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Illini make hiring of Lovie Smith official

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It took Illinois 100-plus days to hire its new athletic director.  Conversely, it took that new athletic director two days to officially find his new head football coach.

Following up on speculation that began almost immediately after Saturday’s surpising development, Illinois announced Monday morning that Lovie Smith has been hired to take over the struggling Illini football program.  The 57-year-old Smith replaces Bill Cubit, who was fired this past Saturday on new AD Josh Whitman‘s first official day on the job.

Smith has never been a head coach at the collegiate level, and this will be his first job at this level in more than two decades.  In fact, Smith never was a coordinator during a college coaching career that spanned just a little more than a decade.

Still, Whitman’s move to hire the long-time NFL coach is being almost universally praised as the right move for a program that’s won just 17 games the last four seasons, and hasn’t had a 10-win season since 2001.

“I am extremely excited to be named head coach of the Fighting Illini,” Smith said in a statement released through the school. “Josh approached me about this possibility, and I immediately seized on the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the young men who are part of the program today and in the future. I take this responsibility very seriously and can’t wait to get a staff in place to start our move to make Illinois a contender for Big Ten titles. We will play an exciting brand of football that will make our fans, alumni, student body and members of the University community extremely proud.”

“Naming Lovie Smith as the Illinois head football coach is the first step in taking this program to a place of national prominence,” said Whitman. “We will build a program that contends annually for Big Ten and national championships. The timing for this move was extremely tight, and we needed to move quickly. A coach of Lovie’s caliber would not have been available to us if we had waited until after the 2016 season. Lovie’s reputation as a coach, and even more so as a person, made it clear it was an awesome opportunity for the University of Illinois.”

According to the school’s release, Smith reached an agreement on a six-year contract worth a total of $21 million. Not including incentives, Smith is set to earn $2 million in base salary in 2016 and 2017, $3 million for 2018, $4 million for 2019 and $5 million in both 2020 and 2021. The $2 million figure in 2016 would have put Smith 12th of the 14 teams in the Big Ten on the Illini make hiring of Lovie Smith official. Smith’s predecessor, Cubit, was paid $915,000 for the 2015 season.

No buyout figures for Smith’s deal were included in the school’s release.

The move to the Illini is Smith’s first at the college level since working as the defensive backs coach at Ohio State in 1995. He’s also had collegiate coaching stints at Tennessee (1993-94), Kentucky (1992), Arizona State (1988-91), Wisconsin (1987) and Tulsa (1983-87).  He was a linebackers coach at all five of the stops prior to working with OSU’s secondary.

Smith, though, is more known in the coaching profession for his time in the NFL.

The 57-year-old Texas native was a head coach in the NFL for the last 11 years, with the Chicago Bears from 2004-2012 and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2014-15.  He was named the Associate Press Coach of the Year following the 2005 season, and coached the Bears to the Super Bowl the following year.

In an 11-year NFL coaching career, Smith compiled a record of 89-87.  His postseason record was 3-3, with two of those losses coming in the Super Bowl and NFC championship game.

Oklahoma could pull off rare feat in 2019 NFL Draft

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On Thursday night in Nashville, Tennessee, the NFL Draft will kick off a three-day event that bridges the gap between college football and the NFL on an annual basis. The Arizona Cardinals will have the No. 1 pick in the draft and there is a possibility Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Kyler Murray could be the top pick of the draft. If that proves to be the case, then the Sooners will pull off one of the rarest feats in the NFL Draft by having the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft two years in a row.

Last year saw Baker Mayfield leave Oklahoma to be the top pick in the 2018 NFL Draft of the Cleveland Browns. If Murray is selected as the first player overall by the Cardinals (or any other team that moves up to the top spot), it will mark the first time since 1968 and 1969 when the top pick in the draft was selected out of the same school in consecutive seasons. USC’s Ron Yary was the top pick of the 1968 draft by the Minnesota Vikings, and running back O.J. Simpson was the top pick of the draft by the Buffalo Bills the following season. That remains the first and only time the top picks in consecutive drafts have come from the same school.

If Murray does go first overall, some history will also be made that will separate this feat from the one previously accomplished by USC. This would also mark the first time two Heisman Trophy winners from the same school have been selected with the top pick in the draft in consecutive seasons. Granted, it hasn’t been too often the same school had back-to-back Heisman Trophy winners, to begin with, not to mention having two within the same four or five-year period, but it’s been a good couple of years for the Sooners with Mayfield and Murray.

It’s also worth a reminder both Mayfield and Murray were transfer players as well, adding another layer to the improbability of the rare milestone Oklahoma is potentially in line to pull off this week. Naturally, this would be quite a piece of recruiting propaganda for Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley, who was named head coach of the Sooners just two years ago following the retirement of Bob Stoops.

Greg Sankey affirms support for 4-team playoff format

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The College Football Playoff was founded and remains controlled by the commissioners of the Power 5 conferences. For those looking to move the 4-team format to eight, the thinking went that the old guard (emphasis on old) in the form of Mike SliveJim Delany and John Swofford would eventually move on, and their younger predecessors would see how much money could be made by expanding the playoff, and then expand the playoff.

Slive, of course, retired in 2015 (he passed away in 2018), Delany will step down next year, and Swofford is 70. After the ACC Network gets up and running later this year, perhaps he’ll step down, allowing three of the five big chairs — and, let’s be honest, the three biggest of the five big chairs — will have changed hands from the Playoff’s 2012 creation to negotiations for the second contract. (The current contract expires after the 2025 season.)

One problem, though: one of those predecessors likes the Playoff as is.

Speaking at an APSE event in Birmingham on Monday, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey affirmed his support for the 4-team format.

The SEC is the least incentivized of the Power 5 conferences to change the status quo, because the status quo works for them. Along with the ACC, the SEC is the only conference to go 5-for-5 in placing teams in the field, and really the SEC is 6-for-5 given that Georgia and Alabama reached the Playoff in 2017, the only season to date in which one conference has occupied the four coveted spots.

The counter to this point is that it was the LSU vs. Alabama championship game that was the straw that killed the BCS’s back.

However, the counter to that counter was that Slive was on board to kill the BCS and berth the CFP. Never before in college football’s history of evolving postseason formats has change been brought against the SEC’s wishes, and that’s unlikely to change… now or in 2025.

North Carolina LB Kyle Wright plunges into transfer portal

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North Carolina linebacker Kyle Wright will leave Chapel Hill and pursue a graduate transfer, the player has announced.

“For the sake of having some dignity, I would like to announce that I will be entering the NCAA Transfer Portal,” he wrote on Twitter. “In doing so, I leave behind friendships and teammates that I will never forget. I appreciate you all.”

A Blythewood, S.C., native, Wright signed with North Carolina in 2018 and spent just one season in Chapel Hill. He appeared in four games, making one tackle against Georgia Tech, before using the year as a redshirt.

As an undergraduate transfer, Wright would have to sit out the 2019 campaign and compete in 2020 as a redshirt sophomore, barring a waiver.

Marshall, Western Michigan line up future series

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It’s been a long time since Marshall and Western Michigan were in the same conference, but the two will be reunited on the football field soon enough. No, we’re not talking about conference realignment, but future non-conference scheduling!

The two schools announced a future home-and-home series for the 2024 and 2025 seasons. Marshall will host the first game of the deal on Sept. 14, 2024. Western Michigan will host the second game on Sept. 6, 2025. The two schools have not squared off against each other since Marshall left the MAC for Conference USA in 2005, but Western Michigan leads the all-time series 22-12.

Western Michigan will also play Cincinnati in non-conference play in 2024 and will travel t two Big Ten opponents in 20205 (Michigan State and Illinois).

Marshall has road trips to Liberty and Virginia Tech scheduled in 2024 in addition to the new home game against the Broncos. In 2025, Marshall will host East Carolina a week after visiting Western Michigan.