Articles By David Fox
The college football offseason is nearing a close, which means months of analyzing and previewing will soon be validated or … not.
The preseason AP poll was released Sunday, and a clear consensus has been established. Alabama is a near-unanimous No. 1, followed by Clemson in most outlets (not by Athlon, however). In the clarity of July and August, the contenders have separated from the pack.
Then there are other teams, the ones that have been much more difficult to figure out by the college football intelligentsia.
Throughout the summer, Athlon has been tracking the conference picks from major preseason outlets — ourselves, Lindy’s, The Sporting News, Phil Steele, ESPN’s preseason magazine, CBS Sports, Fox Sports, USA Today, the coaches’ poll and AP poll — because it’s always fun to compare and contrast.
We’re not fans of groupthink. Everyone having the same opinions would be boring. Someone has to step out on a limb to be very wrong or very right. It is interesting to see where opinions diverge.
These are the teams that appear to be the most divisive heading into the season.
High: 5 (USA Today)
Low: Not Ranked (Sporting News), 24 (Coaches’ poll)
By the time August rolls around, there’s a bit of consensus in most rankings. Take this year for example: Five teams (Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, Florida State and Ohio State) are in every top 10 we examined. Five more teams (LSU, Michigan, Notre Dame, Stanford and Tennessee) are in every top 13. In other words, there’s not a ton of deviation among the top 10 or so consensus teams. That’s why it’s strange to see the case of UCLA. The Bruins are a top-10 team in the eyes of some and a fringe top-25 team in the eyes of others. The lack of consensus on UCLA shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Bruins can’t always figure out what they are. In 2015, UCLA was ranked the top 10 for three weeks in September only to be unranked two weeks later and then back in the top 20 by November and then out of the top 25 the next week and the remainder of the season. The same was true in 2014: UCLA was No. 8 in the AP poll on Sept. 28, unranked two weeks later and back in the top 10 by late November. Some of the up-and-down is the product of schedule, but UCLA hasn’t been the portrait of consistency. Given the history, it wouldn’t be a shock to see UCLA in the top 10 and unranked at some point this year.
High: 7 (Sports Illustrated)
Low: 21 (Lindy’s)
When Athlon ranked Washington No. 11 in our preseason top 25 and picked the Huskies to win the Pac-12, we knew it would be a surprise. Washington hasn’t won a Pac-12 title or won more than nine games since 2000. Two other publications that hit newsstands with Athlon had Washington ranked 21st (Lindy’s) and 20th (Sporting News). Then two outlets put the Huskies in the top 10 — Phil Steele at No. 8 and Sports Illustrated at No. 7. Washington’s positives are clear. The Huskies have 17 returning starters, and they’ve been among the Pac-12’s best on defense the last two years. In a 7-6 season, Washington clobbered Washington State, beat USC on the road and three of their losses came by one score (Boise State, Oregon and Cal). The drawbacks are easy to find, too. Washington simply hasn’t been a top 25 program for most of the last 13 years and they’re in a division with Stanford and Oregon, who have accounted for the last seven Pac-12 championships. A lot of people will either look smart by picking Washington or will look foolish.
High: 2 (ESPN)
Low: 9 (Sports Illustrated)
Seven spots between the highest ranking and lowest isn’t particularly alarming. Even with SI ranking Ohio State at No. 9, the Buckeyes are still a consensus top-10 team. The question from the outside is how Ohio State could be a playoff contender despite only six returning starters, fewest among Power 5 schools. The answer, of course, is recruiting. Ohio State has recruited the No. 4, No. 7, No. 3 and No. 5 signing classes in the Big Ten from 2012-16. “The talent disparity in the league between Ohio State and everybody else in the Big Ten is striking,” one Big Ten assistant told Athlon Sports.
High: 4 (Phil Steele, Fox Sports)
Low: 12 (Sporting News)
LSU hasn’t entered a season with this kind of preseason ranking since starting at No. 3 in the AP poll in 2012, the year after losing to Alabama in the BCS title game. It’s been four years since LSU started the season as a top-10 team, hard to believe as it may be. As for 2016, LSU returns eight starters on offense, including running back Leonard Fournette and nine starters on defense (not including defensive tackle Christian LaCouture, out with a torn ACL). LSU’s last four recruiting classes have been ranked third, sixth, second and sixth. Those are all signs of a playoff team. And, yet, there are plenty of reasons to have LSU near the end of the top 10. The Tigers are 20-12 in the SEC the last four years, and LSU has finished the last four seasons No. 16 (2015), unranked (2014) and No. 14 (2012-13).
High: 3 (ESPN)
Low: 12 (Phil Steele)
Here’s the big question: Is Michigan ready? It seems to be a given that Jim Harbaugh-led Michigan will at some point catch up with Ohio State and Michigan State. The pundits, for the most part, say this is the year Michigan overtakes Sparty, but not Ohio State. Michigan is ranked ahead of Michigan State in all the preseason rankings we’re looking at here. Michigan is ahead of Ohio State according to ESPN (UM is No. 3, OSU is No. 10) and Sports Illustrated (UM No. 4, OSU No. 9).
High: 7 (ESPN)
Low: 19 (Sports Illustrated)
Is Ole Miss a top-10 team or not? Buoyed by those two wins over Alabama, the Rebels have spent a total of 12 weeks in the last two seasons in the AP top 10, including a No. 10 finish in 2015. The highs of those two wins over the Crimson Tide are tempered by an 11-5 mark in the SEC the last seasons and a loss to Memphis in October last year, not to mention the ongoing NCAA entanglements. The skepticism is warranted, but the Rebs still have a 4,000-yard passer at quarterback and a standout defense, when healthy.
High: 8 (Sports Illustrated)
Low: 20 (Phil Steele)
Houston’s ceiling will be determined in Week 1. If the Cougars beat Oklahoma, they’re probably a top-10 team until they lose again. If they lose to the Sooners, they’ll hang around the bottom half of the top 25 as long as they look like the class of the American Athletic Conference. Is Athlon’s No. 16 ranking splitting the difference? Sure. Athlon projected Houston as 11-2 overall and 8-0 in the American, meaning we’ve projected the Cougars to win a conference championship but lose its two major non-league tests against Oklahoma and Louisville.
High: 6 (Fox Sports)
Low: Not ranked (ESPN), 25 (Sporting News)
Regardless of the range in TCU’s preseason rankings, it’s clear the Horned Frogs are getting some degree of the benefit of the doubt usually reserved for power programs. Trevone Boykin, the quarterback who propelled the Horned Frogs into a Big 12 contender, is gone, leaving TCU with just one returning starter on offense. Yet the Frogs are a top-15 team according to four of the outlets here. For the first time in a while under Gary Patterson, there’s a degree of trust on both sides of the ball. Patterson’s defense was average thanks to injuries last season, meaning it should return to form this season. And Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie have reformed the TCU offense into one that can compete with Big 12 track meets.
Before Briles was fired:
Sporting News: 5
After Briles was fired:
Phil Steele: 18
Sports Illustrated: Not Ranked
CBS Sports: 16
Fox Sports: 12
USA Today: 26
Coaches’ poll: 21
AP poll: 23
“Controversial,” of course, is a loaded word here. Baylor’s rankings are all over the place due to the firing of Art Briles, defections from the freshman class and the transfer of backup quarterback Jarrett Stidham. Athlon already was skeptical of Baylor with Briles, thanks to rebuilding across both offensive and defensive lines. Post-Briles, there's still not a ton of consenus on Baylor's potential ranging from out of the top 25 to the top 12.
Duke and Kentucky haven’t met in the NCAA Tournament since the 1998 Elite Eight. If that drought ends in 2016, the matchup could be epic.
Sure, Duke and Kentucky have faced each other during the season on a somewhat regular basis, splitting their last four meetings.
But that epic NCAA matchup is the only piece that’s been missing in the Coach K vs. Coach Cal rivalry. They’ve faced each other in November. They’ve sparred verbally during the spring. They’ve competed for recruits.
Now, the final piece of the puzzle could be an epic Final Four matchup.
At least that’s the way Athlon Sports sees it. Duke is our preseason No. 1 team, followed by Kentucky at No. 2. Of course, other teams have plenty of reason to believe they have Final Four potential as well — Villanova returns enough to challenge for a second consecutive title. Oregon carries the flag for the Pac-12 after an Elite appearance. Kansas and North Carolina aren’t going anywhere.
Basketball season is still months away, but to celebrate the arrival of the Athlon Sports 2016-17 College Basketball preview, we’re giving you a snapshot of the year ahead with our top 25.
Athlon’s college basketball preview is available on newsstands on Sept. 6 and now in our online store powered by Amazon.
Stay tuned for preview of each team in our top 25 and more.
|2016-17 College Basketball Top 25|
|1||Duke: Add the nation's top freshman class to a group that already includes Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard, Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones, and Duke has size, shooting and experience. The clear national title favorite.|
Kentucky: Isaiah Briscoe and Derek Willis are the only impact players returning from last season, but freshmen De’Aaron Fox, Bam Adebayo, Malik Monk will thrive.
Villanova: The Wildcats have a leadership void without Ryan Arcidiacono. Still, huge pieces from the championship run — Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Jalen Brunson — are back.
Oregon: The return of Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey makes the Ducks a Final Four threat and the Pac-12 favorite.
Kansas: The Jayhawks will be aiming for 13 Big 12 titles in a row. The ageless Perry Ellis is gone. The core of Frank Mason and Devonte Graham welcome the top freshman in the country in guard Josh Jackson.
|6||North Carolina: Some of the starpower is gone, but North Carolina is expecting Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson to step up for Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson.|
|7||Virginia: Tony Bennett has built a consistent winner at Virginia. ACC Player of the Year Malcolm Brogdon is gone, but Memphis transfer Austin Nichols joins the fray. Point guard London Perrantes has played a lot of basketball for the Cavs.|
Xavier: Trevon Bluiett returns. If Edmond Sumner can become a star, the Muskteers will make Villanova sweat in the Big East again.
Arizona: A super-talented freshman class arrives to replace a productive group of seniors. The Wildcats are counting on sophomore Allonzo Trier.
Wisconsin: Everyone returns to a team that found its stride under coach Greg Gard in the second half of last season. Ethan Happ is the Badgers' next frontcourt star.
Michigan State: Most teams couldn’t absorb the losses of Denzel Valentine, Bryn Forbes and Matt Costello. You know Michigan State isn’t most teams.
Indiana: Thomas Bryant’s return was a huge boon for the Hoosiers’ hopes to repeat as Big Ten champs. Veteran Yogi Ferrell is gone, but OG Anunoby is ready to become a star.
|13||Louisville: The Cardinals don’t return a player who averaged double figures, but Rick Pitino will find a way. Quentin Snider, Donovan Mitchell and newcomers Tony Hicks and V.J. King will lead a crowded backcourt.|
Purdue: The Boilers will have one of the nation’s best frontcourts with Vincent Edwards, Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas. The backcourt could determine their ceiling.
Gonzaga: Transfers Nigel Williams-Goss, Jordan Mathews and Johnathan Williams will keep the NCAA Tournament streak (18 in a row) going.
Connecticut: Rodney Purvis and Amida Brimah declined to join Daniel Hamilton in the draft. The development of freshmen like Alterique Gilbert will play a huge role in UConn’s fortunes.
UCLA: Steve Alford is under pressure after a losing season last year. With freshman point guard Lonzo Ball, the Bruins have an opportunity to make a splash.
Creighton: The Bluejays are ready for a post-Doug McDermott rebound year. Maurice Watson is a star, and he’ll get help this year with a healthy lineup and the arrival of Kansas State transfer Marcus Foster.
Iowa State: Second-year coach Steve Prohm loses mainstay Georges Niang, but he’ll have better depth — not to mention efficient point guard Monte Morris.
Cincinnati: You know what you’re going to get out of a Mick Cronin Cincinnati team. The Bearcats need better guard play around Troy Caupain to stay in the top 25.
Saint Mary’s: The Gaels return almost everyone from a team that won 29 games last season. And they have something to prove after getting bounced in the WCC Tournament (and into the NIT) by Gonzaga.
Virginia Tech: The Hokies were a spoiler down the stretch. Now, it’s time for Buzz Williams’ team to take the next step. Vets Zach LeDay, Seth Allen and Justin Bibbs are ready.
Dayton: The Flyers have topped 25 wins in three consecutive seasons. Archie Miller with four seniors from those teams is a winning formula.
Rhode Island: A healthy E.C. Matthews is the missing piece for a team that should challenge for the Atlantic 10 title. Dan Hurley is an up-and-coming coach.
|25||Florida State: There's too much talent for Florida State not to be at least in the mix for an NCAA Tournament bid. Jonathan Isaac could be a one-and-done player,a nd Dwayne Bacon is destined for the NBA, too.|
|Others considered: Miami, Notre Dame, Texas, Texas A&M, San Diego State, VCU, Wichita State|
The Athlon Sports 2016-17 College Basketball Preview is available now in our online store powered by Amazon.
Technically, this is the first week of college football. The first game featuring two FBS teams kicks off Friday here in the United States — though it will be noon Saturday in Sydney — when Hawaii and Cal face each other in Australia. FCS action starts Saturday when defending champion North Dakota State faces Charleston Southern.
For those of us who have been waiting since Jan. 11 for the return of college football, this weekend will be a nice appetizer. In high school football parlance, it’s Week 0.
The real action starts Thursday for an opening weekend heavy on impact games. There are powerhouse matchups on neutral fields, teams traveling cross country for the increasingly rare non-conference showcase game on a school’s campus. There’s plenty of filler, too. Paycheck games. Power programs against overmatched FCS foes.
But, hey, it’s Week 1. Here are how the 86 games rank.
1. Oklahoma vs. Houston in Houston (Saturday, noon, ABC)
This could be the most important game of Week 1, or at least the one that could have the greatest impact on perceptions of teams and conferences. The stakes for this game have been clear since the end of last year. The best of the Big 12 takes o the best of the Group of 5. If Houston can beat Oklahoma, College Football Playoff talk will begin — whether or not it’s realistic for a Group of 5 team to be among the final four. Oklahoma has some questions to answer of its how, particularly how a rebuilding defense will handle Greg Ward Jr.
2. UCLA at Texas A&M (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., CBS)
We could argue this is the best game of the first week or at least the toughest to read. The game could feature the top pick in the 2017 draft (Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett) and 2018 draft (UCLA’s Josh Rosen). Both teams could be division contenders, and thus College Football Playoff hopefuls. But they’re also flawed enough where neither is a clear top-10 team. It might be the most interesting game to attend, if only for being the best matchup on a campus site rather than a sterile NFL stadium.
3. Ole Miss vs. Florida State in Orlando (Monday, 8 p.m., ESPN)
Chad Kelly and Dalvin Cook re-wrote record books last season. Kelly had the third-best season in total offense and passing yards in SEC history last year. Meanwhile, Cook set Florida State's single-season rushing record. Florida State can establish its national championship contending-bona fides, or Ole Miss can shake up the top five with an upset.
4. USC vs. Alabama in Arlington, Texas (Saturday, 8 p.m., ABC)
These two powers haven’t met since the 1985 Aloha Bowl and not in the regular season since 1978. Few matchups will have more talent in the starting lineups. USC, though, is still thin due to NCAA sanctions, and both programs enter this game with uncertain quarterback play. USC has opted for former reserve Max Browne, who has all of 19 career pass attempts, but Nick Saban may be sending a freshman to take the first snap. Based on reputation alone, this could be the best game of the week, but USC has yet to prove it can go toe-to-toe with Alabama’s program right now.
5. Notre Dame at Texas (Sunday, 7:30 p.m., ABC)
Any result has to be better for Texas than last year’s 38-3 beatdown in South Bend. All eyes will be on both teams’ quarterbacks. Brian Kelly insists both DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire will play while Charlie Strong may be casting his lot with freshman Shane Buechele.
Podcast: Win Totals and Prop Bets
6. Georgia vs. North Carolina in Atlanta (Saturday, 5:30 p.m., ESPN)
For the first time since 2000, Georgia opens a season without Mark Richt on the sidelines. And for the first time since 1998, North Carolina enters a season with the momentum of a top-25 finish the previous year. The Tar Heels will be looking to prove 2015 was not a fluke, and the Bulldogs will try to prove that Tennessee is not the lone contender in the SEC East.
7. Clemson at Auburn (Saturday, 9 p.m., ESPN)
This does not set up as an ideal situation for Auburn. With Deshaun Watson, Wayne Gallman and a loaded receiver corps, Clemson has an offense that was rolling at the end of 2015. Auburn was mediocre on both sides of the ball last season, and there are no clear answers for how the Tigers will be able to keep up with Clemson.
8. Kansas State at Stanford (Friday, 9 p.m., Fox Sports 1)
A season-opener against an overachieving team in purple derailed Stanford’s College Football Playoff hopes last season. Kansas State could be a spoiler again if the Wildcats get solid quarterback play from Jesse Ertz, who is returning from a season-ending injury. The defense and special teams will need to find a way to contain Christian McCaffrey.
9. LSU vs. Wisconsin in Green Bay, Wis. (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ABC)
This could either be one of the best games of the first weekend or a total dud. Most of that probably depends on Wisconsin. The Badgers managed to win 10 games last year, but it was otherwise a very un-Wisconsin-like year with a below-average run game and inconsistent offensive line. Wisconsin had a top-10 defense, but the mastermind (coordinator Dave Aranda) is now on the LSU sideline.
10. Arizona vs. BYU in Glendale, Ariz. (Saturday, 10:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1)
Chances are you’ll see a lot of BYU early this season. The Cougars face three Pac-12 opponents in the first three games, six Power 5 opponents in the first seven games plus Group of 5 standouts Toledo, Boise State and Cincinnati at some point this season. New coach Kalani Sitake has quite the enigma on his hands with quarterbacks Tanner Mangum and Taysom Hill. He can win with either. Arizona has an experienced backfield in Anu Solomon and Nick Wilson.
Podcast: QB Extravaganza
11. Appalachian State at Tennessee (Thursday, 7:30 p.m., SEC Network)
Tennessee can’t get caught looking ahead to the Battle at Bristol in Week 2. Appalachian State, an 11-2 team last season, is experienced on both sides of the ball. The Mountaineers are good enough to give the Volunteers trouble.
12. Western Michigan at Northwestern (Saturday, noon, ESPNU)
After winning eight games in back-to-back years and winning a bowl game for the first time in school history, Western Michigan is looking for a major non-conference statement. The Broncos will have the better offense with the pass-catch duo of Zach Terrell and Corey Davis, but Northwestern will be stout on defense.
13. Boise State at UL Lafayette (Saturday, noon, American Sports Network)
Houston is getting all of the attention as the best of the Group of 5, but Boise State could make a run at the automatic spot in a major bowl. The Broncos won nine games last season with a freshman quarterback and look to add to that in Brett Rypien's sophomore year. The Broncos can make a statement with a strong start to the season against UL Lafayette, Washington State, Oregon State and Utah State and New Mexico before mid-October.
14. Toledo at Arkansas State (Friday, 9 p.m., ESPNU)
By no means is this a marquee matchup, but nevertheless this pairs a 10-win MAC team against a nine-win Sun Belt team that dominated its conference. It's a solid Group of 5 non-conference game between two consistent winners led by up-and-coming young coaches.
15. Georgia Tech at Boston College in Dublin, Ireland (Saturday, 7:30 a.m., ESPN2)
Get your first college football Saturday right with some ACC with your breakfast. Both teams have reason to believe 2016 will be better than last season when Georgia Tech and Boston College combined to go 6-18 overall and 1-15 in the league.
16. Missouri at West Virginia (Saturday, noon, Fox Sports 1)
This is a what-could-have-been matchup. In the second-to-last BCS rankings of 2007, Missouri was No. 1 and West Virginia was No. 2. That was before Mizzou lost to Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game and WVU lost to Pittsburgh. In the interim, both programs seen highs and lows in new conferences, and they’re now just trying to claw for a spot in the postseason.
17. Colorado State vs. Colorado in Denver (Friday, 8 p.m., ESPN)
The traditional early season rivalry game has been a pretty competitive series. Colorado has a 6-4 edge in the last 10 meetings. The Buffaloes may need to win this one if they have any hopes of going to a bowl for the first time since 2007.
18. South Carolina at Vanderbilt (Thursday, 8 p.m., ESPN)
This pairs two of the weaker teams in the SEC East. Both teams could struggle to put points on the board.
19. Southern Miss at Kentucky (Saturday, 7:30 p.m., ESPNU)
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops will be in for a long season (or perhaps more accurately, a short season) if the Wildcats can’t handle Southern Miss. The Eagles, led by 4,400-yard passer Nick Mullens, are perfectly capable of winning in Lexington.
20. Louisiana Tech at Arkansas (Saturday, 4 p.m., SEC Network)
Louisiana Tech is a solid Group of 5 team with a good offense. Sound familiar, Arkansas fans? The 2016 Razorbacks will look to avoid the same fate as last year’s team that lost early to Toledo.
21. Bowling Green at Ohio State (Saturday, noon, Big Ten Network)
Believe it or not, this is the first time Urban Meyer has faced one of his former teams. Meyer’s first head coaching job was at Bowling Green in 2001-02. Both teams are restocking their rosters from winning 10 or more games last season. The ceiling is a tad higher in Columbus.
22. Hawaii at Michigan (Saturday, noon, ESPN)
Hawaii’s first four games will be in four time zones and two hemispheres: vs. Cal in Sydney (Australian Eastern Time Zone), at Michigan (Eastern), at home vs. UT Martin (Hawaii-Aleutian) and Arizona (Pacific). Not an easy start for first-year Hawaii coach Nick Rolovich.
23. Rutgers at Washington (Saturday, 2 p.m., Pac-12 Networks)
Every other Pac-12 contender has a big-time non-conference game. Not Washington. This is the toughest non-conference test for the upstart Huskies.
24. Fresno State at Nebraska (Saturday, 8 p.m., Big Ten Network)
Coming off a 3-9 season, Fresno State is a long way removed from the Pat Hill/David Carr/Derek Carr days. Nebraska isn’t the power it once was, either, but the Cornhuskers are looking for their luck to turn so they can make a run at the Big Ten West.
25. Oregon State at Minnesota (Thursday, 9 p.m., Big Ten Network)
This isn’t the most bizarre non-conference game of the weekend, but it’s pretty close. Oregon State has played Minnesota three times in 1981, 1978 and 1954. Not many rodent mascot (Beavers) vs. rodent mascot (Gophers) matchups, either.
26. San Jose State at Tulsa (Saturday, 7 p.m., CBS Sports Network)
This is a sneaky good Group of 5 vs. Group of 5 machup. San Jose State returns 15 starters from a balanced team that went to a bowl game. Tulsa could be one of this year’s surprise teams if the Golden Hurricane can find a defense. Tulsa averaged 33.1 points in its seven losses.
27. Indiana at FIU (Thursday, 7:30 p.m., ESPNU)
Being in Miami has its plusses: FIU opens this season with two Big Ten teams in its stadium — Indiana and Maryland. The Hoosiers and Terrapins aren’t powerhouses by any means, but both teams should do enough to look good in front of South Florida recruits.
28. Army at Temple (Friday, 7 p.m., CBS Sports Network)
This will not be one of the more aesthetically pleasing games of the first week. Between Temple’s style of play and Army’s option, this game will be a grind.
29. Northern Iowa at Iowa State (Saturday, 8 p.m.)
Iowa State lost openers against FCS teams in 2013 (Northern Iowa) and 2014 (North Dakota State), which is part of the reason Matt Campbell is the coach now and not Paul Rhoads. Northern Iowa is the No. 3 team in Athlon’s preseason FCS top 25, so Campbell will have to work to get off to a good start at Iowa State.
30. Richmond at Virginia (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ACC/ESPN Network)
Richmond is No. 4 in Athlon’s preseason FCS top 25, so on paper the Spiders could give first-year Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall headaches. The Cavaliers have won 10 in a row dating back to 1946, including the last three matchups by scores of 45-13, 43-19 and 34-13.
31. Eastern Washington at Washington State (Saturday, 8 p.m., Pac-12 Networks)
Washington State opened last season with a 24-17 loss to Portland State before rallying for a nine-win season. Expectations are higher for the Cougars this season. Wazzu will throw the ball around, of course, but so will Eastern Washington. The Eagles, ranked 12th in Athlon’s preseason FCS top 25, feature Walter Payton Award-winning receiver Cooper Kupp.
32. Villanova at Pittsburgh (Saturday, 1:30 p.m., ACC/ESPN Network)
Pittsburgh will win the weekend in terms of inspiring storylines as running back James Conner takes the field for the first time since his cancer diagnosis last season.
33. Northwestern State at Baylor (Friday, 7:30 p.m., Fox Sports regional)
The Art Briles version of Baylor would have little problem in a game like this. The Jim Grobe version shouldn’t either, but the Bears’ demeanor will be worth watching after a shameful offseason.
34. South Dakota State at TCU (Saturday, 7 p.m., Fox Sports regional)
This game will be most notable for a peek into the TCU offense after Trevone Boykin. Both quarterbacks Kenny Hill and Foster Sawyer should see time here.
35. Rice at Western Kentucky (Thursday, 8 p.m., CBS Sports Network)
Another conference game gets us started on Thursday evening. Both teams are replacing multi-year starting quarterbacks in Western Kentucky’s Brandon Doughty and Rice’s Driphus Jackson.
36. Miami (Ohio) at Iowa (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ESPNU)
Iowa lost its last two games of 2015 in heartbreaking (16-13 to Michigan State) and embarrassing (45-13 to Stanford) fashion. The Hawkeyes will put an end to those trends to start 2016.
37. Kent State at Penn State (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., Big Ten Network)
Penn State will get its first look of a new offense with coordinator Joe Moorhead and quarterback Trace McSorley. Anything has to be better than the way the Nittany Lions started last season with a 27-10 loss to Temple.
38. Tulane at Wake Forest (Thursday, 7 p.m., ACC/ESPN Network)
A bowl game is a reasonable goal in Dave Clawson’s third season at Wake Forest. A hot start (Tulane, at Duke, Delaware, at Indiana, at NC State, Syracuse) will be critical. Tulane is hitting the re-start button with a new coach (Willie Fritz) and perhaps a new look.
39. Charlotte at Louisville (Thursday, 7 p.m., ACC regional networks)
Congratulations, you made it. This is one of four FBS games in the first time slot on the first Thursday of the season.
40. UMass at Florida (Saturday, 7:30 p.m., SEC Network)
UMass’ first season as an independent includes three SEC opponents (at Florida, Mississippi State in Foxboro and at South Carolina).
Check out the Athlon Sports 2016 College Football Rankings No. 1 to 128.
41. Northern Illinois at Wyoming (Saturday, 10:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network)
This game will feature two of the top 30 rushers from 2015 in Wyoming’s Brian Hill (1,631 yards, six TDs) and Northern Illinois’ Joel Bouagnon (1,296 yards, 18 TDs)
42. South Alabama at Mississippi State (Saturday, noon, SEC Network)
The task of replacing Dak Prescott, the best player in Mississippi State history, likely falls on sophomore Nick Fitzgerald. Don’t count out the Bulldogs without Prescott: They still have a solid group of seniors.
43. New Mexico State at UTEP (Saturday, 8 p.m., BEIN Sports)
The Battle of I-10 isn’t mandatory viewing, but it isn’t a stinker, either. UTEP will be in bowl contention, and New Mexico State has some legitimate star power in Larry Rose III (1,651 rushing yards, 14 TD).
44. Texas State at Ohio (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network)
Ohio is Athlon’s pick to win the MAC East. Despite being one of the most consistent Group of 5 teams — seven consecutive non-losing seasons — the Bobcats haven’t won the division since 2011 and haven’t won the MAC under Frank Solich. Texas State has a new coach in Everett Withers.
45. SMU at North Texas (Saturday, 7 p.m., American Sports Network)
SMU enters Year 2 under Chad Morris, and the Mustangs are expecting to take a few steps forward this season. North Texas, under new head coach Seth Littrell, is ranked 128th in Athlon’s preseason rankings.
46. Stephen F. Austin at Texas Tech (Saturday, 8 p.m., Fox Sports regional)
Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes will have a chance to put up video game stats in the opener.
47. Ball State at Georgia State (Friday, 7 pm. American Sports Network)
Georgia State was a major surprise last season, improving from 1-11 to a bowl team. Ball State was the home of one of the more bizarre coach changes as Pete Lembo, two years removed from a 10-win season, took an assistant coach job at Maryland. He was replaced by alum/former New Orleans Saints assistant/Arena League coach Mike Neu.
48. Liberty at Virginia Tech (Saturday, 12:30 p.m., ACC regional networks)
Justin Fuente will get one game under his belt at the Hokies coach before facing Tennessee at Bristol in Week 2. Liberty has followed two standout seasons under former Kansas and Buffalo coach Turner Gill with a 6-5 season in 2015.
49. William & Mary at NC State (Thursday, 7:30 p.m., ESPN3.com)
William & Mary is a solid Colonial program known to give middling Power 5 teams trouble. NC State, without Jacoby Brissett, fits the profile of a team on upset alert against the Tribe.
50. New Hampshire at San Diego State (Saturday, 8:30 p.m.)
The second-most impressive streak in FCS after North Dakota State’s five championships? How about New Hampshire’s 12 consecutive playoff appearances.
51. Southern Utah at Utah (Thursday, 8 p.m., Pac-12 Networks)
FUN FACT: Southern Utah produced more NFL Draft picks (two) than either Utah or BYU (one each) in 2016.
52. Fordham at Navy (Saturday, noon, CBS Sports Network)
Navy’s first game of the post-Keenan Reynolds era will be against a team that has made the FCS playoffs in three consecutive years.
53. Towson at USF (Saturday, 7 p.m., American Sports Network)
USF finished last season on a tear, going 7-2 in the final nine games and saving Willie Taggart’s job. Towson has an Oregon transfer at quarterback in Morgan Mahalak.
54. Colgate at Syracuse (Friday, 7 p.m., ESPN3.com)
First-year coach Dino Babers doesn’t have a ton of automatic wins early on at Syracuse. This is one of them.
55. Northern Arizona at Arizona State (Saturday, 10:45 p.m., Pac-12 Networks)
Northern Arizona has an all-name team nominee at quarterback in Case Cookus, but the Lumberjacks haven't beaten one of the two big state schools since the ‘30s.
56. Eastern Kentucky at Purdue (Saturday, noon, ESPNews)
Eastern Kentucky lost its coach (Dean Hood to Charlotte) and star player (former Ohio State defensive end Noah Spence). This will be one of the few games in which Purdue will be favored in 2016.
57. UC Davis at Oregon (Saturday, 5 p.m., Pac-12 Networks)
The last time UC Davis faced Dakota Prukop, he passed for 361 yards, rushed for 148 and accounted for six touchdowns in a 77-37 win for Montana State in 2014.
58. Furman at Michigan State (Friday, 7 p.m., Big Ten Network)
Michigan State opens with Furman, gets a bye week and then faces a gauntlet of Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Indiana, BYU and Northwestern.
59. Murray State at Illinois (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., Big Ten Network)
Lovie Smith will coach on a college sideline for the first time since 1995.
60. Florida A&M at Miami (Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPN3.com)
Florida A&M’s only win over Miami was in 1979 when Mark Richt was a sophomore.
61. Howard at Maryland (Saturday, noon, Big Ten Network)
Howard went 1-11 last season, but the Bison’s coach, Gary Harrell, is nicknamed “The Flea.” So there’s that.
62. Southeastern Louisiana at Oklahoma State (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., Fox Sports regional)
Oklahoma State eases into its season with Southeastern Louisiana followed by Central Michigan, Pittsburgh and a road trip to Baylor.
63. North Carolina Central at Duke (Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPN3.com)
What will Duke get from quarterback Thomas Sirk, who is attempting to return from a ruptured Achilles? North Carolina Central is a solid test from the FCS ranks.
64. Southeast Missouri State at Memphis (Saturday, 7 p.m., ESPN3.com)
New coach Mike Norvell and quarterback Riley Ferguson have a tough act to follow. Memphis should win this game, but can the Tigers win in the long term without Justin Fuente and Paxton Lynch?
65. Rhode Island at Kansas (Saturday, 7 p.m., ESPN3.com)
Rhode Island has gone 2-21 in the last two years. This would be a good time for David Beaty to get his first win as KU’s coach.
66. South Carolina State at UCF (Saturday, 7 p.m., ESPN3.com)
UCF will be looking to end a 13-game losing streak … just before going to Michigan in Week 2.
67. Cal Poly at Nevada (Friday, 9:30 p.m.)
Dakota Prukop’s transfer to Oregon got most of the attention, but another Montana State defection will impact the FBS — Nevada grabbed Prukop’s offensive coordinator, Tim Cramsey, for the same post in Reno.
68. Weber State at Utah State (Thursday, 8 p.m.)
For the first time since 2010, Chuckie Keeton is not in the plans at quarterback for the Aggies.
69. Western Carolina at East Carolina (Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPN3.com)
The Scottie Montgomery era begins after East Carolina curiously fired alum Ruffin McNeil, who had led the Pirates to 28 wins in three seasons before slipping to 5-7 in 2015.
70. UT Martin at Cincinnati (Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN3.com)
In UT Martin’s last four games against FBS competition (Ole Miss, Arkansas, Mississippi State, Kentucky), the Skyhawks have allowed 76, 63, 45 and 59 points. Tommy Tuberville will have a chance to figure out his quarterback situation.
71. Maine at UConn (Thursday, 7 p.m., American Sports Network)
Maine features the youngest coach in Division I in 30-year-old Joe Harasymiak.
72. Southern Illinois at FAU (Saturday, 6 p.m.)
Southern Illinois outscored opponents 397-381 yet found a way to go 3-8, including a one-point loss at Indiana.
73. South Dakota at New Mexico (Thursday, 9 p.m., Root Sports)
New Mexico hasn’t had back-to-back winning seasons since 2003-04. The Lobos are a potential bowl team again this season.
74. Alabama A&M at Middle Tennessee (Saturday, 6 p.m.)
Middle Tennessee quarterback Brent Stockstill fell 53 yards short of Jameis Winston’s freshman passing record (4,058 yards) last season.
75. Abilene Christian at Air Force (Saturday, 2 p.m.)
Air Force has won 10 consecutive season openers. Only Florida, USC, Ohio State, Alabama, LSU and Texas Tech have longer such winning streaks.
76. Montana State at Idaho (Thursday, 9 p.m., Altitude)
With now-Oregon quarterback Dakota Prukop, Montana State averaged 41 point per game and finished 5-6. Idaho topped 40 points three times and lost two of those games (to New Mexico State and South Alabama).
77. Austin Peay at Troy (Saturday, 6 p.m.)
Troy coach Neal Brown, 36, will rarely be the older coach in a matchup. He will in his opener against Austin Peay coach Will Healy, 30.
78. Savannah State at Georgia Southern (Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPN3.com)
Georgia Southern won the last meeting 83-9 in 2014. Ouch.
79. VMI at Akron (Saturday, 6:30 p.m., ESPN3.com)
VMI went 2-9 last season and gave a MAC team trouble in a 48-36 loss to Ball State.
80. Hampton at Old Dominion (Friday, 6 p.m.)
DID YOU KNOW: Old Dominion scored at least 30 points in each of its last five consecutive games last season, a feat matched or exceeded only by Stanford (13 in a row), Clemson, North Carolina, Western Kentucky and Oregon (six in a row).
81. Jackson State at UNLV (Thursday, 10 p.m.)
The coaches are two former wide receivers, UNLV’s Tony Sanchez at New Mexico State and Jackson State’s Harold Jackson, the 40th-leading receiver in NFL history with more than 10,000 career yards.
82. Albany at Buffalo (Friday, 7 p.m., ESPN3.com)
Albany has played one game against an FBS opponent in its history, also against Buffalo, losing 51–14 last season.
83. Alabama State at UTSA (Saturday, 7 p.m.)
Potential UTSA quarterback Jared Johnson could beat Alabama State with two different teams. A transfer from Sam Houston State, Johnson passed for 386 yards and three touchdowns in a 51-20 win to open the 2014 season.
84. Presbyterian at Central Michigan (Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN3.com)
Presbyterian opens its season by moving progressively South from Central Michigan to Chattanooga to Campbell in North Carolina before its home opener in Clinton, S.C.
85. Southern at ULM (Saturday, 7 p.m., ESPN3.com)
New ULM coach Matt Viator doesn’t get an automatic W in his first game with the struggling Warhawks. Southern went 6-5 last season but topped 40 points seven times.
86. Mississippi Valley State at Eastern Michigan (Friday, 6 p.m., ESPN3.com)
Eastern Michigan, meet the SWAC version of Eastern Michigan. Each team won only one game last season. The Eagles are 7-41 the last four years. Mississippi Valley State is 7-28 in the last three. Mississippi Valley State was outscored by an average of 30.1 points per game last season. Eastern Michigan was more competitive, being outscored by 16 points per game in a 1-11 season.
For Athlon Sports, the offseason is one of our favorite times of the year.
Of course, we enjoy the season as much as any crazed college football fan, but the bread-and-butter for Athlon since 1967 has been helping readers prepare for the season, helping them get to know the teams and players they need to watch.
This is the time of year we get to share our preseason annuals, our national edition and regional previews for five conferences. Countless hours of study and work from dozens of individuals went into the 2016 editions, and we still have room for debate on the outlook for every team.
Of course, Athlon isn’t the only publication out there. And just like anyone we like to compare how everyone evaluates the season ahead. Here’s how the top 25 and conference champions shook out in the various publications.
We’ll continue to update the grid as more rankings are released through the offseason. (Note: Athlon, Lindy's, Sporting News and ESPN went to press before coach Art Briles was fired at Baylor.)
Athlon's college football preview magazines are available on newsstands now and in our online store powered by Amazon.
|2016 Preseason College Football Rankings|
Dozens of coaches every year go to bed one night in the winter having just realized a dream. Maybe they’ve taken their first head coaching job; maybe they’ve reached the top of the profession.
Everything is grand.
By the next morning, the rush of excitement turns into an avalanche of anxiety.
This new head coach is responsible for 100 scholarship players and walk-ons. He needs to hire assistant coaches and support staff and lead them, too. He has to recruit an entire class in a matter of weeks. All the demands of being a CEO of a major football operation are staring back at him.
“It’s an emotional high for your family getting the opportunity to take a new job,” new Bowling Green coach Mike Jinks says. “And then you wake up the next morning and, ‘OK, who am I going to get to keep (in the recruiting class)?’ It’s almost a panic type of deal. Then you start thinking about who you would like to bring in.”
As early as September last season, it was clear the 2015-16 coaching carousel would be one of the most compelling in years. The first coach was fired a week before the season. By Nov. 1, nine coaches had resigned, retired or been fired. South Carolina and Virginia Tech replaced legends. Georgia, USC and Miami (Fla.) hired new coaches. Illinois, essentially, hired two head coaches.
The job of a college football coach grows more expansive with every passing year. The most challenging time may be the first few months.
“A lot of times in these coaching changeovers you can make mistakes early on,” says Iowa State coach Matt Campbell, who is taking the second head coaching job in his career. “Unfortunately when you make those mistakes, they can haunt you down the road.”
Some of the challenges are obvious — filling a recruiting class and hiring a staff.
Some tasks are less clear. For example, Campbell received his first commitment to his new class at Iowa State and had an immediate dilemma — how do we present this on social media?
During a meeting with staff on other topics, they started to spitball ideas for hashtags for the Cyclones. One idea was #TheStormIsBrewing, but in an effort to save characters on Twitter, they picked #AStormIsBrewing.
No detail can be overlooked for a new coach.
“I don’t know that I’m really proud of that, but it was a good discussion on what we’re going to hashtag,” says Campbell, who also changed his Twitter handle within hours of leaving Toledo for Ames.
The job of a new coach is all about meeting people and shaking hands, too, and some of it is by chance.
Here’s how new UTSA coach Frank Wilson, the former running backs coach at LSU, got to know some of the folks in student housing at his new campus: “You get a freshman who is a midyear guy who is living in the dorm area who brings a Crock-Pot in where Crock-Pots aren’t allowed. And then you have to let them know no harm was intended. He’s new.”
As 28 new coaches take over at jobs from Honolulu to Piscataway, from USC to ULM, Athlon Sports checked in with the new coaching class of 2016 to ask them about their figurative first 100 days on the job — everything that occurred from the day they were hired to the start of spring practice.
This article and more can be found in Athlon Sports' 2016 college football regional previews, available on newsstands everywhere and in our online store powered by Amazon.
What a coach does first depends on when he’s hired
The first variable thrown at a new coach is the recruiting calendar.
Most coaches are hired between early December and early January, but the NCAA’s recruiting calendar varies during this time, from the least restrictive portion (the contact period) to the most restrictive (the dead period) and back again. In 2015-16, the dead period extended from Dec. 14 through Jan. 13, meaning coaches during that time were not allowed in-person contact with recruits, even on campus. The weeks before and after include the contact period when coaches can visit recruits and families in their homes.
A coach hired on Dec. 5 like Dino Babers at Syracuse had nine days of in-person recruiting. His replacement at Bowling Green, Jinks, didn’t have that luxury on Dec. 10.
“They had the press conference and, boom, I’m on the road,” Jinks says.
The night of the press conference introducing him at South Carolina, Will Muschamp met with remaining staff to go over the recruiting board. With a week until the dead period, Muschamp’s first priority was to visit the six high school prospects who were looking to enroll early at South Carolina, including five offensive skill players the Gamecocks sorely needed.
“Recruiting is the lifeblood of your program, so you cannot waste a day,” Muschamp says. “You’re so limited in the number of times you can go out, so you’ve got to maximize that.”
Maximizing time doesn’t just mean grinding to get that first class. It means recruiting efficiently. Not knowing the recruiting landscape can be devastating. A new coach might breathe new life into recruiting or open doors that otherwise had been closed.
But the new guy also needs to know when to walk away.
“The worst thing you can do — and this was a lesson I learned at Florida in a transition — you can’t waste time on guys you’re not going to get,” Muschamp says. “The worst thing you can do is waste time on a guy if you have no shot at a guy.”
D.J. Durkin was hired at Maryland on Dec. 2 at the start of the contact period and then moved quickly to make his first staff hires, two head coaches who had just been fired in Virginia’s Mike London and Syracuse’s Scott Shafer. The latter abruptly stepped down for personal reasons on April 1.
That was enough to give Durkin a fighting chance for a week or so on the road recruiting before filling out his staff during the dead period.
“I hired one or two guys right off the bat that I knew I wanted here and I knew could help in recruiting,” Durkin says. “It was, ‘We’ll go out and hold this together until we get to end of the contact period.’”
At Ball State, Mike Neu felt the time crunch more than most. Pete Lembo left unexpectedly to take an assistant coaching job at Maryland on Dec. 22. The Cardinals hired Neu, a New Orleans Saints quarterbacks coach and former Ball State quarterback, on Jan. 7.
When the contact period started for Neu, he wanted to reach out to players who had already committed to Ball State, but 15 of 18 of them had already taken their official visits to Muncie — NCAA rules allow only one official visit to each school.
“The only way I was going to be able to see those kids was to travel to them,” Neu says.
Over two-and-a-half weeks, Neu traveled to Chicago, St. Louis and Baltimore, among other places, just to hold together a recruiting class.
ULM coach Matt Viator had no scrambling to do. There was nowhere to go when he was hired amid the dead period. Instead, he watched game and practice film from 2015, worked on his recruiting strategy and communicated with recruits the only permissible ways — through emails and social media and limited phone calls.
“We certainly filled the time,” says Viator, who was hired after spending 10 years as the head coach at McNeese State. “We were able to identify guys and find guys we could get on campus when we did go out.”
The long game is just as important as the first recruiting class
A coach’s first recruiting class, predictably, is a minefield of potential recruiting missteps.
Commitments and top targets from the last coaching staff change their minds or get poached by other teams. The new staff may be less enthusiastic about commitments to the previous staff, who might not fit a new style of play. New coaches may not have the full picture of needs.
“Any time you come in late, you can make a mistake because you’re trying to fill a recruiting class and ultimately you sign guys just to sign them,” Campbell says.
Part of Campbell’s strategy was to go after recruits he already knew — because three of them committed to him at Toledo.
While it’s understood that a coach’s first signing class with a school could be lacking or incomplete, that first class is critical, says Babers. By the time the first recruiting class comes of age, the new coach will be expected to have a finished product on the field.
“The key to who is going to be better or worse in the next few years is that scramble of what happened in your first class because those are going to be the seniors on your team, the juniors or on your team in 3-4 years,” says Babers, who has also been a head coach at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green.
And as new coaches are trying to cobble together their first class, they’re trying to lay the groundwork for the next one.
Justin Fuente is an Oklahoma native who was an assistant at TCU and head coach at Memphis. He did enough homework before he arrived at Virginia Tech to understand that the Hokies had fallen behind in recruiting the Virginia Beach/Tidewater area. His staff hit the clinic circuit in the spring in Richmond, Northern Virginia and the “757” Virginia Beach area.
“We really reached out to those people and put our own clinic on out there,” Fuente says. “I have a call list every day of guys I’m reaching out to either introduce myself to or talk about their kids.”
At Memphis, Mike Norvell has set up “socials” with high school coaches when they visit the campus. Norvell and his staff set up whiteboards around the facility so his assistants can talk ball with high school coaches and have a bite to eat (high school coaches, by NCAA rule, have to pay for their own food). “I’m not a huge clinic guy because I believe when you have a clinic, you go and hear what one guy wants to talk about for an hour,” says Norvell, the former Arizona State offensive coordinator. “When you have a social, it’s a lot more personal.”
Coaches have their staff planned before they’re hired
The old cliché about good athletic directors is that they constantly have the names of five coaches in mind just in case they have to replace their football coach unexpectedly.
Aspiring head coaches have a similar mental list for their first coaching staffs.
“When you’re on the road, or recruiting, or at clinics or watching practices at other institutions, you’re always evaluating people, evaluating how they coach a particular unit,” Toledo coach Jason Candle says.
Conversations can be explicit, or a potential assistant might not even know he’s on the mind of a future head coach.
When Scottie Montgomery left his role as Duke’s offensive coordinator to coach at East Carolina, he needed someone he could trust to run an offense while he took over as a program CEO. His top candidate was someone he remembered watching on film of Marshall with another coaching staff years ago. When Montgomery became a head coach, he called Tony Peterson, who had since moved from Marshall to Louisiana Tech, to run his offense at East Carolina.
“You have a lot of football relationships that people will never know, whether you’ve prepared against them somewhere along the line or you’ve watched a tape six years ago that they were great on and then you reach out to them,” Montgomery says. “You just start to build a list of people you want to talk to.”
Even the best intentions and plans don’t guarantee a staff will work out.
Muschamp’s first staff at Florida in 2011 included two eventual head coaches (Durkin at Maryland and Dan Quinn with the Atlanta Falcons), but his offensive coordinator hire of Charlie Weis was a blunder from which Muschamp’s offenses never recovered. Two other offensive assistants from his first staff didn’t make it to their second season with the Gators.
When Muschamp got a second chance to hire his first coaching staff at South Carolina, he started with Kurt Roper, his final offensive coordinator at Florida. Muschamp went so far to say that he felt if he hired Roper in 2011, he’d still be at Florida.
“I felt like I tried to fit a square peg into a round hole.” Muschamp says. “We tried to go too far away, which set us back further, in my opinion, offensively.”
At Minnesota, Tracy Claeys also had to make a key organizational decision. Under predecessor Jerry Kill, quarterback coach Jim Zebrowski and offensive line coach Matt Limegrover split coordinator duties with Kill having the final say.
Claeys, who had been Minnesota’s defensive coordinator, didn’t feel comfortable in that structure, so he parted with Zebrowski and Limegrover and hired a traditional offensive coordinator, Jay Johnson from UL Lafayette.
“I think that one guy needs to be in charge on one side of the ball,” Claeys says. “(The previous arrangement) worked well because coach was the in-between. He spent most of his time in the meetings and was on the headset and knew what was going on.”
The most important hire isn’t who you’d think
Coaches can torpedo their own tenures with the wrong coordinator hire or an assistant who doesn’t mesh with the rest of the staff or a lack of assistants who can recruit to the school. But a coordinator or ace recruiter isn’t necessarily the most important hire to some new coaches.
When Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash started to talk to Rutgers about the Scarlet Knights’ head coaching job, his next conversation was with Ohio State’s assistant strength & conditioning coach Kenny Parker. Without Parker as his head strength and conditioning coach, Ash wasn’t going anywhere.
“It was the biggest (hire), to be honest with you,” Ash says. “If he said no way, I probably wouldn’t have done it. It was that important.”
Rutgers agreed and paid Parker more than anyone on Ash’s staff other than the coordinators and more than twice as much as his predecessors. Strength coaches often have more hands-on time with players, particularly during the summer. Even veteran coaches grant them a status as important as coordinators. For a first-year coach, being able to implement a conditioning program without a lot of discussion or meetings can be critical.
“I asked him how are you going to train them; he said like we do here [at Ohio State],” Ash says. “It was a done deal”
The first team gets left behind
If a new coaching hire is all about getting excited for the future and breaking with the past, the present gets left behind.
First-time head coaches — at least in the 2016 class — overwhelmingly said they haven’t been able to make enough time to work with their own players in their first few months on the job.
“I wish I had more time to spend with our players right now,” Ash says. “Those coach-player relationships that you used to have, when you become a head coach, those become hard to build.”
Different coaches had different ways of finally carving out the time to connect with players beyond just learning names, position and jersey numbers.
At Syracuse, Babers says he usually waits until after spring practice to set up one-on-one interviews with his team. Neu at Ball State waited until after spring ball, too, only having one-on-one conversations if it involved pressing academic matters. Campbell used a more immediate strategy. Before recruiting, he arranged one-on-one interviews with each of his players for three days.
“Sometimes you can go too fast in this thing instead of really getting a great plan and trying to execute,” Campbell says. “The first time I actually left to go on the road was the second week because it was important for me to get to know our kids and get to know what’s going on in this program before even going out to talk about what our vision for this program would be.”
Attrition is not a bad word
New coaches may have to wait to get to know their players, but if some aren’t adjusting to the change quickly, sometimes it’s best just to let them go.
Now at Texas State, Everett Withers is a head coach for the third time in his career, arriving in San Marcos after two seasons at James Madison. He was also an interim coach at North Carolina after Butch Davis was fired in 2011. But he’s also been around the block at Ohio State, Louisville, Texas and Minnesota.
The first few months of a new job, though, are generally the same. “We’ve named it ‘The Purge.’ It’s been called ‘The Cleanse,’” Withers says.
Whatever particular name he uses, the message is the same: Not everyone is going to be on board with the coaching transition, and that’s OK.
“You’re better off that he goes,” Withers says. “You’re going to lose one guy and probably gain five guys in your program who realize that guy wasn’t that valuable anyway.”
At Tulane, Willie Fritz has his own cleverly named system to figure out who is welcoming change and who is resisting. He’s installed a competition called “Making Waves” that’s similar to programs he’s used at Central Missouri, Sam Houston State and Georgia Southern.
He set up six teams led by two seniors each who draft their own teammates for a competition based on “accountability, dependability in the classroom, off the field, in the weight room.” Winning teams get better meals. Losing teams do extra running. Individual results are public for all to see.
“You find out guys who I like to refer to as ‘list’ guys,” Fritz says. “They’re always on a list, whether it’s skipping reps in the weight room or being late to class or missing a tutoring appointment. Whatever it is, they’re on that list.”
New coaches need to become an expert on the school … or find one fast
Recruiting may be all about relationships, but it’s also about knowledge. When a recruit’s parents ask about a major or a prospect wants to know what he’s going to do on Friday and Saturday nights, a coach needs to be ready with an answer.
“When you’re trying to sell a place, you need to know about the place,” says ULM’s Viator. “We were trying to learn that on the fly, too.”
Viator tried to learn as much as he could but leaned heavily on director of football operations Phil Shaw, who had been in that role since 2011. During Q&A periods with recruits and families, he deferred to Shaw on any questions on degree programs or campus life.
“I didn’t go many places or do much without him there,” Viator says.
At Bowling Green, Jinks said he brought in a man he calls “Mr. BG” to talk to his staff. Jinks had spent his coaching career in Texas high schools and at Texas Tech, and much of his staff has a similar background. Van Wright, the assistant to the Vice Provost, was born in Bowling Green, Ohio, graduated from Bowling Green High and — you guessed it — graduated from Bowling Green in 1977.
“He laid it all out there,” Jinks says. “You try to take as many notes as you can.”
Norvell estimates that he’s met with more than 50 people who are involved with working in some capacity with Memphis football players — people who work in the student services, housing or counseling offices.
Campbell talks about “unifying” the vision for the football program and building relationships that were distant from the previous coaching staff.
“When there’s a breakdown in those areas, that’s when issues can occur,” Campbell says. “There are a lot of areas that touch Division I football programs on a day-in, day-out basis.”
And those are meetings just from within the university.
Claeys has served as interim head coach at various points of his career as Kill left Minnesota to deal with health issues. Even that experience didn’t fully prepare him from demands of his time from various alumni and community groups. It’s speaking engagements, promoting an issue, raising money, sending items to raffles and so on.
“You could do four events every day and still not cover everybody,” Claeys says.
New coaches are living the vagabond life
As families finish up school years, the first few months on the job resemble the bachelor life for a coach.
Muschamp had an apartment in downtown Columbia, S.C., in his first few weeks on the job. Viator spent a few weeks in a ULM dormitory. Even Montgomery, who took a job 100 miles away, spent many of his early days commuting from Duke in Durham to East Carolina in Greenville.
Not that these new coaches would enjoy the home life at this point anyway.
“One of the toughest things about taking a new job is that you’re not around your family because they’re back selling a house and all that,” Fritz says. “One of the good things is that you’re not around your family. You’re able to devote a bunch of time to the new job.”
The buck stops here
For the former assistants and coordinators, one of the toughest adjustments to the big chair is being the guy with all the answers. For the first time in their careers, some of them are delegating work on a grand scale.
“You’ve got to prioritize the tasks you have every day,” Durkin says. “There’s no way you can tackle them all. If you spread yourself too thin or you’re doing things out of order, you’re going to screwed up.”
Candle knew his way around Toledo when he was promoted to replace Campbell. He knew better than most new coaches what made the Rockets a successful program. Suddenly, though, he wasn’t the one making suggestions to better the program. He was the one expected to make the decisions on recruiting, staffing, branding and everything else.
“It’s one of those things where you prepare, prepare, prepare,” Candle says. “Until you get into the chair you don’t know what you’re really getting into.”
Kentucky basketball will be, as usual under John Calipari, a new look team this upcoming season. Tyler Ulis and a group of freshmen have been replaced by another group of talented newcomers. The Wildcats likely will be one of the national championship favorites as we begin to look at 2016-17.
The team at Athlon Sports is already hard at work assembling our 2016-17 College Basketball Preview, including our cover art.
Here's a peek behind the curtain as Matt Hernandez takes photos of Isaiah Briscoe and his Kentucky teammates for an upcoming Athlon cover.
Keep an eye out for our preview annual, available in September.
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Indiana basketball is looking to defend its Big Ten championship, but the Hoosiers will have to do it with a new batch of stars in place of veteran point guard Yogi Ferrell. Sophomore center Thomas Bryant should be one of those stars, and as such Athlon paid him a visit in Bloomington for a cover shoot.
The team at Athlon Sports is already hard at work assembling our 2016-17 College Basketball Preview, including a close look at the Hoosiers.
Here's a peek behind the curtain as Matt Hernandez takes photos of Isaiah Briscoe and his Kentucky teammates for an upcoming Athlon cover.
Keep an eye out for our preview annual, available in September.
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A chance meeting with Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin in Atlanta in 2014 presented Keary Colbert with a tough decision.
Colbert, a standout receiver at USC from 2000-03 and an NFL wideout from 2004-11, was then the wide receivers coach at Georgia State when he attended a Georgia high school coaches’ luncheon and bumped into Kiffin, a familiar face from his days with the Trojans.
Kiffin mentioned the possibility of Colbert joining Alabama as an “analyst.” For Colbert, taking the position would mean leaving a full-time assistant coach job with a program that had just moved up to the FBS and the Sun Belt.
One path was traditional for a young assistant — a position coach with a fledgling program. The other was an off-field role with the premier power in the sport and the nation’s top coach in Nick Saban.
Colbert chose Alabama, where he spent the 2014 and ’15 seasons as an offensive analyst on a coaching and support staff that has grown to include eight analysts who work with nine position coaches and four graduate assistants.
“I had to make a decision to leave a full-time job and go to Alabama and learn from Coach Saban and learn from his program and people on his staff,” Colbert says. “It was a growth opportunity for me to get underneath that umbrella and to use those experiences going forward.”
Many programs have expanded their own support staffs in recent seasons. Colbert, for example, left Alabama to be an offensive administrative assistant at USC, one of four total administrative assistants on Clay Helton’s staff.
Auburn had six analysts last season, including one hired away from Alabama. Jim Harbaugh’s first staff at Michigan included five aides with some variation of the title “analyst.” Florida State’s staff last season included 12 assistants with the words “quality control” in their titles.
Whether teams call them analysts, quality control coaches or administrative assistants, the poster child of the practice is Alabama.
The Crimson Tide first had three members of their staff listed as analysts in 2010, then six in 2011 and 10 in 2012 before settling on eight in each of the last three seasons.
Their roles are a blend between graduate assistant and advance scout. Unlike a quality control position in the NFL or a graduate assistant in college, analysts are not among the group of coaches the NCAA allows to instruct players. Analysts and quality control coaches, like GAs, are not permitted to recruit. By NCAA rules, GAs also must be enrolled as graduate students, as the name suggests. Analysts do not need to be enrolled in classes.
“It’s kind of taken to the pro format,” Helton says of his staffing at USC. “When you look at the NFL, you have the first assistant and second assistant. You have a full-time coach who is actually coaching the position and a quality control that’s getting a lot of the work done for the coach from a cut-up standpoint or computer standpoint. It’s almost like he has his own assistant for meeting preparation.”
Many former and current analysts at Alabama are similar to Colbert — young coaches looking to move up in the profession. Since 2010, most of Alabama’s analysts have been previously graduate assistants or video coordinators in Tuscaloosa or elsewhere. Others were full-time assistants at the FCS level or high school coaches.
“The fact that we can have a few extra guys now to be analysts, to break down film, to do quality control-type work, I think as an entry level that is beneficial to some guys that can move on maybe to be graduate assistants, get on the field and get some coaching experience,” Saban said during his team’s preparations for the National Championship Game against Clemson.
Dan O’Brien joined the Alabama staff in 2007 as a graduate assistant after serving one season as scouting assistant intern with the New England Patriots and one season as a safeties coach at Harvard. When O’Brien, the son of former Boston College and NC State coach Tom O’Brien, finished his graduate work, Alabama wanted to keep him on the staff. The Tide added him in their first wave of analyst hires in 2010.
O’Brien describes the role as the college version of an NFL advance scout, reporting tendencies noticed on film.
“It saved the full-time coaches from doing a lot of extra stuff,” says O’Brien, who is now the secondary coach at Navy. “You try to take a little off their plate and allow them to focus on the game-planning aspects of things.”
Only three analysts were on the Alabama staff when O’Brien was there — he left Tuscaloosa to become the defensive backs coach at Elon — but the role of analysts as extensions of the coaching staff was clear. O’Brien worked in conjunction with defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who is now the head coach at Georgia.
“For my four years there I was Kirby’s shadow, other than the on-the-field stuff,” O’Brien says. “If Kirby needed something, I’d make sure it got done.”
During his time as a high school coach in Mobile, former Alabama cornerback Kelvin Sigler had been trying to break into college coaching, and specifically with the Crimson Tide. He went after director of player development positions that were eventually filled by Jeremy Pruitt (now the defensive coordinator at Alabama) and Kevin Sherrer (now the outside linebackers coach at Georgia). Sigler’s foot in the door was an analyst position in 2012. His job was to work closely with Pruitt, who by then had been promoted to defensive backs coach, on breaking down film and installing game plans.
“It doesn’t put a lot on one GA or intern to break down film because you have so many guys who can do those things,” says Sigler, who has been the linebackers coach at Northern Illinois and South Alabama since leaving his analyst position. “It speeds up the process with so many people you can depend on.”
When Sigler was hired, he brought with him his longtime friend and assistant at Blount High School, Chris Samuels. An Outland Trophy winner at Alabama and a Pro Bowl tackle with the Washington Redskins, Samuels also was looking to break into coaching.
He took a graduate assistant position for two seasons, working on the sideline, holding up cards and signaling plays. After earning a degree, he moved to an analyst role installing the offense for the scout team.
Having a connection to Alabama or the coaching staff is a good way to get an analyst position, but old-fashioned hard work (and being cordial) landed Samuels as a graduate assistant and then as an analyst.
Samuels left college coaching to become the coach at Manassas (Va.) Osbourn High School.
Jules Montinar, a former player at Eastern Kentucky and graduate assistant at Purdue, didn’t have any connection to Alabama other than seeing a job open up on FootballScoop.com. He sent a résumé and followed up several times and left a positive impression with Saban’s administrative assistant Linda Leoni. When Smart and then-director of player of development Glenn Schumann were down to the final candidates, Leoni mentioned Montinar.
“Kirby called me and two days later I was on the plane interviewing,” Montinar says. “The rest is history.”
Montinar, who is now the cornerbacks coach at Texas State, ended up working closely with Saban. As other analysts worked side-by-side with assistants, Montinar drew the assignment of coaching cornerbacks with Saban.
“You’ve got to bring your ‘A’ game every time,” Montinar says. “There’s nowhere to hide.”
This feature and more on Alabama and the SEC are available in the 2016 Athlon Sports SEC Preview, available on newsstands everywhere and in our online store, powered by Amazon.
Jake Peetz, a former walk-on at Nebraska who worked with the Jaguars and Redskins in quality control roles, also believes he got the job on hustle.
After Peetz was part of a staff that was fired in Jacksonville, he got clearance to visit from Smart. Peetz worked under Mike Mularkey in Jacksonville. Mularkey, the current coach for the Tennessee Titans, had been Saban’s offensive coordinator for a year with the Miami Dolphins.
That shared connection, though, isn’t the only reason Peetz believes he earned a spot working with Alabama’s then-offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier in 2013.
“I hope that he saw that I drove from Jacksonville to Alabama because I wanted to be there,” says Peetz, who is now assistant quarterbacks coach with the Raiders. “I was a young guy who had a lot of energy and enthusiasm and wanted to learn the right way to do things.”
Not all of Alabama’s analysts have been up-and-coming head coaches. Some have been brought in for a specific purpose.
When Alabama wanted to refine the no-huddle, up-tempo elements of the offense in 2015, Saban and Kiffin approached Eric Kiesau, who had helped install tempo offenses at Washington and Cal. Kiesau had been the wide receivers coach at Kansas in 2014 and had intended on taking some time off before Alabama contacted him. Like some other analysts Alabama has hired, Kiesau could afford to take a pay cut from what he would make as a full-time assistant to be an analyst because he was still receiving buyout payments from Kansas. (CBSSports.com reported in January that analysts’ salaries range from $23,462 to $47,409.)
Instead of serving as a quality control staffer or an assistant to a position coach, Kiesau described his role as a consultant.
Normally, coaches looking to tweak an offensive or defensive system would hire an outside coach full-time or would visit with another coaching staff for a teaching session.
In Kiesau, Alabama hired someone on staff to work on the transition in real time.
“If you wanted to [tweak an offense], you’d send your coordinator in the offseason to a team in the spring and visit for a couple of days, and they would take a bunch of notes and then take it back and incorporate that into their own system,” Kiesau says. “That’s why it was so invaluable for me to be there all day, every day, all year long because when things came up, it was ‘How did you handle this?’”
Kiesau helped Alabama trim its playbook for an up-tempo system and work on play-call sheets. And like many analysts at Alabama, he used his position to learn about Saban’s organization and system to apply it to future work. Kiesau returned to a full-time assistant role when he was hired as Fresno State’s offensive coordinator this season.
The analyst role also has been a valuable training ground for eventual full-time assistants at Alabama.
In 2014, Alabama hired former Cal and Washington defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi as an analyst. Lupoi was a highly regarded recruiter in the Pac-12 before he was at the center of an NCAA investigation that he paid for a recruit’s tutoring. Neither Lupoi nor Washington was penalized, but the inquiry meant that he couldn’t join Sarkisian at USC or stay with the Huskies.
Lupoi found a home at Alabama and was eventually promoted to serve as the Tide’s outside linebackers coach.
Billy Napier served as offensive coordinator and other roles at Clemson until he was fired in 2010. He landed as an analyst at Alabama in 2011 and followed former Tide offensive coordinator Jim McElwain to Colorado State. Napier returned to Alabama as wide receivers coach in 2013.
The expanded coaching staff gives Alabama, in some ways, a minor league or training system for eventual assistants.
“Regardless of where they need to start professionally, I think this is a great thing for our profession, to be able to help develop coaches,” Saban said in January. “And I think those guys now have created a role and a niche for themselves that’s very important to every program because we all depend on them.”
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.”
In the last three seasons, there’s been a sense that the SEC’s dominance is showing vulnerability.
Florida State beat Auburn for the final BCS championship in 2014, and Ohio State eliminated Alabama on the way to the first College Football Playoff title in 2015. The Big Ten is having a resurgence as a national player with Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State all in various stages of being reliable top-10 programs or better. The last undefeated teams standing at the end of the last three regular seasons have come from the ACC.
None of that seemed to matter when Alabama beat Michigan State in a semifinal last season and then pulled away from Clemson in the final moments of a national championship game thriller.
After a two-year absence, an SEC team finished the season as national champions.
The trends in the rest of the Power 5 landscape still seem to reflect more depth and a handful of teams better equipped to face the best the SEC has to offer at the end of the season.
The big question is if such strides will matter in the playoff.
Until another conference makes a compelling case to wrestle the top spot from the SEC, this league remains the dominant force in college football. In the CFB Playoff, Alabama crushed Big Ten champion Michigan State and handed Clemson its only loss of the season to claim an eighth national title in 10 years for the SEC. The brag sheet continues: The entire SEC West went to bowls for the second year in a row, the league went 9–2 in the postseason as a whole, and the conference had five teams in the final AP top 25. The East, which has not produced the league champion since 2008, could start to make up ground if Tennessee becomes a title contender, if Florida continues its improvement under Jim McElwain, and if Kirby Smart brings Georgia the edge it needs.
2. Big Ten
The Big Ten produced six teams that won at least 10 games — more than any other conference — but that couldn’t mask that most of the power resides in the East division. The addition of Jim Harbaugh to a division that already included Urban Meyer, Mark Dantonio and James Franklin raised the recruiting profile of the conference and has ensured that the Big Ten won’t fall behind the rest of the Power 5. The West is a different story. With the exception of the Hawkeyes’ performance in the Big Ten title game, Iowa (12–2) and Northwestern (10–3) were not competitive in their biggest games of the year. Wisconsin won 10 games with smoke and mirrors, and Nebraska couldn’t get out of its own way on the way to a 6–7 season.
Favorite: Ohio State
What will College Football look like in 2026?
Two schools in the North (Stanford and Oregon) have produced the conference champion in each of the last seven seasons. This could be the season that trend comes to a halt. Stanford and Oregon should be solid again. But Washington is poised to return to the national stage, and UCLA has the league’s best quarterback in Josh Rosen. Talented USC can’t be counted out, either. With Oregon State’s Seth Collins moving to receiver, the Pac-12 returns only five starting quarterbacks, making it the only Power 5 conference that must replace more than half of its starters at the position.
The ACC has become a two-team league with Clemson and Florida State claiming each of the last five conference championships. In each of the last three seasons, either the Tigers or the Seminoles have gone into bowl season as the nation’s last undefeated team. That said, Dabo Swinney and Jimbo Fisher can’t get too comfortable: A handful of ACC teams have plans in place to catch up. North Carolina emerged from the always-competitive Coastal Division last season and shows no signs of slowing down. Miami and Virginia Tech made coaching hires that should return both to solid footing.
Favorite: Florida State
5. Big 12
Even Oklahoma’s appearance in the College Football Playoff couldn’t end speculation that the Big 12 will someday, somehow expand. As it is, the Big 12 remains — stylistically speaking — the most up-and-down conference in the country. The league produced four of the top seven offenses and six of the top 25. The Sooners, ranked 39th, were the league’s only top-40 defense. Oklahoma will be a playoff contender again. TCU must replace dynamic quarterback Trevone Boykin but still has the look of a potential contender. Meanwhile, Baylor — now under Jim Grobe — may be one of the most volatile teams in the country. The conference will look to Oklahoma State to take a step forward and for Texas, 11–14 under Charlie Strong, to show some signs of life.
The AAC is coming off the best season in its short history with Houston, Temple, Navy and Memphis leading the way on the national stage. Those four teams accounted for wins over Florida State, Ole Miss, Penn State, Louisville and Pittsburgh. The league must replace some outgoing quarterback and coaching talent, but there’s enough remaining to keep the AAC the leader among the Group of 5 conferences. Houston’s coach-QB tandem in Tom Herman and Greg Ward Jr. would be the envy of a majority of Power 5 teams.
The Mountain West started last season with a thud as the league lost 22 consecutive non-conference games through the first three weeks. It’s no surprise that a league that lost TCU, Utah and BYU over the years is still trying to find its way. The MW will need San Diego State to build upon its 11-win season in 2015 and for Boise State (9–4) to continue to be a thorn in the side of the power players. Air Force and Utah State will be tough outs.
Favorite: Boise State
MACtion is alive and well on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights in November, but in the big picture, the MAC may be little more than a pleasant diversion. The best teams in the league last season, Bowling Green and Toledo, lost their coaches to Power 5 schools. Quarterback talent and experience at Central Michigan, Northern Illinois and Western Michigan will set up a heated race in the West.
Favorite: Western Michigan
Two departures, one expected (WKU quarterback Brandon Doughty) and one abrupt (Southern Miss coach Todd Monken) could hold Conference USA back from producing a CFP host bowl contender. Nevertheless, this remains a league with exciting offenses at the top. But half the league could be among the 30 worst teams in college football.
Favorite: Southern Miss
10. Sun Belt
The addition of Appalachian State and Georgia Southern has been a stroke of genius. Both were national champions at the FCS level and have made a seamless transition. Defending Sun Belt champion Arkansas State has perfected the formula of winning at this level.
Favorite: Appalachian State
This may be the season for a changing of the guard in the Pac-12. Either Stanford or Oregon has won every league championship since 2009. This season both may be vulnerable. UCLA has the league’s best quarterback. USC has enviable talent. Utah is always sneaky. And that doesn’t get to Stanford and Oregon’s improved foes in the Pac-12 North, Washington and Washington State.
In what should be an unpredictable year in the Pac-12, Athlon looked at the top 10 storylines that would define the league.
This article and more on the Pac-12 can be found in the 2016 Pac-12 Football Preview, available now on newsstands and in our online store.
1. The maturation of Josh Rosen
The arrival of quarterback Josh Rosen at UCLA last season signaled the Bruins’ best chance to end a Pac-12 championship drought that dates back to 1998. He was a can’t-miss recruit and remains an enticing pro prospect in an era when polished pocket passers are falling by the wayside. Rosen was brilliant at times last season. In his first game, Rosen completed 80 percent of his passes for 350 yards with three touchdowns. But he also threw three interceptions against BYU and a combined four interceptions in his final two games of the year, both losses.
And it wasn’t always a smooth ride off the field. In October, Rosen got himself into some — ahem — hot water when he posted to Instagram images of a hot tub in his dorm room. (The hot tub was removed days later.)
As if coaching a big-time quarterback prospect in the social media age wasn’t tough enough, coach Jim Mora is dealing with another variable when it comes to Rosen. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone left UCLA for the same job at Texas A&M. Mora promoted running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu to offensive coordinator, but the more important move is the addition of Marques Tuiasosopo as quarterback coach. The experience tradeoff is stark. Polamalu has been an offensive coordinator for only three seasons at USC — at a time when Lane Kiffin was the play-caller. Tuiasosopo has all of one season as a QB coach under his belt. Handing two unproven assistants the best quarterback prospect in the country could be a gift or a curse.
2. Stanford’s rebuilding defensive line
Stanford has been stout in the trenches for most of its recent seven-year run of excellence, but that wasn’t the case in 2015 — due in part to suspect play on the line. Stanford allowed 5.57 yards per play last season, ranking 64th in the country. Both were the worst figures for the Cardinal since 2009. Stanford’s opponents rushed for 4.32 yards per carry, the most against the Cardinal since 2006.
The Cardinal replaced all three defensive line starters going into last year, and depth took a blow when nose tackle Harrison Phillips was lost for the year to a torn ACL in the opener. Stanford’s conundrum is that the churn will continue. Starters Brennan Scarlett and Aziz Shittu are gone, leaving nose tackle Solomon Thomas as the only proven and healthy defensive lineman on the roster.
New faces will need to make major leaps if Stanford’s defensive front is going to return to form. Phillips’ return remains in question. Luke Kaumatule, who has played tight end and outside linebacker, redshirted while making the transition to defensive line. And redshirt freshmen Dylan Jackson and Wesley Annan are expected to contribute. With all of that uncertainty, the most important name in Stanford’s defensive renewal could be Diron Reynolds. Former line coach Randy Hart retired after six seasons at Stanford and 46 seasons as coach. Reynolds, a defensive assistant at Stanford in 2014, coached the defensive line at Oklahoma last season. While Stanford’s new quarterback will get more attention, Reynolds’ defensive front might be the key to the team’s ability to contend in the Pac-12 North.
3. USC’s uneven offensive line play
The pieces for USC’s offensive line never quite seem to fit with the results. As anyone who follows recruiting would expect, all of the Trojans’ offensive linemen arrive on campus as top prospects. Four of the top five returning linemen have received some kind of All-Pac-12 honors, from first team to honorable mention status, and the fifth was a Freshman All-American two years ago. By a handful of measures, this talented, veteran unit — which loses only five-game starting center Max Tuerk — should be the best in the Pac-12. But as we’ve seen in recent years, talent hasn’t always translated at USC, especially on the line. The Trojans haven’t ranked higher than seventh in the Pac-12 in rushing since 2011 and have ranked 99th or worse nationally in sacks allowed in the last three years.
That said, USC’s line perhaps deserves a break. New position coach Neil Callaway, a journeyman assistant throughout the Southeast and a former head coach at UAB, will be the group’s fifth coach in the last five years. After Tuerk went down with a knee injury last year, USC had three different starting centers in the final nine games. The position further thinned when guard/center Toa Lobendahn was lost for the final seven games of the season with his own knee injury. And left tackle Chad Wheeler, a three-year starter and all-conference second-teamer, didn’t play in the bowl game after an altercation with police in December.
Having everyone healthy and available will be critical for Callaway — not to mention for USC’s first-time starting quarterback.
The question remains: Even if the linemen are all on the field at the same time, will they be on the same page?
4. An outsider at Oregon
For a program that’s often on the cutting edge of college football, Oregon doesn’t often think outside the box when it comes to coaching hires. The Ducks rarely look outside of Eugene. Five members of the Oregon coaching staff have been with the school for at least 13 years, working for three different head coaches. When Nick Aliotti retired after 2013, it seemed only natural that the Ducks would promote from within to replace the outgoing defensive coordinator. The Don Pellum experiment, though, was nothing short of a disaster. Aliotti’s last defense was ranked seventh in the country in yards per play. Under Pellum, the former (and current) linebackers coach, that figure dropped to 64th in 2014 and 98th in 2015. Last season, Oregon’s only chance to win was to do so in a shootout. The Ducks allowed 62 points and 530 yards in an embarrassing loss at home to Utah. They allowed 641 at home in a loss to Washington State. They allowed 742 yards to Arizona State and found a way to win 61–55. The low point was the Alamo Bowl when TCU overcame a 31–0 Oregon lead at halftime for a 47–41 win in triple overtime.
The season was bad enough to force Oregon to use a different area code when calling around for a new coach. Brady Hoke, the Ducks’ new defensive coordinator, could be the most important outside hire for the program since Mike Bellotti plucked an offensive coordinator from New Hampshire named Chip Kelly. Of course, Hoke is a more established commodity than Kelly was in 2007, but Oregon needs the former Michigan head coach to make as big of an impact. In addition to his stint in Ann Arbor, Hoke also has been a head coach at San Diego State and Ball State, but oddly enough, he’s never been a coordinator at the college level. He spent 19 years as a position coach, including five years at Oregon State, before taking his first head coaching gig in 2003. He’ll lead a defensive staff that still includes Pellum, back at his familiar spot coaching linebackers, and 13-year secondary coach John Neal. With 107 more games as a head coach than his boss, Hoke also could be counsel for Helfrich, entering his fourth year as the Ducks’ head coach.
5. Jake Browning’s development
With a young nucleus, an outstanding coach and a team that proved it could go toe-to-toe with some of the best in the Pac-12 last season, Washington will be one of the “it” teams of 2016. That’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a sophomore quarterback. Jake Browning had a solid season, by freshman standards. A four-star quarterback in the class of 2015, Browning flourished against weaker teams. He completed 77.3 percent of his passes for 474 total yards with eight touchdowns and no interceptions in wins over Arizona and Oregon State. Against the other six Pac-12 teams Browning faced, he completed 58.2 percent of his passes for 225.5 yards per game with three TDs and eight interceptions.
Browning led Washington to three wins and an average of 47 points per game in the final three games of 2015. Chris Petersen also has a fine résumé in developing four-year quarterbacks (see: Moore, Kellen). Petersen has praised Browning’s toughness, and, with the exception of the opener last year, he didn’t hold back anything from the freshman in terms of the playbook. The Huskies went 1–3 in one-score games last season. They only need a few breaks — and Browning’s continued development — to become a division contender.
6. Sonny Dykes’ new quarterback
Cal must replace the most prolific passer in school history. The Bears’ top six receivers are gone. And there’s a new offensive coordinator in Berkeley. Normally, that would result in a great deal of uncertainty, but Pac-12 opponents have a good idea of what Sonny Dykes will try to do despite all the new faces. He’s going to try to throw the ball more than anyone in the conference other than his old boss up at Washington State.
Jared Goff was a 12,000-yard passer in three seasons under Dykes and the main constant as Cal rose from 1–11 to 8–5 in three seasons. The next quarterback won’t match Goff’s production, but he’ll step into an offense that has been one of the most prolific in the country. Since he left Mike Leach’s staff at Texas Tech to become offensive coordinator at Arizona, Dykes has presided over five top-10 passing offenses in the last nine years, including four in a row at Cal and Louisiana Tech. Bringing in Jake Spavital — another branch off that Leach coaching tree — after he was fired at Texas A&M is an indication that Dykes isn’t straying much from the formula.
Chase Forrest, Goff’s backup who threw 18 passes last season, is the presumptive frontrunner to take over. But as many as five candidates are vying for the job, including quarterback-turned-safety-turned-quarterback Luke Rubenzer, redshirt freshman Ross Bowers, true freshman (and early enrollee) Max Gilliam and transfer Zach Kline (back for his second tour at Cal). As for the dearth of proven pass-catchers: Cal signed a total of 14 receivers in its last three recruiting classes
7. Luke Falk’s run for the record book
Nearly a decade has passed since a quarterback broke major single-season passing records. In 2007, Texas Tech’s Graham Harrell set the record for completions (512) and completions per game (39.4). In 2006, Hawaii’s Colt Brennan threw a record 58 touchdown passes. And in 2003, Texas Tech’s B.J. Symons set records for attempts (719) and yards (5,833). In other words, we’re due for a run at some of these passing records.
Washington State’s Luke Falk might be the guy to do it. First, he has the right pedigree as a Mike Leach quarterback, just like Harrell and Symons. And second, he might have approached some of these numbers last season had he stayed healthy. Falk missed all of one game and part of another yet still managed to throw 644 passes, the second-most in a season since 2009. As a group, Washington State quarterbacks threw 738 passes — 118 more than any other team in the country and 19 more than Symons’ mark in 2003.
With Gabe Marks and River Cracraft at receiver and three offensive line starters back, Falk has the tools to make a run at several records — or at least make late-night Pac-12 games that much more interesting.
8. Arizona State’s JUCO gamble
Todd Graham has always had a high-risk, high-reward defensive philosophy. The Arizona State coach likes his teams to be aggressive, and if that comes at the expense of big plays for the offense sometimes, so be it. Arizona State has ranked in the top 10 in tackles for a loss per game in three of the last four seasons. Throw in Graham’s lone year at Pittsburgh, and his teams have ranked in the top 20 in tackles for a loss per game in each of the last five seasons.
Last season, the Sun Devils had arguably the worst defensive season of Graham’s career, ranking 113th in yards allowed per game. No team gave up more 40-yard plays (30) last season than Arizona State. In Pac-12 play, the Sun Devils gave up 25 40-yard plays, six more than any other team in the league.
Graham needs a quick fix, and he went with a high-risk, high-reward strategy. The Sun Devils signed eight junior college prospects, most in the country. The haul includes three defensive ends, two cornerbacks, two offensive linemen and a punter. Most will be needed immediately — and not just on defense, as ASU returns only one starting offensive lineman.
The Sun Devils return all three starting linebackers and two defensive linemen, so all eyes will be on corners Maurice Chandler and J’Marcus Rhodes. Graham still has a dilemma with few high school defensive backs in his last two signing classes.
9. Arizona’s rebuilt defense
For several years at West Virginia, Rich Rodriguez had a secret weapon to complement his prolific offense. Jeff Casteel was one of the more underrated defensive coordinators in the country. He stayed at West Virginia when Rodriguez went to Michigan but followed his old boss to Arizona in 2012.
The Wildcats defense, however, has struggled in recent years, and Rodriguez made the difficult decision to part ways with Casteel and defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich, another longtime assistant. Contrast that with the offensive staff — Rodriguez still has two assistants who have been with him since the West Virginia and Michigan days.
RichRod clearly believes he needs some new ideas. For that, he hired Marcel Yates from Boise State to lead his defense. Out goes Casteel’s 3-3-5 stack. In comes Yates 4-2-5. Boise State ranked in the top 10 nationally in takeaways in each of the last two years under Yates. The goal is clear: Arizona’s defense needs to be more disruptive. Arizona also needs bodies. The Wildcats return five starters in the front seven, but not Scooby Wright. The secondary will be thin.
The new-look — and much younger — staff should also impact recruiting. Every defensive assistant was still in college in the 2000s. The results might not be immediate, but RichRod is banking on these radical changes to change the fortunes of his program’s defense for the long term.
10. How bad is it at Oregon State?
Not too long ago, Gary Andersen was one of college football’s can’t-miss coaches. He took over a moribund Utah State program and went 11–2 with a WAC championship within four years. He took that success to Wisconsin, where the Badgers went 19–7 overall and 13–3 in the Big Ten under his watch. His move to Oregon State after two seasons was as shocking as Mike Riley’s departure from OSU to Nebraska. The move signaled that perhaps Andersen wasn’t as good a fit at Wisconsin as many thought. It may have also signaled that the Oregon State job is in a worse spot than anyone realized.
Oregon State went 2–10 in Andersen’s first year and winless in the Pac-12. Conference opponents beat Oregon State by an average of 24.5 points and outgained the Beavers by an average of 208 yards per game. Riley’s staff did a good job of locating and developing under-recruited talent in major recruiting states and taking flyers on junior college prospects. Andersen’s first two signing classes seem to follow that blueprint. Oregon State has signed eight players from Florida in the last two years to go with 10 junior college transfers and the usual handful of prospects from California. Andersen will need to hit on more than a fair share of those recruits for this program to make a move.
Athlon Sports is celebrating the 50th volume of its inaugural SEC annual this year. Throughout the summer and fall, we’ll look back at some of the players, coaches, teams and images from our early years.
Back then, Florida running back Larry Smith was the SEC’s preseason MVP in that first issue of Southeastern College Football in 1967. We caught up with Smith to talk about his time at Florida, his pro career and his post-football pursuits.
Larry Smith’s most famous play as a Florida football player is a matter of dispute.
In the Sugar Bowl following the 1966 season, Smith managed to steal the spotlight from his quarterback, who was a month removed from winning the Heisman Trophy.
With Florida up 7-6 in the third quarter against Georgia Tech, Smith took a handoff from Steve Spurrier at the 6, scored a few blocks and ran 94 yards for a touchdown. In Florida’s first Orange Bowl and only its second major bowl appearance, Smith ran for 187 yards on 23 carries to beat Georgia Tech 27-12.
The image of that 94-yard run though — or at least the story of it — persisted. According to the legend, Smith made the run with his pants falling down, a fact Smith says was more or less an optical illusion.
“They had those old hip pads back then and they were sliding up, making it look like my pants were falling down,” said Smith from his law office in Tampa, Fla. “I honestly don’t think I could have run that far if my pants were falling down.”
So why did that legend persist? Norm Carlson is a genius, says Smith.
Norm Carlson was Florida’s sports information director at the time, and as Florida’s liaison to the press, he was happy to make the star running back larger than life even if Smith would have nothing to do with such praise.
“His pants did start falling down,” Carlson said. “He had small hips. They didn’t fall down, but they started slipping and you could see his hip pad. It didn’t affect the run, but you could clearly see them slipping. I just reported the truth. It’s all about truth in journalism.”
That run and his MVP performance in the Orange Bowl set up Smith as one of the SEC’s biggest stars going into the 1967 season. With Spurrier — the SEC’s second Heisman winner in seven years — graduating, Smith had big shoes to fill.
Conference coaches felt Smith was up to the task when they voted him the preseason MVP in the inaugural issue of Athlon in 1967.
“He’s the best college back I’ve been around,” then-Florida coach Ray Graves told Athlon.
In Smith’s 1966 sophomore season — his first on the varsity as freshmen were ineligible at the time — he rushed for 742 yards, caught 23 passes and accounted for 12 total touchdowns in 10 games.
Smith rushed for 754 yards as a junior and accounted for eight touchdowns, but Florida struggled to find a quarterback in the absence of Spurrier and finished 6-4 without a bowl game.
The reputation of the Florida running back continued into his senior season when Athlon wrote: “With all due apologies to O.J. Simpson, Larry Smith may be the greatest running back in college football.”
Perhaps there was some provincialism at work in the SEC, but Carlson says this was no hyperbole.
“He was a great football player, proved it in every way on the field,” said Carlson, who is semi-retired but still listed as Florida’s historian and an assistant athletic director. “To take in all the categories of what he did, statistically maybe not the best, but he didn’t care. That’s what made him one of the best.”
Smith finished with 2,186 career rushing yards and 607 receiving yards, leaving school as the program’s all-time leader in rushing and yards from scrimmage. The 6-foot-4, 217-pound running back was also known for completing passes on what started as end sweeps.
Since then, Smith’s notoriety would fade as Emmitt Smith, Errict Rhett and Fred Taylor passed him in the record books, and quarterbacks and receivers became the superstars under Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer.
After Florida, Smith was drafted eighth overall by the Rams in the 1969 NFL Draft. Injuries limited him throughout his career, and he never topped the 599 rushing yards from his rookie season He retired in 1974, but before then he split time living in Los Angeles and Gainesville, Fla.
Smith’s heart was always in Florida, anyhow. His father was a Florida graduate — he still has his season tickets that they first purchased when Smith was eight years old.
After 10 years in Gainesville, Smith worked in the business world in his hometown of Tampa before going to law school in his early 30s. After changing gears in his career, Smith graduated law school at age 34 and has worked in commercial real estate law in Tampa ever since.
Other names in Florida history loom larger, particularly his former quarterback, but in 1967 and 1968 few were better than Athlon’s first SEC MVP.
“All around, he was one of the best we have ever had at Florida,” Carlson said.
Before each college football season, Athlon Sports hears from readers wanting to know why one team was favored over another in our preseason rankings. Why this team was ranked so high or that team so low.
Some of these questions are in — um — colorful language.
That’s why Athlon takes you inside our decision process for some of the biggest questions you ask. Believe it or not, some of these questions are the ones we grappled with through our rankings meeting.
Here are the questions we anticipated about our Big 12 predictions for 2016.
The Athlon Sports 2016 SEC Preview is Available Now in our Online Store hosted by Amazon
Were there thoughts on not picking OU?
Not really — due in part to our confidence in the Sooners and in part to a lack of confidence in the other top teams. Oklahoma did lose some key personnel last year — most notably wide receiver Sterling Shepard, linebacker Eric Striker and cornerback Zach Sanchez — but this is still the most complete team in the league. A year ago, Oklahoma outgained Big 12 opponents by an average of 192.2 yards per game — by far the best in the league — en route to an 8–1 record. The offensive line could be an issue, but OU boasts one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in Baker Mayfield and an elite running back duo in Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon.
How did the situation at Baylor affect the Bears’ ranking?
We ranked Baylor second in the Big 12 during the spring. Obviously, things have changed with the firing of Art Briles, the hiring of Jim Grobe and the turmoil with what’s left of the current roster. Grobe is a fine coach, and he’ll have a talented quad. That said, Baylor doesn’t seem likely to contend for the Big 12 without Briles’ command of the offense, never mind the toll on morale for the remaining players. There are simply too many variables to make any kind of informed decision on Baylor. We originally projected Baylor to go 9-3 overall and 6-3 in the Big 12, a feat that would probably earn Grobe Big 12 Coach of the Year consideration. Baylor is probably closer to seven or eight wins. Given the non-conference schedule and games against Kansas and Iowa State, 5-7 would be the worst case scenario. We split the difference and moved Baylor to fourth behind Oklahoma, TCU and Oklahoma State.
Why did TCU get the nod over Oklahoma State?
TCU endured a string of significant injuries last season yet still went 11–2 overall and 7–2 in the league — a testament to Gary Patterson’s coaching and the overall talent in the program. The Horned Frogs return only one starter on offense, but the drop-off in production shouldn’t be too great. There are plenty of talented returning players at running back and wide receiver to help ease the transition for quarterback Kenny Hill, a transfer from Texas A&M who posted gaudy numbers with the Aggies in his half-season as the starter. And the TCU defense, with seven starters back, should be among the most improved in the nation. Oklahoma State, after winning 10 games a year ago, figures to receive some love in the preseason polls. The Cowboys have some quality talent at quarterback and receiver, and their defense should be decent, but this team still has some significant areas of concern. And it must be noted that the Pokes were fortunate to win seven league games; they outgained league opponents by only 10.9 yards per game, and four of their seven Big 12 wins came by seven points or fewer. One more note: Oklahoma State’s road schedule includes trips to Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma. That is not easy.
What went into picking West Virginia fifth?
Sorting out the middle of the Big 12 was very difficult. After much debate we settled on West Virginia at No. 5 over Texas Tech and Texas. There is some unrest in Morgantown — head coach Dana Holgorsen isn’t on the firmest of ground — but this is a team that could surprise in 2016. Despite last year’s 4–5 Big 12 record, West Virginia was rated highly by some of the advanced metrics; the F/+ rating used by Football Outsiders ranked the Mountaineers 31st nationally and fourth in the league. There are holes to fill in the secondary, but the offense has a chance to be very good thanks to the return of quarterback Skyler Howard (who played his best game in the bowl win over Arizona State) and a quality offensive line. The schedule also sets up nicely: Oklahoma, Baylor and TCU all visit Morgantown.
Texas at 7, really?
Yes, Texas is predicted to finish closer to the bottom than the top. The Longhorns should be improved on defense, but there isn’t much evidence to suggest the offense will take a big step forward under new coordinator Sterlin Gilbert. It’s a positive that this offense will finally have an identity, but it will take time for the Horns to adapt to Gilbert’s version of the up-tempo spread. There have been a few nice wins in Charlie Strong’s two seasons, but the Horns have also been really bad far too often; they’ve lost nine games by 17 points or more under his watch — nine too many for a coach at Texas.
Before each college football season, Athlon Sports hears from readers wanting to know why one team was favored over another in our preseason rankings. Why this team was ranked so high or that team so low.
Some of these questions are in — um — colorful language.
That’s why Athlon takes you inside our decision process for some of the biggest questions you ask. Believe it or not, some of these questions are the ones we grappled with through our rankings meeting.
Here are the questions we anticipated about our Pac-12 predictions for 2016.
The Athlon Sports 2016 Pac-12 Preview is Available Now in our Online Store hosted by Amazon
UCLA was a relatively easy pick in the South. Why are we so confident?
At first glance, the Bruins’ 8–5 record last season might be considered a disappointment. They went only 5–4 in the Pac-12, lost to crosstown rival USC by 19 points and dropped their bowl game to a Nebraska team that had a losing record. But we can’t forget that UCLA started a true freshman at quarterback and was ravaged by injuries on the defensive side of the ball. Now, Josh Rosen — the No. 1 QB in the 2015 recruiting class — is a sophomore with 13 starts under his belt and figures to be one of the top quarterbacks in the nation in 2016. And the defense returns nine starters — not including standout tackle Eddie Vanderdoes, who went down with a torn ACL in early September. His return should help UCLA improve against the run, an area of weakness last year. Also, the schedule is very, very forgiving; the Bruins do not play Washington or Oregon — two of the top three teams in the North — and host both USC and Utah. The UCLA pick also indicates our lack of confidence in USC. The Trojans will once again have a ton of talent, but there are questions at quarterback and with the coaching staff.
Why did Utah get the nod over the Arizona schools for third in the South?
The Utes loses some key players from last year’s surprising 10-win team, but Kyle Whittingham has built a solid foundation that will keep this program competitive. The overall offensive numbers were not good last season, but Utah still managed to run the ball with consistency and play well defensively — two staples of the Utes in recent years. And while All-Pac-12 tailback Devontae Booker is gone, Joe Williams appears more than ready to step into the role as primary ball-carrier. Arizona State was one of the more disappointing teams in the league last season and has some significant holes to fill on both sides of the ball. Arizona will continue to score a ton of points, but the Wildcats have issues on defense — again.
How did Washington get the nod over Stanford, a team that has either won or shared the Pac-12 North title in four of the last five seasons?
The record wasn’t overly impressive — 7–6 overall and 4–5 in the league — but Washington showed significant improvement in Chris Petersen’s second season. For the most part, when the Huskies won, they won impressively, and when they lost, they lost close games to good teams. UW returns two of the top young skill-position players in the league in quarterback Jake Browning and tailback Myles Gaskin and welcomes back explosive receiver John Ross from injury. Stanford isn’t going anywhere, but the Cardinal suffered too many key personnel losses and must identify a new starting quarterback. Washington also has the easier conference schedule and gets Stanford at home (on Sept. 30).
Why no respect for Oregon?
It’s not time to panic, but the Ducks lost four games in 2015 — the most since 2007 when Mike Bellotti’s penultimate Oregon team went 9–4. The positive spin? Three of the four losses came by seven points or fewer and two of the three losses came with quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. either slowed by an injury or out with an injury. The negative spin? Adams is no longer around, and the team has significant concerns on both the offensive line and defensive line. Dakota Prukop put up huge numbers at Montana State, but there is no guarantee he will be as successful as Adams, last year’s FBS transfer. There is also a coaching transition, with a new offensive coordinator (Matt Lubick) and defensive coordinator (Brady Hoke). Hoke figures to be a significant upgrade over Don Pellum — demoted to linebackers coach — but don’t expect too big an improvement in 2016.
Before each college football season, Athlon Sports hears from readers wanting to know why one team was favored over another in our preseason rankings. Why this team was ranked so high or that team so low.
Some of these questions are in — um — colorful language.
That’s why Athlon takes you inside our decision process for some of the biggest questions you ask. Believe it or not, some of these questions are the ones we grappled with through our rankings meeting.
Here are the questions we anticipated about our Big Ten predictions for 2016.
The Athlon Sports 2016 Big Ten Preview is Available Now in our Online Store hosted by Amazon
What separated Ohio State and Michigan?
Not much. It was basically a choice between the upstart program with a ton of momentum vs. the old guard that lost a bunch of talent but still possesses a loaded roster. Michigan was one of the surprise teams in the nation last season, winning 10 games overall and recording a 6–2 mark in the Big Ten. We must keep in mind that the Wolverines were fortunate to beat Minnesota (29–26) and Indiana (48–41, 2OT). But we also can’t forget that the loss to Michigan State came on one of the flukiest plays in the history of college football. Jim Harbaugh will have a good team — he always does — but the Wolverines still lag behind Ohio State in overall talent. There are questions at quarterback and some significant holes to fill at linebacker (though Jabrill Peppers’ move to a hybrid backer/safety spot could alleviate some of those concerns). Ohio State needs to replace some elite talent — only six starters return — but Urban Meyer has been stockpiling top-five recruiting classes. Talent will not be an issue in Columbus. Experience might, but it’s a positive that J.T. Barrett will be back to run the offense after sharing the position in 2015 with Cardale Jones. One more reason to like the Buckeyes: Michigan visits Columbus on Nov. 26.
Why isn’t Michigan State, with a 22–2 Big Ten record the last three years, considered more of a contender?
Michigan State has made a habit of defying preseason expectations, but this figures to be the season the Spartans take a step back in the Big Ten. The defense should be able to survive some key personnel losses, but the offense must replace quarterback Connor Cook as well as two all-conference linemen. Also, Michigan State might not have been as good as its gaudy record — and spot in the CFB Playoff — suggests. Six of their 12 wins in 2015 came by seven points or fewer, including two against Big Ten lightweights Purdue (three) and Rutgers (seven).
Was Iowa the easy choice in the West?
Iowa is far from the sexiest pick, but in the end it was the smartest (we hope). The Hawkeyes return many of the key players who contributed to their 12–0 regular-season run. Among them is quarterback C.J. Beathard, who battled through various injuries yet was still productive in his first season as a starter. There’s also the schedule, which is once again very kind. Kirk Ferentz’s team does not play Ohio State or Michigan State and gets four of its five toughest opponents at home — Northwestern, Wisconsin, Michigan and Nebraska. The trip to Penn State, which comes after a bye, is by far Iowa’s most challenging road game. We gave serious thought to Nebraska (more on the Huskers to follow) and some thought to Wisconsin, but all signs continued to point to Iowa.
Which team was the toughest to project?
Nebraska. There’s no denying that Mike Riley’s first season in Lincoln did not go well: The Cornhuskers went 6–7 overall (3–5 in the Big Ten) and lost four games at Memorial Stadium. But there might not have been an unluckier team in college football. Nebraska opened the season by losing on a Hail Mary to BYU and then proceeded to lose five Big Ten games by an average of 4.6 points, including three losses by two points or fewer. Yes, two of those came against Illinois (on an inexcusable coaching blunder) and Purdue (when the Huskers were without starting quarterback Tommy Armstrong), but this team could very easily have won more games. The talent level at NU isn’t up to par with the top teams in the Big Ten East, but the Huskers are good enough to compete with Iowa and Wisconsin for supremacy in the West. This team could win the division, or — if the bad luck and coaching mistakes continue — finish as low as fourth.
Some of these questions are in — um — colorful language.
Here are the questions we anticipated about our SEC predictions for 2016.
The Athlon Sports 2016 SEC Preview is Available Now in our Online Store hosted by Amazon
Was there any thought to picking any team other than Tennessee in the East?
Not really. The Volunteers, from a talent and experience standpoint, are clearly the best team in the SEC East. They have the right quarterback (Joshua Dobbs) in place — which gives them a huge advantage over every other team in the division — complemented by an outstanding running back duo and what should be an improved offensive line. The defense was solid last year and should be even better thanks to the addition of Bob Shoop as coordinator. There are a few reasons for concern, however. The schedule is very difficult once again: The Vols play Alabama (home) and Texas A&M (road) from the SEC West and visit Georgia, which figures to be their biggest challenger in the division. Also, this program will be under immense pressure to win big in 2016. Last year, Tennessee did not play well in crunch time, losing well-documented leads against Oklahoma, Florida and Arkansas. How the Vols handle the spotlight, and the expectations that come with it, will go a long way in determining just how successful this team can be.
Kentucky is No. 4 in the East. That seems a bit high for a program that has won four SEC games in the past four seasons.
Yes, that does seem a bit lofty, but the prediction makes more sense when you consider that Kentucky has the most forgiving league schedule of the four teams jockeying for fourth place in the SEC East. The Wildcats host South Carolina and Vanderbilt — two games they should be favored to win — and they also get Mississippi State at home. That could be three wins right there, and three wins could be enough to edge out Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Missouri for fourth place. But it’s not just about schedule. Mark Stoops recruited well early in his tenure at UK, and the program is stocked with solid talent, most notably at the skill positions. Also, we can’t forget that this team was very close to winning several more games in 2016; the Cats lost by five to Florida, three to Auburn and four to Vanderbilt. A play here or there would have resulted in another win or two and a trip to a bowl game. We don’t expect Kentucky to be a factor in the SEC East race, but this is a team that should return to the postseason for the first time since 2010.
LSU has been a trendy pick as a national title contender in the offseason. How close were the Tigers to edging Alabama for the top spot in the SEC West?
Not too close. LSU will have a ton of talent — but talent has not been the issue in Baton Rouge. The Tigers have signed top-six recruiting classes in four straight seasons yet have a 14–10 record in the SEC since the start of the 2013 season. During that same stretch, Alabama is 21–3 in the SEC — including three wins over LSU. So while LSU has the makings of a really good team in 2016, there are more than enough reasons not to jump on the bandwagon and label this team as a legitimate national title contender.
Mississippi State has averaged 3.7 SEC wins per season under Dan Mullen and has yet to finish in last place under his watch. Still, the Bulldogs are the pick for last in the SEC West for the second straight season. Why?
It’s safe to say that our expectations for this program — as it relates to the finish in the division — would be much higher if it played in the SEC East. But the Bulldogs find themselves swimming in the brutal waters of the toughest division in football. And while they’ve continued to prove the prognosticators wrong, especially last year, the Dogs make the most sense at No. 7 this season. Through improved recruiting, MSU might be better positioned than in previous years to overcome some key personnel losses, but it’s tough to ignore the fact that the team must replace arguably the best player in school history (Dak Prescott) at the most important position (quarterback) on the field and that the top wide receiver (De’Runnya Wilson) and most talented defensive player (Chris Jones) are also gone.
Last season was a banner year for the under-40 coaching set.
Justin Fuente coached his last season in his 30s by winning nine games at Memphis and then taking the Virginia Tech job. Kirby Smart landed one of the best jobs in college football at Georgia and then won a national title as Alabama’s defensive coordinator. Willie Taggart may have saved his job with an 8-5 season at USF. Kalani Sitake landed his dream job as BYU’s head coach.
All four will start the 2016 season after hitting the big 4-0, so they’re moving off this list.
There remain plenty of head coaches and coordinators in their 30s who will make a major impact in college football this season. Two of them (Matt Campbell and Kliff Kingsbury) are in the Big 12 alone, and that doesn’t count two offensive coordinators (Lincoln Riley and Sonny Cumbie) who could add to their stash of conference championship rings.
In other conferences, 35-year-old P.J. Fleck will be in contention for a MAC title. Bryan Harsin is looking to win his second Mountain West championship at Boise State.
A number of other under-40 coaches are in tough rebuilding jobs or seeking their first head coaching gig.
All ages are as of Sept. 1, 2016
All editions of the Athlon Sports college football 2016 preview magazine are available now in our online store.
1. P.J. Fleck, Western Michigan head coach
Fleck has already been a hot commodity for also-ran Big Ten programs. It seems Fleck, a former Greg Schiano assistant, is going to pick his spot for a jump to a major job. Of course, what he’s got going now at Western Michigan is pretty good. After starting 1-11, the Broncos are 16-10 overall and 12-4 in the MAC the last two seasons. Fleck already has the reputation of a master motivator of millennials, and he’s lapped the MAC in recruiting the last three cycles.
2. Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech head coach
Kingsbury is 19-19 overall and 10-17 in the Big 12 since his return to Texas Tech. Despite a 7-6 record in 2015, there were signs the Red Raiders are ready to make a move. Texas Tech beat Texas and Kansas State in back-to-back weeks in November after recording just one November win (over Iowa State) in Kingsbury's first two seasons. The Red Raiders are starting to improve their defense. Tech has proven it can beat the Big 12’s lower class. Time to start putting fear in the league’s contenders.
3. Matt Campbell, Iowa State head coach
Campbell has been on the ascent almost as soon as he took over at Toledo for a bowl win in 2011. In four seasons, Campbell never took the Rockets to the MAC title game, but he finished with fewer than nine wins just once, going 7-5 in 2013. Toledo has ranked in the top four in the MAC in yards per play every year since 2010, when Campbell became offensive coordinator. Iowa State hopes Campbell will bring a dose of energy to one of the toughest Power 5 jobs in the country.
College Football: Big 12 adds title game, Vegas odds and Jeffery Simmons
4. Bryan Harsin, Boise State head coach
The Broncos’ 9-4 finish and 5-3 mark in the Mountain West in 2015 were not what Boise State fans are accustomed to seeing. The bar is set plenty high, but there’s plenty of evidence that Harsin can more often than not cross it. Boise State is just two years removed from a 12-2 season, a Mountain West title and a win over Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl. True, four losses and losing to New Mexico and Air Force is seldom-visited territory for a Boise State coach, but there was plenty of silver lining last season. Harsin beat his mentor, Washington coach Chris Petersen, in the opener, and the Broncos crushed Northern Illinois 55-7 in the Poinsettia Bowl.
5. D.J. Durkin, Maryland head coach
Few coaches have a better pedigree than Durkin. He a native of Youngstown, Ohio, (a coaching hotbed that counts the Stoops family among others) and has spent most of his career under Urban Meyer (at Florida) and Jim Harbaugh (at Stanford and Michigan). In his last three years as a defensive coordinator with the Gators and Wolverines, his units have finished no lower than 14th in total defense. Durkin surely has picked up a ton of organizational know-how from Meyer and Harbaugh that he’ll need to apply at Maryland.
6. Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma offensive coordinator
Even before arriving at Oklahoma, Riley was on course for a breakout. Air Raid coordinators tend to be on the fast track to big-time coordinator and head coaching jobs — Riley backed up Kliff Kingsbury and B.J. Symons at Texas Tech and served under Mike Leach for six years. Riley hit his stride in his fourth season as East Carolina’s offensive coordinator, improving the Pirates from 56th in total offense to 25th and finally fifth. In his first season at Oklahoma, the Sooners improved from 25th to seventh and reached the College Football Playoff.
7. Dave Aranda, LSU defensive coordinator
Aranda’s creative defenses have made him one of the nation’s top coordinators over the last four years. Three of his last four teams at Wisconsin and Utah State have ranked in the top 10 in fewest yards allowed per play. A move to LSU puts him at the helm of enviable defensive talent. The sky’s the limit if the Tigers make a run at the SEC and national titles.
8. Sonny Cumbie, TCU co-offensive coordinator
Along with Doug Meacham, Cumbie has been credited with a major shift in TCU’s offensive philosophy to a no-huddle spread. The move turned the Horned Frogs into one of the top three teams in the Big 12 the last two seasons. Meacham is the playcaller, but Cumbie — a former Texas Tech quarterback — was courted by Texas in their OC search.
9. Mike Norvell, Memphis head coach
Two of Todd Graham’s former offensive coordinators are head coaches now: Gus Malzahn (who went to Auburn as OC) and Chad Morris (who went to Clemson). Norvell didn’t have as much notoriety as the other two, but he’s been with Graham every step of the way from Tulsa to Pitt to Arizona State.
10. Scottie Montgomery, East Carolina head coach
Montgomery has only coached two places — Duke on two separate stints and with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Having bosses like David Cutcliffe and Mike Tomlin isn’t a bad start. He’s a stickler for details and discipline, which is necessary to even the odds at a place like Duke.
College Football: Breaking Down Athlon’s 2016 Top 25
11. Barry Odom, Missouri head coach
A former Missouri player, Odom worked his way from administrative roles to defensive coordinator under Gary Pinkel. Even as he ran a standout defense at Memphis, he seemed like a natural fit to take over for his mentor. He probably didn’t think it would be this soon and under difficult on- and off-field circumstances.
12. Neal Brown, Troy head coach
Troy went only 4-8 in Brown’s first season, but the Trojans improved over the course of the season. Troy went 3-3 in the final six games and took Appalachian State to overtime on the road during that span. A former offensive coordinator at Troy, Texas Tech and Kentucky, Brown actually had more success on the defensive side of the ball.
13. Mike Sanford Jr., Notre Dame offensive coordinator
Sanford was already well traveled before he landed on the staff at Notre Dame. He coached at Western Kentucky under Willie Taggart for a year, at Stanford for three under David Shaw and at Boise State for a year under Harsin. At Notre Dame, Brian Kelly has his hands all over the offense, but the Sanford deserves some of the credit for the quick development of Deshone Kizer and C.J. Prosise last season. Kelly’s offensive coordinators have had little trouble getting head coaching jobs, but they have not been particularly successful. Sanford may break the mold.
14. Walt Bell, Maryland offensive coordinator
In Bell’s two seasons as Arkansas State’s offensive coordinator, the Red Wolves led the Sun Belt in total offense in conference games. He got his start under Larry Fedora at Oklahoma State, Southern Miss and North Carolina.
15. Tee Martin, USC offensive coordinator
The quarterback of 1998 national champion Tennessee has been moving up the coaching ranks from high schools to Kentucky to the offensive coordinator post. He’s been in demand as a recruiter, but this will be his first season as a playcaller.
College Football: Others Receiving Votes
Some of these questions are in — um — colorful language.
Here are the questions we anticipated about our ACC predictions for 2016.
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What gave Florida State the edge over Clemson?
We spent more time, thought and energy on this pick than any other this season. This is no exaggeration: This was Athlon’s toughest pick in a division or conference in several years. Not only are Florida State and Clemson incredibly close in our eyes, but the winner of the Atlantic has the edge in the ACC as a whole and has an excellent shot at the CFB Playoff. In the end, we still had both FSU and Clemson in our national top four. The arguments boiled down to this: One team has Deshaun Watson; the other one is loaded at every other position. We ended up picking Florida State due in part to the experience factor with nine returning starters on offense and six on defense. Deondre Francois should stabilize the quarterback position enough so the offense isn’t so reliant on Dalvin Cook. Clemson has recruited back-to-back top-10 classes, but Florida State has stacked three consecutive top-five national classes. We’re giving Clemson the benefit of the doubt that the Tigers’ D will be solid again, but 13 freshmen and sophomores on the two-deep defense is a concern. Clemson overall has the easier schedule, but Florida State gets the all-important head-to-head at Doak Campbell Stadium.
How many teams did you seriously consider for the Coastal Division title?
As usual, the ACC Coastal is one of the most difficult divisions to pick in the country. Three teams — North Carolina, Miami and Virginia Tech — received serious consideration for the division title. A look at our national rankings of those three teams, all between Nos. 22 and 29, shows how close this was. And even then, our staff considered Pittsburgh, ranked 38th nationally, to be a legitimate sleeper for the division. The X-factors in the division will be the new coaches, particularly Mark Richt at Miami and Justin Fuente at Virginia Tech. Richt should bring a steady hand to Miami that’s been lacking as predecessor Al Golden had been under pressure for two years, and Fuente brings offensive credibility back to the Hokies. Virginia Tech has an immediate advantage as the only Coastal team to avoid Clemson, Florida State and Louisville from the Atlantic.
In the end, what gave North Carolina the edge in the Coastal?
We could argue that the Tar Heels were the safest pick in the division. North Carolina went 8–0 in the ACC last season (helped by avoiding Clemson, Florida State and Louisville) and has an entrenched coaching staff. Quarterback Marquise Williams is gone, but we’re confident UNC will still put up points like Larry Fedora’s offenses always do. New QB Mitch Trubisky walks into a great situation with Elijah Hood at running back and an offensive line that’s second only to Clemson in the ACC. The defense still has its holes, but coordinator Gene Chizik already worked wonders by improving this unit from terrible to adequate last season.
The top three in the Atlantic Division seem clear. Is there a team among the bottom four of that division that could surprise?
Louisville is the clear No. 3 in the division, and, frankly, could be better than any team in the Coastal. NC State, Syracuse, Wake Forest and Boston College last season went 0–20 against Florida State, Clemson, Louisville and the entire Coastal Division. We don’t think that’s going to happen again. Dino Babers brings a shot of energy and instant offense to Syracuse. With 15 returning starters, Wake Forest is inching back to respectability under Dave Clawson. Boston College should be significantly improved on offense with Kentucky transfer Patrick Towles at quarterback and Jon Hilliman healthy at running back. Of those four teams, only NC State, without quarterback Jacoby Brissett, is in a position to regress.
For dozens of coaches and players in college basketball, the last few weeks have been nerve-wracking.
After the season, 117 underclassmen entered their names into the NBA Draft. A majority of these players needed more information on whether to hire and agent and test the pros or to return to school. In the end, 57 will return to college (though not necessarily the same one for which they played in 2015-16).
The coaches, too, have been left wondering what kind of roster they might have in 2016-17 and if they would need to continue to recruit or pursue transfers to fill a roster spot.
Now that all the decisions have been made, Athlon Sports taking a quick look ahead for 2016-17.
1. Duke (25-11, 11-7 ACC)
Top Returners: G Grayson Allen, G Luke Kennard, F Amile Jefferson, G Matt Jones, F/C Chase Jeter
Newcomers: F Harry Giles, F Jayson Tatum, G Frank Jackson, C Marques Bolden (all freshmen)
Buzz: Duke had little drama around the NBA Draft early entry deadline as Player of the Year contender Grayson Allen didn’t put his name in at all. A star-studded freshman class makes Duke the clear No. 1 heading into 2016-17. An additional year of eligibility for Amile Jefferson is an added bonus.
2. Villanova (35-5, 16-2 Big East)
Top Returners: G Josh Hart, G Jalen Brunson, F Kris Jenkins, G Phil Booth, F Mikal Bridges
Newcomers: C Omari Spellman (freshman)
Buzz: Josh Hart’s decision to return to school means Villanova has a legitimate shot for back-to-back national titles. Losing Ryan Arcidiacono’s leadership and experience hurts, but second-year point guard Jalen Brunson was a five-star talent as a recruit.
3. Kentucky (27-9, 13-5 SEC)
Top Returners: G Isaiah Briscoe, F Derek Willis, G Dominique Hawkins, F Isaac Humphries
Newcomers: G De’Aaron Fox, F Bam Adebayo, G Malik Monk, F Wenyen Gabriel (freshmen)
Buzz: Isaiah Briscoe returned to school, giving Kentucky at least one key piece returning from last year’s squad. Forward Marcus Lee elected to transfer rather than return to another crowded situation in the frontcourt. As usual, Kentucky brings in a loaded recruiting class with five top 25 prospects.
4. Kansas (33-5, 15-3 Big 12)
Top Returners: G Devonte Graham, F Landen Lucas, G Frank Mason, G Svi Mykhailiuk, F Carlton Bragg
Newcomers: G Josh Jackson, C Udoka Azubuike (freshmen)
Buzz: Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden are gone, but this is a Bill Self team. There’s more than enough to contend for another Big 12 title behind a veteran backcourt. The Jayhawks also added the No. 1 prospect in the class of 2016 in shooting guard Josh Jackson.
5. Oregon (31-7, 14-4 Pac-12)
Top Returners: G/F Dillon Brooks, G Tyler Dorsey, F Jordan Bell, G Casey Benson
Newcomers: F Kavel Bigby-Williams (junior college), G Dylan Ennis (transfer from Villanova)
Buzz: Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey both put their name in the draft, and both returned. The high-scoring Ducks will be the favorite to repeat as Pac-12 champions and should be able to set their sights even higher.
6. North Carolina (33-7, 14-4 ACC)
Top Returners: G Joel Berry, F Isaiah Hicks, F Justin Jackson, F Kennedy Meeks, G Theo Pinson
Newcomers: C Tony Bradley, G Seventh Woods (freshmen)
Buzz: Losing double-double machine Brice Johnson and senior Marcus Paige drops the ceiling a bit. The Heels will look to Justin Jackson to be the team’s next star.
7. Virginia (29-8, 13-5 ACC)
Top Returners: G Devon Hall, G London Perrantes, F Isaiah Wilkins
Newcomers: F Austin Nichols (transfer from Memphis), G Kyle Guy, G Ty Jerome (freshmen)
Buzz: Losing Malcolm Brogdon hurts, but Tony Bennett teams remain steady despite changing personnel. Having London Perrantes leading the way and adding Austin Nichols in the frontcourt will keep the Cavs in ACC contention.
8. Xavier (28-6, 14-4 Big East)
Top Returners: G Trevon Bluiett, G Edmond Sumner, G Myles Davis, F J.P Macura
Newcomers: F RaShid Gaston (transfer from Norfolk State)
Buzz: The return of Trevon Bluiett means Villanova will have a worthy foil atop the Big East standings. The Musketeers return their top three scorers from last season and add an efficient scorer in RaShid Gaston.
9. Arizona (25-9, 12-6 Pac-12)
Top Returners: G Allonzo Trier, G Kadeem Allen, C Dusan Ristic
Newcomers: G Terrance Ferguson, G Rawle Alkins, F Lauri Markkanan, G Kobi Simmons (freshman)
Buzz: The return of shooting guard Allonzo Trier was huge. Adding guard Terrance Ferguson in April gives the Wildcats a recruiting class loaded with four five-star prospects.
10. Indiana (27-8, 15-3 Big Ten)
Top Returners: C Thomas Bryant, G James Blackmon, F Collin Hartman, G Robert Johnson, F OG Anunoby
Newcomers: G Curtis Jones, F De’Ron Davis (freshmen), G Josh Newkirk (transfer from Pittsburgh)
Buzz: James Blackmon returned to school, Troy Williams did not. The big question will be how the Hoosiers replace veteran point guard Yogi Ferrell. Getting Thomas Bryant and OG Anunoby back means IU can contend for the Big Ten title.
11. Michigan State (29-6, 13-5 Big Ten)
Top Returners: G Eron Harris, G Lourawls Nairn, F Gavin Schilling
Newcomers: F Miles Bridges, G Josh Langford, G Cassius Winston, F Nick Ward (freshmen)
Buzz: Losing a top three of Denzel Valentine, Bryn Forbes and Matt Costello will hurt. Eron Harris and Tum Tum Nairn are poised to lead the backcourt, and Tom Izzo brings in a top-five recruiting class.
12. Wisconsin (22-13, 12-6 Big Ten)
Top Returners: F Nigel Hayes, F Vitto Brown, F Ethan Happ, G Bronson Koenig, G Zak Showalter
Buzz: The return of Nigel Hayes means Wisconsin brings back almost all of the team that went 13-4 after Jan. 12.
13. Purdue (26-9, 12-6 Big Ten)
Top Returners: F Caleb Swanigan, C Isaac Haas, F Vince Edwards, G P.J. Thompson
Newcomers: G Carsen Edwards (freshman), G Spike Albrecht (transfer from Michigan)
Buzz: Caleb Swanigan elected to return to school, giving Purdue a pair of elite big men in Swanigan and Isaac Haas. Adding Spike Albrecht from Michigan gives some aid to a lackluster backcourt.
14. Louisville (23-8, 12-6 ACC)
Top Returners: G Donovan Mitchell, G Quentin Snider, F Mangok Mathiang, F Raymond Spalding, F Deng Adel
Newcomers: G Tony Hicks (transfer from Penn), G/F V.J. King (freshman)
Buzz: Forward Chinanu Onuaku left for the draft, meaning the Cardinals must replace their top three scorers (Damion Lee and Trey Lewis were Nos. 1-2). Donovan Mitchell and Quentin Snider will lead a backcourt-oriented team.
15. SMU (25-5, 13-5 American)
Top Returners: G Sterling Brown, G Shake Milton, G Ben Moore
Newcomers: F Semi Ojeleye (transfer from Duke)
Buzz: SMU was a solid top-25 team all year despite the postseason ban. The Mustangs must replace point guard Nic Moore, but return three players who averaged double figures.
16. Iowa State (23-12, 10-8 Big 12)
Top Returners: G Deonte Burton, G Monte Morris, G Matt Thomas
Buzz: With Fred Hoiberg gone one year and Georges Niang the next, Iowa State can’t help but fall back to the pack. Morris is still an elite distributor running the show.
17. Creighton (20-15, 9-9 Big East)
Top Returners: G Maurice Watson, F Cole Huff, G Isaiah Zierden, F Zach Hanson, G Khyri Thomas, F Toby Hegner
Newcomers: G Marcus Foster (transfer from Kansas State)
Buzz: Maurice Watson quietly averaged 14.1 points, 3.4 rebounds and 6.5 assists last season. The Bluejays should be a bounce-back team after returning a veteran-laden squad and adding point guard Marcus Foster from K-State.
18. Maryland (27-9, 12-6 Big Ten)
Top Returners: G Melo Trimble, F Damonte Dodd, G/F Jared Nickens
Newcomers: G Anthony Cowan, G Kevin Huerter, F Justin Jackson
Buzz: Maryland never really clicked as a national championship contender last season, but with point guard Melo Trimble returning to school, the Terrapins are a solid top-25 squad. Losing seniors Rasheed Sulaimon and Jake Layman, junior Robert Carter and one-and done big man Diamond Stone is notable, but the Terps have a top-10 recruiting class coming in.
19. UCLA (15-17, 6-12 Pac-12)
Top Returners: G Bryce Alford, G Isaac Hamilton, G Aaron Holiday, C Thomas Welsh
Newcomers: G Lonzo Ball, F T.J. Leaf (freshmen)
Buzz: Steve Alford is under pressure after a losing season in his third year with the Bruins. Four double-digit scorers are back from last year’s team, but more important: Point guard Lonzo Ball and forward T.J. Leaf are top-20 signees.
20. Saint Mary’s (29-6, 15-3 West Coast)
Top Returners: C Evan Fitzner, F Calvin Hermanson, C Jock Landale, G Emmett Naar, F Dane Pineau, G Joe Rahon
Buzz: Every key player returns to a team that beat Gonzaga twice during the regular season and claimed the West Coast Conference title.
21. Gonzaga (28-8, 15-3 West Coast)
Top Returners: G Josh Perkins
Newcomers: C Zach Collins (freshman), F Johnathan Williams (transfer from Missouri), G Nigel Williams-Goss (transfer from Washington)
Buzz: Josh Perkins is the only returning player who averaged more than 6.6 points per game last season. Nigel Williams-Goss was a highly recruiting point guard before he landed at Washington, and Williams averaged 11.9 points and 7.1 rebounds during his last season at Mizzou.
22. Oklahoma (29-8, 12-6 Big 12)
Top Returners: G Dante Buford, C Khadeem Lattin, G Jordan Woodard
Newcomers: F Kristian Doolittle, G Kameron McGusty, G Austin Grandstaff (transfer from Ohio State)
Buzz: The Sooners all too often went as Buddy Hield did. They’ll have to learn to win without him in 2016-17.
23. Dayton (25-8, 14-4 Atlantic 10)
Top Returners: G Charles Cooke, F Dyshawn Pierre, G Scoochie Smith, F Kendall Pollard, G Kyle Davis
Newcomers: F Josh Cunningham (transfer from Bradley)
Buzz: The Flyers return their top five scorers and add Cunningham (7.9 points, 7.5 points in the Missouri Valley). Dayton had a solid top-25 season last year before running into Final Four-bound Syracuse in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
24. Virginia Tech (20-15, 10-8 ACC)
Top Returners: F Zach LeDay, G Seth Allen, G Justin Bibbs, G Chris Clarke, G Justin Robinson, F Kerry Blackshear Jr.
Buzz: The rebuild is nearly complete for Buzz Williams in Blacksburg. The Hokies upset Virginia in January closed the ACC regular season with five consecutive wins, including Pitt and Miami. The Hokies return seven of their top eight players.
25. UConn (25-11, 11-7 American)
Top Returners: G Rodney Purvis, C Amida Brimah, G Jalen Adams
Newcomers: G/F Terry Larrier (transfer from VCU), G Alterique Gilbert, F Juwan Durham (freshmen)
Buzz: The Huskies still have a solid inside-outside duo with Rodney Purvis and Amida Brimah. Kevin Ollie adds two top-50 prospects for a run at the AAC title and another Tourney bid.
Not all games between major college football teams and their brothers in the lower division are created equal.
There’s plenty of evidence for this beyond just the handful of FCS-over-FBS upsets each year. Five-time FCS champion North Dakota State has a five-game winning streak against FBS competition that predates the Bison’s national title streak. One of the quarterbacks of those teams, Carson Wentz, went second in the NFL draft. FCS quarterbacks — like Vernon Adams and Dakota Prukop — have been coveted graduate transfers.
Then there is the other side of the coin: Power programs using FCS teams for easy wins, glorified scrimmages and schedule filler.
As usual, the games that make our most shameful game list are between Power 5 programs and clearly overmatched FCS opponents. Extra “shameful points” were awarded to FBS teams asking an FCS opponent to travel across state lines to do the deed.
It is also worth mentioning that we factored no extenuating circumstances in this ranking: We don’t care if this game falls in a tough part of the schedule or if the FBS school got into a bind making its schedule. These games are here and they’ll be ugly.
10. UC Davis at Oregon, Sept. 3
Scheduling out West can be tough, with only the Mountain West around for non-conference games. The Ducks are scraping the bottom of the barrel for a UC Davis team that is 4-18 the last two seasons. This will be a reunion of sorts — UC Davis coach Ron Gould is a former Oregon player and GA — but it won’t be an enjoyable one.
9. Missouri State at Kansas State, Sept. 24
Early in Bill Snyder’s tenure, Kansas State was renowned for its light non-conference schedules. Yet in recent years, Kansas State has faced Auburn, Miami (twice) and UCLA in September. The Wildcats open 2016 at Stanford. A game against Missouri State proves K-State can still find room for a patsy. Missouri State won only one game last season — against Division II Chadron State — and lost by a combined score of 140-14 to Memphis and Arkansas State.
8. Furman at Michigan State, Sept. 2
Furman went 4-7 last season but actually ranked higher in the Sagarin Ratings (No. 182) than Eastern Michigan (No. 184) last season. The shameful part of this game is Michigan State — winners of two of the last three Big Ten titles — importing an FCS team from South Carolina for a Friday night game to open the season.
T-7. Idaho State at Colorado, Sept. 10
T-7. Idaho State at Oregon State, Sept. 17
Idaho State is a regular for shameful games. And, yes, Oregon State and Colorado need all the wins they can get. Few wins are more automatic than Idaho State. The Bengals lost 52-0 to Boise State last season and 80-8 to UNLV a week later. Aside from an 8-4 season in 2014, Idaho State is 16-85 since 2006.
6. Austin Peay at Kentucky, Nov. 19
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops might need a game like this to get to bowl game and perhaps save his job. Of course, any sign of struggle against Austin Peay would be a red flag for Stoops. Austin Peay went 1-34 under former coach Kirby Cannon and replaced him with 30-year-old Will Healy.
5. Delaware State at Missouri, Sept. 24
Missouri brings in the second-best FCS team in Delaware for an easy September win. The Hornets have gone 3-20 the last two seasons. At least second-year coach Kenny Carter has plenty of major college experience as a former assistant at Louisville, Florida, Vanderbilt, Penn State, Pittsburgh and LSU.
4. Chattanooga at Alabama, Nov. 19
Chattanooga isn’t a bad team. Actually, the Mocs are pretty good. They’ve won three Southern Conference titles in a row and ranked No. 100 in the Sagarin Ratings last season — ahead of teams bowl teams like Akron, Colorado State, Nevada and Georgia State. The Mocs are a good enough team to upset a handful of FBS teams, and the SEC vs. FCS challenge in late November is a tradition at this point. But this is Alabama, and there’s nothing to gain from a game against an opponent the Tide beat by a combined score of 94-0 in 2009 and 2013.
3. Northwestern State at Baylor, Sept. 3
Northwestern State actually beat an FBS team in 2014, defeating Louisiana Tech 30-27 — a game that happened to be just two weeks after a 70-6 loss to Baylor. The result won’t be much different this year. Baylor can’t even grab a good FCS team for its annual routs against the lower division. Northwestern State has had just one winning season since 2004.
2. Nicholls State at Georgia, Sept. 10
Kirby Smart’s first six weeks as a head coach will be brutal: North Carolina, at Missouri, at Ole Miss, Tennessee and at South Carolina. The Nicholls State game is the breather his team will need, but it doesn’t make the game any less shameful. Nicholls State, a Southland Conference from Thibodaux, La., has lost 24 of its last 27 games. Five of its last six games against FBS competition have come by scores of 47-0 (ULM), 49-0 (Colorado), 77-3 (North Texas), 73-7 (Arkansas) and 70-7 (UL Lafayette).
1. Presbyterian at Florida, Nov. 19
If Steve Spurrier were to take a shot at Florida, it might go something like this: “You can’t spell BYE without Presbyterian.” Indeed, this game is a glorified bye week for the Gators in between the SEC finale against South Carolina and a road trip to Florida State. Presbyterian went 2-9 in 2015, finished 218th in the Sagarin Ratings, and scored more than 20 points only twice (23 against Campbell, 21 against Western Carolina) last season. Only two years ago, a decent Presbyterian team that finished 6-5 played three FBS teams, losing by a combined score of 145-3 to Northern Illinois, NC State and Ole Miss. Despite sharing a state with FAU, FIU, UCF and USF — not to mention a decent FCS program in Bethune-Cookman and legacy program in Florida A&M — Florida is importing a bad FCS team from South Carolina for an easy "W" in November.
If you’re one of the lucky college football fans out there who has already picked up this year’s Athlon Sports SEC preview (and if you haven’t, you should rectify that now), you may have noticed a notable anniversary.
This year’s SEC preview is the 50th edition Athlon has published. Back in 1967, the first issue of what became Athlon focused primarily on the SEC and Southeastern football. Over the years, we’d added editions featuring other conferences and sports, but in 1967, our bread-and-butter has been college football in the Southeast.
To mark our 50th edition, we’re looking back at Athlon’s early days. Over the next weeks and months, we’ll show off some of our archives — the good, the bad and the unintentionally funny.
For those of us who weren’t around back then, this is quite the illuminating exercise, if only because so little seems to have changed in 50 years.
In 1967, the SEC was then in its classic 10-team lineup — no South Carolina or Arkansas, never mind Texas A&M or Missouri. A year earlier, Florida quarterback Steve Spurrier won the Heisman Trophy, the SEC’s first Heisman winner since LSU’s Billy Cannon in 1959 and last until Auburn’s Pat Sullivan in 1971.
The league also was in a relative national title drought. Alabama won a split national title with Michigan State in 1965. An SEC team wouldn’t win another championship until Alabama split the title with Notre Dame in 1973.
The league’s coaching lineup was dotted with legends: Bear Bryant was entrenched at Alabama, Vince Dooley was just getting started at Georgia, and John Vaught was entering his twilight years at Ole Miss.
This is a bygone era, but some things never change. Here are few clips from that first issue of Athlon that prove as much.
1. The SEC was already trolling the Big Ten
Long before satellite camps were the SEC’s way to needle a Big Ten team, Athlon put it right on the cover.
“The Really Big Ten” sure seems like an attempt to throw shade on the conference up north.
2. We were tired of Alabama being great
From this headline, it seems like there was a bit of Alabama fatigue even then. Even fans of the SEC might be a bit tired of Alabama being so darn good.
By 1967, Bryant had already led Alabama to national titles in 1961, ‘64 and ’65. He’d add three more titles in ’73, ’78 and ’79. The Tide had won at least a share of three straight SEC titles heading into the 1967 season and were Athlon’s preseason favorite. And guess what? The defense in Tuscaloosa was dominant.
3. We picked Alabama to win the league
Athlon’s pick of Alabama to win the SEC in 1967 probably wasn’t a great omen. Tennessee ended up winning the SEC that year.
So, yes, we were a little off even in our first issue.
4. Florida has a quarterback problem
“Florida seeks QB” could have been a headline in every issue of Athlon since 2009, only the main heading would have been “Come Back Tim Tebow.”
5. A prominent player for a prominent school had off-field questions during the offseason
Every season seems to have a key player or two who is an offseason liability. Some players are knuckleheads. Some are dealing with more critical issues.
In the past, the Johnny Manziel circus was the offseason storyline, and one that would become more serious in his pro career. This year, Alabama is dealing with legal issues surrounding Alabama left tackle Cam Robinson.
Back in 1967, these kinds of issues tended to be less public, but we nonetheless knew something was going on.
Coming off of his first full season as a starter, then-Alabama quarterback Ken Stabler was suspended during the offseason. He was already a star in his own right as the MVP of the Sugar Bowl and his record-breaking accuracy, which by the way was a whopping 64.9 percent on 114 passes in 1966.
The Snake, of course, played in 1967, passing for 1,214 yards and nine touchdowns on the way to an 8-2-1 season and trip to the Cotton Bowl.
6. An eight-team playoff was already on people’s minds
We’re entering the third year of the College Football Playoff, but coaches were talking about it even in 1967. And administrative types were worried about how payouts might impact the respective conferences (sound familiar, Big 12 fans?).
The “proposed NCAA playoff” mentioned here was courtesy of then-Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty. The Spartans coach noted the popularity of the early Super Bowls and thought the college game was falling behind with its traditional bowl games. It was no coincidence that in 1966 Alabama (11-0), Michigan State (9-0-1) and Notre Dame (9-0-1) all finished undefeated but only the Irish claimed a national title.
Daugherty’s vision was for an eight-team tournament that would start in November on the home field of teams ranked higher in the polls and end in the middle of December. The plan, though supported by many prominent coaches, was disregarded thanks to pressure from the bowls and television executives and resistance from administrators.
7. The SEC was “too tough”
Today, fans from the SEC like to think players from the Big Ten, Pac-12, ACC and Big 12 could never withstand a full season in the SEC.
Back in 1967, even SEC freshmen weren’t tough enough for the SEC.
8. LSU also is seeking a quarterback
“LSU needs a quarterback most of all.” There’s another phrase that’s all too familiar in 2016.
Auburn, too, wasn’t satisfied with its starter early in the 1966 season, a storyline that’s familiar to the Tigers fans who watched Jeremy Johnson last season. That ill-fated ‘60s QB, Larry Blakeney, ended up getting moved to the secondary and then coached at Troy for more than 20 eyars.
9. SEC teams were looking to technology for an edge
Remember when coaches texting recruits was considered a major breakthrough? That was thanks to then-Florida coach Urban Meyer in the mid-2000s.
Now, we have Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin tweeting bitmojis and Texas A&M recruits calling out assistants on social media.
Those computers in 1967? Tennessee coach Doug Dickey used them to produce scouting reports. “Within 10 or 15 minutes, the computer will show an opponent is likely to do on third and 3 on his own 35,” this article read.
10. Vanderbilt was still waiting for its big moment
Unfortunately for the Commodores, James Franklin wouldn’t be born for another five years.
Athlon Sports last week released its college football top 25 for the 2016 season. Now, it’s time to look at the teams that just missed the cut.
These are teams that we could see on the fringes of the top 25 this season or perhaps even contending for a division in a Power 5 conference. On this week’s podcast, co-hosts Braden Gall and David Fox go conference-by-conference looking at teams ranked 26-50.
This includes teams like Arkansas, Miami, Texas A&M, Virginia Tech, Washington State, Nebraska, Utah, Wisconsin, Texas, Auburn, Penn State and many, many more.
What are these teams’ strengths and weaknesses and what would need to happen for these teams to crack the top 25?
Reminder: All of Athlon’s rankings and team previews are available in this year’s preseason magazines, which can be purchase in the online store hosted by Amazon or on newsstands everywhere.
Send any ideas, questions or comments to @BradenGall @AthlonMitch or @DavidFox615 or email [email protected]. The podcast can be found on athlonsports.com/podcast, iTunes, Stitcher and our podcast RSS feed.
The moment we’ve been waiting for all year is here: The arrival of the Athlon Sports’ 2016 college football preview magazines. We’ve been working since the end of last season to get you ready for 2016, and now you can purchase all six editions today.
Every edition — the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC and National magazines — is available now through the Athlon Sports store on Amazon.
Can’t wait for the issue to get the magazine on newsstands on May 24? You can buy it online now.
Are you an SEC fan living in Big Ten country? A Big Ten fan living out West? Or do you just want to make sure you get your favorite team on the cover? All editions and covers featuring nearly every Power 5 team are available in the store.
Also, Athlon is the only magazine in 2016 with editions for the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12.
Below are some of the features you will find in this season’s Athlon Sports 2016 college football previews.
In the SEC edition, you will find:
• Six pages previewing each SEC team featuring exclusive scouting reports from opposing coaches and advanced stats.
• A look at the Alabama football dynasty and how it compares historically.
• An examination of the SEC-wide quarterback issues.
• A look at Gus Malzahn, Kevin Sumlin and Les Miles as they’ve made their journey from hero to hot seat.
In the Big Ten edition, you will find:
• Four pages previewing each Big Ten team, plus Notre Dame, featuring exclusive scouting reports from opposing coaches and advanced stats.
• A play-by-play look at Michigan State’s epic drive to win the Big Ten championship.
• A new face on the Michigan defense.
• A look at new blood on the coaching staff at Penn State.
In the ACC edition, you will find:
• Four pages on each ACC team, plus four pages on Notre Dame, featuring exclusive scouting reports from opposing coaches and advanced stats.
• A Q&A with Clemson star Deshaun Watson.
• A profile of rising Florida State star Josh Sweat.
• A breakdown of new coaches at Virginia Tech, Miami, Virginia and Syracuse.
In the Big 12 edition, you will find:
• Six pages previewing each Big 12 team, featuring exclusive scouting reports from opposing coaches and advanced stats.
• An examination of the quarterback drought.
• Why TCU and Baylor are here to stay.
In the Pac-12 edition, you will find:
• Four pages previewing each Pac-12 team, plus Notre Dame and BYU, featuring exclusive scouting reports from opposing coaches and advanced stats.
• 10 storylines that will shape the Pac-12 in 2016.
In the national edition, you will find:
• Previews and rankings of all 128 FBS teams and all 10 conferences.
• An analytical breakdown of the teams that are certain to surprise in 2016.
• One-on-one Q&As with Heisman contenders Deshaun Watson of Clemson and Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma.
If you can play, the NFL will find you, or so the adage goes. Rarely are players from Alabama and Grand Valley State on equal footing, but when the draft process comes along, front offices will dissect each player for signs that he can help win football games on the professional level.
Every season brings dozens of players who are unknown to even the most ardent football fans.
Here’s a look at four of the most interesting prospects from the FBS small conferences and FCS ranks. Each is listed among Athlon Sports' top 100 prospects for the 2016 NFL Draft.
Carson Wentz, QB, North Dakota State
Brock Jensen won three FCS national championships as the starter at North Dakota State from 2011-13 — but he might not have been the best quarterback on the roster according to one member of the Bison’s staff.
Chris Klieman, NDSU’s secondary coach in 2011, couldn’t help but be impressed with a young true freshman named Carson Wentz.
“He carved us up with a bunch of young scout team receivers,” says Klieman, who was promoted to the program’s head coach two years ago. “He was the best quarterback we faced all year.”
Jensen remained NDSU’s starting quarterback for two more national championships while Wentz remained the backup.
“We saw great promise in Carson,” says Craig Bohl, who won three national titles at NDSU before leaving for Wyoming in 2014. “When you’re in a winning phase, it’s not like you’re going to change horses in the middle of the race. Carson was always watching and observing and playing the game vicariously.”
And when it was time to play the game for real, Wentz guided the Bison to a 20–3 record and two FCS national championships in his two seasons as the starter. Wentz, however, was still a relative unknown in the college football world until he showed up at the Senior Bowl in early January.
He had the size (6-5, 232), and his record as a winner was impeccable. There were questions, though: How would he fare against FBS defenders (and with FBS receivers)? And how would he handle this first big moment in the draft process? After all, this was a kid who graduated from Bismarck (N.D.) Century High, whose father played linebacker at Northern State in Aberdeen, S.D., and whose brother was a four-year starting pitcher at NDSU.
“I think there’s, obviously, a lot of doubts coming from the FCS level,” Wentz said at a Senior Bowl press conference. “I want to address that right away. Prove I can play at a high level, play at a fast level, compete with these guys and just really excel. I feel I have the mental and physical abilities to play at this level, and I’m ready and really excited to prove that.”
Wentz more than answered questions in Mobile. He became the story of the week, improving his status from one of the top five QB prospects to a potential top-10 pick.
The Senior Bowl wasn’t the first time in the month of January he had to ease doubts.
In 2015, Wentz led North Dakota State to a 4–2 start, the first loss by three in the opener to Montana. In the second, he suffered a wrist injury early in the game. After the 24–21 loss to South Dakota, Wentz learned that he had suffered a broken wrist that would keep him out 6-8 weeks.
Backup Easton Stick led North Dakota State on an eight-game winning streak through the FCS semifinal against Richmond. The layoff between the Dec. 18 semifinal and the Jan. 9 championship game against Jacksonville State opened a window for Wentz. After the Christmas break, Wentz returned to practice, and by the Monday before the title game he was medically cleared.
Wentz completed 16-of-29 passes for 197 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions while rushing for 79 yards and two scores to help North Dakota State win its fifth consecutive national title.
“People asked if I was worried about him being rusty or throwing off the team chemistry so to speak. Not one bit,” Klieman says. “It’s Carson Wentz, and he’s the best player on the field every time he’s on the field.”
Noah Spence, DE, Eastern Kentucky
Even though Dean Hood had known Ohio State coach Urban Meyer since their days growing up in Ashtabula, Ohio, he had never known Meyer to call in many favors.
That is, Meyer never called on behalf of a player until Noah Spence, a former top-10 recruit, had seen a promising career at Ohio State end due to off-the-field issues.
“He’s never texted me or called me about a player ever, anywhere he’s been,” says Hood, then the coach at Eastern Kentucky. “He texted me on Noah, so I knew it was a special case right away.”
Other than Carson Wentz, Spence may be the most intriguing FCS prospect, and that’s mainly because of where he started.
Spence was the top signee in Meyer’s first recruiting class at Ohio State, signing the same year as quarterback Cardale Jones, defensive tackle Adolphus Washington and offensive linemen Taylor Decker and Pat Elflein. Spence was a star player as a sophomore with 7.5 sacks in 2013 (tied for the team lead with Joey Bosa) and 14 tackles for a loss (second on the team to eventual Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier).
But his abuse of the drug Ecstasy meant that his days as a Buckeye were numbered.
He tested positive for Ecstasy after the 2013 Big Ten title game. He told coaches and family that he suspected someone slipped it into his drink. By the time he tested positive a second time in September 2014, he couldn’t hide anymore. Per league policy, he was permanently banned from the Big Ten.
“I didn’t know where I was going,” Spence says. “I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
Meyer connected Spence with Hood, and together they started to lay out a recovery plan. Spence would meet with an off-campus counselor. He would be put in the pool any time EKU drug tested. The staff would also monitor his class attendance, something usually reserved for underclassmen.
Spence bought a calendar and wrote different goals — numbers of sacks, tackles for a loss, All-America nods and an invitation to the Senior Bowl among them.
He had one slip-up at Eastern Kentucky, a charge of alcohol intoxication and second-degree disorderly conduct. The record was later expunged.
On the field in 2015, Spence picked up where he had left off. He was fifth in the FCS in sacks (11.5 in 11 games) and fourth in tackles for a loss (22.5). He was an FCS All-American, earned an invitation to the Senior Bowl and graduated.
Spence hasn’t lost the explosiveness that made him a top recruit, but there’s a question of where he fits in a pro system. At 6-foot-2 and 254 pounds, he could be a designated pass rusher or play weak-side linebacker for some teams.
Spence also knows he will continue to face non-stop questions about his troubled past and the circumstances that led him to Eastern Kentucky. He must convince NFL teams that he’ll be able to continue his progress while making the move from Richmond, Ky., to an NFL city with more distractions.
Spence says his support system — family, friends and coaches — is firmly in place, and the fast life has no allure for him anymore.
“I’m in a better place mentally right now,” Spence says. “I don’t need to go out to have a good time. Certain things don’t excite me like they would before. I’d rather go to the movies than go to a party. I’d rather go out
Miles Killebrew, S, Southern Utah
If Killebrew didn’t look the part of an NFL prospect when he graduated from Henderson (Nev.) Foothill, it was by design.
Killebrew’s father, David, kept his son away from weights even though Miles was an all-state running back and safety. David Killebrew was an elite athlete in his own right, making it to the Olympic trials for velodrome cycling. At his peak, he squatted 750 pounds, but he steered his son to more cardio work and warned him against pushing himself to the max in the weight room.
Like any teenager in that situation, Miles doubted this philosophy. But as Killebrew went through his college career at Southern Utah, he never had any ligament or joint issues, and for that, he credits his father’s hardline stance.
“He knew what he was doing, man,” Killebrew says. “He just wanted my body to develop. He knows I’m a late bloomer just like he was. He didn’t want to stress out my joints and ligaments.”
Southern Utah coach Ed Lamb, now an assistant at BYU, didn’t know if Killebrew could play running back at the collegiate level, but thought he had the length, athleticism and speed to contribute somewhere once he filled out.
The 6-foot-1, 219-pound Killebrew finished his senior season as an All-Big Sky safety and has been compared as a prospect to Arizona Cardinals 2014 first-round pick Deone Bucannon out of Washington State. With his big-hitting ability, Killebrew could fit as a big nickel back or as a safety playing closer to the line of scrimmage.
Deiondre’ Hall, CB, Northern Iowa
When Hall was in his final two seasons at Blue Springs High School in Kansas City, he didn’t play enough football to get looks from major conference schools.
Up to that point, he focused more on basketball and track than football and didn’t have the grades for Power 5 programs.
By the end of his time at Northern Iowa, he had all the football he could handle.
When Hall was a sophomore, Northern Iowa played him at cornerback and as a small outside linebacker. When he was a senior, the Panthers needed him to play corner, return punts and line up at receiver.
“Sometimes I didn’t come off the field,” Hall says. “The transition from defense to special teams to offense to special teams to defense — you’re taking twice as many snaps as other guys on the team. It came down to taking more snaps than everyone else. I was OK with that. That’s what you want. I look at it as a blessing to do all that.”
In the NFL, he’ll likely stay at corner, where he could excel as a playmaker and disruptor. He had six interceptions as a senior despite playing most of the year with a broken hand. Thanks to his long arms (34 3/4 inches) and wingspan (82 1/4) — the latter a figure closer to that of a defensive end — he’ll be one of the more intriguing physical prospects in the 2015 draft.
This is just one of the features found in Athlon Sports' 2016 NFL Draft Preview Magazine. The most complete preview of this year’s draft, Athlon has once again enlisted the expertise of Dan Shonka from Ourlads Scouting Services, to provide our scouting reports and rankings. With his guidance, our perview magazine dives deep into the 2016 draft class with in-depth scouting reports on 218 of the top prospects and position-by-position rankings of 554 draft-eligible players. We also take a detailed look at every NFL team with depth charts and needs for the upcoming season. Our draft magazine also includes a profile of sure first-rounder Joey Bosa, a mock draft, a draft board, a peek ahead at the 2017 draft and much more. Click here to order your copy today!
(Noah Spence photo courtesy of Eastern Kentucky Sports Communications, Carson Wentz photo courtesy of North Dakota State Sports Communications; Miles Killebrew photo courtesy of Southern Utah Sports Communications)
Even as Villanova is still basking in the glow of its first national championship since 1985 and fans are catching their breath after a wild NCAA Tournament, it’s still a good time to start looking ahead.
This upcoming college basketball season is a little bit different for those of us in prediction land, as we have even less of a picture than we’ve had in recent years.
The NCAA returned to its old stance regarding the NBA Draft, allowing underclassmen to start the evaluation process and return to school, as long as they do not hire an agent.
Many freshmen, sophomores and juniors have already ended their eligibility by hiring agents, but many others are leaving us playing the waiting game as they work through the possibilities.
That said, the most important news for the top 25 came from a player staying in school. Grayson Allen didn’t even test his prospects in the NBA Draft, meaning a National Player of the Year favorite will return to school. He’ll join a star-studded recruiting class that makes Duke the easy call as preseason No. 1 at this point.
Here’s a snapshot of the landscape for 2016-17 — at least until the deadline for underclassmen to return to school on May 25.
1. Duke (25-11, 11-7 ACC)
Departures: F Brandon Ingram, F Marshall Plumlee, G Derryck Thornton
Wild Card: F Amile Jefferson
New Arrivals: F Harry Giles, G Frank Jackson, F Jayson Tatum
Buzz: The return of National Player of the Year contender Allen solidifies Duke as the preseason No. 1. The arrival of the No. 2 recruiting class gives Duke six five-star prospects on its roster, not including Allen.
2. Kentucky (27-9, 13-5 SEC)
Departures: G Jamal Murray, F Skal Labissiere, F Alex Poythress, G Tyler Ulis
New Arrivals: F/C Bam Adebayo, G De’Aaron Fox, F Wenyan Gabriel, G Malik Monk
Buzz: Expect more the same at Kentucky. Ulis, Murray and Labissiere are headed to the draft. They’ll be replaced by the top recruiting class in the country. Fox and Monk are top-five talents in an elite 2016 class.
3. Villanova (35-5, 16-2 Big East)
Key Returners: G Phil Booth, F Mikal Bridges, G Jalen Brunson, F Kris Jenkins
Departures: G Ryan Arcidiacono, C Daniel Ochefu
Wild Card: G Josh Hart
New Arrivals: C Omari Spellman
Buzz: The Wildcats lose the inside-out duo of Arcidiacono and Ochefu. Brunson, a five-star guard in 2015, will see more time at the point, and Bridges flashed his potential in the run to the title. If Hart returns, Jay Wright's team will be in the mix again.
4. Kansas (33-5, 15-3 Big 12)
Departures: F Perry Ellis, G/F Brannen Greene, G Wayne Selden, F Jamari Traylor
Wild Cards: F Carlton Bragg, F Cheick Diallo
New Arrivals: C Ukoka Azubuike, F Josh Jackson, F Mitch Lightfoot
Buzz: Losing veterans like Ellis, Selden and Traylor is a concern, but Kansas is able to reload as well as any program in the country. The backcourt will lead the way, but KU will need its young frontcourt to contribute immediately. Adding five-star freshman Josh Jackson a week after the title game was a major get.
5. Oregon (31-7, 14-4 Pac-12)
Departures: F Dwayne Benjamin, F Chris Boucher, F Elgin Cook
Wild Cards: G/F Dillon Brooks, G Tyler Dorsey
New Arrivals: F Kavel Bigby-Williams
Buzz: Brooks will be a Pac-12 Player of the Year candidate after averaging 16.7 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists last season. Dorsey was an unsung hero as a freshman. If both pull out of the draft as expected, Oregon is the Pac-12 favorite and a Final Four contender.
6. Virginia (29-8, 13-5 ACC)
Departures: G Malcolm Brogdon, F Anthony Gill, C Mike Tobey
New Arrivals: G Kyle Guy, G Ty Jerome, F Austin Nichols
Buzz: Losing Brogdon is a major blow on both ends of the court. Gill’s departure shouldn’t be overlooked, either. Virginia under Tony Bennett has replaced major players before, so the system should be trusted. This is Perrantes’ team now, but Nichols, a former Memphis Tiger, could be the most important transfer in the country.
7. North Carolina (33-7, 14-4 ACC)
Departures: F Brice Johnson, G Marcus Paige
New Arrivals: C Tony Bradley, G Seventh Woods
The national runners-up have enough veterans returning to contend, but the Tar Heels will need to find a new guy who can take over a game late with Johnson and Paige gone. Jackson is the next man up.
8. Xavier (28-6, 14-4 Big East)
Departures: G Remy Abell, F James Farr
Wild Cards: G Trevon Bluiett, F Jalen Reynolds
New Arrivals: F RaShid Gaston
Buzz: Bluiett’s decision on whether or not to enter the draft will determine if Xavier is a Big East title contender again or merely a solid NCAA Tournament team.
9. Indiana (27-8, 15-3 Big Ten)
Departures: F Max Bielfeldt, G Yogi Ferrell, G Nick Zeisloft
Wild Cards: F OG Anunoby, F Troy Williams
New Arrivals: G Curtis Jones, F De’Ron Davis, G Josh Newkirk
Bryant’s decision to stay for his sophomore year is huge. If Anunoby and Williams make the same call, Indiana could be the Big Ten favorite. Newkirk, a Pittsburgh transfer, takes over Ferrell’s point guard spot.
10. Michigan State (29-6, 13-5 Big Ten)
Departures: F Matt Costello, G Bryn Forbes, F Denzel Valentine
Wild Cards: F Deyonta Davis
New Arrivals: F Miles Bridges, G Josh Langford, G Cassius Winston, F Nick Ward
Buzz: Few teams lose more than Michigan State’s Valentine, Costello and Forbes. The Spartans’ backcourt of Nairn and Harris should emerge next season, and Tom Izzo brings in four top-50 freshmen.
11. Arizona (25-9, 12-6 Pac-12)
Departures: F Ryan Anderson, C Kaleb Tarczewski, F Mark Tollefsen, G Gabe York
Wild Card: G/F Terrance Ferguson
New Arrivals: G Rawle Alkins, F Lauri Marrkanen, G Kobi Simmons
Buzz: Trier’s return is key as Arizona replaces veterans Anderson, York and Tarczewski. Three top-50 recruits join a team that should contend in the Pac-12 again.
12. Louisville (23-8, 12-6 ACC)
Departures: F Damion Lee, G Trey Lewis
Wild Card: F/C Chinanu Onuaku
New Arrivals: G Tony Hicks, G/F V.J. King
The draft decision of Onuaku will loom large. If he returns, he could average a double-double. Former Penn guard Hicks will fill the void left by Lewis alongside Snider and Mitchell.
13. Wisconsin (22-13, 12-6 Big Ten)
Key Returners: F Vitto Brown, F Ethan Happ, F Nigel Hayes, G Bronson Koenig, G Zak Showalter
Buzz: The Badgers went 13-4 after Jan. 12, upsetting Xavier in the second round. Everyone returns from a team that will have all of 2016-17 under head coach Greg Gard.
14. Texas (20-13, 11-7 Big 12)
Departures: G Javan Felix, C Prince Ibeh, F Connor Lammert, C Calvin Ridley
Wild Card: G Isaiah Taylor
New Arrivals: G Andrew Jones
Buzz: If Taylor returns to school, he’ll be the senior leader on a team with up-and-coming talent in sophomores Davis, Mack and Roach. Despite the loss to Northern Iowa in the NCAA Tournament, Texas finished the season in fine form, beating Oklahoma and West Virginia down the stretch.
15. Syracuse (23-14, 9-9 ACC)
Departures: G Trevor Cooney, F Michael Gbinije
New Arrivals: G Tyus Battle
Buzz: Syracuse will try to ride the wave of its surprising Final Four run. Lydon and Richardson need to carry their star status through the entirety of the season.
16. SMU (25-5, 13-5 American)
Key Returners: G Sterling Brown, G Shake Milton, G Ben Moore
Departures: F Markus Kennedy, G Nic Moore, F Jordan Tolbert
New Arrivals: F Semi Ojeleye
Buzz: The postseason ban is over, and SMU should contend in the American again. Losing Moore leaves a major void at point guard. The arrival of Ojeleye, an import from Duke, keeps Larry Brown’s transfer pipeline moving.
17. USC (21-13, 9-9 Pac-12)
Departures: F Katin Reinhardt
Buzz: USC will return four players who averaged double figures from a team that improved from 3-15 in the Pac-12 to 9-9. The goal in Andy Enfield’s fourth season will be to keep a consistent level of play into February and March.
18. Seton Hall (25-9, 12-6 Big East)
Departures: G Derrick Gordon
Wild Card: G Isaiah Whitehead
New Arrivals: G Myles Powell, G Jevon Thomas
If Whitehead returns, the Big East Tournament champs would bring back all five starters. Powell, a standout shooter, and Thomas, a former starter at Kansas State, will look to fill the void left by Gordon.
19. Oklahoma (29-8, 12-6 Big 12)
Departures: G Isaiah Cousins, G Buddy Hield, F Ryan Spangler
New Arrivals: F Kristian Doolittle, G Kameron McGusty, G Austin Grandstaff
Buzz: Hield’s supporting cast showed its limitations at times last season, so Woodard and Lattin will need to take a step forward. Grandstaff, a transfer from Ohio State, will try to fill the biggest perimeter shooting void in the country.
20. Purdue (26-9, 12-6 Big Ten)
Departures: G Rapheal Davis, C A.J. Hammons
Wild Card: F/C Caleb Swanigan
New Arrivals: G Carsen Edwards
Buzz: Keeping Swanigan is the key piece. His return would mean Purdue returns three of its top four scorers. The freshman Edwards could take over point guard duties.
21. Iowa State (23-12, 10-8 Big 12)
Departures: F Jamel McKay, F Abdel Nader, F Georges Niang
New Arrivals: G Donovan Jackson, F Emmanuel Malou
Buzz: The return of Morris at point guard will give Iowa State a fighting chance in the Big 12. No more Niang lowers the bar. Transfers, this time JUCOs, will continue to play a role.
22. Notre Dame (24-12, 11-7 ACC)
Departures: F Zach Auguste, G Demetrius Jackson
New Arrivals: G Temple Gibbs
Beachem, Colson and Vasturia were all double-digit scorers last season, but losing a point guard and a double-double machine is significant.
23. Gonzaga (28-8, 15-3 West Coast)
Key Returners: G Josh Perkins
Departures: G Kyle Dranginis, G Eric McClellan F Domantas Sabonis, F Kyle Wiltjer
Wild Cards: C Przemek Karnowski
New Arrivals: C Zach Collins, F Johnathan Williams, G Nigel Williams-Goss
Buzz: Gonzaga will be a new-look team from the Wiltjer-Sabonis-Pangos squads of the last two years. Transfers Williams (from Missouri) and Williams-Goss (from Washington) will be a standout inside-out duo.
24. Saint Mary’s (29-6, 15-3 West Coast)
Key Returners: C Evan Fitzner, F Calvin Hermanson, C Jock Landale, G Emmett Naar, F Dane Pineau, G Joe Rahon
Buzz: The Gaels swept Gonzaga during the regular season but didn’t have enough on the non-conference schedule to earn an at-large bid after losing to the Bulldogs in the WCC tourney. With everyone back, Saint Mary’s should make another run.
25. UCLA (15-17, 6-12 Pac-12)
Departures: F/C Tony Parker
New Arrivals: G Lonzo Ball, F T.J. Leaf
Buzz: UCLA’s first losing season since 2010 has Steve Alford feeling the heat. This season will be key to his long-term future in Westwood. With only one notable loss (Parker) and two top-20 recruits arriving, UCLA will have to turn things around immediately.