The Swami

CFT 2014 Preseason Preview: Six-Pack of Storylines

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Finally, after (nearly) seven long, agonizing months filled with seemingly nothing but arrests, suspensions, transfers, lawsuits and one Sharknado, the dawn of a new season is upon us.

In just 24 days, we’ll be hunkered down in front of the television taking in the glory that is the South Carolina Gamecocks playing host to the post-JFF Texas A&M Aggies. The day before that, the most addicted of us [/raises hand slowly at first, then proudly and defiantly] will take in the actual kickoff to the 2014 FBS season: FCS Abilene Christian at Georgia State of the Sun Belt.

In between now and then? Previews. Glorious, illuminating, voluminous previews as far as the eye can see.

We’ll kick off the look at the upcoming season the same way we have the past five years: storylines that you should pay attention to or could be in play in the coming months.

Proceed, and enjoy.

YOU KIDDING ME?!?! PLAYOFFS?!?!
No, Coach Mora, we’re not kidding. And we’re going to talk about it as a playoff has finally, thankfully come to the game of college football, and it will be, at least entering early September, the most talked-about aspect and overriding theme of the new season.

We’ll have a more in-depth primer on the particulars of the new system exactly three weeks from today (check out the repository for all of the preview posting dates HERE), but for now here are the bare essentials of what you need to know: the playoff will consist of four teams and two semifinal games — this year hosted by the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl — played on New Year’s Day followed by a stand-alone national championship game 11 days later at the home of the Dallas Cowboys in Arlington, Texas. The four teams will be chosen by a committee consisting of 13 individuals, a group made up of former coaches, current and former administrators — five current athletic directors, one each from a Power Five conference, included — one retired media member and a former United States Secretary of State.

If you thought controversy was a thing of the past with the glorious death of the BCS? Think again as the new College Football Playoff and how the committee selects the four teams will dwarf just about anything we ever saw in the decade and a half under the old bastard of a system. Buckle up — and grab your popcorn — as it’s going to be one hell of a ride as the new system in general and the committee specifically works its way through what’s expected to be some serious and controversial growing pains.

Florida State v ClemsonJAMEIS’ ENCORE, FSU’S TITLE DEFENSE
Both Jameis Winston personally and his Florida State Seminoles as a team will have tough acts to follow in 2014.

All Winston did in his first season as a starter at the collegiate level was become just the second-ever freshman to win the Heisman Trophy — along with an armful of other postseason honors — en route to leading his team to the last-ever BCS title. During that championship run, the Seminoles were a devastating football machine that destroyed just about everything in its path: FSU won every game but two — Boston College (48-34) and Auburn (34-31) — by at least 27 points; they won nine of the 14 by 30 or more. In other words, they were a veritable buzzsaw that will see a plethora of returning talent (15 starters), leaving the Seminoles as the favorite until someone knocks them off. That doesn’t mean the ‘Noles are without question marks, though, and not the least of which involves Winston.

The redshirt sophomore has had an, ahem, eventful last several months, from the rape allegations to the crab caper to media-created hiccups littered about here and there. He will enter 2014 with a Johnny Manziel-level of hype and will be under perhaps an even harsher microscope than Johnny Football ever faced at the collegiate level. What if any impact will the added scrutiny have on Winston on the field? The answer to that question will go a long way in determining how successful the ‘Noles are in their title defense. Well, that and replacing a couple of key pieces on both sides of the ball due to early departures for the NFL as well as the highly-respected defensive coordinator leavi… meh, who am I kidding. Barring a substantial injury outbreak, FSU will be a heavy, heavy favorite to stake its claim to one of the four spots in the inaugural CFP.

SEC LogoCAN THE SEC CLIMB BACK TO THE CFB MOUNTAINTOP?
For six consecutive years, from 2007 through 2012, the college football season ended the way it began: with an SEC team as the reigning BCS champion. Then 2013 happened as the conference of champions and its ballyhooed seven-year title run morphed into the conference of runner-ups as Auburn dropped a three-point heartbreaker to Florida State in Pasadena. The question now becomes, was it just a one-year blip or the beginning of a trend? The answer, of course, depends on who you ask and how much stock you place on a single season.

For an SEC fan, it’s resoundingly the former, and for good reason. At least on paper, no fewer than five of the teams in the conference — Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, LSU and South Carolina — have the kind of talent that could translate into a spot in the College Football Playoffs. Hell, there could even be two teams from the preeminent college football league qualify for the CFP, with some folks already planting the seed that it would be a shame and/or a crime if half the field didn’t come from the SEC. Nonetheless, don’t let one title-less year fool you — the SEC is still the deepest conference in college football, with any team looking to grab the first-ever playoff trophy facing the very real possibility of going through an SEC squad — or two — to get it.

On the flip side, there are concerns, especially when it comes to the most important position on the gridiron. Quick quiz: who is the most experienced SEC quarterback entering 2014? Answer: Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace. Now, when the answer to that question is “Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace,” red flags fly up and sirens go off at an alarming rate. That’s certainly a cause for concern, with four of the five perceived favorites — Auburn and Nick Marshall being the lone exception — breaking in a new starter. Another? The gap between the SEC and the rest of the country appears to be shrinking, at least slightly. Oregon, Oklahoma — as it showed in the Sugar Bowl thumping of Alabama — Ohio State, UCLA, Michigan State, Baylor and Stanford all have the look of teams who could not only keep pace with the best the SEC has to offer, but could prove teams that trump the best the preeminent football conference in the country.

Regardless of how it ultimately plays out, it will be fascinating to watch how the conference as a whole reacts to being the hunter instead of the hunted.

California v OregonWEST COAST PREPS FOR AERIAL BOMBARDMENT
There may be question marks pockmarking the SEC at the quarterback position all across the board, but that’s not even remotely the case in the westernmost FBS conference.

Start with the main ingredient of two serious Heisman contenders — Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, UCLA’s Brett Hundley — add in a dash of under-the-radar candidates — Arizona State’s Taylor Kelly and Oregon State’s Sean Mannion — and a pinch of above-average quality — Washington State’s Connor Halliday, Stanford’s Kevin Hogan, USC’s Cody Kessler and Cal’s Jared Goff — and you have a recipe for Pac-12 quarterbacks keeping defensive coordinators across the country awake and balled up in the corner in the fetal position.

How quarterback-driven will the Pac-12 be in 2014?  The two preseason favorites — by both the media and gamblers — are Oregon and UCLA; it’s no coincidence that Mariota and Hundley, especially the former, are viewed as being head and shoulders above their conference counterparts.  How those two perform will go a long way in determining how the conference race plays out — and whether either can push their respective teams and thus their league into the College Football Playoff this January.

Will MuschampSCORCHING SEATS FOR UF’s MUSCHAMP, UM’S HOKE
Many coaches will enter 2014 on the proverbial hot seat — we’ll have a more extensive look at that in a little over a week — but none more so than the two referenced in the headline.

And, of the two, there’s none higher-up on the Scoville scale than Will Muschamp, as he readily acknowledged earlier this summer.  First, the particulars: coming off an 11-2 season in his second year at Florida that raised the hopes of Gator Nation, the football program hit rock-bottom with a resounding thud and in near-historic fashion.  The 4-8 record was the worst since 1979; a bowl-less postseason was the first for a non-sanctioned Gators team since 1986; a second 3-5 record in SEC play in three years showed just how far behind the conference elite they currently are; and, arguably most embarrassingly, UF lost to FCS Georgia Southern in The Swamp.  The calls for Muschamp’s head on a platter from the media and fans alike were coming fast and furious.  So much so that the athletic director had to offer his beleaguered head coach an in-season vote of confidence. While Jeremy Foley has publicly supported the coach, there is growing concern behind closed doors that Muschamp may not be the man to lead the Gators out of the post-Urban Meyer morass — which actually started while Urb was lording over Gainesville — in which the program’s currently stuck.  One more season even remotely similar to 2013 — I’m guessing 8-5/9-4 with a bowl win to slightly cool down the seat — and the post-Muschamp era will begin in earnest.

Now, if Muschamp’s a Carolina Reaper in Scoville Heat Units, that would make Brady Hoke a, what, Bhut Jolokia?

Early on, it was all chili puppy dogs and pizza rainbows for Hoke in Ann Arbor.  In his first year at Michigan, the Wolverines went 11-2 and beat Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl.  Most importantly, and even as it came between the tenures of Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer, UM ended a six-game losing streak against hated rival Ohio State.  The honeymoon was hot, steamy and sweaty; the marriage since?  Ankle-length robes and open bathroom doors.  The Wolverines have gone a pedestrian 15-11 the last two years — two losses in minor bowls included — and returned to their losing ways in The Game.  Not only that, but UM has watched as “little brother” Michigan State has leapfrogged them, with the Spartans not only turning themselves into a force in the conference but a factor on the national stage as well.  Throw in some coaching changes, uncertainty at the quarterback position, an offensive line that’s subpar and suspect, just add everything all up and, like Muschamp, this could very well be a make-or-break year for Hoke.

Charlie StrongCAN CHARLIE MAKE TEXAS STRONG IMMEDIATELY?
The short, and likely correct, answer: nope. Or, unlikely if that makes you feel better. There are several unknowns when it comes to Charlie Strong taking over as Mack Brown‘s replacement at Texas. How will he handle the pressure cooker — created by media, fans and boosters alike — that is Austin and football-mad UT after coming from a hoops school like Louisville? More to the point, how will he handle the politicking and, even more importantly, the back-room games that are ofttimes played at a university and within an athletic department the size of the Longhorns?

Those are but a couple of the unknowns; here’s a known: Strong is a damn-fine head football coach, one who isn’t getting his just due as the home-run hire he was for UT. He may not have been the “people’s choice” to replace Brown, may not have even been the boosters’ choice, but, after Nick Saban or his agent spurned the reported nine-figure overtures, he was the best option for the Longhorns moving forward. Does that mean UT will be back on the stage immediately? Heck no, a point Strong somewhat controversially conveyed this offseason… and one he stated it for good reason.

The cupboard wasn’t exactly stocked or overflowing when Strong took over, with the coach doing some additional cleaning of the pantry the past couple of weeks.  Texas is behind at least Oklahoma, Baylor and, probably, Kansas State in the Big 12 let alone whatever their standing is nationally.  And, for good measure, keep in mind that this is a team that, over the past four years, has gone just 30-21, which is more Texas Tech University than University of Texas. Strong is a good coach; he’s not, however, an instantaneous miracle worker. Strong will need time to put his imprint on the football program, to trudge through the malaise and institute a much-needed culture change. Hopefully the athletic department, boosters and fans give him the time he will need to turn things around.

(Click HERE for the CFT 2014 Preseason Preview Repository)

Vols add UNC DB coach Charlton Warren to coaching staff

KNOXVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 7:  A Tennessee Volunteer holds up his helmet in the team huddle before the NCAA football game against the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders at Neyland Stadium on September 7, 2002 in Knoxville, Tennessee. Tennessee won 26-3. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Following a somewhat disappointing season in Knoxville, changes are in the air for the Tennessee Vols coaching staff. Among the first changes of the offseason comes at the defensive back coaching position.

Tennessee has announced the addition of Charlton Warren as the new defensive backs coach for the Vols. It is the same role he previously filled at North Carolina for the past two seasons. Warren will replace Willie Martinez, who will not be returning to the Tennessee staff in 2017, according to a released statement from the university’s athletics department.

“Coach Warren is a passionate, knowledgeable and driven football coach that has an outstanding history of developing defensive backs on the collegiate level,” Tennessee head coach Butch Jones said in a released statement. “He also has a great reputation as one of the top recruiters in the country with strong ties to our recruiting areas. We feel extremely fortunate to add someone of his caliber to our coaching staff and our defensive meeting room.”

Tennessee finished ranked 10th in the SEC in passing defense, allowing an average of 230.7 yards per game through the air to opposing quarterbacks. The Vols allowed the fifth-lowest opponent passer rating and picked off 11 passes while allowing 18 touchdown passes, which actually fared well among SEC peers even if just around the middle of the pack or just toward the bottom half of the conference in each category. For a school that prides itself on its defensive backs, a change was necessary.

North Carolina owned the ACC’s top pass defense in 2016, allowing just 180.8 yards per game and 11 touchdown passes. The one downside was having just one interception recorded in 13 games. Every other FBS program had at least three interceptions last season. How UNC only picked off one pass all season long is quite a remarkable feat considering how respectable the pass defense was last season.

Mike Locksley promoted to full-time offensive assistant at Alabama

EAST LANSING, MI - NOVEMBER 14: Interim head coach Mike Locksley of the Maryland Terrapins looks on against the Michigan State Spartans during the game at Spartan Stadium on November 14, 2015 in East Lansing, Michigan. Michigan State defeated Maryland 24-7. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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With some room to work on the Alabama coaching staff this offseason, head coach Nick Saban has found the right opportunity to promote Mike Locksley to a full-time offensive assistant role in Tuscaloosa. The hiring was made official by Alabama on Monday.

Locksley spent the 2016 season as an offensive analyst for the Crimson Tide. He spent the previous four seasons as an offensive coordinator at Maryland and was previously the head coach of New Mexico from 2009 through 2011. Locksley previously spent time in the SEC as a running backs coach and recruiting coordinator for Florida in 2003 and 2004 as well. He is a well-known recruiting machine, as if Alabama needs any extra help in that department (I say this in a joking manner, because Alabama didn’t get to where they are today without having to grind on the recruiting trail).

“We are excited to add Mike Locksley to our staff as an assistant coach on the offensive side of the football,” Saban said in a released statement. “He is an outstanding offensive mind who brings a wealth of knowledge and experience as both a head coach and offensive coordinator. Mike is also one of the best recruiters in the nation and will be an excellent addition to our staff. His time as an analyst with us over the past season should also ensure a smooth transition and a full understanding of how our organization operates.”

The University of Alabama Board of Trustees still needs to approve the contract to make Locksley’s hiring official, but that should just be a formality.

Report: Ohio Bobcats RB arrested for alleged intoxicated accident and fleeing scene

LAWRENCE, KS - SEPTEMBER 10: Maleek Irons #21 of the Ohio Bobcats rushes for a first down against the Kansas Jayhawks in the second quarter at Memorial Stadium on September 10, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
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Ohio running back Maleek Irons was arrested over the weekend for his role in fleeing a possible drunk driving accident.

The Athens News reports Irons was arrested Saturday morning by police responding to a call about “an intoxicated male driving a vehicle, colliding with other vehicles, and fleeing the scene.” The vehicles connected to the call was found off the road at 3:39 a.m. When police discovered the car, Irons got out of the car and started to run tow a dorm on Ohio’s campus, failing to stop when commanded by the officer.

Irons has been charged with operating a vehicle while intoxicated, resisting arrest and obstructing official business. He was released on bond and has a court appointment scheduled for Tuesday morning. There has been no statement from Ohio on his status with the program, although an indefinite suspension of some sort may be expected as is usually the case when an issue like this arises.

With Irons finding himself in some legal hot water, that means The Fulmer cup season is officially underway.

Alabama to hires Arizona AD Greg Byrne for same position

TUCSON, AZ - SEPTEMBER 19: Athletic Director Greg Byrne of the Arizona Wildcats looks on during the second half of the college football game against the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks at Arizona Stadium on September 19, 2015 in Tucson, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)
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Alabama head coach Nick Saban may be the most powerful person within the Alabama sports department, but even he has a boss.  Now, he will have a new boss.

Alabama Director of Athletics Bill Battle is stepping down into retirement from his current position, although he will remain active in the university as a special assistant to university president Stuart Bell. Battle has been fighting through health issues and completed treatment for cancer last summer. His vacant spot in the athletics department will be filled by Arizona Athletics Director Greg Byrne. A formal announcement has not been made as of yet, but multiple reports have confirmed the pending Byrne hiring. (UPDATE: Alabama has since formally announced the hiring of Byrne)

”Bill has done a tremendous job as director of athletics, and has accomplished so much during his career,” Bell said, according to the Associated Press. ”His business expertise, coupled with his coaching experience and his strong understanding of the role an athletic department has in the daily fabric of a university, has allowed us to achieve the great successes we have enjoyed during his tenure. We are blessed to have the continued benefit of his counsel.”

The hiring of Byrne takes Alabama outside its own foundation to bring in an outsider to lead the sports department. Byrne is an Idaho native who has worked in an administrative role in two SEC schools, so he will be familiar with the landscape the conference has to offer. Byrne was the athletics director of Mississippi State from 2008 through 2010 before moving to Arizona for the past six years. At Mississippi State, Byrne hired football coach Dan Mullen. Byrne also held an associate AD role at Kentucky, where he directed development and fundraising efforts for the Wildcats.