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Non-conference play turned into a disaster for the Big 12 on the whole in 2016. For every step forward such as Texas’ season-opening win over Notre Dame, a giant leap backwards, such as Ohio State throttling the conference champs, popped up.
The tenor of the conversation surrounding the conference could change with a solid showing in non-conference play this fall. That has to sound like a nice prospect to commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who must be so tired of defending the Big 12’s honor whenever there’s a microphone in his face.
Give this to the conference members, however: They don’t run from challenges. Two of their non-conference games involve some of the best teams in the country. Even Baylor got in on the act, setting up a game against a Power 5 program for the first time since the pre-Art Briles era.
1. Oklahoma at Ohio State (Sept. 9)
A year ago, the anticipated clash of the titans between the Sooners and Buckeyes fizzled. OU got pounded on its home turf, which puts a damper on the hype for round two.
The two squads finished last season heading in opposite directions, though. If the underdog Sooners can get a win in Columbus, it will go a long way to re-establishing the perception of OU as a heavyweight.
2. Texas at USC (Sept. 16)
At the very least, this rematch of the epic 2006 Rose Bowl will command the country's attention leading up to kickoff. After that, a rebuilding Texas squad might have trouble keeping up with the Trojans. Whether or not the game gets away from the Longhorns, Tom Herman will have a better idea of what he's working with after squaring off against one of the West Coast's premier teams.
3. West Virginia vs. Virginia Tech (Sept. 3 – Landover, MD)
The Hokies and Mountaineers will face off inside the antiseptic confines of FedEx Field in a matchup that would carry infinitely more juice as a home-and-home series. Dana Holgorsen might prefer the setting in this case, though, given the number of fresh faces taking the field for WVU. They include heralded transfer QB Will Grier, who can make a hell of a first impression in a primetime showcase.
4. Oklahoma State at Pittsburgh (Sept. 16)
The Cowboys won a wild shootout versus the Panthers in Stillwater a season ago. As the year wore on, the victory started to look even better for the Pokes. Pitt will want revenge against Mike Gundy’s team, which will be coming off another long road trip to South Alabama the week before.
5. Iowa State vs. Iowa (Sept. 9)
This in-state rivalry doesn’t sound sexy – because it isn’t. It’s still a top non-conference game for the Big 12 because a win for the rapidly improving Cyclones would really benefit the perception of the league as a whole. ISU is probably still smarting from the 42-3 beating administered by the Hawkeyes in 2016.
6. TCU at Arkansas (Sept. 9)
TCU fell in double overtime to the Razorbacks last year in a game that the Horned Frogs should have won. With a combined 17 starters back, Gary Patterson’s veteran team has a good shot at knocking off the Hogs in Fayetteville. The last time a Big 12 team visited Arkansas, Bret Bielema’s outfit got demolished by Texas Tech.
7. Kansas State at Vanderbilt (Sept. 16)
The Wildcats should handle Vanderbilt in their week three tilt, but it’s really a no-win situation for the Big 12’s rep. If KSU wins, it’s just Vanderbilt. If the Commodores win, the story will be that one of the more respected squads from the Big 12 lost to an SEC bottom-feeder.
8. Texas vs. Maryland (Sept. 2)
New head coach Tom Herman will face a tougher than usual test in his first game at Texas. The Terrapins made a bowl game last season and stand to improve in the second year under DJ Durkin. That should keep the Longhorns motivated for their 2017 debut.
9. Baylor at Duke (Sept. 16)
This game makes the list for the novelty of it alone. The Bears were shamed into scheduling a Power 5 non-conference game for the first time since 2009, so they’re gracing Duke with their presence in the third week of the season. Consider this Matt Rhule’s first major test as BU’s head coach.
10. Texas Tech vs. Arizona State (Sept. 16)
Last year, these two teams combined to score 123 points. They might do it again this time – both allowed more than 39 points per game in 2016.
In light of Kliff Kingsbury’s scorching seat, the Red Raiders could use a win here to help start the season off right.
— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is founder and editor of BlatantHomerism.com and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.
In some ways, Sam Houston State football gets a bum rap.
The Bearkats have the second-most wins among FCS programs in the 2010s (behind North Dakota State) and make deep playoff runs, including two national runner-up finishes.
Yet people often focus on some of the lopsided losses that have ended the Kats’ postseasons.
In truth, most schools would gladly take Sam Houston’s resume.
The Bearkats are favored to win another Southland Conference championship this year, but Central Arkansas, last year’s other playoff team out of the conference, and several other teams believe they can turn the race upside down.
With the college football season fast approaching, here are five key questions for the Southland:
Will Sam Houston State sweep the Payton and Buchanan awards?
The Bearkats’ two best players are among their returnees, quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe and defensive end P.J. Hall, both entering their senior season. Briscoe is seeking to become the second player to repeat as the STATS FCS Walter Payton Award winner (Appalachian State’s Armanti Edwards won in 2008-09) and Hall is coming off a runner-up finish in the Buck Buchanan Award voting. No school has ever won the two biggest FCS player of the year awards in the same season.
After Jeremiah Briscoe, who’s the best quarterback?
It’s a strong season for returning quarterbacks in the Southland. Of course, Briscoe is the headliner, but there’s also James Tabary of McNeese, Chase Fourcade of Nicholls, Hayden Hildebrand of Central Arkansas and Dallas Sealey of Abilene Christian. Only three teams don’t have a quarterback with a previous start at his school, and two of them, Incarnate Word and Stephen F. Austin, could be going with signal-callers who were previously at FBS programs. Houston Baptist is the other program starting anew.
How are the new teams making progress?
Unlike Big Sky with Cal Poly, North Dakota and Southern Utah, the three relative newcomers to the Southland Conference haven’t had a big impact in the conference standings. Since Abilene Christian, Houston Baptist and Incarnate Word came aboard in 2014, only Incarnate Word has had a winning season, going 6-5 overall with a 5-4 third-place conference finish in ‘15. But the three programs feel a good foundation is in place. Abilene Christian made one of the more interesting coaching hires this offseason with Adam Dorrel, who won three Division II national titles at Northwest Missouri State.
Is this a three-bid conference?
Both of last year’s Southland playoff teams won their first games before they were eliminated. Sam Houston and Central Arkansas are primed to return to the postseason and they could bring a third team with them. Southeastern Louisiana, which finished third a year ago, held out hope for an at-large bid, which didn’t materialize. Perennial power McNeese, which went only 6-5 in posting a 12th straight winning season, should get right back into the playoff picture with a softer schedule – no FBS opponent or Sam Houston State.
Who are the NFL prospects?
Briscoe (6-3, 220) and Hall (6-1, 280) are the top candidates. Briscoe set the FCS single-season record with 57 touchdown passes last season, and Hall has an impressive 36 sacks and 67 tackles for a loss through his first three seasons. One of their Sam Houston teammates, running back Corey Avery (5-10, 190), will get a look as will Central Arkansas cornerback Tremon Smith (6-0, 180).
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Photos by Sam Houston State Athletics)
In Feb. 2014, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer and his staff were able to sign a class of 23 players. Of those 23, only five left the program due to transfer, injury, or retirement. The other 18 players have either emerged as starters or contributed to the team in some way.
Part one of this series dealt with the departures from the program. Part two will focus on the players who have been contributors, or could possibly even emerge as starters in 2017 or beyond for the Buckeyes.
1. Dylan Thompson, DL
Thompson has played sparingly for Ohio State, having battled injuries throughout his time in Columbus. He redshirted in 2014 following a knee injury and then played sparingly the following season. At B1G Media Days, Urban Meyer stated that Thompson was back on the team, but was no longer on scholarship. He was academically ineligible last season, so this fall could be his last opportunity for playing time as a Buckeye.
2. Terry McLaurin, WR
McLaurin is in the running to emerge as a starter in 2017, after playing primarily on special teams. McLaurin has actually started four times over the past three seasons, and was mentioned by the coaching staff as an emerging wide receiver during the spring. Meyer confirmed this line of thinking earlier this week at B1G Media Days when he announced that McLaurin would be a starter this season. The junior will have eligibility remaining after the 2017 season.
3. Demetrius Knox, OL
Knox was highly recruited out of Texas. After redshirting as a freshman, he played primarily on special teams in 2015 before battling injuries last season. He made an appearance in the College Football Playoff semifinal against Clemson when starter Michael Jordan exited with an injury, but Knox struggled when he was on the field. He is expected to battle for a starting guard spot in fall camp and will have eligibility remaining after the 2017 season.
4. Johnnie Dixon, WR
This season represents a now-or-never opportunity for Dixon. Highly recruited out of Florida, he has battled knee injuries continually throughout his time in Columbus. Dixon truly shined in the 2017 Ohio State Spring Game, with six receptions for 108 yards and two touchdowns. The hope is that Dixon will be able to stay injury free and make his final season as a Buckeye truly memorable.
5. Erick Smith, DB
Another of the group of players who signed with Ohio State out of Cleveland Glenville, Smith has battled injuries during his time in Columbus. He played as a true freshman in 2014 on special teams, and was given a larger role the following season before suffering a knee injury midway through. He returned and appeared in every game last season and is in contention for one of the starting safety positions this fall following the departure of first-round NFL draft picks Marshon Lattimore, Malik Hooker and Gareon Conley.
6. Brady Taylor, OL
Taylor was a late addition to the 2014 class, flipping from a verbal commitment to Virginia Tech. After redshirting as a freshman, he has been a backup center, earning the majority of his playing time last season. Taylor will have additional eligibility after the 2017 season.
Part three of the series will focus upon the players who emerged as starters for Ohio State. Several of these players have moved onto the NFL, while there are others are enterting their final season in Columbus.
Kentucky put an end to its six-year bowl drought last season and returns 16 starters from that team. That puts head coach Mark Stoops and company in good position to make it back-to-back postseason appearances for the first time since the 2008-09 seasons and possibly emerge as a dark horse in the SEC East race.
To do that, the Wildcats will need to improve upon their 4-4 record in conference games and avoid any slip ups against their non-SEC opponents. One of the things UK has going in its favor schedule-wise is the fact that Ole Miss, which just saw head coach Hugh Freeze resign unexpectedly and is still dealing with a lot of uncertainty regarding purported NCAA violations, takes Alabama’s place as the Wildcats’ other SEC West matchup. Additionally, Florida, Tennessee and Louisville are all set to come to Commonwealth Stadium.
Here are Kentucky’s 12 regular season games ranked from easiest to most difficult.
12. Sept. 9 vs. Eastern Kentucky
The last time Kentucky faced the Colonels from the FCS ranks the Wildcats needed overtime to come away with a 34-27 win in 2015. EKU went 3-8 last season but some improvement should be expected with 13 starters returning for second-year head coach Mark Elder. However, the Colonels should serve as nothing more than a tune-up at home leading into Kentucky’s SEC opener at South Carolina.
11. Sept. 30 vs. Eastern Michigan
Like Kentucky, Eastern Michigan ended its bowl drought last season and finished 7-6. However, the Eagles from the MAC hadn’t been to the postseason in nearly 30 years and even with 16 starters returning appear to be overmatched, especially at the line of scrimmage, for their first-ever meeting with the Wildcats.
10. Sept. 2 at Southern Miss
Revenge will be on Kentucky’s mind for its first-ever visit to Hattiesburg. The Golden Eagles shocked UK at home in last season’s opener, 44-35, outscoring the Wildcats 27-0 in the second half. If Kentucky wants to return the favor on Southern Miss’ turf, the defense must focus on slowing down running back Ito Smith, who piled up 173 yards on the ground in last year’s upset victory.
9. Oct. 7 vs. Missouri
Kentucky has won two in a row against its newest SEC East rival and appears to have the edge, at least on paper, entering this meeting as well. Both offenses return plenty of pieces, but the Tigers are starting over in many respects on defense (3 returning starters) and this coming after ranking at or near the bottom of the SEC in every major category in 2016.
8. Nov. 4 vs. Ole Miss
Prior to last week this game may have been higher on this list, but the Rebels are a team in turmoil following former head coach Hugh Freeze’s sudden resignation. Already serving a self-imposed postseason ban in the midst of an ongoing NCAA investigation, what kind of effort Ole Miss will put forth given all that has transpired is anyone’s guess. This presents Kentucky with an excellent opportunity to start November with an important conference win.
7. Nov. 11 at Vanderbilt
Kentucky eked past Vanderbilt last season at home, winning 20-13. The Commodores are coming off of a bowl appearance and have plenty of experience returning. This could be a critical game for both teams’ postseason hopes. The head-to-head matchup at running back between Snell and Vanderbilt’s Ralph Webb should be fun to watch.
6. Oct. 21 at Mississippi State
Kentucky snapped a seven-game losing streak to the Bulldogs last season and is looking for its first win in Starkville since 2008. Mississippi State has one of the SEC’s best quarterbacks in junior Nick Fitzgerald but plenty of questions elsewhere on offense and is breaking in its fourth defensive coordinator (Todd Grantham) in as many seasons. A second straight win over the Bulldogs would be huge for the Wildcats’ bowl and SEC East title hopes.
5. Sept. 16 at South Carolina
Last season’s 17-10 win at home was Kentucky’s third straight over the Gamecocks. South Carolina could be a surprise team this fall with 16 starters returning as well as linebacker Skai Moore from a neck injury. The key to South Carolina’s success will be the improvement the offense makes behind sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley, one of 10 starters returning on that side of the ball.
4. Oct. 28 vs. Tennessee
The Volunteers have beaten the Wildcats five straight times, including last season’s 49-36 high-scoring affair. Kentucky has a clear advantage in terms of returning experience, but that may not be as much of a factor once this game comes around in late October. What will be, however, is the Wildcats’ success running the ball against a Tennessee defense that gave up nearly 220 rushing yards per game last season and returns just one starter up front.
3. Nov. 25 vs. Louisville
Kentucky stunned the Cardinals at home 41-38 last season, starting Louisville on its season-ending, three-game losing streak. The Wildcats forced eventual Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson into four turnovers, as his fumble set up the game-winning field goal. Jackson is back but most of his top weapons from last season are gone, although Louisville’s defense is in decent shape with seven returning starters. This rivalry game could become even more important should both teams be jockeying for bowl position, or especially bowl eligibility, entering their regular season finale.
2. Sept. 23 vs. Florida
The only number that matters here is 30. The Gators have beaten Kentucky 30 straight games, a streak that goes back to 1987. With Florida having to replace eight starters on a defense that was among the best in FBS in total yards, points and rushing yards allowed per game last season, the timing could be right for the Wildcats’ offense to take advantage. Kentucky has come close a few times to beating the Gators in recent seasons; so if the Wildcats are serious about being a threat to win the SEC East, this would be the year to put an end to this streak.
1. Nov. 18 at Georgia
Kentucky’s prolonged lack of success against Florida notwithstanding, the Bulldogs are the favorite to win the SEC East this season. Georgia has won seven in a row against the Wildcats and holds a 28-4-2 edge at home in the all-time series. Kirby Smart enters his second year as head coach with all 11 starters back from his No. 16-ranked defense. The Bulldogs also should be able to run the ball effectively with their one-two backfield combo of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and quarterback Jacob Eason is expected to take a step forward as a sophomore. Sandwiched by a road game at Vanderbilt and the season finale with Louisville, this figures to be another tough trip to Athens for UK.
Last season, Florida played in the SEC Championship Game for the second year in a row. And once again, the Gators lost to Alabama in Atlanta, this time to the tune of a 54-16 beatdown. Florida was able to rebound with a convincing 30-3 victory over Iowa in the Outback Bowl to finish 9-4 in head coach Jim McElwain’s second season.
This season, the Gators are starting over on defense in many ways with eight starters gone from last year’s unit that finished fifth in the nation in yards allowed per game. To make matters worse, fifth-year senior safety Marcell Harris, one of the three returning starters, has already been lost for the season because of a torn Achilles tendon. New defensive coordinator Randy Shannon, who replaces Geoff Collins after he left to become Temple’s head coach, has his work cut out for him
So with so much uncertainty on defense and a few question marks on the other side of the ball as well, can Florida win a third straight SEC East title? Athlon Sports polled a few writers for their take on the Gators’ realistic 2017 win/loss projection.
Florida Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2017
Antwan Staley (@antwanstaley)
With Malik Zaire transferring from Notre Dame, it appears the Gators have finally stabilized the quarterback position. Running back Jordan Scarlett emerged from a crowded backfield to gain 889 yards and six touchdowns in 2016. The offense also features wide receiver Antonio Callaway, who went for 54 catches for 721 yards and three touchdowns a season ago.
The biggest question mark is Florida’s defense. The team has relied on its defense to win games the last few years, but losing eight starters on that side of the ball will be tough to overcome. Florida can't afford many injuries with such a young defense to begin the season.
It will be tough for the Gators to return to Atlanta for the third straight season. For Florida to win the SEC East again, the offense will need to make great strides in head coach Jim McElwain's third year in Gainesville.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
It’s a tough call between Florida and Georgia in the SEC East. The Gators are the back-to-back champions, but coach Jim McElwain’s team has a few question marks – much like the Bulldogs do – to address this fall. The addition of Malik Zaire adds some clarity to the quarterback room, and the skill talent and offensive line is in the best shape of McElwain’s tenure. While Florida’s offense looks poised to show marked improvement, the defense opens 2017 with question marks. This unit returns only two starters after safety Marcell Harris was lost for the year due to injury. New coordinator Randy Shannon has plenty of talent but a lot of new faces stepping into full-time roles. One advantage Florida does have over Georgia? The schedule. The Gators play only three SEC road games and catch LSU and Tennessee at home.
Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer)
The Gators have won the SEC East in each of the first two seasons of the Jim McElwain era but going three-for-three will prove much, much tougher. There's no easing into the schedule with a big-time meeting with Jim Harbaugh and Michigan to start the season so we'll know quickly whether all those losses on defense – and there were a ton – will be a long-term issue or if the team can reload once again. Quarterback play has nowhere to go but up regardless if highly touted Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire starts or not and you can count on the offense carrying the team early given the offensive line and run game. As a result, this might be a more enjoyable season to watch the Gators on both sides of the ball even if Florida winds up not having quite as good of a year as the past two when all is said and done.
Mike Ferguson (@MikeWFerguson)
It's entirely possible that Florida fields a better team in 2017 than ‘16, but finishes with a worse record. The biggest question mark for the Gators looks again to be the quarterback position. Luke Del Rio returns, but redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks and Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire appear to be the front-runners.
If the Gators can find some consistency under center, Florida could have its best offensive team under Jim McElwain. The problem is that on defense, there is significant attrition and the schedule is more difficult.
Florida fortunately does get Tennessee, LSU, Texas A&M and Florida State all at home. Georgia and LSU however, are expected to be much improved. In addition to the annual rivalry contest against Florida State, the Gators will play their first non-conference regular season game outside the state of Florida in more than a quarter century when it takes on Michigan in Arlington, Texas, to open the season.
Rob McVey (@Rob_UTVOLS)
Defense has carried the Gators to back-to-back SEC East titles. But if they are going to make it back to Atlanta in 2017, it might have to fall on the shoulders of the offense. Florida must replace all but three starters from its elite 2016 defense. While the Gators are still well-stocked on that side of the football, it's hard to believe that the loss of so many playmakers won't result in at least a small step backwards.
Meanwhile, a Gators offense that has struggled mightily at times over the last two seasons should be able to gain some traction in 2017 with nine starters returning. More importantly, there are finally solid options at quarterback in Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire and redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks. Florida certainly has its share of challenging matchups on the schedule. However, the Gators only play three true road games all season. All three against opponents they should beat regardless of location. This should help their cause significantly as well.
When Tom Herman took over at Houston in 2015, he found it hard at first to convince players, administrators and even fans that the way the program operated had to change — in a big way. What did he know, anyway? Here was a guy who had never been a head coach telling a team that had been 8–5 and had used a remarkable fourth-quarter comeback to beat Pittsburgh in the Armed Forces Bowl that he had a better way. The folks at UH knew what worked, at least when the Cougs weren’t losing to Texas State and UTSA.
But Herman knew a little bit, too. He had built record-breaking offenses at four other schools and had helped Ohio State win the 2014 national title, despite using a third-string QB during three postseason games. Herman had a simple message for the Houston crowd: 8–5 is nice, but I can do better.
“Those guys kind of thought, ‘We know what we’re doing, and you’re crazy; let us do it the old way,’” Herman says.
No chance. Herman brought his blend of high-level accountability, off-center sense of humor and unwillingness to accept just good enough to South Texas and promptly went 13–1. Included were a conference title, a 38–24 win over Florida State in the Peach Bowl and the No. 8 spot in the final AP rankings, the school’s highest position since 1979, when the 11–1 Cougars finished fifth. Guess Herman wasn’t so nuts, after all.
After two years and 22 wins at UH, Herman brings his madness to Austin, where the good news is that everybody realizes the Old Way just doesn’t work. Herman didn’t have to convince everybody that the facilities were outdated, the standards were not high enough and that not a single high school player in the state of Texas cared about Vince Young, Ricky Williams or Woo-Woo Worster, for that matter. Longhorn football is nothing like what it was, or frankly, what it should be. The flagship program in the flagship state for American football should not be losing seven games in three straight seasons.
“The kids here are genuinely embarrassed,” Herman says. “And that gives them added motivation for how hard they work and the ease and immediacy of their buying in. They know that whatever they were doing before was wrong, and they want to change it.”
From the outside, it would appear as if the UT job is the best and easiest in the entire FBS galaxy. Lone Star high schools produce enough talent to stock a dozen big-time programs. The Longhorns play in front of 100,000 fans each Saturday and boast a tradition unequaled throughout the Southwest. The UT athletic department spends more money than any other in the country. And the network of former players, alumni and fans extends from the Dallas boutiques through the Hill Country, the West Texas Scrub and to the deepest reaches of the Rio Grande. When the roll of football royalty is called throughout the U.S., Texas is always mentioned. It’s just plain good for the sport when the Longhorns are successful.
So, what happened? It would be easy to throw this all on Charlie Strong, whom AD Mike Perrin fired last November after just three seasons. But the Longhorns’ descent was more the result of an institutional attitude that had allowed the program to act as if it were better than the team’s play on the field indicated. The facilities had grown outdated; while schools like Oregon and Clemson were building palaces designed to dazzle 18-year-olds, UT’s football building looked like it was more suited for Waylon and Willie, with a western motif straight out of a roadhouse. Relationships with high school coaches had eroded somewhat, and the lack of winning had directed top recruits’ attention to more successful, hotter programs. There was no concerted social media presence to promote the program to fans and high school players, and the Texas recruiting staff was smaller than those at most top-caliber programs.
Everybody liked Strong, but he was caught in a vortex of arrogance that had kept Texas from joining the 21st century. Texas may have looked like a great job, but it was really the college football equivalent of a Potemkin village. Behind the veneer, there was little in place to help a coach win against the country’s more forward-thinking programs.
“The guts and size of the [football] building are actually really good,” Herman says. “The problem is that everything from the carpet to the wallpaper to the audio/visual equipment — you name it — was outdated. Eventually, we’re going to have to blow everything up and start from scratch. But we’re doing a multi-million dollar facelift that will get us into the top 10.”
Herman brings a decidedly modern approach to Texas’ program and has the talent, ideas, drive and connections to the state to return the Longhorns to prominence. He understands that Texas shouldn’t just be looking to win the Big 12, although since the program hasn’t topped the conference since 2009, that would be a good place to start. Herman wants much more, and his time at OSU taught him that achieving big things such as CFP berths requires a systemic commitment to attracting the best recruits in the nation, many of whom can be found in Texas. To do that, UT must have shiny facilities and plenty of wins. As Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari once said, “Tradition to an 18-year-old is three years.” If that’s the case, this year’s crop of high school seniors looks at the Texas program as one that loses seven games a year. They might as well go to — gasp! — A&M.
“Texas kids know a different Texas than [the Longhorn coaches] do,” Herman says. “When the class of 2018 looks at the last six years, they see two winning seasons.”
When Mack Brown was offensive coordinator at Oklahoma in 1984, then-Sooners coach Barry Switzer told him that one day Brown would have a big job like OU and would “create a monster” by winning.
“[Switzer] said that you have to keep feeding the monster, because no matter how fast you throw food into its mouth, it comes out the back end faster,” Brown says. “You can’t keep it fed.”
Switzer’s “monster” refers to the many constituencies that a big-time head coach must address and satisfy. At Texas, that combination of fans, alumni, former players, parents, media, university regents, UT administrators and high school coaches may not seem any different than their counterparts at other Power 5 schools. But in a state as football mad as Texas, their influence is felt more directly, and their ability to create trouble is unmatched.
For instance, if a Texas coach recruits a player from out of state at a position in which a state high school coach happens to have a blue-chip player, the Longhorns boss runs the risk of alienating that coach and many others, thanks to a perceived lack of loyalty. And you can bet that that prep coach will show up at practice to see whether the interloper is indeed better than his player. Fans are so excited about their team that autograph sessions can turn into marathons. Brown says he had to spend an hour a week signing memorabilia and another hour a week answering emails from fans.
“I convinced myself that it was pride, not pressure,” Brown says. “The fans want Texas to win so badly, and they are so proud of the team when it wins. When we lost to Texas Tech in the last three seconds [39–33, in 2008], I felt like I let the whole state down.”
Former Texas coach Darrell Royal used to say that the Longhorn program was like “a box of BBs.” When they are all neatly packed in a box, things are good, and everybody is pulling for UT. When the team struggles, all of those “BBs” scatter and can be nearly impossible to get back into the box. Win 10 games — as Brown did every year from 2001-09 — and everybody loves you. Start to stumble, as the Longhorns did during his final four seasons in Austin, and things deteriorate quickly. Texas fans weren’t screaming for Strong’s ouster as the 2016 season wore on, but it was clear that by the time Texas lost at Kansas on the season’s penultimate weekend that a new direction was needed.
Bill Little, the venerable former sports information director at Texas who now serves as a special assistant to Perrin, is a walking encyclopedia of Longhorn football. He can tell you all about why Blair Cherry resigned in 1950, despite compiling a 32–10–1 record in four seasons (ulcers and insomnia caused by fans’ high expectations) and how Dave Allerdice quit in 1915 after going 33–7, because of “the super critical nature of the Texas fans.” He understands that Herman’s job comes with a level of expectations found at few other schools.
“The Texas fan settles for nothing less than winning them all,” Little says. “It’s a very hard job and a very demanding job. You have to be so many things to so many people.”
In 2014, when Connor Williams was a senior at Coppell High School in suburban Dallas, he had plenty of opportunities to play football at big programs other than Texas. In fact, Herman was his recruiter for Ohio State. But Williams’ uncles “bled burnt orange,” and his sister, Morgan, graduated from UT in 2013. “This was a place I needed to be,” he says.
Williams was named All-America at offensive tackle last year, a bright spot in a dreary season. He says the Longhorn players were excited when Herman was named new coach, thanks to his “track record at Houston.” That brought credibility. But it’s rare that a program — especially one with Texas’ huge personality — hires someone who hasn’t been successful at his previous stop. What Herman has done since arriving, beyond his design work, is build a bond with Williams and his mates.
Like his mentor, Urban Meyer, and other members of the OSU coach’s assistant tree (like Rutgers’ Chris Ash), Herman is about process and perfection. Nothing is done without a reason, and only success is tolerated.
“His attention to detail is the most impressive thing,” Williams says. “Everything in this program is happening for a reason. Everything has a purpose. And that carries on for us to have a purpose.”
However, Herman mixes in an enthusiasm and whimsy that make him different from the demanding Meyer and the hyper-intense Ash. There are certainly consequences for those who don’t do their jobs, whether that is on the field or in the classroom. But Herman has a lighter side. During winter conditioning drills, Herman would call out position groups that had particularly strong days and celebrate with them. Williams disputes the assertion that Texas isn’t a “cool place” to be for recruits, although ESPN rated the Longhorns’ 18-player signing class 33rd nationally, and only one of the top 20 Lone Star prospects will play for the Longhorns. (The Buckeyes took three of the 20.)
Despite his belief that Texas can compete for the Big 12 title this year, Herman understands that the job ahead is big. He’ll change the culture and improve the work ethic. He’ll make the Longhorn brand more exciting to prospects. He’ll help the school move boldly into the next decade in terms of facilities and attitude. It can’t all be done in one year, but there is hope. Four of the losses last year came by five points or fewer. Eight starters, including QB Shane Buechele, return on offense, and all sorts of experience returns on the other side of the ball, although UT ranked 94th in total defense last year. Don’t be surprised if Texas wins eight or nine games.
That’s a good start, but as we all know, eight or nine wins aren’t enough in Austin.
“The expectation is that you have to win 10 or more games every year,” Brown says. “I did that for nine years, and when we dropped down to eight or nine, the boosters weren’t happy.”
Because this isn’t Houston.
Written by Michael Bradley (@JonSolomonAspen) for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2017 Big 12 Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2017 season.
The Oklahoma Sooners are learning to live without Bob Stoops on the sidelines for the first time in nearly two decades.
In Lincoln Riley, OU’s detractors likely see a 33-year-old with zero experience as a head coach. Pro-OU factions probably look at him as one of the hottest coaching commodities on the planet. One side is speculating that the high-pressure job will swallow him whole; the other sees an energetic breath of fresh air tasked with following in the footsteps of a coach who appeared to be banging up against his ceiling for more than a decade.
How the transition at head coach will impact OU’s football team this season is impossible to predict. We do know plenty about the guys who will actually take the field, though. The fact of that matter is that they will have a lot more to do with where their team ends up this season than their new coach.
Three Reasons Oklahoma Will Reach the College Football Playoff in 2017
1. Baker Mayfield
The underdog storyline surrounding Mayfield has given way to the reality that he is now one of college football’s most celebrated stars. A 22-4 record as a starter and two straight finishes in the top three in the country in passer rating have a lot to do with that.
Mayfield brings a veteran presence to OU’s offense to go along with a masterful command of head coach Lincoln Riley’s version of the Air Raid. The Sooner QB has to prove that he can excel without Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon beside him in the backfield, but even if Mayfield’s numbers fall off this year, OU still has a great shot at winning every time he takes the field.
If OU doesn’t have the best quarterback in the country, he’s awfully close.
2. Offensive line
Although Mayfield is well known for his improvisational skills under pressure, he probably won’t have to showcase them as often this season. Arguably the best offensive line in the country will be protecting him.
Potential first-round NFL draft pick Orlando Brown headlines the unit at left tackle. The line is bookended by an equally intriguing prospect in Bobby Evans. In between them, guards Ben Powers and Dru Samia and center Erick Wren will flatten their fair share of defenders.
A stellar line will help the Sooners survive all the high-profile losses at the skill positions.
3. The edges
Buttressing one end of OU’s defensive line this year will be Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, the senior edge rusher who tallied nine sacks a year ago. On the other side, the Sooners have rising star Caleb Kelly, a do-everything linebacker who is just as comfortable in pass coverage as he is when he’s getting after the quarterback.
Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops will build his scheme this season around OU’s stars on the edges. Their complementary skill sets should create all kinds of problems for opponents.
Three Reasons Oklahoma Won’t Reach the College Football Playoff in 2017
1. Inside linebacker
For as stacked as the Sooners are on the outside, they’re equally unproven at inside at linebacker.
Senior Emmanuel Beal probably has the inside track at one of the two spots. Beal played well enough after Tay Evans’ retirement pushed him into service, but he struggled to stand his ground against the run.
Meanwhile, the other spot inside might come down to a battle between redshirt freshman Jon-Michael Terry and true frosh Kenneth Murray. While both could turn into quality players down the line, counting on them to lock things down right away seems foolhardy.
2. Defensive line
Continuing a theme, the interior of OU’s defense doesn’t instill much confidence in the Sooners’ ability to slow opponents.
Defensive tackle Neville Gallimore will likely play in the NFL one day, and his counterpart Matt Romar creates problems for opposing blockers when he can stay on the field. Senior defensive end D.J. Ward has held up well enough over the course of his career.
The issues start when you drill down beneath the first team. Like Romar, Marquise Overton has trouble staying healthy. Promising sophomore Amani Bledsoe will reportedly miss the first four games of the season after testing positive for a banned supplement. The rest of the candidates for playing time have yet to distinguish themselves in real game action or in reports from practices.
3. Upheaval at safety
The indefinite suspension of Will Sunderland raises further questions about the safeties on OU’s defense, a group that already faced plenty of uncertainty heading into the season.
While it’s not entirely clear that Sunderland would have won the spot next to Steven Parker in the Sooners’ defensive backfield, his athleticism made him a tantalizing option for a starting role. Instead, Will Johnson and Kahlil Haughton will battle it out to get the nod.
Haughton has yet to make much of a mark in extended action. At the same time, Johnson’s long-term health issues mean it’s difficult to trust he will be available all that often this year.
Even in the wake of Stoops’ departure, OU should be considered the odds-on favorite to win the Big 12 this season. The Sooners have the right personnel at the right positions to beat any and all challengers from the conference, especially considering the league now has a mandated rematch in its championship game.
Road trips to Ohio State, Oklahoma State and Kansas State do sound daunting, however. Factor in an improved TCU team and the annual Red River game in Dallas, and you have a season with plenty of potential to capsize.
The Stoops-Riley transition will almost certainly push some pundits off the OU bandwagon. Nothing about the changeover, though, should keep this team from contending for the conference crown and a bid to the College Football Playoff. Both – or even just one – would make for an exciting start to the new era in Norman.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 8
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 11-2 (8-1 Big 12)
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 9.5
5 Dimes Over/Under Odds: 9.5
— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is founder and editor of BlatantHomerism.com and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.
On Feb. 5, 2014, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer expressed some disappointment that the Buckeyes did not sign the nation's top-ranked recruiting class. Ranked third in the country by 247Sports.com behind Alabama and LSU, Ohio State signed 23 players from across the country, the majority from the Buckeye State. At the time, Meyer said, “There is a correlation between how teams do where your team is ranked, recruiting class is ranked. But certainly that's not the final product because you've got to coach and develop them and get them here."
My personal history when it comes to analyzing Ohio State recruiting classes goes back to 2005, when the new Buckeyes included the likes of James Laurinaitis, Brian Hartline and Malcolm Jenkins. That class was relatively small with 18 players signed, and was not highly regarded by the recruiting analysts, but the coaching staff only lost three from that class due to transfer or academic issues, resulting in 15 who either started or contributed to Ohio State during their careers. This 83 percent success rate ranks that group highly in the unofficial "Rule of Thirds" concept that is applied to recruiting classes.
“The Rule of Thirds” is pretty simple — within any class, there will be approximately a third who will develop into starters as the coaching staff hoped and recruited, a third will be contributors in some fashion, and a third will not work out, leaving due to transfer, injuries or possibly disciplinary reasons.
For this exercise, I will review how Ohio State;’s 2014 class ranked using the above criteria. Of the 23 signed players, 18 have either started or contributed to the Buckeyes, for an average 78 percent success rate. Several of the players signed in 2014 will have eligibility remaining after this upcoming season.
Part one of this series will look at the few players who eventually left the Ohio State program. I will address each player, why they left and where they are currently in order of when that particular player verbally committed to the Buckeyes.
1. Marcelys Jones, OL
Jones was the very first player to verbally commit to the Buckeyes, doing so on Christmas Day in 2012. One of three Cleveland Glenville players signed in this class, Jones decided to transfer to Kentucky in the spring of 2015. Jones was dismissed from Kentucky in August 2015 for a violation of team rules.
2. Kyle Trout, OL
Trout came to Ohio State from an offense that emphasized run blocking, which led to a redshirt season in 2014. Playing sparingly as a backup offensive lineman in 2015 and '16, Trout decided to leave for Cincinnati as a graduate transfer for the 2017 season. Trout even participated in spring football for the Buckeyes in 2017.
3. Kyle Berger, LB
Berger came to Ohio State as a highly-touted linebacker from Cleveland St. Ignatius, despite missing his senior year due to an ACL injury. He redshirted in 2014, and then unfortunately sustained another ACL injury that led to the end of his playing career.
4. Stephen Collier, QB
Collier played sparingly for Ohio State, after redshirting in 2014. Unfortunately for Collier, an injury ended his 2016 season, leaving Collier's stat line him with no passes attempted in live game action. Collier retired after last season, with the open admiration of Meyer, as Collier graduated in three years with a bachelor's degree in strategic communications. Collier will be assisting the team during the 2017 season, while beginning to work on a master's degree.
5. Darius Slade, DE
Darius Slade was the last player to sign with Ohio State, flipping from a verbal commitment to Michigan State, National Signing Day back in 2014. Slade signed with Ohio State largely because of the arrival of Larry Johnson as the Buckeyes' new defensive line coach. Slade redshirted as a freshman, played sparingly in 2015, and spent all of last season rehabbing an injury sustained during fall camp. At B1G Media Days earlier this week, Meyer announced that Slade had transferred from the program.
Part two will look at the players Ohio State signed in February 2014 who have been contributors during their time in Columbus. Several of these players will have opportunities to not only contribute to Ohio State in 2017, but also emerge as possible starters this upcoming season.
After taking the Big Ten by storm and knocking on the doorstep of the College Football Playoff, Penn State looks to take the next step with one of the top offenses in the nation.
Finally back to full strength and catching up in a big way off the field with prep and training, the 2017 Nittany Lions look as close to a national title contender as they have been in a long time. But with success comes new expectations and now everybody will know just how dangerous James Franklin’s team can be.
Can Penn State follow-up a Big Ten championship season with a return to the conference title game, and perhaps make its case for the College Football Playoff more definitive than the Nittany Lions did last season?
Three Reasons Penn State Will Reach the College Football Playoff in 2017
1. The offense starts the season on the right foot
Year two with offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead coupled with starting the year with a confident Trace McSorley at quarterback and an improving offensive line should allow Penn State to be able to start the season on a more reliable footing with the offense than it did last season. If Penn State’s offense starts the 2017 season the way it ended the ‘16 campaign, watch out.
2. Revenge games at home
There were just two teams that beat Penn State in the regular season last year, and this year both must make the trip to Happy Valley. Pittsburgh ambushed Penn State early on last season in the revival of the in-state rivalry and had to hang on for a win. Michigan never let the foot off of the gas in Ann Arbor in a blowout. But this season both teams replace key players while Penn State is more experienced and confident. Getting Pitt early in the season and Michigan after getting a week off to prepare could lead to revenge wins at home for the Nittany Lions.
3. Saquon Barkley is a beast
If Penn State is going to thrive this season, it will be with Barkley continuing to show off how dominant he can be. Barkley came close to a 1,500-yard season last year after rushing for 194 yards and two scores in the Rose Bowl. Look for some more big performances from the potential Heisman Trophy candidate. However, he was held to just 59 yards on 15 carries against Michigan last season.
Three Reasons Penn State Won’t Make the College Football Playoff in 2017
1. Penn State’s biggest weakness: special teams returns
Having an offense with players like McSorley and Barkley and a tight end like Mike Gesicki can overcome some poor returns on kickoffs and punts, but a battle of field position can easily be flipped in the opponent’s advantage. Penn State will hope to get more out of its special teams this season after finishing toward the bottom in Big Ten in both kickoff and punt return averages.
2. The defense can be scored on
Despite a wildly successful season, Penn State’s offense managed to make up for some defensive shortcomings last season. Pitt exposed Penn State early on by marching down the field with ease. Michigan took advantage of an injury-depleted unit, while USC scored 52 points on the Nittany Lions. The key is having the right offensive weapons to catch Penn State behind a step or two.
3. The Ohio State Buckeyes
There are plenty of reasons why this game is not scheduled in Penn State’s favor this season. First, the Buckeyes have the previous week off while Penn State is looking for revenge against Michigan. Urban Meyer’s record in revenge games is an impressive 11-2 during his run as a head coach. Oh yeah, and Ohio State should be darn good this season and dominated the Nittany Lions’ offense for much of the game last year (take one look at the box score). Ohio State will be the biggest hurdle to clear this season.
Penn State absolutely has a chance, so long as the defending Big Ten champs can avoid a significant upset along the way. Beating Ohio State may be required, but do not overlook potential difficulties on the road in Big Ten play with games at Iowa and Northwestern. Either team could pull off the upset and put a dent in Penn State’s Big Ten and College Football Playoff hopes.
But having what could be the Big Ten’s top offense certainly helps. Getting some key games at home (Pitt, Michigan, Nebraska) also helps, but a three-game stretch of Michigan and back-to-back road games against the Buckeyes and Michigan State will be what makes or breaks Penn State’s season.
This also is a new test for Penn State as the Nittany Lions will not sneak up on any team after winning the Big Ten title last fall. They’ll start the year in the playoff conversation, but may end the season as the Big Ten’s No. 2 contender.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 6
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 10-2 (7-2 Big Ten)
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 9.5
5 Dimes Over/Under Odds: 9.5
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.
The overwhelming theme for this year's SEC non-conference schedule will be the ongoing battle for conference supremacy it and the ACC. There are a total of nine high-profile matchups between the two powerhouse conferences, including the colossal season opener between Alabama and Florida State. Here are the SEC's best non-conference games for 2017:
1. Alabama vs. Florida State (Sept. 2 – Atlanta)
The 2017 college football season kicks off in epic fashion with a national title-caliber matchup in Atlanta's brand-new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. This highly anticipated game between two of the nation's most prestigious programs might even qualify as the greatest season opener in history. The top spot in the national rankings will be on the line to go along with conference bragging rights, and a big leg up in the race for a College Football Playoff berth.
2. Auburn at Clemson (Sept. 9)
The Auburn Tigers gave the eventual national champions a run for their money at home last season. Auburn will bank on transfer quarterback Jarrett Stidham to provide the edge it needs in 2017 to exact its revenge. But even if Stidham is the real deal, it will be a tall order to get past a re-loaded Clemson team in Death Valley. Clemson has won each of the last three meetings against Auburn dating back to 2011.
3. Florida vs. Michigan (Sept. 2 – Arlington, TX)
While both of these storied programs are charged with replacing the bulk of their starters from star-studded 2016 defenses, there is no shortage of talent for either team on that side of the football. The difference might just come on offense. An inexperienced Michigan offense returns just five starters. Florida returns nine starters on offense, and Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire has the potential to finally put an end to the Gators’ woes at quarterback. The Wolverines still have more talent, but their overall lack of experience could be an Achilles heel early on.
4. Georgia at Notre Dame (Sept. 9)
Any time a team from the SEC heads to South Bend to take on the Irish, it's a big deal. This matchup is no exception. Both of these traditional powerhouses will be looking to make an early-season statement following disappointing 2016 campaigns. While Georgia and Notre Dame should both be much improved in 2017, question marks still linger for each program. This game should provide answers to many of those questions. Surprisingly, this will be just the second time ever that these two teams have met. The Bulldogs defeated the Irish 17-10 in the 1981 Sugar Bowl to claim the national championship that season.
5. Tennessee vs. Georgia Tech (Sept. 4 – Atlanta)
The early-season trend of marquee SEC vs. ACC matchups continues with this Labor Day night affair between two former rivals in Atlanta. It has been 30 years since the Volunteers and Yellow Jackets last took to the field against one another in what used to be an annual clash between two of college football's best. While Tennessee holds the overall edge in talent, Georgia Tech's triple-option offense can be a nightmare to defend. It could prove to be the great equalizer against a Vol defense that struggled mightily against the run down the stretch in 2016.
6. LSU vs. BYU (Sept. 2 – Houston)
At first glance, this doesn't appear to be a great matchup. The Tigers have a clear and significant advantage in terms of talent. Regardless, the Cougars always seem to provide even the toughest of opponents with a serious run for their money. And the fact that this game falls early in the season will only help their cause. LSU will be breaking in a bunch of new starters on both sides of the football, and a new-look offense under coordinator Matt Canada probably won't be hitting on all cylinders. This could easily be the first big upset of the season.
7. Arkansas vs. TCU (Sept. 9)
Overshadowed by the Battle at Bristol, the 2016 matchup between the Razorbacks and Horned Frogs flew under the radar as one of the most entertaining games of the season. These two former Southwest Conference rivals traded blow after blow in what ultimately culminated in a 41-38 Arkansas victory in double overtime. The 2017 rematch has the potential to be equally compelling.
8. Georgia at Georgia Tech (Nov. 25)
Each of the last four games in this long standing in-state rivalry known simply as "Clean, Old Fashioned Hate" has been decided by seven points or less. Georgia Tech has won two of the last three meetings in the series, including a hard-fought 28-27 victory last season in Athens. Both teams have lofty expectations for 2017 and bragging rights will once again be on the line. This game almost never disappoints.
9. Texas A&M at UCLA (Sept. 3)
Last year's matchup between these two historically rich programs was billed as one of the premier games of the season. It did not disappoint as the Aggies narrowly escaped at home with a 31-24 victory over the Bruins in overtime. While the 2017 edition lacks some of the initial appeal of last year's game, it should deliver once again. Both teams appear to be very evenly matched, and this is one of two SEC vs. Pac-12 matchups this season, which adds to the intrigue.
10. South Carolina vs. NC State (Sept. 2 – Charlotte, NC)
This game may not rank up there with the other monster week 1 and 2 SEC vs. ACC matchups, but it has the potential to be the best game of the bunch. Both South Carolina and NC State could be surprise teams in 2017. They also should match up quite well against one another. I don't want to go so far as to say that this under-the-radar pairing is a "can't miss” game. However, I still think you want to tune in.
11. Kentucky vs. Louisville (Nov. 25)
The Wildcats stunned the No. 11-ranked Cardinals 41-38 in Louisville last season to claim the Governor’s Cup for the first time since 2010. The 2017 matchup between these two Bluegrass State rivals has all the ingredients to turn into yet another exciting shootout. The opportunity to watch Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson is alone worth the price of admission.
12. Florida vs. Florida State (Nov. 25)
The "Sunshine Showdown" hasn't exactly provided the most exciting of games in recent years. In fact, this long-standing rivalry has become fairly one-sided of late with the Seminoles winning each of the last four contests and six of the last seven, most in convincing fashion. That being said, this is still a tradition-rich rivalry that deserves respect and attention. And if the Gators can finally put a capable offense on the field, which seems plausible in 2017, this will once again be a game worth watching.
13. Mississippi State vs. BYU (Oct. 14)
Dan Mullens' Bulldogs know first-hand that BYU is a team that should not be taken lightly, losing to the Cougars on the road 28-21 in overtime last season. Mississippi State will have an opportunity to return the favor at home in 2017 in what should once again develop into a hotly-contested battle.
14. Vanderbilt vs. Kansas State (Sept. 16)
While this matchup is odd in many regards, it’s intriguing nonetheless. It also should make for an entertaining game in the opening month of the season. The two teams have met just once previously and that was back in 1984. The Commodores won that game by a score of 26-14, but that wasn’t a Bill Snyder-coached Kansas State team. These Wildcats will provide the Commodores with a significant test before heading into SEC play.
15. Ole Miss at California (Sept. 16)
The bizarro factor alone makes this a matchup worth watching. For starters, the Rebels have never faced a team from the Pac-12. It also will be the farthest they have ever traveled to face any opponent. But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this game will be to see how an Ole Miss team rocked by scandal will fare in its first road test of 2017 under new leadership. We also get to see a new-look Cal team under first-year head coach Justin Wilcox.
Best of the Rest
Clemson at South Carolina (Nov. 25)
Syracuse at LSU (Sept. 23)
Appalachian State at Georgia (Sept. 2)
Kentucky at Southern Miss (Sept. 2)
Purdue at Missouri (Sept. 16)
Wofford at South Carolina (Nov. 18)
Vanderbilt at Middle Tennessee (Sept. 2)
Western Kentucky at Vanderbilt (Nov. 4)
Southern Miss at Tennessee (Nov. 4)
Colorado State at Alabama (Sept. 16)
– Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.
It was a great 2016 for the American Athletic Conference (AAC), as Temple, Navy, USF and Houston all had fantastic seasons. Granted, this success didn't carry over to bowl games with three of those four teams losing.
But that success did result in those four teams losing their head coaches to Power 5 programs, with two others making changes at the top as well. So what does 2017 hold for the AAC?
Note: Over/under odds courtesy of the South Point sports book
(Over 5.5 -110...Under 5.5 -110)
The Bearcats made a change at head coach, hiring Luke Fickell away from Ohio State to replace Tommy Tuberville, who seemingly lost the team towards the end of the season. Coming back on offense is quarterback Hayden Moore and running back Mike Boone, who dealt with a foot injury last season. There are some intriguing options at wide receiver as well. The problems may come on the defensive side of the ball where only five starters return. Cortez Broughton and Marquise Copeland form a solid base for the defensive line. After an FCS opener, the Bearcats have three straight on the road including trips to Michigan and Navy. They follow that up with three straight at home. I think the under is worth a look here although it's not a strong play.
(Over 3.5 +120...Under 3.5 -140)
One of the worst offenses in the league will get supercharged under new coordinator Rhett Lashlee, who was at Auburn last season. He's got a really good running back to build around in Arkeel Newsome. Quarterback play continues to be an issue with Bryant Shirreffs, David Pindell and Donovan Williams contending there. Williams got hurt in the spring so his availability is in question. The spring wasn't kind to the defense either as linebacker E.J. Levenberry tore his ACL and will miss the season. Still, five of the front six return for the Huskies’ new 3-3-5 alignment. Special teams are a giant question mark as well. UConn gets a friendly stretch of home games in October. This is a tough slate and I really wish I could find four wins for the value, but I can't.
(Over 3.5 EVEN...Under 3.5 -120)
Scottie Montgomery's first year did not go well, as the Pirates went just 3-9. The defense needs to improve after finishing dead last among FBS teams in sacks and turnovers forced. Only four starters return with the secondary figuring to be the strength of an otherwise suspect group. The offense got a late boost in graduate transfer Thomas Sirk, who started 12 games for Duke in 2015 before missing all of last season because of a torn Achilles. Whoever wins the starting job will have quality targets to throw to in wide receivers Quay Johnson, Jimmy Williams and Davon Grayson. The offensive line returns three starters as well. Five of ECU’s first seven games are at home. The problem is that the opponents include reigning FCS national champion James Madison, Virginia Tech and BYU. The Pirates only have five true road games, so they’ll have plenty of opportunities at home. It’s a small lean to the under although some early wins could lead to some late confidence.
(Over 6.5 -105...Under 6.5 -115)
Matt Rhule is gone and Geoff Collins takes over after being a longtime assistant coach in the SEC. The’ Owls offense figures to be strong depending upon who wins the quarterback job. There are a couple of candidates who each bring something different to the table. Whoever wins will have Ryquell Armstead and Jager Gardner at running back. Wide receiver is in good shape as well with Ventell Bryant, Keith Kirkwood and Adonis Jennings. The defense was one of the best last year but just four starters return. The secondary should remain strong with Sean Chandler, Delvon Randall and Mike Jones. Temple opens with a trip to South Bend to play Notre Dame and also has Army, UMass and FCS member Villanova on its non-conference slate. I think the Owls can get over this total, although there are several tipping point games.
(Over 7.5 -105...Under 7.5 -115)
It was a big leap for the Knights in head coach Scott Frost’s first season, going from 1-11 to 6-7 with an appearance in the Cure Bowl. This season, Frost has nine starters back on offense. Quarterback McKenzie Milton should be better with a year under his belt. He has wide receivers Tre'Quan Smith and Cam Stewart and running back Jawon Hamilton surrounding him. The defense returns just four starters, but only one of them isn’t a lineman. Linebacker Shaquem Griffin (92 tackles, 11.5 sacks in 2016) is the reigning defensive player of the year in the conference. Who lines up alongside him and in the secondary still needs to be sorted out. Four of their first five are at home with stiff tests against Memphis and Georgia Tech being two of them. I think the under is worth a look here as the schedule is tough. I wouldn't be surprised if they went over though so it's not my strongest play.
(Over 10 -110...Under 10 -110)
The Bulls replaced Willie Taggart with former Texas head coach Charlie Strong, who inherits a ready-made roster that should win the AAC title. Quinton Flowers is the best quarterback in the conference and could emerge as a dark horse Heisman Trophy contender. He has plenty of options to throw to, including wide receivers Tyre McCants and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, but running back Marlon Mack is now in the NFL so it will be up to D’Ernest Johnson to complement Flowers on the ground. The defense has nine starters back, including middle linebacker Auggie Sanchez. This unit has plenty of room for improvement after allowing nearly 500 yards per game last season. USF will face San Jose State, FCS member Stony Brook, Illinois and UMass in non-conference play and its toughest road game appears to be at UCF. The Bulls could end up running the table, so the over might be the best play in the conference.
(Over 8 -110...Under 8 -110)
Winning breeds change in college football and Tom Herman picked up and left Houston for big brother Texas. In his place is Major Applewhite, who is very familiar with the team. He inherits quarterback Kyle Allen, a transfer from Texas A&M. The Cougars also hope to get more production out of running back Duke Catalon. Linell Bonner and Steven Dunbar are senior wide receivers while the offensive line is pretty much intact. Ed Oliver is one of the best defensive players in the country after registering 23 tackles for a loss and five sacks as a freshman. The secondary lost some talent, but also has three returning starters. Houston opens with two in a row on the road, including a trip to Arizona, and also hosts Texas Tech in its non-conference slate. The Cougars could surprise one or both of those Power 5 teams. I think the over is a good play here even with the coaching transition.
(Over 8.5 EVEN...Under 8.5 -120)
Mike Norvell had a good first season and could build off that in 2017. The defense has returning starters on all levels but it's the presence of linebacker Jackson Dillon that is just as important. He played in just eight games last season due to injury and now will team up with Curtis Akins and Genard Avery to anchor the middle of the defense. The secondary will be a concern, but the hope is the front four gets enough pressure to help out the back end. It's the Tigers’ offense that will be real fun. Senior quarterback Riley Ferguson tossed 32 touchdown passes and just 10 interceptions in 2016. He has top target Anthony Miller back as well as a stable of running backs led by Doroland Dorceus. Memphis gets UCLA at home in week three. I think the over is worth a look as nine wins is a very good possibility.
(Over 7 +105...Under 7 -125)
Navy enters the 2017 campaign with a three-game losing streak, including one to archrival Army. Zach Abey took over at quarterback after starter Will Worth got injured in the AAC title game, and he proceeded to lose his first two starts (Army and Lousiana Tech in the Armed Forces Bowl). Chris High is the leading returning rusher after gaining 546 yards and scoring seven times last season. The right side of the offensive line is back, but there are holes elsewhere. On defense, six starters return led by linebackers Micah Thomas and D.J. Palmore. The schedule features non-conference games against FAU, Air Force, Notre Dame and of course, Army. It could be a rare rebuilding year for the Midshipmen. I think the under is worth a look here, but I'm not confident enough in it to play at -125.
(Over 5 -110...Under 5 -110)
Chad Morris may finally get to see his offense explode. Ben Hicks needs to cut down on the interceptions after throwing 15 in 2016. Courtland Sutton is one of the best wide receivers that many don't talk about. Sutton will be joined by James Proche and Trey Quinn, who started his career at LSU. The defense was the problem last year. Defensive end Justin Lawler is back after recording 15 tackles for a loss and six sacks in 2016.The linebacking corps and secondary feature plenty of experience. Four of the Mustangs’ first five games are at home. I think six wins and a bowl is very possible so take the over here.
(Over 5 EVEN...Under 5 -120)
Willie Fritz's run-heavy offense experienced plenty of growing pains in his first season, but there’s optimism for better results this fall. Junior college transfer Jonathan Banks has the skill set Fritz likes in his quarterbacks and running back Dontrell Hilliard returns after gaining nearly 800 yards on the ground last season. The offensive line features five guys with starting experience, including junior center Junior Diaz. The defense will be strong despite the losses of all-conference performers Nico Marley and Tanzel Smart. The secondary will be one of the best in the division with cornerback Parry Nickerson as the anchor. The Green Wave will face Navy and Oklahoma in back-to-back weeks early. The under is a good play here.
(Over 7.5 +115...Under 7.5 -135)
Offense wasn't an issue in 2016 and may not be again this season. Seven starters are back, including 1,400-yard rusher D’Angelo Brewer and four of five up front. The big question is at quarterback with Chad President, Will Hefley and Luke Skipper all competing for the job. The defense showed improvement last season, but now must replace some key players. Each level has at least one returning starter, but several younger players will need to step up. Redford Jones is back at kicker after making all of his PATs and missing just one field goal from within 40 yards last year. The Golden Hurricane have it tough on the road this season with Oklahoma State, Toledo and USF on the itinerary. The public is right once again as the under seems to be the play here.
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Josephs prefers non-Power 5 college football and may be the only one wagering on the Sun Belt. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.
Perhaps a clearer answer may emerge this season as ACC and SEC foes square off nine times this fall. Clemson, Georgia Tech, and Florida State each have two SEC opponents on their upcoming slate of games.
Along with those SEC battles, ACC schools face other interesting non-conference challenges. Here is a list of the top 10 ACC non-conference games this season.
1. Florida State vs. Alabama (Sept. 2 – Atlanta)
In reality, this is not a must-win game for either team. A season-opening loss would not eliminate the Seminoles or the Crimson Tide out of the College Football Playoff hunt. But these are two storied programs that will both be in the top 5 when the season opens, creating a ton of buzz around this contest. FSU and ‘Bama have only met four times with the ‘Noles holding a 2-1-1 edge.
2. Clemson vs. Auburn (Sept. 9)
After watching an ACC-SEC heavyweight battle in week one, round two comes the very next week. There is plenty of optimism at Auburn as Jarrett Stidham comes in from junior college via Baylor to run a new-look offense. Clemson squeaked out a 19-13 victory at Auburn to open last season and the Tigers from the Plains hope to return the favor during their trip to Death Valley.
3. Florida State at Florida (Sept. 25)
The Seminoles have won six of the last seven meetings between the in-state powers with only one of those victories coming by less than two touchdowns. Florida has had trouble scoring points in recent years thanks in large part to mediocre quarterback play. With Deondre Francois at the helm, the Seminoles appear to be in good shape at that position.
4. Pittsburgh at Penn State (Sept. 9)
The Panthers and the Nittany Lions renewed their rivalry last season and Pittsburgh came out on top 42-39 in a game played at Heinz Field. But Penn State improved greatly as the season went on, returns a large part of its explosive offense, and gets Pitt in Happy Valley this year.
5. Miami vs. Notre Dame (Nov. 11)
Thanks to Notre Dame’s agreement with the ACC – and a Sun Bowl matchup in 2010 – the Irish and the Hurricanes have also renewed their once bitter rivalry. This, however, will be the first time that Notre Dame has gone to Miami since 1989. On that night, the Hurricanes ended Notre Dame’s 23-game winning streak on the way to a national title.
6. Pittsburgh vs. Oklahoma State (Sept. 16)
The week after visiting Penn State, the Panthers come home to face the high-flying Cowboys. Pitt was atrocious against the pass last year, as Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph threw for 540 yards in a 45-38 home victory over the Panthers last September. Rudolph, along with top receiver James Washington, returns and will once again present problems for Pat Narduzzi’s defense.
7. Virginia Tech vs. West Virginia (Sept. 3 – Landover, MD)
The Hokies and Mountaineers are former Big East foes and have played each other 50 times, but this is the first meeting since 2005 shortly after Virginia Tech joined the ACC. Both programs suffered key personnel losses after last season, including each quarterback. But both Virginia Tech and West Virginia feel good about their chances heading into this campaign and the season-opener will be filled with emotion.
8. Georgia Tech vs. Georgia (Nov. 25)
Georgia has a lot returning, including 11 defensive starters. The Bulldogs also remember giving away last year’s game in Athens. But the Jackets have 17 starters of their own coming back, including star running back Dedrick Mills.
9. Georgia Tech vs. Tennessee (Sept. 5 – Atlanta)
Georgia Tech’s game with Georgia will be its second of the year against an SEC East power. The Yellow Jackets open the season in a neutral site game just down the road from campus at brand-new Mercedes-Benz Stadium against the Volunteers. Tennessee played a neutral site game against an ACC team last year, beating Virginia Tech at Bristol Motor Speedway.
10. Clemson at South Carolina (Nov. 25)
Clemson’s recent dominance has come at the expense of South Carolina in some respects. The Tigers’ 56-7 home blowout of the Gamecocks is a prime example. But South Carolina has some young stars emerging in quarterback Jake Bentley and running back Rico Dowdle, and the defending national champions lost a lot of firepower to the NFL.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.
College football’s coordinator carousel featured a handful of big names on the move for the 2017 season. Ohio State hired former Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson to coordinate the offense, while Todd Orlando followed Tom Herman from Houston to Texas to take over the defensive signals in Austin. LSU hopes Matt Canada can jumpstart its offense, and Oregon hired Jim Leavitt from Colorado to address a defense that allowed over 40 points a game in 2016. In the Group of 5 ranks, MTSU’s defense upgraded with Scott Shafer taking over the play-calling duties, and Jamey Chadwell was a solid pickup for a Coastal Carolina team transitioning to the FBS level.
Which teams made the best coordinator hires in college football for 2017? Here are 30 hires based upon the changes at offensive or defensive coordinator from all 130 teams ranked based on impact for 2017.
College Football's Top 30 Coordinator Hires for 2017
Just missed: Brian Ferentz, Offensive Coordinator, Iowa; Phil Bennett, Defensive Coordinator, Arizona State; Sonny Cumbie, Co-Offensive Coordinator, TCU; Will Hall, Offensive Coordinator, Louisiana; Mike Denbrock, Offensive Coordinator, Cincinnati
30. David Yost, Offensive Coordinator, Utah State
After finishing sixth in the Mountain West in scoring offense for three consecutive seasons (2013-15), Utah State slipped to 11th last year. The Aggies averaged only 23.9 points per game, 5.7 yards per play and ranked ninth in the Mountain West in rushing offense. Additionally, Utah State ranked near the bottom of the conference in red zone and third-down conversions. A variety of factors contributed to last year’s performance, and coach Matt Wells is planning to hand the play-calling duties to Yost in 2017. The Ohio native started his coaching career at the FBS level with Toledo in 1994 and remained with the Rockets until 2000. He left Toledo for Missouri and coach Gary Pinkel’s staff in 2001 and was promoted to offensive coordinator in 2009. Yost remained in that role until 2012 when he left to join Mike Leach’s staff at Washington State for three seasons (2013-15). He was hired as Oregon’s passing game coordinator and quarterback coach for the 2016 campaign and was instrumental in the development of Justin Herbert. Yost plans to speed up the tempo of Utah State’s offense and spread out the passing game, which should play into the strengths of senior quarterback Kent Myers.
29. Matt Lubick, Co-Offensive Coordinator, Washington
Jonathan Smith is entrenched as Washington’s play-caller, but Lubick is a good addition for coach Chris Petersen’s staff as the co-offensive coordinator. In addition to his responsibilities as the co-offensive coordinator, Lubick will coach receivers after Bush Hamdan left for the NFL. The Montana native comes to Seattle after spending the last four seasons at Oregon as the team’s wide receivers coach and offensive coordinator (2016). Lubick also has stints as an assistant at Duke (2010-12), Arizona State (2007-09), Ole Miss (2005-06), Colorado State (2001-04), Oregon State (1999-00) and San Jose State (1997-98). Lubick’s arrival is another solid addition to one of the Pac-12’s top all-around staffs.
28. Kalen DeBoer, Offensive Coordinator, Fresno State
Fresno State head coach Jeff Tedford is regarded for his work with quarterbacks and offenses while at California, but DeBoer is designated as the play-caller for the Bulldogs. Last season, Fresno State slumped to last in the Mountain West by averaging only 17.7 points a game and 4.7 yards per play. DeBoer is a strong hire for Tedford’s staff after helping to jumpstart Eastern Michigan’s offense over the last three years. The Eagles averaged only 15.2 points per game in 2014 but improved to 25.4 in 2015 and finished fourth in the MAC by posting 29.6 per contest in 2016. DeBoer’s 2016 attack at Eastern Michigan ranked second in the MAC in passing offense and finished third in the conference in red zone offense. Prior to Eastern Michigan, DeBoer worked at Southern Illinois (2010-13) as the offensive coordinator and was the head coach at the University of Sioux Falls from 2005-09.
27. Mike Summers, Co-Offensive Coordinator, Louisville
Summers is listed as a co-offensive coordinator, but the play-calling duties at Louisville will remain with coach Bobby Petrino. However, the return of Summers to Louisville is a key addition for a program that struggled up front in 2016. The Cardinals allowed a whopping 47 sacks last year. The totals from the previous two seasons aren’t pretty either, as Louisville gave up 44 sacks in 2015 and allowed 40 in 2014. While the personnel and depth is still a work in progress for 2017, there should be some improvement with Summers directing this group. He previously worked under Petrino at Louisville from 2003-06, with the Falcons in 2007 and again at Arkansas from 2008-09. Summers also has stops on his resume from stints at Oregon State, Northern Illinois, Kentucky and USC. He’s a veteran and proven assistant that should help turn around Louisville’s offensive line over the next few seasons.
26. Kirk Ciarrocca, Offensive Coordinator, Minnesota
New coach P.J. Fleck is handing the controls of Minnesota’s offense to Ciarrocca after the two worked together at Western Michigan from 2013-16. After the Broncos averaged 17.2 points a game in 2013, the offense showed marked improvement over the next three seasons. Western Michigan’s scoring average climbed to 33.8 in 2014, 36.0 in 2015 and 41.6 in 2016. Additionally, the Broncos finished first or second in the MAC in yards per play in three consecutive years (2014-16). Ciarrocca’s 2016 unit was one of the most-balanced attacks in the nation, as Western Michigan posted 3,204 yards on the ground and 3,533 through the air. Ciarrocca also worked as an assistant at Princeton, Penn, Delaware and Richmond, along with a three-year stint as Rutgers’ offensive coordinator from 2008-10.
25. Jim Leonhard, Defensive Coordinator, Wisconsin
After Justin Wilcox left Madison to be the head coach at California, coach Paul Chryst is handing the keys to the defense to one of the top players in Wisconsin program history. From 2001-04, Leonhard starred at safety for the Badgers and earned All-America honors three times during his career. While Leonhard was undrafted, he carved out a solid NFL career, which spanned from 2005-14 with six different teams. Leonhard was hired to coach defensive backs in Madison prior to the 2016 campaign and was promoted to coordinator for 2017. Leonhard has been on a fast rise through the coaching ranks, and while he’s unproven as a coordinator, his experience within the program and knowledge on defense should keep Wisconsin near the top of the Big Ten in 2017.
24. Bryan Cook, Offensive Coordinator, Georgia Southern
Georgia Southern led the nation in rushing from 2014-15 under former coach Willie Fritz but slipped to No. 29 last season. After the drop in production and scheme concerns in 2016, head coach Tyson Summers realized the Eagles need to get back to the option attack on offense in order to push for a bowl trip and winning record in 2017. Hiring Cook to coordinate the offense is a big step in the right direction for Georgia Southern. The New York native has extensive roots in the option attack, working from 2013-16 at Georgia Tech under Paul Johnson and from 2009-12 at Cal Poly as the program’s co-offensive coordinator.
23. Phil Longo, Co-Offensive Coordinator, Ole Miss
Longo comes to Oxford after spending the last three years directing Sam Houston State’s high-powered offense. The Bearkats led all FCS teams by averaging 49.5 points and 547.3 yards per game in 2016. Additionally, Longo’s offense led all FCS teams by scoring 58 touchdown passes. The 2015 unit was just as effective, as Sam Houston State averaged 41.1 points per contest and ran the most plays of any FCS team (1,275). With one of the SEC’s breakout stars under center in Shea Patterson, along with a deep receiving corps, Ole Miss’ offense should rank among the league’s best in 2017.
22. Rhett Lashlee, Offensive Coordinator, UConn
Since 2011, no UConn offense has finished a season by averaging more than 24.3 points a game. Additionally, the Huskies have not averaged more than five yards per play since 2009. But the outlook for the offense should improve for coach Randy Edsall in his return to Storrs. Lashlee takes over the play-calling duties after spending the last four years at Auburn. While coach Gus Malzahn was heavily involved in game-planning and the play-calling during that span, Lashlee handled the signals for the final 10 games. Under Lashlee’s direction, Auburn averaged 32.6 points per contest and finished No. 1 in the SEC in rushing offense. Look for Lashlee to bring more tempo and spread looks to UConn in 2017.
21. Jay Sawvel, Defensive Coordinator, Wake Forest
Sawvel replaces Mike Elko, who left Winston-Salem for South Bend and an opportunity to coordinate Notre Dame’s defense. Elko was one of the ACC’s most underrated coordinators and will be missed. However, coach Dave Clawson found an excellent replacement in Sawvel. The Ohio native started his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Eastern Kentucky in 1994 and remained in that role for two seasons. He later worked from 1996-99 as a graduate assistant at Notre Dame and also coached defensive backs at Ferris State (1999-00), Southern Illinois (2001-07) and Northern Illinois (2008-10). Sawvel followed Jerry Kill to Minnesota following the 2010 season and coached defensive backs from 2011-15, before he was promoted to defensive coordinator in 2016 under Tracy Claeys. In Sawvel’s only year as the play-caller, the Golden Gophers finished third in the Big Ten in fewest yards per play allowed (4.8), fifth in scoring defense (22.1 ppg), second in the conference against the run (117.9 ypg) and tied for third in turnovers generated (25). Wake Forest finished 2016 ranked third in the ACC in scoring defense (22.2 ppg). Look for Sawvel to keep this defense near the top of the ACC in his first year calling the plays.
Related: ACC Football Predictions for 2017
20. Jamey Chadwell, Offensive Coordinator, Coastal Carolina
Coastal Carolina is in the midst of a two-year transition period to the FBS level, but the Chanticleers have the right staff in place to make a successful jump from the FCS ranks. After last season’s play-caller Dave Patenaude left for Temple, coach Joe Moglia hired Chadwell to take over the offensive coordinator duties. Chadwell spent the last four seasons at Charleston Southern, guiding the Buccaneers to a 35-14 record (with two playoff trips) since 2013. Chadwell also has previous stints as a head coach at Delta State and North Greenville. Chadwell’s offenses at Charleston Southern specialized in the run, as the Buccaneers ranked inside of the top 20 nationally at the FCS level in rushing offense for four consecutive years.
19. Sterlin Gilbert, Offensive Coordinator, USF
Gilbert followed coach Charlie Strong from Austin to Tampa and inherits an offense that led the American Athletic Conference in scoring (43.8 ppg) last fall. Don’t expect too many tweaks in year one from Gilbert, especially with dynamic senior quarterback Quinton Flowers piloting the Bulls’ offense. In Gilbert’s one season of calling the plays at Texas, the Longhorns showed progress on offense after struggling in Strong’s first two years. Texas jumped to sixth in the Big 12 in scoring (up from eighth in 2015) and improved its total offense average by 121 yards per contest. Prior to his stint at Texas, Gilbert worked for one year at Tulsa and had previous stops at Bowling Green (2014) and Eastern Illinois (2012-13). Gilbert is a former assistant under Dino Babers and Philip Montgomery, with both coaches using variations of the offense Baylor utilized under former coach Art Briles.
18. Randy Shannon, Defensive Coordinator, Florida
After spending the last two seasons as a co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at Florida, Shannon was promoted to play-caller after Geoff Collins was named head coach at Temple. Shannon called the plays for the Gators in the Outback Bowl win over Iowa, limiting the Hawkeyes to just three points and 226 total yards. Prior to the last two years at Florida, Shannon worked for two seasons at Arkansas (2013-14), one year at TCU (2012) and was the head coach at Miami (2007-10) after working from 2001-06 as the program’s defensive coordinator. Under Shannon’s direction, the Hurricanes ranked consistently among the nation’s best defenses, including No. 1 overall in scoring defense in 2001. With just two returning starters, Florida’s defense will have a few holes to fill in 2017. However, Shannon should keep this defense near the top of the SEC.
17. Paul Rhoads, Defensive Coordinator, Arkansas
Improving the defense is the top offseason priority for coach Bret Bielema. The Razorbacks ranked fourth in the SEC by giving up 19.2 points a game in 2014, but this unit regressed over the last two years. Arkansas allowed 27.4 points per contest in 2015 and 31.1 in 2016. Stopping the run was a huge issue for the Razorbacks last fall. In SEC games, Arkansas allowed 7.1 yards per rush and surrendered 39 rushing scores over the 13-game season. As if those numbers weren’t enough of a concern for Bielema, the Razorbacks allowed over six yards per play in back-to-back years (2015-16). Rhoads was promoted to defensive coordinator following a one-season stint as a defensive backs coach under former play-caller Robb Smith. The Iowa native also has a previous stint in his career as Iowa State’s head coach (2009-15) and called the defensive signals at Auburn (2008) and Pitt (2000-07). Rhoads is transitioning the Arkansas defense to a 3-4 scheme and inherits a group with only five returning starters. While there is some personnel turnover and scheme transition, Rhoads should be able to generate some improvement from this group in 2017.
16. Scott Shafer, Defensive Coordinator, MTSU
The Brent Stockstill to Richie James pass-catch combination should ensure the Blue Raiders have one of Conference USA’s best offenses this fall. But in order for MTSU to challenge WKU for the East Division crown, the defense has to improve. Last season, the Blue Raiders allowed 35.8 points per game and surrendered nearly 200 yards a contest versus the run. Shafer brings a wealth of experience to Murfreesboro and this is his first full-time coaching gig since resigning from Maryland prior to the 2016 season. Shafer was Syracuse’s head coach from 2013-15 and accumulated a 14-23 record with one bowl trip over three years. Prior to 2013, Shafer spent four years as the program’s defensive coordinator (2009-12) and also had stops at Michigan (2008), Stanford (2007), Western Michigan (2005-06), Illinois (2004) and Northern Illinois (1996-03). Shafer is known for being aggressive, as his 2006 defense at Western Michigan led the nation in sacks and his 2007 group at Stanford finished 11th.
15. Chip Lindsey, Offensive Coordinator, Auburn
Head coach Gus Malzahn is still going to have a large role in the offense, but Lindsey is set to take over the play-calling duties in 2017. Lindsey arrives in Auburn after one season as the offensive coordinator at Arizona State. Despite a rash of injuries at quarterback, the Sun Devils still averaged 33.3 points per game under Lindsey’s watch in 2016. Prior to Arizona State, Lindsey called the plays for two years at Southern Miss, including the 2015 unit that averaged 39.9 points a contest. Lindsey also has a previous stint at Auburn, as he worked under Malzahn as an offensive analyst in 2013.
Related: SEC Football Predictions for 2017
14. Phil Snow, Defensive Coordinator, Baylor
Snow is a grizzled veteran in the assistant ranks. He started his coaching career in 1976 at Berkeley High School and followed with stops at Winters High School and Laney College (1979-81) before landing at Boise State in 1982. After five years with the Broncos, Snow spent time with California, Arizona State, UCLA, Washington, Eastern Michigan and in the NFL with the Lions before joining Matt Rhule’s staff at Temple in 2013. The California native engineered a defense that led the American Athletic Conference in scoring defense in 2014 and 2016. Additionally, the Owls allowed just under five yards per play (4.6 and 4.8) in those two seasons. The Bears have a few holes to fill on defense this offseason, but Snow should help this defense progress over the course of the 2017 campaign.
13. Todd Grantham, Defensive Coordinator, Mississippi State
Grantham is on his second tour of duty as a defensive coordinator in the SEC. Prior to a three-year stint at Louisville (2014-16), Grantham worked at Georgia from 2010-13 as the program’s defensive signal-caller. During the last three seasons with the Cardinals, Grantham built a defense that never allowed on average more than 24.1 points per game. Additionally, Louisville finished second in the ACC in fewest yards per play allowed in 2014 and 2016. Grantham also has stops in his career at Virginia Tech (1990-95), Michigan State (1996-98) and in the NFL with the Texans, Browns and Cowboys. Mississippi State’s defense surrendered 31.8 points per game last fall and allowed 6.2 yards per play. Expect Grantham to make an immediate impact and generate marked improvement for the Bulldogs’ defense in 2017.
12. Jerry Kill, Offensive Coordinator, Rutgers
Kill is back on the sidelines since stepping down as Minnesota’s head coach during the 2015 season due to health reasons. Kill’s arrival is a boost for a Rutgers offense that managed only 9.6 points per game in Big Ten action and was held without a point in four contests. The Kansas native hasn’t worked in the offensive coordinator role since 1993 at Pittsburg State, but he was a successful head coach at five different stops – Saginaw Valley State, Emporia State, Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois and Minnesota – since that season. In addition to his play-calling duties and work with quarterbacks, Kill’s experience and veteran leadership should be a valuable asset to second-year coach Chris Ash.
11. Tim DeRuyter, Defensive Coordinator, California
New California head coach Justin Wilcox has spent the past 11 seasons as a defensive coordinator, and his arrival should immediately help a group that surrendered 42.6 points a game in 2016. But he’s also going to have plenty of help with DeRuyter working as the team’s defensive coordinator following a stint as Fresno State’s head coach. DeRuyter and Wilcox both have roots in the 3-4 scheme, which will require some juggling of the personnel this offseason. However, DeRuyter has a track record of success from stints as a defensive coordinator at Texas A&M (2010-11) and at Air Force (2007-09). The 2009 version of Air Force’s defense limited opponents to just 15.7 points a game and forced 34 turnovers. California has finished last in the Pac-12 in scoring defense in three out of the last four seasons. Expect DeRuyter and Wilcox to significantly help this unit improve over the next couple of years.
10. Troy Taylor, Offensive Coordinator, Utah
Since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, Utah has not finished higher than eighth in the conference in scoring offense. Additionally, the Utes have only averaged 30 or more points a game (2014-15) twice in that span. While coach Kyle Whittingham has no trouble building some of the Pac-12’s top defenses, Utah needs more out of its offense to win the South Division. Taylor comes to Salt Lake City after spending 2016 as Eastern Washington’s offensive coordinator. Under his watch, the Eagles ranked second in the FCS in total offense (529.6 ypg), first in passing (401.0 ypg), third in scoring (42.4 ppg) and averaged 6.98 yards per play. Prior to 2016, Taylor worked as co-head coach at Folsom High School from 2012-15 and previously from 2002-04. The former California quarterback worked as an assistant in Berkeley from 1996-99 and also served as the team’s radio analyst from 2005-11. Considering Taylor’s background in working with quarterbacks and passing offenses, his arrival should significantly help Utah’s passing attack in 2017 and beyond.
9. Chip Long, Offensive Coordinator, Notre Dame
Brian Kelly has always played a major role in the play-calling and game planning since arriving at Notre Dame in 2010. However, Kelly is planning to hand over the full-time offensive coordinator duties to Long this year. Long has been on a fast rise through the coaching ranks since starting his career at Louisville (2006-07) as a graduate assistant. After two years with the Cardinals, he worked at Arkansas (2008-09) under Bobby Petrino as a graduate assistant and spent two years at Illinois (2010-11) as a tight ends coach. Long was hired at Arizona State by Todd Graham in 2012 and remained a tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator until he followed Mike Norvell to Memphis in 2016. Long handled the offensive coordinator role for the Tigers in 2016, guiding the Memphis attack to an average of 38.8 points per game and 6.3 yards per play.
8. Matt Canada, Offensive Coordinator, LSU
For LSU to challenge Alabama in the SEC West, new coach Ed Orgeron had to shake things up on offense. So far, so good. The Tigers played better on offense after Les Miles and Cam Cameron were dismissed, and Orgeron helped the offense take another step forward with the hire of Canada as the team’s new play-caller. Canada comes to Baton Rouge after one year at Pitt. Under Canada’s direction, the Panthers ranked second in the ACC by averaging 40.9 points a game and 6.71 yards per play. Prior to Pitt, Canada called the plays for three seasons (2013-15) at NC State and had two one-year stints as an offensive coordinator at Wisconsin (2012) and Northern Illinois (2010). He also worked as the offensive coordinator at Indiana from 2007-10. Canada isn’t going to go away from the ground game, but he should help LSU’s passing offense and quarterback play improve over the next couple of seasons.
7. Bob Diaco, Defensive Coordinator, Nebraska
Nebraska’s defense hasn’t quite resembled some of the standout Blackshirt groups since Mike Riley took over this program prior to the 2015 season. The Cornhuskers ranked ninth in conference-only games by giving up 28.4 points per game in 2015. This unit was slightly better in 2016, finishing seventh in the Big Ten (conference-only matchups) by holding offenses to 23.8 points per game. Nebraska also ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in yards per play allowed in both seasons (5.9 in 2015 and 5.5 in 2016) and have accumulated only 50 sacks over the last two years. Riley swapped long-time assistant Mark Banker in favor of Bob Diaco and plans on transitioning to a 3-4 scheme this fall. Diaco was previously the head coach at UConn and also made stops as a coordinator at Notre Dame and Cincinnati. His 2012 defense with the Fighting Irish limited opponents to 12.8 points per game and was a big reason why Notre Dame reached the national title game. Additionally, in five seasons as a coordinator, Diaco never had a defense allow more than 23.1 points per game on average at the end of a year. Transitioning to the 3-4 may take a season, but Diaco’s hire should pay dividends for the overall performance of Nebraska’s defense.
6. Doug Meacham, Offensive Coordinator, Kansas
After three seasons at TCU, Meacham is making a move north to Kansas. Under Meacham’s watch, the Horned Frogs showed marked improvement on offense. Meacham inherited a unit that averaged only 25.1 points per game in 2013 but improved to over 40 points per contest from 2014-15. TCU averaged 6.1 yards per play last season but slipped to eighth in the Big 12 in scoring last year. Prior to TCU, Meacham called the plays at Houston in 2013 and previously worked at Oklahoma State from 2005-12. Head coach David Beaty has Kansas moving in the right direction, and the addition of Meacham should instantly help an offense that ranked last in the Big 12 in scoring last fall.
5. Beau Baldwin, Offensive Coordinator, California
Even though new coach Justin Wilcox was hired to help California improve its overall approach and performance on defense, the Golden Bears are still going to be prolific on offense. That’s largely due to the arrival of Baldwin after spending the last nine years as Eastern Washington’s head coach. Under Baldwin’s direction, the Eagles went 85-32, claimed the 2010 FCS national title and earned six trips to the playoffs. Baldwin also went 10-3 in one year as Central Washington’s head coach (2007). In addition to his success as a head coach, Baldwin has been regarded for his work on offense and with quarterbacks. Over the last five seasons at Eastern Washington, Baldwin’s offenses did not rank lower than 18th nationally in scoring. Additionally, the 2014 version – led by former Oregon signal-caller Vernon Adams – led the FCS by averaging 44.1 points per game.
Related: Pac-12 Football Predictions for 2017
4. Mike Elko, Defensive Coordinator, Notre Dame
The defense was the backbone of Notre Dame’s run to the national title game in 2013, but this unit has slipped since Bob Diaco left South Bend. However, coach Brian Kelly took a big step in addressing this side of the ball by hiring Elko after three seasons at Wake Forest. Under Elko’s watch, the Demon Deacons did not allow more than 5.6 yards per play on average and finished third in the ACC in 2016 by limiting opponents to 22.2 points a game. Last year’s defense also generated 41 sacks and tied for the ACC lead with 27 turnovers generated. Prior to Wake Forest, Elko had stops at Bowling Green (2009-13), Hofstra (2006-08), Richmond (2004-05) and Fordham (2002-03).
3. Jim Leavitt, Defensive Coordinator, Oregon
For the most part, Oregon’s defense has struggled since long-time coordinator Nick Aliotti retired following the 2013 season. But new coach Willie Taggart took a significant step towards addressing this unit with the hire of Leavitt. The Texas native arrives after spending the last two years at Colorado. Leavitt inherited a defense that gave up 39 points in 2014 and improved significantly under his watch. The Buffaloes gave up 27.5 points per contest in Leavitt’s first year (2015) and ranked among the Pac-12’s top defenses by holding opponents to just 21.7 per game last fall. Additionally, the Buffaloes finished 16th nationally by limiting offenses to just 4.8 yards per play in 2016. Leavitt has previous stops on his resume from stints with the 49ers (2011-14), USF as the program’s head coach (1996-09), and as an assistant at Kansas State from 1990-95. Scoring points hasn’t been a problem for Oregon in recent years. With Taggart expected to keep the Ducks’ attack near the top of the Pac-12, Leavitt’s arrival should ensure Oregon’s defense now ranks among the best in the conference in the near future.
2. Todd Orlando, Defensive Coordinator, Texas
Orlando worked under new Texas coach Tom Herman for the last two years at Houston and takes over a Longhorn defense that ranked eighth in the Big 12 by surrendering 31.5 points per game last fall. Orlando’s arrival should provide instant help for Texas, especially with a strong personnel foundation in place at each level. Under Orlando’s direction, Houston’s defense limited opponents to 20.7 points per game in 2015 and 23.5 per contest last year. The Cougars also led the nation in forced turnovers (35) in 2015 and generated 75 sacks over the last two seasons. Prior to Houston, Orlando called the defensive signals at Utah State (2013-15), FIU (2011-12) and UConn (2005-10). He’s a rising star and a future head coach at the FBS level.
1. Ryan Day/Kevin Wilson, Co-Offensive Coordinators, Ohio State
Even though Ohio State finished 2016 ranked second in the Big Ten in scoring offense and yards per play, it was clear change was needed following the CFB Playoff loss to Clemson. Since Tom Herman left Columbus, the Buckeyes haven’t the same level of explosiveness or rhythm on offense. However, that should change in 2017, as former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson is set to take over the play-calling duties, with Ryan Day working as the team’s quarterback coach. Under Wilson’s direction, the Hoosiers averaged over 30 points a game in three out of four years from 2012-15, including a 36.5 mark that led the Big Ten in 2015. Additionally, from 2012-16, Indiana never finished below sixth in the Big Ten in yards per play generated on offense. As evidenced by his tenure at Indiana and previous stints as an offensive coordinator at Northwestern, Oklahoma and Miami (Ohio), Wilson is one of the nation’s top play-callers. With one of college football’s best quarterbacks (J.T. Barrett) to build an offense around, look for Wilson to develop a dynamic attack at Ohio State in 2017 and beyond.
Every fan has experienced it. Your team has the ball in scoring position. It’s a big moment. And before you can say, “Run the dang ball!” your quarterback is cocking back to lob the football toward the back corner of the end zone. It lands two yards out of bounds, safely out of reach of the nearest offensive and defensive players. You fill with rage. You scream obscenities at your team’s offensive coordinator as the placekicker trots onto the field to attempt a field goal.
Why would anybody possibly want to throw a fade route there? Doesn’t the coach know that play never works?
You’re right, by the way. The red-zone fade isn’t an efficient play. According to Pro Football Focus, college teams had a success rate of only about 36 percent when attempting it during the 2016 season. That’s right in line with pro averages of about 33 to 35 percent.
So what gives? Why does this play seem to be a base part of virtually every college offense even though the ball falls harmlessly to the turf about two-thirds of the time? Part of the draw, actually, is that it indeed falls to the turf.
Pro Football Focus data tells us that while there were 61 touchdowns thrown via red-zone fades in 2016, there were also only four interceptions. You might score a touchdown, you might draw a defensive pass interference penalty, or you might live to fight another down.
“It’s a safe throw,” says Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf. “The matchup is always an issue, but I think that, playing the odds, the completion rate certainly isn’t high. But I’d rather give up that low-percentage fade throw [than something riskier]. And I can see why teams take away the inside and give you that outside throw. They want to see if you can complete it.”
Langsdorf has coached at virtually every level of the game of football during his 20-year coaching career, calling plays for the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos (2000-01), Oregon State (2005-13) and now Nebraska (2015-present). He also worked as an offensive assistant for the New Orleans Saints (2002-04) and New York Giants (2014). “When you have a guy like Eli Manning throwing to Odell Beckham Jr., that’s a different deal than in college. You obviously have a better chance of completing it. And you’ll see it a lot in Canada — you’re at the 5, and it’s like you’re throwing a Go route [a more vertical cousin of the fade] instead of a fade because of the 20-yard end zone.”
It can still serve a purpose in college, though, and it usually has to do with the matchups a defense is offering. “Defenses are going to challenge you,” says Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich. “They know it’s a low-percentage throw, and they’re going to factor that in. That’s the fun part of competing.”
Colorado State head coach Mike Bobo concurs. “A lot of times you see fades thrown, but originally a run was called. The defense has the box outnumbered, and you have 1-on-1 on the outside, so you throw that. It’s your hot answer. It’s never just ‘I’m calling the fade.’ ”
“Philosophically, it’s interesting what defenses are willing to give up based on how they feel they match up with you,” Yurcich says. “We got challenged quite a bit this year even though we thought we were pretty good athletically at receiver. We continued to see press-man [coverage], even in the bowl game [against Colorado].”
Pressing college receivers at the line can work wonders for a defense, at least one that can actually pull it off. But OSU’s receivers were dynamite in 2016, and they had Mason Rudolph throwing them the ball. Rudolph completed 57 percent of his passes in the red zone — “everything over 55 percent down there is a good mark,” says Yurcich — for 13 touchdowns and just one interception.
Colorado State had one of the most reliable red-zone offenses in the country in 2016, averaging 5.5 points per scoring opportunity (first downs inside the opponent’s 40). What does Bobo, a former offensive coordinator at Georgia, think about the fade? He credits a quality run game for a lot of the Rams’ red-zone success, but he does employ the fade … with a twist.
“When I was with Coach [Mark] Richt at Georgia, we were more ‘Throw it into the bucket’ [on fades] — kind of an old-school fade,” he says. But they learned that completion percentages went up when they weren’t aiming quite so deep in the corner of the end zone.
If you think about it, one of the hardest things about a good fade is that there are virtually three defenders on the play — the cornerback, the back of the end zone and the sideline. The old-school, in-the-bucket approach created a tiny window of success where a receiver could go up and get the ball. But there’s a throw that offers more margin for error. “We identified a spot in the red zone, five yards deep and about three yards from the sideline,” Bobo says. “That was the spot we would throw it to. That still goes to the receiver’s back shoulder, but the receiver is selling it like they’re throwing to the back pylon.”
Still, even with solid execution, this is a play the defense doesn’t mind the offense attempting most of the time.
“You’ll play that rare team that maybe throws it really well or has a big-time receiver you would worry about,” says Northwestern defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz. In those instances, “You’d make sure you try to take that into consideration and maybe not give them as many of those.” But generally, playing tight, taking away inside throws, and daring a QB to make a pinpoint lob is a good way to go because incomplete passes lead to field goals, and field goals don’t usually beat you — touchdowns do.
“We talk about it all the time,” Hankwitz says. “Field goals aren’t going to beat you very often. So when we get inside the 12, that’s when we go to our more specific coverage. We try to practice that specific situation.
“That’s a big-time win if you hold them to a field goal,” he continues. “Offenses are going to get down into the scoring area [in today’s college football], but we know we need to win the red zone. Just because they’ve gotten down there doesn’t mean they’re going to score. Field goals are psychological, too — ‘We’ve gotten down there three times, and we only got nine points?’ ”
Hankwitz is right that field goals won’t do much damage, and he’s right about the low percentage of the fade. You do get one throwaway down, though.
On average, if you gain zero yards on first-and-goal, you only lose about 0.6 expected points. For instance, on first-and-goal from the 4, FBS offenses averaged 6.15 points per possession; on second-and-goal, they averaged 5.56.
That isn’t a significant drop-off, but things get dicey from there. The average drop grows to 0.9 expected points with an incomplete pass on second-and-goal. Example: second-and-goal from the 7 was worth 4.61 points in 2016, but third-and-goal from the 7 was worth 3.73.
On third-and-goal, things take on a far more all-or-nothing quality. A team’s expected point total drops by about 1.5 points on average with no gain on third-and-goal and by 1.75 points inside the 5.
“Earlier downs is where you’d like to see them,” Langsdorf says, in reference to the hated fade.
The lesson: Don’t curse your offensive coordinator for throwing a harmless fade — as long as it’s on first down. If it’s third down, curse up a storm.
Written by Bill Connelly (@SBN_BillC) of SBNation.com for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2017 Regional Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2017 season.
The RBC Canadian Open is set for this week, July 27-30, at Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario. As such, it'stime to start picking your optimal DraftKings fantasy golf lineup. Fortunately, our fantasy golf experts are ready to help.
Here's what our best RBC Canadian Open 2017 lineup looks like:
Matt Kuchar ($11,400)
This week, Kooch provides us with the ultimate fantasy double dip: hot player and horse for the course. His last five tournaments look like this: T9, T12, T4, T16, T4, 2. His last three trips to Glen Abbey look like this: T2, T7, T9, with a scoring average of 69.17.
Ian Poulter ($8,700)
The swag seems to be back for the faux-hawked one. He’s up 113 spots in the World Ranking since the start of 2017 and is coming off an occasionally electric showing at the British Open. The fact that it’s his Glen Abbey debut does give us pause, but his numbers are too solid to ignore.
Danny Lee ($8,000)
Lee withdrew from his last start at the John Deere with a sore shoulder, but before that he had four top 10s in seven outings. Seventh on Tour in total birdies with 296, if birdies are your thing.
Chad Campbell ($7,500)
Campbell has settled into grinder mode, and it’s paying off: five top-20 finishes in his last seven starts. He’s top 25 on Tour in GIR, a key stat on Glen Abbey’s highly puttable greens. Failing that, he’s first on Tour in scrambling. Pretty nifty combo.
Scott Stallings ($7,500)
Stallings arrives at Glen Abbey on a hot streak: T3 at the Barbasol and T5 at the John Deere. We acknowledge that his is a classic flavor-of-the-moment pick, and Stallings could revert to his previous cut-missing form at any moment. Consider yourself warned.
Trey Mullinax ($6,800)
The Bama grad caught our attention with an out-of-nowhere top 10 at the U.S. Open. He’s a bomber, and bombers can succeed at Glen Abbey. Call it a hunch, but we think he’ll be comfortable this week.
Running clubs and teams are becoming more popular, and a lot of these clubs use their name as an outlet to show some personality. Whether you're making a team to prepare for a 5K, half-marathon or full marathon, we've got you covered with these running team names. We have searched the web for the most clever, funny and crazy names and compiled the best of the best into a list to help you find a name for your team, or at least get the creative juices going.
Running Team Names
- 5 Fast 5 Furious
- 50 Shades of Trained
- Agony of Defeet
- Baby got Track
- Blazing Glory
- Cirque Du Sore Legs
- Distance Matters
- Easier Said Than Run
- Fo Shoe
- Follow the Run-bow
- Hell on Heels
- Holy Fit
- Kickin Asphalt
- Kiss my Asphalt
- Not Fast, Just Furious
- Pace Makers
- Premature Acceleration
- Pronation Nation
- R.I.O.T. (Running Is Our Therapy)
- Running on Empty
- S.W.A.T.T. (Sprinters, Walkers And Trash Talkers)
- Scrambled Legs
- Sole Mates
- Sole Survivors
- The Fats and The Furious
- The Running Dead
- Twisted Blister
- We've got the Runs
- Wii Not Fit
Back-to-back winning seasons punctuated with bowl games have changed Washington State's football fortunes. The Cougars enter a new season poised to be a stiff challenger to Washington and Stanford in the battle for the Pac-12 North crown.
Does Washington State have what it takes to finish on top in 2017? The Cougars have a favorable schedule that offers a chance to build some early momentum. The return of senior quarterback Luke Falk alone gives Washington State favorable odds to take a step forward and potentially avoid another late-season sputter to the finish line. The Cougars return enough key playmakers on both sides of the ball to make some serious noise in the Pac-12.
Athlon Sports polled a few writers to get their take on Washington State’s realistic 2017 win/loss projection.
Washington State Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2017
John Coon (@johncoonsports)
As long as Luke Falk is directing the offense, Washington State will have a legitimate chance to beat any team it faces this season. Falk is a virtual lock to finish as the Pac-12's top-rated passer this season. He can execute the Air Raid offense with precision. Last season, Falk threw for 4,468 yards and 38 touchdowns while completing 70 percent of his passes. More than one third (172-of-443 or 38.8 percent) of his completions went for 10 or more yards.
Falk will have plenty of help downfield and in the backfield. Tavares Martin should take a step forward as the primary receiver after finishing with 728 yards and seven touchdowns a year ago. Running backs Gerard Wicks, Jamal Morrow and James Williams all combined to rush for 1,645 yards and 22 touchdowns last season. They also proved to be receiving threats, chipping in an additional 1,014 yards and seven scores in that department.
Defensively, the Cougars will be in good shape. Defensive leaders like Hercules Mata’afa and Payton Pueller are back to anchor the defense. Mata’afa emerged as an elite defensive end last season, totaling five sacks and 13.5 tackles for a loss. Pueller has led Washington State in tackles each of the last two seasons and the linebacker ranked fourth in the Pac-12 with 93 stops a year ago. The secondary also is deep and athletic.
The bottom line is Washington State has all the ingredients in place to make a serious run at a Pac-12 North crown. It won't be an easy task, but the good news is that many of the Cougars' tougher opponents – USC, Stanford and Colorado – must travel to Pullman. The two most challenging road games – at Utah and Washington – aren't until late November.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Expect the Cougars to be a factor once again in the Pac-12 North title picture. Quarterback Luke Falk and an underrated set of running backs leads the way for a dynamic offense, which also features All-American guard Cody O’Connell and two other returning starters in the trenches. The receiving corps will miss Gabe Marks and River Cracraft, but coach Mike Leach should quickly find the right answers to help Falk and the high-powered passing attack.
The defense has made strides under coordinator Alex Grinch and returns nine starters for 2017. This unit is anchored by standout end Hercules Mata’afa, and the back seven should be a strength with the return of linebacker Peyton Pelluer, as well as cornerback Darrien Molton and safety Jalen Thompson.
The path to a North Division title will be on the road for the Cougars. Games against Utah, Washington and Oregon are likely to decide how high Washington State climbs in the North and all three are away from Martin Stadium. Additionally, a crossover game against USC – a top-five team for 2017 – doesn’t make the path any easier. I’m taking eight wins for the Cougars in 2017, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see this team reach nine victories.
Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer)
Perhaps it's fitting that the most isolated Pac-12 program is also the one you hardly hear about when talking about preseason expectations. Don't sleep on the Cougars though, who should be contending for the North Division crown well into late November given their schedule and how much the team is returning. Luke Falk is one of the most underrated players in the country (not to mention one of the toughest) and the front seven has a chance to be one of the best groups in the conference. There are concerns about replacing some skill position players -- especially the indispensable Gabe Marks – but the favorable schedule alleviates that a bit. Mike Leach has turned Wazzu into a consistent winner now and if the Cougars can avoid the mind-numbing mistakes of years past like special teams gaffes and losing to FCS teams, this can be a consistent top 25 squad.
Kyle Kensing (@kensing45)
Washington State brought on Mike Leach before the 2012 season in hopes of returning to contention in the Pac-12. At that time, the Cougars were last in the mix in 2003 – and had not been to a bowl game over the same stretch.
Washington State now has made bowl appearances in three of the last four seasons. More importantly, the Cougars have been squarely in contention in the Pac-12 North, hosting pivotal games for first place late in the season (Stanford in 2015, Washington in the ‘16 finale).
Both times, however, Washington State's bid for the division was thwarted. A brutal final month of the 2017 regular season could continue that trend, with Stanford and back-to-back road games completing the Cougars' regular season. A three-game skid to close out is a very real possibility.
Be that as it may, this is the best lineup Leach has had in his time on the Palouse. Luke Falk headlines a group of upperclassmen capable of pushing rival Washington for top billing in the North – and also capable of ending Washington State's recent string of confounding season-opening losses. The Cougars WILL get over the Big Sky hump and beat Montana State. Fending off Boise State and Oregon State at home in the subsequent two weeks sets the tone for Washington State's season.
Mark Ross (@AthlonMark)
Washington State is a popular dark horse pick in the Pac-12 North division and it’s easy to see why. Luke Falk headlines an offense that could be even more explosive this fall thanks to a talented receiver corps, underrated running game and rock-solid offensive line. The defense will be the key, however, especially in the secondary. Getting to another bowl game should not be a problem, but how high the Cougars rise in the rankings and conference standings will come down to home dates with Boise State, USC, Colorado and Stanford, and the back-to-back road games at Utah and Washington to close things out. Mike Leach’s team will have to take care of business at home if Wazzu wants to remain in the hunt entering November.
While not the meat and potatoes of your college fantasy football lineup, the tight ends, kickers and defense you select can be the small difference to help you conquer your league this season.
With regards to the tight ends, the group at the top of this year's rankings once again is led by the "Swiss Army Knife," who is better known as NC State's Jaylen Samuels. Far and away the top tight end, Samuels is expected to be used more as a running back this season, which increases his fantasy value and appeal even more.
Athlon Sports has teamed up with contributor and resident college fantasy football expert Mike Bainbridge to help you prepare for the upcoming college fantasy football draft season with our positional rankings. Below is the scoring system used to comprise these positional rankings.
Passing Yards, 25 Yards = 1 point
Passing TD = 4 points
Rushing Yards, 10 yards = 1 point
Rushing TDs = 6 points
Receptions = 0.5 points per reception
Receiving Yards, 10 yards = 1 point
Receiving TDs = 6 points
If you enjoy these rankings or college fantasy football in general, be sure to subscribe to Mike's college fantasy site. There you will receive projections for more than 1,000 players as well as even more content to help you win your league.
College Fantasy Football TE Rankings for 2017
|1||Jaylen Samuels||NC State||15.33|
|3||Mike Gesicki||Penn State||10.13|
|6||Blake Mack||Arkansas State||8.67|
|8||Hayden Hurst||South Carolina||8.17|
|11||Ryan Smith||Miami (Ohio)||7.88|
|12||Ari Werts||Georgia State||7.63|
|13||Maaseiah Francis||South Alabama||7.54|
|16||Cam Serigne||Wake Forest||7.29|
|17||Tyler Conklin||Central Michigan||7.21|
|28||Jake Roh||Boise State||5.75|
|30||Dan Buschman||Eastern Michigan||5.68|
*FPPG = Fantasy Points Per Game (projected) for 2017
College Fantasy Football DEF Rankings for 2017
|5||Florida State||Week 6|
|7||Ohio State||Week 8|
|9||San Diego State||Week 11|
|11||Stanford||Weeks 2, 9|
College Fantasy Football K Rankings for 2017
|2||Jonathan Barnes||Louisiana Tech|
|5||Tyler Davis||Penn State|
|7||Gary Wunderlich||Ole Miss|
|8||Canon Rooker||Middle Tennessee|
|9||Ricky Aguayo||Florida State|
|11||Skyler Simcox||Western Kentucky|
|14||John Baron||San Diego State|
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. For additional College Fantasy Football insight, be sure to follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.
This will be the most scrutinized article of these college football conference-by-conference previews simply because it’s the SEC. As Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn once said, "This is a man's league, if you aren't in it, you won't understand."
The SEC West figures to be Alabama's playground once again although Auburn and LSU are getting closer. The fun is on the East side where Georgia, Florida and Tennessee should be in the mix for the title. Kentucky also may be a factor with an experienced group leading the way.
Note: Over/under odds courtesy of the South Point sports book
Over 8 -135...Under 8 +115)
Jim McElwain is hoping this season will start already considering one of the biggest issues is a picture of someone that looks like him with a shark in a boat. He hired Randy Shannon to take over the defense after Geoff Collins left for Temple. Eight starters are gone including Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson from the secondary. This could be one of those rare years in Gainesville where the offense has to carry the team. Antonio Callaway is back and will lead a solid group of WRs. He might miss a game due to suspension, but nothing has been determined yet. The opener is against Michigan in Arlington, Texas. After that, Florida has five of its next six at home. I think eight is a really good number here. If you think the Gators lose to the Wolverines in week one, then consider the under maybe.
(Over 9 +120...Under 9 -140)
It's Jacob Eason's team and he's got Sony Michel and Nick Chubb back at running back. The offensive line is where the questions start on that side of the ball, along with the WR group. I like Terry Godwin, but there's not a lot behind him in terms of known talent. Where there won't be many questions is on defense where all 11 starters are back. Up front, Trenton Thompson and Jonathan Ledbetter chose not to go pro. This group was 16th in FBS in 2016 and could hover around there this season as well. Trips to Notre Dame and Georgia Tech are intriguing matchups. The Bulldogs should be able to win both of these although the public doesn't believe that considering the price on the over.
(Over 7 +110...Under 7 -130)
Kentucky will not be an easy out again this year after finishing 7-6. They return eight starters on both sides of the ball and are led by QB Stephen Johnson on offense, although Drew Barker could be a factor too. The Wildcats have the majority of their offensive line back as well as running back Benny Snell Jr. and wideouts Dorian Baker and Garrett Johnson. On defense, the secondary should be solid with Derrick Baity, Chris Westry and Mike Edwards returning. The schedule features four of their first six at home with the two road contests being winnable. There really isn't that tough of a stretch the whole year unless you consider back-to-back trips to Vanderbilt and Georgia. I like the number Vegas picked so no play here for me.
(Over 6 -115...Under 6 -105)
Offensive coordinator Josh Heupel did good things with QB Drew Lock, who has top target J’Mon Moore (23 receptions over last three games) to throw to. The offensive line is pretty much intact and Damarea Crockett is in the backfield so the offense could match some of its stats from last year. The problems come on defense where only three starters return. The linebacker group has potential, but is unproven. The first four games and seven of eight are at home. I think the under is worth a look because the wins will come early, but a finishing stretch against Florida, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Arkansas will be tough.
(Over 5 -130...Under 5 +110)
Jake Bentley might be the best quarterback returning in the SEC East. He's got Deebo Samuel out wide as well as several options at running back. The offense struggled last year but 10 starters are back, so we'll see if another year of growth does anything. Senior linebacker Skai Moore is being placed on preseason watch lists after missing 2016 due to injury. The secondary figures to be strong and may have to be if the team struggles to get sacks again. The Gamecocks close with four of their final five at home. They also get the defending national champions at home in the season finale. The money move is right and I like the over as well.
(Over 7.5 -120...Under 7.5 EVEN)
Last year this team was one of the most hyped in all of the country and fell short of expectations. Butch Jones has 11 starters back, six of those on defense. The Volunteers allowed more than 200 yards per game on the ground which hurt them in several matchups. Spring was not kind to the defensive line as several potential starters did not participate. Todd Kelly Jr. and Nigel Warrior form a solid safety group. Quinten Dormady appears to be the favorite to win the quarterback job over Jarrett Guarantano. There are some questions at the skill positions, but the offensive line should be strong. Tennessee has three straight at home beginning in late September and closes out with three of four in Knoxville. I'm a little less optimistic then the public so at this price I'd consider the under.
(Over 6 EVEN...Under 6 -120)
Derek Mason was finally able to produce a solid season in 2016 with six wins and a bowl appearance. Building off that is a possibility with a veteran group returning. Ralph Webb is an awesome running back who would be able to do so much more if he wasn't constantly facing stacked boxes. Kyle Shurmur threw only nine touchdowns in 2016 to 10 interceptions. He's got weapons out wide in Trent Sherfield, Caleb Scott and C.J. Duncan. Linebacker Zach Cunningham is gone on defense so this unit needs to find a new leader. It could come from the all-senior secondary. After a tough road game at Middle Tennessee to open things up, the Commodores have three straight and four of five at home. The problem is two of those games are against Alabama and Florida. I think six is a good number although I also lean to the under as this slate is very tough.
(Over 10.5 -145...Under 10.5 +125)
The Crimson Tide reloaded and should be in the mix for another SEC title and national championship. It begins on defense with Ronnie Harrison and Minkah Fitzpatrick taking care of the secondary. Da'Ron Payne and Da'Shawn Hand will put the pressure on the quarterback up front. On offense Jalen Hurts gets the call with Tua Tagovailoa nipping at his heels. The freshman got a lot of publicity for what he did in practice this offseason. Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough lead a crowded backfield while Calvin Ridley is the team’s No. 1 target. Things start off with a contest against Florida State in Atlanta before things lighten up against Fresno State and Colorado State. The under is intriguing if you think Alabama loses at Auburn and to the Seminoles in week one. Other than that, there are not too many other banana peel-type games.
(Over 6.5 EVEN...Under 6.5 -120)
Austin Allen (3,430-25-15 in 2016) is one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks, although he may not get the same amount of attention as some of his peers. Devwah Whaley will get a lot more of the workload in the backfield following Rawleigh Williams’ retirement because of a neck injury. The offensive line is pretty much intact so the Razorbacks should hit the ground running. Former Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads takes over as defensive coordinator and he'll try to fix a unit that gave up more than 420 yards per game. The secondary returns intact with some depth to spare. Arkansas doesn’t play its first true road game until Oct. 7 at South Carolina. Before then there are four home or neutral site games. The over is a pretty good play here at this price. Three of the final four are at home and are all winnable.
(Over 8.5 -125...Under 8.5 +105)
Junior college transfer quarterback (by way of Baylor) Jarrett Stidham is the key to success for the Tigers’ offense. Stidham looked good during spring practice. He's got the productive duo of Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson to lead the way on the ground, along with one of country’s top offensive lines. On defense, Kevin Steele has some holes to patch up with Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and Rudy Ford gone. Last year Auburn finished seventh in FBS in scoring defense (17.1 ppg). There's talent on each level with DE Marlon Davidson, LB Deshaun Davis and CB Carlton Davis. The Tigers play three straight on the road in October followed by three straight at home. There are four potential losses with a road game at Texas A&M also in the mix. Depending upon how you feel about the game in College Station, that'll decide how you feel about this win total.
(Over 9 EVEN...Under 9 -120)
Derrius Guice is widely considered to be as good a running back, if not better, than Leonard Fournette. Guice also figures to see just as many stacked boxes with the uncertainty at QB. Danny Etling's improvement is the key for an improved offense now under the direction of new coordinator Matt Canada. D.J. Clark has some big shoes to fill at wide reciever with Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural gone to the NFL. Sack specialist Arden Key (12 last season) is dealing with a shoulder injury and is uncertain for the season opener. Reports say that he is ahead of schedule in his recovery so he should be back at some point this season. Christian LaCouture is back to help up front. The Tigers have an intriguing opener against BYU in Houston. The Tigers also play at Florida, Alabama and Tennessee, which is pretty tough. Nine is a good number with a lean to the under.
(Over 5.5 -135...Under 5.5 +115)
Nick Fitzgerald should also probably get some headlines for his play at quarterback. He had to take over for Dak Prescott and played pretty well last year. For the fourth straight year, the defense will be led by someone new with Todd Grantham taking his turn. DE Jeffery Simmons and LB Leo Lewis is a nice pair of sophomores to build around. There are a lot of questions with the Bulldogs, including an offensive line that hasn’t done its job in the past and a lack of true weapons at the skill positions. The non-conference slate is FCS member Charleston Southern, Louisiana Tech, BYU and UMass. I think the under is a very nice play at this point. The price is really good and the schedule sets up for some struggles for the Bulldogs, especially at home with Alabama and LSU set to come to Starkville.
(Over 5.5 -110...Under 5.5 -110)
Recent news that Hugh Freeze is no longer the coach changes things a little bit here as we may see some players leave. There's a lot of excitement surrounding sophomore dual-threat quarterback Shea Patterson. He finished out the 2016 campaign in impressive fashion. The offensive line is pretty much back so that will help with protection. D.K. Metcalf, Van Jefferson and A.J. Brown will form a solid trio at wide receiver. Defensive linemen Marquis Haynes and Breeland Speaks anchor the front and bring the pressure while Myles Hartsfield and Zedrick Woods patrol the back end. The Rebels play three straight on the road in late September, but follow that up with three straight at home. I like the over for Ole Miss provided it doesn’t slip up early against South Alabama or FCS member UT Martin. Hopefully the off-the-field issues don’t carry over to the on-field product.
(Over 7 -110...Under 7 -110)
Kevin Sumlin has a lot of things to figure out before the opener at UCLA. The quarterback position is up in the air with senior Jake Hubenak trying to hold off freshmen Kellen Mond and Nick Starkel. Who will take over for No. 1 overall NFL draft pick Myles Garrett on defense as the guy to get pressure on the quarterback? Wide receiver Christian Kirk is a nice place to start on offense along with 1,000-yard rusher Trayveon Williams. There's pressure on Sumlin to end the Aggies’ 8-5 rut or at least the late-season collapses. It doesn't help that Texas A&M opens on the West Coast against the Bruins. After that four of the next five are at home with other game coming against Arkansas in Arlington, Texas. I'm not as optimistic here as the public and like the under. Sumlin's hot seat gets even hotter and maybe the school decides to go in a different direction.
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Josephs prefers non-Power 5 college football and may be the only one wagering on the Sun Belt. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.
The Big South Conference is in a little bit of a waiting mode this season.
Liberty is a lame duck, anxious to move to FBS independence next year, but ineligible for the Big South title and an FCS playoff bid this fall.
Meanwhile, Campbell will be joining the conference next year and then North Alabama comes aboard in 2019.
But there will still be some interesting play on the field with two-time defending champ Charleston Southern facing a serious challenge from Kennesaw State and Gardner-Webb on the upswing, although standout running back Khalil Lewis was dismissed from the team in the offseason.
With the college football season fast approaching, here are five key questions for the Big South season ahead:
Pass the Bucs a three-peat?
Charleston Southern is coming off four terrific seasons under former head coach Jamey Chadwell (35-14 record, two conference titles) and is moving forward under elevated-quarterbacks coach Mark Tucker. While the transition has been smooth, the Buccaneers’ power-running game is tasked with replacing three backs that combined for 9,326 all-purpose yards and 62 touchdowns in their career. As the offense matures, the defense will have to carry them, led by a superb front seven that features defensive end Anthony Ellis and linebacker Solomon Brown. November will decide it all because the Bucs go to Gardner Webb and Kennesaw State and host Liberty, whose Big South games still count in the standings.
Is Kennesaw State ready to win the title?
Kennesaw State has been one of the more successful start-up programs in the FCS, going 14-8 in its first two seasons under head coach Brian Bohannon. The Owls have yet to beat Charleston Southern and Liberty, so that is a must this year if they are going to break through in the conference race. Their bid is bolstered by the return of 17 starters. Bohannon has built the team with speed and their triple-option offense is always troubling for opponents. Also, their defensive line is stacked with Desmond Johnson and Tonarius Portress.
What to expect in Liberty’s swan song?
Liberty is allowed to go above the FCS scholarship limit of 63 as it transitions toward the FBS, and the Flames should be in the mid- to upper 70s for head coach Turner Gill’s sixth season. They should be better than last year’s 6-5 record and have a young offensive trio to build around – quarterback Stephen “Buckshot” Calvert, running back Frankie Hickson and wide receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden. Senior defensive end Juwan Wells fuels the defense, while the special teams are among the best in the FCS.
What’s with the national tour?
As the smallest FCS conference, Big South members have to find six non-conference games, so it’s not surprising they’re playing more teams from conferences than any other – nine. Some are natural, like the five each against MEAC and Southern Conference teams and Monmouth taking on four Patriot League members. But the games also stretch far, like Kennesaw State visiting Montana State out in Big Sky country.
Who are the NFL prospects?
The Big South has produced 10 NFL draft picks, including Josh Norman, Rashad Jennings and Justin Bethel, as well as plenty of undrafted free agents. The top senior prospects are Monmouth safety Mike Basile (6-1, 200) and Charleston Southern defensive end Anthony Ellis (6-1, 245), whose size is more suited for outside linebacker.
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Top photo by Charleston Southern University Athletics)
Remember when people used to joke about the quality of football in the ACC after Florida State? And remember around that same time those same people ripping Clemson for not being able to win the big game.
Over the past 30 Clemson football games, both of those items have been put to rest. Clemsoning now means winning titles and the Tigers have surpassed the mighty Seminoles as kings of the ACC. At least for the moment.
But what will 2017 bring for the guys in Orange? Here are three reasons why Clemson will make the next College Football Playoff and three reasons why they won’t.
Three Reasons Why Clemson Will make the Collge Football Playoff in 2017
1. Defensive line
Athlon Sports’ ranks Clemson’s first line of defense as the best in the nation and it’s tough to argue. Christian Wilkins is a beast inside or outside, but he will spend most of his time at tackle this year playing next to emerging star Dexter Lawrence. Clelin Ferrell shined in the playoff last season and is back at end. Austin Bryant, who was huge in the 2015 playoff run, is back after missing a good portion of last season with an injury. While end Richard Yeargin is out due to injuries sustained in a car accident and tackle Scott Pagano transferred to Oregon, depth should not be a problem.
2. Offensive line
Four starters return from an offensive line that did a good job protecting Deshaun Watson and opening up just enough holes in the running game to keep the offense balanced. While center Jay Guillermo is a major loss, left tackle Mitch Hyatt will contend for All-American honors and left guard Tyrone Crowder is a stalwart as well.
3. Still an abundance of receivers
Mike Williams, Artavis Scott, and Jordan Leggett will be missed, but don’t cry for Clemson in the pass-catching department. Deon Cain has the tools necessary to be a top receiver, Ray-Ray McCloud can do all the things that fellow Tampa native Scott could do, and Hunter Renfrow is still around as a reliable slot receiver. Plus, super freshman Tee Higgins looks like he will be ready to contribute on day one.
Why Clemson Won’t Make the College Football Playoff in 2017
This one is pretty obvious. Head coach Dabo Swinney has recruited the position very well. True freshman Hunter Johnson was considered by some to be the top quarterback in this year’s recruiting class. Zerrick Cooper and Kelly Bryant are both talented dual threats that fit the Clemson offense nicely. Of course, none of them are Deshaun Watson. Clemson lost one game last year and nearly lost a couple more with Watson leading the way. It stands to reason that his departure alone would keep the Tigers out of the playoff.
2. Running game
Clemson finished 71st in FBS in rushing offense in 2016 and with Watson now gone, that’s an area that needs to improve. But between Watson and running back Wayne Gallman, the Tigers lost 1,759 of their 2,546 rushing yards. While four starters are back on the offensive line, this group struggled at times opening up running lanes last season.
The Tigers went from Mackensie Alexander to Cordrea Tankersley as shutdown corners the past two years. Is there another one ready to emerge this fall? Ryan Carter is solid but is not on that level. Sophomore Trayvon Mullen is talented but has yet to really produce. Plus, the loss of safety Jadar Johnson will be felt too.
Like a lot of teams at the top this year, Clemson has question marks. It starts at quarterback and expands to the ground game and the secondary. But the positives Clemson possesses are elite. The defensive line is as good as it gets and the rushing attack should improve behind an experienced offensive line. Plus, when the Tigers needed to run the ball last year, they did.
A third straight College Football Playoff berth will likely come down to the game against Florida State. While the Seminoles have stars all over the field, there are two factors that favor Clemson in this game. First, it’s in Death Valley. And second, the Florida State offensive line is a major concern. That will be a big problem going against Wilkins, Lawrence and company.
Clemson will lose a game somewhere along the line. Maybe it’s versus Auburn in week two or at NC State when the Tigers could be looking ahead to FSU the next week. But by Nov. 11, the quarterback position should be settled and Swinney will once again have his team believing. Clemson wins that game, goes on to win the ACC title, and gets back to the playoff.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 7
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: (10-2, 6-2 in the ACC)
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 9.5
5 Dimes Over/Under Odds: 9.5
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.
As expected, USC did not make the College Football Playoff in 2016. The Trojans were impressive in their own right, however, as they earned a trip to the Rose Bowl as one of the at-large teams playing in a New Year’s Six Bowl. And USC did more than show just up in Pasadena, coming back from a 15-point, third-quarter deficit to defeat Big Ten champion Penn State to end the season on a nine-game winning streak. Now the college football world is USC’s oyster, once again, or that’s what folks would have you believe.
Whenever the Trojans experience a modicum of success, they’re expected to win even more the following season. The logistics of that may not make much sense, but even the slightest tribulations are met with exceeding expectations. USC is not only the favorite to win the Pac-12 South this fall, but a popular playoff pick as well.
There are plenty of reasons to buy into the hype that the Trojans are once again a legitimate national title contender, but there also are some areas of concern. Which way the 2017 season goes will be up to head coach Clay Helton and his talented roster, as they look to restore the program to its glory days.
Three Reasons USC Will Make the College Football Playoff in 2017
1. Sam Darnold
Max Browne did not work out and is now at Pitt. Darnold is the undisputed leader of the Men of Troy and will be looking to build upon his amazing 2016 campaign. Darnold finished with 3,086 passing yards, another 250 rushing yards and 33 total touchdowns (31 passing, 2 rushing) with just nine touchdowns. And he did this even though Browne started the first three games. This fall, not only is the starting job all his, but Danold is a fixture on preseason watch lists for any award that he’s eligible for, including the Heisman Trophy.
How Darnold builds upon last year will determine how far USC goes in Pac-12 play. He’s not the most fundamentally sound passer, but he has the ability to put the ball on a dime if he needs to. USC will be looking for more throws to the open man and fewer throws into double- and triple-coverage, not that Darnold will shy away from taking a chance or two if an opportunity presents itself. He did last year in the Rose Bowl and found Deontay Burnett on one of the game’s more ridiculous throws. Darnold has all of the tools to move this team into the next stratosphere, but how he will do without a break (see below) is anyone’s guess.
2. Ronald Jones II
Jones did not have the year that people thought he would have coming off a record-breaking freshman campaign. Now that he is recharged and ready to start anew, USC will lean heavily on the junior running back, although he won’t carry the load alone. One area to watch is to see if Jones can improve on the 6.1 yards per carry he averaged last season, which was still good for ninth in the Pac-12. As a freshman, that number was 6.5 on 24 fewer carries (153 vs. 177 in 2016).
Jones also needs to become more of a threat in the passing game. Last season, defenses could count on him running the ball, knowing he wasn’t much of a factor (11 rec. in 13 games) as a receiver out of the backfield. If he’s willing to put in the time to improve in this department, he could develop into one of the nation’s most complete (and productive) running backs.
The Trojans’ offense is far from a one-man show on the ground, as Darnold is just as capable of making plays with his legs, but it does help to have a back that can do everything. Jones has the breakaway speed to score from anywhere on the field. He also has the vision to create where other backs might not. This is the year for him to piece it all together and become a formidable complement to his quarterback.
3. Aggressive defensive play
USC’s defense gave up its share of big plays last season, but otherwise was solid under first-year coordinator Clancy Pendergast. More importantly, this unit improved as the season progressed, although the statistics against Notre Dame and Penn State may not reflect that. With six starters and plenty of other guys that saw significant playing time returning, the expectation is that the Trojans’ defense will take that next step forward this season.
The foundational pieces are guys like linebackers Porter Gustin and Cam Smith, defensive end Rasheem Green, and cornerback Iman Marshall. They will combine with other veterans and some key newcomers, as USC will enjoy the prospect of more depth now that the impact of previous sanctions has begun to wane. Still, this isn’t a defense that lit the world on fire in 2016 and there will be quite a few players taking on new and bigger roles.
If Pendergast’s defense can limit the big plays and the front four finds the right combination, this unit should be in good position to complement the Trojans’ high-powered offense.
Three Reasons USC Will Not Make the College Football Playoff in 2017
1. Lack of a bye
USC plays its entire regular season schedule without a bye, meaning 12 straight games starting Sept. 2 all the way through Nov. 18. How that helps the Trojans in their quest to stay healthy is unclear, but at least it’s a relatively home-friendly slate. Depth and health have been issues for USC the past couple of years, largely due to the sanctions that limited scholarships, but not having a week off is one of the biggest obstacles the Trojans must deal with this season.
Should USC navigate its schedule successfully and win the Pac-12 South, it would give the Trojans a week off before the conference championship game and potentially put them in the best position to make one final statement to the College Football Playoff Selection Committee. Of course that is if USC is in the conversation to be part of the four-team field in the first place, or in the Pac-12 Conference Championship Game for that matter.
The schedule may favor USC when it comes to it getting its toughest opponents at home, but that doesn’t mean the Trojans have an easy slate. USC continues to challenge itself when it comes to non-conference matchups, as this fall has Western Michigan and Texas coming to Los Angeles and the Trojans heading to South Bend to face Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish should be an improved team following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, same for the Longhorns under new head coach Tom Herman.
It is conceivable that USC is 2-2 after the first month with games against the aforementioned Broncos and Longhorns, along with a home game against Stanford and a road date with California. Even though the Trojans will likely be the favorites in each of their non-conference games, it doesn’t mean they can’t lose one or two of those matchups either. And any slip up outside of Pac-12 play could be enough to keep USC out of the playoff.
3. There’s little evidence to suggest the Trojans will
As with last year, there isn’t any evidence that says this is USC’s year to get back to the top of the college football mountain. Yes, the Trojans won the Rose Bowl and will enter the season on a nine-game winning streak, but that doesn’t mean that team was ready to challenge the top teams either. It’s hard to see last year’s team beating Ohio State, Alabama or Clemson. USC did beat Washington in the regular season, but that was the Huskies’ only loss prior to the College Football Playoff. And don’t forget, the Crimson Tide dominated the Trojans 52-6 in the season opener.
USC rightfully earned a top-five final ranking in both polls, but winning another national championship is different than rattling off nine straight victories to finish a season that otherwise started out going the opposite direction. The four teams that made the playoff last season had offenses that ranked among the top 15 in scoring and defenses that were among the 10 most stingiest. That’s the bar the Trojans need to reach if they want to earn their first playoff appearance.
USC feels like a team that could make the College Football Playoff or one that could be 2017’s version of Penn State and be the one that just misses. Recruiting has not been an issue, even with the sanctions and coaching transitions, but now the Trojans need to take their five-star talent and get All-American performances out of those players. Last year’s Trojan team looked like one capable of winning it all. But appearances and results are two entirely different things.
Washington is currently the team to beat in the Pac-12, but Stanford and Oregon won’t give up the North without a fight. In the South, UCLA is hoping that Josh Rosen can get back to his freshman form after missing half of last season because of a shoulder injury. This also is an important season for Bruins head coach Jim Mora after two straight seasons of decline in the win column.
Pac-12 factors aside, the biggest reasons why USC may not make the playoff is a lack of a bye and another difficult non-conference schedule. Those two factors could combine and put an early damper on the Trojans’ season and kill any of the momentum built from last season.
USC should be in the running for another New Year’s Six Bowl berth, but the Trojans will come up just short of earning a spot in the playoff.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 5
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 11-2 (8-1 Pac-12)
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 9.5
5 Dimes Over/Under Odds: 9.5
One of the most polarizing players in fantasy circles, Jay Ajayi, is poised to make the leap to elite in 2017. Ironically, his most impressive games are exactly what have caused the divide between fantasy owners.
2016 Season Recap
Ajayi had one of the more remarkable seasons of any running back in 2016. He started the season on the inactive list in Week 1 because he was unhappy with his role as the backup to Arian Foster, but he finished just outside of the top 10 among fantasy running backs in standard leagues after rushing for 1,272 yards (4.9 ypc) and eight touchdowns, to go along with 27 catches for 151 yards.
Ajayi thrived when the Dolphins’ offensive line was intact, including a three-game stretch starting in Week 6 against Pittsburgh, Buffalo and the Jets in which he scored at least 18 fantasy points (standard league scoring) and produced back-to-back 200-yard games. He added a third such performance in Week 16 in the rematch with the Bills.
Even though those four games (757 rushing yards combined) accounted for nearly 60 percent of his seasonal total on the ground and five of his eight touchdowns, he did manage at least seven fantasy points in 11 of the 15 games he played. So while he did have a bit of a boom-or-bust factor, he also was productive enough that he didn’t hurt your team’s chances of winning most weeks.
Ajayi’s only real competition in the backfield comes from Damien Williams, who has averaged 3.4 yards per carry over his career, and Kenyan Drake, who has 33 total carries to his credit. Miami returns four offensive line starters and should also showcase an improved passing game with a coaching staff looking to get new tight end Julius Thomas immediately involved, as well as the presence of a receiving corps hoping to take a step forward.
But even with Thomas in the fold and the likes of Jarvis Landry, DeVante Parker and Kenny Stills at receiver, it’s not as if Ryan Tannehill is an elite fantasy QB. The Dolphins are going to need to run the ball with Ajayi if they want to get back to the playoffs this season, so another 1,200-yard campaign with double-digit touchdowns is not out of the question.
Where to Draft
While some may be worried about Ajayi turning out to be a one-year wonder, he’s still worth drafting as a low-end RB1 in all leagues at some point in Round 2. Should he fall past the first two rounds, then immediately grab him as he could end up being one of the steals of the draft based on his expected workload and the big-play potential he’s already shown.
— Written by Michael Horvath, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Horvath is a Canadian who also happens to be a fantasy football (not to be confused with CFL) and fitness nut. Follow him on Twitter @realmikehorvath.
And don’t forget to pick up your copy of Athlon Sports’ 2017 Fantasy Football magazine, available for purchase online and at newsstands everywhere.
As we continue our conference-by-conference previews of college football win totals, our focus shifts to the Mountain West. Boise State is going to be fantastic once again, but there are some other contenders with Colorado State, Wyoming and San Diego State also in the mix. As I have done with the other conferences, I will look at each team and see if there's any value to the posted total.
Note: Over/under odds courtesy of the South Point Casino sports book
(Over 5 +110...Under 5 -130)
Things could be mighty difficult on defense with just one returning starter and the rest being very young. Grant Ross had 67 tackles and 2.5 sacks in 2016 and will be joined by R.J. Jackson at linebacker. On offense, Arion Worthman and Tim McVey represent the returning talent in the backfield. Trying to find someone to replace Jalen Robinette will be tough considering he was the rare service academy wide receiver talent. The schedule features games against VMI, Michigan, Navy and Army. The Falcons have four of five on the road at the end of September. I think the under is the right play, but the money move has taken some of the value away.
(Over 8 -120...Under 8 EVEN)
There are only four returning starters on each side of the ball, but QB Brett Rypien represents one of those so that's a good place to start on offense. Rypien had 24 touchdowns to just eight interceptions last season. The Broncos’ all-time leading receiver (Thomas Sperbeck) and productive running back Jeremy McNichols are both gone, but Rypien still has Cedrick Wilson (1,129 yards, 11 TDs) to throw to. The offensive line figures to be okay despite losing three starters. On defense, Boise State needs to create more turnovers because nine last year doesn't cut it. Junior tackle David Moa had 8.5 sacks, which represented 30 percent of the team’s total (29). The schedule lines up nicely for a fast start with three of the first four at home. I don't mind the under here especially at the EVEN price tag.
(Over 7.5 EVEN...Under 7.5 -120)
The Rams finished out the season with four shootouts and hope to carry that over this season. Nick Stevens was named to the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award watch list, which is given to the nation's best quarterback. Stevens was pretty good after taking over for Collin Hill, throwing for 1,859 yards, 19 touchdowns and just three interceptions in the final seven games. Dalyn Dawkins is back at running back while Michael Gallup is one of the top wide receivers in FBS. The biggest question mark is up front with just two returning starters. CSU's defense figures to be even better with eight starters back and a lot of them are seniors. The Rams have a three-game road swing that starts with Alabama in September. I think the under is worth a look here too.
(Over 5.5 -110...Under 5.5 -110)
New Mexico returns Lamar Jordan at quarterback and five of its top six running backs so the Lobos should keep the momentum going after leading the nation in rushing (350 ypg) last season. Running behind an offensive line with four returning starters probably doesn’t hurt either. There are several returning wideouts, but they aren't as crucial in head coach Bob Davie's run-heavy offense. Defensively is where the issues start with just three returning starters. There was immense improvement on this side of the ball in 2016, but I don't know if that will continue especially with a potentially leaky secondary. New Mexico alternates home and road games for the most part once it gets into conference play. Give me the over as I think there's a good shot for six wins or more.
(Over 4.5 EVEN...Under 4.5 -120)
It was a rough 2016 season for the Aggies as their streak of winning at least six games and playing in a bowl ended at six following a 3-9 finish. Unfortunately, that trend could continue with just four starters back on each side of the ball. The top three tacklers are gone on defense, putting more pressure on the most experienced returnees – linebackers Alex Huerta and Derek Larsen and safety Dallin Leavitt. On offense, QB Kent Myers is back and he's got Tonny Lindsey Jr. in the backfield. Myers managed just 10 touchdown passes with eight interceptions last season, but some of that can be attributed to a lack of protection. This will be a concern once again, however, with just one starter returning along the offensive line. The schedule is tough with three of the first four on the road. Playing at Wisconsin and Wake Forest won't help build early confidence. I think the under is worth a look here.
(Over 7.5 EVEN...Under 7.5 -120)
Josh Allen is getting a lot of love from draft analysts who say he could be one of the top quarterback prospects next year should be declare early. Allen threw 28 touchdown passes and added another seven scores on the ground last season. The weapons around him will need to be developed with the top three receivers gone as well as running back Brian Hill. The good thing is that the offensive line will give him some time. Nine starters are back on defense, including four in the secondary. If the defense continues to force turnovers (27, tied for 10th in FBS) like last year, then the Cowboys could be a sleeper team. Wyoming has four straight home games in September, including a visit from Oregon. I like the over here as I think Allen continues his improvement as a signal-caller.
(Over 4 EVEN...Under 4 -120)
Notice the trend in this conference? There's not a lot of confidence in almost any team in the Mountain West. Fresno State has nine starters back on offense and six on defense. New head coach Jeff Tedford is going to have to work his magic on QB Chason Virgil who had a decent season last year, but many called for his benching. Weapons are back so the offense should improve from the 17.7 points per game the Bulldogs scored last year. The new defensive coordinator is Orlondo Steinauer, who made a name for himself in the CFL. Can he make the transition to the college game though? For some reason the Bulldogs scheduled road games at Alabama and Washington in weeks two and three. Four is a pretty good number so no play here.
(Over 4.5 EVEN...Under 4.5 -120)
Nick Rolovich managed to get the Warriors to a bowl in his first year. He has Dru Brown and Diocemy Saint Juste back on offense. Brown provides some consistency to the quarterback position after he threw for 19 touchdowns in 2016. The left side of the offensive line should be strong. The defense was too generous last year, giving up more than 50 points on four different occasions. The defensive line has had issues with discipline off the field, as Ka'aumoana Gifford was suspended for all of 2017. I like the over for Hawaii if the right answers emerge up front.
(Over 3.5 -130...Under 3.5 +110)
The rare team in this conference that the public seems to like. The Wolf Pack have first-year head coach Jay Norvell and the veteran offensive coordinator is expected to put his stamp on the offense, making it more up-tempo and entertaining. James Butler's departure at running back is a concern with a lack or proven options stepping into major roles. David Cornwell and Ty Gangi are fighting for the starting quarterback job. Jeff Casteel will run the defense and change to a 3-3-5 from a traditional 4-3. The secondary is the team's strength so that could help the transition. What may not help, however, is the schedule which includes road games against Northwestern and Washington State in September. Nevada has very winnable home games so I agree with the public move on the over.
(Over 9.5 EVEN...Under 9.5 -120)
Donnell Pumphrey, the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher, is gone, but the Aztecs ground game should be strong once again. Rashaad Penny put up more than 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns behind Pumphrey last season. Christian Chapman was very good as a game manager, taking care of the ball (just six interceptions) and making the most of his limited passing opportunities. He was out for spring practice because of a thumb injury. The offensive line has just one starter back so it may take time to get the ground game going. Head coach Rocky Long should field another good defense in 2017. Linebacker Ronley Lakalaka and cornerback Kameron Kelly are expected to take on bigger roles. San Diego State gets Stanford and Northern Illinois at home. Last year, the Aztecs knocked off Cal in San Diego. The under is a good play here as I think nine wins is a lot to ask for.
(Over 3.5 EVEN...Under 3.5 -120)
The offensive line will try to stop the trend of 88 sacks allowed the last two years. The quarterback position is a huge question mark for new head coach Brent Brennan. Running backs Malik Roberson and Zamore Zigler figure to get a lot of work early as the team tries to play ball control. The secondary is pretty much intact after ranking 19th nationally against the pass. Special teams also should be solid so all the pressure is on the offense. The Spartans play back-to-back road games three different times this season, including a brutal Texas-Utah double dip. The under is the side here with two wins being likely.
(Over 5.5 +110...Under 5.5 -130)
There are a lot of weapons surrounding quarterback Armani Rogers, arguably the best recruit that head coach Tony Sanchez has brought in his brief tenure. Rogers has size (6-5), a strong arm and decent mobility. Devonte Boyd should be his top target while Lexington Thomas and Charles Williams head up a deep running back group. The defense has just two returning starters – tackles Mike Hughes Jr. and Salanoa-Alo Wily. The secondary gave up too many big plays last season and that could be the case once again. A Sept. 23 road trip to Columbus to play Ohio State probably isn’t going to end well. Unfortunately, the public is on the right side of another win total as the under is a good play.
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Josephs prefers non-Power 5 college football and may be the only one wagering on the Sun Belt. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.
If there’s one thing for certain in the NFL, it’s that job security can be a fleeting thing no matter where you are on the career ladder. Between the 24/7 coverage of the league to the incessant pining for a winner by owners and fans alike, it can be especially tough to stick around as a head coach.
Last season saw six NFL teams make a coaching change, to say nothing of the dozens of other moves involving general managers or coordinators. There should be plenty more made after the upcoming season but who could be on the chopping block and who will be planning beyond 2018? Here’s a look at which head coaches are safe and which need to make sure they’re renting.
Bill Belichick, New England Patriots
There will be a time where Belichick is not running the show in Foxborough but it’s anybody’s guess as to when (or how many decades from now) that will be. Few coaches have as much clout as he does and that includes picking his own exit.
Pete Carroll, Seattle Seahawks
Carroll will turn 66 during the season but he may have more energy than the majority of his players. Retirement will happen at some point but it does not appear to be in the cards in the near future.
Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers
The franchise has had just three head coaches since 1969 and it would take quite a bit of upheaval in the Steel City to see Tomlin on his way out despite there being a few rumbles in the fan base about recent postseason performances.
Andy Reid, Kansas City Chiefs
Chiefs fans seem vastly more frustrated with the performance of the team under Reid than ownership as the coach has used the summer to consolidate a lot of his power. In addition to getting a contract extension, he seems to have even greater control over personnel with the elevation of Brett Veach to general manager.
Jack Del Rio, Oakland Raiders
Success has been fleeting for what seems like a decade in Oakland but Del Rio seems to have reenergized the franchise since arriving. The defense is feisty, the offense is good depending on the health of the quarterback and the coach appears to be set for some time to come.
Dan Quinn, Atlanta Falcons
The Super Bowl collapse is always going to be on Quinn’s record but that shouldn’t overshadow leading the Falcons’ resurgence. The team is much tougher and mentally strong than past editions and that comes directly from the head coach himself.
Safe but Never Completely Safe
Adam Gase, Miami Dolphins
The bright young offensive mind showed off his chops by changing things up in his first year and leading the Dolphins to the playoffs. While things look bright in Miami, Gase’s future seems tied to making progress with QB Ryan Tannehill.
John Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens
Missing out on the playoffs in three of the last four years have put a slight damper on Harbaugh’s luster since winning Super Bowl XLVII but there are only a handful of more stable leadership groups than the trio of the Ravens’ head coach, GM Ozzie Newsome and owner Steve Bisciotti.
Bruce Arians, Arizona Cardinals
Last season’s disappointment and the roster turnover of the past few years have some in the desert wonder what the future holds after so much recent success. Despite that, there’s a great fit between the front office and their stylish head coach and it’s hard to see either party going anywhere soon.
Ron Rivera, Carolina Panthers
Riverboat Ron is in a bit of an interesting position given that he’s had some tremendous success in Carolina and is well liked by many who follow the team. Consistent success from year-to-year has been a bit of an issue though and general manager Dave Gettleman was fired by owner Jerry Richardson just eight days prior to the start of training camp. Even with the unexpected move, Rivera appears to be safe for the time being. If nothing else, he could potentially buy more time by changing offensive coordinators.
Jason Garrett, Dallas Cowboys
Garrett’s job in bringing along the Cowboys’ rookie backfield was masterful in 2016 and he’s in the middle of a big-money contract with the team. You never quite know about job security working for Jerry Jones but the dynamic in Dallas is as good as things have been in quite some time.
Mike Zimmer, Minnesota Vikings
Perhaps the biggest issue for Zimmer’s long-term future in Minnesota is his own health. Most Vikings fans are pretty happy with how he’s helped turn things around despite key injuries and the lack of a good offensive line.
Sean McVay, Los Angeles Rams
The youngest head coach in NFL history seems to have plenty of slack given the conservative nature of Stan Kronke when it comes to making coaching changes but he’ll have to show something on the field in order to be around for the opening of the new Rams stadium.
Kyle Shanahan, San Francisco 49ers
Shanahan is the fourth coach in as many seasons for the team so while job security isn’t totally assured, it certainly seems the organization is fully confident in turning things over to him and ready to turn the corner for some longer term success. The short-term outlook isn’t rosy for the 49ers but their coach seems to be on relatively solid ground.
Sean McDermott, Buffalo Bills
It seems like McDermott has a herculean challenge to get Buffalo back to the postseason but his levelheadedness will do him well in steering the franchise. The front office turnover seems to have calmed down and it appears McDermott will have some leeway in turning around the team.
Stuck in Neutral
Ben McAdoo, New York Giants
Given the media market, McAdoo’s hot seat may very well be week-to-week in the mind of some fans. Still, it’s hard to see him in the firing squad after a quality debut campaign and plenty coming back.
Doug Pederson, Philadelphia Eagles
Pederson had a solid 7-9 debut in a very tough division but it seems pretty clear his future with the team is going to be tied to developing Carson Wentz and the rest of the offense.
Vance Joseph, Denver Broncos
Joseph is short on experience as a first-time head coach but does takeover a good situation up in Denver. With that comes expectations though so early struggles could make for a warmer seat down the road.
Anthony Lynn, Los Angeles Chargers
Coaches hate distractions and Lynn has to deal with a ton of them as the man tasked with leading the Chargers from San Diego to LA. That will no doubt come with some job protection in the short term but the onus will be on him to deliver something before the team moves to their permanent home up the 405.
Jay Gruden, Washington Redskins
Washington remains a bit of a mess from ownership on down but Gruden led the team to back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in a decade and appears to be the coach for the next two years at least. If things turn south in a big way though, anything is possible with this franchise.
Dirk Koetter, Tampa Bay Bucs
Expectations are going to be raised considerably for Koetter given the pieces the offense will field this season. If the team keeps tripping up however, his status could get warmer.
Warm to the Touch
Sean Payton, New Orleans Saints
Few coaches are in a trickier spot than Payton, who remains beloved for what he has done for the franchise but still has to contend with mediocre recent results. Given the dysfunction above him in the organization, a departure (in some form or fashion) is as likely as him consolidating his power is.
Mike McCarthy, Green Bay Packers
McCarthy is one of the most successful coaches in the league and benefits from the relative isolation of Green Bay when it comes to feeling the heat nationally. He’s won the division five of the past six years but frustrating postseason exits and not getting back to the Super Bowl in Aaron Rogers’ prime years has turned the burner up to where even such a conservative franchise might ponder a change.
Hue Jackson, Cleveland Browns
Jackson seems to have the faith of ownership and the Browns’ unique front office so there’s undoubtedly plenty of patience with this rebuild in Cleveland. Still, you are what your record is and if progress isn’t being made with the young team, then it remains possible the seat gets even toastier.
Bill O’Brien, Houston Texans
O’Brien has been tripped up by QB play and an inconsistent offense during his time in Houston, which is supposed to be his forte. That has led to some frustration on many fans’ part but he’s still done a solid but not spectacular job in guiding the team when taking the larger view. He doesn’t seem completely safe if the team struggles early on but ownership won’t rush him out the door either.
Doug Marrone, Jacksonville Jaguars
It does not appear that ownership wants to completely hit reset on the current regime and thus promoted Marrone to head coach over the offseason. There isn’t exactly long-term confidence in the current setup and with a still-wanting-to-coach Tom Coughlin already in the building; Marrone would be wise to keep an eye over his shoulder if the team continues to struggle on the field.
Mike Mularkey, Tennessee Titans
The hiring of Mularkey in the first place was relatively uninspiring and he’ll have just one year left on his deal after the season. If the team gets off to a slow start or things become bumpy down the stretch, it wouldn’t shocking for changes to be in store down in Nashville for what could be an attractive opening.
Jim Caldwell, Detroit Lions
Getting to the playoffs twice with Detroit is nothing to gloss over but it remains to be seen if the Lions’ brass is confident enough in Caldwell to get them over the hump. His contract expires after the season and it might take an elusive division title to get an extension.
Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals
Like Caldwell, Lewis is entering the final season of his contract and it appears slim to none that an extension gets done during the season. Making it to the postseason and winning a game would probably earn one so the second-longest tenured head coach in the NFL is very much coaching for his job in 2017.
Chuck Pagano, Indianapolis Colts
Pagano has had to deal with injuries to star quarterback Andrew Luck but it seems like he’s been on thin ice each of the past two offseasons as a result of being unable to fix the team’s mediocre defense. While many expected him to be shown the door with former GM Ryan Grigson, the coach is nevertheless on his last legs in Indy.
John Fox, Chicago Bears
The situation between Fox and the Bears’ front office is well known around the league to be in an untenable place so it will surprise nobody if this is Fox’s final season in Chicago. He’s just 9-23 since arriving and anything less than .500 is probably enough to hit the reset button on a tenure that never could get going.
Todd Bowles, New York Jets
The Jets are in full pursuit of the No. 1 overall pick based on their lifeless roster so Bowles isn’t exactly being setup to succeed by his front office. With just one year left on his contract after this season, the only question is if the team parts ways with their coach at some point in 2017 or ‘18.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.