Top storylines heading into the spring

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While we’re still over six months away from the start of the 2012 season, we’re not wandering through a football-less desert quite yet.

From Feb. 13 (Army first practice) through May 5 (UCLA’s spring game), all 124 Div. 1-A (FBS) football programs will utilize their 15 allotted spring sessions to begin preparations in earnest for the upcoming season.

Below are but a few of the storylines and issues we’ll be following over the next couple of months.

Conference change, it’s a comin’
Missouri and Texas A&M from the Big 12 to the SEC.  TCU and West Virginia from the Big East to the Big 12.  Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada officially moving to the Mountain West from the WAC.  And four brand-new football programs moving up from Div. 1-AA (FCS) to Div. 1-A (FBS): South Alabama (Sun Belt), Texas State (WAC), UMass (MAC) and UT-San Antonio (WAC).  Hell, there’s even the very real possibility that Temple could be leaving the MAC for the Big East this year as well.

While the moves won’t become officially official until July 1, all of those schools will, in essence, conduct spring practice as members of their new respective conferences.  In particular, a lot of the “new kid on the block” attention will be paid to Missouri and Texas A&M — and new head coach Kevin Sumlin — because, well, it’s the SEC and the six-peat BcS champion conference always has more than its share of eyes upon it.

Sideline upheaval
More than one-fifth (27) of the 124 football program that will play at the Div. 1-A level in 2012 made a change at head coach at some point after the start of the 2011 season. From Penn State and Ohio State in the Big Ten to four new ones in the Pac-12 — the most of any BcS conference; Conference USA will have five new head coaches — to Texas A&M ahead of its move from the Big 12 to the SEC, none of the 11 conferences were spared at least one change at head coach from where its members were at the beginning of last season.

The spring sessions will be, for the most part, the first chance for those coaches and their coaching staffs to really get a good look at and begin the evaluation of the roster. The “real” work won’t begin until September, but laying the foundation of new schemes on both sides of the ball will begin in earnest. What happens during the next couple of months will determine how far ahead/behind/in step with the more entrenched programs lugging experienced staffs into the new year.  All eyes in particular will be on Bill O’Brien, who will not only take over the scandal-stained Nittany Lions program but will also be embarking upon his first season as a Div. 1-A head coach.  Well, all that and replacing a legendary icon who had been the face of Happy Valley for nearly half a century as well.

Needing Moore Luck at quarterback
For the first time in four years at Boise State and three at Stanford, the two top-ten programs won’t have the experience and talent of Kellen Moore and Andrew Luck, respectively, under center.

Who will they have?  Brett Nottingham will enter the spring as the odds-on favorite to replace Luck with the Cardinal, with Robbie Picazo and Josh Nunes expected to provide the stiffest competition for the redshirt sophomore.  Outside of Moore, junior-to-be Joe Southwick attempted the most passes (30) for the Broncos last year and was listed as the co-backup along with sophomore-to-be Grant Hedrick.  How those two competitions shake out will go a long, long way in determining whether the two programs can maintain the on-field excellence and build upon the foundations laid by Luck and Moore.

Better this time around?
After winning its first BcS title under Nick Saban in 2009, Alabama “stumbled” through a 10-3 season the following year, with all three losses coming in SEC play. With a second crystal football in three years tucked under its arm, the Tide will attempt to become the first SEC program in the BcS era to repeat as champions. Two problems with going back-to-back, however. One, the Tide will be forced to replace half its starting lineup, including seven on a defense that ranked at or near the top in nearly every major statistical category in 2011 season. And, two, LSU — ya know, the winner of the Tide’s division and loser of the rematch — remains in the SEC West and returns a squad that not only should be at or near the top of the preseason rankings but will be better because of the attrition at the quarterback position.

Fun fact? The Tide has not lost to a non-conference foe since its two-touchdown beatdown at the hands of Utah in the Sugar Bowl following the 2008 regular season.  This year, the Tide will get an immediate test of the rework and revamping begun in the spring as they face likely top-ten foe Michigan in a neutral site game to open the season.

Get those seats warmed, fellas
It’s never too early for some hot seat talk, is it?  Based on the offseason he’s had — nearly a dozen transfers and the Danny O’Brien fiasco — and coming off an abysmal two-win first season at Maryland, Randy Edsall should sit at or near the top of any list of coaches on the hot seat.  Given the significant amount of attrition on both the roster and the coaching staff — he will have new offensive and defensive coordinators — this spring will likely resemble his first with the Terps, sort of a feeling-out process all over again with the added bonus of vultures circling over the two-win carcass.  Edsall simply needs a solid spring to lead to vast improvement in 2012 or he could very well find himself on the outside of the program looking in 2013.

Other coaches who need a strong spring to translate into an immediate turnaround in 2012 include Tennessee’s Derek Dooley, Boston College’s Frank Spaziani, Kentucky’s Joker Phillips, UCF’s George O’Leary and Cal’s Jeff Tedford.

(Still to come: individual storylines for the six BcS conferences — the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC.)

Suspended Mich. St. staffer receives one-MONTH contract extension

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A disturbing situation in East Lansing has added a head-scratching twist.

According to ESPN.com, and by way of a Freedom of Information request, Michigan State football staffer Curtis Blackwell was on the receiving end of a one-month contract extension earlier this month.  Blackwell, whose title with the football program is director of college advancement and performance, was set to see his contract expire at the end of this week.

What makes this development noteworthy is that Blackwell has been indefinitely suspended by the Spartans since early February.

Around that time, it was confirmed by the university that three still-unnamed MSU football players had been suspended after allegations of sexual assault were made against them last month.  An unnamed football staffer was suspended at the time as well; that staffer was subsequently identified as Blackwell.

A police investigation, as well as a Title IX probe, into the allegations continue.  Blackwell is not accused of participating in the alleged sexual assault, but rather a non-sexual crime that’s connected to the investigation.

Mark Dantonio hadn’t spoken publicly about the allegations until earlier this week, and the head coach probably would’ve been better served to have kept it that way.

A&M, UCLA both add New Mexico to future schedules

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Texas A&M and UCLA announced Wednesday that their 2017 opener had been moved from Saturday to Sunday.  As it turns out, that wasn’t the only scheduling news connecting the two football programs.

As part of a release announcing seven games being added to its future schedules, New Mexico confirmed that two of those contests will include A&M and UCLA.  Both of those games, obviously, will be on the road, with the Lobos traveling to College Station Sept. 18, 2021, and to Pasadena and the Rose Bowl Sept. 13, 2025.

In its release, the school wrote that “[t]he game in College Station has a guarantee of $1,100,000 and 450 complementary tickets,” while “[t]he game in Pasadena has a guarantee of $1,200,000 plus 2,000 complementary tickets that UNM can sell for extra revenue.”

The last and only time New Mexico and UCLA squared off was in the 2002 Las Vegas Bowl, a 27-13 win for the Bruins.  UNM and A&M actually completed a home-and-home series relatively recently, with the Aggies winning both games played in the 2008 (28-22) and 2009 (41-6) seasons.

In addition to the future Power Five games, a continuation of the long-running rivalry with UTEP will be extended.  UNM will play in El Paso in 2021, then host UTEP in 2022.  Those two games will mark the 79th and 80th contests in the regional rivalry.

Michigan State, Washington round out future schedules with Utah State

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Needing to fill a single spot in some future schedules, both Michigan State and Washington have come calling to the Mountain West for an opponent. Utah State was happy to oblige.

Michigan State will host Utah State on September 1, 2018. The Aggies will travel to Washington on September 19, 2020. For their travels, Utah State will collect $2.9 million between the two games, according to FBScheduels.com ($1.4 million from Michigan State, $1.5 million from Washington).

The Big Ten and Pac-12 each use nine-game conference schedules, leaving three spots open for non-conference games. The Big Ten requires all conference members schedule one game per season against another power conference opponent (the Pac-12 has no such requirement of its members at this time), although exceptions are made. Utah State, as a member of the Mountain West Conference, would not satisfy that requirement for the Big Ten, but the Spartans already have a road game against Arizona State (Pac-12) on the schedule in 2018. Michigan State and Arizona State will play again in 2019 in East Lansing. Michigan State also has future power conference matchups with Notre Dame (2017, 2026, 2027) and Miami (2020, 2021). Michigan State will also play BYU in 2020 in Provo.

Washington has future power conference matchups with Rutgers (2017), Auburn (2018, in Atlanta), and Michigan (2020, 2021). The Huskies will also face Mountain West Competition from Fresno State (2017), Hawaii (2019), and Nevada (2027).

Utah State will face power conference opponents on the road in 2017 (Wisconsin, Wake Forest), 2018 (Michigan State), 2019 (Wake Forest, LSU), 2020 (Washington), and 2021 (Washington State). Utah State will also host Washington State in 2020 as part of a home-and-home deal. Utah State also has an annual series against BYU running through 2020.

Old Dominion hopes to “hit the ground running” on new stadium project

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Some fans of the Old Dominion football program may be getting a little impatient with the progress (or lack of) in the development of the football stadium, but Old Dominion athletic director Wood Selig says things are coming along nicely and progress will start to be seen soon enough.

“Once we get the architects engaged, we’ll figure out what $55 million will buy in 2019 dollars,” Selig said, according to The Virginian-Pilot. “Then we’ll have an idea for how much additional money needs to be raised to support the project.”

Old Dominion is planning on tearing down Foreman Field at the end of the 2018 season and rebuild it with modern seating and amenities. The $55 million project remained on the books in the Virginia budget in February, allowing the university to move ahead with their plans. The first step is finding an architect to take on the job.

Because Old Dominion’s football stadium is among the smallest in the nation and will remain so even after the rebuild and renovations, the entire project is expected to move fairly swiftly once the work actually begins. Old Dominion isn’t building a grand football palace, so any concerns over the lack of updates on the stadium should be calmed.

If nothing else, the concerns raised about the lack of updates on the stadium renovations may just mean Old Dominion has some eager fans excited about the future of the program.