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Biletnikoff Award watch list highlighted by 2017 finalist David Sills

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You know how I know we’re getting closer to the start of a new season?  Yet another watch list.

The latest to release theirs is the Biletnikoff Award, with the honor going to the nation’s top receiver issuing a list consisting of 50 players from all nine FBS conferences as well as one independent (UMass).  Headlining this year’s preseason list is West Virginia’s David Sills, who was a finalist for the 2017 award claimed by Oklahoma State’s James Washington.  One other 2017 semifinalist is included as well, Ole Miss’ A.J. Brown.

A total of seven teams placed two receivers each on the watch list: Cal (Kanawai Noa, Vic Wharton III), Louisville (Dez Fitzpatrick, Jaylen Smith), Nebraska (Stanley Morgan Jr., JD Spielman), North Texas (Jalen Guyton, Michael Lawrence), Oklahoma (Marquise Brown, CeeDee Lamb), Toledo (Diontae Johnson, Cody Thompson) and West Virginia (Gary Jennings Jr., Sills).

Three conferences totaled seven players apiece, the ACC, Big 12 and MAC.  That trio is followed by five each from Conference USA and four apiece for the AAC, Pac-12 and Sun Belt.  The Big Ten and Mountain West each placed three.

Below is the complete list of 2018 Biletnikoff Award preseason watch listers:

JJ Arcega-Whiteside, Stanford
Tyre Brady, Marshall
A.J. Brown, Ole Miss
Marquise Brown, Oklahoma
Trevon Brown, East Carolina
Ryan Davis, Auburn
Greg Dortch, Wake Forest
Terren Encalade, Tulane
Dez Fitzpatrick, Louisville
James Gardner, Miami-Ohio
Jonathan Giles, LSU
Marcus Green, ULM
Jalen Guyton, North Texas
Emanuel Hall, Missouri
Justin Hall, Ball State
Kelvin Harmon, North Carolina State
N’Keal Harry, Arizona State
Penny Hart, Georgia State
Justin Hobbs, Tulsa
Andy Isabella, Massachusetts
Gary Jennings Jr., West Virginia
Anthony Johnson, Buffalo
Collin Johnson, Texas
Diontae Johnson, Toledo
KeeSean Johnson, Fresno State
CeeDee Lamb, Oklahoma
Michael Lawrence, North Texas
Ty Lee Middle, Tennessee
McLane Mannix, Nevada
Scott Miller, Bowling Green
Denzel Mims, Baylor
Stanley Morgan Jr., Nebraska
Kanawai Noa, California
James Proche, SMU
T.J. Rahming, Duke
Ahmmon Richards, Miami
Deebo Samuel, South Carolina
David Sills V, West Virginia
Steven Sims Jr., Kansas
Jaylen Smith, Louisville
Kwadarrius Smith, Akron
JD Spielman, Nebraska
Cody Thompson, Toledo
John Ursua, Hawaii
Teddy Veal, Louisiana Tech
Jamarius Way, South Alabama
Nick Westbrook, Indiana
Vic Wharton III, California
Malcolm Williams, Coastal Carolina
Olamide Zaccheaus, Virginia

Troy makes Big Easy work of North Texas in New Orleans Bowl

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Troy jumped out to a big lead early, watched it dwindle to two points by halftime, then jumped out to another large lead to begin the second half and held onto it this time, exploding for a 50-30 win over North Texas in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.

After watching a potential 29-7 lead in the second quarter turn into a 22-20 lead with North Texas getting the ball to open the second half, Troy intercepted North Texas quarterback Mason Fine at the Mean Green 27, which Troy quarterback Brandon Silvers capitalized on by hitting Damion Willis for a 24-yard fade and then scored one play later on a 1-yard keeper, giving Troy a 29-20 lead at the 13:33 mark of the third quarter.

The Trojans forced a three-and-out on UNT’s next drive, then moved 92 yards in just five plays, scoring on a 59-yard strike from Silvers to Tevaris McCormick. North Texas attempted to climb back in the game with a 13-play march, but Fine was sacked on a 3rd-and-3 play from the Troy 6-yard line and Mean Green head coach Seth Littrell elected for a 24-yard Trevor Moore field goal rather than a do-or-die fourth-down conversion, pulling the score to 36-23 at the 4:26 mark of the third quarter.

North Texas forced a three-and-out and accepted the ball at its own 33 with a chance to climb back in the game, but Tyler Murray effectively ended it by sacking Fine and forcing his third turnover inside UNT territory. The Trojans hopped on the ball at the Mean Green 13 and, after a penalty, scored on a 20-yard strike from Silvers (24-of-31 for 306 yards) to John Johnson, putting the game out of reach at 43-23 with 2:02 left in the third quarter.

The dagger came when North Texas coughed up its fourth minus-territory turnover of the game, a Michael Lawrence fumble at the UNT 47, and Silvers hit Willis for his fourth passing touchdown of the game and fifth total score, a 10-yard strike with 4:07 left in the game.

Fine completed the scoring with a 17-yard cosmetic touchdown pass to Turner Smiley with 28 seconds left. The Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year, Fine completed 30-of-54 passes for 303 yards with three touchdowns while getting sacked six times and turning the ball over four times. Playing without leading rusher Jeffrey Wilson, North Texas mustered only 50 yards on running plays. Overall, Troy won the turnover battle 5-2 and out-gained the Mean Green 437-295.

The win allows Troy to conclude its best season since joining the Sun Belt in 2004. The Trojans claimed their first SBC crown since 2009, won their fourth bowl game ever and registered their first 11-win season since doing so as an FCS member in 1999. North Texas (9-5) dropped to 1-4 in its five New Orleans Bowl appearances, slunk to 2-7 all-time in bowl games, missed a shot at its first 10-win season since 1947 and fell to 2-9 all-time against Troy.

Troy accepted the ball to open the game and promptly rolled 80 yards in nine plays, capped by a 1-yard Josh Anderson scoring run. The Trojans immediately pushed the lead to two scores when North Texas quarterback Fine was sacked and fumbled at his own 14, setting up Anderson’s second touchdown run of the first half of the first quarter. Silvers hit Johnson for a 2-point conversion to stake the Trojans to a 15-0 lead at the 9:21 mark of the opening frame.

The Mean Green went three-and-out on their next possession but, facing the prospect of getting buried for the game in just the first quarter, the North Texas defense rose up when Joshua Wheeler sacked Silvers on third down at the Troy 39. The UNT offense awoke with an 11-play, 75-yard drive culminating in a 12-yard pass from Fine to Rico Bussey, Jr.

Anderson immediately responded with a 55-yard run on the final play of the first quarter, and Silvers completed the drive four plays later with a 7-yard strike to Willis at the 14:24 mark of the second quarter. North Texas attempted to return service with another touchdown, but Fine under-threw a wide open Bussey on 3rd-and-2 from the Troy 31 and his fourth down pass to Michael Lawrence was dropped.

Troy threatened to push its lead to three touchdowns on its next drive, moving to the North Texas 22, when disaster struck — a snap went over Silvers’s head and was scooped up by the Mean Green’s Colton McDonald, who returned the loose pigskin 56 yards for a touchdown. Fine’s 2-point conversion rush failed, but North Texas was still within 22-13 with 5:49 left in the first half.

North Texas had a golden opportunity to pull within one score of the Trojans when Kishawn McClain intercepted Silvers at the UNT 46 on Troy’s first play of the ensuing possession, but the Mean Green were forced to punt after just one first down.

But North Texas forced its third straight stop, this drive ended by another Wheeler sack, and Fine capitalized with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Lawrence with 49 seconds left before the break to pull the Mean Green within two.

A group of newcomers on track for first Conference USA championship

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The Conference USA Championship has existed since 2005 and, thus far, only one program acquired since the league’s mass Sun Belt addition in 2013-14 has reached the game: Western Kentucky in each of the past two seasons.

That’s about to change.

North Texas, a 2013 addition, all but wrapped up the C-USA West title with a 24-23 win at Louisiana Tech. The Mean Green trailed 17-10 at the half and 23-17 in the fourth quarter before going on top for good on a 14-yard Jeffrey Wilson scamper with 6:04 remaining and surviving a missed 53-yard field goal by the Bulldogs with 2:39 to play.

That victory pushed the Mean Green to 5-1 in C-USA play, one game ahead in the loss column of 4-2 UAB and 3-2 Southern miss. North Texas closes conference play with UTEP at home on Saturday and a visit to Rice on Nov. 25 — a pair of teams that are 0-8 in C-USA when not facing each other. And here’s the kicker: thanks to head-to-head victories over UAB and Southern Miss, North Texas needs only one win against UTEP or Rice to clinch its first West Division championship.

In the East Division, a pair of programs with new coaching hires appear on a collision course. Fellow 2013 addition Florida Atlantic, under new head coach Lane Kiffin, claimed significant control over the division with a 30-25 win over Marshall on Friday night.

The Owls are being chased by their South Florida rivals in another 2013 Sun Belt acquisition Florida International, led by a new hire in Butch Davis. The Golden Panthers moved to 4-1 in conference with a 14-7 victory over UTSA on Saturday.

FIU visits FAU on Nov. 18, with the winner seizing the fast track to its own C-USA Championship debut against (most likely) North Texas.

The 10 best and 10 worst bowl matchups, as ranked by F/+

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2016’s most even bowl matchup will happen in El Paso, Texas, while the most lopsided game will take place in Boise, Idaho.

Those on-paper analyses are based on the end-of-the-season F/+ rankings, which are explained here on Football Outsiders. Personally, they’re a go-to for getting a rough idea of how good a certain team is, so why not use them to preview the best and worst bowl matchups?

Here are the 10 best games based on how close the two participants’ F/+ rankings are:

Sun Bowl (+1): No. 25 Stanford vs. No. 26 UNC
Fiesta Bowl (+2): No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 4 Clemson
Rose Bowl (+2): No. 7 USC vs. No. 9 Penn State
Sugar Bowl (+2): No. 8 Auburn vs. No. 10 Oklahoma
Armed Forces Bowl (+2): No. 51 Louisiana Tech vs. No. 53 Navy

Peach Bowl (+4): No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 5 Washington
Quick Lane Bowl (+4): No. 93 Boston College vs. No. 97 Maryland
New Mexico Bowl (+5): No. 81 New Mexico vs. No. 86 UT-San Antonio
Citrus Bowl (+6): No. 5 LSU vs. No. 11 Louisville
Cotton Bowl (+10): No. 12 Wisconsin vs. No. 22 Western Michigan

Obviously, the two College Football Playoff games (Ohio State-Clemson, Alabama-Washington) are among the closest, but it’s good to see three of the four other New Year’s Six bowls in here as well. The Orange Bowl (No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 13 Florida State) just barely missed the cut.

As for the 10 biggest mismatches:

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl (+71): No. 29 Colorado State vs. No. 100 Idaho
Birmingham Bowl (+61): No. 33 South Florida vs. No. 94 South Carolina
Military Bowl (+54): No. 18 Temple vs. No. 72 Wake Forest
Cactus Bowl (+52): No. 14 Boise State vs. No. 66 Baylor
Miami Beach Bowl (+45): No. 44 Tulsa vs. No. 89 Central Michigan

Arizona Bowl (+38): No. 49 Air Force vs. No. 87 South Alabama
Las Vegas Bowl (+30): No. 20 Houston vs. No. 50 San Diego State
Poinsettia Bowl (+27): No. 30 BYU vs. No. 57 Wyoming
Heart of Dallas Bowl (+26): No. 85 Army vs. No. 111 North Texas
Russell Athletic Bowl (+25): No. 15 Miami vs. No. 40 West Virginia

It’s not surprising three of these games involve top-level Group of Five teams (South Florida, Temple, Boise State) playing 6-6 Power Five teams (South Carolina, Wake Forest, Baylor), given that’s where a lot of bowl mismatches can take place. It was a little surprising to see the gulf between Houston and San Diego State be so significant, though.

But while these matchups may either be close or lopsided, always remember the ironclad rule of bowl season: Weird stuff is gonna happen. One team may not care while the other does, one team may not deal with the elements (especially in the northern bowls) as well as the other, or one team may come in with something to prove while the other team doesn’t. The best-case scenario for us college football fans is that every game is interesting and worth watching, no matter what the on-paper numbers may say.

North Texas could be landing spots for ‘Bama, Ole Miss transfer QBs

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New North Texas head coach Seth Littrell has been on the hunt for a transfer quarterback to help ease his transition into his first head gig. In the end, the former North Carolina offensive coordinator could double-up on his easement, courtesy of the SEC.

Very late last month, it was reported that that Alec Morris had decided to leave Alabama and continue his collegiate playing career at UNT. Littrell’s moves on that front don’t appear to be done as Ole Miss transfer DeVante Kincade confirmed to the Denton Record-Chronicle that, while he’s yet to make a decision, the Mean Green is at the top of his to-do list at the moment.

“I haven’t decided yet,” Kincade told the Record-Chronicle. “I am still talking with my family, but UNT is my top choice.”

Morris would be coming to Denton as a grad transfer and would have one year of eligibility remaining that he could use immediately in 2016. Kincade, barring an unexpected waiver, would be forced to sit out the 2016 season, and then would have a year of eligibility remaining in 2017.

A three-star member of Ole Miss’ 2013 recruiting class, Kincade was rated as the No. 26 pro-style quarterback in the country and the No. 75 player at any position in the state of Texas.  After redshirting as a true freshman, Kincade, along with Ryan Buchanan, served as Bo Wallace‘s backup in 2014.  Kincade, Buchanan and Kelly, a JUCO transfer, engaged in a three-way battle for the starting job, with Kelly emerging as starter in summer camp.

Kincade attempted 32 passes the past two seasons, including 15 in 2015.  With Kelly firmly entrenched as the starter, Kincade opted early last month to leave Oxford.