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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.

Syracuse mourns death of former head coach Frank Maloney, 79

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As too many programs have been doing of late, the extended Syracuse football family is mourning the loss of one of their own.

In a press release, Syracuse announced that former head football coach Frank Maloney has passed away, the family confirmed.  Maloney was 79 years old.

According to the Syracuse Post-Standard, Maloney died at his home in Chicago from complications of metastatic brain melanoma.

From 1974-1980, Maloney served as the Syracuse football head coach.  Maloney replaced Hall of Famer Ben Schwartzwalder, who retired after a quarter-century with the Orange following the 1973 season.

“We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Coach Maloney. Our hearts go out to his family, friends and former players,” Syracuse athletic director John Wildhack said in a statement. “Coach Maloney led our football team during a time of transition, taking over the program after Coach Schwartzwalder’s 25-year tenure. He developed many young men, several of whom went on to very successful business careers and a number of talented players who went on to the NFL.”

Maloney played his college football at Michigan.  The West Virginia native’s coaching career began at his alma mater in 1968.  He spent six years at U-M before leaving to take over the Syracuse football program.

During his seven years with the Orange, Maloney went 32-46.

One fascinating aspect of Maloney’s tenure with Syracuse football?  The man Maloney replaced, Schwartzwalder, was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.  The man who replaced Maloney, Dick MacPherson, was inducted into the same Hall of Fame in 2009.

MacPherson was 86 when he passed away in August of 2008. Schwartzwalder died in 1993 at the age of 83.

‘The plan’ is for new Georgia OC Todd Monken to also coach QBs

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If there is a 2020 season, a new addition to Kirby Smart‘s Georgia football staff will have an additional title. As expected.

In mid-January, Georgia football confirmed reports that Todd Monken would be taking over as Smart’s offensive coordinator. Monken replaced James Coley, who remains with the program as assistant head coach.

Coley also served as the Bulldogs’ quarterbacks coach. It was assumed, but never confirmed, that Monken would assume those duties as well.

During a conference call with Georgia football beat reporters Tuesday, Smart acknowledged that “the plan” is indeed for Monken, whose salary was also revealed Tuesday, to handle his squad’s quarterbacks.

The first — and only — time in Monken’s coaching career, which stretches back to 1989, that he coached quarterbacks was at Oklahoma State in 2011-12. He was also OSU’s offensive coordinator those two seasons.

Since then, Monken’s been a coordinator at two NFL stops (Tampa Buccaneers from 2016-18, Cleveland Browns in 2019) after he stepped down as the head coach at Southern Miss after three seasons.

If/when preparations for the 2020 season start back up, Monken will be working with a group of quarterbacks vying to replace Jake Fromm, the three-year starter who left early for the NFL. At the forefront of that battle will be Jamie Newman, who transferred into the Georgia football program from Wake Forest earlier this offseason. Barring something unexpected, Carson Beck, Stetson Bennett and D’Wan Mathis will be fighting to be Newman’s backup.

Mathis, a touted 2019 four-star signee, missed all of the 2019 season because of a brain cyst. He was medically cleared to fully participate in spring practice.

Bennett served as Fromm’s primary backup in 2019, with the three-star 2019 signee completing 20-of-27 passes for 260 yards, two touchdowns and a pick as a true freshman. Beck was a four-star 2020 signee, rated as the No. 9 pro-style quarterback in the country.

Georgia’s Dan Lanning becomes latest member of $1 million coordinator club

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Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning is the latest member of college football’s $1 million coordinator club. And perhaps the news there is Georgia’s defensive coordinator was not — at least officially — in the $1 million coordinator club until Tuesday.

According to documents obtained by the Athens Banner-Herald, Lanning netted a $500,000 raise to $1.25 million per year. That nudges him ahead of new offensive coordinator Todd Monken and his $1.1 million salary. James Coley made $950,000 in the same spot last year.

Lanning’s $1.25 million salary would place him 14th nationally among assistant coaches based on 2019 figures.

Georgia’s defense finished 2019 rated third nationally in total defense (275.7 yards per game), second in yards per play (4.29) and first in scoring (12.6) en route to a third consecutive SEC East title and a Sugar Bowl victory.

Georgia athletics director Greg McGarity clarified with Tuesday’s news that all raises were agreed upon well before the coronavirus wrecked the economy.

“We were all making decisions like we were going to be full speed ahead,” McGarity said. “The key thing is from March 6, or whatever it was, forward, that to me is when the accountability really steps up. It could be, what does your horizon look like in the future? What happened before then I think is kind of irrelevant. It wasn’t in this world we’re in now.”

Additionally, co-defensive coordinator Glenn Schumann and defensive line coach Tray Smith will each earn $600,000 in 2020, while director of player development Jonas Jennings saw his pay grow by $100,000 to $406,000.

Lawsuit details Kansas’ plan to fire David Beaty, hire Les Miles well before 2018 season

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Though he was allowed to finish out the season, David Beaty was officially fired as Kansas’ head coach on Nov. 4, 2018. Turns out, he was effectively fired before the season even started.

According to testimony provided in an ongoing lawsuit brought by Beaty against his former employer, Kansas AD Jeff Long had determined before the 2018 season that he would fire Beaty and hire Les Miles.

In testimony obtained by the Kansas City StarMatt Baty, one of the chief fundraisers in the KU athletics department, testified Long had determined by that August he would can Beaty at the first opportunity, and the administration turned to rooting against the football team in order to execute Long’s plan:

“I think it would be — if the football program had success that year, it would make it — our jobs more difficult to fire David Beaty,” Baty said in sworn testimony.

The lawsuit also brought to light that Kansas began negotiations to create what became an ESPN+ series titled “Miles to Go” well before Miles was hired, and while Beaty was still employed.

Miles was hired Nov. 18, five days before KU’s 2018 finale.

Beaty’s camp has for months alleged Kansas attempted to find a “dead hooker” in Beaty’s closet in an effort to avoid paying his $3 million buyout, which is the genesis for the lawsuit and the source of Long’s dirty laundry.

The deposition detailed that KU deputy AD for external engagement Chris Freet was indeed tasked with digging up dirt of a possible extramarital affair against Beaty, but Baty testified that Long has more of a skeleton in his closet than Beaty. From the Star:

Baty also testified that he heard Long make inappropriate and inflammatory sexual remarks about an elderly female donor to whom Long was prepared to make “a generous ask” financially. Baty also testified that Long made a comment about wanting a hotel room adjacent to where a female school staffer was staying, which Baty in context understood to be a sexual remark.

“As a general rule, the university does not comment on pending legal matters. However, in this instance, we feel compelled to note that Mr. Baty’s deposition is full of outright fabrications, lies and false attributions,” said Dan Beckler, KU associate athletic director for public relations. “As we have said all along, we are confident this matter will be appropriately resolved in court.”

Aside from what did or did not go on in Long and Beaty’s personal lives, Long based his legal argument for denying Beaty’s $3 million buyout around supposed evidence the athletics department had that Beaty was aware his staff committed NCAA violations by having non-countable coaches perform official coaching duties. However, Beaty’s camp alleged that Long was aware of similar behavior committed by Miles’ staff but was not concerned.

Beaty’s lawyer Michael Lyons pressed Long repeatedly about video clips of game footage from the 2019 season, coached by Miles, showing Long numerous snippets of non-countable KU coaches interacting with players and coaches on the sideline.

The first was from KU’s third game against Boston College, which showed then-offensive analyst Josh Eargle flipping through Miles’ play sheet and pointing to something on it. An analyst, by NCAA rules, cannot “make or assist in making tactical decisions related to the sport during on-court or on-field practice or competition.”

Long stated he disagreed with the assumption that Eargle was committing a coaching act in the specific clip, and later claimed he instituted moves to prevent such confusion in the future.