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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.

Florida QB Luke del Rio to miss spring practices following surgery

FAYETTEVILLE, AR - NOVEMBER 5:  Luke Del Rio #14 of the Florida Gators throws a pass during a game against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Razorback Stadium on November 5, 2016 in Fayetteville, Arkansas.  (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
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Florida quarterback Luke Del Rio will be out of action this spring in Gainesville, the school announced on Thursday. Del Rio will instead be taking time to recover from shoulder surgery.

Del Rio underwent surgery on his non-throwing surgery on Wednesday. The surgery was on his non-throwing shoulder, but it will still take some time to rehab following the procedure.

While Del Rio is expected to be available for the fall, his absence in the spring could open the door for Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask to make a potential run for the starting job. Both were expected to be ready to compete for the starting job for the Gators this season anyway, and now each will be able to get a few more reps in the spring to work on their case to win the starting job for the 2017 season.

Del Rio was 5-1 as Florida’s starting quarterback last season before going down with a knee injury. Austin Appleby took over as Florida’s starting quarterback and led the team to a blowout victory over Iowa in the Outback Bowl at the end of the season. Del Rio passed for 1,358 yards and eight touchdowns with eight interceptions.

San Diego State extends Rocky Long’s contract through 2021

SAN DIEGO, CA - DECEMBER 05: Head coach Rocky Long of the San Diego State Aztecs hoists the champion's trophy after winning the Mountain West Championship game against the Air Force Falcons at Qualcomm Stadium on December 5, 2015 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Kent Horner/Getty Images)
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Coming off a second straight 11-3 season, San Diego State has rewarded head football coach Rocky Long with a contract extension. The school announced a new contract that tacks on five additional seasons to the existing contract. Long is now under contract through the end of the 2021 season.

Long was under contract through the end of the upcoming 2017 season, so the contract extension provides a little more job security for Long and enables to him to show some stability for the future of the program.

Long replaced former San Diego State head coach Brady Hoke as the head coach of the Aztecs at the end of the 2010 season after Hoke was hired by Michigan. Under Long, San Diego State has gone 54-26 with six straight winning seasons. During that run, San Diego State has won back-to-back Mountain West Conference championships the past two seasons and gone 3-3 in bowl games. Long also coached San Diego State to a conference crown in his first season on the job, in 2011. San Diego State has ended each of the past two seasons with bowl victories against a team from the American Athletic Conference (Cincinnati in the 2015 Hawaii Bowl and Houston in the 2016 Las Vegas Bowl).

Former Illini rushing leader announces intent to transfer from Illinois

CHAMPAIGN, IL - OCTOBER 3: Ke'Shawn Vaughn #5 of the Illinois Fighting Illini runs the ball against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Memorial Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Champaign, Illinois.  Illinois defeated Nebraska 14-13. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Illinois running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn is moving on from the Illini. The sophomore announced, via Twitter, he will transfer to a new school in 2017.

Vaughn rushed for a team-high 723 yards as a freshman in 2015 with a team-leading six rushing touchdowns. This past season saw Vaughn slip to third in rushing yards with 301 yards and three touchdowns behind Kendrick Foster and Reggie Corbin under new head coach Lovie Smith. Vaughn was slowed by some injury concerns in the 2016 season with a leg injury causing him to be taken out against Minnesota and limiting him to two rushing attempts for three yards in his final two games before not getting a rushing attempt against Iowa and not playing at all against Northwestern in the season finale.

With two years under his belt, Vaughn still has two years of eligibility to play and a redshirt season still available to use to preserve his eligibility. Should he transfer to another FBS program, NCAA transfer rules will prohibit him from playing this fall. He will be eligible to play immediately if he lands at a lower division school.

Pitt and UCF add home-and-home series for 2018 and 2019

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 19:  James Conner #24 of the Pittsburgh Panthers celebrates his third quarter touchdown with teammates against the Duke Blue Devils at Heinz Field on November 19, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. James Conner became the ACC's all-time leader for total touchdowns and rushing touchdowns. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
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The Pitt Panthers have filled out their non-conference slate for the 2018 and 2019 seasons with the addition of a home-and-home series with UCF.

The scheduling deal, announced Thursday morning, confirm UCF will host Pitt on September 19, 2018. The Knights will make the trip to Pittsburgh the following season on September 21, 2019. The two schools have faced each other just once before, with the Panthers taking a blowout 52-7 victory in Orlando on October 13, 2006.

As a member of the ACC, Pitt is required to play one power conference opponent each season in its non-conference schedule. As much as the American Athletic Conference would like us to all believe the AAC is indeed a power conference, the addition of UCF does not satisfy Pitt’s ACC scheduling requirement. However, Pitt’s ACC scheduling requirement is met in 2018 with a home game against Penn State and a road game at Notre Dame (as part of the ACC’s rotating Notre Dame schedule) and with a road game at Penn State in 2019. The Panthers and Nittany Lions will play each other in 2017 as well in State College.

For UCF, the addition of Pitt to the future schedule continues to tack on power conference opponents in future seasons. UCF will play Georgia Tech and Maryland this coming season and will play at UNC in 2018 in addition to the newly added home game against Pitt. UCF also has Stanford and Texas on future schedules in addition to more games against UNC and Georgia Tech.