Getty Images

CFT 2016 Preseason Previews: Six-Pack of 2016 Storylines

7 Comments

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.

Kentucky confirms addition of Troy transfer QB Sawyer Smith

Getty Images
Leave a comment

It’s now officially official.

In late April, Sawyer Smith took his first step in moving on from Troy by announcing on social media that he had placed his name into the NCAA transfer database.  Two weeks later, the quarterback used social media to reveal that his next stop at the collegiate level would be at Kentucky.

Monday, Smith’s expected new home confirmed the player’s addition to the roster.

”We’re excited to have Sawyer join our program,” UK head coach Mark Stoops said in a statement. “It’s great to add a quarterback with his experience and success. He helped lead Troy to an outstanding season last year and we’re glad to have him here.”

As Smith comes to the Wildcats as a graduate transfer, he’ll be eligible to compete for a starting job immediately.  Additionally, he’ll have another season of eligibility he could use in 2020.

Smith played in 13 games this past season, including starts in the last seven.  In those appearances, the Florida native completed 62.9 percent of his passes for 1,669 yards and 14 touchdowns to go along with six interceptions. He also rushed for 191 yards and another touchdown.

Terry Wilson started all 13 games for the Wildcats in a 2018 season that saw UK reach double digits in wins for the first time since Jimmy Carter was sitting in the Oval Office. Wilson, though, was 10th in the SEC and 63rd nationally with a 133.9 pass efficiency rating.

For what it’s worth, Smith’s 139 rating was fifth in the Sun Belt Conference and 47th in the country.

Lincoln Riley says Jalen Hurts must win the starting QB job at Oklahoma

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Coaches say things to motivate their players even if nobody really believes it. Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley, entering his third season in charge of the Sooners this fall, is already proving to be a veteran when it comes to setting the bar high and motivating his quarterbacks in the offseason.

Alabama transfer Jalen Hurts will undoubtedly be the starting quarterback for Oklahoma when the 2019 season kicks off for the defending Big 12 champion on Sept. 1 against Houston. However, Riley is not prepared to publicly anoint his newest quarterback as the heir to the throne of the offense that has produced the last two Heisman Trophy winners at the quarterback position. Instead, Riley is telling media members at Big 12 media days Hurts will have to go out and earn the opportunity.

Don’t be shocked by seeing that quote, because that is what the best coaches will do no matter who is on their team. Except in certain situations where a proven starting quarterback is coming back to the program for a second or third (or fourth?) season, coaches will always hope to inspire healthy competition at every position, including quarterback. By not gifting Hurts the starting job in the middle of July, Riley is setting the tone that will keep Hurts pushing to improve his game and keep other quarterbacks like Class of 2019 five-star recruit Spencer Rattler and four-star Class of 2018 quarterback Tanner Mordecai working to get their shot.

But Hurts is far from any ordinary transfer quarterback. Hurts was the starter for Alabama for the 2016 and 2017 seasons, in which Alabama went to the national championship game both seasons, losing one and winning the other. Yes, Tua Tagovailoa replaced Hurts at quarterback for that national title win against Georgia, but Hurts was a major reason why Alabama was in the national title game two years in a row with him as the starter. Hurts brings multiple seasons of starting experience form one of the top programs in the sport with him. And after Oklahoma lost Kyler Murray to the NFL Draft a year after losing Baker Mayfield, Hurts is stepping right into a position that carried high expectations and demands results.

Hurts may have had a couple of bumps in the road in Tuscaloosa, but he didn’t come to Oklahoma to be a back-up. Riley knows that, but he has the responsibility to make sure everyone on his team is working hard to improve. That message should be heard loud and clear, even if media pundits don’t have to believe it.

LSU CB Kelvin Joseph is back in the transfer portal

Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images
1 Comment

The NCAA transfer portal has seen a number of names come and go this offseason. Now, it appears, LSU cornerback Kelvin Joseph is stepping a foot in the transfer portal for a second time.

Joseph reportedly entered the transfer portal back in May, only to have that story disputed by his father. A day later, Joseph announced on Twitter that his father was, in fact, wrong with his claim. After some time passed, it seemed as though Joseph may end up staying in Baton Rouge to play for the Tigers this fall. LSU head coach Ed Orgeron said “everything is good” regarding the status of Joseph as the story unfolded.

However, as multiple reports have surfaced at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Alabama today, Joseph is now back in the transfer portal.

By entering the transfer portal, Joseph is free to have contact with any other college football program that may be interested in recruiting him. He would have to sit out the upcoming 2019 season if he transfers to another FBS program due to standard NCAA transfer rules, barring any appeal being granted for immediate eligibility.

Joseph was a four-star member of LSU’s Class of 2018. He played in 11 games for the Tigers last season and was suspended from the Fiesta Bowl for unspecified violations of team rules.

NCAA to hear Missouri’s appeal over postseason ban

Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Leave a comment

As it stands right now, the Missouri Tigers will not be going to a bowl game at the end of the 2019 season even if they go 12-0. That is because the NCAA slapped the Tigers with a postseason ban for the upcoming college football season as part of a litany of sanctions levied against the program in January for violations of NCAA rules linked to ethical conduct, academic misconduct and academic extra benefits. However, Missouri is hoping their appeal will relieve the sanctions with enough time to make some postseason plans.

A report from Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports says Missouri is expected to appear in front of the NCAA’s Infractions Appeals Committee this week to state their case. However, no decision on the appeals is expected to be made for at least another month. A decision to lift a postseason ban could even come as late as September after the start of the 2019 season.

Missouri formally filed its appeal of the sanctions in March. Missouri Athletics Director Jim Sterk said in June he was hoping the appeal would be heard before the football season.

“We really think we have a strong case for overturning the majority of the decisions that they made,” Sterk said in a radio interview. “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 in the middle of July and then hear something hopefully by before football starts or shortly thereafter.”

The NCAA lifting a postseason ban during the current season is not unprecedented. In 2014, the NCAA lifted sanctions against Penn State after the start of the season, thus allowing the Nittany Lions to have the opportunity to play in a postseason bowl game at the end of the year. At 6-6, Penn State went on to play in the Pinstripe Bowl against Boston College. The 2014 season was supposed to be the third year in Penn State’s four-year postseason ban as part of the sanctions in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Penn State served just two years of a postseason ban before the NCAA dropped the sanctions against the program amid legal battles.