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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.

Big Ten coaches on hot seat: Record revenues mean those big buyouts don’t mean quite as much

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Media days are on the horizon in just a few short weeks but we still have plenty of time left as our long national nightmare — the college football offseason — winds down. The lack of games on the TV and between the lines isn’t going to hamper us from talking about the sport that never stops at a place like CFTalk however.

As part of our continuing series taking a look at coaching hot seats at the FBS level, we’re taking a trip to the northern regions and hitting the Big Ten. The conference has seen some massive changes recently, starting at the commissioner level and filtering on down to major news regarding the retirement of Urban Meyer at league stalwart Ohio State. Mix in a handful of veterans entering key situations in 2019 and a number of head coaches aiming to rebound from a disappointing 2018 and there’s a fascinating mix across the 14 programs.

Left unsaid for some? Those record revenues from media rights deals mean buyout money is increasingly easy to find after this year and well beyond.

You can check out the hot seat status of head coaches in the ACC and Big 12 too if you’re interested but without further ado, a look at the various stages of hot seats in the Big Ten:

The new guys

Mike Locksley (Maryland)

Ryan Day (Ohio State)

Feeling Heat

Chris Ash (Rutgers)

Ash has seen public support from his athletic director but a 7-29 record — with just three conference wins in three seasons — is going to draw plenty of heat to the job you’re doing and especially so given how the Scarlet Knights seemed to regress during last year’s 1-11 campaign. He still sports a pretty hefty buyout going forward but it’s more manageable after 2019 and the program can only be stuck at the back of the bus for so long before change is needed. There’s optimism in Piscataway that things will be better — and they better be or else one of the hardest gigs around will be open again.

Warming up

Tom Allen (Indiana)

The Hoosiers are not prone to rush into any big changes when it comes to their football program and have shown more patience than most when it comes to their head coaches on the gridiron. While that means Allen is more likely than not given runway past his upcoming third season, a bowl game appearance is generally the bar to clear for most and IU has come up short the last two years — with some maddeningly close losses to boot. He’s only won four games in Big Ten play after being elevated to the full-time gig and it doesn’t help that others like Purdue and Minnesota have started to make strides after having down years.  There’s plenty of support from above but another mediocre campaign will start to weigh on fans who are pining for more consistency in the league.

The Great Unknown 

Mark Dantonio (Michigan State)

Dantonio has won over 100 games with the Spartans and is as much the face of the program as any other coach in the Big Ten save perhaps Kirk Ferentz at Iowa. But there are a few factors that put him in a strange no man’s land. The first is off the field, where he’s dealt with a ton of issues the last few years and that’s been coupled with the school’s overarching Larry Nassar scandal that has seen a near complete leadership changeover the past 18 months. Then there’s the on-field stuff, which saw an impressive bounce-back in 2017 give way to a huge disappointment in 2018. Reshuffling the coaching staff isn’t exactly the kind of move the fan base wanted this offseason and a hard to watch offense remains an issue for MSU getting back to 2013/15 levels. While the upcoming season isn’t make-or-break exactly, it could go a longways in determining what the future holds in East Lansing long term for Dantonio and others.

Safe and secure 

P.J. Fleck (Minnesota)

Fleck was brought on to help turnaround the Gophers and has made some progress after two seasons, leading the team to a bowl win last year and generally upping the energy around the football team in the Twin Cities. It helps being in the division they are in of course but doing things like returning Paul Bunyan’s Axe to Minneapolis for the first time since 2003 is a nice sign of progress. There’s still work to be done of course but Fleck seems more inclined to leave on his own compared to being fired for anything that happens on the field right now.

James Franklin (Penn State)

It speaks to the high level of expectations that have been established in State College under Franklin that the recent 9-4 campaign was a bit disappointing for the Nittany Lions. Still, the team has posted big wins on the field, is competitive year-in and year-out for the division and Big Ten titles and generally back to operating on the Penn State level we’re used to under their head coach. There’s still a part of the fan base that feels more can be done though and some of those feelings were brought up again after some offseason rumors linking Franklin to a not-open USC gig. He’s got the support of his AD, has recruiting humming along nicely and, while it’s not a picture perfect marriage, things are still very good at the moment at PSU.

Jim Harbaugh (Michigan)

The perception of Harbaugh outside the Michigan administration is a bit different from inside it, where he continues to enjoy broad support and belief in the job he’s doing. Outside of Ann Arbor though, the doubters are there in droves — some thanks to his antics away from the lines and others as a result of that 2-6 mark against rivals MSU and Ohio State. The loud noises they make have seemingly obscured the fact that he’s won 10 games three of his first four years and has led the Wolverines to a pair of New Year’s Six bowls. He’s going to be the coach of the maize and blue for as long as he wants for the most part but even he understands that the seat is going to be hotter externally than internally, especially given the results against the Buckeyes the last few times out.

Scott Frost (Nebraska)

There was nobody celebrated more for returning home than Frost was when he agreed to take over the program he led to the national title many moons ago. While it’s still probably safe to say that honeymoon period is ongoing between Big Red and their head coach, the feeling has cooled a bit after such a disappointing debut campaign saw the team miss out on a bowl game and start out 0-6. Still, there’s plenty of faith that he can get things turned around on both sides of the ball and have the Cornhuskers making the trip to Indianapolis sooner rather than later.

Paul Chryst (Wisconsin)

College Football Playoff expectations in 2018 gave way to plenty of disappointment last year but the program’s native son is still in as good of a situation as any in the league. He’s 42-12 overall with the Badgers and has the team on a level of consistency that few have matched. There’s still some hoping Wisconsin can truly break through into the nation’s elite after so many close calls but nobody inside or outside of Madison is arguing with the job that Chryst has done so far.

Jeff Brohm (Purdue)

After turning down his alma mater of Louisville, it’s safe to say that Brohm is as committed to his program as any coach in the league. Of course, it helps to command an elite salary as a result of that offseason wooing but few in the business have handled a situation better while also producing results on the field. While his overall 13-13 record at the school doesn’t tell the whole story, the Boilermakers are thrilled with the way this hire has turned out and hopeful for even more wins going forward.

Frozen solid

Kirk Ferentz (Iowa)

Ferentz isn’t just the dean of the Big Ten coaches, he’s the dean of all of college football thanks to a tenure that dates back to 1999. Though he’s won just one division title in the past decade, the consistency the Hawkeyes have shown under his watch has been remarkable and a good reminder as to why he’s been where’s at for so long. His contract (and resulting buyout) is always great talk for fans and the media but it’s been pretty clear the last few years that Ferentz will  be the one to decide when it is time to move on and nobody else.

Pat Fitzgerald (Northwestern)

One of the Wildcats’ most recognizable football players of all-time seems like a lifer in Evanston right now, especially given the school’s humongous facilities upgrades the past few years. Guiding the team to the Big Ten title game was an impressive accomplishment last season and there’s hope that the program can even make the jump to another level going forward too. It’s often been said that the Chicago Bears is probably the only gig that would be enough to pry Fitz out of his current one but even that seems like a stretch to say as he enters season No. 14.

Missouri AD hopes to hear on NCAA appeal before football season

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While there are always a ton of storylines surrounding the SEC on any given season, the big focus for Missouri is quite clear heading into the 2019 campaign and it has nothing to do with anything that is on the field. The Tigers were handed a surprising bowl ban by the NCAA back in January for a host of major violations and fans, players and other supporters of the school have been vocal in their displeasure ever since.

We might get some clarity on the exact status of Mizzou’s football program later this summer however, as athletic director Jim Sterk detailed to KTGR in a recent interview.

“We really think we have a strong case for overturning the majority of the decisions that they made,” Sterk told ‘The Big Show.‘ “The people that are a lot smarter than me that worked on this case really presented an appeal that’s strong and compelling. And we’ll be doing an in-person hearing, we’re expecting somewhere on the middle of July and then hear something hopefully by before football starts or shortly thereafter.”

Sterk went on to say that he had heard from a number of folks in other departments who criticized the NCAA’s original decision, which also came with restrictions to official visits and recruiting contacts in addition to the bowl ban. The timeline he indicated is notable however, as the school formally appealed in late March. While the appeals committee could rule sooner, a six-week or so time-frame seems about the norm on these kinds of things and would indeed put a response dropping just as the Tigers get ready to play Wyoming in their season opener on August 31.

We’ll see if Missouri’s case is any different — as Sterk tries to make out — but appeals are still typically an uphill battle for schools to win. A bowl ban isn’t the end of the world for the Tigers but they no doubt would like to play in one if they qualify given expectations around Columbia are a bit higher in 2019 after the addition of Clemson QB Kelly Bryant and a host of others.

Either way, it at least seems like a good bet for Mizzou to find out their fate early in the season so they know what they have to play for… or not.

Travian Robertson replaces Brad Lawing as Georgia State’s DL coach

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In February of this year, Georgia State announced that former Florida State assistant Brad Lawing had been hired as Shawn Elliott‘s next defensive line coach.  Nearly four months later, Lawing is out and a new position coach is in.

According to the Sun Belt Conference school, Travian Robertson has been hired as the Panthers’ next line coach on the defensive side of the ball.  The move marks a homecoming of sorts as Robertson served as a graduate assistant for Elliott during the 2017 campaign at GSU.

Robertson played his college football at South Carolina, with a portion of that career intersecting with Elliott’s time as an assistant on Steve Spurrier‘s Gamecocks coaching staff.

“It was a natural fit for Travian to come back to Georgia State after spending a year with us previously,” the head coach said in a statement. “Our relationship goes back to our days at South Carolina, and I have tremendous respect for him as a person and as a coach, and we’re thrilled to have him here.”

This past season, Robertson, who had a four-year career in the NFL after being selected in the seventh round of the 2012 draft, served as the line coach at Albany State.

Illinois offers update on DE who suffered severe spinal injury

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There’s yet another update regarding an Illinois player who suffered a significant injury earlier this month.

Illini true junior defensive end Bobby Roundtree sustained what was described as a severe spinal cord injury in a swimming accident May 18 and underwent surgery a day later. It was subsequently reported that Roundtree was progressing well following the surgery and, while he remained hospitalized, was speaking, eating and sitting up.

While Roundtree had remained hospitalized on into this month at a Tampa-area hospital, Illini athletic director Josh Whitman confirmed Tuesday that Roundtree has since been moved to a rehabilitation center in Chicago, which the AD described as “one of the finest facilities of its kind in the country.”

“He’s receiving top-level care,” Whitman added.

As for what is to come, Roundtree is expected to remain in the unnamed facility for a period of 3-6 months, at which point he would then transition back to Champaign to continue his rehab.

Roundtree has started 20 games the past two seasons since coming to Illinois as a three-star member of their 2017 recruiting class. This past season, the 6-5, 245-pound end led the Illini in tackles for loss with 12.5 and pass breakups, and was second in sacks with 7.5 and quarterback hits with four.

For that performance, the media named Roundtree honorable mention All-Big Ten for the 2018 season.