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CFT 2016 Preseason Previews: Top 25

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Yes, I know — another meaningless preseason poll tossed atop the overflowing pile of myriad other meaningless preseason polls.  Just take a deep breath, come to grips with it and move on.

Last year at this time, I had Ohio State, TCU, Auburn and Michigan State Nos. 1-5; only MSU finished the regular season in the Top Five.  2015 national champion Alabama was No. 7 in my preseason rankings — just behind Arizona State, incidentally — while the team the Tide beat for the title, Clemson, was 14th.  Oklahoma, the other of the four College Football Playoff semifinalists, came in at No. 16.

It’s at this point in the program where I introduce the word “Nostradumbass,” and quickly move on.  It’s also at this point where I state, once again, polls should not come until at least the first week of October.  But I digress.

The Big Ten, believe it or not, leads all conferences with six teams in my Top 25, including three of the first eleven.  The ACC, Pac-12 and SEC are next with four teams each, with the Mountain West and Big 12 coming in at two teams apiece.  The AAC and a football independent account for the other two teams.

Below is the entire Top 25, which was a consensus of polls cobbled together by myself and five other individuals who would prefer to remain nameless.  Below that is a poll in which you can vote as to who you feel should start the season No. 1.  Below that is where you may complain and/or whine and/or moan and/or bitch about how disrespected your team and/or conference is.

Enjoy.  And complain/whine/moan/bitch away.

Oklahoma v Oklahoma State1. OKLAHOMA
Quarterback Baker Mayfield, who should’ve been a Heisman finalist a year ago, returns from last year’s College Football Playoff semifinal squad.  So too does leading rusher Samaje Perine, as does 13 other starters.  The Sooners will likely be favored heading into all 12 games this season, with three of their toughest tests, Ohio State, Baylor and Oklahoma State, all being played in Norman.  At least on paper, the Sooners have one of the most talented and experienced teams in the country.   Beware, however, as Bob Stoops‘ squad have, more times than not in recent years, failed to live up to lofty preseason rankings and fallen miserably short of high expectations.

2. ALABAMA
Fun fact: ‘Bama has never started the preseason No. 1 and then gone on to win a national championship under Nick Saban. Unfortunately for the Tide, that’s exactly where the Associated Press has placed them entering 2016. To break that “jinx” and go back-to-back, the Tide will need to lean heavily on a once-again dominant defense as their backfield will be the most inexperienced one Saban has fielded, with presumptive starter Cooper Bateman raw while the two running backs who are expected to carry the load, Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough, have combined for 264 career rushing yards.

3. FLORIDA STATE
Last year was a quote-unquote “rebuilding year” at FSU, and the Seminoles still managed a 10-win season and a spot in one of the New Year’s Six bowl games.  They return nine starters on offense — one of those starters, quarterback Sean Maguire, will begin the season on the sidelines due to injury, replaced by redshirt freshman Deondre Francois — and six on the defensive side of the ball.  Since winning the national championship in 2013, Jimbo Fisher has pulled in recruiting classes ranked second (2016), third (2015) and fourth (2014).  So yes, there’s plenty of talent.  And, perhaps most importantly, they get national runner-up Clemson at home in Tallahassee.

4. CLEMSON
You could easily make the case for Clemson to sit atop this list, and for good reason.  They have the best quarterback in the country returning in Deshaun Watson for what should be his final season of college football.  Watson is one of eight starters on offense who are back for another run at the playoffs, but it’s the other side of the ball where there’s the most concern.  The defense brings back just three starters, and it’s that inexperience that’s keeping them behind the three schools in front of them.  If Brent Venables can quicken the learning curve — after opening at what should be a subpar Auburn team, they get Troy and South Carolina State before opening ACC play at Georgia Tech — the Tigers will be in great shape both in the conference and nationally.

Auburn v LSU5. LSU
A whopping 18 starters return for the Tigers this season from last year’s nine-win team, including arguably the best football player in the country in Leonard Fournette.  They get Alabama and Ole Mis in Death Valley, and none of their four true road games — they play Wisconsin at Lambeau Field in the opener — feature teams currently in the Top 25.  The path is there for a run to the postseason… if, as seemingly is always the case, they can merely get consistent play at the quarterback position.  They don’t need their signal-caller to be a modern-day Dan Marino; rather, they just need Brandon Harris to not throw up all over himself or trip over his own junk.  If they get just average play at the most important position in sports, the Tigers are primed to be players in the postseason once again.

6. NOTRE DAME
And here comes the first screams of “you’re an idiot, Taylor!”  Or “JT!” as the case may be.  The offense will be in good hands whether its DeShone Kizer or Malik Zaire pulling the trigger, and whichever one emerges as the starter will have skill players who are talented but raw surrounding him.  More than likely, it’ll be a suspect defense that determines whether this ranking is way too high.  The Irish do play 10 teams who played in bowl games last season, although they’ll have just three true road tests.  They open up and close out the season with a pair of those, at Texas and at USC, that could go a long way in determining where the Golden Domers stand nationally.  Well, those and a mid-October game against Stanford in South Bend.

7. WASHINGTON
And here’s the second.  As I wrote in the Six-Pack of Storylines preview, I’m buying into the Huskies hype.  Jake Browning is ready to take the next step and become one of the elite quarterbacks in the country.  Additionally, UW will, once again, have one of the top defenses in not only the Pac-12 but in the country, period.  Then there’s the 17 returning starters.  How far UW goes conference-wise, and perhaps nationally, could very well likely come down a two-game stretch in Weeks 5 and 6: hosting Stanford Sept. 30, then traveling to Oregon a week later.  Those two teams have had a stranglehold on the Pac-12 North since the conference went to divisions in 2011, with one of those two teams representing the division in the league championship game every season; if UW wants to break their collective hold, they’ll have to drop one of those teams, and possibly both, in that two-game stretch.

8. TCU
Here’s one thing I can state with a fair degree of certainty: the Horned Frogs will play defense at a championship-caliber level this year, as it’s done almost every year under Gary Patterson.  The biggest question marks are on the other side of the ball, with just three starters returning.  The hope is that either Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill or Foster Sawyer can stabilize the quarterback position in replacing Trevone Boykin.  That said, whichever of those two players emerge as the starter won’t have All-American Josh Doctson to throw the ball to, which leaves the receiving corps very thin when it comes to experience and past production.

9. MICHIGAN STATE
Mark Dantonio will only see 10 starters from last year playoff semifinal team take the field in 2016.  Connor Cook, the most decorated quarterback in the program’s history, will be the most difficult starter to replace, and arguably the most important.  Playing in place of the injured Cook, projected starter Tyler O'Connor helped lead — and by “helped lead” I mean “didn’t throw a pick” — MSU to its upset of Ohio State that helped pave the way to the playoffs.  Last year, MSU beat both OSU and Michigan on the road; this year, they get to host both of those rivals in East Lansing.  Before then, however, is a stiff early-season test: a Sept.17 date with Notre Dame in South Bend Week 3.

Outback Bowl - Northwestern v Tennessee10. TENNESSEE
Year Four for Butch Jones is supposed to be the year all of the recruiting efforts under the head coach are supposed to begin paying dividends.  His first class finished 24th nationally, but classes that were ranked seventh, fourth and 14th have led to high hopes, and even higher expectations, for Volunteer Nation.  In fact, anything less than an SEC East championship will be considered an abject failure by most of the fan base.  The Vols have 17 returning starters from a team that managed a 5-3 record in SEC play, it’s best record in the conference since going 5-3 in 2006.  UT ended the 2015 season on a six-game winning streak, punctuating that strong stretch run with a 39-point bowl blowout of a 10-win Northwestern team.  Add in the fact that their four losses last season (Oklahoma, Florida, Arkansas, Alabama) came by a combined 17 points, and, again, nothing less than a title will sate the masses.

11. OHIO STATE
Urban Meyer calls this 2016 Ohio State squad probably his most talented team ever.  Unfortunately for his Buckeyes, it’s probably his most inexperienced as OSU returns just six starters, the fewest of any Power Five team.  Whether the 2016 team can repeat what the 2014 team did — peak a year earlier than expected and win a national championship — remains to be seen.  The combination of J.T. Barrett starting at quarterback all season long like he should’ve last year along with the talent Top-Seven recruiting classes each of the past four years has added should leave tOSU in good enough shape to contend with Michigan and Michigan State in the Big Ten East.  And, depending on the rate of the youngster’s growth, compete once again on the national stage.

12. HOUSTON
Coming off a 13-1 season, Houston is the media’s darling to crash the playoffs as a Group of Five member even as they return a mere 11 starters.  One of those, though, is Greg Ward Jr., one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the country and arguably the Cougar who’s gained  the most from Tom Herman being the head football coach of the program.  Just where the Cougars stand nationally will be known right out of the gate as UH will square off with national power Oklahoma in a neutral-field opener.  They also play two of their main competitors in the AAC West, Navy and Memphis, on the road, while also traveling to face an annual challenger in the East, Cincinnati.  If an inexperienced secondary can improve faster than expected, the Cougars are again poised to make some noise nationally.

13. MICHIGAN
As I wrote in the previous preview, 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?  The Wolverines find themselves comfortably inside the Top 10 of most preseason polls, so the hype os certainly there.  The schedule sets up well for a strong start, with their toughest games in that stretch, vs. Penn State and Wisconsin, coming in the Big House.  What will decide UM’s fate are three games in October and November: at 2015 East champion Michigan State (Oct. 29), at 2015 West champion Iowa (Nov. 12) and at hated rival Ohio State (Nov. 26).  Those three games will show the whole of college football whether or not Big Blue is really back.

14. UCLA
Coming off a superb true freshman season, Josh Rosen is already considered one of the top young quarterbacks in the country.  In fact, some have pegged him as the first-overall pick of the 2018 draft.  While just three other starters return on his side of the ball, and the Bruins are shifting to a new pro-style offense — his coaches say Rosen had already mastered it to the point he was playing tutor to his teammates in camp — recruiting successes under Jim Mora leaves the Bruins stocked with on-paper talent to replenish those lost.  The defense, meanwhile will return nine starters from an injury-ravaged unit.  At the very least, the Bruins will be in contention all season long for a Pac-12 South title.

Delaware v North Carolina15. NORTH CAROLINA
The Tar Heels allowed two touchdowns fewer per game last season than the year before, and they return six defensive starters from that much-improved squad.  While they return seven starters on the other side of the ball, one of those that has to be replaced is record-setting quarterback Marquise Williams.  The good news is that Williams’ replacement, Mitch Trubisky, has plenty of experience, having thrown for 1,014 career yards.  Last season, he completed 85% of his 47 passes, throwing six touchdowns for good measure.  The schedule could prove problematic in getting back to double-digit wins as UNC opens the season on a neutral field against Georgia, then travel to Florida State, Miami and Duke the rest of the year.  Still, the Tar Heels should be a factor in the ACC Coastal race throughout the year.

16. STANFORD
This is the first of a couple of teams who I think I’ll end up regretting putting too low to start.  Christian McCaffrey is one of the top all-around talents in the history of the game, and is poised to improve on a spectacular season that saw him in New York City as a Heisman finalist.  The schedule, however, could prove problematic.  They play USC at home in Week 3, then face three tough road games in a span of four weeks: at UCLA (Sept. 24), at Washington (Sept. 30) and at Notre Dame (Oct. 15).  Then, later in the year, they travel to Eugene to face Oregon.  It’s certainly not an insurmountable slate, but it doesn’t bode well for a team needing to replace 13 starters.

17. BOISE STATE
The second of three Group of Five teams in my Top 25, Boise is set to bounce back from a four-loss season in their second year under Bryan Harsin.  The offense is in fine shape as it returns eight starters from a year ago, including true sophomore quarterback Brett Rypien.  The defense is a concern, especially the defensive line as all four starters need replaced.  The schedule, though, sets up well as the Broncos will face just a single team on the road that had a winning record a year ago.

18. LOUISVILLE
After winning six of their last seven games last season, Louisville is seemingly poised to provide Clemson and Florida State with a challenge in the ACC Atlantic.  The Cardinals nearly derailed the Tigers’ early-season title hopes but came up three points shy of the upset.  That was followed a month later by a 20-point loss to the Seminoles.  With 16 returning starters, including superb dual-threat quarterback Lamar Jackson, the talent is certainly there for the U of L to, potentially, compete with the big boys of the division.

19. SAN DIEGO STATE
This is the second one I think I may have too low.  Coming off a school-record-tying 11-win season, the Aztecs return 13 starters from a team that wiped the Hawaiian Islands’ floor with Cincinnati in their 42-7 bowl win.  Seemingly the only thing standing between SDSU and a 9-0 start to this 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.

TCU v Oklahoma State20. OKLAHOMA STATE
If Jimi Hendrix were alive and asked the Cowboys the question, “are you experienced,” the answer would be a resounding yes.  Not only does OSU return 16 of their starters from the team that won 10 games a year ago, nearly 40 players from the two-deep depth chart are back as well.  After winning their first 10 games in 2015, they ended the season on a down note as the Cowboys lost their last three games by a combined 73 points.  That skid notwithstanding, the Cowboys have the kind of depth, talent and experience that can help them compete with Oklahoma and TCU in the Big 12.  The schedule doesn’t do them any favors, though, as they face both of those teams on the road, as well as Baylor.

21. IOWA
Back-to-back undefeated regular seasons likely won’t be in the cards for Iowa, but the Hawkeyes should still be the class of the Big Ten West.  There’s good news on the scheduling front, though, as they again avoid both Ohio State and Michigan while they get Michigan and West rival Nebraska at home.  They will, though, have to travel to Evanston to face Northwestern.  The way things are set up, Iowa would have to be considered a decided favorite to come out of the West and face the surviving beast of the East.

22. OLE MISS
Ole Miss finished the 2016 season on a high, beating LSU by 21, knocking off rival Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl and trouncing Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl.  The Rebels have the most talented quarterback in the SEC, Chad Kelly, and get Alabama — who they’ve beat each of the last two seasons — Georgia and MSU at home.  Just where Ole Miss stands in the big picture will be clear immediately as they will square off against Florida State in the opener.

23. NEBRASKA
Mike Riley‘s first season in Lincoln was a miserable one as the Cornhuskers’ dropped seven games, the most losses since the 2007 season.  That could be considered deceiving, however, as five of those losses were by five points or less — including two last-second losses and one in overtime — while the other two losses were by a combined 18 points.  Th road schedule is tough this season, with games at Ohio State, Wisconsin and Northwestern on tap; there’s a home game against Oregon thrown in for good measure.

24. OREGON
Before the year is over, I have a sneaking suspicion that this positioning will be way too low.  The Ducks have won at least nine games in each of the last nine seasons, and they have the kind of schedule that points to making it an even 10.  Two newcomers will likely determine whether the Ducks make it to double digits in that category: Dakota Prukop and Brady Hoke.  The former is the second straight FCS-to-FBS quarterback transfer for the Ducks, and he will be surrounded by the most talented skill players in the Pac-12 as he makes the transition up the college football ladder.  The latter will take over a Ducks defense that was 115th in the country in points per game and 116th in red zone efficiency.  Anything the former Michigan head coach provides will be considered an upgrade.

25. NORTHWESTERN
A 39-point loss to Tennessee in the bowl game put a damper on a season that saw the Wildcats win 10 games for just the fourth time in the program’s history.  The schedule will make a double-digit repeat extremely difficult as Northwestern will be forced to take road trips to Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State.  Pat Fitzgerald, with six returning starters on each side of the ball, will have his work cut out for him this season.

Purdue vs. Indiana means Big Ten guaranteed to have eight bowl teams

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At the conclusion of Saturday’s schedule, the Big Ten had seven teams that had already clinched their bowl eligibility for the 2017 season. Though no new bowl tickets were punched on Saturday, Purdue’s upset win at Iowa and Indiana’s home rout of Rutgers assured the Big Ten of getting to eight bowl-eligible teams this season.

Purdue will host Indiana this week in one of the more important games in the rivalry in recent years as the winner will become bowl-eligible this season. That would be great news for the Big Ten, a sit would essentially guarantee the conference will manage to fill all of their partnered bowl spots for this season, although that could come up just short if one of the conference’s teams reaches the College Football Playoff. With Wisconsin still undefeated and Ohio State being discussed as a possible long shot to reach the playoff, this remains a realistic scenario. In addition to the Badgers and Buckeyes, the Big Ten also has bowl-eligible teams in Penn State, Michigan State, Michigan, Northwestern, and Iowa.

Here’s a look at the Big Ten’s bowl partners for the 2017 season, not including the Rose Bowl as it is being used as a College Football Playoff semifinal this year;

  • Orange Bowl: The highest-ranked team available from the Big Ten, SEC, or Notre Dame will play a team from the ACC. Wisconsin or Penn State would appear to be in line for a possible invite.
  • Outback Bowl: Vs. SEC
  • Holiday Bowl: Vs. Pac-12
  • TaxSlayer Bowl or Music City Bowl: The ACC and Big Ten split these bowl games, with each taking on a team from the SEC
  • Pinstripe Bowl: Vs. ACC
  • Foster Farms Bowl: Vs. Pac-12
  • Quick Lane Bowl: Vs. ACC
  • Heart of Dallas Bowl: Vs. Big 12

Because the Purdue vs. Indiana game must produce a six-win team, the Big Ten looks to be in great shape to fill out its bowl lineup. The only setback would be not being able to send any additional teams to other bowl games to fill in a spot where needed, unless five-win teams end up coming into play.

Minnesota is the only other five-win team on the Big Ten map right now with a chance to break through to a bowl game, but that may require beating Wisconsin for the first time since 2003 this week in order to hit the six-win requirement. Minnesota has reached a bowl game with five wins before, and it could still be in play under that scenario.

SEC West, Pac-12 North divisions on the line after Thanksgiving

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After a relatively lackluster weekend of college football, a mix of rivalry games and division races crossing the finish line will be among the many highlights this week. The most notable of those races will be the SEC West and the Pac-12 North, as they will play a role in the greater College Football Playoff picture to various degrees. Throw in the possible Big 12 championship game scenarios and we have some good stuff to look forward to this week.

The ACC and Big Ten championship games are already locked in. Clemson will face Miami and the ACC hopes each will avoid an upset this weekend in order to keep this a potential matchup of top four teams at worst. Wisconsin and Ohio State are set to square off in Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship, and that game also figures to play a key role in the College Football Playoff picture.

USC clinched the Pac-12 South and now gets a bye week to prepare for the Pac-12 Championship Game. The Trojans will face either Stanford or Washington State. That opponent will be determined by the Apple Cup between Washington State and Washington. If the Cougars win, they will play USC in the Pac-12 championship game. If Washington State loses to Washington, then it will be Bryce Love and Stanford going against Sam Darnold and the Trojans.

The Iron Bowl between Alabama and Auburn will determine the SEC West Division champion, with the winner advancing to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game to face East Division champion Georgia.

The Big 12 championship game is also still to be determined. Oklahoma will play either TCU or Iowa State, although it is most likely to be the Horned Frogs who will face the Sooners. Iowa State would need a win and TCU to lose to Baylor in addition to a combination of two losses from Texas, West Virginia and Oklahoma State. If TCU beats Baylor, TCU will be in.

The Group of Five puzzle still has a few pieces to figure out as well. Fresno State and Boise State must still learn where their Mountain West Conference championship game will be played. Memphis will play the winner of this week’s UCF vs. USF game, with the location to be determined. Conference USA has FAU vs. North Texas ready to go, but the MAC will have both divisions settled this week. Akron will clinch the East with a win on Tuesday, otherwise, the door will be open for Ohio to grab the division on Friday with a win. Toledo will clinch the West with a win or an NIU loss, while NIU can clinch the division with a win and a Toledo loss.

While it does not play a conference championship game this season, the Sun Belt Conference crown is also up for grabs. Troy, Arkansas State, Georgia State, and Appalachian State are all 5-1 in conference play going into this week, leaving the door open for an interesting conference championship situation. Troy will play at Arkansas State, so the winner of that game will finish in no worse than a tie for first place. Georgia State has two games remaining, including this week’s game against Appalachian State. Again, the winner here will be in a tie for first place. Georgia State and Arkansas State do not play this season, so the two could finish with a true split conference championship. Troy and Appalachian State also do not play, presenting another potential scenario for a true split conference championship. But if Troy and Georgia State end the season with the same conference record, then Troy would own the head-to-head tiebreaker for bragging rights. Let’s just get through this week first and then re-evaluate the Sun Belt championship picture with one week of games still to play.

Got all that?

UCLA relieves Jim Mora of head coach duties effective immediately

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UCLA has announced it has relieved head coach Jim Mora of his coaching duties effective immediately. Offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch will take over as the team’s interim coach for the remainder of the season.

“Making a coaching change is never easy, but it’s an especially difficult decision when you know that a coach has given his all to our University,” UCLA athletics director Dan Guerrero in a released statement. “Jim helped reestablish our football program, and was instrumental in so many ways in moving the program forward. While his first four seasons at UCLA were very successful, the past two seasons have not met expectations. We thank Jim and his family for his service to our school and his unquestionable commitment to our student-athletes.”

Mora was in his sixth season as the head coach of the Bruins and it was largely a run that had some promise at times but never fully took advantage of a division that included a USC program held back by NCAA sanctions. Mora coached UCLA to two 10-win seasons in 2013 and 2014 and has seen his win totals hit 8, 4 and 5 wins in the three seasons since. What makes the Mora legacy so frustrating is he had talent to work with. Among solid recruiting classes during his time at UCLA, Mora coached two NFL quarterbacks in Brett Hundley and Josh Rosen as well as one of the top defensive players in recent years (Myles Jack) still failed to deliver a Pac-12 championship. Mora was 46-30 as UCLA’s head coach, but the trends were heading in the wrong direction at a time when crosstown rival USC continues to be rising, thus increasing the pressure for UCLA to keep up.

UCLA’s loss on Saturday night to the Trojans dropped UCLA to 5-6 on the season, leaving the Bruins in need of a win this week against Cal in order to become bowl eligible (without hoping for vacancies needing to be filled by 5-win teams). USC will play for the Pac-12 championship a year after going winning the Rose Bowl in the stadium UCLA calls home.

The UCLA job is one that should be expected to draw some interesting names to the rumor mill. Among them could end up being Chip Kelly, who doesn’t feel like a great fit in the SEC and has past success in the Pac-12 while at Oregon. UCLA’s release confirms the school will begin a national search for a new head coach.

AP Top 25 stands firm with few modifications; TCU back in top 10

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Like the coaches poll, the AP Top 25 saw few changes to its look this week after a fairly straight-forward weekend of college football for the nation’s top-ranked teams. No. 1 Alabama remains the clear favorite among the AP voters, with 58 first-place votes to stay ahead of the field.

The top nine teams remain unchanged from last week with Miami falling in at second behind Alabama, with Oklahoma, Clemson, Wisconsin, Auburn, Georgia, Ohio State, and Notre Dame next in line. No. 10 TCU is the newest member of the top 10 in the AP poll after moving up one spot this week, followed by USC and Penn State with similar moves up. All three were bumped up after former No. 10 Oklahoma State fell to No. 18 this week following a home loss to Kansas State. No. 13 UCF, No. 14 Washington State, No. 15 Washington, No. 16 Mississippi State, and No. 17 Memphis all moved up a spot at the expense of the drop by the Cowboys.

Three new teams appear in the top 25 this week at the bottom of the poll. No. 23 Northwestern, No. 24 Virginia Tech, and No. 25 Boise State fill out this week’s poll.

Here is this week’s AP Top 25:

  1. Alabama (58 first-place votes)
  2. Miami (3)
  3. Oklahoma
  4. Clemson
  5. Wisconsin
  6. Auburn
  7. Georgia
  8. Ohio State
  9. Notre Dame
  10. TCU
  11. USC
  12. Penn State
  13. UCF
  14. Washington State
  15. Washington
  16. Mississippi State
  17. Memphis
  18. Oklahoma State
  19. LSU
  20. Stanford
  21. Michigan State
  22. USF
  23. Northwestern
  24. Virginia Tech
  25. Boise State