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TALLAHASSEE, FL - SEPTEMBER 12: Dalvin Cook #4 of the Florida State Seminoles runs for a 24-yard touchdown against the South Florida Bulls in the third quarter at Doak Campbell Stadium on September 12, 2015 in Tallahassee, Florida. Florida State defeated South Florida 34-14. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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CFT Preseason Previews: Heisman Watch

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The 2015 season was the Year of the Running Back in college football. Alabama’s Derrick Henry became just the second ball-carrier to claim the Stiffarm Trophy since the turn of the century, and running backs accounted for the top two and five of the top eight voting slots. Three of those five are back this season. With that in mind, will running backs continue their forward momentum and claim back-to-back Heismans, and the first non-Alabama running back Heisman, since 1998-99? Or will quarterbacks wrestle it back? Or how about a wide receiver, an offensive lineman or a defensive…. okay, let’s keep this realistic.

Leonard Fournette, LSU RB: Undoubtedly the most talented player in college football. Problem is, he knows it. The talk of him sitting out the season to devote himself to a nine-month NFL Draft prep is an odd crusade for some in football, but it’ll never happen. Still, though, Fournette is already dealing with injuries this season. He knows the pot of gold awaiting him on the other side of that rainbow. Will he dig deep, put his head down and charge for those two extra yards, or will he opt for self-preservation and do his best to simply ride this season out?

Deshaun Watson, Clemson QB: He’s got the skills, and he’s got the tools around him. Better yet, Clemson’s defense will probably take a step back this season, meaning he could stay on the field for more fourth quarters as the Tigers pile on points to put people away. So, yeah, everything is here to make a Heisman run. On the other hand, how often does the preseason favorite actually win the Heisman these days? There was Marcus Mariota in 2014, yes. Before that you may have to go back to Troy Smith all the way back in 2006.

Christian McCaffrey, Stanford RB: The quarterback is new. The wide receiving corps and offensive line are re-tooling. Everyone in the stadium knows McCaffrey is getting the ball as often as possible, and in as many ways as the Cardinal can possibly get him the ball. Should his numbers remain anywhere close to his 2015 statistics, McCaffrey could benefit from voters’ desire to choose a “throw-back” candidate.

Dalvin Cook, Florida State RB: Cook’s numbers from a year ago — 229 carries, 1,691 yards, 19 touchdowns, a ridiculous 7.38 yards per carry, a full foot-and-a-half more than the next closest runner with at least 225 attempts — were Heisman-esque, yet only good enough to get him to seventh place in last year’s voting. Do that again on a team that should seriously contend for a national championship and Cook may jump all the way to first.

Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma QB: The knock against Mayfield is that he’s a system quarterback. But if you’re going to be a system quarterback, what better system to run than one with two All-America caliber running backs, playing in a conference where 40 points a game is a baseline, and with one of college football’s strongest brand names on your helmet?

J.T. Barrett, Ohio State QB: Barrett has been oddly overlooked this preseason. All he did two years ago was toss 34 touchdowns against 10 picks, hit nearly 65 percent of his throws for nine yards per attempt, finish second nationally in passing efficiency whilst rushing for nearly 1,000 yards — all as a redshirt freshman.

Quick hits on the rest of the field:

Josh Rosen, UCLA QB: Maybe the best pro-prospect in college football, but NFL scouts may like him more than Heisman voters.

Royce Freeman, Oregon RB: The overlooked running back of 2015 — 1,800 yards, 17 touchdowns. But will the Ducks’ defense hold his candidacy back?

Patrick Mahomes, Texas Tech QB: The most talented in the long line of prolific Red Raider quarterbacks. But can Texas Tech get enough stops to mount him a serious campaign?

Jabrill Peppers, Michigan ATH: Could he follow another Wolverine’s path to a do-it-all Heisman win?

Myles Garrett, Texas A&M DE: If the Heisman is going to a full-time defensive player, Garrett is it. But if Suh, Clowney, et. al., couldn’t break through that glass ceiling, why would Garrett?

CFT 2016 Preseason Previews: Coaching Hot Seat

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Like death and taxes, another certainty in life is that, somewhere, a college coach’s backside is feeling a little toasty.

Such is the case as we get set to embark on a sparkling new football season, with a handful of coaches feeling the heat from folks off the field for their collective failures on it. Fair or not, it’s a fact of life in the coaching profession: win or you’re gone, ofttimes with a multi-million buyout serving as a very lucrative parachute.

So, just who is possibly looking at a spot in the coaching unemployment line at season’s end, or sooner? Recent history suggests that anywhere from 15 to upwards of 25 of the nearly 130 head coaches who are on the FBS sidelines when the season begins won’t be there when the calendar flips to 2017.

Last year around this time, our hot seat preview listed six head coaches feeling the heat; just one of the six survived the 2015 season.  The lone exception?  Indiana’s Kevin Wilson.

Below are but a few of the coaches who could be entering a make-or-break season at their respective schools, in order from hottest to slightly less hot.

KEVIN SUMLIN, TEXAS A&M
2015 RECORD: 8-5 overall, 4-4 in SEC
OVERALL RECORD: 36-16, 17-15
Off the field, it’s been an embarrassing last few months for the university in general and the A&M football program specifically.  Two of Sumlin’s assistants were suspended after getting their Beavis & Butthead on at a women’s football clinic, leaving A&M’s president “dismayed, disappointed, angry” over their sexist presentation  and allowing a former head coach at rival Texas to crow he’s “never lost a women’s clinic.”  Another Sumlin assistant made an ass of himself with a social media hissy fit befitting a middle schooler when a recruit had the audacity to decommit from the Aggies.  In February, former A&M quarterback Kyle Allen ripped the football program’s post-Johnny Football culture.  While not on Sumlin’s watch, it wasn’t a good look for the program when a former football trainer claimed in January that coaches pressured him to rush injured players back onto the field.

On the field is where Sumlin is really feeling the heat, though.  In 2012, the first season for both Sumlin in College Station and the Aggies in the SEC, A&M went 11-2 overall and 6-2 in conference play.  Since then, they’ve gone 25-14 overall and, more importantly, just 11-13 in the SEC.

Add it all up, and given the hyper-competitive nature of the SEC West, Sumlin sits on one of the hottest seats in the country.  He does have two potential lifelines.  One, win, and win big, in 2016.  Secondly, and arguably most importantly, his contract, which runs through 2019 and averages in excess of $5 million annually, is fully guaranteed if he’s fired without cause.  That, more than anything, might buy him another season if the on-field struggles — and off-field embarrassments — continue.

CHARLIE STRONG, TEXAS
2015 RECORD: 5-7 overall, 4-5 in Big 12
OVERALL RECORD: 11-14, 9-9
While the hot seat of Strong’s counterpart at a former rival consists of on- and off-the-field issues, the Longhorns’ sidelines boss’ issues rest solely between the lines on game days.  In two seasons with the Longhorns, Strong has gone an unacceptable 11-14 overall and 9-9 in Big 12 play, the worst two-year start for a UT head coach in nearly 80 years.  At Iowa State, those numbers would get you a parade through downtown Ames; at UT, it gets you on the express lane toward the unemployment line.

The good news for Strong is that he’s recruited well enough (seventh in 2016, 10th in 2015, 16th in 2014) that the talent is there to compete in the conference.  Additionally, three of their toughest games in 2016, Baylor, Notre Dame and TCU, will be played in Austin.  Strong has to hope that the combination of a new offensive coordinator (Sterlin Gilbert) and a promising freshman quarterback (Shane Buechele) can revitalize a stagnant offense and show promise for the future — and the defense can sustain its recent level of performance.

If the ‘Horns can’t get to at least eight wins?  It may be three seasons and you’re out for Strong of a handful of boosters get their way.

DARRELL HAZELL, PURDUE
2015 RECORD: 2-10 overall, 1-7 in Big Ten
OVERALL RECORD: 6-30, 2-22
Simply put, Hazell seemingly needs to qualify for a bowl in order to get a fifth season in West Lafayette, and the raw numbers show exactly why.

Of the 30 games the Boilermakers have played in three years under Hazell, they’ve lost 24 of them.  Half of Hazell’s wins during his time at the school have come against FCS programs; in other words, he has a winning percentage of .100 against teams that play at the FBS level.  Think about that number for a second, and let it sink in, and it makes you truly wonder how he made it to the 2016 season to begin with — especially when you consider he has an even-worse .090 winning percentage in conference play.  And it’s not like they’re competitive in the league, either.

In B1G play, Hazell has lost 22 games by nearly 20 points per game (19.8).  17 of those losses were by two touchdowns or more, with exactly half of the losses, 11, coming by 20 or more points.  And the two wins?  By 10 over Nebraska last year, by 11 over Illinois the year before.

It was thought that Hazell’s contract played a role in his getting a fourth season.  If this one’s anything like the previous three, there’s little doubt the athletic department will eat the remaining money owed to Hazell and move on to another head coach.

GUS MALZAHN, AUBURN
2015 RECORD: 7-6 overall, 2-6 in SEC
OVERALL RECORD: 27-13, 13-11
It’d be hard to get off to a much better start than Malzahn did in 2013.  All The Tigers did was run out to a 12-1 record and SEC title before losing to Florida State in the BCS championship game.  Since then?  A steady decline — and a precipitous one when it comes to conference play.

The Tigers dipped to 8-5 in 2014, and then dipped even further the following season to 7-6.  Most worrisome for those in and around the athletic department would have to be a 4-4 record in the SEC in 2014 that turned into 2-6 last season.  In fact, since beating Ole Miss in early November of 2014, Auburn has gone a miserable 2-9 in SEC games.  That’s disappointing for just about any school in the conference.  For a school that resides in the same state as a program that’s won four of the last seven national championships?  It’s downright unacceptable.

The SEC West is the most unforgiving of coaching stops.  If Malzahn doesn’t turn it around sooner rather than later, he will, fair or not, find himself on the outside of the conference looking in.

DANA HOLGORSEN, WEST VIRGINIA
2015 RECORD: 8-5 overall, 4-5 in Big 12
OVERALL RECORD: 36-28, 20-23
An eight-win season staved off the wolves for the moment, but 2016 might be a make-or-break season for Holgorsen in Morgantown.  That was never more evident than when contract talks on an extension between the two sides stalled earlier this year, leaving the coach with just one more year on his contract after this season.

Holgorsen is 35-28 in five seasons with the Mountaineers. Against Big 12 foes, however, Holgorsen is just 15-21.  Since going 10-3 in the final season in the Big East in 2011, WVU is a mere 26-25 the last four seasons. The good news for Holgorsen is that there’s some momentum from a year ago on which to build, with the Mountaineers winning five of their last six games coming off a four-game losing streak against ranked conference teams.  The lone loss in that stretch was a one-point setback at Kansas State, and also included the first bowl win since Holgorsen’s first season.

As rumors swirled surrounding Holgorsen’s future in Morgantown, athletic director Shane Lyons announced back in December that the head coach would return.  As it appears there will be no resolution to the contract issue before the new season kicks off, expect the speculation on Holgorsen’s future to ramp up exponentially if the Mountaineers struggle coming out of the 2016 gate.

MARK STOOPS, KENTUCKY
2015 RECORD: 5-7 overall, 2-6 in SEC
OVERALL RECORD: 12-24, 4-20
It might be a year early to put Stoops on this list, but it shouldn’t be.

At least when it comes to recruiting, Stoops has flamed what passions for football in Lexington exists.  Prior to Stoops’ arrival, UK had just two recruiting classes — 2006 (No. 36) and 2009 (No. 41) — that finished inside the Top 50 nationally since 2002.  Since then, the Wildcats have racked up classes that ranked 34th (2016), 38th (2015), 22nd (2014) and 34th (2013).  That relative recruiting success has, thus far, failed miserably to translate into on-field success, though.

A 2-10 first season with the Wildcats gave way to a 5-7 2014 season, a mark that led to rampant enthusiasm over the future of the football program.  That push forward stalled with yet another 5-7 season in 2015.  Perhaps most distressing to followers of the team is the 4-20 mark in SEC play, a sign that the team is not even remotely ready to compete even in the weaker East Division.

If UK is fine with a .500-ish program that creates some recruiting buzz every once in a while, then Stoops might be their man.  If they’re looking to get to the next level?  2016 may portend whether Stoops can or can’t be that man.  Stoops is signed through the 2019 season, but money, at least in the SEC, should be no object when it comes to the football program.

CFT 2016 Preseason Previews: Top 25

ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 31:  The Alabama Crimson Tide celebrate with the trophy after defeating the Michigan State Spartans 38 to 0 in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium on December 31, 2015 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
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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.

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.

South Alabama to continue studying possibility of on-campus stadium

COLUMBIA, SC - NOVEMBER 22:  Teammates Desmond LaVelle #34 and Montell Garner #16 of the South Alabama Jaguars celebrate after recovering a fumble against the South Carolina Gamecocks during their game at Williams-Brice Stadium on November 22, 2014 in Columbia, South Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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It’s never a good thing for your college football program to play in a stadium that’s 61 years older than the team it hosts. Such is the case for South Alabama, where the Jaguars, born in 2009, play in Ladd-Peebles Stadium, born in 1948.

The school has completed a feasibility study into building an on-campus stadium, which concluded three things:

A) Ladd-Peebles Stadium’s 36,000-seat capacity is about 10,000 seats too large.

B) Building an on-campus stadium would require displacing the university’s intramural programs.

C) It would cost between $85 million and $115 million to build it.

From a letter South Alabama president Dr. Tony Waldrop sent to school supporters and media:

At this point in the process, it has been determined that:

The most viable and logical site for a stadium would be the location of the current intramural fields near the football field house, with the intramural fields being relocated to another area of campus.

The logical seating capacity for a stadium would be in the range of 25,000 seats, with the capacity for additional expansion in the future if needed.

The cost of a stadium, along with the associated infrastructure and improvements, would fall into the range of approximately $85 to $115 million.

The results of this process tell us that construction of an on-campus stadium is feasible. At the same time, we also know that construction of a stadium can only be achieved with the assistance of external financial partnerships and significant philanthropic support. We will continue to examine possible models for financing, but at this time the University has not identified sources of funding that would allow us to advance to the next stage of planning.

So, yes, identifying a need for a stadium is one thing. Finding the money to do it is something else entirely.