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Sun Belt announces new eight-year deal with ESPN running through 2027 season

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The four letter is signing up for more #FunBelt.

The Sun Belt conference announced on Thursday that they have agreed to a new eight-year contract with ESPN that will run through the 2027 football season and the 2027-28 academic year.

“The continuation of our agreement with ESPN marks one of the most historic announcements since the Sun Belt’s founding in 1976,” Sun Belt Commissioner Karl Benson said in a statement.  “This is truly an ‘all in’ collaboration with ESPN, the Sun Belt, and our member institutions and the volume and accessibility of our games will have a profound impact on the future of the Sun Belt.  We have enjoyed a long relationship with ESPN since its founding in 1979 and we look forward to being featured on its newest platform, ESPN+, which promises to revolutionize how audiences view content.”

Most notably, it was confirmed that the inaugural Sun Belt Football Championship Game will be played on Saturday, December 1st and will be televised on either ABC, ESPN or ESPN2. Future championship games will also be on one of the three networks after the conference moved to a divisional format starting in 2018. The new deal also includes a guarantee that all Sun Belt home football games will be available on an ESPN platform and that at least 10 games will be televised on either ABC or one of the ESPN cable networks.

Naturally, many of the league’s other sports such as men’s basketball were also covered under the umbrella of the new contract. The bulk of those games from women’s basketball to soccer and beyond will wind up on the new ESPN+ streaming platform that the Disney-owned company is launching in the coming weeks.

No monetary terms were announced as part of the deal but it’s safe to assume that the TV revenues won’t be in the same ballpark as their Power Five peers such as the SEC or ACC. Still, given the challenges we’ve seen in the Mountain West and Conference USA (among others) in this new media environment, it seems the Sun Belt has locked up a quality partnership with ESPN for the long-term and granted some stability for the league in the coming years.

Clemson preseason depth chart lists Kelly Bryant as top QB, Trevor Lawrence as backup

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While some coaches fight tooth and nail to release any information about their program like who might be starting a game (cough, Jim Harbaugh, cough), that is not exactly how Clemson’s Dabo Swinney runs his shop. Case in point came Wednesday when the team released a “preseason” depth chart that featured few surprises but plenty of talent as the Tigers likely begin the year in the top four of just about everybody’s early polls.

Of course, the one storyline most people will focus on is the quarterback position for the team. Senior Kelly Bryant is listed as the starter as expected following spring practice but it is notable that there’s now a clear pecking order behind him as he fights off five-star freshman Trevor Lawrence, who was the clear No. 2 at the position following the transfer of Hunter Johnson. There seems to be some distance between Lawrence and fellow (redshirt) freshman Chase Brice, which means just about everybody will be wondering if No. 2 at the spot will eventually take over if Bryant gets off to a slow start in 2018 after some struggles in Clemson’s postseason run.

Elsewhere, there were a handful of positions that raised an eyebrow, including running back Travis Etienne jumping over last year’s starter at the position in Tavien Feaster. Adam Choice will also see plenty of time as that’s yet another deep spot for the team. Also notable is Kendall Joseph sliding over to take the starting job at middle linebacker in place of the guy who manned the same spot last season in Tre Lamar.

The school also notes that they have 17 returning starters (including both specialists), including their fearsome defensive line that “is the first in NCAA history to have four returning players who have been a first or second-team All-American previously.” Needless to say, Clemson will once again be the heavy favorite to win the ACC and make yet another trip to the national championship game.

Kentucky’s Marcus Walker charged with trafficking coke, weed

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The latest incident to trigger a resetting the “Days Without An Arrest” trigger is a rather serious-sounding one.

According to multiple media outlets in the area, Kentucky’s Marcus Walker was arrested early Thursday morning on multiple drug charges. WKYT-TV in Lexington reports that the defensive back was jailed — and remains jailed at this time — on charges of trafficking in cocaine and marijuana as well as one count of possession of drug paraphernalia.

From the Lexington Herald-Leader:

Walker… was arrested at 4:40 a.m. Thursday by Lexington Police. He was allegedly trafficking in about 5 pounds of marijuana and 4 grams of cocaine, his arrest citation said. He was also charged with possessing drug paraphernalia.

A large amount of cash was also found when Lexington Police executed its search warrant at a home on Unity Drive, police said.

A UK spokesperson stated that the football program is “aware of the situation and are in the process of gathering more information.”

247Sports.com‘s composite board had Walker rated as a three-star recruit in the Class of 2015.  After redshirting as a true freshman, the Florida native played in 21 games the past two seasons — 12 in 2017, nine in 2016.  He’s been credited with 17 tackles in those two seasons, including a career-high seven in a 2016 win over Austin Peay.

Pitt, Wisconsin announce future home-and-home

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It’s been more than half a century since they last met, but a pair of teams from the ACC and Big Ten are set to get it on once again.  Eventually.

Both Pitt (head coach from 2012-14: Paul Chryst) and Wisconsin (current head coach: Paul Chryst) announced Thursday that the football programs have reached an agreement on a future home-and-home series.  The Panthers will travel to Madison on Sept. 19, 2026, while the Badgers will make the trek to Heinz Field the following season on Sept. 11.

“In speaking with (Wisconsin athletic director) Barry Alvarez, we both felt this was a great scheduling opportunity,” Alvarez’s Pitt counterpart, Heather Lyke, said in a statement. “Despite our regional proximity, we’ve rarely played each other in football. It is a challenging and compelling non-conference game that our respective teams and fans can look forward to.”

The two teams have played each other twice previously, with the most recent coming during the 1967 season.  The last time the Badgers faced the Panthers in Pittsburgh came in 1937.

Pitt has won all three games in the mini-series, two of which were played in Madison (1938, 1967).

USC WR Joseph Lewis pleads no contest to domestic battery

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Late last week, USC wide receiver Joseph Lewis‘ trial in connection to a pair of domestic violence incidents was set to begin.  Less than a week later, the trial phase has come to an end before it really began.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Lewis reached an agreement on a plea deal Wednesday that saw the Trojans football player plead no contest to two counts of domestic battery.  The Times reported that the plea arrangement came as jury selection was nearly complete and opening arguments in the case had been scheduled for the same day.

Lewis had been facing two years in jail; as part of the plea agreement, Lewis has been sentenced to 60 days in the Los Angeles County Jail, a sentence that will likely be reduced to 30 days based on what the newspaper describes as “good time, work time” credit.

Per the Times, the other terms of the plea deal include…

36 months summary probation… a 10-year ban on owning, using or possessing firearms; enrollment in a weekly yearlong domestic violence treatment program and a protective order that prohibits him from approaching within 100 yards of the victim or contacting her.

In late February, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office declined to pursue a felony charge against the USC wide receiver after he was arrested on one count of corporal injury on a spouse or cohabitant.  At the time, though, it was reported that the case had been referred to the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, which would decide whether misdemeanor charges would arise from the arrest.

Not long after, the city attorney’s office filed five misdemeanor counts against Lewis.  The charges stemmed from two separate incidents in February, and included three counts of domestic battery with an injury, false imprisonment and domestic battery without an injury.

In the wake of the arrest, Lewis was suspended from the football team.  In fact, his name was removed from the roster and remains that way.  While the player is hopeful he’ll be permitted to rejoin the team before the start of the upcoming season, the football program has yet to address said player’s status moving forward.

It should be noted that, thus far, no details of what led to the arrest and charges have been released.

A five-star member of the Trojans’ 2017 recruiting class, Lewis was rated as the No. 4 receiver in the country; the No. 6 player at any position in the state of California; and the No. 31 player overall on 247Sports.com‘s composite board. The only player rated higher in USC’s class that year was running back Stephen Carr.

As a true freshman last season, Lewis caught four passes for 39 yards. He had been expected to play a bigger role in the Trojans’ passing game this season, although the off-field situation will obviously be a factor in that.