Articles By David Fox
CHICAGO — The Bo Pelini image makeover isn’t a makeover at all, at least as far as his players are concerned.
Pelini’s sideline blowups have been well-documented. During the season, he can be short and gruff with answers to the media.
But his players are perplexed the outside world is starting to see the new, looser side of their embattled coach.
“It’s funny, man, everyone keeps saying he’s changed. He hasn’t changed a bit to me,” Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah said from Big Ten Media Day on Monday. “He’s the same guy as when he sat on my couch recruiting me.”
The coach Abdullah knows is the one who brings a cat to the spring game and hoists the feline into the air to present the him in to the crowd. The coach Abdullah knows is the one who teamed with former defensive tackle Thad Randle for a prank in which Pelini smashes a cell phone with a hammer during a team meeting.
That’s the coach Nebraska safety Corey Cooper knows, too.
“The cameras are on him when he’s at his most stressful point — when he’s coaching,” Cooper said. “We see him every day, and he’s a player-friendly guy. I wouldn’t want to play for any other coach.”
That’s the side those around Pelini — those he trusts and sometimes the staff, he says — want him to show more often.
“Some people around me have encouraged me to show that side,” Pelini said. “I guess I’ve always chosen not to. I guess I’m I private person. When I’m away from the office I’m to myself. I spend 99 percent of my time away from football with my kids. I haven’t really let a lot of people in.”
That’s starting to change, especially compared to where he was near the end of last season.
Pelini wrapped up his sixth regular season in defiant fashion, telling reporters that Nebraska could “go ahead” and fire him if the administration wanted. The frustration of another four-loss season had boiled over.
Nebraska didn’t fire Pelini and instead extended his contract. At the least, it’s a vote of confidence that Pelini is the coach who will keep Nebraska nationally prominent. At this stage, though, the program has been stagnant. Pelini has lost exactly four games every season at Nebraska. He’s also won nine or 10 games each season and reached a conference championship game three times.
But Pelini’s record isn’t an outlier in recent Nebraska history. The Cornhuskers haven’t lost fewer than four games since 2003 and haven’t finished in the top 10 since a national title game appearance in 2001.
If Nebraska is going to struggle again, Pelini seems determined to make sure he isn’t the one contributing to the “negativity” he says played a role in the Huskers’ inconsistency in 2013.
Pelini’s public persona may have done little favors for Nebraska’s season, but it’s been a part of him since he played safety at Ohio State.
“They see this part of you, and they think that’s you all the time,” Pelini said. “But that was the case when I was playing. They see that side of me and then they get to know me and it’s night and day. That’s the case with a lot of people."
Which brings us to the cat.
Younger Nebraska fans, good luck explaining to your parents or grandparents why Bo Pelini hoisting a cat into the air at a spring game is a meaningful gesture.
First, explain the parody Twitter account @FauxPelini, a caricature of Pelini’s explosive temper. And in that parody, an image of Pelini holds a cat in a cheesy Olan Mills pose.
Then, on the night of the national championship game, Pelini (the real one) does this:
@FauxPelini ok enough is enough... I want my cat back. You've had her long enough!— Bo Pelini (@BoPelini) January 7, 2014
Nebraska went all-in on Pelini’s spontaneous interaction with his Twitter parody, posting an image of a cat in Pelini’s office and an image of an assistant leaving for a recruiting trip with a cat carrier.
Then came this:
So, this is a long way to explain show that Pelini and Nebraska is going to great lengths to shed the coach’s stern exterior. Pelini seems conscious his image could use a makeover, if for no other reason than to do his part to keep "negativity" from harming his team.
After Nebraska lost 41-21 to UCLA on Sept. 14, a tipster leaked to Deadspin an audio recording from 2011 of Pelini’s profane comments regarding fans and local media. (Warning: Bad words) “We'll see what they can do when I'm (expletive) gone,” Pelini says in the recording.
Was it unfair for a tipster to release audio from two years earlier? Perhaps. But Pelini didn’t really help his case at the end of the year after wrapping up another four-loss season with a 38-17 loss at home to Iowa.
“They want to fire me, go ahead,” Pelini told reporters. “I believe in what I’ve done. I don’t apologize for what I’ve done. I don’t apologize to you. I don’t apologize to anybody."
The question now is if 9-4 or 10-4 should be considered a success with this season’s group. Gone is Nebraska career passing leader Taylor Martinez, who played only four games last season.
On the plus side, Nebraska returns Tommy Armstrong, who went 7-1 as a starter after Martinez was lost to injury. Abdullah returns after rushing for 1,690 yards, the fourth-highest total in school history. The Huskers also have an Athlon second-team All-America pass-rusher in Randy Gregory. But the offensive line returns only one starter, and only five starters return to the defense.
The schedule may be more manageable with a home game against Miami replacing the series with UCLA. The Big Ten West figures to be easier to navigate than the East, but Nebraska must visit division contenders Wisconsin and Iowa while facing Michigan State on the road.
So the next question is if Pelini will have as much fun with the on-field performance as he is with his players.
“He’s a very passionate guy. He loves football,” Abdullah said. “You don’t want to play for anyone who isn’t passionate about football.”
The Big East perhaps would like to say that help is on the way. The league produced four NCAA teams in its new alignment. And while the league had the national player of the year in Doug McDermott, no team made it to the Sweet 16.
Reinforcements, though, aren’t immediately clear.
Granted, Villanova returns the bulk of last year’s team and won’t need to rely on freshmen or transfers. But the impact newcomers in the league largely are going to teams that didn’t reach the field.
Marquette, Seton Hall and Butler are among the teams counting on transfers, freshmen and players returning from injury in 2014-15. Those moves might keep those teams competitive, but won’t make any of them top-flight programs next season.
Beyond those three, Georgetown and Xavier welcome new players that will be key to their hopes of reaching the NCAA Tournament. Our look at the top newcomers for 2014-15 continues with the Big East, profiling the freshmen, the transfers and players returning from injury who will impact the league race.
1. Matt Carlino, Marquette
Transfer from BYU
Steve Wojciechowski will be off to a rough start roster-wise at Marquette. Lucky for the first-year coach, a point guard in the transfer market had an uncle who played at Marquette and a mother who is from Milwaukee. Carlino should step in immediately and play point guard for the Golden Eagles after averaging 12.5 points and 4.6 assists per game in three seasons at BYU.
2. Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall
Whitehead could be the key player of Kevin Willard’s tenure at Seton Hall after the Pirates slipped to 17-17 overall and 6-12 in the new Big East. Seton Hall’s first McDonald’s All-American since 2000, Whitehead joins a backcourt that already includes Texas transfer Sterling Gibbs and Jared Sina. Whitehead, at 6-4 and 195 pounds, should add scoring punch to a team that ranked 123rd nationally in offensive efficiency on KenPom.
3. Isaac Copeland, Georgetown
Copeland, at top-25 prospect in the 247Sports Composite, will help improve a lackluster Hoyas frontcourt from last season. He’s a slender 6-10 at 187 pounds, but he can be a matchup problem at the 3 and the 4. He and fellow freshman Paul White should give Georgetown the presence at small forward they lacked as the Hoyas slipped from Big East champions to 8-10 in the league.
4. Roosevelt Jones, Butler
Returning from injury
Butler was due for a down year after the departure of Brad Stevens and a move into a more competitive Big East. A season-ending wrist injury to its top wing Jones before last season was just another blow to the team. Jones averaged 10.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.4 assists in 2012-13 and should be one of the key veterans in second-year coach Brandon Miller’s program.
5. Duane Wilson, Marquette
Wilson was one of the top players in Marquette’s freshman class a year ago with expectations to contribute right away. Instead, a broken leg in October forced him to redshirt, depleting the Golden Eagles at the point guard position. He’ll be ready this season in a remade backcourt.
6. Trevon Bluiett, Xavier
Bluiett is the top prospect in a signing class that includes three 247Sports Composite top-100 players. As Xavier loses its top two scorers — Semaj Christon to the draft and graduate Justin Martin to a transfer — Bluiett needs to step in and contribute immediately. The 6-6 wing from Indianapolis was the runner up for Indiana’s Mr. Basketball to Kentucky freshman Trey Lyles.
7. Ricky Kreklow, Creighton
Transfer from Cal
Kreklow’s experience will be key for a team that loses mainstays like Doug McDermott, Grant Gibbs, Ethan Wragge and Jahenns Manigat. No combination of players will be able to match their production, but Kreklow could be a playmaker. The 6-6, 210-pound forward averaged 5.5 points, 2.6 rebounds and 1.8 assists in his final season at Cal.
8. Angel Delgado, Seton Hall
Delgado may be overshadowed by the McDonald’s All-American Whitehead, but the four-star recruit is nearly as important. A prospect from the Dominican Republic, he should challenge for a starting job at power forward.
9. Luke Fischer, Marquette
Transfer from Indiana
With the departures of Davante Gardner, Chris Otule and Jamil Wilson, Marquette needs a major upgrade in the frontcourt. It will have to wait until the 6-11 center is eligible in December, though. Fischer was a top-100 prospect in the Hoosiers’ 2013 signing class.
10. Myke Henry, DePaul
Transfer from Illinois
Oliver Purnell has said the 6-foot-6 Henry was one of DePaul’s best players while he sat out due to NCAA transfer rules. He’ll need to be an impact player now that he’s eligible of DePaul is going to escape the Big East cellar.
The ACC may again be the home of the nation’s top freshman, only this time, there may be little room for debate.
Duke’s Jabari Parker and Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis took turns as the nation’s most decorated freshman. At the same time Kansas’ duo of Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid weren’t that far behind.
The freshman of the year award eventually went to Parker, though. The award may stay at Duke once again thanks to the arrival of center Jahlil Okafor and the departure of challenger Emmanuel Mudiay from SMU to China. Okafor, then, may be unquestioned.
Okafor won’t be the only impact newcomer in the ACC and not the only one from Duke. Our series looking at the top new faces around college basketball, continues with the ACC with a look at the top freshmen, transfers and players returning from injury and academic issues since last season.
1. Jahlil Okafor, Duke
Duke has not had a ton of great big men in recent years, Mason Plumlee’s senior season notwithstanding. Now, Duke will have not only one of the top freshmen in the country at center, but also an elite player with a skill set that has become increasingly rare. The 6-foot-11, 270-pound freshman from Chicago already has a well-developed post game that will make him one of the top true centers in quite some time. His combination of size and skill makes him an All-America contender and a likely one-and-done.
2. Jerian Grant, Notre Dame
Grant was playing the best basketball of his career when he was sidelined after 12 games. Though he was averaging 19 points and 6.2 assists and shooting 51.8 percent from the floor, Grant didn’t have his academics in order and was removed from the team for the remainder of the season. Notre Dame went 8-4 with Grant and 7-13 without him, missing the postseason for the first time under Mike Brey. There’s no guarantee of an NCAA bid when Grant returns, but it may be impossible without him.
3. Angel Rodriguez, Miami
Transfer from Kansas State
Miami cobbled together 17 wins with depleted roster largely because two of its better players — Rodriguez and fellow Big 12 transfer Sheldon McClellan — were sitting out. Now ready to play, the 5-foot-11 Rodriguez will man the point for Miami. In his last stop at Kansas State, Rodriguez averaged 11.4 points and 5.2 assists per game for a team that wow 27 games.
4. Trevor Lacey, NC State
Transfer from Alabama
Trevor Lacey is the latest addition for an NC State program that’s seen its share of roster turnover under Mark Gottfried. Lacey won’t be asked to fill the scoring void left by T.J. Warren, but he will need to be a complement to emerging sophomore point guard Cat Barber in the backcourt. Lacey is a strong guard who can score around the basket.
5. Kaleb Joseph, Syracuse
Joseph will be Syracuse’s fourth point guard in four seasons and its second freshman in a row. Expectations are high after the run of Michael Carter-Williams and Tyler Ennis. Joseph, though, won’t have the supporting cast his predecessors enjoyed.
6. Tyus Jones, Duke
The other half of a package deal with Jahlil Okafor, Jones gives Duke a point guard to compete with Quinn Cook. The senior didn’t start the final 10 games of the season, so Jones could play alongside Cook or supplant him at times during the season. Jones is known for his court vision, and he already has chemistry with Duke’s star center.
7. Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Florida State
Rathan-Mayes, a high school teammate of Andrew Wiggins, was slated to be an impact freshman last season before he was declared academically ineligible. The guard is ready in 2014-15 to deliver a much-needed scoring punch to a Florida State team that ranked ninth in the ACC in points per possession.
8. Justin Jackson, North Carolina
North Carolina’s signing class contains three top-30 prospects, all at positions where they will have to fight for playing time at point guard (Joel Berry) and small forward (Jackson, Theo Pinson). Jackson is the highest ranked (No. 9) in the 247Sports Composite and he may be the best shooter of the group, giving him a leg up on a team that shot 33.6 percent from 3-point range last season.
9. Sheldon McClellan, Miami
Transfer from Texas
McClellan will join Rodriguez for an all-transfer backcourt that should have Miami back in postseason contention. McClellan averaged 13.5 points per game for a bad Texas team, but he had a similar KenPom offensive rating (104.1) to Rodriguez (107.1).
10. Durand Johnson, Pittsburgh
Returning from injury
Johnson was averaging 8.8 points and 3.0 rebounds per game off the bench through the first 16 games before a torn ACL ended his season. His recovery will be closely watched, but when healthy, the 6-6 forward could be a key weapon from long range for the Panthers.
HOOVER, Ala. — When Bo Wallace caught a glimpse of himself on film from Ole Miss’ bowl game, the Rebels quarterback saw something that needed an immediate change before the 2014 season.
Wallace threw one interception against Georgia Tech in the bowl game, but he was otherwise solid in the Rebels’ 25-17 win.
No, it wasn't necessarily his performance. Instead, Wallace bristled at the shoulder-length hair peaking out of his helmet. During the offseason, he visited the only person he’ll let cut his hair — a woman in Nashville — and trimmed it to a more presentable shagginess.
“This is as long as it’ll get,” Wallace said from SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala. “I want to take a more professional approach to my senior year.”
Part of that professional approach entering his final season is proving that Ole Miss hasn’t seen Wallace at his best. Certainly not since the end of last season.
The postseason was a bit of redemption after his disastrous performance in the Egg Bowl, but Wallace talks as if he knows winning a Music City Bowl isn’t going to make anyone forget that he threw three interceptions and lost a fumble in a 17-10 loss at Mississippi State.
The loss put a damper on a season in which Ole Miss otherwise exceeded expectations. The Rebels navigated a tough schedule to start the season with road wins over Vanderbilt and Texas and a home victory over LSU. The only losses during a 7-3 start were to Alabama, Auburn and Texas A&M.
Game 11, though, is when Wallace’s arm — and confidence — started to fail him.
“I think about it every day,” Wallace said of his flop against Mississippi State. “I work every day to make sure it doesn’t happen again. I don’t think it will.”
Beyond the hair, Wallace says he’s undergone a “complete overhaul” of his throwing mechanics during the offseason. He worked with Tom House, a former major league pitcher who works with quarterbacks and pitchers on mechanics.
The problems that culminated in three interceptions in the Egg Bowl started in the fourth game of 2012 against Tulane when he sustained a shoulder injury. Wallace finished out the season, but he threw 17 interceptions. Offseason shoulder surgery helped, but only for a time.
Wallace’s 2013 season started in fine form, he threw 17 touchdown passes to five interceptions during the first 10 games. He doubled his interceptions in the last three.
Here’s a look at how he started and how Wallace played in losses to Mississippi State and Missouri.
|Bo Wallace Season Splits|
|First 10 Games||209 of 323||2,664||8.2||17||5|
|vs. Missouri and Mississippi State||52 of 82||426||5.2||0||4|
Wallace had worn down during the second half of the season, and he knew his arm wasn’t there. For a quarterback who had the reputation of a gunslinger in junior college, this was tough to swallow. The quarterback who averaged 9.2 yards per attempt in JUCO averaged 5.2 in two losses. He still tried to play like he had a big arm, leading to questionable decisions.
“You see that throw down the field and know you can make a big play on it, but you don’t want to try it because you might underthrow it and get picked,” Wallace said.
After working with House, Wallace said he’s able to get more velocity on the ball. In an ideal throwing motion, Wallace’s hips come first and the shoulder creates the torque. After his injury, his hips and shoulder were in sync, and he couldn’t get any torque on the throw.
That, presumably, has changed. Wallace says he’ll be able to stretch the field, something that hasn’t been part of his game for stretches of the last two games.
In year during a changing of the guard at quarterback in the SEC, Wallace could quickly move to or near the top of the pack
“He's just been overshadowed by some really good players,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. “The guy has a chance to own every passing record in Ole Miss history before he leaves there.”
The latter may be a stretch. Wallace will have trouble catching Eli Manning in a few areas — Wallace is 41 career touchdowns short of Manning. But Wallace needs 3,779 passing yards to catch Manning’s career total. If Wallace hits that, he’ll also eclipse Manning’s single-season record of 3,600 yards.
If Wallace’s shoulder holds up, those kinds of marks may be attainable.
“He feels finally healthy and confident,” Freeze said. “I really think he's at a point where he certainly has every avenue right now to step in and be one of the guys in this conference.”
The top programs in the Big Ten, for the most part, take a more traditional route for building rosters. Sign high school players and develop them into veterans.
Sure, there are outliers. Ohio State pulls five-star recruits as well as any program in the country. Illinois under John Groce has been active in the transfer market.
Even though the standard practice in the Big Ten tends to follow Michigan State, Wisconsin and Michigan, plenty of new arrivals should make an impact in the league.
In the first of our series breaking down the top newcomers around college basketball, we take a look at the top freshmen, transfers, redshirt freshmen and players returning from injury around the Big Ten.
1. Anthony Lee, Ohio State
Transfer from Temple
The 6-foot-9, 230-pound Lee will give Ohio State a key player in thin frontcourt. He was one of the top rebounders in both the Atlantic 10 and the American as the Owls changed leagues. Lee ranked in the top 200 in offensive and defensive rebound rate last season and ranked 11th nationally in defensive rebound rate two years ago, according to KenPom.com. He also averaged a career-high 13.6 points per game last season.
2. James Blackmon Jr., Indiana
Like his father, James Blackmon Jr. came down to Indiana and Kentucky in recruiting. Unlike his father, the son picked Indiana. Blackmon’s arrival is good for other psychological reasons for IU as the Hoosiers kept another top prospect in-state. Blackmon he’s also a McDonald’s All-American shooting guard who will take some of the pressure off junior point Yogi Ferrell.
3. Kameron Chatman, Michigan
Michigan will be a team in need of some new stars in 2014-15. Caris LeVert is the next in line, but Chatman will be an intriguing name to watch. He’s a 6-foot-7, 197-pound who could be one of Michigan’s most versatile players. The Wolverines have an opening at the 4, but Chatman’s also a skilled passer. He'll be small for a power forward, but not to play the position in the Michigan lineup.
4. Mark Donnal, Michigan
Donnal was going to have trouble cracking the lineup last season, so he redshirted. His development on the practice squad puts him in line for a starting role this season. As is typical for a Michigan forward, Donnal can hit the 3 but his post play is in question.
5. D’Angelo Russell, Ohio State
Russell didn’t become eligible until late June, but his arrival means Ohio State will have the most highly touted member of its signing class available this season. The McDonald’s All-American is a combo guard who should give the backcourt a much-needed scoring jolt.
6. Leron Black, Illinois
Black, a 6-7 forward from Memphis, will give Illinois some much-needed toughness. He’ll be a quality rebounder on a team that already has a top-notch rim protector in Nnanna Egwu.
7. Melo Trimble, Maryland
Maryland will need Trimble, a top-40 recruit, to take a bigger role than perhaps anticipated. Trimble may step into the point guard spot vacated by Seth Allen, who transferred to Virginia Tech. Trimble is the Terrapins’ first McDonald’s All-American since 2003.
8. Ahmad Starks, Illinois
Transfer from Oregon State
Illinois was one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the country last season, hitting only 31.7 percent of shots from long range. The Illini will boost this by adding Starks, who was Oregon State’s most prolific 3-point shooter with 185 in 97 games.
9. Vic Law, Northwestern
Law, a 6-6 forward, could be one of the most important recruits Northwestern has signed in a long time. He’s an elite athlete who will give second-year coach Chris Collins a versatile player on both ends of the court.
10. Aaron Cosby, Illinois
Transfer from Seton Hall
Cosby is another key name for the Illinois backcourt, which already includes Rayvonte Rice. Cosby can play both guard spots and averaged 12.6 points and shot 42.6 percent from the field during his final season at Seton Hall.
No one will need any push to watch a rematch of the Iron Bowl. No college football fan will need to know why Alabama’s return trip to Auburn will be loaded with drama.
Same with another matchup between Oregon and Stanford that may determine the Pac-12 South.
Those games all have worthy backstories attached, but we wanted to look a little deeper at the games that mean a little extra something in 2014.
We're taking a look at rematches of classic games, meetings of non-conference foes that rarely happen, if ever, coaches with axes to grind. As usual, there are plenty on the slate. These are the games in 2014 that have an extra little juice.
Aug. 30: Appalachian State at Michigan
"The Unhappy Michigan Man Bowl"
Michigan fans are probably not thrilled to have this game on the schedule given the flood of bad memories this brings back. The first meeting was one of the biggest upsets in college football history, making Armanti Edwards and Dexter Jackson stars for a week by beating Chad Henne and Mike Hart. Appy State is now a Sun Belt program, and Michigan isn’t a top-five team. At least if Michigan loses again, it won’t be as much of an upset.
Aug. 30: Arkansas at Auburn
"The Tempo Bowl"
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema and Auburn coach Gus Malzahn both said at SEC Media Days that they’ve mended fences since Bielema floated rules changes to slow down the pace of play by citing health concerns. Such limitations, of course, would make offenses like Malzahn’s less effective. Malzahn said he thought such a proposal was a joke, and there's been a perception of bad blood ever since. They’re not breaking bread together, Bielema says, but they’re not throwing bread (or rocks) at each other. No word on if Malzahn will try to run up the score, though.
Aug. 30: Alabama vs. West Virginia (Atlanta)
"The Monongah Bowl"
Not only is this the first meeting between Alabama and West Virginia, this is the first time Nick Saban has faced the top school from his home state. Saban’s father operated a service station in rural West Virginia and his mother operated an ice cream shop. The Saban name still carries considerable weight in Fairmont and Monongah, W. Va., even with the governor.
Aug. 30: North Dakota State at Iowa State
"The FCS Showcase"
Not only has North Dakota State won the last three FCS titles, the Bison have defeated an FBS opponent in four consecutive seasons (Kansas State in 2013, Colorado State in 2012, Minnesota in 2011, Kansas in 2010). Iowa State certainly isn’t invincible.
Aug. 30: FAU at Nebraska
"The Carl Bowl"
At one point, this game could have set up a brother vs. brother coaching matchup between Bo and Carl Pelini. Instead, Carl was fired amid accusations that he did not report "certain conduct" of a member of his coaching staff. The accusation at first, though, was that of drug use by Carl Pelini and a staff member. Pelini denied these allegations.
Sept. 6: Missouri at Toledo
"The Pinkel Bowl"
A career like Gary Pinkel’s is becoming more and more rare: He’s been a head coach since 1991 and had only two jobs. The first was at Toledo, where he won 113 games. The run included an 11-0-1 season in 1995 and 10-1 in 2000. This game will be the first Pinkel has coached at Toledo since he took the Mizzou job in 2000.
Sept. 13: Tennessee at Oklahoma
"The We’ll Play Sooner or Later Bowl"
Hard to believe, but this is the first regular-season meeting between these two powerhouse programs. The Volunteers and Sooners have split their two meetings in the Orange Bowl in 1968 and 1939.
Sept. 20: Miami at Nebraska
"The Former Powerhouse Bowl"
Three times between 1983 and 2001, the national championship went through Miami and Nebraska. Miami beat Nebraska in bowls for its first and most recent national titles in 1983 and 2001, and Nebraska beat the Hurricanes in 1994 in a bowl for the first of back-to-back titles. Neither has been in the national title race for a decade, and the two teams haven’t played during the regular season since 1976.
Oct. 25: Ohio State at Penn State
"The Larry Johnson Bowl"
Larry Johnson was offered a chance to stick with a third Penn State coaching staff under James Franklin, but he instead joined Urban Meyer at Ohio State. The defensive line coach should spice up Big Ten recruiting with his track record in Pennsylvania and Maryland.
Oct. 25: Alabama at Tennessee
"The Kiffin Bowl"
Derek Dooley may have been worse, but new Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin is more hated in Knoxville. Kiffin signed a washout recruiting class, went 7-6 in one season and unceremoniously dumped Tennessee to return to USC. The Tennessee fanbase was angrier than most when a coach leaves for another program, gathering outside of the athletic facility as Kiffin conducted a bizarre news conference the day he announced his resignation. Tennessee hasn’t had a winning season since.
Nov. 1: Maryland at Penn State
"The Revenge of James Franklin Bowl"
James Franklin’s first head coaching break never actually materialized. Franklin had been named the coach-in-waiting under Ralph Friedgen at Maryland, but a new athletic director was lukewarm to the idea of honoring such a commitment. Instead, Franklin left for Vanderbilt and later Penn State, where he’s vowed to dominate recruiting the state of Maryland. To which, current Terrapins coach Randy Edsall said talk is cheap.
Nov. 8: Iowa State at Kansas
"The Mangino Bowl"
Mark Mangino built Kansas into a respectable program from 2002-09. He reached four bowl games in eight seasons, including the Orange Bowl in 2007. But he also had a bit of a mean streak with players, leading to his firing from Lawrence. After time on the staff at Youngstown State, Mangino returns to the Big 12 to revive the offense at Iowa State.
Nov. 15: Oklahoma at Texas Tech
"The Baker Bowl"
Former Texas Tech starting quarterback Baker Mayfield bolted Lubbock with no guarantees of being able to play quickly or gaining a scholarship. The Red Raiders tried to block his transfer to Big 12 foe Oklahoma, but the Sooners are appealing to the NCAA to grant him eligibility. OU coach Bob Stoops says Mayfield’s status as a walk-on at Tech means he should eligible right away. Of course, that’s self-serving for a team that moved a backup quarterback to tight end. Either way, the latest transfer issue will surely be a topic when these two teams meet in November.
Nov. 29: Rutgers at Maryland
"The Fridge Bowl"
Ralph Friedgen hasn’t coached since he was fired from Maryland in 2010 despite going 9-4 and winning ACC Coach of the Year honors. Friedgen, a Maryland alum, never matched his 31-7 start with an ACC title in his first three seasons, but the Terrapins haven’t exactly thrived without Friedgen either. Given the record it’s easy to sympathize with his feeling that he got a raw deal. Friedgen’s return to coaching as Rutgers’ offensive coordinator means at least one trip to College Park for the big guy.
HOOVER, Ala. — An injury to Aaron Murray last season gave Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason a taste of the big-time. The injury that never happened, though, ensured Mason would have a full year as an SEC quarterback.
As it became clear Mason would have trouble earning playing time behind Murray, Mason and Georgia coach Mark Richt formulated a plan to keep the Marietta, Ga., native in Athens.
One plank of that was a redshirt year in 2012 so Mason would be able to start his final season once Murray graduated. The redshirt, though, was no sure thing. Mason remained Georgia’s No. 2 quarterback as the Bulldogs won the SEC East. Had Murray gone down anytime before the bowl game, Richt would have burned Mason’s redshirt.
“Even that season was a little bit crazy because at any given time if Murray would have got hurt ... Hutson would have played,” Richt said.
Murray stayed healthy that season, meaning Richt now has the luxury of a fifth-year senior running the offense in 2014. Mason is a rarity, not only that he didn't transfer like many in his shoes would have, but he's also spent five seasons entrenched the same offensive system under Richt and Mike Bobo.
"He's really sacrificed a lot for this team," Richt said. "He's staying because he loves Georgia, and he especially loves his teammates. But he also knew that this season was going to come and he was going to be surrounded by a lot of skill guys — a lot of great backs, receivers, some veteran linemen, a defense that should be matured from a year ago."
Mason isn’t the only quarterback in the Southeast who needed to be patient for his turn. He’s one of three QBs at power programs who bucked a trend. South Carolina and Clemson will join Georgia with a senior under center in 2014.
As Mason waited for Murray to leave, South Carolina senior Dylan Thompson needed three-year starter Connor Shaw to move on before he could take over the job full-time. Clemson senior Cole Stoudt finally gets his shot after backing up three-year starter Tajh Boyd.
Murray and Boyd were their respective school's career leading passers. Shaw was South Carolina's all-time winningest quarterback.
Many quarterbacks in similar situations as Mason, Thompson and Stoudt would have sought a better chance to start at another school. Instead, this trio stuck around and each will play key roles on teams with high aspirations in 2014. Both Georgia and South Carolina have eyes on an SEC championship while Clemson is eager to prove it can be a player on the national stage without Boyd and All-America wide receiver Sammy Watkins.
Of Thompson, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said he'll need to "pack his college career into one season." The same could be said of any of the three.
Thompson has the most experience, even if it’s all relative.
He’s 3-0 as a starter and helped South Carolina complete a 28-25 win over Fiesta Bowl champion UCF when Shaw was hurt in the first quarter.
But there was also Thompson’s start against Missouri. He went 15-of-27 for 222 yards with an interception as South Carolina fell behind 17-0. Out of desperation, Spurrier turned back to Shaw, who led South Carolina to a 27-24 win in double overtime despite a knee injury.
“I was just forcing the issue a lot,” Thompson said. “I’ve watched that tape I don’t know how many times, just learning to be patient and taking what the defense gives me. That’s what Connor did such a good job of.”
Thompson’s cross-state rival has thrown 118 career passes, but none in a contested game. Stoudt has completed 72.2 percent of his passes, almost all in lopsided games against the likes of South Carolina State, Ball State, Wake Forest and Virginia.
Stoudt had to win the job in spring, aided in part by the dismissal of Chad Kelly and the youth of Deshaun Watson. A top-100 freshman, Watson may be the quarterback of the future, but Clemson felt confident enough in Stoudt to hand him the keys to Chad Morris' offense.
“It's a huge thrill ride constantly,” Stoudt said at Media Day. “There's always something new every single day, and I've had a blast. I've never been more excited in my entire life.”
When Stoudt starts his first career game, he’ll do so against another first-year starter who at least got a taste last season.
The injury to Murray came in the final game of the SEC season, forcing Mason into duty. In his first start, he shook off a lackluster first half to lead a second-half comeback to beat Georgia Tech 41-34 in double overtime.
Where Stoudt inherits an offense run by one of the most dynamic coordinators in the country, Mason takes over an attack flush with skill position talent. Now healthy, running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall and receivers Malcolm Mitchell, Chris Conley and Michael Bennett could form one of the best running back/receiver groups in the SEC.
“Hutson has done a great job,” Conley said. “He’s been a field general out here, a leader. He’s done a great job of getting the team to rally behind him. The offense will be in good hands.”
South Carolina and Clemson hope to be saying the same thing this fall.
HOOVER, Ala. — With nearly 1,300 media members at SEC Media Days, the same stories are bound to pop up from Gainesville to College Station.
One meme, though, may be premature. For example:
True, the standout quarterback class from 2013 is gone. Departures of Johnny Manziel, Aaron Murray and AJ McCarron have left a void of experience. What’s left lacks starts and yards, but the class may be no less intriguing.
Only one of the top eight passers return, but the returning quarterbacks are far from green. Auburn’s Nick Marshall won the league a year ago. Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace is a multi-year starter. The new quarterbacks at Mississippi State and Missouri showed enough in part-time duty a year ago that they can be dynamic contributors.
“The quarterbacks are not any less talented than the ones that just left,” Wallace said. “There’s just going to be a turnover.”
And then there are the running backs. Four of the top seven rushers in yards per game return to the league. Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon and South Carolina’s Mike Davis didn’t make the media day roster, but that doesn’t make them any less impressive.
So for anyone who is worried about a lack of star power in the SEC, we present this rebuttal:
Todd Gurley, Georgia
Gurley is as legitimate a Heisman contender as any running back around the country, even considering Reggie Bush and Mark Ingram are the only players at the position to win the award in the 21st century.
Before Gurley sustained an ankle injury against LSU on Sept. 28, he had rushed for at least 100 yards per game in 11 of 17 games. During that span he’s rushed for 20 touchdowns and topped 20 carries only six times.
“If he stays healthy, I think he's one of the better players in America, no doubt about it,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “Hopefully he stays healthy. I see that he's getting into great condition. If we continue to get him in great condition for this season, I think the sky's the limit for him.
Mike Davis, South Carolina
Like Gurley, Davis saw part of his season derailed by injuries. At one point, Davis led the SEC in rushing before playing through shoulder, knee and ankle injuries to finish the season.
For a South Carolina program that has emphasized run-pass balance as well as any Steve Spurrier-coached team, Davis could be a workhorse. He topped the 100-yard mark seven times in the first nine games. During that span, he averaged 6.4 yards per carry.
“From Marcus Lattimore to him, there’s no drop off,” South Carolina defensive tackle J.T. Surratt said. “There’s something about him. He can make you miss. He has that power and he has that speed. If you don’t bring that extra something, he’ll blow past you.”
T.J. Yeldon, Alabama
Splitting time with Derrick Henry, who broke out for 161 yards from scrimmage in the Sugar Bowl, may cut into Yeldon’s ability to compete for postseason awards. But it also raises the possibility that Yeldon and Henry will be the best running back duo in the country.
On his own, Yeldon averages better than six yards per carry in his career to go with 26 touchdowns the last two years.
Bo Wallace, Ole Miss
Wallace is first to mention that the end of the season — when he threw five interceptions against Missouri, Mississippi State and Georgia Tech — changed the complexion of the season.
Before that, he had thrown 17 touchdowns to only five picks, not a bad mark for a quarterback whose decision-making has been called into question. Since the end of last season, Wallace visited with private quarterback coach Tom House for a “complete overhaul” on his mechanics to improve the velocity on his passes.
He also is another year removed from shoulder surgery that limited his confidence last season. And despite all that, Wallace was third in the SEC in total offense, and more than 30 yards per game more than anyone else returning.
“I’m throwing it the way I threw it in junior college,” Wallace said. “That was the best I ever threw it.”
Maty Mauk, Missouri
Speaking of quarterbacks with an unpredictability streak, Mauk said he’d like to model his game after former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel (and what dual-threat quarterback wouldn’t?).
He’s not there yet, but he completed 18-of-36 passes for 295 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions in a dominating 36-17 win over Florida in his first career start. He followed that in the next two weeks with 114 rushing yards and three passing touchdowns in a double-overtime loss to South Carolina and five touchdown passes in a win over Tennessee.
“Maty Mauk will surprise everybody, every week,” Missouri center Evan Boehm said. “He’s a playmaker. You saw it in Johnny Manziel, you saw it in AJ McCarron and you saw it in Aaron Murray.”
Nick Marshall, Auburn
The returning quarterback of the SEC champions was absent at SEC Media Day due to a marijuana citation, and his status for the opener against Arkansas is unclear.
He’s still a possibility to pass for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 — he came 24 passing yards of the feat a year ago.
Dak Prescott, Mississippi State
Mississippi State’s quarterback history is not nearly as illustrious as other programs in the league, meaning Prescott’s bid for the top single season in Starkville history is attainable.
Does Prescott have the ability to do it? Despite playing 11 games and splitting time with Tyler Russell early in the season, Prescott passed for 1,940 yards and 10 touchdowns and rushed for 829 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Leonard Fournette, LSU
Long-term, the SEC player with the most potential may be a freshman running back at LSU. Leonard Fournette will start as part of a running back committee, as usual at LSU, to start the year.
By the end of the season, he may start living up to media day comparisons to Michael Jordan and Adrian Peterson.
“That’s the only guy play the running back position you can compare him to,” Terrence Magee said.
HOOVER, Ala. — Jacob Coker is the SEC’s mystery man.
Perhaps more than any other position, the quarterback at Alabama could determine the trajectory of the league. The Crimson Tide have a roster stocked with No. 1 recruiting class upon No. 1 recruiting class.
An above average quarterback, and Alabama is in national title contention. Below average, and it’s not quite clear.
On one hand, Coker went head-to-head with the Heisman Trophy winner before last season (says Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher). On the other, he’s still head-to-head with Blake Sims (says Alabama coach Nick Saban).
This is clear posturing by both coaches. No matter how clear it is Coker will be Alabama’s starter against West Virginia in Week 1, Saban isn’t going to say it in the middle of July.
“We really can't make that decision or prediction as to what's going to happen at that position, but the development of that position, regardless of who the player is, is going to be critical to the success of our team,” Saban said.
Absent during spring, Coker has begun the offesason workout program with Alabama after attempting 41 career passes at Florida State. Both receivers at Media Day — Christion Jones and Amari Cooper — praised Coker’s strong arm and mobility.
“He’s still learning the plays and working on trying to progress to be the starting quarterback,” Jones said. “He’s vocal, but he’s asking questions.”
At the same time, Jones said Coker has shown the “spark” to be one of the best quarterbacks to play at Alabama.
“The quarterback issue won’t be the determining factor of our season,” Jones said. “It’s just that it’s at a standstill right now because we don’t have a starting quarterback.”
HOOVER, Ala. — LSU is doing little to temper expectations for star running back Leonard Fournette.
LSU coach Les Miles compared him to Michael Jordan. Fellow running back Terrence Magee compared him to Adrian Peterson.
“That’s the only guy playing the running back position you can compare him to,” Magee said.
Magee noted Fournette’s ability to run on his toes brought about the comparison to Peterson. Fournette’s 6-foot-1, 220-pound frame helps, too.
For Miles, the comparison to Jordan is his drive to be great.
“He expects himself to be something very special,” Miles said. “I think if you look at Michael Jordan, he could not have been coached to be Michael Jordan. Michael Jordan accepted the role of expecting him to be better than any.
“I think he has a quiet confidence there that will benefit him, and I think we will always have an opportunity to play at that spot, the running backs that are fresh.”
SEC fans may call the Big Ten slow, but it had a head start on what the SEC will gain in less than a month.
The SEC Network will join the Big Ten Network and Pac-12 Networks as the nation’s big three college sports conference-oriented networks. With a partnership with ESPN and fueled by the SEC’s fans, the SEC Network could be the biggest of all of them.
That might not be the case when the SEC Network launches in mid-August, though. One major provider have not come to an agreement with ESPN on distribution, though it’s tough to see the holdout lasting much longer.
For those who will have the SEC Network, here’s what you can expect.
Where can I watch SEC Network?
The SEC announced Friday that Comcast will distribute the SEC Network, joining AT&T U-Verse, Cox and Dish Network as the biggest carriers. That leaves. That leaves DirecTV as the biggest remaining holdout. DirecTV is the biggest remaining holdout. ESPN senior vice president of programming Justin Connolly said from SEC Media Days that negotiations are ongoing.
“We’re confident and our confidence is based on the demand that’s out there from SEC fans,” Connolly said. “(The hold up is) long negotiations, complicated issues. A lot of times these things don’t come down until the very end.”
Update: ESPN announced in early August that DirecTV will carry the SEC Network.
Which football games will the SEC Network air?
CBS still retains the first pick of an SEC game each week, but ESPN and the SEC Network will continue to air secondary games. The SEC Network, though, ends CBS’ exclusive window in the 3:30 p.m. Eastern time slot. Sixteen games, including three conference games, are scheduled before Sept. 20. The entire season will feature 45 exclusive football games.
SEC Network: The first 16 games:
Aug. 28: Texas A&M at South Carolina
Aug. 28: Temple at Vanderbilt
Aug. 30: UT Martin at Kentucky
Aug. 30: Arkansas at Auburn
Aug. 30: Southern Miss at Mississippi State
Aug. 31: Utah State at Tennessee
Sept. 6: FAU at Alabama
Sept. 6: Arkansas State at Tennessee
Sept. 6: Eastern Michigan at Florida
Sept. 6: Nicholls State at Arkansas
Sept. 6: Lamar at Texas A&M
Sept. 6: Sam Houston State at LSU
Sept. 13: UCF at Missouri
Sept. 13: UL Lafayette at Ole Miss
Sept. 13: Kentucky at Florida
Sept. 20: Troy at Georgia
Which talking heads will be on the SEC Network?
Sports fans, especially in SEC land, will find plenty of familiar faces and voices on the SEC Network. Brent Musburger moves off the Saturday night game of the week spot on ABC to the top game on the SEC Network. Chris Fowler will take Musburger’s spot on ABC.
The other broadcast teams will be:
• Brent Musburger, Jesse Palmer and Maria Taylor
• Dave Neal and Andre Ware
• Tom Hart and Matt Stinchcomb
Other studio analysts will include former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy, former LSU stars Marcus Spears and Booger McFarland and veteran journalist Tony Barnhart.
The SEC Network also will televise the Birmingham-based Paul Finebaum Show and, as Connelly put it, “some of the most colorful fans in the conference.” That may be one way put the show, which showcases the SEC, and specifically the Alabama and Auburn rivalry, at its most colorful, passionate and ugly.
“We’ve had Paul on air on the radio side for a year now. You can say he’s toned it down,” Connolly said. “It’s a different role. It’s going to change a little bit, but we want Paul to be Paul and we want him to bring that passion and that audience.”
What non-game programming will the SEC Network air?
The SEC Network aims to offer a treasure trove of non-game content. For Xs and Os fans, the highlight will be “Film Room,” a program every Wednesday night featuring an SEC coach breaking down game film.
The SEC Network will continue its SEC Storied series, a documentary series that has already included features on the Alabama-Auburn rivalry, the Manning family and Arkansas basketball coach Nolan Richardson.
The first four documentaries on the SEC Network will feature Ole Miss’ Chucky Mullins (“It’s Time”), Florida and South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier (“The Believer”), Auburn’s star athletes during the 80s (“Bo, Barkley and the Big Hurt”) and SEC Passion (“The Stars Aligned”)
“We’re not going to have the news infrastructure that ESPN has,” Connolly said. “We’re not going to do a lot of investigative journalism.”
How much of a cash cow is this?
In addition to the SEC’s broadcast deals with ESPN and CBS, the SEC Network has been estimated to bring $26 million to each school within a year.
HOOVER, Ala. — Here’s a fun party game for anyone steeped in SEC history: Pick an SEC school and start rattling off that school's great college or pro quarterbacks.
Alabama has Joe Namath, Ken Stabler, AJ McCarron. Tennessee has Peyton Manning and Heath Shuler. Auburn has Pat Sullivan and Cam Newton. Even Vanderbilt has Jay Cutler.
Where does that list begin and end for Mississippi State?
The only Bulldogs quarterback to reach the SEC championship game completed fewer than half of his passes. The last Mississippi State All-SEC quarterback ended up playing running back in the NFL. In the modern era, Mississippi State has only three All-SEC first-teamers at the position. Never mind a 4,000-yard passer, Mississippi State is the only program in the SEC that hasn’t produced a 3,000-yard passer in a season.
This may be the season Mississippi State has a quarterback star it can finally call its own.
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Dak Prescott has started only seven games in his career, but it speaks to that quarterback history that junior from Haughton, La., has a realistic chance to be the best Starkville has produced.
“It’s one one of those things where State fans go into it with a little bit of apprehension,” said Matt Wyatt, a Mississippi State quarterback from 1996-99 and now the color analyst on the Bulldogs’ broadcast team. “We’ll see it and then believe how good someone is because we’ve never really had a great one.”
When Mississippi State signed Prescott, coach Dan Mullen could tout his quarterback proteges from other stops — Alex Smith at Utah and Tim Tebow at Florida. The brag sheet of great Mississippi State passers wasn’t there.
That was enough to get Prescott to Starkville, but it may not be enough for other prep quarterbacks.
“I don’t really pay attention to the past,” Prescott said. “I control my destiny. If I can get better I don’t worry about it. I know coach Mullen has coached some good guys, and that’s all that matters to me.”
This is not to say Prescott could be an All-SEC first-teamer. Auburn’s Nick Marshall, Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace and Missouri’s Maty Mauk may have a head start, to say nothing about the quarterbacks at Alabama, Georgia or South Carolina.
This is not to say Prescott could be Mississippi State’s first 3,000-yard passer, even in an age where crossing that benchmark and more is commonplace even in the SEC grind. He may end up too productive in the run game and read option to put up prolific passing numbers. Prescott is a dual threat who passed for 2,134 yards and rushed for 947.
Prescott’s accuracy in the deep passing game needs work, but if he can add that to his repertoire, he may be the complete package.
For a quarterback, he doesn’t shy away from hits, earning the respect of his defensive teammates. More than that, Prescott impressed teammates by playing against Texas A&M in November last season, less than a week after he lost his mother Peggy to a long bout with colon cancer.
Prescott said it was the toughest time of his life but told his teammates that his mom would want him to play.
“When he lost his mom, you didn’t know something was wrong with him,” linebacker Bernardrick McKinney said.
That determination may bode well for a quarterback with a chance to do things no one else at Mississippi State has done.
“Everyone wants their name in the history books, but it’s not something I’m looking for,” Prescott said. “I don’t want to have the most yards in Mississippi State history. I want to be the winningest quarterback in Mississippi State history.”
HOOVER, Ala. — If you have a question for Kevin Sumlin about a quarterback, maybe start with Case Keenum, his record-breaker at Houston. Or Sam Bradford, whom he coached at Oklahoma.
Sumlin’s not going to talk about Kyle Allen or Kenny Hill, one of which will make his first career start against South Carolina to start the season.
And he doesn’t have time for your stinkin' questions about Johnny Manziel.
“Is this SEC Media Days?” Sumlin asked following a question leading with Manziel party photos. “That’s a great question about the Cleveland Browns. Anybody else got something?”
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Now, Sumlin’s not being mean-spirited. This is said in jest.
But it’s also clear that Sumlin believes the Manziel circus has left town. The 2012 Heisman Trophy winner was one of the most important figures in A&M history, ushering the Aggies into the SEC era. The Manziel absence and the lack of a clear successor casts a shadow over the program.
Certainly, a worthy topic is how A&M moves on, but getting Sumlin to address it head on in a public forum may be a challenge.
“Let me get this straight, the question was: What's it like not coaching Johnny Manziel,” Sumlin said.
Indeed it was.
“You wouldn't be so excited if you hadn't recruited the Gatorade Player of the Year out of the state of Texas at quarterback and the No. 1 quarterback in the country behind him,” Sumlin said. “We understand, I understand there's not going to be another Johnny Manziel, the way he played the game, that's all part of it.”
HOOVER, Ala. — Steve Spurrier likes to squeeze in impressive facts on the sly.
He snuck in that his tenure has seen South Carolina's first win in Knoxville and first win in Gainesville since Carolina joined the SEC. “Somebody told me,” he amends. He’s not wrong either.
But one factoid surprised even Steve Spurrier.
He’ll be the first coach in SEC history to spend 10 years at two different schools when he completes his first decade at South Carolina this season.
That brings about the question: Is Spurrier’s second act in the SEC at South Carolina’s coach more impressive than his first act at Florida?
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If Spurrier stays at South Carolina until 2017 he would have been the Gamecocks coach longer than he was the coach for the Gators. When he retires, he’ll be arguably the most important coach in either program’s history.
At SEC Media Day on Tuesday, a Florida columnist asked Spurrier if winning the SEC at South Carolina would be more impressive than doing it at Florida. The NCAA record books — as Spurrier often says — credits him with the first SEC title in Florida history. (The 1984 title has been vacated by the NCAA).
The Gators won six official SEC titles and the 1996 title under Spurrier. The 1990 title, again, was won on the field, but it was erased due to sanctions.
Although Florida achieved more under Spurrier than South Carolina has so far, Spurrier notes the head start in Gainesville.
“When I got to Florida in 1990, the team was already there,” Spurrier said. “There was no recruiting to be done for about two years. ... They were ready to play, offense, defense.”
When Spurrier started at South Carolina, the Gamecocks had one booster who had donated $1 million. Now that number has exceeded a dozen.
“The big donors are very important, extremely important to all athletic programs. There's no question about that,” he said. “You got to have the facilities to keep up. Within the last eight, nine years at South Carolina, ours are up there amongst the best now. That's been a big reason for our success.”
That success has meant three consecutive 11-win seasons and three consecutive top-10 seasons. Before Spurrier, South Carolina had never even gone to bowl games in three consecutive seasons.
Not bad for a second act even Spurrier didn’t expect before a short-lived experiment with the Washington Redskins.
“When I left Florida after 12 years, I thought I was going to coach NFL five or six years and retire to the beach and play golf a bunch and travel around,” Spurrier said. “That was a bad plan. Later you found out, that was not a real good idea. But that's the way I was thinking back then. ...
“I wanted to go out a winner, not a loser.”
The middle of summer is upon us, and for many elite high school prospects, that means 7-on-7 competitions.
If quarterbacks, receivers and running backs aren’t working on passing skeletons in their spare time, they’re probably at one of the showcases or tournaments.
Last week’s 7-on-7 drills at The Opening in Beaverton, Ore., and this week’s National Select 7-on-7 championship in Hoover, Ala., have us wondering which college team would have the best 7-on-7 squad in 2014.
Take away the offensive line and the defense, which offenses would we want to watch play against air? We’ve noted the national unit rankings for quarterbacks, running backs and receivers as published in our 2014 preview magazines.
A silly exercise, but it is the middle of July.
1. Florida State
Athlon national unit rankings for 2014:
QB: 1 | RB: 7 | WR/TE: 4
Could it be anyone else? The returning Heisman winner at quarterback is the headliner here, but Jameis Winston still has plenty of company despite personnel departures. Kelvin Benjamin and his 15 touchdown catches are gone as are the top two running backs. Rashad Greene may become the school’s career-leading receiver, and Kermit Whitfield and Isaiah Jones are up-and-comers. Nick O’Leary, who averaged 16.9 yards per catch last season, could be the nation’s top tight end. Former safety Karlos Williams proved himself a breakaway threat at running back with 8.0 yards per carry last season. Even while playing against live defenses, Florida State led the nation at 7.7 yards per play.
Athlon national unit rankings for 2014:
QB: 4 | RB: 19 | WR/TE: 2
Baylor sure looked like a 7-on-7 squad early last season, when it racked up numbers at a record pace against an overmatched non-conference schedule. Eventually, the Bears proved it had depth, too. Receiver Levi Norwood and running back Shock Linwood stepped in for injured starters, and Baylor didn’t miss a beat. Both return in bigger roles this season. And then there’s Bryce Petty, who finished last season with 32 touchdowns and three interceptions in his first season as a starter. He’ll have two returning starters at receiver back in Antwan Goodley and Corey Coleman.
Athlon national unit rankings for 2014:
QB: 6 | RB: 14 | WR/TE: 7
In a league short on experienced quarterbacks, Auburn will have a leg up on the SEC with Nick Marshall. The Tigers want Marshall to develop as a passer this season. A year ago, backing off Marshall the passer and focusing on the run game helped turned Auburn into SEC champions. A year after averaging 21.5 yards per catch, Sammie Coates earned a spot atop Bruce Feldman’s annual “freaks” list. Auburn should have plenty of bodies in the run game to replace Tre Mason. The question is how Cameron Artis-Payne, the speedy Corey Grant, inside zone threat Peyton Barber and talented freshmen will end up in the rotation.
Athlon national unit rankings for 2014:
QB: NR | RB: 1 | WR/TE: 1
Alabama is back to the two-man running back tandem after T.J. Yeldon rushed 115 times more than anyone else last season. Yeldon and Sugar Bowl star Derrick Henry may come closer to approaching the Yeldon/Eddie Lacy duo in 2012 that topped 2,400 yards. Breakaway threat Amari Cooper leads the a veteran receivers group, and O.J. Howard is a weapon at tight end few Nick Saban teams have had. The question is Florida State transfer Jacob Coker. Jimbo Fisher has talked him up since the quarterback left Tallahassee, but he’s still an unknown quantity.
Athlon national unit rankings for 2014:
QB: NR | RB: 2 | WR/TE: 3
Georgia would have had one of the best 7-on-7 teams last season had this group stayed healthy. The Bulldogs will make another run for it this season, though with senior Hutson Mason replacing SEC career leading passer Aaron Murray. The star here, though, is Todd Gurley. Think he’s a big deal? Georgia averaged two yards per play more on drives when Gurley carried compared to when he didn’t. The receiver group is deep, especially if it can stay healthy. Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley missed significant time last season, but that allowed Chris Conley and Michael Bennett, who missed two games with an MCL injury, take more prominent roles.
Athlon national unit rankings for 2014:
QB: 2 | RB: 10 | WR/TE: NR
Marcus Mariota is much more effective when he can run, but he still finished last season with 31 touchdowns and four interceptions despite a balky knee for a stretch. Running back as usual is loaded for Oregon with Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner (1,739 yards, 23 touchdowns combined) returning. The question will be at receiver with sure-handed receiver Josh Huff gone and Bralon Addison out with a torn ACL.
Athlon national unit rankings for 2014:
QB: NR | RB: 8 | WR/TE: 9
Cody Kessler’s season took off in 2013 after the coaching switch, culminating with 344 yards and four touchdowns in the bowl game against Fresno State. Receiver Marqise Lee is out, but USC as usual has another star No. 1 receiver ready to take over in Nelson Agholor. The underrated portion may be the running backs where Buck Allen emerged under the new coaching staff for 785 yards and 15 total touchdowns. The best news in all of this: Offensive coordinator Clay Helton is back.
Athlon national unit rankings for 2014:
QB: 5 | RB: NR | WR/TE: 18
Brett Hundley will keep UCLA in Pac-12 contention after passing for more than 3,000 yards and rushing for more than 700 to go with 35 total touchdowns. Leading receiver Shaq Evans is gone, but the next four players in line are sophomores and juniors ready to break out. Running back needs an upgrade after linebacker Myles Jack swooped in and propped up the run game with seven rushing touchdowns.
9. Michigan State
Athlon national unit rankings for 2014:
QB: 11 | RB: 11 | WR/TE: 17
Michigan State may not be the program anyone names when it comes to dynamic offense, but the 2014 skill positions are solid across the board. Mark Dantonio trusted Connor Cook with more of the offense as the season went along, and Jeremy Langford topped 100 yards in eight consecutive games before the Rose Bowl victory. The receiver group led by Tony Lippett is deep and underrated.
10. Ohio State
Athlon national unit rankings for 2014:
QB: 3 | RB: 15 | WR/TE: 19
Braxton Miller remains one of the nation’s most dynamic quarterbacks, and he’s continuing to get better. His completion percentage went up five points from last season with only a marginal change in yards per attempt. Devin Smith can be a deep threat at receiver, and Evan Spencer is a returning starter. Carlos Hyde is a major loss at running back, so Miller may be under more pressure to handle a heavy burden of the offense.
11. North Carolina
Athlon national unit rankings for 2014:
QB: 19 | RB: 24 | WR/TE: 12
Though his end of season statistics were boosted by a 409-yard, five-touchdown performance against Old Dominion, Marquise Williams did enough in the air and on the ground to signal he could be the best ACC quarterback not named Jameis. North Carolina has a pair of 6-4 receivers (Quinshad Davis and Bug Howard) who combined for 14 touchdown catches last season to go with an effective committee of running backs.
Others of note: BYU, Ole Miss, Stanford, Texas A&M
HOOVER, Ala. — In baseball, most pinch-hitters take their at-bat and head back to the dugout. It’s one hitter, one pitcher and the day is done.
Auburn tight end C.J. Uzomah pinch hit for more than three hours, taking the best (and sadly, the worst) the SEC media contingent had to offer.
When Auburn coach Gus Malzahn pulled his SEC champion quarterback Nick Marshall from the media day roster Monday, he called on Uzomah.
Instead of a quarterback who passed for more than 1,900 yards and rushed for more than 1,000, Uzomah and his 17 career receptions represented Auburn at media day. Instead of a quarterback who had just been cited for marijuana possession over the weekend, Auburn sent a senior who otherwise expected to enjoy a quiet Monday.
“It is a privilege and a reward to represent Auburn here at the SEC Media Days,” Malzahn said. “Last Friday Nick lost that privilege.”
But is it really a privilege, hearing the same questions over and over again, many of which were the same questions back in the spring and the fall? There’s a way for a player to survive media day. Here’s what we learned from following Uzomah and asking some seasoned vets for the survival guide.
As Alabama quarterback-turned-ESPN and Sirius XM host Greg McElroy says, “appreciate the hassle.”
Lead image borrowed from @SEC.
Rule 1: Call mom
The first call to replace Marshall went from Mazlahn to Uzomah. The second was from Uzomah to mom.
Some teams will show up in suits. Some will show up in team polos. Auburn went for suits, and Uzomah didn’t have one on campus.
Never underestimate mom’s devotion to make a kid look good. His mom drove two-and-half hours from Suwanee, Ga., to Auburn, Ala., to bring him his suit.
Maybe mom didn’t bring dress socks. Maybe she did, but Uzomah wasn’t going to pass on a chance to turn his socks into a conversation piece. Uzomah is a U.S. soccer fan and used red, white and blue socks with a small flag hanging off the ankle.
Like Uzomah, Florida’s Dante Fowler called mom for a trip to Men’s Warehouse. Mom picked out the suit, but Fowler needed to accessorize.
“I saw a bow tie, and I said as long as I get this bow tie I’m fine,” Fowler said. “(Defensive lineman) Alex McCallister tied it for me. It was too tight on my neck, but Alex is 6-7 so his long arms helped out.”
Rule 2: Prep for questions
Even on media day, players need to put in some study time. Media has its own tendencies just like any offense or defense.
All of Auburn’s players had to answer to some degree for Marshall. Did he address the team (he did). Does he still have the team’s trust (he does).
“We prepared just like it was a game,” Uzomah said.
When McElroy came for media day before his senior season in 2010, he and his teammates knew most of the questions that were going to be asked.
“What’s Nick Saban like? What’s Trent (Richardson) like? What’s Mark Ingram like? Can you win the national championship? Can you do it again?” McElroy said. “We knew what the questions are going to be.”
Here’s where C.J. Uzomah was for SEC Media Day:
12:00-12:10 Fox Sports South
12:30-12:50 Print/Online Media
1:30-1:40 SEC Video
1:40-1:50 Sirius XM
1:50-2:00 SEC Radio
2:10-2:40 Radio Row
Jeff Driskel, another veteran quarterback, knew the drill Monday, too, although no one was going to ask about going to the national championship game.
He plopped himself down in front of the media horde.
“Do I just pick someone?”
“All right. Let’s do this.”
Then the standard series of questions on Florida’s new hurry-up offense, Will Muschamp on the hot seat, and his recovery from a broken right leg.
“I’m feeling great ... thanks for asking.”
Rule 3: Stay on schedule
There’s one person on media day whose influence trumps anyone but the coach: The 5-foot-4 woman keeping players on schedule from the main print media room to breakout rooms for SEC broadcast rights holders ESPN and CBS.
Uzomah may be on a roll. The lingering media may still have follow ups. Two more questions in the media pool means two more questions. Exactly.
“She’s the boss,” Uzomah said as he was whisked from newspaper reporters to TV reporters.
And a harsh reminder for reporters: The follow-up to the last question doesn’t start the clock over again.
“They always want to ask more questions,” grumbled one of Monday’s timekeepers.
Rule 4: Have patience
Not only is Uzomah pinch-hitting. He’s putting in extra time.
A radio row trip isn’t on the schedule, but Auburn wants to get its player to local radio outlets and another in the Atlanta area, where Uzomah played in high school.
The first question in one interview with Uzomah: “Is it ‘Ooh-zah-mah’ or ‘Ooh-zoe-mah?’” Answer: Ooh-zah-mah.
The final statement in said interview: “We’re here with C.J. ‘Ooh-zoe-mah.’”
In between: Several questions about Nick Marshall and yet more questions about how Auburn’s spread offense can improve.
“To me, it was a bit of a drag,” McElroy said. “Because it's room after room. You can’t hit everyone all at once, you’re hitting different questions at different times. I remember leaving here and taking a nap on the way home.”
Rule 5: Embrace the fans
The circus atmosphere of a media day is ramped up a notch for Auburn and Alabama in Hoover. The lobby of the Hyatt Regency on the day the Iron Bowl rivals speak is often laced with dozens of fans from 8 a.m. until the afternoon.
As Uzomah exited the main media ballroom onto radio row — the collection of stations conducting live radio shows in the Hyatt Regency lobby — he was greeted at the end of the escalator with chants of “War Eagle.”
In the middle of a TV interview, a fan walks by and says, “War Eagle.” Uzomah interrupts his own answer to respond in kind.
Uzomah is in the final minutes of being herded like cattle from interview to interview to autograph seekers back to interviews. Is this a privilege or a penance?
“I love it,” Uzomah said. “I’m having fun.”
HOOVER, Ala. — Will Muschamp opened his meeting with the media in Hoover with an 11-minute filibuster, acknowledging the business of his future employment but still putting off any real questions.
“There will be a lot of chatter about hot seat business,” Muschamp said, unprompted. “That's part of it. The way you combat that is having a winning football team and winning football games, which is what we're going to do.”
The “hot seat” is the media cliche of the preseason — who is on it, who is off, what does a coach need to do to get off of it or get fired.
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After a 4-8 season, Muschamp draws the hot seat straw in the SEC this year, joining names like Derek Dooley, Joker Phillips and Houston Nutt (twice).
“There was never any time in my mind that I didn't think I would be retained,” Muschamp said.
After home losses to Vanderbilt and Georgia Southern and one of the worst offenses in the country, Muschamp isn’t defending record as much as he’s trying to instill hope.
The record includes a Sugar Bowl but also the worst Florida season since 0-10-1 in 1979. The hope is that the offense won’t be ranked around teams like Eastern Michigan, Memphis, UConn and Idaho.
For that, Muschamp added Duke’s Kurt Roper, his third offensive coordinator in four seasons. The move is expected to add more shotgun offense, more quick passes and more running opportunities for quarterback Jeff Driskel, recruited in the spread option under former coach Urban Meyer.
The hope is also that Florida will stay healthier. Driskel was lost for the season in September. The injuries continued with Driskel’s backup, Tyler Murphy, and a host of other players on offense.
By the end of the season, trainer Paul Silvestri visited Muschamp in the defensive coaching room at 10 p.m. one day game week. Silvestri was rarely in the football office at that time of night. He was this night to tell to coach that offensive lineman Tyler Moore injured his elbow in a scooter accident.
“I can't tell you exactly what I said, but it wasn't good,” Muschamp said. “That was at a point where, you know, I asked him, You got to be kidding? That was a point where, you know, it was just very frustrating.”
Was it the injuries? Was it the offense? Was it bad luck? Or was it Muschamp?
Florida may find out this season.
“I’ve mentioned it multiple times today, there is no pressure,” Driskel said. “Every coach is on the hot seat.”
HOOVER, Ala. — Invoking quotes from Dwight D. Eisenhower, Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela, SEC commissioner Mike Slive on Monday reiterated his goal to change the NCAA's legislative process granting more autonomy for the five power conferences.
Slive outlined the goals of the SEC, ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 to have autonomy in decision-making within in the NCAA or establish a new division. Slive’s statements at SEC Media Day on Monday mirrored his statements earlier in the spring.
Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany have made similar such statements.
“We are not deaf to the din of discontent across collegiate athletics that has dominated the news,” Slive said.
“The educational and cultural significance of intercollegiate athletics is far too important for us not to seek positive solutions to existing challenges. This is why we have been actively engaged in building a bridge to provide a needed avenue of change for the NCAA with the primary objective of enhancing the support enjoyed by Division I student‑athletes while maintaining and preserving the collegiate model.”
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Autonomy would allow the SEC and the other four power conferences more ability to offer full cost-of-attendance scholarships, expanded health care and scholarships beyond five years.
The NCAA board of directors is expected to vote on autonomy in August.
“As I have said before, if we do not achieve a positive outcome under the existing big tent of Division I, we will need to consider the establishment of a venue with similar conferences and institutions where we can enact the desired changes in the best interests of our student‑athletes” Slive said.
College football has made plenty of news this summer, and some of it hasn’t involved attorneys or conference realignment.
The summer — officially — has recently begun, but it’s starting to feel like the season is just around the corner. Part of that is because we’re less than 50 days away from the first day of the season. And SEC media days, the unofficial kickoff to the preseason, begins next week.
Rosters are starting to settle into place with transfers in, transfers out and all the violations of team rules to bring about suspensions and dismissals.
If you’ve stepped away from the minutiae of college football news, that’s OK. We’ll help you get caught up. Here are the key developments since spring practice that could impact the 2014 season.
1. Oklahoma takes a chance on Dorial Green-Beckham
The dismissal of Dorial Green-Beckham from Missouri in April was perhaps the biggest personnel shakeup in college football in spring practice. That is, until he landed at Oklahoma. The Sooners may seek a waiver for Green-Beckham to play this season since he was dismissed from Missouri rather than leaving as a traditional transfer. That he was dismissed after he was named a suspect in a burglary incident could make a waiver unlikely. According to the police report, Green-Beckham pushed a woman down at least four stairs, but the alleged victim declined to prosecute. Whether he’s eligible in 2014 or 2015, Oklahoma adds a former No. 1 overall recruit who amassed 883 receiving yards with 12 touchdowns for the SEC East champions.
2. Jameis Winston experiences summer as a Heisman winner
Every summer news nugget is a little bigger and a little more ridiculous for underclassman Heisman winners. Just ask Tim Tebow and Johnny Manziel and now Jameis Winston. The sophomore quarterback brought some of this on himself when he walked out of a grocery store without paying for crab legs, an alleged heist that launched a thousand memes. Other than that, Winston spent the summer with the Florida State baseball team, striking out 31 batters in 33.1 innings, and took out an $8-10 million “loss of value” insurance policy. The latter is notable because he is the first defending Heisman winner since Sam Bradford to purchase such a policy. Others have purchased “total permanent disability” policies.
3. Max Wittek did not end up at Texas
At one point, Texas looked like it would have former USC starting quarterback Max Wittek in its fall camp as a contender for the job in 2014. Those plans fell apart when Wittek did not graduate in spring and wouldn’t be eligible for the upcoming season. Instead, Wittek may walk on at Hawaii and be eligible in 2015. That leaves incumbent David Ash and Tyrone Swoopes and Jerrod Heard at Texas’ quarterback position.
4. Washington regains a quarterback, loses a receiver
For most of spring practice, the assumption was that Cyler Miles would eventually become Washington’s starting quarterback this season. That came a step closer to becoming official when coach Chris Petersen lifted his three-month suspension. At the same time, wide receiver Damore’ea Stringfellow transferred to Ole Miss. Both players were mentioned in an alleged assault of Seahawks fans on the night of the Super Bowl. Miles was not charged, and Stringfellow pleaded guilty to three misdemeanors.
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5. Jake Heaps joins uncertain QB situation in Miami
Solid (or better) quarterback play at Miami used to be a given. That hasn’t been the case for a few years, and certainly not this offseason. Projected starter Ryan Williams went down with a torn ACL in April, and although he told reporters he’s hopeful to return in time for the opener, that’s a quick turnaround for knee reconstruction. If Williams is unavailable, Miami’s quarterbacks are down to redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen, who struggled in the spring, two true freshmen and now Jake Heaps. Heaps was a highly regarded prospect out of high school but lost a starting job at BYU and then Kansas before transferring to Miami. Heaps has thrown 32 touchdowns and 27 interceptions in three seasons.
6. No more Joker Phillips at Florida
The revolving door that is Florida’s wide receiver coach position continued when Phillips resigned abruptly in early June. Phillips was photographed sitting with a recruit in a restaurant during a dead period in recruiting, according to Yahoo! Sports. He was replaced by graduate assistant and former Florida quarterback Chris Leak, the fourth receivers coach in four seasons. This also means the end to awkward photoshops.
7. Missouri loses an assistant
Schools lose assistants all the time, but the retirement of co-offensive line coach Bruce Walker was unique on a couple of fronts. First, Walker retired in July. Second, he was a part of one of the most stable coaching staffs in the country. Walker was one of six assistants who had been with Gary Pinkel at least since he started at Missouri in 2001.
8. Clemson spends $4.42 million on assistants
How much is a coaching staff worth? At Clemson, the value is nearing $4.5 million. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables and defensive ends coach Mario Hobby both earned raises, and the entire staff earned deals to extend them for the next two years. Offensive coordinator Chad Morris, a potential head coaching candidate, was the only assistant who did not get a new deal.
9. Eastern Michigan announced it will start losing on a new field
OK. So we made part of that up. But Eastern Michigan rarely wins and decided to upgrade its field with a new gray turf at Rynearson Stadium that will be nicknamed “the Factory.”
10. St. Petersburg Bowl gets new sponsor
Normally, bowl sponsors aren’t big news ... unless said sponsor makes weedeaters or slays taxes. Joining the pantheon of great bowl sponsors is the virtual currency Bitcoin, which will sponsor the St. Petersburg Bowl.
11. James Franklin ruffles feathers
The SEC is normally ground zero for coaches saying interesting things on the booster and fan fest circuit. Nice to know James Franklin took that with him from Vanderbilt to Penn State. Franklin said Maryland may as well be the Nittany Lions’ home state and other programs “don’t have a chance.” Maryland coach Randy Edsall responded by saying “talk is cheap.” Worth noting that Maryland and Penn State are now division rivals in the Big Ten and Franklin was once Maryland’s head coach-in-waiting.
12. Clint Trickett named West Virginia’s starting quarterback
Most starting quarterback announcements either occur at the end of spring or during preseason camp. There are a handful, though, that trickle out during the summer. West Virginia announced Clint Trickett as its starting quarterback for the opener against Alabama after he recovered from shoulder surgery. Trickett, the Florida State transfer, started at West Virginia during the second half of last season, including an improbable win over Oklahoma State.
13. Utah quarterback Travis Wilson cleared to play
The Utes quarterback will get a chance to finish off his career on a high note after he was cleared in late June to return to football. Doctors had been watching an injury to an intracranial artery, an ailment discovered after Wilson sustained a concussion Nov. 9. Utah started 4-2 last season, including an upset of Stanford before a hand injury derailed Wilson’s and Utah’s seasons.
14. Notre Dame gets DaVaris Daniels back
Notre Dame’s most experienced receiver was reinstated after academic concerns held him out of spring practice. Between Daniels’ return to the team and Everett Golson’s return from a year-long absence, the Irish have at least one formidable pass-catch duo down the field.
15. Lastly, a few of the notable dismissals, departures and transfers:
• Texas A&M’s struggling defense took a hit when the Aggies dismissed starting linebacker Darian Claiborne (89 tackles) and nose guard Isaiah Golden after they were charged with aggravated robbery in June.
• The Aggies’ quarterback situation also cleared out when Matt Joeckel elected to transfer to TCU. He’ll be eligible in 2014 as a graduate transfer and could compete for the starting job.
• Georgia dismissed projected starting safety Tray Matthews after he was one of four players charged with theft by deception after allegedly trying to cash scholarship checks twice. Matthews announced he intends to transfer to Auburn.
• Miami immediately dismissed linebacker Alexander Figueroa, a projected starter, and Jawand Blue after they were charged with sexual battery on a physically helpless victim on July 5.
• Baylor dismissed wide receiver Robbie Rhodes, one of the school’s major recruiting victories in 2013. Rhodes had been arrested in May on charges of marijuana possession and tampering with physical evidence. A second violation of team rules during the summer prompted his dismissal.
• Indiana quarterback Tre Roberson announced he’d transfer. Roberson had passed for 2,443 yards and 20 touchdowns and rushed for 973 yards the last three seasons. Roberson was expected to share the job with Nate Sudfeld.
• After a move from part-time quarterback to full-time wide receiver, Kansas State’s Daniel Sams transferred to McNeese State, where he’ll be eligible immediately.
• UConn running back Lyle McCombs won’t return to the Huskies after new coach Bob Diaco announced he was no longer with the team. McCombs is the schools fourth-leading career rusher.
As Steve Sarkisian packed up his boxes in Seattle to take the USC job, the former Washington coach closed the door on another part of his life — his 30s.
Sarkisian attained one of the best positions in college football before his 40th birthday, but just barely. Sarkisian turned 40 three months after taking the USC job, taking him off our annual list of college football coaches under the age of 40.
Even without Sarkisian, this year’s list still features some notable names. Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern, despite a rocky finish to last season, claims our top spot for the final time before he joins Sark in the 40-and-up club.
Who will be poised to be the top coach under 40 next season? Kliff Kingsbury at Texas Tech would be a good candidate after his stock rose after one season as a head coach. A number of assistant coaches are also worth watching this season and as their careers progress in the coming years.
*ages are as of Sept. 1, 2014.
1. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern head coach
Buzz: The 2013 season ended in a tailspin as the Wildcats lost seven in a row starting with a fourth-quarter collapse against Ohio State. That’s not going to take Fitzgerald off this list in his final year of eligibility before hitting the big 4-0. The 5-7 mark in 2013 was an aberration. Just a year earlier, Fitzgerald led Northwestern to a 10-3 season, a top-20 finish and the Wildcats’ first bowl win since the 1949 Rose Bowl. With its recruiting limitations, Northwestern rarely will contend for the Big Ten title, but Fitz has the formula for reaching bowl games at Northwestern down to a science.
2. Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech head coach
Buzz: Kingsbury’s first team may never have been as good as its 7-0 start suggested. Texas Tech lost five in a row to close the regular season before a 37-23 win over Pac-12 South champion Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl. Considering the revolving door at quarterback, Kingsbury had a solid debut as a head coach. As one of the youngest coaches in the FBS, Kingsbury brings the cool factor to Lubbock, but also one of the nation’s most productive offenses. Texas Tech led the nation in plays per game last season (87.3).
3. Willie Taggart, USF head coach
Buzz: Taggart’s record in his first season at USF was ugly at 2-10. Until further notice, Taggart should get the benefit of the doubt. He inherited a team short on talent, especially on offense. Still, USF found a way to beat Cincinnati in October and allowed 4.7 yards per play in the last four games. There's reason to believe he'll get USF turned around. Taggart also started 2-10 at Western Kentucky before building the Hilltoppers into a viable FBS program.
4. Matt Campbell, Toledo head coach
Buzz: In two seasons under Campbell, Toledo continues to be one of the MAC’s top programs and a regular fixture in those mid-week shootouts in November. Even though Toledo missed a bowl game last season, the Rockets finished 7-5 overall and 5-3 in the MAC. Toledo also has averaged better than six yards per play in four of five seasons with Campbell has offensive coordinator or head coach.
5. Kirby Smart, Alabama defensive coordinator
Buzz: With how much Smart’s name has been in the rumor mill, it may be tough to believe he’s still in the under-40 crowd. That’s what happens when you go from the playing field to a full-time gig for Nick Saban in six years. Smart has spent all but one season of the last decade working for Saban — the exception being one year as running backs coach at his alma mater Georgia. Saban gets his share of the credit for the defense, but he’s also made Smart the second-highest paid assistant in the country. That has to count for something.
6. Justin Fuente, Memphis head coach
Buzz: The record is not impressive at 7-17 in two seasons at Memphis, but it's a long way from where the Tigers were. Indeed, the Tigers have had a long climb from the 5-31 mark the three seasons before Fuente arrived. The Tigers are becoming more competitive, especially on defense. Memphis has lost six one-score games the last two seasons, including a 24-17 loss to Fiesta Bowl winner UCF.
7. Bryan Harsin, Boise State head coach
Buzz: Harsin became the third one-and-done head coach at Arkansas State, joining Hugh Freeze and Gus Malzahn with a short-lived tenure in Jonesboro. Programs are gobbling up Arkansas State coaches with good reason. Arkansas State earned a share of the Sun Belt title under Harsin to reach a third consecutive bowl game. Harsin returns to Boise State where the Broncos went 84-8 when he was an assistant under Chris Petersen.
8. Justin Wilcox, USC defensive coordinator
Buzz: Wilcox helped remake the Washington defense under Steve Sarkisian the last two seasons. The Huskies improved from 10th in the Pac-12 in yards per play the year before Wilcox arrived to tied for third last season. For the first time since he was at Boise State, Wilcox won’t be starting from scratch at a new job. USC returns eight defensive starters — surely a different situation than what Wilcox inherited at his last two stops at Washington and Tennessee.
9. Tom Herman, Ohio State offensive coordinator
Buzz: Even though Urban Meyer remains a spread option guru, his offensive coordinator merits attention. Herman has coached an offense that has gone 24-2 the last two seasons, despite an injury to Braxton Miller and a work-in-progress offensive line. Before that, Herman was offensive coordinator for the Iowa State team that upset Oklahoma State’s BCS championship game bid in 2011 and a Rice team that won 10 games. As a bonus, he’s a former Mensa member.
10. Scott Frost, Oregon offensive coordinator
Buzz: Frost is only a year into his job as offensive coordinator, but this post at Oregon has a pretty good track record for head coaches, including Jeff Tedford, Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich. Scott doesn’t have as long a coaching resume as some of the names on this list, partly because he was in the NFL until 2003. He’s made up for it as an assistant coach in four BCS games.
11. Mike Norvell, Arizona State offensive coordinator
Buzz: Todd Graham is usually associated with the offensive side of the ball even though he has a defensive background. That’s because Graham has hired Gus Malzahn and Chad Morris to run his offense. Norvell has been at the position ever since Graham went to Pittsburgh.
12. Dave Aranda, Wisconsin defensive coordinator
Buzz: Aranda is finally getting the attention he deserves now that he’s in the Big Ten. Aranda installed a 3-4 defense at Wisconsin last season as the Badgers finished second in the league in rush defense and third in total defense. Before Wisconsin, Aranda led big play-happy defenses at Utah State and Hawaii.
13. Rhett Lashlee, Auburn offensive coordinator
Buzz: Gus Malzahn received plenty of credit for Auburn’s offenses in 2013 and 2010, but it would be tough to find anyone more steeped in Malzahn’s hurry-up no-huddle than Lashlee. The 30-year-old played for Malzahn at Springdale (Ark.) and worked with him at Arkansas, Arkansas State and now Auburn.
14. D.J. Durkin, Florida defensive coordinator
Buzz: Florida’s struggles might not cut into Durkin’s career goals. He’s a standout defensive coordinator and one of the Gators’ top recruiters. His resume also goes back to Bowling Green with Urban Meyer.
15. Lincoln Riley, East Carolina offensive coordinator
Buzz: Perhaps the lowest-profile name on this list, Riley may be a target for an offensive coordinator for a major program in short order. His four seasons have produced the top four passing seasons in school history. He started his career as Texas Tech’s wide receivers coach under Mike Leach, a job that has proven to put assistants on the fast track.
“Finally, the poo-bahs of major college football have seen the light. Smelled the money. They’ve broken from the past, from almost a century of polls and bowls, and embraced a national playoff.”
Those sentences appeared in Athlon Sports’ 1995 preseason annual as the conferences and the bowls began work on agreements for an updated postseason. The whiff of a college football playoff was in the air as Athlon contributor Steve Wieberg — who is now on the inaugural College Football Playoff selection committee — wrote about a hypothetical single-elimination tournament for the 1997 season.
We didn’t get the playoff then. We got the BCS.
After 15 years of confusion and hand-wringing over polls and computer rankings, the BCS has come to an end. The conferences, schools and bowls will join the rest of civilized sporting society and determine a champion through a playoff this season.
The name itself is designed to be a tribute to its simplicity: The College Football Playoff. From the same power structure that brought a Bowl Alliance (that didn’t include the Rose Bowl) and a Bowl Championship Series (that wasn’t a “series” at all) comes a title that says exactly what it is.
College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock wants the process of selecting teams to be just as simple.
“The term we are using is ‘the best teams,’” Hancock says. “We are not getting into the nuance of the debate of ‘best’ and ‘most deserving.’ We think ‘best’ says it all.”
The name is simple. The goals and execution of the CFP are not. All the Playoff needs to accomplish is to be all things to all people. Yep, that’s it.
The Playoff needs to have the legitimacy of crowning a true, one and only, national champion for the first time in the history of the college football postseason. It needs to preserve the excitement on college campuses during the shortest regular season in major sports.
The Playoff, perhaps to the chagrin of some fans, also needs to preserve the traditional bowl system that has existed since 1902.
Most important, the Playoff is meant to restore teeth to college football’s presence during the New Year’s holiday. Beyond expanding the field of teams that can play for a national championship from two to four, the new format aims to reclaim the New Year’s holiday for college football.
Not that college football was ever absent from Dec. 31 and Jan. 1, but the title game the following week and BCS games throughout the week diluted the teams and matchups for what traditionally has been college football’s signature day.
That won’t be the case in the next three seasons, with Jan. 1 hosting the national semifinals this season and New Year’s Eve hosting the semifinals following the 2015 and 2016 seasons.
This is supposed to be a solution to a postseason that’s been unsatisfying for many fans even before the BCS era. Take the four best teams, have them play during a national holiday and have two of them meet for a national championship roughly a week later.
What could go wrong?
Here are some F.A.Q.’s about the new system and some straightforward answers (where they’re available).
What is the least I need to know about this Playoff?
Here’s How the Postseason Might Look With Our Rankings As a Template
Step 1: The selection committee ranks and assigns teams to the semifinals.
Let’s say the top four is: No. 1 Florida State (ACC champion), No. 2 Alabama (SEC champion), No. 3 Ohio State (Big Ten champion) and No. 4 Oklahoma (Big 12 champion):
Sugar Bowl semifinal:
No. 1 Florida State vs. No. 4 Oklahoma
Rose Bowl semifinal:
No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 3 Ohio State
Step 2: The contract bowls fill their spots.
The Orange Bowl fulfills its contract with the ACC by selecting No. 21 Clemson, the best available team from the ACC, to replace Florida State, and No. 5 Auburn, the highest-ranked team remaining among the SEC, Big Ten and Notre Dame. The Orange Bowl is not necessarily obligated to select the highest-ranked remaining team from the ACC, however.
Step 3: The pool of teams for the six remaining bowl slots is determined.
The Pac-12 champion, contracted to play in the Rose Bowl in non-Playoff years, is guaranteed a slot in the Cotton, Fiesta or Peach since it is not part of the Playoff. In our rankings, that team is No. 6 Oregon. The committee also determines the highest-ranked team outside of the “Group of Five,” which is guaranteed a bid. In our rankings, that team is No. 40 Marshall. The final four spots — the at-large bids, if you will — go to the highest-ranked remaining teams: No. 7 UCLA, No. 8 Georgia, No. 9 South Carolina and No. 10 Baylor.
Step 4: The selection committee assigns the remaining six spots in the New Year’s Day bowls with the best remaining teams in the rankings, being mindful of geography and avoiding rematches or repeat trips to a bowl. The selection committee may assign bowls as follows:
Fiesta: No. 6 Oregon vs. No. 9 South Carolina
Cotton: No. 7 UCLA vs. No. 10 Baylor
Peach: No. 8 Georgia vs. No. 40 Marshall
Who hosts the championship game and semifinals?
The championship game will rotate among locations, starting with AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, for 2014-15, University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., in 2015-16 and Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., in 2016-17.
The answer for the semifinals is a little more complicated. Six bowl games will rotate between hosting semifinals and premier New Year’s Day and New Year’s Eve bowl games. In 2014-15, the Sugar and Rose bowls will host semifinals on Jan. 1 while the Cotton (Jan. 1) and Orange, Peach and Fiesta bowls (Dec. 31) host other top games determined by the Playoff Selection Committee. In 2015-16, the Orange and Cotton bowls will host the semifinals before passing the baton to the Peach and Fiesta bowls in 2016-17. The College Football Playoff brass is calling the semifinals and other four premier bowls the “New Year’s Six.” Think of the non-Playoff bowls as the non-championship “BCS” games under a new name.
What will the selection committee do?
The selection committee will rank the top-25 teams in the country and assign the top four in the semifinals. After that, it will place the next group of at-large teams into the New Year’s Day bowls and identify the top teams from the American, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt. In essence, the selection committee is picking the field for the championship (the Playoff) and the consolation prizes (the best non-Playoff bowls).
What criteria will the selection committee use to rank teams?
That’s not clear. In basketball, the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee has established benchmarks — top-50 wins, bad losses, strength of schedule and the RPI. The football selection committee has no precedent, so it’s not clear what metrics will be used to determine the “best” teams. The Playoff has retained a company called SportSource Analytics to provide statistical data to aid the committee in comparing teams. What that entails is not clear, but it will include opponents’ record, opponents’ opponents’ record and other unspecified data.
“The selection committee’s charge is to use common sense and to consider strength of schedule, conference championships won, head-to-head, results against common opponents,” Hancock says. “Those are the four overarching standards.”
Hancock also says the committee will not dictate how leagues structure their conference schedules. The Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 will play nine-game schedules in the Playoff era. The ACC will play eight games plus a five-team deal with Notre Dame. The SEC will play eight league games while requiring teams to play at least one game against a team from the other four major conferences. The Big 12 is the only league among the major conferences without a title game.
Why not include tools like college basketball’s RPI?
Remember how much you hated the BCS computers? The Playoff took note. “We intentionally did not create one single metric because we had that in the BCS,” Hancock says. “We created the selection committee because we wanted the human factor to be involved, for human judgment to be involved. Committee members will be able to say Team X lost in the second week of the season, but let’s remember that their left tackle didn’t play and now he’s back.”
How will the committee handle conflicts of interest?
The first selection committee will include five sitting athletic directors. At some point, a selection committee member likely will be in a position to vote for his or her own program into the semifinals. The Playoff established a policy that will recuse committee members if they or an immediate family member receives compensation from the school or has a professional relationship with the program. Recused committee members may not vote or be present during deliberations involving their schools.
What are the logistics of ranking teams?
The committee will meet in person in Dallas on Mondays and Tuesdays starting in late October. Each committee member will devise a top 25. Through a step-by-step process, the committee will whittle its pool of teams under consideration into groups of six and then groups of three until it arrives at a consensus top 25.
How will this change my weekly football routine?
Remember that Sunday night BCS rankings show? That in essence moves to Tuesdays, when the selection committee will release its top 25 on ESPN.
How is this process an improvement over the last one?
The rankings process appears to be more deliberate and rigorous than the BCS system, if only because the committee has three days to analyze Saturday’s games and two days to deliberate. No more AP voters on deadline or coaches (or athletic department staffers) filing top-25 ballots Saturday night. The committee members’ individual ballots and votes will not be made public.
What are the potential problems?
Releasing a weekly poll every week starting in late October is an admirable attempt at transparency. Selection committee chair Jeff Long also will appear on ESPN to explain the rankings. But transparency will come at price when, inevitably, a team continues to win yet drops in the rankings, perhaps out of a Playoff spot. Coaches and athletic directors will be asked to defend — or stump for — their seasons throughout November until the final rankings after the conference title games. The Playoff may soon learn why the basketball committee doesn’t tip its hand until Selection Sunday.
What kind of turnover will there be on the selection committee?
Who is on this selection committee?
The 13-person selection committee, picked by the FBS conference commissioners, is designed to be a cross section of luminaries from college athletics, higher education and government. The selection committee for 2014 will consist of:
• Jeff Long Arkansas athletic director and chair of the committee
• Barry Alvarez Wisconsin athletic director and former coach
• Mike Gould former superintendent at the Air Force Academy
• Pat Haden USC athletic director
• Tom Jernstedt former NCAA executive vice president
• Oliver Luck West Virginia athletic director
• Archie Manning former Ole Miss and New Orleans Saints quarterback
• Tom Osborne former coach and athletic director at Nebraska
• Dan Radakovich Clemson athletic director
• Condoleezza Rice former Secretary of State and Stanford provost
• Mike Tranghese former Big East commissioner
• Steve Wieberg retired USA Today college football reporter
• Tyrone Willingham former coach at Notre Dame, Stanford and Washington
Term limits haven’t been set, but committee members generally will serve three seasons. Members of the first committee, though, will have variable terms to achieve a rotation for future years.
What does “assign” the Playoff teams mean?
Hancock says the Playoff will match the selection committee’s No. 1 vs. No. 4 team and the No. 2 vs. No. 3 team. At the same time, he says the No. 1 team will be protected. It seems those goals might not always coincide, right? What if LSU is a No. 4 seed in a potential semifinal at the Sugar Bowl? Or USC or UCLA at the Rose Bowl? Or Georgia in the Peach Bowl? Could the selection committee negate a regional advantage for the No. 1 seed by placing them into the backyard of the No. 4 seed? Or will the selection committee slyly shift a team up a seed line to give a No. 1 seed a more pronounced home-field advantage? We may find out.
Is there a limit to how many teams from a particular conference can go to the Playoff?
No. Conceivably, one conference could send four teams to the playoff, though that seems unlikely. No conference is guaranteed a bid in the semifinal, and no conference is barred. Although conference championships are mentioned as a factor for the selection committee, the Playoff doesn’t require a team to win its league or even its division to be selected for a spot in the semifinal.
What about those other big-time bowl games that aren’t part of the Playoff? Are there automatic bids to these bowl games?
Yes and no. There are no automatic berths to the Playoff for conference champions. However, the Rose, Sugar and Orange bowls (aka, the “contract bowls”) have their traditional conference tie-ins during years they are not hosting the semifinals. In years major conference champions aren’t in the Playoff, those teams will head to their traditional destinations: the Big Ten and Pac-12 to the Rose, the SEC and Big 12 to the Sugar and the ACC to the Orange. The only change is the Big 12’s contract with the Sugar rather than the Fiesta.
When a “contract bowl” loses a conference champion, the selection committee assigns the next highest-ranked team from that league to the bowl game. So, if Florida State wins the ACC and earns a bid to the Playoff this season, the Orange Bowl will take the next highest-ranked ACC team as an automatic bid.
The Playoff means that the traditional bowl pairings will occur on an inconsistent basis. Meetings of conference champions will be even more rare. When the Rose Bowl hosts a semifinal, for example, it will only have a matchup of Big Ten/Pac-12 champions if those teams happen to be in the Rose Bowl’s portion of the bracket. When the Rose Bowl isn’t hosting a semifinal, the game still will have a Big Ten/Pac-12 matchup, but a matchup of Big Ten/Pac-12 champions seems unlikely, as one or the other (or both) would likely be in the playoff.
The selection committee then will fill the remaining three New Year’s Six bowls — the Cotton, the Fiesta and the Peach — with the highest-ranked teams remaining once the semifinals and contract spots in the Rose, Orange and Sugar are filled.
There are other stipulations: The highest-ranked champion from the so-called “Group of Five” — the American, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt — is guaranteed a bid to one of these three bowls. The Orange Bowl’s second spot opposite the ACC team will be the highest-ranked remaining team from the Big Ten or SEC or Notre Dame.
When assigning these games, the selection committee will tend to favor geographic fit while attempting to avoid rematches or sending the same teams to the same bowl game.
How has the Rose Bowl managed to be stubborn in all of this?
The Rose Bowl is losing some its traditional role in the college football world but not all of it. The Rose Bowl will still be played at 5 p.m. Eastern on New Year’s Day, whether it is hosting a playoff or not. That means when the Rose Bowl hosts a semifinal, the semis will be on New Year’s Day. When the Rose Bowl does not host a Playoff game, the semifinals will be on New Year’s Eve.
What about Notre Dame?
Notre Dame is in the mix for the Orange Bowl spot opposite an ACC opponent. The Orange Bowl will select the highest-ranked team available among Notre Dame, a team from the Big Ten or a team from the SEC. The Orange Bowl is obligated to take three teams each from the Big Ten and SEC during the next 12 years.
What happens to the rest of the bowl games?
The rest of the bowl structure — the Capital One, the Holiday, the Outback and so on — will continue independent of the Playoff structure other than the provision that they won’t be played at the same time as a semifinal. So the Capital One Bowl can still feature an SEC/Big Ten matchup on New Year’s Day, just not at the same time as a Playoff game in the Sugar or Rose bowls.
What about the money?
The 10 conferences and Notre Dame will split an average of $470 million over the course of the rights deal with ESPN, according to a report from USA Today. The ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC will split roughly 71.5 percent of the revenue after expenses, while the “Group of Five” will split 27 percent. Notre Dame receives less than one percent.
The Playoff contract between the conferences and the bowls lasts for 12 years, so at minimum this four-team playoff will last until 2024-25.
Where can I watch this thing?
The College Football Playoff will be aired on ESPN.
After last week's league-by-league look at quarterbacks, the Athlon Sports Cover 2 Team did the same examination of coaches through each of the five major conferences. We picked coaches on the hot seat for the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC and pinpointed the assistants you need to watch and the impact coordinators in each league.
Since 1996, college football teams have only been adding to national championship trophy cases.
If certain programs ever seem like they have a ceiling, that’s the fact to watch. Florida is the most recent team to win its first national title when the Gators won the 1996 title. Every other national champion since has only been adding to its trophy tally.
That’s not for lack of trying, though. Oregon, Oklahoma State, Missouri and more have been on the verge of picking up their first national titles during the final years of the BCS era.
No doubt, those programs hope the College Football Playoff era will bring them a long-awaited national championship.
These are the teams still seeking their national title, ranked by their likelihood of ending their drought in the coming years.
*For sake of consistency, we are counting only national championships selected by major services (AP, UPI, coaches' poll, etc.) since the first AP poll in 1936.
Record since 1936: 436-380-18 (.536)
Closest call: Lost to Auburn in the 2010 BCS Championship Game
Outlook: Oregon continues to be the top program in the country both without either a national title or a Heisman trophy. Could both change this season? The Ducks have finished each of the last four seasons in the top 10 and haven’t ranked lower than 11th since 2007. Oregon, the No. 6 team in our countdown, remains our favorite in the Pac-12, but last season the Ducks also failed to reach a BCS bowl for the first time since 2008. Second-year coach Mark Helfrich will look to show this team hasn’t missed its window.
2. South Carolina
Record since 1936: 417-401-26 (.509)
Closest call: Started 9-0 and ranked as high as No. 2 in 1984, finished 10-2
Outlook: The idea of South Carolina as a legitimate national title threat would have been foreign to anyone who watched the Gamecocks go 1-21 in 1998-99. Steve Spurrier has led South Carolina to four consecutive top-10 finishes. The Gamecocks have succeeded in recruiting major prospects (Marcus Lattimore, Jadeveon Clowney) but not necessarily classes on par with the rest of the SEC. That could change in the class of 2015.
Record since 1936: 412-383-22 (.518)
Closest call: No. 4 in the final BCS standings in 2010 and 2011
Outlook: If only the Playoff came a few years earlier. Stanford finished the regular season ranked No. 4 in 2010 and 2011 with Andrew Luck at quarterback. That doesn’t necessarily mean those Stanford teams would be No. 4 under a theoretical selection committee, but it’s still an interesting note. With back-to-back Pac-12 titles and standout recruiting classes, Stanford shows little sign of slowing down as long as David Shaw is the coach.
Record since 1936: 396-419-17 (.486)
Closest call: No. 6 in the final BCS standings in 2013
Outlook: Baylor’s 9-0 start prompted thoughts of the Bears in the BCS championship game. Those hopes were dashed after Oklahoma State’s 49-17 win on Nov. 23. Baylor may never have been as good as that start suggested, losing 52-42 to UCF in the Fiesta Bowl. But the Bears are built to contend in the Big 12 for years to come with the opening of McLane Stadium in 2015.
5. Oklahoma State
Record since 1936: 422-407-22 (.509)
Closest call: Reached No. 2 in the BCS standings in 2011 before a mid-November loss to Iowa State
Outlook: The Cowboys have more or less returned to the mean after flirting with the national championship game in 2011. The Cowboys have gone 12-6 in the Big 12 the last two seasons (they went 12-4 in 2009-10). Oklahoma State lost 28 seniors, so the Pokes may need a year or two to gear up for another conference title run.
Record since 1936: 439-363-14 (.544)
Closest call: A 12-1 season in 2006, the only loss by a field goal to Rutgers
Outlook: Louisville might not be a top-15 team early in its run in the ACC, especially in a division with Florida State and Clemson. Bobby Petrino has been here before, coaching Arkansas against Alabama and LSU. Granted, that didn’t yield Arkansas’ first national championship, either. But Petrino has finished in the top six three times at Louisville and Arkansas. He’ll have the backing at Louisville to push the Cardinals in contention.
Record since 1936: 428-379-27 (.529)
Closest call: Finished the 1962 season ranked No. 2 before a Rose Bowl loss
Outlook: Winning in the postseason hasn’t been a strong suit for Wisconsin since Barry Alvarez retired. The Badgers have lost six of their last seven bowl games. That doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence. Gary Andersen, though, was a strong hire who can keep the Badgers in contention in the Big Ten. Wisconsin and Nebraska may be the only realistic national title contenders out of the Big Ten West.
8. Arizona State
Record since 1936: 514-304-15 (.626)
Closest call: Finished the 1996 regular season ranked No. 2 before losing to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl; Went 12-0 and finished No. 2 in 1975.
Outlook: Arizona State is coming off a 10-win season and a Pac-12 South title and is showing signs of shaking its sleeping giant status. The Sun Devils haven’t finished in the AP top 15 since 1996, but there’s little reason why Arizona State couldn’t become a perennial contender in the Pac-12.
9. Ole Miss
Record since 1936: 487-343-20 (.585)
Closest call: Ranked No. 2 in the AP poll and finished 10-0-1 in 1960
Outlook: Whether Ole Miss can stack the recruiting classes it would need to in order to compete with Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M remains to be seen. The Rebels had a top-10 class in 2012 and top-15 in 2013. That’s a long way from the top SEC contenders, especially for a program that hasn’t finished in the AP top 10 since 1969.
Record since 1936: 455-382-24 (.542)
Closest call: Missouri has twice lost while ranked No. 1 before the final game of the regular season (1960 and 2007).
Outlook: Missouri came within a game of playing for the national title last season before the Tigers lost to Auburn in the SEC Championship Game. Missouri has its formula down with consistently solid quarterback play and developing talent from their competition’s backyard, whether it’s in Texas or the Southeast. Missouri has been on the precipice several times, but let’s face it: This is not a charmed football program.
Thinking big isn’t always the best tactic.
Joe Novak learned that much from afar. He was an assistant at Indiana during the 1986 when he watched Northern Illinois, where he had worked for three years, leave the MAC with aspirations of joining big-time college football.
“I don’t know what they were thinking or where they were going to go,” Novak told Athlon Sports in a recent interview.
What the Huskies were trying to do was parlay a move to the Big West into a bid for the Big Eight or Big 12. What Northern Illinois got was six losing seasons in 10 years as an independent and Big West member only to return to where it started.
Northern Illinois’ returned to the league in 1997 with Novak as coach, trumpeting his return with the slogan, “Back in the MAC with Novak.” That’s just about all Northern Illinois had to sell at the time. The Huskies’ hopes of major conference membership were ill-advised, and in the aftermath of the experiment, NIU went 3-30 during Novak’s first three seasons.
The best MACtion, Novak learned, may be inaction at least in terms of changing leagues. Once the program recovered under Novak, Northern Illinois, instead, settled on being one of the flagship programs in the MAC.
July 1 marks another year of conference realignment moves. Maryland and Rutgers become official in the Big Ten, and the ACC adds Louisville. Conference USA adds two teams to take the place of the three that will join the year-old American Athletic Conference.
Once again, though, the MAC is sitting out the game of musical chairs.
That’s not to say the MAC is a total outlier. Temple left before last season after five years as a football-only member, and UMass will follow suit next season.
But the core of the MAC — 10 teams in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Indiana — has remained more or less stable since the ‘70s. Marshall and UCF dabbled here, but neither seemed to be a geographical or philosophical fit.
As conference affiliations change, the MAC has thrived in its stability.
In the last two seasons, the league has produced a BCS participant (Northern Illinois), a No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick (Central Michigan) and another top-five pick (Buffalo). Ratings for the MAC’s featured games on Tuesdays and Wednesdays late in the season aren’t out-performing the Big Ten, but they can top second- or third-tier Saturday games in major conferences.
"The best thing for that league is to stay status quo."
-former Northern Illinois coach Joe Novak
“I’m thankful we’ve been able to stay together, and because of it our conference has moved up in stature,” said Jim Schaus, Ohio’s athletics director since 2008. “By staying where we were and because other conferences have seen other members moving up, those conferences may have stepped back a little bit.”
Tuesday and Wednesday night games have been a staple of the MAC for several years. Wild offensive showcases between MAC teams have become the league’s signature. The #MACtion meme shows there’s national interest in the conference, even if it’s a niche.
At the same time, the American, Conference USA and perhaps even the Mountain West can’t say the same.
“We talk about branding here a lot,” Toledo athletic director Mike O’Brien said. “It’s led to the culture of the MAC brand. At the same time, despite the fact that the MAC is considered quote-unquote regional, it is a national conference.”
The Big Ten and Big 12 may be unrealistic goals — as Northern Illinois learned — but MAC teams have rarely been in the conversation for movement in the next tier of conferences. The shared recruiting base and similar budgets can keep MAC teams competitive, but it likely makes them less of a target in realignment.
The top program in the MAC lineup in terms of revenue is Miami (Ohio) at $28.7 million, ranking 79th, according to USA Today (outgoing affiliate member UMass actually bring sin more at $30 million). On the other end is Ball State at $21.3 million, ranking 112nd.
In other words, $7.4 million in revenue separate the top and bottom teams in the MAC. More than $100 million separates Texas and Iowa State in the Big 12, and $74 million separates Oregon and Washington State in the Pac-12.
“Part of the reason we’ve stayed together is the commonality of the members in this conference,” MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said.
MAC administrators also believe the new College Football Playoff may improve postseason opportunities for the league, specifically the one bowl guaranteed to the highest-ranked team in the “Group of Five” (the MAC, American, C-USA, Mountain West and Sun Belt).
Talk of autonomy among the five major conferences is sure to be a concern for the MAC and leagues of its ilk, but at least not outwardly for now.
“We are joined at the hip for the next decade,” Shaus said of the Group of Five and the power conferences.
The key for the MAC is to maintain its midweek presence.
The MAC’s contract with ESPN runs through 2016-17, but the two parties were expected to reopen talks a year ago. The $1 million deal is on the low end of broadcast contracts.
Even as more and more major programs and even the NFL have embraced the Thursday night primetime spot, the MAC is not concerned it will lose its foothold on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.
"Despite the fact that the MAC is considered quote-unquote regional, it is a national conference.”
-Toledo athletic director Mike O'Brien
“We’ve become their midweek franchise in November,” MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said. “We’ve embraced it, they’ve embraced it and I anticipate that continuing.”
Simply put, the tradeoff in terms of juggling player class schedules and the attendance hit of playing on a weeknight is not one leagues may be willing to embrace on a regular basis.
Central Michigan, for example, didn’t play a game between Oct. 19 and Nov. 6 to accommodate a Wednesday night game against Ball State. Ohio and Buffalo both played on three consecutive Tuesday nights in November.
“I absolutely would make that trade,” Tom Amstutz, Toledo’s coach from 2001-08, told Athlon. “Yes, you have to make adjustments and yes, you have to do things academically, but it was worth it. ... Whenever we were asked if we wanted to have a Tuesday night game, I always quickly said yes because I always though it would benefit our league, benefit our program and I knew our players wanted that opportunity.”
Between the familiarity of the lineup and the reliability of four or five MAC teams to be compelling in a single season, viewers on Tuesday or Wednesday nights know what to expect from a featured MAC matchup.
“The stability has allowed people to follow the MAC and know what they’re following,” said Ohio coach Frank Solich, the longest-tenured coach in the league.
As the college football landscape changes on a yearly basis, the MAC has found a way to turn stability into an asset.
Standing still in conference realignment, while the American, C-USA and Sun Belt have struggled to plant their flags, has been a gain for the MAC.
“The best thing for that league,” Novak said. “is to stay status quo.”
Texas A&M’s move to the SEC has yielded an upset of the No. 1 team in the country, a Heisman winner and a new identity for the Aggies.
In many ways, the Aggies exceeded expectations by becoming one of the nation’s “it” programs since moving into the SEC. A program that struggled to win at a high level in the Big 12 has reinvented itself as a member of the SEC.
But are we ready to declare A&M the big winner in the realignment rumble in the Lone Star State. Has Texas A&M left Texas behind as at least one columnist would suggest?
The final verdict may not arrive for some time, but it’s not to early to take stock of where Texas and Texas A&M stand since the dominoes fell in realignment.
In our scorecard, we looked at key games in football, men’s basketball and baseball as well as the most important off-field developments for the rival programs. Of course, a loss for Texas is a gain for Texas A&M and vice versa by our count.
Here’s how we see the scorecard shaking out so far.
Texas vs. Texas A&M: Realignment Scorecard
|Aug. 26, 2011|
The Longhorn Network is launched.
|Sept. 6, 2011|
SEC presidents and chancellors vote to invite Texas A&M to the SEC. The Aggies and Missouri officially join the SEC on July 1, 2012.
|Nov. 24, 2011||Texas defeats Texas A&M 27-25 in final meeting as Big 12 opponents. This is the final scheduled meeting in the series.|
|Feb. 1, 2012||Texas signs the No. 2 class in the 247Sports Composite Rankings. Texas A&M finishes 16th.|
|April 26-28, 2012||Texas A&M has four players selected in the NFL Draft, including No. 8 overall selection Ryan Tannehill. Texas has three players drafted, none in the first three rounds.|
|Nov. 10, 2012|
Texas A&M defeats No. 1 Alabama 29-24 in Tuscaloosa. Johnny Manziel passes for 253 yards and rushes for 92 to end the Crimson Tide’s 13-game winning streak.
|Dec. 1, 2012|
Kansas State defeats Texas 42-24 in the final game of the 2012 regular season. Texas finishes the regular season 8-4 and 5-4 in the Big 12. After winning more than 10 games in nine consecutive seasons, Texas will fail to win 10 games for the third consecutive season.
|Dec. 8, 2012||Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel becomes the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy. Manziel owned a 323-point edge over Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o in the voting.|
|Dec. 29, 2012||Texas uses two fourth-quarter touchdowns for a 31-27 comeback win over Oregon State in the Alamo Bowl.|
|Jan. 4, 2013|
Texas A&M defeats Oklahoma 41-13 in the Cotton Bowl. Manziel passes for 287 yards, rushes for 229 and accounts for four total touchdowns.
|Feb. 6, 2013|
Texas A&M finishes ninth nationally in the 247Sports.com Composite Rankings on National Signing Day. Texas finishes 17th.
|March 13-20, 2013||Texas A&M basketball loses to Missouri 62-50 to finish the season 18-15 overall and 7-11 in the SEC. Texas loses to Houston 73-72 in the College Basketball Invitational to finish the season 16-18.||Draw|
|April 25-27, 2013||Texas A&M has five players selected in the 2013 NFL Draft, including No. 2 overall pick Luke Joeckel. Texas has three players selected, led by No. 15 overall pick Kenny Vaccaro.|
|May 1, 2013||Texas A&M announces $450 million renovation for Kyle Field, said to be the largest redevelopment plan in college athletics history. It is scheduled to be complete in 2015.|
|May 2, 2013||The SEC and ESPN announce launch of SEC Network for 2014.|
|Aug. 22, 2013||Two years after its launch, the Longhorn Network is still unavailable through major cable carriers.|
|Sept. 4, 2013||Texas loses to BYU and Ole Miss in back-to-back games, allowing 822 rushing yards in two games. The 1-2 Longhorns fire defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and replace him with Greg Robinson.|
|Oct. 12, 2013||Texas upsets No. 12 Oklahoma 36-20. The Longhorns were a two-touchdown underdog. A defensive turnaround under Robinson puts Texas back into Big 12 contention until the last week of the season.|
|Nov. 30, 2013||Texas A&M completes 8-4 season and 4-4 season in the SEC with a 28-21 loss to Missouri. The Aggies finish the season ranked last in the SEC in total defense.|
|Dec. 7, 2013||Texas loses to Baylor 30-10 to be eliminated from Big 12 contention.|
|Dec. 12, 2013||Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, considered a potential candidate for NFL teams, agrees to six-year contract extension to stay in College Station.|
|Dec. 15, 2013|
Texas coach Mack Brown retires, but not after the possibility is raised he will stay an extra year.
|Dec. 30, 2013||Texas loses to Oregon 30-7 in the Alamo Bowl.|
|Dec. 31, 2013||Texas A&M defeats Duke 52-48 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, scoring 35 points in the second half for the comeback.|
|Jan. 6, 2014||Texas hires Louisville coach Charlie Strong to replace Mack Brown.|
|Jan. 8, 2014||Influential Texas booster Red McCombs is lukewarm on the Strong hire, saying the new Longhorns coach “would make a great position coach, maybe a coordinator.”|
|Feb. 4, 2014||Texas A&M’s signing class finishes fifth nationally and third in the SEC in the 247Sports Composite Rankings. Texas finishes 17th nationally and second in the Big 12.|
|Feb. 5, 2014||Strong says Texas won’t be a “gadget program” in response to Texas A&M’s “swagcopter” in recruiting and Sumlin’s status as “Coach Cool.”|
|March 3, 2014||The Longhorn Network gains distribution on Dish Network.|
|March 22-24, 2014||Texas basketball loses to Michigan 79-65 in the NCAA Tournament round of 32 after surprising for an 11-7 in the Big 12. Texas A&M loses to Illinois State 62-55 in the College Basketball Invitational semifinal, completing an 18-16 season and 8-10 record in the SEC.|
|May 8-10 2014|
Texas goes without an NFL Draft pick for the first time since 1937. Texas A&M has three offensive players — tackle Jake Matthews, wide receiver Mike Evans and Manziel — selected in the first round.
|May 28, 2014||Texas A&M receives a commitment from Allen (Texas) quarterback Kyler Murray, the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the 247Sports Composite rankings in the class of 2015.|
|May 30-June 7, 2014||Texas goes 2-1 against Texas A&M in the Rice regional to eliminate the Aggies from the baseball postseason. A week later, Texas defeats Houston 4-0 to clinch a berth in the College World Series. The Longhorns go 3-2 before elimination against eventual national champion Vanderbilt.|
|June 26, 2014||The SEC Network remains unavailable on major carriers.|
|And the winner (for now) is ... Texas A&M 20-13-1 by our count. The Longhorns still have bragging rights by picking up the last win in the series. Texas also made progress on the Longhorn Network and has a significant edge in men’s basketball and baseball. The Aggies, though, win on big events — a Heisman winner, an Alabama upset, three draft day and two signing day “wins” over Texas and the Kyle Field expansion give the Aggies a significant leg up.|