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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.

Spinal condition forces Northwestern’s leading rusher to retire

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Harsh and decidedly unexpected news coming out of Evanston Monday afternoon will have a significant impact on Northwestern’s football team moving forward.

The football program confirmed earlier today that Jeremy Larkin will be forced to retire from the game of football as a result of a recent diagnosis of cervical stenosis.  The good news is that the condition is not considered life-threatening even as it precludes any future participation in the sport.

Obviously, the sophomore running back’s decision to retire, which came as the football program was coming off its one bye weekend of the season, is effective immediately.

“Football has been a lifelong passion and it has been a process to reconcile the fact I won’t be on that field again, given I’ve played this game since I was five years old,” said Larkin in a statement. “I’m extremely appreciative of the Northwestern sports medicine and athletic training staffs for uncovering this condition, and for my coaches and the medical staff for always putting my health first. I came to this University to engage at the absolute highest level on the field and in the classroom, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to continue one of those while supporting my teammates from the sideline.”

“This is heartbreaking because I see every day how much Jeremy loves the game, loves his teammates, and loves to compete,” head football coach Pat Fitzgerald. “But this is the absolute best possible outcome for him. The discovery of this condition allowed Jeremy and his family to make an informed decision for his long-term health and well-being. For those of us who have known Jeremy Larkin since his high school days, his future is exceptionally bright. I can’t wait to see the impact he makes in our world.”

Through three games, Larkin’s 346 yards rushing were easily tops on the Wildcats.  In fact, Larkin currently accounts for an astounding 98.6 percent of the Wildcats’ 351 rushing yards as a team.  Additionally, he has five of their seven rushing touchdowns on the season.

Northwestern will open up Big Ten play this weekend as they host No. 14 Michigan.

Virginia Tech QB Josh Jackson set for surgery, out indefinitely

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Virginia Tech’s embarrassing weekend came with a rather substantial personnel loss.

This past Saturday, starting quarterback Josh Jackson went down with a lower-leg injury in then-No. 13 Tech’s historic loss to Old Dominion; it was the Conference USA program’s first-ever win over a Power Five school after nine straight such losses over the last decade.

Monday, the Hokies’ worst fears were realized as Justin Fuente confirmed that Jackson suffered a fractured left fibula during the game and will be sidelined indefinitely.  The signal-caller is set to undergo surgery on Tuesday to repair the damage.

This season prior to the injury, Jackson completed a little over 62 percent of his 58 passes for 575 yards, five touchdowns and an interception.  His 170.3 pass efficiency rating is currently 18th nationally and second among ACC quarterbacks (Boston College’s Anthony Brown, 175.5).

With Jackson sidelined for the foreseeable future, the keys to Tech’s offense will be handed off to Ryan Willis.  The Kansas transfer had to sit out the 2017 season to satisfy NCAA transfer rules, and has attempted 25 passes for the Hokies this season.  In that limited action thus far, he has thrown for 195 yards and a touchdown.

The good news is that Willis isn’t exactly new to the starting game at the collegiate level.

Willis started two games during the 2016 season; after throwing three interceptions in each of those mid-October starts, Willis was benched and never played another down for the Jayhawks. In his first season in Lawrence in 2015, Willis set a KU freshman record by throwing for 1,719 yards and nine touchdowns as part of his eight starts.

“I feel badly for Josh,” Fuente said in comments distributed by the school earlier today. “He’s a competitive, tough young man. He just kind of got landed on wrong on the play, but know he’ll come back better than ever.

“We turn to Ryan Willis and he performed pretty well last week when he went in there. He’s competitive and he’s been training and working for this opportunity and it’s up to everyone else to step up their game as well and help him out and support him.”

Nick Bosa’s parents indicate star Ohio State DE won’t even be reevaluated until November

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Instead of when will Ohio State gets it’s star defensive end back, perhaps the question should be will they.

Nick Bosa suffered a core muscle injury in the Week 3 win over TCU, with surgery subsequently confirmed by head coach Urban Meyer that left the All-American defensive lineman’s availability in the near future up in the air.  Not long after Meyer confirmed Monday that Bosa would indeed miss this weekend’s huge matchup with Penn State, both of the third-year junior’s parents indicated that it could be quite a while, if at all, before their son returns to the playing field — at least at the collegiate level.

John Bosa told the Columbus Dispatch “the reality of what’s going on [is that] Nick won’t be evaluated by the surgeon until November”; Cheryl Bosa stated as much to ESPN.com as well.

While Bosa’s head coach stated that “we expect him back” this season, his mom intimated there’s a chance her son, widely expected to be a Top Five pick in the 2019 NFL draft if/when he leaves OSU early, could opt not to return at all in 2018.

“Cheryl said her son wants to return for Ohio State this season,” ESPN.com wrote, “but that they’ll discuss his situation (NFL) as a family before making a decision.”

Regardless of whether he returns to the Buckeyes or not, the good news is that, per the father, the injury “is 100-percent fixable.”

OSU will play four regular season games in the month of November: Nebraska (Nov. 3), at Michigan State (Nov. 10), at Maryland (Nov. 17) and Michigan (Nov. 24).  The Big Ten championship game is set for Dec. 1.

It’s unclear if Bosa’s decision will be impacted by the Buckeyes qualifying for the conference title game or, further down the road, the College Football Playoffs if they’re one of the four semifinalists.

Larry Scott defends Pac-12’s late night TV schedule

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Judging from the outsider’s perspective, the Pac-12 seems like the angriest of the Power 5 conferences right now. Or at least the most angst-ridden. The league is angsty about the state of its product on the field after going 1-8 in bowl games and missing the College Football Playoff last year. It’s angsty about its place in the world, literally and metaphorically, isolated from the other four Power 5 leagues. And it’s especially angsty about its TV contract.

Twenty-four of the league’s 80 conference games started at or after 7 p.m. local time in 2017, 30 percent. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but that feels like a higher number than the other conferences (and Pac-12 coaches and fans would likely agree).

There’s one reason for that: TV. In 2011, the Pac-12 announced a joint 12-year contract with ESPN and Fox worth a collective $3 billion. At the time, it felt like a game-changer. In time, we’ve learned that it wasn’t. The Pac-12 is still the only Power 5 conference in the Pacific time zone, and as such, it’s the only conference the networks are going to schedule in the 10:30 p.m. ET time slot.

Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott was asked about the TV deal on Saturday:

“The reason we play almost a third of our games at night is that was a way to unlock significant value from television in our last negations,” Scott said, via The Oregonian. “ESPN and Fox placed a high value on us giving them a little more flexibility and being willing to play more night games.”

Translated from businesspeak to English, here’s what Scott is saying: Look, you like all that money, don’t you? The only way ESPN and Fox were paying us all those billions was if we played at 10:30 Eastern, because they’re certainly not playing SEC games at that time.

The economics here is simple: ESPN and Fox draw higher ratings for live college football games than they do for SportsCenter (or whatever the FS1 equivalent is). The Washington-Utah game drew 1.589 million viewers for ESPN on Sept. 15, while Fresno State-UCLA drew 301,000 for FS1. Both of those numbers are higher than anything else those networks could show at that time. As such, ESPN and Fox can charge higher prices for advertising, and then share some of that money with the conference. If there were no #Pac12AfterDark games there would be no (or significantly less) #Pac12AfterDark money. And everyone likes money, especially when they’ve already spent it it on coaching salaries and new facilities.

And, let’s face it, given the chance to show, say, Alabama-Ole Miss or Washington-Utah at 7 p.m. ET, ESPN is going to pick Alabama-Ole Miss every time. In fact, ESPN did that exact thing on Sept. 15, and Alabama-Ole Miss drew 4.109 million viewers.

The Pac-12 does own its own network, so if the league’s fans and coaches are truly that miserable in their current arrangement, the option to go it alone and pick its kickoff times will become available to the conference starting in 2024. In fact, the Pac-12 stands more to gain than any other conference by placing most or all of its TV inventory on its own network. The Pac-12 wholly owns all of Pac-12 Network, which means it would stand to keep all of the profits in the event its carriage fees skyrocket by putting every USC, Washington, Oregon, etc., football game on its network. But, of course, it would stand to take all of the losses the conference passed on the guaranteed money from ESPN and Fox and the carriage fees didn’t skyrocket.

The guess here is the Pac-12 will take the guaranteed money again.