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Roster changes make Alabama and Clemson’s national title rematch a fresh affair

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Every coach at nearly every level of football will tell you that a team can be vastly different from one season to the next no matter how many players are returning to the roster. There may be no better example of that than this year’s historic rematch in the national championship game between Alabama and Clemson.

Sure, Deshuan Watson and the Tigers appear to be mostly the same group that pilled up plenty of yards and put up 40 points on Nick Saban’s defense. And you’d be correct that many of last season’s stars for the Crimson Tide like Jonathan Allen and O.J. Howard will be back again for another go around at that prestigious golden trophy. But looking a little deeper at the depth chart for both squads reveals that these are two very different teams from last year with plenty of fresh faces around heading into this title game clash in 2017.

To start with, a number of key players will be watching at home after wrapping up their rookie year in the NFL. The Crimson Tide had seven players drafted off the 2015 team — all going in the first 75 picks — that included Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, star center Ryan Kelly and stud defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson. Others like Kenyan Drake, who had a 95 yard kick return for a touchdown back in Glendale last season, also won’t be around for Monday night’s edition. All told, there will be eight new starters for Saban’s defense compared to last year’s title game and a further six on offense.

Naturally, some of those starters this time around played quite a bit in the first meeting and have developed into impressive players after 15 games this year. There are still a few however, like quarterback Jalen Hurts and right tackle Jonah Williams, who will be entering this championship bout set to play key roles after watching last year’s game as either high schoolers or early enrollees. Both have had fantastic seasons for the Tide despite their youth and should play a key role in the outcome of this one despite this being their first action in the sport’s biggest game.

The same is true on the Clemson side, which has a number of players who will play in this setting for the first time. That includes freshman right tackle Sean Pollard on offense, plus star defensive linemen Dexter Lawrence (second on the team in sacks) and Fiesta Bowl Defensive MVP Clelin Ferrell. Receiver Deon Cain was suspended for the Tigers’ postseason run in 2015 while fellow wideout Mike Williams — perhaps the best in the country at his position entering the game — was cheering on the sideline as he recovered from a terrible neck injury.

In total, Clemson had eight starters and one backup drafted off last year’s roster that won’t be around for the upcoming rematch with Alabama. Many of their experienced backups have easily slid into the starting role and will have a big impact on Monday night though, such as linebackers Dorian O’Daniel and Kendall Joseph, corner Ryan Carter, safety Jadar Johnson and left guard Taylor Hearn.

While there will be plenty of new names among the players from last year to this one, there are a few new ones on the coaching staffs. While Clemson’s changes are mostly minor and behind the scenes when it comes to analysts, Alabama’s are far more pronounced. Tide defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt was around the offices for title game prep after coming over from Georgia but took a back seat to Kirby Smart. He’s no stranger to the stage however, having won a ring at Florida State in 2013. The same is true for his new opposite number in Steve Sarkisian, who played a big run in USC’s dominance under Pete Carroll back in the day and takes over for offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin on short notice this week after serving as an analyst since August.

So when you sit down to watch Alabama and Clemson square off on Monday night in the national championship game, just know that while it may be a rematch with a number of familiar names like Saban and Watson and Howard, the two teams are not the same ones who dueled in the desert last January. We may get a game down in Tampa that plays out in similar fashion but both the Tide and the Tigers will enter Raymond James Stadium with a very different makeup in 2017.

Miami Beach Bowl officially moves to Frisco, Texas

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The Miami Beach Bowl was an unnecessary bowl game played in a metro area already populated by bowl games — but at least it was in Miami. Bowl games may have lost their luster over the past decade-plus, but it’s hard to complain about being sent to South Beach in December for a football game.

The Miami Beach Bowl is no more, and it’s now been reincarnated as another unnecessary bowl game to be played in a metro area even more populated by bowl games — and it won’t be anywhere near as interesting as Miami.

Meet the Frisco Bowl, the newest ESPN-created postseason college football game to be played in the scenic locale of Frisco, Texas.

The north Dallas suburb will host the game at Toyota Stadium, a 20,500-seat outdoor venue that’s home to MLS club FC Dallas as well as the FCS National Championship every January. The Frisco Bowl will also compete for sponsorship dollars and public attention with the Cotton Bowl in Arlington, the Heart of Dallas Bowl in Dallas and the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth.

“We are pleased to be able to host this game in one of the most vibrant football markets in the country,” said ESPN vice president of events Clint Overby. “The infrastructure and facilities that exist in Frisco are outstanding and will be an excellent venue for the teams, players, administrators and fans traveling into the marketplace. We look forward to working with civic organizations and businesses in the area to create an annual event that embraces the spirit of the community.”

The first annual Frisco Bowl will pit an American Athletic Conference team against a to-be-determined conference at 8 p.m. ET on Dec. 20.

2017 Texas signee sees felony drug charge reduced to misdemeanor

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It appears the door to one member of Texas’ 2017 recruiting class arriving in Austin this summer has opened a little wider.

In late February, Reese Leitao was arrested at his Oklahoma high school on a charge of possession/delivery of a controlled dangerous substance with intent to sell within a thousand feet of a school, a felony.  Tuesday, the Austin American-Statesman is reporting, Leitao pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor drug possession charge.

As part of the plea agreement, Leitao received a four-year deferred sentence; provided he stays clean during that time, the charge will be wiped off his record.  The American-Statesman writes that, “[a]ccording to Leitao’s attorney, Leitao has ‘some probationary work,’including speaking engagements at schools, and will be under the supervision of the district attorney.”  A $1,000 fine was part of his punishment as well.

The ball is now in the hands of first-year UT head coach Tom Herman as to whether Leitao will have a football future with the Longhorns.

“I’m happy,” the attorney, Allen Smallwood, told the newspaper. “Hopefully the University of Texas will be happy.”

At the time of Leitao’s arrest, a statement attributed to Herman said that “[w]e’re collecting information, will talk to Reese and his family, let the legal system run its course and then address it further at the appropriate time.” As of this posting, the university has yet to publicly address the development.

Leitao was a three-star 2017 signee, rated as the No. 19 tight end in the country and the No. 8 player at any position in the state of Oklahoma.

Miami All-American, NFL Hall of Famer Cortez Kennedy dead at 48

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One of the most physically-gifted and talented players in the history of Miami Hurricanes football is gone way, way too soon.

The Orlando Police Department confirmed Tuesday afternoon that Cortez Kennedy passed away earlier today.  He was just 48 years old.

No cause of death has been determined, with the OPD stating that “at this time there is nothing suspicious to report but we are conducting an investigation regarding his unattended passing.”

After starting his collegiate playing career at the junior college level, Kennedy moved on to the University of Miami, earning All-American honors in 1989.  In 2004, he was inducted into the university’s Sports Hall of Fame.

The third overall pick of the 2000 NFL draft, Kennedy spent his entire 11-year pro career with the Seattle Seahawks.  In 2012, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Not surprisingly, Kennedy’s sudden passing has brought an outpouring of emotion from those connected to the football program.

LSU RB Lanard Fournette arrested for illegal gambling at Baton Rouge casino

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The younger brother of Leonard Fournette has finally made a name for himself, albeit for all of the wrong reasons.

Monday afternoon, WAFB-TV reported, LSU running back Lanard Fournette was arrested on a charge of using a fake ID to gamble at a Baton Rouge casino this past weekend.  The 20-year-old Fournette was subsequently released on a $1,000 bond.

The Baton Rouge Advocate has obtained some of the details  led up to the arrest of the redshirt sophomore.

Fournette… was arrested Monday after surveillance video showed and casino personnel confirmed he gained access to the gaming floor Saturday with a different ID than his own driver’s license, according to his arrest report.

Security video showed Fournette playing at a “craps table” for 16 minutes around 1:30 p.m., before walking to the player’s services counter. Fournette then allegedly presented his real ID to the cashier for a cash withdrawal, who determined his accurate age and contacted security, the report says.

Fournette, of Slidell, was detained at the casino, but left before the officer’s arrival, the report says. When casino security asked Fournette about the incident, Fournette said he used another person’s ID to enter the casino, the report says.

Head coach Ed Orgeron is aware of the incident and any discipline will be handled internally.

A three-star 2015 signee, Fournette took a redshirt his true freshman season.  In three games last year, he ran for 13 yards on five carries.

Fournette’s older brother was the fourth overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft following an Al-American career at LSU.