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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 12 to allow teams to play 1 non-conference football game

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Two people involved with the decision say the Big 12 will permit its teams to play one nonconference football game this year to go along with their nine league contests as plans for the pandemic-altered season continued to fall into place.

The people spoke Monday night to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the conference was still preparing an official announcement.

The Big 12 university presidents signed off on the conference’s scheduling model, which gives schools the ability to play one nonconference game at home. The conference’s championship game is scheduled for Dec. 5, but one of the people told AP that the conference is leaving open the possibility of bumping it back a week or two.

The 10-team Big 12 already plays a nine-game, round-robin conference schedule. Unlike other Power Five conference that have switched to either exclusively (Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC) or mostly (ACC) league games this season, the Big 12 could not add more conference games without teams playing each other more than once.

Several Big 12 teams have already started preseason practice, with Kansas and Oklahoma slated to play FCS teams on Aug. 29.

As conferences take steps toward a football season that seems to be in precarious shape, the NCAA is expected to weigh in Tuesday on fall sports other than major-college football.

The association’s Board of Governors is scheduled to meet and whether to cancel or postpone NCAA championship events in fall sports such as soccer, volleyball and lower-division football is expected to be a topic.

Only the Pac-12 has a full football schedule with matchups and dates in place among Power Five conferences. The Pac-12 will begin Sept. 26, along with the Southeastern Conference, which is still working on its new 10-game slate.

The Atlantic Coast Conference has opponents set for its 10-game conference schedule and will start the weekend of Sept. 12, but no specific game dates. The ACC has also said it will permit its teams to play one nonconference game.

The Big Ten, first to announce intentions to go conference-only this season, has yet to release a new schedule, but that could come later this week.

Now that the Power Five has declared its intentions the Group of Five conferences can start making plans and filling holes on their schedules.

American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco has said the AAC could stick with its eight-game conference schedule and let its members plays as many of their four nonconference games as they can salvage or replace.

The Mountain West, Conference USA, Mid-American and Sun Belt conferences are likely to take similar approach.

Early Monday, Texas State from the Sun Belt announced it was moving a nonconference game against SMU up from Sept. 5 to Aug. 29.

Good morning and, in case I don’t see ya, good afternoon, good evening and good night! CFT, out…

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CFT is no more. At least, when it comes to NBC Sports.

The first of last month, I — this is John Taylor (pictured, catching the game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl XXIII) — began my 12th year with CFT and NBC Sports. This morning, I was informed that my position was being eliminated and I would not be completing that 12th year. Which, of course, meant I wouldn’t be eligible for the traditional 13th-anniversary gift of lace. Which really bummed me out. Because I really like lace.

The jarring phone call was both a slap in the face and a relief. Jarring because, well, it was completely unexpected. Out of the blue, even amidst the pandemic that is wreaking absolute and utter havoc across the country. A relief, on the other hand, because, every single day for the past four months, I woke up wondering if this would be the day I get that call.

Would this be the day? Would this be the day? A question played on an endless loop that just f***s with you mentally, emotionally, physically.

That’s no way to live.

Then again, being job-less is no way to live, either. But, here we are.

So many people I want to thank. First and foremost, Mike Florio and Larry Mazza. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Especially Mr. Mazza on the food front. Hopefully, lunch at Oliverio’s — best damn stuffed shells I have EVER had — can still be a thing, Larry.

And so many people that have worked for me. Not to single anyone out, but I’m going to single one out in Ben Kercheval. Ben, non-biological son of Hoppy, you were and continue to be the man. I appreciate you more than you know.  Rasheed Wallace may indeed be your biological father, but I will forever consider you my illegitimate Internet stepson.

Mike Miller is the best boss anyone could ever ask for.  Hire that man.  You can thank me later.

Kevin McGuire, Zach Barnett, Bryan Fischer, I will always treasure what we did, together, these last few years. Things were on the uptick, and it’s sad that we won’t be able to see it through. Together.  We should’ve — SHOULD’VE SHOULD’VE SHOULD’VE — been given that opportunity.  And it will forever piss me off that we weren’t.

Brent and Chris and JJ, much love to you all as well.

Shortly after I received the job call of death, I called my dad. Told him what was going on in his son’s life.  After I hung up the phone, he sent me a GIF in a text message a few minutes later.  I’ll link it here to end whatever this is, because it’s appropriate.  And old school.

And, well… bye.

via GIPHY

2018 FCS All-American RB commits to Virginia

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Virginia joined South Carolina over the weekend as Power Five football schools realizing a personnel benefit from a lower-level program’s loss.

Two weeks ago, the Colonial Athletic Association announced that it was canceling its 2020 college football season because of the coronavirus pandemic.  One member of that FCS conference is Towson.  Coincidentally or not, one standout member of the Tigers, Shane Simpson, took to Twitter last week to announce that he has entered his name into the NCAA transfer database.

On that same social media service Sunday, the running back confirmed that he has committed to the Virginia football team.  Simpson had his transfer to-do list down to Virginia and Texas.

As Simpson was a fifth-year senior in 2019, it appears he has been granted a sixth season of eligibility.  Or, is fairly confident he will receive one.

Simpson would likely be eligible for that sixth season as he missed all but four games of his true freshman season in 2015 because of injury, then missed all but the first three games last season because of a serious knee injury.

In 2018, Simpson earned first-team All-American honors.  He finished second in all of FCS with 171.5 all-purpose yards per game, totaling 2,058 yards on the season.  That same season, the Pennsylvania product was the CAA’s Special Teams Player of the Year and earned three different all-conference honors: first-team at running back, second-team as a kick returner and third-team as a punt returner.

Simpson would be eligible to play immediately in 2020 at the FBS level.

South Carolina pulls in transfer WR from Tarleton State

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South Carolina is the latest football program to benefit from a lower level of the sport opting out of football this fall.

In the middle of last month, the Western Athletic Conference — yes, the WAC — announced that it is delaying the start of fall sports, including football, because of the coronavirus pandemic.  Tarleton State was set to enter its first season in the FCS conference after moving up from Div. II.

One member of the Texans won’t get to realize that monumental move, though, as Jalen Brooks announced on Twitter over the weekend that he will be transferring into the South Carolina football program.

“God is undefeated,” Brooks wrote. “I would not be able to make this commitment without God, my family, my coaches, my teammates, the people I work out with, and the work that I put into everything.”

Interestingly, 247Sports.com wrote that “Brooks visited the campus in Columbia with his former high school coach, Jason Seidel, serving as his tour guide.” In late June, the NCAA once again extended its ban on in-person recruiting through the end of August.  It’s assumed that the South Carolina football program wasn’t involved in that on-campus visit.

At this point, it’s unclear if the wide receiver will be eligible to play for the Gamecocks this season. If he is, he’d have three years to use two seasons of eligibility.  If not, he’d use his redshirt in 2020, then have two years starting in 2021.

Brooks actually began his collegiate career at Div. II Wingate University in North Carolina.  In January of this year, the receiver transferred to Tarleton State.

In two seasons with the Bulldogs, Brooks totaled 998 yards and nine touchdowns on 50 receptions.