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CFT 2016 Preseason Previews: Six-Pack of 2016 Storylines

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Finally, after (nearly) seven long, agonizing months filled with seemingly nothing but arrests, suspensions, transfers, lawsuits, sexual assaults and lawsuits stemming from sexual assaults being a seemingly daily headline, the dawn of a new season is nearly upon us.

In just five short days, Hawaii and Cal officially kick off the 2016 college football season Down Under.  Six days later, the season gets going in earnest as a pair of Thursday games pitting Power Five programs against each other — South Carolina-Vanderbilt, Oregon State-Minnesota — pave the way for an absolutely loaded first weekend of action.  Oklahoma-Houston, LSU-Wisconsin (at Lambeau Field), Georgia-North Carolina, USC-Alabama and Clemson-Auburn are but a handful of powerhouse Week 1 matchups.  For those with an international lean, and are early risers as well, the Georgia Tech-Boston College will be broadcast live from Dublin, Ireland, beginning at 7:30 a.m. that first Saturday morning.

Oh, and lest we forget the clash of iconic programs: Notre Dame-Texas, clashing on a Sunday night as the NFL season will be a week away from kicking off.  And did we mention Ole Miss-Florida State putting a wrap on Week 1 Labor Day night?

All of that, and I haven’t even mentioned games such as UCLA-Texas A&M, Kansas State-Stanford, Missouri-West Virginia and Arizona-BYU, among others.

In between now and all of that? Previews. Glorious, illuminating, voluminous previews as far as the eye can see.  Or something like that.

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

Proceed, and enjoy.

CAN TIDE ROLL TO BACK-TO-BACK TITLES?
Alabama ended the SEC’s mini title drought last season, rolling to the conference’s first national championship since the 2012 season.  The Tide won that title, too, their second in successive years; this year’s squad certainly has the talent to go back-to-back like those teams, but there are questions that need to be answered before Nick Saban becomes the second head coach — the first was the legendary Bear Bryant — to win consecutive titles two different times.

On the plus side, the Tide is, yet again, loaded on the defensive side ball in general and along the line specifically.  The secondary is flush with talent, as is the receiving corps.  The backfield, though, especially when it comes to experience, could be a concern.

For the first time since Saban took over the reins in Tuscaloosa, the Tide doesn’t return either its leading or second-leading rusher from the previous season.  The one-two punch of Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough — combined 261 career rushing yards entering 2016 — will be expected to shoulder most of the load.  A strong passing attack could help that twosome ease into their expanded roles, but the triggerman in that phase of the game is a question mark, too.

Cooper Bateman is the presumptive frontrunner for the starting job coming off a year in which he attempted 52 passes as Jake Coker‘s backup.  David Cornwell created some promise in spring practice, and Blake Barnett is vying for the job as well, but, regardless of who ultimately opens the season under center, the Tide will be extremely raw and inexperienced at the most important position in sports.  The good news on that front?  Three of Saban’s four championship teams with the Tide were quarterbacked by first-year starters.  In fact, six of the last seven national champions featured virgin starters.

The schedule doesn’t do the Tide many favors, either, regardless of who is the starter.  In addition to opening up against USC, ‘Bama will have to travel to Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU in SEC play.

Add it all up, and the Tide certainly has the talent to repeat.  The schedule and uncertainty in the backfield, however, will make it a tough climb back to the mountain top.

WHICH P5 GETS THE CFP HOSE THIS SEASON?
Because of the College Football Playoff’s current limitations, namely a four-team field, at least one Power Five conference will be shut out of the postseason big dance every year.  The first season it was the Big 12, even as both Baylor and TCU had very valid arguments for inclusion; the second season, it was the Pac-12.  Who gets screwed without being taken to dinner this season?

Sorry, Left Coasters, but all of the signs are pointing to back-to-back seasons of being on the outside of the playoff window looking in.

With Clemson and Florida State — don’t sleep on North Carolina, either — I’m calling for the ACC to be a lock to earn one of the semifinal slots.  Same for the SEC, with Alabama and LSU primed to once again do battle for another of the playoffs spots.  That leaves us with the Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12.

In the B1G, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State are all legitimate national contenders.  The winner of the East, even with one loss, would make one hell of a case for a spot in the postseason tournament.  The Wolverines may have the steeper path of that trio, with road trips to each of the others serving as a rather sizable hurdle.  Whoever comes out of that division, provided they can get past whichever team the West produces, would seemingly be a lock for the playoffs as well.

Oklahoma returns its starting quarterback, Heisman contender Baker Mayfield, its leading rusher in Samaje Perine as well as a sizable portion of a talented defense.  If both sides of the line can be shored up… if they can get past early-season tests involving Houston and Ohio State… if they can just stay healthy… if all of that transpires, the Sooners will easily be the cream of a weakened Big 12 crop and a near shoe-in to make its second straight playoff appearance.

That leaves us with the Pac-12.  Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, USC and Washington all portend to be good teams.  Playoff good, though?  I simply can’t see it, although I can see, like what happened last season, those good teams cannibalizing themselves and knocking the conference right out of the playoff picture.  Again.

YEAR 2 OF HAR-BALL IN ANN ARBOR
Jim Harbaugh has spent his first 19 months as the head coach at his alma mater Michigan making headlines off the field.  In Year 2 with the Wolverines, is Harbaugh’s bunch ready to make a leap back to the national stage on the field?

If preseason buzz means anything, that will indeed be the case.  Coming off a 10-3 first season in Ann Arbor, pundits are high on UM taking another step under Harbaugh, perhaps even unseating hated rivals Ohio State and Michigan State as kings of the Big Ten’s East Division.  Combine a team more steeped in Harbaugh’s system and the addition of new defensive coordinator Don Brown with a Buckeyes team that lost a significant amount of talent, the division seems to be ripe for the Wolverines’ taking.  Maybe.

The first seven games of the season sets up well for a run at the College Football Playoffs, with UM hosting both Penn State and Wisconsin and playing six of those seven games overall in the friendly confines of the Big House.  The next five games, though, will determine UM’s postseason fate as they will be forced to travel to 2015 East champion Michigan State (Oct. 29), 2015 West champion Iowa (Nov. 12) and their annual regular season-ending hatefest with tOSU (Nov. 26).

Add in home games against teams that are expected to be improved (Maryland, Indiana), and, more than anything, that five-game stretch will determine just how much of a factor the Wolverines will be in the postseason — if at all.

BOUNCEBACK FOR BAYLOR AFTER ROCKY OFFSEASON?
To describe Baylor’s offseason as “rocky” is probably a disservice to the word and to what actually went down in Waco the past several months.

Caught up in the wake of the high-profile sexual assault scandal, highly-successful head coach Art Briles was run out of town in May.  Not only that, but the Bears’ 2016 recruiting class was decimated as a handful of four-star recruits bailed on the program and transferred out, most to other Big 12 programs.

On the field, Bears interim head coach Jim Grobe will be forced to replace a total of eight starters along both sides of the line.  Corey Coleman‘s production (1,363 yards, 20 touchdowns) will also need to be replaced, although the Bears are loaded with on-paper talent at the wide receiver position.  The secondary, cornerback specifically, is a cause for concern.

The good news is that quarterback Seth Russell is 100-percent recovered from a neck injury that prematurely ended his 2015 season.  Add in a pair of returning 1,000-yard rushers (Shock Linwood, Johnny Jefferson), and the Bears should be just fine offensively.

Whether their psyche will be fine, with the controversy and staff change still fresh, remains the biggest question mark surrounding their program this season.  It wouldn’t be a shock to see the Bears get to 10 wins for the fourth straight season… nor would it be a surprise to seem them slip to 6-7 wins.  Either way, how the players handle what’s expected to be Grobe’s one-and-done season in Waco will be fascinating to watch play out.

THE “IT” TEAM TO “BE BACK” IS…
Every year, there is one team that the national media, in an unconscious decision among the collective that ultimately gains momentum, taps to be the team that’s (ahem) “on the rise,” that will bounce back to prominence after toiling for years in the mid-pack.  Normally it’s a team with a storied past; this season, the “it” team appears to be Tennessee, with the Vols entering its fifth season under Butch Jones and armed with a plethora of talent from back-to-back-to-back-to-back Top 25 recruiting classes that are ready to blossom.  Or, so the group think goes.

Last year in this space, I had Oklahoma as the “it” team to “be back.”  All the Sooners did was run off with the Big 12 title and qualify for the playoffs.  This year?  I’m buying into the Washington hype.

The Huskies dipped to 7-6 in Year 2 of the Chris Petersen era, but, in the process of dipping, appear to have found their “franchise” quarterback in Jake Browning.  Mix in a year of growth for the sophomore along with what should again be the top defense in the Pac-12, and UW is indeed, at last on paper, in the mix to, finally, compete for a conference championship again.

UW must get past the two teams that have had a stranglehold on the North since the Pac-12 went to divisions in 2011 — either Oregon and Stanford have played in all five league title games — but, armed with 17 returning starters, the talent is there.  Now, it’s time for Petersen to channel his inner Boise State and get his latest program onto the national stage once again.

When will we know the Huskies are back, or they aren’t?  A two-game stretch in late September/early October: a home date with the Cardinal Sept. 30, a road trip to face the Ducks a week later.

CAN ANY G5 SLOW SURGING H-TOWN?
Short answer?  Nope.  Now, for the expanded version.

Under the leadership of Tom Herman, Houston took the college football world by storm in 2015, running to a 13-1 record that left the Cougars on the periphery of playoff talk last season and right in the middle of it entering this season.  UH returns one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the country in Greg Ward Jr., along with 10 other starters.

Arguably the biggest concern for the Cougars is in the secondary.  Well that and the season opener against Oklahoma that will, with a win, put them in the thick of the playoff loss or, with a loss, knock them right out of it.  Still, UH should be the class of the Group of Five leagues, although there are a couple of teams that possess the potential to challenge them for G5 superiority.

Most notably, San Diego State could prove to be the stiffest challenger to UH’s throne.  Coming off a school-record-tying 11-win season, the Aztecs return 11 starters from a team that wiped the Hawaiian Islands’ floor with UH conference mates Cincinnati.  Seemingly the only thing standing between SDSU and a 9-0 start to the season is a road trip to Cal in Week 2.  Another road trip, to Nevada Nov. 12, could very well determine the West Division’s representative in the MWC title game.

In that game, should they make it, SDSU could face Boise State, yet another team that could challenge Houston.  And don’t sleep on USF in UH’s own conference, either.

Still, the Cougars appear to be the cream of the G5 crop.  In fact, perhaps the only way for the other teams to rise to the top in their group is for UH to bolt for the Big 12.  At some point this season, that future move could very well become a reality.

Georgia Southern confirms firing of head coach Tyson Summers

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As was reported by a handful of outlets moments ago, Georgia Southern has now confirmed that Tyson Summers is out as head coach.

Summers went 5-13 as head coach, including an 0-6 mark this season after falling to previously winless Massachusetts 55-20 on Saturday.

“I thank Tyson and his family for their contributions to Georgia Southern,” AD Tom Kleinlein said in a statement. “Being the leader of a college football program is more than just coaching games; it’s managing academics and leading 120 young men. Tyson did a great job in areas that the public doesn’t see, but at the end of the day, the results on the field weren’t where we needed them to be as we continue our growth as an FBS program. I wish he and his family all the best moving forward in their future endeavors.”

Kleinlein also confirmed that assistant head coach Chad Lunsford will be bumped to interim head coach.

“Chad is as ‘True Blue’ as they come and I’m excited to have him lead our team for the remainder of the 2017 season,” Kleinlein said. “The players respect him and I have full confidence in his abilities as we head into the final six games of the season.”

Lunsford will begin his tenure as interim head coach at Troy on Saturday.

Reports: Tyson Summers out at Georgia Southern

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One of the least surprising coaching moves of the 2017 cycle has now been made. As first reported by FootballScoop and since confirmed by Brett McMurphy and SB Nation’s Steven GodfreyTyson Summers is out at Georgia Southern. (Full disclosure: I also work for FootballScoop.)

The one-and-a-half-season Summers era was nothing short of disaster in Statesboro. Hired away after serving one season as Colorado State’s defensive coordinator, Summers turned away from the Eagles’ traditional triple option and immediately paid the price. Georgia Southern’s rushing average fell nearly 150 yards per game and its scoring average shrunk by nearly 10 points as the Eagles sputtered to a 5-7 record.

Summers replaced co-offensive coordinators David Dean and Rance Gillespie after the season, and was promptly sued by both for alleged breach of contract.

Summers returned to the triple option in 2017, hiring Bryan Cook away from Georgia Tech, and has still seen the Eagles’ rushing average fall by close to 50 more yards. A team that averaged 36.5 points and 363 rushing yards two years ago now amasses close to half of that — 18 points a game on 200 rushing yards.

The final straw came Saturday, when the Eagles were blasted 55-20 by previously winless Massachusetts, securing the title as the worst team in FBS in 2017, dropping to 0-6 on the year and 5-13 overall under Summers.

Assistant head coach Chad Lundsford will reportedly serve as interim head coach as Georgia Southern begins the second half of its season at Troy on Saturday.

 

Carla Williams becomes first African-American female Power 5 AD

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Virginia has hired Carla Williams as its new athletics director, the program announced Sunday. The hire makes Williams the fifth female AD at the Power 5 level and the first African-American female AD ever at a Power 5 school.

A press conference to introduce Williams will be held on Monday.

“I am extremely grateful for this opportunity to lead one of the nation’s elite athletics programs,” Williams said in a statement. “Academic achievement, athletic excellence, operating with integrity, a commitment to maximum effort at all times and a strong sense of teamwork and unity are the core principles that will guide our athletics department under my leadership.”

Williams spent 13 years in the athletics administration at Georgia, and was promoted to deputy AD in 2015.

“I am so happy for Carla,” Georgia AD Greg McGarity said in a statement. “She has worked so hard for this opportunity and will be a dynamic leader for the University of Virginia athletics program. Carla has been a tremendous asset to our staff in all areas of the UGA program and her skill set is remarkable. She has experience in virtually every part of our athletic program — from a student-athlete all the way to Deputy Director.  I know I’ll miss working alongside my good friend. We are very proud of Carla and wish her the very best in her role as Director of Athletics at the University of Virginia.”

Williams helped Georgia teams claim 16 NCAA championships and 37 SEC titles during her tenure. At Virginia, she’ll inherit a school with a broad athletics portfolio. The Cavaliers compete in 25 varsity sports and are traditionally strong in men’s and women’s lacrosse. The Hoos claimed their first College World Series championship in 2015, reached the Elite Eight of the 2016 men’s basketball tournament, and stand at 5-2 in Bronco Mendenhall‘s second season as head football coach.

“I think Carla is spectacular,” UVa president-elect Jim Ryan said in a statement. “She is exceedingly well-prepared for this role, but more than that, she is fiercely committed to excellence in both athletics and academics and has a track record of success in both arenas. I cannot wait to work with Carla, a kindred spirit who sees leadership as a chance to serve those around her and to create the conditions for their success.”

Williams succeeds Craig Littlepage, the first African-American AD ever in the ACC, who announced his retirement after 16 years atop the department in September.

 

Notre Dame jumps to No. 9, Iowa State replaces Michigan in latest AP poll

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The most newsworthy changes in the latest AP poll come at the bottom. Michigan is out after falling 42-13 at No. 2 Penn State. Taking their place? The twisting Cyclones of Iowa State. Following a 31-13 win at Texas Tech and riding the crest of a 3-game winning streak that began at then-No. 3 OklahomaMatt Campbell‘s crew is off to its best start since 2002 and in the AP poll for the first time since Sept. 25, 2005. The Cyclones will have to earn their keep, though. Their next three games: No. 4 TCU, at No. 22 West Virginia and No. 11 Oklahoma State.

Elsewhere, Notre Dame jumped four spots to No. 9 after a 49-14 destruction of USC, a loss that pushed the Trojans down 10 spots to No. 21.

After a 31-21 win at Navy, Central Florida continues to track down I-4 rival South Florida as the top-ranked Group of 5 team; the Knights are up two spots to No. 18, while South Florida dropped a spot to No. 17.

The full poll:

1. Alabama — 1,525 total points (61 first-place votes)
2. Penn State — 1,444
3. Georgia — 1,409
4. TCU — 1,327
5. Wisconsin — 1,241
6. Ohio State — 1,165
7. Clemson — 1,113
8. Miami — 1,101
9. Notre Dame — 1,066
10. Oklahoma — 1,040
11. Oklahoma State — 894
12. Washington — 836
13. Virginia Tech — 791
14. NC State — 666
15. Washington State — 648
16. Michigan State — 615
17. South Florida — 604
18. Central Florida — 500
19. Auburn — 397
20. Stanford — 344
21. USC — 319
22. West Virginia — 196
23. LSU — 182
24. Memphis — 111
25. Iowa State — 98

Ranked-on-ranked action for Week 9:

No. 11 Oklahoma State at No. 22 West Virginia (noon ET, ABC)
No. 2 Penn State at No. 6 Ohio State (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox)
No. 4 TCU at No. 25 Iowa State (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN2)
No. 14 NC State at No. 9 Notre Dame (3:30 p.m. ET, NBC)