. If he can improve his play against the better teams, Iowa could return to the Big Ten title game.
Special thanks to SiriusXM College Sports Nation, Ch. 84. You can listen the best in college sports talk radio seven days a week, 24 hours a day only on College Sports Nation. Like them on Facebook and follow them on twitter.
All hope seems to be lost with many college football fans when a successful starting quarterback graduates from their favorite team.
Related: 10 FCS Quarterbacks to Watch in 2016
They tend to forget many programs have five or six signal-callers. No doubt more than one is capable of being the No. 1 QB.
Change at quarterback is necessary, but it doesn’t always have to be evil. A plan is generally in place long before graduation day.
Here are the expected answers for 12 strong FCS programs which are replacing their starting quarterback:
QB Lost: Quentin Williams (All-MEAC first team)
QB Answer: Larry Brihm (R-Jr.), Arkevious Williams (So.) or Anthony Cruz (Jr.)
What to Know: Quentin Williams led the FCS in passing efficiency last season and played extensively over his four seasons, but the MEAC power doesn’t rely on just one quarterback. The last two seasons, Brihm saw plenty of playing time. But the athletic Arkevious Williams has impressed and the 6-foot-5 Cruz is in from Globe Tech. Expect some mixing and matching.
QB Lost: Jacob Huesman (three-time All-Southern Conference offensive player of the year)
QB Answer: Alejandro Bennifield (R-Jr.)
What to Know: Count Mocs head coach Russ Huesman among the many who believe the three-time defending SoCon champs can replace his highly decorated son, Jacob. A left-hander, Bennifield has a strong arm and runs well (7.4 ypc on 19 attempts last season). He also is a punter.
QB Lost: Alex Ross (All-Big South first team)
QB Answer: Josh Stilley (R-So.) or Chance Thrasher (R-Fr.)
What to Know: The Chanticleers are transitioning to the FBS level with an FCS independent schedule this season. The leading candidates to replace Ross are coming off injuries: Stilley (foot), last year’s backup, and Thrasher (arm), who was touted coming out of high school. Stilley is further along in his recovery.
QB Lost: Johnathan Williams (SWAC offensive player of the year)
QB Answer: DeVante Kincade (R-Jr.)
What to Know: Former Ole Miss third-string quarterback Kincade should step into the starting job after recovering from a broken foot (yes, pun intended). A 4-star quarterback prospect coming out of high school, Kincade is a dual threat, much like Williams.
QB Lost: Scott Hosch (Ivy League offensive player of the year)
QB Answer: Joe Viviano (Sr.)
What to Know: Viviano was in the running for the starting job last season before he suffered a broken foot in preseason camp. He is a good passer and is mobile for his 6-foot-5 size. But he’s hardly played during his Havard career, so he might have some early rust. Sophomore Tom Stewart is the other candidate.
QB Lost: Tre Roberson (All-Missouri Valley first team)
QB Answer: Jake Kolbe (R-So.)
What to Know: There’s reason for Illinois State coaches to be upbeat despite the loss of Roberson, who led the Redbirds to the 2014 FCS championship game. They got a good look last season at Kolbe, who won his only start – a win – over Missouri Valley power Northern Iowa, and saw action against Iowa and Richmond. Kolbe is a pocket passer who will be surrounded by a veteran offense.
QB Lost: Vad Lee (CAA Football offensive player of the year)
QB Answer: Bryan Schor (R-Jr.) or Mack Waldman (R-So.)
What to Know: Schor made last year’s final four starts (going 2-2) after Lee was lost to a season-ending injury in October. He played efficiently in a difficult spot. But new head coach Mike Houston added Waldman from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, so Schor likely has to be looking over his shoulder.
QB Lost: Josh Woodrum (All-Big South second team)
QB Answer: Stephon Masha (R-Jr.)
What to Know: Despite replacing a four-year starter in Woodrum, the Flames feel good about Masha. He was the starter in the 2014 win over Coastal Carolina that got them into the FCS playoffs for the first time. He has completed 44 of his 58 career attempts and can scramble out of trouble.
QB Lost: Daniel Sams (All-Southland second team)
QB Answer: Grant Ashcraft (R-Jr.)
What to Know: Ashcraft backed up Sams last season as the Cowboys won the Southland title. He is a different style quarterback, standing tall in the pocket at 6-foot-6, 219 pounds, while Sams was more of a running signal-caller. First-year head coach Lance Guidry, promoted from defensive coordinator, got a long look at Ashcraft in practices and liked what he saw.
QB Lost: Dakota Prukop (All-Big Sky second team)
QB Answer: Tyler Bruggman (R-Jr.)
What to Know: With Prukop following in former Eastern Washington QB Vernon Adams’ footsteps as a graduate transfer to Oregon first-year Bobcats head coach Jeff Choate needed a quality get of his own. In stepped Bruggman, who’s already at his fourth school (2013 at Washington State, ‘14 at Louisville and last season at Scottsdale [Ariz.] Community College). He impressed with his leadership during spring practices.
Sam Houston State
QB Lost: Jared Johnson (Southland Conference offensive player of the year)
QB Answer: Jeremiah Briscoe (R-Jr.)
What to Know: It’s possible the Bearkats offense, the national leader in total offense, can be better despite losing Johnson to a graduate transfer (UTSA). Briscoe, who arrived from UAB last year, surpassed Johnson during the postseason last season, throwing for 1,012 yards and eight touchdowns in four playoff games. Coach K.C. Keeler prefers a pro-style QB like Briscoe.
QB Lost: Mark Iannotti (All-Missouri Valley first team)
QB Answer: Josh Straughan (Graduate Transfer)
What to Know: FCS programs don’t just lose graduate transfers, they gain some. Josh Straughan arrived from Stillman College, where he passed for 5,470 yards and 53 touchdowns. He extends plays, which Iannotti did while leading the FCS in total offense last season. First-year head coach Nick Hill’s top returning candidate is big-armed redshirt sophomore Sam Straub.
— 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 Chattanooga Athletics)
The Big 12 has ruled the headlines this offseason for good and bad reasons. The conference decided to go back to having a championship game. This of course brought thoughts about expansion, which the conference says will not occur right now. Of course, there also was the massive black cloud that hung over Baylor and Art Briles. The Bears will be glad to get on the field. To me the Sooners are leading the way, but there are a whole host of teams that are capable of chasing them down.
Related: Big 12 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 fall into 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 9.5 wins EVEN...Under -9.5 wins -120)
Record Last Year: 10-3, 6-3
Returning Starters: 9 (4 on offense, 5 on defense)
Offense: For those who followed me last year, I talked up quarterback Seth Russell as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate and he may have been in the mix if he played all 13 games. He’s back with Shock Linwood, KD Cannon and Lynx Hawthorne around him. The problem is a new offensive line and a change in philosophy with Jim Grobe taking over as interim head coach.
Defense: The defense could be an issue with the team looking for a new front four essentially. The Bears do return a lot in the secondary, but they may be covering longer if the team struggles to get pressure on the QB.
Schedule: Fluff outside the Big 12 per usual with matchups against Northwestern State, SMU and Rice. There really isn’t that tough of a stretch for Baylor, which gets Oklahoma and Texas on the road. The Bears do finish out the year with two games outside of Waco.
Selection: I’m leaning to the under. It’s a very manageable slate, but who knows where this team is at mentally. These players have gone through defections, coaching changes and a lot more attention than needed for a 10-3 offseason. Grobe has his work cut out for him.
(Over 3.5 wins EVEN...Under 3.5 wins -120)
Record Last Year: 3-9, 2-7
Returning Starters: 12 (4 on offense, 8 on defense)
Offense: Offense: Joel Lanning takes over under center and he threw 10 touchdown passes last year. He’ll benefit from new head coach Matt Campbell coming over from Toledo where the offense was good. Allen Lazard is an underrated WR while Mike Warren is a stable RB.
Defense: This side of the ball struggled to say the least. The Cyclones allowed 32.7 points per game in 2015. The secondary could show some improvement with a couple of solid CBs and Kamari Cotton-Moya at safety.
Schedule: Northern Iowa, Iowa and San Jose State are the non-conference matchups. The Cyclones play four of their final five at home, but will it only be for respectability or for a bowl appearance.
Selection: I think Iowa State limps its way over the total. ISU smacked Northern Iowa last year to open up the year, but the Panthers are better and could win in Ames. If that’s the case, the first win may not come for a while.
(Over 1.5 wins -110...Under 1.5 wins -110)
Record Last Year: 0-12, 0-9
Returning Starters: 12 (5 on offense, 7 on defense)
Offense: The Jayhawks turn to Ryan Willis and Montell Cozart at QB. There’s not a lot returning around them and a group that scored 14 points or fewer seven times last year could match that in 2016.
Defense: Once again, a lot of returning players doesn’t mean an improvement. KU gave up 46.1 points per game last year and were heaven for those (me) who took the over in its games. No reason to think that changes.
Schedule: Rhode Island is a winnable opener as the Rams managed just one victory last year. Ohio and Memphis are the next two opponents before the rough conference schedule. October is TCU, at Baylor, home to Oklahoma State followed by at Oklahoma.
Selection: Well the good news is that the Jayhawks won’t go winless. Kansas should take week one, but after that, it doesn’t look very good. Still, I’ll give the Jayhawks the benefit of the doubt and say that a second win may come somewhere. No play here, but the lean is to the over.
(Over 5.5 wins -120...Under 5.5 wins EVEN)
Record Last Year: 6-7, 3-6
Returning Starters: 9 (3 on offense, 6 on defense)
Offense: Injuries derailed this side of the ball. Quarterbacks Jesse Ertz and Alex Delton both got hurt last year so they’ll be looking to make an impact in 2016. The offensive line has just one returning starter at center. There are a lot of questions here.
Defense: The Wildcats were horrendous against the pass and that’s a problem in the Big 12. Elijah Lee returns along with a few front line players. Improvement will be needed for KSU to make a move in conference.
Schedule: The year starts out with a road trip to Stanford before home matchups with FAU and Missouri State. The conference did KSU no favors with road games at West Virginia, Oklahoma, Baylor and TCU.
Selection: Small lean to the over. The good thing about getting the tough games on the road is that it means the lesser teams are at home. Bill Snyder should be able to get this team to at least .500.
(Over 10 wins -110...Under 10 wins -110)
Record Last Year: 11-2, 8-1
Returning Starters: 12 (6 on offense, 6 on defense)
Offense: Baker Mayfield returns at quarterback along with Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon in a stacked backfield. Dede Westbrook represents the best WR out there. Perine and Mixon have to hope that the offensive line gels quickly as they have a couple of holes to fill. Mayfield may be the sleeper Heisman Trophy candidate out of this conference.
Defense: There are a lot of losses to overcome with four all-conference players gone. The good thing is that there are some solid returnees. Jordan Evans brings senior leadership to linebacker which is needed considering the other two will be a little younger.
Schedule: A tough non-conference opener to start the season in a matchup against Houston in NRG Stadium. The Sooners then host ULM and Ohio State before entering conference play. After getting the Horned Frogs and Longhorns, the next seven games aren’t that bad.
Selection: The number is spot on here. The Sooners’ offense is going to be one of the best in the country, but the defense may not be able to get the crucial stops needed. If the D figures things out, OU could punch its ticket for a return to the College Football Playoff.
(Over 8.5 wins -110...Under 8.5 wins -110)
Record Last Year: 10-3, 7-2
Returning Starters: 16 (9 on offense, 7 on defense)
Offense: I’m a huge Mason Rudolph guy and he’s the full-time QB this time after sharing duties last year. He’s got James Washington and Marcell Ateman to throw to. The offensive line is pretty much back so the Cowboys will approach 40 points per game like they did last year.
Defense: This unit has safety Jordan Sterns and linebacker Jordan Burton back, but the loss of lineman Emmanuel Ogbah is big. This defense needs to improve big time, but there will be some continuity. Ben Grogan is back for his senior season at kicker.
Schedule: The Cowboys get SE Louisiana, Central Michigan and Pittsburgh to start out the year. They have six of their first eight games at home which is very beneficial. Oklahoma State does finish out the year at TCU and Oklahoma.
Selection: The over is the play here. Ten wins is very possible with a fast start. The Cowboys will be highly motivated to show that last year’s three-game losing streak to finish things off was not a sign of things to come. Bedlam will be fun this year.
(Over 8 wins -125...Under 8 wins -105)
Record Last Year: 11-2, 7-2
Returning Starters: 8 (1 on offense, 7 on defense)
Offense: It’s going to be a brand-new offense with quarterback Kenny Hill coming over from Texas A&M. Everything around Hill will be pretty new to starting. Sophomore KaVontae Turpin has a chance to be a solid contributor along with Deante Gray out wide.
Defense: The defense is going to have to carry things early on. Josh Carraway and his nine sacks are back as well as Travin Howard at linebacker. The secondary returns just three interceptions from 2015.
Schedule: The Horned Frogs host South Dakota State in an intriguing FCS/FBS matchup. They also take on Arkansas and SMU in non-conference play. The toughest stretch is probably at Baylor, Oklahoma State then at Texas in November.
Selection: I think this one goes under the total. It’s a lot to ask this TCU team to improve upon with such a tough schedule. I don’t think the Horned Frogs will lose to South Dakota State, but they will be pushed. The tougher games are at home, and I think TCU loses at least one of these.
(Over 6.5 wins -110...Under 6.5 wins -110)
Record Last Year: 5-7, 4-5
Returning Starters: 11 (5 on offense, 6 on defense)
Offense: The Longhorns ran the ball real well last year, checking in at 17th in rushing yards per game. They’ll struggle to match that this year with a new backfield potentially. Freshman Shane Buechele figures to be under center, but he’ll be pushed by Tyrone Swoopes.
Defense: Linebacker Malik Jefferson is back, but the front four could be a bit of an issue. The good thing is Charlie Strong and his staff focused on that in recruiting this offseason so help is on the way. The special teams were a wreck last year and could struggle in 2016.
Schedule: The Longhorns host Notre Dame and UTEP before playing at California. Luckily they have an extra week to prepare for a road matchup with Oklahoma State which comes before the annual Red River Showdown game in Dallas against Oklahoma.
Selection: I think this is another under. Texas has a bright future in terms of recruiting and Buechele to build around. I just don’t think the Longhorns are there yet. This conference is real tough to grow up in especially with a potentially shaky defense.
(Over 7 wins -110...Under 7 wins -110)
Record Last Year: 7-6, 4-5
Returning Starters: 10 (5 on offense, 5 on defense)
Offense: Kliff Kingsbury always has a good offense in Lubbock. Quarterback Pat Mahomes is back for another season, but he’s going to have to get to know a lot of new pieces. Ian Sadler leads the WRs with 42 catches last year. If Kingsbury can get even 40 points per game from this group, then that’s an awesome coaching job.
Defense: The Red Raiders’ defense was horrible again last year and has to practically rebuild the front seven. The secondary returns several pieces, but this is a group that ranked 127th last year in passing yards allowed.
Schedule: Texas Tech plays Stephen F. Austin, Arizona State and Louisiana Tech to start out the year. Five of the first seven are at home, but the final three games are on the road. Getting Oklahoma and Texas at home is nice.
Selection: I think this is another under. Bad defense plus a growing offense equals a rough season for the squad out of Lubbock. The early home stretch is helpful, but the end is a bit brutal.
(Over 6.5 wins -130...Under 6.5 wins +110)
Record Last Year: 8-5, 4-5
Returning Starters: 11 (8 on offense, 3 on defense)
Offense: Quarterback Skyler Howard has one more season to continue his growth. I expect big things out of him with wide receivers Shelton Gibson and Jovon Durante back as well as Rushel Shell to run the ball. The offensive line is pretty much back as well.
Defense: The 3-3-5 alignment has a lot of issues potentially with all three linebackers and four of the five in the secondary gone from 2015. I do like Noble Nwachukwu and Christian Brown up front, but the loss of safety Karl Joseph will be felt.
Schedule: Missouri, Youngstown State and BYU represent the start of the season as the Mountaineers play five of their first eight in Morgantown. The Cougars game takes place in Landover, Md., at FedEx Field so West Virginia figures to have the fan advantage. Dana Holgorsen’s team also gets Oklahoma and Baylor at home late in the slate.
Selection: I lean to the over here. I don’t like the price as -130 is a definite bite into your profits. I think the over could be good in these games with an offense that put up 34 points per game last year and should be able to match that.
— 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.
This may be the season for a changing of the guard in the Pac-12. Either Stanford or Oregon has won every league championship since 2009. This season both may be vulnerable. UCLA has the league’s best quarterback. USC has enviable talent. Utah is always sneaky. And that doesn’t get to Stanford and Oregon’s improved foes in the Pac-12 North, Washington and Washington State.
In what should be an unpredictable year in the Pac-12, Athlon looked at the top 10 storylines that would define the league.
This article and more on the Pac-12 can be found in the 2016 Pac-12 Football Preview, available now on newsstands and in our online store.
1. The maturation of Josh Rosen
The arrival of quarterback Josh Rosen at UCLA last season signaled the Bruins’ best chance to end a Pac-12 championship drought that dates back to 1998. He was a can’t-miss recruit and remains an enticing pro prospect in an era when polished pocket passers are falling by the wayside. Rosen was brilliant at times last season. In his first game, Rosen completed 80 percent of his passes for 350 yards with three touchdowns. But he also threw three interceptions against BYU and a combined four interceptions in his final two games of the year, both losses.
And it wasn’t always a smooth ride off the field. In October, Rosen got himself into some — ahem — hot water when he posted to Instagram images of a hot tub in his dorm room. (The hot tub was removed days later.)
As if coaching a big-time quarterback prospect in the social media age wasn’t tough enough, coach Jim Mora is dealing with another variable when it comes to Rosen. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone left UCLA for the same job at Texas A&M. Mora promoted running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu to offensive coordinator, but the more important move is the addition of Marques Tuiasosopo as quarterback coach. The experience tradeoff is stark. Polamalu has been an offensive coordinator for only three seasons at USC — at a time when Lane Kiffin was the play-caller. Tuiasosopo has all of one season as a QB coach under his belt. Handing two unproven assistants the best quarterback prospect in the country could be a gift or a curse.
2. Stanford’s rebuilding defensive line
Stanford has been stout in the trenches for most of its recent seven-year run of excellence, but that wasn’t the case in 2015 — due in part to suspect play on the line. Stanford allowed 5.57 yards per play last season, ranking 64th in the country. Both were the worst figures for the Cardinal since 2009. Stanford’s opponents rushed for 4.32 yards per carry, the most against the Cardinal since 2006.
The Cardinal replaced all three defensive line starters going into last year, and depth took a blow when nose tackle Harrison Phillips was lost for the year to a torn ACL in the opener. Stanford’s conundrum is that the churn will continue. Starters Brennan Scarlett and Aziz Shittu are gone, leaving nose tackle Solomon Thomas as the only proven and healthy defensive lineman on the roster.
New faces will need to make major leaps if Stanford’s defensive front is going to return to form. Phillips’ return remains in question. Luke Kaumatule, who has played tight end and outside linebacker, redshirted while making the transition to defensive line. And redshirt freshmen Dylan Jackson and Wesley Annan are expected to contribute. With all of that uncertainty, the most important name in Stanford’s defensive renewal could be Diron Reynolds. Former line coach Randy Hart retired after six seasons at Stanford and 46 seasons as coach. Reynolds, a defensive assistant at Stanford in 2014, coached the defensive line at Oklahoma last season. While Stanford’s new quarterback will get more attention, Reynolds’ defensive front might be the key to the team’s ability to contend in the Pac-12 North.
3. USC’s uneven offensive line play
The pieces for USC’s offensive line never quite seem to fit with the results. As anyone who follows recruiting would expect, all of the Trojans’ offensive linemen arrive on campus as top prospects. Four of the top five returning linemen have received some kind of All-Pac-12 honors, from first team to honorable mention status, and the fifth was a Freshman All-American two years ago. By a handful of measures, this talented, veteran unit — which loses only five-game starting center Max Tuerk — should be the best in the Pac-12. But as we’ve seen in recent years, talent hasn’t always translated at USC, especially on the line. The Trojans haven’t ranked higher than seventh in the Pac-12 in rushing since 2011 and have ranked 99th or worse nationally in sacks allowed in the last three years.
That said, USC’s line perhaps deserves a break. New position coach Neil Callaway, a journeyman assistant throughout the Southeast and a former head coach at UAB, will be the group’s fifth coach in the last five years. After Tuerk went down with a knee injury last year, USC had three different starting centers in the final nine games. The position further thinned when guard/center Toa Lobendahn was lost for the final seven games of the season with his own knee injury. And left tackle Chad Wheeler, a three-year starter and all-conference second-teamer, didn’t play in the bowl game after an altercation with police in December.
Having everyone healthy and available will be critical for Callaway — not to mention for USC’s first-time starting quarterback.
The question remains: Even if the linemen are all on the field at the same time, will they be on the same page?
4. An outsider at Oregon
For a program that’s often on the cutting edge of college football, Oregon doesn’t often think outside the box when it comes to coaching hires. The Ducks rarely look outside of Eugene. Five members of the Oregon coaching staff have been with the school for at least 13 years, working for three different head coaches. When Nick Aliotti retired after 2013, it seemed only natural that the Ducks would promote from within to replace the outgoing defensive coordinator. The Don Pellum experiment, though, was nothing short of a disaster. Aliotti’s last defense was ranked seventh in the country in yards per play. Under Pellum, the former (and current) linebackers coach, that figure dropped to 64th in 2014 and 98th in 2015. Last season, Oregon’s only chance to win was to do so in a shootout. The Ducks allowed 62 points and 530 yards in an embarrassing loss at home to Utah. They allowed 641 at home in a loss to Washington State. They allowed 742 yards to Arizona State and found a way to win 61–55. The low point was the Alamo Bowl when TCU overcame a 31–0 Oregon lead at halftime for a 47–41 win in triple overtime.
The season was bad enough to force Oregon to use a different area code when calling around for a new coach. Brady Hoke, the Ducks’ new defensive coordinator, could be the most important outside hire for the program since Mike Bellotti plucked an offensive coordinator from New Hampshire named Chip Kelly. Of course, Hoke is a more established commodity than Kelly was in 2007, but Oregon needs the former Michigan head coach to make as big of an impact. In addition to his stint in Ann Arbor, Hoke also has been a head coach at San Diego State and Ball State, but oddly enough, he’s never been a coordinator at the college level. He spent 19 years as a position coach, including five years at Oregon State, before taking his first head coaching gig in 2003. He’ll lead a defensive staff that still includes Pellum, back at his familiar spot coaching linebackers, and 13-year secondary coach John Neal. With 107 more games as a head coach than his boss, Hoke also could be counsel for Helfrich, entering his fourth year as the Ducks’ head coach.
5. Jake Browning’s development
With a young nucleus, an outstanding coach and a team that proved it could go toe-to-toe with some of the best in the Pac-12 last season, Washington will be one of the “it” teams of 2016. That’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a sophomore quarterback. Jake Browning had a solid season, by freshman standards. A four-star quarterback in the class of 2015, Browning flourished against weaker teams. He completed 77.3 percent of his passes for 474 total yards with eight touchdowns and no interceptions in wins over Arizona and Oregon State. Against the other six Pac-12 teams Browning faced, he completed 58.2 percent of his passes for 225.5 yards per game with three TDs and eight interceptions.
Browning led Washington to three wins and an average of 47 points per game in the final three games of 2015. Chris Petersen also has a fine résumé in developing four-year quarterbacks (see: Moore, Kellen). Petersen has praised Browning’s toughness, and, with the exception of the opener last year, he didn’t hold back anything from the freshman in terms of the playbook. The Huskies went 1–3 in one-score games last season. They only need a few breaks — and Browning’s continued development — to become a division contender.
6. Sonny Dykes’ new quarterback
Cal must replace the most prolific passer in school history. The Bears’ top six receivers are gone. And there’s a new offensive coordinator in Berkeley. Normally, that would result in a great deal of uncertainty, but Pac-12 opponents have a good idea of what Sonny Dykes will try to do despite all the new faces. He’s going to try to throw the ball more than anyone in the conference other than his old boss up at Washington State.
Jared Goff was a 12,000-yard passer in three seasons under Dykes and the main constant as Cal rose from 1–11 to 8–5 in three seasons. The next quarterback won’t match Goff’s production, but he’ll step into an offense that has been one of the most prolific in the country. Since he left Mike Leach’s staff at Texas Tech to become offensive coordinator at Arizona, Dykes has presided over five top-10 passing offenses in the last nine years, including four in a row at Cal and Louisiana Tech. Bringing in Jake Spavital — another branch off that Leach coaching tree — after he was fired at Texas A&M is an indication that Dykes isn’t straying much from the formula.
Chase Forrest, Goff’s backup who threw 18 passes last season, is the presumptive frontrunner to take over. But as many as five candidates are vying for the job, including quarterback-turned-safety-turned-quarterback Luke Rubenzer, redshirt freshman Ross Bowers, true freshman (and early enrollee) Max Gilliam and transfer Zach Kline (back for his second tour at Cal). As for the dearth of proven pass-catchers: Cal signed a total of 14 receivers in its last three recruiting classes
7. Luke Falk’s run for the record book
Nearly a decade has passed since a quarterback broke major single-season passing records. In 2007, Texas Tech’s Graham Harrell set the record for completions (512) and completions per game (39.4). In 2006, Hawaii’s Colt Brennan threw a record 58 touchdown passes. And in 2003, Texas Tech’s B.J. Symons set records for attempts (719) and yards (5,833). In other words, we’re due for a run at some of these passing records.
Washington State’s Luke Falk might be the guy to do it. First, he has the right pedigree as a Mike Leach quarterback, just like Harrell and Symons. And second, he might have approached some of these numbers last season had he stayed healthy. Falk missed all of one game and part of another yet still managed to throw 644 passes, the second-most in a season since 2009. As a group, Washington State quarterbacks threw 738 passes — 118 more than any other team in the country and 19 more than Symons’ mark in 2003.
With Gabe Marks and River Cracraft at receiver and three offensive line starters back, Falk has the tools to make a run at several records — or at least make late-night Pac-12 games that much more interesting.
8. Arizona State’s JUCO gamble
Todd Graham has always had a high-risk, high-reward defensive philosophy. The Arizona State coach likes his teams to be aggressive, and if that comes at the expense of big plays for the offense sometimes, so be it. Arizona State has ranked in the top 10 in tackles for a loss per game in three of the last four seasons. Throw in Graham’s lone year at Pittsburgh, and his teams have ranked in the top 20 in tackles for a loss per game in each of the last five seasons.
Last season, the Sun Devils had arguably the worst defensive season of Graham’s career, ranking 113th in yards allowed per game. No team gave up more 40-yard plays (30) last season than Arizona State. In Pac-12 play, the Sun Devils gave up 25 40-yard plays, six more than any other team in the league.
Graham needs a quick fix, and he went with a high-risk, high-reward strategy. The Sun Devils signed eight junior college prospects, most in the country. The haul includes three defensive ends, two cornerbacks, two offensive linemen and a punter. Most will be needed immediately — and not just on defense, as ASU returns only one starting offensive lineman.
The Sun Devils return all three starting linebackers and two defensive linemen, so all eyes will be on corners Maurice Chandler and J’Marcus Rhodes. Graham still has a dilemma with few high school defensive backs in his last two signing classes.
9. Arizona’s rebuilt defense
For several years at West Virginia, Rich Rodriguez had a secret weapon to complement his prolific offense. Jeff Casteel was one of the more underrated defensive coordinators in the country. He stayed at West Virginia when Rodriguez went to Michigan but followed his old boss to Arizona in 2012.
The Wildcats defense, however, has struggled in recent years, and Rodriguez made the difficult decision to part ways with Casteel and defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich, another longtime assistant. Contrast that with the offensive staff — Rodriguez still has two assistants who have been with him since the West Virginia and Michigan days.
RichRod clearly believes he needs some new ideas. For that, he hired Marcel Yates from Boise State to lead his defense. Out goes Casteel’s 3-3-5 stack. In comes Yates 4-2-5. Boise State ranked in the top 10 nationally in takeaways in each of the last two years under Yates. The goal is clear: Arizona’s defense needs to be more disruptive. Arizona also needs bodies. The Wildcats return five starters in the front seven, but not Scooby Wright. The secondary will be thin.
The new-look — and much younger — staff should also impact recruiting. Every defensive assistant was still in college in the 2000s. The results might not be immediate, but RichRod is banking on these radical changes to change the fortunes of his program’s defense for the long term.
10. How bad is it at Oregon State?
Not too long ago, Gary Andersen was one of college football’s can’t-miss coaches. He took over a moribund Utah State program and went 11–2 with a WAC championship within four years. He took that success to Wisconsin, where the Badgers went 19–7 overall and 13–3 in the Big Ten under his watch. His move to Oregon State after two seasons was as shocking as Mike Riley’s departure from OSU to Nebraska. The move signaled that perhaps Andersen wasn’t as good a fit at Wisconsin as many thought. It may have also signaled that the Oregon State job is in a worse spot than anyone realized.
Oregon State went 2–10 in Andersen’s first year and winless in the Pac-12. Conference opponents beat Oregon State by an average of 24.5 points and outgained the Beavers by an average of 208 yards per game. Riley’s staff did a good job of locating and developing under-recruited talent in major recruiting states and taking flyers on junior college prospects. Andersen’s first two signing classes seem to follow that blueprint. Oregon State has signed eight players from Florida in the last two years to go with 10 junior college transfers and the usual handful of prospects from California. Andersen will need to hit on more than a fair share of those recruits for this program to make a move.
Virginia Tech opens the year with an FCS opponent, but shortly thereafter things get substantially more difficult. The very next week, new head coach Justin Fuente will lead his troops into one of the season’s most anticipated non-conference matchups, beginning the start of a very challenging slate of games.
The Hokies dodge a bullet in one respect in that they don’t face Clemson, Florida State or Louisville in ACC crossover games. However, they do face two teams ranked in Athlon’s top 10 in non-conference play. Plus, what the Coastal Division may lack in heavyweight contenders it makes up for in balance.
Let’s rank the Hokies’ 2016 opponents from easiest to most difficult matchup.
12. Sept. 3 vs. Liberty
Former Buffalo and Kansas head coach Turner Gill has pumped life into the Flames’ program, guiding them to the FCS playoffs in 2014. They are coming off a 6-5 record last year and despite the progress Liberty has made under Gill, they will start 2016 with a loss.
11. Sept. 24 vs. East Carolina
The Hokies will be looking to avenge last season’s 35-28 loss at ECU. The Pirates will be counting on two transfers to jumpstart their offense. Quarterback Philip Nelson comes to Greenville by way of Minnesota through Rutgers while running back Derrell Scott was at one time a highly coveted Tennessee signee.
10. Nov. 26 vs. Virginia
Yes, rivalry games are always difficult. But the Hokies have beaten the Cavaliers 12 straight times and have won 16 out of the last 17 meetings. Virginia also will be adjusting to a new coaching staff with former BYU leader Bronco Mendenhall taking over in Charlottesville. Virginia Tech has more talent and recent history is on its side.
9. Oct. 15 at Syracuse
Syracuse will have a whole new offensive system with former Bowling Green head coach and Baylor assistant Dino Babers taking over. Quarterback Eric Dungey should put up big numbers under his new coach, but the defense is a big concern for the Cuse.
8. Sept. 17 vs. Boston College
The Eagles should get better quarterback play with Kentucky transfer Patrick Towles taking over under center and that should lead to a little more offensive production. But that isn’t saying much as the Eagles’ 2015 offense was dreadful. The defense loses some top-flight talent, but that unit was outstanding last year and should be very good again. This is a tough spot for the Hokies coming off the Tennessee game.
7. Nov. 5 at Duke
David Cutcliffe has implemented a system that has produced results year after year, something that is unheard of at Duke. The Blue Devils will have to replace star safety Jeremy Cash but their big concerns on defense are up front. Offensively, there is uncertainty at quarterback as Thomas Sirk tries to recover from a torn Achilles. The Hokies have a couple of extra days to prepare for this game because they will be coming off a Thursday night game.
6. Nov. 12 vs. Georgia Tech
The Yellow Jackets present all kinds of challenges because of their triple-option offense. They also will be motivated to prove that last season’s 3-9 record was a fluke. Quarterback Justin Thomas needs to have a bounce-back year for Georgia Tech and he would be greatly aided by an improved offensive line. Virginia Tech cannot look ahead to its trip to South Bend the following week or the Hokies could get stung by Paul Johnson’s team yet again.
5. Oct. 27 at Pittsburgh
Though this is a Thursday night affair, it will be a normal work week for the Hokies as they play the previous Thursday as well. The Panthers welcome back star running back James Conner, who is now cancer free. Head coach Pat Narduzzi is known for building tough, physical defenses and this year’s Pitt squad features star defensive end Ejuan Price and defensive back Jordan Whitehead.
4. Oct. 20 vs. Miami
There is a renewed optimism in Miami and facing Brad Kaaya and Joseph Yearby on a short week will not be fun. However, Miami will be coming in after having played Florida State and North Carolina in the two previous weeks. Lane Stadium on a Thursday night is always special.
3. Oct. 8 at North Carolina
The Tar Heels are once again favored to win the Coastal Division and they should be. They are loaded with offensive talent with running back Elijah Hood hoping to contend for All-American honors and wide receiver Ryan Switzer as one of the many exciting options for new quarterback Mitch Trubisky. But UNC still has to prove it can stop the run and Virginia Tech has a week off before the trip to Chapel Hill.
2. Nov. 19 at Notre Dame
Both teams face similar circumstances entering this game. Notre Dame has to corral the option offenses of Navy and Army in the two weeks before playing the Hokies; Virginia Tech has Georgia Tech the week prior. The Hokies have their annual season-ending game with Virginia the following week while the Irish will head to Los Angeles to battle the hated Trojans. This will be Tech’s first-ever trip to South Bend.
1. Sept. 10 vs. Tennessee (Bristol, Tenn.)
The Bristol Motor Speedway has seating capacity of 160,000 and the odds are that most of those seats will be filled. As for the game itself, the Hokies will be dealing with a Tennessee team that returns 18 starters from a group that drubbed Northwestern 45-6 in the Outback Bowl. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs may be the best at his position in the SEC and the defensive front seven is expected to be very nasty.
— 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.
(Justin Fuente photos by Dave Knachel - Virginia Tech Athletics)
Transfers are a huge part of any college football season. Whether it’s a graduate transfer eligible right away or a player that sat out the previous year due to NCAA rules, impact players are available in the transfer ranks every year. A transfer could be a one-year stopgap solution or help a team fill a void for a couple of seasons after a few misses on the recruiting trail. The 2016 season features several players expected to make a significant impact for their new team, including quarterbacks Davis Webb, Trevor Knight, Dakota Prukop and Kenny Hill. The running back position also has its share of players on the move, as Keith Ford (Texas A&M), Duke Catalon (Houston) and Barry Sanders (Oklahoma State) rank among the top 20 impact transfers for this season. On defense, Miami's Gerald Willis and Illinois' linebacker Hardy Nickerson are two players expected to make a huge impact for their new team in 2016.
Which players will make the biggest impact at their new home this fall? Here’s a look at 100 key transfers (plus a few others) to watch this year:
College Football's Top 100 Impact Transfers for 2016
100. QB Faton Bauta, Colorado State (from Georgia)
Second-year coach Mike Bobo landed a familiar name from his old job to add depth to the quarterback position in 2016. Bauta transfers from Georgia to Fort Collins with an opportunity to push starter Nick Stevens for the starting job. Stevens earned second-team All-Mountain West honors and threw for 2,679 yards and 21 scores in 2015, so it won’t be easy for Bauta to earn the starting job. However, Bauta has good mobility, which could provide a different dimension for Bobo’s offense.
99. QB Tyler Matthews, New Mexico State (from Southern Miss)
New Mexico State is Matthews’ third stop at the FBS level. The Texas native has previous stints at TCU and Southern Miss, but he has only four appearances in his career. Matthews was regarded as a four-star prospect out of high school and is expected to push Tyler Rogers for the starting job.
98. QB Ricky Town, Arkansas (from USC)
Replacing Brandon Allen won’t be easy, but Arkansas seems to have a capable candidate in Austin Allen, along with good depth in the form of Town, Rafe Peavey and Ty Storey. Town was the highest regarded quarterback out of that mix, ranking as a four-star and top-100 prospect in the 2015 signing class. However, Town didn’t challenge for the starting job in the spring and is likely ticketed as the No. 3 or No. 4 quarterback to open fall practice.
97. RB Deontae Cooper, San Jose State (from Washington)
Knee injuries took a toll on Cooper at Washington, limiting him to just 122 carries from 2013-15. With Tyler Ervin departing, Cooper is expected to challenge Thomas Tucker and Malik Roberson for carries.
96. OL Jeremiah Stuckey, California (from Texas A&M)
The Golden Bears could have one of the Pac-12’s best offensive lines in place for 2016. Four starters are back, and the addition of Stuckey is another valuable option for depth or to push one of the returning starters for a job. After one year in the junior college ranks, Stuckey played in 14 games over three seasons with the Aggies.
95. TE Steve Donatell, WKU (from Wake Forest)
A WKU tight end has caught at least 30 passes in back-to-back seasons, and with Tyler Higbee out of eligibility, Donatell will have an opportunity to earn a starting spot.
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94. DB Bryson Echols, Arizona State (from Texas)
Echols played in 32 games during his tenure with the Longhorns and his arrival adds much-needed depth to an Arizona State secondary that ranked last nationally in pass defense in 2015.
93. OL Jordan Diamond, Miami, Ohio (from Auburn)
Miami is a team on the rise in the MAC, and coach Chuck Martin returns seven starters from an offense expected to show marked improvement in 2016. Four starters are back in the trenches, and the addition of Diamond – a former four-star recruit at Auburn – adds another potential starter and All-MAC contender for the RedHawks.
92. DL Earl Moore, Toledo (from Miami)
Moore recorded six tackles in 23 appearances at Miami from 2012-13. The Rockets are looking for three new starters up front, and it’s expected the Miami transfer will factor into the rotation.
91. DL Jelani Hamilton, Akron (from Miami)
Cody Grice and Rodney Coe will be missed on Akron’s defensive line, but the Zips boast the MAC’s top defensive end combination with the return of Jamal Marcus and Se’Von Pittman. Hamilton only played in nine games at Miami, but the former four-star prospect could play a huge role on the interior for coach Terry Bowden.
90. DL Gimel President, Illinois (from Auburn)
President accumulated 45 tackles and three sacks in three years at Auburn and is slated to factor into the defensive line rotation for new coach Lovie Smith. The Fighting Illini return three starters up front, but this unit needs more depth and overall talent after giving up 166.4 rushing yards a game in 2016.
89. TE Kalvin Cline, Texas A&M (from Virginia Tech)
The offseason departure of Jordan Davis opened the door for Cline to land at Texas A&M and play right away as a graduate transfer. He caught 30 passes in three years with the Hokies.
88. QB Conner Manning, Georgia State (from Utah)
Nick Arbuckle finished his Georgia State career in 2015 as one of the nation’s top Group of 5 quarterbacks. En route to earning first-team All-Sun Belt honors, Arbuckle threw for 4,368 yards and 28 scores last season. Manning is part of a three-man battle to replace Arbuckle after transferring from Utah. Manning played in only one game with the Utes and completed two of six passes for 28 yards in 2014. Sophomore Emiere Scaife and redshirt freshman Aaron Winchester will compete with Manning for the starting job in the fall.
87. QB Grant Rohach, Buffalo (from Iowa State)
With Grant Merchant transferring at the end of spring ball, Buffalo’s quarterback battle is down to Rohach and promising redshirt freshman Tyree Jackson. Rohach made five starts in three years with the Cyclones and finished his career in Ames with 1,491 passing yards and 10 touchdowns. Rohach also has good mobility and figures to be a solid fit under second-year coach Lance Leipold and coordinator Andy Kotelnicki – if he can edge Jackson for the No. 1 spot.
86. RB Akeel Lynch, Nevada (from Penn State)
Lynch is expected to spell starter James Butler, giving the Wolf Pack one of the Mountain West’s top backfields for 2016.
85. WR/TE Chris Johnson, Houston (from Baylor)
Johnson began his career at Baylor as a quarterback and later transitioned to receiver before moving back under center as injuries took a toll on the Bears’ quarterback depth chart last season. The Texas native caught three passes for 37 yards last year and also accumulated 145 rushing yards in two seasons of snaps with Baylor. Johnson will be utilized as a hybrid receiver/tight end for the Cougars.
84. OL Jevonte Domond, UTSA (from LSU)
Domond joins former LSU assistant Frank Wilson at UTSA this fall. The Arizona native played in four games in two years with the Tigers after spending two seasons at Glendale Community College. Domond should push for a starting job on an offensive line that returns three starters.
83. LB Davon Durant, Marshall (from Arizona State)
Durant was regarded as one of the top junior college recruits in the 2015 signing class but was dismissed before playing a down with the Sun Devils. The South Carolina native sat out last year after transferring to Marshall and is expected to push for a starting job in the linebacking corps this fall.
Related: Conference USA Predictions for 2016
82. RB Trey Edmunds, Maryland (from Virginia Tech)
Maryland averaged 203 rushing yards in conference play last season, and there’s an opportunity for carries with the departure of Brandon Ross (958 yards). Edmunds recorded 957 yards and 13 touchdowns in three years at Virginia Tech, including 675 yards as a freshman in 2013.
81. DB Lamont Simmons, Georgia Tech (from USC)
Four starters in Georgia Tech’s secondary must be replaced this fall. Simmons – a transfer from USC – is expected to challenge for one of the starting jobs at cornerback. Simmons did not play a down at USC but ranked as a three-star recruit in the 2014 signing class.
80. OL Logan Tuley-Tillman, Akron (from Michigan)
Tuley-Tillman was a late June pickup for the Zips, and his decision to transfer to Akron is a huge boost for an offensive line that replaces all five starters in 2016. He was regarded as a four-star prospect coming out of high school and played in one game at Michigan.
79. CB Tee Shepard, Miami, Ohio (from Ole Miss)
Shepard’s career began at Notre Dame in 2012, but his stint in South Bend wasn’t long, as he transferred to Holmes Community College in 2013 and later bounced to Ole Miss in 2014. The California native missed 2014 due to injury and played in only five games with the Rebels in 2015. With one year of eligibility remaining, Shepard transferred to Miami, Ohio and has a chance to push for a starting spot in the RedHawks’ secondary this fall. - Update: Shepard decided to enter the NFL's Supplemental Draft in July.
78. DE De'Jon Wilson, Syracuse (from Colorado)
A young defensive line is one of the biggest concerns in 2016 for new coach Dino Babers. The addition of Wilson – a graduate transfer from Colorado – provides the Orange defense with an experienced option off the edge. In two years with the Buffaloes, Wilson recorded 19 tackles (two for a loss) and recovered one fumble.
Related: ACC Predictions for 2016
77. QB Zack Greenlee, UTEP (from Fresno State)
With Mack Leftwich sidelined for the 2016 season, Greenlee was a key pickup late in the spring for the Miners. In two years at Fresno State, Greenlee threw for 1,079 yards and 14 touchdowns to six interceptions. The California native did not transfer in time for spring practice but is expected to be locked into a tight battle with sophomores Ryan Metz and Kavika Johnson for the starting nod this fall.
76. QB Zach Allen, Rutgers (from TCU)
Quarterback play is one of the biggest areas of concern for new coach Chris Ash. Chris Laviano (2,247 yards) is the team’s top returning option, and Hayden Rettig also received action in five games last season. However, Rutgers has a new offense, and coordinator Drew Mehringer is looking for more running ability out of his signal-caller. Allen announced his intentions to transfer to the team in early June after three years at TCU. The Texas native was used some at receiver during his stint with the Horned Frogs and also completed two passes for 17 yards in 2014. Allen’s mobility should be a good fit for this offense, but the junior has a lot to prove as a passer.
Related: Big Ten Predictions for 2016
74/75. CB Jarrell Jackson (Hawaii)/Ronald Lewis (Arizona State) to Louisiana Tech
Louisiana Tech’s defense could have four FBS transfers in the starting lineup this season. In addition to linebackers Dalton Santos and Jordan Harris, Jackson and Lewis will push for starting jobs in the secondary. Lewis played in 11 games at Arizona State in 2014, while Jackson participated in three contests with the Rainbow Warriors.
73. TE Daniel Imatorbhebhe, USC (from Florida)
Imatorbhebhe spent one semester at Florida before departing for USC. The Georgia native was regarded as a four-star recruit in the 2015 signing class, and the 6-foot-4 target is another valuable weapon for a USC receiving corps that ranks among the nation’s best for 2016.
72. DL Nick Dawson-Brents, WKU (from Louisville)
With the departure of Gavin Rocker, Bryan Shorter and Jontavius Morris, WKU’s defensive line is in need of a few reinforcements this year. Dawson-Brents played in 37 games with Louisville and recorded 23 tackles over the last three seasons. Dawson-Brents was a four-star recruit out of high school and should make an instant impact for the Hilltoppers’ defense in 2016.
71. S Dallin Leavitt, Utah State (from BYU)
Utah State coach Matt Wells has plenty of voids to fill this offseason, as only three starters return on defense for 2016. However, the secondary is one unit Wells should have confidence in, as cornerback Jalen Davis and safety Devin Centers will challenge for All-Mountain West honors, with Leavitt also expected to step into the lineup after sitting out 2015 due to transfer rules. Leavitt played in 24 games at BYU from 2013-14 and recorded 60 tackles and two pass breakups.
70. QB Kurt Benkert, Virginia (from East Carolina)
Even though Virginia has a returning starter (Matt Johns), new coach Bronco Mendenhall wasn’t afraid of adding competition to boost the team’s overall talent level and depth at quarterback. Benkert was slated to start at East Carolina before a knee injury sidelined him prior to the 2015 campaign. In 2014, Benkert played in three games with the Pirates and completed 8 of 10 passes for 58 yards. Johns is still the favorite to start, but Benkert showed promise in limited snaps at East Carolina and adds competition for a rebuilding Virginia team this fall.
69. CB Kamryn Melton, Troy (from Auburn)
After two seasons at Auburn, Melton is making the short drive to Troy to finish his collegiate career. The three-star prospect in the 2013 signing class played in three games with the Tigers as a freshman and redshirted as a sophomore (2014). Melton is expected to start at cornerback for the Trojans this fall.
68. QB Chad Voytik, Arkansas State (from Pitt)
Fredi Knighten departs after a successful two-year stint as Arkansas State’s starter, but coach Blake Anderson has two promising options vying for the starting job. Junior college transfer (and former Oklahoma signal-caller) Justice Hansen and Pitt transfer Chad Voytik are set to battle for the No. 1 spot in the fall. Voytik started all 13 games for Pitt in 2014 and threw for 2,223 yards and 16 touchdowns and added 466 yards and three scores on the ground. Voytik lost the starting job at Pitt to Nathan Peterman in 2015 but is a key pickup for Anderson and the potent Arkansas State offense for 2016.
67. QB Ryan Finley, NC State (from Boise State)
Jacoby Brissett leaves big shoes to fill in Raleigh this season, and the Wolfpack exited spring with Jalan McClendon and Jakobi Meyers locked into a tight battle for the No. 1 spot. However, McClendon and Meyers will have competition in the fall, as Finley is eligible as a graduate transfer after three years at Boise State. Finley redshirted in his debut with the Broncos and completed 58 passes for 646 yards and three scores over the next two years. Finley was slated to be Boise State’s starting quarterback in 2015 but was sidelined after the third game for the remainder of the season due to an ankle injury.
Related: ACC Predictions for 2016
65/66. RB Derrell Scott, Tennessee to ECU/Jeffrey Coprich, California to ECU
New coach Scottie Montgomery has plenty of talented skill players to work with in his debut with the Pirates. Scott (a transfer from Tennessee) and Coprich (a graduate transfer) will compete with Anthony Scott to form one of the deepest backfields in the American Athletic Conference.
College Football: Breaking Down Athlon’s 2016 Top 25
64. WR John Diarse, TCU (from LSU)
The quarterback battle between Kenny Hill and Foster Sawyer will continue into fall practice. However, regardless of which quarterback starts for coach Gary Patterson, the new signal-caller will have one of the deepest groups of skill players in the Big 12. The move to Fort Worth should ensure plenty of targets in Diarse’s direction. After all, TCU attempted 517 passes in 2015, while his former team LSU recorded 277. Diarse caught 28 passes for 412 yards and three touchdowns during a two-year stint with the Tigers.
64. OL Cory Helms, South Carolina (from Wake Forest)
New coach Will Muschamp has a major rebuilding effort on his hands with just seven total returning starters from last year’s 3-9 team. Only two of those starters return in the trenches, but the line should get a boost with Helms stepping into one of the guard spots. The Georgia native started 18 games at Wake Forest before transferring after the 2014 campaign.
63. WR JoJo Natson, Akron (from Utah State)
Natson’s career at Utah State ended due to a violation of team rules, but the Florida native is a dynamic playmaker and should make an instant impact on returns. In three years with the Aggies, Natson caught 127 passes for 1,031 yards and added 611 yards and six scores on the ground. Additionally, Natson averaged 11.5 yards on punt returns and scored four times on special teams.
Related: MAC Predictions for 2016
61/62. WR Kendall Sanders (Texas)/Cameron Echols-Luper (TCU) to Arkansas State
The Red Wolves could have three Big 12 transfers starting on offense this fall, as Sanders (Texas), Echols-Luper (TCU) and quarterback Justice Hansen (Oklahoma/junior college recruit) were key pickups on the recruiting trail for coach Blake Anderson. Sanders and Echols-Luper bring dynamic play-making ability and speed for a receiving corps that must replace Tres Houston, J.D. McKissic and tight end Darion Griswold.
60. WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling, USF (to NC State)
Quinton Flowers was one of the nation’s top breakout quarterbacks last season, and USF coach Willie Taggart hopes to see his junior signal-caller take another step forward in 2016. Flowers should have plenty of help on the outside, as Rodney Adams and Chris Barr are back as returning starters at receiver, and this unit will get deeper with the addition of Valdes-Scantling. In two years at NC State, Valdes-Scantling caught 44 passes for 538 yards and one score. He was one of the spring’s top performers for the Bulls and will be a valuable addition for the passing game.
59. RB I'Tavius Mathers, MTSU (from Ole Miss)
With quarterback Brent Stockstill and receiver Richie James back in 2016, MTSU’s offense should be among the best in Conference USA once again. Mathers rushed for 1,061 yards and seven scores in three years at Ole Miss and is slated to take over the No. 1 job in the backfield for the Blue Raiders.
58. OL Jake Raulerson, Arkansas (from Texas)
Arkansas’ offensive line has a few voids to fill this offseason. Three starters depart the Razorbacks’ front five, but junior Frank Ragnow and senior Dan Skipper provide a good foundation to start the rebuilding effort. Raulerson – a late pickup in June – could contribute right away after transferring in from Texas. He started five games for the Longhorns in 2014 and is versatile enough to see snaps in a variety of spots in the trenches.
Related: SEC Predictions for 2016
57. OL Tyler Catalina, Georgia (Rhode Island)
New line coach Sam Pittman wasted no time looking for upgrades in talent and overall depth up front this spring. Catalina was one of his top pickups on the recruiting trail, as the graduate transfer from Rhode Island was considered one of the top linemen in the FCS ranks. Catalina started 33 games with the Rams and possesses the necessary size (6-foot-6 and 325 pounds) to compete in the SEC. The tougher level of competition will be a challenge, but Catalina is a key pickup for the Bulldogs.
55/56. LB Jordan Harris (Iowa State)/Dalton Santos (Texas) to Louisiana Tech
All three starters at linebacker must be replaced for Louisiana Tech’s defense, but this unit received a boost with the post-spring additions of Harris and Santos. Harris ranked third on Iowa State’s defense with 70 stops last season, while Santos played in 36 games during his Texas career.
54. LB Ukeme Eligwe, Georgia Southern (from Florida State)
Eligwe ranked as one of the nation’s top linebacker recruits in the 2012 signing class and played in 14 games before deciding to transfer to Georgia Southern. Eligwe received significant action in the Seminoles’ 2013 title run, recording 28 stops and two tackles in 13 appearances.
53. CB Cedric Dozier, Kansas State (from California)
Kansas State’s secondary ranked 112th nationally in pass efficiency defense last season, but help is on the way for coach Bill Snyder. Safety Dante Barnett is back after missing nearly all of 2015 due to an injury, and Dozier is expected to challenge for a starting spot at cornerback after transferring in from California. He recorded 80 tackles and nine passes defended in three years with the Golden Bears.
Related: Big 12 Predictions for 2016
51/52. CB Jamel Dean (Ohio State)/Marshall Taylor (Miami, Ohio) to Auburn
Sophomore Carlton Davis is already one of the SEC’s top cornerbacks, but the Tigers need to find an answer on the other side. The likely solution comes via the transfer ranks, as Dean – a four-star recruit in the 2015 signing class – and Taylor (a graduate transfer from Miami, Ohio) are expected to battle for a starting spot in the fall. Taylor made 10 starts with the RedHawks and recorded 39 tackles last season.
50. LB E.J. Levenberry, UConn (from Florida State)
With six returning starters and one of the nation’s top cornerbacks in Jamar Summers anchoring the secondary, UConn’s defense should be the best in the American Athletic Conference this year. Levenberry’s arrival only adds to the talent level on this unit, as the Florida State transfer is expected to claim a starting spot in the linebacking corps. Levenberry played in 26 games with the Seminoles and recorded 60 tackles in that span.
48/49. LB Courtney Love (Nebraska)/De’Niro Laster (Minnesota) to Kentucky
Kentucky’s defense gave up 27.4 points a game last season and enters 2016 with key question marks at each level. However, some of those concerns could be eased if Love and Laster emerge as key contributors at linebacker. Love played in 12 games in his only season of action at Nebraska, while Laster played in nine contests with Minnesota in 2014. Both players are expected to see a healthy complement of snaps in 2016.
47. CB/S Adrian Colbert, Miami (from Texas)
The cornerback spot is a concern for new coordinator Manny Diaz, as the Hurricanes must replace first-round pick Artie Burns and fellow starter Tracy Howard. Colbert is a versatile option for Diaz and could slide into one of the cornerback spots after spending his career at Texas at safety. Colbert recorded 26 tackles in 38 games with the Longhorns.
46. WR LaQuvionte Gonzalez, Kansas (from Texas A&M)
Playmakers are in short supply in Lawrence, but coach David Beaty has help coming in the form of Gonzalez. The Texas native played under Beaty at Texas A&M from 2013-15 and caught 26 passes during that span. Gonzalez should step into the starting lineup this fall and is expected to emerge as the go-to target for quarterback Ryan Willis.
45. RB Warren Ball, Akron (from Ohio State)
Akron coach Terry Bowden has added plenty of transfers to the Zips’ roster in his tenure, and Ball has a chance to be another high-impact addition. With Conor Hundley out of eligibility, Akron is looking for a go-to running back for 2016. Ball was a four-star recruit in the high school ranks but recorded only 41 attempts at Ohio State. He is expected to push Van Edwards for the starting job.
44. WR Chris Black, Missouri (from Alabama)
Missouri’s young receiving corps experienced its share of ups and downs last season, but there’s optimism for this group with the team’s top two options – J’Mon Moore and Nate Brown – back in 2016. Black transferred to Columbia in search of more playing time, and the No. 45 overall prospect in the 2012 signing class should be an impact addition for coordinator Josh Heupel. Black caught 25 passes in three seasons of action with the Crimson Tide.
43. CB Daquawn Brown, Fresno State (from Washington State)
Prior to his dismissal from Washington State, Brown was considered one of the Pac-12’s rising stars. In two years with the Cougars, Brown registered 132 tackles, 16 pass breakups, two interceptions and earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors in 2014. If Brown picks up where he left off in Pullman, he should emerge as one of the Mountain West’s top defenders.
42. DB Maurice Smith, Alabama to ?
Smith has been a valuable member of Alabama’s secondary over the last three seasons. The Texas native played in 41 contests with the Crimson Tide and recorded 38 tackles, along with five passes defended. Smith’s decision to leave Tuscaloosa came as a surprise in mid-June, but the senior is expected to land at another Power 5 program for 2016.
41. QB Philip Nelson, East Carolina (from Minnesota/Rutgers)
Nelson has traveled an interesting road to East Carolina and has yet to play in a FBS game since the 2013 season. The Minnesota native spent two years with the Golden Gophers from 2012-13 and threw for 2,179 yards and 17 scores in that span. Additionally, Nelson added 548 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. After two seasons with Minnesota, Nelson transferred to Rutgers but was later dismissed from the team after an off-field incident in 2014. Nelson edged Kurt Benkert (transferred to Virginia after spring ball) for the starting the job and has a chance to have a solid senior year with a strong supporting cast at East Carolina.
40. LB Keith Brown, WKU (from Louisville)
Brown is the second Louisville defender transferring to WKU to make this list. The Miami native was active around the line of scrimmage in his career with the Cardinals, recording 113 tackles in 37 appearances. Brown has the talent to be one of Conference USA’s top defenders this season.
38/39. WR Avery Peterson (LSU)/Jamil Kamara (Virginia) to Cincinnati
The Bearcats must replace their top six statistical receivers from last season, but there’s help on the way in the form of two impact transfers in Kamara (Virginia) and Peterson (LSU). Both players were considered top 250 prospects in their signing class and have three seasons of eligibility at Cincinnati. Kamara and Peterson could be among the top newcomers in the American Athletic Conference in 2016.
37. OL Jimmy Lowery, Boston College (from Eastern Illinois)
The offensive line was a strength for Boston College in coach Steve Addazio’s first two seasons (2013-14), but this unit was inconsistent last fall. Lowery is slated to push for the starting job at left tackle after spending the last three years at Eastern Illinois. The Illinois native started 31 games with the Panthers and earned second-team All-Ohio Valley honors last year.
Related: ACC Predictions for 2016
36. OL Ryan Ramcyzk, Wisconsin (from Wisconsin Stevens-Point)
Ramczyk will be one of the most interesting transfers on this list to watch in 2016. The Wisconsin native played two years at UW-Stevens Point before transferring to Madison. Ramczyk recorded all-conference honors in both seasons (2013-14) and is slated to take to start at left tackle for the Badgers this fall.
34/35. DB Antonio Crawford (Miami)/Maurice Fleming (Iowa) to West Virginia
West Virginia’s secondary suffered heavy personnel losses and heads into fall practice looking for four new starters. However, help is on the way in the form of two transfers – Crawford and Fleming – as well as a few reinforcements from the junior college ranks. Crawford played in 13 games and recorded 19 tackles with the Hurricanes in 2014. Fleming played in 14 contests last season and finished with 17 tackles and five pass breakups.
33. LB Michael Barton, Arizona (from California)
Improving the defense was the top priority this offseason for coach Rich Rodriguez. The Wildcats have a revamped staff, and a scheme change is likely under new play-caller Marcel Yates. The linebacking corps is expected to be the strength of the defense for Yates, as Barton arrives from Berkeley with one year of eligibility remaining. Barton was a standout performer on California’s defense over the last three seasons, recording 80 stops (7.5 for a loss) in 2014. He should factor prominently into the defense this year.
32. QB Jared Johnson, UTSA (from Sam Houston State)
UTSA ranked 11th in Conference USA in passing offense last season, but new coach Frank Wilson hopes to generate improvement with the addition of Johnson through the graduate transfer rank and the hire of veteran assistant Frank Scelfo to call the plays. Johnson was the Southland Offensive Player of the Year after accounting for 2,686 total yards and 23 overall scores in 2015. Johnson should provide a spark for UTSA’s offense and will be an impact transfer for Wilson.
31. DL Dewayne Hendrix, Pitt (from Tennessee)
If Hendrix lives up to his recruiting hype – four-star recruit in the 247Sports Composite – then Pitt could have one of the nation’s top defensive end combos for 2016. All-America candidate Ejuan Price anchors one side of the line, and Hendrix is penciled in as a key contributor on the other side. Hendrix recorded two tackles in only season (2014) of action at Tennessee.
29/30. DL Kolin Hill (Notre Dame)/Ondre Pipkins (Michigan) to Texas Tech
Improvement on defense is a must if Texas Tech wants to exceed last year’s seven-win mark. Help is on the way for coordinator David Gibbs, as Hill (Notre Dame) and Pipkins (Michigan) are eligible after sitting out the 2015 season due to transfer rules. Hill was a three-star recruit in the 2014 signing class and recorded two sacks in his only year with the Fighting Irish. Pipkins was a four-star recruit in the 2012 signing class and played in 23 games with the Wolverines. Both players should push for a starting spot this season.
28. WR Rashaad Samples, Houston (from Oklahoma State)
Demarcus Ayers led all Houston receivers with 98 catches last season, but he decided to depart for the NFL, leaving a void on the outside for quarterback Greg Ward. The cupboard isn’t totally bare, as Chance Allen (56 catches) and Steven Dunbar (31) form a solid foundation. Samples is a dynamic pickup for coach Tom Herman and could slide into Ayers’ role as the slot receiver. The junior was regarded as a four-star prospect out of high school.
27. QB Alec Morris, North Texas (from Alabama)
New coach Seth Littrell has a lot of work to do in his first season in Denton. North Texas finished 1-11 and averaged only 15.2 points a game last year. Littrell is one of the nation’s top offensive minds and should get this program back on track over the next couple of seasons, and there’s immediate help on the way in the form of Morris – a graduate transfer from Alabama. In three seasons with the Crimson Tide, Morris attempted only one pass and played in eight games. However, the Texas native should be a good fit for Littrell’s offense, and the former three-star recruit should provide a spark for the Mean Green attack.
26. OL Zac Morgan, Oregon (from Dayton)
The Ducks have a bit of work to do up front this offseason, as three starters from last year’s group must be replaced. Junior Tyrell Crosby is an All-America candidate on the left side, but Oregon could turn to a graduate transfer to handle the starting duties at right tackle. Morgan transferred from Dayton to Oregon for his final year of eligibility, and the Illinois native brings good size (6-foot-7 and 280 pounds) and experience (26 career starts) to Eugene.
25. DL Kevin Williams, Michigan State (from Nebraska)
The departures of Shilique Calhoun, Joel Heath and Lawrence Thomas leave big shoes to fill up front for the Spartans. Junior Malik McDowell is one of the nation’s top defensive linemen, but Michigan State will be looking for a few new faces to emerge to keep the attention away from its All-America tackle. With one year of eligibility remaining, Williams is making the in-conference move from Nebraska to East Lansing. Williams played in 23 games with the Cornhuskers and recorded 10 tackles for a loss in that span. He’s expected to be a key contributor for Mark Dantonio’s defense this fall.
24. OL Darius James, Auburn (from Texas)
The exact starting five and positions on Auburn’s offensive line are unsettled headed into fall practice, but the Tigers have the makings of one of the SEC’s top groups. Three starters are back for coach Gus Malzahn, while James – a transfer from Texas – is expected to grab one of the starting jobs at tackle. James ranked as the No. 34 overall prospect by the 247Sports Composite in the 2013 signing class and played in six games (with two starts) as a redshirt freshman in 2014.
23. LB Rommel Mageo, Ole Miss (from Oregon State)
Mageo’s post-Signing Day decision to transfer to Ole Miss was a critical pickup for coach Hugh Freeze’s defense. Mageo led Oregon State with 87 tackles in 2015 and also recorded two interceptions, two forced fumbles and one pass breakup. The senior is expected to challenge for the starting job at middle linebacker in Ole Miss’ 4-2-5 scheme.
22. C Joseph Scelfo, NC State (from South Alabama)
NC State’s line returns only two starters from a unit that helped the ground attack rank fourth in the ACC (202.1 ypg). However, help is on the way in the form of Scelfo. The graduate transfer from South Alabama was one of the top centers in the Group of 5 conferences and started 35 games with the Jaguars.
21. CB Priest Willis, Texas A&M (from UCLA)
Both cornerback spots are up for grabs in College Station with the departure of De’Vante Harris and Brandon Williams. But the Aggies may not see much of a drop at cornerback with the addition of Willis from UCLA, along with Nick Harvey’s development on the other side. Willis was a four-star recruit in the 2013 signing class for the Bruins and recorded 31 tackles in two seasons.
20. QB Darell Garretson, Oregon State (from Utah State)
Oregon State’s offense struggled mightily last season, finishing 12th in the Pac-12 by averaging only 19 points a game. Coach Gary Andersen wasted no time making changes this offseason, as Kevin McGiven and T.J. Woods were promoted to co-coordinators, with last year’s quarterback – Seth Collins – switching to a slash/all-purpose role in 2016. Garretson started seven games at Utah State as a true freshman in 2013 and finished the year with 1,446 passing yards and 10 scores. He was pressed into duty once again due to injuries in 2014 and threw for 1,140 yards and eight touchdowns in five appearances. Garretson also displayed his mobility to make plays on the run with the Aggies, adding 344 yards and 18 scores in two seasons. He's slated to take the take the first snap for Oregon State this fall.
19. DL Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, USC (from Utah)
The addition of Tu'ikolovatu was a key summer pickup for coach Clay Helton. The Trojans are in rebuild mode up front, as four key contributors from last season’s line expired their eligibility after the Holiday Bowl. Tu'ikolovatu played in 25 games at Utah and recorded 28 tackles, including six for a loss in 2015. At 320 pounds, Tu'ikolovatu is a good fit to anchor the interior of coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s hybrid defense.
Related: Pac-12 Predictions for 2016
18. WR Gehrig Dieter, Alabama (from Bowling Green)
Alabama’s receiving corps was already one of the nation’s best headed into 2016, but this group got even deeper with the addition of Dieter in February. After starting his career at SMU, Dieter transferred to Bowling Green and played two seasons in Dino Babers’ high-powered offense. After catching 35 passes for 460 yards in his first year with the Falcons, Dieter grabbed 94 receptions for 1,033 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Dieter probably won’t equal those totals in 2016, but he should be another valuable weapon in Lane Kiffin’s offense.
17. RB Barry Sanders, Oklahoma State (from Stanford)
Improving the ground game is a must if Oklahoma State wants to challenge Oklahoma or TCU for the Big 12 title. The Cowboys averaged only 126.9 yards a game in 2015, but there’s help on the way in the form of Sanders. The Oklahoma native was a four-star recruit out of high school and rushed for 672 yards and five scores in three years with Stanford. With Christian McCaffrey entrenched as the Cardinal’s starter, transferring to Oklahoma State will allow Sanders to push for a full workload in 2016.
16. LB T.J. Neal, Auburn (from Illinois)
With Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy expiring their eligibility, Auburn’s defense needed an impact addition at linebacker to ease the transition to the unit’s younger players. Neal’s arrival should ease some of the concerns for coordinator Kevin Steele, as the Pennsylvania native arrives at Auburn after three productive seasons with the Fighting Illini. In 2015, Neal played in all 12 games for Illinois and recorded 109 tackles and two sacks.
15. RB Alex Ross, Missouri (from Oklahoma)
Missouri’s rushing attack struggled mightily last year, managing only 115.4 yards a game and just 3.5 yards per carry. Ish Witter (518 yards) is back, but the ground game is expected to get a boost from the addition of Ross, who reunites with former Oklahoma play-caller Josh Heupel. In three years with the Sooners, Ross recorded 786 yards and five rushing scores and was also a weapon on kickoff returns (25.7 average and two scores from 2014-15).
14. QB Patrick Towles, Boston College (from Kentucky)
Despite owning one of the nation’s top defenses last season, Boston College finished 3-9 and winless in conference play. Offense was the primary culprit for the Eagles, as this unit managed only 9.1 points a game in ACC contests and failed to score more than 20 points in each of the last 10 contests. However, help is on the way for coach Steve Addazio. With Drew Barker entrenched as Kentucky’s starter, Towles transferred to Boston College looking for a starting job for his final year of eligibility. In three seasons of playing time with the Wildcats, Towles threw for 5,099 yards and 24 scores, including two years of 2,000 or more passing yards (2014-15). Towles isn’t expected to push for All-ACC honors, but he should give the Boston College offense a much-needed boost after managing only 110.9 passing yards per game in 2015.
13. QB John O’Korn, Michigan (from Houston)
Jim Harbaugh had a lot of success with a transfer quarterback (Jake Rudock) last season. Could the same formula work once again for the Wolverines in 2016? O’Korn had a promising start to his career at Houston, throwing for 3,117 yards and 28 scores in 2013. However, O’Korn struggled in 2014 and was benched in favor of Greg Ward after tossing eight interceptions through the first five games. The Florida native should benefit from a change of scenery and the opportunity to work under Harbaugh. O’Korn finished spring locked into a tight battle with Wilton Speight for the starting job.
12. QB Mike White, WKU (from South Florida)
Brandon Doughty closed out a prolific career at WKU with a standout senior season as one of the nation’s top quarterbacks. Doughty torched opposing defenses for 5,055 yards and 48 touchdowns in 2015 and earned third-team All-America honors by Athlon Sports. Replacing Doughty’s production won’t be easy, but Jeff Brohm is one of the nation’s top offensive minds and should keep the WKU offense on track. White showed promise in a two-year stint at USF, throwing for 2,722 yards and 11 scores from 2013-14. The junior is the frontrunner to replace Doughty as WKU’s starter for 2016.
11. LB Hardy Nickerson, Illinois (from California)
With one season of eligibility remaining, Nickerson left California for Illinois and an opportunity to play under his father – Hardy Nickerson Sr. Over the last three seasons with the Golden Bears, Nickerson recorded 124 tackles (nine for a loss) and forced two fumbles. The senior could be a standout on Illinois’ defense and is expected to challenge for All-Big Ten honors.
10. DL Dee Liner, Arkansas State (from Alabama)
Arkansas State already has one of the top Group of 5 defensive linemen in Ja’Von Rolland-Jones, and the Red Wolves should have another standout in the mix with Liner joining the team after transferring from Alabama. Liner ranked as the No. 46 overall recruit by the 247Sports Composite in the 2015 signing class and recorded three tackles in limited action. Liner should be the Sun Belt’s top newcomer for 2016.
9. WR Geno Lewis, Oklahoma (from Penn State)
With Sterling Shepard off to the NFL, Oklahoma’s receiving corps will look a little different this season. The Sooners aren’t hurting for potential targets, as Dede Westbrook and Mark Andrews are back after combining for 55 catches last season, while Lewis is eligible immediately as a graduate transfer from Penn State. Lewis grabbed 90 passes in his career with the Nittany Lions, including 55 receptions for 751 yards in 2014.
8. QB Luke Del Rio, Florida (from Oregon State)
Florida’s offense struggled mightily once Will Grier was lost for the year due to a suspension. The Gators averaged only 22.7 points in SEC contests last season and tossed only five touchdown passes over the final six games. While the offense still has to prove in game action it found the right answers this offseason, it’s hard to envision this unit performing at the same level. Del Rio is eligible after sitting out 2015 as a transfer from Oregon State and finished spring as Florida’s No. 1 quarterback. Luke – the son of NFL coach Jack Del Rio – spent one year at Alabama (2013) and played the 2014 season at Oregon State. In his time with the Beavers, Del Rio completed 8 of 18 passes for 141 yards. His experience is limited, but Del Rio should provide a boost for Florida’s passing game.
7. RB Keith Ford, Texas A&M (from Oklahoma)
Two transfers – quarterback Trevor Knight and Ford – are expected to lead the way for Texas A&M’s offense this season. Ford was a five-star prospect out of high school and originally signed with Oklahoma. In two years with the Aggies, Ford rushed for 526 yards and six scores, including 392 on only 71 attempts in 2014. After sitting out 2015 due to transfer rules, Ford is primed to emerge as one of the SEC’s top running backs this fall.
6. DL Gerald Willis, Miami (from Florida)
New Miami line coach Craig Kuligowski has a strong track record of developing standout linemen from his tenure at Missouri and his arrival will immediately help a defensive front that must improve after ranking 13th in the ACC in run defense last year. Willis ranked as the No. 34 overall prospect in the 247Sports Composite for the 2014 signing class and transferred to Miami after one season with the Gators. The Louisiana native is expected to play a key role on the interior of Miami’s defensive line this year.
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5. RB Duke Catalon, Houston (from Texas)
Dynamic senior quarterback Greg Ward leads the way for Houston’s ground attack, but the Cougars must replace their No. 2 and No. 3 rushers from last season. Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson expired their eligibility after the Peach Bowl win against Florida State, leaving a large void at running back headed into spring ball. However, the cupboard is far from bare for coach Tom Herman. Catalon was a four-star recruit for Texas in 2014 and decided to transfer before playing a down with the Longhorns. Catalon has the talent to be one of the American Athletic Conference’s top running backs in 2016.
4. QB Dakota Prukop, Oregon (from Montana State)
A graduate transfer (Vernon Adams) from the FCS level at quarterback worked out well for Oregon in 2015. Prukop should be another good fit for the Ducks in their dynamic offense, as he transfers to Oregon after accounting for 3,822 yards and 39 total scores at Montana State last season. Additionally, Prukop earned first-team All-America honors by the Associated Press in 2015. It’s hard to read too much into spring game statistics, but Prukop appears to be making an easy transition into the program. The senior completed 20 of 29 throws for 190 yards and two touchdowns in Oregon’s spring game. While Prukop has an impressive resume from his stint at Montana State, he will be pushed by Travis Jonsen for the starting job. Prukop may not be the dynamic playmaker through the air that Adams was, but he will present a bigger threat on the ground to opposing defenses.
3. QB Trevor Knight, Texas A&M (from Oklahoma)
The December decisions by Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray to transfer from Texas A&M left coach Kevin Sumlin searching for immediate help at quarterback. Sumlin didn’t have to look too far for an answer, as Knight wanted an opportunity to start in his senior year with Baker Mayfield entrenched as Oklahoma’s No. 1 quarterback. Knight appeared to be on the verge of a breakout season after torching Alabama for 348 passing yards and four touchdowns in the 2014 Sugar Bowl. However, Knight didn’t build off that performance and finished the 2014 season with 2,300 passing yards and 14 touchdown passes. Mayfield supplanted Knight as Oklahoma’s starter in 2015. The senior should be a good fit in new coordinator Noel Mazzone’s offense and is surrounded by a deep group of skill players, including one of the SEC's top receiving corps. If Knight can stay healthy, he has a chance to finish 2016 as one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks.
Related: Athlon Sports 2016 All-America Team
2. QB Kenny Hill, TCU (from Texas A&M)
Even though TCU’s offense suffered some heavy losses, this unit may not slip too far on the stat sheet in 2016. Trevone Boykin leaves big shoes to fill at quarterback, but the Horned Frogs have two capable options – Kenny Hill and Foster Sawyer – waiting in the wings. Hill replaced Johnny Manziel after he left for the NFL in 2014 and started the first eight games of the season. The Texas native threw for 2,649 yards and 23 scores and added 156 yards on the ground during his starting stint. However, Hill struggled midway through the year and was eventually replaced by Kyle Allen. Since the arrival of co-coordinators Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie, TCU has averaged over 40 points in back-to-back seasons. With a loaded group of skill players at his disposal, Hill could be the point guard of an explosive TCU attack in 2016. However, he still has to hold off Sawyer for the starting job this fall.
1. QB Davis Webb, California (from Texas Tech)
Replacing the No. 1 overall pick (Jared Goff) in the NFL Draft is never easy, but California’s offense should be set with the addition of Davis Webb under center. Webb was the most sought after graduate transfer quarterback this season and was committed to Colorado before switching to California in May. The transition from Texas Tech’s offense to California’s Bear Raid attack should be an easy one for Webb, as new play-caller Jake Spavital operated a similar scheme at Texas A&M and West Virginia. During his three seasons with the Red Raiders, Webb threw for 5,557 yards and 46 scores. The Golden Bears will have a revamped group of receivers for Webb to throw to, but the senior is considered one of the top prospects at quarterback for the 2017 NFL Draft and should push for All-Pac-12 honors.
Other Key Quarterback Transfers
QB Austin Appleby, Purdue to Florida
QB Danny Etling, Purdue to LSU
QB Tyler Ferguson, WKU to Louisville
QB Cole Garvin, South Alabama to Marshall
QB Anthony Jennings, LSU to ?
QB Zach Kline, California to ?
QB Eddie Printz, Missouri to Texas State
QB Asiantii Woulard, UCLA to USF
Other Key Running Back Transfers for 2016
RB King Burke, SJSU to NMSU
RB Squally Canada, Washington State to BYU
RB Denzell Evans, Arkansas to Kansas
RB Derrick Green, Michigan to ?
RB J.J. Green, Georgia to Georgia Tech
FB Jacob Kraut, Rutgers to FIU
RB Tommy Mister, Indiana to Northern Illinois
RB Omar Stover, Wyoming to WKU
FB Walter Tucker, Miami to FIU
Other Key Wide Receiver Transfers for 2016
WR Jocquez Bruce, Tennessee to MTSU
WR Dannon Cavil, Oklahoma to UTSA
WR Shelby Christy, Mississippi State to UL Lafayette
WR Jordan Cunningham, Vanderbilt to North Carolina
WR Amba Etta-Tawo, Maryland to Syracuse
WR Harrison Jackson, BC to New Mexico State
WR Marchie Murdock, Illinois to Iowa State
WR Teldrick Morgan, NMSU to Maryland
WR Alfred Smith, Utah to Louisiana Tech
WR Michael Summers, Georgia Tech to Georgia Southern
WR Vic Wharton, Tennessee to California
Other Key Tight End Transfers for 2016
TE/FB Michael Ferns, Michigan to West Virginia
TE Greg Hart, Nebraska to Kentucky
TE Daniel Helm, Tennessee to Duke
TE Chase Hounshell, Notre Dame to Ohio State
TE Jordan Jones, Gardner-Webb to UTSA
TE Alex Leslie, Iowa State to Houston
Other Key Offensive Line Transfers
OL Will Adams, Auburn to Boise State
OL Jared Cohen, North Carolina to Virginia
OL Will Dancy, North Carolina to East Carolina
OL Brayden Kearsley, BYU to Oregon State
OL Trey Keenan, Texas Tech to North Texas
OL Dan Samuelson, Michigan to Eastern Michigan
OL Paul Thurston, Nebraska to Colorado State
Other Key Defensive Line Transfers
DL Ja'merez Bowen, Cincinnati to Indiana
DL Joe Keels, Nebraska to Eastern Michigan
DL Melvin Keihn, Virginia Tech to Maryland
DL Malachi Moore, Boston College to Rutgers
DL Jack Powers, Arizona State to Virginia
DL Gabe Sherrod, Delaware State to ?
DL Tom Strobel, Michigan to Ohio
DL Hez Trahan, Pitt to Temple
DE Jhonny Williams, Notre Dame to Toledo
Other Key Linebacker Transfers
LB Cecil Cherry, Texas to USF
LB Ronnie Feist, LSU to UTSA
LB Dorian Hendrix, Kentucky to Bowling Green
LB Jeremi Powell, Florida to Toledo
LB Jason Sylva, Western Michigan to Idaho
Other Key Defensive Back Transfers
DB Eric Amoako, Houston Baptist to Minnesota
DB Evrett Edwards, Duke to Iowa State
DB Desmond Frye, Virginia Tech to Toledo
CB Wesley Green, South Carolina to Indiana
DB Kamel Greene, Washington State to BYU
DB Kevin Houchins, Louisville to HIo
DB Austin Hudson, Wisconsin to USF
CB Bryce Jones, Boston College to Akron
CB Jermaine Kelly, Washington to San Jose State
S Derrick Moncrief, Auburn to Oklahoma State
DB Jalen Ortiz, UCLA to Wyoming
DB Devontre Parnell, Louisville to USM
DB Terry Richardson, Michigan to Marshall
S Shaun Rupert, Missouri to Memphis
DB Prince Sam, Houston Baptist, Louisiana Tech
DB/RB Ross Taylor-Douglas, Michigan to Rutgers
K/P Satchel Ziffer, Old Dominion to Boston College
Red, white and blue and stars and stripes will be two prominent themes across MLB on July 4. For the ninth consecutive year, all 30 MLB teams will wear specially designed caps to celebrate Independence Day and will have a matching jersey to complement the look for the second summer in a row.
The patriotic look was created in partnership with New Era and Majestic and is part of this year’s line of special event looks, which were originally unveiled in April. Teams wore pink-centric uniforms on Mother’s Day, camouflage-influenced ones on Memorial Day and light blue duds on Father's Day.
MLB will donate a portion of its licensed Independence Day uniform royalties to Welcome Back Veterans, an organization that also was recognized on Memorial Day. The Toronto Blue Jays' uniform, which features a maple leaf design on the cap and incorporates the colors of the Canadian flag, also will be worn on Canada Day on July 1.
So with every team set to don red, white and blue, which ones will stand out on Independence Day? Results on the field aside, here are 10 teams (in alphabetical order) we are giving a W to in the fashion column on July 4.
Los Angeles Dodgers
St. Louis Cardinals
San Diego Padres
Toronto Blue Jays