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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.

Syracuse makes hiring of D-II Coach of the Year official

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Dino Babers‘ second coaching staff is whole once again.

Following up on reports that first surfaced late last week, Syracuse confirmed in a press release that Justin Lustig (pictured, left) has left his job as the head coach at Div. II Edinboro (Pa.) College to take over as Babers’ running backs coach.  Additionally, Lustig will serve as special teams coordinator for the Orange.

Lustig replaces Mike Hart, who left earlier this month to take the running backs coach job at Indiana.

“The job Justin did as a first-time head coach was fantastic,” Babers said in a statement. “He’s also been a highly-successful assistant coach. The running backs he has coached have performed extremely well, and his special teams units have consistently ranked among the nation’s best. We’re very excited to welcome Justin and his family to Syracuse.”

Hired in January of last year, Lustig took over an Edinboro team that finished 0-11 in 2015 and turned them into a 9-2 squad one year later.  For that turnaround, he was named the Div. II Coach of the Year.

Lustig’s last job at the FBS level came at Ball State, where he served as running backs coach/special teams coordinator from 2011-15.  He also earned the title of assistant head coach prior to the start of the 2015 season.

This will mark Lustig’s first job of any kind at a Power Five program.

“My family and I are excited, honored and grateful for the opportunity to come to Syracuse and join Coach Babers’ staff,” Lustig said. “He is building a championship program there. The future of Syracuse football is very bright and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.”

UNLV ‘very excited’ to share Las Vegas stadium with Raiders

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The biggest news of the day in the NFL has a decidedly college football connection.

By a 31-1 vote, NFL owners approved the Raiders move from Oakland to Las Vegas later this decade.  The new stadium that will eventually serve as the home for the NFL club is expected to be ready for play for the 2020 season.

As expected, it will also serve as the new home for Sin City’s FBS team, a fact that UNLV’s hierarchy was quick to point out and highlight in the hours after the vote was officially confirmed.  Below are the statements from the three main characters involved with the football program.

Len Jessup, UNLV President
UNLV and the entire Rebel family welcome the Oakland Raiders to Las Vegas. We look forward to a long-term partnership with the Raiders and the Stadium Authority Board to give UNLV football access to a world-class stadium and accompanying game day experience that will rival the best in college football. We also recognize and thank the numerous stakeholders – including the Adelson family – who invested their time and energy toward this vision. This is an historic day for Nevada and another example of how Las Vegas continues to reinvent itself.

Tina Kunzer-Murphy, UNLV Athletics Director
We are very excited to welcome the Raiders to our great city of Las Vegas. Our community is on the rise and that has clearly been recognized by the NFL owners with today’s vote. We can’t wait for the day our UNLV football program has a new home, sharing the new world-class stadium with the Las Vegas Raiders. What a great day for the NFL, our city and our university.

Tony Sanchez, UNLV Football Head Coach
Today is a huge development for UNLV Football and the city of Las Vegas. Sharing a state-of-the-art stadium with the Raiders is another thing that will allow us to recruit at a high level. The combination of an NFL stadium and our upcoming Fertitta Football Complex brings so much energy to this program and campus. As someone who has lived here for eight years, I’m also excited for this community. This is a great place to live and the pride of being an NFL city will make it an even better place.

In addition to being tenants in a new state-of-the-art stadium, the university will soon begin construction on an on-campus football practice facility.

There are five FBS teams that will share stadiums with NFL teams on at least a part-time basis in 2017 — UMass (New England Patriots, Gillette Stadium), Miami (Miami Dolphins, Sun Life Stadium), Temple (Philadelphia Eagles, Lincoln Financial Field), Pitt (Pittsburgh Steelers, Heinz Field) and USF (Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Raymond James Stadium).  Georgia State had shared the Georgia Dome with the Atlanta Falcons but are moving to the new Turner Field this season, while San Diego State will still call Qualcomm Stadium home even as the Chargers have bolted the facility for Los Angeles.

There has been chatter that both Temple (HERE) and USF (HERE) could find themselves in a position to build an on-campus stadium at some point down the road — although the latter could extend its agreement with its current home as it continues to evaluate its long-term plans.

The Los Angles Rams are also temporarily crashing at the home of the USC Trojans, Memorial Coliseum, until their new stadium is completed.

Kaylee Hartung leaves ESPN sidelines for CNN

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ESPN’s roster of college football talent has taken a bath lately. Sean McDonough and Chris Spielman broke up their critically acclaimed team for NFL work at different networks. Brad Nessler left for CBS. Brent Musuberger left for Vegas. Samantha Ponder has joined McDonough on the Worldwide Leader’s NFL team and, now, Kaylee Hartung is leaving the network as well.

Hartung confirmed her departure from ESPN on Monday. Though she did not name her next employer, it’s been an open secret within the industry for nearly a month Hartung will leave for CNN.

“Last night I worked my final event with ESPN,” Hartung announced on her Twitter page. “The decision to leave a job I love and take on a new challenge has been incredibly emotional but the overwhelming feeling I have today is gratitude. I am so grateful for the experience I’ve had within the ESPN family for 5 years. I’m grateful for the people I’ve worked with who have supported me, made me a better reporter, made me a better person and became my friends. I’m grateful for the coaches, athletes, staffers, and university officials who’ve shared their stories with me and let me be a part of their magical moments. I’m grateful for the fans who have embraced me and shared their passion with me. Thank you to everyone who’s been a part of my life during this incredibly fun and exciting chapter. I can’t wait to see what this next chapter has in store… Now I get to be a fan of you all!”

Hartung started with Longhorn Network and since moved to SEC Network and the mothership. Her final event for the network was Sunday night’s Women’s Elite Eight match between Mississippi State and Baylor. Hartung worked in the political media prior to landing with the Longhorn Network as an associate producer for the CBS program Face the Nation.

Final Four forces South Carolina to postpone indoor facility groundbreaking

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File this one under the most first world of all problems: the South Carolina football program is having to adjust its plans because the Gamecocks’ basketball team has been more successful than anticipated.

With Frank Martin‘s hoops headed to Phoenix for this weekend’s Final Four and taking all the Palmetto State’s attention with them, Will Muschamp‘s football program has been forced to alter what had been a big day planned.

The Gamecocks were scheduled to break ground on their announced indoor practice facility; those plans have now been postponed.

With only six days between South Carolina’s clinching of a Final Four berth and the football team’s planned Garnet-White game, the spring game will have to remain slated for Saturday. But it has been bumped forward to a noon kickoff.

Muschamp did not make the trip to Madison Square Garden for Sunday’s Elite Eight win (Florida’s Jim McElwain was in attendance) and Saturday’s spring game will also preclude his attendance, meaning the head football coach must wait until a possible national championship berth to support the basketball team in person.