Articles By David Fox
In the years immediately after the 2002 national championship Rose Bowl and the departure of Heisman winner Eric Crouch, Nebraska was in a state of identity crisis. The Cornhuskers parted ways with longtime Tom Osborne assistant Frank Solich and attempted to modernize the program with an NFL approach by hiring Bill Callahan.
The program went 30-20 from 2002-05, but a bedrock during that time was running back Cory Ross. Ross became a running and receiving threat as a junior and senior, with more than 1,200 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns in each of his last two seasons. Ross still ranks ninth in all-purpose yards in Nebraska history.
An undrafted free agent, Ross enjoyed a brief pro career with the Baltimore Ravens, but when his playing days ended, he returned to where Nebraska coaches — including Callahan — made an impact on his life.
In this weeks’ Athlon Sports Cover Catch-up, we checked in with former Nebraska running back Cory Ross, who appeared on our 2005 Big 12 cover.
What have you done since leaving Nebraska?
After I left Nebraska, I played for the Baltimore Ravens for three years, got hurt and had to sit out a year. Then I played in the United Football League under coach Dennis Green for three year. Then I had a stint in Canada with the Edmonton Eskimos. Though all the injuries my body has taken, I called it quits. I ended up coming back to Lincoln and did a lot of radio appearances. I ended up meeting a couple of guys who were starting an Arena football team in Lincoln while I was here, and they asked me to come on staff. I really took a liking to it and fell into the head coaching gig with the Lincoln Haymakers. That ended up falling through, but the owner of the Omaha Beef, Rich Tokheim, wanted me to take over last January. That’s how it started. I just fell in love with it the last three years. I really want to get into the college level and let people I know I’m interested. I’m getting a feel of how it is to be a coach. I love coaching. I love teaching, I love being around football.
Did the coaching itch start when you finished playing or has this been a goal all along?
I had thought about it for a long time. When I was in high school, Eric Bieniemy (now the running backs coach with the Kansas City Chiefs) was the running backs coach when I was a senior. I wanted to follow in his style, his footsteps, because I saw the passion he had. My senior year, I knew that’s where I wanted to go. I started doing radio, but I was away from the game. I started at Lincoln High School coaching running backs three years ago. It became a magnet for me to be around coaching.
What level of football is the Omaha Beef? Is this a semi-pro team?
Yes. They get anywhere from $75-300 a game. That’s the max in the league they’re in (Champions Indoor Football). It depends on who you’re with and the owner of the team. But the Omaha Beef has been around for 17 years, so it’s stable. People in Omaha know who they are and what they do. It’s Arena football. Some of our guys have been able to go to NFL camps in May and things like that. There are small leagues like this everywhere, but the CIF is pretty good with teams that are stable and have been around. It’s an opportunity for guys to continue or try to get more film and show they’re playing against some talented guys. We have players from DI schools. If you’re the best in the league, people are going to look at you.
Are you getting mostly guys who are right out of college or more veteran players?
Pretty much right out of college. We have few guys who are 2-3 years out who are trying to chase that dream. A lot of them are fresh out of college. We had a guy who was with the Chiefs who was released and another guy who is doing it because he loves the game. He’s not looking for an opportunity to get to the next level even though he’s playing well. We have guys like that who just want to keep playing. And we have some young guys who are 20-21-years old from out of state who we house, take care of their food and stuff like that.
Do they need to have second jobs or a day job? How do they make ends meet?
Here they don’t have to. You get paid per game, every week, and your housing is taken care of and your food is taken care of. You really don’t have to have a job. A lot of the out-of-town guys want to come in and as long as we feed them and house them and give them a place to work out and they can get film, they can do that. A lot of guys are chasing a dream. When you get signed to Arena 1 football, that’s actually pretty good money. Canada teams are always looking at Arena and looking for players.
From a day-to-day standpoint, how is this different from other coaching jobs? Do you have GM or administrative duties? Is this a full-time job for coaches, too?
Some coaches in the league have to work other jobs. But I help out with sales to get sponsorships for our team and I watch film with my coaches. For me, it’s a full-time job. Some of my assistant coaches have side jobs and things like that. We get film (from prospective players) every day, so every player we sign I have to approve of.
I read that with the Lincoln Haymakers, you used Bill Callahan’s playbook. Is that still the case with Omaha?
Of course, man. I use Callahan’s playbook. The terminology is different and obviously it’s different with 11 (players on offense) and eight, but the concepts aren’t different at all. The concepts are universal. I fell in love with the West Coast offense. When he brought it to Nebraska, that was my first experience and I was dialed in. That was something I loved. When I was a free agent in the pros, I wanted to go to a West Coast-style team because I understood the concepts.
I bet if you polled Nebraska fans, Callahan would not be their favorite coach. You admire him quite a bit. Does it bother you that Nebraska fans don’t hold him in high esteem?
Sometimes it does. I was a captain the years he was here. I got to meet with him every week. I knew him personally, and I knew where his heart was and what he was trying to do. Some people just didn’t take it the right way. He brought in a system that was almost perfect for Nebraska. A lot of things that weren’t in the head coaches control, they blamed him for it. Everyone here knows I’m pro-Callahan on the radio because of what I’ve seen and what he’s done and what kind of players he was bringing in at Nebraska and changing it and making it fun offense to be a part of. Some guys really profited from it. Zac Taylor is working with the Miami Dolphins now (as quarterback coach). I thought he could be a pro quarterback. He took that offense and ran with it. Those coaches were why I really fell back in love with football. They made football even more fun. They made me realize there was more to it than the simple plays I had in high school. I came in and it was option left, option right and ISOs. I learned a lot more football and I understood what football had to offer and fell in love with that.
You went to high school in Denver and then you came back to Lincoln for your post-playing career and now in Omaha. Was the state of Nebraska a place you always wanted to return and considered your home?
I think I chose Nebraska even before I decided to be a coach here. After my first year with the Ravens and I came home that summer, I moved back to Lincoln. I fell in love with the people here. People who travel here to play us, they always say it’s great people around here and a nice atmosphere. I’m from the city. I’m from Denver, so I know how big cities are. I hate traffic. So I knew right after my rookie year that I’d come back here and find a place and call it home just because I fell in love with being here and wanting to raise a family.
Not only did Mike Krzyzewski win his fifth career national championship last season, he further ensured the ACC cornered the market on national title-winning coaches.
The ACC is the home of four coaches who have won a national title: Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Rick Pitino and Jim Boeheim. Those four coaches have won more combined national titles (10) than the rest of the active coaches in college basketball (seven).
Besides those four title-winning coaches, the ACC has a fifth who has reached the Final Four (Miami’s Jim Larranaga) and some of the top coaches who would be on the short list of best coaches without a Final Four appearance (Virginia’s Tony Bennett, Virginia Tech’s Buzz Williams and Pitt’s Jamie Dixon).
While other leagues have accomplished coaches and perhaps more coaches who have reached the Final Four, none of the star power of the ACC.
The Athlon Sports College Basketball Preview magazine is available now.
Podcast: Who should be No. 1 in College Basketball in 2015-16?
Ranking the ACC Basketball Coaches for 2015-16
1. Mike Krzyzewski, Duke
Record at Duke: 945-251, 378-152 ACC
NCAA Tournament: 88-26, 12 Final Fours, five championships
Number to note: Duke has produced six one-and-done players in the NBA Draft since 2011, second only to Kentucky’s 12.
Why he’s ranked here: At 68 years and 63 days, Krzyzewski became the second-oldest coach to win a national championship, and there’s no signs he’ll slow down. His team brings in four five-star prospects in 2015 to replace the three he lost from his fifth national championship team.
2. Rick Pitino, Louisville
Record at Louisville: 368-126, 164-76 C-USA/Big East/AAC/ACC
NCAA Tournament: 53-18, seven Final Fours, two championships
Number to note: Pitino’s teams have ranked in the top five in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency in each of the last five seasons and seven of the last eight.
Why he’s ranked here: Last year’s team was not one of Pitino’s best, losing to most of the top squads in the ACC, save for narrow home wins over Carolina and Virginia. The Cards were still an OT loss to Michigan State away from reaching the Final Four.
3. Tony Bennett, Virginia
Record at Virginia: 136-64, 64-37 ACC
NCAA Tournament: 6-5
Number to note: Virginia’s record against the RPI top 50 has improved in each of the last five seasons from 0-6 to 2-6 to 4-3 to 5-4 to 8-3 in 2015.
Why he’s ranked here: The early NCAA Tournament exits in the last two seasons — both to Michigan State — will haunt Bennett, but the Cavaliers are coming off back-to-back 30-win seasons and ACC regular season titles despite lesser talent compared to teams like Duke, North Carolina and Louisville.
4. Roy Williams, North Carolina
Record at North Carolina: 332-101, 141-57 ACC
NCAA Tournament: 65-23, seven Final Fours, two championships
Number to note: North Carolina is 23-1 against Boston College, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and Florida State the last three seasons and 13-17 against the rest of the ACC.
Why he’s ranked here: Legacy. Williams’ two titles at two schools and Hall of Fame status can’t be denied, but the last three years (75-33) have been trying. With a veteran team, the Heels are built for a Final Four run in 2015-16. It would be their first since 2009 and perhaps their last for a while.
5. Jim Boehiem, Syracuse
Record at Syracuse: 966-333, 446-203 Big East/ACC
NCAA Tournament: 53-30, four Final Fours, one championship
Number to note: Boeheim’s 18 wins in 2014-15 — aided by a voluntary postseason ban — was his fewest since going 15-13 in 1981-82.
Why he’s ranked here: Boeheim will never get to 1,000 wins according to the NCAA record book (with vacated wins, he stands at 858). In the unofficial record book, Boeheim has two seasons to get 44 wins. Syracuse is 21-19 in its last 40 games after going 55-10 in the 65 prior.
6. Mike Brey, Notre Dame
Record at Notre Dame: 332-165, 157-100 Big East/ACC
NCAA Tournament: 9-12
Number to note: Scoring down? Not for Notre Dame. Of Brey’s 15 teams in South Bend, 11 have averaged 70 points per game in conference play.
Why he’s ranked here: Last year’s trip to the Elite Eight was Notre Dame’s first time reaching the second weekend of the Tournament since 2003. Brey generally can be counted on for about 25 wins a year and pushing 30 wins every now and then.
7. Jim Larranaga, Miami
Record at Miami: 91-49, 41-29 ACC
NCAA Tournament: 7-6, one Final Four
Number to note: Miami is 7-2, 6-6 and 10-3 in the last three seasons on the road. The Hurricanes’ previous winning season on the road was in 1999-2000.
Why he’s ranked here: Larranaga might not match his banner year with Miami — a 29-win season and an ACC championship in 2013 — but last year’s 25 wins was still the second-most in school history. The ‘Canes will be in NCAA contention again this season.
8. Buzz Williams, Virginia Tech
Record at Virginia Tech: 11-22, 2-16 ACC
NCAA Tournament record: 8-5
Number to note: Williams’ Marquette teams were ranked in the top 30 of KenPom in five consecutive seasons — each one except for his last.
Why he’s ranked here: Virginia Tech has been ill-equipped to compete in the ACC, both before Williams arrived and during his first season. After gutting the roster, Williams is ready to begin anew.
9. Jamie Dixon, Pittsburgh
Record at Pittsburgh: 307-111, 134-74 Big East/ACC
NCAA Tournament record: 12-10
Number to note: Pitt is 19-17 as an ACC member, including 0-10 against Duke, Louisville, NC State and Virginia.
Why he’s ranked here: The last four seasons have been an enigma for Dixon, who once led one of the most steady programs in the country in his first eight seasons at Pitt. The Panthers have missed two of the last four NCAA Tournaments and last year alone beat North Carolina and Notre Dame but lost to lowly Virginia Tech and Wake Forest.
10. Mark Gottfried, NC State
Record at NC State: 92-52, 39-31 ACC
NCAA Tournament: 10-11
Number to note: Gottfried’s five NCAA wins in four years (including two Sweet 16 appearances) is the most at NC State since the Jim Valvano heyday.
Why he’s ranked here: NC State is consistent (between 22-24 wins and 9-11 ACC wins every year) under Gottfried but also a bit of a roller coaster. This is a team good enough to reach the Sweet 16 and beat a top ACC team, but has never won more than three ACC games in a row during the regular season.
11. Leonard Hamilton, Florida State
Record at Florida State: 285-173, 113-108 ACC
NCAA Tournament: 6-7
Number to note: During the last three seasons, Florida State is 1-19 against Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, NC State and Louisville and 25-9 against the rest of the league.
Why he’s ranked here: Hard to believe Hamilton is entering his 14th season at Florida State. He’s been able to get Florida State into NIT or NCAA Tournament in 10 of those seasons, including the 2011 Sweet 16. And that’s enough for Florida State.
12. Danny Manning, Wake Forest
Record at Wake Forest: 13-19, 5-13 ACC
NCAA Tournament: 0-1
Number to note: Wake Forest’s last three ACC wins came against teams that reached the postseason (NC State, Miami and Pittsburgh).
Why he’s ranked here: Manning’s first season was worse than Jeff Bzdelik’s last, but Manning is rebuilding confidence in Wake Forest. He’ll need another year or two.
13. Brad Brownell, Clemson
Record at Clemson: 90-73, 40-46 ACC
NCAA Tournament: 1-4
Number to note: Clemson has averaged fewer than 60 points per game in three consecutive seasons.
Why he’s ranked here: The Tigers can guard under Brownell but can’t score enough to finish better than 10-8 in the ACC or reach the NCAA Tournament since his first season.
14. Jim Christian, Boston College
Record at Boston College: 13-19, 4-14 ACC
NCAA Record: 0-2
Number to note: Christian averaged 23.3 wins per season as head coach at Kent State and Ohio, never winning fewer than 21 games in a season. Christian has averaged 13.8 wins per season at TCU and Boston College, never winning more than 18.
Why he’s ranked here: Boston College is arguably the toughest job in the ACC, and Christian is rebuilding with freshmen. The rebuild will be long … if it occurs at all.
15. Brian Gregory, Georgia Tech
Record at Georgia Tech: 55-71, 19-51 ACC
NCAA record: 1-2
Number to note: Gregory has never lost fewer than 12 games in the ACC, bottoming out at 3-15 last season.
Why he’s ranked here: To say this trajectory is less than ideal would be an understatement. A fifth year of the Gregory era at Georgia Tech is a mild surprise.
Here on the Athlon Sports Cover 2 podcast, we’re taking a brief and infrequent break from our college football coverage to take a quick look at the college basketball season ahead.
As teams prepare for Midnight Madness and the start of basketball practice, hosts Braden Gall, David Fox and Mitch Light give a brief overview of the rankings in this year’s Athlon Sports College Basketball Preview.
The cast of characters at the top — Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina and Maryland — are as close as they’ve been in recent years. Our team talks about who they picked at No. 1 and why, plus the major storylines in the upcoming hoops season.
Other themes that could shape the season ahead:
• Will replenishing one-and-dones at Kentucky and Duke keep them on top or will veteran squads at Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia challenge?
• Why this season will be the year of the bounce back program.
• Which teams outside of the Athlon top 25 could surprise.
• How rules changes will impact the season.
• Plus a break down of new coaches, coaches on the hot seat, top freshmen and more.
Send any ideas, questions or comments to @BradenGall, @DavidFox615 or @AthlonMitch or email [email protected]. The podcast can be found on athlonsports.com/podcast, iTunes, Stitcher and our podcast RSS feed.
The college football season is just getting started, and the competition off the field is nearly as heated as the competition on game day.
The Athlon Sports College Football Experts Club presented by Nexium & Advil gives you the chance to compete with your friends and our experts each week.
Here are this week’s top picks from Athlon Sports senior writer David Fox:
College Football Podcast: Week 2 Recap
USF at Maryland
Maryland’s defense couldn’t contain Bowling Green’s passing attack in Saturday’s upset loss. Good news for the Terps: USF will struggle to throw the ball.
Fox’s prediction: Maryland 28–14
Air Force at Michigan State
Air Force has amassed 822 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground in two games this season, but hasn’t faced a team as hell-bent and as capable as Michigan State at stopping the run. The most important storyline is how Michigan State responds to its signature win over Oregon.
Fox’s prediction: Michigan State 38–21
Illinois at North Carolina
Illinois has responded to the firing of Tim Beckman by pounding Kent State and Western Illinois by a combined score of 96–3. Then again, that’s what Big Ten teams should do to Kent State and Western Illinois. North Carolina’s Marquise Williams bounced back from three interceptions in Week 1 with three total touchdowns in Week 2 against North Carolina A&T.
Fox’s prediction: North Carolina 35–24
Nevada at Texas A&M
When the Aggies get rolling, watch out. Texas A&M scored 70 points in a three-quarter span between the end of the Arizona State game and the start of the Ball State game. Nevada last week gave up 301 rushing yards at home against Arizona.
Fox’s prediction: Texas A&M 49–17
Northwestern at Duke
New Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk is off to a good start throwing the ball, but that’s against Tulane and North Carolina Central. Northwestern’s pass defense is off to a good start (4.1 yards per attempt, 0 TD, 3 INT), but that’s against Eastern Illinois and risk-averse Stanford.
Fox’s prediction: Northwestern 31–28
Northern Illinois at Ohio State
Ohio State was understandably uneven in its win over Hawaii, only five days after the road trip to Virginia Tech. The Buckeyes should return to form here. NIU’s offense is averaging 7.8 yards per play, but the Huskies’ defense has been suspect against UNLV and Murray State.
Fox’s prediction: Ohio State 49–20
Auburn at LSU
Auburn hasn’t always been playing with a full deck on defense, but the close call with Jacksonville State — and the ease at which the Gamecocks moved the ball — was alarming. With uneven quarterback play by both Auburn’s Jeremy Johnson and LSU’s Brandon Harris, the respective run games may be the difference. In that case, LSU’s may have the edge with Leonard Fournette.
Fox’s prediction: LSU 17–13
Georgia Tech at Notre Dame
Injuries are piling up at Notre Dame as the Irish have lost starters at quarterback, running back and defensive tackle since the preseason. And remember, Notre Dame was having difficulty with Virginia before Malik Zaire got hurt. Georgia Tech has topped 60 points in each of its first two games but hasn’t faced anyone close to Jaylon Smith, KeiVarae Russell and so on.
Fox’s prediction: Georgia Tech 31–28
Nebraska at Miami
Nebraska and Miami both have streaky offenses, which makes sense for the Cornhuskers and a new coaching staff. For Miami, not so much.
Fox’s prediction: Nebraska 28–21
South Carolina at Georgia
The Gamecocks are in a bit of trouble. Starting quarterback Connor Mitch is out. Running back Brandon Wilds wants the ball more. And the defense is giving up 6.4 yards per play. Not everything is perfect at Georgia, particularly at quarterback. But the Bulldogs have Nick Chubb. That’s what matters.
Fox’s prediction: Georgia 31–14
Colorado vs. Colorado State (Denver)
Colorado has been surprisingly effective running the ball while Colorado State is still trying to find its way on offense after benching quarterback Nick Stevens (two interceptions) against Minnesota.
Fox’s prediction: Colorado 21–17
Texas Tech at Arkansas
Arkansas has been passing the ball more 53 percent of the time, a wildly high rate for a Bret Bielema-coached team. With the Razorbacks coming off the loss to Toledo, the Hogs may try to return to what’s worked in the past. That’s particularly true for a matchup with Texas Tech, which surrounded 438 rushing yards and seven touchdowns to Arkansas a year ago. Of course, the Red Raiders would be advised to throw the ball with Patrick Mahomes averaging 9.1 yards per attempt with eight touchdowns and one interception in two games.
Fox’s prediction: Arkansas 31–21
Cal at Texas
The Texas offense may have found the right formula with Jay Norvell calling plays and Jerrod Heard running them. The Longhorns averaged 7.3 yards per play against Rice. Cal’s defense is still in rebuilding mode, but the Bears have yet to face an offense similar to what they’ll see in the Pac-12 schedule. Quarterback Jared Goff, a 73-percent passer, may be the difference here.
Fox’s prediction: Cal 35–21
Florida at Kentucky
Kentucky hasn’t defeated Florida since 1986, but the Wildcats came close in Gainesville last season. Buoyed by a 26-22 win at South Carolina, Kentucky has reason to believe this is the year to end the losing streak. Florida regressed from Week 1 to Week 2. With 12 penalties for 105 yards and ineffective offense against East Carolina, Florida looked more like a Will Muschamp team than anything under a new regime.
Fox’s prediction: Kentucky 24–17
Pittsburgh at Iowa
New Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi plans on rotating quarterbacks Chad Voytik and Nathan Peterman, all without the security of James Conner running the ball. Call us skeptical. Meanwhile, Iowa seems poised to surprise with the efficient C.J. Beathard securely under center.
Fox’s prediction: Iowa 24–14
Stanford at USC
Other than USC athletic director Pat Haden’s bizarre on-field conversation with officials, this game was a snooze last season. Stanford’s red zone ineptitude cost the Cardinal the game. Stanford has yet to cure its ills in that department (two touchdowns in seven trips inside the 20).
Fox’s prediction: USC 31–21
Rutgers at Penn State
Penn State gave up no sacks last week against Buffalo, but Christian Hackenberg is still No. 1 in the country in time spent on the turf. That's how bad the 10-sack opener was agains Temple. For all the issues at Penn State this season, Rutgers might be in worse shape. Embattled coach Kyle Flood suspended his top player, receiver Leonte Carroo, indefinitely after an incident outside the stadium after Saturday’s game against Washington State.
Fox’s prediction: Penn State 21–10
SMU at TCU
Injuries are piling up at TCU, putting the Horned Frogs’ outlook for the College Football Playoff at risk. TCU should still have the personnel to beat SMU, but the Frogs need to be mindful that SMU was competitive for a half against Baylor in the opener.
Fox’s prediction: TCU 42–28
Ole Miss at Alabama
Ole Miss has never defeated Alabama in back-to-back seasons and has one win in Tuscaloosa (1988) in school history. The odds are stacked against the Rebels, but they have to like the team they’re taking to Bryant-Denny. Ole Miss has topped 70 points in back-to-back games, something that hasn’t happened in the SEC since Steve Spurrier brought the Fun ‘n’ Gun to Florida. Alabama’s defense surely will be tougher.
Fox’s prediction: Alabama 42–35
BYU at UCLA
BYU’s wild finishes and the injury to Taysom Hill has obscured that the Cougars’ defense is nasty again, holding teams to 2.8 yards per carry. That gives us a great matchup between the BYU defense and perpetually underrated UCLA running back Paul Perkins. Bruins freshman quarterback Josh Rosen will have much on his shoulders, but he seems ready.
Fox’s prediction: UCLA 35–31
Last week: 16–4
Season to date: 31–9
Hosts Braden Gall and David Fox break down the three biggest games of Week 2.
How good is Micigan State and what does this win mean for the both the Spartans and the Ducks? What can Tennessee learn from this loss and does this catapult Oklahoma into Big 12 contention? How bad really was Week 2 for the SEC? Can Notre Dame win big after losing its QB?
The guys also up their Top 4 Playoff teams as they do every week as well.
If contending the SEC requires a team to build depth, upstart Tennessee will soon learn where it stands.
The Volunteers were a preseason top 25 team for the first time since 2008, largely on the talent of the first stringers. Josh Dobbs is as solid as any quarterback as any in the SEC in 2015. Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara make up one of the better running back duos. Derek Barnett is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and Curt Maggitt isn’t far behind. Two returning starters in the secondary, corner Cam Sutton and safety Brian Randolph, where Athlon second-team All-SEC selections.
The cracks in Tennessee’s ability to contend in the SEC East may be found upon closer examination of the depth chart. The Volunteers learned that tough lesson in the opener against Bowling Green.
When Oklahoma visits Tennessee for the first game between ranked teams in Knoxville since 2012, the Sooners almost certainly will try to follow the Bowling Green method to beating Tennessee.
Tennessee lost two de facto starters during the preseason when nickel Rashaan Gaulden was lost for the season to a foot injury and safety LaDarrell McNeil was sidelined indefinitely with a neck injury.
Even with the corner Sutton locking down one side of the field and the veteran Randolph at safety, Bowling Green tested Tennessee downfield in the passing game and hand enough success to the keep the Volunteers nervous for three quarters.
Bowling Green converted nine pass plays of 20 yards or more against the Tennessee defense. No team in the country had more such plays in the first week of the season.
Oklahoma, with a new quarterback and offensive coordinator culled from the Air Raid, wasn’t far behind in Week 1 with six pass plays of 20 yards or more against Akron.
The Tennessee secondary undoubtedly knows Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield, who didn’t play OU’s 34–10 win in Norman last year, will come into Neyland Stadium targeting Tennessee’s onetime backups in the secondary.
“I don’t think it will be a concern at all,” Sutton said. “A lot of those things are at the line — having good technique, wedging receivers, things like that. Those are things we can get better at.”
That’s the story Tennessee is trying to tell after giving up 433 passing yards and two touchdowns in the opener against Bowling Green. The secondary has nowhere to go but up.
Indeed, Tennessee says its pass defense should improve by Week 2, if for no other reason than the young Vols’ DBs got the first game out of the way.
Though the two starters with Sutton and Randolph (corner Emmanuel Moseley and safety Malik Foreman) played last season, three defensive backs were seeing their first college action — true freshmen Darrell Miller and Micah Abernathy and junior college transfer Justin Martin.
“We had a lot of guys in our secondary where this was their first game,” Sutton said. “Guys are eager to be out there, anxious to be out there. You’ve got to calm them down. After the first few plays, they settled in. Sometimes you bounce back and make plays.”
Tennessee also has reason to believe communication will be better when Oklahoma visits — and not just because some of the more green members of the secondary will have the first game of 2015 under their belts.
The Volunteers surprised their own players when they announced secondary coach Willie Martinez would be suspended for the game due to a secondary violation of NCAA rules stemming from impermissible contact with a recruit in 2014.
Not having Martinez, a DB coach at Tennessee, Auburn, Oklahoma and Georgia since 2001, in the press box removed one key set of eyes for a secondary already down on numbers.
“It has an impact from a communication standpoint,” Jones said. “Coach Martinez brings so much from the box. Not having him available, I think, hurt us. I’m not going to stay it didn’t.”
And then there’s the possibility Bowling Green was simply that good in the passing game. Quarterback Matt Johnson missed all but one game in 2014 with a hip injury. In his last full season as a starter in 2013, Johnson passed for 3,467 yards with 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions for a MAC championship squad.
Now healthy, Johnson completed 27-of-49 passes for 424 yards and two touchdowns against Tennessee
“I’ll be honest with you: Players make plays,” Jones said. “There were a few throws they made and catches where you couldn’t have been more perfect. We had perfect coverage.”
Perhaps Bowling Green had a perfect storm situation against the Tennessee defense — a game the Vols won by 29, mind you — but it’s one Oklahoma may have the ability to replicate.
Ken Simonton was an unlikely trailblazer for Oregon State. At Pittsburg (Calif.) High, Simonton had a dream of playing at USC. Mike Riley, then the Trojans’ offensive coordinator, took an interest in Simonton, but Riley eventually took the head coaching job at Oregon State.
Simonton followed Riley to Oregon State, but Riley soon left to be the head coach of the San Diego Chargers.
Under new coach Dennis Erickson, Simonton flourished, rushing for 5,044 career yards (still the third-highest total in Pac-12 history) and leading the Beavers to the Fiesta Bowl in 2000, still their only major bowl appearance since 1964. After Simonton followed a line of productive Oregon State running backs from Steven Jackson to Yvenson Bernard and Jacquizz Rodgers, giving the Beavers four of the top 17 rushers in Pac-12 history.
Simonton appeared on the Athlon Sports Pac-10 cover in 2000 and since his college career played for stints in the NFL and Canadian Football League. He has since returned to Southern California.
What are you up to these days?
Chasing kids. I’ve been really keeping myself busy. These last few years, I’ve been coaching at my alma mater Pittsburg High School and this last season I’ve transition to some youth track. My kids are that age where they’re starting to compete, so coaching some youth track is my big kick right now. My daughter qualified for the Junior Olympics in the long jump and mini (javelin).
What did you coach at Pittsburg?
I coached running backs and returners. High school is becoming so much like college, man. For me, unless you’re completely committed to coaching, they’re putting in so many hours, I wouldn’t even think about being a high school coach.
Did the running backs you coached know your Oregon State career?
A lot of the guys I’ve had are local guys as well, so, heck, their parents are guys I played against or with. It’s kind of neat. My runners use a lot of my highlights and high school stats as their measuring point. It gives them a good barometer. I had a kid who should be at Oregon State last year, but he had to go to junior college. My career from high school on has given them a good barometer of where to work.
You said your daughter (Mayelli) is involved in Junior Olympics. Does she take after dad a little bit?
It’s crazy. She’s not a sprinter yet. She doesn’t know how to use her arms. She’s kind of, “If it comes easy I like it. If I have to work at it, umm…” But I’m really proud of her because she’s learned to love the process. Kids her age ask if she won the race and she says, “No, but my time got better and I finished hard.” I’m really proud of her to be seven years old and kind of humble herself and learn to love the process. But she’s a natural jumper. She’s so consistent. My daughter is within six or seven inches in every meet.
Is there anything she does at this age that’s similar to where you were?
More than anything, I see she has great balance. She had a classmate who took years of gymnastics. And after a few days, I think she got tired of everyone clapping for her doing one-handed cartwheels. My daughter taught herself to do one-handed cartwheels. She has tremendous balance and a competitive nature. I can definitely see those two traits.
And what do you do for a day job?
For the past six years I’ve been an investigator with the Department of Labor. Our primary focus is looking at how workers are paid — minimum wage, overtime, child labor and record-keeping. That’s the base of what I do. Within that, we look at child labor issues, migrant workers and that their living arrangements are satisfactory. Quite honestly, that they’re living in human conditions. We get a myriad of cases, everything from aerospace to ag to mom and pop business.
Was this a field that interested you in college?
Heck no. That’s one of those things I kind of fell into. Our regional administrator served on our school board locally and when I stopped playing he asked about what I was doing and let me know they were doing some hiring. At the time, I really wanted to get into firefighting. That was really something I felt strongly about. Here in California, it’s such a competitive field. In the county where I live, there were maybe 6,000 applicants for maybe eight jobs. I took a few tests, did well but never quite high enough to get a foot in the door. I looked at this as viable option, and now I love it. Looking after low-wage workers and serving my community in this capacity is something where I can hold my head up high.
Do you still stay involved with Oregon State?
The new coach, Gary Andersen, I met him and some other alumni in Vegas during the summer. We got a chance to hear his vision and he got a chance to hear from some of us alums. I’ve tried to keep myself available. I’ve reached out to every running back since I left from Steven Jackson to Terron Ward who is fighting to compete in Atlanta right now. I always took it as a personal mission so that those runners knew who I was and knew that I was watching and that I was in support and that they always had an ear if they wanted to call and vent. I know how Corvallis can be at times. I let coach Andersen know that it was always on my heart to be around the program, and he kind of called me on it. He said, I’d love to have you and guys like Steven Jackson come back and watch the team compete and speak with them. He was very instrumental in making that happen.
You played early in Mike Riley’s first tenure at Oregon State. What do you remember about him getting started at Oregon State?
He was still at USC (when I first talked to him). We didn’t even have a home phone. He found my grandmother’s phone. Growing up as a runner, what was bigger than Tailback U. I was kind of sold on him from Day One. He believed in me from Day One. When he went up to Oregon State, it was crushing a little bit. When Mike recruited me, what he said was that he wanted to recruit guys who know how to win and came from winning program. His primary focus was turning that program around and getting the right guys in there no matter where they were from and guys who were sold out to winning. I don’t think people understand how competitive that man is.
How much did you realize at the time how special the 2000 season was for Oregon State? That’s still Oregon State’s only major bowl appearance since 1964.
Going into that season, I think we knew that was a team that every reason to splinter, to fracture. You had brothers from Florida, California, Texas, kids from the Midwest and Oregon. You talk about a rag-tag bunch… I tell people the biggest cultural change in Corvallis isn’t the people it’s the weather. There were just so many factors that we had to fight through. It was late spring, early summer that team made a decision to come together. We knew it before the coaching staff did. We knew we were good. And more than that, we were willing to fight. Guys realized there was nothing else out here but us. I think that team made a conscious decision that we didn’t have anything to lose. Let’s just go out and punch people in the face. I really wished the College Football Playoff was around then because at the end of the season, there wasn’t a team in the country that would have beat us. I really believe that.
When Riley was there and especially as they’ve gone through this coaching change, a lot of people have said this is the toughest job in the Pac-12 or one of the toughest jobs. Do you agree that this is a tough place for a guy to win?
Poppycock! I tell you what: It’s one of the best jobs in the Pac. It might be a tough place to recruit. You’re not going to get some of the can’t-miss five-star kind of kids unless they’ve got a little baggage, unless you take a chance on a Chad Johnson. That’s kind of a rare one. That guy was a legitimate talent, but he was looking for a home. Steven Jackson is a future Hall of Famer but he saw the momentum we were building. You had guys that were actively recruiting. In his early junior year, senior year, they got after this guy and made him feel like he was a stud before the rest of the world showed up. If you’ve got a bunch of lazy recruiters, it’s going to be a hard job. But if you have guys that are actively out recruiting and have a system of what they want to build… Put it this way: When I talk to young guys who are there, you have no distractions. You get a chance to play in the same conference as USC and you don’t have this big bull’s eye on you every time you burp out loud. If you recruit the right people, you’re going to get all the flair and the nuts environment any other Pac-12 university has. But at the end of the day you get to just focus on your business. I think if there’s a coach who is focused on building to that experience, the environment you get up there is second to none. The problem you had was some coaches, man, who at one point got lazy in recruiting. You stop recruiting the players that are there. I think that environment is really second to none. If Coach Andersen continues to recruit and recruits the guys that are there and continues that mindset of maintaining and keeping that environment exciting for the guys that are there, because there’s nothing else to do there. It’s football and the 60 guys in the locker room. You have the opportunity to live in a bubble, go to school and be nuts about building your own USC or UCLA. If you can recruit guys who are of that caliber, who are pissed off because they didn’t get that offers from USC or UCLA, you can’t tell me that if you can win at Boise or Baylor or TCU, that you can’t win at Oregon State.
College football is back, and the competition off the field is nearly as heated as the competition on game day.
The Athlon Sports College Football Experts Club presented by Nexium & Advil gives you the chance to compete with your friends and our experts each week.
Here are this week’s top picks from Athlon Sports senior writer David Fox:
USF at Florida State
USF won six total games in 2013-14 by a combined margin of 26 points. The Bulls beat Florida A&M in their opener by 48. They’re better, but not good enough to challenge Florida State.
Fox’s pick: Florida State 42–14
Oregon State at Michigan
The loss to Utah revealed Michigan still has a host of problems on offense. Oregon State is in even deeper trouble than Michigan.
Fox’s pick: Michigan 28-14
Buffalo at Penn State
Penn State’s offensive line can’t get much worse than last week’s 10-sack effort against Temple. Then again, we said that about the offensive line last season. Buffalo has a solid veteran quarterback who will make this closer than it should be.
Fox’s pick: Penn State 21–17
Wake Forest at Syracuse
Syracuse quarterback Terrell Hunt is out for the season with a torn Achilles. He’ll be replaced by a freshman. In a matchup of the two worst teams in the ACC, that’s huge.
Fox’s pick: Wake Forest 24–17
Notre Dame at Virginia
The start of Virginia’s schedule may be tougher than the Cavaliers anticipated as UCLA’s Josh Rosen and Notre Dame’s Malik Zaire quickly take charger of their respective quarterback positions. The Cavs will look to shut down Notre Dame’s weakened run game, but the Irish defense could be dominant.
Fox’s pick: Notre Dame 31–13
Hawaii at Ohio State
The Buckeyes get Joey Bosa, Jalin Mashall, Corey Smith and Dontre Wilson back from suspension. Good luck, Hawaii.
Fox’s pick: Ohio State 49–10
Tulane at Georgia Tech
Don’t overthink it: Georgia Tech won its opener 69–6. Tulane lost its opener 37–7.
Fox’s pick: Georgia Tech 41–14
Georgia at Vanderbilt
Georgia lost in its last road trip to Vanderbilt 31–27, a game that seems like it was eons ago. Derek Mason’s involvement on defense may have improved that side of the ball, but the offense can’t get out of its own way.
Fox’s pick: Georgia 31–10
Fresno State at Ole Miss
This isn’t a vintage Fresno State team, but the Bulldogs are still much better than the team Ole Miss beat by 73 last week. Fresno presents a tougher test for Rebels quarterback Chad Kelly, but one he should pass.
Fox’s pick: Ole Miss 42–7
Middle Tennessee at Alabama
Alabama demolished Wisconsin on both sides of the ball in the run game and the quarterback play was efficient. Oh no, says the rest of the SEC.
Fox’s pick: Alabama 42–10
Iowa at Iowa State
The rivalry game actually carries some weight for the respective futures of coaches Kirk Ferentz and Paul Rhoads. Iowa has a big-time defensive difference maker in Drew Ott and the makings of a competent offense. Edge: Hawkeyes.
Fox’s pick: Iowa 34–21
San Diego State at Cal
Rocky Long’s defense is always tricky for opposing quarterbacks — the Aztecs had five interceptions against San Diego in the opener. It’s an interesting matchup between the Aztecs’ D and quarterback Jared Goff, but Cal should come out on top.
Fox’s pick: Cal 41–24
Oklahoma at Tennessee
Tennessee’s looking to make a big-time statement, but the Volunteers might not have the depth in the secondary to pull it off. Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield was that impressive in Week 1.
Fox’s pick: Oklahoma 38–28
East Carolina at Florida
The Gators will face the Pirates for the second time in three games, winning the first matchup 28–20 in the Birmingham Bowl. This time around, Florida has a coach who hasn’t been fired and East Carolina doesn’t have Shane Carden or Justin Hardy.
Fox’s pick: Florida 38–14
Arizona at Nevada
Arizona’s defense was lost once Scooby Wright went down last week against UTSA. The Wildcats will need to learn to live without him for the next few weeks.
Fox’s pick: Arizona 35–24
Kentucky at South Carolina
The South Carolina defense would like to replicate last week’s key stats — three interceptions, four sacks — against Kentucky quarterback Patrick Towles. The Wildcats, though, have the balanced attack that could give South Carolina trouble.
Fox’s pick: South Carolina 31–27
Oregon at Michigan State
Both defenses gave their fans reason to worry in matchups with directional schools — Oregon against Eastern Washington and Michigan State against Western Michigan. Michigan State over time has shown more reason for us to believe in the Spartans. New Ducks QB Vernon Adams had a nice debut, but Connor Cook is playing the part of a trusty veteran who has been in the system for four years.
Fox’s pick: Michigan State 31–21
LSU at Mississippi State
Dak Prescott dominated in this game a year ago and will need to do so again, given Mississippi State’s personnel losses on offense since last season. LSU’s opener was cut short and canceled. Is that an edge for Mississippi State or LSU? We say Mississippi State.
Fox’s pick: Mississippi State 24–17
Boise State at BYU
BYU moves on with Tanner Mangum at quarterback. Boise State may be the more complete team, but the Broncos can’t afford their offense to stall in the second half like it did last week.
Fox’s pick: Boise State 24–17
UCLA at UNLV
UCLA’s quarterback was in high school this time last year. So was UNLV’s head coach. Other than that, the two teams don’t have a ton of similarities.
Fox’s pick: UCLA 42–20
Last week: 15–5
Season to date: 15–5
Believe it or not, college basketball season is sneaking up on us.
Although the traditional Oct. 15 start date and Midnight Madness is becoming a thing of the past for some programs, the start of practice remains a landmark worthy of a party in Lexington or dressing up like Iron Man or Gene Simmons in East Lansing.
For us at Athlon Sports, the mid-October start of college basketball practice means the release of our preseason preview magazine, available on newsstands or online Sept. 8.
The 2015-16 season promises to be another wild one. Two teams from last year’s Final Four, Kentucky and Duke, promise to reload with another cast of talented freshmen. At the same time, programs like Maryland and Cal are poised for breakout seasons.
As a tease to get you ready for this upcoming season, here’s the Athlon Sports preseason top 25 at a glance.
Podcast: Who should be No. 1 in College Basketball in 2015-16?
Available Now: Athlon Sports' 2015-16 College Basketball Annual
|Athlon Sports 2015-16 College Basketball Preseason Top 25|
Kentucky: The Wildcats might not challenge 40–0 again, but Tyler Ulis, Skal Labissiere and Jamal Murray should contend for the Final Four.
Duke: Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones are gone, but landing Brandon Ingram and Derryck Thornton means Coach K can contend for a sixth national title.
North Carolina: The Tar Heels have a group of veterans that might be Roy Williams’ last great team for a while.
Maryland: Maryland added freshman Diamond Stone and transfer Robert Carter Jr. to its returning core for what will be the Terps' best squad since the 2002 championship.
Virginia: The Cavs’ early exits from the NCAA Tournament have dulled back-to-back 30-win seasons, but Virginia is built to contend again.
Kansas: The Jayhawks are gearing up for a 12th consecutive Big 12 title, but they’re still awaiting word on five-star freshman Cheick Diallo.
Iowa State: New coach Steve Prohm inherits a great situation with Georges Niang, Monte Morris and — you guessed it — some talented transfers.
Arizona: The Wildcats face questions after losing their top four scorers from last season. Sean Miller, though, has a plan.
Oklahoma: The backcourt duo of Buddy Hield and Jordan Woodard will be one of the best in the nation.
Villanova: The Wildcats have to avoid stalling in the NCAA Tournament, but adding freshman Jalen Brunson to the mix means Nova will be dangerous all year again.
Gonzaga: Kyle Wiltjer is a national player of the year candidate, but the Zags have a big hole at point guard without Kevin Pangos.
Michigan State: Last year’s Final Four was a tease. This team, with high-scoring West Virginia transfer Eron Harris, could be the Big Ten favorite.
Cal: Adding freshmen Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb to the existing group of veterans means Cuonzo Martin has a Pac-12 contender on his hands.
Wichita State: Gregg Marshall resisted the urge to go to Alabama in the offseason. He’ll have one last go-round with Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker.
Vanderbilt: The Commodores made a push late last season. They return everyone of note from that team, including SEC Player of the Year contender Damian Jones.
Purdue: The front line of A.J. Hammons, freshman Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas will be imposing. Boilers will rely on a transfer from UT Arlington to play point.
Indiana: The Hoosiers’ lack of a big man hurt them last year. They went out and got a big man, freshman center Thomas Bryant.
UConn: The addition of Sterling Gibbs from Seton Hall among other newcomers should get the Huskies back into the NCAA Tournament.
Wisconsin: After back-to-back Final Fours, Wisconsin will take a dip. But this is a Bo Ryan team, so the dip won’t be very far.
Butler: The Bulldogs started last season with a handful of questions. Butler has its coach in place and a handful of veterans ready to contend for the Big East championship.
Oregon: The Ducks lose prolific scorer Joseph Young, but Dana Altman always finds a way.
Michigan: After last year’s debacle, Michigan ready for healthy seasons from Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton ... and a return to form.
Louisville: Landing transfers Trey Lewis (Cleveland State) and Damion Lee (Drexel) turn a rebuilding team into a contender.
SMU: The Mustangs still have a ton talent, provided they can avoid any NCAA entanglements. (Update: SMU did not avoid NCAA entanglements and will face a postseason ban in 2015–16.)
Texas A&M: The Aggies return Danuel House, Alex Caruso and Jalen Jones from last year’s bubble team. Billy Kennedy should have the depth to get back into the Tourney.
|Also considered: Baylor, Dayton, Florida State, LSU, Notre Dame, San Diego State, UCLA|
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – He’s only two years into his tenure, but Western Kentucky coach Jeff Brohm is amid one of the craziest stretches of his football career.
And considering he played in the defunct XFL, that’s a statement.
Going back to the final two games of 2014, the Hilltoppers have won three consecutive games decided on two-point plays. First, they won on a two-point play they called in overtime — before they were required to by rule — to beat then-undefeated Marshall 67-66. Then, they stopped Central Michigan on a two-point play, one of the few big stops in a shootout in a 49-48 bowl win.
The opener against Vanderbilt was the third flavor in this Neapolitan variety pack of finishes decided on two-point conversions. Western Kentucky managed to win a defensive struggle with Vanderbilt as a former running back tackled Vanderbilt’s tight end a yard short of the goal line to preserve a 14-12 win.
The title of the most on-edge team continues for another season, and at least for September, that sets up for a wild month for the Hilltoppers.
Western Kentucky’s next game is against Louisiana Tech, the only team last season that truly limited Brandon Doughty, who led the nation in passing yards and passing touchdowns. And nine days after that, Western Kentucky plays Indiana, an up-tempo offensive team with a questionable defense.
“I think with our schedule this year, we may have every game like that,” Brohm said. “We’re not much better than other teams, and they’re not much better than us.”
And with Western Kentucky’s two-point conversion history, maybe that’s why the Hilltoppers knew what was coming from Vanderbilt on its last-ditch effort.
Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason fired both coordinators before this season, and installed himself as defensive play-caller. That seemed to work for most of the game as Vanderbilt held Western Kentucky without a touchdown for the first three quarters. The Hilltoppers had only 85 yards on their first 36 plays. They had 139 yards and two touchdowns on their next 11.
The offense, though, couldn’t hold up its end of the bargain. Quarterback Johnny McCrary threw two interceptions in the end zone, and a third red zone opportunity came up empty with a missed 28-yard field goal.
The final play was either a sign of preparation and composure from the Western Kentucky sideline or a sign of predictability from the Vanderbilt sideline.
The Commodores brought in former Wisconsin/San Diego State/Cal/Utah/Oregon/Fresno State coordinator Andy Ludwig to run the offense, and although he’d never called a play for Vanderbilt before Thursday, Western Kentucky knew what was coming with the game on the line.
McCrary passed to 6-5, 240-pound tight end Nathan Marcus in the flat short of the goal line. Converted running back Joe Brown, at 5-10, 190 pounds, brought him down by the legs just short of tying the game with 33 seconds left.
“They ran the exact play that offensive coordinator has run for years for two-point conversions and we had the perfect call sitting right on the flats,” said Western Kentucky linebacker Nick Holt, the son of the Hilltoppers’ defensive coordinator of the same name. “They like crossers expecting man coverage and we sat right on it. Joe Brown had a heck of a play cutting down a big, strong physical receiver.
“Offensive coaches have about 2-3-4 plays they like to run in those situations. We study that and we pick our calls depending on what formation they line up in and try and guess what they’re going to try and do.”
Western Kentucky’s opener didn’t bring the expected fireworks, scoring only 14 points after the Hilltoppers averaged 53 points over the final four last season. That’s fine.
The game still came down to a two-point conversion in which a 5-10 sophomore who played running back a year ago had to take down a 6-5 tight end in the open field.
The two-point plays might be predictable. The way Western Kentucky is finishing games these days is not.
“It’s a little old on me," Brohm said, "but fans like to watch it.”
When Danny McManus arrived at Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium on Sept. 7, 1985, the then-sophomore Florida State quarterback allowed himself to soak up the scene.
There was Tom Osborne, in the flesh. McManus, who grew up in Hollywood, Fla., saw plenty of the Nebraska coach on trips to the Orange Bowl.
“You just remember the sea of red and then our pocket of garnet and gold in the end zone,” McManus (right) said. “And those were the people who came on the flight with us.”
By the end of that hot September day, Florida State pulled off one of the most rare feats in college football — forcing Nebraska to start a season 0–1.
McManus and Florida State defeated Nebraska 17–13 on that day. It’s also the last time Nebraska lost a season opener. The Cornhuskers’ season-opening win streak, the longest active streak in the country, could turn 30 this season.
Nebraska opens the season against BYU, a seven-point underdog. In other words, Nebraska’s season-opening win streak is in danger of ending for the first time since 2003 when the Huskers defeated a ranked Oklahoma State team 17–7.
Incidentally, McManus, the last quarterback to beat Nebraska in a season opener, has ties to new Huskers coach Mike Riley. McManus, now an assistant general manager for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, played his first season of a Canadian Football Hall of Fame career under Riley for the Blue Bombers in 1990.
At the time of the Florida State-Nebraska matchup in 1985, though, neither McManus nor the Seminoles had approached a high level of fame.
Florida State at that point had been to the Orange Bowl twice under Bobby Bowden — both losses — but the Seminoles wouldn’t win their first national championship for another eight years. Nebraska, meanwhile, was near the height of their powers.
Defeating a top-10 Nebraska team on the road to start the 1985 season was a key step in Florida State’s ascent to becoming a national power in the 90s and beyond.
“To be able match up with Nebraska and stay in toe to toe and to be able to punch over enough points to finish the game, it was huge,” McManus said.
To start, though, going toe-to-toe with Nebraska wasn’t a sure thing. Fullback Tom Rathman, now the running backs coach with the San Francisco 49ers, reeled off a 60-yard touchdown run less than two minutes into the game.
“I remember looking at their offensive and defensive line and thinking we don’t have a chance,” said Georgia coach Mark Richt, who was then a first-year volunteer assistant with Florida State. “That’s a big strong corn-fed line. But we found a way to win.”
Nebraska did its part to help Florida State, completing only 3-of-14 passes for 40 yards with an interception. The Cornhuskers turned the ball over three times. A low snap on a punt set up Florida State running back Cletis Jones for what would become the game-winning touchdown in the second quarter.
Nebraska outgained Florida State 412-290 that day, but the Seminoles were able to hold the stalemate — and the four-point lead — throughout the second half.
Maybe Florida State had the advantage of playing a week earlier, a 38-12 win at Tulane. Maybe Florida State was just more used to the conditions in Lincoln.
Former Florida State center Jamie Dukes doesn’t remember setting any blocks for Jones or anyone else in that game, but the All-American and nine-year NFL veteran remembers the heat.
Memorial Stadium then had artificial turf, sending the on-field temperature soaring to 132 degrees, then a record for a game at Nebraska.
“It was just unbelievable,” said Dukes, now an analyst for the NFL Network and a radio host in Atlanta. “We were taking our shoes and stepping into buckets of ice water just to cool them down. It was an unbelievably hot day.”
Thirty years later, the carpet turf has long since been replaced. Osborne and Bowden have retired. Pro careers have come and gone for the players in that game.
Nebraska eventually got revenge for its season-opening loss to Florida State. The following year, the Cornhuskers defeated then No. 11 FSU 34–17 in 1986 to start the current season-opening win streak.
McManus will be rooting for Nebraska’s streak to hit 30, not just because it means his old coach will start 1–0 with the Huskers, but also because it gives him a little piece of college football history.
“I’ll be rooting for coach Riley,” McManus said. “Got to keep that streak going.”
|Nebraska's Season Openers since 1986|
|1986||No. 11 Florida State||34-17||2001||TCU (N)||21-7|
|1987||Utah State||56-12||2002||Arizona State (N)||48-10|
|1988||No. 10 Texas A&M (N)||23-14||2003||No. 24 Oklahoma State||17-7|
|1989||Northern Illinois||48-17||2004||Western Illinois||56-17|
|1991||Utah State||59-28||2006||Louisiana Tech||49-10|
|1993||North Texas||76-14||2008||Western Michigan||47-24|
|1994||No. 24 West Virginia (N)||31-0||2009||FAU||49-3|
|1995||at Oklahoma State||64-21||2010||Western Kentucky||49-10|
|1998||Louisiana Tech (N)||56-27||2013||Wyoming||37-34|
|2000||San Jose State||49-13||2015||BYU||???|
(N) indicates neutral site game
Every season has one ritual that’s both exciting and infuriating — the practice of throwing out the preseason polls after only a few weeks of the season.
Teams we thought we understood in June, July and August turn out to be imposters — or wolves in sheep’s clothing — by the time games begin in September.
Just last season, three teams that were unranked in the preseason AP poll (Mississippi State, TCU and Arizona) were ranked in the top 10 in the first poll in August. Preseason No. 18 Ole Miss tied with the rival Bulldogs at No. 3 in the Oct. 5 poll.
At the same time, five teams in the preseason top 16 started October unranked (South Carolina, LSU, Wisconsin and Clemson).
While some teams may be able to survive the September upset — Ohio State and Oregon still played for the championship, after all — other seasons soar or crumble based on September results. These are teams that are already at a crossroads during the first month of the 2015 season.
Sept. 5 vs. Bowling Green (Nashville)
Sept. 12 Oklahoma
Sept. 19 Western Carolina
Sept. 26 at Florida
The entire month of September will be a test of Tennessee’s ability to avoid its own hype. Bowling Green might not be able to upset the Volunteers, but the Falcons are a MAC contender. Tennessee ran out of steam against Oklahoma last season in a 34-10 loss in Norman, and the Volunteers still lack the depth to match their standout frontline talent. The whole month, though, points to that critical game against Florida. The Gators have won 10 in a row, and it’s tough to buy the Vols as an SEC favorite if they can’t solve their Florida problem.
Sept. 5 vs. Louisville (Atlanta)
Sept. 12 Jacksonville State
Sept. 19 at LSU
Sept. 26 Mississippi State
Tigers quarterback Jeremy Johnson is already being named as one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC even though he threw fewer than 40 passes last season. He’ll be challenged immediately by Louisville and LSU — both away from home. Louisville and LSU ranked in the top 20 nationally in yards allowed per play and in the top five nationally in pass efficiency defense. Both defenses expect to pick up where they left off last season. Throw in a match up against Dak Prescott to round out the month, and Auburn will know right away if it has the goods to win the SEC.
Sept. 5 at Northwestern
Sept. 12 UCF
Sept. 19 at USC
Sept. 25 at Oregon State
Stanford gets its share of tough games at home — Arizona, UCLA, Oregon and Notre Dame. The Cardinal makes up for it with only one home game in the first month of the season. A trip to Evanston figures to be tricky (even if a lesser Cal team was able to win there last season). The highlight, though, is a road trip to USC, the potential Pac-12 favorite that beat Stanford 13-10 last season.
Sept. 5 at Notre Dame
Sept. 12 Rice
Sept. 19 Cal
Sept. 26 Oklahoma State
Texas isn’t getting much hype in the Big 12 — and after a 6-7 season and back-to-back routs to end 2014, that’s with good reason. That said, if Texas is able to upset Notre Dame and South Bend, the Longhorns would shift the balance of power in the Big 12. More realistically, Texas will need to show it can beat a mediocre West Coast team after losing to BYU twice and UCLA in the last two seasons. A home date against rising Oklahoma State, a team that’s won three in a row in Austin is key. A 1-3 start would be disastrous for second-year coach Charlie Strong.
Sept. 5 vs. Arizona State (Houston)
Sept. 12 Ball State
Sept. 19 Nevada
Sept. 26 vs. Arkansas (Arlington)
The Aggies have dropped from 11 wins to nine to eight and six SEC wins to four to three in the three seasons under Kevin Sumlin. While no one would suggest he’s any trouble, Texas A&M’s status as an “it” program may be in jeopardy if the Aggies can’t get off to a hot start, which essentially boils down to those two neutral site games against Arizona State and Arkansas. Sumlin brought in John Chavis to fix a defense that will immediately get tested against two wildly different schemes in Arizona State’s up-tempo spread with a strong-armed QB and Arkansas’ grinding run game.
Sept. 4 Washington
Sept. 12 at BYU
Sept. 18 Idaho State
Sept. 25 at Virginia
Thanks to the new Playoff bowl assignments, Boise State doesn’t need to go undefeated to get to a major bowl game. The Broncos simply have to win the Mountain West and be ranked higher than champs in the American, Conference USA, MAC and Sun Belt. Boise State is already the favorite in the Mountain West and can wrap up the “highest-ranked” criteria with signature wins against power programs in September. With two road games and a new quarterback, that’s easier said than done.
Sept. 5 at Nebraska
Sept. 12 Boise State
Sept. 19 at UCLA
Sept. 26 at Michigan
Last season, BYU started 4-0 with Taysom Hill at quarterback. He won’t have a ton of opportunities to work himself into the lineup with three of the first four on the road. This opening slate against a defending Fiesta Bowl champ (Boise State), a veteran Pac-12 contender (UCLA) and a team that hasn’t lost a season opener since 1985 (Nebraska) is much more difficult than the one Hill sliced through to start 2014. Remember, as an independent, BYU has to finish in the top 10 or better to get a coveted New Year’s Bowl slot. Winning a couple of these early would be a good start toward that goal.
Sept. 5 vs. Auburn (Atlanta)
Sept. 12 Houston
Sept. 17 Clemson
Sept. 26 Samford
Louisville defensive coordinator Todd Grantham will earn his pay in the first month of the season facing arguably the best offensive coach in the SEC (Auburn’s Gus Malzahn), the offensive coordinator from the reigning national champions (Houston’s Tom Herman) and the best quarterback in the ACC (Clemson’s Deshaun Watson). Louisville had a standout season on defense a year ago and will use Power 5 refugees Devonte Fields (TCU) and Josh Harvey-Clemons (Georgia) to fill the gaps.
Sept. 5 Grambling State
Sept. 12 San Diego State
Sept. 19 at Texas
Sept. 26 at Washington
Cal’s big September essentially boils down to those two big road games at the end of the month, though a loss to San Diego State would limit any momentum Sonny Dykes has built. A road trip to face a standout Texas secondary could be a key moment for Cal quarterback Jared Goff. And beating Washington for the first time since 2008 would be a critical Pac-12 win for a Cal team that has to face Utah, UCLA and USC from the South and Oregon and Stanford on the road.
Sept. 5 UL Lafayette
Sept. 12 at South Carolina
Sept. 19 Florida
Sept. 26 Missouri
Even in a weak SEC East, Kentucky has an uphill climb to contend for the division. Mark Stoops’ team improved from 2-10 to 5-7 and stepped up in recruiting. If the Wildcats are going to deliver on that potential, September would be a good time to do so. South Carolina, which lost 45-38 in Columbia to UK last year, is as vulnerable as its been under Steve Spurrier. Florida figures to be offensively challenged again under a new coach, especially early. And Missouri’s strength along the defensive line has been diminished due to departures. Kentucky hasn’t won an SEC road game since 2009, so getting Florida and Mizzou in Lexington is critical.
Sept. 5 at Vanderbilt
Sept. 10 Louisiana Tech
Sept. 19 at Indiana
Sept. 26 Miami (Ohio)
Looking for a Group of 5 team not named Boise State to watch? Why not Western Kentucky? Quarterback Brandon Doughty — who led shootout wins over Marshall (67-66) and Central Michigan (49-48) to finish last season — is back. The Hilltoppers have a chance to beat two Power 5 teams on the road, albeit Vandy and Indiana, and knock out a Conference USA contender (Louisiana Tech) all before Sept. 20.
Happy September, folks.
If college football season seems a little later this season, that's because it is. The first FBS game of the college football season is on Sept. 3, the latest opener since 2009. For the first time since 2011, the season didn't feature at least one August football game. Labor Day doesn't fall until Sept. 7, so the college football schedule follows, making the wait that much longer.
If only every fan base could enjoy that offseason optimism through the fall months. Alas, some teams might have their hopes dashed early in the season while others are just getting started on a potential journey to a special season. These are the games in the first month of the season that may send a team on one path or the other.
|1.||Sept. 12||East Lansing, Mich.|
|Oregon defeated Michigan State 46-27 in Eugene to set the table for a College Football Playoff appearance and a Heisman Trophy last season. In the Ducks' return trip, Michigan State is looking for revenge — and to show the Big Ten that Ohio State isn't the only contender in the league.|
|2.||Sept. 7||Blacksburg, Va.|
|Ohio State's 35-21 loss to the Hokies seems like ages ago. Whether J.T. Barrett or Cardale Jones starts, the Buckeyes quarterback will face a nasty defense on the road. The Buckeyes' suspensions, including defensive end Joey Bosa, add drama to a game that already had plenty of storylines.|
|3.||Sept. 19||Baton Rouge, La.|
|An even series has gone into LSU's favor recently (6-2 in the last eight). A standout performance by Jeremy Johnson against the stout Tigers defense in Death Valley would be eyebrow raising. An LSU win puts the Tigers into SEC West contention.|
|4.||Sept. 19||Tuscaloosa, Ala.|
|Along with Auburn-LSU, this Saturday sets up as a monster day for the SEC West. Ole Miss has not won in Tuscaloosa since 1988 and has never defeated Alabama in back-to-back years. Alabama has lost to only one opponent in back-to-back seasons under Nick Saban (LSU, 2010-11).|
|5.||Sept. 19||Los Angeles|
|With any luck, this game will be more entertaining than Stanford's 13-10 win last season. Both teams are expecting more after being conference also-rans a year ago. Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan is looking for a rebound year while USC's Cody Kessler is looking to prove himself against a top-flight defense.|
|6.||Sept. 5||South Bend, Ind.|
|Texas visits South Bend for the first time in 20 years. A Longhorns win would be a surprise as new Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire looks for an early signature moment.|
|7.||Sept. 12||Knoxville, Tenn.|
|Oklahoma clobbered Tennessee 34-10 in Norman last season. In the interim, Oklahoma has become an afterthought in the Big 12 to TCU and Baylor while Tennessee is one of the "it" teams in the SEC. Time now to see how much has really changed.|
|Auburn quarterback Jeremy Johnson has thrown 78 passes in two seasons, but his reputation preceeds him. In his first game as the unquestioned starter, Johnson faces a stout Louisville defense.|
|9.||Sept. 5||Arlington, Texas|
|A sneaky good matchup in the first Saturday of the season could turn the winner into a Playoff contender overnight.|
|10.||Sept. 26||Tempe, Ariz.|
|Last season's meeting ended on a Mike Bercovici Hail Mary to Jaelen Strong for a Sun Devils' win. With Bercovici facing Kessler and plenty of skill talent again, expect more fireworks.|
|11.||Sept. 17||Louisville, Ky.|
|After facing Wofford and Appalachian State to start the season, Clemson and Deshaun Watson will face their first post-Chad Morris test against Louisville on a Thursday night.|
|12.||Sept. 26||Tucson, Ariz.|
|UCLA will be tested against Virginia and BYU by the time of its Pac-12 opener against Arizona. After facing a soft non-conference schedule, Arizona will try to use this game prove its Pac-12 South credentials.|
|13.||Sept. 26||Arlington, Texas|
|A lesson in identity football — Arkansas' grinding run-offense vs. Texas A&M's hurry-up passing attack — will play a key role in determining the pecking order in the SEC West.|
|14.||Sept. 12||Provo, Utah|
|Both Boise State and BYU have tough September matchups. The Broncos might not need to go undefeated for a major bowl bid (they lost twice last season), but BYU probably does.|
|15.||Sept. 19||South Bend, Ind.|
|The Yellow Jackets bring the elite option offense to face a salty Notre Dame defense. Who blinks first?|
|16.||Sept. 26||Gainesville, Fla.|
|Tennessee plays Oklahoma before its SEC opener in Gainesville, but the Volunteers need to beat Florida for the first time since 2004 if only for the sake of their collective psyche heading into the conference season.|
|17.||Sept. 26||Austin, Texas|
|Oklahoma State has won three in a row in Austin after losing 11 in a row, dating to before the formation of the Big 12. Meanwhile, the Cowboys and Longhorns are embroiled in a lawsuit concerning whether former Pokes assistant Joe Wickline calls the offensive plays for Texas.|
|18.||Sept. 5||Arlington, Texas|
|Alabama will be a clear favorite in another neutral-site opener. A more compelling storyline will be how either Jake Coker or David Cornwell fares against Dave Aranda's Wisconsin defense.|
|TCU defeated Minnesota 30-7 in Fort Worth last season and will be favored to win at Minnesota. Horned Frogs quarterback and Heisman contender Trevone Boykin will face one of the best defensive backfields on the road.|
|20.||Sept. 19||Austin, Texas|
|Cal is getting plenty of run as a sleeper team but only if the Bears' defense can give Jared Goff and the Air Raid a chance. With its brutal schedule, Cal will need to win games like this to get to a bowl.|
We’ve had all offseason to think about this, but the time has final come:
Time to make our official conference and playoff picks.
Though Athlon Sports magazines have been on shelves since the summer, the debate over teams and leagues has been ongoing here in our newsroom and our podcast.
Now, however, is when we’ll put our pen to paper — figuratively speaking — on our picks for the season. Athlon’s brain trust of Mitch Light, Braden Gall, David Fox and Steven Lassan picked every division and every conference, plus playoff teams, sleepers and potential Heisman finalists in this rapid-fire edition of the Athlon Sports Cover 2.
After 234 days without a college football game, fans may be tempted to say they’d watch any game.
Really? How about that Savannah State-Colorado State tilt? VMI-Ball State? UC Davis-Nevada? Would those games test fans’ verve for college football?
Certainly, by the first week of the season, fans will be ready to test out any and every college football game, but some are more exciting than others — and, yes, even some of those games between power conference powerhouses and MAC, Sun Belt and FCS programs.
Athlon is happy to be of service in helping you plan your way through all 87 games of the first weekend of college football season, from Thursday at 6 p.m. Eastern through Monday night at 8 p.m.
1. Ohio State at Virginia Tech (Monday, 8 p.m., ESPN)
Perhaps no game could overturn the college football world in 2015 more than a second Virginia Tech upset of Ohio State. The Buckeyes are the unanimous preseason No. 1 and Virginia Tech a fringe top 25 team. Clearly, the Ohio State team that beat Alabama and Oregon for the national championship isn’t the same as the one that lost to the Hokies in Columbus last season. J.T. Barrett — who was making his second career start against Virginia Tech last year — and Cardale Jones have notched plenty of wins, and the defense and offensive line should be among the best in the country. But Ohio State will be without defensive end Joey Bosa, H-backs Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson and wide receiver Corey Smith. Those suspensions might not be fatal to Ohio State, but they will make things a little more interesting.
2. Texas at Notre Dame (Saturday, 7:30 p.m., NBC)
Notre Dame is a potential College Football Playoff contender, but no one really knows how A.) the selection committee will view an independent and B.) how Notre Dame’s offense will complement what should be a nasty defense. On the defensive side alone, Notre Dame should have an edge against the Longhorns’ lackluster offense. If Malik Zaire can give the Irish a comfortable win against a Charlie Strong-coached D, Notre Dame will have legitimacy in the playoff race.
3. Louisville vs. Auburn in Atlanta (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., CBS)
Atlanta will be the first look at Auburn quarterback Jeremy Johnson as the unquestioned leader of the Tigers’ offense, and it will be against a stout Louisville front seven. Louisville won’t have the most imposing offense, but it will be a key barometer for Auburn’s defense with Will Muschamp in charge and with defensive end Carl Lawson back in the mix
4. Arizona State vs. Texas A&M in Houston (Saturday, 7 p.m., ESPN)
This is arguably the most interesting game of the first weekend. Opinion on the Pac-12 South seems to be divided among USC and UCLA, and picks for the SEC West are split between Alabama and Auburn. The Sun Devils have an aggressive defense, and the Aggies should have a high-flying offense again. Will the outcome of that matchup cause anyone to change anyone’s expectations of the Pac-12 and SEC races?
5. Alabama vs. Wisconsin in Arlington, Texas (Saturday, 8 p.m., ABC)
Arlington will match two big-name programs, both of which will be the top contenders in their respective divisions. Alabama, though, shouldn’t have a ton of trouble with Wisconsin; Such is the gulf between the SEC West and the Big Ten West. What could be most telling is how Alabama’s quarterback — whether it’s Jake Coker, David Cornwell or Blake Barnett — handles a well-coached Wisconsin defense.
6. TCU at Minnesota (Thursday, 9 p.m., ESPN)
Minnesota, oddly enough, became one of the key opponents for the College Football Playoff picture. The Gophers finished the season ranked No. 25, giving both Ohio State and TCU each an additional win over a ranked team (the Buckeyes won in Minneapolis). They also lost to Wisconsin, setting up the Badgers to losing 58-0 in the Big Ten championship game and vaulting Ohio State to No. 4 in the Playoff. Will TCU-Minnesota turn out to be just as important? Perhaps. TCU facing a respectable Big Ten team on the road could end up being a feather in the cap for the Horned Frogs.
7. BYU at Nebraska (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ABC)
Welcome back, Taysom Hill. The BYU quarterback accounted for 15 touchdowns in the first five games last season and showed improvement as a passer before sustaining a broken leg in the Cougars’ first loss of the season. BYU has a brutal first month against Nebraska, Boise State, UCLA and Michigan with only the game against the Broncos in Provo. Besides facing BYU in his Nebraska debut, coach Mike Riley will visit Miami in Game 3.
8. Michigan at Utah (Thursday, 8:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1)
Harbaugh Mania will either keep going strong or fizzle momentarily after the Wolverines open the season at Utah, a team that beat Michigan 26-10 in Ann Arbor last season. Salt Lake City is a tough venue to begin with, much less against a rebuilding team under a new coach and new quarterback. Michigan’s run defense was feast or famine last season and now opens the year against the underrated Devontae Booker.
9. North Carolina vs. South Carolina in Charlotte (Thursday, 6 p.m., ESPN)
Both teams need an early win in the worst way. South Carolina never recovered from last year’s shocking 52-28 loss to Texas A&M in the opener. North Carolina has gone 6-7 in August and September under Larry Fedora and 15-10 otherwise. New Tar Heels defensive coordinator Gene Chizik has a simple assignment in his debut: Keep the ball away from Pharoh Cooper.
10. Stanford at Northwestern (Saturday, noon, ESPN)
With the way both Stanford and Northwestern like to schedule like-minded rigorous academic programs in the non-conference, it’s surprising these two teams haven’t played since 1994. Both coaches were players at their alma maters at the time — Pat Fitzgerald as a linebacker at Northwestern and David Shaw as a receiver at Stanford. The game ended in a 41-41 tie. Other than that bit of trivia, this is a key litmus test for both teams looking to return to form.
11. Washington at Boise State (Friday, 10:15 p.m., ESPN)
The job isn’t getting easier for Washington coach Chris Petersen. The Huskies went 8-6 last season despite having four players selected in the first 44 picks of the NFL Draft. They lost their most experienced offensive lineman, Dexter Charles, a little more than two weeks before the season. And now Petersen will take his new team (as an underdog, probably) to visit his old employer. Boise State, for the record, produced one draft pick, a fifth-rounder, off last year’s 12-win team.
12. Michigan State at Western Michigan (Friday, 7 p.m., ESPNU)
The Kalamazoo crowd will get its first visit from either Michigan State or Michigan when the Spartans come to town. In the year of the freshman running back, Western Michigan’s Jarvion Franklin rushed for 1,551 yards and 24 touchdowns last season. His matchup against Michigan State’s defense will be intriguing.
13. Bowling Green vs. Tennessee in Nashville (Saturday, 4 p.m., SEC Network)
Fans are expecting a breakout season for Tennessee, but the opener won’t be an automatic W. With 10 returning starters on offense (which doesn’t include 2013 starting QB Matt Johnson), Bowling Green is the projected champion in the MAC East. Both teams have an important September ahead of them: Tennessee with Oklahoma and Florida, Bowling Green with Maryland, Memphis and Purdue.
14. Penn State at Temple (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ESPN)
Temple will give Penn State’s beleaguered offensive line an immediate test. The Owls return their entire starting defensive line and tackling machine Tyler Matakevich. Temple, though, hasn’t defeated Penn State in 39 tries going back to 1941.
15. Western Kentucky at Vanderbilt (Thursday, 8 p.m., SEC Network)
No team was more exciting at the end of last season than Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers handed Marshall its only loss of the season with a 67-66 win in overtime and then withstood a fourth-quarter comeback from Central Michigan for a 49-48 win in the Bahamas Bowl. Both games were decided two-point conversions — successful on WKU’s part against Marshall and unsuccessful on Central Michigan’s part. The Hilltoppers have a mighty interesting September with Vanderbilt, Louisiana Tech and Indiana in the first three games.
16. Eastern Washington at Oregon (Saturday, 8 p.m., Pac-12 Networks)
How often does this happen? A quarterback plays three seasons with one team, transfers and the opens the season against his former team? If Vernon Adams gets the starting job — only weeks after taking his last final exam at Eastern Washington — that’s the scene in Eugene. Adams was wildly productive with Eastern Washington, but with that kind of turnaround into the Oregon offense, he could struggle in the opener.
17. Georgia Southern at West Virginia (Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Fox Sports local)
West Virginia could have the top defense in the Big 12 this season, but the Mountaineers open against Georgia Southern’s option offense. The Eagles have some giant-killer to their game, upsetting Florida in 2013 and losing one-score games at NC State and Georgia Tech last season.
18. Virginia at UCLA (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., FOX)
Bruins freshman quarterback Josh Rosen might be making his first career start against a team that hasn’t won a road game since Nov. 3, 2012 and hasn’t won a game west of the Mississippi since 1999.
19. Oklahoma State at Central Michigan (Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPNU)
Why is Oklahoma State opening its season in a MAC stadium? The Cowboys will get two return visits from Central Michigan in Stillwater in 2016 and 2018. A visit from a Big 12 program should be a treat for a Central Michigan fan base whose previous coach left to become the offensive coordinator at Arkansas.
20. Baylor at SMU (Friday, 7 p.m., ESPN)
If SMU scores a touchdown in against Baylor — something that happened once in the first four games last season — new Mustangs coach Chad Morris will be well ahead of last season’s pace.
21. Colorado at Hawaii (Friday, 1 a.m., CBS Sports Network)
Those who stay up late enough on the first night of the college football season will get a nice quarterback matchup. Colorado’s Sefo Liufau emerged to pass for 3,200 yards and 28 touchdowns last season. Former USC quarterback Max Wittek, who also tried to transfer to Texas last season, will take the snaps for Hawaii.
22. Purdue at Marshall (Sunday, 3 p.m., Fox Sports 1)
Rakeem Cato is gone, but Marshall expects to keep its high-powered offense moving with James Madison transfer Michael Birdsong at quarterback. Purdue coach Darrell Hazell is in for a long season if the Boilers can’t win in Huntington.
23. Illinois State at Iowa (Saturday, noon, Big Ten Network)
The best FBS vs. FCS matchup features Athlon’s No. 2 team in the FCS (Illinois State) against a middle-of-the-road Big Ten team with a tendency to play close games no matter the opponent. Illinois State quarterback Tre Roberson, a transfer from Indiana, won’t be awed by playing in a Big Ten stadium.
24. Northern Iowa at Iowa State (Saturday, 8 p.m.)
The Panthers have been a regular thorn in the side of their big brothers in the Big Ten and Big 12. Northern Iowa gave the Hawkeyes trouble in a 31-23 loss last season, and two years ago, the Panthers upset the Cyclones 28-20 in Ames. Longtime Northern Iowa coach Mark Farley is 2-6 all-time against Iowa State.
25. UL Lafayette at Kentucky (Saturday, 7 p.m., ESPNU)
The upstart Wildcats get a legitimate test in the opener against a Sun Belt contender. UL Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth, a former Mississippi State assistant, is a contender for major jobs after four consecutive nine-win seasons and four bowl wins.
26. UTEP at Arkansas (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ESPNU)
This game will turn back the clock on up-tempo offenses. Arkansas’ ground-and-pound offense is well-established, but UTEP has a similar approach. The Miners were the slowest team in college football, averaging 30.5 seconds between plays.
27. Mississippi State at Southern Miss (Saturday, 10 p.m., Fox Sports 1)
Hattiesburg should be pumped for Mississippi State’s first visit since 1989 even if Southern Miss will be a long shot to pull the upset. Ole Miss, for the record, hasn’t played at Southern Miss since 1976.
28. Arkansas State at USC (Saturday, 11 p.m., Pac-12 Networks)
USC might be tested for a quarter or so against veteran QB Fredi Knighten and Athlon’s projected Sun Belt champ.
29. Akron at Oklahoma (Saturday, 7 p.m., Fox Sports local)
Remember when Akron beat Pittsburgh last season … by 11 points? The Zips’ four other wins were over Howard, Eastern Michigan, Miami (Ohio) and UMass.
30. ULM at Georgia (Saturday, noon, SEC Network)
The Nick Chubb Heisman campaign gets started against Athlon’s No. 7 team in the Sun Belt.
31. Troy at NC State (Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPN3.com)
Not long ago, this would be the kind of game that would have a middling ACC foe on upset alert. That’s probably not the case this season. NC State is on the rise, and Troy under first-year coach Neal Brown is a long way from being a bowl regular again.
32. UTSA at Arizona (Thursday, 10 p.m., Pac-12 Networks)
UTSA challenged Arizona early last season in a 26-23 loss. Don’t put Arizona on upset alert this time around: Scooby Wright will feast on an offense that returns a grand total of zero starters.
33. FIU at UCF (Thursday, 6 p.m., CBS Sports Network)
This is a more important game for FIU, which is trying to build legitimacy in the third season under Ron Turner. UCF is just trying to avoid a loss to an in-state program further down the food chain.
34. Sam Houston State at Texas Tech (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., Fox Sports local)
Major programs have received the message not to schedule North Dakota State or risk embarrassment. Sam Houston State — No. 3 in Athlon’s preseason FCS rankings — will have to represent the FCS against the Big 12.
35. Youngstown State at Pittsburgh (Saturday, 1 p.m., ESPN3.com)
With Bo Pelini at Youngstown State and Pat Narduzzi at Pittsburgh, maybe this game should count in the Big Ten standings. Pelini and Narduzzi were on opposite sidelines for some classic Nebraska-Michigan State matchups in recent seasons.
36. Kent State at Illinois (Friday, 9 p.m., Big Ten Network)
Tim Beckman will proudly and repeatedly tell you he is truly pumped for the Illinois-Kent State tilt.
37. Duke at Tulane (Thursday, 9:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network)
David Cutcliffe has taken a course at the Bill Snyder school of scheduling, winning 10 consecutive regular season non-conference games against the likes of Tulane, Troy, North Carolina Central and Memphis.
38. Villanova at UConn (Thursday, 7:30 p.m., SNY)
Psst, UConn, Villanova is probably a more logical rival for you than UCF. The Wildcats were a natural rival from the Big East basketball days and may have a better program than struggling UConn. ‘Nova, the projected Colonial champs, may have the top QB in the FCS ranks in John Robertson.
39. UNLV at Northern Illinois (Saturday, 7:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network)
Fun with numbers: Northern Illinois has won 57 games under three coaches during the last six seasons. UNLV has won 58 games under three coaches during the last 11 seasons. That’s why UNLV rolled the dice on Bishop Gorman coach Tony Sanchez this season.
40. Texas State at Florida State (Saturday, 8 p.m., ESPNews)
FSU’s opener is notable merely for the performance of the backfield of Everett Golson and Dalvin Cook, who presumably won’t need to play much of the second half.
41. New Mexico State at Florida (Saturday, 7:30 p.m., SEC Network)
Wake up Gainesville for the Tennessee game. These are Florida’s season openers since 1993: Eastern Michigan (twice), Toledo, Bowling Green, FAU, Miami (Ohio), Charleston Southern, Hawaii, Western Kentucky, Southern Miss (twice), Wyoming, San Jose State, UAB, Marshall, Ball State, Western Michigan, The Citadel, UL Lafayette, Houston, New Mexico State (twice) and Arkansas State.
42. FAU at Tulsa (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network)
FAU, a school with the name of an ocean in its title, will travel 1,400 miles to a landlocked state to play a team with the word “Hurricane” in its nickname. This sport makes no sense.
43. McNeese State at LSU (Saturday, 7:30 p.m., SEC Network)
A legitimate question: Which team will get better quarterback play? McNeese State is quarterbacked by ex-Kansas State signal caller Daniel Sams, a Slidell, La., native.
44. Alcorn State at Georgia Tech (Thursday, 7:30 p.m., ACC local)
The Yellow Jackets tend to clobber their annual FCS opponents by margins of 30, 40 or 50 points. That might be tougher against a defending SWAC champion that averaged 44 points per game.
45. Wofford at Clemson (Saturday, 12:30 p.m., ACC network)
Clemson’s rebuilding defense gets an interesting first game in 2015 against Wofford’s triple option.
46. Southern Utah at Utah State (Thursday, 9 p.m.)
Chuckie Keeton’s latest comeback bid — he’s played nine games since his breakout season in 2012 — will be worth keeping an eye on.
47. Grambling State at Cal (Saturday, 5 p.m., Pac-12 Networks)
The proud Grambling program got back on track last season, going 7-2 in the SWAC. In 2012-13, Grambling went 2-21, forfeiting an Oct. 20, 2013 game against Jackson State amid a player walkout due to poor facility and travel conditions. Grambling is making its first trip west of Texas since a 2008 opener at Nevada, a 49-13 loss in Reno.
48. Colgate at Navy (Saturday, noon, CBS Sports Network)
Is Navy QB Keenan Reynolds a Heisman Trophy darkhorse? He’s accounted for a touchdown in 19 consecutive games with a total of 49 TDs in that span.
49. Richmond at Maryland (Saturday, noon, ESPNU)
The Spiders face a Big Ten team for the second time in school history and first time since a 7-6 loss to Wisconsin in 1978.
50. San Diego at San Diego State (Saturday, 8 p.m., Mountain West Network)
The two campuses are separated by less than 10 miles, but they’ve faced each other once — in 1961.
51. Abilene Christian at Fresno State (Thursday, 10 p.m., Mountain West Network)
Abilene Christian moved to the FCS from Division II in 2013 and already grabbed a win over a Sun Belt team, defeating Troy 38-35 last year, and came close to a second in a 38-37 loss to Georgia State in last season’s opener.
52. Southern at Louisiana Tech (Saturday, 7 p.m., American Sports Network)
Southern doesn’t get a ton of shots at in-state FBS program. The Jaguars lost 45-6 to UL Lafayette last season, haven’t played Tulane since 2002 and have never faced Louisiana Tech, LSU or ULM.
53. Ohio at Idaho (Thursday, 9 p.m., ESPN3.com)
If Idaho's coach is in the news after a 2-21 record in two seasons, it's probably not for a good reason.
54. New Hampshire at San Jose State (Thursday, 10 p.m.)
New Hampshire, ranked No. 9 in the FCS in Athlon Sports preview magazine, travels across country to face a San Jose State team coming off a 3-9 season. One question: Will former UNH offensive coordinator Chip Kelly stay up to watch the web-only broadcast?
55. Tennessee Tech at Houston (Saturday, 8 p.m., ESPN3.com)
Say this for Tennessee Tech coach Watson Brown: A coach has to be pretty good to stay in the profession to lose more than 200 games. Brown, the brother of former Texas coach Mack Brown and the coach of UAB from 1995-2006, could add to his record of 204 career losses against the Cougars. This game also will be the debut of first-year Houston coach Tom Herman.
56. Portland State at Washington State (Saturday, 2 p.m., Pac-12 Networks)
Former Wazzu quarterback Connor Halliday threw 62 passes against Portland State last season, a mark he topped four times in 2014.
57. Jackson State at Middle Tennessee (Saturday, 7 p.m.)
Trivia note: Jackson State has a Run and Shoot system run by offensive coordinator and former Hawaii quarterback Timmy Chang, who is No. 2 in FBS history in career passing yards.
58. Maine at Boston College (Saturday, 1 p.m., ESPN3.com)
It’s a battle of chowder vs. lobster. Boston College has faced Maine three times since 2006, winning by a combined score of 96-13.
59. Missouri State at Memphis (Saturday, 7 p.m., ESPN3.com)
Funny how the dominoes work: Memphis coach Justin Fuente lost his red-hot defensive coordinator, Barry Odom, to Missouri because Missouri defensive coordinator Dave Steckel left to become the head coach at Missouri State.
60. Southern Illinois at Indiana (Saturday, 4 p.m., ESPNews)
Without Jerry Kill — now the head coach at Minnesota – Southern Illinois has become a .500 Missouri Valley team. Indiana shouldn’t have much trouble here.
61. Bethune-Cookman at Miami (Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPN3.com)
Oh, what could have been in the matchup of sideline attire. Miami still has Al Golden sweating through a dress shirt on the sideline. Bethune-Cookman once had Alvin Wyatt Sr., but that was two head coaches ago.
62. Morgan State at Air Force (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., Root Sports)
Air Force went from two wins to 10 last season, the most wins for the Falcons since going 12-1 in 1998. The Falcons should be even more prolific offensively after averaging 31.5 points per game last season.
63. North Dakota at Wyoming (Saturday, 4 p.m.)
Wyoming coach Craig Bohl won three national championship trophies during his decade as the head coach at North Dakota State. One thing he never claimed, though, was the Nickel Trophy, the rivalry game trophy between NDSU and North Dakota. The Fighting Sioux defeated Bohl’s first NDSU team 28-21 in the 110th meeting in the series in 2003, and the two teams haven’t played since.
64. South Dakota at Kansas State (Saturday, 7 p.m.)
Kansas State is two years removed from its season opening loss to four-time FCS champion North Dakota State. This is not that Dakota. South Dakota is led by Joe Glenn, who won two Division II championships at Northern Colorado and a Division I-AA title at Montana. Between a 7-28 stint at South Dakota and an ill-fated tenure at Wyoming, Glenn hasn’t had a winning season since 2004.
65. South Dakota State at Kansas (Saturday, noon, Fox Sports local)
After perhaps the only winnable game on the schedule, Kansas fans can turn their attention to basketball season.
66. Charlotte at Georgia State (Friday, 3:30 p.m., ESPNU)
One way or another, one of these teams will pick up its first win over an FBS opponent in school history.
67. Old Dominion at Eastern Michigan (Saturday, 3 p.m., ESPN3.com)
Old Dominion went 6-6 in its first season in the FBS last year. Eastern Michigan has finished 6-6 or better once since 1995.
68. UT Martin at Ole Miss (Saturday, noon, SEC Network)
UT Martin upset Memphis three years ago. That won’t happen against Ole Miss.
69. Southeast Missouri at Missouri (Saturday, 4 p.m., SEC Network)
Another non-descript SEC vs. FCS game. At least the money stays in state.
70. Norfolk State at Rutgers (Saturday, noon, ESPNews)
Rutgers is one of seven Big Ten teams playing an FCS team this season, a scheduling practice set to end in the conference in 2016.
71. Elon at Wake Forest (Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN3.com)
Wake could use this confidence boost. Elon has opened the last three seasons against ACC opponents, losing by a combined score of 184-13.
72. Rhode Island at Syracuse (Friday, 7 p.m., ESPN3.com)
Syracuse opens 2015 against two putrid offenses in Rhode Island and Wake Forest. Rhody has scored more than 20 points just once in the last 19 games.
73. Fordham at Army West Point (Friday, 7 p.m., CBS Sports Network)
Army West Point returns only six starters, one of which is a receiver named Edgar Allen Poe.
74. Albany at Buffalo (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ESPN3.com)
New Buffalo coach Lance Leipold is riding a 32-game win streak (all at Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater). Leipold may lose as many games this season as he lost in eight seasons at UW-Whitewater (six).
75. Weber State at Oregon State (Friday, 8 p.m., Pac-12 Networks)
Gary Andersen might not have a ton of wins on the schedule in his first season at Oregon State. Lucky for him, he debuts against a team that’s gone 6-29 during the last three seasons.
76. Alabama A&M at Cincinnati (Saturday, 7 p.m., ESPN3.com)
This may be as close as Cincinnati quarterback Gunner Kiel, a one-time LSU commit, will get to facing Alabama.
77. Florida A&M at USF (Saturday, 7 p.m., ESPN3.com)
This may be the Bulls’ best chance for a win in September.
78. Towson at East Carolina (Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPN3.com)
East Carolina rebuilds without quarterback Shane Carden, receiver Justin Hardy and offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, starting against a Colonial Athletic Association team that went 4-8 last season.
79. Wagner at Rice (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., American Sports Network)
Wagner’s former coach, Walt Hameline, retired last season after more than 30 years at the Staten Island school. His 223 career wins is three fewer than Steve Spurrier and seven more than Brian Kelly.
80. Howard at Appalachian State (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ESPN3.com)
Appalachian State is a Sun Belt contender in only its second season as an FBS member. Howard changed its logo to look less like the Buffalo Bills.
81. Stony Brook at Toledo (Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN3.com)
We’re all ready for college football, but streaming a game between a MAC contender against a 5-7 FCS team might be going a little too far.
82. Gardner-Webb at South Alabama (Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPN3.com)
South Alabama could be one of the favorite teams for wayward UAB fans. The Jaguars picked up seven ex-Blazers, including projected starting quarterback Cody Clements, wide receiver D.J. Vinson and guard Cameron Blakenship.
83. Mississippi Valley State at New Mexico (Saturday, 8 p.m.)
The Lobos, 4-8 last season, open the season against a team whose only wins last season were against Jackson State and the University of Faith.
84. Presbyterian at Miami-Ohio (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ESPN3.com)
Presbyterian went 6-2 against FCS teams last season — and lost by a combined score of 145-3 to Northern Illinois, NC State and Ole Miss. The Blue Hose should give Miami U a chance to win its first season opener since 2007.
85. VMI at Ball State (Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN3.com)
VMI has not had a winning season since 1981.
86. UC Davis at Nevada (Thursday, 10 p.m., Mountain West Network)
UC Davis (2-9) is coming of its worst season in 54 years.
87. Savannah State at Colorado State (Saturday, 4 p.m., Mountain West Network)
Go ahead and pencil in Mike Bobo for a 1-0 start to his career: Savannah State has lost to seven FBS teams by a combined 490-26 during the last three seasons. And that was before practice restrictions due to APR violations.
Believe it or not, the college football offseason is almost over. This time next week will be an actual game week with teams installing game plans and prepping for real, live opponents.
That brings us to the last of our conference preview podcasts, this one highlighting the Pac-12.
Oregon has won four of the last six league championships with Stanford claiming titles in 2012 and 2013. Since the league began divisional play, the South has been shut out of the Pac-12 title race.
With Heisman winner Marcus Mariota gone, plus a host of impact defenders for the Ducks, Oregon could be seeing its window — as a Pac-12 champ and Playoff contender — closing.
On this week’s podcast, we discuss:
• The hurdles Oregon must overcome to remain a Pac-12 favorite, and not all of them are related to the quarterback position.
• Why Stanford isn’t just a good bet to bounce back from an eight-win season but to challenge for the league title.
• Why picking USC, UCLA or Arizona State in the Pac-12 South is an impossible task.
• Why Arizona and Utah will be dangerous to league favorites again.
• Which four teams might escape the morass of the bottom of the Pac-12 North.
Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of Athlon Sports "Cover Catch Ups" in which we check in with a former Athlon cover subject. We start with former Ohio State defensive end Matt Finkes, who starred for the Buckeyes from 1993-96.
In the early ‘90s, the Big Ten was on top of the college football world.
The addition of Penn State had given the league another top-five team. Breakout years for Wisconsin and Northwestern gave the league new blood.
And, as usual, Ohio State was near the top. The Buckeyes entered the 1995 season hungry. A year earlier, they finished a pedestrian 9-4 with a Citrus Bowl loss to Alabama, but on the bright side, they had picked up one of coach John Cooper’s rare wins over rival Michigan.
Ohio State entered the 1995 season with a star running back, Eddie George, who would go on to win the Heisman that season, and a pair of relentless pass rushers in Mike Vrabel and Matt Finkes.
Finkes finished his career with 59 career tackles for a loss, second in Ohio State history only to Vrabel’s 66. Finkes also finished with the third-most sacks in school history.
Finkes also graced the cover of Athlon Sports’ 1995 Big Ten preview. That season, Ohio State started on a tear, defeating six ranked teams en route to an 11-0 start and a No. 2 ranking. Only Michigan stood in the way of a Rose Bowl and potential national championship.
The 18th-ranked Wolverines spoiled the season with a 31-23 win over Ohio State in Ann Arbor, sending Ohio State to the Citrus Bowl to lose 20-14 to then-sophomore Peyton Manning.
Finkes didn’t have the long NFL career of some of his teammates – Finkes was drafted in the sixth round in 1997 and lasted only eight games before injury ended his career — but he remains entrenched at Ohio State.
What was the most memorable part of the 1995 season?
We had a great team in ’95. We were coming off a down year in 1994 as a team but we had a lot of guys back, had a really good offensive football team. But a young defensive team. Eddie George was our running back. Bobby Hoying was our quarterback. Terry Glenn was our wide receiver. We were loaded on offense. We started out highly ranked and were cruising right along and then ran into a problem in Ann Arbor against Michigan and deflated the season for us. A lot of high expectations, but we didn’t fulfill all that we thought we could.
We had the back to back with Notre Dame (ranked No. 15, Ohio State won 45-26) and Penn State (ranked No. 12, Ohio State won 28-25 on the road). You look back at those years, and we had Notre Dame on the schedule and the Big Ten was kind of at its peak — Penn State going undefeated a few years before, us in 1995 and ’96 and Michigan in 1997. It was a different time. You can compare it to what the SEC was 4-5 years ago. It wasn’t just one team dominating like Ohio State is now in the Big Ten. It was really the premier conference. It was a grinding schedule. You look at Ohio State’s schedule this year — we didn’t quite have that.
Even though you beat Michigan in 1994, your era was in the middle of a bad stretch against the Wolverines. You might have a little bit of empathy about this: What’s going on in the Michigan locker room right now in terms of the rivalry?
It was tough. We beat Michigan in 1994, which was the first time in (then-coach John) Cooper’s era. That was a game where it was win or go home for him, and everyone knew it. It wasn’t just the people in the stands; it was the kids in the locker room. We knew if we don’t win this game, Coop’s getting fired. We are able to win that game, but we fell under that same trap the next two years. It’s like a baseball player when you’re on a bad streak and you don’t know why and you don’t know how to fix it and maybe you’re tight. I think that’s what Michigan is going through a little bit. Obviously, the talent level there with the coaches changes has hurt them. With (Jim) Harbaugh in, that’s going to be their biggest challenge, getting over that mental block.
What are you up to these days?
I do the pre- and post-game show in town for the (Columbus) ABC affiliate. I work with Time Warner Cable sports, involved with high school football doing some broadcasting for that. It’s a great way to stay connected for the game. I coached for a while (at his alma mater, Piqua High in Ohio), but that’s a grind. This is a way to stay local and stay involved and in the game.
Was broadcasting even on your radar when you were a player?
Absolutely not. I got called by our local ABC affiliate and they asked if I wanted to do the pre- and post-game show. I just jumped into it with both feet and zero experience. I’m not going to lie: It didn’t look great the first 3-4 games, but you get your feet wet and now I’m real comfortable. I enjoy it. It keeps you involved in the game, keeps you around the team. You go out to practice with a purpose.
Ohio State assistant Luke Fickell was your teammate in college. How do you balance your friendship/media responsibilities?
Fickell and Mike Vrabel (an Ohio State assistant from 2011-13, now with the Houston Texans) were my college roommates. I talk to those guys on a weekly basis. With Mike it’s a lot easier now that he’s with the Texans. I don’t have to worry about that anymore. It’s easy to manage. When we’re in a social setting we don’t talk football. We don’t talk details of what’s going on at Ohio State. We never sat down and discussed what we’re going to do but that’s what we do. Our friendship comes before anything I would do as a job. Those guys know that.
How are you still involved with Ohio State?
I do fundraising for the Ohio State medical center. I started a year and a half ago. I sold a couple of my companies and tried to retire again and the wife told me to get back to work, so I went back and talked to the medical center about doing some fundraising there.
You’re also involved with something called Category5Sports. What is that?
That is a personal and individualized training started by Ryan Clement, who was a quarterback at Miami-Florida who was in the game when I was playing. We met in NFL Europe. We do individualized coaching for all positions. It’s one-on-one coaching and we use a web-based platform to analyze using motion analysis software to help kids who are trying to get to the next level. It’s not a broad-based camp system for everybody. It’s really more of a specialized, very intensive coaching procedure.
You said last summer that Braxton Miller’s shoulder injury could be the end of him as a quarterback. What did you see that perhaps more optimistic fans didn’t in 2014?
That was the injury that basically put my out of the NFL. I tore my labrum at Jacksonville. I knew what that entailed for me just to get back to everyday life and that that point I had just retired, so I’m talking about just swinging a golf club. I knew how hard that would be. The time that it happened to him was right at the beginning of camp. A nine-month, year recovery time didn’t bode well for his chances of coming back and being a starting quarterback. And then looking at his athletic ability, the open-field ability is an elite level. There are probably 10-15 guys in the NFL who have his athletic ability. For him to make a long sustainable career in the NFL, it made a lot of sense to me (for him to move to receiver).
As one pass rusher evaluating another one, where does Joey Bosa stand among Ohio State greats? What do you see in him that stands out?
His first step is just phenomenal. Watching him practice, go through his career here, he’s a special talent. He’s going to pass me on the sack list to move up to No. 2 and he might even get Vrabel here depending on the season. Aside from knocking me down a peg on the career sack list at Ohio State, he’s a guy you cheer for. He’s exciting to watch and he has all the physical tools you need to succeed. And he’s a hard-worker on the field. He’s done a great job of mentoring Sam Hubbard, who is an incredible talent, but moved from safety to tight end to defensive end. And Joey took a lot of time this spring to teach him the ins and outs of playing defensive end and mentoring him. He’s going to be a special talent.
The SEC is in a state of crisis. Well, maybe not really.
The league was considered strong enough to produce the No. 1 seeded team in the College Football Playoff and as many as three teams in the top four in early polls.
But the conference is also two seasons removed from a national championship (even though Auburn and Alabama both ahad a shot at a title in each of the last two seasons). Bowl season put a damper on banner seasons for Ole Miss and Mississippi State. At the same time, perhaps no league is closer to producing multiple playoff teams. Will that happen in 2015 or will the league find itself out of the playoff altogether?
On this edition of the Athlon Sports Cover 2 Podcast:
• We tackle the big question on if the SEC can produce two playoff teams or could the league beat itself up and out of the top four.
• We break down the SEC East into tiers. Which of the Kentucky, Florida and South Carolina group has the best reason to be optimistic?
• We discuss how our opinions changed over the summer regarding the top tier of the SEC East. We like Tennessee and Missouri better than we did in the spring, but do the Volunteers and Tigers have what it takes to overtake Georgia at the top?
• We breakdown the brutal SEC West, where the best quarterback in the league might be destined for a last place finish in his division.
• After conceding Alabama and Auburn as the top two in the conference, how does the rest of the West division break down. We have strong cases for Ole Miss, LSU and Texas A&M as the No. 3 teams in the conference.
• And finally, the Iron Bowl again looms over the division. Both Alabama and Auburn have major shoes to fill and unproven, if talented, quarterbacks.
The Big Ten is well on its way to a comeback and not just because Ohio State is the defending national champion and unanimous preseason No. 1.
There’s a lot more to like in this conference beyond the Buckeyes. Urban Meyer’s team isn’t even the only Playoff contender in this league as Michigan State continues to make its case.
Beyond that, more Big Ten teams — such as Michigan, Penn State, Nebraska and Wisconsin — are buying stock in 2016 and beyond.
On this edition of the Athlon Sports Cover 2 Podcast:
• The Big Ten is clearly getting better with Ohio State winning the national championship and Michigan and Penn State making landmark hires. We discuss how hires at Wisconsin and Nebraska will determine the overall depth of the conference.
• New coaches Paul Chryst at Wisconsin and Mike Riley and Nebraska are vying for the Big Ten West title, and we’re divided on which first-year coach earns the right to be overmatched in the conference title game.
• We explain the hopelessness of being an Iowa fan and if the Hawkeyes or any other West team has a chance to wrangle the division from Wisconsin and Nebraska.
• Harbaugh made headlines all summer, but he still has work to do to return Michigan to prominence. Is an eight-win season enough to call the year a success?
• The Big Ten has a chance to place two teams in the Playoff thanks to Michigan State’s returning cast.
The calendar has flipped to August, and the college football season is creeping closer and closer.
We’re marking these final days before the 2015 season with podcast covering every major conference. Today, we take an extended look at every team in the ACC, plus Notre Dame.
Florida State is our unanimous pick to win the league, but the Seminoles — without Jameis Winston — are facing challenges in their own division from Clemson and perhaps from teams in the crowded Coastal.
On this edition of the Athlon Sports Cover 2 College Football Podcast:
• We try to pick a winner in the crowded as usual Coastal Division. Georgia Tech has the personnel to win the division again, but Virginia Tech is hoping for a rebound season behind an elite defense and a more experienced Michael Brewer. The Tech schools are the top two, but Miami, Pittsburgh and North Carolina aren’t far behind.
• We ask if the Coastal could have as many as four new coaches in 2016.
• Louisville and NC State are getting better, but we ask if they have the horses to challenge Florida State and Clemson in the Atlantic division.
• While the national media is picking Clemson, we’re taking Florida State. One of our hosts asks if Clemson has a better chance to finish third in this division than it does to win the ACC.
• Florida State has lost one game in two seasons and has won three consecutive ACC titles, yet the Seminoles are looking more vulnerable than they have in years. We take stock of where Florida State is in the national title race.
• And finally, since Notre Dame will play six ACC teams this season, we ask where the Irish fit in this league and how they might crash the Playoff party.
A little more than a month separates us from the start of the college football seasons. The weather is still unbearably hot at Athlon Sports HQ, but the signs of the fall and football season are in the air as preseason practice takes the place of media day season.
Our series previewing each major conference starts today with the Big 12 in perhaps the most heated race at the top of the league. Our staff agrees Baylor and TCU are a step ahead of the competition right now, but don’t agree with the consensus No. 1. After Baylor and TCU a host of teams could contend to be the surprise team in the league like the Horned Frogs were last season.
On this edition of the Cover 2 College Football Podcast:
• The big question: Does the Big 12 champion need to go undefeated to reach the College Football Playoff? We’re divided.
• Why is Baylor the right choice in the Big 12 when almost everyone else is picking TCU?
• Who has reason to be optimistic in the bottom of the league — Kansas, Iowa State and Texas Tech?
• Which team has the best chance to get into the top two? Our three hosts state cases for Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and — perhaps the biggest surprise of them all — West Virginia.
• We take the pulse of Texas and why 2016 might be the season to watch for the Longhorns.
• Finally, we all believe Kansas State will take a step back in 2015, but we firmly believe Bill Snyder will ruin someone’s season.
Preseason camp hasn’t started, but preseason talkin’ season is in full swing. With a little more than a month left before the season, the media day circus is still going. The ACC and Big 12 wrapped up their media days this week with some interesting picks at the top.
On this week’s Athlon Sports Cover 2 Podcast:
• ACC commissioner John Swofford reiterated his preference for an eight-team playoff, a stance echoed by a handful of coaches in other leagues.
• The ACC media picked Clemson to win the league, which is all sorts of wrong.
• Deshaun Watson was the ACC’s preseason player of the year pick ahead of last year’s winner, James Conner of Pittsburgh. That led us to consider which defending league players of the year have a chance to repeat in 2015.
• Steve Spurrier called a surprise press conference to complain about his “enemies.” This should surprise no one.
• The changing of the guard in the Big 12 was apparent as Art Briles and Gary Patterson enjoyed their time in the spotlight while Charlie Strong and Bob Stoops were on the defensive.
• On our kids' sports question segment, we talk about the proper age for a kid to start playing fantasy sports and why NCAA eligibility rules must be perplexing to a 6-year-old.
The long offseason days are finally starting to get shorter. Conference media days start Monday, meaning preseason practice is not far behind.
The summer has been, thankfully, slower than most in recent years. Conference realignment or rumors thereof were minimal. No head coaches abruptly left their posts.
As with any summer, there was the usual allotment of injuries, suspensions and the like. If you’ve tuned out since spring practice or just wondered if you’ve missed anything major, this is Athlon’s service to you.
Here’s what you may have missed.
The Summer of Harbaugh
Jim Harbaugh’s first offseason as the head coach of Michigan has been eventful enough that he gets his own page in the summer news roundup. From needling the SEC to awkward interviews, Harbaugh was arguably the sport’s biggest figure during the offseason.
Greg Sankey becomes SEC head man
Ever since SEC commissioner Mike Slive announced his retirement in October, right hand man Greg Sankey has been the assumed successor. The move was made official on June 1. He’s already presided over an national championships in softball (Florida) and men’s golf (LSU) and a College World Series championship series appearance (Vanderbilt). He’s floated the idea of college football players being able to enter the draft and return to school, provided they don’t hire an agent, similar to college basketball. He supported the removal of the Confederate battle flag from athletic arenas.
Sankey is new in his role, but as the commissioner of the SEC, he’s already one of the most important figures in college athletics. His first address and meetings with the media at SEC Media Days on Monday will be worth monitoring as the new commish sets his agenda.
North Carolina receives notice of allegations
The academic fraud scandal at North Carolina seems to thought of as a basketball issue. That’s only natural given the stature of the Heels’ basketball program, but don’t forget that the paper classes were widespread among many athletes, football included. The NCAA enforcement staff charged UNC with five severe violations, including lack of institutional control. The cloud of uncertainty will hang over football — at least until Midnight Madness in October.
Everett Golson to Florida State
If Everett Golson’s move from Notre Dame to Florida State isn’t the most important transfer of the season, it’s certainly the most high profile. His departure all but ensures Malik Zaire will start for the Irish and makes Golson the probable starter at FSU, replacing a Heisman winner who lost one game as a starter. There’s still a major question if Golson, 17-5 as a starter with the Irish, can pick up Jimbo Fisher’s complex offense in less than one offseason. If not, Sean Maguire might be the starter on Sept. 5.
De’Andre Johnson dismissed from FSU
De’Andre Johnson likely wouldn’t have figured into Florida State’s quarterback plans this season, but his dismissal from the Seminoles is notable merely for the optics — another FSU quarterback involved in legal issues involving a woman. Johnson, a three-star recruit in the 2015 class, was charged with misdemeanor battery and was swiftly dismissed when the state attorney’s office released video of the incident.
OT Isaiah Battle leaves Clemson
In an offseason with its share of questions for Clemson, the Tigers added another one to the list. Already replacing offensive coordinator Chad Morris and rebuilding an elite defense from 2014, Clemson has renewed question marks on the offensive line after losing projected starting tackle Isaiah Battle. Selected in the first round of the NFL Supplemental Draft, Battle leaves Clemson with just one returning starter on the offensive line.
Ole Miss looks into Laremy Tunsil incident
It’s bad enough when a star left tackle is arrested after an altercation with his stepfather — an altercation in which Tunsil may have acted in defense of his mother. It’s worse when NCAA issues arise as a result. Tunsil’s stepfather, Lindsey Miller, told police that he warned Tunsil about contact with agents at the time of the incident. Miller later told NCAA enforcement that agents helped Tunsil with cash, clothes and help with car insurance, according to the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger. Ole Miss confirmed it is looking into the allegations surrounding its potential All-American tackle.
David Boren ignites realignment talk
Only five years ago, the Big 12 seemed to be the brink of destruction in conference realignment. Since then, the landscape has settled, including the Big 12’s 10-team membership. Things can’t stay quiet for too long in college football, and Oklahoma president David Boren made sure of it this offseason when he said the Big 12 should try to return to a 12-team lineup. Is the sport back to the moment of uncertainty it was in 2010? Not quite, but it’s at least a sign that not everyone is fully satisfied with the current alignments.
Steve Patterson making friends at Texas
There had been smoke that the hire of Steve Patterson as Texas AD might end up a controversial move, especially on the heels of long-timer DeLoss Dodds. By June we learned the full extent of Patterson’s methods, including raising ticket prices, setting up “Loyalty Points” for donors and nickel and diming expenses and budgets for individual sports.
Diddy v. UCLA strength coach
The most bizarre news item of the summer involved P. Diddy, a UCLA strength coach and a kettlebell. Assault charges were not filed against Sean “P. Diddy” Combs stemming from an incident in which the rap mogul was alleged to threaten UCLA strength coach Justin Combs with a kettlebell.
Tennessee and Michigan get swooshes
This summer was slow enough where Tennessee unveiling a new apparel contract with Nike for 2015 seemed to fill the news day. The Volunteers teased it for weeks leading up to the announcement and it ended up being … really nice uniforms. Michigan didn’t unveil uniforms — the Wolverines are still in adidas threads for 2015 — but UM did brag that its 10-year deal with Nike would be the largest contract in the nation.
Harold Brantley’s football future in doubt
Defensive tackle Harold Brantley, a starter on Missouri’s standout line, could see his season in jeopardy after a single-car accident in late June. Brantley, who was listed in serious condition, suffered ligament damage in his knee and a broken leg and ribs.
Georgia’s QB revolving door
Georgia made a bid to land Everett Golson before the Notre Dame QB landed at Florida State. Instead, the Bulldogs added Virginia graduate transfer Greyson Lambert to the mix. Lambert, who lost the quarterback competition to Matt Johns, will compete for a starting spot at Georgia among Brice Ramsey and Faton Bauta. Just as Lambert landed at Georgia, redshirt freshman Jacob Park elected to transfer from Athens.
Connor Brewer transfers to Virginia
Quarterbacks transfer all the time, but few have changed zip codes quite like Connor Brewer. The former four-star recruit signed with Texas out of high school, transferred to Arizona and transferred again to Northern Arizona. He still hasn’t won a college starting job. Maybe No. 4 will be the charm.
Knee troubles end Kelby Brown’s career
Duke won’t get its best defensive player back in the lineup. Linebacker Kelby Brown, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL, retired from football after re-tearing ligaments in his left knee. The latest knee injury was his fourth torn ACL — twice in each knee — in his career.
Nebraska’s linebacker corps loses another
Nebraska’s linebacker position continued to lose numbers as David Santos, the most experienced returner, left the team under unknown circumstances on June 11. Santos had started 19 games in three seasons.
Washington QB Cyler Miles retires
Washington’s returning starting quarterback was going to have trouble hanging onto his job anyway this season, but Miles’ status was made official when he retired from football due to a chronic hip injury. Jeff Lindquist, K.J. Carta-Samuels and Jake Browning will compete for the job in fall.
Utah starting cornerback arrested brandishing a knife
Utah starting cornerback Dominique Hatfield may see his season in jeopardy after he was arrested July 1 on charges of aggravated robbery. Hatfield used an online ad for an Xbox to lure a man to a car wash when Hatfield threated him with a knife demanding money, according to police.
Miami thins an already-thin offensive line
Offensive line was already going to be Miami’s biggest trouble spot. Even so, the Hurricanes cut down the group by one by abruptly dismissing projected right tackle Taylor Gadbois from the team. Gadbois told the Palm Beach (Fla.) Post he was told he wasn’t “positive enough.”
Another ACC team, another offensive tackle to miss the season
If this is starting to sound familiar, it’s because Pittsburgh is the third ACC team to lose a potential starting offensive tackle this offseason. Projected starter Jaryd Jones-Smith will miss the season with a knee injury. And like Clemson and Miami, Pittsburgh is facing a season with a thin O-line now made thinner.
Navy joins the the American
The final major college football conference realignment move on the books became official when Navy joined the American Athletic Conference on June 1. The longtime independent will be the AAC’s 12th member, allowing the league to host a championship game in 2015.
UAB football is back
The demise of UAB football lasted all of six months. UAB announced on June 1 the football program would, indeed, return after the school found $17.2 million to resuscitate the program as early as 2016. The reasons why the program was shuttered in the first place remains dubious, and now UAB has even more barriers to fielding a competitive team. Transfers from the Blazers now litter the college football landscape, leaving UAB coach Bill Clark to essentially start from scratch after sitting out for 2015.
UCF names George O’Leary interim AD
There once was a time when veteran football coaches would spend the twilight years of their careers as an athletic director. That time still exists at UCF, which named football coach George O’Leary its interim AD. The move is curious for a number of reasons — one, he’s still the football coach, and, two, O’Leary testified as part of a wrongful death suit of a player in 2011.
In 2015, conference bragging rights seem to mean so much, yet so little.
For most of last season, one division — much less one conference — seemed to reign over all others. Yet on the night of the national championship game, the SEC West was nowhere to be found. Instead, the Big Ten’s era of darkness came to an end with Ohio State defeating champions from arguably the two most daunting leagues in the country, the Pac-12 and SEC.
Meanwhile, the power conference with the fewest members, the Big 12, had two teams in the Playoff conversation up to the final minute before the semifinal pairings were revealed.
So what does all this mean? We’re not quite sure how large a role conference strength will play in the College Football Playoff era, but we’re certain having quality teams playing each other week in and week out makes for a more interesting season.
Here’s how that race might shake out during the 2015 season.
The SEC’s national championship drought has extended to — gasp! — two seasons. Yet even if a non-SEC team claims the 2015 national championship, the SEC is poised to be the top conference from top to bottom again. The SEC had seven teams ranked in the final College Football Playoff top 25 before the bowls and six in the final AP top 25 after the postseason. All seven teams from the SEC West went to a bowl and finished with a winning record. Expect more of the same for this 14-team behemoth of a conference. The Athlon preseason top 25 contains a whopping nine SEC teams.
The Pac-12 finished with four teams (Oregon, Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA) with 10 wins or more, tied with the SEC for the most in the country. The league sported a winning record against three Power 5 conferences (3–1 against the ACC, 2–1 against the Big 12 and 6–2 against the Big Ten) but never faced the SEC head-to-head. That’s a little frustrating because the Pac-12 has remade itself into the solid No. 2 conference behind the SEC with potential to further narrow the gap. Remember, USC is just now exiting the worst of NCAA sanctions and should be a player in the national title race.
3. Big Ten
The same league that seemed hopeless in Week 2 — the week Michigan State lost to Oregon, Ohio State lost to Virginia Tech and Michigan was shut out by Notre Dame — knocked off three Power 5 conference champions during the bowl season. That said, a national championship doesn’t by default elevate an entire conference. Ohio State won the first College Football Playoff and is built to contend for another title in 2015. The question for the Big Ten is if anyone can catch up to Ohio State this season. The hires of Jim Harbaugh at Michigan and James Franklin at Penn State in the last two seasons set up those programs to eventually challenge Urban Meyer’s juggernaut.
Favorite: Ohio State
4. Big 12
These are interesting times for the Big 12. Baylor and TCU became Playoff contenders last season, ultimately falling short on selection Sunday. Was it the lack of a conference championship game or the lackluster non-conference schedules that did in the Bears and Horned Frogs? Or was it that they were Baylor and TCU and not Texas and Oklahoma? The Big 12 finished 2–5 in bowl games and went 6-11 against the other Power 5 conferences last season. Will that change in 2015? Baylor and TCU are built to contend again, and Oklahoma and Texas can’t stay down forever.
This could be a challenging season for the ACC. Not only does the league’s national title contender the last two seasons, Florida State, lose its Heisman-winning quarterback, but Clemson also moves on without its offensive mastermind (Chad Morris) and key figures on defense. Depth in this league is an eternal struggle. More than half of the league finished 7–6 or worse last season, and while a 4–0 sweep of SEC rivals during Thanksgiving weekend (plus Georgia Tech’s Orange Bowl win over Mississippi State) may help bragging rights, the ACC as a whole has a long way to go to catch up to the rest of the Power Five.
Favorite: Florida State
The American Athletic Conference adds Navy, meaning the AAC will split into divisions and host a league title game. That may be a positive for a league that should have at least one team vying for the Group of 5’s automatic bid in a major bowl game. Last season, the AAC had a three-way tie for first with one of these teams (UCF) not having played the other two (Memphis and Cincinnati). Division races could be heated in 2015 with Cincinnati, Temple, UCF and East Carolina vying for the East and Houston, Navy and Memphis battling for the West.
The Mountain West produced four 10-win teams last season, same as the SEC and Pac-12, but that shouldn’t be seen as a sign of depth. The West Division champion, Fresno State, finished 6–8. The top of the league is where the action is. Boise State should contend for a major bowl slot and a top-25 finish. The Broncos have a veteran cast, but they lose a starting quarterback and a superstar tailback. Utah State also returns a veteran team that could contend for the title if the Aggies can beat Boise State in Logan.
Favorite: Boise State
Could this shape up for another year of mid-week MACtion madness? Of the 10 league quarterbacks who passed for 2,000 or more yards last season, only two were seniors. And Bowling Green’s Matt Johnson, who threw for 3,467 yards in 2013, returns after missing all but one game last fall. The league’s top three rushers, Toledo’s Kareem Hunt, Western Michigan’s Jarvion Franklin and Buffalo’s Anthone Taylor, are also back. The usual powers — Toledo, Northern Illinois and Bowling Green — are the teams to beat.
Six different teams have won the Conference USA championship in the last six seasons. Our projected champion, Western Kentucky, would make it seven in seven years. Granted, three of those champions (East Carolina, UCF, Tulsa) are in another conference now, but that’s just another indication of the rotating cast of characters in C-USA. The high-powered Hilltoppers are the favorite, but they’ll need to watch out for Marshall and Louisiana Tech.
Favorite: Western Kentucky
10. Sun Belt
A year ago, league newcomers Georgia Southern and Appalachian State finished in the top three of the league, the former going 8–0. Yet because they were new to FBS, neither team was eligible for bowl games. That’s life in the Sun Belt these days. The league is forever stuck at the bottom of the FBS ranks and carries considerable dead weight at the bottom (New Mexico State, Idaho and Georgia State went a combined 4–31 last season).
Favorite: Arkansas State
New SEC commissioner Greg Sankey and several league basketball coaches supported removing the Confederate flag from conference campuses and athletic facilities.
Speaking on the summer SEC men’s basketball teleconference, Sankey reiterated a statement the league office released Wednesday supporting governors from South Carolina and Alabama in ordering the removal of Confederate flag from state offices.
“Our athletic programs provide a key rallying point for our state and our region and we want to make sure they are a welcoming circumstance as much as that’s possible when you’re a visiting team in our arenas and stadiums,” said Sankey, who replaced Mike Slive officially on June 1. “Let’s make our campuses welcoming for all who are on our teams and populating our campuses.”
South Carolina men’s basketball coach Frank Martin echoed statements made by football coach Steve Spurrier and athletic director Ray Tanner in support of removing the Confederate flag.
Although the flag represents something positive for many, Martin said, the battle flag remains offensive to other groups and should not be displayed on government grounds.
“We can’t just embrace one side and say to heck with the other group,” Martin said. “That’s why I think there’s a place for that flag in people’s private homes and in museums that represent the Confederate states and history of South Carolina, but not in public places. Government buildings are a representation of all of our people and not just some of our people.”
Martin also said the Confederate flag never came up as a barrier in recruiting. The Miami native and former Kansas State coach also called South Carolina the most "unified" state he's lived in.
"It’s important that the message gets out there that the people of South Carolina are absolutely beautiful," Martin said. "The way they’ve reacted to difficult times shows the amount of love that this state has."
Kentucky’s John Calipari, the league’s most visible basketball coach, also supported removing the Confederate flag from public grounds.
“Sure,” Calipari said. “They offend, and I would say do it (remove them).”