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It’s no secret quarterback play is an integral part of every college football team and its hopes of winning a national title, contending for a conference championship or simply making a bowl. However, this position is also the most difficult one to judge, rank or evaluate. With the uncertainty and difficulty in evaluating this position, it should come as no surprise that a handful of names emerge as breakout stars during every college football season.
Who are the next breakout stars at quarterback for 2016? Athlon has compiled 25 names to watch, along with a few others to consider.
College Football's Top 25 Breakout QBs for 2016
Just Missed: Tyler O’Connor, Michigan State; Kyle Shurmur, Vanderbilt; Alec Morris, North Texas; Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State
25. Garrett Smith, ULM
New coach Matt Viator has plenty of holes to fill in his first year on the job. The Warhawks return nine starters, including just two on defense. While the defense will require some major renovating, ULM has pieces to work with on offense. Smith had a promising debut last season, throwing for 2,033 yards and 17 touchdowns in 10 appearances. He also added 250 yards and two scores on the ground. With a deep group of receivers in place, along with the addition of new coordinator Matt Kubik, Smith is poised to build off his freshman campaign in 2016.
24. Johnny Stanton, UNLV
UNLV only improved its win total by one game from 2014 to 2015, but the Rebels took a step forward in coach Tony Sanchez’s first year. And with 16 returning starters in place for 2016, there’s optimism for UNLV to make a push for a bowl this fall. Sanchez has recruited well, which includes a big commitment from Stanton in the 2016 signing class. The former Nebraska quarterback spent 2015 at Saddleback Community College and finished the year by passing for 3,471 yards and 27 scores and adding 747 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. Stanton ranked as a three-star prospect in the 247Sports Composite and could be the Mountain West’s top newcomer for 2016.
Related: Ranking All 128 Teams for 2016
23. Tago Smith, Navy
Replacing Keenan Reynolds isn’t going to be easy. However, as coach Ken Niumatalolo has done throughout his tenure, the Midshipmen will simply reload and push for eight or nine-win season. Smith is slated to replace Reynolds, and the Georgia native has fared well in limited action. The senior has played in 18 career games and completed 12 of 17 throws for 245 yards and four scores. Additionally, Smith has rushed for 294 yards and five touchdowns. He may not be as dynamic or as valuable as Reynolds, but Smith should be a solid starter for the Midshipmen.
22. Trace McSorley, Penn State
After two subpar years on offense, James Franklin hit the reset button this offseason. Joe Moorhead was hired as the team’s new coordinator, and former Minnesota assistant Matt Limegrover is tasked with improving a struggling offensive line. Moorhead is one of the Big Ten’s top assistant hires for 2016 and has to groom a new starter at quarterback with Christian Hackenberg off to the NFL. McSorley played well in limited action last season, completing 20 of 40 passes for 185 yards and two scores. Most of his playing time came against Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl after Hackenberg was lost due to injury. In that contest, McSorley completed 14 of 27 passes for 142 yards and two touchdowns and rallied the Nittany Lions from a 24-3 deficit to a 24-17 game late in the fourth quarter. McSorley is still largely an unknown, but the new offense should be more quarterback friendly and there’s no shortage of talent at the skill positions.
21. Jerod Evans, Virginia Tech
New coach Justin Fuente certainly has an eye for quarterback talent and developing players at this position. Under Fuente’s watch, Andy Dalton blossomed into one of the nation’s top quarterbacks at TCU, while Memphis’ Paxton Lynch was a first-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Could Evans be Fuente’s next star under center? The Texas native ranked as a four-star junior college recruit in the 2016 signing class by the 247Sports Composite and heads to Blacksburg after throwing for 3,164 yards and 38 scores last season.
Podcast: SEC Media Days Jam Session
20. Kenny Potter, San Jose State
Potter was a key pickup on the recruiting trail last year for coach Ron Caragher and was one of the driving forces behind San Jose State’s first bowl appearance in three seasons. As expected with any first-year starter, Potter had his share of ups and downs. However, Potter still finished the season with 1,984 yards and 15 passing scores and added 415 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. The California native also posted back-to-back 300-yard performances in late November and earned honorable mention All-Mountain West honors. With a full season to get acclimated to the FBS level, Potter is due for a breakout year this fall.
19. Riley Neal, Ball State
New coach Mike Neu arrives in Muncie after spending the last two seasons in New Orleans working with Drew Brees as the Saints quarterback coach. Neu has a lot of work to do, as he inherits a team that finished 3-9 last fall. However, Neu has plenty of promising pieces to work with on offense, starting with Neal under center. As a true freshman in 2015, Neal threw for 2,276 yards and 16 touchdowns and added 399 yards and two scores on the ground. Neal should easily surpass those totals under Neu’s watch and with a full season of starts.
18. Shane Buechele, Texas
Buechele isn’t guaranteed the starting job over Tyrone Swoopes or Jerrod Heard, but the true freshman made a strong impression in spring practice and heads into fall as the favorite to win the No. 1 spot on the depth chart. In the final spring scrimmage, Buechele led the way for the Longhorns’ offense, completing 22 of 41 passes for 299 yards and two scores. The Arlington native ranked as a four-star prospect and the No. 190 recruit nationally in the 2016 signing class by the 247Sports Composite. Buechele should be a good fit for new coordinator Sterlin Gilbert’s up-tempo attack.
17. Max Browne, USC
Browne still has to hold off redshirt freshman Sam Darnold for the starting job, but the junior left spring with a slight edge in the battle to replace Cody Kessler. Browne is a former five-star prospect and ranked as the No. 11 overall recruit in the 2013 247Sports Composite. The Washington native has only played in nine games through two seasons and completed 11 of 19 throws for 143 yards in that span. Helping Browne’s transition into the starting role is the Pac-12’s top offensive line, standout receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and running backs Justin Davis and Ronald Jones.
16. Keller Chryst, Stanford
Kevin Hogan wasn’t flashy, but he was a huge reason why Stanford claimed three out of the last four Pac-12 Championships. While it’s no secret Hogan will be missed, the Cardinal aren’t hurting for talent or options at quarterback. Chryst left spring with a slight edge over Ryan Burns for the starting nod, and the former four-star recruit worked as Hogan’s backup in four games last year, completing 5 of 9 passes for 59 yards and one score. With running back Christian McCaffrey returning, Stanford’s offense will run through its ground attack this fall. However, Chryst has a chance to blossom into a solid starter in his first full year under center for coach David Shaw.
15. Brandon Silvers, Troy
Second-year coach Neal Brown has Troy trending in the right direction, and the Trojans should contend for bowl and a spot among the league’s top teams in 2016. Silvers is a big reason for the optimism at Troy after throwing for 2,378 yards and 20 scores in 11 games last year. Additionally, Silvers posted three games of at least four passing touchdowns and finished the 2015 campaign by torching UL Lafayette for 320 yards in the season finale.
14. Mike White, WKU
WKU’s high-powered offense is looking for a new signal-caller after Brandon Doughty finished his eligibility with a huge senior season. White is the frontrunner to replace Doughty, and the South Florida transfer showed promise in limited action during his stint with the Bulls. In 11 appearances for USF in 2014, White threw for 1,639 yards and eight scores and connected on 12 passes of 30 yards or more. With a standout receiving corps and offensive line, as well as the opportunity to work with Jeff Brohm – one of the nation’s top coaches on the rise – White should keep the Hilltoppers’ attack performing at a high level.
13. Austin Allen, Arkansas
The Razorbacks quietly led the SEC (conference-only games) in scoring offense (34.4 ppg) last year. The hire of Dan Enos as the program’s offensive coordinator paid huge dividends, and his arrival helped transform Brandon Allen into one of the league’s top quarterbacks. Can Enos work the same type of magic in 2016? The second-year coordinator has plenty of talented candidates on the depth chart to consider, but Brandon’s brother – Austin Allen – is the frontrunner. The Fayetteville native has played in eight games over the last two seasons and completed 9 of 19 throws for 188 yards in that span. Allen has a lot to prove in his first year as the starter. However, the Razorbacks have one of the SEC’s top coordinators in Enos, as well as a deep group of options at receiver.
12. Dakota Prukop, Oregon
Whether it’s Prukop or redshirt freshman Travis Jonsen guiding the Ducks’ offense, it’s a safe bet to assume Oregon will once again rank near the top of the Pac-12 in scoring. After Vernon Adams emerged as one of the Pac-12’s top quarterbacks last season, the Ducks hope to strike gold with another FCS transfer under center. Prukop earned first-team All-America honors by the Associated Press in 2015 after accounting for 39 total scores and 3,822 yards for Montana State. The senior may not be the dynamic option through the air that Adams was, but he will be more of a factor on the ground.
11. Kenny Hill, TCU
Pencil in the winner of TCU’s quarterback battle here. Hill is the favorite, but sophomore Foster Sawyer isn’t far behind. Hill inherited big shoes to fill at Texas A&M after Johnny Manziel’s early departure to the NFL and started the first eight games of 2014. In that eight-game stint, Hill threw for 2,649 yards and 23 scores, while rushing for 156 yards on 52 carries. Hill lost his starting job to Kyle Allen in 2014, but the Southlake, Texas native has a chance to rebound in a big way in Fort Worth. Co-coordinator Doug Meacham has transformed TCU’s offense into one of the best in the Big 12, and Hill’s transition into the starting role is eased by a cast of talented skill players.
10. Kent Myers, Utah State
Injuries pressed Myers into starting duty as a true freshman in 2014 and once again last fall. And in both years, Myers more than held his own and showcased the potential to be one of the Mountain West’s top quarterbacks. After season-ending injuries to Darell Garrettson and Chuckie Keeton in 2014, Myers threw for 866 yards and five scores and added 305 yards and five touchdowns on the ground. Myers had an opportunity for extended action last season and led Utah State with 1,593 yards and 16 passing scores, while adding 357 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. Myers enters 2016 as the unquestioned starter and should be one of the leaders for a Utah State offense returning nine starters.
9. Eric Dungey, Syracuse
Syracuse has ranked near the bottom of the ACC in scoring offense in each of the last three seasons, but help is on the way for 2016. Dino Babers is regarded as one of the nation’s top offensive-minded coaches and arrives at Syracuse after a successful two-year stint at Bowling Green. Under Babers’ direction, the Falcons averaged 42.2 points a game and ranked fifth nationally in passing offense in 2015. Dungey showed promise as a true freshman last fall, throwing for 1,298 yards and 11 scores. The Oregon native also showed an ability to make plays on the ground (351 yards and four rushing touchdowns) but needs to do a better job of avoiding contact after missing four games due to injury. Transitioning to Babers’ offense will take some time for Syracuse’s personnel, but Dungey should get better over the course of the season.
8. Chase Litton, Marshall
Litton supplanted Michael Birdsong as Marshall’s starting quarterback early in the 2015 season and never looked back. The Tampa native finished his true freshman campaign with 2,605 passing yards and 23 scores. Additionally, he tossed only eight interceptions and completed 60.1 percent of his passes. Litton closed the year with a solid performance (23 of 34 for 218 yards) against a stout UConn defense in the St. Petersburg Bowl and also threw for 486 yards in a 34-10 victory over Charlotte. Litton will only get better with more snaps and could lead Marshall back to the Conference USA title game in 2016.
7. Deondre Francois, Florida State
2015 was a rare down year for quarterback play at Florida State under coach Jimbo Fisher. However, this position has two promising freshmen – Francois and Malik Henry – and senior Sean Maguire returns after starting six games last year. Maguire missed spring practice as he recovered from an ankle injury suffered in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, allowing Francois and Henry to gain valuable reps as the No. 1 quarterback. Maguire is expected to return to full strength by the opener, but Francois is expected to unseat the senior for the starting nod. Francois was a four-star prospect in the 2015 signing class and was regarded as the No. 64 overall recruit by the 247Sports Composite. Assuming Francois wins the starting job, he won’t have much time to ease into the No. 1 role with an opener versus Ole Miss on tap.
6. Brett Rypien, Boise State
Quarterback play is an annual strength for Boise State, but Rypien has the potential to be the program’s best passer since Kellen Moore. Although Rypien was the top recruit for the Broncos in the 2015 signing class, Ryan Finley opened the year as the starter. However, Finley was lost for the season with an ankle injury in the third game of 2015, giving the starting job to Rypien. The true freshman never looked back, throwing for 3,350 yards and 20 scores. He also completed 63.6 percent of his passes and earned Mountain West Freshman of the Year honors. Look for Rypien to emerge as the Mountain West’s No. 1 quarterback this fall.
Podcast: SEC Media Days Jam Session
Related: Mountain West 2016 Predictions
5. Jacob Eason, Georgia
Greyson Lambert may open the 2016 season as Georgia’s starting quarterback, but the guess here is Eason ends the year at the top of the depth chart. The Washington native ranked as the No. 2 quarterback and the No. 5 overall prospect in the 2016 signing class by the 247Sports Composite. In his senior year at Lake Stevens High School, Eason threw for 3,585 yards and tossed 43 touchdowns to only six interceptions. The 6-foot-5, 211-pound passer has all of the tools to thrive in the SEC and emerge as one of the nation’s top quarterbacks over the next few seasons.
4. Davis Webb, California
With one season of eligibility remaining, and Patrick Mahomes entrenched as Texas Tech’s starter, Webb decided to leave Lubbock for an opportunity to start for his senior year. The Texas native originally committed to Colorado but changed his mind and landed at California in May. Webb’s decision to transfer to Berkeley alleviates some of the concern for coach Sonny Dykes at quarterback. After all, the Golden Bears lost Jared Goff – the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NFL Draft – and had a group of inexperienced candidates vying for the starting job. Webb has plenty of experience (14 career starts) and played in a similar offense to California’s Bear Raid attack while at Texas Tech. In three seasons with the Red Raiders, Webb threw for 5,557 yards and 46 scores and completed over 60 percent of his passes from 2013-14. The Golden Bears have an overhauled receiving corps in place for 2016, but Webb has the physical tools and skill-set to rank as one of the Pac-12’s top quarterbacks this fall.
3. Mitch Trubisky, North Carolina
Despite losing Marquise Williams – the ACC’s second-team all-conference signal-caller last year – there’s not much concern about quarterback play in Chapel Hill. Trubisky has played well in limited action and inherits a loaded group of skill players and four returning starters on one of the ACC’s top offensive lines. Trubisky played in nine games last fall and completed 40 of 47 throws for 555 yards and six scores. He also showcased his mobility with 101 rushing yards and three touchdowns. And in 12 appearances in 2014, Trubisky completed 42 of 78 passes for 459 yards and five scores. While he doesn’t have a start in his career, all signs point to Trubisky thriving in his first season as the No. 1 quarterback for coach Larry Fedora.
2. Lamar Jackson, Louisville
Louisville coach Bobby Petrino is known for his high-powered offenses and success with traditional drop-back quarterbacks. However, adapting to new schemes and talent is nothing new to Petrino, which makes the marriage of Jackson’s dual-threat ability with the Petrino scheme an intriguing storyline to the 2016 season. Jackson’s dynamic playmaking skills were on display last season, as he threw for 1,840 yards and 12 scores and led the team with 960 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. While Jackson is still developing as a passer, Petrino and his staff have a full offseason to build an offense and a gameplan around his strengths. That’s a scary thought for the rest of the ACC, especially after Louisville finished 2015 by winning six out of its last seven games.
1. Jake Browning, Washington
Washington’s young offense took its share of lumps in 2015, but the Huskies are poised for a huge breakout in 2016. Browning was the prized recruit in coach Chris Petersen’s 2015 signing class and won the starting job prior to the opener against Boise State. Browning missed one game due to injury but still finished his freshman year with solid numbers. He completed 233 of 369 passes for 2,955 yards and 16 scores. Additionally, Browning’s 63.1 completion percentage ranked third nationally among freshman quarterbacks. Browning’s supporting cast is also expected to take a step forward, as the Huskies regain a valuable deep threat in junior John Ross (missed 2015 due to a knee injury). Browning’s continued growth and development is a big reason why Washington can win the Pac-12 this fall.
Donald Trump has made a surprising run to be the Republican nominee for President in 2016, and it’s no secret he knows how to utilize social media, specifically Twitter.
While general tweets about politics can create their own firestorm, Trump also has a collection of comments about sports. His sports interests are well publicized, as he played a key role in the USFL’s demise and recently tried to buy the Buffalo Bills.
After reading Trump’s Twitter history, he seems to have some terrible hot takes, bad scouting, and a lot of contradictory statements. Which, of course, we thought we'd share.
Here's a look at 15 that grabbed our attention:
1. It doesn't appear Donald has too good of an eye for quarterback talent:
Teams are making a big mistake not taking Johnny Manziel - he is going to be really good (and exciting to watch).— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 9, 2014
2. Only Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon...
Obama said in his speech that Muslims are our sports heroes. What sport is he talking about, and who? Is Obama profiling?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 7, 2015
3. Donald tweets Penn State should suspend its team in 2012. And then takes a completely different tone a year later:
The Football program at Penn State should be suspended.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 13, 2012
The wimps that run Penn State should be forced to resign (and be sued) for the pathetic settlement they made and destruction of great legacy— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 17, 2013
4. Tim Tebow was a great college quarterback. It was clear he was not a starter in the NFL:
I just don't know why some of these NFL teams with lousy quarterbacks don't give Tim Tebow a chance - what do they have to lose?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 29, 2013
5. The Jets are going to have a terrific season with Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow? They finished the season 6-10 and tied for last in the AFC East:
6. That's right, the beginning of the end for the NFL. Of course, Donald decided to keep tweeting and watching the NFL over the last two years and tried to buy the Bills in that same span:
The NFL has just barred ball carriers from using helmet as contact. What is happening to the sport? The beginning of the end.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 20, 2013
7. Manti Te'o and a fake controversy for the Heisman? Te'o was doing pretty good without any sympathy from voters and was already considered one of the top players in the nation:
I still say Te'o did this in order to get sympathy for the Heisman vote—thankfully he did not win.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 18, 2013
8. For the 2016 Super Bowl, Trump decided to pick both teams:
Donald Trump endorses Broncos, Peyton Manning in Super Bowl --> https://t.co/cOpliv8pWG— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) February 2, 2016
9. He seems to know a lot about legal issues and suing to get a favorable ruling...and Brady still lost versus the NFL:
Who ever heard of a legal conviction statement “more probable than not” against Tom Brady? Sue them, Tom, and make lots of $. @nfl— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 13, 2015
10. The NFL is definitely in trouble...according to Donald:
The NFL image is really tarnished! Now, if the sponsors start leaving and the ratings go down, the NFL will be in big trouble. Boring games!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 20, 2014
11. All of that time saved by not watching the NFL seemed to fuel that run to the White House:
I'm not going to be watching much NFL football anymore. Too time consuming, too boring, too many flags and too soft. Focus on other things!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 6, 2014
12. Donald seems to have trouble with the facts here. According to a report in Sports Illustrated, the NFL's ratings aren't hurting at all. In fact, they are growing:
Wow. @nfl ratings are down big league. Glad I didn't get the Bills. Rather be lucky than good.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 10, 2014
13. At least he's honest. Or didn't decide to pick both teams:
I picked seven Super Bowl winners in a row & would have been right last night had the refs thrown the flag.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 4, 2013
14. Sorry, Donald. Joe Flacco is not among the NFL’s top quarterbacks:
@MoeKharrazi I love all sports!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 29, 2013
Back in February 2013, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer and his coaching staff were able to sign 24 players in a recruiting class that was ranked second in the country by 247Sports. Of these 24 players, Ohio State only lost three to transfer or dismissal, meaning 21 players have either started for or contributed to Ohio State since 2013.
Part one dealt with the departed players. Part two will focus upon those players who have been contributors to Ohio State, with the caveat that some of these players may even emerge as starters by the conclusion of the 2016 season. Those players will be listed below, in the order that they committed to Ohio State.
1. Cam Burrows, DB
Burrows was the first player to verbally commit to Ohio State's 2013 class. Burrows has seen playing time at both cornerback and safety, and has been a valuable special teams contributor. Burrows fractured a bone in his foot last October, which ended his season early. Burrows could be in the running for one of the safety positions this coming season.
2. Evan Lisle, OL
Lisle redshirted in 2013, and did not play during the ‘14 season. With so many talented offensive linemen on the Ohio State roster, the 2016 season may be a “now or never” moment for Lisle to emerge on the offensive line depth chart.
3. Marcus Baugh, TE
The old cliche about a cat having nine lives could be applied to Baugh's career at Ohio State. Baugh was cited twice for underage drinking, which landed him squarely in the coaching staff’s doghouse. Playing behind Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett, Baugh contemplated leaving Ohio State in 2014. Even though Baugh had only two receptions last season, Baugh enters the fall as the projected starter at the tight end position.
4. Tracy Sprinkle, DL
Like his teammate Marcus Baugh, Sprinkle has had his share of off-the-field troubles that nearly derailed his Ohio State career. After redshirting in 2013, Sprinkle was arrested and suspended in July 2014 for his involvement in a bar brawl. After the charges were reduced, Sprinkle was allowed back on the team. Sprinkle is in line to be a starter at defensive tackle for Ohio State, with another year of eligibility remaining.
5. Chris Worley, LB
Worley came from the traditional Ohio State pipeline of Cleveland Glenville as a safety, but moved to linebacker. Worley redshirted in 2013, and actually started at linebacker in the ‘14 season opener against Navy, although Darron Lee eventually won the starting spot. Entering the 2016 season, Worley is in line to be a starter, but faces competition from Jerome Baker.
6. Corey Smith, WR
Smith enters the 2016 season with his sixth year of eligibility. A rare junior college signee (played at East Mississippi Community College) to come to Ohio State, Smith redshirted in 2013. The following season, he emerged as a valuable contributor at wide receiver and special teams. A knee injury suffered in the Indiana game ended his 2015 campaign early. Smith has already graduated with a degree in African American and African Studies. Smith could possibly emerge as a starter at one of the wide receiver positions this season.
7. James Clark, WR
Clark signed with Ohio State on National Signing Day in February 2013. Clark was earning playing time as a freshman in 2013, until breaking his ankle against Florida A&M that September. He redshirted the rest of that season and has since played sparingly in 2014 and ‘15.
8. Trey Johnson, LB
Johnson's football career ended due to injury, but he was able to contribute before having to do so. Johnson actually lettered as a true freshman in 2013, before having to end his football career in January 2015 due to an arthritic knee condition. He served as a student assistant with Ohio State in 2015.
9. Donovan Munger, DL
Redshirted in 2013, Munger was able to contribute in 2014 and ‘15 along the defensive line. Munger started the 2016 BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame, but was forced to end his career due to a recurrence of a pulmonary embolism.
Of these nine players listed, Ohio State could accurately label each of them contributors. Several of them, such as Marcus Baugh, Tracy Sprinkle, Chris Worley and Corey Smith, could even vault themselves into the starter category by the end of the 2016 season. That means nine members (37.5 percent) of the 2013 recruiting class can be classified as contributors, once again exceeding the traditional "Rule Of Thirds."
Part three will examine the 2013 recruits who emerged as starters for the Buckeyes. Needless to say, there will be several notable and well-known names in this group.
— Written by Chip Minnich, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a diehard Ohio State fan. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMinnich.
When James Franklin arrived at Penn State in January 2014, one of his priorities was to replenish some of the optimism that had dwindled amid the many doomsday predications that followed the NCAA’s imposition of severe sanctions in 2012 and the abrupt departure of his predecessor, Bill O’Brien.
Franklin pledged to do whatever it took to get the entire commonwealth excited about Penn State football again. He would recruit the state’s best players. He would field a dynamic, entertaining team. He would embrace social media to promote the program, using tools that Joe Paterno shunned and that even O’Brien seemed to regard with contempt, once referring to them as “Spacebook and Tweeter.” And that was just the beginning. “If people ask us to blow up balloons at their kid’s birthday party in the backyard, we’ll do that,” he said at his introductory news conference.
It’s now been two-and-a-half years since he made those pledges, and during that time it has become clear that the challenge was more complicated than it seemed in his first giddy days on the job. Yes, Franklin and his staff needed to build some enthusiasm for a program that had fallen from the ranks of the nation’s elite during the last decade of Paterno’s reign. But they also needed to temper expectations in a way that acknowledged the personnel shortcomings they had inherited when they took over. As Franklin discovered, the expectations never really crater at a school that ranks eighth all-time in major-college victories. And when they go unrealized, a panicky feeling sets in.
This feature and more on Penn State are available in the Athlon Sports 2016 Big Ten Preview available now on newsstands and in our online store.
“It’s been our biggest challenge,” Franklin says. “I think it’s still our challenge moving forward, because there’s still work to be done. It’s something that, when you’re at a place like Penn State, you have to embrace. I love the fact that we have such high expectations, I do. I love that.
“I’ve heard from a number of people that I’ve been too positive,” he adds. “But I think there’s a fine line. We have to build excitement for the direction of the program and we have to build excitement for where we’re going, because we’re going there. There are signs of it all over the place. But as fans and as coaches and as players, it doesn’t always happen at the rate we want it to happen.”
It has perhaps been Franklin’s misfortune to coach in a conference where the sort of rapid transformation Nittany Lion fans desperately want has happened twice in the past four seasons — just not at Penn State. Ohio State went 12–0 in Urban Meyer’s first year on the job, while Michigan went 10–3 last fall in its first season under Jim Harbaugh. Those are the programs that serve as Penn State’s benchmarks, and when fans see them excel, they tend to ask: Why not us?
Here’s why not: Due to the NCAA penalties and the scandal that precipitated them, the Nittany Lions recruited only 19 players in 2012 and 17 in 2013, and not all of those prospects were Big Ten-caliber players. The team also lost nine players when the NCAA waived its requirement that transfers from Penn State sit out a year at their new schools.
Those shortfalls created holes all over the depth chart, but especially on the offensive front. When Franklin and his staff began examining the roster they had inherited, they found they had only nine scholarship linemen. One of those nine blew out his knee in spring practice, and the Lions went on to surrender 44 sacks while finishing last in the Big Ten in rushing yardage in 2014. Offensive line coach Matt Limegrover wasn’t at Penn State at the time — he was hired this past January to succeed Auburn-bound assistant Herb Hand — but he heard stories. “To try to run a program at the highest level with only nine scholarship linemen is almost downright scary,” he says.
The Lions were only marginally better last season, giving up 39 sacks and finishing 12th in the conference in rushing. So when the subject of Franklin’s 14–12 record comes up among Penn State followers, the conversation inevitably circles around to the offensive line.
Will Year 3 produce the turnaround for which those fans have been clamoring? Franklin is optimistic. “There’s reason for hope,” he says, and to bolster his case, he notes that Penn State now has six linemen with ample starting experience and a handful of three- and four-star prospects from the past two recruiting classes with the potential to push the upperclassmen. The Lions also have Limegrover, who previously served as offensive coordinator at Minnesota. And they have a fast-paced new scheme, masterminded by first-year offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, that Limegrover has described as “very offensive line-friendly.”
But there’s also reason to be wary. The Lions will be inexperienced at quarterback for the first time since Franklin took over. They need to rebuild their defensive front after losing three starters. They didn’t get quite as much help from their most recent recruiting class as they had hoped, with six players decommitting in the months leading up to National Signing Day. And they lost a key player — linebacker Troy Reeder — in a wave of transfers that struck the team in January.
Even before all of those developments, Franklin found himself walking back one of the pledges he made during his introductory presser: He will not be attending your special event, so don’t ask him to save the date. “I think people understood what I was saying. But 10 percent of the people thought I was being literal,” he said prior to the 2015 season. Those people were “inviting me to birthday parties, weddings, things like that.”
As for the other pledges — to dominate the state in recruiting, to fill Beaver Stadium’s 107,282 seats on a regular basis, to do everything in his power to turn Penn State back into an elite program — those are still operative.
For all the talk of tempering expectations, Franklin remains an optimist at heart. “What we’re trying to do is to make very thoughtful decisions about Penn State, about the direction we’re going and how we want to build it,” he says, “and I feel really good about that.”
— By Matt Herb
Dale Earnhardt Jr. trumped the news cycle and surprised NASCAR nation last night by announcing he won’t race at Loudon, N.H., Sunday. Earnhardt, suffering from concussion-like symptoms, didn’t feel well last weekend at Kentucky; antibiotics didn’t make the situation better and the driver’s neurologist has advised he shouldn’t race. The news follows two hard wrecks in three weeks, at Michigan and then at Daytona July 4th weekend.
For Earnhardt, it’s not the first race he has missed due to concussions. Regan Smith filled in during the fall of 2012 for two weeks. Earnhardt’s struggles with head injuries have been well documented, dating all the way back to at least 2002 when he raced with a concussion following a hard, serious wreck out in Fontana, Calif. Earnhardt’s move to the sidelines put his ability to qualify for the postseason in jeopardy. Still winless, he sits just 32 points above the Chase cutoff line and could miss another race next week in Indianapolis.
What should you make of this injury from a fantasy perspective? Earnhardt is worth stashing on the bench, should you have room despite the potential to miss multiple events. His return will leave the No. 88 team squarely on the Chase bubble, possibly in need of a win to make the postseason and increase their level of focus and aggression upon his return. Need proof? See: Kyle Busch (2015) and Tony Stewart (2016), both of whom have come back strong.
As for Earnhardt’s subs, the prospect of a coming-out-of-retirement Jeff Gordon running Indianapolis, a racetrack where he’s won a NASCAR-best five times, is especially intriguing. But that’s for next week. Earnhardt’s sub for New Hampshire, Alex Bowman, is a young man who’s a high risk fantasy option, considering his lack of top-tier opportunities in Sprint Cup.
Bowman, who’s raced 71 times at the Cup level for underdog organizations, has yet to score a top-10 finish. He’s gone 4-for-4 in top-10 finishes this year for JR Motorsports, running a part-time schedule in the XFINITY Series but that equipment is clearly superior to most cars running around him. Add in a best finish of 28th in four Loudon starts and Hendrick Motorsports will be happy to leave the weekend earning a top-15 result with Bowman and the No. 88.
That’ll keep him off your fantasy team, unless you’re desperate but for a sport in need of big news lately this unfortunate injury has raised NASCAR’s profile heading into one of the rare visits to the Northeast this weekend at the one-mile oval up in Loudon.
2016 New Hampshire 301
Time: 1:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: New Hampshire Motor Speedway (Loudon, N.H.)
TV: NBC Sports Network
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Brad Keselowski
It didn’t take long for Team Penske, fresh off their 100th NASCAR Sprint Cup victory at Daytona, to climb to all-time win No. 101. Keselowski, leading 75 laps at Kentucky, is now 3-for-6 at the newest track to hit the NASCAR schedule, winning an absurd 50 percent of the time he’s run there. Now, the driver goes for a trickier feat, attempting to win three straight races for the first time in his NASCAR Sprint Cup career. With four victories overall this season, Keselowski leads all drivers and has entered his No. 2 ride into serious discussion versus four-car Joe Gibbs Racing as to who’s this year’s title favorite.
Who’s at the Back: Hendrick Motorsports
As I pointed out this week, Hendrick has just two wins at the midway point of the season, both by Jimmie Johnson. The four-car team, nicknamed the “New York Yankees” of NASCAR based on their championship pedigree, has looked anything like a front-runner in recent weeks. Earnhardt is now sidelined while Johnson, the six-time champ, has wrecked three times in the last five races. Rookie Chase Elliott, while primed to make the Chase, has three straight runs outside the top 20 and the oft-criticized Kasey Kahne? He has yet to lead a lap all season.
Earnhardt’s concussion has brushed aside all other news this week. It’s hard to gauge this type of injury but the fact Gordon has already been tabbed on standby for Indianapolis is not a good sign. HMS refused to speculate on the long-term impact the concussion symptoms could have on Earnhardt’s career Friday while claiming there’s no decision yet on who would drive the No. 88 beyond Indianapolis. Bowman, apparently had been tabbed to relieve Earnhardt during Sunday’s race, but as the week wore on it was increasingly apparent the 40-year-old veteran wouldn’t even be making the trip.
Reigning Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch won himself another award this week. Busch won the fan voting to receive the “Best Driver” ESPY. The NASCAR star edged IndyCar Series Champion Scott Dixon, 2015 Formula One titlist Lewis Hamilton and 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi, among others.
One week after another experiment with their “low low” downforce package at Kentucky, a race that received mixed reviews, NASCAR reiterated they won’t change the rules for teams during this year’s Chase. The “low low” rules may be run once more, perhaps at Michigan in August, but won’t be put into effect full-time until at least the beginning of the 2017 Cup Series season.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Straight top-10 finishes for Greg Biffle, the first time he’s accomplished the feat in the Cup Series since 2014.
Laps led by Martin Truex Jr. at the season’s midpoint, a season high for the Cup Series and the best total of the driver’s career to date.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Brad Keselowski has a great chance to make it three straight trips to Victory Lane this Sunday. In the last nine races run at Loudon, he hasn’t finished worse than 12th and earned a victory there as recently as 2014. With Loudon one of the Chase tracks, championship contenders will be out to make a statement and there’s no reason to think Team Penske’s momentum will slow down. That means Joey Logano also becomes a strong pick with an average finish of 2.7 over the last three races at Loudon.
Ryan Newman, third at Kentucky, enters the weekend with momentum and has three career wins at New Hampshire. Newman, whose contract status with Richard Childress Racing remains in doubt for 2017, needs to go out and impress; he’s also sitting squarely on the Chase bubble. With five straight top-20 runs at this type of track the No. 31 team is a fairly safe bet to cash in.
Greg Biffle, posting the strong finishes mentioned earlier, also enters NHMS on a roll. This race is a track position affair and it’s the home track of Biffle’s Roush Fenway Racing co-owner, John Henry. Don’t be surprised to see RFR continue its recent resurgence and of the trio of drivers it’s Biffle, sponsored by NESN Fuel, who’s the strongest pick (he was fourth last fall).
Once upon a time, Tony Stewart used to rule the roost up in New Hampshire. The winner at Loudon back in fall 2011 during a run to his third straight title, the best Smoke has run since up there is seventh place. But the No. 14 team has turned things around, posting a top 5 at Kentucky last weekend just two weeks after a stirring Sonoma victory. The summer has traditionally been when this veteran heats up; with Indy up ahead next week, along with Stewart’s labor of love at Eldora in the Truck Series. It feels like another strong performance is dead ahead.
Clint Bowyer is another driver who’s experienced Loudon success; he was sixth as recently as July 2014. This season has been openly frustrating for a veteran driving for underfunded HScott Motorsports. However, the last two weeks have produced a middling average finish of 16.0. Bowyer’s team, numbered 51 last fall, also was a potential top-10 car at Loudon last fall before former driver Justin Allgaier crashed out. Keep an eye on this car over the weekend; with pit strategy likely playing a role in this race, you never know.
What Vegas Thinks
Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch are tied atop the New Hampshire odds board at 5/1, according to VegasInsider.com but Brad Keselowski is close behind at 6/1. Among the longshots: Danica Patrick (300/1) and rookie Chris Buescher (1000/1).
What I Think
Brad Keselowski has proved the past two weeks that Team Penske is red hot. Drivers of his caliber add “three straight Cup wins” to their resume at some point and past success at New Hampshire makes him a favorite to finally do that on Sunday.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)
People do unexplainable things every day, but this one takes the cake in recent memory.
As the torch relay continues to make its way through Rio, someone decided they had enough of it. A man can be seen coming virtually out of nowhere to extinguish the torch as it makes its way down the street. Kudos to the torch bearer for continuing until they got to the next person.
The reason for attempting to extinguish the torch is still unknown.
The most successful football season in 12 years at Washington State nearly derailed out of the starting gate.
"Here we go again," defensive back Parker Henry said, reminiscing on the sentiment that might very well have overtaken the Washington State locker room following Week 1.
Coming off a 3-9 finish in which head coach Mike Leach made sweeping personnel changes; Washington State dropped its 2015 opener against Football Championship Subdivision opponent Portland State. It was the program's first loss to a Big Sky Conference foe in more than six decades.
"If it had been a team in the past or a weaker team, I think we would've given in," Henry said. "But the team being how strong it was, with the corps of leaders we had and the coaching staff — what they instilled in us — we didn't really bat an eye.
"Things happen," he added. "Adversity happens. It's how you react."
Washington State reacted by ripping off nine wins in its ensuing 12 games, including road defeats of Arizona, Oregon and UCLA. The Cougars hosted Stanford deep into the season very much in contention for their first divisional title.
And while a narrow Cardinal victory denied Washington State a shot at the Pac-12 North, the program took a huge step toward regaining the relevance it enjoyed in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the Cougars appeared in a pair of Rose Bowls.
Before that point, however, Washington State needed some soul-searching.
"I sat in the showers for about an hour [after the Portland State game] and was thinking, 'I can't be doing this again,'" wide receiver Gabe Marks said. "[In the following days] I talked to [former Washington State Rose Bowl quarterback] Jason Gesser, and I was like, 'I literally don't know what more to do.'
"He was like, 'Keep doing what you're doing, and it will work out,'" Marks said. "A few weeks later, we got it rolling."
One takeaway the Cougars gained from that week was to not take any Saturday for granted. They couldn't be accused of taking any other opponent lightly for the rest of the season.
"It reminds you, it's hard to win a game in college football," Henry said. "It's never easy. You've really got to be fully invested every practice, every meeting."
It's an important sentiment to bear in mind on Week 1. Teams improve or taper off as a season progresses, in part because that opening weekend is the first time implementing certain strategies.
For Washington State, Week 1 of 2015 was its first under the defensive direction of new coordinator Alex Grinch.
One of the young, up-and-coming stars of the coaching ranks, Grinch's presence played a central role to Washington State's resurgence.
"It was a huge effect, and a positive one," Henry said of having Grinch "He's changed the whole culture of our defense and of our [defense] as a whole."
Known for its prolific passing attack out of Leach's signature air-raid scheme, Washington State staked its identity last season largely on that redefined defense.
Henry credited Grinch's "intensity," as well as the schematic changes introduced, though the Cougars faced "a learning curve."
The same was true of the offense — particularly Week 1 against Portland State.
Record-setting quarterback Connor Halliday's absence loomed large as the air raid was grounded to 17 points. A deluge of rain on the Palouse that afternoon didn't help, either.
"The air raid does not work well in the rain," Marks joked. "I've been telling everyone on campus that we need to start a petition to get a dome... Why don't we have a dome? Idaho has a dome and we don't."
The recently renovated Martin Stadium will not add a ceiling any time soon, but Luke Falk's emergence as a weapon on par with Halliday fueled the Cougar offense's improvement over the rest of the season.
Falk returns in 2016, and his No. 1 target, Marks, will have a chance to rewrite Pac-12 records in the coming campaign.
They set the foundation for a corps of eight returning starters on offense, giving Washington State one of the most experienced units in the conference. That alone is apparently not enough to wow Pac-12 media – the Cougars were tabbed fourth in the division's preseason poll Thursday.
But as last year's nine-win run demonstrates, it's not the preseason, nor even Week 1, that defines a contender.
When USC trots out onto the field on Sept. 3 at AT&T Stadium for its opener against defending national champion Alabama, a familiar face will be stalking the sidelines for the Crimson Tide.
The Trojans’ former head coach has rehabilitated his image in an impressive fashion after his abrupt departure from USC nearly three years ago. During his tenure as offensive coordinator in Tuscaloosa, Kiffin has rewrote the school’s offensive record book, coached a Heisman Trophy winner and was instrumental in helping the team capture another national title last year.
While some fans clad in cardinal and gold who will make the trip to Arlington, Texas, for the opener may still hold a little animosity toward the team’s former coach and the legacy he left Los Angeles with, that won’t exactly be the case for the man who now occupies Kiffin’s former job.
“It won’t be weird at all, I’m so thankful for the amount of football that he taught me during the time he was (at USC) and the opportunity he gave me to come to SC – I’ll never be able to repay him for that,” Trojans head coach Clay Helton remarked Thursday at Pac-12 Media Days. “One of the good things about Coach Kiffin is the way he treated his staff. He’s maintained relationships with all of us and was great to us as a staff.”
Helton was one of Kiffin’s key hires when building a staff back in 2010 and was eventually promoted to offensive coordinator during the latter’s final season in Los Angeles. Several other current USC coaches also were at one point hired by Kiffin and many of the team’s upperclassmen either played for, or were recruited by, their former head coach.
That could result in TV cameras capturing a few hand shakes and head nods with college football’s most infamous coordinator during warmups for one of the biggest non-conference clashes of the season in the first week of action. Still, there is plenty of understanding that while there will be a well-known face across the field in Kiffin, he’s on the other sidelines for a reason.
“I’m not really worried about him,” left tackle Zach Banner said. “He’s a great coach and a cool dude to be around but I’m not really worried about him during the football game.
“We could all care less (about Kiffin).”
Perhaps that’s because of the monumental task at hand for USC in taking on a loaded Alabama squad that will likely be no lower than third in any of the preseason polls and a two-deep filled with five-star talent at multiple positions.
“I can't tell you how excited we are to have the opportunity to play a defending national champion, to play one of the top head coaches in the history of this game in Nick Saban,” Helton added. “I think it's given us a little bit of a kick-start in the summer and really has made our football team have a little chip on their shoulder.”
Strange as it is to imagine a program like USC with a chip on its shoulder, it might not be as bizarre as seeing one coach wearing crimson instead of cardinal.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
Offensive lineman Steven Moore is still learning about Australia ahead of his Cal Golden Bears visiting Sydney for the 2016 season opener against Hawaii.
He knows enough to avoid the waters, he said at Thursday’s session of the Pac-12 Football Media Days at the Loews Hollywood Hotel.
“I know there are a lot of sharks. I’ve heard about that,” Moore said.
Indeed, the ocean surrounding the island nation is home to roughly 180 different species of shark.
But a different kind of Australian also will welcome Moore and his teammates Down Under next month, which he learned firsthand Thursday.
“I met a little kid in the hotel who’s from Australia who asked for my autograph,” Moore said. “He’s a huge college football fan. I didn’t know people in Australia are college football fans.”
The game that has grown into America’s most popular over the last decade or so is still quite foreign to the rest of the world. Its presence beyond the United States is growing incrementally every year, with games played overseas.
The video package shown at the opening of Thursday’s event touted “Pac-12 Globalization.” Last season, the conference sent the Washington basketball team to China for a matchup with Texas.
But basketball is wildly popular in China, and the Pac-12’s presence on the hardwood there merely capitalizes on a preexisting fascination. In the case of football’s expansion, Cal takes on a much different role.
“We’re bringing a whole different type of culture over there,” Moore said. “We’re representing the NCAA.”
Games on foreign soil have grown in popularity in the last few years. Ireland hosts its third regular season game since 2012 this year when Georgia Tech faces Boston College in Dublin.
Cal and Hawaii are taking it to the other side of the Pacific.
The Week 0 contest presents the two teams a chance not only to be goodwill ambassadors of the game, but to enjoy a wholly unique experience from any other college programs.
“It's going to be just a great opportunity for the guys to go experience something they'll probably never experience again the rest of their lives,” Cal head coach Sonny Dykes said.
The Golden Bears will see sights and experience the host country, but the reason for the trip — a game with Hawaii -- counts the same on their schedule as any of the other 11 dates.
To that end, Cal has to focus on the task at hand. That includes shaking off any jet-lag accrued on a 15-hour flight.
“We’ve got eight days to adjust,” Moore said. “By Day 2, we’ll be fine.”
That’s a good thing for the Bears, and for the viewing audience. With a strong showing, Cal football could leave Sydney with many more fans like the one seeking Moore’s autograph in Hollywood.
When Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey broke Barry Sanders’ FBS record for all-purpose yardage but failed to take home the Heisman Trophy last season, a popular refrain was that the talented tailback would have held up the award had he not played so many late-night games.
The theory made some sense; given that eventual winner Derrick Henry from Alabama won five of six regions in the voting and was often seen in primetime during the Crimson Tide’s march to a national title. McCaffrey, on the other hand, was stuck with numerous 10:30 p.m. ET kickoffs despite his record-setting campaign.
Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, however, isn’t buying the idea that the lack of East Coast eyeballs was the reason why the Stanford star finished in second place.
“No one can say for sure, but I don’t think that would have made one iota of difference,” Scott said on Thursday from the league’s annual media days being held in Hollywood, Calif. “There were several games in primetime or during the afternoon. Oregon’s Marcus Mariota won the Heisman the year before with exactly the same TV schedule.
“The reason I say it so boldly, look at the zip codes of the Heisman voters and where they come and then look at how many of them didn’t even have McCaffrey on their ballot. I don’t care if you didn’t see McCaffrey play on TV a lot or not, can you imagine a credible Heisman voter not having McCaffrey on their ballot? What does that tell you about the Heisman voting process?”
Scott didn’t stop there however, even advancing the notion that players from his league face an uphill battle when it comes to garnering the right amount of respect nationally when it comes to voting for college football’s most prestigious individual trophy.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that there’s a competitive disadvantage to a player from the Pac-12 to winning the Heisman based just on the zip codes of the voters and the fact that many of them are just not watching the game,” Scott said. “I would say there’s a Pac-12 disadvantage but there’s also a Stanford disadvantage I believe. There’s a certain image that Stanford has, not just nationally, but in our own conference.
“Toby Gerhart. Andrew Luck. Christian McCaffrey isn’t the first time in my short tenure of seven years that a Stanford football player did not get the respect they deserve. There’s a Pac-12 issue and there’s a Stanford issue.”
With Scott just steps away from the Hollywood Walk of Fame, there were likely plenty of Cardinal fans who will nod their heads in agreement with his Rodney Dangerfield routine on this subject.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
On Feb. 6, 2013, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer addressed the media to discuss the recruiting efforts of the Ohio State coaching staff. "Our first year together as a coaching staff last year did not count because that was not a coaching staff. That was a bunch of guys coming together like a bunch of gypsies trying to find players anywhere we could find them. We did pretty good...This year it was a full cycle of recruiting. And I’m very impressed with our coaching staff."
My personal history when it comes to analyzing Ohio State recruiting classes goes back to 2005, when the new Buckeyes included the likes of James Laurinaitis, Brian Hartline and Malcolm Jenkins. That class was relatively small with 18 players signed, and was not highly rated by the recruiting analysts, but the coaching staff only lost three from that class due to transfer or academic issues, resulting in 15 who either started or contributed to Ohio State during their careers. This 83 percent success rate ranks that group highly in the unofficial "Rule of Thirds" concept that is applied to recruiting classes.
“The Rule of Thirds” is pretty simple — within any class, there will be approximately a third who will develop into starters as the coaching staff hoped and recruited, a third will be contributors in some fashion, and a third will not work out, leaving due to transfer, injuries or possibly disciplinary reasons.
For this exercise, I will review how the 2013 class ranked using the above criteria. For starters, no Ohio State should be surprised that the 2013 recruiting class ranks as one of the best in the program’s illustrious history. Ranked second in the country by 247Sports in 2013 behind Alabama, this Ohio State recruiting class will be held in high regard for years to come by Ohio State fans. The 2013 recruiting class originally numbered 24 players. Entering the 2016 season, a whopping 87.5 percent of this class either started or contributed in some way on the field for the Buckeyes.
Part one of this series will look at the few players who eventually left the Ohio State program. I will address each player, why they left and where they are currently in order based upon when he verbally committed to the Buckeyes.
1. Jayme Thompson, S
Thompson was originally a verbal commitment to West Virginia, but decided to switch to Ohio State. Thompson redshirted in 2013, and requested a release from Ohio State in April 2014. After playing for Iowa Western Community College at the junior college level, Thompson signed with Indiana in December 2015. Thompson is listed as a redshirt junior on Indiana's roster on its athletics Web site.
2. Tim Gardner, OL
Gardner never even made it out of fall camp of his freshman year with Ohio State. Cited by Columbus police for obstruction of official business, Gardner was dismissed by Meyer in July 2013. Gardner eventually signed with Indiana, and played for the Hoosiers in 2015, after sitting out in ‘14 as a transfer. It was recently announced that Gardner would not be with Indiana for the 2016 season.
3. Mike Mitchell, LB
Mitchell was one of the highest-rated players in the 2013 recruiting class, ranked as the best high school player from the state of Texas. Despite Mitchell's lofty high school accolades, he redshirted at Ohio State in 2013. Mitchell decided to transfer to Texas Tech after his first season. He sat out the 2014 season per NCAA transfer rules, played for Texas Tech last fall, and then decided to transfer from Texas Tech after the season.
Out of 24 players signed, only three (12.5 percent) left the Ohio State program without any contributions. In comparison, the 2012 recruiting class had 11 players of 25 signed (44 percent) who departed without any contributions.
Part two will look at the players Ohio State signed in February 2013 who have been contributors during their time in Columbus. Several of these players will have opportunities to not only contribute to Ohio State in 2016, but also emerge as possible starters this upcoming season.
— Written by Chip Minnich, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a diehard Ohio State fan. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMinnich.
The Big Ten West is going to be a fun race although Iowa could be the team best built to win it, again. The Hawkeyes will have to fend off challenges from Nebraska and Wisconsin among others. The other intriguing race will be for last place between Illinois and Purdue, most likely.
For the purposes of this exercise, projected win totals are broken down into three categories — definite wins, definite losses and toss-ups. Most of the conference games will in the toss-up category, especially ones on the road. This preview will offer thoughts on each team and if there’s any value either over or under.
Note: Over/under odds courtesy of 5Dimes Sportsbook
Big Ten West
(Over 4.5 wins -120...Under 4.5 wins EVEN)
Record Last Year: 5-7, 2-6
Returning Starters: 9 (5 on offense, 4 on defense)
Offense: Quarterback Wes Lunt returns for his senior season and there's not a ton around him on this side of the ball. Malik Turner leads the way out wide. The offensive line is pretty set with the tackles and center back.
Defense: Illinois has a lot of its front line back as well as Taylor Barton at safety. New defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson has some work to do to keep this team at the level they played at last year (37th nationally in scoring defense).
Schedule: Illinois plays four of its first five at home with Murray State, North Carolina and Western Michigan representing the non-conference opponents. Michigan State and Iowa both come to Champaign this year.
Selection: I think there's a slight lean to the under. New head coach Lovie Smith has a lot to do in order to bring this team back after being away from the college game for 21 years. I definitely don't see the postseason in this team's future.
(Over 8.5 wins -110...Under 8.5 wins -110)
Record Last Year: 12-2, 8-0
Returning Starters: 13 (5 on offense, 8 on defense)
Offense: Key returnees make me optimistic that theHawkeyes will be solid on offense. Quarterback C.J. Beathard had just five interceptions compared to 17 touchdown passes in 2015. He's got wide receiver Matt VandeBerg and running back LeShun Daniels as his main weapons. The offensive line will be solid as well.
Defense: Desmond King is one of the best cornerbacks in college football. Linebacker Josey Jewell and his 126 tackles are back as well. This unit was 19th overall in scoring defense, giving up more than 24 points in a game on just three occasions.
Schedule: Miami (Ohio), Iowa State and North Dakota State are part of a three-game homestand to open up the season. The Hawkeyes play three of their next four on the road although those games are at Rutgers, Minnesota and Purdue.
Selection: Iowa's game against Michigan on Nov. 12 could feature two teams with just one or two losses. The Hawkeyes’ schedule is way too easy not to take the over.
(Over 6 wins -115...Under 6 wins -105)
Record Last Year: 6-7, 2-6
Returning Starters: 14 (7 on offense, 7 on defense)
Offense: This group was putrid at times in 2015, scoring just 77 points over the first five games. Quarterback Mitch Leidner needs to improve his TD-to-interception ratio from the 14:11 he posted last season. He has wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky back as well as talented running back Shannon Brooks.
Defense: The Gophers have the right pieces in place to be a good defense. They were especially stingy against the pass last season, allowing just 179.5 yards per game through the air to finish 11th in the nation. The team will have to replace reliable punter Peter Mortell.
Schedule: Minnesota has four of its first five at home with Oregon State, Indiana State and Colorado State representing the non-conference slate. The Gophers do not play Michigan this year, but they do host Iowa for their annual tilt with the Floyd of Rosedale on the line.
Selection: Six is the right number. This team screams .500 unless Minnesota improves upon its 106th-ranked scoring offense. The schedule is easier than last year so an uptick in the win column is possible.
(Over 8.5 wins -120...Under 8.5 wins EVEN)
Record Last Year: 6-7, 3-5
Returning Starters: 11 (6 on offense, 5 on defense)
Offense: Quarterback Tommy Armstrong gets one more year to lead Nebraska to a better bowl destination. Last year he threw 16 interceptions to 22 touchdowns while accounting for more than 3,000 passing yards. Running back Terrell Newby and wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp are his two best weapons. The biggest question mark is the offensive line.
Defense: Safety Nate Gerry quarterbacks the secondary after making 79 tackles last year. The front four will have to be completely rebuilt so coordinator Mark Banker has his work cut out for him.
Schedule: Much like the rest of the conference, Nebraska doesn't leave home for four of its first five games. The Cornhuskers take on Fresno State and Wyoming before a big tilt with Oregon. Their toughest stretch is towards the end with back-to-back road games against Wisconsin and Ohio State.
Selection: I think the under at even is worth a look. The Huskers have four tough road games and it’s possible they could lose all of them. Head coach Mike Riley is recruiting hard so this team may have its best years ahead of them.
(Over 6.5 wins -120...Under 6.5 wins EVEN)
Record Last Year: 10-3, 6-2
Returning Starters: 12 (6 on offense, 6 on defense)
Offense: Running back Justin Jackson is going to have to continue to be the workhorse with sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson under center. Jackson had 1,418 yards rushing last year despite some mediocre QB play. Thorson had just seven touchdowns to nine interceptions and his wide receiving corps in 2016 isn’t very experienced.
Defense: The Wildcats were really good defensively last year. They have two starters back in each level of the defense meaning they won't fall too far from where they were last year (12th nationally in scoring defense, 13th in total defense).
Schedule: Northwestern doesn't leave home in September, which means it will be on the road for most of the final stretch, closing things out with three road games over five weeks. Pat Fitzgerald’s team shouldn't be challenged out of conference with Western Michigan, Illinois State and Duke on the docket.
Selection: The over is a real good play here. Northwestern will aim to get off to a fast start after getting blasted by Tennessee in the Outback Bowl to close out the 2015 season. I think the schedule lays out nicely for the Wildcats to return to the postseason and possibly contend in the Big Ten West.
(Over 4.5 wins -105...Under 4.5 wins -115)
Record Last Year: 2-10, 1-7
Returning Starters: 16 (7 on offense, 9 on defense)
Offense: I really like running back Markell Jones, who ran for 10 touchdowns in 2015. He's back along with DeAngelo Yancey at WR to help an offense that was stuffed at or behind the line in 15.5 percent of its rushes. The offensive line gets three players back, but improvement is needed.
Defense: The Boilermakers return a lot from last year's defense that allowed almost 37 points per game. Lineman Jake Repogle had 14 tackles for a loss last year, but overall this was a group that struggled. The good thing is a lot of experience returns, but this unit as a whole has to tighten up.
Schedule: Continuing the trend, Purdue has all of its non-conference games at home, hosting Eastern Kentucky, Cincinnati and Nevada. The Boilermakers also get Iowa, Wisconsin and Northwestern at home.
Selection: I liked the over last year and it wasn't a winning side. I'm not falling for that again. Head coach Darrell Hazell's seat is hot after just six wins in his first three seasons. It may not get much better in 2016.
(Over 7 wins -110...Under 7 wins -110)
Record Last Year: 10-3, 6-2
Returning Starters: 11 (6 on offense, 5 on defense)
Offense: Badger fans won't have to worry about the run game with Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale in the backfield. Bart Houston and Alex Hornibrook should mount a spirited competition for the No. 1 quarterback job, although the former figures to have the edge because he’s a senior. The offensive line should be strong as usual.
Defense: Linebacker Vince Biegel gets one more year for the Badgers. The defense figures to take a step back after finishing first in the nation in points allowed and second in yards allowed last season because of the departures. Linebacker Joe Schobert and safety Michael Caputo are both gone.
Schedule: The Badgers are the only team in the Big Ten West to play a non-conference game outside of their own stadium, although they won't go far. Wisconsin will take on LSU at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis., followed by Akron and Georgia State. The Badgers also must navigate the Michigan two-step on the road before hosting Ohio State.
Selection: Seven is a great number. The schedule strength is tougher than the rest of the Big Ten West. No one else plays a stretch as tough as at Michigan State, at Michigan, vs. Ohio State and at Iowa over a four-game span.
— 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.
When the first edition of the College Football Playoff kicked off without a Big 12 team, the league found itself suddenly in the middle of an existential crisis.
Expansion was discussed time again and time again. Tie-breaking procedures were finagled and clarified. Money was dumped by the truckload into consultants and marketing campaigns. Eventually, a conference title game — in a round-robin league, no less — was agreed upon just to give the Big 12 an extra boost when it came to making college football’s final four.
While getting left out of the College Football Playoff in 2016 was disappointing for the Pac-12, the league isn’t gearing up to question everything about itself in the wake of conference champion Stanford missing out on a semifinal game.
“Standing here today, looking at the incredible depth from top to bottom in our conference, I am confident no other conference has as many good teams as the Pac-12 this season,” commissioner Larry Scott said on Thursday to open up Pac-12 Media Days in Hollywood, Calif. “I expect this is going to be as exciting and deep a season as the Pac- 12 has had.”
What remains to be seen is if that tune holds true among the national conversation in December. No school made it into the top 10 of Athlon Sports’ Top 25 and the number of tough non-conference games the Pac-12 has during Week 1 could put the league out of the Playoff race by the first Sunday of the season.
That doesn’t mean Pac-12 football won’t be worth watching, just that there’s quite the uphill battle to not be on the outside looking in (again) when the Selection Committee makes their picks.
“With only a four-team Playoff, of course you worry about teams beating each other up,” added Scott. “But the philosophy in our conference and amongst our schools has always been to schedule tough, take on all comers, and if a team deserves to be in the playoff, they will be.
“With the advent of the College Football Playoff, we know that in any given year, there will be teams with similar records, and a determining factor that the College Football Playoff Selection Committee will make is based on strength of schedule. So our conference very much prides itself for a variety of reasons on playing the toughest schedule.”
If it seems like Scott is already laying the groundwork to campaign the Selection Committee based on the depth of the Pac-12 later this year, that’s because he is.
Stanford was picked by the media to win the league for the first time in 56 years and is headlined by Heisman Trophy favorite Christian McCaffrey. Washington has become a trendy pick out West under Chris Petersen and the Huskies’ Pacific Northwest rival Oregon is re-tooling on defense with the addition of former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke.
Both USC and UCLA are, as always, stocked with four- and five-star talent. Washington State returns perhaps the most complete team during Mike Leach’s tenure on the Palouse as well. The conference is so deep that it seems entirely possible that the entire Pac-12 South will make an appearance in the Top 25 polls at some point.
But is there a great team among all the ones we think will be good in 2016? Somebody who can truly make a run at the national title?
It’s possible and there is no shortage of candidates as summer winds down and fall camps begin. Things out West are, however, complicated by the fact that the Pac-12 has a history of underachieving teams pulling off an upset that ruins national championship aspirations.
“The Pac-12 is more talented now than it ever has been in its history,” Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez said. “That’s what makes it so difficult to defend.”
There were plenty of similar upbeat statements dished out on Thursday as the league officially kicked off the season. The Pac-12 appears confident of its place in the sport at the moment and there’s even an inkling outside the Hollywood Walk of Fame that that the conference could be the first one to sneak in a two-loss team into a semifinal at the end of the year.
The sky isn’t falling in the Pac-12 after getting left out of the Playoff last year but it will be interesting to see if such rosy, forward-thinking talk continues if Scott’s league finds itself on the outside looking in again in 2016.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
Braden Gall and David Fox are back in Nashville after returning from SEC Media Days and a honeymoon respectively. We've got a complete breakdown as well official championship predictions from 23 of our closest friends.
- Was Dan Mullen the biggest loser from SEC Media Days in Hoover? Was Nick Saban out of line or right on point in his verbal match with PAAWWWLLL? Was Hugh Freeze prepared for tough questions?
- Which coach was the most impressive? Which coach was best prepared to handle the tough questions? And which coach surprised the most? Who do we love more: Bret Bielema or Barry Odom?
- Getting to know the players is THE best part of SEC Media Days and the 2016 class was no exception. Who were the most impressive players in Hoover? (And who do we wish was there.)
- Which team has the biggest chip on its shoulder? (This one was easy.)
- We asked 23 different media experts to make their official SEC championship game predictions public and we put all 23 into one podcast. Names like Marcus Spears, Pat Forde, Tony Barnhart, Stewart Mandel, Brett McMurphy, Andy Staples, Barrett Sallee, Laura Rutledge, Adam Zucker and more offer up official SEC picks in 2016.
Check out the Athlon Sports 2016 College Football Rankings No. 1 to 128.
You can order your preseason Athlon Sports college football magazines here with Amazon.com.
Send any ideas, questions or comments to @BradenGall @AthlonMitch or @DavidFox615 or email [email protected]. The podcast can be found on athlonsports.com/podcast, iTunes, Stitcher and our podcast RSS feed.
Conference USA's West Division may not be as talented as its East brethren, but it doesn’t appear to be as wide open as that side of the league either. Southern Miss should come out on top in the West rather easily although Louisiana Tech and UTEP may make things interesting.
There are six teams in Conference USA's West Division. This article will apply the win totals from one Vegas casino and discuss if there is any value in these numbers. A selection is made based on the team's schedule, in which the games are broken down into three categories - easy wins, toss-ups and certain losses. Most conference games are in the toss-up category unless there is a clear difference in talent.
Note: Over/under odds courtesy of South Point Casino
Conference USA West Division
(Over 7.5 wins +105...Under 7.5 wins -125)
Record Last Year: 9-4, 6-2
Returning Starters: 9 (6 on offense, 3 on defense)
Offense: Kenneth Dixon is gone, which means the offense will have to find weapons to get it rolling. Ryan Higgins figures to get the starting quarterback job with Trent Taylor and Carlos Henderson out wide. Can't complain too much about the offensive line, but who is running behind them?
Defense: The Bulldogs are rebuilding on this side as well. The good thing is Xavier Woods returns at safety and he had 56 tackles and three interceptions last season. There is some continuity on special teams.
Schedule: Louisiana Tech plays three of its first four on the road. The Bulldogs’ non-conference opponents are Arkansas, South Carolina State, Texas Tech and at UMass, with the only home game being the one against the FCS opponent. In all they have seven games away from Ruston.
Selection: Slight lean to the under. I wanted to lean heavy to the under with all the personnel losses from 2015, but Louisiana Tech has a very easy conference slate. The Bulldogs will need Higgins to do a lot of the heavy lifting until the run game gets going.
(Over 2 wins -140...Under 2 wins +120)
Record Last Year: 1-11, 1-7
Returning Starters: 13 (7 on offense, 6 on defense)
Offense: One of the worst offenses in the country gets an Alabama graduate transfer in quarterback Alec Morris. He's going to struggle to move the ball despite having Jeffrey Wilson and three returning starters at wide receiver back. The offensive line wasn't very good last year.
Defense: I can't say much positive here as the team returns six starters from a group that allowed more than 40 points and 500 yards per game. Good luck co-coordinators Mike Ekeler and Troy Reffett.
Schedule: The Mean Green host SMU and Bethune-Cookman before road matchups with Florida and Rice. They also play at Army in mid-October amidst their C-USA slate.
Selection: I'd like to say there will be improvement, but I can't guarantee it. There are opportunities for wins, but I don't know if I can trust the defense to make enough stops.
(Over 6 wins +135...Under 6 wins -155)
Record Last Year: 5-7, 3-5
Returning Starters: 15 (7 on offense, 8 on defense)
Offense: Darik Dillard is going to be busy with Driphus Jackson not returning at QB. Only two returning receivers recorded at least 25 catches last year. The left side of the offensive line should be good.
Defense: It can only go up for the Owls after allowing the most yards per play in the nation (7.13). Ends Derek Brown and Brian Womac give coordinator Chris Thurmond something to build around up front.
Schedule: Rice plays three of its first five on the road. The Owls get Baylor at home as well as Prairie View A&M. They close out the season at Stanford.
Selection: Six wins seems about right. The shame of it is that I'd take the over at that price if I thought they could get there. The conference games represent most of Rice’s win chances with a road matchup against Army being a toss-up.
(Over 8 wins -110...Under 8 wins -110)
Record Last Year:
Returning Starters: 12 (6 on offense, 6 on defense)
Offense: The Golden Eagles averaged almost 40 points per game last year and return three key pieces in QB Nick Mullens, RB Ito Smith and WR D.J. Thompson. The middle of the offensive line will be strong. Expect a small regression here.
Defense: One of the reasons for the great season was the defense. Southern Miss improved a bunch on this side of the ball and have key returnees in end Dylan Bradley and linebacker D'Nerius Antoine.
Schedule: Three of the first five games are at home although the opener is at Kentucky. It's winnable along with the next two at home against Savannah State and Troy. The final non-conference game is at LSU on Oct. 15.
Selection: I like the over. Even with the unexpected coaching change (Jay Hopson taking over for Todd Monken, who left for the NFL) I think the Golden Eagles are best team in the C-USA West and it may not be much of a battle. There appear to be too many sketchy defenses that Mullens and company should be able to take advantage of in 2016.
(Over 5.5 wins -115...Under 5.5 wins -105)
Record Last Year: 5-7, 3-5
Returning Starters: 15 (8 on offense, 7 on defense)
Offense:The rare team that relies more on the run then the pass in college football. With running back Aaron Jones returning, that doesn't figure to change. Quarterback is a big question mark along with the WR group. As long as games are close, the running game stays in play.
Defense:The defense is moving to a 3-4 after running a 4-2 built around man-to-man coverage last season. Luckily Alvin Jones is back to man the linebacker corps. It's a veteran secondary that may have more pressure on it with the change in schemes.
Schedule:Four of the first six games are at home as the Miners open up with New Mexico State, at Texas and Army. UTEP has just five road games all year so this team could push for bowl eligibility.
Selection:I like the over. The run game is reliable and the defense is improved. The schedule lines up nicely for six or seven wins.< /p>
(Over 4 wins +105...Under 4 wins -125)
Record Last Year: 3-9, 3-5
Returning Starters: 12 (6 on offense, 6 on defense)
Offense: The Roadrunners experienced some growing pains in 2015 with no returning starters and now have first-year head coach Frank Wilson at the helm. They averaged just 22.6 points per game. Now they return several players, including 1,000-yard rusher Jarveon Williams.
Defense: The front line is going to be strong as the unit continues to utilize a 4-2-5 alignment. There are a lot of juniors and seniors in the two deep.
Schedule: UTSA continues its run of strong non-conference slate with road matchups against Texas A&M and Colorado State to go with home games against Alabama State and Arizona State. Three straight on the road to start November will be a rough way to close out the season.
Selection: Four is a good number. The problem comes that most of the winnable games aren’t until late in the schedule. I know the Roadrunners are scheduling up for money purposes, but eventually they have to change that if they hope to make a bowl. They are getting closer though as the program continues to build.
— 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.
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 13 names, we tried to stick to players that had yet to earn all-conference honors in their career. However, a few exceptions were made.
Related: Conference USA Predictions for 2016
WKU center Max Halpin, UTSA running back Jarveon Williams and Louisiana Tech receiver Carlos Henderson are just a few of the players flying under the radar in Conference USA for 2016. Here's a look at one underrated player from each team:
Conference USA's Most Underrated Players for 2016
Dylan Bradley, DE, Southern Miss
New coach Jay Hopson has a few holes to fill on both sides of the ball this offseason, but the Golden Eagles’ defense has a good foundation in place with six returning starters. One of those starters is Bradley, who anchors the line after a strong junior campaign. In 14 appearances, Bradley recorded 45 tackles (12.5 for a loss), 6.5 sacks and two pass breakups. Despite the huge 2015 season, Bradley only recorded honorable mention All-Conference USA honors. Expect the senior to rank as one of Conference USA’s top defenders this fall.
Jerome Daniels, OL, UTEP
Considering coach Sean Kugler’s background as a former offensive lineman, it’s no surprise UTEP has boasted one of Conference USA’s top lines over the last two seasons. The Miners allowed only 11 sacks last year and cleared the way for rushers to average 4.7 yards per carry in 2014. Daniels is one of the unsung heroes for this group and has quietly emerged as one of Conference USA’s best offensive linemen. Daniels started one game as a redshirt freshman in 2013 and has earned 24 starts over the last two seasons.
Dillon DeBoer, OL, FAU
DeBoer has been a key cog in FAU’s offensive line over the last three seasons and is poised to close out his career with a strong senior campaign. DeBoer started six games as a redshirt freshmen in 2013, followed by 11 in 2014. And in 2015, DeBoer started all 12 games for the Owls, including 10 at center after anchoring the right tackle spot in the first two matchups. DeBoer should be one of the leaders for an improved FAU offense in 2016.
Max Halpin, C, WKU
With all five starters returning, WKU’s front five has a strong case as the best offensive line from the Group of 5 ranks in 2016. Left tackle Forrest Lamp is a candidate for All-America honors, but center Max Halpin shouldn’t be overlooked this preseason. The Kentucky native started seven games as a redshirt freshman in 2013 but suffered a season-ending back injury after three starts in 2014. However, Halpin rebounded in a big way last year, starting all 14 games for the Hilltoppers and helping to anchor a line that gave up only 16 sacks in 2015.
Carlos Henderson, WR, Louisiana Tech
Trent Taylor (99 catches) is one of Conference USA’s top skill players returning in 2016, but he will have plenty of help in the receiving corps from Henderson. While Taylor garnered most of the attention (and rightfully so) at the end of last year, Henderson showcased his big-play ability by catching 36 passes for 774 yards and five scores. He also averaged 22.1 yards on 21 kickoff returns. Henderson’s 21.5 per-catch average ranked sixth nationally among all receivers.
Alex Lyons, LB, Rice
Rice’s streak of seasons with a bowl trip was snapped at three last year, but the Owls are in good position to rebound in 2016. With eight starters returning, a defense gave up 35.8 points a game in 2015 should show improvement and help bolster an offense breaking in a new quarterback. Lyons is one of the leaders on defense for coach David Bailiff after collecting 148 tackles over the last two seasons. Additionally, Lyons has 10.5 tackles for a loss in that span and collected 1.5 sacks in 2015. He should be one of the top linebackers in Conference USA this season. Teammate Zach Wright (wide receiver) is another good candidate from Rice as an underrated player in 2016.
Thomas Owens, WR, FIU
With the return of nine starters – including quarterback Alex McGough – hopes are high for improvement on FIU’s offense this fall. The Panthers averaged 25.5 points a game in 2015 but recorded only 5.1 yards per play. Owens was McGough’s preferred target last season, grabbing 51 passes for 638 yards and eight scores. With another offseason to work with McGough under his belt, Owens should push for All-Conference USA honors in 2016.
Zach Pascal, WR, Old Dominion
Old Dominion’s offense struggled to find its footing in the post-Taylor Heinicke era last season. However, there are signs of optimism for coach Bobby Wilder, as the Monarchs now have two proven quarterbacks in David Washington and Shuler Bentley, while the ground game is in good hands with Ray Lawry. Despite the inconsistent quarterback play in 2015, Pascal quietly posted solid totals last fall. In 12 games, Pascal caught 69 passes for 975 yards and eight scores.
Kalif Phillips, RB, Charlotte
The 49ers took their share of lumps in 2015, which was the program’s first at the FBS level. While the long-term future at Charlotte is bright, 2016 could be another transition year for this program. Phillips is an underrated star for the 49ers, as he nearly eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark (961) in 11 appearances. In his career, Phillips has rushed for 3,113 yards and 37 scores.
Daniel Stephens, C, MTSU
Quarterback Brent Stockstill and receiver Richie James are the headliners for MTSU’s standout offense, but don’t overlook the steady play of Stephens up front. The Georgia native started all 13 games for the Blue Raiders last season and enters 2016 with 25 career starts. Stephens will help anchor a line that must replace two starters from last year’s group.
Jarveon Williams, RB, UTSA
New coach Frank Wilson has worked with plenty of talented running backs during his 11 years as an assistant at the collegiate level. And the first-year coach inherits one of Conference USA’s top backs to utilize in 2016, as Williams returns after posting 1,042 rushing yards and eight scores on just 173 attempts in 2015. In league games, Williams ranked fourth among C-USA rushers with an average of 96 yards per contest.
Jeffrey Wilson, RB, North Texas
Wilson was one of the few bright spots from a North Texas team that finished 1-11 last season. After rushing for 224 yards as a freshman in 2014, Wilson showcased his talent with 830 yards (in 10 games) and one score on just 155 attempts. He also recorded three 100-yard games in league play. Wilson should eclipse 1,000 rushing yards and is the Mean Green’s top playmaker in 2016 under new coach Seth Littrell.
Ryan Yurachek, TE, Marshall
Conference USA had its share of talented tight ends last year, which is a big reason why Yuracheck only earned honorable mention All-Conference USA honors. However, with Davonte Allen and Deandre Reaves departing the Marshall receiving corps, Yurachek is poised to take on a bigger role in Marshall’s offense. As a sophomore in 2015, Yurachek grabbed 44 passes for 417 yards and nine scores. He also closed out the year on a high note, catching a touchdown pass in each of the Thundering Herd’s last five games.
Coaches often go out of their way to downplay the expectations of their team while playing up the competition around them.
Missing the FCS playoffs for five straight years has the Delaware Blue Hens ready to lay it all on the line. With their rebuilding project complete, they feel they have to rebound in a big way.
“I think we are going to have a very good team in the fall - a playoff-caliber team,” fourth-year head coach Dave Brock said. “Certainly we had a very good spring.”
The tradition-rich Blue Hens haven’t been to the playoffs since 2010, when they lost to Eastern Washington in the national championship game. The longest stretch without a playoff appearance in school history has encompassed K.C. Keeler’s final two seasons at Delaware and Brock’s first three. Last year’s 4-7 record (3-5 CAA Football) was their worst since 2008, and second-worst since 1967.
But with 18 starters (10 on offense and eight on defense) returning as well as many more players from the second unit, the Blue Hens believe a return to the playoffs is within reach – if not imperative.
Last season, the Blue Hens played well at North Carolina and even beat CAA Football rivals William & Mary and New Hampshire, both playoff participants. But they also lost to two of the conference’s worst teams in Rhode Island and Albany, so they need to be more consistent to turn the corner this season.
Injuries factored into last season’s demise, but Delaware averaged only 14.9 points and 286.5 yards per game. Included was an FCS-low 67.1 passing yards per game – hardly a number befitting a program that boasts former quarterbacks Rich Gannon and Joe Flacco.
While returning starting quarterback Joe Walker or backup Blake Rankin would figure to be better with an experienced offense, the Blue Hens will run the ball extensively with one of the deeper running back stables in the FCS. Thomas Jefferson, the CAA offensive rookie of the year, and Kareem Williams broke into the rotation while Jalen Hills and Jalen Randolph were out with injuries. All four return behind a veteran offensive line.
The defense should be stout again after allowing only 20.5 points per game to rank third in the CAA. Penn State transfer linebacker Troy Reeder and cornerback Malcolm Brown, who was injured last season, will be part of a unit that returns 19 players from the final two-deep, including linebacker and leading tackler Charles Bell and standout defensive tackle Blaine Woodson, a pair of juniors.
Delaware will open its season by hosting Delaware State on Sept. 1.
— 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 Villanova University Athletics)
Two seasons removed from a Super Bowl victory, the Seahawks still hold several championship pieces — quarterback Russell Wilson, both kickers, receiver Doug Baldwin and much of a stifling defense that revolves around Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett and Bobby Wagner.
Nowhere to be found, however, are any of the starting offensive linemen who earned rings in New Jersey in 2014. Since that pinnacle moment, the Seahawks have gone through a total makeover up front. New faces across the offensive line were blamed for much of Seattle’s difficulties last season, which involved a slow start and didn’t involve a Super Bowl finish for the first time in three years. More new faces could bring added dysfunction this season.
While the Seahawks, under the direction of coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider, have been masters at finding elite talent where others don’t think to look — Wilson and Sherman come to mind — reconfiguring the offensive line again presents a significant challenge. Another season could depend on it.
The Seahawks have the steadily improving Wilson coming off a season in which he led the NFL in passer rating (110.1), set career highs in completion percentage (68.1) and yards per attempt (8.3), and went on a 24-touchdown pass, one-interception tear over seven games. Wilson has taken the Seahawks to the playoffs four times and to the Super Bowl twice. He has made great strides with standing in the pocket and continues to unnerve opponents with his improvisational scrambling. Wilson will need help in pivotal places on the offense following the retirement of workhorse running back Marshawn Lynch and the free-agent departures of seasoned left tackle Russell Okung and right guard J.R. Sweezy.
|Head Coach||Pete Carroll|
|Record With Team||60-36|
|Offensive Coordinator||Darrel Bevell|
|Defensive Coordinator||Kris Richard|
|Asst. Head Coach/Offensive Line||Tom Cable|
|Asst. Head Coach/Defense||Rocky Seto|
|Special teams Coordinator||Brian Schneider|
|Running Backs||Sherman Smith|
|Wide Receivers||Dave Canales|
|Tight Ends||Pat McPherson|
|Defensive Line||Travis Jones, Dwaine Board|
|Defensive Backs||Andre Curtis|
The second-most important player on the offensive side of the ball might be Garry Gilliam. The third-year player moves from right to left tackle. He’s big enough, measuring a rangy 6-foot-5 and 315 pounds, and athletic enough, well remembered around the league for catching a crucial 19-yard touchdown pass on a fake field goal against Green Bay in the 2015 NFC Championship Game. His drawbacks are his lack of a nasty streak, which makes him more of a reactionary player than an aggressor, and his limited experience as an NFL tackle — just 17 games as a starter. He returns with center Patrick Lewis and left guard Justin Britt. Lewis’ midseason insertion at center was credited with helping calm the Seahawks’ line in 2015; he demonstrated more of a flair for recognizing defenses and making proper play calls than his predecessor. Britt, who has bounced from right tackle to left guard, has no problem playing with attitude but has struggled at times with technique. Not surprisingly, the Seahawks drafted huge offensive linemen in Texas A&M’s Germain Ifedi in the first round and Boise State’s Rees Odhiambo in the third round to fill the glaring holes. The two rookies could become the starters at right guard and right tackle, respectively.
The Seahawks enter the season with nagging questions at running back. They hope that Thomas Rawls can bounce back from a broken ankle, regain his sensational rookie form and put people at ease in the post-Lynch era. Rawls had four games of 100 yards or more rushing. Averaging a hefty 5.6 yards per carry, he showed a knack for running up field with a purpose and staying on his feet after contact. Recognizing a need for depth here, the Seahawks drafted three backs, with Arkansas’ Alex Collins and Notre Dame’s C.J. Prosise the best bets to get on the field, in that order.
The receiving corps remains intact, with Jermaine Kearse and Baldwin back as veterans who work well with Wilson, Tyler Lockett supplying a previously missing deep threat, and Jimmy Graham and Luke Willson returning as reputable tight ends. Baldwin took his game to a high level last season, turning in a 78-catch, 1,069-yard, 14-TD performance. The team rewarded the former undrafted free agent in late June with a four-year contract extension worth $46 million ($24 million guaranteed). Baldwin's emergence has coincided with a steep decline in Graham’s production, some of which can be attributed to a serious knee injury he suffered last season. However, it’s unclear whether the former All-Pro can be the impact player he once was.
The Seahawks’ uneven season was no real fault of the defense: These guys were as stingy as ever around the end zone. For the fourth year in a row, Seattle led the NFL in points allowed per game (just 17.3) — a dominance unmatched during the Super Bowl era. Bennett gave this unit yet another elite player, taking his game up a notch as a highly disruptive defensive end. The defense once again appears formidable.
Above all, Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” secondary, the cornerstone of this productive group, is in much better shape approaching this season than last. A year ago, strong safety Kam Chancellor was a two-game contract holdout, free safety Earl Thomas returned from shoulder surgery as a less dominant player, and the team broke in a new cornerback who didn’t last the season. The Seahawks should get strong play from their safeties, and they made it an offseason priority to re-sign veteran cornerback Jeremy Lane, who overcame his own injury issues that limited him to just six games. They also reacquired Brandon Browner, a former starter who last played for the Seahawks in 2013 and will attempt to reclaim his corner job after coming off a subpar season in New Orleans. Sherman? He wasn’t as statistically dominant as in years past, but the gifted defender still showed he could be a lockdown corner when he had to be.
Fast and tough, Wagner and K.J. Wright are among the league’s best at their respective inside and outside linebacker positions. Wagner is considered one of the top two or three tacklers in the NFL, averaging 120 over his four seasons, and he’s a big reason the Seahawks have one of the league’s hardest defensive units to run against. The free-agent loss of Bruce Irvin, a hybrid linebacker/end, creates a sizeable opening, one the Seahawks hope to fill by using players in tandem: They’ve elevated reserve linebacker Mike Morgan and reacquired end Chris Clemons. A starter for the Seahawks’ Super Bowl-winning club, Clemons returns after two years in Jacksonville to serve as a role player as a pass rusher.
Once again in 2015 the Seahawks relied on the highly productive Steven Hauschka, who converted 93.5 percent of his field-goal attempts, and Jon Ryan, who averaged 45.5 yards per punt. The real boost, though, came from Lockett, who returned a kickoff and a punt each for touchdowns as a rookie and repeatedly supplied Seattle with great field position.
The Seahawks remain one of the NFL’s heavyweight teams. Their defense doesn’t give up much, and Wilson is extremely hard to contain. Seattle also has a more favorable schedule with fewer early games on the East Coast than usual. There’s a lot to like about these guys, but the bottom line is this: The Seahawks have serious questions across the offensive line. Can Gilliam become an adequate left tackle? Can the rookies make a smooth transition to the starting lineup? This team is likely playoff bound again, but considering the uncertainty up front, a Super Bowl return is probably too much to ask.
Prediction: 2nd in NFC West
The 49ers’ coaching carousel continues to turn at an alarming rate, and a once-dominant franchise that has won five Super Bowls appears to have lost its way. San Francisco will have its third coach in three years, going from Jim Harbaugh to Jim Tomsula and now Chip Kelly, who brings his warp-speed offense to the 49ers after being fired by the Philadelphia Eagles. Harbaugh was shoved out the door after going 49-22-1 (including postseason) and leading the 49ers to three NFC title games and one Super Bowl appearance over four seasons. The 49ers promoted defensive line coach Tomsula to replace Harbaugh, but that experiment failed quickly. Tomsula was fired after going 5-11 in his rookie season. Enter Kelly, who went 26-21 with one playoff season in three years.
San Francisco has lost a wealth of talent — including Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Frank Gore, Mike Iupati, Aldon Smith and Vernon Davis — since its run of three straight trips to the NFC title game under Harbaugh. There are no signs that this is going to be a quick fix. The 49ers entered free agency with a ton of salary cap space, but GM Trent Baalke’s biggest signing was ex-Jacksonville guard Zane Beadles. “We haven’t done much,” Baalke said of free agency at the NFL owners meetings. “We’re a draft-and-develop team. That’s what we are.”
Kelly is known for his fast, cutting-edge attack, but he faces a huge challenge getting San Francisco’s offense up to speed. The 49ers averaged an NFL-worst 14.9 points per game last season. They ranked 31st in total offense, 29th in passing and 21st in rushing.
|Head Coach||Chip Kelly|
|Record With Team||0-0|
|Offensive Coordinator||Curtis Modkins|
|Defensive Coordinator||Jim O'Neil|
|Special Teams Coordinator||Derius Swinton II|
|Running Backs||Tom Rathman|
|Wide Receivers||Bob Bicknell|
|Tight Ends||Jeff Nixon|
|Offensive Line||Pat Flaherty|
|Defensive Line||Jerry Azzinaro|
|Outside Linebackers||Jason Tarver|
|Inside Linebackers||Joe Bowden|
|Defensive Backs||Jeff Hafley|
During their Super Bowl championship seasons, the 49ers had Hall of Fame quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young. Kelly will have to make do with Blaine Gabbert and, barring a trade, Colin Kaepernick, who lost his starting job after eight games last season. Kaepernick asked for and received permission from the 49ers to seek a trade, but a deal to Denver collapsed when he refused to take a major pay cut. Kaepernick has spent most of his offseason recovering from left shoulder, right thumb and left knee surgeries. Gabbert was drafted No. 10 overall by Jacksonville in 2011 but nearly played his way out of the league. He was traded to the 49ers in 2014 to be their backup and threw seven passes that season. But last year he threw for 2,031 yards and 10 touchdowns with seven interceptions. He has the size, arm strength and athleticism that might work in Kelly’s system. Kaepernick has more speed and arm strength, but he lacks the passing accuracy and touch that Kelly likes.
The 49ers’ wide receiver and tight end corps won’t scare any opposing defensive coordinators. Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin, who was still a free agent as of mid-July, tied for the team lead in touchdowns last year with four. Boldin led the team with 69 catches for 789 yards. Smith ranked second with 33 catches for 663 yards. No other wide receiver or tight end had more than 30 catches. Surprisingly, Baalke took only one wide receiver in the draft, Aaron Burbridge, a sixth-round pick from Michigan State.
Kelly relies heavily on the run game, and he should have a healthy Carlos Hyde to carry the load. Hyde, who missed nine games last season with a foot injury, averaged 4.1 yards per carry over his first two NFL seasons. The question is whether the 49ers’ offensive line will open enough holes. Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley is still one of the league’s top linemen, but his supporting cast is in flux. Beadles and rookie Joshua Garnett, a first-round pick from Stanford, are expected to be the 49ers’ new starting guards. Trent Brown, a seventh-round pick last year from Florida, should get first crack at right tackle after a strong rookie season. Daniel Kilgore, who has battled injuries, will start at center. The 49ers lost guard Alex Boone to free agency. Former Pro Bowl tackle Anthony Davis, who sat out last season, has said he plans to play this year but had yet to apply to the league for reinstatement as of mid May.
Just three years ago the 49ers had one of the NFL’s elite defenses. Last year they ranked 29th in total defense, were 29th against the rush, 27th against the pass and 18th in points allowed. New defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil, who spent the past two seasons in the same role with Cleveland, faces a huge challenge. O’Neil will direct a young defense that had only one Pro Bowl player last season, inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman. He’ll also have to adjust to likely having his group on the field longer than any other defense in the NFL. Kelly’s offense in Philadelphia ranked last in time of possession over the past three seasons.
Bowman came back last season after missing a year while recovering from reconstructive knee surgery and led the NFL with 154 tackles. He’s the leader on a young defense that needs to grow up in a hurry. Outside linebacker Aaron Lynch showed signs of becoming a dominant player in his second season; he had 6.5 sacks, tying for the team lead with outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks.
Free safety Eric Reid, who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie three years ago, anchors an inexperienced but promising secondary that is loaded with talented safeties. The 49ers used a first-round pick on Reid in 2013, a first-round choice on safety Jimmie Ward in 2014 and a second-round pick on safety Jaquiski Tartt in 2015. Starting strong safety Antoine Bethea missed the final nine games last season with a torn pectoral muscle and could have competition for his job. Starting cornerback Tramaine Brock had a bounce-back season last year after an injury-plagued 2014. After missing his entire rookie season with a foot injury, cornerback Kenneth Acker started 13 games in 2015. He should get competition from Keith Reaser and Dontae Johnson, among others, for the starting job.
The 49ers are rebuilding what was once a dominant defensive line. One year after drafting Oregon defensive end Arik Armstead with the 17th overall pick, Baalke used the No. 7 choice on DeForest Buckner, another former Ducks defensive end. They should eventually wind up as bookends on the line in San Francisco’s 3-4 defense. Veterans Quinton Dial, Glenn Dorsey and Tony Jerod-Eddie, among others, will provide competition on a line that will need to take full advantage of its depth to keep from wearing down. Nose tackle Ian Williams played all 16 games last year but had surgery on his left leg during the offseason, putting his availability for the start of this season in doubt. Mike Purcell could fill that gap early.
Kicker Phil Dawson returns for his 18th NFL season after making 24-of-27 field-goal attempts last season. Bradley Pinion averaged 43.6 yards per punt and handled kickoff duties as a rookie last season after the 49ers drafted him in the fifth round. Bruce Ellington showed some explosiveness at times as the 49ers’ top punt and kickoff returner, but this is an area that needs improvement.
The 49ers have their third coach in three years and did little in the offseason to upgrade the talent on a team that went 5-11 in 2015. It’s been just four seasons since San Francisco reached the Super Bowl and lost 34-31 to Baltimore, but that seems like ancient history. If the 49ers finish .500 this season, Kelly should get some votes for Coach of the Year.
Prediction: 4th in NFC West
New time. New town. New quarterback. But will they be the same old Rams? That’s the question as the franchise returns to Los Angeles after 21 seasons in St. Louis.
The logistics have been complicated, with the team holding spring OTAs and minicamps in one location, training camp in another and regular-season practices in a third. But once it comes to the football, the mission is straightforward. The Rams are counting on stout defense, a strong running game and improved quarterback play to end a streak of 12 consecutive non-winning seasons and 11 straight non-playoff campaigns.
The results could have a lot to say about whether coach Jeff Fisher is around in 2017. He quickly got the Rams back to respectability in his inaugural season in St. Louis (2012), but the program has been struck in neutral ever since. Not many coaches get to stick around after four straight losing seasons. Fisher doesn’t want to test his luck with a fifth.
History shows that a running back coming back from an ACL injury is usually better the second year after surgery. The Rams hope that’s the case with Todd Gurley, because he was better than expected his first season back, topping 1,000 yards in 13 games and earning AP Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. The hope is that Gurley has even more acceleration than he showed in 2015. He needs to stay healthy, because there’s a big drop-off behind him on the depth chart in the disappointing Tre Mason and the workmanlike Benny Cunningham.
|Head Coach||Jeff Fisher|
|Record With Team||27-36-1|
|Asst. Head Coach||Dave McGinnis|
|Asst. Head Coach-Offense/Tight Ends||Rob Boras|
|Passing Game Coordinator/Wide Receivers||Mike Groh|
|Defensive Coordinator||Gregg Williams|
|Special Teams Coordinator||John Fassel|
|Running Backs||Skip Peete|
|Offensive Line||Paul T. Boudreau|
|Defensive Line||Mike Waufle|
|Defensive Backs||Brandon Fisher, Dennard Wilson|
The line should be better, but you can expect growing pains because it’s still one of the league’s more inexperienced units. Two keys here: 1.) Left tackle Greg Robinson must progress from his disappointing 2015 season, which included way too many breakdowns in pass protection and way too many penalties. 2.) Guard Rodger Saffold, who has Pro Bowl potential in terms of strength and athleticism, needs to stay healthy. He has played a full 16 games only twice in six NFL seasons and has undergone shoulder surgery in each of the past two seasons.
At wide receiver, the team didn’t do much to address a glaring need for a difference-maker on the outside. Fourth-round pick Pharoh Cooper has potential, but he’s best suited for the slot. So it’s up to veteran Kenny Britt and Brian Quick to play better than ever on the outside. It was surprising to see the team even bring Quick back after a highly disappointing 2015 season coming off a severe shoulder injury. That leaves it up to Tavon Austin, who did score 10 touchdowns a year ago, to be at his elusive best on bubble screens, gadget plays and punt returns. For all of Jared Cook’s problems with consistency and drops, he averaged 47 catches for nearly 600 yards over the past three seasons. Whether it’s veteran Lance Kendricks or draft picks Tyler Higbee and Temarrick Hemingway, that production has to come from somewhere now that Cook is playing in Green Bay.
Fisher says he won’t play quarterback Jared Goff until he’s ready. But do you really trade up to No. 1 overall — and give away a boatload of draft picks in the process — to let a franchise quarterback sit? So look for Goff to be the opening-day starter. Veteran backup Case Keenum is long on intangibles and leadership, but short on arm strength and, to a degree, accuracy.
For the last several years, this group has shown flashes of great promise but has fallen short of expectations. Now in its third year under the tutelage of creative coordinator Gregg Williams, the Rams’ defense has a new look. Four starters from recent years are gone in cornerback Janoris Jenkins, free safety Rodney McLeod, middle linebacker James Laurinaitis and end Chris Long. The Rams willingly moved on from Laurinaitis and Long, the team’s longest-tenured players prior to their release in February. Injuries robbed Long of his effectiveness the past two seasons, and the Rams felt that Laurinaitis had lost a step in coverage and that it was time for a change. “Country strong” and one of the team’s emotional leaders, William Hayes has filled in admirably for Long the past two seasons and now becomes a full-time starter.
At linebacker, the key is Alec Ogletree’s ability to replace Laurinaitis in the middle, in terms of physical play and in making important pre-snap checks and adjustments and filling a leadership role. The Rams are betting that Mark Barron, who flourished in a hybrid linebacker-safety role last season, can do the same over a full 16 games as an undersized weak-side linebacker.
The front four should once again be formidable, particularly if two-time Pro Bowler Robert Quinn returns to form after missing half of last season with a back injury. Aaron Donald, the 2014 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year, is a difference-maker inside paired with former first-round pick Michael Brockers, who does a lot of the dirty work taking on extra blockers. The Rams also signed 2014 first-round pick Dominique Easley, who was released in April by New England. The former Patriot has struggled with injuries, but could be a real steal if he’s finally able to maximize on the potential that made him a high draft pick.
The secondary will have two new starters, with E.J. Gaines expected to replace the departed Jenkins at one corner. Gaines was a steady rookie surprise in 2014 then missed the entire ’15 season with a foot injury. Trumaine Johnson, who received the franchise tag in the offseason, must now step up as the team’s top corner after a breakout 2015 season in which he shared the NFC interception lead with seven. Johnson is playing with more confidence and a more physical style; he’s always had good ball skills. But free safety remains an issue with the departure of McLeod to Philadelphia in free agency. Maurice Alexander is one possibility, but his skill set is more suited to strong safety. There has been some talk of moving Lamarcus Joyner back to safety from nickel back.
The Rams have a gem in Johnny Hekker, already a two-time Pro Bowler after just four years in the league and a punter who combines distance with directional skills. Hekker is one of the rare punters who can consistently flip field position, and his passing exploits make him a threat on trick plays. The outlook is murkier when it comes to placekicker Greg Zuerlein, who has yet to fulfill the great promise he showed early in his rookie season of 2012. Zuerlein has great leg strength, and Fisher’s confident enough to use him from long distance. But his accuracy suffered a year ago, and this will be a key preseason for him to regain his touch.
Austin can be one of the league’s most dangerous punt return men, but he still needs to be more decisive and do a better job fielding short kicks. The Rams seemingly search for a new kickoff returner every year, but it always ends up being Cunningham, who isn’t a home-run threat by any means but always seems to get the ball out to the 25 or 30.
The ingredients are there to compete for a playoff berth given the Rams’ frontline talent — if they can get consistent quarterback play. But that’s a big “if” over a full season. Depth is a real issue at linebacker and defensive tackle. And heaven help these guys if something happens to Gurley. The momentum of a new home and the joy of having the NFL back in Los Angeles could carry the team to some early victories. It had that effect 21 years ago when the new home was St. Louis. But sooner or later the talent must take over. And once again there’s a fine line between success for these Rams and yet another losing season.
Prediction: 3rd in NFC West
Super Bowl or bust? That might seem dramatic, but it also rings true for the Cardinals this season. After winning the NFC West and advancing to the NFC Championship Game, the Cardinals should be satisfied with nothing less than playing in the final game of the season.
And why not? Carolina lost cornerback Josh Norman. Marshawn Lynch hung up his cleats in Seattle. Arizona, meanwhile, maintained the core of its team and added two important parts in pass-rush specialist Chandler Jones and guard Evan Mathis.
There’s also the realization that the Cardinals’ window is closing fast. Quarterback Carson Palmer is 36. Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald will be 33 when the season begins. Defensive end Calais Campbell could leave in free agency after the season.
Arizona legitimately is the team to beat in the NFC. The key: Getting home field advantage throughout the playoffs so the NFC Championship Game will be played at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Truthfully, there’s only one significant question going forward: Can Palmer erase the memory of his brutal NFC Championship Game performance against Carolina when he threw four interceptions (he had six turnovers in all) and play big when Arizona needs him most?
|Head Coach||Bruce Arians|
|Record With Team||34-14|
|Asst. Head Coach/Offense||Tom Moore|
|Offensive Coordinator||Harold Goodwin|
|Defensive Coordinator||James Bettcher|
|Special Teams Coordinator||Amos Jones|
|Running Backs||Stump Mitchell|
|Wide Receivers||Darryl Drake|
|Tight Ends||Rick Christophel|
|Offensive Line||Larry Zierlein|
|Defensive Line||Brentson Buckner|
|Inside Linebackers||Larry Foote|
|Defensive Backs||Nick Rapone|
Palmer had terrific numbers during the regular season, and it’s fair to assume his injured right thumb affected him in the playoffs, but until he plays well on the big stage, there are going to be doubts about his ability to lead the Cardinals to the Super Bowl.
Other than that, there’s little not to like about Arizona’s offense. Third-round pick David Johnson emerged late last season as one of the best backs in the NFL. He’s big, he has breakaway speed and he’s a terrific receiver. A 1,000-yard rushing season and 50 catches aren’t out of the question. Veteran Chris Johnson, at this stage of his career, is an ideal backup. He had 814 yards in 11 games before going down with a fractured tibia injury against the 49ers.
The wide receiving corps is deep and versatile. Fitzgerald, now operating out of the slot, is still Palmer’s go-to-guy, and there’s been little drop-off in his skill level. Last year, he had 109 catches — his first with 100-plus since 2007 — and 1,215 yards. Michael Floyd can beat smaller cornerbacks to jump balls, and John Brown is the home-run threat; he averaged 15.4 yards per reception last season. The only quibble: Arizona still doesn’t have a tight end who can beat teams down the middle. Darren Fells has the athleticism, but he was targeted only 28 times last year because Palmer has so much confidence in his wideouts.
The offensive line is probably the weakest link offensively, but that unit got a big boost in the offseason with the signing of Mathis to play right guard. The question marks are at center and right tackle. Will rookie fourth-round pick Evan Boehm be ready to start at center? And can 2015 first-round draft pick D.J. Humphries, often criticized by coach Bruce Arians last year, handle right tackle? If the answer to both those questions is yes, the line will be fine. If not, it could compromise Arizona’s Super Bowl hopes.
How badly did the Cardinals need a premier pass rusher? Elder statesman Dwight Freeney led the team with eight sacks last year, and no one else had more than five. Enter Chandler Jones, who had 12.5 sacks for New England last year and gives Arizona the one dimension it was desperately missing defensively: someone to scare quarterbacks.
Now, with Jones, Campbell and first-round pick Robert Nkemdiche, Arizona can get pressure from its line and not have to blitz as much as it has in past seasons. Jones isn’t stout against the run, but the Cardinals will live with that shortcoming if he racks up double-digit sacks.
Arizona plays five defensive backs on almost every snap, but that’s a bit of a mis-perception, because natural safety Deone Bucannon lines up at inside linebacker and, despite his 220-pound frame, is a fierce defender against the run. The Cardinals aren’t blessed with great talent at linebacker, so in some ways Bucannon may be the defense’s most important player. It will be interesting to see if teams start attacking the Cardinals with jumbo packages and extra offensive linemen, trying to take advantage of Bucannon’s lack of size at inside linebacker.
The secondary could be the weak link of the defense this season. Arizona needs to find a cornerback who can hold his own opposite Patrick Peterson (Justin Bethel couldn’t do it late last season), and safety Tyrann Mathieu is coming off his second reconstructive knee surgery. Mathieu says he’ll start the opener against New England, but there has to be some question about his readiness.
If Mathieu has recovered, and if the Cardinals can find a competent No. 2 corner, this has a chance to be Arians’ best defense in his four seasons as coach.
The only thing holding Chandler Catanzaro back from becoming one of the league’s best placekickers is consistency. He was 28-of-31 on field-goal attempts last year, including 6-of-7 from 40 to 49 yards, but he also missed five extra points, a surprise given that he connected on every field-goal attempt inside 40 yards.
Punter Drew Butler doesn’t have the biggest leg, but he gets great hang time — only 25 of his 60 punts were returned last year — and he had 22 punts downed inside the 20-yard line compared to only six touchbacks.
Arizona’s return game could be in a state of flux. David Johnson was terrific returning kickoffs in 2015 — he averaged 27.2 yards per return and had a 108-yard return against Chicago — but he’ll be the No. 1 back this season. Arians might not want to risk his health returning kickoffs. Possible replacements include J.J. Nelson and Brown. Peterson likely will be the primary punt returner, but he hasn’t been as dynamic as he once was; he averaged 8.1 yards per return last year, and his longest return was only 38 yards. Arians could look for more explosiveness in his return game while also preserving Peterson.
The Cardinals aren’t a perfectly constructed team — they need a cornerback to step up opposite Peterson, and their offensive line remains a question mark — but general manager Steve Keim has built a deep, talented roster that should compete for a championship. And, in Arians, Arizona has a coach that gets the most out his players. If Palmer stays healthy — at his age and with his injury history that’s a big if — there’s no reason the Cardinals shouldn’t win at least 12 games. It’s amazing to think how far Arizona has come since its days at Sun Devil Stadium. Once a laughingstock of a franchise, it is now one of the best-run in the NFL. Super Bowl or bust? Absolutely.
Prediction: 1st in NFC West
When Dino Babers was the wide receivers coach at Baylor in 2008, he and the rest of coaching staff knew the Bears had ground to make up to stand up to Oklahoma and Texas. As a coach at Baylor, that’s part of the deal.
Babers didn’t have a full picture of Baylor’s failures against the league’s powerhouses until he thumbed through a media guide for the series history against Oklahoma, and the reality of Baylor’s position in the Big 12 became clear.
Lots of “Ls.” 17 of them. And no “Ws.”
Babers would be a part of three more losses to the Sooners before Baylor finally ended the streak in 2011.
Still, the futility seemed to defy the laws of chance.
“The ball bounces wrong one time — how can you roll seven 19 times in a row?” Babers says. “I’m not talking about those guys, but stuff happens.”
Babers could repeat the same exercise at his new head coaching job at Syracuse — another program buried in a conference with perennial national championship contenders. Syracuse is 0–8 against Florida State since 1978 and 0–3 against Clemson since joining the ACC in 2013. The Orange have two wins all-time against the Seminoles and Tigers.
Babers won’t be alone in the ACC, though. If the other three new coaches in the conference are so inclined, they can find their own version of futility against the ACC’s top two.
Bronco Mendenhall could look at Virginia’s 3–15 all-time mark against Florida State and 0–3 record against Clemson since 2008. Justin Fuente can look at Virginia Tech’s ACC title banner won at Florida State’s expense in 2010 but also three losses to Clemson since 2011 by a combined score of 99–30.
Mark Richt can look at Miami’s humiliating 58–0 loss at home to Clemson last season that got his predecessor fired. Even the Hurricanes’ series against rival Florida State, once one of college football’s must-see matchups, has become an afterthought with Miami losing six in a row.
Every year in college football, new coaches bring a sense of optimism, but what’s happening in the ACC is not ordinary. Fans at Miami, Syracuse, Virginia and Virginia Tech can all reasonably believe that their school made a game-changing coaching move.
Mendenhall and Richt both revived power programs and sustained long and successful tenures at BYU and Georgia, respectively. Babers and Fuente are up-and-coming coaches who are considered among the sport’s best offensive minds.
This feature and more can be found in the 2016 Athlon Sports ACC Football Preview, available on newsstands now and in our online store.
The ACC’s round of hires in this season isn’t in a vacuum, either. Louisville re-hired a proven commodity in Bobby Petrino in 2014, and Pittsburgh hired one of the most in-demand coordinators in the country when the Panthers pulled Pat Narduzzi from Michigan State in 2015. Those coaches have added to a non-Clemson/Florida State lineup that includes Paul Johnson and David Cutcliffe entrenched at Georgia Tech and Duke, respectively.
“If you were looking from the outside in, the conclusion you would draw is that the league is becoming more competitive,” Mendenhall says. “The league is striving to become very balanced, which is every team making a commitment to compete at the highest level in football and each team willing to put resources into the pursuit of that goal.”
The ACC’s four coaching hires for 2016 could signal the most important shift for the league since it added Miami and Virginia Tech in 2004. From a coaching standpoint, the closest parallel to the ACC’s new class of coaches could be the recent history in the Pac-12.
In 2012, the Pac-12 added four new coaches who added credibility to underperforming programs. Of those four coaches, three — Jim L. Mora at UCLA, Rich Rodriguez at Arizona and Todd Graham at Arizona State — have reached the Pac-12 Championship Game. The fourth hire that season, Mike Leach at Washington State, ended a decade-long bowl drought.
Like the ACC, the Pac-10/12 had a problem with being too top heavy for its own good, starting with USC’s run in the early 2000s. The arrival of Chip Kelly and Jim Harbaugh at Oregon and Stanford, respectively, shook up that paradigm. And thanks to those four coaching hires in 2012 and others in the last five years (David Shaw at Stanford and Chris Petersen at Washington, specifically), the Pac-12 now boasts a coaching lineup that matches up with any major conference.
In the ACC, either Clemson or Florida State has claimed every conference title since 2010, but neither had to be a powerhouse to do it for two of those seasons. The ACC didn’t have a team finish in the final AP top 20 in 2011 nor in the final top 15 in 2010 — a reminder that the Tigers’ and Seminoles’ rise as CFB Playoff contenders is the byproduct of the recent coaching hires of Dabo Swinney and Jimbo Fisher.
But since the conference began its current wave of expansion in 2004, only six ACC teams not named Clemson or Florida State finished the season ranked in the final AP top 10. Four of those were Virginia Tech, though not since 2009. The other two were 2014 Georgia Tech and 2007 Boston College.
This much has been clear for several years: ACC commissioner John Swofford probably expected different results when the league first poached Miami and Virginia Tech from the Big East.
It’s not as if the ACC hasn’t been producing in other ways. From 2005-15, the league produced 401 NFL Draft picks, second only to the SEC in that span. The 2015 draft marked the fourth time in five years the ACC was second among all conferences in total draft picks.
“It seems like every time there’s an NFL draft, there’s a boatload of players coming from the ACC,” Richt says. “I think there’s a lot of talent. A lot of guys have had great success coming out of the league and being professional football players.”
That disconnect is a good reason why Al Golden — or for that matter Randy Shannon or Larry Coker — isn’t the coach at Miami anymore.
Miami produced five first-, second- and third-round picks in 2015, a long way from where the Hurricanes once were in the ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s, but too many high draft picks for a team that hasn’t finished better than 5–3 in the ACC since 2005.
In 2015, the Hurricanes got a head start in the coaching carousel by firing Golden after seven games and soon ended up with an opportunity to grab Richt, a former Miami quarterback under program architect Howard Schnellenberger in 1982.
Richt’s 145 career wins and two SEC championships at Georgia make him arguably the most accomplished head coach to take the Miami job since Lou Saban in 1977.
That said, the former Bulldogs coach fell into Miami’s lap when Georgia struggled to meet expectations in his final years in Athens. The Bulldogs won 28 games in Richt’s last three years but failed to reach the SEC Championship Game in any of those seasons.
Perhaps that gives Miami fans some pause, but the Hurricanes aren’t in all that different a spot than Georgia was when Richt took over there in 2001. The Bulldogs then were 21 years removed from a national championship and 19 years removed from their last SEC title. Richt steered the Bulldogs back to prominence, even if it never culminated in a national title game appearance.
Richt’s first task at Miami will be to rebuild connections with the local high school programs that turned Miami into five-time national champions. Golden, the former Temple coach and a Penn State assistant, always had a lukewarm relationship with Miami-Dade and Broward County high school coaches.
The most damning example of this was Amari Cooper from Miami Northwestern. Cooper grew up a Miami fan, but the coaching staff slow-played the talented receiver in recruiting. Spurned, Cooper found a more enthusiastic suitor in Alabama, where he won the Biletnikoff Award and became a first-round pick.
Cooper’s story wasn’t isolated, and Miami’s place among the high school coaches in South Florida has been strained.
To mend fences, Richt has set up a “Cane Talk” every Wednesday to meet with high school coaches and extended an open invitation to practice, not only for coaches, but also former Miami players — many of whom have been openly critical of the direction of the Hurricanes’ program over the years.
“They want to send their young men to a place where they can reach their full potential,” Richt says. “I believe most of them think that can happen here. That’s what we’re trying to prove to them — that we’ve got a plan and we’ll take care of those guys.”
If Miami’s hire of Richt seemed like a solid and safe move, Virginia Tech’s hire of Fuente was a downright coup.
Fuente, a former offensive coordinator at TCU, took over one of the worst situations in college football when he landed at Memphis in 2012. The Tigers had gone 5–31 in the previous three seasons with little fan support and little talent. By Fuente’s third season, Memphis finished 10–3, and by his fourth season knocked off a top-10 Ole Miss team and went 9–4. The 39-year-old coach with Oklahoma roots was one of the hottest commodities in the country.
Virginia Tech quietly drew his interest. Fuente could have picked dozens of jobs, but Virginia Tech offered more than a program that was five years removed from an 11–3 finish and a Sugar Bowl. It offered a high-level school that still seems distant in some ways from the hoopla of big-time college football.
“Tempo of life, quite honestly, was something I was drawn to,” Fuente says. “I enjoy going fishing and being outside, and this place has all those things close to town.”
It didn’t hurt that Fuente had the blessing of Frank Beamer, who retired as the most important figure in program history. A key piece of the transition is Bud Foster, Beamer’s longtime defensive coordinator and right-hand man who elected to stay on staff with Fuente.
All the talk about what a great fit Fuente is at Virginia Tech, though, can’t mask the work to do. The Hokies were 29–23 in Beamer’s final four seasons, never better than 8–5. The Hokies had won at least 10 games every season from 2004-11 and were the de facto flagship program in the ACC during its first six seasons.
“We need to get back to that level of play,” Fuente says. “The bottom line is that they haven’t played at the same level. It’s been really close.”
Fuente will look to fix major deficiencies in a program that, despite its recent struggles, has still reached a bowl in 23 consecutive years. He’s considered by his peers — Syracuse’s Babers among them — to be one of the brightest offensive minds in the country. The Hokies haven’t finished in the top 70 nationally in total offense since 2011.
Fuente also promises to close the gap in recruiting, particularly in the Virginia Beach 757 area code that fueled much of the Hokies’ rise under Beamer. Virginia Tech has never been a recruiting powerhouse like some of the programs in the ACC, but the Hokies can’t settle for being second choice among the state’s top prospects.
Virginia Tech has signed five of Virginia’s top-10 prospects total in the last four recruiting cycles combined. The Hokies signed five of the top 10 in 2012 alone and four in 2010.
The Hokies, however, will have to battle another new coach for the top-flight in-state recruits.
Virginia made the most surprising coaching hire when it grabbed Bronco Mendenhall from BYU. He had been entrenched with 11 seasons at BYU, and the Utah native had never coached east of the Mississippi River. After 99 wins and no losing seasons, there was little reason to believe Mendenhall would part ways with BYU.
But Mendenhall also may have taken BYU as far as it could go in its current incarnation. He revived the program with two Mountain West championships and four consecutive top-25 and 10-win seasons from 2006-09.
As an FBS Independent, however, BYU settled into the solid-but-unspectacular eight- or nine-win range.
BYU’s place as the flagship university of the LDS Church also set up a unique set of recruiting challenges. Football players at BYU must adhere to an honor code that forbids alcohol, profanity and pre-marital sex and requires specific grooming standards.
“Here just by eliminating one of those standards, in terms of being faith-specific, it’s probably increased our recruiting pool by five-fold,” Mendenhall says. “That’s just been amazing to me. We’ve had to redesign some of our processes to handle that volume.”
Mendenhall considers “organizational design” as one of his strengths at Virginia. It’s a catch-all term that includes efficiency in recruiting and communication avenues but also rebuilding the culture.
Players are required to earn one piece of the Virginia football experience each step of the way, including the program’s V and cross-sabre logo. They must maintain a clean locker to keep it, and they earn the right to practice through their performance in conditioning, Mendenhall says.
At Virginia, Mendenhall sees a program with unfulfilled potential. The Cavaliers have been to only two bowl games since 2005. George Welsh, the Cavs’ coach from 1982-2000, is the only man to win consistently in Charlottesville.
If the state of Virginia can produce a consistent winner at Virginia Tech, if the state can send its No. 1 prospects to Florida State, Alabama and Penn State, and if the University of Virginia can win in sports other than football, Mendenhall sees no reason why his program can’t thrive as well.
“The program is dripping with opportunity, and the chance to make a difference — to make something sustainable — was really appealing to me,” Mendenhall says.
Of the four new coaches in the ACC, the biggest climb to the top belongs to Babers.
Syracuse has reached the postseason more recently than Virginia, but the Orange have struggled to find their footing since the late ’90s. Not only is Syracuse the ACC’s furthest recruiting outpost in upstate New York, but the Orange share a division with Clemson and Florida State in the Atlantic.
Babers’ counterparts in the Coastal are in the more wide-open division — four different teams have won the Coastal in the last five seasons. The last non-Clemson/Florida State representative from the Atlantic was Boston College in 2007.
So not only does Babers take over one of the toughest jobs in the league, reaching the ACC Championship Game would mean knocking off Clemson and/or Florida State, not to mention Louisville. For Babers, this situation isn’t much different from being at Baylor in a Big 12 led at the time by Oklahoma and Texas.
“When you’re on the other side and you don’t know who the champion is going to be, you may not prepare the way you’re going to have to prepare to go through the road that we have to go to become a champion,” Babers says. “We want to play the best. We think we have the best side of the conference. And I think we’ll attract the best recruits to play on that side.”
That, however, has been a major hurdle for Syracuse coaches since the end of Paul Pasqualoni’s tenure.
Babers is quick to point out that Syracuse isn’t Baylor. The Orange have a rich history, including Jim Brown, Ernie Davis and the 1959 national championship. That history belongs not even to the parents of his current recruits, but their grandparents.
To high school juniors and seniors, Syracuse in 2016 is just as much of an afterthought as Baylor was in 2008.
“For the kids we’re recruiting there is no difference,” Babers says. “The kids think it’s the same.”
Babers, though, brings an edge of modernity to Syracuse. That means high tempo and plenty of yards through the air. Both of Babers’ Eastern Illinois teams (2012-13) ranked in the top 10 of the FCS in passing and total offense.
In his second season at Bowling Green — when he finally had a healthy quarterback at his disposal — the Falcons finished in the top five in the FBS in passing and total offense on the way to a 10–3 season.
In four seasons as a head coach, Babers has won three conference championships, twice in the Ohio Valley and once in the MAC.
But Syracuse needs players, and the Orange don’t have the same access to recruiting territory as Miami and the Virginia schools — much less Florida State and Clemson.
This feature and more can be found the 2016 Athlon Sports ACC Preview, available on newsstands now and in our online store.
Babers says he’s keeping his recruiting blueprint close to the vest, but the results show at least a glimmer of the strategy. His first class included six players from metro areas in Florida (Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and Orlando). Speed will be at a premium.
For the players on campus, Babers is trying to change mindsets.
“Normally young men play the way you treat them. If you treat them like losers, they’ll play like losers. If you treat them like winners, they’ll play like winners,” he says. “It’s the way you talk to them. If you talk about the positives and tell them where they can go and that you see them as a blossoming rose, they will respond in a positive manner.”
Babers won’t be the only one preaching this in the ACC, and he’s not the only one starting at square one in a bid to catch up to the giants in the conference.
“It’s a pretty equal playing field,” Fuente says. “There’s a bunch of good programs that are kind of battling to create their identity and take a foothold in the ACC.”
SEC Media Days are always good for getting an interesting quote or two but when Nick Saban is there, you might end up with a whole lot more.
Saban was not asked about Cam Robinson's off-season arrest during his earlier press conference, something that was pointed out by muliple media members. SEC Network's Paul Finebaum mentioned that the media should've asked the Alabama coach tougher questions even though he stated he didn't want to answer them.
The two men had a somewhat awkward exchange when Saban stepped on-set to join the crew, specifically discussing his handling of the Robinson situation.
That wasn't all. After the cameras were turned off Saban evidently had a little more to say to Finebaum, and this time he didn't seem as calm. Although we can't hear what was being said, Saban's body language told the story.
Apparently Saban just went absolutely nuts on the SEC Network crew during commercial break after being asked about the Cam Robinson stuff.— Danny West (@DannyWest1) July 13, 2016
SEC Media Days are always quite the event.
Every year but one since the 2010 season, Stanford has been in the race for the college football national championship deep into the campaign. However, the Cardinal have yet to actually play for the game's top prize.
Coming off one of the most impressive single seasons amid this altogether remarkable run, the 2016 version of Stanford football has the pieces to not only again be in the mix for the national championship, but finally compete for one.
Heisman Trophy runner-up Christian McCaffrey transformed the identity of the Stanford offense and returns to make another run at college football's top honor.
Also back for his sixth year at the helm is head coach David Shaw. Shaw's built one of the most impressive resumes in college football in short order. The only thing eluding him in his wildly successful tenure is that shot at the top prize. Might this be the year?
Three Reasons Stanford Will Reach the College Football Playoff in 2016
1. Christian McCaffrey
One man does not a championship team make, but seriously; have you seen this guy? McCaffrey looks like the Tecmo Bowl version of Bo Jackson, come to life.
Last season, McCaffrey rushed for more than 2,000 yards, functioned as the Cardinal primary pass-catching option with 645 yards receiving, and blew past coverage units as a returner.
He joined Reggie Bush (2005) and C.J. Spiller (2009) as the only players ever to score touchdowns in five different ways.
2. Offensive Line
Without a terrific offensive line, McCaffrey does not have the freedom to make those incredible plays that filled his highlight reel. And, despite losing Outland Trophy winner Joshua Garnett, Shaw gushed about the performance of Stanford's offensive line in April.
Though Stanford is tasked with replacing a four-year starting quarterback and short-yardage running back extraordinaire Remound Wright, the presence of a stout front five eases the learning curve.
By season's end, the Stanford line could be one of the most dominant in college football.
3. Defense Wins Championships
Stanford has enjoyed uncommon success in the Pac-12 by employing an uncommon style. The Cardinal relied on a traditional, huddle-up offense while much of the rest of the conference employed hurry-up spreads.
More importantly, the Cardinal's offensive philosophy functions as a complement to one of the most stifling defenses in all of college football.
Former defensive coordinator Derek Mason -- now the head coach at Vanderbilt -- crafted a scheme that pounded many of the up-tempo offenses prevalent around the Pac-12 into submission. Successor Lance Anderson has kept it going.
Stanford loses a few key pieces from the 2015 defense, like linebacker Blake Martinez. But with rising stars such as Quenton Meeks and Solomon Thomas, the pieces are there for defense to win a Pac-12 title for the fourth time -- and perhaps a national title for the first time in Stanford's modern era.
Three Reasons Stanford Will Not Make the College Football Playoff in 2016
1. Passing Game Questions
Since the start of its run of double-digit-win seasons in 2010, Stanford has finished each campaign with one of two starting quarterbacks: former No. 1 NFL draft pick and two-time Heisman runner-up Andrew Luck, and three-time Pac-12 champion Kevin Hogan.
Shaw has not exactly had to rebuild the offense much in his tenure as head coach thanks to the quarterback stability.
Both Keller Chryst and Ryan Burns came to The Farm with prep accolades, but their college experience is limited mostly to practices. Meanwhile, Stanford's corps of pass catchers boasts more experience with McCaffrey and Michael Rector back, but replacing tight end Austin Hooper and wide receiver Devon Cajuste will be a big concern -- literally.
The duo of Hooper and Cajuste towered over most defensive backs, giving the Cardinal quintessential targets in the red zone or up the middle on intermediate routes.
2. A Brutal Schedule
Stanford once again plays a schedule with 11 Power Five opponents, including perennial Big 12 overachiever Kansas State, and fellow College Football Playoff contender Notre Dame in non-conference action.
Those non-conference dates are particularly noteworthy, given that losses outside of Pac-12 play ostensibly denied Stanford two opportunities at the national championship.
The first came in 2012 in an overtime contest at Notre Dame. The Cardinal have not won in South Bend since 2010, and return there in October. The second was last year's opener at Northwestern.
The Kansas State game bears similarity that goes beyond the purple uniforms. Stanford will still be working out changes in its lineup, putting it at its most vulnerable against a quality opponent.
In Pac-12 play, Stanford travels to Oregon and Washington, as well as UCLA. The Ducks and Huskies figure to be the top two competitors for supremacy in the North division, and the Bruins are favorites in the South.
3. Replacing the Pass Rush
A tenacious pass rush played a key role in each of Stanford's successful seasons since 2010, and last year was no exception. The Cardinal registered 34 sacks and 83 tackles for a loss.
Somewhat surprising is that last season was among the Cardinal's least prolific in those categories. Even in 2014, when the Cardinal regressed below 10 wins for the first time since ‘09, they ranked in the top 20 nationally for tackles for a loss and top 10 in sacks.
Maintaining consistent pressure keys the Stanford defense, and coordinator Lance Anderson must find ways to do so without heavy hitters Aziz Shittu, Kevin Anderson and Brennan Scarlet. The aforementioned Thomas is a breakout star in the making at defensive tackle, but will need support to keep the #PartyInTheBackfield going.
Stanford almost always schedules ambitiously, which last year was to the detriment of its College Football Playoff aspirations.
A road trip to fellow Playoff hopeful Notre Dame looms large right in the middle of Pac-12 play. And, as far as Pac-12 competition goes, a team from the conference has run the table just once since USC in 2005. Coincidentally (or not), 2005 was the league's last year playing eight intra-conference games, and unbeaten Oregon in ‘10 marked the Pac-12's last champion before implementation of a league title game.
Until the Playoff Selection Committee proves it emphasizes strength of schedule, or Stanford goes through a brutal docket relatively unscathed, the Cardinal will always have a tougher road to the title. Shaw may get his shot soon, but probably not in 2016.
Notre Dame was very close to making the College Football Playoff in 2015. Three more points in both the Clemson and Stanford games would have put the Fighting Irish at 12-0 and squarely in the final four.
But victory eluded Notre Dame in both of those contests and in reality the Irish were not worthy of an invite to the Playoff. The loss to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl was further proof that head coach Brian Kelly's team was not quite at the top level of the college football hierarchy last fall.
Can Notre Dame reach that standard in 2016? Here are three reasons why the Fighting Irish will... and three reasons why they won’t.
Three Reasons Why Notre Dame Will Make the College Football Playoff
1. Quarterback Play
The story is well-known to college football fans. The 2015 Irish were Malik Zaire’s team but when the lefty signal-caller broke his ankle in the season’s second game at Virginia, redshirt freshman DeShone Kizer came in and led the team to a 10-win season and a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl. Kizer is not assured of a starting spot despite his impressive debut. However, if Zaire is good enough to beat out Kizer, he will be good enough to lead the Irish to a Playoff appearance.
2. Running Game
Left tackle Mike McGlinchey and left guard Quenton Nelson lead what should be a very good Notre Dame offensive line. That group will be opening holes for a talented trio of backs. Josh Adams flashed his abilities as a freshman last fall, Dexter Williams has the potential to do the same as a sophomore, and Tarean Folston is poised to return to his pre-injury form. Zaire, whether he starts or plays as a reserve, also will be a factor in the running game. Kelly likes to throw the ball and that will not go away, especially if Kizer is under center. But the Irish have the tools for another balanced offensive attack.
3. Special Teams
Really? Notre Dame with elite special teams? It could be. Tyler Newsome averaged 44.5 yards per punt last year, which placed him 15th in the nation. In his first season kicking on the collegiate level, Justin Yoon was 15 of 17 on field goals and converted his last 12 attempts. In close games a strong kicking game could decide whether Notre Dame makes the Playoff or not. Also, C.J. Sanders gave the return game a jolt of energy last season and if he can return from a hip injury, he can again make an impact this fall.
Three Reasons Why Notre Dame Will Not Make the College Football Playoff
1. Inexperience on Defense
The past two years have been filled with questions about the merits of defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder and his system. There is a belief that his methodology is too complex given the limited amount of practice time allowed on the collegiate level. This season, the Irish will be without veterans like Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, KeiVarae Russell and Romeo Okwara. If the game plans were too complicated for those seasoned defenders, how will the newcomers fare? There is talent on the Notre Dame defense and athleticism should not be a problem. But whether or not the players can grasp the system is a concern.
2. Lack of a Pass Rush
Romeo Okwara led the team with eight sacks in 2015 and Sheldon Day was more disruptive in the pass game than his four sacks showed. Notre Dame only registered 25 sacks in 2015 and players responsible for 64 percent of those sacks are gone. Linebacker James Onwualu is the leading returning sacker with three and he is not expected to be the primary pass rusher in 2016. Andrew Trumbetti and Jay Hayes are juniors that will be counted on to provide pressure and early enrollee freshman Daelin Hayes may get a shot in certain situations.
3. Replacing Receivers
Notre Dame has recruited well at the wide receiver position and there are players at the position with ability. But the team’s top three receivers have moved on, including the great Will Fuller and his 62 catches, 1,258 yards and 14 touchdowns. Torii Hunter is expected to make a leap forward and position mates like Equanimeous St. Brown, Miles Boykin, Corey Holmes, and a hopefully healthy C.J. Sanders, need to see their potential lead to production. Freshmen Kevin Stepherson and Javon McKinley also will get an opportunity and increased output from the tight end position would help as well.
There are many positives heading into Notre Dame’s 2016 season. Brian Kelly and the Fighting Irish believe that despite the personnel losses that there is enough talent to maintain the winning culture. The players lacking in field action have the talent to perform at an elite level. Offensively, Notre Dame should have no problem scoring points. The schedule also is set up nicely with as many as nine opponents breaking in new quarterbacks this fall. Plus, at some point the Irish will have to get luckier on the injury front. But this team has holes, most notably on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder’s system is a question mark and a lack of a pass rush could make life easier for the quarterbacks Notre Dame will face. The Fighting Irish will be good this fall and should make a return trip to a major bowl game. But they will not be part of the College Football Playoff picture.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 8
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 10-2
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 9
5 Dimes Projected Over/Under Odds: 9
— 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.