Articles By David Fox
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).”
He’s describing the maturity required to allow a younger teammate to become his mentor. He’s describing the maturity that same teammate must possess not to see him as a threat.
If Tennessee is going to continue on its path back to prominence, the Volunteers are going to need Kamara, a new arrival, to be part of a dynamic duo of running backs — a staple of some of the best SEC teams in recent years.
Tennessee finished last season with half of that equation. Jalen Hurd was one of the Volunteers’ breakout stars during the program’s first winning season since 2009. A five-star recruit and one of the jewels of Butch Jones’ first full signing class in Knoxville, Hurd established himself as one of the best freshman backs in Tennessee history, rushing for nearly 900 yards. But fielding merely one standout running back is not a foundation for SEC championships, so Tennessee added another highly touted prospect in Kamara from junior college.
“I’m older, but he’s established here,” Kamara says. “I came with respect for him. That might be one of the hardest things for guys, putting that pride aside, that ego aside and learning from someone younger than you. I had to come in and be mature about it.”
While Kamara’s addition may be a key development in turning Tennessee into an SEC contender once again, the road to his awakening wasn’t short or direct. The top-100 national recruit from Norcross, Ga., started his college career at Alabama, left the Crimson Tide with more suspensions than carries and landed at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College. He arrived at Alabama two years ago amid a talented running back class that included four recruits rated four-stars or better, Derrick Henry among them. And a year before Kamara’s class, Alabama had signed two other four- and five-star running backs, one of them being T.J. Yeldon.
There were only so many carries to go around, but Kamara made decisions easier for Alabama. He suffered a knee injury in the preseason, but he also was not on the sidelines for a 2013 game against LSU due to what Alabama deemed were “behavior reasons.” Alabama later suspended him from the Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma. Kamara transferred to junior college weeks later.
Kamara’s absence from Division I football, and the SEC in particular, lasted only one year. Getting a second chance at running the ball in the SEC was reason for him to exhale.
“You know when something’s right and you’re stepping into a good situation, you’re like, ‘Ahh, OK,”’ Kamara says. “It was like relief.”
If all goes as planned, the relief in Knoxville will be twofold. Kamara steps onto a roster that’s thin at the position but with its leader firmly established.
Hurd rushed for 899 yards last season, the third-highest freshman total in Tennessee history after Jamal Lewis’ 1,364 yards in 1997 and James Stewart’s 908 yards in 1991.
Kamara, though, started spring as the only healthy scholarship tailback on the roster. Hurd participated in spring drills, but he was still recovering from a shoulder injury from the end of the season. Hurd has twice had shoulder surgery since his senior year of high school. And all too often, the Tennessee offense seemed to rest on those shoulders. Without Hurd running the ball effectively, Tennessee had few other places to turn in the running game.
The arrival of Kamara, in theory, should put another top running back on the field and limit some of the wear and tear on Hurd. Winning in the SEC in 2015 will likely require two or more tailbacks anyway.
Take Alabama and its pairings of Yeldon and Henry, or Eddie Lacy and Yeldon, or Trent Richardson and Lacy, for example. Georgia replaced one Heisman-contending running back (Todd Gurley) with another (Nick Chubb) last season. LSU seemingly has two or three NFL-caliber running backs at its disposal on an annual basis.
Tennessee’s issues have been numerous over recent years. The run game might not even be at the top of the Volunteers’ list of their most pressing priorities, but it will be a part of the solution in 2015.
What has been lacking at Tennessee hasn’t been individual running backs, necessarily; the problem has been running back depth. Tennessee hasn’t finished in the top half of the SEC in rushing since 2004 when Gerald Riggs and Cedric Houston both topped 1,000 yards on the ground that season. Not coincidentally, Tennessee has played in the SEC Championship Game only once since then.
Tennessee also hasn’t had a first-team All-SEC running back since 2001 when Travis Stephens and Travis Henry earned those honors in back-to-back years. (Granted, Houston, Arian Foster and Montario Hardesty all were second-teamers at some point.)
Hurd would seem to be a logical candidate to end that drought, but even with Hurd enjoying a standout season in 2014, Tennessee ranked 13th in the SEC in rushing yards per game (146.4) and yards per carry (3.6).
His value, though, could not be overstated. Hurd had some of his best moments in Tennessee’s most important games. He rushed for 119 yards and a touchdown in a three-point loss at Georgia. He had 125 yards on 21 carries in the 45–42 upset of South Carolina. And he completed his season with a 122-yard, two-touchdown performance on 16 carries in the 45–28 win over Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
The final game in that list of Hurd’s highlights might be the key. He had more than a month before the game to get healthy, and there was perhaps a little extra motivation. Bowl practice was also the first time Hurd met Kamara, who was committed to the Vols when he visited Tennessee’s practice in Jacksonville, Fla.
“I need guys to push me every day,” Hurd says. “The more competition we have, the better I’m going to get. When I see him break a long run, I want to break a long run.”
The two backs might be a clear No. 1 and No. 2. Or they might be better suited for particular situations. Or they could be interchangeable. None of that is quite clear yet.
“These guys will carve out who they are as football players on their own,” Tennessee running backs coach Robert Gillespie says. “These guys will determine who they are as playmakers. They’ll determine the role they play in the offense.”
That said, the skill set of each of Tennessee’s top two running backs is easy to see. Hurd is 6'3" and 230 pounds and trying to get bigger before the season. Tennessee would love for Hurd to get to a sturdy 235 pounds.
“It’s hard for me to get fat,” Hurd says. “I was trying to eat everything I could, drink as many shakes as I could, get as many calories as I could.”
Kamara is 5'11" and 210 pounds and more likely to run to the outside. Hurd does some of his best work between the tackles.
“We’re two backs that are going to feed off each other,” Hurd says. “He’s more of a shifty back. That’s something he can push me on. I play a little bit bigger.”
The goal, though, is for both to be complete backs with the ability to excel in all situations.
With a year in the system compared to Kamara, Hurd is used to Tennessee’s up-tempo style, which is a stark contrast to what Kamara experienced at Alabama. Hurd knows the protections and blocking concepts, and he caught 35 passes last season, so he can play on third down.
By the time Tennessee opens against Bowling Green on Sept. 5 in Nashville, Hurd will try to do what he can to help Kamara get up to speed.
“Running the ball, that’s easy for Alvin,” Hurd says. “He’s a natural athlete. It’s just understanding the scheme of our offense, who to block, where to be, your alignments.”
This is a simple proposition for Hurd: If Kamara improves by fall, then Hurd probably does, too. And if Kamara and Hurd make up one of the best running back duos in the SEC, Tennessee’s rise will be that much quicker.
“(Hurd has) been able to see that some of the best running backs in the league are part of a tandem,” Gillespie says. “Alvin came on where he could see that, too, where everyone would be a bit better with competition.
“We have two guys that are going to be special.”
Anyone can have bad results at a lackluster college football program. Even Bear Bryant or Nick Saban might have trouble staying above water at a program in a bad recruiting era, little tradition and scant resources.
However, it takes a unique situation for someone to struggle at a place sitting in good recruiting territory, with a championship tradition and ample backing from fans and administration.
Granted, the pressures of coaching at top programs aren’t for everyone. The pressure to win every game — and answering to media and fans when it doesn’t happen — isn’t realistic.
These are the coaches who struggled to great proportions despite the advantages that come at top programs. These are the coaches who missed bowl games where it should be really, really tough to miss bowl games. We are considering great programs to be among the leaders in win percentage during since the Associated Press poll began in 1936.
One thing to note: We are only listing coaches who were hired after a program reached national prominence. Thus, pre-Nick Saban coaches at LSU or pre-Howard Schnellenberger coaches at Miami, for example, were not considered.
1. Derek Dooley, Tennessee
Record: 15-21 (.417) from 2010-12
A Nick Saban disciple and the son of one of the SEC’s greatest coaches, what could go wrong? Pretty much everything. Dooley inherited a program damaged by Lane Kiffin’s lone season, but Dooley set the Volunteers further back by going winless against ranked teams, winless against SEC teams in October and 2-14 in the SEC his last two seasons. Quotable, yes. Great hair, yes. Good coach, not really.
2. Joe Kuharich, Notre Dame
Record: 17-23 (.425) from 1959-62
Gerry Faust, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis are remembered with more vitriol than Kuharich, but that’s a product of recent memory. Kuharich took over six seasons after Frank Leahy’s tenure and never had a winning season in four years at Notre Dame despite having talented teams at the height of Notre Dame’s popularity.
3. Gerry Faust, Notre Dame
Record: 30-26-1 (.535) from 1981-85
Imagine any major program hiring a high school coach these days. Plenty of programs have hired high school coaches as assistants, but head coach? No way. That’s what Notre Dame did when it replaced Dan Devine with Faust, coach at powerhouse Cincinnati Moeller. The gamble was predictably a failure, but at least Notre Dame could keep the high ground by giving Faust a full five seasons. Subsequent coaches wouldn’t be able to say the same.
4. John Blake, Oklahoma
Record: 12-22 (.353) from 1996-98
An assistant for Barry Switzer and former Sooners player, Blake knew better than to repeat the mistakes of his predecessor Howard Schnellenberger, but that didn’t help him win games. Blake had never been even a coordinator, and it showed as the Sooners went 8-16 in the Big 12. At least his recruits were the centerpieces for OU’s 2000 national championship team under successor Bob Stoops
5. Howard Schnellenberger, Oklahoma
Record: 5-5-1 (.500) in 1995
Schnellenberger had one of the most puzzling tenures in college sports in his lone season at Oklahoma. He built Miami into a national power in the 1980s and brought Louisville to relevance, but Oklahoma fans were turned off by Schnellenberger’s dismissiveness of Sooners history — especially after Oklahoma finished 1995 with three straight blowout losses.
6. John Mackovic, Texas
Record: 41-28-2 (.592) from 1992-97
Mackovic started to rebuild Texas after the David McWilliams era with three consecutive bowl games and a Big 12 title game appearance between 1994-96. But his fate was sealed on Sept. 12, 1997 with a 66-3 loss to UCLA at home that became known as “Rout 66.” Mackovic went 4-7 his final season despite having Ricky Williams in his backfield.
7. Mike DuBose, Alabama
Record: 24-23 (.511) from 1997-2000
DuBose followed national championship coach Gene Stallings to go 4-7 in his first season thanks in part to NCAA sanctions. Though DuBose led the Tide to a 10-3 season and top 10 finish in 1999, he went 3-8 the following year and was the coach during major NCAA recruiting violations.
8. Mike Shula, Alabama
Record: 26-23 (.531) from 2003-06
Perhaps Shula was doomed from the beginning. Alabama fans were wounded by the sudden departure of Dennis Franchione to Texas A&M just as NCAA sanctions were levied. Shula wasn’t even on the radar until Washington State coach Mike Price was fired amid scandal before his first game. Shula went to the Cotton Bowl in 2005 but otherwise became the first Alabama coach since the pre-Bear Bryant days to have three non-winning seasons.
9. David McWilliams, Texas
Record: 31-26 (.544) from 1987-91
Aside from a 10-2 season and Southwest Conference championship in 1990, McWilliams had a lackluster tenure at Texas on the heels of the Darrell Royal and Fred Akers days. McWilliams’ time at Texas was doomed when the Longhorns went 5-6 after reaching the Cotton Bowl a year earlier.
10. Ray Goff, Georgia
Record: 46-34-1 (.574) from 1989-95
Goff had the unenviable task of taking over for the best coach in Georgia history. He had two losing seasons and two 6-6 seasons in six years, but his greatest sin was ushering in an era of futility against Florida. Goff lost his final six meetings against the Gators, the start of a 1-13 stretch in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.
11. Rich Rodriguez, Michigan
Record: 15-22 (.405) from 2008-10
Michigan swung for the fences when it tried to shake up its square-jawed image by hiring spread-offense acolyte Rich Rodriguez from West Virginia. The experiment was a failure as the offense was dismal in a 3-9 season in Rodriguez’s first year, the worst for Michigan in 46 years. Michigan improved in his final two years, but Rodriguez became the first coach to leave Michigan with a losing record. RichRod has taken West Virginia and Arizona to major programs, making his struggles at Michigan that much more perplexing.
12. Tyrone Willingham, Notre Dame
Record: 21-15 (.583) from 2002-04
Willingham was Notre Dame’s second choice after George O’Leary resigned after it was discovered his resume contained false information. It seemed for a time to be a good break for Notre Dame when Willingham’s first team started 8-0. The Irish went 13-15 thereafter. Willingham became the first Notre Dame coach fired after only three seasons.
13. Charlie Weis, Notre Dame
Record: 35-27 (.565) from 2005-09
Notre Dame was outclassed in two BCS games in Weis’ first two seasons, but at least the Irish were back in the national consciousness. Weis looked like an offensive genius by leading Brady Quinn to several Notre Dame passing records and the Heisman presentation, but the bottom fell out in 2007 with a 3-9 record and the Irish’s first loss to Navy since 1963. Considering his ability to collect a buyout from two schools, he's smarter than all of us.
14. Paul Hackett, USC
Record: 19-18 (.514) from 1998-2000
The journeyman coach put up journeyman results in his three seasons at USC, going 5-11 in the Pac-10 in his final two years. In his three-year tenure, Hackett became the first USC coach in 41 years to never go to the Rose Bowl.
15. Bill Callahan, Nebraska
Record: 27-22 (.551) from 2004-07
Frank Solich’s 58 wins in six season was not enough to keep him employed at Nebraska. The Cornhuskers tried to move away from their traditional option by bringing in Callahan from the NFL ranks, but a 5-6 season in 2004 ended Nebraska’s streak of 35 consecutive bowl games. The pro-style offense eventually caught on, but big wins never did as Nebraska bookended his tenure with a 5-7 season in 2007.
16. Randy Shannon, Miami
Record: 28-22 (.560) from 2007-10
The decorated defensive coordinator never could match Miami’s level of success the Hurricanes had while Shannon was an assistant or a player. The Hurricanes’ decline that began under Larry Coker was hastened under Shannon. The Canes went 5-7 in his first season, including a 48-0 loss to Virginia in the final game at the storied Orange Bowl.
17. Will Muschamp, Florida
Record: 29-21 (.580) from 2011-14
Muschamp went 11-2 in his second season, losing in the Sugar Bowl to Louisville. The rest of his tenure was an offensively challenged comedy of errors. Muschamp's Florida teams endured a losing season for the first time since 1979, lost to an FCS school for the first time in school history and lost to Vanderbilt for the first time since 1945.
18. Ron Zook, Florida
Record: 23-14 (.621) from 2002-04
Zook inherited the Heisman runner-up (Rex Grossman) when Steve Spurrier left and never more than eight games as the Gators coach. The tenure included two losses to Ole Miss (albeit led by Eli Manning), a loss to Mississippi State and three unranked finishes. The Zooker could recruit, though.
19. Lane Kiffin, USC
Record: 28-15 (.651) from 2010-13
USC went 10-2 with a win over Oregon despite a bowl ban in 2011, raising the stakes for 2012. The Trojans, though, went from preseason No. 1 to 7-6 with a loss in the Sun Bowl to Georgia Tech. A listless performance on offense in 2013 prompted his abrupt ouster less than 12 hours after a loss to Arizona State. A hot start under interim coach Ed Orgeron has become a further indictment on Kiffin’s tenure.
20. Gary Crowton (26-23 at BYU), Dan Hawkins (19-39 at Colorado) and Keith Gilberston (7-16 at Washington)
We can debate if BYU, Colorado and Washington are “great” programs, but all had won national championships and were viable winners when the three coaches above took over. BYU and Washington have recovered to a degree, but both programs are long ways off from winning national championships again.
For Athlon Sports, the offseason is one of our favorite times of the year.
Of course, we enjoy the season as much as any crazed college football fan, but the bread-and-butter for Athlon since 1967 has been helping readers prepare for the season, helping them get to know the teams and players they need to watch.
This is the time of year we get to share our preseason annuals, our national edition and regional previews for five conferences. Countless hours of study and work from dozens of individuals went into the 2015 editions, and we still have room for debate on the outlook for every team.
Of course, Athlon isn’t the only publication out there. And just like anyone we like to compare how everyone evaluates the season ahead. Here’s how the top 25 and conference champions shook out in the various publications.
We’ll continue to update the grid as more rankings are released through the offseason.
|2015 Preseason College Football Rankings|
Cody Kirby engineered a 99-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter of a game against Kansas State five years ago that might not be memorable to most. Kirby was the senior quarterback of Missouri State in a game his team lost by 24 points. The game, in the grand scheme of things, was forgettable. From there, Kirby finished his career at Missouri State, played football in Canada and in the Arena Football League before returning to his alma mater as a graduate assistant.
Everywhere he’s gone, Kirby has kept with him a copy of Mind Gym, a book on mental training for athletes. And for the past five years, Kirby has used a souvenir from that game against Kansas State as a book mark. Marking his spot in Mind Gym is an envelope and letter on Kansas State stationery.
“The envelope is kind of torn and tattered,” Kirby says. “But I haven’t let the letter go without care.”
Kirby still reads the letter from time to time as a reminder of the values that stood out to the sender — in this case, Kansas State coach Bill Snyder.
The note, handwritten, complimented Kirby’s competitive nature and the way he handled himself. The message predicted he’d be successful in any future endeavor.
Kirby left that game against Kansas State honored to have shaken the hand of Snyder after the game. Early the next week, the Missouri State football staff told him he had a delivery in the mail room. With the Kansas State return label, Kirby wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.
“This was written diagonally across the letter and in a purple marker, so you know he sat and took the time to write that out,” Kirby says.
Related: Buy the 2015 Big 12 Preview Magazine
Anyone around Kansas State, though, will find those trademarks unmistakable: The Kansas State letterhead, the ink from a purple felt-tip pen, the lines of handwriting tilted clockwise at nearly a 45 degree angle.
And finally: Warm Regards, Bill Snyder
Kirby was just one of what must be hundreds of recipients of similar notes over the years. Without any fanfare or public announcements, this is a tradition as much as anything else is at Kansas State.
Snyder estimates he’s sent one of these handwritten notes after nearly every game since he became the head coach at Kansas State in 1989. He’s sent them for dozens of reasons, from consoling an injured player to congratulating an opponent on a victory over Kansas State to simple acknowledgements of competitiveness and leadership.
“I could think of 25 different reasons over the years when I’ve sent a young person a note,” Snyder says.
The process for him doesn’t seem to be a special one, even if he’s the only coach who corresponds with an opponent in such a way.
On an ordinary day in March this spring, for example, Snyder was at his desk, sending thank-you notes from a coaching event in Manhattan, Kan., earlier in the week.
His colleagues are familiar with the notes, too. R.C. Slocum, who as Texas A&M coach overlapped with Snyder in the Big 12, recalls one of his players getting a note from Snyder at some point during his tenure, though he doesn’t remember which one.
Slocum himself received a note from Snyder this winter after attending an event with the Kansas State coach.
“I’m never surprised when I get a nice note from him,” says Slocum, who coached at Texas A&M from 1989-2002. “That’s what he does. That’s what separates him from some of other people. ... That’s why Bill is respected like he is. It’s the personal touch.”
Even bitter rivals have received that personal touch.
Glen Mason, the coach at Kansas from 1988-96, recalled one of his captains receiving a note from Snyder in the late ’80s. Again, the identity of the recipient is lost to memory.
Snyder can’t recall why he started sending the notes. Did one of his coaches do the same? Did an opposing coach do that for him when he first started coaching or when he played?
“I wasn’t a good enough player, so if anyone sent anything to me, they were mistaken,” Snyder says.
When the practice started he can’t really say, either. Joan Friederich has worked in the Kansas State football office since 1973 — predating even Snyder in Manhattan. She’s been the administrative assistant to four football coaches at Kansas State, including both tenures for Snyder.
“That’s been too long ago, I don’t remember,” Friederich says. “It was a little bit later than when he first got the job. He sends so many things out, but he’s been doing it for several years.”
The routine, though, hasn’t changed. After nearly every Kansas State game, Friederich thumbs through her desktop directory to find the address to the football office of the most recent opponent. She loads an envelope into her typewriter — yes, a typewriter — to address Snyder’s note, and off it goes.
Even though this personal touch has gone on for decades, in the past, few people apart from the sender and recipient would have known of each note. Social media changed that, though. After North Dakota State upset Kansas State 24–21 in Manhattan to open the 2013 season, Snyder sent a letter to Bison quarterback Brock Jensen:
“Congratulations Brock. I was truly impressed with you & your teammates. You played so very well, virtually error free & with such poise. I wish you a great year & hope you achieve all you desire. Please share my thoughts w/ your teammates. Warm Regards Bill Snyder.”
From bill Snyder to Brock Jensen. Classy move by the coach. pic.twitter.com/OIMwsH6AWo— Jay Bartley (@Jaybartley34) September 7, 2013
A North Dakota State fan tweeted an image of the note, and the story quickly went viral.
“It caught me by surprise,” says Jensen, who led North Dakota State to its third of four consecutive FCS national championships that season. “I didn’t know he wrote notes to opponents like that. I found out when he wrote me.”
Former Texas running back Fozzy Whittaker didn’t know one was coming, either. During his senior season in 2011, Whittaker suffered a knee injury in a loss at Missouri on Nov. 12, a week before Texas’ final home game of the season against Kansas State. Whittaker, as a result, wouldn’t be able to play on Senior Day for the Longhorns. The week before the game against the Wildcats, Whittaker received an envelope from Kansas State.
“The letter he wrote to me, it was basically — not a sympathy letter — but to give me words of encouragement,” Whittaker says. “The fact that it was a Big 12 opponent and it was a head coach that wrote it, it was a gesture that I feel like is unparalleled.”
Coaches often like to say that locker room conversations or postgame exchanges should remain private, and Snyder is notoriously guarded when it comes to information he shares about his program. If his correspondence with opponents is being shared with the public through social media, he can live with it.
“As I tell our young people, don’t write or say anything that you would not want to be repeated,” Snyder says.
• • •
The letters, at least to one opposing quarterback, have become one of the sport’s top honors of sorts.
A note from Snyder doesn’t acknowledge the stats or the result of the game. It means the recipient competed at a level to impress Bill Snyder, a coach whose teams have consistently overachieved in the Big 12 for nearly 30 years.
West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett entered the 2014 season with plenty of goals that would have been obvious — get the Mountaineers back to a bowl game, stay healthy for the season and so on. One of the objectives for Trickett was more specific than wins and losses: Make Bill Snyder sit down at his desk in the Kansas State football office and write out his thoughts about the West Virginia quarterback.
Trickett knew this was a possibility. A year earlier, Trickett’s friend, Texas Tech tight end Jace Amaro, received a letter from Snyder during his junior season. In a 49–26 loss to Kansas State on Nov. 9, 2013, Amaro caught nine passes for 67 yards. During the course of the Kansas State game, Amaro took a hard hit and had to be helped off the field. He didn’t return to the game. Again, Snyder noted the details:
“You’ve had a great year Jace. Admire how hard you play & the innate toughness you display to help your team. Hope you weren’t hurt badly on Sat. Wishing you & your teammates continued success, good fortune & health. Warm Regards Coach Snyder”
THE upmost respect to Kansas State and Coach Snyder, great program and an even greater coach. Huge fan. pic.twitter.com/fjeflBLU47— Jace Amaro (@J_ACER22) November 18, 2013
After Amaro shared the letter on Twitter, Trickett hoped he could live up to the standard to earn one of his own. “That was one of my goals going into the season,” Trickett says. “When we played them, I wanted to be the guy who gets the letter.”
Fortunately or unfortunately, the note came. Trickett sustained a concussion in West Virginia’s 26–20 loss to Kansas State on Nov. 20 and had to leave the game in the third quarter facing a two-touchdown deficit.
“Sorry I didn’t get to see you after the game Clint. Wasn’t aware that you had received a concussion. I hope the symptoms are gone by now & that you will be back soon. Always appreciate you as a young man of great values as well as being an excellent quarterback. Pulling for you to finish off the season at your best. Warm Regards Coach Snyder.”
Trickett, of course, has the letter. He’s taking it with him to East Mississippi Community College, where he’ll start his career as a quarterback coach.
At some point, the letter will hang on his wall. He’ll have framed a memento, essentially, from the injury that ended his playing career. “He’s the foundation of what a coach should be,” Trickett says. “When you think what a coach should be, you think of Bill Snyder. The handwritten letter epitomizes it.”
Every college football fan knows that one person whose opinion changes of a friend or colleague as soon as they learn they’re a fan or graduate of a rival school.
Perhaps you are that person.
Let’s say you’re an Alabama fan and your co-worker seems pleasant enough until you find out he or she has a cubicle full of Auburn memorabilia.
If you’re that person, look away.
Some person with a sick mind combined rival logos in college football, blending Auburn and Alabama, Alabama and Tennessee, Florida and Georgia and more.
The preseason top 25 is a starting point as much as it is a prediction of what’s to come. We've had our share of hits and misses over the years, some No. 1 teams that have won championships, some leaps of faith tha panned out and some that did.
Certainly, we want to nail every pick, but we're just fine if not everything goes to plan. Who wants to watch a sport they can forecast perfectly months before the season?
Now that the Athlon top 25 has been released, and our magazines are available all across America, this is a perfect time to look back at this year’s top 25 and how teams rank compared to years past.
In some ways, this is a typical year. Ohio State and Alabama sit near the top of the rankings, which is pretty much a sure-thing at this point.
But at the same time, teams like Baylor, TCU and Michigan State all have their highest ranking in Athlon history while Florida and Texas are nowhere to be found in the top 25.
Here’s what made this year’s top 25 standout compared to Athlon’s preseason rankings going back to 1976.
• Ohio State is No. 1 for the fourth time since Athlon’s rankings began in 1976. Only Florida State (eight times), USC (six) and Oklahoma (five) have been ranked No. 1 more.
• The Buckeyes have the distinction of having the longest active streak in the Athlon top 25 at more than two decades. Ohio State has been in every Athlon top 25 since 1994. The next longest streaks belong to Oklahoma (in the top 25 every year since 2000) and Georgia (since 2002).
• Alabama, ranked second in this year’s top 25, has been ranked Nos. 1, 2 or 3 every year since 2010.
• Baylor’s No. 3 ranking is the highest ranking for the Bears in Athlon history, beating their old record of No. 10 last season. Baylor was unranked from 1992-2013 and had never been ranked higher than No. 14 in 1978.
• Another sign the Big 12 has been turned upon its head: No. 5 TCU is making its first appearance in the Athlon top 10.
• After back-to-back AP top-five finishes, Michigan State has finally taught us a lesson. The No. 7 Spartans have earned their highest ranking in Athlon history, topping a No. 11 ranking in 1988 — a team that finished 6-5-1 with a Gator Bowl loss.
• No. 21 Mississippi State is ranked for the first time since 2001, which the Bulldogs probably hope is a better omen than it was back then. Mississippi State followed an 8-4 season in 2000 by going 3-8 in 2001. Oops.
• No. 17 Oklahoma is tied for its lowest ranking since the last time the Sooners were last out of our top 25 in 1999. Oklahoma has been ranked in our preseason top 10 in all but three seasons since 2000 (ranked 17th in 2015, 2013 and 2000). Oklahoma won the national title in 2000 — but started the season ranked No. 17 by Athlon and No. 19 by the AP.
• Welcome back, Tennessee. The No. 22 Volunteers are ranked for the first time since 2008. Tennessee had been ranked every year from 1990-2008.
• More good news for Vols fans: Florida is out of the top 25 for the second time in the last four seasons. The Gators had been in our preseason top 25 every year from 1991-2011.
• Texas is out of the top 25 for the first time since 1998.
• No. 13 Arizona State highest ranking since 1998 when the Sun Devils were ranked eighth.
• The longest rankings drought ended in this year’s top 25 belongs to No. 18 Georgia Tech, ranked for the first time since 2009.
• How different was the college football landscape 10 years ago? Purdue (No. 15), Boston College (No. 17), Virginia (No. 22) and UTEP (No. 24) were all ranked in the top 25 in 2005. None have been ranked since. Pittsburgh was ranked 23rd in 2005 and has only been ranked once since then.
• Another sign of how things change: Oregon has been in the top 10 in six consecutive magazines. The Ducks had been ranked in the top 25 only five times from 1990-2008.
Last season was a good one for the 40-and-under crowd in college football.
Three of the four offensive coordinators in the College Football Playoff were under the age of 40 at the start of the season — Ohio State’s Tom Herman, Oregon’s Scott Frost and Alabama’s Lane Kiffin.
Herman took the Houston head coaching job, and Kiffin resurrected his coaching career by leading a dynamic Alabama offense.
Herman, Kiffin and Frost have moved off our list of the top coaches under the age of 40 — as has Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald — as they enter their 40s.
In their place are plenty of 30-somethings with bright futures ahead of them.
Best Head Coaches Under 40
1. Justin Fuente, Memphis head coach
Fuente has been on the fast track since Gary Patterson plucked him from the staff at Illinois State in 2007. As TCU’s offensive coordinator, Fuente coached in two BCS games, including a Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin to cap an undefeated season in 2010. At Memphis, he led one of the best turnarounds of the 2014 season. In three seasons, Fuente led Memphis to its first AP top 25 final ranking in school history and first 10-win season since 1938. And remember: Memphis had lost 10 games in each of the three seasons preceding Fuente’s tenure. Another year like that and Fuente will be the top coaching candidate in the 2015 carousel.
2. Bryan Harsin, Boise State head coach
Harsin wasn’t even 30 when Chris Petersen promoted him to offensive coordinator on his first staff at Boise State — a move that coincided with the Broncos’ undefeated season in 2006. Of Boise State’s three major bowl games in school history — the 2007 Rose Bowl and the 2010 and 2015 Fiesta Bowls — Harsin has been a coordinator or head coach of all three. In two seasons as a head coach, Harsin has captured a share of a Sun Belt title at Arkansas State and an outright Mountain West title.
3. Matt Campbell, Toledo head coach
Starting during his time as an assistant, Campbell has been instrumental in Toledo’s re-emergence as one of the most consistent programs in the MAC. The Rockets have finished in the top four in the MAC in yards per play each season since 2010, including No. 1 in the league last season. He’s 26-13 as Toledo’s head coach and 19-6 in the MAC. Ending the Rocket’s MAC title game drought (since 2004) should propel him to a big-time job.
4. P.J. Fleck, Western Michigan head coach
The former Rutgers wide receivers coach arrived with a reputation as an ace recruiter and lived up to it. He had the top signing classes in the MAC in 2014 and 2015, the former by a wide margin. He has 11 3-stars committed so far for 2016. The rest of the MAC has 12 total. He has some quirks — his “row the boat” mantra, for starters — but Fleck can coach. After going 1-11 in his first season, Western Michigan went 8-5 in 2014.
5. Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech head coach
Kingsbury is still Coach Cool even if his stock has dropped since starting his career 7-0 in 2013. Since then, Kingsbury is 5-13 overall and 2-12 in the Big 12. The Red Raiders’ offense remains formidable, but Kingsbury needs new coordinator David Gibbs and the defense to turn his program’s momentum.
6. Willie Taggart, USF head coach
Western Kentucky is a legitimate Conference USA contender, and some of the thanks should go to Taggart, a former Hilltoppers quarterback. He shepherded the program in the FBS, going 7-5 in each of his final two seasons there. Progress has been slower at USF, which improved from 2-10 to 4-8 in his second season.
7. Neal Brown, Troy head coach
Troy won back-to-back outright Sun Belt titles with Brown as offensive coordinator in 2008-09. At the time, Brown was a green 28-year-old. From there, Brown took his version of the spread to Texas Tech under Tommy Tuberville and Kentucky under Mark Stoops. That’s Big 12 and SEC experience and a head coaching gig all before his 35th birthday.
Best Coordinators Under 40
1. Dave Aranda, Wisconsin defensive coordinator
Paul Chryst gets a leg up on his tenure as Wisconsin’s head coach thanks to the return of Aranda, who already has five seasons of coordinator experience under his belt at Hawaii, Utah State and Wisconsin. The Badgers have finished third in the Big Ten in yards allowed per play, remarkable considering they switched to a 3-4 defense in his first season and replaced All-American Chris Borland in his second.
2. Kirby Smart, Alabama defensive coordinator
As Alabama’s defensive coordinator since 2008, Smart has been an assistant of interest for several seasons. Presumably, the 2009 Broyles Award winner has had a number of head coaching jobs available to him as the Tide has been a perennial national championship contender. The question is when Smart, a Nick Saban assistant for all but one season since 2003, will leave his mentor’s shadow.
3. Rhett Lashlee, Auburn offensive coordinator
No coach has worked with Gus Malzahn longer than Lashlee, who was Malzahn’s quarterback in high school. Malzahn tends to receive the credit as the offensive mastermind, but no one is more embedded in the system than his 32-year-old offensive coordinator.
4. Justin Wilcox, USC defensive coordinator
A defensive coordinator for two undefeated Boise State teams under Chris Petersen, Wilcox is at home on the West Coast. His defenses at USC and Washington each ranked third in the Pac-12 in yards per play the last two seasons.
5. Kalani Sitake, Oregon State defensive coordinator
Gary Andersen’s hire of Sitake from Utah was a coup for the first-year Oregon State coach. Sitake is one of the Pac-12’s most respected defensive coordinators as Utah has remained solid on that side of the ball despite the move from the Mountain West to the Pac-12. His defenses have had a knack for the fundamentals even if they’ve been at a talent deficiency.
6. D.J. Durkin, Michigan defensive coordinator
Any coach who has worked for both Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh is on a good career trajectory. He’s also due for some good timing. Durkin left Stanford just before the Cardinal became a BCS regular and arrived at Florida in time for Meyer’s final season and into the Will Muschamp era. Even if Florida struggled in 2013 and 2014, it wasn’t because of Durkin’s defenses, which ranked fifth and first, respectively, in yards per play in the SEC.
7. Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma offensive coordinator
Riley may have made a career-defining move this offseason, leaving East Carolina for Oklahoma. All Bob Stoops needs Riley to do is revive OU’s spot on the cutting edge of offense. After all, Norman is where Mike Leach, Mark Mangino, Kevin Wilson and Kevin Sumlin all turned their offensive coordinator posts into their first head coaching jobs. Riley, a former Leach assistant at Texas Tech, led the No. 3 passing offense in the country last season.
8. Sonny Cumbie, TCU co-offensive coordinator/QB coach
Doug Meacham calls the plays at TCU, but the arrival of Meacham and Cumbie at TCU was critical to the Horned Frogs’ run at a College Football Playoff spot last season. The duo represented a culture shift for the TCU offense to the spread, and Cumbie was critical in grooming Trevone Boykin into a Heisman-contending QB. If you’re noticing a trend, Cumbie is also a Leach guy, passing for 4,724 yards for Texas in 2004.
9. Barry Odom, Missouri defensive coordinator
Odom returned to his alma mater after leading a turnaround for the Memphis defense last season. The Tigers ranked 10th nationally in yards allowed per play and 11th in scoring defense. In only his sixth season as a full-time assistant coach, Odom is an SEC defensive coordinator.
10. Mike Norvell, Arizona State offensive coordinator
Statistically, Arizona State wasn’t the most dynamic offense in the Pac-12 — fifth in passing efficiency, sixth in yards per play, seventh in yards per carry and third in points per game. That said, Arizona State needed to start its backup quarterback for three games (against two ranked teams) and still finished with 10 wins for the second consecutive season.
11. Jake Spavital, Texas A&M offensive coordinator
Surprise, surprise: Another Air Raid devotee on the list. Spavital comes from the Dana Holgorsen branch of that coaching tree, getting his first full-time coaching gig as West Virginia’s quarterback coach in 2011. He replaced Kliff Kingsbury at Texas A&M to work with Johnny Manziel and then supervised the Aggies’ QB derby last season. He’s another bright offensive mind entrenched in the most trendy scheme of the day. He’ll be sure to follow Kingsbury and others as they move into head coaching jobs.
12. Scottie Montgomery, Duke offensive coordinator
Well before age 40, Montgomery notched an NFL position coach stint under his belt and now sits at the right hand of David Cutcliffe at Duke. A Blue Devils alum and North Carolina native, Montgomery could slip into a head coaching role in a few years.
13. Mike Sanford Jr., Notre Dame offensive coordinator
Not to be confused with Mike Stanford Sr., his father who is the former coach at UNLV and current coach at Indiana State. After serving as offensive coordinator for Fiesta Bowl-bound Boise State last season, Sanford had a chance at coordinator posts at Ohio State and Notre Dame. He picked Notre Dame. Not bad for a guy born in the 1980s.
Good news, everyone: Schedule-shaming works.
Those two weeks during the SEC schedule in November aren’t nearly as embarrassing as they used to be. Sure, every league team didn’t try to add another conference game or big-time out-of-conference game. But many of the FCS games that week have been traded out with Conference USA or Sun Belt teams.
They’re cupcakes for the most part, but it’s nice to see overmatched FCS teams depart schedules in September rather than setting up rivalry week.
In the final weeks of November, Conference USA replaces the SoCon as Florida faces FAU and Tennessee faces North Texas. Georgia is taking a bit of an in-state risk by hosting the option-running Sun Belt champion Georgia Southern. Missouri plays Southeast Missouri State early in the season but balances that with BYU in November.
Don’t worry for those of you who are for some reason fans of the SEC-FCS challenge, Alabama, South Carolina and Texas A&M are holding out with their own shameful games in November.
Shameful games here aren’t just ordinary power teams facing FCS competition. They’re they ones who are going out of their way to cross state lines to face a historically bad team from a Division with fewer scholarships and few resources.
In other words, they’re buying wins and ripping off their season-ticket holders.
And let’s be clear: We do not care about the circumstances of these particular games and if an opponent bought out of a series. Find a way to do better, we say.
1. Nov. 21: Charleston Southern at Alabama
Most of the SEC has been shamed into shedding its traditional November FCS opponent in November for Conference USA or Sun Belt opponents. Not Alabama. The Crimson Tide have played an FCS opponent in November every season since 2009, and the final scores have been predictably lopsided. As an opponent, Charleston Southern isn’t particularly shameful. The Buccaneers are 18-5 the last two seasons, a long way from 2011 when they went 0-11 with losses to Florida State at UCF that year. Alabama has been a consistent top-five team for eight seasons and continues to import an FCS team to face the week before Auburn. We’ve come to accept the late-season SEC tune-up game but Alabama has FBS candidates in arm’s reach — Troy, South Alabama and until this season, UAB.
2. Sept. 5: Norfolk State at Rutgers
If Rutgers continues this shameful series any longer, it should have a rivalry trophy. Rutgers has faced Norfolk State in 2007, 2010 and 2013, winning by a combined score of 128-0.
3. Nov. 14: Western Carolina at Texas A&M
Again, most of the SEC is ditching the November FCS opponent. A&M is bringing one from Cullowhee, N.C., to visit. And until last season, Western Carolina was an automatic win — for FCS teams. The Catamounts won 14 games from 2006-13 (and lost twice at Alabama). They went 7-5 last season. Still, Texas A&M is inviting and paying a team to travel nearly 1,000 miles for a likely rout.
4. Sept. 5: Savannah State at Colorado State
No list of shameful games would be complete without Savannah State, a woefully overmatched opponent FBS teams can’t help but schedule to start the season. In an 0-12 season, Savannah State faced three FBS opponents and scored two total touchdowns in garbage time against Middle Tennessee (61-7), Georgia Southern (83-9) and BYU (64-0). Savannah State has played seven FBS teams in three seasons, losing by a combined score of 490-26.
5. Sept. 5: South Dakota at Kansas State
On a streak of four consecutive FCS national titles, North Dakota State has defeated an FBS opponent in each of the last five seasons. One of those victims has learned the lesson and scheduled a lesser Dakota school. Former Wyoming coach Joe Glenn is 7-28 in three seasons with the Coyotes.
6. Sept. 26: Nicholls State at Colorado
Colorado is 10-39 in the last four seasons. Nicholls State is 6-40. One of which is in the Pac-12 and the other is in the Southland and getting a paid trip from Thibodaux, La., to Boulder, Colo. The Buffaloes need all the wins they can get, so this will suffice.
7. Sept. 4: Rhode Island at Syracuse
Syracuse may be fighting for bowl eligibility, so the Orange probably need to sweep this opening stretch against Rhode Island, Wake Forest and Central Michigan. At 7-39 the last four seasons and no winning seasons since 2001, Rhody seems like a sure bet for 1-0 for Syracuse.
8. Sept. 5 Grambling State at Cal
Grambling State rebounded nicely with a 7-5 season under Broderick Fobbs last season, just a year removed from a 2-21 record in two seasons and a player revolt against the administration and the midseason firing of Doug Williams in 2014. Grambling rarely plays power conference teams but has traveled to Oklahoma State and Washington in recent years, both for loss by more than 40 points.
9. Nov. 21: The Citadel at South Carolina
Another SEC-FCS game in late November, but at least this is an in-state game with a little bit of history, most of it bad for The Citadel. South Carolina played The Citadel regularly until 1965. The Gamecocks have a 7-40-3 edge in the series.
10. Sept. 4: Weber State at Oregon State
Not long ago, Weber State could be competitive against some lesser FBS teams. Those days are over as the Ogden, Utah, school is 6-29 in the last three seasons.
11. Sept. 3: New Hampshire at San Jose State
New Hampshire is a solid FCS program, winning 10-plus games six times since 2004 and in each of the last two seasons. Not all of that was with Chip Kelly as offensive coordinator. The question is why New Hampshire has to go all the way to San Jose to get an FBS game. This is less shameful for the Spartans than it is for teams like Rutgers, Syracuse, UConn and Boston College.
12. Sept. 19 Austin Peay at Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt needs wins and knows it doesn’t have to look far to get one from the school up the interstate. Austin Peal is 1-23 in two seasons under its current coach. The Governors went 20-46 under his predecessor, 11-33 under the coach before him and 19-46 under the coach prior. Need we go on?