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CFT 2017 Preseason Previews: The ACC

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It was not so long ago ACC commissioner was setting the challenge to the entire ACC membership to start representing the conference better on the national stage in spotlight opportunities. In 2016, the ACC could not have done much better. The conference took all of the bragging rights with an impressive bowl record, the national champion (taking down the SEC champion in the process), and the Heisman Trophy winner. So, what does the ACC do for an encore?

ACC ATLANTIC

1. Florida State (10-3 in 2016; won Orange Bowl vs. Michigan)
After watching division rival Clemson capture back-to-back ACC crowns and play in two consecutive national championship games, the 2016 season appears to be Florida State’s time to ascend back to the top of the conference to wave the ACC banner in the College Football Playoff. Florida State, the preseason favorite in the ACC this fall, will have one of the most difficult schedules in the nation, starting with a season-opening tilt against Alabama in Atlanta. The offense must replace Dalvin Cook and hope Deondre Francois blossoms as a sophomore in an offense lacking in returning starters but not in potential and talent. FSU’s defense will be in much better shape at the start of the year with a loaded unit with plenty of starting experience, highlighted by safety Derwin James.

2. Clemson (14-1, ACC champion, won College Football Playoff national championship vs. Alabama)
To say Clemson football lost its identity with the departure of so many key players from their championship run would be a slight exaggeration. Dabo Swinney is still the coach and the Tigers will still be a talented bunch despite having big shoes to fill. Expect Clemson to take a slight step back, but the Tigers will still be in the way of Florida State. They even get the Noles at home. Early back-to-back tests against Auburn (home) and Louisville (away) will give an early idea of whether or not there is a championship hangover with Clemson. With a stacked offensive line in gear, whoever takes over at quarterback (likely Kelly Bryant) should be protected.

3. Louisville (9-4, lost Citrus Bowl vs. LSU)
After the way last season ended, the theme to the 2017 season for the Cardinals should be something along the lines of “unfinished business.” The Cardinals dropped the last three games of the season, including a 26-point loss at Houston, a three-point loss to in-state rival Kentucky and a 20-point setback against LSU in the bowl game. After the red-hot start Lamar Jackson and the offense got off to, the end to the year was stunning. Jackson still won the Heisman Trophy and the schedule sets up well for another hot start this fall. But three new offensive line starters must be filled and the offense must cut down on turnovers if Louisville is to make a push in the division.

4. North Carolina State (7-6, won Independence Bowl vs. Vanderbilt)
If there is one thing to like about NC State in 2017, it will be the amount of starting experience the team brings back. This is especially true on the defensive side of the football where a front four led by defensive end Bradley Chubb and three other seniors could cause problems for even the best offenses in the ACC. The offensive line is also looking to be in solid shape with veteran starting experience across the line to protect junior quarterback Ryan Finley. Dave Doeren is in his fourth year with the program, and this one could be his best team yet.

5. Boston College (7-6, won Quick Lane Bowl vs. Maryland)
Head coach Steve Addazio could find himself back on the hot seat at some point this season, even after seemingly cool the temperature with a positive finish to the 2016 season to take into the offseason. The Eagles return a good number of starters on both sides of the football, but the talent gap between Boston College and some of the other teams in the division and conference is telling. Dual-threat quarterback Anthony Brown, a freshman, could provide a spark to the offense, but expect the Eagles to keep pounding the ball in the hands of running back Jon Hilliman. On defense, Boston College has one of the top defensive players in the ACC in defensive end Harold Landry and an experienced defensive mid and backfield to rely on.

6. Syracuse Orange (4-8)
Dino Babers has started to put together a game plan for the Orange with the idea of having a long way to go to restoring pride in the program. With some glimpses at what could be coming for the Orange showed last season (including an upset of Virginia Tech), Babers can count on having a roster returning nearly all of its starters from a year ago on both sides of the football, including quarterback Eric Dungey and linebacker Zaire Franklin. If experience counts for something, then the Orange could be in decent shape to get back to a bowl game. Getting to the postseason will be a challenge. After three winnable games to start the season, Syracuse plays at LSU and later must play games at Florida State and Louisville. They also have a crossover game against Miami to worry about.

7. Wake Forest (7-6, won Military Bowl vs. Temple)
The Demon Deacons could cause some trouble for most teams on their schedule, but Dave Clawson will have to overcome a good amount of youth on the roster this season in order to coach the team back to a bowl game. Wake Forest has struggled to score with an offense that fails to protect its quarterback and a running game that can easily be stopped at the line. The good news is Clawson feels this is the best offensive line he has had since coming to Wake Forest, although depth will be a significant concern. But at least there won’t be rogue radio broadcasters trying to sell off and distribute Wake Forest’s game plan this season, hopefully.

ACC COASTAL

1. Miami (9-4 in 2016, won Russell Athletic Bowl vs. West Virginia)
Get ready to ask all of your college football friends a familiar question at some point this season. Is Miami back? The Hurricanes should take some steps forward as a program and could end up winning its first division since joining the ACC, but there is still a good amount of ground to makeup to be on the same level as Florida State and Clemson, and maybe Louisville. But in this division, anything could go. Miami will play some defense with linebacker Shaq Quarterman leading the charge, but the Hurricanes have a serious quarterback question following the loss of Brad Kaaya to the NFL. Florida State on the road is tricky, but home games against Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech could be good.

2. Virginia Tech (10-4, ACC Coastal champion, won Belk Bowl vs. Arkansas)
The defending division champs could just as easily get back to the ACC Championship Game this season, especially if redshirt freshman quarterback Josh Jackson brings some versatility to the offense in Year 2 under head coach Justin Fuente. The Hokies also have new starters at running back and tight end and a couple of spots on the offensive line, but the defense should be in solid shape with a load of experience at linebacker (hello there, Andrew Motupuaka). The Hokies have a tough November with road games at Miami and Georgia Tech and they draw Clemson in inter-divisional play. Regardless, this looks like a solid top 25 team.

3. Pittsburgh (8-5, lost Pinstripe Bowl vs. Northwestern)
The Pitt Panthers scored wins against the eventual national champions (Clemson) and Big Ten champions (Penn State), yet they lost a total of four games by seven points or fewer. Can the Panthers flip a few of those close calls the other way? Pitt must replace James Conner but running back Qadree Ollison can do some damage on the ground. Former USC quarterback Max Browne also takes over at quarterback with one of the top wide receivers in the ACC to throw to (Quadree Henderson). How it all comes together with a new offensive coordinator remains to be seen, and the schedule is not kind with non-conference matchups at Penn State and home vs. Oklahoma State and conference road trips to Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech before closing out the year at home against Miami. But no Florida State, Clemson, or Louisville gives the Panthers as healthy a conference schedule as possible for a run to the division title.

4. Georgia Tech (9-4, won TaxSlayer Bowl vs. Kentucky)
Never underestimate a team coached by Paul Johnson. This is especially true when he returns a good number of starters. After closing out the 2016 season on a four-game winning streak, including a bowl victory over Kentucky, the Yellow Jackets are not to be taken lightly. In fact, Georgia Tech may be the best sleeper pick you will find in the ACC as they bring back the most experience in a division that always seems to be up for grabs. Georgia Tech’s running game will always be the strength of the team, which will help ease the pressure on a defense that is lacking in overall talent.

5. North Carolina (8-5, lost Sun Bowl vs. Stanford)
Everything about UNC appears to be a valid question this season. Can the defense keep improving under a new defensive coordinator? Can the offense work with a quarterback who struggled at times at LSU? Who is going to make plays for the team? After losing Mitch Trubisky to the NFL, the UNC Tar Heels will place the football in the hands of former LSU quarterback Brandon Harris this season. He may be handing off to a freshman running back with Michael Carter being molded to carry the load.Special teams is also a concern for UNC after losing key special teams players from last year like Ryan Switzer and T.J. Logan. This could be a rough season in Chapel Hill.

6. Duke (4-8)
The Blue Devils could look like a dangerous team as the season plays out, and there is a schedule that gives Duke an opportunity to turn some heads if they can manage to win a couple of home games against Northwestern and Baylor. But despite Duke’s recent trend of being a team that catches you off guard, the 2017 season could end up only marginally better in the win column than 2016 ended. David Cutcliffe will continue to develop quarterback Daniel Jones, but a lack of playmakers to throw the ball too means Duke’s offense won’t be likely to keep opposing defensive coordinators up all night leading up to a game. The defense returns linebackers Ben Humphreys and Joe Giles-Harris, but the defense has concerns across the field as well. Getting to a bowl game this season would be a major accomplishment for Duke in 2017.

7. Virginia (2-10)
Virginia may still be in good hands with head coach Bronco Mendenhall, but he realized fairly quickly how much work was needed to make the Cavaliers competitive again. Virginia will have to take some baby steps forward as a program in 2017, because the player development and recruiting is going to take some time before Mendenhall has Virginia even thinking about going to a bowl game. Virginia will have to rely on a veteran-led defense to keep games close, and the scheduling gods have given Virginia a break with no crossover games against Clemson and Florida State, but they do have to go to Louisville and they travel to Boise State for a non-conference matchup. Virginia also misses Notre Dame on the rotation this season. Quarterback Kurt Benkert will look to have a rebound season after a rough 2016 season.

ACC CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME PREDICTION
Florida State over Miami

Les Miles makes cameo in Dr. Pepper’s new college football ad campaign

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The college football offseason is a time of transition in what can be a volatile business with very little job security. That’s true for the coaches and, apparently, the commercial pitch men. Dr. Pepper, one of the leading ad buyers in college football and a lead sponsor of the College Football Playoff, shelved its concession salesman Larry Culpepper (played by Jim Connor) after four seasons.

“Larry Culpepper has been a great part of our Dr Pepper college football sponsorship for the past four years and has helped us delight fans throughout the season. With the renewal of our college football sponsorship, we’ve decided to take our football-related advertising in a new creative direction and are planning an all-new campaign this season,” a Dr. Pepper spokesperson told Ad Age in May.

The new campaign is now out, and the soft drink brand has replaced one over-the-top character with another. Exit, Larry Culpepper. Enter, Les Miles. Also making cameos are College Football Hall of Famers Brian Bosworth and Eddie George.

The former Oklahoma State and LSU head coach and current aspiring actor makes a cameo in Dr. Pepper’s new “Fanville” universe that will surely have you begging for mercy by the first of October.

If you didn’t notice the first time around, make sure you rewind to the 49-second mark and check out the bag Miles snacks out of.

Texas Tech RB Da’Leon Ward arrested on felony theft charge

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Texas Tech running back Da’Leon Ward was arrested Tuesday on a charge of theft between $2,500 and $30,000, a felony.

According to the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Ward was the subject of a Texas Tech Police Department investigation after three cell phones were reported stolen from Texas Tech’s student recreation center in a 20-minute period last Nov. 14. He was indicted in June, but the indictment was sealed.

Texas Tech did not have a comment on Ward’s arrest, because the Avalanche-Journal broke the news of Ward’s arrest to the Tech athletics department.

A Dallas native, Ward became the first true freshman since 1999 to lead the Red Raiders in rushing in 2016, carrying 103 times for 428 yards and three touchdowns while catching 18 passes for 131 yards. Despite playing sparingly or not at all until late October, Ward exploded late in the year. He rushed 23 times for 98 yards against TCU and rushed a combined 67 times for 272 yards against Texas, Iowa State and Baylor to close that year.

Ward, however, redshirted in 2017, to improve his “academics and maturity.”

Entering the year, Texas Tech expected Ward to pair with senior Tre King to handle the majority of the Red Raiders’ carries.

Former Texas A&M linebacker alleges recruiting, practice violations by Jimbo Fisher’s staff

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Former Texas A&M linebacker Santino Marchiol revealed in June he intended to transfer to Arizona. The Aggies had hired a new coach, Jimbo Fisher, and the coach who recruited him, Kevin Sumlin, was now in Tucson. Marichol enrolled at Texas A&M in January of 2017 and redshirted his first season in College Station, meaning to make the move to Arizona, he’d have to sacrifice a season of eligibility unless the NCAA granted him a waiver.

And as Dan Wolken of USA Today details, Marichol tried a perhaps unprecedented path to gain immediate eligibility at Arizona: by alleging NCAA violations at his old school. According to Marichol, he was handed hundreds of dollars in cash by Aggies assistant Bradley Dale Peveto to host recruits on official visits:

On two separate weekends this spring, Marchiol told USA TODAY Sports, he was given hundreds of dollars in cash by linebackers coach Bradley Dale Peveto to entertain prospects on unofficial visits. Those recruiting visits occurred, he said, following the April 14 spring game with Zach Edwards, a three-star linebacker from Starkville, Mississippi, and the second weekend in June with four-star linebacker Christian Harris (now a Texas A&M verbal commitment) and Nakobe Dean from Horn Lake, Mississippi, ranked as the No. 1 inside linebacker in the country by Rivals.com.

While NCAA rules at the time allowed schools to give a student host $40 a day to entertain recruits during official visits, prospects must pay their own expenses for unofficial visits, meaning any money provided by coaches would be an NCAA rules violation. Recruits are allowed to take up to five all-expenses-paid official visits each, but many also add unofficial visits to see other schools or make additional visits to a favorite school. News accounts of the visits that Marchiol discussed indicate all were unofficial.

Marchiol describes being taken aback after the spring game when Peveto pulled him into a bathroom near the coaches’ offices and handed him $300.

“There were coaches having meetings in the other office, and he said, here, come in the bathroom real quick because he’d just asked me to host the recruit,” Marchiol said. “So I went in the bathroom and it was just me and him in there, and he’s like, ‘Take this, if you need any more just text me and make sure they have a good time.’ ”

On the second occasion, Marchiol said, the money exchange took place in the bathroom at Razzoo’s Cajun Cafe in College Station, a restaurant where the team frequently takes recruits to eat. Marchiol said he received $400 in cash from Peveto and  that a teammate Marchiol identified in his waiver request was handed another $300 during the exchange.

“You know how you tip people in Vegas? He had the cash in his hand and he like handed it to us like, here (with a handshake),” Marchiol said.

But that wasn’t the only way in which current Aggies coaches have skirted NCAA rules, according to Marichol. Over this summer, Aggies defensive coordinator Mike Elko directed players to spend time at the football facility working on football activities far beyond the allowable levels as permitted by the NCAA.

When Texas A&M’s players returned after Memorial Day weekend, defensive coordinator Mike Elko brought his players into a meeting and made clear what he expected of them: “He said, ‘We’re going to have a lot of meetings and practices that aren’t technically required, but you guys have to be here because you’re way behind. We need to win,’ ” Marchiol said. 

Marichol said players were required to be at the facility from 9 a.m. until “well after” 6:30 p.m. four days a week through the summer and that coaches observed and instructed their 7-on-7 practices, with Elko demonstrating proper technique and alignment, as would be typical of a fall or spring practice but disallowed in the summer by NCAA bylaws.

Finally, Marichol said Aggies trainers mishandled an ankle injury he suffered in June.

Marchiol said he believes he was pushed to play through the injury because of a belief coaches frequently shared loudly with the players: The Aggies program had been like a country club under Sumlin. In fact, he said, everything in the message of Fisher and his assistants had been themed to demand more toughness, from the duration of workouts to the language coaches used on the field to players being told outright that highly rated recruits were coming to replace them.

Marichol is being represented by Thomas Mars, an Arkansas-based lawyer who represented Houston Nutt in his suit against Ole Miss. The NCAA does not comment on current or potential cases. A Texas A&M spokesperson said: “Texas A&M Athletics takes these allegations seriously, and we are reviewing the situation with the NCAA and the SEC Office.”

The Aggies open their first season under Fisher on Sept. 1 against Northwestern State (8:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network).

South Alabama stadium effort loses Mobile city council vote

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South Alabama would like to build a new stadium. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find an FBS program in more need of a new playing facility than the Jaguars. USA plays in Ladd-Peebles Stadium, which hits the trifecta of bad stadium arrangements:

A) Too big. (Ladd-Peebles holds 45,000. South Alabama’s proposed new stadium would hold 25,000.)
B) Too old. (Ladd-Peebles opened in 1948.)
C) Too far. (Google says it’s a 20-minute drive from campus.)

The school and the city have partnered on a proposal that would require $10 million of Mobile’s dollars over the course of a 20-year period, in exchange for $2.5 million from USA to Mobile earmarked for improvements to Ladd-Peebles Stadium.

Mobile’s city council held a vote on Tuesday, and the package failed by a 4-3 tally.

“I am disappointed with today’s decision. It sends a message to the NFL that the City does not support the Senior Bowl. It leaves Ladd Stadium with zero funding to create a facility that meets the needs of the neighborhood and the four high school football teams that play there. It leaves the City with no plan to solve the $33 million maintenance issue,” Mobile mayor Sandy Stimpson said in a statement. “Ladd will now have to compete with every other public facility fighting for funding. Over the course of the next 10 years, the City will accumulate $225 million in maintenance costs. This window of opportunity is gone, but we will continue to have to make tough choices on how we fund our public facilities.”

South Alabama’s stadium is expected to cost between $70 and $80 million. USA had no immediate comment on the vote. “I’m wishing South Alabama well, I’m hopeful they will be able to do what they need to do when they need to do it,” city council member Gina Gregory told AL.com.